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How do unsuccessful novel writers build houses?

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

You get a backhoe and dig a BIG hole. You back up a cement truck and pour three BIG mounds of cement. While cement hardens, you cut down two giant oaks, strip the leaves and throw the trunks with limbs in the big hole on top of the cement. You pour, 100 gallons of glue, a quarter ton of bolts and nails, five porcelain toilets, and three bathtubs. You add 800 light bulbs of various sizes throughout the growing muddle. You mix three hundred gallons of paint in different, preferable incompatible (noncliché) colors, and splash the paint at random over all you’ve assembled. Let the mess simmer for five months during a horribly hot summer, if possible. Add 3800 roof tiles–no need to remove from the packaging. Voila! A house.

Whats the point? Authors of literary stories need to be in control of their thinking and their imagination and then create story by mastering the elements of fiction prose and storytelling. Here are three of the important ideas to conquer:

*Structure–beginning, middle, and end.
Writers need structure, an overall outline that directs happenings, action, emotional arcs, and prioritizes ideas and timing of information transfer. Literary stories have images and movement that are delivered logically structured on a timeline. Author ideas and thoughts generated by chance and randomly applied to story, no matter the quality of idea or thought, are not as effective as imagined elements structured into coherent, logical web the supports story momentum.

*Purpose.
Fiction writers need altruism and must: not write for fame and fortune, not write to be published to claim “author” at social gatherings, but write to engage, entertain, and enlighten readers by creating and telling a story well and building characters specific for story understanding and meaning.

*Creativity and imagination.
Writers need to imagine and create, not remember and describe. Imagination for fiction does not come from sitting alone in a dark, sound proof, unheated room until memories emerge from author life experiences like sea creatures from a peat bog. In fiction, scenes are imagined that move the plot, build characters consistent with the timeline, and relate to purpose and theme of the story. Authors who default to their own worldview and life experiences often fail to reach advantages of imagined fiction available to the world beyond self.

*”The Miracle of Madame Villard” is the story of a boy on a mission to find a cure for his dying mother. Set in the 18th century France, the story and all elements of story are imagined. You can read it online free.
http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/original-stories-william-h-coles/the-miracle-of-madame-villard/
The Miracle of Madame Villard


If you find these ideas ring true, WOULD YOU SHARE THIS POST? LITERARY (character-based dramatic plots, theme and meaning, unique characterization) FICTION (imagined) needs writers who train in traditional successful literary techniques. I’m trying to spread the word.

You could SHARE THIS LINK too for original story examples, essays, interviews, a workshop, and illustrations. storyiniteraryfiction.com. (free)
And thanks.

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Why is narration perspective important? Isn't understanding point of view sufficient?

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

Great memorable fiction stories that pass to future generations for learning and enjoyment are quite rare, and the authors who create such stories have unique and varied attributes as writers. What separates the great fiction writer/storytellers? One trait seems to drive great writers to create great stories of significance and sustainability. Look to Austen, Homer, Forster, Conrad, Flaubert, Chekhov, De Maupassant, Babel, Melville, Hawthorne, Munro. The great storytellers, with few exceptions, wrote selflessly to engage and entertain a reader and the quality of the story produced significant enlightenment about living and being human.

Lesser writers seem intent on fame and fortune and the seriously mistaken belief that to be great, instinctively writing solely for the catharsis, aggrandizement, and ego of the author is sufficient. These writers create literature-of-self that often ignores the in-depth understanding of humanity; broad objective incorporation of the world outside an author’s worldview; a respect for a reader’s gracious exertion in reading by striving to entertain the reader; and striving to provide new thoughts about human existence in the world we live in.

Memoir, autobiography, authorial dominated “fiction,” and creative non-fiction all have contributions to literature, but the imaginative created literary fictional story reaches unique excellence in significant storytelling. Understanding the complexities of narration and developing narrative skills by learning and practice are an important start on the path to great fictional storytelling.

Readers benefit from knowing what is true, credible, and reliable in the story world. Narrative perspective guides the reader’s understanding and emotional acceptance, and involvement in the literary story, and allows eventual comparison and application to the reader’s real word existence.

