Avoid These Story Mistakes: As I judge A Short Story Contest

PAPERI’ve been helping evaluate short story submissions for a contest, and I’m on the hook to give meaningful feedback to young writers. It’s been fun! I’d like to share some common mistakes I’ve seen cropping up in aspiring writers’ prose in this post.

Don’t crowd a story with too many concepts 

When writing, the ideas flow: have fun! See where it goes! But then, edit. Focus on one idea and flesh out it’s implications in a meaningful way. If you start the story about a robot, follow through with it. I’ve seen several stories that start with once concept, and then they split off into completely different concepts that don’t make sense. For instance, a robot story becomes a story about a pirate who steals it, which then becomes about a ghost watching over them, and ends with a serial killer. Don’t create new elements to get yourself out of problems. Readers will know you’re fudging. In a short story you have time for one idea. State the idea in the opening, and then complete the arc.

Give readers command of the world and the characters right away

If you’re writing an alternate history, a fantasy in your own made-up world, or about the near future, the reader needs to know right away. Readers will get frustrated if there are no clues about the setting. I’ve seen several stories that didn’t establish a sense of place until they were halfway through the tale. That’s sloppy, and gives the impression you were making it up as you went. That’s fine for a first draft, but your readers want the polished end product. This will make them trust you.

There’s no narrative arc

All stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Spaceships aren’t interesting unless we’re made to care, and the engine of making a reader care is conflict. You might have a great idea, but nobody will care about it if you don’t get your protagonist in trouble because of it. Here’s a basic breakdown of an arc’s structure:

a.) Beginning: conflict

b.) Middle: fallout

c.) End: resolution/catharsis.

These are the basics. Don’t submit your brainstorming notes: mold that idea into an arc.

Some basic prose/ grammar tips

A metaphor is a complete idea that compares unlike things. It’s not enough to say, “Paul is an ant” and leave it at that. Why is Paul like an ant? What are the implications of such a comparison? Never obfuscate for mystery, because chances are you’re just being unclear. “Paul is an ant: diminutive, better in groups where he can disappear into a collective effort.”

Be careful when jumping from one internal monologue to another. Point of view should be cohesive. Is it first person or third person? (Does the narrator say “I” or does it pull back and say, “Mike did X”?) Make that decision before writing each draft. The reader should never feel jarred.

As always: read more. Learning how to develop a prose style is essential to writing anything well. Be sure to read the basics: Dorothy Parker’s Elements of Style , or pick up William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

And never self-reject! Write and submit to as many contests and magazines as possible. You’ll never get better if you don’t keep working on it. Get as many eyes on your work as possible.

Anne With an E is Achingly Perfect

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When I heard that Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad was going to work on an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, I joked that we’d finally see Anne and Diana start a drug ring selling “cherry cordial” on the black market. Since our media is saturated with obnoxiously gritty reboots of beloved tales (think 2010’s Alice in Wonderland), I wasn’t looking forward to what I assumed would be an unnecessary catastrophe.

I was wrong. Anne With an “E” stays true to the spirit of L.M. Montgomery’s original work, while punching up the gritty realism of a story about a moor-less orphan and her resulting eccentricities. This show reads between the lines: we all might think Anne has a charming imagination, until we recognize that she developed this as a probable means of escape. She was grossly mistreated before getting to Green Gables, we forget.

This artistic decision by Walley-Beckett just shows us what Montgomery let her own readers assume. Consider this passage from the book, which I think served to inform the showrunner’s goals: “Marilla guided the sorrel abstractedly while she pondered deeply. Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had – a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth.”

Here’s what this adaptation made me realize: Light isn’t so notable unless we’re aware of the creeping darkness around the edges. The grit only makes the humorous moments more memorable, more earned. Anne’s hopeful outlook is radical considering her upbringing. Far from dragging a beloved heroine through the mud, illuminating the gritty details of Montgomery’s classic allows the show to achieve an emotional impact that resonated with me.

