Guest Post, Kendall Pack: The Find

The Find: Discovering what characters care about

Christmas Eve means Silverado. It has since I was twelve and it will until I’m dead. For the rest of my siblings, the tradition of watching this (to be honest, average) Western late on Christmas Eve night has gone into the bin with all the other trappings of childhood. I’m twenty-eight, well past the days when it was reasonable for me to entertain extended bouts of childhood fancy, and yet I still go into every Christmas season, slogging through White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life and all the vast catalogue of classic Christmas films, all while keeping my heart turned fully toward Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and the Kevins, Costner and Kline, shooting it out Magnificent Seven-style with some bad ranchers in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

There’s a line in that film that sticks out to me. Kevin Kline’s character Paden is sitting in a saloon while his friends are preparing to take the fight to the ranchers. The woman running the saloon knows Paden should be out there too but something is holding him back. She says, “There’s no telling what you’re gonna care about.” Paden throws her a glance that says it’s her. That if he steps out of the saloon, her life is in danger. Of course, it all works out and Paden gets to shoot a few bad guys along with everyone else. But the important thing is that idea of the things characters care about, especially when common sense says they shouldn’t.

This is a concept I’ve called The Find. It’s called a bunch of other things, but I call it The Find (for trademark purposes, because this is my retirement plan). I teach it in improv classes and in composition classes and in creative writing workshops as a way of establishing characters or, in the case of college essays, honing the thesis. It has become equally useful as a way to flesh out characters and discover landmarks in a plot. The basic idea is this: find one thing, the more seemingly innocuous the better, and then walk each character in front of it and write about their response.

What you’ll discover is that, while one character may see the item or event as meaningless, another might recognize it as the key to their success. Take for example the mosquito in amber, discovered at the beginning of Jurassic Park. We see a mosquito and we may have a variety of responses, but it is rare that we would see one and think: $$$. Richard Hammond sees that mosquito and thinks: dinosaur park. Had the team found, instead of a mosquito, a living breathing T-rex, the responses would have been too limited. It’s the wide range of possibilities that something as seemingly insignificant as a mosquito presents that makes it a great entry point to the film.

In our writing, we have to discover what makes a character react, especially disproportionately to other characters. Everyone reacts in the expected way when they see the Zapruder film or a YouTube compilation of puppies yawning. But imagine if your character, watching the Zapruder film, could only think of the irreparable damage done to the upholstery of the car, or if your character could only focus on the teeth of those puppies. These are things the common person wouldn’t care about, and the common reaction has no place in literature. We want people who act outside the norm, who see the world through a lens that they’ve developed through unique experiences. It’s hard to develop a character from scratch, one that feels lived-in and real. But by discovering how that character reacts to given stimuli, we can find motivations that we never knew our characters had.

I’m writing a novella that started as a joke. At first it was a series of fake book covers using stock photos of bearded men on motorcycles, and then I started to write blurbs for the back cover, and now I’ve written over twenty pages of the thing. It all broke loose when I got fixated on the motorcycle and asked myself, “What if someone stole the motorcycle?” Now I have the beginning of a less-than-serious novel about a man on a desperate search for his bike as he’s hunted by several shadowy figures and subprime government agencies looking for the same bike, all for different reasons. The bike made the story explode from a two-dimensional image to a full story. It isn’t destined to be a classic, but I’m having more fun writing this than I have many of the stories I’ve come up with in the last year.

That’s the most important thing The Find can do, get the writer invested in the writing. We want to know how far this impetus can take us. If a mosquito can be the start of the resurgence of dinosaurs (and a film franchise that has made its participants millions), then what can a typically overlooked object that appears in your character’s line of sight do to expand the scope of your story? A character must have something to react to, and their reactions will show what makes them unique. Rather than create a character by cobbling together a bunch of unique attributes that have become cliched by their overuse (looking at you, sexual deviancy and sons fearing they’ll never be as cool as their dads), discover your characters by having them react to the world around them in honest ways.

I’m still not sure why I’m the one who can’t stop watching Silverado on Christmas Eve while the rest of my siblings seem less and less enthused with each passing year, but I pursue that desire because it reminds me that each character has unique responses to the things they experience. If I let those things fall away, the characters lose the spark that makes them worth writing about. And that, like Kevin Kline missing the chance to shoot it out with a bunch of bad guys, would be a real tragedy.

