Shall We Dance?

261935359_d3f9795a39_zSeventeen years ago, I got hitched to my husband, a smart, handsome, 6’4″ fellow with a green thumb and a desert-dry wit. In those seventeen years, I can count, on one hand, the number of significant spats he and I have had. I might not even need to use my thumb. But our marriage is no more solid or joyful than the more pugnacious unions. It simply means that I, a reddish-head with a feisty temper and microscopic patience, married a fellow who will not get within a one-mile radius of conflict.

But he’s getting better. By the time we die (preferably together, in our mid-eighties, in some painless, beautiful way with me wearing decent underwear), I hope to have at least two full hands-worth of conflicts under our marital belt. Why? Because a relationship without any conflict whatsoever can be unsatisfying and stagnant.

A Dramatic Situation invites the reader to emotionally identify with the protagonist’s conflict, to willingly abide alongside that character and her conflict, to dance with the story. 

A story without conflict is just as unsatisfying and stagnant. In fact, a story without conflict is not a story at all, only a flat assembly of flat words on a flat piece of paper.

Shall we engage?

Last month we chatted about the Dramatic Question. This month, I’d like to discuss the presence of conflict in a story’s Dramatic Situation. If Dramatic Questions pique the reader’s interest, the Dramatic Situation (as defined by Lyman Baker), “solicits the reader’s empathetic involvement in [a character’s] predicament.” In other words, a story’s Dramatic Situation invites the reader to emotionally identify with the protagonist’s conflict. To willingly abide alongside that character. To dance with the story.

Think about the best novel you have read recently. To what extent were you willing to let yourself be vulnerable to a character’s struggle? Sometimes when we are invited to dance, we say, “No, thank you.” Sometimes we agree to join the brave asker on the dance floor only because we know it’s a short song. But other times we are asked to dance, and we want to dance with this partner, perhaps in spite of sweatiness or mediocre skills, for the rest of our life. Stairway to Heaven on endless repeat. [Read more…]

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

That Is the Question

This kind of hook is not as scary as they kind I mention later.
This kind of hook is not as scary as the kind I mention later.

When my son was small and not overly-verbal, he went through a phase where he’d point at something (or at nothing) and ask one of journalism’s Five W’s (plus one H). Just the one, single word. “Which?” he’d say, jabbing a stubby finger at the sky. Or he’d point in the direction of a worm wriggling blindly on the sidewalk and ask, “When?” While we’d be driving along I-5, he’d spot a 747 in the clouds and chirp, “How?”

The sky and the worm questions were tough to answer, but the airplane one? Pshaw. Piece of cake.

“Hold on,” I would say. I’d slam on the brakes, pull the car over to the I-5 shoulder, hand him a container of Goldfish crackers and a latte, and begin my lecture-length explanation of how a 747 can fly, using my vast knowledge of physics, plus scientific terms like “magical powers” and “caffeinated rocket boosters” and “millions of invisible dragons.”

My husband and I got a kick out of his vague, minimalist desire to make sense of his world, and I miss the innocence of his one-word questions; these days my kids ask about AIDS and war and homelessness. Sex and mean-girlness and legalized marijuana. September 11th. How a 747 gets off the ground without the help of invisible dragons.

But why do we enjoy reading the questions of strangers? First, we are voyeurs. Second, we want to understand our world.

We humans do make sense of the world through the asking and considering of questions. And it seems we have for quite some time. Take a look at this article from The Atlantic, in which we see quaint questions taken from an advice column in a 17th century British periodical:

Q: Why is thunder more terrible in the night time?

Q: If I [am thinking of committing] any great and enormous crime and sin (as adultery), but do not personally and actually commit it, am I guilty of the crime and sin?

Q: What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?

The genre of the advice column was alive and kicking in the 1600s, and it has flourished ever since. But why do we enjoy reading the questions of strangers?

1) We are voyeurs.

2) We want to understand our world.

I think we read fiction (in part) for those very reasons.

And, I think we writers write fiction for those very reasons. There is no better way to comprehend something than writing our way to a greater understanding. So without further ado, let’s look at the power of questions in our fiction.

