Thursday, January 28, 2010

Slushpile Antics

It Came From the Slushpile by Carol Pinchesfsky at Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Fortunately, I don't have to deal with this type of stunt.

E-submissions are awesome in that respect.

But I do read a lot of slush that's oddly formatted.

Please don't. Just don't. It doesn't work. It doesn't make we want to read your story. Quite the opposite.

So, don't.

Managing Story Length

Next month I will be teaching a workshop on writing flash fiction. I edit flash fiction, I write flash fiction, I love flash fiction. But it's a fact that flash fiction is one of the hardest fiction forms to write.


One word: Economy.

And discipline.

And a keen understanding of characterization, setting and scene, conflict...

That's more than one word. Actually, that's a lot of words.

But they apply to more than just flash fiction.

The length of any story can be very accurately predicted based upon these elements. Let me explain.

Economy: An economical writer (IMO the most enjoyable type of writer to read) doesn't waste words, doesn't repeat what's already been said, chooses the 'less is more' path to revealing information to the reader.

As a very simplistic example, one of the most familiar sentences in the English language is, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." In its context, this sentence has purpose, and every word is necessary, because the purpose of this sentence is to use every letter in the English alphabet at least once. But in terms of story, this sentence is far too long, with 1/3 its words completely unneccessary. We can get the gist of the sentence perfectly well with "The fox jumps over the dog." If we want to add to characterization we might say "The fox jumps over the lazy dog."

But the point is, a writer who is capable of managing his use of the words within the language can come to an accurate self-measure of story length before he's written the first word.

And he does this by carefully disciplined management of characters/characterization, scene and setting, and conflict.

It's almost a mathematical formula:


That's a purely arbitrary formula. If I ever figure out an exact one I'll let you know, but don't hold your breath. I'm no mathematician.

But let's put it into the context of story construction:

Number and Complexity of Characters: Characters are 'people' (even if they're not human) who by their very existence deserve acknowledgment. Think of them in terms of yourself. You want people to know your name, and you want people to know some information about you--especially information that is relevant to current circumstances. For example, you won't talk about your childhood memories at a job interview. You WILL talk about High School memories at a High School reunion.

So, when you introduce a character, you want your reader to know her name and to know something about her that is relevant to the story. For example, the first sentence of Stefanie Freele's delightful "James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe" (Flash Fiction Online January, 2008) reads:

Stu is driving to South Lake Tahoe to take his post-partum-strained woman to the snow, to take his nine-week-old infant through a storm, to take his neglected dog on a five hour car ride, and to take himself into his woman’s good graces.

In one sentence we know everything we need to know about Stu in order to let the story progress. We know he's married, he has a child, he is experiencing some strong emotions concerning both of them, we know he's contemporary with us. (We also know the source of conflict, and the setting, but we'll discuss that later.) All in one sentence and using a stark economy of carefully and brilliantly chosen words--a few words to express worlds of meaning.

So one point to make in discussing characterization and story length is the complexity of the character.

A simple character is one who needs little description. (I had a clear and vivid image in my mind of what Stu might look like after only one sentence.) A simple characters is one whose conflict can be resolved within the context of a very small arena of his life. (I don't need to know Stu's entire life history to make the story work. All I need to know is that he's dealing with a post-partum wife the best he knows how. That's enough to endear the reader to him.)

A complex character may have his entire life story told within the framework of the story. A complex character has traits--either physical or emotional or concerning his character, or a combination of these--that are integral to the conflict and the resolution thereof. A complex character will make profound discoveries and changes during the course of the story.

A simple character needs very few words to 'flesh out,' to make REAL to your readers; but a complex character will require numerous paragraphs, chapters even, to become a whole person to the reader.

Obviously, a simple character isn't going to fill a novel; a complex character isn't going to fit in a flash fiction story.

The second aspect of character that affects story length is simply number. The number of characters. Every named, acting character takes space in a story. Each one deserves the same amount of attention any other character deserves. If you want your reader to feel deeply for a character (love or hate or somewhere in between) that character needs time (translation: words) in your story.

