Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Appendix Appendicitis 1

The “Five Card” Exercise

So imagine that you’ve signed up for my class. First thing you discover is that a crazed-looking, long-haired, bearded hobo has taken over the class. Where’s the teacher? Who’s going to teach you about short story writing?
Oh, wait – you mean he’s the teacher? Can you still get a refund?
Well, okay. It’s a cold night. You’ve driven this far. May as well sit here in this warm (maybe too warm) classroom for a while. It would be rude to walk out on him – not that you’re worried about being rude to a hobo but, you know, on general principles…
The hobo yaps for a while, going on about “story-shaped ideas,” and conflict and motivation – blah-blah-blah. What does that have to do with writing? Aren’t you just supposed to put down stuff on paper about your uncle Toby and how he used to tell fart jokes at the table when your folks invited him over for Thanksgiving? What’s all this stuff about revolution? Oh – RES-olution. Maybe you should have just taken that volleyball class after all…
Just then, the hobo takes out all these cards – or little slips of paper. Five little stacks of cards. What’s this all about? Are you going to play Monopoly?
On one set of cards, on one side a word is printed:

Another set of cards have on them:

The third set of cards say:

One the fourth set:
Nemesis/opposition/ conflict/“trouble”

And the last:

From each set he asks you to pick one card. On the other side of the first set, on each card is a name. Here are some for example:
Arthur Stringmeier
Dana Lockwood
Chaney Hitchcock
Claudia Rollins
Budd Buford
Kate Ballinger
Why names? Why not descriptions, or resumes, or articles of clothing?
The hobo says that names are specific. You’re not dealing with generalities. A story is about someone. Not only that, but names are evocative. You hear a name and you imagine a person who has that name. Every student will have a picture of who that character is, but every student’s picture will be different. If you give the same name to five different students you will end up with five different stories.
Let’s say you picked the card for Kate Ballinger. Who is she? What does she look like? Where does she live? What does she do? If you can’t think of anything right away, don’t worry. Pick a card from the “Motivation” stack. You may choose from such things as:
A lot of “R” words in that bunch. But why do you need them?
The hobo explains that characters have to need something, or want something. Static, inert characters rarely make for interesting stories.
Okay. So you pick one and it turns out to be “Survival.”
What’s next? Setting:
All-night diner
School library
Rest stop on the Interstate
Concourse in city commuter station
Basement workshop
Rehabbed warehouse
Well, the all-night diner sounds promising, but the card you pulled is for the commuter concourse.
What’s left? “Conflict,” isn’t it? You pull one of these:
Well-intentioned idiot
Ancient curse
Angry mob
Jilted lover
Former friend, now rival
“Angry mob” is an easy one to figure out, but the card you pull is “Ancient Curse.”
So, let’s see. So far, you have Kate Ballinger; her motivation is Survival; the setting is the big concourse in a commuter train station (or something like that); and the “nemesis” is an Ancient Curse.
Now all we have left is to see how it all works out in the end. The last card:
Character succeeds by first overcoming personal demons.

Character succeeds through clever deception.

Character succeeds by restoring chaos to an orderly situation.

Character succeeds by trusting an “untrustworthy” friend.

Character succeeds by restoring order to a chaotic situation.

The card you get seems to dictate that Kate Ballinger will have to trust an “untrustworthy” friend.
You and the other students are now asked to either write down or verbally hash out a story based on these five cards.
Is it hard? Sometimes.
Impossible? Never.
Now, like most creators of exercises, I, the hobo, am usually the worst at actually doing the assigned task. If I received this set of cards, I’d probably come up with a story about Kate Ballinger, an attorney of about fifty who has an unfortunate habit of abandoning jobs as soon as she starts to feel too comfortable and secure. She considers this an “ancient curse,” inherited from her father, whose employment record was at best irregular and kept the family living from paycheck to questionable paycheck. She is in Chicago’s Union Station with her assistant, Miss Maggs, a demoniacally efficient person but with questionable loyalties. Kate and Maggs are ostensibly headed for the suburb of Highland Park to meet with a potential new client.
Kate has surreptitiously bought an Amtrak ticket for Milwaukee, from where she plans to phone in a resignation to her current employer. The weather is terrible. All the trains are delayed. Even so, Kate is determined to go through with her plan, but first she has to distract Miss Maggs long enough to get to the Amtrak departure gates. Now, Miss Maggs wouldn’t mind having Kate’s job for herself, but her mania for efficiency may prevent her from actually doing something to clear the way for Kate’s escape, fortuitous as it may be to herself. This leaves us with two questions as we approach the story’s climax: 1.) Will Kate finally break her self-destructive pattern and 2.) Will Miss Maggs, intentionally or otherwise, help Kate to do the “right thing,” whether that’s to abandon her job or to stay with the firm?
Now, that’s a scenario by me, admittedly a lousy player of this game, done at the spur of the moment with a set of five cards I randomly chose. Most of my students, many of whom are first embarking on the notion of writing fiction, can come up with better ones. Try it yourself with each of the unused category items here. 
The point is, you may ask, why? Why play with this stuff?
First and foremost, because students learn better and faster when they’re doing, rather than just listening or even discussing.
Second, the exercise helps illustrate the notion that a story needs to have certain things to work. I’ve called them “elements,” but now I’m thinking a better term might be “dimensions.” If you have them, you can make a story. If you don’t have them, you’ll have to find them.
Third, because it demonstrates that it’s not so difficult to put together a story. It may be built into our natures. Our brains may be wired to think in terms of story* – which is why we can be given these five random cards and make a story out of them. It needn’t be a great story; it doesn’t even have to be a good story; it just has to be a story.
Many students have done the exercise, put it aside and never looked at it again. Others have developed, continued and completed stories started from the cards. Many of them have been pretty damn good.
The point is not to make story writing seem simple, or esoteric, or to advocate a process of writing fiction. The cards simply help people understand that stories have parts – or elements, or dimensions, or whatever lingo you wish to use – and that we can understand our own process – and the processes that others use – better when we can recognize those parts.

