Zadie Smith created something of a furor when she announced that “The Willesden Herald” had cancelled it short story competition for 2008 due to a lack of suitable entries. (Not a lack of entries, mind you, but a lack of suitable, prize-worthy entries.) The 5,000-pound prize money was donated to charity. (Not a bad thing, but something that disappointed many, many authors.)
Steven Moran, one of the competition judges, was gracious enough to list the twenty-seven main reasons short stories fail. I’m not going to list all twenty-seven here, but they do all fall into the following broad categories. While these are Steve’s suggestions for story failure, I’ve reworded and added a few suggestions of my own:
Failure to Follow the Rules: Competitions and magazines are serious about the rules and deadlines they set down. Make sure you follow them to the letter, and if you don’t, don’t be surprised if you’re disqualified.
Openings and Endings: Very elaborate openings and endings weaken an otherwise good story. The false start and the “tacked on” ending are also to be avoided at all costs. They are very obvious and no one, except maybe the author, likes them. Your story has to be an organic, seamless whole, from the first word to the last.
Subject Matter: If a competition is “genre specific,” then adhere strictly to that genre. Don’t send a mystery to a literary competition or a literary story to a competition for speculative fiction. Do not be trivial, do not be overly sentimental (the emphasis here is on “overly,”), and do not be obvious. The short story should raise a few questions rather than hitting the reader over the head. On the other hand, never play coy with your readers. Coyness is not a quality that’s prized in literature.
Poor Characterization: Too many characters (usually more than three in a short story), undifferentiated characters, and totally miserable characters are all too common in today’s fiction. Each character comes to the short story with a unique backstory. The short story takes off quickly, doesn’t carry many people, and doesn’t travel very far. This is a very focused genre. Make sure you stay focused as well.
Dialogue: The proper use of dialogue is even more important in a short story than in a novel. Make sure every line of dialogue in your short story carries it forward. Never, never, never use dialogue in a short story as exposition. Dialogue can bring your story to life, but because it is so powerful, a little goes a long way. Too much is just as bad as too little, and clunky dialogue is always a terrible thing.
Style: As you draft and redraft your story (and if you think you don’t need to write multiple drafts, then you might as well stop now) examine each word, each phrase, each sentence, each passage. Are you showing or telling? (Generally, showing is best, but a judicious combination of both is fine.) Is the pacing what it should be? Have you digressed from the original idea (this can’t be successfully done in a short story, which is very, very focused). Have you avoided all clichés? Is the tone consistent? Is the story predictable? Is it too sketchy or too long? Have you painted an effective “word picture?”
As Steven Moran tells us, a writer has control over each and every element listed above, however, there’s one element over which a writer has no control. That element is:
The subjective opinion of the competition judge or editor/agent/publisher. Something may be very well written, but a judge or editor might just not like it for a wide variety of reasons. There’s really nothing you can do about this except write as well and as honestly as you can and hope the judge or editor reads your material objectively. I had one very honest agent tell me that while he found my novel very well written, he simply didn’t like the style. This is bound to happen to every writer now and then. We just have to learn to live with it and realize that while some people won’t like our writing, others will.
Zadie Smith’s decision not to award a short story prize in 2008 upset many writers, but something good can come from her decision. We can all examine our writing more closely and make sure we improve and grow in the process.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Saturday, June 28, 2008
A lot of people ask me to critique their writing. Some of it is good, some is mediocre, and some is abominable (and no, I won't tell you whose is what). However, I've noticed that new or inexperienced writers tend to make two huge assumptions that lead to mistakes in their writing:
1. They believe anyone can write. This simply isn't true. Not everyone can sing. Not everyone can play a musical instrument. Not everyone can learn to play a sport with precision. The same goes for writing. Not everyone can learn to write. Not everyone's brain works the way a writer's brain should work. Not everyone has writing talent to develop.