A novel can support a broad range of named, acting characters, and can support shifts in POV between several characters. At the other end of the spectrum, a flash fiction story can only support 1 to 3 named, acting characters and generally only 1 POV character. In the context of the novel, a single scene can't very successfully support more than a few characters, and generally a POV shift signals the end of a scene. I guess that's a plug for the study of flash fiction. ;-)

Setting and Scene: Setting is where a story takes place; a scene is an interval of time in which a specific action takes place within a particular setting. Both have an impact on story length.

It comes down again to complexity and number, just as with characterization--managing the complexity of the setting and the number of settings and scenes within those settings.

As an example, from "Just Before Recess" by James Van Pelt (Flash Fiction Online March, 2008):

Parker kept a sun in his desk. He fed it gravel and twigs, and once his gum when it lost its flavor. The warm varnished desktop felt good against his forearms, and the desk’s toasty metal bottom kept the chill off his legs.
Today Mr. Earl was grading papers at the front of the class, every once in a while glancing up at the 3rd graders to make sure none of them were talking or passing notes or looking out the window.

Four sentences this time. The setting is a third grade classroom. You can see it in your head. I know you can. It's an image burned into the collective Western brain, even if you've never stepped inside the doors of a school. We've seen this place in countless films and television shows. It takes very little physical description to put the reader into the middle of this story. We don't need to see the maps on the walls or the pull-down blinds or the industrial berber carpet or the shelves of books and cubbies to know they're there. That's a simple setting, because it's a familiar one.

The less familiar a setting is to the collective human experience, the more description it requires.

You can do the math yourself by now.

The more complex a setting, the more description it will require. So, complex settings are not suitable for flash fiction. But are complex settings required for novels?

No. Because a novel has scenes to work with.

A story is a series of 'this happeneds.' It also just so happens that the 'this happened's occur in 'this places.' James Van Pelt's story is something that happens in one place. One setting. And with one 'this happened.' One scene. Very Short Story.

A novel can occur in any number of settings, with any number of scenes in which 'this happeneds' take place. A novel may have one setting, but numerous scenes, or numerous settings AND scenes. I don't know of the existence of a novel that relies on one scene. Correct me if I'm wrong. Is there such a thing out there? I hope not. Who would want to read it? I swoon at the thought. At any rate, management of the complexity of settings and the NUMBER of settings and scenes will steer the length of the story as well.

Which leads right into...

Conflict: Your setting creates a stage on which the action takes place. Your scenes are frameworks in which that action occurs. Your conflict happens within your setting and is resolved within a series of scenes.

What is conflict? In a nutshell, conflict is the impetus for action. It is the thing that causes your main character to want to do something to change what's wrong with his world (resolution).

As an example, from Patrick Lundrigan's "How High the Moon" (Flash Fiction Online, September, 2009):

“You’re a robot, you know. I made you.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Nomie said. She put the tea tray down and settled into the lawn chair. “But I don’t think I’m a robot.”
“Programming,” Manny said, “I programmed you not to know.” He blew on his tea and sipped. Just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon.
“Dear, I have news for you. You’re the robot. I made you.”

In a few short lines we are exposed to the conflict of the story--a couple's argument about exactly who is the robot in the family. It's a simple and subtle and sweet conflict--at least you'll discover it to be so when you read the story.

Will it take much to resolve the conflict?

It could, I suppose. But the simplicity of the setting and the characters combine with this simple conflict to hint to the reader that the resolution will be a fairly simple one as well.

None of these require a great number of words to accomplish. This is a nicely done story within the framework of 1000 words or less.

So how do we make the conflict more complex in order to flesh it out to novel length? The answer is secondary conflicts. Let's say the conflict over who is actually the robot evolves, in the context of the argument, into a discussion of the factory where she/he was made, or the man who invented them? Perhaps the truth of the matter is paramount to a matter of national security? As conflicts breed other conflicts, the space required to a) explain them and b) resolve them all increases exponentially.

A disciplined writer of short fiction will carefully rein in the tendency of the creative mind to include additional problems that will lengthen the story. In "How High the Moon," Mr. Lundrigan shows remarkable restraint in avoiding any secondary conflicts and focusing the conflict on the relationship between this man and his wife to make a lovely story that is less about robots than it is about love and loyalty.

