Marian Szczepanski, author of the debut novel Playing St. Barbara (High Hill Press, 2013), holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and a BA in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Her short fiction has garnered the deMaine Award for an Emerging Writer from Clackamas Literary Review. She has received fellowships, grants, and awards from Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and the Houston Press Club. Named to the Houston Press roster of “100 Houston Creatives” for 2014, Marian teaches creative writing workshops in Houston at Writespace and beyond.
Marian is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “How to Make the Most of a Moment: Narrative Deceleration” on Saturday, February 27 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: In your experience of teaching writing, do you find that writers don’t linger on a moment long enough or that they linger too long? Can you provide one way to combat one or both of these mistakes?
Marian Szczepanski: I love the rubric Joan Silber offers in her marvelous book The Art of Time in Fiction. Time equals weight in fiction. In other words, is what you’re writing an important component of the overall narrative? How important? For me, it’s all about recognizing and capitalizing on opportunities to deepen my characters and the overall story. Where are the moments in which a crucial or suppressed character trait or motivation or realization should be revealed? Are the details of a particular setting essential to the story’s (and character’s) development and reader’s understanding? Is there an object that will play a vital role as the story unfolds? (Think of the stolen painting in The Goldfinch.) If a character stops at a particular coffee shop every morning and orders an espresso-to-go, it probably doesn’t merit much attention. But what if on this particular day, the cup is laced with arsenic? That espresso—and what happens as/after the character drinks it—demands reader attention, and it’s the writer’s job to make that happen in the prose.
Scribe: Do you have any sort of process when you sit down to write these more intense moments in a story?
MS: I just let it rip. I’m an organic writer and find it almost impossible to write from an outline. I try to wring out every character’s latent emotions, describe the significant settings, include all the peripheral characters in the mix, and get everything onto the page. Then I channel my editor persona and go back to evaluate the pace. Usually that doesn’t happen until I’ve finished a first draft. It’s easier for me to “map” the action and emotional arc of a piece when I have a beginning, middle, and end, even if it’s overwritten and messy. (And it’s always overwritten and messy.)
Scribe: How much do you think the pace of the writing should actually resemble the pace of the moment itself?
MS: Benjamin Percy’s wonderful essay “Feckless Pondering,” which appeared last year in Poets and Writers Magazine, speaks to this sort of authorial decision-making. “Let the action speak for itself,” he advises. It’s important not to slow the pace if a scene needs to unfold quickly to sustain its emotional power. If a tornado is bearing down on a character’s home, placing her in her living room to survey her children’s photos and grandmother’s heirloom tea table and recall cherished memories about them is not the way to go—unless, perhaps, the character has a death wish. Depict the character running for her life to the storm cellar, maybe grabbing a few photos on her way. After the storm has passed, and the character is picking through the wreckage—that’s an opportunity to slow things down and move inward to render the character’s emotional response to her losses.
Scribe: You emphasize that you want to vary the pace without it stalling the narrative. What is one way that you personally check that you are not stalling?
MS: I typically do this in second and third drafts by printing sections or scenes and reading them aloud. On a computer screen, the words just keep scrolling, and I can lose track of how much time/space I’m devoting to a particular scene. Printing the passage gives me a quick visual cue: how many pages am I holding? Does this length seem proportional to the scenes before and after? To everything that’s happened up to that point? If it’s significantly longer, is the scene important enough to warrant that length? I stress reading aloud because hearing my material gives my inner editor important cues. Am I repeating words or phrases that slow things down? If there’s dialogue, is every line/every word essential, i.e. moving the narrative forward?
Scribe: Could you share a scene from your own writing which you worked hard to find the right pace for and it paid off?
MS: My novel-in-progress begins with a woman returning home from work to find two ski-masked intruders—one armed with a pistol—in her kitchen. I had just started to write this scene when I read Percy’s essay, in which he describes a workshop student turning in a story with a similar scene. I was trying to get into the head of the woman staring down the barrel of the pistol—fortunately, something that has never happened to me. How much would her thoughts stray from the here-and-now of the break-in? Would she think of her kids? Her husband? I’d written a draft of the scene before reading Percy’s essay, then realized I’d committed some of the same errors as the student he’d described. I rewrote it (several times), focusing almost exclusively on the external action. Keeping the character’s thoughts to a minimum allows the action to take center stage and increases the scene’s power. I read the scene at a conference this summer, and the audience’s enthusiastic response told me I’d made the right decision.
— Thanks, Marian!
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