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A Wannabe's Guide to Literary Fiction Success

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

How can a wannabe become a literary fiction writer? Traditional commercial print publishing is becoming less reliable source to find readers of literature and online publishing has yet to establish what the future will provide for authors. Still, the future is clearly becoming the present when the internet can provide a writer’s works’ content free or at low cost to millions of international readers instantly, an opportunity never before imagined. Will those authors similar to Chekov and Flaubert and Melville, who have given us lasting literary fiction, emerge today through traditional, costly, inefficient print publishing or through the new internet channels–without middlemen and profiteers– that may have greater potential for recognition and even profit in the future?

If you look to the internet as the prime way to establish yourself as a literary fiction writer, consider these guidelines:

*Learn to write prose well.

*Learn essentials of good storytelling.

*Write with a purpose to your writing that does not include adoration and acceptance. Write for your readers’ pleasure and enjoyment; adoration and acceptance will come through your honest, selfless approach to your writing.

*Publish online—(opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of readers instantly).

*Make fame and profit secondary to engaging, entertaining, and pleasing readers you target and respect.

*Build confidence in quality of your work by submitting to contests and journals, but don’t take rejection as proof you don’t have readers waiting.

*Teach others selflessly. It establishes you as a writer.

*Use, but don’t rely on, traditional publishing when opportunity presents. Don’t succumb to giving away your talent, especially exclusively, for others to profit if you can establish large readership volume that can potentially make you money without working from inside the prison of corporate and private publishers for free or royalties at an unfair percentage of gross income from sales.

*Accept that working as an author to be read and appreciated through the internet will soon make the scorn of not being accepted in the world of traditional publishing with inflated and inaccurate sales records as the measure of your fame and success obsolete.

Although a majority would probably disagree that literature survival will never depend on traditional commercial publishing, the world is changing. Stories in prose will be less expensive, and readers will have unlimited access to writers’ works. And to struggle to scale the barrier wall of publishing houses (and academia) will soon be a humorously decadent way to fail in a writing career.

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Effect of Discursive Narration on Literary Story

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

Narration of literary fictional stories today allows wide latitude for authors on technique and style. Traditional, successful, memorable, literary stories depend on strong imaginative characterization, dramatic plots with conflict and resolution, and identifiable purpose for the story being told so some enlightenment occurs about the human condition gleaned from the story presentation. In the past, stories were structured for momentum and engagement, and there was careful attention to story logic and credibility for the story world created. Authors wanted to please readers. Prose was dedicated to accurate use of the language, attention to the advantages of correct grammar within story context, and readability with acceptable punctuation and rhythmic flow. But this storytelling has faded.

Contemporary writers have little or no conscience to follow traditions in literary storytelling. Stories with beginnings, middles, and ends are becoming less common and fiction has shifted to memoir about authorial self with a few falsehoods to be called fiction, simple character sketches, or description of events-happened with journalistic rigor void of imaginative influence. Authors reject dramatic conflict at all levels of story delivery for character development and story pleasing plotting. And even in fiction, the author often dominates the storytelling with subjective intrusion rather than using an objective narrator or character delivering balanced credible story and character detail in dramatic scenes. Descriptions of people or events that happened does not produce the same effects on readers as creative imaginative storytelling that engages, stimulates, enlightens, moves, and entertains.

Contemporary writers commonly default to discursive rumination for the major portion of “story” delivery, a technique that may divert attention, meaning, momentum, or understanding of authorial purpose for the story. And when using discursive rumination, authors will often abandon story to soliloquize, seek authorial catharsis, or proselytize.

Modern writers often restrict storytelling to first person point of view and narration. This places limits on internalization, credibility, veracity, size and quality of world view available to the narrator, and expansive imaginative writing. Not all stories are suited to first person narration, and the quality of fiction published and available to read has dwindled.

The message is not trivial. Many contemporary readers enjoy modern “literary” writing dependent on discursive rumination, but the true value of literary story development with imaginative structure and characterization is often lost. The writers careful to avoid obvious authorial dominance and intrusion in the storytelling add imaginative and meaningful enhancement to their work that authorial dominance and intrusion does not allow. Of course, authors are always present in some way in a literary work of fiction, but the most effective authorial presence is transparent, like a hint of mint in a pitcher of tea, the touch of orange/red diffusing through the blue sky above the horizon just before sunrise, the sound of an individual cello in full orchestra . . . sensations present and enjoyed and always gently and uniquely pervasive . . . but never rife.

