This conversation took place on a conversational 'thread' about improving one's fiction writing, which was hosted by Analog magazine's online discussion forum. (Your friendly webmaster helps moderate that forum.) If you are into science fiction at all, you will recognize several of these names.
Rather than attempt a condensation, the relevant posts are presented here in their original form. Due to the specialization of the forum, there is a fair amount of jargon. Because of the casual and impromptu nature of the interaction, the spelling and phrases are not perfect.
I suppose the way to determine what makes a good story, is to look at the ones that have stood the test of time - Greek legends, folk tales, fairy tales, Shakespeare... (Shakespeare especially - the rowdies in the pit didn't want a sermon, and I suspect they had the used produce to make their point if they were unhappy!)
Then approach these stories with the same critical eye - what are they trying to tell you? How is it done? Reduce the story to the Hollywood pitch sentence, and see if you can see common elements of successful stories.
Try to recall a pointless "this is life" book, movie or film that you have seen or has made it big in the past - if it succeeded - why is that?
To me, generally, the story is about a fight; protagonist meets an adversity, a challenge, and somehow either perseveres, or fails.
I would agree that for SF, it's best if the science is integral to the story. If the plot is, say, chasing down a Segway thief in New York, 2050AD, but the plot is no different from a stolen bicycle in Rome in 1950AD, what was the point? OTOH, if the plot involves the cellular GPS in the Segway, and the thief is somehow defeating it, and the protagonist figures out how to turn it on remotely anyway - that's an SF element.
More likely, it's being taken out of range of wi-Fi contact and pops up randomly - so during one online episode, he downloads a program to have it keep a log of locations...or better yet, to have it run away home as soon as it's free. "Seggie Come Home", Adventures of the lost unmanned Segway roaming the streets of New York. Hmmm. Maybe I should write this story.
It's interesting to me to read how different people talk about approaches to writing. It doesn't necessarily indicate how each writer approaches each story idea every time, but it does point out that there are a lot of ways to do it. I've heard it postulated that there are only a finite number of "legitimate" plotlines, and each has already been done, i.e., name a plotline and there's a published story to go with it. From that perspective, the writer says, "I think I'm in the mood for man versus nature today," extrapolates characters and motion from that premise, and then tries to outwrite Jack London. Kind of a comforting thing to keep in mind if you ever suffer the dreaded block.
One trick that's worked for me in the past (although not without some significant jogs down blind alleys) is to just write a sentence that has possibilities. Introduce a character, any character, and put them in a setting, any setting that sounds intriguing, and then have them do or say something enigmatic. Then polish the sentence artistically, grammatically, and so on, and listen to your mind start looking for explanations. It's similar to Mike Flynn's suggestion, minus the fact that you're starting from published (and presumably quality) text. The benefits of this approach are, first, that by writing that initial sentence you'll be choosing things in which you have a personal interest, which will help as you develop the story, and second, the seminal sentence need not serve as the first sentence, i.e., you can write up or down from there.
But again, the interesting thing is just to see how many ways there are to approach it. Probably the best way is when inspiration just hits you out of nowhere and suddenly an entire story just unfolds in your mind. I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't think I'll make it as a writer if I just sit around and wait for that to happen.
I'm not sure this addresses the questions and problems you posed above, but for what's it's worth:
You talked about your work becoming flatter as you pare away. I don't have that experience, and, as someone's who's been an editor in various positions, I certainly bring that same kind of eye to my work. The thing is, after a first draft, I still see that there are places where the prose might "bloom," if you will, ideas and corners that haven't been touched. I give myself permission to expand rather than simply snip and contract. Just about every sentence gets rephrased at some point, but I'm also open to a widening and deepening of the prose.
The way this happens is by entering the story. What does the narrator observe, whether first- or third-person? Why is that what the narrator observes? Where does that take me? I rely on my subconscious to start finding connections. Thinking too much--at the wrong time, anyway--is death.
Another thing that keeps me interested in what I'm doing is to want to be surprised. I figure if I can surprise myself--even by something as simply as an unexpected word or phrasing--then the reader will probably be surprised too. I am my first audience, and I have high standards, especially since, as you say, we're rereading the piece over and over. If it doesn't contain a lot of places where I say, "I don't remember writing that; that's pretty cool," then it's not worth it to me.
How does one take a scene that has a routine daily activity in it (say shopping) and rework it so it's more engaging to readers?
Let's assume that the routine activity is moving the story forward by showing a character's habits or that there was deliberate thought that went into the activity, which in turn has a bearing on a future event in the story.
What's the narrator attending to? Only choose what's worth describing or commenting on.
What's the narrative attitude toward what's described? That tone creates interest but also establishes that we're not simply watching events unfold in some reportorial fashion.
What can you do, either in terms of words or phrasing, to keep ordinariness from seeming ordinary?
Shirley Jackson's a master at this, playing tone very subtly so that there's a great deal to notice even when, ostensibly, nothing is happening. Wonderful prose stylist. Tim Gautreaux deals with ordinary folks, but nothing seems ordinary about the way in which they go about their business.
If something seems ordinary to you when you write it, you can be sure the reader will notice.
"Bill arrived in the office suite Greg shared, pushing open the nondescript door, and was confronted with a huge, heavy, pink brocade couch and an equally huge, heavy, and pink receptionist. The former looked like the more pleasant conversationalist, and the latter seemed to have more comfortable padding. Nevertheless, Bill announced himself to the woman and took a seat on the couch, which was disturbingly like the one that had almost made his subcompact a sub-subcompact."
Lots of stuff that could be eliminated for meaning, sure, but it wouldn't be as FUN, now, would it? So you have to exercise judgment about what to leave in, particularly if it adds to the mood or sets up a joke or what have you.
