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."