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The writing life: Writers share storytelling insights


July 18, 2011

Lan Samantha Chang was an avid reader of fiction, had written short stories, and, as an adolescent had “pounded out” several young adult novels on her Royal portable.

About 10 years into her writing career, she plunged into writing a novel of her own, set in wartime China of the 1930s. Things went well until it was time to wrap up the story, and she found herself “stuck on chapter 14.”

“I even had suspicions about chapters 13 and 12,” she said. “The clear path stopped at chapter 11, where I had reached the reversal I’d been planning for three years; I had involved my narrator’s father, General Wang, in a complicated love affair, and although he had lived a pretty lucky life, he now found himself in real trouble. I had set up the conflict and now I, too, was in trouble.”

Chang went on to rewrite the end of her novel 10 times, with essentially five possible outcomes to the story.

For six years she worked on the novel, rewriting the ending over and over, until she finally figured out what was wrong and how to overcome it. What she learned she describes in “A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft,” a new book co-edited by Peter Turchi, director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Chang, who now is director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is one of 20 authors who contributed essays to the book, which is of interest to both writers and readers.

Writers can get specific, practical advice on such fundamental aspects of craft as characterization, character names, the first-person point of view and unreliable narrators, and readers can get a “behind the scenes” look at some of their favorite books. (So that’s why Truman Capote never tells us who the narrator is in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”)

The 20 authors also discuss more esoteric subjects as “imminence,” or the power of a sense of beginning; creating and maintaining tension; “lushness”; and the deliberate manipulation of information to create particular effects.

"Turchi also has an essay in the book, titled 'Puzzles, Mysteries, and Other Problems;' or, 'The Seven Bridges of Königsberg.' In it, Turchi talks about how a consideration of the appeal of puzzles, including crosswords and Sudoku, can inform the work of fiction writers.

He distinguishes between puzzles, which can be solved, and mysteries, which are inquiries into things that can never be fully known."

Turchi goes on to explore the difference between puzzles and mysteries and how they are represented in novels, looking at works by A.A. Milne, Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote and Ross Macdonald.

He concludes that “all writers are puzzle makers. As models of our experience, stories and novels aim not to reduce that experience, or to simplify it, but to bring its mysteries into sharp focus.”

“A Kite in the Wind” is the third book for writers that Turchi has co-edited. With Charles Baxter he published “Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life,” and with Andrea Barrett, “The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work.”

Turchi and Baxter decided to collaborate on “Bringing the Devil to His Knees” because, Turchi said, “We had a sense that there were a whole lot of books for writers on how to create characters, etc., but not so many on how fiction works.”

“A Kite in the Wind” came about because “Bringing the Devil to His Knees” had sold well, and he and Barrett knew of other writers they wanted to approach.

Many of the contributors to “A Kite in the Wind” are creative-writing professors, and the book offers them, and other teachers, a way to gain new perspective on the art of writing and how to teach it.

“We don’t get to visit other people’s classes, to see different approaches,” Turchi said. “It’s like playing music but never hearing any other musicians.”

Turchi’s essay in “A Kite in the Wind’ is from his own upcoming book about writing, “Puzzles Mysteries and Magic.” That book is an outgrowth of his 2004 book “Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer,” in which he compares the way a writer leads a reader through the imaginary world of a story, novel or poem to the way a mapmaker charts the physical world.

The richly illustrated book, printed on a heavy-weight uncoated natural color text stock, has won seven design awards, including a Silver Medal from the Stiftung Buchkunst Best Book Design From All Over the World competition. It also was chosen as one of the Outstanding Academic Titles of 2005 by Choice magazine.

“Maps” recently was listed in an Atlantic Monthly blog as one of "7 Must-Read Books on Maps" and in a New York TImes Sunday magazine blog list of the best books of nonfiction.

“’Maps of the Imagination’ is an invitation for readers and writers to think differently about how we create and enter the world of a story,” Turchi said. “I hoped it would be more enjoyable to read than most textbooks, but I had no idea it would be embraced by designers, architects, and even choreographers and lawyers.

“I tried to provoke the reader to fill in certain gaps, and it turns out that many people have seen applications for the ideas and connections to them beyond anything I had imagined. People have also told me that they find the book encouraging. In any case, my goal wasn't to tell anyone how to do anything -- it was to inspire people to think about writing in some new way.”

Turchi said he likes to write about writing both to further his own work, and to help his students learn the art and craft of telling a story.

He has used the essays in “Kite in the Wind” in his writing classes to deal with such subjects as suspense, imminence and intimacy. “What was interesting was how the different writers talked about their stories. The essays have become useful teaching tools,” he said. It’s like going backstage at the theater.”

Books such as “Kite in the Wind” and “Maps of the Imagination” fill a niche for writers who aren’t enrolled in a graduate program, Turchi said. "There are plenty of introductory handbooks for fiction writers, but fewer books for advanced writers that discuss nuances of craft. These books are meant to be provocative and practical."