The Writer’s Essential Tool: Curiosity

Question

photo: Barney Moss, creative commons license

Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.

In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.

She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.

When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.

As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.

While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”

Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

A Winning Short Story Publishing Strategy

Preparing for a panel on “short stories” for this weekend’s Deadly Ink conference for mystery/crime writers, I studied the stack of five print publications in which my work has appeared this past year. This was in lieu of doing any actual preparation, you might suspect. I realized each of them had a publication lesson for me—and possibly other authors. So here goes:

Don’t Dismiss Limited Circ Outlets

Five of the last six years I’ve had a story in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. Yes, it reaches a small audience, but at a max of 2000 words, the time investment in these stories isn’t massive and I keep the rights (more on that later).

The benefits: reminding myself at least someone thinks my work is good enough to invest ink and paper in, the satisfaction of meeting an actual deadline—in creative work you sometimes need an end-point—and, best of all, cultivating a local group of writer friends for support and commiseration. My 2016 story: “What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Prepare for Rejection

Are you thrown into a funk that’s hard to crawl out of when a story’s rejected? Take heart from realizing that all short story outlets today receive far more “publishable” material—stories they like—than they have room for. The literary magazine Glimmer Train, which has given several of my non-mystery stories a thumbs-down, publishes about 60 stories a year. The editors receive 32,000 submissions. Those 60 stories may be fantastic, but they simply cannot be the absolute “best” ones.

I expect rejection. And I plan for it. When a story of mine comes back from outlet x, I read it through, fix anything obvious, and right away send it to outlet y, then z. Last year, I sent a rejected story to a new outlet whose editors want to feature female protagonists. They accepted it gladly, and eventually it won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can read that story—“Breadcrumbs”—here.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is one of the premier, if not the premier outlet for short mystery fiction. I wanted another story of mine in it. So last spring, I wrote a Christmas-themed story, hoping they’d want it for the annual Holiday issue. I sent it in June, to give them plenty of time to think about it. Planning for rejection, even if they turned it down in their usual six to eight weeks (ask me how I know!), I’d have time to submit it elsewhere. They did not, and it appeared in the January-February 2017 “’Tis the Season” issue.

Meet the Requirements

I know writer who become so wrapped up in writing “their” story that they ignore editors’ guidance on theme, length, and so on. Dissect calls for submissions for clues to what they’re looking for. Don’t expect to be the exception, and don’t make it easy for editors to reject your work! I wanted to submit a story to an anthology about police work. I had such a story in mind. A 6,200-word story. The editors’ limit was 5,000. I liked those 1,200 words, but they went the way of the blue pencil (and the story was probably better for it). It was published in April.

Mine Your Backlist

Novelists have a “backlist” of books published in past years. Short story writers do too. When I see an outlet looking for a theme I’ve written on, I check whether the editor will accept reprints. Last October an online magazine republished one of my U.S. 1 stories that had a Halloween theme; I own those rights, remember? In April, a minor edit to a story published in a lit magazine (rights also mine) tailored it for an anthology. Taking advantage of these opportunities puts your work in front of new people and is a refreshing glass of water in the desert of seeming indifference.

four-leaf clover, luck

Dawn Ellner, cc license

Getting a short story published entails more than a small amount of luck, but if you’ve written a great story, you can increase the odds it will reach readers by being strategic about when, where, and how you engage with potential publishers.

What a Character!

typewriter, writing

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

This guest post by writer Robert Hebditch is excerpted from a workshop he recently conducted on developing characters for fiction. I’ve added a few examples in italics.

My way of creating character is pretty wasteful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, particularly beginners. My method leads to a lot of re-writes, restarts and a lot of cut and pasting. I often end up throwing it all away. But maybe some pieces of it will work for you!

Following Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that you’ve gotta “Write it down, then see what you’ve got,” I tend to write my ideas for the story first, maybe including vaguely defined characters. Then I start writing, fleshing out the characters as each new situation demands.

I draw on my own experience more than any other source. In a lifetime we are exposed to an awful lot of people—friends, lovers, neighbors, people on the street, at the club, at social gatherings, and yes, even in libraries. Most of us already know many more character types than we can invent. I take bits and pieces from these different sources and lace them together with a strong dose of imagination.

Experienced writer or not, asking yourself questions about your characters is certainly necessary, but there’s no need to have all the answers before you start. For me, the old journalistic maxim “Who, what, when, where, how and why” works well. You can selectively apply this where the situation dictates until you’ve filled out your character sufficiently to fulfill the demands of the story.

