Fiction: Episode or Story, Part 1

I was looking through my short fiction for a piece to submit to a competition when I came across two personal experience stories. I’d sent each of them out to several literary journals over the years, where they were rejected for publication or failed to win, place, or show in competitions. I had revised each piece when it was rejected, thinking that the voice, style, opening, or some other technical aspect might be at fault.

Did revision improve the stories? Yes. The writing become tighter, more focused, and richer in sensory details.

Did that get them published? Nope, and I know why: I wasn’t addressing the underlying problem. These were episodes, not stories in which the main character struggles to resolve one or more problems. I had simply retold, in as literary a way as I could, events from my life.

One was a funny (in retrospect) episode on an airplane sitting at the gate at Albuquerque, its takeoff delayed by fog in Phoenix (yup, Phoenix), and how the flight attendants got a crazed passenger to leave of his own accord. The other revolved around the parallel scars on my father’s forehead, the result of his weekend-warrioring with the weeds between our garage and our neighbors’.

Fun to tell to fellow writers over dinner after a meeting, but not stories.

Okay, that’s the first question: Is your piece a story, or is it episodic? The way to evaluate that is to determine whether or not it has the elements of a story. Is there is a main character with a thwarted desire who must struggle against increasing odds and who may or may not win. Is there something at stake? If so, you may have a story.

I’ll leave you to assess your own work and post more on this issue soon.

 

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Nighttime Desire

There was a flash of light at the back door of the house and a big bang and then a crash in the tree branches over my head. Leaves and twigs dropped on me and I took off running. Half way down the lane I thought about how Pappy was always right. He’d tole me more than once to stay away from Old Man Logan’s place.

“Got a shotgun,” Pappy warned, “and he’s mean with it.”

But I wanted what Logan was guarding, and on a dark night, I took off across the fields to come at the Logan place from the woods. I’d made it to the field behind his house before he saw me–or at least a shadow of mine–and let loose with the shotgun. As I ran, I looked back at the house and saw Logan’s daughter standin’ in the open window of her bedroom, backlit so’s I could see through her nightgown. I almost stopped running, but another blast of the shotgun spurred me on.

When I was out of shotgun range, I slowed a bit. And thought about coming onto Logan’s place from another direction. I could sure enough see his daughter in the daylight, at school. But daylight wasn’t a good time to go after what I really wanted. So I trudged on home, mouth still watering. For Old Man Logan sure did grow the sweetest watermelons in the county.

Going to a Writers’ Conference? Be Prepared!

I just love spring in Arizona, don’t you–especially that six-week period in March and April when I want to dig a pit, line it with cinder blocks, roof it with steel, and not come out until the battering wind stops.

High-positive-ion wind messes with people’s neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that affect emotions. More serotonin and less norepinephrine is a formula for irritability and depression in a lot of people. The wind even inhibits thyroid function. That’s why I own an air cleaner with a negative-ion generator.

(Digression: Writing about what you know about is good. Writing about what you want to know and have to research makes you stretch.)

Still, I do love spring in Arizona. Why? Because three of my favorite writing events take place in that season:

(Digression: Okay, you can argue that Pima takes place in the summer. Any season in which you have to turn on your car’s air conditioner at eight in the morning is summer. Humor me anyway.)

Having listed these upcoming delights–and having read a couple of newsletter and blog pieces about writers’ conferences–I want to pass along two doable, down-to-earth logistical tips that have helped me get the most out of my time at these events.

Take food and water. At the very least, it gives you options for getting enough glucose to your brain cells in case the caterer’s truck breaks down, a fuse blows in the hotel restaurant, or the incoming water pipe is breached by a backhoe driver digging to install cable. This is especially important if you need to regulate your blood sugar more frequently than coffee and meal breaks allow, are on a tight budget, and/or have food sensitivities or other considerations.

For instance, the Creative Writing Celebration provides a catered lunch the first day. It’s beautiful, it’s healthy, and there’s rarely anything on the serving table that doesn’t contain meat, wheat, milk, sugar, and/or chocolate. So I brownbag it.

Dress/take clothes for any conditions from Siberian auditoriums to Saharan hotel meeting rooms. Shivering and sweating can distract you from participating fully, keep you from learning what you came to learn, and cause you to miss the serendipity that, frankly, is my biggest motivation for going to conferences.

Air handling systems are idiosyncratic, perverse, and sometimes downright malicious. Their quirks are poorly understood by the people who design and install them, never mind those who have to run them. Dress in layers and carry a jacket. I don’t go as far as packing sandals and mukluks, though it’s crossed my mind.

Ross reminded me to add:  wear shoes that are comfortable to walk in.  Venues at some events are spread out, especially Tucson Festival of Books.  Blisters are not conducive to fun and learning.