Going a little farther, maybe a tense conversation has the business of trying to get a soda out of a stubborn machine. The business adds to the characters' aggravation, and can heighten the drama. Or it can reveal the silliness of the character, adding humor.
Then, if the mundane business is needed later in the plot, the trick is to make it invisible. Say the character buys a lottery ticket, which later is revealed as the winning ticket. How do you write that scene of buying the ticket without telegraphing the win? First, I'd say, don't include the scene of buying the ticket. I'd violate the "show don't tell" rule, because showing someone buying a ticket doesn't add anything. On the other hand, if the buying of the ticket is dramatic, include it. Say the buyer is torn about buying it, or is arguing with his wife about it. The drama of the scene is central, and the business of buying it is incidental. And if the ticket win is supposed to be a surprise, I wouldn't make the drama center on the ticket itself, but some other purchase. (Admittedly, it might be impossible not to telegraph such an iconic event as winning the lottery.)
So I guess the maxim would have to be something along the lines of "eliminate unnecessary verbiage, but be careful about what you consider unnecessary." Which leaves it as a judgment call of the writer, of course, and that's where a lot of trouble can start. But part of getting good at writing is developing that judgment. I know I'm still working at it; I'm not sure it ever stops.
I used to like the idea of "knocking words together and hearing how they ring." Just because something is mundane doesn't mean you have to talk about it in a mundane way. Or talking about it mundanely can work to your advantage, in certain stories. "The day was the same as always. Clock in, morning meeting, a few hours spinning atoms into the covalent web for the nanostructure assembly processors, lunch, then more of the same until time to clock out. The pseudo-gravity plating had a power wobble in the midafternoon, but that was about the only excitement. Until the commute home..."
It's important to keep in mind that language is not just a means of transmitting information. It does that, absolutely, but what it says and how it says it are all parts of the message. You keep your wording basic, flat, utilitarian, and you build a particular mood. You let your prose become flowery, baroque, and wound with imagery like a kudzu vine interlacing a highway barrier fence, you build a completely different mood, even if you're talking about the same actions or information. And the job of a writer is not only coming up with what to describe, but deciding how to describe it in a way that best suits the goal.
I hope this helps, as well. I'm kind of riffing, I realize, but it's frequently this kind of basic stuff that folks kind of forget. New writers sometimes never learn it, and old writers sometimes internalize it so much, they don't remember to mention it when they're giving advice. So I'm just making the implicit explicit, as much as I can.
Oh, wait, explicit writing is more for those naughty chatrooms... :D
Let's assume that the routine activity is moving the story forward by showing a character's habits or that there was deliberate thought that went into the activity, which in turn has a bearing on a future event in the story."
To attempt my take on this answer: I'd cover the routine in summary, to get the information across, but make the narrative focus more on the character's feelings. Does the character like routine? Feel frustrated by it? Yearn for more? Does he or she look at the highway entrance ramp while waiting at a stoplight, and wonder what it would be like to just turn and go on up and roll out toward St. Louis or wherever?
Alternately, perhaps the character likes the little details of the routine. Enjoys the crisp scent of the new produce in the supermarket, the chill from the freezer cases (particularly on hot days, where the character might linger over the frozen foods for an unnecessary few minutes, fabricating a reason to be indecisive). Maybe the character enjoys people-watching, just a little bit, as he or she picks up a new package of underwear at the K-Mart. Perhaps the character avoids Wal-Mart like the soul-killing plague that it is, and isn't afraid to think that as he or she drives by, studiously ignoring the wide turn-in lane.
Feelings are interesting to readers, particularly as they illuminate the character, and the smallest things can illuminate. If the character's reaction to traffic slow-downs is engaging in some way, that draws the reader in while still just talking about mundane, everyday events.
That's my take, at least.
One bit of advice that I've found helpful: in any block of such words, say a paragraph.
Check the last sentence (or perhaps the penultimate one). _
They came across the freighter tumbling in an eccentric orbit. A great rent had been slashed in its side, opening most of its compartments to the vacuum. No energy emissions could be detected; its drive was cold. The ship was utterly destroyed.
Given what has been said before, the last sentence is unnecessary.
+ + +
Gregor Mkevic hated shopping with the passion some reserved for abstract art or for disco. It was, like eating, a necessary activity, and one best gotten over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The idea that it might be savored and enjoyed for its own sake was as alien to his constitution as a fine wine to his palate. When he entered Boyton's Mens Store, he knew exactly what he wanted and the size and color in which he wanted it, and was heading for the exit before Pam had even begun to examine the colors and patterns of the new Fall sweaters.
'Get your butt in gear,' Gregor growled, not even waiting to see if she followed.
Pam looked desperately from the sweaters to her partner's receding back, and then scurried after him.
That should have been the first warning.
Now write the scene as one in which Pam does the shopping and Gregor is being dragged along.
And thanks to you, too, E. Mark, for today's vocabulary lesson.
"Deciding what point to use without being trite and not making the point obvious is harder than I thought it would be, though."
I was struck by that particular wording, I guess because it presupposes that there is a particular "point" to be made. I'm beginning to dislike the word "point" as it relates to fiction. It's far too sharpish, something one might wield like a scalpel, or an embroidery needle stitching "Point Sweet Point" in a sharpened pencil design. Others might write that way, I don't know, but I think it misses the, ahem, point.
That being, I think, that the fun part, maybe even the miraculous part, of writing is that the message emerges on its own as the story is written. I mean, I don't think a writer should worry about the point first--if it's in you it will end up in a story sooner or later, and you'll probably see it in a whole new way when it does.
I'm no fan of writing that hits one over the head with a moral, which is why I'm concerned enough to try not to do that. But I've found that most stories do have a purpose whether they intend to or not. It's always there as an overall impression based on the situation within the story.
As a writer, shouldn't I control that direction?