On the converse, a novelist can let the imagination run wild, restraining himself only with the knowledge that every conflict he introduces MUST be resolved. Even novelists must exercise a certain amount of restraint, otherwise he'll be writing the novel that never ends.

In conclusion, it's a combination of the above that determine story length. The longer the story the less one must exercise discipline.

That's the beauty of practicing the craft of very short fiction, however. All writers could benefit from the exercise of discipline, no matter what length fiction they write.

Flash Fiction. Try it. You may not like it, but you just might learn something from it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Taking Criticism Like a Grown-up

On occasion, some snarked-off writer has a snit over some bit of criticism or feedback they've received--from me or someone else, it doesn't matter.

That ticks me off.

Generally it means the writer has a far too lofty view of herself.

Sometimes--it's true--snarkiness is called for. But a mature writer will never throw a snit over it and will never give feedback on feedback.

The MATURE writer reads the feedback, agrees with it or not, and keeps her mouth shut except to say "Thank you."

'Thank you' for using your valuable time reading my story.

'Thank you' for taking time away from your family or your own writing to send me your reaction to it.

'Thank you' for burning your retinas staring at a computer screen all freaking day long for my sake.

'Thank you,' despite the fact that I'm so self-important that I can't BELIEVE anyone wouldn't LOVE my story.

'Thank you' for showing me where my story may have weaknesses in reader understanding or characterization.

'Thank you' for even giving feedback on rejected stories, which is SUCH a rarity in the industry these days.

Thank you to writers like this who are one reason so few markets give feedback anymore.

Grow up.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thoughts From the Slushpile: Withholding vs. Unfolding

...or Are You Writing a Christmas Present or a Game of Pinochle?

Hopefully you're NOT writing a Christmas present.

'Huh?' you say. 'But I like opening Christmas presents.'

Who doesn't?

But a Christmas present withholds information until the moment you open it to find out what it is. Writers should NEVER withhold information that is important to the development of the story. An artfully constructed story is not JUST about the present. But once you've opened a present all the carefully folded wrapping paper, the artfully tied bows, the layers of bubble wrap are all tossed in the trash, forgotten for the sake of the gift itself.

A writer doesn't want to have those things forgotten. He wants them to be just as memorable and important as the resulting present.

An example: I recently slushed a story in which the author withheld all the important information about the storyline and the main character until, literally, the last 2 paragraphs. I'm sure he intended it to be clever and surprising. Instead it was disappointing and misleading, and when you mislead your readers you betray their confidence in you, the writer. Sure, the ending was memorable, but the story showed itself to be just a bunch of cheap paper and curl ribbon.

So really, a well-constructed story should not be like a Christmas present, regardless of how wonderful presents are.

A well-constructed story SHOULD be like a game of Pinochle.

I've been playing Pinochle for coming up on thirty years. It's an intricate game of luck and strategy.

The game of Pinochle begins with the entire 48 card deck being dealt to the four players. At the beginning of each hand I hold 1/4th of the available cards. That's a considerable amount of information to begin a game with. From those 12 cards, a seasoned player can tell a great deal about how the game may play out. As the hand continues, I receive more bits of information gleaned from the bids of the other players, the suit called as trump, the exchange of cards, the melding of certain cards for points, all followed by the meticulous playing of tricks that ends the hand.

The game is never boring, often surprising, but instead of having information withheld from me, the information UNFOLDS at the precise moment when it is crucial to the game.

For example, if I take the bid and am able to construct myself a sizeable number of points, I still must remove the power cards from the hands of my opponents and win tricks in order to keep those points. While I know which cards I'm missing, I don't know for certain who has them. In some instances the very outcome of the game depends on the distribution of those cards, and the resulting play, whether for good or bad, is always a surprise and a delight, even though I've made good, educated guesses at the potential outcomes beforehand.

The interesting part of the game is not in KNOWING how the game will play out, nor is it in being COMPLETELY CLUELESS as to how the game will play out, it's in being fascinated with how the game--despite or because of my clues, information, and guesses--ACTUALLY plays out. The same is true of good story construction.