Postscript: Plotto’s Republic

I’ve been doing this card exercise for years. I’ve used variations of it in my science fiction writing classes and as part of two- and three-day workshops at conventions.
It grew from things I read about legendary “plot wheels” that pulp writers used in the early part of the twentieth century. You can see one online that is supposed to have been used by Earle Stanley Garner.
Another touchstone for the pulp-era necessity (at least for some) of a “plot generator” was the fabled tome by William Wallace Cook, Plotto. It was an elaborate index of plots derived from numbered, lettered lists of character types, sources of conflict and means for resolution. A writer could choose one from each of these lists and have a plot to work from in an instant.
Many writers saw that as being the sole purpose of the book. Fiction writers, especially writers of pulp or popular fiction, had to be prolific. Some of the most legendary writers of the era – Frederick Faust (aka Max Brand), Walter Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant), Lester Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson), Edgar Wallace (aka “Edgar Wallace”), and so on – wrote at great speed and volume. Quantity was as important, if not more so, than quality. By spinning the wheel, or picking “one from column A and one from column B, you would have a plot and a couple of wooden characters to go through its motions: fiction not quite on an assembly line but conceived to be shot out in rapid fire succession.
A great deal of fiction is turned out in such a fashion. “Series” books have been a staple of the publishing world for as long as the publishing world has existed. Fiction generated for the media – radio, TV, films – has been pumped out with alacrity (or something less so) for ages.
In the back pages of various writers’ magazines (or their electronic equivalents) one can find ads for various kinds of software that pick up pretty much from where Plotto left off. If there is a way to make the writing of fiction for any media as purely mechanical a process as possible, you can bet there’s someone out there trying either to create it or exploit it, or both.
One person, though, who stated he wasn’t looking for the perfectly-machined story, antiseptic, clean and free of any human fingerprints or sweat, was… William Wallace Cook.
Throughout his book, Cook insists that his plot-making machinery is merely the first step in a process that should be completed with one’s own experience and creative input. Give the same plot to five different writers and you will receive in return five significantly different stories. “Each person that lives, has ever lived or shall live is, was or will be a collector of ideas combined into a certain thing called experience. My experience is not your experience; and that means that neither you nor I, when accomplishing original work, will accomplish identical work. If it were otherwise, there would be no originality in the world.” (Tin House Books edition, page 2 of the “manual” in the back of the book)
What’s more, at times he suggests that the study of creating imaginative works is not merely of benefit to writers. He suggests that writing is a kind of problem-solving, and a means of investigation or exploration.
If we’re doing it right, writing is a learning process – a way to collect and understand experience.
“Whether a man shall sell mousetraps or life insurance, stories or drygoods, he will find in his imagination a power which, furthering his originality, will bring him pleasure and profit such as he has never known before.” (as above, page 38)
I would make no guarantee to any “pleasure and profit,” but I wouldn’t discount the possibility, either. In that regard, I’m glad to discover that Cook precedes me on the road that I’m traveling, and not in any superficial way. When we learn to write we write to learn, because that’s what really makes it worth doing.

*See THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: How Stories Make Us Human. Jonathan Gottschall. xviii + 248 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Friday, February 7, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Part Nine

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or a qualitative list of the “best” books on writing short fiction. It’s a list a books I consulted and found useful, intriguing, inspiring. Some I simply found entertaining, and that’s as good a reason to read a book about writing as any.
As I said at the outset, most good books on the writing process are telling you the same basic things; the authors just find different ways to present this information, or they will emphasize one aspect of the process over the other. You may find a favorite of yours on the list. You may also find a book or two (or three) that you encountered that was no help at all. That’s okay. As long as you get the message, one way or another (and that includes not reading any books about writing, period – just reading, and reading, and reading, and reading the work of other writers), you are headed in the right direction.

Some Further Reading

Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, Capra Press, 1990 (editions available from other publishers).
Some excellent advice along with some silly advice, but his little pep talks work like a shot of adrenaline for me.

Reginald Bretnor, Ed. The Craft of Science Fiction, Barnes & Noble, 1976.
Out of print, but still available online. A collection of essays about various aspects of the process of science fiction writing. Worth looking up if for no other reason than to read Katherine MacLean’s brilliant and prescient “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.”

Algis Budrys, Writing to the Point, Unifont, 1994.
Brief, clear and essential essays on short story writing, including “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,” the single best essay on the subject I’ve read so far.