2. They think that when they touch pen to paper the words will flow magically. This is a total myth. Even if one has tons of writing talent, there's no such thing as a "natural." Writing takes hard work and it takes practice. First, any would be author has to learn the mechanics of storytelling - story structure, dialogue, pacing, thematic development, and point-of-view, just to begin. Then, it takes practice, preferable thirty to sixty minutes every single day. We don't learn to play the violin just by picking it up and placing the bow on the strings. Why should writing be any different? It isn't. Accept this fact and commit to learning about and practicing your writing skills on a daily basis.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Almost everyone’s heard stories about “high maintenance authors” who constantly call or write (or both) their editors and publishers, pestering them for money, time, or anything else under the sun. Authors like these are the divas of the literary world, and they aren’t looked upon with favor.
In truth, most professional authors aren’t divas. If they were, they’d never become professionals. Literary divas, no matter how good their writing, often destroy their chances at publication through bridge burning, preening, and defending every little intricacy of their prose. Eventually, no one wants to work with them any longer. Eventually, no one does. After all, editors and publishers are flooded with manuscripts every day. We take work home almost every night and weekend. We can afford to be choosy. We can afford to turn down a “high maintenance author” in favor of one willing to play by our rules.
Below are some tips on how not to be a literary diva. Not being a diva won’t guarantee you literary success, of course, but if you follow the tips below, it will help you become the kind of author agents, editors, and publishers love and love to work with.
1. Be patient. Patience is a virtue, especially in the publishing world where editors and agents are overworked and underpaid. I know it’s difficult to wait for feedback on your work, but we all have to do it. I’m a writer, too, as well as an editor, so I know firsthand. But if you want to succeed, you’re going to have to follow the editor’s timetable, not your own. Learn to accept it and live with it because it comes with the territory.
2. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Never call an editor unless you’ve been told it’s okay to do so. Be assured that we haven’t lost your phone number (provided you gave it to us, it’s amazing what new writers sometimes forget to include), and we’ll call you if and when we need or want something.
3. Really listen. New writers, if they’re lucky, are going to have to take a lot of editorial direction. Your first inclination, when someone suggests your work is less than perfect, will be to defend it. Don’t. Accept the fact that until you’re a more experienced writer, you’re going to have to bow to your editor’s decisions. When you’re more experienced, you’ll be able to successfully override some of your editor’s suggestions.
4. Do your homework. Never ask an agent, editor, or publisher about a publication’s needs. Actually study the magazine or publishing house you’re querying. Become familiar with their submission guidelines and what kind of material they publish. Take a look at the last few issues as well so you don’t submit a virtual twin of something that was just recently published.
5. Realize you’re going to have to start small. Sure, we’ve all heard stories about first time authors getting paid a million dollar advance. Occasionally, this does happen, but it’s the exception, not the norm. The average writer makes about $4,000 to $7,000/year. Don’t count on paying the bills with your writing, at least not at first. Instead, concentrate on becoming the very best writer you can be.
6. Keep it to yourself. If you don’t like the way a particular editor treats you, try to solve the problem in a calm and honest and private dialogue with that editor. Don’t, don’t, don’t start spreading gossip. You might think the publishing industry is huge, but it’s not. It’s actually quite small and most of us know everyone else. Gossip travels fast and you don’t want to get a bad reputation as being “difficult.”
7. Be an early bird. If you have a deadline to meet, don’t meet it by the skin of your teeth. Send in your manuscript early. You’ll earn lots and lots of “brownie points” with your editor for this.
8. Never kiss up. We aren’t stupid or we wouldn’t be in the publishing industry. We know when you’re being nice to us just because you want a favor. It won’t work for you and will probably work against you, instead.
9. On the other hand, if it’s genuine. If you genuinely feel grateful to an editor, agent, or publisher for something he or she’s done to help you, no matter how small, don’t hesitate to send a thank you note. Make it short, specific, and most of all, sincere. You still may never write a masterpiece or a bestseller, but you will endear yourself to that particular editor, and that’s important because the wider your circle of friends in the publishing world, the better.
