In a post called Shaping Dreams not long ago, I talked about pickiness, about trying to encourage new writers to write prose that isn’t merely good enough… about reaching, in other words, for excellence.
A thing about adult education (all education, really) is that it boils down to the old cliche about leading that horse to water. You can lay out ideas before a person–you can sparkle and cajole and really sell, but whether or not they pick ’em up is entirely out of your hands. There’s a bit of an emotional dance you have to do: you offer the knowledge up, and say “This is cool and really important and worthwhile,” but you can’t get in a big knot if a given group or individual kinda looks at it and replies with a shrug. You have to care–you shouldn’t teach if you don’t care–but it’s wrong to take it personally.
So one of the most interesting things that’s happened to me this year was seeing this shoe on the proverbial other foot as I Pac-Missed my way through Italian I again. (Tonight, I embark on a second round of Italian II.)
Adults take classes–writing classes, language classes, silversmithing classes, whatever–because they sincerely want to learn the subject material, but the degree of want can vary. And we all have so many commitments. Even as Teacher Me boggles at students who slide their assignments under my virtual door at literally the last permissible minute, Student Me has been known to finish up her assigned Italian exercises in the osteria half an hour before class begins. And even to think Who are you kidding? when this past term’s instructor snarked at us–we were a sad little trio of language students, who could not hide from her displeasure when we slacked–for neglecting to memorize pages and pages of vocabulary and grammar each and every week in our copious spare time.
The thing is: you’re taking the class for personal enrichment and fun. There’s often no grade, so there’s no fail. The instructor probably has limited options for forcing you to your homework, or making you learn, or–in the case of workshop classes, alas–even obliging you to give feedback as good as you’re getting. This is true whether the course is face to face or online.
Seeing my instructor take our moments of student laze personally was good for Student Me. Knowing how she felt underlined the whole concept of You don’t accomplish stuff unless you make an effort. This in turn has motivated me to actually do a little studying beyond the homework minimum. And I do mean a little. At the end of the day, I’m still more apt to watch an episode of Leverage on Netflix. Still–more than zero.
I also had a couple interesting conversations with my instructor, about these two perspectives, and I discovered she’s a student, too. She’s taking an ESL program, full-time. It has a direct effect on her well-being, as success will directly impact how employable she’ll be in the near future. She’s been working hard for six months and her English is astounding.
And even she has “Oh, I am such a bad student!” stories.
It makes me wonder what classes her English teacher might be taking on the side, and so on, and so on…
Once you have critiques in hand from a workshop, how do you take your first-draft story and turn it into a marketable commodity? Which criticisms do you take to heart, and how do you decide which to set aside?
At every stage of the writing process, your instincts must work hand-in-hand with hard-won skills. The good news is that as you write, workshop, and revise stories, these instincts and skills will naturally improve. Practice really does make perfect! The more you read and critique the work of others while simultaneously exposing your own fiction to critique, the better you will become at polishing your work.
A reasonable plan for starting on post-workshop revision might go like this:
- Reread all of the critiques. Start by noting any story flaws mentioned by more than one reader–if a specific complaint arises several times, it is most likely a serious problem. Put these critiques at the top of a list of revision priorities, and spend some time thinking–without actually altering your manuscript–about how you might want to change your story to address them.
- Look for comments made by one or at most two readers. Figure out which you agree with and add them to your checklist. Again, take a little time once this second list is made to simply think about what you might do to answer these critiques.
- Third, look for areas where your readers disagreed. If half of a workshop really likes a story element while the rest hate it passionately, you are stuck making a judgment call. By this stage, however, you’ve already given some thought to the key changes you’re planning to make to your story. Those plans should help you figure out what to do about more controversial story elements.
- Look at line edits and minor quibbles. You can add these to the revision list or just keep them in mind.
At the end of this process, you should end up with a list of things you are going to do to the story… one that doesn’t include the criticisms you have decided to set aside.
Set that list out of sight and start revising the story. Don’t look at it again until you feel as though your draft is coming together. Then compare the work you’ve done with the list you’ve made. See which problems you haven’t addressed yet, decide whether they are still valid, and keep at it until you have–in one way or another–dealt with every item.
At this stage you should have a nearly marketable manuscript, and it is very worthwhile to do one or two more passes through the story at this stage specifically to polish your prose. (More on prose here!)
- Look at all the dialogue and see if it flows well. Make sure characters aren’t borrowing each others’ accents or verbal idiosyncracies, that it is obvious who is speaking in every line, and that the scene’s mini-conflicts are obvious within the dialogue.
- It’s tedious, but go through and look at all your verbs. Are they pulling their weight, or would a more vivid word choice be better?
- See how many adverbs you can trim.
- If the story feels wordy or long in any way, one excellent exercise is to try and cut one word or phrase from every paragraph. Doing this twice in a row can give you a nice lean prose style.
- Use the Seem, Some, Sigh page in your Writer’s Roadmap to search for any words you may have overused.
- Go through making note of scene breaks and important transitions. Read through those breaks and see if they can be smoothed.
