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.

Writing Inspirational Stories

I decided to try it. Writer’s Digest holds semi-annual writing competition, and one of the categories is Inspirational. For years I’ve received the promo material for this contest and never entered this category. I wrote a couple stories for the Genre Fiction category, but Inspirational had me stumped.

A friend of mine even told me a few years ago that she finished in the top 100, I think it was. What exactly was the “Inspirational” category, I asked her. Oh, anything, she said. Stories? Yes, she said, her entry was a story.

So last year, I decided to try it. Except, what exactly was an Inspirational story? I didn’t have a clue, and wasn’t sure I really wanted to figure it out.

Here it is, a year later, and there was that Inspirational category staring me in the face again.

So what is an Inspirational story?

Too late, I saw this year that Writer’s Digest did a good job answering that question. These stories have explicit religious messages. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

Inspirational: An article, essay or story with an explicitly religious, spiritual or otherwise inspirational focus. An article that’s suitable for Guideposts or St. Anthony Messenger, for example, would be inspirational. An essay on how the power of Christ, (or Buddha, or Allah or Vashti) touched your life would be inspirational. A story about the power of religion, the power of prayer, or the power of the universe would be inspirational.

That would have helped, but I don’t think I was too far off. I figured an Inspirational story should be one that showed change, inspirational change.

OK, I was struggling. Was it like a Hallmark feel-good story that brought you to tears or gave you a warm feeling or a heavy sigh?

This was definitely a challenge, one I didn’t know if I was able to figure out.

For that matter, I’m not sure I’ve got short stories figured out.

A few years ago, Writer’s Digest carried an article about writing the shorter kinds of stories. This came out some time before their Short, Short Story Competition. Anyway, the gist of the article was that voice was the all-important component for the shortest of stories. So that’s what I worked on.

But this year, in one of the recent issues of the magazine there were a couple articles about crafting short stories. One was “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative.” (Oh, it’s not all about voice, then, at least if the short story isn’t of the 1500 word kind. I wonder about the 2500 word Inspirational kind). The other was “Broadening Your Story’s Scope” (in 2500 words? In the Inspirational category?)

OK, I concluded, this is definitely harder than it looks. But try, I decided to do. And did. Turned it in this afternoon, just before the deadline (midnight tonight) before the deadline (May 20, if you pay a late fee).

Now I’m wondering how inspirational Inspirational stories need to be. 🙄

– – –

Time still to vote in the CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award Poll and in the What do you read poll. Also, have you passed the links along to others in your circle asking them to vote? If you do, you’ll win … my undying gratitude. But maybe I need to hold a book drawing. Hmmm, now that might just happen.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,

The Art of Storytelling, Part 7

This is probably the last in this series. The February issue of Writer’s Digest has fueled a lot of my thoughts and I’m reaching the end of the articles dealing with fiction.

The one I read today reaffirmed some of the things I’ve learned about plot, but also said succinctly what I think inhibits some writers. From Steve Almond‘s Fiction column, this month’s article, “The Great Plot Test,” in which he discusses common problems he runs across in teaching fiction:

The truth is, we often can’t see the bad decisions in our own work because we’re too narcissistically attached to it.

Yep, the truth hurts at times. But he said what I bumbled around a few days ago. “Too narcissistically attached.”

Years ago, in a long forgotten article or writing book, an author wrote a well-remembered statement that if we have lines in our story that we really love, those probably are the first we should cut. I disagreed! Vehemently! Why would you cut something you knew to be good?

Finally, finally I get it. The lines themselves were standing above the story, and that’s backwards. The writing, as much as the characters, plot, setting, foreshadowing, description, symbolism, dialogue must serve the story.

If I write a pretty line I refuse to cut, I am no longer serving the story with that line. That’s not to say I need to cut a line because it is pretty. But I do need to be willing to cut it.

Lo these many years later, I’ve been lopping off favorite lines right and left.

Writing fiction really is odd. I mean, it is a form of communication, so it’s me writing something I want to say to … an unseen and unknown group of people “out there.” And, if I do my job well, those people won’t think about me at all. They will feel attached to my characters, perhaps, and after the fact become aware of me, but if I intrude in the story, they very well may put the book down, or at best skip the pages where I am visible.