10. Network. In general, the larger your network of professional relationships, the faster you can build your career. Just remember that first impressions do count and are often lasting whether deserved or not. Make sure yours is a good one.
11. Be professional. It should go without saying that your work must always be presented in a professional manner, though I'm always amazed at how much sloppy work I receive. You need to be professional as well. If you’re meeting with an editor or publisher, dress conservatively and dress well. If you’re asked to put up a Website to promote your book, make sure it looks as professional as possible. (I’ve seen authors with fantastic Websites and I’ve seen authors with Websites that could most charitably be described as “dreadful.”) Hire a professional to take your photo and remember, you want to look like a serious author, not a sex symbol.
12. Never stop learning. No writer, no matter how great, has ever known all there is to know about the art and craft of fiction writing. Go to conferences, lectures, take classes, read as much as you can, and above all, write. Writing isn’t some magical talent that suddenly manifests itself as soon as you put pen to paper. Writing requires practice. It’s hard work.
13. Join or form a critique group. Honest criticism from other writers is priceless, but make sure each member of the group understands the work of the others and that you all share the same goals. While we need to know what works in our writing, we also need to know what doesn’t work so we can make better informed decisions about what to cut and what not to cut, what to rewrite and what not to touch. Never join a critique group hoping for praise. In fact, encourage the members to be ruthless, but honest, in editing your prose. Realize that criticism of your work is not criticism of you.
14. Stay humble. Ironically, the worst writers always think they’re deities in the literary world, while the best writers know that because much in literature is subjective, success is often hard to measure and define, and that talent, without hard work, an open mind and heart, and a lifetime of learning, is talent wasted. They also realize when they heed honest and sensitive editorial feedback, they’ll grow, not only as writers, but as human beings as well.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
The following aren’t from query letters that I’ve received, but are from query letters received from an agent who is a very good friend of mine and with whom I often work. They are used in this entry with her very gracious permission.
One has to wonder what in the world these would be authors were thinking when they wrote these letters to my friend. Unfortunately, this type of letter, believe it not, is all too commonly received by both agents and publishers.
So, the following excerpts below are definitely not anything you should include in a query letter:
This action/adventure novel is about a dark military program which takes a top navy seal and replaces the lower part of his brain with parts cloned from the DNA of a tiger!
The author didn’t even capitalize “Navy Seal.” This leads us to some very strange thoughts about the story, indeed.
A man angry at his company which has robbed him of his retirement funds makes neckties that constrict on their own. He seeks his revenge on the whole society by a series of murders where the ties do the choking for him. Such is the plot of Haunted Neckties.
Yes, this is verbatim, from a query letter actually received by Jodi (friend).
This riveting and bittersweet story deals with loneliness, love, betrayal, sexual desire, child abuse, suicide, sexual identity, fear of insanity, eating disorders, sexual assault, molestation, delusional behavior, multiple personality and murder. The manuscript will frighten, amuse, disturb you but still leave you with a good feeling.
Apparently, this writer decided to cover all the bases, which isn’t really a good idea. Your work needs to be focused.
This is at once a gay love story, a plea for handicapped liberation and a sanguine tale of greed, murder and revenge. My pen name is necessary because the narrative’s explicit depictions of incontinence management and gay sex could arouse the interest of the culture police.
Words fail me on this one.
Jodi says would be writers really shoot themselves in the foot when writing queries for mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Instead of coming up with fresh ideas, says Jodi, they bury agents and publishers in advertising words. I agree. These, she says, are examples of queries she hopes you never write:
Corporate espionage. Now. A field office with ex-agents, remnants of the Cold War who span the globe from San Francisco to the former USSR. A race against the clock by Emily who must discover the true inner self stripped from her by unknown forces.
A young Madison Avenue’s aberrant lust for obscene personal wealth. A seasonal corporate entrepreneur who revels in a twisted code of ethics. A bizarre entourage of greedy Wall Street parasites. A caring, loving family swept along for the ride.
