James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Category: Short Stories (Page 2 of 2)

Sunday Writing: Writing a Conclusion (that Works)

end-over-finished-typewriter-ss-1920Writing 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.

Brrr!

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.

April/May Asimov’s

APRILMAY2016 AsimovsThe latest Asimov’s is out with my short story, “Three Paintings.”  The main character is an artist who has come up with an unusual experiment in creativity.

I have artist friends, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t create an artist who wouldn’t pass their verisimilitude test.  So far, the two who’ve read the story said that I didn’t screw up too badly.

This is my 12th appearance in Asimov’s, starting with “Safety of the Herd” in 2002 (13th if I count a reprint of an Analog story that appeared in the Greek edition of Asimov’s).  It is truly awesome to make a sale there.  If you would have told me twenty years ago, the year I made my first professional sale, that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The Old Stuff vs. the New Stuff

1953-10 The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction by Ed EmshwillerYou know how sports fans will sit around the table and argue about today’s teams vs. the teams of the past? How would the 1985 Chicago Bears who went 15-1 do against the Superbowl champion 2015 New England Patriots, for example? This is an evergreen topic, and I think it’s an interesting one for the modern science fiction/fantasy writer.

How do the old market conditions (pre computer era) and the new market conditions compare? My premise is that computers and a proliferation of markets who accept e-submissions, among other factors, has increased the number of writers. Here are my complete thoughts on why I think there are more writers than ever competing for the publishing slots.  Are the conditions more difficult now for a writer to break into the big three print magazines?

To get to my question, do you think that the bulk of what Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF is better than what they used to print, say, twenty to thirty years ago? I know better is an arguable term, but if you assume there is a kind of “middle of the road” story for the three markets, which would be stories that are fine on their own terms but not award winners, has the bar for the middle of the road gone up? Does a writer have to be “better” now to get into those magazines than they used to have to be?

By the way, when you consider this question, be sure to factor in the rosy-goggles-of-time factor that eliminates all the forgettable stuff you read, leaving only the glittering jewels of your favorite stories.

Or here’s another way to ask this question, if you could take your current writing skills, climb into a time machine, say to 1975 (or 1955) and try to make your way in the world as a SF writer, do you think you would have more luck then than now?

Just wonderin’.

Sunday Writing: Art and Competitiveness

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Trust my 10th graders to ask a really provocative question.  We had a local creative writing conference and contest at Colorado Mesa University, and I gave extra credit to enter the writing contest.

One of my kids asked, “How can we make our poems competitive.”

Wow!

So this is what I put up on the board for what the judges would be looking for.  It is, of course, also a description of what I think makes writing artistic.  The overlap of art into competitiveness is inevitable but not complete.  This is an interesting way of looking a story writing too, where “competitive” becomes “publishable.”

  • Unique
  • Specific
  • –   details and appeals to the senses
  • –   individual incident instead of summary
  • Sound (for poetry, all the sound features like rhythm, rhyme, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc., but also the language working hand in hand with the content by emphasizing the impact)
  • Language
  • Connections
  • Synthesis

So, in terms of writing short stories where judges are replaced with editors, this is what I meant by each term.

Unique:  Editors respond to fresh treatment of ideas.  They will not like a familiar idea phrased in a familiar way. The key is not necessarily a brand new idea but a fresh handling of it.  A brand new idea, of course, is cool too!

Specific:  Buyable stories focus on details and make appeals to the senses so the reader has a chance to participate in the performance of the narrative.  They relate to tightly focused incidents.  Powerful short stories transport readers to fully realized experiences.  They don’t read to find out what the characters feel or think; they read for a moment to feel or think those things themselves.

Sound:  A story is on one level all about speech.  Even if it is never read aloud, clumsy phrasings, ill-considered clashing of sounds, and distracting rhythms will detract from the performance of the tale.  This is why so many instructors suggest writers read their work out loud as part of the editing process.

Language:  Words are what we use to build sentences and paragraphs.  A significant part of the power is in word choice and word arrangement (diction and syntax).  The language should have an interest all on its own.  Part of this takes us back to what I said about “unique” above, but it’s also about recognizing the medium.  A song is not just the tune; it’s about how it’s played.  A story is not just the plot, it’s about how it’s told.

