Posts Tagged ‘creative’

Imagination and Creativity in Literary Stories: A Guide for Writers Article About Writing Better


Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
William H. Coles

Imagination used in creative storytelling is the essence of literary fiction. Memoir is remembering and describing factual events. Traditional imagined literary fiction is ignored today–mostly for financial reasons–by publishing, publicity, literary-agents, literary-prize choices, and inadequate teachers of creative writing resulting in blurred barriers between memoir and literary fiction. As a result, the quality of both memoir and literary fiction has deteriorated in artistic achievement, impact, and memorability. Great literature is a cornerstone of cultural advancement and contemporary authors have responsibility to society to learn and create literary fiction and memoir to the best of their ability.

It must be noted great memoir does employ creativity in the describing, in the presentation, and the prose manipulation. Literary fiction, however, uses imagination in creatively building characters uniquely related to the story being told and creatively integrating characters and plot with a structured story created with a purpose to engage, entertain, and enlighten a reader through imaginative artistic creation. Learning the skill of effective characterization is essential to lasting success for an author of literary fiction.

To create great characters that vitalize motives and desires in purposeful plotting, authors must create by:
1) structuring stories, whenever indicated, with beginning, middle, and end.
2) creating mystery and suspense to sustain reader engagement and enjoyment as essential to allow reader to see the world in new ways from reading the story.
3) engaging the reader with credible and acceptable character thoughts and reactions that relate to being human in addition to reflexively reacting to situations.
4) creating scenes through conflict, action and resolution (dramatic) that show characters’ essential qualities and relate to overall story-plot purpose.
5) instilling believable and consistently changing motivations.
6) identifying core desire(s) that drive a character’s action in the story.
7) using effective narration to show story to the reader through images, effective metaphor, tightly constructed plot progression, and character and story related action.
8) writing in-scene “showing” (concrete) in proper balance with narrator telling of story (often abstract). In-scene showing adds an aura of truth that story could happen in the world established by the author and allows a reader to become involved to discover meaning unique to them.
9) allowing only judicious use of fatalism in plot construction; instead, depending on revelations of human strengths and weaknesses in shaping lives to provide energy for story progression and resolution.

To create successful characters, authors must think before they write. Scenes within a story–and the story itself–are units composed of interrelated parts. It is not sufficient to start a story and see what happens word by word, scene by scene, without a thorough knowledge of the whole story. Many authors pride themselves in discovering story as they go along as allowing the creative process to flourish, but imagination deserves better application to literary storytelling. Authors must not default to writing that is quality-deficient by defaulting to unfocused hyperactivity in their writing and proudly rejecting the need for experience and training in writing and storytelling, an error that bathes an author in hubris about their own authorial value as a human being and their creative abilities. All that happens in a great literary story comes from an imagined structure and formulation of related ideas before writing. Of course, every writer’s efforts relate to who they are and what they know. But that knowledge is used to stimulate imaginative use for story purpose. And imaginative changes in great fictional stories occur with both writing and revision, and changes are perceived before change as affecting and improving the whole, not camouflaging an errant part of the writing or just filling story space with extraneous ideas and images thought to be clever intellectual output of the author but unrelated to story.

Study of artistic creation can clarify an author’s approach to creating quality fiction. Look to the visual arts. To create a great oil painting, an artist does not blindly retrieve colors from a palette obscured from vision then apply random brush strokes to any surface that is handy. An artist has to have purpose that translates to some idea of the final product and how to achieve the form and appearance of that structure.

Literary stories are like sculptures too. Consider how a Rodin-like sculpture might be made. To start, the sculptor has an idea of what is to be created—a nude male athlete, a woman holding her dying son, a lion. Sketches help adjust the overall early conceptualization of the final artistic product. A model is often constructed over a wire structural support and clay is added for form and detail and before drying, the model is molded, added to, or parts removed. Casts are made of the model. Bronze heated to liquid is poured into the casted mold, cooled to harden, and the mold removed to reveal the final sculpture that is refined with subtle smoothing and polishing. Not infrequently the result may not be right and the artist must start over again to avoid tinkering to make better a poorly conceived and executed project too impaired in the creation to reach required perfection.

This way of thinking is ubiquitous in artistic creation. Think of Michelangelo as an artist purchasing a block of Carrara marble. He did not awake one day, grab a hammer and chisel, sit down at the kitchen table while the kids were watching TV in the living room, and begin to chip away at the block to see what might emerge. He knew what he wanted . . . he had a plan. It’s sad that many writers force writing on schedules to fulfill their need to be a writer without a concept of a whole story, what the story is about, or why it is being written. These writers claim creativity is stifled by structure and imagined concepts but it is almost always a rationalization for their lack of ability.

Writing literary fiction of lasting quality needs the author to be aware of the creative process of accepted creators of art forms. Authors of fiction must hone the concept and purpose of story before writing begins; imagine what action will result in effective characterization, identify conflicts, mysteries, suspense; establish a timeline and prioritize story information in a logical and synergistic way.

In life, great architectural structures of beauty and usefulness are not accomplished by picking up random material and any tool available by the builders on their way to work that day. Why do most contemporary authors write driven by the will to succeed as a writer rather than creating works of literary art that will pleasurably affect other human beings with enjoyment and enlightenment? In reality, a rote process of ritual writing without purpose or destination, or without imagination or creativity, results in inferior artistic attempts. Art, including literary fiction, is not work for the artist but a proud accomplishment of imaginative achievement, and definitely not a random collection of disparate ideas and memories.

