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.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What makes a good story?

A professional colleague of mine, K. Stoddard Hayes, wondered on Facebook what my opinion was about literary vs. genre stories. Specifically she asked for my opinion on the discussion about whether a story can be good "only if it is well crafted on every level from grammar to themes" or "because people enjoy it regardless of any traditional literary standards of merit?"

It just so happens that before I launched On The Premises, my co-publisher and I worked long and hard to figure a way to rate the quality of short stories. We didn't want our winners to be chosen based solely on subjective criteria. We didn't want to hand people money and say, "I don't know why we liked that other story better, but we did so you come in second." That's one reason we rely on multiple raters: inter-rater reliability (how much judges agree) is one of our scoring criteria. It helps that I'm a professional measurement expert whose day job includes being paid to invent ways to measure non-physical aspects of life. (How do you usefully measure the "friendliness" of a customer environment? It can be done!)

Our first step was to "operationalize," as we social scientists say. In this case, that meant changing the question from "What is a good story?" to a pair of more easily answered questions: "What does a good story do?" and "What does a bad story do?"

We came up with a list. Here are some excerpts.

Good story: Makes us want to finish it. When it's over, we want to share it with friends.

Bad story: Bores us.

Good story: Either uses standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation so these elements of writing do not distract from the story, OR deliberately uses them in non-standard ways that thoughtfully enhance the story.

Bad story: Uses non-standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation thoughtlessly, and probably accidentally, and as a result these elements of storytelling interfere with our ability to enjoy the story being told.

Good story: Has characters that seem like real people to us. We'll remember them long after the story ends.

Bad story: Has characters so generic and one-dimensional, or so clichéd, that they seem like plot devices, not real people.

Up to this point, our measurements wouldn't distinguish a decent but ephermeral spy novel from great literature. This next one, though...

Good story: Uses language artistically. Surprises us with word choices, comparisons, and imagery that evokes feelings and thoughts far beyond what the surface definitions of the words normally would.

Average story: Uses language plainly but correctly, much like basic journalism is supposed to. All elements of the story being told are clearly understandable, so we are never confused about what is going on, but the language itself evokes no thoughts or feelings in us beyond what we would think and feel if we personally witnessed the events being described.

Bad story: Uses language poorly. Surprises us with confusing or inaccurate word choices that make us not believe what we're reading. ("The pillow clanked against the bed.") Evokes thoughts and feelings in us that go against the ones the story is trying to create in us. Relies on flat or clichéd descriptions that bore us because we've seen them so often. Uses esoteric or unusual language that detracts from, instead of enhances, the effect the story is trying to produce.

We had others, but I hope I've illustrated my point. I don't think asking what a good story is is as useful as asking what a good story does.

So let's return to Hayes's question: can a story be good only if well-crafted at every level, or just because people enjoy it?

For most readers, enjoyment is enough. I think that's fine. I can't see any point in forcing readers to read something they get absolutely no enjoyment from. (Even in high school English class? Yes, even then. Are schools TRYING to make tomorrow's adults hate reading fiction? They seem to be.)

Publishers who want to sell lots of copies of books probably don't have to evaluate a story much past the "will people enjoy it" question either. Oh, they need to make sure standard (and therefore non-distracting) grammar and punctuation are used, but beyond that, they just want to know if people will stand in line to buy it.

If you have learned to enjoy language itself, however, you might want more out of a story than just plot and character. Plainly written stories might bore you because there's not enough innovative and elegant writing involved.

(Some people, in fact, value the writing itself so much more than the story that they actively dislike plot, because plot frequently takes a reader's attention away from the language. Heavily plotted stories, such as nearly all genre writing, are frequently better served by ordinary language than "beautiful writing," which is one reason certain literary types disdain genre writing. These types prefer the form of language over its basic communicative function. They probably also like poetry because poetry is 100% language--no characters or plot required. Writers who disdain characters and story might be happier abandoning prose for poetry so they can concentrate exclusively on language.)

To me, the best stories excel in all the areas I've mentioned. They contain fully developed and interesting characters in a complex, interesting situation that's written about using language that enhances every effect produced by whatever it describes.

