James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Category: Writing (Page 2 of 3)

Sunday Writing: First Sale

martian chroniclesSometime 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.

Sunday Writing: Decide on the Conflict, and the Rest Will Follow

marqueeWhen 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.

Silly me.

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.

 

What it Feels Like to Write

cutting iceI saw this Amy Poehler quote today: “I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

Writing can go many ways for me. Sometimes the words and story come more easily, particularly if I just let my standards go. I don’t mean that in a flip way. “Standards” in this case are imaginary constructs that say if I don’t write for long enough, the better words will come along. They’re false standards. Probably I’m suffering through low-level writing neurosis when the writing slows down. When the neurosis kicks in, I’m hanging out with Amy, chipping the ice.

It’s a bad writing place to be. I’m better off letting the standards go, writing steadily through the misgivings, and then evaluating what I’ve done later.

Close your eyes. Type as if no one is watching.

Sunday Writing: the Great Beginning (or When You Open Your Mouth, Know What You’re Going to Say)

tombstoneLast week I talked about writing conclusions (that don’t suck), so it only makes sense to tackle writing beginnings (that also don’t suck).

I watched a live slush panel at MileHiCon last year and saw the most depressing thing: one of the editors on the panel rejected a story after just three words. I could hear every writer in the room quietly mouthing, “Oh . . . my . . . god!”

This editor clearly had some buttons that could be pushed. I think the first three words were, “Rain fell steadily . . .” She raised her hand to reject the story based on her belief that you should never start with the weather. In the bar afterwards, some editors were laughing about it and offered their own quick rejects. They were tongue in cheek, but every tease has an element of truth.

“Tom woke . . .” Instant rejection based on just two words. Don’t begin with a character waking up.

“It was . . .”   Instant rejection also based on two words. Don’t begin with a pronoun without an antecedent followed by a linking verb.

“The wood elf . . .” Instant bounce. This editor said don’t begin with a stock character.

I thought the editors were a pretty tough crowd. Three words or even two! But it does raise the questions, how long will an editor give you, how do you keep them reading, and what features mark crummy beginnings?

When I first edited, I read every story to the finish. My reasoning was mostly karmic: I wrote stories that I wanted to be read to the end, so therefore I read other writers’ submissions to the last page. This resolution lasted about a week. I began to reject stories that I hadn’t finished reading because nothing beyond where I quit reading would make me buy the story based on what I’d read so far. I have listed my bounce-worthy writing errors here.

Let’s assume, though, that the writer avoids the easy to fix errors, like using too many linking verbs or relying on clichés. What makes an effective beginning then?

I’ve come to believe the effective beginnings come first from the writer’s firm conception of the story’s ending. Think of it this way: when the scouts are gathered round the campfire, and the troop leader begins a story, she or he knows exactly where the story is going to finish. The beginning line isn’t setting up the next line or the first paragraph as much as it’s setting up the ending.

Along with that confidence about the ending is an utter belief that the story is worth telling. The troop leader knows absolutely that the story will be worth listening to, that the sad parts will be heart rending and the funny ones will elicit laughter and the tense ones will have everyone perched on the edge of their log, hanging onto every word. The beginning should reflect that confidence. The story plunges toward its ending. It doesn’t flail around for the first few pages like a drowning person unsure of the way to shore.

The very best beginnings dive in. The author doesn’t feel around in the dark for three pages. The live wires are on the surface in the first three lines.

So, how does that happen, the good beginning, I mean? The smart writers realize that they write at least two beginnings. The first one appears in the original rough draft. It’s written before the original ending has appeared on the page. By its nature, the first beginning can’t have the same confidence as the second beginning because even the outliners don’t completely know what happens in the story after that first page. Ideas change and evolve during composition. As soon as the first draft is done, the writer can now write the second beginning, hopefully the better one: the beginning that reflects the writer’s knowledge of where the story is going.

The dynamite beginning starts with the storyteller’s knowledge of the end. The storyteller knows, right from the first word that readers want to be hooked in; they need to be oriented in the scene, and they have to understand the characters and be intrigued by the situation. Good beginnings happen when the storyteller balances those needs—setting, character, situation and ending-driven prose—in the correct proportion for the story at hand.