I've also read that without an underlying message, a movie script falls flat. It's an expected part of a story. One online site for script doctoring (which I've lost the bookmark for unfortunately) proposed that this was one of the main issues that needed addressing in order to make a script successful. The "script doctor" asked the writer to ask themselves these questions:
1. What is the purpose of this story? What does the writer believe the purpose of the story to be?
2. What new experiences, insights, or emotional releases do you want your reader to have had?
3. When the reader is done, what will they take with them that they didn't have when they arrived?
I thought these were all valid points to consider when I was writing. It's not like I'm trying to preach a sermon or be an activist, just a decent writer that leaves people feeling like they didn't waste their time reading what I had to say.
Flannery O'Connor used to say that if you could reduce a story to a "purpose," you didn't need the story.
You ask, "As a writer, shouldn't I control that direction?" As the writer, you and no one else will. Whatever you put on the page was put there by you, it cannot help but be a reflection of that fact.
Let's consider the "script doctor." Doctors are brought in to cure patients (sometimes explaining all options and sometimes not, apparently for ethical reasons, but that's another thread) but only sick patients need curing.
What did the writer intend the purpose to be? That sounds like a call for an editor to accentuate the positives, de-emphasize the negatives. And if a good editor can't tell the difference, then the "writer" never produced anything worthy of the effort.
I've posted elsewhere about the differences between editing and creative writing, but admittedly there's a Venn-diagramish role inbetwixt the two called rewriting. But don't confuse it with your own writing. If you want to pursue that, then let loose the beast, cry havoc, and click your heels three times, then follow your footsteps. And don't forget the delete button.
Anyway, Jennifer, that's my two cents.
I find the Hollywood approach very useful. It's actually based on playwright techniques, where character is king. People still read Shakespeare, even though his plays were meant to be experienced on stage. The character makes the story accessible by making the audience care (or hate, or whatever). Those 3 script doctor questions are very good ones, and there are a lot of others. One I fouled up on once was "who is the main character?" Sounds simple, but it's easy to lose focus.
Movies do tend to be about characters, which is one reason why the actors get the most fame. SF is not generally so concerned with character, but I find the most memorable and moving stories in any genre to be character-driven. For example, over on Asimov's, the wish for a film of The Stars My Destination keeps popping up. It's a natural, because it reads like a movie. See, the plot is driven by the protag's character at every turn.
EMark _I can't tell if that's a good-natured crack at my verbosity or not, but I'll assume it is, thumb my nose, say "nyeah, nyeah, I'm a maximalist, what did you expect, bee-yotch" and then just grin.
MikeF _It's an example of a self-defining example. I like to use them when teaching documentation. Another is "Eschew sesquipedalianism." (Which means "Avoid using words like 'eschew' and 'sesquipedalianism'." )
"Avoid adverbs," he said anxiously.
Bill _I wonder if the extraneous sentence issue is a result of how many of us were taught to write paragraphs in grade school: 1) Write a topic sentence. 2) Write sentence(s) that elaborate/support the topic sentence. 3) Write a concluding sentence.
MikeF _Actually, that's good advice for writing essays. Not so good for writing narrative fiction. The "extra sentence syndrome" is one of my own particular weaknesses. I always feel I need to add that "verbal exclamation point," as you aptly described it.
And that was another self-illustrating example. :-)
Milieu (the setting, the 'world')
Idea (that purpose or point the story illustrates)
Character (those people most hurt/affected)
Event (the plot: the series of encounters and scenes that the author arranges to display the story.)
That inspired me to imagine the Story Hypercube. It's easier to imagine the Story Cube, so let's call it Idea-Character-Event and leave Milieu out for now.
X (Left to right): characterization runs from cardboard cutouts to fully four dimensional beings.
Y (Bottom to top): Plots run from predictable and tired to surprising and innovative.
Z (Front to back): ideas run from ho-hum, been there to intriguing and unexplored.
Now a weakness on any one of them may be made up by being high on some of the others. A reader may forgive an ordinary plot if the characters are interesting, the idea new, the setting weird and wonderful. Weak characters may get by in a convoluted and intriguing plot, etc. etc.
Draw a quarter sphere around the lower left front corner. This is the Potboiler Barrier. Any story falling in this region is doomed to be a best seller appearing on every airport book rack in the country.
We are wary here of the Pure Idea story, aka, a sermon preached at the reader. An example is Bellamy's Looking Backward, a travelogue-sermon of the wonderful socialist paradise awaiting us when everything is finally owned by the State. Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon suffers a little from this, too, although he has more of a plot than Bellamy and somewhat interesting milieu. A lot of Asimov was little more than talking heads and an idea.
Still, it's the execution, not the presence of an idea that spoils things. For example: the idea behind Madame Bovary is the sanctity of marriage; that behind From Here to Eternity is that peacetime military service degrades a man's character. From these attitudes toward their ideas, the plot flowed toward a conclusion that illustrated it. But neither author was so inept as to simply lecture the reader on the sanctity of marriage or the awfulness of peacetime military service.
Conversely, I'm teaching an independent study on film to two high school seniors. They both love film, but, in developing their own script ideas, they both keep leaning toward narrative fiction. I have to keep saying, "That's not a film, that's a short story." They have to think filmically, which is proving a challenge (albeit a good one).
MICE and the Story (Hyper)Cube, huh? Brilliant stuff as always, Mike. Got me wondering about the Milieu-Hyperlink. But I do have to ask. Why the lower left front corner? If the axes are from bland to Blammo! shouldn't the upper right rear quadrant be the Potboiler zone? I guess it depends on ones origin(s).
I think it's great that we're discussing the different veins/vanes/vains of writing: short stories as compared to screenplays, essays as compared to fiction, or more generally, and my own personal demon, writing as compared to editing. I suspect that for most sincere writers the origin of their efforts is an innate love of language, a bone-deep appreciation of the power and wonder of it. Just as we once learned the laws of punctuation and grammar, now we explore language's various voices.