Ten Basic Points in Developing Characters in Fiction

  1. A character, especially a main character, should be “believably real,” so that the reader will suspend disbelief (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817).
  2. Some information about how characters look, and not just significant physical attributes, like body type and face, scars, tattoos, but also how they walk, dance, run or scratch their face.
  3. Robert pointed out that a great many contemporary writers prefer not to provide much physical description, following Stephen King’s advice to let the readers supply it. “If I describe mine, it freezes out yours,” King says.
  4. Similarly, Ian Rankin, in Knots and Crosses, also prefers to leave the physical appearance of his main character to the reader’s imagination. Detective John Rebus is described as having “brown hair and green eyes, like his brother.” And that’s it.
  5. What characters say, how they say it, how their speech differs from other characters, and whom they talk to. Also, what other characters say about them—a device that works best when it reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Because Robert’s insight about observer and observed  prepared me to appreciate it, I found this perfect example, in which a son is talking about his tyrannical father: “My mom had to lay [my homework] out for him next to his breakfast plate, to the left of the juice but not touching the fork, so he could scan through it with those gray eyes of his, searching for mistakes, tapping his long finger against the papers like a clock-tick.” From those few lines, you know the father’s horrible and mom and son are terrified. (from The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott). “To the left of the juice but not touching the fork”—brilliant!
  6. What characters do (their actions.) This is the key element, of course, because this is how they move through the plot.
  7. How characters act, which can be at odds with what they do, sometimes helping to create mystery or tension. For example, a man whose appearance is quiet and calm may suddenly reveal his true self by a violent action, such as knocking someone’s teeth out or kicking a cat.
  8. How character live—where they live, where they go, their history and habits, friends, relatives, work associates, hangouts and whom they hang out with.
  9. How and what they feel—emotions, moods and perceptions. At the extreme, writers have shown the emotions and perceptions of people who are insane—think of Chief Bromden’s belief in the black machinery behind the walls in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or cognitively impaired Benjy Compson’s stream of consciousness in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or Dr. Jennifer White, narrator of Alice LaPlante’s masterful murder mystery Turn of Mind, who suffers from progressive dementia.
  10. Minor characters are not unimportant characters. They should always serve the story by helping the protagonist move through the plot in some way, no matter how small. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the little we know about the man Thursby is from the established liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He makes no real appearance in the novel, yet without his death early on, the whole mystery of the black bird could not unfold.

A final thought. There are so many ways to create character and no one way is the right way. What works for us is what we must go with, with the proviso that there is always something new to learn. What matters most is how our characters make a good story better.

Guest poster Robert Hebditch is a writer of short stories, a local author and is published in US 1, The Kelsey Review and Genesis. He is a member of Princeton Public Library Writers Room and Room at the Table writing groups and a retired staff member of Princeton University.

 

***Betty Fedora – “Crime Fiction for Kickass Women”

Betty Fedora

It’s always delightful to find a new publisher of short fiction in the crime genre. I just read Issue Two of Betty Fedora, tagged “Kickass Women in Crime Fiction.” What’s not to like? The nine stories in this issue, selected by editor Kristen Valentine, cover a wide range of criminal activity—preventing it, investigating it, perpetrating it. Five of the nine are by women authors, too.

The first story in Issue 2 is by Montreal-based screenwriter Shane Simmons. His “Heads Will Roll,” is a story about whose title you could say “literally” and be correct. Colleen Quinn’s “Lucifer” takes a look back at an unhappy upbringing, and the difficulty of escaping it. London-based Lara Alonso Carona’s “A Diet Rich in Noir” combines the investigatory talent and family sparring skills of police detective Regan Monroe and her 19-year-old daughter Kat, a licensed private detective (first in a series of news flashes for mom). Clever.

I laughed out loud at John H. Dromey’s “Burden of Proof.” He has a woman judge, prosecutor, and witness running rings around a purse-snatcher and his male defense lawyer. At one point, the judge says to the defense attorney, “(I) wonder if you haven’t already decided you cannot win this case on its merits, so now you’re laying the groundwork for an appeal based on incompetent representation.”

I met New Jersey-based Al Tucher when he served on a panel of authors discussing why they pick faraway and exotic settings for their stories. At the time, he said he was planning a series set in Hawai`i, and here in Betty Fedora is “Luxury to Die For,” one of the results of that plan. An interview with Al is on the Betty Fedora home page.

If you like crime stories—and kickass women—and not necessarily in that order, you may want to snag a copy. I ordered mine from Amazon.