- Most importantly, print off and read the whole story aloud, marking any awkward-sounding passages with a pencil. A story should be clear and comprehensible, but if its prose can also sound beautiful to the ear, you have a winner on your hands.
With almost all of my classes, the final assignment is to create a marketing plan for your piece–to identify a number markets that might be interested in publishing your fiction… and figuring out which of those markets to try first, second, third, etc.
Before sending out your manuscript, have a look at Vonda McIntyre’s manuscript preparation notes. Follow them scrupulously unless the specific market guidelines are different… in which case, do everything the editors ask.
Questions to ask when seeking markets for your story:
What is your chief goal in marketing the story? Are you chasing your first sale? Do you want a market that will qualify you for membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America? Is the pay rate a higher consideration than the relative prestige of the market? Are you willing to wait on a good market with a slow response time, or is a fast acceptance or rejection important to you?
If you have read this magazine or this editor’s anthologies before: Is your work like the fiction that appears in this market? Does the editor publish writers whose work is similar to yours?
Is the market appropriate? Does the market accept the genre of story you have written? Does it have a minimum or maximum word length? Is it on any “dead market” lists?
Novelists have a luxury that short story writers do not enjoy: they have fifty to a hundred thousand (or more) words in which to achieve their desired effect on readers. Those working with the short form of fiction labour under many of the same obligations: we have to create a universe, populate it, and paint a workable story on its canvas… but we have to do it at about one-tenth of the length. On the plus side, short story writers don’t usually have to explore the extended history of the world they are writing in, let alone generate maps! In short fiction, we rarely have to generate subplots for our stories, script extensive biographies for our principal characters, or create and educate readers in alien languages.
Many novels open slowly–they still have hooks, but a chief concern in beginning a novel-length work of SF often lies in establishing atmosphere as well as providing extensive setting and character details, giving a reader a sense of the novel’s milieu, establishing the author’s prose style, and setting out the principal symbolic and thematic elements of the piece. Stories do some of these things, but swiftly–we must introduce our story elements in a few paragraphs and then get on with the business of moving our conflict forward.
The trickiest issue in pacing short fiction, of course, is that your prose cannot seem breathless or rushed: unless you are writing an action sequence or another type of quick and choppy scene, your story has to feel unhurried; the reader must have time to breathe. Nobody wants to be quickly ushered through a plot and dropped off at its ending without so much as a wave goodbye. Somehow you have to provide a leisurely tour of your setting and a strong sense of your characters while carrying us swiftly to the story’s conclusion.
The key to the unhurried brevity demanded of short fiction is the power of suggestion. Letting small details suggest volumes about your world and its people is tricky, but it is also a technique well worth learning. Examine how various SF writers accomplish this in the assigned readings and other stories; then look at your own work and see where your strengths lie.
If you can evoke your setting with a well-placed phrase here and there, if you can help a reader understand your character’s motives with the right snatch of dialogue or telling action, you will have more words left free for critical story issues: character transitions, exposition on the trickier elements of your SF concept, and polishing your prose to make the story a seamless and suspenseful whole.
Questions to ask about pacing:
- What is each scene accomplishing? Multitasking is the heart of fast-paced prose: if you can deepen character, advance plot, and provide setting details all at the same time, you are going to have a tightly written and entertaining piece.
- What elements of the piece are most important? If something matters, spend the time and the necessary words to make it clear, compelling and interesting. Look for moments where the characters’ situation changes. These are the points where the narrative should slow. Imagine a spotlight shining on these key transitions in your story… now highlight what’s going on in those sections.
- Where can you deepen your worldbuilding using suggestion, i.e. without adding huge amounts of verbiage? Are your proper nouns carrying their weight? (Connie Willis tells readers something about the universe in which her story “Spice Pogrom” takes place simply by naming the locale where it takes place the Space Station Sony.) Can you create a few interesting colloquial phrases to give readers a sense of the setting?
- Are you reinventing the wheel? Can you make use of some of the well-understood conventions of SF and folkore to establish the underpinnings of your world and save on words? In other words, could the bloodsucking fiends of your horror story be vampires? Could the odd, long-lived folk of your fantasy story be Elves? Sometimes drawing on the existing foundations of the genre leaves space for you to spotlight the areas where your unique vision of the universe comes into play.
Plot doesn’t pick up where characterization ends: the two are inextricable. It’s all very well to create a vibrant protagonist whom readers can relate to, but then you have to get that character into some kind of trouble. The engine that drives a short story’s plot is its protagonist’s wants and needs. Knowing your characters’ deepest desires–and why these desires motivate them–is critical.
Sparks begin to fly in fiction when characters come together–when we see them conflict, fall in love, betray each other, form alliances, and just plainly perform on the stage you’ve created for them. This can be accomplished in as little as a single scene between two characters. Most stories, though, move their conflict through a series of scenes whose tension increases incrementally until the conflict reaches its crisis and boils over.
Though an SF story’s element of the impossible certainly gives an author unique options for plot complications–few mainstream stories see a character blown out of a spaceship airlock, or trampled by a centaur–the mechanics of plotting are less affected by genre considerations than other story components like setting and character. At the heart of every story, fantastic or not, is a character with a problem: one that, for whatever reason, isn’t easily solved.
