Archive for February, 2010

Publishers: Gorging on Authorial Hope Editorial Opinion


Friday, February 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

If you write a great literary fictional story, and if you're not famous or infamous, your chances of publication are minuscule.  Remember when writers sent their best to a publisher, waited three to six months for the usual rejection, and then sent the same work out again, and again, and again . . . always with the expectation that someone would some day believe in their talent?  There were galaxies of hope and expectations.  Besides, it didn't cost anything.  These writers believed they were being judged on quality . . . if they worked hard and learned their craft, they would be rewarded with publication and the possibility of recognition.  There were a few slicks (Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, for examples) that published a new writer occasionally, and many small, usually university, presses that had a few slots, but published infrequently, and had a tenuous circulation.  But, in reality, these were at least publishing resources  available where writers had a fair chance of a fair read and a fair reliance that some threshold of quality was being applied to the possibility of acceptance.  But that life is almost gone.  Authors have been slow to realize it, but both print and online publishing have shifted; literary magazine publishing is killing it's life source–good writers with talent who write imaginative fiction–by charging fees for submission cloaked in the guise of contests.

Of course it's true that it's not just contests that kill fiction.  There is the trend to publish memoir and nonfiction as "fiction."  But the need for income from submissions has significantly changed literary fiction.    In the past, magazines that published quality fiction encouraged submissions.  Most of what they published was agented fiction, or from famous authors, friends,  or celebrities.  Still, there were always a few slots for the undiscovered writer of literary fiction.  Now, even those few slots have been diminished by dangling the carrot of possible publication before authors in undisguised manipulation for profit.  Publishers are using competitions and contests to encourage volumes of submissions, both commercial and "nonprofit" presses, to simply make money.  The contest prizes are paltry, often less than what a magazine would pay after acceptance before the contest mining of fees of  fifteen to fifty dollars per submission was instigated.

Every publisher seems to reflexively say they receive ten thousand submissions a year.  Wow.  You can make $50,000 per contest.  Let's do more contests! Have a contest for under thirties, stories about dogs, tell us about your  family, or most recently a contest for six-word stories that will cost you $15.00 bucks per submission.  If it takes less than five seconds to read six words, that's a profit of about $10,800 dollars per hour.  Why not have a six-word story contest every month?  Forget the 5000 word limit and literary fiction.  Forget about traditional literary fictional stories of quality.  To what avail?  All this bloated submission activity fills the same number of limited slots available prior to contests (which skyrockets the odds against an author winning and/or getting published).

The  impact of these new contests on the great literary fictional story are more than transitory misdirections.  Consider the multiple groups that relate to the publishing of fictional stories in general: the publishers, the readers, the submitters of work to be published, and the subscribers (and donors) that represent a source of income.  Until now, publishers covered operating costs with subscriptions and gifts from donors, and to varying degrees, advertising.  Until recently, submitters were not paying to be read.  Now operating-income sources have shifted to what  have become  more dependable  and profitable submitter fees.  Subscribers and donors to magazines that published literary fiction were diminishing in numbers anyway.  So who cares?  No one but a few of the submitters and, with less intensity, the rare careful reader.   But the readers should recognize the effect on the publication of a great fictional story.   As publishers work to increase their revenue through submissions, they are openly trying to attract any style of writing, and have been willing to publish any style as fiction.  Specifically, memoir and "creative nonfiction" writing is sought and published as fiction, along with genre-based story writing such as mystery, sci-fi, and romance, partially in the belief that this is what will attract readers, but mainly because it makes a profit.  The effect on the literary fictional story writer is severe.  Well-written literary fiction with dramatic conflict and character based plot is not valued.  And with the new ways magazines fund themselves, good fiction has little chance of competing with contest winners who have been wooed with themes that work against the creation of great literary fictional stories.

This publisher effect on literary fiction has a painful irony; there are a significant number of readers who crave literary fictional stories as an art form who are ignored.  Almost surely, publishers could make profits by maintaining standards and morality to attract writers capable of creating these stories.  Such an effort would keep people reading for enjoyment, especially the serious reader.  It seems so necessary with the tidal-wave trends for story to be delivered on TV, film, and the switch of many former readers to methods of story telling like sporting events, where conflict and resolution, as well as the unexpected injury, defeat or death–are delivered for satisfaction without the use of prose media.  Yet prose remains, for some stories, especially those with significant meaning, the superior way to deliver the story.  Isn't it reasonable to ask publishers to resist the trends that story telling are taking, and support the quality of writing and story telling that talented literary fictional writers can deliver?

