Sunday, March 3, 2013

Worldbuilding part 2

Last time, I talked about worldbuilding techniques. Those are the ways authors build a world in the readers' minds--the world the characters live in. Every story requires worldbuilding, even if your story is set in an environment your readers know well.

The mistake a lot of unpublished authors make in worldbuilding is the "information dump." I don't know who invented that term, but it's the mistake of providing much more information than the story needs, especially to an audience who doesn't yet have reason to care about any of it.

My theory is, you can get away with any amount of exposition if the reader wants to read it. The trick is to make them want to read it. So whenever you're building your story's world, and you, through exposition, start telling readers all about the last five hundred years of chaos your world has gone through, please hesitate and ask yourself one question:

Why would my readers care about any of this?

This question is not rhetorical; it's essential. If you can provide a good, solid answer, keep writing that exposition! But if you can't...

Oh. Here's a bad answer to that question: "Because if they don't have this information, they'll never understand the implied threat of murder Vanessa's making in Chapter Six when she looks behind the mirror and talks about ghosts." The only time this answer is good, is if you're writing Chapter Six, and Vanessa just now looked behind the mirror and talked about ghosts.

What many beginning fiction writers don't get is, you don't want your reader to understand everything right away. Questions, remember? You want to raise questions in your readers' minds because questions make readers keep reading. If Vanessa's combination mirror move/ghost talk seems really out of place, readers are going to suspect they can't take her action at face value. That's when you tell the readers what her actions mean--right when they want to know the most. Or maybe in the very next scene, if stopping the action for an explanation would wreck the story's rhythm. But soon. Do it soon, or the reader will put stop reading and say "Nothing in this story makes any sense."

One other worldbuilding hint. I promised you a preview of one of the stories we're publishing in Issue #19. The story is our third place winner, The Gear Master's Wife, and we think it contains some of the best worldbuilding our magazine has ever received. The author, John Burridge, manages to mix questions with suggested answers in such a way that, even though we don't fully understand the world the story takes place in, we feel we understand enough. I want to draw special attention to one sentence in that story. The main character makes ice sculptures, and is making sculptures with religious meaning for his city's big holiday. Here's the sentence:

The next morning, the Guild of Bakers came to collect his ice statues for the Longnight Folly.

What kind of world names their biggest holiday "Longnight Folly"? The answer is, this story's world, which is cold, austere, and formal. So does everyone act stupid and foolish for a night on this holiday? No, it's a serious religious holiday. Yet in the context of the story, it works... even though you never really understand what the holiday's about or why it matters so.

So why would a guild of bakers come by to pick up the ice sculptures? I have no idea, but I bet the author does, and his confidence shines through in every description.

See, the story isn't really about the holiday or the guild of bakers. That's all background. The story is about a man who just suffered a terrible loss. The important thing is, he suffered it in this story's world, which is so stark and formal that readers can intuit the sculptor isn't going to get much help for his pain. This story's world doesn't have a lot of use for clumsy, awkward feelings. So, people in this world have a real problem when they're overcome with emotions too strong to contain. Since an act like crying or getting roaring drunk would be unthinkable here, the man's feelings escape him in a rather unorthodox way that causes a lot of trouble, and that is what the story is really about.

Every description and every action characters take hammer home the world's formality. Who cares why bakers collect the ice statues? It's interesting--it makes the world seem more real, because somebody (the author) put a lot of thought into that choice--but it's not important. What's important is what's shown in every line, and demonstrated in every description: this is not a place where you'll get comforted when you're sad.

So when you're building your characters' world, figure out what its most important element is, and focus on that. In The Zen Thing, the story I discussed last time, it was the bizarre relationships among deeply flawed people. In The Gear Master's Wife it's the world's coldness. What is it in your story's world?  

Sunday, February 24, 2013


The term "Worldbuilding" dates at least back to the 1970s and refers to the work involved in creating a fictional world. When referring to prose ficiton, worldbuilding is all about giving fictional characters an interesting (to the reader, anyway) place to live. 

(Remember, the world has to be interesting to the reader, not necessarily to the story's characters. The purpose of writing fiction is to make readers, not characters, experience specific thoughts and feelings.)

