About Writers, editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

What IS a Good Story?

While working with editors to screen stories submitted for publications, I find many are rejected because the submission is not a story. It is a scene, a statement, a monologue, maybe a rant. Sometimes, the rejected submission is beautifully worded sentences that literally have no point beyond themselves.

It is not true that any account of a series of related events or experiences constitutes a story. I know that is the definition of a narrative. But for our purposes, it is no more a story than is the space in a building between two adjacent floors. We need stories with conflict, or tension, or surprise, or extraordinary characters or character behavior, or controversy, or mystery, or suspense, or -you get the point. Something that interests a reader and draws them in. And, will give readers reason to buy the next issue of the magazine or anthology.

Google “what makes a story good” and you’ll get thousands of returns. Many writers and teachers of writing offer useful advice for crafting a story. But that advice is useless to the writer who has no story of interest to tell. Editors reject stories with form letters that say nothing. But among themselves, they share reasons such as,
“The writing is good, but the story is uninteresting.”
“A boring telling – no effort is made to pull the reader into the story.”
“I’m sure this entertained the writer more than me.”
“Uninteresting with a predictable ending.”
“No. Not a story.”

Obviously, we all know a good story when we see one. Maybe I’m attempting to categorize an observable element although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters. But if someone could succently state what a good story is, they would be helping all of us to get more work published.

What do you think?

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About Writers, Literary critique, Writers Co-op

Let’s Exchange Critiques!

Writers Co-op is about helping writers. We’re here to offer advice, resources, and experience about marketing, publishing, and the writing process itself. I’m sure there are other ways you can think of in which Writers Co-op can support its community, but I’m here to offer the one every writer needs even if they think they don’t: thoughtful, constructive, kind critiques.

How many of us are fortunate enough to have a dedicated set of beta readers who eagerly await each installment of our latest Work In Progress? Who among us has even one friend to call on who will read the 400 page draft of our brilliant literary fiction with an editor’s eye, sharing their thoughts in enough detail to help us polish our work to a professional gleam? How often have you wished a real writer would take a look at what you’ve written and offer a little free feedback?

Of course, it’s possible you are absolutely certain what you have spent months writing in the solitary mental confinement of your favorite room or coffee house or poolside bar is absolutely perfect just as you’ve written it. *snort* Guess again. Don’t get me wrong, there are probably many positive things to say about your manuscript, but there are probably at least a few things that need clarification or further description or a little rewriting to maintain continuity and interior logic. Sure, it’s all clear to you — you wrote it. But if you’re looking for a critique, you’re hoping for an audience. If a member of the audience says it’s not clear or it’s confusing, you’d do well to pay attention.

So here’s the deal:

If you have a piece of writing you would like a member of Writers Co-op to critique, whether it’s a short story, essay, poem, novella, novel, or a portion or chapter of a longer work, attach it as a .docx or .pdf to an email and send it to me at stranscht@sbcglobal.net. Please put “Critique Exchange” in the Subject line. (Just to be clear, by submitting your work for critique, you are agreeing to critique the work of the person who critiques your work.) I will match you with a critique partner who groks your genre and is able to take on a critique at that time, and they will send you their work to critique while they critique yours. The writer who needs the most time to complete their critique will set the deadline for both of you. Writers Co-op expects you both to honor that deadline or Writers Co-op will have the option of disallowing further participation of the author who fails to meet the deadline.

Now, a few words about writing and receiving critiques. Write the sort of critique you would find most helpful. Like I said earlier, thoughtful, constructive, and kind work for me. Snark and sarcasm might be fun, but they aren’t actually helpful or kind, so please restrain those urges. As for receiving a critique, first coat your skin with Armor All, then consider Neil Gaiman’s sage advice:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” ~~~ Neil Gaiman

We’re excited to invite you to take advantage of this service. You might even know other writers who are searching for this opportunity and would be grateful if you shared this post with them.