Samuel R. Delany, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews, Wesleyan University Press, 2005.
          Read the introduction, “Emblems of Talent.” Much of this will strike you as esoteric, but in many places Delany is clearer than anyone else I’ve read on what makes for good writing and good fiction.

Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, second edition, Oxford University Press, 1973, 1998.
Not an attempt to phase out my job, but a book with a wealth of information about the writing process and the sort of “teacherless” writing groups that have become the model for many critique groups and workshops.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, HBJ, first published in 1927.
A book on the novel for a short story class? What Forster says is pertinent to any writer of fiction. The two sections on “People” are especially valuable.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, Vintage Books, 1985.
Very literary, but very clear, and more passionate than most books that come from the literary/academia neck of the woods. The exercises at the end of book are quite ingenious and worth trying.

__________, On Becoming a Novelist, W. W. Norton Company, 1999 (first published in 1983).
Okay, this is a list for short story writers, but much of what Gardner has to say here applies to all writers of fiction. Look especially at the sections “The Writer’s Nature” and “Faith.”

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (expanded edition), Shambhala Publications, 2005.
It took me a while to get to this book, though it’s been recommended to me a number of times over the years. It is a collection of exercises and explanations, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is very much worth exploring.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” an essay available in many anthologies and collections.
No matter how you feel about Mr. James’ writing, what he says about fiction is remarkably incisive and generous. If nothing else, remember his admonition to the young writer: “Try to be one of the people upon whom nothing is lost.”

Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction (revised), St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Down to earth, extremely helpful, knowledgeable and sensible. The sections on “Voice and Persona” and using your unconscious (which he calls “Fred”) will save you at least ten years of wandering through the wilderness.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Pantheon, 1994.
Sympathetic, hilarious “instructions” from someone who is intimately familiar with every writer’s neuroses inside and out.

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative,” essay in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Harper and Row, 1989.
          How narrative works in life as well as in art.

______________, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.
Just what the title says. The focus of this book is on improving a writer’s style rather than structure, but it contains a lot of material pertinent to all facets of fiction writing.

______________, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination, Shambhala Publications, 2004.
Some wonderful insights, as one would expect by now, from LeGuin on the creative process. Most pertinent in the section “On Writing.”

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1961.
This is more a book about literature than writing, but what Lewis says about “popular” versus “literary” fiction should be read by all writers.

Barry B. Longyear, Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics, Owlswick Press, 1980.
Out of print, but still available from the publisher. Even if you’re not interested in writing science fiction, the opening chapters are pertinent to the writing of any short fiction.

Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” and “The Art of Literature and Commonsense, both in Lectures on Literature, HBJ, 1980.
Again, these lectures are not directed specifically at writers, but they contain things everyone interested in fiction should know.

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969.
Most directly the essays “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” and “Writing Short Stories.”

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, Harper Perennial, 2006.
For all these classes, all these workshops, all these books, writers learn most from reading. Prose (yes, that’s her real last name) does a commendable job in demonstrating how this is done.

John Schultz, Writing from Start to Finish, Boynton/Cook, 1982 (A revised “concise” version came out in 1990).
Designed as a freshman rhetoric book (well, so was The Elements of Style), but it’s loaded with precise explanations and examples of basic prose forms. I dispute half the title, though, and offer this caveat: it’s good on “start” but much weaker on “finish.”

William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, fourth edition, Allyn and Bacon, 2000, 1979.
This book needs no introduction. It’s the winner and still champ. The single most consulted book on the art of good, clear writing ever written.

Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story, Random House, 1978.
All the essays in the section “On Writing” are interesting and thought-provoking. In 2002, Modern Library published those essays separately in a volume titled, appropriately enough, On Writing.

___________, One Writer’s Beginnings, Harvard University Press, 1984.
Three autobiographical essays, but each one makes a point about how she became a writer of fiction and about fiction writing in general.

Kate Wilhelm, Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Small Beer Press, 2005.
Kate Wilhelm and her husband Damon Knight were running writing workshops before most of us even knew what they were (and before many of us were even born). This book gives us a small portion of what Wilhelm has learned, but in that portion is more than you’ll find in ten other books.

Nancy Willard, Telling Time: Angels, Ancestors and Stories, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.
Another shot of adrenaline for persons who have outgrown Bradbury. Wonderful reading, wonderful advice, fun and enchanting, which is what this business of telling stories and writing fiction is all about.

Robin Scott Wilson, ed., Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader New American Library, 1973 (reprinted in 1996 by St. Martin’s Griffin).
A collection of stories paired with essays about the works by their authors. Candid and generous in giving readers a look at how science fiction writers look at and think about the world.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, HarperCollins, 2001 (twenty-fifth anniversary edition; other editions available; first published 1976).
Written specifically to treat non-fiction writing, but Zinsser is especially strong at reminding all writers to strive for clarity. I especially commend to you Chapter 10, “Bits and Pieces,” which has enough good advice in a few pieces to be worth a dozen other books of similar length and intent.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Part Eight