Stories that are set in the real world require just as much worldbuilding as stories set in galaxies far, far away. The difference is, readers can generally be assumed to have a basic knowledge of the real world. 

That's not always true, though. At OTP we get a fair number of submissions from countries where life is rather different than it is in the US, or even the US and the UK and its related countries. For issue #19 we received, liked, but ultimately had to reject a story that couldn't be fully appreciated unless you knew a lot more about Serbian history than we do, and that we suspect our readers have.

A couple of times we've published stories by African authors, and we've had to ask them to be a little more explicit about what certain objects are, or whether it's going with custom or against custom for a character to do some act that, in the story, annoys neighbors. I'm sure some African readers probably wondered why the author bothered explaining something "everybody knows," but the point is, OTP is a global magazine and there's very little in this world that "everybody knows." (For one thing, all of our stories are written in English and only about 1/8 of the world's population can speak English. Reading it is a different question, and even harder to answer.) 

Even stories set in today's America and aimed at educated audiences in today's America require worldbuilding. Here's a good example from "The Zen Thing" by Emma Duffy, recently published in One Story magazine. Watch this combination of family history, characterization, mood setting, and scene setting. Anita is the story's main character and the setting is a family get-together.

[Frank] and Anita's grandmother are eighty years old. They met five years ago at Fresh Seafood, where Anita's grandmother worked as a cashier. They were both living in mobile homes at the time, but Frank's was a double-wide, and so they decided to move in there. Everyone is glad for it, especially Frank, who seems to have no family to his name whatsoever and will now, he knows, have his ass wiped by Anita's parents when the time comes. He has already asked Anita's mother, who is a nurse, to be his medical power of attorney. Everyone is pretty sure Frank is gay, and possibly black, though Anita's grandmother, having never had any experience with either, is unaware of this.

That's 100% worldbuilding. You can't understand this story until you understand the family and the world they're living in. In this case their world is one of unrealistic hopes, long-smoldering grudges, and nasty intrusions from the uglier parts of reality the characters intend to ignore for as long as possible.

Worldbuilding is much more difficult, though, when a story is not set in a world that shares most of its features with the one the audience lives in. When I was active on, I read a lot of unpublished (and unpublishable) SF/fantasy novels, or at least their opening chapters. I've seen authors desperately try to stuff six books' worth of notes about their world's history into the reader without once asking the question, "What must the reader know to fully understand my story?" The answer to that question is, "Much, much less than what you need to know to write your story."

In other words, we can read and enjoy The Hobbit without having to read The Silmarillion. (Good thing, too, if you ask me!) That's because the best writers figure out how to imply or suggest what readers need to grasp about a world without having to write "information dumps"--those heavy, leaden walls of text that previously speedy and nimble stories crash into and die from.

As an example, in the excerpt above, readers could not be expected to guess that Anita's grandmother has had no experience with gays or black people, so the story told them. Readers also couldn't be expected to guess that Frank may well be both gay and black, so the story told them. But now that you know these two things, and that Anita's grandmother and Frank have been living together for five years, what can you guess? See, that's the art of worldbuilding--giving the readers just enough pieces of the puzzle for them to assemble the rest. The finished picture in the reader's mind doesn't have to be exactly the same as the one in the writer's mind, just close enough to provide a useful framework for the rest of the story. 

Next week I'll give you a preview of a story we're publishing in Issue #19. That story does one of the best jobs of SF worldbuilding I've ever seen from an author who isn't already famous for writing great SF, and I'll go into some detail (with the author's permission) about how I think he does it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Our Reading and Rating Process

Every once in a while, we get communications from people who don't understand how we can announce the results of a short story contest just two or three days after it closes. They wonder if we're somehow reading 200+ stories in two or three days. No, we read and rate them as they come in. But that raises an important question:

If you send us a story ten days into a contest and we judge it to be the 12th best story of the 20 received up to that point, why don't we send you a rejection slip right then? Why wait until the contest is over?

We're open to changing that practice, if you can come up with a strong enough counter-argument. Here is our reasoning for the current practice.