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About Writers, inspiration, Stories, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

CONNECTIONS

A story can emerge into consciousness when we connect the dots in unexpected ways. Dead people have to outnumber the living. Can you put your sock on the wrong foot? What are the odds a computer will develop intelligence on its own? How in hell can a meat sack travel the interstellar distances between stars -maybe, we’ll just have to ride our planet and see where it takes us? In a society of adamantly diverse groups, can any be right, or are there universal truths to unite us? If you survive a nuclear war and the radiation doesn’t kill you, how do you not starve to death? How many NGOs are strictly for profit? Is slavery really immoral or simply economic? How do we personally change when we go from a normal life into a real war? Are we essentially a stupid species, using up our planet’s resources, knowing all the while this has to end badly?
That these are all story ideas, I know, having written each of them. Writers think the damndest things.

My condo overlooks a golf course here in Southwest Florida and early this morning, while watching the caretakers keeping it smooth and green, it occurred to me that a really challenging golf course would be one that is not maintained. Connect that thought to determined golfers, years into a post-apocalyptic world, and you have a story, maybe sad, maybe satirical, maybe uplifting -the writer decides.

How we connect our thoughts, the bridges between them, can build any story. Mimi Speike creates charmingly delightful illustrated works, Carl E. Reed slams the senses with intellectually-pointed outrage, Curtis Bausse has given us intricately devised detective stories, Perry Palin uses his sense of nature to inform his characters of their own nature. Connecting what we know in unexpected ways may be close to a definition of creativity and that applies to any genre.

What were you thinking, just before a story idea popped into your awareness?

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About Writers, reading, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op

And the Best Books Ever are…

The bestselling single book of all time is estimated to be Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote with 500 million copies sold. (Major religious and political texts not counted.)
But Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time with over 2 billion books sold.
And JK Rowling is the world’s highest-paid author at $1 billion.
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget Enheduanna, who started this madness. She is the first known author, born in 2285 BCE. People were reading her poetry before there was a Bible.

But when I try to choose a “best,” I think the best book is a very personal choice having nothing to do with copies sold, monies paid, or literary acclaim. It’s the book that did what great books are supposed to do. It changed me. I saw the world a bit clearer after reading Catch 22, understood people better after reading The Will To Power, and saw science fiction differently after reading Dhalgren. Not that I’m stuck with those viewpoints. I’m still reading.

What about your favorite book(s)? What ones had a significant impact on you?

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About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

A Spooky Guy!

How many of us write with themes on our mind? Norman Mailer did.

The Spooky Art is a book on his writing history and process, and a commentary/diatribe on, as he puts it, “. . . one’s own foray into the nature of such matters as being and nothingness . . . the pitfalls of early success and how to cope with disastrous reviews . . .  identity and the occasional crises of identity.” And much more along these lines. And that’s only Part I.

Part II deals with genre and screenplays and journalism: “. . . some of the ways and by-ways down which writers search and/or flee from their more direct responsibility.” Part III, ‘Giants and Colleagues,’ is: “. . . a mix of thoughtful and/or shoot-from-the-hip candor about some of my contemporaries, rivals, and literary idols.” This is a book to be read in small bites, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Themes are important to him. He says of some of his early work: “I do not recognize the young man who wrote this book. I do not even like him very much, and yet I know he must be me because his themes are mine . . . I am not even without regard for him . . . he is close to saying the unsayable. The most terrible themes of my own life–the nearness of violence to creation and the whiff of murder just beyond the embrace of love–are his themes also.”

He recalls saying, in 1958: “I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” (Whoa!)

Yes, he was a man of ideas. He admires Truman Capote’s style, and also criticizes it as a way to enliven none-too-interesting characters (in In Cold Blood). I can’t comment on that. Cold Blood is another book I read fifty years ago. Of Capote, he says: “Capote wrote the best sentences of anyone of our generation. He had a lovely ear. He did not have a good mind. I don’t know if a large idea ever bothered him. But he did have a sense of time and place.”

Large ideas, aka themes . . . does my stuff have a theme? Other than: Life is rough. Deal with it.

An English teacher in seventh grade lectured us on what a book report should consist of. Too many, called on to read out our book report, gave a summation of plot. Mr. ?????–I see his face, I cannot recall his name–wanted to hear about a theme.

He terrorized me, I can tell you. After I gave too many reports on the Nancy Drew series of–YA, we call it now–mysteries, he said to me, isn’t it time you read something worthwhile? I felt humiliated. I plunged into Dickens and never looked at Nancy Drew again.