Markets and Preparing Manuscripts for Submission

Since I last set out to write something vaguely accurate about sending out stories for publication, everything – I mean, everything – has changed. Maybe I'm just asking to get laughed at, but when I started teaching the Writing Short Stories course, I could use the word "typewriter" without being laughed at or stared at as if I'd just been unearthed from a mothball-filled sarcophagus.
Sure, there are a number of print publications still in operation, and they are putting out fine work. But much of the action has switched over to the electronic markets – webzines and e-publications.You can still troll through the Writer’s Market – in print or online. You can also go to sites like Duotrope and Ralan’s Webstravaganza to get information on print and electronic markets (Note: Nowadays, Ralan's less so for markets, but it remains a great clearing house of information for writers; Duotrope is still tops for market information but now requests a fee for their more expanded services). Each of these places offer tips on where to find more information about places you can your stories to.
The information is out there.
And, if you’re interested in print publications, nothing beats taking a trip to a big, old-fashioned newsstand that carries a wide selection of magazines. Still have one nearby? Okay, within a day's drive, maybe?
Nothing beats the newsstand – except the library.
Or if your local bookstore also carries a number of print publications, haunt the place.
Whether you’re looking to be published in print or on electrons, it’s good to be familiar with the publications you want to be published in.
Sample the product.
For both print and electronic publications, find their website. Most publications have an item on their menu called “Submission Guidelines,” or something along those lines.
Follow the directions as closely as you can. Submishmash is a popular software format for small journals; others want a .pdf or a manuscript in Rich Text Format (rtf); still others will take MS Word attachments. Read the instructions and follow them implicitly (or even explicitly -- just . . . follow them). Blah-blah-blah -- you know all this stuff already, don't you?
Make sure your final draft is as close to perfect as you can make it. Don’t give the editors and first readers easy reasons to reject your story. Your story is interviewing for a job: make sure its fly is zipped.
If you’re submitting “hard copy” (i.e. paper) manuscripts:
Use separate sheets of 8 ½ x 11 inch paper – white, 16 to 24 pound stock. Use an easy-to-read font (at least try; what constitutes an easy-to-read font get sometimes get you into debates of theological proportions. Families have been ripped asunder over Times Roman vs. Courier New disputes -- you have been warned).
All of this sounds ridiculously basic, but you won’t believe how many horror stories I’ve heard from editors who get dozens of manuscripts where these basics have not been followed.
Don’t staple your stories. Keep them loose or use a simple paper clip.
Use one inch margins on all sides – just like in school – with maybe a half inch more for the bottom margin.
First page – name and address in the upper left corner, phone number below that (optional, as is your e-mail address). If you have an agent (I’m being very general here), his or her name and phone number would go under yours. The word count goes in the upper right corner (for those of you who don’t have word-counting computer software (all three of you), five characters plus one space is considered the “average” word in English. Count the characters in your story – type characters, not people in your story – and divide by six. That’s your word count). An approximation is acceptable. Most magazines that pay by the word do their own word counts, but they roughly need to know how long your story is.
There used to be an old, old practice of noting the rights you were willing to sell underneath your word count, but today no professional writers do that. Most publications buy only First North American Serial Rights anyway, and if they don’t, the matter is usually negotiated after the editor has already shown an interest in your manuscript. You can also indicate a copyright for your story in this spot, but since under U. S. law your manuscript is protected regardless, most writers don’t bother.
All the above information is the only part of your manuscript that should be single-spaced.
Halfway down the page goes the title of your story, in caps and centered. Below that goes your byline, also centered, in upper and lower case, with your “writer” name if it’s different from your real name.
Skip a line and begin your story, double-spaced. Indent new paragraphs – do not skip a line between paragraphs: it throws off word counts and is more a practice used in business writing than in prose fiction.
On each subsequent page, your last name, the name of your story (abbreviated) and the page number should appear in the upper right corner. It should appear above your “margined” area and is not considered part of it.
You don’t need to write “End” or “The End” on the last page of your story, unless the story comes so far down the page there’s a chance someone might think a page is missing. However, if that confusion can be made, it may indicate that your “ending” isn’t really all that conclusive.
Do not use unusual script faces or italics. Italics in most manuscripts are indicated by underscoring (like this). With the advent of more electronic submissions, standard practices on this matter have been shifting slowly -- and not steadily. Check your submission guidelines in regard to their preference.
Also, if your computer and printer allow you to “justify” type (flush on both left and right sides) – don’t! This also screws up an editor’s ability to make his or her own word count.

Along with a good dictionary (which you should obviously have) get a good grammar reference book and a style guide (like the Chicago Manual of Style) to answer all the inevitable questions that come up as you prepare your final draft. If that’s too much paper to deal with, there are a number of good on-line dictionaries and grammar reference websites to which you can avail yourself.
Don’t rely on your software’s grammar checks. Most of them are still not sophisticated enough to deal with anything more than the simplest of English sentence formations, and sometimes even those baffle them.


Send manuscripts in 10x13 or 9x12 inch envelopes. Include a stamped return envelope with the manuscript, unless you’re submitting a disposable photocopy. If so, include a stamped letter-sized envelope so they can still inform you if they’ve received – or accepted, or rejected, your story.

Always try to find the most current information on the places where you want to send your work. It’s frustrating to mail off a manuscript to a place that’s out of business or direct your manuscript to an editor who died two months before (as I did once).

