Category: Short Stories (Page 1 of 2)
My new collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES, is now up for preorder at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We can now reveal the entire cover! I still get all squishy inside when I see my name on a book. It makes me feel like I was when I was ten-years old at the library, looking for which science fiction authors my book would appear between when I grew up (it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt).
LATE RAINFOREST REPORT. MARKETING SHORT STORIES: Joe Iriarte posted some insider information in the comment thread about his upcoming Daily Science Fiction story about his progress in selling short stories, which reminded me I wanted to do this post. I appreciate when other writers share this kind of information.
Because we had so little connectivity at the Rainforest last month, I wasn’t able to do a detailed report of the days, including my talk on the 52-Story effort. I talked about the process of writing the stories a year ago at Rainforest, the same week I wrote the last story. This year’s talk was a lot about marketing. For the last two years I’ve been hilt deep in marketing short stories, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I know of the state of the marketplace right now. Here’s what I reported to them:
Remember, everyone’s experience in selling stories is unique, so YMMV on these numbers and conclusions.
First, the background. Two years ago I decided to try Ray Bradbury’s challenge to write a story a week for a year. I’ve seen other people do it, although most of them were writing pretty short pieces. I averaged 3,595 words per story, and 186,937 words total. I submitted the first of the stories a couple weeks after I started the challenge. My process generally was to finish the first draft of the story in a week, and then rethink, rewrite and polish the story over the next week while I was writing that week’s story. At my peak, I had over thirty stories circulating at the same time.
I found markets through Ralan, The Submission Grinder, and notifications or invitations for markets on my FB feed.
As of today, two years and a month after starting the project, here are the numbers for the project:
– 33 of the 52 stories have sold
– 6 stories sold to the first market I sent them to
– 125 submissions for stories that sold to the 2nd or subsequent markets
– 149 submissions of the stories that have not sold
– 280 submissions total
– 1 sale for every 8.48 submissions
– 10 rejections is the most any of the sold stories suffered
– 12 rejections is the most for any of the unsold (so far)
– 26 rejections from one unnamed pro market that rejects quickly–this is a market I’ve never cracked
– 3 other markets I’ve never cracked rejected 29 stories between the three of them
– Several stories sold to markets that were new to me
– 12 of the 33 sold to pro-paying markets
– 2 of the submissions resulted in a request for a rewrite
– 1/5 of the rejections were personal.
– I was able to find places to submit all the stories pretty much all the time. If there are that many markets, then the short story marketplace is robust. The Submission Grinder lists 25 markets in science fiction that will pay six cents or more per word. There are many more, beautifully done, semi-pro magazines that I’m proud to submit to who pay less.
– This is an old lesson, but if you are going to write short stories and submit them on spec, you have to be thick-skinned. I have been submitting stories seriously since the 80s. I’ve sold 145 stories, been a finalist for the Nebula, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. I’ve appeared in several Year’s Best collections. I think I’m doing okay, but I’m still rejected at an 8 to 1 ratio. Mike Resnick doesn’t suffer from this ratio, I’ll bet, but there’s only one Mike.
– On a side note, if you want to sell more of what you write and be rejected less often (and as a whole be paid better for it), write non-fiction. Unfortunately, I like what I like. Writing on spec is what I do.
– Submitting is way faster now that almost all markets take electronic submissions, but it still takes time. Knowing the marketplace, Submitting in the correct form, keeping correspondence professional, etc. is a part of the process and it isn’t instantaneous.
– I think if you regularly use Ralan and the Submission Grinder, you should send them donations. I also pay for NPR. If I’m getting value from someone, I owe them that.
– Submitting regularly is how you learn the market. It’s also how you develop relationships with editors. I’d been submitting to George Scithers for several years before he bought something from me. Because I kept submitting, he started sending personal rejects. After a while, we had a healthy pen-pal relationship. I sent 5,000-word long letters in the form of a short story, and he sent back a page with a sentence or two that was personal. Still, I felt a connection. I’m not into writing science fiction just to sell the things. I like that I meet other people, some of them whose contributions to the field are awesome. Communicating with the people who have provided so much reading enjoyment to me and others is fulfilling all by itself.