Dickens, did he have themes? He told tales. Tales published as a serial, that hooked readers and kept them coming back month after month. Tales full of dense description and characterization, both of which I enjoy. I suppose I could call him an influence.

I read a ton of Dickens. There were boring stretches, especially in Dombey and Son, but I plowed through them. Sooner or later the story picked up again. That was my impression then. I suppose I should read it again, see what I think of it now.

Ah. Google tells me Dickens’ themes are pollution and exploitation. His aim was to denounce the problems related to industrialization and pollution. Also: Social justice.

Mark Twain, did he have themes? His theme would have to be: We’re all human, all in the same boat. Hold on. I’ll look him up.

Here we go: “His novels express the importance of perseverance, loyalty, bravery, and friendship, and display a brilliant control of vernacular speech.” He wrote for the masses as well. For both these giants, writing was their bread and butter. They had to keep it coming, to pay the bills. Both men were born into poverty and had to make their way in an inhospitable world.

Hey. Same as Sly. It was a hard-knock life in the sixteenth century, and way worse for a cat with talent and ambition. He had to take care who he communicated with. He could end up burnt at the stake. Luckily, John Dee was a flexible thinker. Anyone who believes he talks to angels will not be thrown by a talking cat. Just say “Madimi sent me” and you’re good.

Dee’s angels were a quirky bunch. And Sly, when he was comfortable with you, was a terrific bullshitter. As good, I believe, as Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer is certainly full of himself. He certainly doesn’t shy from blowing his own horn. He has big ideas. And looks with scorn upon those who don’t. He talks philosophy a lot. This is going to take some rereading. Half the time I don’t know what he’s saying.

Sly talks philosophy too. He was a Natural Philosopher, like Margaret Cavendish, called ‘the first female scientist.’ She lived about seventy-five years after him, but her ideas were timeless in terms of wackiness. She had an impulse to present her scholarship in verse. So does Sly.

I had intended to bulk this piece out (it earlier appeared too slight to me) with a snippet of his verse on his Natural Philosophy (the precursor to true science). The first two lines are stolen from Cavendish, the rest of two pages of verse are Sly’s. You can thank your lucky stars this article is now a thousand words. You are spared another of my endless pieces of verse in which Sly discusses his philosophy and slams the ‘Gown-ed Tribe’, the university-educated intellectuals who refuse to accept him into, as the head of Harvard College put it at my brother’s graduation (Radcliffe was still a separate entity, with a separate degree), ‘the Community of Learn-ed Men’.

I’m pretty intimidated by Mailer, me with my little ideas. But I’ll get over it. I always do, eventually. I’ll leave the heavy lifting to the literary titans. And make do with my nonsense.

“I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” These words would fit into Sly’s mouth nicely. And a bunch of other pronouncements as well. Thank you, Norman Mailer.

Mailer can keep his big ideas. I’m content to have big fun.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book sales, editing, Freedom of Writing, Literary critique, marketing, Publisher's Advice, show case, Welcome, Writers Co-op

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

The Writers Co-op Show Case allows any writer to receive feedback about their writing. Click “SHOW CASE” for details.

The Rabbit Hole anthology is accepting submissions for our fifth annual publication of speculative fiction. Click “THE RABBIT HOLE” for submission guidelines.

Your blog may be featured here. You, your writing, editing, marketing, or publishing would be of interest . Keep it around 1600 words max and submit it to GD(at)Deckard(dot)one.

Got a question about anything related to the writing life? Feel free to ask it in the comments section.

The Writers Co-op includes fiction authors, poets, editors, illustrators, magazine and book publishers.

You are most welcome to join us.

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About Writers, editing, Stories, writing technique

Show Me

While screening stories submitted to Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine, it occurred to me that editing means the opportunity to find new stories to share with others. What does that mean? It can’t mean only stories that the editor personally likes. Good stories appeal to a wider variety of readers than any one person can imagine.

So what makes a story appeal to a wide variety of readers? Common themes help, of course, because more readers will identify with the story. But I suspect the real key is participation. Think of it this way: Would you rather sit in an audience and listen to a comedian or a lecturer? The lecturer may tell you interesting things but the comedian will draw you in and make you participate. Would you rather laugh or be lectured?

