About Writers, Literary Agents, publishing, Stories, writing technique

Juvenilia

mansfield

I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’

In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.

Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.

Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.

Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.

Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?

 

 

Standard
About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Need To Know Basis

James Tiptree, Jr. — aka Alice Sheldon — wrote a story back in 1974 called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” It’s a tale about memory. Scenes from a life play out one after another: a boy on his first duck hunt, failing miserably; a young man in his first, eager sexual encounter, failing miserably; a man back from war proposing, finally, to the woman he loves, failing miserably…you get the idea. Framing this jumbled litany of humiliation and disappointment is the gradual realization that all of these memories are playing out in a sort of repeating loop, observed by — perhaps even instigated by — some unknown presence: alien researchers perhaps? Or even just alien sightseers, feeding on the memories of the long gone inhabitants of a dead world? Because the earth is dead, a burnt out cinder. All that remains are memories. 

But — and here’s the gut punch — the only memories left are unpleasant ones. Only the horrible stuff, incidents our protagonist would rather forget. Instead, he gets to live them out again and again.

A hellacious vision. Thanks, Alli.

But still, a fascinating premise. Sad memories, painful memories, seem to have a disproportional staying power. Enjoyable memories can linger as well, but they are less vivid, less intrusive. It seems like we have to go looking for those, we have to coax them to the surface. But deeply unpleasant memories find us. We have no idea when they might swim into sudden focus. It’s like they’re always lurking in the shadows, just around the next corner.

There’s a good reason, of course, why we would be predisposed, genetically, to have a better memory for the unpleasant things. After all, unpleasant things are often dangerous things, and it’s an adaptive advantage to avoid danger. If a situation feels unpleasantly familiar, you’ll tend to shy away from it and not repeat it. As for joyous memories of good times, well, it’s nice to remember them, but it’s not usually a matter of life or death. Lack of joy might kill you in the long run, but it’s only a gradual death and it won’t necessarily interfere with your ability to pass on your genetic code. 

But danger? That can kill you right now, the immediate termination of your particular configuration of base pairs. So we avoid unpleasantness. It’s baked in, a survival skill.

And to avoid it, we have to recognize it. We have to remember. If I were an alien, researching the former dominant species of an extinct planet, I might focus on exactly that: what drove their worst memories? What were they so afraid of?

***

So how does this concept relate to stories? Does this predisposition explain why we have such an appetite for tragedy, for conflict-driven narratives? Such a fascination with crime and horror and dystopian futures? Could be. I’d admit that there are other factors. Catharsis plays into it — and the guilty thrill we might feel at experiencing someone else’s misery while knowing it isn’t our own. But it isn’t hard to see how these pleasures might have their roots in the original preoccupation. Suffering fascinates us because it’s important to our survival. We rubberneck the freeway accident because, at some level, we know that could be us. 

And if it might kill us, we need to know about it. 

***

Footnote:  It feels worth mentioning that some of our most persistent personal memories are of rejection and humiliation, which might not correlate directly with situations of danger or physical threat. We don’t, as a rule, die of embarrassment. But being rejected or humiliated, at least publicly, can be correlated with social ostracism, which could be almost as bad as death. In terms of passing your genetic material on to the next generation, it could be exactly as bad as death. The process of natural selection really doesn’t put a priority on our happiness. It’s only concerned with us surviving long enough to procreate. 

***

Another Footnote: I would accept that being joyless might be a hindrance to finding companionship and a partner for procreation. But this seems to me a very modern view of our mating relationships. While romance isn’t very new, it’s pretty new compared to our time as a species, and there’s good reason to believe that marriage probably developed more as a practical arrangement and didn’t necessarily require having a winning personality or a great outlook on life. Fortunately, we’ve progressed beyond that point, mostly — but that’s a subject for another time.

 

Standard
About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book sales, Formatting manuscripts, Google Ads, Publisher's Advice, publishing, Research, self-publishing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

In Case You Missed It

Here are a few of the useful blogs to have appeared on the Writers Co-op site over the past two or three years.

Practical advice from a full-time (i.e., successful) writer.

Where do your story ideas come from?

How to Format a Manuscript: Andrea Dawn, publisher.

Do Google Ads sell books?

POV explained.

What is the reading level of your work?

Writing meaningful nonsense.

Publishing Through A Start-Up Independent Publisher

Deep historical research

How a talisman can help you write

And, just for fun…
Spiteful but funny quotes from writers about other writers

We hope you’eve enjoyed the last two or three years as much as we have!

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

 

Standard