Jennifer, I hope you're not mad. I just reread my response; apparently I was caught up in a hyperwave of hyperbole or something. I haven't published a lick of my own writing for over twenty years, and I didn't do much then. I'm just spouting off--listen to Preston and Flynn, and ratliner seems smart, too, though his moniker gives me pause.
I don't think there's so much difference in story among the media. The form is certainly different, but not the substance. What makes a good story is the substance. Then the presentation of the story in a given medium depends on the form. That's why great books and plays are made into movies, and why there are usually modifications when print is adapted to screen.
Personally, I use a different model than MICE (as outlined above anyway) because I think it underplays the role of conflict and the organic interrelationships among the elements listed.
MikeF _Hmm. Aristotelian hylomorphism applied to story? On the one hand, the matter (hylo-) on the other hand the form (-morphe). The form gives shape to the matter, as by the number and arrangement of its parts. Consider that sodium and chlorine both consist of the same matter: protons, neutrons, electrons; and differ only in the number and arrangement of them.
So, story? Two stories may contain the same components and differ only in form. Heinlein famously used the same character(s) over and over under different names. _
ratliner _Personally, I use a different model than MICE (as outlined above anyway) because I think it underplays the role of conflict and the organic interrelationships among the elements listed.
MikeF _No more so, I think than space-time models underplay the organic relationships of height, length, depth, and time.
What is missing is "form," and Nancy Kress pointed out: namely the prose with which the various elements are presented.
"The man walked down the street."
"The Fudir crept down Amir Nath's Gulli."
"The Hon. Mr. Justice Howell strode down Whitehall."
"The shadow of a man darted from alleyway to doorway down the fetid length of Hartmeyer Street."
"It's hard to keep step and play the clarinet at the same time, thought Justin, as the Eatontown band marched down Main Street."
"The streets pinched the wind so that it blew with special impetus between the close-set blocks of houses, bearing with it the taste of impending rain. It had rained yesterday, too, and the remnants dripped from eaves and overhangs. Henricius splashed through the dank puddles, scholar's robes flapping, half his attention on the glowering sky, half on the manuscript tucked in his bosom, and another half on the shadowy street behind him. In consequence, he collided with the draper's cart in the roadway, causing the horse to shy and the driver to curse scholar and beast alike. The apprentices unloading Flemish woolens from the cart laughed at this panicked stranger's discomfiture, assuming an untimely husband behind it all." [The Shipwrecks of Time, in progress]
As such, it seems to me that the two, the story elements and the story form, should be approached very differently, and yet they are not necessarily causal one way or the other. If one is most comfortable with a particular writing style, one might wisely assemble the MICE that fit that tone and then begin writing. Conversely, if one has an idea or particular milieu that intrigues them, or certain character types or situations that they want to write about, they should consider adopting a tone that best presents the MICE (and particularly the favored mouse) to the reader.
So many ways to approach this thing. Good writing is easy to read because the writer makes the story unfold effortlessly. I think that can mislead one into thinking that good stories are easily written, or that a writer can know its a good story if it feels easy to write, while in fact the writer may well have to exert tremendous effort to achieve that sense of effortlessness.
As always, thanks to everyone for the thought-provoking views.
Drafts are important. Get the story out of your freaking head first, and then make it good later. I can't tell you how important it has been to me to shape a story after it's out. The hardest part for many people is putting the initial words down, and when they've done that, they think they're finished, but that's just making a lump of clay on the page, so to speak. You've got to shape that raw material into something artistic.
Depending on the individual, this revising will be easier or harder; I always have my wife read it and point out grammatical and logical errors, or note places where the story doesn't work for her. Frequently, that gets me going enough so that I make additional changes myself.
It's a highly individual process, this writing thing. Some people do well by analyzing it, some people work on instinct, some do one technique at one time and another later in the process. All we're doing is giving you options; try out what feels sensible, and see if it works for you. (which is another piece of advice for the "well, duh" column...)
IOW "First get it written; then get it right."
I am very bad at this. I tend to stop and polish as I go, which is not good.
Are you NUTS?
Why is it that every time we try to discuss the creation of stories, you guys try to dissect it with your precious pseudo science? Besides, your space-time model is incomplete. Do you really think it is only three spatial dimensions plus time? There is also the dimension of iteration. How many times do I have to ENDLESSLY REPEAT MYSELF?
Do you really believe that a story could have substance or form without a WRITER?
DO YOU HONESTLY BELIEVE THAT WORLD BUILDING HAPPENS BY ITSELF??!!?!&:?@#!
Don't you think the writer might want to do a rewrite from time to time, or hadn't that occurred to you either? HMM? Just because Analog hasn't published the story doesn't mean it's no good. Maybe the WRITER is just waiting for HIS novel to BE a bestseller BEFORE submitting it to a publisher.
MikeF Dude, it was you who brought up the unity of substance and form in a story, and the Aristelian nature of your concept just tickled my fancy.
That Aristotle did not know the forms of atoms does not mean that atoms do not have forms.
ratliner? Do you really think it is only three spatial dimensions plus time? There is also the dimension of iteration.
MikeF 'Twas only a gloss on your comment that the "hypercube" model as a way of conceptualizing the story space did not take into account "the organic unity" of the dimensions. That surprised me, since no one questions the organic unity of physical multi-dimensional models. You cannot have a material body without length =and= height =and= breadth =and= duration. And you cannot have a story without milieu =and= idea =and= character =and= event. __You can have a gosh-wow milieu of incredible world-building virtuosity - but if you populate it with characters who are 'wrong' for that place, it will ring false. Etc.