A fat and happy United States, unaware a conspiracy spawned in the aftermath of Watergate is about to achieve its goal as public servants subservient to a secret Council placed in powerful positions plot the assassination of the president-elect.
Former PI Jimmy Gates wants to sail off into the sunset but his ex-wife, drag queens, nanotechnology 20 years ahead of current science, a mad scientist and love conspires to keep him tied to the dock.
Then, there’s the desperate writer who tries for our sympathy. He or she may win our sympathy, but with letters like these, there’s nothing we can do to help him or her become a published writer.
I know there are rules for query letters like this and I apologize right here and now for not following them. My original plan was to write a full five chapters of perfect coherence but that plan went out the window about two hours ago when I threw up my hands after hours of editing and realized there’s nothing more I can do. I’m at the end of some sort of rope here. There’s a voice in the words I am enclosing and I hope you can find it.
Would you like to read a good novel? I hope so because I’ve written one. I’d like to send it to you, no strings attached, all of it or part of it or as much or as little of it as you like, with more than none of it, in any case, and I enclose a SASE so you can indicate your preference, though I’m afraid your preference will be for none of it but what the hell, I have to make the effort, don’t I, and what do you have to lose except a little time and effort and really, reading it is no effort and you never really know, do you?
The one thing that stands out more than any other in the two letters above, other than desperation, is the fact that the author failed to state what his/her book was about. A query letter filled with generalities is doomed from the very start. From the first word.
It's next to impossible to sell a ms. from a writer with no publishing credits. If you're one, you're going to have to write a query letter that not only follows all the rules, but really shines.
I always advise writers to write some superlative short stories and get them published before attempting a novel. Or, if the short story is something they simply can't master (and it is more difficult than the novel), it's wise to try a small publishing house, one that deals with very specialized material. For example, John F. Blair Publishing deals only with material set in South Carolina. You won't make much money dealing with very small houses, maybe less that $1000, and you'll have to do most of your publicity at your own expense, but you will be a published author.
Good luck, and please avoid the examples above in your query letters.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Descriptive writing is an art. Luckily, it's an art most writers, with practice, can learn. The best descriptive writing often makes use of the various techniques of imagery. Although overuse of any one of these various techniques will definitely result in "purple prose," careful and judicious use will add much flair and vibrancy to your work.
One of my favorite descriptive passages (and favorite descriptive writers) is the opening of In the Forest by the great Irish writer, Edna O'Brien:
Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands, a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform-wise. In the interior the trapped wind gives off the rustle of a distant sea and the tall slender trunks of the spruces are so close together that the barks are a sable-brown the light becoming darker and darker into the chamber of non-light. At the farthest entrance under the sweep of a brooding mountain there is a wooden hut choked with briars and brambles where a dead goat decomposed and stank during those frantic, suspended, and sorrowing days. It was then the wood lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people.
This is not only uncommonly gorgeous prose, it also sets the place and tone of the novel. It tells us something about the way the narrator thinks.
There are several techniques you can use to deepen the imagery in your fiction writing. When you're writing your first draft, you should give yourself permission to overuse any of them. When you revise and polish, you can take out the ones that don't quite work and keep the ones you love.
Two of the most common techniques for creating and deepening imagery are similie and metaphor and you're probably very familiar with both of them.
A similie is a comparison of two unlike things linked by the word "like" or "as."
"The stars were strewn like diamonds across the sky" is a similie. Stars, of course, are not diamonds, but it is possible to compare them to diamonds - and many other things.
"Her hair is like my hair," is not a similie because the writer is not comparing dissimilar things. He's comparing hair to well, hair.
Metaphors are similar to similies in that they compare two unlike things, but they do it without using the words "like" or "as." Metaphors are more subtle than similies, yet they can be more powerful as well.
"The kite was a symphony of color in the wind," is a metaphor. Kites, after all, really aren't symphonies of any kind, except of course, in fiction.