Unfolding. A story, like a game of Pinochle, should unfold.

In order for that to happen, a writer must be open about a few things, and open about them in the first few lines (paragraphs for longer stories or novels) of the story.

Some absolute basics:
*Too many writers withhold the very name of their main character. Why? I scratch my head over this one. When you give your character a name, especially in the first line of your story, you give your read a familiar arm on which to enter the party. It seems overly simplistic--like looking at the serpent on the staff. Unlike the disbelieving Israelites, JUST DO IT.

*Establish time frame and setting immediately. Don't take your guest into the party blindfolded.

*Establish a conflict early. Giving your main character a problem provides the reader with a 'talking point' at the party. He immediately becomes concerned with the main character and wants to see the problem solved (translate: he CARES).

*Open the story with action, rather than inaction. Don't take your guest into the party before it begins, or after all the exciting events have already taken place. Things HAPPEN at a party, your story should be about things happening, not about things that will eventually happen or have already happened.

These principles are like the deal at the beginning of a Pinochle game. You have your hand. Now let the story unfold.

Another important principle related to UNFOLDING a story has to do with Point of View. If you do not have a clear grasp on the mechanics and importance of Point of View to a story, you need to stop now, buy a copy of Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint, and read it cover to cover three times.

Too many beginning writers fail to understand that your reader sees what's happening through your POV character's eyes, therefore, what the POV character knows, the reader should know. What the POV character discovers should be discovered by the reader at the exact same moment.

Lets say our POV character, Paul, walks into a room and sees a beautiful woman. Through his eyes, the reader is given a description of this woman--the kind of description that a man would give if he saw a stunningly beautiful woman and wished he had the courage to ask her for a date. He takes a deep breath, walks across the room, and says, "Hi, honey," she turns and kisses him and says to the people around her, "This is my husband, Paul." In this example a crucial piece of information that the POV character KNOWS is withheld--that the woman is his wife.

It's confusing, it's demeaning to your reader, it's withholding, and I see it far too often.

That scene should look like this:

Paul shook the rain from his hair as he entered the gallery. He saw Grace near the Gaugin, talking with a group of people he didn't know. She seemed to know them all, laughing with them like they were old friends, one of the men--an Armani-suited blonde jock-type--stood close enough anyone might have guessed HE was her husband.

A waiter came by with a tray of champagne flutes. Paul took one, sipped at it, stood there watching her. He liked watching her, to see her smile, to see her laugh, to know she would leave the gallery with him tonight, not the jock with the expensive suit.

Finally, like he knew she would, she turned to look for him, her neck craning, her lips parting, her head twisting this way and that, causing her hair to sway just so. When her eyes found his he smiled and waved, then worked his way through the crowd to put his arm around her, kiss her lightly on the cheek, and see her eyes light up when he whispered "I put your purse in the trunk" in her ear as if it were something sensual.

Grace turned to the jock. "Eddy, this is my husband, Paul."

Paul shook the man's hand.

"Paul," she went on, "my cousin, Eddy."

Before you tell me that last line is withholding, let me tell you you're wrong. Grace isn't the POV character. Paul is. Paul doesn't know Eddy, never met him. He knows (or guesses) only that Grace knows him, therefore that's what the reader knows. If this scene had been written in Grace or Eddy's POV, and that information had been withheld until that last sentence, then it definitely WOULD be withholding.

The following article [link below] addresses story development through conflict, and while it's geared towards literary fiction writers, it's precepts are applicable to all fiction writers. Pay special attention to section 2: Be Dramatic in Storytelling.

Conflict in Literary Fiction

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thoughts From the Slushpile: To Plot or Not to Plot?

Plot is not an essential ingredient in literature, but it is crucial to storytelling.

Envision plot this way:

You are a god. You have a planet (your setting) and on that planet you place a person (your protagonist) and then you merrily throw a problem at that person (your conflict) and then sit back and see exactly how that person deals with the problem (story arc). The person may fail or succeed, but in some way the person is a changed person by the end (resolution).