I consider two types of questions when I am writing a novel. First, there’s the all-important Dramatic Question.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn reeled me in with that creepy first sentence (“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”) What?, I wondered. You think of her head? Not her face or her eyes or her tush? That wondering led me to ask what the fancy-pants literati call a Dramatic Question: What weirdness is taking place in this couple’s marriage? The search for an answer to that Dramatic Question urged me (and apparently sixteen zillion others) to keep reading until I arrived at the next in a chain of additional Dramatic Questions. Did he do it, and if so, why? From there, I found myself asking, Hold on. Who is the real bad guy here and what is his/her goal? and then, Wait a minute. Who on earth am I rooting for? Notice that the Dramatic Question isn’t, “What’s going to happen next?” It is much more specific, and it relates to how things will turn out, which of course relates to whether the protagonist will make the right choice, get the girl, catch the fish, outsmart the bully, find redemption, find forgiveness, find the missing clue, have an affair, have a baby, have courage, have a chance at survival. From the conflict that generates these Dramatic Questions, suspense is born.

While the Dramatic Question must be obvious in the story, the Meat Hooks Question may or may not be.  

More examples? Yes. Shakespeare, like Gillian Flynn, was pretty good at creating suspense through his Dramatic Questions: Will Hamlet find his father’s murderer? Will Romeo and Juliet make it as a couple? Will Lady Macbeth go nuts imagining imaginary blood on her hands, or will she get away with her evil machinations? 

The Dramatic Question keeps the reader glued to the story (as does the Dramatic Situation, a topic for next month). But what keeps us writers glued to our works-in-progress? For me, it’s not the Dramatic Question of my story but what I call the Meat Hooks Question[Read more…]

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

Living Well

This is also a stigma. The life-giving kind.
This is also a stigma. The life-giving kind.

Part I

The other day, as I walked to my neighborhood bookstore, the sky was thunderstorming and the wind was whipping cherry blossoms to their untimely death. I was there to buy my husband a birthday gift: a pie cookbook and a book on urban gardening, and on purpose, I marched right past the New Fiction table because some days, the number of New Fiction books born each month overwhelms me. And this particular day, my heart was feeling more like concrete than muscle: news of the Kenyan university students and the mess of ISIS and Russia and Iran and nuclear blah-blah. Most of all, the stories surrounding the German co-pilot. It all felt too heavy. I didn’t need a table of beautiful New Fiction books to overwhelm me further.

But after paying for my husband’s gifts, I headed toward the exit, and, thinking it might actually feel good to admire beautiful books, I took a detour through the New Fiction section, the centerpiece of which is a patchwork of stacked novels arranged on a large, wood farm table. I shouldn’t have detoured. Instead of feeling inspired, I felt lame and self-indulgent. There were already so many books. I was trying to add another, or several others, to such excess?

Yes. Yes I was.

I write because I am curious and I want answers. I write because it’s fun. I write because on days when it’s not fun, I know, with absolute certainty, that the un-fun stretch will end, and I’ll go back to believing that I’m the luckiest, self-employed, unpaid fiction writer ever. Writing is my oxygen, or maybe writing is my way of breathing, and when I don’t breathe, I turn blue and fall over and bonk my head. Still, a farm table with a quilt of beautiful novels can, at the wrong moment, feel like a sucker punch.

(A Seemingly Unrelated) Part II

I also write because I am on the Bipolar spectrum, and I like to believe that my creativity, my desire to assemble words into essays and stories is one of the benefits of (as Therese Borchard calls it) my “faulty wiring.” Maybe my decision to tether my diagnosis to my creativity is an overly-hopeful bunch of hooey (surely I know many very creative people who don’t have mental health issues), but when I realized mental illness had set up camp in my DNA, much like a persistent, oppressive, berating, flatulent house-guest, I searched for possible silver linings of living–forever–with something that stinks like farts. Silver lining #1: I would not be as creative were it not for my faulty wiring.  [Read more…]

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

Finding Mr. Write

I wish I could have these guys as pets.
I wish I could have one of these.