With equal impact is the loss of readers seeking great fiction.   The readers of magazines who want literary fiction have realized that present day fiction is not what they seek (they have to rely on the classics) and they have stopped buying subscriptions or reading publications that claim fiction but don't deliver.  This affects writers too.  Even for a good literary fiction writer who occasionally will get a significant fiction story published, the chances the story will find a significant readership have mostly disappeared.  And so the publishing industry is in more ways than just contests is extinguishing the literary fictional story as an art form.

It's a wonder these contests that require these veiled fees for submission survive.  They blatantly mine the endless hope of a writer.  And it demeans those writers who succumb to what could really might be classified as a scam.  Writers feel foolish reading the winners of contests they've submitted to for a fee.  They feel humiliated when they discover that most contests are not anonymously read; judges are unknown and may not be consistent; there are no criteria for what is acceptable and what's not; there is no guarantee of being read, even briefly;  that there will never be oversight of the contests that should be provided by government; and that friends and  associates can (and do) win.

This is mining the lodes of hope buried in every writer.  Oh, those dreams of being interviewed on Oprah, those visions of royalty checks, those expectations of readings in Barnes and Noble with attentive listeners.  This is taking money from the addicted gambler yearning for a quick, but almost impossible,  reward  . . . money needed for food and housing, and to dress the kids warmly for school.  Fading reality.  Why is there not outrage from literary writers at this publisher behavior?

Publishers are losing any aura of altruistic professionalism.  If there were only some justice for all those writers affronted.  Certainly refusal to submit could trigger financial loss as justice for publisher's greed.  Maybe the Internet will develop ways for writers to be recognized without having to participate in lottery-like schemes.  It's the hope for the future, something that all writers should work to create–a system to connect writers with their readers without unfair financial loss to both.



The Danger of Overuse of 1ST Person Narrative in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Thursday, February 4th, 2010
William H. Coles

Many unsuccessful writers fall into the trap of first person point of view, the path of least resistance that leads to mediocrity in many stories from a failure of the author to form a story in the most pleasurable and significant way.   This is really memoir writing, even when authors believe they are imagining a story, because writers insert themselves into the story to become the first person storytellers.

Example 1.  1st person.

I was happy that fateful night.  I'd been watching Survivor, turned off the TV, and tiptoed back to the baby's room.  The door was open.  The moonlight filtered in through the window near the crib, and I could see from the way her feet were caught in the twisted blanket that she was motionless.  I ripped off the blanket.  Her skin was pale.  Her eyes opaque and unblinking.  She was not breathing.

Example 2.  Look at a different narrator approach to the same scene (also overwritten for contrast).

The moon was almost full in a cloudless sky, and all but the brightest of the infinite stars were dimmed by the cold pewter light that filtered through the window into the nursery, creating weak lifeless shadows of the newly decorated, painted chest of drawers on the white shag carpet.  Karen opened the door noiselessly.  Cindy must be asleep; there had been no sounds over the electronic monitor from the nursery to their bedroom.  The blanket in the crib was wadded and covered the small lump of a child.  She placed both hands on the edge of the crib and looked down.  She stripped off the blanket.  Cindy was face up with one leg caught at the ankle in the space between two crib slats.  She wasn't moving.

Example 3.  Or another.

"Check Cindy," Karen said sleepily, her head buried in her pillow.

"You go," Henry said, the blanket pulled up to his eyes, his back to his wife.

Karen turned away from him. "I always go."

Henry put his feet on the floor and felt for his slippers. "Goddamn it," he said.

"Lighten up, asshole," she said, almost awake now.

Karen was acting a little too prima donna-ish for him.  Okay.  She'd had the baby.  She said it often enough.  She was bitter and depressed, and she thought it was his time to suffer.  But it was not right to aim her frustrations at him.  She'd slipped into a victim mentality placing blame on him, as if he were a stranger who had raped her.

At the end of the hall, he listened at the half open door too see if Cindy were awake.  There was no sound, and he entered softly, his heart now beginning to feel the joy he always felt when he was near his daughter.  She had recognized him on sight for the past few months, a smile lighting up her face.  Last Saturday she'd said "Da Da," for the first time, before she even said "Ma Ma."  He shuffled to the crib.  Cindy lay face up, her mouth parted, her lips still.

