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Published: Mon Feb 22 2016
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Online 2016 Education Reading Writing Process
Test Your Writerly Skills!

Part I: Plots!

Creating dramatic tension: Can it be done? Yes! or: No! Choose one of the following plot summaries and escalate the initial conflict while creating a mysterious subtext about your own life which, while seemingly dull, is secretly fascinating—because it is so dull in such detail! Like these plots. Ready, set, go!

After ten years, lost man finds way home and discovers wife has pulled up and shredded entire wall-to-wall carpeting.

Hot dog escapes bun but discovers he’s “better” with bun.

Philosopher faces conundrum: skipping rope with murdered lover’s intestines. Ethical?

Woman refers to friend as “barn cat.” Friendship blows up inside—irony!—a barn.

Man who learns to purr overwhelmed by marriage proposals.

Stovetop Stuffing longs to enter actual turkey. But it’s only July!

Penny can’t understand why it’s not popular. Nor can come to terms with those who say it has “another side.”

Man rolling stone uphill succeeds only to have achievement perpetually doubted.

Generic painkillers become lovers until one declares the other “not special” and “cheap.”

Shoe for right foot keeps falling in love with other shoes for right foot. Must forever walk alone?

Wolf suckled by twins pens autobiography. Blasts misguided maternal instinct and founding of Rome.

Towel on towel rack slowly drying. For what insane purpose?

Part II: Characters!

Creating characters: Can it be done? Yes! or: No! Fiction thrives not only on plots. Characters are in fiction too! But there are so many. How can you make room for your own characters when there are so many other characters in literature? Below please find a list of candidates for expulsion. After you read the list, it’s your turn to purge! What six characters from literature would you bounce?

1. Professor Bhaer in Little Women! Think of old cigars and intestines: Professor Bhaer! Sad, crumbly guy. What was wrong with Louisa May Alcott to devise such punishment? Turned good-natured Jo into frowsy helpmate in school for boys. Poor Jo. Married to you, Professor Bhaer! Plus must take unpronounceable new last name. Like marrying mean grandpa with secret second family composed entirely of mice!

2. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Less sentimental without Tiny Tim! Would make Bob Cratchit’s family not so sickeningly lovable. New idea: Let Mrs. Cratchit hurl goose in Scrooge’s face. Only gradually allow family to accept creepy employer’s stunted effort at self-redemption. One goose cannot make up for decades of abuse. Add scene where small ugly Cratchit children tell Scrooge he can go to H_LL!

3. Gentleman driver in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” Let Dickinson take ride by self in countryside. If can handle Protestant hymnals can handle horse. Choose another travel itinerary. Avoid graveyards. Ghoulish. Also eliminate Fly from “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.” Morbid. Let her hear anything but. Maybe angels or radio or….

4. Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Here’s a song lyric I just made up:

Better pink shirts never thrown.
Better Daisy never shows.

Notice I did not write “Better parties never thrown.” No! Because parties = best part of novel. Fire dancers! Pigs roasting until hooves unwrap like pink tissue paper! Ludicrous Hollywood people titillating each other on Gatsby’s lawn! Every night is New Year’s Eve. Then Daisy comes around and blows up partying. Why not elevate Myrtle instead of Daisy: more depth, more persistence, more reverence for real money? Plus, without Daisy would not be run over.

5. Everybody except Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Did I mention she loves her own cousin? A future parson? So wrong. But she’s loyal—like Heathcliff without a temper or the talent for strangling dogs. Every character in novel should not survive except for loyal almost-ready-to-faint Fanny. Drop-dead boring matrons should be first to go. Then Fanny could change her idiotic first name and move. Anywhere. Especially Australia.

6. Hamlet in Hamlet. I know. Not original suggestion. Everybody wants to get rid of him. All that whiny backstory and pointless self-help. Why not sideline him and bring Gertrude onstage more often? She lives for FUN. Would empty out hotel mini bar in a snap. Let her loose and ready to avenge first husband when she finds out dastardly plot by second husband! Possible new titles: Gerty! Or I Cheated on a Ghost! Or This Play Is a Tragedy for Every Woman in It So I’ll Change That!

Congratulations! You’ve completed Parts 1 and 2! Next week, Part 3: Symbols in Literature! Do they mean anything? Yes! or: No!

Good Fire
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Lee Upton is the author of fourteen books, including the poetry collections The Day Every Day Is (Saturnalia, 2023) and Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015); the story collections Visitations (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, LSU Press, 2017) and The Tao of Humiliation, which won the BOA Short Fiction Award, was a finalist for The Paterson Prize, and was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews; a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo Press, 2012); and the novella The Guide to the Flying Island (Miami University Press, 2009). (updated 4/2023)

Her poem “Drunk at a Party” from AGNI 69  was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2011.

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