My high school boyfriend wore eye liner and had self-pierced body piercings. He dealt drugs and somehow managed to acquire a not-for-hunting gun. He was also Sophomore Class President. He loved me as passionately as one sixteen-year-old could love another sixteen-year-old. And after cheating on me (as sixteen-year-old Romeos are wont to do), he carved an “A” into his skin, right over his heart. We had recently read The Scarlet Letter in American Lit. Did I mention he was passionate? We dated for four years.

My college fella was (and still is) an exceptionally good man. He came into my life without piercings or illegal guns. Not once did he carve anything into his body. But while we dated, we made each other laugh and learned to tolerate each other’s roommates, and he didn’t care when Top Ramen and frozen yogurt gave me an extra fifteen pounds of poundage. However. I was Irish and Protestant (not Italian and Catholic), and that was the ultimate deal-breaker, especially in the eyes of his sweet Italian, Catholic mother. He and I still chat on the phone and exchange Christmas cards, and for that I am grateful. We dated for three years.

My post-college beau was the aforementioned Fritz. I loved Fritz’s parents and sister, and aside from the two over-the-phone break-ups, Fritz was kind and smart. He probably still is, but I don’t know because we don’t exchange Christmas cards. I do know he is a urologist in Milwaukee and based on the fact that he named one of his daughters “Sarah,” I assume he spends a good portion of every day regretting that he broke up with me twice. We dated for eighteen months, including the Time Out in between rounds.

My current boyfriend doubles as my husband. We met when we were both living in Chicago, and because I am 5’4” and he is 6’4” (and because he tends toward obliviousness), I needed to push him down into a snowy patch of Lincoln Park, get his face level with mine, and kiss him; he needed to realize we should give kissing a try. We were engaged ten months later. He thinks I am funny. I think he is funny. He almost never annoys me. He has never broken up with me. He went to see The Sound of Music sing-a-long with me even though musicals are as painful to him as infected body piercings. He loves me through my bouts of mental illness and has easily won Best Father every year since 2003. He did, however, lie to me the first time we met, and it was a doozey.

“I love to read literature,” he said.

No, he doesn’t. If he reads anything, it’s non-fiction Malcolm Gladwell. We’ve been dating for almost twenty years.

When I look at the evolution of my relationships, it makes sense that my search for the Ms./Mr. Write-ing Partner has been no less epic, upsetting, challenging, joyful and meandering. It took me years to find the proper tripod to support me in my writing. I imagine the same has been–or will be–true for you, too.

Why is it so difficult to find a fabulous critique mate? [Read more…]

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

The Itchy Reader

15751113410_1e904354b6_mMy daughter had a terrible first grade year. From October through June she cried, every morning and night, about going to school. She had stomachaches. She told me she wanted stay in bed and never go to school again. She clung to me in the hallway when I tried to nudge her into the classroom. When the teacher and principal were not able to do much, we had my daughter see a therapist, and we limped along until the last day of school.

With a new teacher in second grade, my daughter became herself again. She donned her signature Rainbow Couture, she literally whistled while walking to class, she was excited for school every single day, she helped me bake cookies for her teacher, and she was delighted when he promised he’d come to her violin recital. She cried on the last day of school, labeling him her most favorite teacher ever. Through third and now fourth grade, she has popped into his class on many occasions just for a visit. Quite simply, he changed her life.

But this winter, we learned that this most favorite teacher ever had been charged with a gross misdemeanor: sexual misconduct with a minor for immoral purposes.

This teacher is forty, married with two young girls; the victim, a newly sixteen-year-old girl, was a volunteer in his class. Of course he is innocent until proven guilty, but I have read the police report. The numerous texts and emails he allegedly sent this girl are disturbing and disgusting and predatory. The one-sided correspondence reveals a facet of this man that I—or anyone in our school community—never suspected.

The ambivalence is itchy. I want to plant my feet firmly in the I Despise This Man camp, but I cannot. So, I continue to scratch at the itchiness. 

I feel betrayed. I feel fear, anger and disgust. The victim trusted this man. His colleagues and students trusted this man. Our family trusted this man. Once a beloved teacher, he is now someone who will (most likely) forever be a registered sex offender. What a fall. What a disaster. What a terrible lapse in judgment. What a sickening act. But I feel more than just anger and disgust. More than sadness. My feelings are a tangled mess. [Read more…]

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.