One of the many fascinating aspects of English and writing is that anything that sounds like a rule has exceptions. The only real rule in writing is this: IT HAS TO WORK. If it works, it’s good. I’ve written stories in the past just to show that a “rule” can be broken. My latest story at Daily Science Fiction does exactly that. It’s called “Writing Advice.”
So, a lot of the standard wisdom writing teachers hand out is challengable, if you know what you are doing.
– Write what you know. This is intuitively wrong, or at least poorly stated. I prefer “Don’t write what you don’t know,” because that implies you can find out stuff (and should). Too vigorously applied, “write what you know,” produces a lot of belly button gazing. At the college that means I get a ton of dorm stories, filled with drinking and teen angst. Maybe an even better way to phrase this might be, “Write what you can imagine, and imagine with gusto (and detail).” At least for science fiction and fantasy writers.
– Don’t shift point of view. In general, this is good advice. A writer who slips around willy nilly with point of view just confuses the heck out of the reader. I responded to a story the other day that dipped into the cat’s point of view for a sentence, and then, catastrophically, into a house plant on the fireplace mantle for another sentence. The better advice, at least to stronger writers, is Control point of view. If you know what you are doing, a story that shifts point of view can be the only way to tell the story, if it works.
– Show, don’t tell. This rule is what I had in mind when I started this post because yesterday I said the weakest way to reveal character is by the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is. What I had in mind was the writer who puts something like this down on the page: “Leslie was witty and clever,” and then Leslie never does a single witty or clever thing. That’s telling without confirming showing. But some of the most memorable characters in fiction are revealed partly through the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is like.
For example, here is one of the most famous character introductions in all of English literature:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
I think that nice bit of telling works, don’t you? All right, it’s a bit of a cheat as an example, because there is some effective showing in there too, but the mode is mostly telling. Look at how much milage Dickens gets out of mixing showing and telling. Remember, too, that the very first time we see Scrooge in the story, his character is revealed through dialogue:
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
So, for me, the better advice is “Show, don’t tell, unless you earn the right to tell by doing a lot of showing.” It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the first piece of advice, but it seems closer to the truth.
In May I wrote about story beginnings, but that’s a bigger topic than what I wanted to focus on today: the first sentence.
I’ve been working on a unified field theory for fiction, which is an impossible task. In every way the impossibility is clear when I take on the theory and practice of first sentences. A first sentence has so many possibilities! It’s supposed to hook the reader, of course (or at least not drive the reader away), but it also can introduce one or more of the following: conflict, character, setting, background, or action. It can start the story in the middle, in media res, or it can start at the end, the beginning, or way before the beginning. In a flashback story, the first sentence could start way after the end.
For me, the first sentence has to do three things: hook the reader, set the tone, and set up the end. Here’s one of my own favorite first sentences. It’s from “Shark Attack: a Love Story”
“Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard’s desk.”
I liked this one because I got the two most important elements in the story within it: Willard’s attraction to Elsa, and the problem with the sharks. It seems like a good hook to me, it went a long way toward establishing the story’s tone, and it connected to the end, since the resolution of the story deals with both the sharks and Elsa.
But the problem with beginning sentences is that there’s an infinite number of ways to start! Consider a story like a chess game. In chess there are 20 possible opening moves, each one affecting how the game may go. In a story, though, there are as many opening moves as there are words in the dictionary (isn’t it sad, then, how many stories start with “the”).
So, since there are so many ways to start, and any one of them could be the first sentence to a successful story, what should be considered when evaluating the sentence?
When I’m teaching story writing, I’ll often have the students put their draft’s first sentence on the board. I’ll have them do two things: they have to identify what approach the sentence took (conflict, character, setting, background, or action), and then decide which sentence made them want to read more the most. All the exercise really does is make them aware that their first sentence is a choice. I’m constantly amazed by inexperienced writers’ inabilty to see the malleability of their own writing. It’s like they are trapped by their styles!
