What makes a good story?
The answer is a thousand things. It is also a single thing. It can be anything from the way a character cries to the beautiful way moonlight shines on broken glass.
A good story makes you feel something. Anything. Anger. Outrage. Hope. Confusion. Love. Regret. Excitement.
I say ‘good’ story, but what I mean is ‘effective.’ Because ‘good’ is too vague a term, and it makes me think of banana bread and my grandma. A short story is not banana bread. Or, to my knowledge, my grandma.
The next question is usually, How do you write a story like that?
The answer is easy. It is situated right between Hard Work and Talent. It’s the same answer give by anyone who has ever invented, fixed, or created something (from a poem to an airplane): you just do it. You try. You fail. You try again. You fail again. You don’t give up. You don’t give in.
The secret, I think, is to allow those Moments of Despair. You know the feeling you get when you feel like everything you’re writing is wrong – and you’re one step away from blow torching the whole mess? Shriek. Yell at the sky. Threaten to throw your laptop, cell phone, or Kindle out the window. Rage. Eat chocolate. Find some alcohol.
Watch television. Read a book. And then…get back to work. Because the truth is that half of life is simply this: don’t give up.
As a kid, I thought I could get through anything – a hurtful friend, a bad day at school, being passed over for a chorus solo – if I just put one foot in front of the other. One step, then another. And there it is: progress. Writing is the same. You put one word in front of another. Sometimes, it’s like magic and being drunk – and having a really good laugh. Other times, it’s like visiting the dentist, without Novocain, while your boyfriend breaks up with you via text message. Oh, and he’s been dating your sister.
Easy vs. difficult. Not impossible, mind you. Difficult.
The last question is usually this: Why did you write that?
I could lie to you. I could make up a story. I could tell you that I get my ideas from a tiny unicorn that lives in my My Little Pony lunchbox. But that would totally ruin my Rock Star image. The real answer is: I don’t know. For me, most of the time, I start with an image or a line. Maybe it was something somebody said to me. Maybe it was a memory that a certain smell pried loose. Maybe it was the magic unicorn in my lunchbox. I honestly don’t think it matters, as long as the words go on the page. As long as things are written.
This morning, I sat down and I wrote a draft for a story. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever written before, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. If I start writing the same type of thing over and over again, that’s when all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We all know how that story went.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: don’t give up. The second best is probably: read everything. The third might be: write whatever story wants to be written.
Each short story, each poem, each novel – each piece of writing (complete and incomplete) is a lesson that only you can teach. It’s also a lesson that only you can learn. Not even story is going to be perfect or even vaguely publishable. Some will be complete shit. Some will toil as Really Bad Drafts forever. Some will see character changes and a mountain of post-it notes.
But I’ll say it again: each one is a lesson. It’s a stepping stone, a learning experience. Good stories (effective stories) get rejected. It has to resonate with your audience. Sometimes, that audience is you. Yourself.
Rejection isn’t exactly failure. It’s not a nice day at the beach either, because everybody wants to hear the word yes. But it is what you make of it. It is also what you take from it.
You get what you give. Write the best story you can. Then, write another.
Lately, I’ve seen a large influx of strange articles. Things written by journalists or people supposedly in the know. People who are (in my humble opinion) spouting strange ideas. I find myself increasingly annoyed, because it’s just another example of people fearing what they do not understand. Or what might not suit them. We all view the world through our own lens. It becomes dangerous, however, when we think that only OUR lens is the right one.
Let me explain. No, too much. Let me sum up. Grab some coffee. Go on. I’ll wait. (Pause.)
Okay, first there was the NY Times article about the television series Games of Thrones. The basic gist of the article was that women would only watch the show for the explicit sex scenes AND that it was merely “boy fiction.” Last time I checked, one did not walk into a bookstore or library and peruse the Boy Fiction section. Likewise, I never logged into Amazon.com to search for “Girl Fiction.” I like my books like I like my coffee (no, Eddie – not hot and with a spoon in it, although…): however I feel like drinking it. There are days where I’ll read Neruda’s poetry. Others where I’ll pick up a book by Stephen King. The next day I might reach for something by Holly Black or Neil Gaiman. The important thing is that you really can’t pigeonhole readers, no matter how much someone might WANT to. Harry Potter was, initially, meant for children, but how many adults do you know who read them? Chances are the answer is “a lot.” (Nota Bene: the author of the novels that Game of Thrones is based on comments on the whole debacle here. Interesting read.)