Not sure what you mean about the "dimension of iteration." K/K theory?
ratliner? Do you really believe that a story could have substance or form without a WRITER? DO YOU HONESTLY BELIEVE THAT WORLD BUILDING HAPPENS BY ITSELF??!!?!&:?@#!
MikeF No need to shout. You are speaking of the Intelligent Design theory of stories; but I don't know where you get the idea that Card's MICE model of the story substance does away with the need for a designer; esp. one who gives form (as you put it) to the substance by putting it into words.
Don't know where the rest of it, about rewriting not occurring to me or stories being no good, comes from. I said nothing about either.
However, I will be serious for a moment. Yes, MICE may be like a hypercube, but you can alter your X coord without affecting the others. By organic, I meant that none of the parameters are independent. But I think this is starting to strain the analogy.
It is also possible to make readers care about totally non-human aliens, so an engrossing story can be told about them; but if you truly depart from what is human, it is a lot harder to make the reader care. It is probably impractical even to try this in short fiction, below novella length, just because it takes so many more words to explain sympathetically how the aliens are motivated, and how they perceive things, and why the things that may happen affect them the way they do.
I started submitting stories to Asimov's and Analog in 1984 and didn't sell a story to Analog until 1997 and Asimov's until 2002. To be fair, I don't think I submitted very many from 84-90, but I was consistent, several a year, after that. I don't have an exact count, but I think my Analog story was about the 25th Stanley saw ("The Big One," Sept. '97). Gardner Dozois accepted the 36th story I sent his way ("The Safety of the Herd," Jan. '02).
What I conclude from that personally is that I'm both a slow learner and persistent.
In total, I've sold 8 stories to Asimov's (Sheila Williams took a new one from me this week) and 10 to Analog.
I sold my first story anywhere in 1990. I sold my 87th this week.
With luck, those of you who are trying to sell stories for the first time will be a little quicker at it than I was, but no matter how long selling something takes, be persistent and keep learning. There's always room for new voices.
If you want to see the whole history of where and when I sold short stories, which can be an instructive look at how a short story writer's career can go, you can see the whole mess at http://www.sff.net/people/james.van.pelt/bibliography.htm
An imagined scene: A man is on the parapet of a high, wind-swept, block stone fortress, sword in hand, gazing out across a bleak landscape of rocky escarpments and glacial ice. In the background, at the base of one of the escarpments is a wrecked space-ship. This immediately sets the author wondering: who is this man? Is he from the space ship? Why did it crash? What happened to the others on it? And gradually the writers imagines a story from it.
A new technology or science: This sets the author wondering: who does this new technology hurt the most? [The "John Henry Effect"] What are the implications of it? What possibilities =and limitations= does it place on the story? What is the story of this thing? [Remember Star Trek's transporter: it meant that when the going got tough the crew could beam out - so episode after episode they had to find a way to make that not an option.]
An imagined character: She was diffident to the point of invisibility. In the restaurant, she would always wait to see what others ordered before she made her own selection. No decision of hers was ever final. When she smiled, you had to look twice to be sure she had; and if she noticed you, she would stop. This sets the author wondering: who is this person? How did she get this way? What does she want the most? What sort of event will knock her out of her normal world? She must make a decision, obviously; but what decision? And gradually the writers imagines a story from it.
And so on. An imagined event; a line of dialogue, anything at all can get you started.
Bill is right: there must be a story; but the story is what you build out of the ideas. It has to be the right story. The tale of the steam drill needed John Henry in it. And John Henry, a man proud of being 'the best there ever was,' needed the steam drill to become a story. Frodo had to be the ring-bearer, not Aragorn or Gandalf. It wouldn't have worked otherwise.
Mad Max doesn't belong in Pooh Corner - or it isn't really Pooh Corner. I think this is what ratliner was saying when he wrote of the organic unity of the MICE. The components have to mesh. A decisive Hamlet would not fit the plot of Hamlet.
The Traditional SF Version of John Henry
John Henry, proud of his skills as a steel driver, is challenged by the invention of the Ingersoll Steam Drill. When Ingersoll announces a contest to see whether human or machine can drive steel better, he gladly takes them up on it. The contest is on; man and machine are neck and neck. John Henry must rest; but the machine jams. Who will win?
And then there is a cave-in, and everyone is trapped. John Henry, realizing the inevitable Progress of Technology, uses the steam drill himself to dig his friends out.
It's the form letter thing I can't get over, I guess. I realize why they have them, but I would really value any feedback on the submissions, constructive or otherwise. By all means, if I'm submitting junk, I hope someone will have the charity to tell me. I know, that's not their job.
Mike, thanks for the perspective. Inspiration comes in all flavors. The John Henry storyline is classic, and made me think about how stories can be broken down into very basic scenario frameworks, maybe the beginnings of outlines:
I. Man opposes machine/nature/God/himself (the conflict).
II. Something unexpected and usually bad happens.
III. Conflict is resolved as I. encounters II.
I know at least some of you are English/creative writing instructors, so let me admit up front that I don't think I have all the possible conflicts listed, but it's another way to start. The next step might be:
I. Larry, a bookish scientist, feels lost in a crowd of people at a party he couldn't avoid.
II. The crowd begins to panic as a poison gas begins to fill the room and they find all the doors have been locked.
III. Larry, by virtue of his scientific knowledge, knows he can save them all, but first he must find the inner strength to rally them together.
From there, personally, if I wanted to write that story I'd start researching poison gases and crowd control. Anyway, like Mike says, a story can start from anything.
Also, why Dumbledore had to die, or why the hell would Harry have to fight Voldemort?
BTW, as an aside to other Potter fans, has any one else come to the conclusion that Harry might, himself, be an accidental horcrux of Voldemort's? __Jeff
John Henry's assistant, the brave soul holding and turning his drill, never gets enough credit. That's the REAL story of courage and trust. Be sure he figures in this story as well!