I end up giving students three pieces of advice about first sentences (and that’s all I’ve got for them–there’s too much involved for me to go beyond these suggestions):
- Remember that you can change your first sentence.
- Make sure that the beginning sentence sets up the end of the story in some way.
- Don’t worry about the first sentence when you are writing the rough draft. Way too much agony can be generated while staring at a blank page, waiting for the perfect first sentence.
Here’s some first sentences I liked from literature. I’m not sure, though, if these are great sentences on their own, or they’re great because they are the first puzzle piece in the intricate construction of a story I really like. I have this same problem when I discuss the practice and theory of story titles. Is the title great on its own, or is it great because the story that followed it made it great?
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
- “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” Edgar Allan Poe, “Fall of the House of Usher”
- “There were fireworks the first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments.” Ray Bradbury, “The Fox and the Forest”
- “After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.” Stephen King, “Night Surf.”
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984
I see that three of these sentences begin with a pronoun and a linking verb, a style I discourage in class, and, yet, there they are, in my list of good opening sentences. I guess that confirms another truism of mine, there are no unbreakable rules (if it works).
Maybe the problem with first sentences is that we put WAY too much emphasis on them. They are too small of a piece of the puzzle that is the story to make or break it. Maybe a better entry for today would have been about first paragraphs or first pages, but, well, I wrote this instead *g*.
Resources for first sentences:
Thoughts on first sentences? How do you know you’ve written a good one? Does your first draft first sentence make it to the final draft? How do you evaluate your opening sentence?
Most everyone who has been responding to my posts seems well beyond beginner status as writers, but I’ve found that going back to the basics has always been good for me. For example, two of the best books I have on writing are ones that were written for rank beginners, but I keep revisiting them. Maybe it’s because I’m slow and simple, or maybe because reviewing the basics keeps me anchored. I figure if my basics are solid, my experimental flights of fancy may have a better chance of working.
Here are two great books that would be good for newbies that I still find helpful today:
What a Writer Needs, by Ralph Fletcher, which is this really, really down to earth discussion of teaching writing that only uses elementary school kids’ writing for examples.
Poetry in the Making, by Ted Hughes, which is the book version of a series of lessons he gave for the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department for the program, “Listening and Writing.”
So, with the proviso that this is basic, here’s a lesson that I get considerable mileage from.
MAKING THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE
One of the qualities we have identified that a good writer has is the ability to be specific. That means that good writers will avoid the use of unsupported generalities or abstractions and try to make those generalities specific and the abstractions concrete.
For example, time is an abstraction. You can’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell it. It is an abstract idea. The author Ray Bradbury recognized this problem in his short story, “Night Meeting,” which is about the nature of time, so he made the abstraction concrete for the reader with this description (I’ve taken his prose passage and recast it as a poem so you can see the parts better):
There was the smell of Time in the air tonight.
He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind.
There was a thought.
What did Time smell like?
Like dust and clocks and people.
And if you wondered what Time sounded like
it sounded like water running in a dark cave
and voices crying
and dirt dripping down
upon hollow box lids, and rain.
And, going further, what did Time look like?
Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room
or it looked like a silent film
in an ancient theater,
one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons,
down and down into nothing.
That was how Time smell and looked and sounded.
And tonight–Tomas shoved a hand
into the wind outside the truck–
tonight you could almost touch Time.
To make the abstraction concrete, Bradbury made “appeals to the senses.” He gave examples of what he meant when he talked about time. He was specific.
This idea that abstractions should be made concrete play out in numerous ways in fiction, but mostly, I think, they are most important when we’re trying to communicate moods or feelings. Saying that a character is afraid, for example, or that a setting is threatening attempts to evoke the abstraction by naming it, but no reader is ever scared by the word “afraid” or made nervous by the word “threatening.” What we should be trying to do as we write is to provide enough concrete details and evocative metaphorical descriptions to make the reader conclude that the character is “afraid,” or that the scene is a “threatening” one.