Next up we have Life Coach who claims that romance novels are as addictive as porn. Not crack, mind you – or cigarettes. PORN. Because nothing says “shock value” like religious person pointing a finger at pornography (the author is a LDS). The general premise is that reading romance novels will kill your marriage (if you’re in one), and if you’re not, WHY AREN’T YOU OUTSIDE TRYING TO CATCH A HUSBAND?!? Clearly, there is nothing worse than being single – and *gasp* READING. The author goes on to say that romance novels lead to impossible standards and crazy expectations. Because we women cannot distinguish fiction from reality. So, the next time a man smiles at you in the frozen foods aisle of the grocery store, it should be quite certain that he’s an FBI agent whose partner was just shot, and he’s on the lam until he can clear his name. Giving him a place to stay, surely, is the ONLY option you have.
…seriously? I cannot fathom why someone would assume that women cannot distinguish a romantic hero from real life people. Especially if the novel’s historical fiction. I’m certainly not going to read a romance book set in Camelot – and then decide that I’m Lady Guinevere. (Hint: that’s called psychosis.) Also, it is supremely offensive for the author to advise a romance reader to “[f]ind a hobby or other activity you could do instead of reading romantic books.” Reading IS my hobby. One of them, anyway. What would be an “appropriate” hobby, anyway? Shuffleboard? A sock-darning circle? Playing bridge? I don’t know. I don’t care. I’ll stick to my books, thank you very much.
Lastly, there is the Wall Street Journal article that rallies against contemporary fiction for teens, citing that it is all simply too dark. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but the teen years are kind of difficult. It’s not all kittens, rainbows, and braiding each other’s hair. Life is not a Disney cartoon. Things happen. They aren’t always pretty. The idea is that there are realistic teen novels out there – novels that *might* be part of the fantasy genre, but still reflect real-life teenage issues (cutting, sexuality, fitting in, sexual abuse, difficult parents etc). Take Cassie Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series or Holly Black’s Tithe. Both novels skillfully tackle a lot of the aforementioned issues. The things teens face every day. Writing about those issues doesn’t make them more pervasive; it validates real life struggles. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consider, also, Speak – the often controversial book about a teenager who is raped. But WHY is the book controversial? Because it deals with an issue people would rather not face or acknowledge, which is twelve shades of wrong. That book gives a voice to something that’s often voiceless. That should be applauded.
What’s even more mind-boggling in that article is the apparent advocacy for book banning, making the comparison to “the parenting trade” labeling it “ ‘judgment’ or “taste.” Really? I don’t think so. For one thing, banning a book point-blank completely circumvents the idea of parenting. It takes AWAY a parent’s right to decide if his/her child should read a certain novel. Also, I’d agree with the idea of judgment, but not with the inclusion of “taste.” Taste indicates a certain preference; judgment isn’t about preference, but instead about appropriateness.
There are many more things about that article I’d like to talk about, but this is already a long enough post. My final point is that I just don’t get it. I don’t understand the tendency toward censorship or book labeling. I don’t get why these things are in print. Yes, they have a stance and a clear-cut angle, but I feel as if controversy is the goal. Not honest, non-inflammatory opinions. It always feels like there’s a pointed finger, a black hat, and a villain. But you have to wonder about a book being a villain – or a tv show being “boy fiction.” As a teenager, for instance, Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) is usually part of the English curriculum. That’s pretty damn messy, isn’t it? There’ s a fickle man (Romeo) who falls in love with a rival family’s daughter (that has all the making of a mob movie, doesn’t it?). Mercutio and Tybalt fight – and that ends in a bloody mess. Juliet basically cheats on her fiancée with Romeo. And then they both freakin’ DIE. BY SUICIDE.
Pretty? No. But so far, I’ve yet to see anything claiming that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in schools because teens might kill themselves. And if that IS out there, for the love of coffee, don’t tell me. I’m already annoyed enough.
I’ve been writing poetry since I was ten years old – which means I’ve been doing it for about eighteen years now.
It’s not just something I do from time to time. It’s more than a habit. It’s a passion. It’s my first writing love. Before I began writing stories, I wrote poems. I told tales that way. A few of them graced the pages of various literary magazines.
Without further ado (because I’m grinning like a jackal), here is my first volume of poetry, Lines from an Old Love. Right now, it’s available through amazon.com, which makes me exceedingly happy. Eventually, it will be available as a digital copy.
As always, if there are any errors, they are mine. I could blame the Writing Gremlins, but I won’t. I hope that you all enjoy the book. I am so proud of it.
So, I’ve been working on this project. I’ve decided to self-publish a volume of poetry via CreateSpace on Amazon. (I’m sure I can somehow blame Barry Eisler for that. Or his freakishly perfect hair. *wink*)
This decision took me a while to make. For one thing, I’ve never been a huge fan of self-publishing. I don’t quite know why. I think it was an ego thing. I wanted to be chosen by an editor. I wonder if that stems from years of being picked nearly last for dodge ball. Or kick ball. Or the bane of my high school gym class: baseball. (To this day, I still discard the bat with more force than necessary. I don’t mean it!)
