Writing Craft Lessons from Bird Box by Josh Malerman Pt. 1

I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.

josh malermanJosh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.

Here’s a list.

  1. Present Tense
  2. Limited Third POV
  3. Alternating Story Line Structure
  4. Simple language / “Minimalism”
  5. Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off

Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.

Let’s do this.

1. Present Tense

Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.

This is happening now.

Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.

The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.

My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”

I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.

Josh Malerman does this masterfully.

Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass

The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.

To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.

In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.

When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.

Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.

What We Can Learn

Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.

Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.

Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.

Farewell

I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.

But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.

Hope you enjoyed part 1 of 5.

Short Story Characterization: 6 MORE Tricks That’ll Make Your Character’s Ink Bleed Red

Here are 6 more advanced “tricks” for short story characterization

Here are the first six, which included:

  1. Combining characters who serve the same function in the story.
  2. Being careful about the timing and weight of non-central characters.
  3. Having your character be interesting in the first place.
  4. Not mistaking idiosyncrasies for character depth.
  5. How minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters.
  6. The reason you have to actually read literary journals.

If you haven’t read them already, read the first 6 short story characterization tricks, before moving on.

7. A character’s motivation can’t achieve clarity until you do

I once wrote a 75 page novella. Then I saw a movie with the same premise, changed it, and boiled it down to a now-published 25 page story. The exploratory writing of the fifty pages I cut taught me exactly what my character wanted.

Then I workshopped the story. And the character’s motivation and therefore the plot changed again in the next draft. If I hadn’t cut fifty pages and allowed other eyeballs to look at the story, I never would’ve achieved the distance I needed to make it publishable.

Figure out how you best achieve distance/clarity from your work, and do it.

8. What the hell does “Write what you know” mean in practice?

Ray Bradbury wrote this amazing book called Zen in the Art of WritingGo buy it and read it now.

Two main principles I took away from reading it were that a short story should:

  1. Be about a topic that you either really love or really hate.
  2. Have a character in your story that wants something related to that love/hate of yours.

When you approach a story in this way whatever you love/hate, or “know,” will sync up nicely with the driving force of the character by the second or third draft. There are millions of examples of how this can work out. Regardless, I am convinced that this is a formula for those stories that are just special.

To find what you love/hate Bradbury suggests making lists of nouns. Sounds silly, but it’s a pretty powerful way of doing this. The third step in this system is starting off with steps 1 and 2 covered, and just freewriting until a story takes shape.

9. Get used to exploratory writing if you care about character

Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit.” I’d amend that to “the first draft of anything is drawing a map.”

Exploratory writing is different than freewriting.

Exploratory Writing is done with the intent of eventually producing a final product, but with the conscious acceptance that most of it will totally suck, and being at total peace with that because you’re willing to find “Atlantis.”

I touched on exploratory writing in #7, but I use it here to illustrate that you might sit down for a day’s writing without much of a plan in mind and end up writing the best short story you’ve ever written. You might think that one character is your POV character and end up with another. You may simply be writing the backstory your character needs in order for you to make a story set at a different time in his life work.

The trick is being open to exploring. If you aren’t, you risk writing wooden characters.

10. You should cater to your favorite literary journals

This may seem against the grain for the “true artist” in you, but just relax and hear me out. When you find that handful of journals that suit your genre and stylistic aesthetics, see what type of characters and narrative structures the editors are publishing.

Then, whether in revision or at the beginning of drafting a new story you can cater your writing to those editors.

To a certain extent. Without detracting much of anything artistically.

You won’t get this advice elsewhere because it contrasts with the ideals of the artistic process, but it’s true. Being genuine to your own writing involves finding like-minded journals; the next step is making the editors happy so they’ll publish you.

11. Fiction Sense versus Real life Sense

Although this sounds obtuse, it’s painfully simple. Real life can be a messy shit show full of years of apathy, no conflict, senseless decisions, and no climactic moments.

Sorry, bro, no one wants to read that crap.

No matter what type of fiction, readers almost always want some element of escapism.

Fiction Sense means approaching your story and character arcs in a way that pleases a reader’s expectations, be it the traditional story structure or whatever a certain audience expects. So a clever character or situation, some sort of tension, a climactic moment, and all the questions answered at the end.

You’d be amazed how difficult it is for amateur writers to make it over this hurdle, believing that “but this is how it would happen in Real Life,” is valid.

12. What makes a short story “good” is the affect it has on the reader

A good note to end on is defining what makes a short story “good.” Honestly, it’s impossible. But from my experience it involves three things:

  1. Character Empathy
  2. Character Rememberability
  3. Character’s Epiphany Being Meaningful

I’m convinced this is what it takes to write a short story that matters. Notice that all three involve characterization.

If your readers can relate to the character emotionally and can remember either the name and/or character traits a week later, then you’re going to get that story published. Same goes for the character’s arc, or how they change, sometimes called the epiphany.

If the character’s epiphany is relateable, if it hits on some larger Truth the reader recognizes for the first time, about themselves and/or the world at large, then you’ve written a great short story.

Hope you enjoyed the second half of the 12 tricks to short story characterization

Comment below and let me know what you think. Now go finish your story.

How to Start a Short Story: 5 first paragraph methods editors desire

How to start a short story: 5 first paragraph methods that editors desire

For newbies without publication credits, short story writing is all about that first paragraph

You know your short story submission is good enough for the journal’s editor to publish. You used Duotrope or Submission Grinder to find the appropriate publications for your story’s skill level, pay level, genre, word count. You even read some free stories the literary journal offered on their website, and you think your story is a good match.