A pretty good editing pass on a manuscript you think is complete is to look for words that are abstractions. They can work in dialogue sometimes, or when they are paired with concrete appeals, but they shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting by themselves. Remember that readers hardly ever go to fiction to be told stuff. They read because they want to feel and experience. If that wasn’t true then someone telling us that the rollercoaster they went on was terrifying would be all we would ever need, and we’d never try a rollercoaster ourselves.
For me, one of the first stories that actually evoked terror and suspense in my young soul was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” I have no idea how that story appears in elementary school fiction anthologies, but it did (along with “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “Masque of the Red Death).
When I reread “The Tell Tale Heart” today, I see how Poe works hard to make his abstractions concrete. I write better when I remember the lessons he demonstrated.
Today’s Writing Prompt
Using Bradbury as a model, take four of the following abstractions and make them concrete. Do not use single word examples, like “Death is a grave.” Expand your examples.
Sometime when I was a little kid, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always been a reader. The Tom Swift stories, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, A Wrinkle in Time, The Princess of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and the other usual suspects. Anything with a spaceship on the binding in the library, that’s what I read.
I didn’t want to be a writer at first. I loved reading books. But books have a gazillion pages! In 4th grade it took me a weekend to write a one-page report for my social studies class. Nobody that I knew could write a book. In fact, the most science fictional idea in my life was that a person could compose an entire book.
Then I read The Martian Chronicles. Some of those stories made me laugh. A lot made me cry. They all thrilled me. And they were short! I couldn’t write The Door Into Summer, but maybe, just maybe, I could stick with it long enough to write a story the length of “Night Meeting” or “The Silent Towns.”
I remember looking through the science fiction books in the library to see where they would shelve my version of The Martian Chronicles when I finished it. I put my finger between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt to show the space where my book would fit.
I might have been nine or ten.
Fast forward almost twenty years. I still read a lot, but writing stayed on the back burner. It was never out of my mind, existing in that sphere where other unpursued dreams resided, like getting in shape for a marathon or learning guitar. It wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really started writing and submitting work. Nothing like misery to drive a young man to the typewriter! I stayed alone in my office, didn’t come to bed until late at night, thinking deeply about stuff other than my life. Perfect.
The problem with sending work out for publication, though, was that nobody wanted it. I started submitting for real in 1983 or so, when I was twenty-nine. I photo-copied the relevant pages from The Writers Digest Writers’ Market. Also, I hung out at the big comic store in Denver that sold all the genre fiction magazines so I could see what was happening currently. Lots of great magazines that don’t exist anymore. My favorite was Twilight Zone Magazine.
In the meantime, rejections piled up. For a while, I taped them to the wall in my bathroom until I found I didn’t want to go into that bathroom anymore. One of my first rejections came from the great George Scithers at Amazing Stories. He said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”
For five years I collected rejections. Most were impersonal. No one gave me a hint that I was getting close, and I didn’t even feel close. Published stories started to read to me as something magical. How did the writers do it? I returned to Bradbury’s stories. They were perfect! How did he write “The Veldt” or “Ylla” or “I Sing the Body Electric”? The barrier between the quality of what I was doing and what “real” writers did seemed insurmountable. And writers as people began to feel mythical to me. Even when I met a couple, they didn’t quite seem human. I met Ed Bryant, the multiple award-winning science fiction author, and his personality was bigger than life. Then I met Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was so rattled that the first thing I said to her was, “I thought you were dead.”
The idea of being a “writer” consumed me, not because I thought they lead glamorous lifestyles (Ed Bryant looked tired, and Joanne Greenberg resembled a PTA mom), but because I wanted my words to do what their words did. I wanted words that got out of their own way and moved readers the way Ed Bryant’s and Joanne Greenberg’s words moved me.
I wanted strangers to validate my literary existence through reading a story I sent to them uninvited and deciding that they liked it enough, and that their readers would like it enough, that they would send me money for it.
