Literary critique, Stories, writing technique

Briefly Sentimental

crying-while-reading-compressed

A couple of years back, giving an author feedback on a story I had rejected for the Book a Break anthology, one of the reasons I gave was that ‘it veered into sentimentality at the end.’ I wasn’t alone in this appraisal: Sherry Morris, the competition judge, said, ‘it all goes sentimental syrupy at the end. Indigestible.’ The author, whilst accepting my other remarks, wrote back to say that she actually quite liked sentimental stories.

This got me thinking. Were we talking about the same thing? We couldn’t be, I decided, but since I didn’t pursue the exchange, I can’t be totally sure. What I did instead was a little research, and found this excellent article, which gives a thorough analysis of sentimentality, and how the meaning of the word has changed over the years. It’s a long one, so if you’re in a hurry, I’ll summarise it as: it’s a lot more complex than we think.

My own conclusion is that (as with everything else) it all depends how it’s done. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sentimentality. Decades ago I read Love Story, which was widely panned by critics as formulaic and manipulative, pulling just the right strings to get the hankies out. William Styron called it ‘a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.’ A snootiness which did nothing, I’m sure, to dent Erich Segal’s spirits – Love Story was in the New York Times bestseller list for 41 weeks. Though I know a mass readership doesn’t equate to quality, I always feel that anyone who sells that number has to be doing something right.

So why did Sherry and I react negatively to what we perceived as sentimentality? The difference between Love Story and the story I rejected was that Segal took the time to put all the pieces in place, get us cheering for the two main characters, before demolishing our hopes with Jenny’s  death. In the face of a disapproving father, the love of a young couple ends in tragedy. Not a bad pitch, is it? Shakespeare’s log-lines haven’t survived but it’s widely thought he used it for Romeo and Juliet.

To get sentimentality right in a short story is hard. Crucial to its success is getting the reader’s emotions in the right place as early as possible. And I realise now that the keyword in my feedback to the author was not sentimentality but veered. In a story which up till then was mysterious, even scary, there was a sudden switch to two people trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. Edgar Allen Poe would have been appalled – it goes against the ‘unity of effect’ he insisted a short story must achieve: decide on what emotional response you want to elicit, stick to just one, and make sure that everything contributes to that end.

Poe’s strictures are seen these days as rigid. There are many successful short stories that don’t follow them. All the same, as a rule of thumb, the unity of effect isn’t a bad one. Where a novel can play with many different emotions, a short story is best dealing with just one. And there’s nothing at all wrong if that one is sentimental – just make sure you nail it right from the start.

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About Writers, book promotion, humor, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology, writing technique

Live in the present. Write there too.

–  by Barry K. Rosen (aka Mellow Curmudgeon)

The ancient advice is still good. Live mostly in the present, with enough dwelling on the past to serve specific purposes like learning from mistakes. Also good is the much more recent advice to write fiction in the present tense, unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense.

Zen lore includes some stories with endings of the form

At that moment, __________ attained enlightenment.

Fill in the blank with the name of somebody who studied Zen for some time and finally saw the light when his teacher said or did something outrageously weird.

While my story Satori from a Consulting Gig does not presuppose any knowledge of Zen lore, it does have a surprise ending (partly inspired by those Zen stories) with my own way to fill in the blank. Using the past tense in my story’s last sentence helps make the allusion to Zen lore clear to those who might care about it.

Did I choose to write my story in the past tense because I planned to end it that way? Not consciously. I just set out to write a short story. I’ll write some fiction. I’ll use the customary past tense. Doesn’t everybody?

Not quite. I got over 16 million hits when I googled

present tense vs past tense fiction

much later, in preparation for writing this post. Before discussing some pros and cons that are out there (and some that may be new), there is a little more to be said about my story’s tense situation.

My story was written for an anthology whose editors asked the contributors to supply blurbs. I wrote a blurb in the same tense as the story, then noticed that other contributors wrote blurbs in the present tense for stories in the past tense. Why? I found the inconsistency troubling.