The point is, those lines I love just might be the ones that intrude. At least, I need to consider that possibility.

One more line from the article. Two of the common problems Almond finds in his students have to do with plot/character issues. The first is plot drift, in which the action is not driven by the character trying to achieve his greatest desire. The second is plot shallowness (my term—Almond says the author fails to push hard enough). Here’s the crux of this last point, and I’ll end here to let you mull it over:

My point is this: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forching him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , , ,

The Art of Storytelling, Part 6

Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in that recent Writer’s Digest magazine that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Art of Storytelling, Part 5

I realize today I have a little more to say about fiction techniques. In a recent Writer’s Digest, Mort Castle wrote an article about mimicking other writers, entitled “Write like Poe.” In the section “The Elements of Style,” Castle said this:

Authors’ styles grow from all the basic elements of prose: vocabulary, sentence length, structure, rhythm, narrative point of view, imagery, figures of speech and lots more. Style reflects a writer’s line-by-line, moment-by-moment decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out, what tone to adopt and what mood to induce in the reader. Style is the summation of “how” a story is presented … Many popular writers aren’t considered stylists, and they seek what’s termed a “transparent style” that focuses exclusively on plot.

It is this “transparent style”—really a whitewashing of style—I referred to as “stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling.”

For much of the history of fiction, authors wrote in such unique manners that readers could tell who created the work without seeing a name affixed to it. In contrast, I won’t say that today such individuality is frowned upon. Rather, style is rarely discussed.

In numerous writing conferences, writing books, writing discussions, fiction techniques come across like how-to components—there is a right way that editors and agents are looking for, and other ways lead authors to the unpublished ranks. This impression feeds into the tender author psyches (like mine was) that suspect there is a secret to grasp which will lead to the promised land of publication.

Understandably, authors scramble to put their story into the “right” style, much as they do to put their writing into the required format, and the result is the equivalent of white bread.

Do publishers want this type of writing? Castle said “many popular writers” seek a “transparent style.” After all, rye bread has a distinct flavor, and not everyone likes it. Won’t a “transparent style” appeal to the widest possible audience?

I suspect that is the thinking, but millions read Tolkien and millions read Lewis, though neither of those authors wrote in a “transparent style.” The argument, of course, is that those writers would never be published today. And that could be true.

But my point is, they’re being read today. In other words, a transparent style is not requisite for a work to be well liked, even loved. Granted, I have heard some people (certainly not everyone) complain about Tolkien’s style, even admit that they skip parts. I’m not advocating a return to a style of yesteryear.

I am suggesting, however, that readers have a far greater tolerance for varied styles than what many in the business give them credit for. Frequently here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I say that story trumps all, and I believe that completely. Style, on the other hand, can be transparent (stand out of the way), be opaque (get in the way), or highlight (add and enhance).

If we writers keep learning, I think it’s within our grasp to do more than learn to get out of the way.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 3:47 pm  Comments (7)  
Tags: , , , ,

Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1

After years and years of subscribing to Writer’s Digest, I just added The Writer to my writing resources. So far I’m not sorry.

One article in the October issue chronicles the worst mistakes in mystery writing. Some points were unique to the genre, but many were not. Some I’d already filed away in my mental folder of Things to Avoid, including coincidence or an act of God, narration masquerading as dialogue, a superfluity of viewpoints, and stereotypical characters.

Another point was “false starts.” At first I didn’t know what that referred to—prologues, maybe? As it turns out, this was in part also in my Things to Avoid list. The point of emphasis is that readers need to keep reading, so the first scene should intrigue. Readers should be asking, What happens next?

Pitfalls that dampen the intrigue are glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in, yes, a prologue.

I was familiar with the flash forward itself. The author of this particular article, Hallie Ephron, says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

The real point of this “false starts” issue, I think, is that readers need to keep reading. But that speaks to more than the beginning. If readers love the first five pages of a book, only to be bored silly in the next ten, I doubt seriously if they will feel the Need to Read.

And that’s the goal writers should have—make those readers care, make them want to keep going, make them impatient to pick up the book again if life forces them to put it down.

Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off? Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with, which I think is an automatic strike against the story. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through the life of their story. These have a strike against them too because it’s hard to care for a character who doesn’t care.

But the engaging character is only one part. The other is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says. It’s so easy to think the reader will “get” that the character description and backstory is vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is.

This one, I’ve learned the hard way, just isn’t so.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments Off on Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1  
Tags: , , ,

Confusion or Curiosity

So I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. In her comment to yesterday’s post, Sally Apokedak said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off Steve Almond‘s examples in his Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Helpful guidelines, I think.

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 10:49 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

What’s in the Beginning

I keep changing my mind about today’s topic! First an announcement. Recently agent Rachelle Gardner ran a fun contest, which she does with some frequency. This one was a 100-word story based on a writing prompt—a picture of a young girl seated on a small suitcase. Today she posted the finalists, and wonder of wonders, my story made the cut. Thing is, Rachelle’s blog visitors are voting on the winner, so if you’re inclined to read 600 words (6 finalists), I encourage you to click on over to Rachelle’s site and vote for your favorite teensy-weensy story.

Actually, the finalist thing plays into what I finally decided to talk about today. I read an article in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and the author, Steve Almond reiterated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Even at the beginning.

Initially this may seem to clash with the advice I’ve heard, often from those with literary leanings, that writers don’t need to put everything up front, that readers are far more patient than we think, and, in fact, enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much back story at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it wil happen if a reader is confused.

So what about it? Take a look at those shortest of stories (you can read all contest entries here). The ones you liked best—did the writers ground you quickly in the what and wherefore? Or did they leave you wandering—and therefore wondering—a bit?

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

Fantasy Friday – The Fifth (or And Speaking of Sub-genres)

Well, I’m excited. The April 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest has an article about the hot genres of pop fiction, and science fiction/fantasy is on the list! In a graphic of subgenres, twenty varieties appear. Mind you, “horror” is listed as a separate genre with seventeen of its own subdivisions.

In comparison, mystery/crime has three subdivisions (although police procedural has fourteen sub-subgenres listed). Romance has a mere seven subgenres, with “Christian” being one.

So what, you might ask, is exciting about all this? Is Christian fantasy one of the subdivisions? No, but epic fantasy is, and that’s what I write, from a Christian worldview. Not urban fantasy or dark fantasy, SF thriller, new age, cyberpunk, steampunk, science fantasy, Arthurian, or fantastic alternate history. Those subgenres, and others on the list, seem to appeal to a select group, a niche, whereas epic fantasy has an appeal that spans age groups and reading preferences.

And here’s what the Writer’s Digest article said:

[Crawford] Kilian [author of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy] also sees a return to eic fantasy, spurred by The Lord of the Rings movies. He cites a new series, Queen of the Orcs, derived from one of Tolkien’s fanciful species. The return of the epic style is welcome to [Harper Collins Voyager Publishing Director Jane] Johnson who wrote a companion piece for The Two Towers, and is currently working on an epic children’s fantasy series, the Eidolon Chronicles.

“It’s hard to beat the rush of finding a tale with huge scope and a cast of brilliant characters,” she says. “For me, there’s nothing more absorbing.”

For reader and writer alike, I might add. How else can anyone explain the huge love affair our culture has with Lord of the Rings, which spills out to include nearly everything Tolkien.

So there you have it. I’m finally writing what’s “in,” at least according to this general market writing periodical. 😀

One other reason I’m excited. Recently I received news that a story I entered in the Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest placed. No, not in the money, but I do get free books, my name in the magazine, and my story included in the collection of winners. That’s cool in itself, but here’s the part I’m excited about. The story is Christian fantasy, the way I write it—like a parable. And this contest was not genre specific. In other words, this story was judged along with contemporary stories, literary stories, you name it.

As I see it, that confirms my belief that Christian fantasy can “cross over.” It does not have to be a story only for Christians. Of course, those who don’t have the eyes to see may not discover the meaning of the parable. They will, however, enjoy a good story, and it may be a story that will plant a seed or become a tool in the hands of a believer to illustrate what they’ve been telling their non-Christian friends about the gospel. At least that’s my prayer.

%d bloggers like this: