Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Category: Short Stories Page 1 of 2

Training Critique Partners


I belonged to writing groups for many years when I started writing for real. Luckily, the groups contained a few skilled writers who were sensitive, insightful readers, who also wanted my work to succeed (they also contained folks who occasionally were helpful, and one or two who I learned weren’t useful in the least).


But I haven’t been in a group for years. I depend on willing friends who don’t have writing or workshop backgrounds. They want to help, but they might not know where to start or what I need to hear. I can get useful reactions to the story if I suggest these responses:


First, did the story work for you? I want to know if the reader liked the story. What did you like? This is a broad, global type of question. If the story doesn’t work for the reader for whatever reason, that will give me pause as a writer. It could mean I chose the wrong reader for the piece. I need more feedback.


Second, did the story provoke anything for you? Did it leave you thoughtful or change your mood? Did you feel moved by it and what did that?


Third, what did you like most? What caught your eye? Were there specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tickled you?


Fourth, did you not understand anything or feel confused by it. Where were those specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tripped you up?
Next, did the story drag in places?


Was there any place in the story that felt rushed or you really wanted to know more about?


What did you think about the characters?


Any other thoughts? This might be the place where an analytic reader might say what they thought the story was about, or what they thought they were supposed to get out of it. You never know what might come out of this question, but I listen carefully to those random observations.


Oh, and by the way, did you run across obvious typos or miswordings? I don’t expect my first readers to proofread for me, but if they see something, I appreciate hearing about it.


You might notice that I don’t ask my reader for suggestions on how to improve the story. I don’t know who it was that said, “Anything a reader notices is a flaw probably is right. Anyway, a reader suggests how to change it is probably wrong,” but in general that strikes me as true. A reader might see a problem with a paragraph, and then suggest a way to improve it, but you realize the fault actually was in how the paragraph was set up. You have to rewrite something pages earlier to make the “flawed” section work. Also, I’ve had readers go to town at length about something in a story and then go through gyrations to suggest how to fix it. All I did was delete it. Problem solved.


The point of all this is that a reader who just says, “I thought it was cool. Thanks for sharing,” might be affirming, but they’re not helpful. When I share a draft, I’m hoping for meaningful feedback that will give me an outsider perspective on the story. The longer I can get them to talk about the story, and the more different ways they approach the story, the better.


Here’s an example. My wife is not a writer, but she’s a reader and she’s been living with a writer for a long time. She read my latest piece and asked a basic question: Why did I have two policemen in the opening scene who I identified as the “man officer” and the “woman officer.” Later in the scene, I shortened it to “the man” and “the woman.” My wife said she stumbled when she read that. Why didn’t they have names?


I did the tiniest rewrite of the scene, giving them names, and it was way better.

A New Horror Story Anthology!

A cool thing about writing is that I get to check off boxes for the stories I’ve always wanted to write (and I can write variations too–checking off the box doesn’t mean I’m done!).


My story in Alternative Deathiness is a haunted house story, but it’s also about the impulse to scare, the trail of trauma an effective horror writer leaves behind, and how the wheel goes round and round.

Alternative Deathiness: Publication Announcement

I have a story in this one entitled “The Thing Underneath.” The first editor to read it said, “It’s slam-dunk Stoker material.”

The publisher says, As the cover to Alternative Deathiness suggests, life is but a dance with death. A topic all of us are familiar with and too often want to avoid. This is not a volume to avoid. Alternative Deathiness is a fantastic selection of short stories and poetry that includes veteran writers such as best selling author Alicia Hilton, James Van Pelt, Larry Hodges and more, as well as up and coming voices such as Jim Wright and K.G. Anderson.

Paperback ($13.13 USD)

Colorado Public Radio Interviews James Van Pelt about Covid-19

Actually, what they wanted was a science fiction writer’s angle on possible impacts of the pandemic, and since I’d written a pandemic novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, they chose me. I suggested that a short story of mine, “Friday, After the Game,” was a better fit for the topic, so we talked about that instead.

Here is the interview.

Curious Fictions and Keeping the Word Alive

I see I haven’t posted here for a while. Most of my online time is spent at my Facebook page, which is facing a reality: many people use FaceBook and few visit author’s pages, but, still, I like a dedicated website.

I started my online presence at LiveJournal. I still have an account there, although it’s fairly dusty by now. I haven’t done much with other online media. I have a Linkedin account, but I don’t know why, and I post the occasional video at Youtube. Mostly, as I said, I visit Facebook. Lately, I’ve added Curious Fictions to my activity.

I like the idea of Curious Fictions. It’s a place where authors can reprint their backlist of previously published short stories. Readers can read many of the works in their entirety for free. They they can “like” the stories, comment on the stories, follow authors they enjoy, subscribe to an author (pay them monthly, sort of like Patreon), or leave a tip.