But poetry is notoriously hard to sell. It’s also difficult to profit from. That whole cliché about starving poets? Yeah, that’s pretty much true. This isn’t about making money, although that would be nice. This is about putting the work out there. It’s about not waiting around for someone to notice me. This is me, being proactive. (I’m currently not sure how to price it. I dislike the whole “art should cost .99″ philosophy. It was Catherynne Valante who posited that people pay six bucks for a cup of coffee — why the hoopla about paying that much for a book? It doesn’t make sense. Also, as she pointed out, most CDs on itunes are still 10-15 dollars. A single song does not equal a book.)
It’s also rather scary, if I’m being honest. Sure, I have no problem publishing poetry via this blog. However, a whole volume? Out there in the world? It’s a bit daunting.
Like Millay said, I’ll be appearing (shortly) with my pants off in public. (Best quote ever: A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.) I know there will be some criticism. That happens with anything you write or publish. I promise not to have a meltdown. No one will make a hilarious coffee mug (I’m looking at you, Shaffer) in my honor. Unless it’s something like, “Coffee Vampire.” Because that is an actual nickname some people have for me.
The collection is tentatively titled Lines from an Old Love, but I might change my mind fifty more times before it’s done. I hope, when it’s done, you all like it.
I have a wretched fear of writing short stories. This isn’t one of those inexplicable fears, either (like, say, the fear of clowns – which, by the way, are freakish and scary). It all started during my first semester of college. Or maybe it was the second semester.
I wrote what turned out to be a ridiculously bad short story. So bad that, after the fact, I deleted from my hard drive and shredded all available paper copies. If it were possible, I would’ve burned it and danced around the embers.
I had a favorite English professor who (whom?) I trusted. I valued his opinion. Since I wanted to start writing more seriously, I asked him to look at my short story. (Prior to that, I was mostly a poet. And still learning. A lot.) The Damned Story (as it shall henceforth be known) was meant to be a symbolic masterpiece. (Feel free to snarf your coffee while laughing at that.) I thought about the unique meanings found in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I thought, Hey! I’m going to write a short story with a lot of sketchy symbolism.
I still cringe whenever I think about it, even though it’s been about ten years. The whole ordeal left me feeling embarrassed, as if I’d just walked into gym class, buck naked.
Why? I mean, aside from the obvious feeble attempt at something I’d never tried? The reaction of my professor was pretty jarring. Not in a constructive way, but in the way that made me feel wretched and a little ashamed.
I emailed him my story. He had agreed to read it prior. Then…a week went by. Nothing. No response. No “I got your story.” We had class, and he said nothing. So, I mustered up my courage and went down to his office to ask him about it. He told me that he hadn’t gotten it. It was a lie. A bad one. He babbled something about how he didn’t have time, anyway (so, resending it wasn’t an option). By the end of the conversation, I was ready to go cry in my Shakespeare. (Honestly, he wasn’t a bad guy or a bad professor – but this was a flaming mistake of hideous proportions.)
The next semester, I wrote another short story. It had taken me months. I didn’t want to fail again, as I had. I didn’t want the embarrassment that comes with that kind of learning, especially if there was no chance of a cushioned landing. For whatever masochistic reason, I asked that same professor to read it. He agreed.
A few days later, he informed me that it was “much better” than my last story. The story he’d claimed to never have gotten or read. And I looked at him, and said, “Yeah, you said that you never read it.” And he proceeded to turn the color of a very ripe tomato. Once again, I had that I Need to Flee feeling, but I didn’t.
The problem was this: that was the wrong way for him to handle the situation. I didn’t learn anything from it, except that my short stories were so terrible that my professor had to lie about them in order to save face. (His or mine? Who knows.) All I learned from it was that I should probably NEVER write a short story again. Ever. Upon penalty of DEATH. Or the Pain.
I didn’t for many, many years. I’m not kidding. I shunned them so spectacularly that Dwight Schrute would be proud.
Until a few years ago. I wrote one. It didn’t fill me with an all-consuming sense of shame. Sure, I knew it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but the wording in a certain paragraph wasn’t bad. And I liked a small bit of dialogue. Since then, I’ve written a lot more. Some were hopeful little duds. Some I’ve shared here. I sent one or two out as submissions.
Every time I write something, I learn something new. (I also learn by reading, but that’s another story.). No one taught me how to write a short story. Learning the basics is one thing, but mostly you learn by doing. By writing. From there, you have a basis on which to improve. A starting point.
My short stories no long make me feel panicky, sick to my stomach, or like I should be flogged by French monkeys. (What? All monkeys are French. Didn’t you know that? Also, mad props to the person who tells me what tv show that’s from. Plus, see the Eddie Izzard sketch. Le singe est sur la branche.)
