James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Tag: craft

Sunday Writing: Every “Rule” has Exceptions

marqueeOne 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.

Sunday Writing: Creating Believable High School Characters

86

The FMHS class of 1986 held their 30th reunion this weekend.  That’s my wife’s graduating class.  We perused the photos and videos that the class posted on their FB website.  The don’t look that old.  I can still see the teenagers in them.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote this article about characterization using the high school classes I was teaching as my examples.  Since I’ll be starting a new school year in another month, I think I’ll do the exercise again.  Has anything changed that I can notice?  How different are they from the class of ’86?


Creating characters must be hard because I read so many unconvincing, thin or cliched characters in fiction.  How high school characters are portrayed often bothers me because so many people default to a handful of stereotypes.  Since I teach high school and really, really, really respect high schoolers as people, it’s particularly upsetting to see them boiled down into predetermined niches.

We administered the ACT test to all of our juniors today.  I proctored for two hours, which involved walking back and forth among the desks for the whole time, I took notes on what I saw.

If you’re interested, here’s raw data from Fruita Monument High School in western Colorado, a predominantly white student body that draws about 2/3 of the kids from upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods and 1/3 from rural ranches and farms.  We have 1,200 students in three grades.

Twenty-one students took the test in the room I proctored, 17 girls and 4 boys, an imbalance caused by the randomness of assigning kids to rooms alphabetically.

–   14 carried cell phones (they couldn’t have cell phones on them during the test, so we had to collect them.  Some of the kids remembered this and didn’t bring a cell phone–clearly I have to buy a cell phone for my 11th grade son!)
–   3 wore hats
–   1 wore a school sweatshirt
–   1 wore a university sweatshirt
–   1 wore a Tigger sweatshirt
–   9 sweatshirts total–none of them were dressed in a style we normally call “preppy”
–   2 Hispanic students, no Black or Asian ones
–   1 facial piercing (a small diamond stud on the side of a nose)
–   2 unnatural hair colors
–   2 wore glasses (lots of contacts?)
–   1 male with an earring
–   6 females with hair below their shoulder blades
–   4 in shorts.  The rest in long pants, mostly jeans.  It’s been a cold spring.

They were all cooperative, quiet and industrious.  Once again, the luck of the draw.  I taught a sophomore class here a couple of years ago that was phenomenally bad.  I took three of the worst out to work on a paper with them alone while my student teacher tried to handle the rest.  The three I had were supposed to be working on a paper about influential people in their lives.  They all wanted to write about their probation officers.

The teacher who teaches in the room I was proctoring in today had the kids do an “I” poster for an assignment.  The kids are supposed to make a collage of who they are.  It reminded me a little of the writing assignment in The Breakfast Club, where the kids who were serving a Saturday detention were supposed to do an essay on who they thought they were.  I broke the posters down into categories:

–   2 pictured guns, one in a hunting context, and the other in a redneck context (to use a stereotype; the poster was hunting rifles and pickups)
–   4 agriculturally centered (livestock, John Deere machinery, etc.)
–   6 sports
–   10 fashion
–   7 music
–   1 overtly religious
–   5 travel
–   6 hunting
–   3 environmental
–   1 sort of disturbing one, that included the phrase, “Every killer lives next door to someone”

So, where am I going with this?  First, when a writer wants to write about high school, he/she has to decide first which high school.  FMHS is like the proverbial elephant being described by a bunch of blind men.  Who your character is determines the high school in the story.  For some individuals, high school is scary.  For others it is fun.  For many, they don’t have much of an opinion about it one way or another.

Here’s something to think about: the very best high schools in America have some kids who are deeply disturbed, lost to drugs, victims (or dealers) of violence, potential psychopaths or profoundly unhappy.  The very worst high schools in America have some kids who are academically excellent, love their classes, are kind to their friends, have good relationships with their parents, and are moving forward into fulfilling and happy lives.