Only at the very end, did the ring exert enough to sway Frodo, but possession was the simple desire, not to rule others.
Ben blinked, surprised. The men on either side of him laughed and lifted him forward. He stumbled into the arena. Henry's shaker handed him the tongs. Ben took them and looked at Henry. The big man's face was impassive. Ben stuck out his hand. Henry switched grips on his hammer and took it. ...
"Good luck," he said.
Henry spat towards the corner. "Hell, 'King Arthur,'" he said. "Luck's got nothin' to do with it." Ben knelt by the spike, and gripped it with the tongs. He nodded to show he was ready. ...
Several holes had already been started in preparation for the contest. Henry spat on his hands, hefted his hammer and looked to MacDonald. The engineer saluted him and grabbed the trigger to the steam drill. ...
They waited, and the few seconds seemed agonizingly long. When the timekeeper dropped his hand, the sudden onslaught of sound was jarring. The steam drill started in like a woodpecker, rat-a-tat! Henry swung, slow and easy, like he always did, forming a bass counterpoint.
Ben tried to watch everything. Henry swinging with grim intentness. MacDonald, with his arms folded after starting his machine, standing along the sidelines. The other shaker watching bug-eyed as the steam drill jiggled and hammered.
They went on that way for about fifteen minutes. The rhythm almost hypnotic in its effect. Then, suddenly, Henry stopped. Ben looked up in surprise. The man couldn't be quitting this soon!
But Henry had taken up the second 20-pound hammer in his left hand. He gestured with his boot to a second spike. Ben looked to the spike and back, then gripped the second tongs. He choked high on both tongs, so he could wrap his hands around the two handles, and squeezed with all his might. That put him effectively within the arc of both hammers. He didn't let that bother him.
-- "The Steel Driver," Analog, June 1988
Revisiting the advice and insights on this thread has really helped me, but I guess we should visit the topic of potentially overthinking a story. I say, use what works for you now, and reconsider the rest later. I commented before about the script doctor, but in a way, as I reread this thread, I'm subjecting my story to various analyses. There's the Flynn-ray, the ratlinoscope, the Prestonometer, and the Van Peltogram, among many other keen indicators.
I keep thinking that I'll know it's ready when I can read all the way through and don't want to change anything. But there's always temptation. Always I want to meddle. Tweak, polish, smooth, discover, investigate, tweak, polish.
It could go on forever. Literally.
Having said that: It's possible to fix every minor thing but still not feel right about the story itself. A story some friends of mine are looking at right now seems to have that problem. What it needs, then, is not to be tweaked, but to be rethought or simply put aside.
The Prestonometer? Can it check radon levels too?
I forget who said that, but it's something worth remembering. Why would someone start reading our story? Why would they continue doing so?
I. The Opening introduces the Protagonist and faces him with a Problem to be solved or a Decision to be made. The Problem is introduced by some factor outside the character of the protagonist. The reader starts reading because s/he wants to know how the Story Problem is resolved. S/he doesn't know the Protagonist yet. They've only just met.
II. The Middle is a series of obstacles placed between the Protagonist and achievement of the Story Objective. This is done is a series of Presentation Units, artfully arranged, that consist of:
1. a Narrative Question related to the Story Problem that requires decision or accomplishment,
2. a Delay or suspension in accomplishing the feat or making the decision, and
3. a Conclusive Act in which the reader understands that the feat was accomplished, or the decision reached).
The Delay will be an Episode or an Encounter, each built up of Incidents. Some but not all will be Set-Piece scenes.
2a. Incident is a single act by a single actor. Han Solo sees the Storm Troopers and ducks into a doorway.
2b. Episode is the meeting of two forces without Clash. After Luke finally locates Obi Wan, the latter tells him that his father was killed in the Clone Wars by Darth Vader. Essentially: incidents building on one another.
2c. Encounter is the meeting of two forces with Clash. The second actor is an obstacle to the accomplishment or decision by the Protagonist. The second actor may be a physical obstacle: a cliff to be scaled; a active antagonist: Darth Vader; or a passive antagonist: the Millennium Falcon doesn't want to start.
Pacing is the artful arrangement of Episodes and Encounters across the story line.
The reader keeps reading because each Episode or Encounter raises a mini-Question whose Resolution is interesting. Interest flags when the Narrative Question is uninteresting; its resolution is immediate or easily known; when too many Delays are Episodes rather than Encounters; or when too many Resolutions are Successful.
III. The Ending is when the intermediate obstacles have been overcome and the Story Problem is resolved. Resolution may be Success or Failure of the Protagonist to achieve the Story Objective. This Resolution will almost always be a Set Piece.
This is usually followed by a iv. Very Short Coda that brings the story to a conclusion, ties up or acknowledges loose ends, etc.
You cannot WRITE a story in this fashion; but you sure can ANALYZE your Rough Draft this way.
Stan sent "Devil and the Deep Black Void" back to me for revision when I first submitted it, due to a cold ending. I added a coda, which greatly improved it, made the sale, and set it up for a sequel, "The Gardener." And looking back at it, I added an inanimate "witness" in the coda.
I think this is a good guideline. The only thing I'd modify is to add that the opening of the opening is sometimes called "The Hook", and the writer has 1-2 paragraphs in which to make the reader care enough to continue reading.
Sometimes I will take a draft, scene by scene, and jot outline-style: what Question does this scene raise? Which actors are in the scene? (Which actors =should= be in the scene, but aren't?) How does it impede the Protagonist from achieving his Story Purpose? Is it an Episode or an Encounter? I study the rhythm of Episodes and Encounters. I might even do a success and failure plot showing the Protag getting closer to or further from his goal.
Episodes are good for bringing up data. They may also be preludes to Encounters.