What the hell happened?

Your first paragraph sucked. And the intern or slush pile reader, eager to please his editor with the next Pushcart or O’Henry Prize winning story, tossed your story back into the void.

The first paragraph of a short story is the first impression on a hot date. When I sucked at picking up girls I shyly said hi and stuck my hands in my pocket; when I got better I hugged them with a huge smile and confident gaze, setting the tone for a successful night. Any honest writer will tell you that getting published is more important than hitting a home run, as the kids say.

Let’s learn how to nail that your short story opening.

Five tips on starting your short story with electric first paragraphs

1. Write your first paragraph last

The most important habit you’ll ever form as a fiction writer is to love the rewriting process. If that’s naturally your jam, God bless you. It took me seven years before I was capable of doing anything useful after a first draft.

The key here is that your story’s opening paragraph is a microcosm of the story. Specifically, it can reveal character, plot, mood, and foreshadow the end. Subtly, of course. In case you’re super anal like me and worry about technicalities, understand that the phrase ‘first paragraph’ can be interchangeable with ‘several short ones.’ (Re)write it or them last.

2. The Zingy Opener that means something

Most amateur short story writers assume that this pointer means to use shock-value or in media res action or dialogue. Wrong. Another rule you’ll hear ad nauseam about this genre is that “every word counts.” This applies to the first line.

I found advice online years ago that said a short story’s opening element–meaning fiction element like character, setting, dialogue–should match what the story mostly consists of. So in a dialogue-heavy mystery, a dialogue opening might work; in a man v. nature tale, a description of the setting might work. My advice is to open with a line that indicates at least who the character is, their state of mind, and some form of conflict.

3. The reader should glean some character insight from the story’s opener

Short story readers of literary or genre fiction read this form for character. Editors especially. The sentences in the opening paragraph should be working their asses off to explain the status quo of the character’s life. His surroundings and situation. And importantly, how he is to be perceived.

That way when the inciting incident comes along and jacks everything up, the reader understands why you’re telling this tale in the first place. Some folks call this the occasion of the story. When the story has climaxed and resolved, they’ll understand how the character has changed. This takes a subtle touch, so I think it’s time I recommend a masterful how-to book on fiction writing called Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. You’ll thank me later for that one.

4. set the reader’s expectations of what your short story is and isn’t

The editor should be able to tell a lot about what the next 3 to 8 thousand words will contain by the first paragraph. Apply macro logic first: the genre should be apparent, whether a grizzly detective tells us it’s a crime story; blood-soaked clothing tells us horror; or a taser gun tells us sci-fi; or, for literary magazines, some interior thoughts. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you know that you’ve sent your story to (insert genre) literary journal, that the editor doesn’t expect you to follow the genre’s conventions. They’re worried about their readers who have expectations.

And for the love of God, as a newbie, don’t try to be “genre-bending” or something. What you don’t realize is that 99% of the time when people are “transcending” or “redefining” genres, they have a big enough name that editors let them get away with it, or they’re commissioned by the editors to write those stories. If you’re sure your story does this, read what the editors are looking for on the publication’s site, because some experimental literary journals will seek this.

I spent a lot of time discussing genre here. But again, returning to that subtle artistry that makes writers great, it means plot to. Have you heard that phrase about story endings, that “they should be surprising but seem inevitable?” A lot of times the endings of short stories somehow mirror their beginnings.

5. Make the editor/reader give a damn about your character’s story

Editors of literary journals, as down-to-Earth, humble-pie as they may act, have aspirations on the literary side. Frankly, it’s usually a little snobbish. But it’s cool, to each their own. But you need to keep in mind when you’re writing and submitting your stories that these people are grizzled veterans who’ve served decades in short story slush piles and reading prize-winning, best-of collections. They don’t have time for meh. You need to grab them by the throat and make them give a shit.

The technical aspect of this is an enormous part of the short story equation that I swear gets under-taught in workshops: forming an emotional connection before the inciting incident. Any emotion. The reader could hate your protagonist’s guts. But to use a social setting metaphor again, the quiet kid in the corner doesn’t get remembered by folks at the party. That guy or girl you made a bit of extended eye contact with, or the one you wished you exchanged numbers with does.

Short fiction is all about the affect it has on the reader, so from the beginning you have to make them react to the character. Think about it this way: this step is worth the effort because even if the plot is weak or unoriginal, an editor is going to continue on if they have an emotional connection with the character.

I hope I didn’t give you too much false hope about publishing

On the blog that I’ve been following for years, The Write Practice, Joe Bunting explains that getting accepted by literary journals is as rare as getting into Harvard. In fact, top journals have 1% acceptance rates while Harvard accepts 6% of applicants. Further, short story writers will tell you to use the acceptance rate metric on Duotrope to determine the quality of a journal. This means that unless the rate is 1% or lower, it’s “not worth it” to be published there.

I say that to be up front with you about the fact that writing short stories is tough work. There’s no magic template you can use to write a story that’ll get published in The Paris Review, in The Atlantic, in Tin House, or in Ploughshares.

But you know what? People get hit by lightning and win the lottery don’t they? Amid the billions of blog posts in the digisphere you came across this one so I could share twelve years of wisdom with you. It will happen.

But remember, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell if your beginning sucks.