Another contributor (Sue Ranscht) kindly remarked that the present tense “creates a punchier tease” in blurbs than the past tense does. Indeed. Why not make the actual story (not just the blurb) be as vivid and engrossing as it can possibly be? Unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense, why not write in the present tense?

§1: Perilous Present
Written in the present tense, my newer story Entanglements begins with

Squatting over the airport, a thunderstorm supercell demolishes …

Yes, the word demolishes might be misread as (a typo for) demolished. Yes, the reader might be a little disoriented at first. Worse, the reader might suspect that gimmicky writing is camouflage for weak content. Such concerns loom large in a thoughtful page that recommends using the past tense by default and the present in some special cases. We can agree on the bedrock principle that one size does not fit all, even as we disagree amicably on where to draw some lines and how strongly to weight some concerns. That’s a respite from the train wreck of contemporary politics.

Dunno how 16 million hits in my Google search compares with how often the present tense has actually been used in good stuff. As good uses accumulate, the prudential reasons for defaulting to the past tense will gradually weaken. Of course, there will always be people who believe that the earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, and

Thou shalt write fiction in the past tense.

came down from Mount Sinai with Moses.

§2: Perilous Past
Readers (and writers!) may not be native speakers of English. As with many other aspects of language, English is exuberantly irregular in how it forms the past tense. People learn the past tense of a verb later (and less thoroughly?) than they learn the present tense. Can U hear the rumble of an approaching storm?

When offline (or distrustful of Google Translate), Pierre consults his French/English dictionary. How can he say prendre in English? No problem. Just say take. But Pierre is writing in the customary past tense. Neglecting to look up take in the other half of the dictionary, he says taked where he should say took.

Consider 3 common ways that verbs ending in -it can form their past tenses: hit/hit, pit/pitted, and sit/sat. Quick now: knit/knit or knit/knitted? Shit/shit or shit/shat?

There are a few verbs with 2 ways to form the past: an irregular usual way and a regular way for a special usage:

Starting a road trip, the team flew out to Chicago.
Swinging at the first pitch, the batter flied out to left field.
The picture was hung in a prominent place.
Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy on 1776-09-22.
This last nuance is subtle enough to trip up some native speakers.

§3: Perilous Past Perfect
Pierre is back. The draft of his story has a short paragraph about some taking that happened at an earlier time. Not fond of flashbacks, he has a good reason to put this paragraph as late as it is, not earlier in the narrative.

Sadder but wiser after being corrected by a ten-year old whose first language is English, Pierre refrains from writing had took for the past perfect for the verb take. He looks up the actual past participle and writes had taken.

Pierre’s pluperfect paragraph is grammatical but clunky. What to do? Rewrite the main narrative in the present tense and the clunky paragraph in the past. That will be a chore, but such a clear and distinct idea deserves the effort. Descartes would approve.

§4: John and Jane Get Tense
John has been writing screenplays that often use flashbacks. Now he wants to write a novel and still likes flashbacks. He realizes that readers would be confused if nothing but a paragraph break separates what the characters do and experience “now” (from their viewpoint) from the start or end of a flashback. There is a lot of sensible advice out there about things like narrative transitions to and from flashbacks, but John wants to stay closer to his cinematic roots. He uses the present tense for the main content and the past tense for the flashbacks. If he also switches to a noticeably different font for the flashbacks, that might be enough in most places (after narrative transitions for the first few flashbacks).

Jane has been writing historical fiction and using the past tense to make it look like history. Now she wants to write fiction with a first-person narrator and package it as a rather one-sided conversation with an implicit listener. She plans to keep the past tense for the main content and add some present-tense remarks, often in response to what the listener has presumably just said. The present-tense remarks will be frequent and incongruous. The narrator will tell a self-serving version of a sequence of events in the past tense while accidentally revealing the darker and/or funnier truth in the present tense.

I warned Jane that readers (especially impatient thick-headed guys like me) may just take the narrator to be ditzy and bail out early. But Jane is game to try. If she does make it work, I know a good place to submit her story.