I guess what I’m arguing against here is simplification and stereotypes.  High school students are not simplified versions of adults.  They are not driven by only a single motivation (any more than some adults are driven by a single motivation).  They are complicated, contradictory, fully faceted human beings, capable of cruelty, tenderness, cowardice, bravery and every other emotion you can think of.  They can be clear visioned or confused (sometimes several times in the same day, just like you or me).  Their hurts and their passions are as deep and profound to them as they are to people in their thirties.

If you want to be honest in your portrayal of them, keep in mind that every individual is . . . well . . . individual.

Sunday Writing: Practice and Theory of First Sentences

beginningIn 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:

The Write Club: First Sentences
100 Best First Lines from Novels

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?

Sunday Writing: Making the Abstract Concrete

tell tale heartMost 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.

Friendship
Grief
Freedom
Fear
Democracy
Slavery
Hope
Love
Death
Humor
Compassion
Pity
Revenge
Capitalism
Joy
Triumph
Failure
Compromise

Sunday Writing: Improving Your Writing When You are Stuck

The_Stand_UncutMost of us have times when we don’t know what to write next.  It could be in the middle of a project or in between them, but no matter what we do, we’re stalled.  So what can we do to work on our writing when we can’t write?  Reading, of course, is one answer, and you certainly should be doing that, but here’s a more active exercise: try copying some of the writing you admire.

Here’s how to do the exercise: find a passage someone else wrote that you think is really well done.  Now, copy it.  Don’t make a single change.  Be very aware that you get the comma, periods and paragraph breaks right.  What you are doing is trying to internalize a successful writing rhythm.

How this works is that you will start to get a feel for how the writer you like goes about being who they are.  Here’s a bit from The Stand by Stephen King:

Stu, who only understood that they were all in a hell of a pinch, turned Hap’s voice down to a meaningless drone and watched the Chevy pitch and yaw its way on up the road. The way it was going Stu didn’t think it was going to make it much further.  It crossed the white line and its left hand tires spumed up dust from the left shoulder.  Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch.  Then, as if the driver had picked out the big lighted Texaco station sign as a beacon, it arrowed toward the tarmac like a projectile whose velocity is very nearly spent.

If I was going to use King’s The Stand for my copying exercise, I would keep copying for another thousand words or so, but even typing this little section, I notice that he didn’t put a comma after “The way it was going” that I would have put in, and that he used “going” twice in that sentence, so maybe my obsession with removing repeated words isn’t quite as critical as I think.  I like his verbs too: crossed, spumed, lurched, pitched, arrowed.

If I copy a passage from another author, like Ray Bradbury, I get a totally different feel:

There were fireworks the very 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.  Everything was good and sweet, the air was that blend of the dead and the living, of the rains and the dusts, of the incense from the church, and the brass smell of the tuba on the bandstand which pulsed out vast rhythms of ‘La Paloma.

Ray_Bradbury_-_I_Sing_the_Body_Electric_-_book_coverBradbury likes the long sentence here, and I notice his tendency to pair and to list, so the air is “ancient soft,” the fragments were “blue and white,” everything was “good and sweet,” while the air also blended the “dead and the living,” and “rains and the dusts.”  His second sentence (did you notice he did this in only two sentences, while King’s passage that was only a tad longer took five sentences?) is mostly a list of connected noun phrases.

Bradbury’s rhythm is different from King, and copying him teaches me different lessons.

Some writer’s rhythms stay in my head longer than others.  H.P. Lovecraft, for example, is hard to shake, as is Bradbury, and the point of the exercise isn’t to make my writing become their writing, but by doing this I can feel what they were up to for a few minutes so that I can incorporate what I like best from them into my own toolbox.  How I blend my influences becomes my voice, but I don’t think I can go too far wrong if I find myself channeling, just a little bit, the echoes of Bradbury, Le Guin, Bronte, King, Steinbeck, Hemingway or Poe.

Try it.  Copy somewhere between 200 to 1,000 words.  Tell me what you notice.

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: Art and Competitiveness

fountain-pen-442066_960_720

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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