This way, authors can keep their words available and, possibly, generate a little more income from them.

I am posting a story a week there. Since I have over 150 stories to choose from, I have almost three years worth of content. Someone asked me if I was worried that publishing the work online might detract from my short story collection book sales. I’m not. Curious Fictions, if anything, may sell a few books. If someone likes my stuff online, they’re much more likely to look for more of it.

That’s why books exist!

At any rate, if you like short fiction, or you would like to see a sampling of my work, visit Curious Fictions. If you do, leave a comment there, or a “like,” or (cough), money.

Experience Arcade Cover Reveal

My new collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES, is now up for preorder at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We can now reveal the entire cover! I still get all squishy inside when I see my name on a book. It makes me feel like I was when I was ten-years old at the library, looking for which science fiction authors my book would appear between when I grew up (it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt).

 

Marketing Short Stories

LATE RAINFOREST REPORT. MARKETING SHORT STORIES: Joe Iriarte posted some insider information in the comment thread about his upcoming Daily Science Fiction story about his progress in selling short stories, which reminded me I wanted to do this post. I appreciate when other writers share this kind of information.

Because we had so little connectivity at the Rainforest last month, I wasn’t able to do a detailed report of the days, including my talk on the 52-Story effort. I talked about the process of writing the stories a year ago at Rainforest, the same week I wrote the last story. This year’s talk was a lot about marketing. For the last two years I’ve been hilt deep in marketing short stories, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I know of the state of the marketplace right now. Here’s what I reported to them:

Remember, everyone’s experience in selling stories is unique, so YMMV on these numbers and conclusions.

First, the background. Two years ago I decided to try Ray Bradbury’s challenge to write a story a week for a year. I’ve seen other people do it, although most of them were writing pretty short pieces. I averaged 3,595 words per story, and 186,937 words total. I submitted the first of the stories a couple weeks after I started the challenge. My process generally was to finish the first draft of the story in a week, and then rethink, rewrite and polish the story over the next week while I was writing that week’s story. At my peak, I had over thirty stories circulating at the same time.

I found markets through Ralan, The Submission Grinder, and notifications or invitations for markets on my FB feed.

As of today, two years and a month after starting the project, here are the numbers for the project:

– 33 of the 52 stories have sold
– 6 stories sold to the first market I sent them to
– 125 submissions for stories that sold to the 2nd or subsequent markets
– 149 submissions of the stories that have not sold
– 280 submissions total
– 1 sale for every 8.48 submissions
– 10 rejections is the most any of the sold stories suffered
– 12 rejections is the most for any of the unsold (so far)
– 26 rejections from one unnamed pro market that rejects quickly–this is a market I’ve never cracked
– 3 other markets I’ve never cracked rejected 29 stories between the three of them
– Several stories sold to markets that were new to me
– 12 of the 33 sold to pro-paying markets
– 2 of the submissions resulted in a request for a rewrite
– 1/5 of the rejections were personal.

CONCLUSIONS:
– I was able to find places to submit all the stories pretty much all the time. If there are that many markets, then the short story marketplace is robust. The Submission Grinder lists 25 markets in science fiction that will pay six cents or more per word. There are many more, beautifully done, semi-pro magazines that I’m proud to submit to who pay less.
– This is an old lesson, but if you are going to write short stories and submit them on spec, you have to be thick-skinned. I have been submitting stories seriously since the 80s. I’ve sold 145 stories, been a finalist for the Nebula, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. I’ve appeared in several Year’s Best collections. I think I’m doing okay, but I’m still rejected at an 8 to 1 ratio. Mike Resnick doesn’t suffer from this ratio, I’ll bet, but there’s only one Mike.
– On a side note, if you want to sell more of what you write and be rejected less often (and as a whole be paid better for it), write non-fiction. Unfortunately, I like what I like. Writing on spec is what I do.
– Submitting is way faster now that almost all markets take electronic submissions, but it still takes time. Knowing the marketplace, Submitting in the correct form, keeping correspondence professional, etc. is a part of the process and it isn’t instantaneous.
– I think if you regularly use Ralan and the Submission Grinder, you should send them donations. I also pay for NPR. If I’m getting value from someone, I owe them that.
– Submitting regularly is how you learn the market. It’s also how you develop relationships with editors. I’d been submitting to George Scithers for several years before he bought something from me. Because I kept submitting, he started sending personal rejects. After a while, we had a healthy pen-pal relationship. I sent 5,000-word long letters in the form of a short story, and he sent back a page with a sentence or two that was personal. Still, I felt a connection. I’m not into writing science fiction just to sell the things. I like that I meet other people, some of them whose contributions to the field are awesome. Communicating with the people who have provided so much reading enjoyment to me and others is fulfilling all by itself.

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: 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

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