Oh, and language, of course. The storyteller mixes those elements in the beginning.

By the way, I think knowing your best beginning will only appear after you’ve written your ending is an incredibly freeing idea. It means that you shouldn’t sweat your first beginning. You don’t need to know the perfect words to start. Just start the darned thing. Go ahead and flail around. It will be good for you. When you get better, you’ll realize your actual story began four-hundred words from where you started, or that the real beginning, the true one, is completely different from what you first wrote. That’s okay. That’s a part of the writing process.

Also, every once in a while, the perfect beginning shows up without a story to accompany it. Stephen King said he had the first line of the Dark Tower series before he knew the story: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in an empty spot on a paper he was grading, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He said, “Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like.”

And here’s another also. The editor who rejected stories based on the first three words was an idiot. Great stories have begun with weather. They’ve begun with people waking up. A ton of really poor stories have started that way too, but a ton of bad stories have begun in all the other ways. Three words really aren’t enough to judge a story. But three sentences might be enough, and certainly three pages will tell any editor worth her salt whether she needs to continue reading.

Write the whole story first, then fix the beginning. When you’re done with that, fix everything else.

 

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.

Sunday Writing: a Characterization Exercise

 

Rear-Window-PosterI’ve become increasingly a believer in getting out of your head and into the world to improve writing. Sometimes the easiest way to to do this is to read more. I’m surprised at how many writers I talk to who are trying to grow themselves as writers who have given up on their youthful reading habits. It turns out that reading time and writing time exactly overlap, so they quit reading. Argh! Big mistake! For myself, I have to keep reading to clear my head of my own rhythms and to remind myself that’s there’s many ways to assemble sentences and stories. Good movies or television can get me out of my head too.

The next way to get out of my head, though, is to get up from where I’m writing and go watch the world, but I have to do it the same way I get out of my head while reading or wa
tching a movie: by being aware that I’m are gathering material. When I go outside as a writer, I take a notebook, and I go by myself. I want to be consciously aware that I’m paying attention to help writing.

Here, I’ll give you an example exercise that I used with high school students to help them create more realistic characters (instead of the shallow, cliched, weak echoes of human beings they’d write on their own) that involves getting them out of their desks.

The students want to write characters from scratch, but let’s face it, most of us don’t have enough in our heads to produce the detail that makes fiction work. Since I told them they needed four attributes to be writers: an ability to observe, a felicity with language, a willingness to make connections, and something to say, this exercise works on an ability to observe. It’s a fun one. It makes the students observe real people and makes them look at the world in a new way.  I have the students pick a teacher to do this to, but you could do it anywhere, as long as you have enough time to watch a real person in action.

By the way, you need to be unobtrusive with this exercise.  From the outside, it can look like stalking.  And, if you’re Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, you’re just plain creepy.

Here’s the assignment for the students:

Turning a Real Person into a Fictional Character

Since the very best fiction convinces us that its characters are real, and that their hopes, dreams and tragedies are genuine, it makes sense to study the qualities of real people so we can create fictional ones more convincingly. For this exercise, you are to sit in on a teacher’s class and study them in a variety of ways. Remember that tiny details bring anything into a tighter focus, so what you will be looking for are the most revealing, unique elements to include in your character sketch.

I. Physical Description
A. QUICK INVENTORY: List the physical details about the teacher you are observing that you would give if you were filling out a missing person report. Include height, weight, build, hair and eye color, hair style, distinguishing marks and clothing. This can be done as a list.

B. UNIQUE DETAILS: List any unique details about the teacher you are observing that would separate them from others of similar height and build. This could be a close look at their face, for example. Be observant!

II. Mannerisms
A. HAND GESTURES: Describe how this teacher uses his/her hands as she/he talks. Does he/she hold something?

B. POSTURE AND BODY MOVEMENTS: Describe how this teacher holds her/his body. Is there a slouch? Is there an almost military stiffness to the back? Does the person appear flexible, rigid, fluid, jerky, etc.? Does the teacher move around a lot (and how is this movement done) or does she/he stay still?