But what about the plotless story? Although the terminology of literature is anything but concrete, probably the most common definition of the plotless story, or vignette, is this:

"A vignette is a snapshot in words. It's different from flash fiction because you're not aiming to tell a story. The vignette focuses on one aspect, mood, character, setting or object. Use it as a descriptive exercise, for character exploration, wordplay or just to get something off your mind." -from

Or this:

"[a] sketch or essay or brief narrative characterized by great precision and delicate accuracy of composition. The term is borrowed from that used for unbordered but delicate decorative designs for a book, and it implies writing with comparable grace and economy." --A Handbook to Literature. 3rd. ed. C. Hugh Holman

This form of writing is a valid form, and is one of the more popular forms within the 'literary' genre, which is a style concerned with the manipulation of the language above all other concerns. Anyone who loves the qualities of language, the blend of sounds and meanings, will enjoy well-written vignette pieces. They may be fiction or non. They may be long or short, though I've never actually read a whole novel that ended without some kind of resolution. Vignette can perhaps be most accurately described as poetic prose.

Vignette is useful as a writing tool, to practice characterization, or setting, or narrative voice, or style. A journal entry is often a vignette--"This is what I did today..."--without any particular care for solving a problem or even completely finishing a thought.

Vignette may be a popular literary form, but if we're talking about popular fiction, the plot is king.

I found Bedford/St Martin's Interactive Fiction Tutorial useful in defining plot: "Plot refers to the series of events that give a story its meaning and effect. In most stories, these events arise out of conflict experienced by the main character."

So, plot isn't the story itself. It's the fire that fuels the progress of the story. The story is the action. Plot is what spurs the action. This event occurs (plot) and as a result, this happens (story). Imagine it as a string of beads. The beads are the plot points and the string between the beads is the story connecting those points. They work together to make a single cohesive string. The string without the shiny interesting beads would be dull. The beads without the strong string would never hold together. Like a string of beads, a plotted story has a beginning, in which conflict spurs the protagonist to act, a middle in which he seeks answers and a solution, and an end in which he finds some kind of solution.

Many writers outline stories following a plot diagram or list. This happens, then this happens, then that happens. But it's when a writer fills in the details between the events that a story is born, that characters come to life, that the events are put into context and are made meaningful to the reader.

Walk into any Barnes and Noble and you'll see shelf after shelf of popular fiction. Mysteries, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, romance, mainstream fiction. They all have something in common. They all have plots. You'll find those plots boiled down in a few paragraphs on the jacket/cover blurb. They all have some god behind them (whose name usually appears on the front cover) who throws problems at their people to see what happens. And at some point before the end of the book, usually very close to the end of the book, the people solve their problems in some way.

I've heard it said, and believe it to be true, that a well-constructed plot should be simple enough to summarize in less than 25 words. In fact, I've heard it said that summarizing your plot in less than 25 words (and by that I mean complete sentences) is an excellent way of boiling plot down to its core, and that those 25 words are what an agent will allow you to sell your story in a query letter. I've tried it. It's a valuable exercise.

Try it. Identify the protagonist's problem, how the problem causes the protagonist to react, and how the protagonist solves the problem. If you're unable to identify these three elements, your story may not have a plot. That's fine. Just realize that most fiction that sells well has plot.

So, why do we love plotted stories?

I'm not going to psychoanalyze. I'm just going to tell you what I feel in my gut.

Life is, and always has been, a series of uncertainties. In this day, some of us don't even know where the next paycheck is going to come from. We don't know what tomorrow will be like, we don't know where we'll be in 10 years, we don't know how our life will end, we don't know what's beyond this life.

Plotted stories give certainty.

Plotted stories end.

Plotted stories show someone--hopefully someone we can relate to on some level--facing and resolving a problem.

In plotted stories we see characters deal with problems and win.

But sometimes our characters don't win. That's a valid solution. Because sometimes WE don't win. But when the character doesn't win, he changes in some meaningful way. He grows, he gains enlightenment. If more of us lived our lives seeking meaning and growth and enlightenment from our experiences, our world would be a better place filled with better people. But that's just my opinion.

From stories we learn how to live. We learn how to lose, we learn how to love, how to gain knowledge. Through stories we share this knowledge, we teach.

Stories are memorable, meaningful, far more than merely entertaining. Or they should be.