I wanted a first sale.
In 1987 or so, four years after I started my real push to publication, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that I think was supposed to be funny. The author said she had heard somewhere that you weren’t really a writer until you’d collected 100 rejections. I don’t know how many I had at that point, but I must have been approaching the century mark. The author said she’d sent her first story out, and it was immediately rejected. She was so proud: one down, ninety-nine to go. The problem was, she sold her second story. Surely, she thought, this was a bump in the road on her quest for 100 rejections, but the third and fourth stories sold too. At the article’s end, she wailed about how she’d never get to be a writer because her stories kept selling.
I hated her. I’ll bet Writer’s Digest lost a few subscriptions from that issue.
At conventions I have sat in auditoriums with hundreds of people just like me, listening to published writers at the front of the room talk about their careers. Like me, most everyone else in the room was unpublished. The yearning was palpable.
Gordon Van Gelder, the long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction told me once that when he finished a week-long gig as an instructor at a writing workshop, he attended an end-of-session party with the wanna-be writers. He said at one point they surrounded him, all chatting, all being polite, but he could feel the subtext beating like a whale’s heart in the room. “Choose me! Choose me!” was its rhythm.
In 1988 I went to U.C. Davis to start a master’s degree in Creative Writing. We had a sort of publishing club that met once a week to talk about selling our work. The ticket into the meeting was a manuscript in an envelope, stamped and addressed to a market. We talked about publishing, pored over writers’ guidelines and commiserated over our rejections.
Finally, in 1990, I took a phone call in my tiny, Davis apartment. The guy on the other end didn’t introduce himself but started talking about a story I’d written earlier. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize it was the editor of After Hours, a tiny horror magazine. He wanted to buy a short story of mine called “No Small Change.”
I’d made my first sale.
I’d like to be able to tell you that this first sale changed my life in a way I could feel, that my writing afterwards became more subtly imbued with the essence of publishability. I’d like to say that I became more confident and bolder, that my next blank page became less intimidating.
Sadly, none of this happened.
But I can tell you that I was smiling when I hung up the phone with that publisher, and that on some level I’ve been smiling ever since. In most ways, a first sale changed nothing at all.
And it changed everything. My first sale was awesome.
If you’re a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, you have my best wishes. Somewhere out there in your future an editor will pluck your manuscript from the slush and love it. If you’re a published writer, then you have your own first sale story. I hope yours means as much to you as mine means to me.
I received my contributor copy of INTERZONE #264 with my short story, “Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart” within. Andy Cox puts together a beautiful magazine. Is there a print magazine in the genres that rival it for production values?
I messed with all kinds of stuff writing this piece. It’s present tense, second person omniscience (quite literally). I very much enjoyed writing it, and I believe my path to the piece was through the story-a-week challenge, where I said, “What the heck. Let’s break a few narrative ‘rules.'”
At any rate, to celebrate the appearance of the issue, you should subscribe or order the issue on line, and while you’re at it, go to Fairwood Press or Amazon and order a copy of PANDORA’S GUN just for the heck of it.
When teachers break down the elements in a story, the list often looks something like this: Setting, Character, Action (plot), Dialogue, Description, Conflict, and Theme. For literary analysis this is an adequate list, I suppose. Not particularly useful for a writer, though. Which one is the most important? For me, the element that matters most when I’m trying to write–when I’m deciding what to do next–is conflict, and I had no clue what I was doing until I figured that out.
Whether I think of plot as a war, a birth, a Freytag pyramid, or a daisy, conflict makes it all go. Conflict may not be what I start with when I write a story, but you can be sure that it is what makes everything possible once I get going.
It wasn’t until I really got a handle on conflict that I started to write real stories, I think.
Here’s why I was messed up originally. When I took English classes in school, the teachers told us all about conflict, and then had us identify it in the story. The choices were “Man vs. Man,” “Man vs. Society,” “Man vs. Nature,” and/or “Man vs. Himself.” There were probably a few other “Man vs. . . .” constructions out there, but you get the gist of it. Here’s a fairly standard example of conflict the way I learned it. So, when I started trying to understand stories, and other authors suggested that every story had to have a conflict, I thought I knew what one was.