These examples show how alternatives need to be tried to be true to the story.  In reality, no matter which is preferred, none of the above could be used for a story; they are not quality writing.  The characters have not been developed in the mind of the author. But the examples serve a purpose.  There is a difference among them, and the first person "I" may feel more intimate, but also has the feeling that scene information is being filtered through a single, not too objective, personality.  In the second, the third person gives the feel of  narrator (not identified) who has nothing to gain by not being as accurate as possible.  This carries it's own intimacy, in this case, simply by knowing the narrator is not trying, even unconsciously, to sway the reader unreasonably about the happening.  In the third example, there is an expanded purpose for the segment.  Now the action of finding a dead baby as primary is complicated, and for the right story purpose, complimented, by revealing simultaneously the souls and emotions of the mother and father.   Nothing is right or wrong; these are three of many different ways of narration of a story scene.  But some of the restrictive aspects of 1st person are illustrated.

This idea of narrator choice is crucial for writer success.  Reader identification through the well-chosen and sophisticated-crafted narration of well-developed characters is an essential perquisite for:  dialog that shimmers with the appropriate thoughts and attitudes of the character for the moment, setting that supports plot and characterization, and accurate prose choices that support the story as a whole.  These elements need to have formed characters and meaningful plot in place, followed by revisions that are purposeful and directed.  Still, most readers take away different feelings and reactions to these different narrative approaches.  The third one especially develops relationships between Henry and Karen, which could be awkward in first person POV because of what the 1st person narrator can reasonably know, see, hear, (taste and feel) and experience making  observations and disclosures an objective narrator can deliver impossible. There is also a subtle difference in the subjective telling (I was happy, for example) in the first person example that seems at first to be an advantage because of "immediacy," but may not be as effective for the story as objective third person more objective, dispassionate "showing" of the scene (rather than telling emotional states–so easy in first person), which helps avoid sentimentality.

These examples represent a necessary process of trial and error that is limited by first person narration alone because of restrictions in the narration.  First person narration produces: tethered imagination, limitations of distance, dominant internalization, limited point of view, and troublesome credibility problems for a reader requiring extension of suspension of disbelief, which often contributes to inferior storytelling . . . and poor quality fiction.  Yet, it is amazing that more than almost three quarters of all contemporary literary "fiction" stories are written in first person.  Admittedly, it is, after all, the easiest and most natural way for a human to tell a story, but for a large number of stories, it is not the most effective path to great, memorable fiction as an art form.


This is an excerpt from the essay, "Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer," by William H. Coles.

MORE.  To study more on 1st person POV, read the essay "1st Person POV in Literary Story," by William H. Coles







Rapping on the Teaching of Creative Writing Editorial Opinion


Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010
William H. Coles


The backbone of writer failure may well be the inability to learn and/or the lack of opportunities for beneficial study.  This may not be the fault of the writer.  There are few resources to learn fictional prose story telling that is memorable and significant.  Consider these learning sources:

1) Learning in writing groups is the blind leading the blind through a maze of bear traps and landmines.  No one would believe a group of briefly educated humans who wanted to be neurosurgeons would get together weekly to discuss the experimental surgery they have been practicing in their garages and basements.  Yet, both surgery and writing require study with experts as well as knowledge learned from many intellectual and skilled disciplines over many years.  Writing groups, plump with inexperience and discordant ideas, are almost never of any useful value to the serious writer.

2) Learning in organized workshops is the carpenter teaching musicians with hammers and saws to play Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio.  Even in high profile traditional workshops, teachers are rarely capable of developing the special talents of an individual writer to achieve creation of an art form (a fictional literary story).  Fundamentally, there is no right way that is applicable to all.  As a result, many teachers use the wrong tools for the wrong job, and their teaching is little more than useless for the dedicated fiction writer.  At worst, the incompetent teacher can, and does, inappropriately humiliate and discourage a talented writer in the workshop setting.  And these incompetents often descend into dogmatic pronouncements that stifle understanding and creativity.

(3) Learning from popular textbooks on fiction writing, which–with a few significant exceptions–are often writing efforts of poor writers with teaching appointments or responsibilities who write the learning of fiction as Lego instruction, with rigid rules and inflexible actions, like assembling a bicycle from parts while reading a fold-over slip of paper with fine-print instructions–and a diagram–on Christmas morning.  Some of these authors write texts composed of famous authors' stories with personal, short, subjective-value comments, but with little to no insight into a writer's process.

