Friday, March 30, 2012

More About Titles

My last post about the story Kubuku Rides (This Is It) generated some challenging feedback from people who disagreed with me about its title. I thought the title did the story a disservice because it has so little relation to the story's content. Two commenters thought the title was quite effective because it piqued their interest.

I agree titles should catch a potential reader's eyes and act as a hook. I just also think it should give the reader some sense of what to expect from the story, even if it's just a vague emotional sense. For instance, I wouldn't expect a story called Shivering to be about the hottest day in recorded history, or a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in 1950. And I'd expect somebody in the story, at some point, to either literally or metaphorically shiver. Otherwise, why not give the story an equally catchy title that relates to the content? You could call the heat-based story Yes, Even Hotter Than That or the encyclopedia salesman story Knock Knock or something.

Personally, I like my titles to have layers of meaning. If my door-to-door encyclopedia salesman was frightened of strangers, I could use the image of knees knocking together in fright and call the story Knocking. If my salesman thought his job was pointless and stupid, I could use the insult-related meaning of "joke" and call the story Knock Knock Joke. I like titles that make sense before you've read the story, and then make even more sense afterwards.

But I want to thank those two commenters because they gave me quite a bit to think about, and they gave me an idea for discussion in the next OTP newsletter.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Worst Title I've Seen Yet

In the last post I mentioned a story by Larry Brown called Kubuku Rides (This Is It). Now, I happen to love this story and I think it was more than good enough to win the prizes it has won (inclusion in the Best American Short Stories series, etc.). But oh, that title. I hate it. 

This Is It would have been a fine title, I think, because that's a line of dialogue a character says when he reaches a critical breaking point that changes the story's direction. But the first part? Kubuku Rides? My argument against it is

1. There is no character, place, or object anywhere in the story named Kubuku. In fact, other than things connected to Brown's story, the only link Google could find for "Kubuku" is a hotel in Bali, Indonesia. That hotel has no relevance to anything in the story, and it doesn't work as any kind of metaphor or other comparison to any story element. I'm not even convinced the hotel existed when Brown first sold his story.

2. Nobody "rides" anywhere in the story. One character drives a car in one scene, but that's not riding.

Yet Kubuku Rides, by itself, was Brown's original title for the story. According to his own notes in the Best American edition where his story can be found, Brown worried that no one might understand that title so he added a parenthetical (This Is It).

Calling the story Wei-Lo Chants (This Is It) or Pocahontas Alphabetizes (This Is It) would have helped just as much because those titles don't connect to anything in the story either.

What intrigues me is, Brown says the title is supposed to explain the story's narration. As I mentioned in my last post, he wrote that story in a specific dialect, and the narration is unlike that of any other story of his I've ever read or have heard about. Apparently the completely different style of this story bothered Brown. He asked himself who was narrating the story. His answer was that some character named Kubuku must be narrating it. The narrative flow is both strong and smooth, so he figured the narration was Kubuku's way of "riding" along with the story. The "This Is It" part was supposed to explain that the story was the result of Kubuku's "riding."

I don't believe that five clones of Sherlock Holmes, working together at the peak of their intellectual powers, would figure that out.

Brown seems wedded to this title and its explanatory purpose. When an "indie" movie was made from his story based on his own screenplay adaptation, the title of the movie was the same as the short story's. Which seems ridiculous, because if the "Kubuku" business was supposed to explain the story's narrative style, how could it possibly relate to a movie? Is Kubuku now the director? No, that was Terry Kinney. What is there in the movie to explain that's equivalent to narrative dialect? I'd argue, nothing. Besides, movies based on other sources frequently change the title from that of the source. Why not title the movie This Is It? (It came out before the Michael Jackson documentary used that name, so I don't think anyone would have complained.)

The point of this rant is, some rules were NOT meant to be broken. I say, "Give your story a title that clearly relates to some aspect of that story" is one of those rules.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


It's tricky to use dialect well when writing fiction. In earlier times (think Mark Twain) writers could get away with all kinds of deliberate misspellings and other obvious tactics to indicate dialect, especially in dialogue. For several decades now, editors have disliked that approach for a variety of reasons, including the view that deliberately writing poor grammar or spelling for a character's dialogue can seem insulting to the character, or the character's ethnicity.

Still, dialect exists and if you're writing about a part of the world in which it's spoken, you have to address the challenge head-on. I like the approach Dead Man Breathing, one of our honorable mentions in issue #17, uses: it italicizes the dialect and isn't afraid to explain its meaning when the meaning is not obvious in context. Yet it recognizes readers will get most of it on their own. However, the dialect doesn't sneak into the narration; only the character's thoughts use dialect.

Contrast that approach to the one taken by Larry Brown in his award-winning story Kubuku Rides (This Is It). (I hate that title, by the way. I'll explain why I think the title is the worst short story title I've ever seen next time.) This time, the point is how Brown integrates dialect into the narration. Here are its opening lines: 

Angel hear the back door slam. It Alan, in from work. She start to hide the glass and then she don't hide the glass, he got a nose like a bloodhound and gonna smell it anyway, so she just keep sitting on the couch.