Here’s the definition of conflict that I eventually arrived at that helped me to write stories. It has three parts:
- Somebody wants something
- Something stands in the way
- Something of value is to be lost or gained
A lot of my prewriting or early drafting when I working on a story is about my search for the specifics to those three statements.
What does my character really want? To answer that question is to establish the borders of the story. When I know what the character wants, then I can have the character act. Sometimes I’ll be explicit with this desire in the text itself. It could be the very first sentence in the story, an announcement of the desire. But sometimes I write stories where the character doesn’t know what she/he wants. The desire could be subconscious, and that desire may not be revealed until the very end, when the reader and the character see it fulfilled or unfulfilled. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me as the writer. I have to know what the character wants or needs, eventually, to write it. Oh, and it’s entirely possible that the desire can evolve through the course of the story. Think of the Meg Ryan film, French Kiss, where what she wants in the beginning is to get her fiancee back, but very near the end of the story she realizes she doesn’t want him anymore.
What stands in the way. This is really just about plotting on one level. I can’t make it easy on my character to get what he wants. If I do, the story is uninteresting. I mean, I’d like to have a day where everything in my life works, but it wouldn’t make an interesting story for anyone else. Whatever gene it is within us that likes stories, seems to like them to be about people who are miserable and unhappy for the longest time before they get relief (or lose). It’s in the “what stands in the way” element that my English teachers come into play. The opposition can be man, or society, or nature, or himself, (or machine, or alien, or whatever) or some combination.
The something of value is to be lost or gained is often a question of character for me. What is particular about this character that the goal is so important to her? I can’t answer that until I know more about the character. Even stories where what of value is to be gained or lost is as obvious as life or death, I still want to know what in particular that this character has to lose if she dies.
I have to admit that I do not feel like a very subtle writer. Certainly not one who has a zillion narrative tricks up his sleeve. Between defining conflict the way I have here, and thinking about how plots are a daisy, is about 90% of what I think about when I’m writing.
There, I’ve done it. I have no secrets left.
Here are three examples of beginnings that establish conflict early. I could have picked randomly from my bookshelf and come up with a hundred others. It’s remarkable how early conflict shows up in many stories.
From “Her First Ball,” by Katherine Mansfield
Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say. Perhaps her first real partner was the cab. It did not matter that she shared the cab with the Sheridan girls and their brother. She sat back in her own little corner of it, and the bolster on which her hand rested felt like the sleeve of an unknown young man’s dress suit; and away they bowled, past waltzing lamp-posts and houses and fences and trees.
“Have you really never been to a ball before, Leila? But, my child, how too weird–” cried the Sheridan girls.
“Our nearest neighbor was fifteen miles, “said Leila softly, gently opening and shutting her fan.
Oh, dear, how hard it was to be indifferent like the others!
From “A Poetics for Bullies,” by Stanley Elkin
I’m Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants–and cripples, especially cripples. Nobody loved I love.
From “Shark Attack: A Love Story,” by James Van Pelt
Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard’s desk. Lost in his dream, Willard didn’t look up from the stack of forms he was filling out mechanically. Bustle and commotion were standard fare at The First North American Trust Title Company, and the boy’s silent waving of arms wasn’t enough to distract Willard. Then the boy screeched.
Writing the conclusion to a story can be hard! First off, the whole story has been leading to this last page, so the sense of responsibility to the story and to the reader is huge. I don’t want to end the story on a lame note, and I don’t want the readers to feel cheated, as if my story was a shaggy dog joke whose only point was in seeing how long I could keep them paying attention with the promise of a punch line that would never come.