Six Months of Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

I packed my tempting pile of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines in my Costa Rica-bound suitcase. What a treat! Here’s the true advantage of staying at a remote resort: evenings with lots of time to read. OK, everyone has their own vices, as a review of the July 2015 through February 2016 EQMM issues amply attests.

Here are just some of my favorite stories:

  • “Gun Accident: An Investigation,” by Joyce Carol Oates – Oates really ramps up the tension in this recounting of a teenager’s perilous house-sitting experience. (July 2015)
  • “The Kashmir Enigma” by Joan Richter – A mysterious man, a romantic setting, and a never-to-be-forgotten encounter in Kashmir. (July 2015)
  • “The Longboat Cove Murders,” by Marilyn Todd – A tiny English seacoast town copes with a series of mysterious murders. (August 2015)
  • “Black Rock,” by Steven Gore – Family history isn’t always what we think it is. Gore’s latest San Francisco-based legal thriller is Night is the Hunter. (August 2015)
  • “The Siege,” by Hilary Davidson – Clever title for a story about betrayal and being just a bit too smart. This award-winning Canadian author’s latest book, Blood Always Tells, “will surprise you at every turn.” (December 2015)
  • “The Missing Motive,” by R.J. Koreto – The unmarried couple that are the protagonists in this Martha’s Vineyard murder tale are a lot of fun. (December 2015)
  • “Cruel Memory,” by Ed Wyrick – Interesting characters and situations are well-developed in this investigation of a suicide. Or was it murder? (January 2016)
  • “The Adventure of the Single Footprint,” by Robert Arthur – A murderer both gets away with it and solves his own crime. You’ll have to read the story to unravel that conundrum. First published in EQMM in 1948 and included in this year’s Sherlock Holmes theme issue. (February 2016)

2016 marks EQMM’s 75th year of publication. All this year, issues of “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” will include special features. You can subscribe to EQMM online or find copies in the periodicals section of major bookstores.

***Ellery Queen – February to May 2015

Sherlock Holmes, detective

(photo: wikimedia)

The short stories in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine sometimes lead me to authors whose books I also enjoy. Here are several of the stories I especially liked from the February, March/April, and May 2015 issues:

  • Terence Faherty’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip”—a Sherlock Holmes parody—very entertaining. Faherty is an award-winning mystery writer with two long-running series. His most recent stand-alone novel, The Quiet Woman, set in Ireland, was published last year. [February issue]
  • “Leap of Faith” by Brendan DuBois about the lengths a boy will go to in order to protect his sister. DuBois’s most recent book is Fatal Harbor (2014) features his “fascinating character” (Boston Globe), former Defense Department analyst Lewis Cole.[February issue]
  • Loren D. Estleman’s story, “The Black Spot,” has hitman Peter Macklin doing clean-up for a Detroit-area mafia chieftain. Estleman’s 2014 book Don’t Look for Me is book 23 in a series featuring Detroit private investigator Amos Walker, “who views a dishonest world with a cynical eye—and is still disappointed” (Booklist).[March/April]
  • In “The Lovers of Traber,” private eye Willie Cuesta travels from the Miami he inhabits in Pulitzer-winning journalist John Lantigua’s crime novels to a rural Florida farming area to sort out a romantic interest gone too far afield. His most recent Latin-flavored book is On Hallowed Ground. [March/April]
  • Art Taylor’s first-person story “Commission” is told with a good sense of humor and will appear this fall in his book of short stories, On the Road with Del and Louise. [May]
  • “A Loneliness to the Thought,” by Michael Caleb Tasker, is set in New Orleans, with a teenage narrator whose life has that amber-enclosed feel of adolescence, while a series of murders takes place in the city. Nice evocation of place. Watch for his short stories. [May]

Always an entertaining read and available digitally from Amazon, B&N, Google Play, Kobo, Apple iPad, and Magzter.

5 Things Submitting Writers Should Know

five, matches

(photo: Martin Fisch, Creative Commons license)

AGNI is the well-regarded literary magazine published by Boston University, and its editor is Sven Birkerts. For the June edition of The AGNI Newsletter, Birkets took advantage of the journal’s current hiatus in accepting author submissions to reflect on what its editors hope to find when they read their “towering backlog” of poem, short story, and essay manuscripts.

How big is that “towering backlog”? Birkets says he typically receives a hundred new manuscripts a day. He made five points for writers to consider.

