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 loved 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.

** The original version of this post claimed that Parker wrote Elements of Style; that was a mistake. (Written by Strunk)

Anne With an E is Achingly Perfect

anne

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.

 

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.

 

 

The Difference Between Men And Women

He looked down at his phone. “Car will be here soon,” he reported.

“What color is the car?” she asked, standing on her tip-toes to get a clear view of the road from the peopled sidewalk.

“It says black.” He replied.

“What’s the license plate number? Do we have the driver’s name?” She asked.

“Man, you really check them out, huh?”

 

FIN

Rethinking Lavinia

In 2011 I was one of those people. I left a one star review for Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel Lavinia. My problem with it was that, in my mind, she just rewrote the Aeneid.

arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris

It’s hard to upstage Virgil.

So, I wondered, what was the point of rewriting the entire epic from Lavinia’s point of view? There was something unremitting about the narrative, and I had hoped for something fresh. Instead of a new tale I saw Lavinia go through the motions of Virgil’s canto, and frankly, I had already read that.

I’m not that much older or wiser now, but I have had a bit of an epiphany about this work. The tribute Le Guin makes to epic literature is on the nose (oh yes, even with references to Dante and his Virgil), but it’s not the point. The point is that the feminine point of view isn’t useless or unimportant, it’s just different.

“Without war there are no heroes.”

“What harm would that be?”

“Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is.” 

The feminine, in this book, is about constancy in tribulation. It is a source of energy that never burns too brightly and all at once, like the glory of a male warrior, but steadfastly like a warm coal. A man’s stubbornness is a weakness, something dogged and without joy.

“Men call women faithless, changeable, and though they say it in jealousy of their own ever-threatened sexual honor, there is some truth in it. We can change our life, our being; no matter what our will is, we are changed. As the moon changes yet is one, so we are virgin, wife, mother, grandmother. For all their restlessness, men are who they are; once they put on the man’s toga they will not change again; so they make a virtue of that rigidity and resist whatever might soften it and set them free.”

I once had a philosophy professor point out that feminine traits are often equated with something undesirable when men show themselves to have them. Even crying, he said, can be something men are conditioned to be ashamed of. This is a prison. Closing all of the doors only makes a person adapt to living in the dark, and we know how those odd, blind creatures in caves strike us, no?

Revel in the feminine. Be free. Be whole. And understand the point of re-imagining an epic story so often dominated by the male gaze.

That’s what I’ve learned.

Five Stars.

I Have Some Good News This 2016: Published!

So yea, 2016. This wounded artery of a year.

dicaprio

But, I am able to share good news for once: I sold my first short story, to be published in a Science Fiction Anthology either this Dec or Jan.  The contract is signed and the publisher working away on the printing.  I’ll share the details once it’s put up for sale.

Honestly, this is amazing news. I’ve worked very hard to get here, and hopefully this is the start of a writing career. I have several other subs out, so I’m hoping to keep up the momentum!

This particular story was rejected 6 times- but the sub times were long. One publication held it for five months, so I lost some time there. I finished the story in March 2015, after it went through eight drafts. The rewrites were helped along by Critters (I’ll report to them this “Woohoo!” once published) and one last, very incisive critique by a major magazine editor.

Making art is hard work. Lots of rejection, lots of technical and creative skills required, many late nights spent just trying to hit a word count so that they day can be considered well spent.

So, here’s to my little story. Hurrah!

Fiction Tropes!

now_word_explode

Ah, tropes: when you start reading through a submissions pile, you start to acquire pet peeves, and you start to notice overused tropes. Now, tropes become, well, tropes, because they’re useful. They get a job done. But if you’re a new writer, using one thoughtlessly is going to out you!

I’ve been reading the submissions pile at F&SF for about a year now, and here are the most common ones:

Character describes herself in a mirror

What does your character look like? Maybe she should take note of herself in the hallway mirror, or while brushing her teeth. Thing is, this is almost overdone. So be aware of that and try to do something fresh with it.

It Was All a Dream!

On it’s face, this is just lazy: get to a brick wall in the plot?  Instead of working it out, TWIST! The character was dreaming! If you want the reader to toss the book across the room or set it on fire, do this.

Women in Refrigerators, or “Fridging”

This one requires some explanation. Fridging is when a female character dies/ is treated brutally for the sole purpose of inspiring the male hero to action. It happens often. The death of Gwen Stacy in the original Spider Man is a good example. Gail Simone talked about this phenomenon in comic books:

An important point: This isn’t about assessing blame about an individual story or the treatment of an individual character and it’s certainly not about personal attacks on the creators who kindly shared their thoughts on this phenomenon. It’s about the trend, its meaning and relevance, if any. Plus, it’s just fun to talk about refrigerators with dead people in them. I don’t know why.

*As a subcategory to this, I’d add: violence towards women. I’m surprised by how many stories open with a violent rape. Female protagonists don’t need to have sexual violence in their past as a motivating factor, but it’s very common in fiction and kind of disturbing to me. Chances are you’re not writing the next Jessica Jones, so don’t shoehorn a past rape/ harassment incident if something else will do. Remember, you’re trying to make a whole, human character, not a bowl of soup.

Stories that start with characters waking up

Face it, you can’t top the master:

One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.

Don’t try unless you’re a super hero.

(Original post Oct 2016, updated Feb 2018)

 

 

Seneca on the Friendship of Kindred Minds

seneca

Seneca, British Museum – By Marie-Lan Ngyen (2011) Public domain

“When I urge you so strongly to your studies, it is my own interest which I am consulting; I want your friendship, and it cannot fall to my lot unless you proceed, as you have begun, with the task of developing yourself. For now, although you love me, you are not yet my friend. “But,” you reply, “are these words of different meaning?” Nay, more, they are totally unlike in meaning. A friend loves you of course; but one who loves you is not in every case your friend. Friendship, accordingly, is always helpful, but love sometimes even does harm. Try to perfect yourself, if for no other reason, in order that you learn how to love.”

 

-Epistle XXXV, Seneca

Mulling this over with my morning coffee. It packs a punch, as it makes me consider my parenting style (my kids are all under 5) and my relationship with them as they grow. It also makes me consider the difference between acquaintances and friends, and how we view family members.

 

I have Fun Crits This Morning…

Just had a story make the rounds through Critters, and boy are the reviews mixed. I’ve got people tripping over their tongues as though sozzled, the tintinnabulation of their praise ringing to the stars! Write more! Write often! You are a wizard with words!

And then there’s the Dark Side, the turgid fusillades at my disregard for SCIENCE! Don’t I know better? Don’t I know that people only bothered to read this story because they were dedicated to giving a crit? That if the readers were not dedicated, they’d print my story only to be able to set fire to it since my opening line was SO BAD? DON’T I KNOW I’M KILLING TREES?

And then, there were three people that struck the Golden Mean. The types that said, “this is good, here’s what I think about this since I’m a Scientist,” or the “This will be a harsh crit, but it’s better to hear this now, trust me.”

You guys. We’re cool.

stanley