So to answer your question, K. Hayes, I think a story can be great even if it's just a fun read, and the more enjoyable it is, the better it is. But it can be even better than that if it meets all those "traditional literary standards of merit" as well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fun with Commas

If you ever want to start a fight, follow these steps.

1) Get a bunch of fiction editors in the same room. (That step alone might be enough, but if you want the sparks to really fly...)

2) Give them the text from any outstanding short story published in the last 50 years. Make sure this is a special version of the text, in which all the commas have been deleted.

3) Tell them to figure out, as a group, where commas should be placed.

It's bad enough that major style guides can't agree on such simple questions as whether

Mary, Tricia, and Alice


Mary, Tricia and Alice

is the preferred way to list the names of three characters. (The Wikipedia entry about that extra comma is the best treatment of the subject I've ever seen.) Yet if you read that entry, you'll notice that it discusses the rules with regard to non-fiction prose. That's probably because in fiction, you can get away with anything if you do it well enough.

In all prose, a comma's primary purpose is to help a reader organize (and therefore understand) text. But in fiction, commas have a secondary purpose: to slow the prose down by making the reader pause.

Think about this passage about a 10-year-old girl named Susan:

Susan, breathless, rattled off all the friends she'd made at summer camp: Toni Lisa Kristen Kirsten Debbie Melanie Other Debbie Gwendolyn Sarah a different Susan Beth Barbie (no for real!) Wylie Jamie Maria...

I left out all commas in the example above because I don't want readers to pause; I want them to feel like they're being hit by a firehose. If readers get lost while reading that sentence, good! That's what it would feel like to have a hyper 10-year-old tell you all that. If readers follow the first few names then skim the rest and move on to the next sentence of substance, good! That's what most adult listeners would do after the third or fourth name—tune the speaker out and wait for real substance to resume. By taking out the commas, I make reading the text more like hearing "young Susan" speak, and instead of feeling like you're reading, you feel like the story is happening to you. (At least I hope you do.)

In fiction, a comma's secondary purpose can conflict with its more universal purpose, and that's where the arguments start. Consider this sentence, and presume it's part of a short story:

So after the party we went to Mike's house.

Should that sentence have commas? If so, where?

My answer is, wherever you want the reader to pause.

If you want the sentence to seem fast, maybe even a bit rushed and poorly organized, then leave the commas out. If the writer doesn't want to have that effect on the reader—if the writer wants the reader to ignore punctuation and focus on the factual meaning of the words—then I say put them in, because readers won't pay much attention to punctuation that does what they're expecting

What if you, the editor, aren't sure which works better, and you don't know what the writer wants? You can always ask the writer, but you can also examine the surrounding prose. If that prose is written conventionally, the commas go in. If it is not, and the author is breaking traditional rules to achieve a specific effect, I'd probably leave them out, even if the writer's submitted draft includes them. 

How do you handle problems like this? 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Now More Than Ever, Use the Premise Well

I'll let you folks in on a little secret. When we launched our first contest in October 2006, we received fewer than 70 entries. Our second contest was based on a premise that was so poorly designed it turned people off, and we received fewer than 40 entries. It wasn't until contest #4, when we'd been around for a whole year, that we broke 100 entries (with 162 of them). 

The secret I'm letting you in on is, the percentage of really good stories was quite small back then. I can remember sending out ten stories in the final round while knowing at least two of them had no chance of publication. One time, only nine stories made the final round.

That was a long time ago. For contest #18, we got at least 20 stories that were better than some of the stories that used to make the top 10. We got at least 15 that we'd have been proud to publish in our first year. In fact, the four stories that made the top ten this time, and did not get published, would probably have been published even three years ago.

However, our policy (which we've violated only once) is to publish no more than six contest entries: first, second, third, and up to three honorable mentions. We don't plan to change that. Our policy and the gradual rise in the quality of our contest entries have combined toproduce an unexpected effect:

How well a story uses our contest premise matters a lot more than it used to. 

Long ago, a story that was great in every way except use of premise would beat a story that was merely good, but used the premise better. Now judges are comparing stories that are great in every way except use of premise against stories that are great in every way including use of premise. Guess which ones win?