While these values can be conveyed to some extent through non-plotted stories, a plotted story gives us something additional that all humans crave. We hear it discussed on Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil, it comes to the surface when we face grief or stress.

Closure. Resolution. We want things resolved, finished, wrapped up neatly. Otherwise we feel unfinished or left behind.

A well-written vignette can capitalize on those emotions, using them to create dischord through incompleteness. That's fine, if you like that sort of thing.

But most of us like things finished. That's why we love plotted stories.

So, should you plot or not?

I don't care.

It's another decision for you, the writer, to make, knowing that every decision you make will have an impact on your readers, for good or bad. It's impossible to make every reader happy. Don't try. Write to make yourself happy. Somewhere out there is someone who will love your story--plotted or not--and hopefully, someone who will buy it.

But if you want any hope of making Dan Brown or Stephen King kind of money, you'd better learn to plot.

For a short article on plotting:

Top Ten Plotting Problems by Alicia Rasley

For one of my favorite plotted stories:

"Into the Cellar" by Ajani Burrell

A beautiful but completely plotless, language-centered Vignette:

"Meaning of Life #31" by Sean Lovelace

And a Vignette with some elements of plot but little or no actual resolution and not much overt story, but still very well-written:

"Home Economics" by Gail Louise Siegel

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Story for Haiti: I Speak the Master's Will

This story originally appeared in the opening issue of Flash Fiction Online--December 2007.

I'm in Hell. That must be what this is. I can't fathom a god who could possibly interpret this as heaven, crammed in this damned steamer trunk; me and twenty three other Wayang Kulit shadow puppets, entombed with the smell of ox hide and musty bamboo.

I dream of a life before this one. A life in which I spoke a language other than the one the Master speaks for me. A life in which I could move my own vulgar arms, speak my own profane will, make my own damning decisions. I've been here so long I can't remember what I did to deserve damnation, but a shadow of that life tells me I do.

I can remember the freedom to speak and move and live. It's embedded in my memory as if to torment me.

We're traveling today, the trunk jouncing around in the back of an ancient flat-bed pickup, following a circuitous route from backwater village to backwater village. When we stop, the Master sets things up. He takes Kali out first and talks to her like a lover, caressing the hair that's glued to her head, fixing her dress, touching her all over.

"I think we'll perform Rama and Sinta tonight," he might say to her. "You will be the lovely Sinta, of course. I'll dress you in green and gold and red. Put bells in your hair." He kisses her painted face.

Does he know what we are? Does he know of the fallen souls that inhabit his puppets?
Sometimes I think he does.

The rest of us stay where we are, stacked one atop the other, cushioned with dozens of colorful silk costumes--costumes that the audience will see only in silhouette, simple shadows of what we really are. We listen and wait for Master to set up his screen and position his lanterns. Only then does he take us out, but only those he needs. Sometimes five, sometimes twelve. Sometimes I wait weeks between the nights he chooses me, but every time he opens the trunks I hope for a glimpse of sky or stars. Otherwise I pass the hours and days praying. It's fruitless, I know. I've long since spent every opportunity I had to redeem myself. But what else is there to do? Fret over the dark or the damp? Seethe over Bung Ok's elbow jammed against my nose?

Bung can't help it of course. Poor bastard. He's no more capable of independent movement than I. Only at the Master's bidding do we waggle our arms about and shiver and shake and make horrible war with one another behind the old water-stained silk screen, our shadows telling one of a hundred tales that the Master carries in his memory, all to the delight of villagers who might throw the Master a coin or two or feed him a supper of rice and vegetables.

The villagers see the same stories, endlessly repeated. I know them all by heart. I could shriek out my own lines if I but had a mouth to utter them.

But the Master speaks for me. For us all.

"Rama--my lover and lord--will come for me, oh, Rahwana the Evil One!" he says for Kali.

And I, dressed in spikes of bamboo that shoot out from my head like a devil's halo, play Rahwana. Master laughs and holds me high and shakes my puppet body with terrible joy. "Rama! Bah!" the Master says for me. "Rama will die with my dagger in his heart, Little Sinta. And you will be my bride!"

