More thoughts from the slush pile

The last few months have involved a lot more reading at Unsung Stories. It’s still proving to be a fascinating process full of surprises. But it’s also starting to reveal trends and common problems with submissions.

So rather than making you guess what they are, here are some notes I’ve taken in the last five months. These ones are going to be a bit more specific but, same as before, these are things I see too often. The presence of things like the below makes the delicate bit of my brain you are appealing to shut down.

First of all, to remind you: Short stories are disproportionately hard. Making 2000 words into a complete artefact is difficult. Really difficult. They are not easier because they’re shorter.

Two strands this time: Specific tips and broader principles.

The second section is an attempt to construct a process to help with writing short stories. Like stories, I assume this early version is imperfect. I suspect it will go through many drafts and in time to come look completely different. As with stories, feedback is essential. So all comments are welcome. Encouraged, in fact.

Whether these points make me seem like a belligerent upstart with no respect for literature and the endeavours of authors, or a font of wisdom is up to you to judge. Pornokitsch got it right:

Ellory Sedgewick said: “My selection is made according to the whim of one individual.” Which is empowering, terrifying, and a very good reason that no  one should take it to heart.

It’s alchemy, both as an editor and writer. If we’re lucky we’ll make some gold together.

 

Specific tips

First of all, an idea someone suggested to me which I have tested successfully a number of times: Delete the first two paragraphs of your story. Does it still make sense? Have you removed action essential for understanding the plot? No? Repeat.

It’s galling the first time you do it, but the truth is some of us need to gain momentum when we write. I know writers who plan and start from a perfect first line, but I’m not one of them. I ease in and find my pace maybe 50 words in. Both techniques are valid, of course, but it doesn’t mean I should share those first 50 words.

Some things you should only use four times a year:

  • Exclamation marks
  • The word ‘suddenly’
  • Ellipses
  • The phrase ‘In that/this moment’

Some things you should use once a year:

  • Writers as characters (and that one time had better be damned good *glares at Paul Auster*)
  • Angels as characters. It’s worth clarifying on this one, I acknowledge they come with a vast wealth of source material. They are also dripping with classic themes and imagery. Both of these things, however, demonstrate a countless number of precedents. You ain’t first, tread carefully.

Some things you should never use:

  • Your first draft (Editing is essential. If you genuinely believe it came out perfect the first time you are wrong)
  • Surprise, it was all a dream! AKA, The Dallas Fallacy
  • Death as a character. It sounds a cool idea but remember you’re going toe-to-toe with Bergman, Pratchett and Gaiman and other heavyweights. The bar has been set.
  • Stories where someone tries to work out if they’re in Heaven or Hell. You know that line you’re thinking of, ‘You look like this because your soul remembers it.’? I’ve seen it.

Concept, Characters, Plot, Message

Perhaps the most common problem I see has its roots in whether the stories are concept driven or not. One of the easy misconceptions when writing short stories is that things like cool ideas or well-executed twists are enough.

The truth is the concept is just one element of what you need. Writing a slick twist is a good skill to learn but with no characters or purpose to the story it remains a technical exercise. Don’t be fooled by the ‘short’ bit, they still need to be complete stories.

So say you have a great idea. Good start. Now build on that and work out the characters who will help you explore it. What is their place in this world you’re creating and how do they relate to each other? Why them and not some one else? Now what drives the story: do the characters act or react, and why is that important? That narrative tension you want to create depends on all of these things, not just one.

Perhaps most importantly of all, what are you trying to communicate? This is the chicken and egg question because you need to answer it first of all, but you can’t answer it until you have a good idea of the above.

Take Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which hinges on a concept. The idea is strong, but the wider themes come from the combination characters and their relationships, the plot and, critically, how we as readers come to understand these things. The commentary on culpability and justice, contexts of violence in society, dehumanisation as a coping mechanism et al comes from a combination of techniques.

Applying the principles

To use a set of themes I see reasonably often in submissions: Stories where a character (who’s often anonymous) is trapped in a mysterious void- or weight-analogue as a metaphor for depression.

Message (Egg): How hard, lonely and scary depression can be to deal with.

Concept: Now the void-analogue might be pertinent but it’s not illuminating, or enough to sustain a story. Cathartic as a writer, perhaps, but for the story you need to look beyond solely expressing symptoms. You want people to understand what it feels like, and it feels complicated, right? Like it’s tied to every part of your life. The symptoms are just the front line. So there needs to be a narrative, a point of dialogue between writer and reader.

Character: Step one is giving your character an identity. It’s perhaps hardest with this story because it feels so intimate, but that’s precisely the point to embrace fiction. Make it your creation, not you. It is empowering. Now who are you writing about and in what ways are they similar or different from you? How can you take advantage of that?

Plot: A story needs change, progression. It can come full circle if you want, but it has to go somewhere. So is this about onset or the resolution? Is someone slipping into another world or breaking free, throwing that weight off? Did your character do it? Was it done to them? In the same way we deal with the state, when we look beyond the all-consuming moment we can see how it fits together. The potential lies in the context of the moment, not the moment itself.