Dealing with editors/publications

Cover letters – Some writers like to attract brief introductory notes to their stories when they send them out, introducing the story and the writer to the editor. For the most part, don’t bother, unless the editor you’re sending to specifically requests one. In spite of all the how-to articles written about writing winning cover letters, it’s your story that will ultimately sell the editor, not the letter.
Cover letters are more appropriate when you are returning a story to an editor who has already read the story and suggested revisions. In that case, your cover letter should explain the revisions you’ve made on the story, and any other changes you may have made since the editor saw the previous version.

Galleys – After a story has been accepted, you may receive a set of galleys: a rough version of what your story will look like in print or online. Read the galleys carefully, and make sure no egregious errors have been made in the typesetting of your story. Use proofreading marks to indicate your corrections. Your reading may be the only careful one it gets before going to press, considering the cutbacks many publishers have made on the copyediting side. The story you save will be your own!

Contracts – Read them carefully. There isn’t a lot a beginning writer can do to negotiate a contract with a big magazine (maybe more with small ones), and most magazines aren’t really out to cheat you (because the publishing grapevine can hurt them if they do). But there are a few things that are so out of line you need to watch for them. Publishers cannot buy your story out right – they can only pay you for the use of the story once or twice – and you must be credited as the author of your story as designated on your manuscript. One other place where you might find problems these days is in the distribution of “electronic rights,” (i.e. Internet and non-paper formats like computer disks). Since that market is evolving even as you read these words, it might be a good idea to keep informed of any practices or court decisions that may affect your rights in these areas.
If anyone wants to reprint your story for an anthology or collection, they have to ask for your permission, not necessarily the people who published your story first (although the first publication should be credited in the publication that reprints your story).
Check to see if a “kill fee” is specified in your contract. What that means is that if for some reason, after buying your story, they cannot use it – or if they change their minds – you have to be compensated for their signing a contract and holding on to your story for so long when you might have gotten it published elsewhere.

Rejection slips – Comments from editors

Generic rejections are printed replies usually included with your returned manuscript. They rarely say more than “Thank you for trying us.” Some have little check-off boxes with reasons most often why stories are rejected – which is a little feedback, at least. Once you start sending off stories, you’ll probably see a lot of these. Don’t let them discourage you. Most publications use these impersonal replies because they see hundreds of manuscripts every week.

Personal replies are brief notes or emails written by editors or their assistants, sometimes on the same slips of paper the impersonal rejections are printed on. If you get one of these, congratulate yourself. You’re making it up the “slush pile” and someone at the publication thought enough to send you a personal – if brief – response.

Comments: when you do receive personal comments from an editor, take them seriously. The editor’s job is not to ruin your story or to discourage you. Editors who keep their jobs are usually people who know their stuff. However, they’re not above being wrong every now and then. Remember, you are the final arbiter of what’s right for your story. If they make suggestions for changes or revisions, weigh them carefully. The next editor to whom you send your story may love it as it is.

Payment: if an editor accepts your story, payment is usually specified (even if, as is the case with many small literary magazines, it consists of nothing more than a couple of “contributor’s copies”). Bigger commercial magazines usually pay upon acceptance. “Acceptance” is usually defined as the time the editor receives copies of the countersigned contract. Many contracts stipulate that you will be sent a check a specified time after acceptance, usually no more than thirty days. Many smaller publications pay authors “on publication,” which means anywhere between two months before or after the publication is “out,” mailed to subscribers or distributed to stores.
A check in the mailbox is indeed a happy thing, but then we’re not just in this for the money, are we?
Caution and good sense are useful in all endeavors, and publishing is no exception.

Electronic Publishing

The field of electronic publishing is still relatively new (God, I feel so creaky saying that!) and the scene is changing almost every day. Ostensibly (listen to the implied italics as you read that word), copyright protection for stories appearing in electronic formats are protected by the same laws that protect printed media.
However, stay tuned. The problem with the electronic world is that it’s much easier to copy a story and distribute it without your authorization (or your publisher’s). So far, the problem of “web piracy” is still being worked out. The issues inherent in this topic are almost as volatile as theological hair-splitting in the medieval ages. If we start in on it here, we won't exit on it for a long, long time. 
As far as potential scams and schemes to cheat authors out of hard-earned cash, there is a valuable resource on the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It’s called “Writer Beware” and it’s worth the time of any writer to take a look at what some folks will do to squeeze money out of writers who have great hopes and dreams, but very little experience.

Why are we writing short stories when the market for them keeps changing from crazy to crazier?
Well, we may be writing for ourselves, for our own amusement and satisfaction. We may write for what the writing process brings to us.
If not just for fun, perhaps for the discipline the form teaches us. When you move on to other kinds of writing – to novels, plays, etc. – you can do so with the skills you’ve acquired from short story writing – with confidence and with a sense of what’s basic and what’s specific to each of these dramatic forms.
The discipline of short story writing can be applied to your extra-literary lives as well. Writing aids your skills of observation, reflection and thinking. People who write are more likely to see past mere appearances. They can empathize better with others. They can see the world around them with more than one point of view (please don't prove me wrong).
Then again, we may write to see our work published.
Writing is communication, after all, and it seems odd to go through all the work of writing a story just to have it stuffed in a drawer.
Even if you aren’t interested in getting published, you should give it a try. In more ways than one, it “completes” the process of writing a story.
For the more ambitious, it is possible to sell your work, or at least to see it in print, but even the best paying markets for short stories cannot provide a living income. There has been a recent rise of interest in short stories, with a number of new publications dedicated to new short stories, mini e-books of short stories, or e-book collections, stage venues for the reading of short stories and even a few web radio programs and podcasts where short stories are read aloud before an audience. But most of this has done little to change the financial picture for writers of short stories.
In other words, if you want to write short stories and you don’t have a day job, find one. You can make a living as a writer; you can even – if you’re lucky or clever – make a living writing fiction… but not by writing short stories alone.
The good thing about this business of writing fiction for print or the “e-verse” is that for the most part the writers and editors you meet are generous with their time and experience. No one, not even a scam artist, is making a lot of money. You’re doing this because you love it, or you’re not doing it.
Welcome to the club.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Part Seven