Readers preferring traditional storytelling seem to reread the classics today. Traditional literary fiction is being written, but it is rarely accepted by agents, editors, and publishers; as a result, great stories in the traditional sense are not available and as a culture, we are losing an art form, a loss that diminishes the creative heritage of our generation.

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Letter to a Student: Career Advice

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

Dear Patricia,

I've made no comments on The Tangerine Affair, a delightful story that you've presented very well. To critique it would imply something is wrong with the novel or the writing. Consider your novel finished. Put it away or send it out. Don't tinker with it anymore and give full attention to your next work. As your career progresses, you'll change and you'll look back at this as an early piece and you might find things you would have done differently. But that's okay. That's what making your career as a writer is all about—continuous improvement. Don't get trapped into endless mostly useless adjustments of completed work when your talent should be focused on new, exciting projects.

As you move on into the next stage of your career, remember these principles in writing fiction we've discussed. Does something happen? Too many stories get stuck on musings, internalization, or lengthy descriptions or subjective opinions. The result is static prose fiction.

One technique overused is authorial treading water. Things like. "He wouldn't have done this on any other day. He wasn't that sort of person. And he wouldn't have looked at Leonora the way he was now. That would be out of character." OR "No snowflake is the same. That's what he'd been told. Trillions of snowflakes and not one like the other. Well, those little unique devils were falling at this very moment, and he stuck out his tongue to catch a few and let them melt. They all tasted the same! (Nothing happens here. And the sentences don't build character sufficiently or advance plot at all.) Treading water is a common way for bad writers to fill up a page when the words and thoughts have no clear relation to story.

Is the timeline clear? Look for stories fitting into a recognizable timeline that progresses logically and fits to story length, style, and content. In general, you can't tell a saga in two paragraphs with success. And it's difficult (even though tried fairly often) to put a few minutes of story time into a full-length novel. There are subtleties, learned by practice, in thinking about a timeline that fits a story that the writer should be aware of for his or her specific story.

Are emotions primarily shown rather than told? Find places where the impact of a character's emotion on the reader can be enhanced by concrete action. For example. "She cried." (A nonspecific general statement, rather abstract, and could be boring in many contexts.) What if something like this were done? "With her head down, her eyes hidden behind her hands, she choked back a sob to hide her pain." [Not great. But note the specifics. A try for imagery too. It does improve the reader's experience by showing . . . providing more for the reader than telling in generalities such as "she cried." Showing takes more story time and is not always the best choice when uptempo story pacing is needed; still, when appropriate, action to express emotions should be considered.]

Is the pacing right? Pacing is a rhythmic sense to the writing that makes reading and understanding of story and prose easier. Ask: is the writing well paced? Are the events well paced? Are even the emotions changing in the story well paced? In determining pacing, it's helpful to think about importance to story and characterization and amount of time spent on a segment. (I think you'll always do this naturally.) Is a point where action or emotional shifts are too slow or too fast? Are there illogical plot deviations? Is there a clear progression of happenings in the plot and subplots and does every action have a purpose in the story. Don't succumb to deviations from story no matter how well written you think a deviation is.

CAREER ADVICE

Patricia, you've progressed very well in the tutorial, and I hope you'll continue to focus energy and passion on developing the career you want. Everyone is different in what they desire, what they can achieve, and the ways they'll use to be successful. But here are some thoughts I hope will be useful, thoughts to help you make your decisions about what to do and how to do it your way.