§5: Recurring Rabbit
Rabbit
The Rabbit Hole is a series of anthologies of weird stories, with a troika of editors. Volume 1 came out in 2018, Volume 2 is scheduled to come out on 2019-10-01, and the editors hope to continue annually. Maybe Jane can contribute to Volume 3.

My story Satori from a Consulting Gig in Volume 1 is just 2 pages long, so even those who dislike it may still be glad they bought the book for $2.99 as an e-book or $12.50 as an ink-on-paper book.

While every extended narrative in Volume 1 uses the customary past tense, Volume 2 will have at least one story told in the present tense. No, the editors’ fondness for weird stories does not extend to a fondness for weird writing. As originally submitted for Volume 2, my story Entanglements did have some weird writing at the end that seemed unavoidable to me. Editor Curtis Bausse suggested a strategy for avoiding the unwanted weirdness, and the strategy worked. There was no fuss at all about my use of the present tense. That is as it should be.

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

CO-OP ADVICE

This was originally a Facebook post but, after being accosted with some new pitches for Kickstarter, Indie Go, and others, I decided to flesh it out. Think of these as bullet points to avoid tragedy. I know I’m not really the answer man but I do, occasionally, have useful information to impart. This is for my fellow creators.

First, I cannot emphasize this enough, make sure your writer is fluent in the language you are using. “I so too saw this” and “much to the good are I doing” aren’t actual phrases in English. “Gehrn habe ich es” doesn’t work in German. I could go on but I’d rather not. And, yes, those are actual quotes. If you can’t afford an editor at least get a grammar assistance program. Grammerly may hate the Oxford comma, and can be annoyingly pedantic, but it’s still better than some of the stuff that’s been foisted into my inbox. If your pitch, or jacket cover blurb, is filled with typos, and/or bizarre grammar, the odds are heavily against you getting anyone to take you seriously. Also, just FYI, spell check is not your friend. Eye sea ewe will not get flagged.

Second, I get it that everyone has an awesome epic adventure to tell. Even so, it won’t kill you to run your basic plotline through Google to see if anyone else has told your awesome epic adventure. Your character goes back in time and becomes Jesus? Cool. It’s been done, done well, and won awards. Yours better be unique or it will pale by comparison. Or, as one author who makes goo gobs of cash told me; “Every story has been told, except yours. So tell that one.”

Third, if you plan on using some old gods to liven up your story, please make sure you know more about them than their names. There are people who do nothing but study ancient theologies and they’ll rip you a new one if you screw it up. Of course you can put your own spin on them, they’re fictional, but make it clear you’re doing so. That said, if you’re going to use gods or prophets who are currently being worshipped, tread lightly. There are three billion people who practice Islam. Making Muhammad a gangster rapper isn’t going to win you any friends.

Yes, someone did that. No, it didn’t get published.

Fourth, if your pitch requires more genres than adjectives you’re in trouble. Your Y/A sci-fi urban melodrama set in a women’s prison on Ganymede run by faeires better be purposefully funny as hell or you’re doomed.

Fifth, if your response to a Nebula winning writer (not me, not yet anyway) who offers help is “Fuck off! What do you know about anything?” you’re destined to a life stuck in your parents basement screaming at pigeons. Just FYI, I was in the library with the afore-referenced writer, whose name and picture were on the posters announcing their arrival, when this happened. They did not respond to the pigeon person and we went out for drinks instead. I was fine with that.

Sixth, if your cover art is actually someone else’s cover art, you’re an idiot. And an asshole. Yes, I have seen this happen … twice. Something tells me I haven’t seen the last of it either. Just cutting out someone’s title doesn’t make it your art. There are plenty of services out there where you can pay a tiny fee for an image. Go, invest in one. Or hire a pro. They are more cost effective than you might imagine.

Last, but certainly not least, if someone offers you help they are not offering to do all the work for you. If that’s what you want, pull out a credit card (preferably yours so no one goes to jail) and pay them.