Revision and Rewriting

The last great advocate of unrevised “spontaneous” writing was Jack Kerouac, who for a while lived under the adage, “First word best word.” He claimed for a while that he didn’t revise his work – that it flowed directly from his mind to the page, like a jazz musician improvising a solo. After his death, biographers looking through his original manuscripts found plenty of revisions and corrections in his work, especially in the one novel for which he will best be remembered, On the Road. If you reverse the comparison for just a moment, it may just prove that sometimes even great improvisers may wish they could call back some of those notes they’ve “blown.”
It may also suggest that even if the first word is the best word, the first word may not always be the word that comes to you first.
It’s also an example of mistaking the process of writing for the product of writing. Some folks think that if you want to write long, flowing passages of fluidly lyrical prose you have to write it in long flowing passages. Sometimes it happens that way. Most of the time it doesn’t. That beautiful passage has most often been cut into pieces, rearranged, had words lifted out of it and other words slipped into their places. It’s been completely started over two or three times, and the beginning of one attempt is grafted onto the middle of another. That stream of “effortless” prose was usually produced in a very messy way. The only thing that’s really “effortless” about it is the way you read it – which is why the writer spent all that time working on it in the first place.
The revision and rewriting processes go on in a number of different ways. I use a lot of paper: writing one version in a notebook, printing out another from a computer file, scribbling on the printed version and then going back to another notebook before doing another version on the computer. A writer like Algis Budrys does all the revision and rewriting in his head, so that when he finally sits down at the computer he rarely has to go back and revise a passage – or so he says. That sort of sounds like the kind of facility one has when he or she can play thirty games of chess at once, blindfolded. But the process of revising, of “getting the words right,” still goes on, even if the only evidence of all that work is left in the brain cells of the author.

Why do we revise?
Generally, we revise for two reasons. The first reason is that something is missing in our telling of the story: important details have been left out; some aspect of the story doesn’t seem to jell or ring true; or perhaps the order of your amassed scenes and details isn’t right – some important piece of information should be divulged earlier or some important point shouldn’t be made until the final paragraph. This point also covers the opposite situation: having way too much in the story that needs to be removed.
The second reason may have more to do with the “voice” of the story: too distant, too close, too detached, too involved. In that case, what Alexander Pope said about poems is true for stories as well: “The sound must be an echo of the sense.” That is, the language we use must be suited to the story we’re trying to tell.
Okay, so there’s a third reason we revise: we change our minds (like I’ve done now). We started a story believing it will add up to A, B and C, but while we’re writing it we discover that the events really add up to C, A and B. You change whatever is necessary to reflect your new knowledge.
The creation of a work of fiction can be a long, grueling process. As much as we try for perfection, we fall short. There is always room for improvement, even in the generally accepted “classics” of fiction, short or long. However, it’s also possible to kill a story with revisions. It’s possible to rewrite and revise the same piece until you’ve lost all interest in it, and if it no longer interests you, how can you expect it to interest your readers?
Another problem many beginning writers have is that they fall in love with their own words and sentences – or they at least they grow accustomed to them. They lose the ability to read over their sentences critically and determine if the words really communicate what they want to communicate.
Fall in love with your words all you want – as long as you don’t get married to them, at least without a long, testing courtship.
You should remember that language is simply the means by which the story is conveyed from your imagination to the reader’s imagination. You can use beautifully structured language, but it mustn’t be so beautiful that it obscures your story or detracts from its telling. George Orwell compared good prose to a clear window through which you can see perfectly; if it’s dirty or opaque, it’s not doing the job it was intended to do, which is to let you see through it and to let the light shine through.
Alter your words as much as you need to convey the story you want to tell.

A few basic approaches to revision

1.      Read the story aloud. Note the places where you get lost in your own words, where you fumble in reading them or where something strikes you as not sounding right. Stories started off as an oral form, after all, and putting the written words back into their spoken form helps you to gain a new perspective on them.
2.    Have someone else read the story, aloud or to themselves. Listening to someone else read your story gives you more “distance” on it and helps you see what’s working and what isn’t. If someone reads your story silently, ask him or her to tell you – not if they “like it” or if they like the “style” – but if they “understand” what’s happening. Do they know who goes through the front door of the church in the opening scene? Did they know the heroine was really fooling the policeman when she said she didn’t know where she was? What’s clear and makes sense? What’s unintentionally obscure and confounding?
3.    Put the story away for a while (Days? Weeks? Months? Longer?). That’s another way to gain a critical distance on your work. The passage of time helps you figure out what words really work and what words only seem to work because you’ve read them over so many times.

