It is the word ‘pootling’ that makes this for me: I’ve been in this car, on this road, and that’s the verb that puts me there.
The drive didn’t take long but it was harrowing. Bunches of dead flowers were propped up at several turnins, marking the sites of fatal crashes. Merki took it slow, pootling along at forty, hitting fifty on straight stretches. A queue of cars lined up behind him, drivers who were familiar with the route forming an angry tailgated convoy, trying to embarrass him into hurrying along. He remained calm, checking them in the mirror, pulling over as much as he could to let them overtake, meeting their displays of aggression with a gentle raised hand and admonishments to ‘calm yourself down, pal.’
–THE LAST BREATH, by Denise Mina
Happy Fourth of July, ye who celebrate!
This is a bit of an infodump, but it’s also a good observation about human nature, wittily expressed. This is the ‘spoonful of sugar’ method of infodumping: you share the desired knowledge and make it fun by adding humor.
[Morrill] Goddard’s more daring assertions begin from the premise that it is hard to make people think. He agrees that the power of abstract thought is the highest human faculty, but he nevertheless sees a lot of flattery in the notion that man is a rational animal. In Goddard’s observation, people are far more interested in their sense perceptions and emotions than in their thoughts. He sees nothing particularly wrong or shameful in this, but puts it down to the fact that we have been sensing, feeling and emoting since we lived in caves, while we have only lately begun to cultivate our rational faculties, public education and mass literacy being last minute innovations in the life of man. Thus, while all mankind is capable of rational thought, most of us only use it with deliberate effort, after a good night’s sleep, and for remuneration. Even then, our efforts are often halfhearted and the results mixed.
Kenneth Whyte, THE UNCROWNED KING: THE SENSATIONAL RISE OF WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST
Voice, characterization, backstory, all in two lovely and quite-dense paragraphs.
Since Olivia got sense and kicked me out, I live on the quays, in a massive apartment block built in the nineties by, apparently, David Lynch. The carpets are so deep that I’ve never heard a foodstep, but even at four in the morning you can hear the hum of five hundred minds buzzing on every side of you: people dreaming, hoping, worrying, planning, thinking. I grew up in a tenement house, so you would think I’d be good with the factory-farm lifestyle, but this is difference. I don’t know these people; I never even see these people. I have no idea how or when they get in and out of the place. For all I know they never leave, just stay barricaded in their apartments, thinking. Even in my sleep I’ve got one ear tuned to that buzz, ready to leap out of bed and defend my territory if I need to.
The décor in my personal corner of Twin Peaks is divorce chic, by which I mean that, four years on, it still looks like the moving van hasn’t arrived yet. The exception is Holly’s room, which is loaded with every fluffy pastel object known to man. The day we went looking for furniture together, I had finally managed to wrestle one weekend a month out of Olivia, and wanted to buy Holly everything on three floors of the shopping center. A part of me had believed I’d never see her again.
Tana French, FAITHFUL PLACE
Sunday’s word count was 385, for a total of 4,498. My Clarion West Write-A-Thon page is here.
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.