Wednesday, May 13, 2009

GUEST POST: BRANDON BELL...On the Well Written Story, Well Told

All the writers among us will enjoy and benefit from this special post by Brandon Bell (M-Brane #1 and #5). --CF

I have been writing since I was a kid, and I have been writing and submitting to genre magazines since I was a teenager. And without reservation I can say that everything I wrote prior to the last five years was crap. Occasionally well-written crap, but crap. In the last five years I transitioned into writing promising crap. But still crap. And I finally, much more recently than I want to admit, started producing fiction editors were willing to buy. Here are some thoughts on this journey.
A heuristic for the fiction writer: you'll write a lot of garbage getting to the good stuff.

Young or new writers make excuses for themselves in regard to this. They are "just writing for themselves" or don't want archaic conventions to stifle their genius or creativity. Bullshit. If you want to write for your self, get a journal and have at it. If you are writing fiction, then market and audience is always a consideration.

Another heuristic: identify your market and audience, write with that in mind, and then submit based on the guidelines of your target market(s).

One of my best decisions as a writer was joining the Online Writers Workshop, submitting all my stories for review, and learning how to review other people's stories. I believe it is invaluable to review work comparable as well as better and worse than one's own. I found that I wanted "big picture" input on my stories and thought that giving this kind of input more valuable than mere line edits. I was wrong. Line edits are the heart of good critiques and you need to learn how to line edit your own work. Editing another's work leads to insight into your own. Through line editing, I came to see what I previously thought stylistic choice as mere wordiness. I came to see simplicity as beauty even in long, ornate stanzas of prose.

And another heuristic: join a group that will give you honest and useful reviews and learn to do the same.

Most articles about writing suggest books to read, and I'll do the same. The best book I have ever read that was about becoming a better writer was Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. I also sing the praises of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, despite the book being over-hyped in some quarters and subsequently maligned by writers like David Brin. I dig Brin, by the way. I'd suggest reading the book and then seeking out why others disagree with it.

Much of the specific suggestions I offer are culled from these two books.

So, you're going to write. A lot. At some point you're going to want to put it out there, try for publication. Go for it. You may be baffled why an excellent story is rejected. Join the critique group and learn what works and doesn't work for your readers. Become a great critter of others stories. Focus on line editing, and work up from there to the big picture stuff.

Here's a template for doing story reviews. I'm sure I grafted this from various sources among OWW critters, but if the net result is better story crits in the genre world, I don't think anyone will mind:









Show vs. Tell:

Line By Line:

I always start with the "Line by Line" section, commenting as I read, then go back and make short comments in the prior categories. If diligent and helpful as opposed to smarmy (that kind of a crit 'sucks', which is a technical term we writers use for pompous bastards who review our work from the end of their noses), you will tend to do great reviews for people and get the same in return. I should note, lest it be misconstrued from prior parenthetical comments, that good crits are critical. They point out weaknesses and faults. Fawning will make you feel good, but it won't get you published.

So get some practice critting, and get some great reviews in return. Edit based on the input. Learn to spot accurate criticism as opposed to personal predilection in your critters and have enough backbone to decide when a story is done.

And then return to write a story for a particular market that you want to get published in (or submit the one you have vetted against your crit group, since you vet all your stories against them).

I did this and found the markets I wanted to publish in (I realized I might get rejected at market #1, so I wanted my story to fit the general guidelines of several markets) had word count limits of about 5000 words. Many of the online markets have less: 3500-4000, so apply these guidelines appropriately.

Determine your premise. I chose for one story, "Real love lets go." Then I began to understand who my protagonist must be, because she would prove my premise through the course of the story. She would necessarily start out clinging to the object of her affection. By the end, she would let go. It is through this sort of transition, love to hate, fear to fearlessness, triumph to loss, that we identify characters as real and their story compelling. And good stories flow from believable characters properly orchestrated.*

There must be a pivotal character: someone or a group of someones (or possibly a force of nature or magic, etc: this is genre after all.) who does not change but is in fact a perfect opposition to your hero. Faced with the pivotal character, the protagonist has no choice but to act.

Your 5000 words are spread out over 5 phases: Exposition, Rising Conflict, Climax, Falling Action, and Denoument. Egris argued that there should not be a separate expositional section in a play or other fiction, but that exposition should constantly occur throughout the narrative, leading us toward an inevitable conclusion.

I still list Exposition first because while I agree with Egri, I recognize that the short genre story has several tasks to accomplish in its first two pages: hook the reader, establish character, setting, tone, and plant the seed of what will become the Climax. Starting with dialog is often a good choice. I have begun stories with lines that are shocking or odd, though there is the danger of not delivering on that initial weirdness.

Regardless of one's approach, I find it rare to have that meandering, pointless start when trying to accomplish so much. In fact, it is a great way to practice one's skill as a genre writer to seamlessly pack all this information into a mere two pages (tops), and compel the reader to continue.

Rising Conflict will compose the bulk of your story. Again, as noted by Egri, all good conflict is either foreshadowed or rising. There is a rumor of icebergs in the water, but the captain insists on full speed ahead. Later comes the crash and shriek of metal crumpling in the night as the ship lists. Water rushes into the lower levels and passengers begin filing out onto the deck where it becomes obvious there are not enough life rafts. The waters are freezing, the ship is sinking fast, and there is no one near to come to rescue. Conflict rises naturally, progressively, and we are urged along with our protagonist toward the proving of our original premise. Here is where the protagonist slowly transitions, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, from one pole to the other. Here is where the hero struggles along, overcoming increasing challenges, stiffer odds. I've heard it described as "three bumps" on the road to the climax. Rising Conflict will last for ten to thirteen pages.

By the time we reach the Climax our hero, in Campbell's parlance, has Answered the Call to Adventure in the Exposition and set off into the Underworld to meet both Challenges and accept Aid on the road to confrontation with Father/Mother/Tyrant/Diety/Satyr/Self, and to either bring back the fire of the gods or to come back to the world changed by the ordeal.

In the Climax the pivotal character stands absolute and the protagonist has grown into the equal opposition to that character or force. She acts because of the truth of our premise, and wins or loses based on the absolute necessity of taking action. The Climax will last from one to three pages.

Falling Action and Denoument address the repercussions of what has happened and should be as short as possible: a few words, a sentence, paragraph, or a few paragraphs. It should not be more than a page, possibly two.

Through these methods I suggest that anyone willing to accept the above three heuristics can draft the well-written story well told.

And then you find the number of editors who bemoan the glut of just such stories. Technically fine, and not lacking in any specific department, but not must-buys, either.

Just as I continue to work on writing well-written stories (I am totally a little tuna, and just sharing with anyone interested), I also struggle to fit my own uniqueness of approach and vision into my stories so that I might wow the next editor who reads my stuff. It is a challenge, but a fun one. Good luck to us all!

* "But!" you say. Pointing out the genre examples that defy this statement. Twenty Evocations. Red as Blood. The squid section of City of Saints and Madmen. Yeah, nice point, but you're not that good yet. Focus on writing from character, then experiment.

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Jamie Eyberg said...

this is one that will have to be printed off and re-read every so often. i couldn't agree more that writer's groups are important for writers of any skill level. Even the big boys send their work out to readers to look for inconsistencies.

Merc said...

Great post, Brandon! Thanks. :)

Brandon said...

Jamie, Merc, thanks for your input! B


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