Okay, rant over, you may now return to your regularly scheduled internet.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Stayin’ Busy

– by Mimi Speike

I’ve been busy this week. I’ve written two pieces on Medium.com. I’ve just about decided to create a personal publication there that will display my non-Sly work and also present opinion pieces, most (but not all) writing-related. I wrote a guest-piece for The Story Reading Ape. It’s up as of Sunday. I’m doing a final read-though on my entry for Booksie’s First Chapter contest (deadline June 15). You’ll find the notice on Facebook.

I’ve gone through my files, found very old art, scanned it, and am going to take it into Illustrator to add to/manipulate. I see one image as the anchor for a cover illustration.

I’ll do one more edit on Sly, then I will let go of book one. I have finished reading Dear Dark Head, a history of Ireland, Palmerston, a bio of Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England in the mid-nineteenth century, and I’m well along on The French, Portrait of A People  (the nit-pick information in here, fabulous, and, a riot.) I am so enjoying this. The relationship of the French to food, I can certainly use some of that. My Archbishop has a French chef who he adores.

I’m doing my usual highlighting of great usage, starring the really super bits. A few items will be hilarious inserted into my baptism scene. (Already a screwball delight, if I do say so myself.) My cat is loving it. He never knew a baptism would be so much fun. (Nor did I.) I have haunted certain sites, like Catholic Answers, for a few years now. So much so that I’ve gotten pop-up messages: We notice that you visit us often. Would you care to donate? I’ll blow their minds, credit them in my footnotes.

This week: back to the art. The art is what’s holding me up.The apps have changed so much since my stone-age versions, the simplest tasks, I can’t get them done, not easily. I have to get my ass down to Barnes and Nobel and buy the books.

My firm belief is, we can’t wait for the world to come to us. We have to push, and push, and push for attention. But I’m not shoving my book in people’s faces, I’m writing humorous pieces with bouncy headlines that I hope many will want to investigate.

Where will it get me? I’ll keep you posted.

____________________________________________________

Well, my post was displayed on the front page of Story Reading Ape for all of nine hours. There are so many members there, apparently writing their hearts out, that I am already pushed off the front page (into previous posts) by nine other pieces posted today. Lots of participation there, you can get lost in the shuffle.

 

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writing technique

They had met a long time before

Mr Bennet

Mr. Bennet: complex and layered

“We are living in the most terrible age. I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback.”

So says Colm Tóibín, for whom, as a novelist, this is of course a legitimate concern. He continues “You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, the writer taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.” And with great approval, he cites Jane Austen, who “wrote complex, layered characters without ever contemplating a flashback.”

I don’t know about that sweeping chapter 2 claim, but I fully agree about flashbacks (though I do worry more about Brexit). But I understand the temptation: you’ve created a host of characters, and to make them believable, you need to know where they grew up, what school they went to, what their parents did, the relationships they had. I’ve just spent considerable time working on the background to Sophie, the main character in my current WIP, so naturally, I don’t want to see it go to waste.

But it won’t be wasted, even if I don’t put it in the book. Because I know my character much better now, and the way she behaves makes sense because it’s grounded in a past of which I’m aware.

Are there exceptions? Of course. This article cites several novels which make effective use of flashbacks – Underworld, The God of Small Things, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao… But an author needs to know when and how to use them, and that requires experience.

Prompted by Tóibín’s complaint, I anxiously scoured my WIP. I’m happy to report that the dreaded flashback is absent. Phew! Yes, I found brief instances (two or three sentences) relating to a very recent past, when something reminds Sophie about a conversation she had previously. But Tóibín is talking more about backstory, filling in a character’s past. Of that, I found just one, which takes up 58 words.

But surely to be as categorical as Kristen Lamb (Why flashbacks ruin fiction) is excessive. One day, perhaps, I’ll make a conscious decision to construct a book with flashbacks. But I’m of the school that believes that rules need to be mastered before you can break them, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. For the time being then, I’ll stick to chronological, thank you.