The lesson here is this: be careful who you share your work with – and take criticism as it’s given. The very grave error my professor committed was failing to teach. Ironic, I know. But if he had sat me down and given me feedback – even just to point out the myriad of ways The Damned Story didn’t work, I would’ve been better off. I would’ve been enlightened. I would’ve had a starting point besides complete abject terror.
You only improve by doing. People can give you helpful feedback, but it might be wise to choose carefully. I thought I did, because I respected my professor. He wasn’t a creative writing teacher. And, as it turned out, he was a terrible liar.
Don’t be afraid of bumbling your way through things. Do what scares you. That’s good advice for life and writing. Write a character a life. Give the madwoman in the attic a voice. Remember that And sometimes, a kiss might kill you – but you don’t know, until you try.
There sits a girl
in a bell jar. She smiles
a wicked smile, if only
to attract your attention.
lies more than her eyes,
but her words
are what’s most dangerous. If you stare too long
the world around you will eat itself,
and you will fail to notice; she will have you then,
a solitary siren of ample means,
a witch made of riddles
that always burn, but never bless.
Do not offer her kindness, comfort,
or even a pale solace. Never
light a candle near her,
or plant azaleas where she can see;
they will only resurrect
painful memories. Some of them
will remain behind as your own.
She will uproot you, if she can.
She will make your heart
gallop and collide against itself;
you will haunt the moors
without being to outrun
the very last thing she said.
It doesn’t matter what it was,
I hate you
I love you. It will sting
and all the same.
You will regret her, and you
will curse yourself
for falling down, tripped
by the ashes of a long-dead,
Forget the girl
who sleeps inside the bell jar –
she has already
completely forgotten you.
Imagine this: you’ve finished that poem(s), short story, or essay. It’s polished and everything else you want it to be. It’s been edited and proofread within an inch of its life. It’s done. It’s as perfect as it’s going to be. The time has come to send it off in the world. All on its own.
So, now what? Where do you send it? And how do you know where to send it? Your first step is…research. (I’m sorry; it’s true.) You can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly. It won’t do you any good, and it’s not really professional.
I’d recommend going here. Poets & Writers magazine has an excellent database of literary magazines. You can narrow the search by selecting poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction. Decide whether or not you’re interested in online or print publications. Then, take a look at several magazines that might work. If possible, read a few of the works they’ve published. That will give you a feel for what they like, what the style of the magazine is. (In my opinion, it can, occasionally, be kind of a crapshoot. A lot of times, magazines claim that they’ll publish anything “good,” but that’s subjective! Unless you are one of the X-Men, I doubt you can read minds. Plus, it can be rather insulting if they reject you, because they’re basically saying, “You suck!” Or that could just be my opinion. I’m occasionally cynical.)
Once I’ve settled on a magazine (or more than one, depending on their simultaneous submission policy), here’s what I’d do.
Panic. (I kid. I just wanted to see if you were still with me.)
Start a spreadsheet. This might seem like a stupid idea, but it’s a good idea to have a document where you can keep an eye on what you sent where (and when). Otherwise, wires get crossed, things explode, and the world ENDS. Okay, not really. But you want to avoid accidentally sending the same poem to the same magazine, or something similarly horrifying.
Reassess and double-check. It’s important to know your audience, and if your piece will (potentially) find a good home at the magazine. You don’t want to send off a free verse poem to a magazine that only published formal verse.
Beware the Ides of March. Pay attention to whether or not the Magazine has a reading period. If something is sent outside of that period, the Jabberwocky eats it – which gives it indigestion – and no one reads your work. In that scenario, no one wins.
Format your submission according to their guidelines. (This means you MUST read them. Carefully.) Don’t use a crazy font, font color, or font size. You want the work to speak for itself, not look like the literary version of jazz hands.
Determine method of delivery. Each magazine has a preferred method (some only have one) for submitting your work. Some prefer snail mail, while others favor email. Some only accept email, while others shy away from technology (Skynet = bad). However, a lot of literary magazines have online submission forms now, which is (in my opinion) awesome. Not quite legendary, but we can’t all be Barney Stinston.) Comply with whatever method they prefer/want. (Note: if the magazine wants you to mail in a submission, do NOT send them your only copy of a work. And if the say to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE), DO IT. Otherwise, you will get a response the very same day Godot shows up.)
Do a last minute body count. Or, in other words, give your work one last read through. Make sure you didn’t accidentally delete a whole stanza/paragraph, drip coffee on the pages, leave out a comma, or selected the wrong version of your work.
Click submit, send, or put it in the mailbox. That’s it. You’re done. The rest is up to Fate, the Universe, the Powers the Be, or the Literary Faeries. Take comfort in the fact you’ve done what you could. What you did was kind of brave, too—putting yourself out there like that. It takes courage.
And as always, drink lots of coffee, play in rain puddles, and try not to poke yourself in the eye with a pencil.
(Author’s note: This is a revised version of a post I wrote about a year ago.)