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post #1 of 3 (permalink) Old 08-25-09, 04:02 PM Thread Starter
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Default The Writer's Circle – Week #12 [Learn to lie]

The Writer's Circle – Week #12 [Learn to lie]

Hello everyone, and welcome to Week #12 of the Writer's Circle! This week we have an article by Mark Winegardner called “Learn to lie, An exercise in concrete detail puts you to work untangling a 'mangled' story opening.” It talks about an authors ability to convince the reader that what is on the page is how things are. How using significant detail can help your readers engage more and participate in the story. Lets get started shall we!


Learn to lie
by: Mark Winegardner

Fiction writers must be, or learn to be, good liars. Specific, definite, concrete details are, as every good liar knows, the stuff of persuasiveness. They are also the lifeblood of fiction: proofs, actually, like those in a geometric theorem. If you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay. If you let us use our sense and do our own generalizing and interpreting, we will be participants in your story – and then you'll have us.

Fiction writers must deal in details that come from the senses, and those must be details that matter. “Significant detail” Janet Burroway calls it in Writing Fiction, noting the sort of detail that means both what it says and also more than what it says. If you want to write fiction, you must not merely say what you mean, but mean more than you say.

The Exercise

Following is a bit of inept fiction writing. Revise, using significant detail, so that the passage shows rather than tells, dramatizes rather than summarizes. As you do so, strive to avoid cliches and stereotypes. Make sure that your revision of this is no shorter than 200 words and no longer than 400. Once you've completed the revision, read the note following the original text.

“When Mr. And Mrs. Stillwell got to the rural doctor's office, there was only one chair left. This made Mrs. Stillwell angry, although she considered herself too much of a lady to let on. She and Arlen were white, middle-class, and in their early sixties. She was very fat and extremely self-satisfied woman who believed that life had certain rules which well-bred people follow and who, though she was genial enough not to be unlikeable, was very judgmental and condescending to everyone. Also, though she was somewhat unaware of this, she had a tendency to henpeck Arlen.

Anyway, she looked for another seat in the waiting room, but the only possibility was a couch where a little boy was lying down. His parents mus be very irresponsible, Mrs. Stillwell thought, or else they'd ask him to make room. So, since it was Arlen who was the one that needed to see the doctor, she told him to sit down, and he did. That was a good example of how henpecked he was.”

The above passage is a mangling of the opening of Flannery O'connor's brilliant story “Revelation.” When I go over students' revisions, I discuss several – making sure there are a few good ones – before my, um, revelation of the source of this passage (and the terrible things I did to it). The point isn't to show that there's a “right” answer to this exercise, of course. O'Connor's opening is a wonder, but it's a mildly unorthodox wonder, one that gets away with things like calling Mrs. Turpin (Mrs. Stillwell in my passage) “very large” because of the rhythm of the sentence and the joke created thereby in also calling the waiting room “very small.”

O'Connor also had a way of writing expository prose at the beginnings of her stories that allows the reader to hear what the characters sound like before they ever open their mouths: a dazzling and surprisingly stealable signature technique, but surely an unorthodox one, too.

The point is that O'Connor's stellar opening is only one path to excellent writing; the students will have come up with a few more (a confidence builder for the class, even those students who bollixed this). I typically use this exercise very early in the term, often during the first week. Thus, one of its other virtues is that it gets them thinking about revision from day one.

Feel free to rewrite and constructively mangle other masterly passages of fiction. I've done this with several other stories, and the task always teaches me something, though the means are admittedly perverse.

Alright! Now that we have the article text out of the way we can get on to the discussion. I wanted to make this week more of a class than a discussion (even though they can be, and usually are, one in the same). I want you all, who read this week's passage, to actually do the exercise and post it here as a reply. Then we can all (of just myself if no one else wants to) review each others rewrites and give constructive criticism! WooT! Yaya! Good! I'm glad you like the idea! Get started! I'll save mine for last!

Write on,

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post #2 of 3 (permalink) Old 08-27-09, 01:32 AM
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Default I'll give it a shot

I actually had trouble getting it to 200 words...


The already small doctors office seems to shrink as Mrs. Stillwell squeezes through the door, Mr. Stillwell slipping in behind her to take her coat. Thrusting her hat upon him as well, Mrs. Stillwell looks around the suddenly too crowded room at the only chair that isn't taken. With a sniff she notes that the only other seat is on a bench, currently occupied by the sprawling body of a young boy, inconsideratly taking up both seats. He is, without a doubt, to poorly brought up to sit up so that another person, particularly one of Arlen's age, can share his seat. It really is a shame that they do not teach young people better manners in modern schools these days. In her day, well, suffice it to say that everyone had behaved better when she and Arlen were young.

Waving a her plump pale hand at her husband Mrs. Stillwell tells him to sit down, too well bred to allow her annoyance at the lack of respect to show on her face. After all, Arlen is the one who needs to see the doctor; Mrs. Stillwell is fine. Smiling around at the room's occupents, Mrs. Stillwell looks down at the middle aged lady she is standing next to and comments on the fittingly rural wallpaper, complete with cows and chickens in what looks like a barn.

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post #3 of 3 (permalink) Old 08-28-09, 05:40 AM Thread Starter
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Great job there Vivo! I'll critique it soon! just got back from a trip and i'm exhausted...*sigh* I did like your use of present tense though, it was unique.


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