Today I'm sending out the free critiques we're giving to the four runner-up stories, and in two of those cases, mediocre use of the premise is the number one reason those stories lost out. One of those stories is one of the best written pieces we've ever received. I'd bet some pretty decent literary magazines would take it in an instant. Our prize judges turned it down because its use of premise was too weak. In fact, we publishers almost disqualified it from the contest for that same reason. But it was so good in every other way, we didn't have the heart to DQ it. (That'll teach us. It got the lowest score of any of the top 10 because "time" was just barely relevant to it. Next contest, we'll know better.)

I hope you folks will, too. We're called On The Premises for a reason, and that reason matters more than ever. Keep it in mind when we launch our next contest on or around November 10. Use the premise, and use it well!    

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My "Jigsaw Puzzle" theory of fiction writing

Last time, I said I'd tell you about a technique I used to write "The Ogre King and the Piemaker" in about half the time I normally need for a short story. When I discussed it quite some time ago in the OTP  newsletter, I called it "Write the beginning last." Now, I'm calling it "Write the story in pieces."

All along, I knew the ogres were going to end up with pies of some kind, but I wasn't sure how. And I wasn't sure what the piemaker had done to draw the attention of the ogres. All I knew was, the Ogre King was going to try a bunch of really stupid tricks and traps to get the piemaker to surrender pies. 

The first scene that came to mind—the inspiration for the story, in fact— was the huge ogre hiding behind a tree that was much too small to hide him effectively, and a little girl would see him. The girl would call out, "Grampa! The ogre's back!" And the ogre would panic, then think: Wait! Maybe she means some other ogre!

That was all I had. So I typed it into a document called "Ogre and Pie Man story pieces" and left it alone until I thought of another scene: a catapult that was too big to move through a tunnel it had to be moved through. I thought, wouldn't it be funny if the Ogre King, who's not that bright himself, had to explain the problem to an even dumber ogre? So I wrote a funny scene, much of which ended up getting cut, as I discussed last time, because I decided the Ogre King wasn't the right kind of dumb in it. 

I wrote a bunch of middle sections of this story, then I wrote the beginning, then I wrote the ending. Then I went back and rewrote the beginning from scratch because my first attempt read like notes to myself about what the beginning had to do, as opposed to a real story beginning. Then I revised some middle pieces, got the ending in place, and on my test reader's advice, expanded a couple of jokes into scenes of their own. Then I got down to serious prose polishing, reading the story aloud and revising any time I found a sentence that sounded clunky.

The point is, I did not make any attempt to write a first draft beginning to middle to end. I wrote the parts I liked best, first. It doesn't matter that a couple of those parts ended up being thrown out. That'll happen. 

So I'm calling this technique my "Jigsaw Puzzle" theory of story writing. First you write a bunch of separate pieces, then you work to connect them. Almost always, some of them won't fit. But in the process of writing these scenes, you'll get a much better sense of what your story is about. During revision, I aim to connect the pieces so well that no one can tell the story wasn't written with the whole story in mind from the start.

The alternative method, writing a complete draft beginning to end, makes me spend a lot more time getting stuck. I think of a good beginning, but not a good second scene, even though I know the fourth scene by heart because I've imagined it so many times. But I won't write the fourth scene until I get the second and third. No more! Now I write the parts I know and build around them. For me, that's so much faster, I can't believe I used to think you had to write stories any other way.

Do any of you write that way? How does it work for you? If you don't write this way, what does work for you?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revising Myself

Many of you probably know I have a new story out, because I used it as one of the two "Other Fiction" pieces for the October newsletter. I want to show you parts of some early drafts of the story. I like seeing how other writers think when they're working out ideas in early drafts, and I hope you do too.

Here's an excerpt from the published version. Grunthos is king of the Ogres and Four-Toes is another ogre. Grunthos is explaining how he's going to get humans to give them pies.

“We need to show humans that ogres work together and be scary force for evil,” Grunthos said. “Then humans give us anything we want.”

“Like rabbits?” Four-Toes said.