His other stories I've read don't use that dialect; it was something that worked well for one particular story, so he used it. I think it provides a great deal of atmosphere and does so without insulting or making caricatures out of the characters.

So there are at least two effective ways to write dialect when you have to. Pick the one that works best for your story's purpose.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Not a "Setup" Story

A "setup" story is our term for any piece of fiction that promises the reader a good story, but never gets around to delivering it. We get a few of these in every contest. Sometimes they read like the first chapter of a novel. The problem is, stories like that don't work without the rest of the novel.

The first time I read our third Honorable Mention story in Issue 16, The Hand of God, I wondered if it was a "setup" story. I felt closure at the end of it, though, so I didn't think it was. I took a deep look at it to figure out why I found the ending so satisfying, when one could argue the story leaves enormous, and important, questions unanswered.

Without spoiling anything, here's why I think the story is complete, rather than just a setup. The first key is, the reader knows more than the protagonist. The protagonist is a kid, and is interpreting everything through a kid's eyes. We can read between the lines and see more about what's going on, and more importantly, what's going to happen next, than the kid can. 

I think this story exemplifies OTP's theory of what a story does and needs to do. Does the story raise questions in the reader's mind about the story's elements? Definitely. Does it address those questions? (Note that I didn't say "answer," I said "address.") Yes, it does. Does it answer them completely? No, but it does answer one question pretty thoroughly, and that's the question of how life in this town has coped with its weird event, and how this kid is coping. Furthermore, we think we can extrapolate what's going to happen next, at least to a degree.

That last point might be the most important. Because we can guess with some certainty what's going to happen to the characters after the story officially ends, we don't need to read about it. Adding more scenes to the story would make the story dull unless those scenes added believable, but unexpected, new events.

In fact, the only way to make The Hand of God longer would have been to add a new series of events that fit the world, but did not fit our expectations. Since the story doesn't do that, we can assume our suspicions about what comes next are correct. That means the story does not tell an ending or even show an ending. Instead, it evokes an ending in our minds by leading us to a conclusion that we can't avoid.

Therefore, to us, The Hand of God is not a setup story, but a complete story that evokes an ending we supply ourselves. And we liked it enough that it made "Honorable Mention."

For fun, compare the evoked ending to The Hand of God to the ending of A League of Pity (first-place winner), which leaves absolutely no doubt in any reader's mind about what happens next: nothing of consequence. League's last paragraph ends the story completely. (Is that why it takes first place? No. I'm just making the comparison to show you there's more than one effective way to end a story.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bad Ambiguity Strikes Again

I love the restaurant review book Eating Las Vegas by John Curtas, Max Jacobson, and Al Mancini. I think I'd keep buying the annual editions even if I never went to Las Vegas again, just to stay in touch with their views on restaurant trends.

I wish the book had been more thoroughly edited, though. Here's a line that doesn't work for me at all. It's a one-phrase review tucked into page 142 of a section called "Cheap Eats." The note about the  restaurant says:

Popular with locals who wouldn't know real Spanish tapas if they bit them on their Iberico.

(Iberico is a Spanish ham, in case you don't know, and "tapas" are small-plate dishes like appetizers.)

What bugs me: I can't parse the "if they bit them" bit. Normally that phrase would be used like this:

"You stupid editors wouldn't know a good short story if it bit you!"

In the second example, the short story is obviously biting the editor. And that works. But the original text is about food. How do you eat food? Quite often, by biting it. So "if they bit them" can be interpreted both ways: if the tapas bit the locals (the traditional joke sense), or if the locals bit the tapas (the literal sense). 

I suppose you could say that since both interpretations could work, there's no problem, but I disagree. I say that since both interpretations work, the writer has to clarify which one he (meaning John, Al, or Max) means. Which is a lot of work to put into a one-phrase dismissal of a restaurant, and might make the phrase less sharp and amusing. But I'd rather have a slightly less sharp line than one that makes readers wrinkle their brows and wonder what the author's talking about.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Subtle Ambiguity Problem

A co-worker of mine found out about an ambiguity problem in one of her pieces the hardest way I can imagine, and long after it was too late. She said I could blog about it, and I'm glad, because I'd never experienced this problem.

My co-worker used to write and sell poetry. A publisher wanted to add one of her pieces to a CD of spoken poems. She agreed, but was horrified months later when she found out one of her poems had been critically misunderstood.

Her poem included the phrase "tear up," and she meant that in the sense of tears forming in one's eyes. So when she read her poem aloud, she always pronounced it TEER UP. Everyone involved in the audio publishing interpreted her phrase as meaning "rip up," which, she later recognized, was a defensible (but incorrect) interpretation of her poem. So the speaker on the CD pronounced the words TARE UP. 

Obviously, that pronunciation changed the meaning of her poem, and in her view, ruined it.

Today, audio books and audio magazines abound. At least two stories we've published in On The Premises have appeared in audio magazines. So remember, if how your story is read aloud matters to you, discuss it with editors of those magazines in advance, and look for places where a defensible but incorrect pronunciation would wreck your story.