Example: Adam creeps up behind Bruce, a policeman watching the door of a building. Bruce spins round, gun coming out. Then he relaxes. Oh, it's you Adam. Adam says, anyone come out of there yet? Bruce: Naw. Whatever that Thing is, it's still in there. Adam: I have an idea I think may work - a discombobulator I worked up in my lab. It will frammistan the Thing's jimjam. I think. [So far - it's an episode. We have learned that the thing is holed up but Adam thinks he has something to subdue it.] Bruce says, I'm not supposed to let anyone in there, even world class boy-scientists with a possible Nobel in their future. [Note: CLASH is raised, an Encounter is in the works. Adam and Bruce are not merely doing stimulus and response. Bruce's purpose is now in opposition to Adam's. Note, too, that Bruce the Obstacle/Opponent is not necessarily Bruce the Enemy/Antagonist. Enemying is the Thing's job.]
Adam says, Aw c'mon. Remember when we were kids together? Bruce hesitates, then indicates that he has not yet put his gun away. I'm under direct orders from the Chief and... and Professor Moriarty. I'm to shoot, if I have to. Besides, your discombobulator may not work, and - remember Chuck? - we both lost one friend already to that Thing. Adam, astonished at this revelation of Moriarty's influence, withdraws. [The Encounter has ended in Adam's defeat, setting us up for a second attempt to enter the building. Tune in again next time, when he has to get EPA approval for the discombobulator. Reader wants to know if he will succeed in entering. When he does, there will be a Set Piece encounter with the Thing itself.]
As the story moves forward, it's usually best to have some kind of escalation.
For want of a nail, the horse was lost... The stakes increase, complications arise,
etc. Torture the hero.
On the difficult problem of knowing when to stop, one guideline I sometimes use is an 80/20 rule. When the story is 80% done (meaning it's complete but might need two more rounds of polishing, say) I turn it over for peer review. If it's 90%, I send it out. It's never going to be 100% - there's a point of diminishing returns, as Bill alludes to. Then you let the readers tell you what's needed to finish it.
I'm a perfectionist, but perfection is the enemy of "good enough". At some point, the things you hone won't bother the readers anyway.
Do protagonists have peaceful moments, lounging in the pool, watching "Dr. No," sipping Heinekin? I hope so, but who cares? Not the reader. As in real life, the "interesting" things happen in times of "confrontation," benign or otherwise, obvious or otherwise.
Man, there are some REALLY, REALLY smart people posting here. If you're serious about writing, pay attention.
Finding readers: You just roll over the rocks and they crawl out....
No, seriously folks. I'm thinking first you have to decide who the reader is. Who do you imagine when you close your eyes and picture someone reading your Precious Prose? Some write to please themselves; another writes to please his niece. The latter is not likely to sell to folks who like military SF. The former is not likely to sell to anyone, unless he himself is archetypical. Most of all, you must first appeal to an editor - or even a college grad First Reader. The editor knows the markets better than the writer.
I once sent Stan two stories. I thought he would reject one and buy the other. To my surprise, he bought the one and rejected the other. Later, the story he bought was on the Hugo ballot and I told him of my a priori assumption. He answered: "That's why I'm the editor and you're the writer."
(I got even, though. I rewrote the rejected story, cutting it, pruning it, and a year later he bought it, and it made the Hugo ballot, too. That was beginner's luck, I think. It was years before another story made it.)
OTOH, just based on some initial impressions Tom's shared with me, I can tell already that there's no substitute for independent feedback from a qualified reader. Thanks again, Tom. I'm scrubbing for hamster surgery.
You can start out with reams of droll, everyday experiences and characterizations ad infinitum, and maybe get away with it if you are Stephen King. But most readers decide whether they want to read the story after reading the title and first few paragraphs.
BTW, Tom, the other story I could have sent you is about 14,000 words long. So you see, I was trying to be nice and not take advantage. But just let me know if you're interested in operating on larger creatures, man, and I'll have it to you faster than you can say, "Scalpel." Actually, the tech in the short piece was first introduced in the longer story, which mostly takes place on a spaceship.
Bill did what most writers have done and many even get away with ... he had some ideas for how a particular thing worked and he just listed them in a paragraph. I'm guilty. And I told him what I was told, in a couple of variations. "Don't tell 'em, show 'em." That list of properties can be in your outline, but you want to work it into the story in an interesting manner.
To make the hook, I suggested he take a gizmo that intimidated the protagonist, and the environment which intimidates the protagonist, and move them to the very beginning, as he must face both at once. See "Torture the Hero" suggestion. Running a checklist on the gizmo can introduce its capabilities, interspersed with worries of what's out there, and dealing with the jibes of co-workers who add some humorous counterpoint.
And the really big thing was to work out reasons why certain events he had in the story must happen. Basically, it lacked a sufficiently dangerous trigger event. It will be interesting to see what he does with it, but I think the story sprouted three of those "episodes" mentioned up above that will take out the slow middle he perceived he had.
And it turned out, except for some very specific fusion reactor knowledge I have (it was mentioned in "The World's Simplest Fusion Reactor"), he already had all the parts in the story.
Something else good dramatic stories typically have is "The Sacrifice". Somebody has to give up something they think is dear to them. Sometimes they give up their life. Bill already had this element.
He already had a strong ending. And I was told early on that in any good story, the principle character must undergo a change. Bill already had done that right at that dramatic ending.
That's what's wrong in sitcoms ... usually the rules are the characters cannot change.
Take ALL the infodump and highlight it in yellow. Cut away as much as possible, and paste it to various places later in the story, where that tidbit is mentioned again. Leave only the minimum up front. Then smooth things over, put it down for a while, and reread.