“Sure,” Grunthos said. “But more about pies. We make them cook pies all day.”

Grunthos is the smartest ogre, and he's not all that smart. When I first wrote this scene, though, I wasn't sure just how not-all-that-smart he was. I had him talking in much less broken English. Below, I underline parts of the dialogue that are different in the first draft.

“We need to show humans that ogres can work together and be a scary force for evil,” Grunthos said. “Then they’ll give us anything we want and we’ll be rich.”

“Like rabbits?” one of the ogres said.

“Sure,” Grunthos said. “But especially pies. We’ll make them cook all day.”

As you can see, the original dialogue is more complex. It has a more advanced vocabulary and better grammar. But the subtlest difference is, to me, a key to how my understanding of the Ogre King changed as I revised the story. In the published version, he says humans will be forced to "cook pies" all day. In the original, he just says "cook." 

I think adding "pies" changes a lot. First, the audience already knows, by this point in the story, that he's after pies. Grunthos explains it again anyway because he's really excited by his plan, and because he senses the other ogres might not understand him completely. He's smart enough to know he's smarter than the other ogres, and smart enough to adjust his dialogue for them, yet he's still dumb enough to come up with ridiculously stupid plans without realizing how bad the plans are. 

But more than that, it doesn't sound so weird to say humans will be forced to "cook" all day. It does sound weird, at least to my ears, to say humans will "cook pies" all day. No native English speaker would talk about "cooking" a pie; you "bake" pies. Having Grunthos say "cook pies" makes Grunthos seem that much more like someone who doesn't really know what he's talking about.

Here's another example of how Grunthos changed during revision. Below is a piece of the original draft I deleted in the third draft (out of six). It takes place during the scene when Four-Toes is building a catapult for the Ogre King. Four-Toes has built a catapult that is too large to move through a critical cavern in their mountain. In this scene, Grunthos is trying to get Four-Toes to realize the passageway is too small for the catapult.

Four-Toes led Grunthos [through the passageway]. “Be careful here,” Four-Toes said at the entranceway’s tightest part. “It’s tight.”

“I know,” Grunthos said, waiting for Four-Toes to put two and two together and come up with the correct half of his own name.

I love that line about coming up with his own name. But I had to cut it because I decided Grunthos isn't smart enough to have a thought quite that complex. In fact, I'm not sure Grunthos even knows that two plus two is four. Also, in this deleted scene, Grunthos seems much smarter than Four-Toes, and I didn't want the gap between them to be that large. So as much as I liked that joke, once I developed Grunthos more, it had to go.

Next week I'll talk about how, for once, I used my own advice about short story writing to write this story in much less time than I usually need. I'm now absolutely sold on this technique and I'm not sure I'll ever write a short story without it. Here's a hint: I called my first draft "Ogre and Pie Man story pieces."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Most Annoying Syntax Error

It looks like Blogger is back up and running correctly! At least for me. We'll see how long it lasts.

I know a couple other editors read this blog, so I'm asking you, as well as anyone else with an opinion: Does the following syntax error bother you as much as it does me?

"Thank you." She said.

Of course, that text should be:

"Thank you," she said. 

Dialogue with improper grammar—specifically, that improper grammar—is one of the most frequent errors I see in OTP submissions. It's happening so often, I can think of only two plausible causes:

1) An entire generation of writers has grown up learning how to use grammar correctly in other situations, but not dialogue. Quite often, that mistake is the only one I see in a well-written story, yet it happens multiple times in that story, as if the author learned different rules than I did. (It happens in poorly written stories too, but so do a dozen other kinds of errors, so I doubt the causes are the same in that case.)

2) Microsoft Word and other word processors are applying grammar rules of normal writing to dialogue. The stupid programs keep saying "a sentence can't end in a comma," and following that up with "the first word in the next sentence needs to be capitalized." 

What frustrates me is, I don't know how severely I should punish authors for this mistake. What if the last thing an author does before submitting a story is run "one last" spell and grammar check, and has the program set to fix errors automatically, and doesn't notice what the program is doing to dialogue? In that case, a good writer is being a bad software user, and those are different skills. 