C. EYE MOVEMENT: What does this teacher look at when he/she talks? Is there eye contact? Does the teacher seem engaged in the classroom or are the eyes elsewhere? Are the eyes unusually wide or narrow? Does the teacher blink a lot or not? Do the eyes seem the windows to this teacher’s personality?

III. Speech
A. TONE OF VOICE: What does the teacher’s voice sound like? Is the delivery quick, halting, loud, soft? Are there variances in tone? What could the voice best be compared to? Does the voice trail off at the end of sentences? Does it rise at the end of sentences? What kind of words are emphasized?

B. WORD CHOICE: What kind of things does this teacher say? Record verbatim several of this teacher’s utterances. What seem to be this teacher’s favorite way of beginning a sentence? Are most of the sentences questions? facts? instruction? Are most of the things said directed to the class as a whole or to individuals?

IV. Synthesis: The Character Sketch
Write a one to two paragraph character sketch of this teacher as if you were introducing him/her as a character in a short story. You will probably have to give the character sketch a brief setting and situation like, “I sat in the back of the classroom watching the new teacher,” or something else to provide a reason for the description. Try to make your teacher character as vivid and detailed as possible using the details from your observations above. Be sure to emphasize the details that capture not only the teacher’s appearance but also the teacher’s personality.

Sunday Writing: Advice for Beginning Writers

war)of_the_worlds_cover_art_2Each year I taught the Science Fiction class in the high school, I asked my students to write a science fiction story, but it was a literature class, not a creative writing one, so I didn’t have the time to have them do the exercises that a writing class would do.  They had to write the story with very little instruction.

The first exercise to get them into the story telling mode was to write their own “Global Dispatches.”  This was a follow up to studying H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.  The students were to write their own version of what they experienced during the week-long invasion of Earth by the Martians as if it happened in Grand Junction today.  The idea was that their story would be a bit of oral history, as if a historian came to town after the invasion to talk to the people who made it through to the end.  I got the idea from Kevin Anderson’s brilliant anthology, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, that told Well’s story from the point of views of famous personages who were alive when the invasion would have happened had it been real.

The objective of the assignment was to get the kids into story telling mode, but I needed to boil down the instructions to what I thought was the essence of making a story interestingly dramatic (because without instruction, most of them would write tons of exposition that didn’t read like a story).

Here’s the advice I put up on the board for them as they worked on their narratives:

Writing Stories that Work

– Write in scenes–don’t summarize!

  • Tell the reader at least 3 details from different senses
  • Tell the reader what the character did or what happened
  • Tell the reader how the character felt about what he/she did or what happened.
  • Use your imagination and your knowledge to provide specific details in the scene.  If you don’t know details, make them up.
  • Put your fingers on the home row (if you are typing), close your eyes, and then start.  The words will be on the page, but the story is in your head.  Be in your head, not on the page.

This assignment presented this way almost always seemed to work and their narratives were much more interesting.  The quickest form of the list is this: scenes, senses, actions, feelings, specific details, close your eyes.

Sunday Writing: Top Ten Rookie Writing Mistakes

rejectedFrom the “Top Ten Rookie Mistakes” panel at MileHiCon a few years ago.  Here’s my quickie list of top ten mistakes.  I’ve tinkered with this since I first put it together, but I think these are the basics.  This is the stuff that marks rejectable manuscripts in the slush pile and allows an editor to quit reading before reaching the end.  I’m open to suggestions for ones I’m missing or questions about the ones that I’ve included.  Each is easily worthy of a separate, long discussion.

Top Ten Rookie Mistakes

  1. Failure to use action verbs.
  2. Failure to be specific.
  3. Point of view character is passive or pluckless
  4. Failure to invest “caring” into the point of view character.
  5. Relying on exposition instead of narration (particularly at key points that would be much more interesting dramatized).
  6. Failure to be unique (or at least to be familiar in an interesting way).
  7. Failure to surprise the reader globally (how the story unfolds) and/or locally (at the sentence level or word choice level).
  8. Failure to unify the story (the beginning doesn’t set up the end, or there are incidents and details that are not tightly integrated into the story).
  9. Having nothing to say or saying nothing (the story has a “so what?” feel).
  10. Language that is not concise.  The story needs pruning.

 

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.

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