The second thing I realized was that I’d always judged Montgomery’s work by the beloved, saccharine 1985 classic miniseries instead of the other way around.  Most dramatic revisions of Anne of Green Gables focus on the positive, without recognizing what it’s reacting to, or why it’s important.

Anne With an “E” doesn’t shy away from hard questions, and I love it for that. It’s the adaptation I didn’t know I wanted, and it will renew in viewers an appreciation for  the original source material.

 

Writing Stories That Aren’t Boring

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Ready for this? This is what a story needs to keep the reader interested:

1. Main character is in trouble right away, and we care! Oh no! How will this be resolved?

2. Main character tries to fix her situation, but everything she does makes it worse. Oh man!

3. Lowest Low: Everything looks hopeless for the main character.

4. Highest High: The misfortunes that befell the main character have taught her how to personally overcome the opposition.

Since I know this, why is writing a novel so hard? I feel like I’m in a jungle hacking down vines to make a path, and now I’m lost and have to wee and fire ants are swarming at my ankles and I’m crying while chewing on tree bark.

Guess I’ll write a fight scene till I figure it out.

 

 

 

How I Review SFF Short Fiction

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Does the story hook me and then hold me?

This is the first question I ask myself after I’ve read the story in its entirety. Fiction ought to effortlessly suspend the reader’s belief, and if it’s done its job the details won’t matter.

If the story hooked me, I ask why. Did I like the character? Was the setting so imaginative that I had to know more? The initial conflict of the story should be on the first page.

 

Is the conflict compelling?

Let’s say a story starts out, as it should, in the middle of the action: Oh shit, space whales have attacked a transport carrier traveling to Vega!

This is pretty cool, but it’s not yet compelling. Why should I care if space whales, or anything, attack a transport carrier?

Our hero paces back and forth in the Arrivals section of the Vega system, twirling the engagement ring in his hand. He will propose as soon as she arrives on the transport carrier.

Oh shit, space whales have attacked a transport carrier traveling to Vega!
Isn’t that better? I don’t know much about the characters yet, but I’m already on their team. I want to read on.

Is the ending fair?
There’s nothing worse than rooting for a story and then getting to the end and feeling cheated. The stakes have to be high enough to pull the reader through the narrative. The characters have to pay the appropriate costs to re-affirm those stakes. No coincidences or accidents, unless those coincidences/accidents get your hero into trouble.

Characters with nothing to lose are not characters worth reading about.

Is the story bad, or am I biased in some way?

When I first started writing reviews for Tangent Online, I confessed that I was sick of zombie stories and would be tempted to give them bad reviews. I wasn’t chided for this opinion; rather I was told to be honest and to back up all my opinions. A bad story does not deserve a good review, but I’m not supposed to eviscerate the writer either.

This means that if a zombie story gets assigned to me, I start my review with something like, “While the undead are not fresh in smell or in concept, this author takes a familiar-trod tale and elevates the reader with wonderful prose that pulls them through.”
That said, don’t write zombie stories. Please.

The story is bad. How do I convey this?
There’s usually something good in every bad story, so my strategy is to pick those things out and use them as a buffer around the Big Bad Review. I do this because I’m (sorta) nice, and because it’s a good exercise that ensures I’m not missing anything.

Am I being honest?

Reviewing is no good if it is without self-reflection. I’ve learned some things about my personal tastes and about what makes a story one that resonates.

Tolkien Would Have Hated the LOTR Movies

Art produces secondary belief , and story-making is the highest form of art. It’s not about bewitchment or delusion, but, as Tolkien says, “[it seeks] shared enrichment, not [slavery.]”TOLKIEN

We love movies. Blockbuster after blockbuster punching our eyeballs, and we don’t have to do any work for it. Just sit there and let the colors and the noise and the nonsense pummel you. Tolkien states in his essay on Fairy-Stories that drama is a bogus, substitute magic. “A visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand.”