True, for the last 20 years or so, all good writers had to learn to be good users of word processors, but this particular grammar "fix" seems to be a fairly recent development. And I've learned that even in 2012, a number of very good writers don't know crap about computers, word processors, or anything IT-related. Not even when they're younger than word processing itself (which floors me, but it's true--today's 20-somethings are NOT all skilled computer users, even though they grew up with computers even more than I did).

There's going to come a time when not knowing how to take full advantage of a word processing program's features will be as inexcusable as not knowing 

"Thank you," she said. 

is correct dialogue grammar. But until that day arrives, I think I have to be a bit lenient with this particular error.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

OTP Recognized by the Million Writers Awards

The Million Writers Awards came out, and after the main winners were announced, the list of notable stories of 2011 was published here. And guess what. All three of the stories I submitted for consideration--the first place winners in short story contests #13, #14, and #15--were considered among "the best online short stories published during 2011." (The magazines are listed in alphabetical order, so OTP is a way down the page.) 

Every on-line magazine is allowed to nominate three stories for consideration. As you scroll down the page, note how most of the magazines have only one or two stories listed. (And of course many magazines had no stories considered among 2011's best, but those aren't visible on the list.)

But OTP? We've got three. All three of the stories I nominated were picked by judges I've never met as among 2011's best online stories.

So, congratulations to the authors: C. R. Hodges, Ken Liu, and Rachel Verkade. But if I may be so bold, congratulations to us at OTP for providing a place where such good fiction can flourish.

I just have to wonder: if we were allowed to nominate more than three stories, would more than three stories have made the list?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fan Fiction, part 3

Last week I talked about how I overcame my distrust and dislike of fan fiction enough to recommend writing it as a good exercise for beginning writers. The argument was, much of what beginning writers struggle with--character, worldbuilding, and so forth--are done for you. You can think about character and setting without having to invent character and setting.

One problem writing fan fiction does not solve is poor pacing. In fact, terribly slow pacing is one of the biggest problems I've seen in the fan fiction I've read. It seems like the writers love these characters so much, they'll draw out every scene as long as they can, and have long dialogues that do nothing useful from a story perspective.

So how can fan fiction help a beginning writer learn pacing? By modifying the concept a bit. Instead of writing a new adventure featuring your favorite characters, why not turn an existing story into prose?

Try this sometime. Take an episode of your favorite TV show, or a portion of your favorite movie, and turn it, scene for scene, line for line, into prose. Write down all the dialogue exactly. Describe what the characters are doing exactly. All you're changing is the storytelling medium.

Of course, that's a huge change, because TV is visual and auditory. We've all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, let me tell you, if you're taking a 24-frames-a-second movie and turning each frame into 1,000 words, you're going to need 24,000 words to describe EVERY SECOND of the original. And that's just wrong.

Filmed stories give you a ton of details that don't matter all that much because the camera can't fail to record anything in its field of vision. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer enters a living room, you'll see the exact color of all her clothing and whatever else she's wearing. You'll see the carpet, the drapes, the size and color and position of the couch, whether the living room has one or several lamps, which lamps are on, how bright they are, what their shades look like, whether there are bookshelves, how many books are on each shelf... and all that information is present immediately.

Do you have to describe all that in your prose version? No, but I've seen people try. And their stories are harder to get through than root canals. 

Here's a piece of advice I've been giving for several years now, and I keep giving it because a few beginners have told me it's some of the best advice they've ever received. Here it is:

Write what matters, not what happens.
When Buffy enters the room, don't bother telling us whether her left foot or her right foot stepped on the rug first unless that information matters to the story. In a TV episode, you can't help seeing which foot hits the floor first when she enters, if the camera shows her legs as she's walking. That information doesn't matter, but it takes no time to show that extra information, so letting the camera record it doesn't slow the story down. In prose, every word takes time to read. Don't make readers waste time reading whether her left foot or right foot hit the floor first unless it matters.

So does any detail matter about how Buffy enters the room? Maybe. What's her mood like? Is she cautious or is she racing into the room? Is she saying anything as she enters? Sometimes these details add more to a story than the time to read them takes away, and sometimes they don't. 

