I’m excited to have a guest post from author Michael Noll today. I love talking about craft, learning about craft, and, especially, books on the craft of writing, so I’ve been looking forward to checking out Michael’s book THE WRITER’S FIELD GUIDE TO THE CRAFT OF FICTION, which comes out on Tuesday, Feb. 27. How could I not want to feature him and his book here?
Thank you, Michael! Take it away…
When my wife and I decided to have kids, we felt pretty sure that they would grow to love reading as much as we did. Even before our oldest son was born, he was getting a taste for literature. In bed at night, I read Tom McCarthy’s weird, avant-garde novel REMAINDER aloud to my wife’s pregnant belly. It was our version of playing Mozart. We didn’t expect that it would make our baby a literary genius, but it was a way to talk to him in a language we loved. Sure enough, when the nurses were drying and weighing, the nurse said, “Say something, Dad,” and so I spoke. Xavier turned his head toward me. The nurse nodded. “He recognizes your voice.”
When Xavier was small enough to hold like a football, I killed time by rocking him in my arms and reading The New Yorker aloud. I was not snooty toward age-appropriate literature, but I figured that, at that age, he didn’t know one from the other. Already, before bed every night, we read picture books, repeating the ones he seemed to like, board books whose charming rhymes quickly had, after hundreds of readings, begun to drive us nuts. To maintain our sanity, we sang the words. Or I’d read THE GRUFFALO in the voice of Richard Nixon as he grows increasingly frustrated that he cannot end a sentence without a rhyming couplet. It made my wife and I laugh, an essential skill when wading through a routine but also a necessary approach to reading. Books ought to fill you with pleasure. The minute they begin to feel like an obligation is the moment when you find something else to do.
So now we find ourselves driving around town and across the country without kids, listening to audio books. For a while, I had convinced our boys to listen to THE ILIAD as read by Alfred Molina, which they loved, but after the second or third speech by Agamemnon rousing his men with boasts about how they would capture the Trojan women, I switched the book off and found a kid-friendly version of THE ODYSSEY. Which led to the PERCY JACKSON novels, which led to anything having to do with mythology and adventure, which led to the place we currently find ourselves: listening to one variation after another of the puzzle-box novel.
At first, it was the 39 CLUES series. Then the TREASURE HUNTERS series. Then the MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY series. At present, it’s the FLOORS novels by Patrick Carman. The basic premise of these last two series is basically the same: a puzzle master has created a sequence of clues that must be figured out in order to win a game and/or discover something hidden. They’re structured like video games: The main character(s) move from stage to stage, encountering a clue or obstacle and solving/overcoming it. I will be honest: This is not a genre I’m naturally drawn to. But my kids like them. Or, to quote Xavier and Elias, “We don’t like the books. We love them.”
My wife is able to tune out the books as she drives, but I lack that ability. I can’t help but listen, and though I’d prefer to listen to a different genre, I want to share in my kids’ enthusiasm. It’s not hard to understand the source of it. The characters are larger than life, with goofy names like Merganzer D. Whippet. The plots are fast-paced, built around a series of quickly introduced and resolved problems that lead immediately into the next problem. Each crisis is clearly foreshadowed. For example, in the second FLOORS novel, the two young boys charged with solving the puzzle are given an item of great importance. One boy puts the item into his pocket, and several times, both boys check to make sure it is still there, commenting on how bad it would be if it were lost. You can guess what happens.
I asked my kids why they love the stories. “Because they’re exciting,” they said. “Because they’re interesting and fun and adventurous and funny.”
Fair enough. I would also add that the books are not scary. Unlike in the PERCY JACKSON novels, when it often seemed like one of the main characters might die (and sometimes they did), the heroes of these books are never truly at risk. For now, anyway, my kids don’t want to be scared.
But I think the novels also offer something more, a quality alluded to explicitly by the title of the third FLOORS novel, THE FIELD OF WACKY INVENTIONS. Just as the books repeatedly test the characters’ ability to solve puzzles, they also repeatedly test the author’s ingenuity: Can the author invent a wacky detail that will top the last one? In the FLOORS novels, there are secret entrances and elevators, keys that transform rooms into pinball machines, flying robots, talking robots, holograms, sodas that cause ear-splitting burps, monkeys whose detached tails can be used as zip lines, human-sized ants, a dungeon, a realm of gears, a diamond mine, and I’m surely forgetting something. It’s a list of details bound to make young kids laugh, and the sort of the details (based on past experience teaching creative writing to third graders) that kids naturally invent on their own. Kids’ stories collapse under the weight of their imaginations. These novels, because they’re written by authors practiced at their craft, somehow lash these disparate elements together and take flight.
How do they do it? There are plenty of plot mechanisms that one could study in these novels, but what I take away as a writer listening (as writers always listen and read) for tricks to use in my own work, I’m reminded of the importance of setting seemingly impossible-to-reach goals. The end of the second FLOORS novel ends with a couple of sentences that forecast the wacky details to come in the third novel: genetically altered twelve-foot chickens, electric eel ponds, and things that went bump in the night. Of course, this is catnip to readers, but it’s also a bar for the author to strive for, a peak to climb (choose your metaphor). His imagination must somehow create a novel that can contain those things.
It’s the same strategy that authors in every genre use. For example, here’s the beginning of THE THICKET, a recent literary turn from the master of horror and mystery, Joe R. Lansdale:
I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.
Lansdale gives himself a seemingly impossible goal: to craft a novel that can contain these details and hold together. It’s a challenge to his imagination, just as the FLOORS novels are a challenge to Patrick Carman’s.
I like to try this in my own wok. When I’m feeling tapped out, I’ll make a list of the craziest, most interesting things in my novel or story—or the wacky elements that I wish could be in it. Sometimes I craft a sentence like Lansdale’s. Other times I stick to the list. Either way, I’m reminding myself of what drew me to the story in the first place and challenging my imagination to invent a structure that can contain such things.
In my new book, THE WRITER’S FIELD GUIDE TO THE CRAFT OF FICTION, I created exercises based on one-page excerpts from published novels and stories. Several of those exercises are designed to help write the sentences that come after the list of wacky things; once your imagination is fired up, what next? One story, by Amelia Gray, begins with a heart in the middle of a room: one wacky detail instead of a field of them. The excerpt of another story, by George Saunders, focuses on a broken-down car and embarrassed children. In both, the writer runs with the wacky detail as far as possible. Both stories seem like magic, just as FLOORS seems magical to my children. For both (and FLOORS), though, the magic is something that can be learned and used by any writer in any work.
Every novel, I think, no matter the genre, can be a kind of puzzle box.
Michael Noll is the author of THE WRITER’S FIELD GUIDE TO THE CRAFT OF FICTION. His short stories have been published widely, including in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology, and he has taught for more than a decade at the university level and in independent classes in Austin, New Mexico, and online. At Read to Write Stories, he has interviewed more than 150 authors about the craft behind the work. He has also interviewed the actor Chris Cooper for the PBS program OnStory and Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner for OnStory. As Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, he organizes more than 50 classes a year and moderates a monthly series of panel conversations on writing and publishing for the Writers’ League of Texas Podcast.
Meet him at BookPeople in Austin, TX, on March 1 at 7pm.