Revisions involve close work with the “text” (i.e. the words on paper): re-casting clunky sentences; reordering paragraphs; cutting the first scene; moving a scene from the middle to the beginning; cutting out redundant words and phrases; clearing up tense problems; fixing grammatical gaffes; removing unintended points-of-view shifts; etc.

Rewriting may include all of the above, but rather than tinker with all those sheets of paper, you put them aside and start fresh: either just glancing at the previous manuscript to get a point or two right, or not looking at the previous manuscript at all. Pretend that it’s lost, or that you burned it, or that your dog ate it. What you do from there is go back to the source – the story as it existed in your head – and forget about all the words you’ve written so far. Some of what you write will not change much. Some of it will change completely. After you’ve done the rewrite, you may decide that you liked the first version better, but by doing the rewrite you at least can compare the two versions and decide which one works best. Most often, you will find that pieces of the first version work best for some parts, and pieces of the rewrite work better in other parts, and you combine what works best from each one.

As an exercise, take out a page of your writing that’s fairly well along. Look it over.
Now pretend that an editor has requested that you cut at least a third of this page. The story will be published, but a third of it has to go.
What do you cut without hurting the story? Is it possible to combine and/or compress what you’ve written? Are there any redundancies you can cut out? Are there any images that might be better conveyed in a shorter manner? Give it a shot.

As another exercise, take out another page of your writing.
Read it over carefully. Then, turn it over, or put it on the floor, or in another room. Just get it somewhere where you can’t look at it.
Once the page is tucked away, rewrite it.
No peeking!
When you’re finished, read over the two versions. Don’t be surprised if you find the second version clearer and more concise.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Part Six

What’s the point? Form, Content and “Getting Stuck”