And you? Have you experimented with them? Or avoided them like the plague?

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inspiration, mythology, Uncategorized, Welcome, world-building, writing technique

The Hero’s Journey

As you probably know, many writers use Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as the route along which to write their own story. Here are some of the more famous examples.

A good yarn often starts with The Ordinary World.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…This particular hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected…”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Unexpectedly, there is the Call To Adventure.
“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
– Princess Leia (hologram), “Star Wars: Episode IV”

Followed, of course, by The Refusal Of The Call.
“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t see what anybody sees in them…Good morning!…we don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water.”
– Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

No adventurer ventures without The Helper.
“I can guide you but you must do exactly as I say.”
– Morpheus, “The Matrix”

And off they go to The Threshold Of Adventure.
“The Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
– Obi Wan Kenobi “Star Wars: A New Hope”

But wait, they must face down The Threshold Guardian.
“Who would cross the Bridge of Death must first answer me these questions three, ‘ere the other side they see.”
– Bridge-keeper, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

Now, together our adventurers face Tests.
“We’ll never survive.”
“Nonsense, you’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
– Wesley and Buttercup (when preparing to enter the Fire Swamp), “The Princess Bride”

At some point, they endure a Supreme Ordeal.
“Only after disaster can you be resurrected. It is only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”
– Tyler Durden, “Fight Club”

At the climax, our heroes reach the enemy’s lair and prevail. But now comes Flight.
“Come on buddy, we’re not out of this yet.”
– Han Solo, “Star Wars: A New Hope”

Finally, our heroes take The Road Back. They return home.
“We thought you were… dead.”
“I was. Now I’m better.”
– Captain Sheridan in response to the Drazi ambassador, Babylon 5 ep. “The Summoning”

Come to think of it, just reading about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey can get a writer excited.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, humor, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Drunken Discourses of the Unusually Perturbed

by Margret A. Treiber

A beta reader recently asked me if I was tripping while writing one of my short stories. I had to laugh because, for the most part, I write completely sober.

Frequently, I’ve considered getting bent and sitting in front of the keyboard. I figured some really righteous shit could pour out of my already twisted mind with the aid of a chemical boost. I mean, I write all manner of altered dimensions as it is. Imagine what madness I could produce on some kind of bender!

No such luck.

An intoxicated Margretbot is a slacking Margretbot. As hard as I might try, there is no way to prod any words out of my brain and into written word while I’m “beyond reason”. I can get to the waters of inspiration, my muses whispering in my ear with enthusiasm and gusto, but I can’t get the crap out of my head and into a file. So I sit there, giggling, my own personal entertainment being played and replayed which I am unable to share with the universe at large.

But what if I could? What if these wonderful musings could be somehow captured in print? It would be awesome! Would it not?
Then I reflect on the drawing of BigBrainia and the map of the giant penis that hung on the wall of my post-college apartment bedroom.

Knowing the massive potential for creativity among myself and my roommates, we plastered a large piece of craft paper on my wall to jot down all our amazing ideas so they would not be lost to sobriety. And yes, it was so freaking hysterical when we were toasted and giggling on the floor of my room.

In fact, it was magnificent.

We had quotes and drawings, maps and diagrams, and depictions of all the kings of imaginings you would expect to come out of the head of young, twenty-something, liberal arts grads in their first apartment.

The problem – it barely made any sense when we were sober. Wasted again, it was the most glorious written document in existence. Nursing the hangover, we squinted at it trying to figure out what penis map actually meant.

So, after reflection and consideration, I realize that although I write like I’m stoned, I’ll probably never write while I’m stoned. It would never work. Yeah, maybe if I was lucky, a handful of drunkards and meth heads may get a giggle but are meth heads really known for their eBook consumption?

So for now at least, until I’m in a nursing home on forced medications, all my crazy shit is coming to you unfettered and clean. Yes, this is how I think “normally”.

I leave the plastered pros to those better equipped to pull it off.

Margret’s prolific writings:
http://themargret.com/
(tread with caution)

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