1) We want each author to enter our contests only once. Since we read all stories blindly, however, we don't have a good way to prevent somebody from sending us a story on Day 1 of the contest, and then submitting something else on Day 75. Our nightmare scenario is dealing with a writer who would submit a different (rejectable) story every day if we rejected stories as soon as we realized they had no chance to get published. 

2) A point from Bethany: We have rejected stories that turned out to be from authors who, in different contests, took first place (with a different story of course). By rejecting an early entry right away, we're giving that entry's author a chance to submit a different story that we might like a lot more. Rejecting stories right away gives those stories' authors a big advantage over other contestants, and we think that would be unfair. 

3) I know from experience it's annoying to wait 2-3 months to find out how your story did, but a 2-3 month wait time is not that far from an industry average. So while I'm not thrilled with it, I don't feel we're treating our writers in a way that the industry would condemn.

4) What would we do with a story we receive on Day 2 of a contest, and is so good, it remains in contention all the way to the end, but on the last day we decide it can't quite crack the top ten? That author's going to wait three months for a reply no matter what.

5) Another point from Bethany: Just about every contest, at least one author withdraws his or her entry for some reason. We've had that happen just before a contest closed! In fact, twice now it's happened with stories we were strongly considering sending to the prize judges. That meant some story we were originally going to reject took the withdrawn story's place, and in at least one case, won a prize

6) Finally, every alternative we've considered sounds worse to us than the current practice. We've even considered a "halfway" notice, in which halfway through a contest, we'd tell all non-contending authors that they didn't make it. But what would we do with the contending authors, if anything? I don't want to get their hopes up because many times, a story that is in the top ten halfway through a contest doesn't make the final round. (Two-thirds of our entries tend to come in the last half of the contest.) Plus there's still the one-entry-per-author problem.

It seems like the only way to give feedback in something closer to real time would be to pick on the authors who sent the stories that did the worst. We don't want to do that. So, we file our notes and decisions away and hold them until the end.

Having said all that, if you can make an argument for faster rejections that's stronger than the argument for our current system, please do, and we'll think about changing. Over the years, we've adjusted a number of our practices because our readers and writers had better ideas than we did. We're willing to do so again.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

James Wood's "How Fiction Works"

For about two years, I've been trying to figure out whether to recommend James Wood's How Fiction Works to OTP readers. I just finished reading it for the fourth time, so you'd think this decision would be easy. My problem is, I want to help beginning to intermediate writers improve their fiction writing skills and their ability to sell short stories, and I'm not convinced Wood's book does that. In fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. But then I remember I've read it four times now and will probably read it four more times in the future, so there's got to be something valuable in there.

In How Fiction Works, Wood dissects fiction at a theoretical level to discuss why a bunch of words can evoke such thoughts and feelings in readers, and how subtly those words can work on our psyche. He spends most of the book talking about what he calls the "free indirect" style of narration in which how objects and events are described relate to the way characters in a story view the world. To me, that's obvious, but since I'm not a literature major, I didn't realize the extent to which older fiction was designed differently.

When you read extremely old fiction, such as Homer and stories from the Bible, the differences become obvious. These stories were written in a style that never once attempts to show the fictional world through the eyes of any character. The stories are most definitely told to the reader, and the reader is entirely outside of them. As Wood says, detail is never "gratuitous" and meant to convey a realistic sense of place, and the oldest storytellers "seem to feel no pressure to evoke a life-like passing of [time]" (p. 87). Here's an example Wood uses, which is taken from the Bible:

"And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off." (Genesis 22:3)

First, we would today call this kind of writing "summary," as opposed to its opposite, "scene." (We'd also wonder why Abraham "rose off" twice. Wasn't he already up after the first time?) Second, you don't feel like you're right there with Abraham while he's rising up and rising up again. You feel like you're being told about something that happened a long time ago that had nothing to do with you. Compare that to any modern writing, which generally attempts to make you feel the way the characters feel, and to get you right inside their heads. Modern fiction is designed to make you feel wind rush over your skin, as opposed to just telling you "And on that day the wind blew mightily" or something.