Who you are as an author? I see writers with two different motivations. First, writers want to be published, famous, make a living doing what they like to do. Second, they want to become the best writers and storytellers they can become. This striving for excellence is a lifelong endeavor for those with talent. But writing solely for fame and wealth can work against writing to write great stories to please readers. The need to be famous, or even present oneself at a cocktail party as a "published author," can consume one to a point where the desire to be a great writer writing excellent fiction is buried. In reality, few of us will be famous or rich from our writing, so it is important to not let the desire for recognition keep us from always improving, force to market, and impel us to embellish our worth and success in embarrassingly inappropriate displays. Not to be too discouraging, the quest for being really good but never letting recognition dominate our career can be the most rewarding goal if we can keep ourselves in balance. We have to erase any trace of narcissism, and look to selfless dedication to the creation of writing fiction as an art. Surprisingly, for many, striving for excellence can bring the fame and fortune we all want and have every reason to persist in obtaining as long as it doesn't injure our quest for excellence.

Be confident. Believe in yourself. But always strive to keep getting better. Don't rest on admiring what you've done, and don't let obstinate arrogance erase any chance of your being recognized as a good writer.

Rejection. About your fear of rejections. I hate rejections and negative comments about my work. We all do. I have had hundreds of rejections for short stories, and been turned away by more agents and publishers than I care to remember, but I've learned never to believe a rejection is proof that I'm no good. All writing affects people in different ways. Every writer has a readership. The trick is finding those readers. And while you're trying to find your readers, don't let a rejection make you feel bad. Rejection probably means your searching for publication success in the wrong places with the wrong people. I've approached agents and paid for individual conferences with editors and agents at a writer's conference, for example, to be rejected and discover the agents had a "complete" list and were not seriously looking for new clients. Even more perturbing, many of these agents attend the meeting for money and free travel. And there are thousands of other reasons for rejection. It doesn't fit the goals of the editors, subject matter isn't liked, too tragic, I-like-happy-endings, etc. All things that have nothing to do with you the writer. So never take rejections from from the majority of agents, editors, and publishers to heart. Send work out expecting rejection, and accept that most rejections fail to address what you're trying to accomplish for your specific reader. In the main, submit, expect rejection, throw rejection out of your mind, form a new plan, and move on.

Publishing: a rapidly changing industry in decline. Commercial publishing is in a mess. Books are too expensive. Fewer people seek entertainment and information in print. And publishers have a poor reputation about their selection and treatment of authors whom they often abuse. It's hard for an author to get recognized, picked up, and promoted. Many literary fiction works are published through who-you-know, word-of-mouth, cronyism, favoritism, etc. with little or no regard for writing or storytelling quality. An agent at a writer's conference on a panel to discuss publishing said: "You'll never get published if you don't have a platform [usually meaning fame, even notoriety, in a career different than fiction writing]." She continued, "I've just taken on an author who wrote a biography about his investigations that won him a Nobel prize. The topic was hot and time sensitive. But he would only accept me as an agent if I would publish his novel. A dreadful novel, but I wanted his sellable biography. And I sold his novel to obtain the biography." It was a discouraging revelation (outrageous really) about the state of commercial publishing (and integrity of agents) for the writing and reading of quality fiction. For fiction writers, finding a commercial publisher is harder than for other forms of writing.

But if traditional publishing is the way you crave to succeed, you'll do best by getting to know people who will refer you and introduce you. Of course write query letters, but consider composing and sending out queries is time consuming, and very inefficient. And today, the prominence of the internet is opening amazing possibilities for getting your work read and finding your readers, even while looking for a traditional publisher. The internet has not gelled into a predictable medium for writer's yet, but it's getting there, and I'd look at that possibility if you have time. For many, use of the web to distribute work is still not considered "legitimate" and may not deliver the personal satisfaction of having a traditional publisher (for some, even small ineffective houses suffice), but the internet can be unbelievably successful for having your work enjoyed and recommended. It takes time to find the possibilities that are best for you, but you may want to explore as many as possible.

All the best in your career. You're doing great and I know you'll achieve what you desire! And thanks for participating in the tutorial. It's been a pleasure to work with you.

All the best,
Bill Coles

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Frequent Failures of Contemporary Writers: Story and Character

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

Workshop Question

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to  accomplish something?   William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short  story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What  are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their  lives.   Let me know what you think?  

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this.  It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds.  The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery. 

 For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader through the channel of story and characterization , and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking.  The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten.  Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way.  Do contemporary fiction writers create stories?  It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve rarely had frequent pleasures in reading Trevor especially, or even Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events (even imagined) and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV.  But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for many modern reader and author temperaments. 