Connections:  The interesting stories are hardly ever about just one thing.  The poet and critic, John Cirardi said that poems are essentially “duplicitous,” appearing to be about one thing but being about something else, like Frost’s “Two Roads in a Yellow Wood Diverged” appears to be about a choice while hiking, but it’s also about choices in life.  A good story will also make connections, where the events in the story reveal or explore a larger issue or question.

Synthesis:  Everything has to work together.

I know this probably sounds theoretical and far removed from the story you are writing at this moment, but I think the deeper thinking about theory and language plays out in improved writing.

Submitting Short Stories

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The standard advice to short fiction writers on submitting their work is to follow these steps:

  1. Write the very best story you can.
  2. Seek meaningful and educated feedback on the story.
  3. Do your final revisions.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the markets.
  5. Identify a hierarchy of markets that are appropriate for the story from most desirable to second most etc. (this might be based on pay rate or circulation, but it could also be based on how often stories in the venue are up for awards or who else appears in it–money isn’t everything).
  6. Correctly format the story according to the market’s directions, and then send it.
  7. Work on your next story while waiting to hear about the first one

That’s good advice and generally I’d recommend it.

However, what if you are prolific?  I often think of a story that I’d heard about Robert Silverberg: When he grew serious about writing as a young man, he wrote a million words a year for a few years.  That’s over 3,000 words a day without missing any days!  He had more markets to look at (although not that many more than what we have now), and he was writing fast enough to fill each of the top magazine’s entire table of contents every month.  Clearly the magazines wouldn’t make an all-Robert-Silverberg issue, so Bob wrote under pseudonyms.  Even doing that, though, he was writing faster than the top markets could absorb his work.  In 1958, he published 80 short stories!  That’s not just a good year; for many authors it would be an entire career.

If you want to have your mind blown, check out Robert Silverberg’s summary bibliography.

How did Bob do that?  He submitted work to a lot of places.  I don’t know this for sure, because I haven’t asked him, but I’ll bet that in 1958 he submitted more stories than were accepted for publication.  Yes, even Robert Silverberg saw rejection notes.  Also, I’ll bet that because he was writing so fast, when he looked at his hierarchy of markets, he could not submit every story to his top market because he already had a story under consideration there.  He had stories under consideration at his top twenty markets or more.  Because he was prolific, he could not wait for the top markets to open; he submitted stories everywhere.

Submitting stories everywhere is a different submission philosophy, but if you are prolific, I think it is a good one.

My other example of submitting everywhere is the late Jay Lake who was also hugely prolific.  The year before he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he was reporting a couple short story sales a week.

I bring these examples up to explain my current submitting philosophy, which I’ve come to think of as the shrapnel grenade school of submitting short fiction.  Right now, I have twenty-one manuscripts in the mail.  A month ago, I had thirty-two.  I also have thirteen stories at home waiting for more revision or for the right market to open.  (The opposite philosophy I think of as the cruise missile school of submitting, which has been perfected by Ted Chiang.)

The shrapnel grenade philosophy has a few advantages:

  1. Being prolific means that I’m practicing a lot.  Finishing several short stories a month makes my learning and growth curve steeper than if I was writing slower.
  2. Submitting often makes me familiar with the market.  Right now I have a good overview of who is editing where and what they are looking for.  I’m particularly interested when new markets appear or anthologies open.
  3. Submitting a short story is the moment when an author briefly interacts with the larger world of editors and publishers.  Submitting often means that there are more of those interactions.  The editors are more likely to remember me when my newest story crosses their desk.
  4. I feel more professional when I produce stories and submit them at a regular interval.  I feel less like a hobbyist.  This is not a dig on writers who are not prolific.  It is only a comment on how I feel.  Everyone’s path up the mountain is their own.

So, for right now, I’m trying out many markets.  This means that I’m following a piece of advice Dean Wesley Smith gave me a bunch of years ago, which was to “Pump the editors.”  I know, I thought that was an oddly phrased sentence too, but what he meant was to write a bunch and keep your work circulating.  The editors will eventually figure out that you are for real and serious about what you are doing.

And that’s a good thing.

P.S.  I forgot to add where I’m finding all these markets.  I lean heavily on ralan.com (every writer who uses his site ought to send him a donation), and the Submission Grinder.  I also learn about market via networking with writers and editors I’ve come to know over time.

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