You can’t plan for every eventuality, but if chance favors the prepared, a little preparation can increase the likelihood that you’ll have a good time and get all the conference has to offer.

Mirror, Mirror

I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life liked what I saw. My hair was a green and my skin was a dusky blue. The sleeves of my pink gown were mere black scarves dangling from a band of elastic around my upper arms. My skirts were a frothy gauze, thick and full and showing almost everything.

I wore a triangle of metal – glitzy and heavy – across my chest and it held a purple cape at the top that cascaded down my back.

For once my eyes looked huge and black and I painted on lavender lipstick with yellow dots across my lips. I clipped on gold shoes and tied gold flowers into my hair. And, feeling great, went off to the Star Trek party.

Where Judy arrived with nothing more than blinking lights in her hair, and still got all the attention.

Critique Technique, part 10: Poor Characterization

Whoa, it’s been way too long since I’ve posted anything. I could claim health issues and plumbing issues as reasons—both would be true—but both would be excuses, too. The real reason is this topic is one I’m uneasy writing about: characterization is the part of writing I think I have the most trouble with. You’d think that since writing these posts is also a form of self-teaching, I’d want to address this subject, but noooooo…

Time to quit stalling. Before I go on, though, a DISCLAIMER: what follows just scratches the surface of characterization. People have written many books on creating believable characters, and I’m smart enough to know I can’t cover everything they do in one post, or even a series of them.

With that in mind, what do I mean by poor characterization? What makes it poor, and how can you as a reviewer spot it, describe it, and offer help for it to the “guilty” writer?

We readers want the characters of the pieces we read to be:

  • Believable. They can be really bad (a Hannibal Lecter, for example) or really good, but they can’t be so intensely, unremittingly, uniformly bad or good that we lose faith in them. That means they have to also be
  • Interesting. Or quirky. Or flawed. In other words, they have to have some trait that lies outside the norm of the rest of their behavior and yet isn’t so outré that it’s unbelievable. The author has to make sure we understand why the character has that trait, even if the character herself does not. Good or bad, we also want characters to be
  • Redeemable: they have the chance and the ability to overcome their flaws. Whether they take that opportunity, and whether they succeed or fail, are other matters. Indeed, how they respond when the opportunity—or demand—presents itself can be very interesting, even the core of the story, but the ability needs to be there. It also helps if the characters are
  • Committed to something. It doesn’t matter so much if that commitment is to understanding their mother, or killing her, but the presence and the intensity of that commitment, that passion, make the character more interesting. Commitment creates the opportunity for conflict when there’s someone else with a different commitment: the mother, say, who doesn’t want to be “understood,” or who wants to live. The conflict can be internal, too, which makes the character more interesting. Commitment also means characters will be
  • Active. We want characters who DO things, not just sit around contemplating their navels, their troubles, their relationships, or their feelings. Passive characters are, for the most part, boring. There are exceptions, like Bartleby of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, whose aggression is passive, but nonetheless real. Speaking of feelings, we want characters to
  • Feel. Not so much that we’re drowned in their emotions, but not so little that they become robots, either. Even Star Trek’s Vulcans had feelings, and not just when “The Seven Year Itch” hit them. They had to, or we wouldn’t have been able to relate to them. Lastly, we want characters to be
  • Distinct. Many of the things I’ve listed above serve to make each character different from all the others in a piece. At least, they’d darn well better. As I wrote last time, conflict is a primary requirement of a story, and differences between characters is something that creates conflict. Can you imagine a story in which every character was identical in every respect? Neither can I.

In other words, then, we want characters to be people. Wow, what a concept! Piece of cake, right? Not so much. At least, not for me. Maybe not for you.

So what makes for poor characterization? NOT having the qualities listed above is part of it, or not having enough of them, but poor characterization can also be revealed by having too much of some trait. Problems will arise if a character is:

  • Too quirky or flawed. Then the quirk or flaw becomes a distraction, or disrupts the story, in which case, it’s worth asking what the story’s really about. Also, if a character is
  • Too committed to something, they become a one-trick pony, which makes them boring, annoying, tiresome, uninteresting. The same is true if they’re
  • Hyperactive or melodramatic. The hyperactive character wears the reader out while showing no depth. In a later post I’ll write about story pace, but there’s a “pace” for a character, too, and someone who’s “on” all the time doesn’t demonstrate the variety of character pace that makes them interesting. Similarly, melodrama provides no change of pace. A character who’s always crying, shouting, ranting, raging, even being violent also becomes boring, or worse. High emotion is fine in the proper time and situation but a character who has no other kind of response will drive readers away. By the same token, the character who
  • Lacks any emotion will be just as uninteresting. This is true whether they’re the clichéd cold-blooded killer or the dude who’s too cool for everyone and everything else. There are exceptions, of course. Bartleby is about as emotionless as you can get, but Melville uses that lack of emotion as the perfect reflector for the first-person narrator’s emotions, bouncing them back without being affected by them, thus creating the story’s conflict.