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source.  I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human.  They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and mainly in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov.  It’s not that they just lived in the past.  They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again. 

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness.  There is an acute need to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots.  Academics is failing to teach great sotrytelling and even adequate writing skills defaulting instead to “write about yourself and what you know” and encouraging “innovation” (especially in the short story).  Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and, I would hope, find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve.  The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and, like singing opera, writing sonnets, telling tales effectively, it would be a shame if the art form is forgotten and lost.

 

 

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Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

Question submitted to workshop.

In a short story, is it NECESSARY to have the character on a mission trying to accomplish something? William Trevor and Alice Munro have so often been cited as masters of the short story form, and often I can't figure out what their characters are "up to." What are they trying "to do." It just feels like they show characters living their lives. Let me know what you think? (Submission anonymous)

Answer

I admit I come with a very narrow aesthetic sense at this. It’s story that makes me warm and fuzzy, stories where something happens and the characters are unique and fighting with often inadequate skills against insurmountable odds. The contemporary short story seems to have settled into character sketch with narrative description, or heavy dependence on event description based on a “real” “made-up” person or remembered happening supported by lyrical prose usually without action, seemingly without purpose, and very inconsistent on effective imagery.

For me, fiction is communication between two human beings, author and reader, and I believe successful connection is best achieved with the ability to please the reader with fiction techniques and purposeful thinking. The fictional story is created with a purpose—to engage, entertain, and enlighten. Characters need to have desires that fuel motives for action when the character is presented with a conflict and characters need to have the will to try to solve a problem and make change in some way. Do contemporary fiction writers create stories? It’s rare. They simply tell stories part-real or imagined. I’ve never had pleasure in reading Trevor or Munro; as you’ve pinpointed for yourself, I’m not fascinated by narrative description of past events and told emotions of characters as if a reader is forced to watch reality TV. But I feel it’s heretical to say so, and hasten to say my views are in a minority and probably archaic for modern reader and author temperaments.

I don’t believe fiction is a good medium for missions that imply “I’m going to tell you how to do something or believe in something,” and are usually authorial in source. I like characters, with the reader by their sides, solving problems so both reader and characters learn something, even if subliminal, about what it means to be human. They learn mainly by doing, feeling, discovering–in the story present mainly—and primarily in scene, not by an author telling of past events and lives described from the author’s present life and worldview.

It’s damn near impossible to write stories like Babel, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Conrad, O’Connor, or Chekhov. It’s not that they just lived in the past. They were able to create stories that built character and conveyed something interesting through action that a reader had not thought about before, or at least enjoyed exploring again.

I believe that every author ought to strive for exactly that past level of quality stories—for the sake of our generations’ stories surviving in the collective human consciousness. And I have a mission: to bring back great fiction techniques in contemporary stories that are created by authors whose talent thrives on knowledge of the human soul expressed through character-based dramatic plots. Deep down, humans in the near and distant future will thirst for knowledge of what folks were like in our lives and find out in the ways only creation through fiction can achieve. The fictional story is an art form, this creation through fiction to describe human soul in our time, and like singing opera or writing sonnets, it would be a shame if the art form is lost.

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Becoming an Author

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

I write scientific papers and textbooks, so I thought my dream of writing a famous fiction story was little more than a modest veering from my career path.  I wrote a few short stories for practice to a point where I was comfortably convinced of publication success. With no expectations of failure, I signed up for a writing course at a college with a credible reputation for publishing a respected literary journal. I workshopped where fellow students critiqued my story with, in retrospect, almost zero insight into creating fiction.  But I meticulously incorporated all the student-workshop comments as corrections into my manuscript, and expectantly sent off my story to the college's literary journal, my workshop attendance dates (in bolded italics) informatively placed at the top of my submission cover letter to assure success.

Five months and twenty-two days later, my response arrived. "Your story does not meet our needs." was printed on a four by three inch slip of buff paper, and on the back hand-scratched in pencil were these words: "You have no concept of what a story is, or what a story can do." I was depressingly discouraged–well, in truth, I was hurt and devastated.  But I soon rallied.  I assumed that my story, indeed my talent and intellect, had been sorely misread. I'd get an agent!