Yup. I’m talking “Show don’t tell,” my favorite explanation of which remains the quote by Russian novelist Anton Chekhov.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Show don’t tell” entices the imagination. That lets the reader participate in the story.

Writers have used many creative ways to draw readers into their stories and the ‘Net is full of examples. Chekhov’s is an immersive description.
Some are half-thoughts that invite the reader to complete the image.

“She said only, ‘He spent the night rocking my world.'”

Or juxtaposed images that show something of the character’s character.

“I drive way too fast to worry about cholesterol.”
-Steven Wright.

What is your favorite way to show the reader your characters, to draw then into your world?

Me, I favor dialogue. It can allow the reader to imagine the details.

“You had a vibrator?”
She nodded. “I pulled a lot of guard duty. You know how boring that is?”

It’s not enough to tell a reader anything. You have to show them something.

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About Writers, Freedom of Writing, inspiration, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op

JK Rowling Loves Minecraft

Novelist, screenwriter and film director Alex Garland is a big fan of BioShock, loosely based on Ayn Rand’ self-interest-championing philosophy of objectivism as outlined in her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

Harlan Ellison collaborated with Cyberdreams and game writer David Sears to create “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, “a PC horror game based on his short story of the same name.

Tom Clancy is well-known in the gaming industry, especially for his Rainbow Six military and espionage games.

Authors play video games for the same fun & relaxation reasons others do and they sometimes pick up tips on world building, scene progression, and character differentation.

I play video games to push thoughts of what I’m writing aside, to someplace in my mind where they’re free to evolve without me consciously picking at them. For me, much of life is like swinging through trees. You have to regularly let go to make any progress.

Do you play video games? Which ones do you prefer? And, do they in any way contribute to your writing?

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About Writers, blogging, inspiration, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Musing Upon Three Quotes

“To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” 
― Anne Rice 

“My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” 
― Joyce Carol Oates 

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.  

— Ursula K. Le Guin 

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Is there a through-line connecting these quotes from three great writers? (I refuse to use the condescending first-part phrasal adjective “female” or “woman” in this instance. If we don’t routinely wall off male writers into a genitalia-defined ghetto when referring to their words and/or works, why would I perpetrate such a wince-inducing, overt-labelling job here re: “women writers”? Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin: great writers all. Period, the end. So why remark on their gender in this extended parenthetical thought? To address head-on the cynical, tiresome suspicion from some quarters that I chose three women writers to comment on in order to demonstrate how feminist/woke I am. :::sigh::: What a time to be alive and posting on “teh internets”. Well, that’s the kind of post this is going to be: one part stream-of-consciousness, one part thoughtful musing, one part—hopefully—synthesis of disparate elements into a unified whole. Tell me if I’ve failed, won’t you?) 

Let’s take Anne Rice’s quote first: ““To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Notice that she doesn’t insist the writer must make a fool of themselves; merely that one risks making a fool of themselves when they write. What could Rice possibly mean by this? 

Your interpretation may vary, but mine is as follows: There are a million, myriad ways a writer may face-plant in public. Errors of fact; mistranslations/misuse of foreign words and phrases; a question of style: writing that strikes one reader as “too flowery”, another as “too minimalist”; a theme that resonates with the writer and not the reader; vocabulary that is deemed either too high- or low-brow; metaphors that misfire and/or characters that seem eminently plausible, relatable and realistic to one set of readers, whilst striking another set of readers as wildly implausible, unrelatable and unrealistic. One simply cannot satisfy all readers all the time; not all art appeals to all people—for all time. (It might, but oftentimes—let us face hard facts here without flinching—oftentimes doesn’t.) As an artist we must accept this discomfiting fact and therefore write with our “ideal reader” in mind—whoever we imagine they might be. But if we push boundaries with our art—if we dare to question certain perceived “eternal verities” of politics (political thought that falls outside the Overton window), sex (outside the heteronormative) and/or religion (especially as regards atheistic or agnostic thought—though this is rapidly changing: “unaffiliated” or “unbelieving/unchurched” constitutes a growing body of the American electorate) then we embark upon a steep uphill climb re: widespread acclaim and/or acceptance of our work. Or as Joyce Carol Oates has put it: “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.” 