  1. Understand the initial screen – submissions are first triaged into three categories: those clearly off the mark one way or another (more than 60 percent); those that may have potential (25 percent); and those with “obvious appeal” (less than 12 percent), which are circulated to appropriate readers. He doesn’t say whether those 60 receive an immediate “No, thanks,” or whether they get into a process that takes the two to four months noted in AGNI’s submission guidelines. (AGNI turned down a short story of mine, and it took six weeks.)
  2. Understand the need for fit – The approximately one-third of the submissions in the “maybe” queue are reviewed for both quality and goodness-of-fit—as Birkets puts it, whether they fall within its “aesthetic profile.” Determining the likelihood that a story will be a good fit is ideally an author’s responsibility, in part. It’s why literary journals typically suggest a prospective submitter read a few copies before sending in their work. In other words, self-triage. “It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work,” he admits, “but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.”
  3. Focus on the most important – What AGNI editors look for in a cover letter is a quick statement and a short list of the author’s most notable previous publications, if any. By contrast, the first sentences of the story receive the editors’ careful attention. Birkets describes why beautifully: “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”
  4. Don’t fret about a lack of previous publications – This, he says, is not a barrier with AGNI, and, contrariwise, well established writers can be rejected because of the lack of fit noted above Birkets estimates that about half the stories AGNI publishes are by newly discovered writers.
  5. Be committed to the importance of the work – This is the hardest of his points to distill into concrete advice, but may be the most critical. He says he wants to see work that is “an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written.” In other words, the writing must be propelled by the author’s deep conviction of its necessity in a noisy world. “We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested,” he says. I have a friend whose OK novel was published a few years ago. Sometime later, I asked him whether he was writing another. “No,” he said, with astonishing candor, “I found out I don’t have anything to say.”

For my many writing friends who do have something to say, AGNI’s submissions period opens again September 1.

***Mistakes Can Kill You

A Dash for the Timber, Frederic Remington, Amon Carter Museum

A Dash for the Timber, Frederic Remington (wikimedia.org)

By Louis L’Amour narrated by Lance Axt– This collection of short fiction is a gallop into the past, not so much into the post-Civil War time period when they take place, but into the decades when stories about the West were part of Americans’ shared cultural currency. These stories feature tough men with consciences, feisty women in need of a gunslinger, prospectors and gamblers, cattlemen and cowboys, clever Indian trackers, and bad hombres trying to steal all they can. In other words, a double-barreled blast of adventure.

L’Amour could spin these tales as well as anyone, and, if they are simple in construct, their impact was long-lasting. They gave Americans of several generations the visceral conviction there was always something more out there to be had—money and women, religious salvation, land and fortunes. They were the dreams that fed people. No matter how dire the circumstances, there was always the possibility of starting fresh, somewhere in the West.

Such innocent dreams created a unique American culture, and here, in this collection, the reader gets a gallon of that intoxicating mix. If your heart hasn’t been irredeemably steeped in the bitter tea of 21st century cynicism, you might enjoy these tales about an era, in fiction at least, when wrongs could be righted. Axt’s narration is pretty good, too, and for these purposes, his name is perfect.

Wild Tales

Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Érica Rivas in Wild Tales

This 2015 Argentinian film (trailer), directed by Damián Szifron, is a collection of six unconnected short stories, with both comic and catastrophic elements and carrying the tagline “we can all lose control.” The six very different stories describe “how I would extract my revenge if only I had the nerve.”

The excellent ensemble cast keeps the unexpected happening . . . as people go to the surreal brink of absurdity and tragedy—and keep going. They carry out the vengeful urges we all feel in moments of betrayal, in flashes of road rage, facing overwhelming temptation, or confronting mindless bureaucracy.

The first very short tale involves a casual conversation between two airplane passengers, strangers to each other, who happen to discover they both know a would-be musician named G– Pasternak. One is a woman who once broke up with him and the other, a classical music critic who savaged Pasternak’s early work. A passenger sitting in front of them turns around, saying, “Pasternak?” She was his elementary school teacher, and says he certainly had problems. After a few more people who’ve wronged poor Pasternak pipe up, the music critic stands and asks, “Is there anybody on this plane who does not know Pasternak? And who paid for their own ticket?” There is not. I leave the rest to your imagination. And his.

The funniest story involves an explosives expert trying to reason with the local parking authority, and one of the most satisfying has a bride take her revenge on the groom who cheated on her. It’s a wedding no one will ever forget! Said Eric Kohn in indieWIRE, “While adhering to an internal logic that makes each punchline land with a satisfying burst of glee, the movie nevertheless stems from genuine fury aimed a broken world.”

Be sure to catch the opening credits, where the names of key cast and production crew members are shown with photos of wild animals reflecting on their personas. The director, I noted, was a fox.

An Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film last year, this is one of those rare movies where Rotten Tomatoes critics and audiences are in perfect agreement: 93%.