Agents, it turned out, failed to see my potential.  I would do better writing a memoir about my teenage struggle with psoriasis, or a love story with breast-feeling detail.  And true gold was in children’s and YA stories that any editor would buy sight unseen. But why deal with agents?  Unlikeable really.  I needed new direction.  I would deal directly with editors, convince them of my quality and talent, still woefully unappreciated and unrecognized.

I went to a writing meeting where conferences with editors were offered and was amazed at my success. A senior editor at one of the top two publishing houses in the country was assigned to me!  Now we're talking.  He advised me with us both sitting on opposite sides of a three-foot-round overstuffed ottoman in a overcrowded hotel lobby–impossible to sit side-by-side–where we both had to look behind us to carry on a side-mouthed conversation. He said he had read my submission on the elevator on his Android.  "We got to get you published," he said. "Try Anstel Aster Hodman."  Holy Cow!  I'd been on the wrong track for so long.  Agents were the way after all.

Next day, my work went Priority Mail to my new friend, Anstel, who responded by email in no less than fourteen hours–obviously not needing time to craft a carefully worded rejection. Great! He knew of my editor . . . but . . . had never met him . . . and . . . he didn't take on fiction of my type for his "list."  Frequent failure loomed. Anstel would make no recommendations and repeated emails over many months to my most-cherished editor-connection went . . . well . . . unanswered.  I felt spammed.

Twelve months later the yearly electronic alumni newsletter of my Midwest college published my now abridged story (required as being outside the five-hundred word limit) and my church-diocese monthly bulletin did a review.  I wasn't flushed with pride, but that did not stop me from tweeting, "Published at last!" with no specific details.

 

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Memoir Is Not Fiction

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.

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Workshops on the Novel: Rules for Teachers, Guidelines for Students

Editorial Opinion
William H. Coles

After prolonged in-depth analysis, it is clear that in contemporary fiction workshops that teach novel writing, the teaching of novel often competes unsuccessfully with short story, memoir, and creative nonfiction and teachers almost always fail to provide students with skills, attitudes, and direction to mount their best efforts to write a successful literary novel.  To improve the value of fiction novel workshops, teachers need to improve, and students' expectations and willingness to learn difficult and complex ideas needs to be upgraded.

PART ONE: RULES FOR IMPROVING TEACHING OF A WORKSHOP ON WRITING A NOVEL

1. Teachers should not teach novel writing if they haven't written a successful literary novel. 

2.  Never teach literary novel writing in cross-discipline workshops.  Novel writing is it's own challenge, requiring special skills.  It is unfair to suggest to students that they will receive what they need in workshops teaching other disciplines such as memoir, short story, journalism, or genre simultaneously with the novel.

3.   Teachers should critique only entire novels in any stage, or sections of novels where novel has been at least completely conceptualized.  It is no value to other students to hear teachers flounder around a student's beginning efforts.

4.  Do not use unsupervised and unrestricted verbal or written student critiques for teaching fellow students.  Student critiques are often based on value judgments not related to creation of a novel, and often the remedies suggested by students are wrong for the individual writer who may not be at the skill level to sort out or effectively use students’ dictums, edicts, and ultimatums.  As a teacher, remain in control of the workshop teaching.  Instruct students on the techniques and skills needed to write a novel.

5. Do not simply direct student discussions on what they feel, or like or dislike, as if the workshop is a book club in the suburbs.  Use students for assessing clarity of the prose, logic of plot progression, credibility of character traits, and assessment of writer achieving goals.  Allow students to be constructive with alternatives but not negative by pointing out perceived mistakes.  Only the teacher should present specific ways to improve writing and storytelling prioritized for the student's talent and progress in fiction writing.

6.   Teach how to structure a novel.   The concept of a writer not knowing where he or she is going in a novel is harmful to almost any writer.  Many academic teachers take pride in this concept, and, it is true, that in teaching short-story fiction writing, it may be useful to discover a story structure as the writing progresses . . . but not the novel.  Structure generates dramatization, consistent characterization, and writing with purpose to discover meaning in story.  Thinking and teaching structure is essential.