There are as many approaches to plotting a story as there are writers, but for those struggling to tighten a piece, a look at standard plot formulas can sometimes be helpful. Author Wendy Webb, for example, suggests that stories be structured using seven steps:
Hook (open with a high-impact phrase that engages reader interest)
Problem (clue readers in as to what the protagonist wants… and why s/he cannot have it)
Backfill (now that the audience is engaged, provide whatever context is required)
Complications (the protagonist encounters obstacles in his first attempts to achieve the goal.)
Action (more attempts, more failures)
Dark Moment (the goal seems out of reach… but is it?)
Resolution (The protagonist succeeds or fails, and we see the final result of his struggle.)
An alternative structure used by other writers is even simpler:
Intro (similar to hook, above)
Resolution: Things Get Worse
Resolution: Things Get Still Worse
Resolution: Where Character Either Triumphs or Dies
Some writers find these plot bones useful in initially planning their stories. Others prefer to veer off-road, blazing their own trail through the plot jungle. Where these structures often come in useful is after you have a first draft. At that point, compare your piece with the structures provided above. Analyzing an existing draft with an eye to clarifying and strengthening the conflict will always make it stronger, and plot formulas like the ones above are useful tools in forming this analysis.
Remember, though, that the true key to plotting lies not in following a formula, but in establishing a conflict that readers can clearly identify (and identify with), bringing it to a crisis, and then resolving that crisis in an emotionally satisfying fashion. If you can pull this off, your story will be a successful work of fiction.
Questions to ask when plotting a story:
Think through your unwritten story on a scene by scene basis:
- Does each scene advance the plot?
- Does the conflict come into play within each scene?
- Is it possible to increase the tension of some or all of your scenes?
Are all the elements of plot present in your draft?
- When can the reader say, positively, that they know what forces are in conflict in your story?
- Can they identify the moment of crisis and its resolution?
- Are the protagonist’s actions in pursuit of her goal logical?
What emotions do your characters experience as the story progresses?
- Is your protagonist happy, sad, anxious, or in some other emotional state when the story begins?
- How far from this starting point is the story going to move them? (Remember that a character who is already in crisis on page one of a piece has nowhere to go but up, whereas one who is happy–or only moderately distressed–can be set up more easily for a big plunge.)
How suspenseful is your story?
- What is it that your reader wants to know or experience?
- Do you have a plan for balancing the need to surprise readers against the need to make your characters’ actions believable?
- Do your characters’ actions make sense?
- Is what is happening clear at every stage of the story?
First: Clarion Write-a-Thon Word Count: 1,417 out of 20,000. (More info here).
“And I do not play this instrument as well as I should like, but I have always thought that to be my fault, because I would not take the time to practice…” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Some of my students have accused me, obliquely, of being too picky. “I see lots of books where writers do this,” they say, when they get an MS back from me and in addition to the structural critique I’ve marked twenty eye bookisms, a bunch of passive verb constructions and noted that one of their perfectly good phrases has been around since Shakespeare, and that while it does the job maybe there’s a way that suits their characters better…
They’re right, to some extent. Part of what I do as a teacher is point out the strengths and the flaws in a person’s writing… even when that writing starts to be of publishable quality. I know new writers want to learn what it takes to sell their fiction, of course, but I hope they also want to just plain be better. There’s a lot of room between just barely salable and outstanding. I have yet to stop finding fault, even with my best students, even as I praise ’em to the skies.
Storytelling is engaging readers in a dream. You are taking them from the here and now and enveloping them in another world. The novel as a work of art offers its audiences the chance to be at once themselves and another person, just as dreams do, as fantasies do.
The thing about dreams is that some are shallow. Think of a night when your sleep was easily broken, by the slightest noise. The dreams of light sleep are the ones that most fleeting, that they’re the ones that vanish like vapor when your eyes open.
Such dreams are just fine. You might say they’re just barely publishable. But I think what most of us want, as writers, is to create deep absorption–compelling, vivid, engaging on a visceral, emotional level, and impossible to forget. It’s a lofty goal, but what I hope people are going for in this racket… not immediately, but eventually, if they’re very good and very hardworking and very lucky, is to be life-altering.
There are a couple ways to instill deep dreaming. One is to have a story so suspenseful that the reader simply can’t put it down–we’ve all devoured books whose line-by-line writing is shaky, because we got hooked; we had to know. Stieg Larsen’s The Girl Who books were like this, for me. This cartoon, My Lost Weekend in the Meyer, says the same about the Twilight saga.
So: be suspenseful. Check! The other way to deepen the dream of a given narrative, once the basic story’s working, is to up the quality of the prose. To have undertow within the words themselves, to be compelling, seductive, to beguile and even drown. We each have our own way of pulling this off, and when it happens, it’s a powerful thing. Heck, there are stories where it’s a superpower in its own right: seizing or changing someone’s sleeping world.
So yes, I’m picky… because I think it’s a skill worth developing.