Turning a comic book, TV episode, movie scene, or play scene into prose is a terrific exercise for a beginning writer because it forces them to examine every piece of information in the original source, and ask whether it matters to the story's purpose. If it does, you find a way to describe it or evoke it in prose. If it does not, then you leave it out. Learning to leave out story elements that don't matter to the story is the single most valuable technique for improving a story's pacing in any medium.

Go back to the idea of the bookshelves Buffy's walking past in my earlier example. They're filled with books, right? So, do you think the show's writer and director said, "Make sure the first book on the first shelf is slightly taller than the second, but slightly thinner than the third, and a bit darker in color than the fourth..." No. The writer or director said, "There are old, well-bound, dusty books on the shelves. The books look expensive, maybe even historic, but they haven't been read in a while." That's the information the set designers had to work with, and that's the information that might go into your prose... if the bookshelves can play an important role in the story, such as setting a mood, or relating to a key plot point.

No matter how experienced a writer you are, if you've never tried to write a prose version of a non-prose story, you've missed out on a great writing exercise. I strongly recommend it to anyone with fewer than five short story sales to their credit, and frankly, it's don't think it's a complete waste of time unless your fiction is winning literary prizes.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fan Fiction, part 2

Last week, I talked about my personal, and to some degree irrational, bias against fan fiction. I don't like having irrational biases, so I've worked on finding positive uses for fan fiction. I've concluded that beginning writers may want to start writing fan fiction, on the condition that these writers are serious about improving their fiction skills. I can also say I don't remember ever hearing or reading any writing instructor suggest using fan fiction in the way I'm about to, so as far as I can tell, my advice here is original.

A beginning writer attempting a complex story--especially a story set in any world that is not pretty much the same one the reader lives in--has a lot of work to do. The world has to be introduced, characters have to be introduced, some kind of problem has to be introduced... it's a lot to grasp for someone just starting out.

Fan fiction does a lot of the work for you. Let's say you're going to write a fanfic episode of the now-finished TV show Eureka from the Sci-Fi channel. (Oops, I mean "SyFy" channel--don't get me started.) Your setting is pre-made: a town full of genius scientists, most of whom are weird in some way. Your characters are set and you've got a broad range to choose from. Your plot is half-set; virtually every Eureka episode is about Sheriff Carter and his allies trying to solve a mystery caused by one or more crazy experiments that have gone wrong. And best of all, since fan fiction is written by and for fans of an existing fictional world, all your readers will already know this world, these characters, and this kind of plot. So look at all the work you will not have to do! You don't even have to describe what these people look like, if you don't want to. Your readers already know. All you have to focus on is your story, which is the fun part.

And yet...

If you take this exercise seriously, and show your fanfic to cooperative fans of the show, then readers will complain if your version of the show's characters don't act right. If you get basic facts wrong, you'd better be clear you're writing some kind of alternative version of the show or you'll get negative reactions, too.

Fan fiction, when taken seriously, forces writers to think about their characters and the story's world. You have to constantly ask questions like, "How would Sheriff Carter react if...", and "Does that really sound like a line of dialogue Jo Lupo would say, especially that early in the morning?"

Nor can you ignore tone. Does your Eureka episode read more like an episode of The X-Files? Eureka isn't that creepy/paranoid/dark. Does it read like Law & Order? Now you're being too procedural and probably not weird enough.

Fan fiction can be a great exercise for writers who struggle with worldbuilding, character development, getting different characters' dialogue to sound different, and tone. And probably some other things.

On the other hand, it won't help with pacing, an area where most fan fiction is especially dreadful. The fanfic I've forced my way through generally wastes page after page describing events and scenes of no importance to the story. If you're on page 20 of your Eureka story and nothing strange has happened yet, you're doing it wrong. 

Next week, I'll tell you how I think fan fiction can help you improve your pacing. But for now, have fun with this link, in which Kate Lawrence pokes fun at some of the worst excesses of fan fiction's fringes. (You'll need to scroll down a bit; there are ads at top.) Articles like hers make me feel my irrational dislike of fan fiction might not be quite so irrational after all.