(4) Learning in MFA programs is not of guaranteed quality, and may not just be mediocre, but detrimental to a writer's improvement.  MFA programs, many hastily formed by universities, colleges and organizations to maintain relevance and solvency, often hire teachers untrained as educators, and untalented as writers, to teach creative writing. This practice  results in suppressing understanding of the complexities of the art of fiction and the vibrant essence of great story telling.  More than a few traditional programs are so inbred by tired, untalented teachers choosing and supporting unimaginative writers like themselves that the writing from these programs takes on a clone-like mediocrity that brands its origin.  By default, these educators promote teaching of scholarly nonfiction and pop-culture memoir as fiction, without the quality of story writing equal to that of imaginative fiction.

Creative writing programs labeled as "academic" emphasize lyricism over drama, often prefer obscure to clear prose, and mistakenly believe that a lack of understanding by a reader is the desired result of their own "writer-intellectual" superiority.  They teach revision as grammar and syntax, metaphor and oxymoron-excessive prose, rather than the dynamic and suspenseful expression of the desires and conflicts of characters about whom the reader has come to care, like, or at least respect through the story. Some academic workshops digress in education by students sitting around a table with eyes closed and holding hands for long silent periods in the hope that images and words will float up from the unconscious to write about, like images sought in a Victorian séance to communicate with the dead.  Some highly acclaimed academic workshops spend a week policing manuscripts for point of view inconsistencies, while the needs that should be addressed are imagining effective story structure and learning how to build memorable characters through meticulously crafted, interrelated, character actions in dramatic scenes.  In some workshops, a teacher presents a personal memoir story, and then details how to turn it into fiction by shifting the time line and changing the prose emphasis of certain events, teaching that might well derail a student's progress in learning to write their own great fiction.

Academic workshops and courses also fail to demand a writer have a thoroughly understood purpose for writing a story as well as, on a construction level, all the prose elements of that story.  This results in picking at prose when the writer hasn’t decided what  he or she is really writing about, and how  he/she will achieve a story purpose.  It is almost unarguable: Failure to find and build purpose in storytelling makes coherency of a prose fictional story with effective characters, plots or emotional arcs, unlikely.  And it is not uncommon that the poorly educated, poorly trained teachers who are allowed the privilege to teach creative writing are guilty of:

(1) Ignoring emotional character development for the ease of plotting from life experience.

(2) Accentuating the cute, the bizarre, and the shocking (which have only temporary effects on value in story telling).

(3) Failing to develop author understanding of the human soul, its flaws, and what really is responsible for its strengths.

(4) Ignoring the value of sophisticated narration.

(5) Thinking that lyricism alone can sustain great story effectiveness.

Quality fiction as an art form has especially suffered from the high-profile, traditional MFA programs where graduation almost guarantees publication of the work generated in the program.  The published work is rarely quality writing or storytelling.  Once published, eager, unaware readers perceive literary fiction as obtuse in meaning, boring, and with pseudo-intellectual ideation.  Many dedicated readers have turned away from reading literary fiction for enjoyment (and agents refuse to try to sell it),  while the authors from these programs read to fellow graduates or a small group of readers who admire writing credentials and rationalize that the quality is better than it is.  The detriment to fiction as an art form has been significant, and for the writer seeking to achieve their personal best, MFA programs can permanently derail that possibility.

With so few valuable or easily-accessed resources for learning available to the fiction writer, only one reliable way to learn emerges.  Each writer must discover from those authors who have gone before, what it is about the writing of a successful literary art form that will be useful for their own careers as contemporary writers.  It's not just copying a favorite author's style, either.  It's mastering understanding of knowledge, intellect, the environment and opinions (and attitudes) of the author's times; the emotional complexities of the author that affected the writing; the associations with other writers (Examples: Bloomsbury group, Shelley’s Swiss mountain writing buddies), and the effects of societies' mores (Examples: Austen, James, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Forester, Chekhov, Flaubert).

Authors need to be curious.  How did they do it?  Then, what can I learn from them so I can do it?  How can I, based on what I've learned from others, create fiction that engages, entertains and stimulates thoughtful responses about human existence?  One key question has to be addressed repeatedly with each work studied: What were these authors' purposes in writing?  One dominant purpose persistently stands out for all:  to tell a story where something happens that is meaningful and entertaining to the reader.  And without exception, successful fiction writers write to please a reader, not all readers, but specific readers seeking enjoyment through reading.  Now, the beginning writer must learn, not only how to construct sentences and paragraphs, but how stories and the creation of stories in the prose medium can be best crafted to please a reader.  It's the way they imaginatively form and narrate a story.  The craft of prose, although vitally important, is secondary.

This is an excerpt from the essay, "Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer," by William H. Coles






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