Kali trembles and shrinks low on the screen while I tower over her, until Bung Ok comes dressed as Rama, the majestic prince of Thai fables. Rama shakes his sword, he commands me to be gone. But I will not. Rather Rahwanna will not. Rather the Master will not. So Rama beats me with his sword. He hits me again and again, so hard sometimes that my bamboo frame shudders and aches.

One day he'll break me. It has happened before. Then my pieces will be tossed into a box, there to wait until Master can fix me, until my ox hide flesh can be rejoined with my bamboo bones, and then I will speak again because my Master makes it so.
The truck is stopping.

Perhaps tonight we will perform Rama and Sinta, and I will be Rahwanna. Perhaps tonight I will see the stars.

Friday, January 15, 2010

75 Books Every Writer Should Read

Bill Highsmith, official blogger at Flash Fiction Online, posted this link on Facebook. It is, in my opinion, an excellent list:

75 Books Every Writer Should Read

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thoughts From the Slushpile: Vernacular

Using vernacular is a useful and powerful tool adding to characterization, setting, mood, narrative style and voice.

But how much is too much?

Not much.

Vernacular can be effectively expressed with very little change from formal speech patterns.

How do you know if your vernacular is too heavy?

If your reader has to work too hard to understand what's being said, you're obviously using too much. If most of your vernacular comes from a plethora of apostrophes, you're definitely using too much. If, in reading your story aloud, you begin channeling Jeff Foxworthy, you're probably using too much.

An example:

Simple sentence in a formal speech pattern:

"A man content to go to heaven alone will never go to heaven."

With vernacular (American Southern, for this example):

"If you're happy to go to your glory without your darlin' you ain't going to get there any time soon."

That's just fine. I've changed it to a vernacular by carefully choosing the words I use, the order in which I place them, with a very few obviously vernacularized words--like ain't and darlin'. It could probably do with just a little bit more, but only when used as dialogue. Not generally as narrative. If you have a story that requires heavy vernacular, you'll want it to be in dialogue, and either VERY toned down or nonexistent in the narrative. There should be a distinct difference between the narrative and the dialogue. Narrative should always be somewhat more formal that dialogue, which should be less formal in order to make it sound natural. Vernacular--at any level--can be hard to read for more than a few pages. So a bit more:

"If you wanna go to yer glory alone, glory ain't gonna want you."

That's not TOO over the top, but a lot of editors will be annoyed by it, just because a lot of editors get annoyed by vernacular. Be aware of that. Every choice you make in your story will change its possibilities in the world of publishing, because editors, like everyone else, have biases.

Now to really hit it with the kind of vernacular that's going to result in a big fat rejection, guaranteed:

"If'n yer thinkin' on goin' te yer glow-ry all solitaree-like, ye ain't gwyna be nun too pleezed wit' whar ye ind up."

Ugh. And yes, I've read stories like that. Ugh.

The purpose of vernacular is NOT to accurately portray an accent. Your readers' imaginations will fill in the accent if you give them a very few spare clues as to what that accent should be.

The key to getting a vernacular right is to know it. Listen to it. Go to youtube and listen to Russian speech patterns, German speech patterns, Scottish speech patterns, African speech patterns, Asian speech patterns, Australian speech patterns, etc. Don't try to emulate them EXACTLY in your writing, but give just enough that the reader can imagine it.

After all, that's the most important job your writing has to do--to engage your reader's imagination.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Slushpile Avalanche

…or Slushalanche, as I fondly call it.

What is it?

It’s a pile of slush so high I don’t think I’ll ever dig my way out. But I do. I do because I'm obsessed with finding the next great story. THE one. Never mind that I have to read a lot of stories that just aren’t ready for publication.

So, what should you expect from me?

You should expect me to be frank. I don’t have the time or the inclination to pussy-foot around any PC, make you feel good advice. I’m going to tell you how it is. I’m going to tell exactly why I don’t accept certain stories, what works, what doesn’t, what I don’t ever want to see again, what I don’t see often enough.

And hopefully, in the process, you’ll find your own story at the top of the slush pile with a big capital letter A written in red ink, maybe with a few exclamation points after it, because, after all, it will be THE one.