I know writers who never finish a story because their fear of screwing it up is too great. And I’ve also read some stories that looked like they were going great until they reached their unsatisfying ending, which blew the whole story. *(check the note on this at the end)
And you know what? Writers’ fears are justified. The ending IS most of the reason for the story’s existence. I know, I know, I know . . . the journey is fun too, certainly in a novel there have to be little payoffs along the way, and who hasn’t read a book where they were ten pages from the end and they were just sad as hell that the story was going to finish? So there’s something to be said for middles too, but the ending still has to be right.
How do you end the story you’re working on you ask? Sorry, can’t tell you for sure. Every story tends to its own ending, but I can share some principles that make sense to me.
- The conclusion should wrap up the conflicts introduced at the story’s beginning. If the story starts with a question, the end answers it. If it is a mystery, the end solves it. If there is a threat, it is remove or carried out. If an action is initiated, it’s completed. If a journey is started, the travelers arrive. In other words, the end of the story should be like the solution to an equation the story has set up. Of course, sometimes the question isn’t answered, or the travelers never arrive, but the ending then is about the significance of not answering or not arriving.
- Many stories are about reversals. Whatever conditions exist at the beginning of the story are swapped. The humble have become great, the rich have become poor, the proud have been brought down, and the sad have become happy. Look at “A Christmas Carol,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Star Wars” (the first one), ” “Cinderella,” etc.
- Some stories are not about reversing the initial conditions, but about getting back to them, except now the beginning is meaningful. The Lord of the Rings ends with Sam saying, “Well, I’m back,” and the implication is the world has been made right, or at least the Shire has. Ending where you began is a very effective technique, by the way. Nothing signals a reader more loudly that the story is over than to be back where you started.
- The last words of a story should be “bigger” than the words by themselves would be. The whole rest of the story exists to give the last words context, and this is where their “bigness” comes from.
- I’ll take a risk here and make a generalization: all effective endings work symbolically. The ending could be a symbolic line of dialog, or a symbolic action, or a symbolic gesture. In this sense, “symbolic” means “meaningful.” At the end of Steinbeck’s The Pearl, the villager throws the now hated pearl into the sea. His action is symbolic (and meaningful) because it shows him rejecting all the values the pearl has come to represent in the story.
One way to help with endings is to remember that a story isn’t written the way it is read. Readers start a piece not knowing the end, so they don’t know why details are there or where they are going. Writers, however, if they didn’t know the end when they started, they certainly know the end when they finish, and when they revise, they revise with the ending in mind. That means as a writer, once you get to your ending, you have the chance (the obligation) to go back and set it up. Writers who know this are effective rewriters. They know that if the first ending they wrote doesn’t work, that they can write a new one that does and then go back into the story to set it up. Revision can be everything. Trust the revision.
Here are three of my favorite endings of all time. If you go back and look at your favorite stories or novels, reread the ending and ask yourself why they are so good. You might teach yourself something about finishing a piece.
From “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allan Poe
From that chamber and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight–my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder–there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters–and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.’
From “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes
Good-by Miss Kinnian and Dr Strauss and evreybody. And P.S. please tell Dr Nemur not to be such a grouch when pepul laff at him and he woud have more frends. Its easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you. Im going to have lots of frends where I go.
P.P.S. Please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard . . .
From “Fondly Fahrenheit,” by Alfred Bester
But we know one truth. We know they were wrong. The new robot and Vandaleur know that because the new robot’s started twitching too. Reet! Here on cold Pollux, the robot is twitching and singing. No heat, but my fingers writhe. No heat, but it’s taken the little Talley girl off for a solitary walk. A cheap labor robot. A servo-mechanism . . . all I could afford . . . but it’s twitching and humming and walking alone with the child somewhere and I can’t find them. Christ! Vandaleur can’t find me before it’s too late. Cool and discrete, honey. In the dancing frost while the thermometer registers 10° fondly Fahrenheit.
*(note from earlier) Actually it’s rare that I read a story that is wonderful until it botches the ending. I think there is a relationship between knowing what you are doing well enough in the middle that the middle is good, and writing a good ending. You can be sure, though, when I edit, if everything is wonderful until the end, that I will ask for a rewrite.