"Her dark gaze was a dagger of jealousy and hate," is another metaphor. A gaze, of course, can never be a dagger.
Even though similies should be used sparingly, metaphors should be used even more sparingly still. As I wrote earlier, it's perfectly fine to overdo in your first draft, but be careful in your final one.
One of the easiest ways to create imagery is through a simple analogy. "The garden path is a maze of twists and turns" is a simple analogy, neither a similie nor a metaphor. We aren't comparing the garden path to a dissimilar thing.
A zeugma is a rarely used comparative technique, but when it's done right, it can be very beautiful. A zeugma is simply a word that's used twice, in two different ways.
One of the best examples of a zeugma is from the Paul Simon song, "Duncan" and goes like this: "Holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans."
In the first case, of course, the word "holes" is metaphorical; in the second, it's literal.
Repetition can be a powerful device to use in writing, but be extra careful not to overdo this one. Faulkner often repeated a word in a paragraph that had appeared in the immediately preceeding one as a way of tying his work together. It worked beautifully for him, but remember, none of us are Faulkner...yet.
You can repeat phrases and images as well. Just be careful or you'll render this powerful device ineffective.
Irony is saying the opposite of what's really meant. If one of your characters is sitting and crying her eyes out and another character walks by and asks, "Well, happy now?" that's irony.
Irony should be obvious in the statement itself. You shouldn't have to tell your reader a character is speaking in an ironic manner.
Character names often mean quite a lot to some authors. A character can be named "Hope" or "Solita" for very good reasons other than the fact that the author simply likes the sound of the name. The unreliable male narrators in Irish author John Banville's books almost always have highly significant names. "Max Morden," the protagonist of Banville's 2005 Booker winning novel The Sea is one. So is the family called "the Graces."
A character has to have a name that "fits," but a character doesn't have to have a name that's significant. In fact, if you choose to use a significant name, you should limit it to one character only or it's going to be way too obvious to even the dullest reader.
The use of symbols is another way to add beautiful imagery to your fiction writing. I love symbols. I could write a book about symbols and nothing else. But I won't.
If you choose to include a symbol or symbols in your writing, you need to be very, very subtle about it. For example, we all know the Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, but to use this in a story would be trite and cliche, it's so obvious. However, the cooing of a mourning dove to symbolize sadness or melancholy could be used effectively. Withered and faded flowers could symbolize a death of some kind. Rain is often used to symbolize many things, some of them happy and some sad depending on the story and how the symbol is used.
Don't, for heaven's sake, tell your reader what your symbol means. It's your job to choose the right symbol and integrate it into the story perfectly; it's the reader's job to be perceptive enough to know what it means.
One of my favorite symbols is the green light on the Buchanan's dock in F. Scott Fitzgerald's quintessential novel of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby. What does it mean? It's your job to figure it out. Fitzgerald was a masterful writer and he wisely didn't tell us.
Ninety-nine percent of the stories I read contain no imagery or contain imagery used in the wrong way. More than ninety-nine percent of the stories I read could benefit from one of more of the techniques of imagery used in the right way.
Writers of short stories have so many tools at their disposal. We aren't like the screenwriter or the poor playwright who must forego description. Make use of these techniques to deepen your story and to increase the emotional power and beauty of your prose. If you overuse them at first, that's fine. Overusing them is one way to learn to use them judiciously. Using them judiciously and properly is a very, very good way to catch the eye of an editor or publisher. And that, I think, is one of the goals of almost everyone who writes.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
In the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, booksellers declared a new era of Independents at Book Expo America on Thursday. The American Booksellers Association - building on a rising tide of localism - launched its new program, IndieBound, to enthusiastic applause. The program is designed to unite booksellers, readers, indie retailers, local business alliances, and others in support of local activism and local economies and to lead an Independent Revolution.
(Reposted with permission of the ABA - more information can be found at the ABA Web site.)
(Reposted with permission of the ABA - more information can be found at the ABA Web site.)