Most of all, though, Wood talks about the tension between authorial narration and characters' viewpoints. Many times I've wondered if it's possible to write a story from a child's perspective realistically. Have you ever heard a five-year-old try to tell a story? "Yesterday, I was at school, and someone brought a bunny. A bunny, it was a bunny. There was a bunny and it was white and brown and it knocked over the juice." Do you really want to read a whole story told that way? I've seen some pretty good attempts, but five-year-olds aren't known for their wise editorial decisions about what details to put where, and when to let key information enter the picture. Yet serious fiction writers need to think about such things.

Wood's book intrigues me because he spends a lot of time talking about the problems inherent in trying to write both realistically, and through the eyes and style of characters who would make lousy writers. When is it okay for an authors to insert their own opinions into the prose? Or as Wood asks, "Can we reconcile the author's perceptions and language with the character's perception and language?" Wood's answer is "yes," and he spends most of the book talking about how great writers have done it, especially the French writer Gustave Flaubert, who pretty much invented our modern answer to that question and who influenced virtually every fiction writer after him from James Kafka to Stephanie Meyer, whether the writers realize it or not.

So if you're interested in a deep analysis of the mechanics of writing, I think How Fiction Works is for you. If you'd rather figure out why your plots or dialogue never come out the way you want, or why editors keep telling you your stories are too long/too short/too something else, you need a different book.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

It's Okay to Tell, if You Do It Well

I get nervous when I see someone use the writing cliche "Show, don't tell." I get nervous because it's the kind of advice that's useful to beginning fiction writers at a certain point in their development, and after that point, I think it's limiting at best, and harmful at worst.

Think of the advice to "get plenty of exercise." I don't think many people would hear "get plenty of exercise" and assume they should never sleep, since sleeping is the opposite of exercising. Yet when I participated in on-line critique forums and when I listen to developing writers critique each other, I notice people saying "show, don't tell" as if they really believe prose is never supposed to tell.

"Show, don't tell" really means "Use behavioral examples, don't simply state facts." It means "make your characters do things that demonstrate the point you, the author, want to make."

So instead of writing "Pat was an alcoholic," write "Pat started the day with a glass of vodka and finished it with several more" or something. We'll all agree the second example is more evocative than the first. But if you take "show, don't tell" to heart, all you'll ever do is describe people's actions. You'll never once step inside their head and let us know what they're thinking or feeling, because that would require telling. (And that's fine if you're trying to out-Hemingway Hemingway, but he used telling plenty of times. From A Farewell To Arms: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills." That's as telling as telling gets.)

Internal narration is one of the most powerful techniques a fiction writer can use, and it's a form of telling. In fact, it's a technique only available to prose writers. Movies can't do it, at least not without voice-overs. Plays can't do it. Movies and plays really do need to show, not tell, because movies with long stretches of a character telling things is difficult to sit through, even when done well. That's why it's very difficult, in a movie or play (especially a play), to get across certain basic facts about characters, like their birthday, without using carefully staged tricks, such as showing a calendar while showing someone celebrating with a birthday cake. Or, of course, by having a character TELL the audience, in dialogue, "Isn't it your birthday today? It's December 23, right?" (And if the response is, "No, that was your first husband--mine's in May," now the audience has been told and shown the first speaker used to be married to someone else.)

Great fiction writers "tell" all the time, because when done well, prose can get complex layers of information across better and faster than any other storytelling medium. Here are three examples of good telling from three award-winning short stories published in the last two years.