Message (Chicken): Well that depends on you, now. Maybe it’s about how hard it can be to help introverted people. Maybe it’s an uplifting tale of unexpected charity. Maybe the other place has something to say about our world. Maybe your character has something to tell us. Whatever it is, it will speak of how hard depression can be to deal with, and more.

TL;DR

Got a cool idea with a neat twist/reveal at the end? Great. That’s only part of a story though. Message, concept, characters, plot, message again. 

Confessions of a fiction editor

We started accepting short story submissions on Unsung Stories a couple of months back. It’s already been a great experience and we have already found things that have screamed out to be published. But we’ve also learned that we have to make hard decisions and stick to them. We’ve had to define criteria of what we want and don’t want. We’ve even had to start *shudder* scoring things.

You know what? Picking good stories is hard. I don’t mean that in a ‘Oh lord, how shall I ever recognise genius from dross?’ Genius makes that one easy for you. What I’m talking about is the mundane process, the inevitable reality of reading hundreds of stories in search of the few that have that alchemical something.

I’ve spent a lifetime reading, years learning critical skills and more years learning to write. You think it would be second nature to me by now. But it really isn’t. Worse, I am already aware at early stages how quickly your brain can start playing tricks on you. No 8-hour reading marathon will ever help.

So. Here are a couple of confessions from a guilty editor, cunningly disguised as tips for writers. Sure, they might look like pointers to you, but to me these are penitent words slapped onto a tear-soaked keyboard, offered in the hope you’ll all forgive me my hubris:

  1. Hooks – You’ve all been told a good hook is essential, admit it. We all know it. Except, when you’re writing an idea takes you by the hand, leads you off and says, ‘Just one frilly para at the start. What’s the harm in that…?’ Everything, is the answer. The first line is essential, be it short and dramatic or longer and miasmic. We always read past the first sentence, but the best stories we’ve read drag us into their world immediately.
  2. Creating characters – You have so few words to use that characterisation can be hard, but it’s critical. A story about Hero Unit #23 on an adventure isn’t much. Pepper that unit with caprice, quirks, foibles and little details and they will come to life. Don’t tell me what colour their hair is, tell me what they see just before they go to sleep.
  3. Only tell the interesting bits – Honestly, when you’re working to a strict word count why waste clauses establishing redundant details? We watch so many films it’s now normal to think visually, and for writers this means we picture the scene in our head. This is absolutely fine, just don’t write up the stage directions. If it’s not clear who is looking at/turning to/walking to/whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Also, typos aren’t a good look. You know who you are.

Writing betterer

More style tips today. The first one comes from Rayne Hall via Venture Galleries in the form of sentences that mark you out as a beginner. I’ve added some thoughts after in italics:

  1. S/he turned to look/and looked at him/her – I was definitely guilty of this one. When starting out there is a compunction to establish the setting of everything, to describe the scene as you picture it. It’s only once you’ve spent time writing, exploring your own bad habits, that you begin to realise just how much is either already implied or is simply unnecessary. Turning as a verb should be reserved for journeys and, occasionally, cases where you character facing has significance as to what/who they can see. Really though, it’s like suddenly (see below) – you almost certainly don’t need it.
  2. S/he nodded slowly – This one is a stock dramatic image and a cliché  It may well crop up when you’re considering how best to phrase that deeply considered reaction your character is about to give, the literary equivalent of the loading progress bar.
  3. S/he took a deep breath to steady her/himself – This is another stock cliché. If you really must have something like this stick with ‘prepared’ or a genuine description of what they are doing. If you find yourself writing this (or 2, indeed) the stop, take a deep breath and think again. Resist the urge to nod slowly once you find something pithier to replace it. 

The other tips come from the late Elmore Leonard and his article, Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. There’s more room to disagree with Leonard’s points here because following them strictly removes certain plot devices and other techniques from your pencil case. However, they are very good rules and even if you occasionally ignore them they should make you think why you’re ignoring them and the effect you are creating in compensation.

A good example of one to sometimes ignore is 3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue. On a purely functional level I like ‘replied’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’ and others which convey extra information. However, I agree with the point he makes – if you get as far as ‘asseverated’ maybe check the rear-view mirror to make sure the convey is still with you.

There are a couple which, to my mind, are non-negotiable though. Again, my thoughts in italics. The rules are:

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” – . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.” The Stephen King Rule.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control – You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful. Another variation on this rule is 4 per year! So I’d have three left. Sparingly, guys.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” – This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points. I’ve already touched on this (Keep it Concise) but it can’t be stressed enough. Immediacy, urgency, tension and the like are all connoted. If you don’t know what I mean watch Alien again and tell me which bits are the most tense. How many was the alien in?

Keep it concise

There are lessons to be learned every day. Today’s lesson is this: When writing, keep it concise.

Sure, we all know about Hemingway. But when writing I use things like the following, all too frequently:

  • suddenly
  • now
  • turned to
  • looked at

I got called up on it today. I went back and looked again. I removed most of them. It looks better now.

That list shouldn’t be taken as exhaustive, of course.

Less is more.