Sorry, Elijah Wood! You may have nice, expressive eyes but you contributed to a medium that Tolkien describes as de facto flawed.

So what do we do about this? Are all movies, and all scriptwriters just doomed to occupy the lowest levels of story-making? To languish in the lowest levels of Dante’s Heaven (or Hell?) What are the reasons Tolkien gives for this? Pure story-making, he thinks, is different than stage-plays (or movies) because they focus on characters instead of things. This is a key distinction he is making: writers have to think through their characters to give a story verisimilitude, but Tolkien wants the setting to be a character too. Care about the trees, the grass, the roads and the skies. This doesn’t mean that Fantasy is only about being fanciful, rather it is about truth. It’s not enough to tell a reader that the your world has pink grass unless you have a reason for it. “The keener and cleverer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make.”

The best television I have ever watched, now that it comes to mind, are stories that try to give a place a personality. The first season of True Detective does this, as does FX’s first season of Fargo. These stories are not Fantasy; rather tales about the human condition contending with a world that is mostly absurd and hostile. Tolkien might approve of the way in which well-don detective stories invite viewers to participate in catharsis, and then re-orient their view of life after being pushed to the edge of the surreal.

But the surreal is not “Other Time,” the surreal is attached to our world. The fantasy writer has to make a sub-creation, a Secondary World the reader’s mind can enter. We don’t like fairy-stories because there are tiny creatures in them, we like them because we like stepping behind the curtain. All stories are true unless they betray our trust.

 

 

What’s Your Writing Schedule?

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I’m writing a book! I have no idea if it’s good, but I have to start somewhere or I’ll let a crisis of confidence be a personal ball-and-chain.

Every morning I scribble: at least 500 words, some of it terrible. Oh well. I take time every week to edit. That’s the serious writing time; because writing is about revising something 20 times and then being told by an editor that you need to revise it at least fifteen more times.

I’m stacking up rejections pretty faithfully on the side, but I’m determined not to tinker with the stories looking for homes. If I get 50 form rejects each, then maybe they’ll go to the trunk.

So tomorrow, it’s coffee shop time for serious edits and organizations. I work best in the morning, as the tiny sticky-fingered creatures in my house demanding food or something tend to occupy my days.

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Being a Comic Book Artist

The pay sucks, the industry is brutal.

Don’t produce a masterpiece, just be on time.

I heard this growing up as a starry-eyed artistic kid, enamored of the comic-book shop smell that was probably just dust, body odor, and the old plastic sleeves on the back-issues stacked in boxes in the back.

I went to conventions and grilled the artists. How did you do it? What was your big break? I practice drawing panels every day!

Nobody wants to crush a kid’s dreams, but they wanted to be honest. I know people in the industry, one of them told me.  Very rarely do unknowns make a big break, get discovered.

I remember not liking that answer. I explored wed comics; dreamed of being that freelance rising star that got a book deal after becoming popular online. I tried that out in high school. I was consistent, uploaded a page every day. Got a few followers, but not the attention I thought I’d get.

“If you can live a happy life without making comics, then I suggest you don’t make comics. The industry is brutal and soul crushing. The pay sucks. You could work for months or years on a project only to be met with a resounding “Meh” from the public.”Christopher Hastings

The realization that I could work very hard, get discovered, and then not even make a living wage was one of the biggest disappointments of my young life. The life of a creator, as reiterated to me over and over by artists that gave me their ear, was one of being a cog in a machine.

And yet, I keep dreaming. I’m on spring break from art school, where I’m studying traditional methods. It’s grueling, hard, and expects perfection. So to sort of unwind, I’ve returned to my love of comics. I started drawing fanart, depicting traditionally male superheroes as female.

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Robin the GIRL WONDER!

You can check out the gallery on my Deviantart. Only if you are so inclined.

And yet, foolishly, doggedly, I find myself looking up “how to become a comic artist.”

Because I’m just a silly dreamer after all.