His name was Howard Ritche, and he was only a few years older than she was...

from Corrie by Alice Munro

I always think I can finesse these situations--the last was maybe seven years ago, when I received an award at the college where I teach--but in the event I am clumsy and fall back on false hurry.

from Things Said or Done by Ann Packer

Martha filed for divorce. She collected the apartment on Central Park West and a considerable sum of money, then went to counseling. Lovers did not materialize to replace the discarded husband.

from Volcano by Lawrence Osborne

Look at the word "discarded" in "discarded husband." The use of that adjective is an example of "telling" that no non-verbal storytelling medium can reproduce. We never even see the husband. A movie, at best, would have to use some kind of montage sequence showing Martha signing divorce papers, still having the apartment (with a shot of a sign saying "Central Park West" so we learn the name), getting a check or payment with a number the average audience member would call "considerable," then going to counseling, then being alone in a lot of places that indicate she's looking for romance, then remaining alone in those places as romance happened for everyone around her but not her. That might work, but it would take a while and halfway through the montage we'd guess where the movie was going and be bored with the scene before it finished. Yet "Volcano" accomplishes all of that and more so quickly the reader doesn't have time to be bored, and so evocatively the reader's imagination is activated and fills in everything the story is just suggesting.

My point is, there is good telling, and there is bad telling. If you want the best treatment of good vs. bad telling I've ever seen, get The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante and study Chapter Five: "Why You Need to Show and Tell." I've backed up some of her points in this entry, but there's no substitute for the line-by-line dissection of long passages from short stories to demonstrate when one technique works better than the other.

So I say quit worrying about whether your prose is showing or telling, and worry about whether it's evoking thoughts and feelings in the reader. In the end, fiction is about what the reader thinks and feels.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Stories Must Acknowledge Readers' Obvious Questions

Imagine a story that takes place entirely in a bar, with friends drinking and talking. At one point in the story an empty beer glass flies off a table (by itself) and crashes through a window. Other than telling us the glass does that, the story never mentions the incident again, and no characters pay any attention to it.

So now imagine I call the story's author and say the beer glass scene doesn't work for me, because I want to know more about why the glass flew and why no one seemed to notice or care.

AUTHOR: I didn't explain the glass because I wanted to show, not tell, that this fictional world looks exactly like the real one but is different in a couple of ways.

ME: Okay, you did that. But why didn't anybody react?

AUTHOR: Because I wanted to show, not tell, that in this world, people are so used to seeing beer glasses fly around by themselves that they don't even notice it half the time.

ME: Would they react the same way if a vodka bottle flew around?

AUTHOR: Oh no. [Explains why beer glasses are the only objects that fly around.]

ME: That explanation makes sense. Here's the problem. I had to call you in order to learn it, and learning it makes me appreciate your story and your story's world a lot more than I did before. Your story has to give readers, in its text, the same appreciation you just gave me over the phone.

AUTHOR: But I don't want to interrupt my story for a three-page information dump.

ME: I don't want that either. I want you to acknowledge that readers are going to wonder why the beer glass moves on its own, and address that question in the story.

AUTHOR: There's no way to do that without the story being artificial. No character in this world would bother mentioning a flying beer glass. It would be like a character in the real world going outside in the rain and saying "Hey, look at this water falling from the sky," then explaining what weather is and what water is.

ME: What you described is the worst way to handle the problem. On the other hand, if your rain story's audience lived in a world where water had never fallen from the sky, you would have to address rain for that audience the same way I'm asking you to address the beer glass.

At this point, if the author were still reluctant to explain the flying glass, I'd ask the author to reconsider having one in the story at all. If this fictional world has flying beer glasses then it probably has other strange departures from the real world too, yet those aren't in the story. So why put in something that will just end up annoying the reader?

Here are two approaches to solving the problem.

1) A character says, "I hate when that happens. At least this one wasn't full." The next character says, "Do you complain about everything that happens every day? What are you going to yell at next, the sun for setting every night?" Or maybe, "That's what you get for not chaining it to the table," and have the character dangle the unused chain at whoever complained.

You could argue this conversion is a bit artificial. I'd argue all stories are, and must be, artificial, but that's another post. If you don't like the dialogue solution, try this one:

2) [Narration:] Most bars had switched to paper or Styrofoam cups to avoid the problem of flying beer glasses, but the Redrum Bar's owner thought the danger added atmosphere. He couldn't have been too wrong; the bar was packed every night.

You could argue the second approach is no good because it tells instead of shows, but I'm going to argue against that idea in my next post, next week. The point is, if readers are obviously going to wonder about something in your story, you're obligated to at least acknowledge the question. Whether you answer it is up to you.