To summarize, then, a well-drawn character has a balanced complexity: they’re a mixture of many traits. Not so many as to be a confused muddle but not so few as to be a cardboard cut-out. Some traits will be more prominent than others, and different traits will be more prominent at different times. Some traits will define the character’s core, others will just decorate their surface. For the story’s protagonist, those core characteristics should be the ones at greatest risk.

Here are some questions for you to ask about the characters as you review a piece:

  • Do I see enough different traits in the character to make him interesting? Or are there so many traits that I don’t know who he really is?
  • Are her responses to the situations she finds herself in appropriate to the story? (Responding inappropriately can be a legitimate character trait.)
  • Does he have flaws but also the potential to be redeemed from them?
  • Is she committed to something? Is she too committed to something?
  • Does he show a range of emotions that is too wide, too narrow, or appropriate?
  • And the ultimate questions: do I believe her and believe in her? Do I want to know more about her?

What questions to do you ask yourself when evaluating a story’s characters?

 

Talking

– Ooo, no. Not there.

– Hurt?

– Try turning it to the left.

– Okey dokey. How’m I doing?

– Ah. Much better.

– Here’s something new.

– Oh! Stop that.

– Stop what? This? Or this?

– Oh, goodness. You keep that up and I won’t want you to stop.

– That’s the idea.

– You think this was your idea?

– Of course. It’s always on my mind.

– Like Georgia.

– Who?

– Never mind. Oh, stop that. You’ll make me giggle.

– I like it when you giggle. You jiggle when you giggle. In all the right places, I might add.

– Hmm. I think I’ll just be very still.

– And make me do all the work?

– This was your idea. Why should I do any of the work?

– Because you like to see how I react?

– As long as you react by giving me presents.

– You want presents now?

– If you don’t get back to work, you’ll have to give me presents before you start to work.

– Oh, yeah?

– Oomph. Oh my! I can’t breathe.

– I want you breathless. Maybe you’ll stop talking.

– You want to do all the talking?

– Nope. No talking from anybody.

– Have at it.

– Okey dokey. Yumm!

The Poetics of Place

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in a little over a month. If you’ve never attended this readers’ and writers’ extravaganza, I urge you to dedicate at least one day to it. (More information at the bottom of this post.)

I like to prime myself for events like this by reading my notes from the previous year’s presentations. It puts me in a writerly frame of mind and primes my synapses.

Last year a wonderful novelist and children’s book author named Ilie Ruby came from back east to give a workshop called The Poetics of Place. While it was aimed at fiction, what she taught is useful in any kind of writing where setting is important–in other words, almost everything we write other than grocery and honey-do lists.

Here’s the exercise Ilie gave the forty or so people who attended her workshop.

Step 1 – Close your eyes. Imagine something happened in a real or made-up place. Look for sensory connections to other experiences, real or imagined. Pay particular attention to the tug of place in your thoughts and emotions.

Step 2 – Set a timer for ten minutes and do a free write, using your memory or imagination of that place. Describe it after something unpleasant or upsetting has happened. Keep writing; don’t let your pen stop. Doing it by hand gives you an organic, sensory advantage.

Step 3 – Set the timer again and describe the same place after something wonderful has happened. Compare your two descriptions.

Here’s what I wrote for Step 2: Her father had slammed his way out the back door, rattling the windows. He had slammed the wooden gate and then come back to latch it in that resigned way he had. The girl had retreated to her bedroom, climbed onto the quilt, and hugged her stuffed horse. Maybe she had slept. When she became aware again, the house was silent in that underwater way it was when the fog came in off the bay and climbed the hills. She lay still, cheek pressed against the horse’s dingy pink hide, and one breath told her that things had changed. That invisible thing her mother called mold had awakened and crept up her nostrils to inform her.

I was writing toward her discovery that the house is full of fog. This actually happened in the Berkeley Hills in California I was three or four years old, and my mother, brother, and I had taken a nap and left the bay-facing windows open.

We had less time to finish the second exercise, where something wonderful has just happened: How had she not known how much she loved this house, this wooden womb, this only place she had lived since her mother’s body? Had she, in her nearly six years, never noticed the bright trails of slugs across the fallen bay tree leaves, the smells of dust and wet decay that excited her nose, the patterns of light wedging itself between the leaves of the canopy?

The point of this exercise is to develop the habit of noticing sensory details of setting and how they relate to a character’s emotions. Give it a try and see what your imagination serves up.

Dates for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books are Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Information is available at http://www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. From the website you can get on their e-mailing list. There are a raft of panel discussions and individual presentations, not to mention a wide variety of foods. (Lines are sometimes long, so it doesn’t hurt to bring something to keep your blood sugar up.) Hope to see you there, or at least pass you in the crowd.