Smoothing takes practice, but the trick is to make the transitions seamless, so the reader not only doesn't notice the intrusion of exposition, but he/she actually welcomes it. That's in part because you hinted at it earlier, making the reader curious. For example, instead of having the villain explain to the hogtied protag that a seven gravitonne star train will soon run over him, just have the villain sneer and saunter off. Later, the protag hears a sound in the distance. Is it getting louder? Is it coming this way? By Jupiter, if it's a star train, it could kill him. If it's seven gravitonnes, the pilot won't be able to stop in time. And leave out any further technical information, because as tempting as it is to show off your engineering knowledge, the only thing that matters to the hero right now is the weight of the train.
A comment about the "show, don't tell" rule. Man, you've really got to look out for those. I've known that rule since I was a teenager, yet there they are, all those "tellings," in my story. Perhaps subconsciously I figured that if I made the tellings brief and couched them between "showings," no one would notice. Well, obviously readers do notice. So I guess the lesson is, don't ever "tell" and don't ever think you can sneak anything past the reader. To paraphrase Lincoln, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time, and you can't fool Stan at all."
Just some options.
But yeah, mix the exposition through the story, just enough at the early stages so you'll be able to add more later until the reader has what they need to understand the climax. Let them fill in some of the common blanks (but always have your own idea clear in your head, off the story page), and avoid preaching when possible. Sometimes it isn't possible (see "Numerous Citations") but at least try and make it painless when you have to include it.
In his analysis of "...Eye," Stan pointed out that it needed an infodump early in the story regarding mimicry. But infodumps are boring, so the author presented the information in the form of an argument among some people in a bar (The Irish Pub). The argument added clash and interest to help the info go down smooth. At the point another patron speaks up and tells the main story. [This is called a "frame." Watch the movie The Princess Bride to see an example.
I didn't make any of those decisions consciously when I was writing it.
The info dump is still there and still probably over my wife's head, but it is now in the form of a brainstorm between about 6 people, all desperately trying to find a way to stop the unstoppable, and dreaming up a solution as they unveil new pieces of the dump.
I wonder how many magazines besides _Analog_ would consider publishing a story that expected the reader to absorb as much physics as this story?
Mike, I have another story that I "framed" and tell in flashback. The change in tense has always bugged me, and now the story is basically in tatters from a botched rewrite attempt and an inability to find its "voice." Do you think "framing" a story works best with shorter stories?
To study at the feet of a master: read Kipling. A great many of his short stories consist of Kipling or a Kipling surrogate being told a story. A masterpiece of the type is "With the Main Guard." It was his story "A Conference of the Powers" that inspired me to write "Rules of Engagement." The Kipling is here: A Conference of the Powers. My story was in Analog, March 1998 and Hartwell's (Year's Best SF4, if you want to make a comparison.
But, Bill, one simple suggestion, if nobody else has made it above, re your short-short. It's a perfect PZ length, and those aren't always humorous, so go for it. If it doesn't work there, try Apex & Abyss. I believe that's a pro market, and they take a couple of flash pieces each issue. In fact, a lot of the on-line zines do, because flash works well on a web page. _
A good way to figure out the right markets is to go to Tangent and read reviews. They'll also link to the sites. Whether you agree with the reviews or not, you'll get a sense of what the reviewers expect from the various mags. I use this to keep an eye on what the rest of the sfnal world is doing.
Also, on the world-building thing, I agree with ratliner, way above. You can do lots with an aside. I'm always looking for two things, preferably simultaneously, with each aside. At one level, of course, I'm dropping hints to the technology, or simply decorating the story with details to show that it's not set today. But whenever possible, I want the character's reaction to those details to help build the character or further the story. The reigning master of this is Connie Willis. The downside of watching for it in other people's stories, of course, is that it does knock you out of the fiction world into "critical reader" mode.
I'm thinking that each word or phrase should not only clearly convey the necessary information, it should also help build the world, help develop the character, provide foreshadowing, provide depth and tone, and so on and so on. Not that each word has to accomplish everything, of course, but I think a mistake I commonly make is to too readily accept that something I've written has "done its job" with regard to the story's immediate needs and so I overlook all of the other possibilities that the relevant "story moment" offers.
In a short story, you'll want to double-up purposes wherever possible, as the short form requires much stricter parsing. However, that doesn't mean you can't spare a couple of descriptive adjectives when you feel they'll help do something... artistic, is the best word I can come up with to describe it.
Yes, yes, I'm a maximalist, so that biases me a bit, but I really do think it's turns of phrase and judicious choice of description that turns it from a simple story to a piece of good fiction.
In his novel Kim, Kipling offers a description of some bearers taking a break: the coolies slid down their loads. Not, the coolies put down their loads, or laid down their loads. The slid down their loads. Just the right word to express weariness and relief.
If you want to see another writer who's pitch perfect, read "A Fine Madness" by Gary Paulsen. Like Cahill, he writes nonfiction, but this is a memoir of his first entry into the Ididerod, and it's got all the craft of a great work of fiction. His chapter "Major Wrecks" is one of the funniest things I've ever read. Read it once for fun. Then, when your sides quit hurting, go back and see how, with perfect word choice, he sets it up.
One of the things you'll discover is that words also have another use, beyond
technology, character, plot, setting, etc: timing. That beat that the best comics
attain in their delivery can be found in the rhythm of your word choice, as well.
One of the reasons something can go flat by pulling out the "unnecessary"
word is if it messes up the timing. BUT (big but!) beware of adverbs as the source
of that timing. Stephen King has said that adverbs are the word choices of writers
who aren't sure they've said what they mean (or that people will get it). Occasionally,
they're necessary. But when you think about the difference between "timidly
walked across the room" and "tiptoed" you can see how rarely. But
timing is important. I generally edit out the word "that" strongly during
the course of revision because it's often unneeded. But it kind of vanishes, and
sometimes I put it back in because I need the extra beat. And that is the only purpose
that that "that" manages to achieve. (How about that: 4 in one sentence!)
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