There are as many different ways to write as there are writers, good and bad alike. When it comes to the “process” of writing I try not to be prescriptive. What works for you is the way you should do it. But whether you like to start by imagining a character, or a place, or a voice, or a situation that captures your interest, it’s easy to find yourself stopping at some point to ask yourself: is this one really worth doing? Is this a story or is it “just typing,” as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s works?
For most writers in most situations, the best advice anyone can give you is “follow the story.” If you don’t know where the story is going, follow the characters. Get the basics down, the “who what when where why” of the story, and see where they take you.
“Form” can be taken as a simple enough term: a story is a form, as compared to a novel, novella, play or essay. It also refers to the ways in which the story can be told: as a first or third person narration; or perhaps imitative of another form, such as a letter, essay, or as casual speech, like a person recounting an event at the dinner table. The story you’re telling dictates the form the story will take.
“Content” is simply a matter of what needs to be in the story to get it told. Do you need specific information on the central character’s background? Should there be a scene that establishes the rivalry between the central character and his adversary? Or can that be summarized in a brief bit of exposition? There’s a scene I wrote early on, when I didn’t know how the conflict worked. Should I take it out now, or won’t the readers understand what’s happening if I remove it?
Until you get to the final draft – or what you think is the final draft – those should be the main concerns. And sometimes you don’t need to go any further than that. Your readers will decide if you’ve touched on any great themes, given them a moral lesson or illustrated an intriguing philosophy.
If there’s a point you want to make, by all means make it, but be ready to alter that point if your story takes you somewhere else.
Let’s say that in the rough outline of your story, you’ve set up a character to be the “bad guy,” the villain of the piece. You want to make sure the readers know he’s bad, but you also want to make him a convincing character, not just a piece of cardboard. So you give him a real background, and in creating that background, you figure out the bad guy isn’t all that bad – at least he isn’t “evil.” He does bad things because bad things have happened to him in the past. Now, how does that change your story?
You might say, “No, I really want a bad bad guy. Let’s change this.” Or else you might say, “That’s okay. It all seemed too simple before. Maybe what my hero does isn’t as cut and dried as I thought. Maybe he’s no angel either.”
Neither situation is all that bad for a writer to be in. It just depends on whether the plot of the story is pulling you more strongly than the characters. At other times it may work the other way. In either case, the story you’re writing is making you think about certain matters and possibly see them in a different light. You may not just be growing as a writer, but as a person too.
Ursula K. Le Guin once referred to science fiction stories as “thought experiments,” asking “what if” questions and pursuing possible answers by creating fictional scenarios. But there’s no reason to limit the idea of “thought experiments” to science fiction and fantasy. “What if” questions exist in everyday life as well. What if the up-and-coming manager in an office ran into an old friend from his wild college days? Would he become nostalgic for the days when he acted less responsibly? Would he realize after a while that he’s become just the sort of person he swore he’d never become? Would he be ashamed of his youthful indiscretions? Would he look up other former friends?
The plot of the story might pull you forward, or one of the characters might pull you forward so that you don’t know how the plot works out until you know more about the characters. In either case you’re pursuing a thought experiment: you don’t know how things will work out until you’re reasonably finished with the story.
The story may take you places you didn’t plan to go, investigate types of behavior you’d never before considered or outcomes you’d never imagined.
You leave yourself open to possibilities.
Some writers set out to teach their readers a lesson. What often happens, though, in all kinds of writing, is that the story teaches you first.
It’s also the great fun of writing, and the passion, and the stimulation. Whether or not your story gets published may prove secondary to the great experience you had writing it, following it, and seeing where it’s taken you.
Follow the story. Follow the characters.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to illustrate with a personal example.
My first published science fiction story was called “A Man Makes a Machine.” It concerns a narrator named Maggie, a genetically “created” personality who is in charge of a huge interstellar cruiser. In all respects she looks and acts like a human being except that her life span is much longer and she was born in a lab rather than from a womb. Part of her cargo is a group of settlers, heading to another planet in another star system. They have been deep-frozen and placed in suspended animation, since the space flight to their new home will take over seventy years. They’re not humans, but alien creatures called zhemzhis who sort of resembled evolved dinosaurs.
Something goes wrong (something always goes wrong in a story). One of the deep-freeze units breaks down and a passenger is un-frozen, a zhemzhi child named Hhesst. The unit could be fixed with one replacement part, but that part was not stocked on the ship before it left. A supply goof-up. Because of that, the child will have to live out its life on the ship (named Ariosto, by the way), since the average zhemzhi life span isn’t much longer than the length of the trip.
What to do? The Ariosto is run by a corporation, one that runs its ships on strict budgets. Deviating from its course is out of the question. If Maggie were to do so the corporation would deem her “defective” and have her destroyed when the voyage out is over. Ariosto will encounter a kind of “patrol” ship that would be close enough to reach it in four years, and would very likely have the replacement part, since they contain the same kind of deep-freeze units. However, the patrol ship (named the Kora) cannot intercept the Ariosto, without just cause, such as a criminal action or a major navigational malfunction.
What to do now? Maggie, to her “owners,” is considered a machine. And, as the title of the story refers to, “A man makes a machine to do a job faster and better than he himself can do it.” For four years she takes care of Hhesst, nurtures, educates and entertains him.
And, at the point where the courses of Ariosto and the Kora are closest, she deliberately changes course, not only bringing the two ships closer but giving the patrol ship cause to board the cruiser and “deactivate” the “malfunctioning” Maggie. They can, of course, also provide the replacement part for the deep-freeze unit and allow Hhesst to survive the voyage.
Maggie has sacrificed herself to save Hhesst. And why? If “A man makes a machine to do a job faster and better than he himself can do it,” Maggie determined that the job she had to do was be a human.
That’s the story line, as plain and simple as I can make it. I threw a lot other things into the story, things about communications systems, attitudes on Earth, Maggie and Hhesst reading Shakespeare and listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams. But all of that was there because, I needed those things to tell the story. Another writer may have thrown in other things.
The germ of the story had been my watching a very bad science fiction film where a deep-freeze unit like the one in my story malfunctions and the results are treated as a joke. For some reason, I saw the thing as tragic instead of humorous and the fictional possibilities for a story started building up from there.
My concentration while writing the story was on what I needed to make the situation believable (for science fiction readers, at least) and what would make it work. There is no faster-than-light travel in my story, no deus ex machina. The events that occur in the fictional world I created have to behave within the logic of that world. I couldn’t really see much further than that.
Later on, after the story won a local prize, and after it was published in Amazing Stories, someone mentioned that it seemed to him a little like Antigone, where Maggie has to decide between God’s laws and man’s laws. Someone else pointed out what to him was a fairly obvious tip of the hat to feminism in the way the roles are assigned.
None of that was really obvious to me while I was writing it. I wasn’t conscious of the Antigone connections or anything else. I just wanted the story to work.
Speaking of work, after the story came out, one of my day job co-workers asked what the story was about. We were working at a place where the work was pretty dumb, with terrible managers and ridiculous rules. So I looked around after she asked me the question and answered, “It’s about working here.”
It happens to be true, though I definitely wasn’t conscious of that while writing the story, and not for a long time afterward.
Most other concerns shouldn’t enter into the writing process. You write the story you’ve got and decide what it is when you’re finished. Sometimes it’s a story. Sometimes it’s a chapter of a novel… or an essay… or a prose poem. Sometimes you might want to beat it back into what you started to write. At other times you just tell yourself that whatever the piece wants to be is just fine with you.
The late poet and teacher Paul Carroll was fond of saying “Our poems are wiser than we are.” For the most part that’s true of most everything we write as long as you concentrate on the craft of putting the story together, imagine there’s someone out there with whom you want to communicate and you work hard to make sure that person out there understands what you’re saying.

As an exercise, consider that the Irish writer Frank O’Connor used to say that if he couldn’t compress what a story is about into about a four line description, he was writing about too much: that is, there was too much for one short story.
          Now this is something to try over a period of time.
          If you come up with an idea for a short story, see if you – like Frank O’Connor – can sum it up in a four line description. But unlike O’Connor, once you’ve written it down, put it away and don’t look at it again until you’ve finished at least a first draft of the story.
          Then, take that description out and compare it against the story you’ve actually written. Does the brief description still accurately summarize what you’ve done in the story?
          If not, do you like what you’ve written better than what you set out for with that brief description? Do you think what you’ve written is not as good? How would you write that four line description now?
          If you’re not as happy with what you’ve written, perhaps the four line description will help you determine what you need to revise in your next draft. Then again, it may serve as the germ for a future story. If nothing else, it will show you how much you’ve grown as a writer from the time you first conceived of the story.