Which brings us to another quote of Joyce Carol Oates’: the second one referenced at the beginning of this piece: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” This echoes Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Now, the quibble with such assertions is this: We’re not always in the mood for a paradigm-shattering, psychologically transformative piece of art, are we? Sometimes (most of the time?) we want our reading to be the equivalent of comfort food: nourishing, tasty, familiar, filling. (We’re being honest with one another, yes?) However— I think we can agree that the best interpretive literature (to use Prof. Laurence Perrine’s term) expands our storehouse of life-lived experience and thus has the knock-on secondary effect—if the writing is psychologically astute, richly drawn and compelling—of working to increase both our understanding of the internal and external worlds. Fiction is not a lie that tells the truth: It is the concretized (black letters) fossil record (captured on paper or electronic storage device) of transfixing hypnogogic visions (author’s imagination/subconscious) that allows others, upon reading (a remarkable, semi-mystical experience in which both hemispheres of the brain fire in tandem) to embody alternate lives (viewpoint characters) and thus witness at one remove (sensory impressions received, albeit not from phenomena in the real world) the result of various played-out stratagems and the consequences of certain thoughts, impulses and actions (plot). What we make of all the aforementioned constitutes theme + meaning.

Lies? Truth? Irrelevant, as regards evaluating the efficacy and impact of well-wrought fiction (unless you’re a Victorian moralist). Nabokov had it right: What makes a writer great is the spell-binding quality of their prose: that ability to enrapture, enchant, seduce. A critic once remarked of Anne Rice: “You surrender to her, as if in a voluptuous dream.” Exactly right. Interview with the Vampire, Servant of the Bones, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy. Story after story from Joyce Carol Oates has found me perched on the edge of my chair: terrified to discover what might happen next to her characters if I continue reading; too breathless and engrossed to stop. Her writing raises my pulse rate—while I marvel at the assured confidence and deftness of her prose, and the probing intelligence behind it. Ursula K. Le Guin: a national treasure (now deceased; alas!): the kind of writer whose seemingly effortless prose and command of narrative compels reading of her fiction; whose formidable intellectual gifts of analysis, insight and plain speaking glossed by a lifetime of lightly worn learning (her essays) elicit wolf-whistles of awe and appreciation. God, I wish I’d written that! Thought that. Felt that. (But you didn’t—till you’d first read Le Guin.)

And now we arrive at Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” 

In a single pithy observation this quote of Le Guin’s (with its attendant subtext) encapsulates the terror and the glory of fictioneering—to say nothing of the alternating cycles of hyperbolic mania and melancholic despair a psychologically unmoored writer might fall prey to.  

I was going to write another thousand words unpacking what I meant to convey in the paragraph above, but for brevity and concision Le Guin’s quote really cannot be improved upon. The challenge facing the writer is to provide the telling details of their story in expertly paced and vividly concretized fashion so that the reader may—insofar as is psychically possible—inhabit a close facsimile of the world the author envisaged; moreover, the writer should have a tale worth telling (almost all do), to have something to say about it beyond the mere fashioning of plot (many don’t), and the hard-won mastery of craft acquired through a lifetime of practice in order to tell their story well (the difference—oftentimes but not always—between the professional and the amateur). The challenge of the reader is to have read as widely and deeply as possible in order to engage with story on its own terms: neither willfully misreading, nor misconstruing, a text into what it is not. If this process fails what are we left with? Miscommunication or hopeless muddle, mere “black marks on wood pulp” signifying nothing.

In sum: The writer indeed risks making a fool of themselves when he or she sits down to write—especially if the chosen subject matter, characters described and/or over-all theme is decidedly iconoclastic or otherwise at variance with received wisdom and popular attitudes. And what a pity that oftentimes proves to be!—that great work, from great artists, oftentimes goes misremarked [sic], undervalued and genre-ghettoized until such time as an artist’s ideal reader rises up with the passion and critical acumen necessary to articulate the areté (ancient Greek: excellence in kind) of a given writer and their works. 

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