CSFF Blog Tour – Residential Aliens, Day 3


Part 1 of Jeff Chapman's story in Residential Aliens

In my last post, I mentioned my plans, in conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour of the zine Residential Aliens, to do a review, but left the subject of such, up in the air. For a moment I was tempted to turn the table and review the blog participants! 😀 Now that could have resulted in some interesting discussion, don’t you think?

I also considered doing a review of one of the stories, but Bruce Hennigan, Jeff Chapman, and our newest member, Dean Hardy, among others, gave excellent reviews in their posts.

I considered giving a review of editor extraordinaire Lyn Perry himself, but Fred Warren beat me to that one and did a much better job than I could have, by far.

Well, there’s the obvious — a review Residential Aliens as a whole. Yep, you guessed it: on Monday Sarah Sawyer posted an article taking a critical look at the site.

So here’s what I decided after reading Shannon McDermott‘s post giving a thorough overview of Residential Aliens: I’m going to review the short story. Not a short story — the genre, short story.

Early in my writing career, I read that learning to write the short story was so unique and different from writing a novel that it required its own set of skills. That was enough to scare me off. I had my hands full trying to learn what I needed for my novel.

Then along came a little short story contest held by World Magazine. They wanted stories written from a Christian worldview, and they posted the submissions on line, allowing others to comment or critique.

Well, that was interesting. The upshot was, I decided writing short stories looked like a lot more fun than I’d imagined. And doable.

Not long after, Bethany House editor Dave Long began to hold short story contests which I entered. And I had the bug.

I’m not sure if it was the short story bug or the contest bug (probably the latter), but one thing I discovered — short stories afforded me the opportunity to experiment with voice, point of view, story structure, and whatever else I wanted to play with. In short, I discovered that short stories are a great boon to a writer.

Not only did they help me learn my craft, I actually sold a couple stories and had some modest success in a couple contests. That feedback was encouraging.

Now I’d recommend to any writer starting out to begin with short stories.

But what about for readers? I rarely read short stories these days. And yet, I find myself eighty pages into an anthology of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and I love them.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I don’t shy away from short stories as much as they shy away from me. Magazines don’t carry them any more (even Writer’s Digest which used to publish the winner of their Short, Short Story Competition, now puts it online, not in their magazine). I don’t get a Sunday school paper as I used to — those were always good for a story or two. And I’m no longer subscribed to the one or two magazines that may still carry short stories.

I have to say, I’m not fond of reading stories on the computer. I tend to think of reading as a chance to settle back and enjoy, not sit at a desk. Consequently free ezines hold less appeal to me than novels.

But then I see that Residential Aliens has multiple formats available, and I think, here’s an editor/publisher who understands the transitional world in which we live. One day, I suspect, everyone except the rare book collector will be reading from eReaders of some sort. But today we are in flux, and the more formats offered, the better the chance that readers of one stripe or another will find the stories.

May that be true of those Residential Aliens has published.

Scene vs. Narrative, Part 3


I mentioned yesterday that I’d made a comment in response to Dave Long’s post at Faith in Fiction about the use of narrative and exposition. Mostly I quoted from one of my favorite writing instructors. As I did a search of my archives, I did not uncover a single reference to this writer. Hard for me to imagine that I haven’t mentioned her here before.

I’m referring to Monica Wood, author of Description, (Writers Digest, 1995). By that publication date, you can see that, in all likelihood, she was operating in the writing era before the emphasis on all things short and quick. Still, I think her advice is sound. Here’s the basics of my response to Dave’s post:

It’s just that there’s a way to do exposition and narrative well and a way to do it so that the story suffers.

I’ve read some beautiful prose that really doesn’t belong in my opinion. Not in a novel. Not as it appeared anyway.

Maybe it’s just what I like, but I’ve bought into some of the principles Monica Wood teaches in her book entitled Description. For example:
“Forward movement in fiction is twofold: physical and emotional …Stories move forward most seamlessly when plot and character mesh.”

Then later: “There is no greater (nor annoying) motion-stopper than immobile chunks of physical description … Deliver physical characteristics a few at a time, and the character in question becomes much more seeable.”

And from the beginning of the chapter on forward motion: “Don’t ask who your character is; ask what your character does.”

And those lines in a book on description! 😮 But don’t get me wrong. Wood clearly believes narrative has a place. From the chapter entitled “Showing and Telling”:

[Referencing a previous example] all this “showing” is taking the spotlight away from someone else who is more important. Besides, too much showing can start to seem self-conscious, as if you’re brandishing your arsenal of similes and metaphors just for the heck of it. Your characters might even disappear in the process. Don’t let your prose style overwhelm the story you want to tell.

Too much telling can flatten your story, too much showing can overwhelm it … A combination of showing and telling usually yields the best description.

Perhaps that combination, once favoring narrative, now favors scene, but I think the combination is still necessary. More from Wood:

Scenes have to be relieved by spots of narrative, though, or your story will never end … You can suggest the torpor of the long afternoon without subjecting the unfortunate readers to a torpid scene.

So maybe there really is no “versus” in fiction when it comes to narrative and scene. But I still need to click on that link Dave posted and read what J. Mark Bertrand had to say about the subject. Could be I’ll have more thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  
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Scene vs. Narrative, Part 2


Nearly two years ago, Bethany editor Dave Long wrote his thoughts about narrative on his blog, Faith in Fiction:

And the second thing I think I’ve noticed may be counter-intuitive to much of the advice given today. That is: density of story emerges primarily through narrative and exposition rather than dialogue … the heavy work of filling a book is done between the scenes.

This becomes difficult to parse out because in the best novels everything is for the sake of advancing the novel at some level. If it does no work, it should be excised. However, too often we’ve reduced that maxim to simply, “Everything must advance the plot.” And with that I disagree. A richer understanding of a character’s thoughts, a fuller development of a theme–these things make up the richness and fullness to which I’m referring.

Richard Russo’s Straight Man begins with a seven page prologue. It is at once superfluous to the plot and intrinsic to the main character. Do you leave it?

Lying Awake pauses in its story to give flashbacks, set apart in italics, of Sister John of the Cross’ childhood. Not a single one is pertinent to her dangerous medical condition. But each opens her life a little wider to us.

There are more and better examples out there. Hopefully you see what I’m getting at. Story is all. But story is not plot. And therefore plot is not all.
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Mark Bertrand has recently visited this topic in his study on craft, although from a slightly different angle, cracking that old chestnut about “showing, not telling.”

We do need to learn to show. But as Mark says, we also need to learn to tell…well.

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Faith in Fiction, May 17, 2006

As Dave said, this view seems counter-intuitive to the advice given today. Although I have some differing ideas, I agree there is an important place in fiction for telling well.

I finished Assassin’s Apprentice (Robin Hobb) last week and have to say, I don’t think the story was hurt by the amount of telling—considerably more than most CBA books, I’d wager. But was it helped?

For me, the key point Dave made was that plot does not equal story.

Your thoughts?

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 10:24 am  Comments (10)  
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