Kendall Pack's family in front of the Christmas tree.

The author and his family. Kendall is the one on the back right, refusing to smile.

Technology and the Space between Publisher and Author

The most rewarding experience I had while interning at Superstition Review came, rather not surprisingly, during the selection process for our most recent issue. I say not surprisingly because it is during this process that you get the opportunity to give an author the thing they have been searching for: publication.

What did surprise me though were two works that the fiction editors discussed during the selection process and how we were able to work with the authors of those pieces in order to get them published in Issue 11. Both of these pieces would have more than likely received “nos” if we had not been able to work with the authors, something that I was not previously aware was even possible. I had never before thought of the freedom that technology afforded the literary world and the opportunity it offered in erasing the barrier that seems to exist between the publisher and the author.

The first example I want to talk about is the piece by Jacob Appel, “Burrowing into Exile.” Appel originally submitted a story called “A Display of Decency” which looked at a young man’s struggle with religion. It was well written and a good read, but the piece was drenched in baseball paraphernalia and took place in the 1940s. The general consensus was that this created a setting which might be difficult for our particular readership, which tends to be younger. In fact, one of our fiction editors did not recognize many of the references in the piece. This decision about how any given story fits a publication’s aesthetic is one that all literary magazines have to make (and trust me, as a writer this is a difficult lesson to learn). This could have easily been the end of this story: a decline due to incompatible audiences. Instead we contacted Appel and solicited another, more contemporary, piece from him. This is something that I do not think would be possible without the immediacy available through the internet.

Our second “on the edge” story was from an undergraduate student at Utah State University. Since we tend to publish mid and late career authors, we get very excited when we find work from undergrads that make the top of the pile (we don’t publish any ASU undergrads since we have a non-compete agreement with the ASU undergraduate literary magazine LUX).The editors involved in the selection process saw the potential of Kendall Pack’s story, “Make Your Own Lawn Darts (and Rediscover Happiness) in 8 Easy Steps.” It was equally clear that, as submitted, Pack’s piece was not quite where it needed to be in order to be published. There were rough spots and inconsistencies and neither the author nor the publication benefits from bringing a story to the public which is not really finished. This could have easily led to a rejection letter for Pack as well, but the freedom of Superstition Review’s setup allowed us to contact Pack and offer him publication contingent on his willingness to revise his submission. What could have easily been just another homeless story became Pack’s first publication which can only be seen as a great success story.

This ability to become an entity which can work hand in hand with an author to get a piece to publication level is one of Superstition Review’s greatest strengths. As a writer, I am well aware of the distance that often exists between the writer and the publisher, an expanse that is so large that agents are sometimes required as go-betweens. But the landscape of publishing is changing and no longer is an author required to mail out manuscripts and wait months to years before hearing back (at least this is becoming a near extinct process).

Technology has the capability to erase the gap of information between the publisher and writer, something that has not really existed on a wide scale until now. No longer is it a requirement that a publication send out a faceless rejection letter that tells the author only that they have not been selected for publication. Now, with the ability of submission programs to organize all submission along with the comments of the editors involved, it is easier to go back and see which submissions were on the cusp of publication. We can then look at these submissions and see why they were turned down and make that a part of our rejection letter. In an industry where so many variables can lead to a piece not being published it is an invaluable tool to be able to offer the writer at least a slight indication of why a piece was not selected. Or, even better, there is an opportunity to not only disclose these reasons but allow the author the chance to correct these mistakes if they so choose.

Obviously this cannot always be the case. Some large publications just do not have the time to look through all their submissions and tailor a specific response, but they at least have the option to tailor one for the submissions that are on the edge. It will also to take time for these technologies and the assets they offer to catch on. However long it takes, it does give me a great sense of hope for the future of publishing and I see a time where publishers and writers can work as closely as peers in other fields. I can see the benefit of writers and publishers establishing professional relationships that provide brief points of contact concerning the craft of writing.

Bonus opinion: without delving too deeply into an already cantankerous subject, I see these constantly evolving technological tools as a gateway to a future where biases can be circumvented by using submission programs to cloak the identity of submitting authors. This seems like an unbelievable boon to an industry which so recently suffered from a humiliating setback.