7.  Provide, in every workshop, didactic lectures on how to develop character and plot, to create momentum in a prose story, to instill conflict, motive, and desire in prose fiction, and to organize the writing process to be effective.  Lectures are preferably by the workshop leader independent of plenary lectures.

8.  Teach elements of fiction in every class: structure, narration, word choice, metaphor, humor, morality, syntax, punctuation, pacing, attribution, antecedents, logic, credibility, suspension of disbelief, titles, name choices, effective prose, and others.

9.  Teach about how to effectively chose, emphasize, and balance, modes of fiction for the story being effectively written: diction, plot, characterization, imagery, theme, POV and voice.

10.  Provide in every workshop a discussion of one or two classic novels, read before class as assigned, that demonstrate the skills of novel writing, and novel writing specifically, that you want to teach.

11.  Teach only those concepts to students that will bring out the unique and individual talent of the writer.  Do not teach how to change a student's writing and thinking to create what you feel is the great novel, the way you write, or what you've been taught is good.  Teach what will bring a writer to good story telling and effective prose with well thought out ideas and vibrant prose.

12.  Provide a detailed teacher's assessment of submitted work.

13.  Do not critique student's first chapter or segments of novel as you would teach a short story.  (A short story is a complete work of art, not a fragment.)

14.  Do not teach memoir writing disguised as fiction.  The wonders that fiction can produce for the receptive reader cannot be achieved by memoir or creative nonfiction.

15.  Provide individual conferences with students.

16.  Do not allow student opinion of other students' writing.  Keep discussions objective and not opinionated.    As a teacher, control every aspect of the teaching experience and keep that experience focused on craft and storytelling improvement for the writer, not on the student critquer's abilities or needs for attention.

19.  Teach to identify purpose for everything written.  Every element of writing and every idea expressed should have a considered, well thought out story-related purpose.

PART TWO: ADVICE TO STUDENTS ABOUT CHOOSING WORKSHOPS

Don't depend on academic credentials as a judge of teacher competency.  Being an English major or having an MFA rarely if ever provides what's needed to teach the complexities of writing–or the process of teaching–a successful literary novel, which must have the often arduous, pleasing, informative–and sometimes painful–experience of creating a successful literary novel.  Find teachers who are good writers, storytellers, and teachers.  There are very few active great teachers who are also accomplished novelists.  But if you're a serious novelist, find them.  (And they'll rarely be in academic settings.)

Attend novel-writing workshops to improve your writing and storytelling, not just to correct a fragment of a novel or other manuscript you've completed and submitted.  To present 5000 or less words of a novel you're working on does not provide even an experienced teacher enough to provide you with specific valuable learning of the skills of great novel writing.

Do not attend a workshop "in novel"  that teaches memoir, genre, journalism, creative nonfiction, essay, and/or short fiction.  Best learning is in workshops that teach fiction novel writing.  Workshops dedicated to the novel are becoming rare, primarily for teachers' needs to fill workshops for income.

Go only to workshops where the instructor provides: 1) didactic lectures on quality prose writing and craft of fiction with handouts, 2) individual student conferences on writing, at least one thirty minute conference, a conference that must be scheduled before arrival and not as catch can, and must focus on improving your writing, not publishing, nor on agent-getting.  3) avoid workshops that depend on student critiques that erode teaching of fiction novel writing..

Require teachers to teach prose skills, characterization, plot, and story.  That is their responsibility, not just to oversee and direct student discussion.

Do not go to workshops where socialization, publication success, and networking goals are placed above novel creation.  Evaluate, usually best by word of mouth, the goals that exist for teachers and students.  Many teachers are at workshops as a break in their daily lives.  Teachers may party in the evening, be proud of alcohol (and occasional drug) consumption, play poker or basketball to the wee hours, take side trips to tourist locations.  All when preparation for the next day's quality teaching session is, although time consuming, essential for good student learning.  Novel writing is hard to learn and takes time, and if you're serious, don't dilute the value of the time you spend in frivolous pursuits, even if enjoyable, or by studying with unenthusiastic, distracted teachers.

 

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