Writing literary fiction of lasting quality requires awareness of the process of imagination and structure. Authors of fiction must hone the concept and purpose of story before writing begins; imagine what action will result in effective characterization; identify conflicts, mysteries, and suspense; and establish a timeline and prioritize story information in a logical and synergistic way.



Engaging a Reader in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
William H. Coles

Engaging a reader is crucial for a good writer.  It is a complicated process with different levels of engagement that require different skills and talents.  A story about a truck running through a guardrail and caught so it is suspended above a concrete slab two-hundred feet below, with driver and passenger trapped in the cab and bleeding from wounds, grabs the attention . . . a level of engagement.  There is curiosity about the outcome . . . a level of engagement.  For some readers, there might be fear when imagining the worst outcome . . . also a level of engagement.   This engagement is responding to circumstantial information about an event.  The prose is a description of what actually happened.  The engagement is similar to a comic book or graphic novel.  Images are stimulated by prose.  There is intellectual curiosity about what will happen and how the dangerous predicament will be solved.

In addition to images formed, engagement in this scenario may also be dependent on syntactical dramatization within the prose itself, clear transfer of ideation from author to reader, and the degree of importance to the reader about the information delivered.  It is journalistic in the sense that the reader is being told what has happened.

In writing a memoir, this journalistic type of engagement and reader responses are much the same.  A memoirist is intent on describing people who lived and experienced events and felt what they felt.  It is historical information described and positioned so drama is created by description of conflict and the positioning of information, so tension is generated when story information is presented to the reader.

In great literary fiction, reader engagement is different from journalistic (creative) nonfiction and memoir prose.  Fiction may be stimulated by past events and characters who lived; but the story-prose of literary fiction is created to engage the level of the responsive reader to lock the attention with minimal deviation, and to stimulate the reader to sympathize with characters, and at times be involved emotionally to a degree beyond the emotional involvement other types of fiction elicit.  The reader who enjoys literary fiction wants to know what will happen to a character they know well through intense characterization.   Involvement is less description of what happened and more what might happen.  And although there are created, journalistic-style circumstantial events in all fiction, the elements of created emotional conflicts and advancement and resolution of feelings have the prime impetus to move plot in literary fiction.

In addition, to achieve maximum engagement of a reader, characters must be credible; they must seem real; all happenings must be logical for story and plot; and all information about the story and characters must be reliable, or if not reliable, the reader must be aware of the unreliability and not puzzled or unsure.  Level of achievement of these goals in the story writing is proportionally related to engagement and satisfaction of a specific reader.

Engagement of a reader at this level also demands meticulous narration so the reader is always aware of who is telling the information and that the narrator is consistent for the context so the reader engagement of attention and emotion in the story is not broken.

Nonstory-related ideas and opinions must also be eliminated from the prose to prevent breaking the dream of involvement that fiction can evoke.  And errors in writing, such as wrong word choice, fuzzy or inaccurate metaphors, or grammatical errors must not be present.  Equally important for great literary fiction, the story and the characters must seem real–that is, to exist or be able to exist in a reader's mind–the very reason that book covers often contain the blurb "based on a true story" or "based on the life of ———."

John Gardner popularized the idea of a fictional dream into which the literary reader is immersed.  It is valuable, but only partially true to the involvement that certain readers have in great fiction.  Great fiction provides new perspectives — like looking into a stereoscope and discovering a three-dimensional change in the photo; being caught in an unsolvable,  dangerous dilemma . . . between a rock and a hard place and the space is closing in; in need of resolution of a longing or desire; and almost always in need to solve something–a puzzle, or a mystery, or an enigma.

Engagement of a literary reader by a literary author in a great literary fictional story is extremely difficult to do and is rarely achieved by the millions of writers who attempt it in various degrees.   Most writers default to nonfiction or genre fiction, often with impressive successes.   Unfortunately, great literary fiction cannot be created without adherence to the basics of what literary fiction has accomplished through engagement in the past.  Even more significantly, writing good genre fiction and memoir and thinking it is, and promoting it as, great literary fiction will fail to meet the expectations of the literary reader, and the writing will come off as inferior and boring.

The goal of agents and publishers is to make money.  Great literary fiction well written does not have blockbuster potential in today’s marketplace of diminishing serious readers of great literary stories for engagement and enlightenment.  Wouldn't it be great, for those readers still enjoying great fiction, if one or a few publishers were to emerge who are willing to accept reasonable profits and publish accomplished writers writing great literary fictional stories that engage readers with intensity and emotion?



Style of Writing and Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Monday, January 4th, 2010
William H. Coles

There is a common belief that the best literary writing style is invisible to the reader.  This has a fundamental, but not all-inclusive, truth to it.  In writing great literary fiction, the reader should be engaged in the story in ways that leave no mental space to consider the writer's style type or quality.  Yet the style of writing and story telling should register with readers so that at the end of the reading, they  know they've had special, unforgettable reads that are unmistakeably due to the author's style, personality and skills.

Style is a way of using language and forming an effective, pleasurable story.  So, style really is everything a writer does in creating:  thousands of ideas and choices; hundreds of associations and comparisons; myriads of opinions, images, feelings . . . all dependent on the writer's intelligence, experience, education, memory, imagination and creative integrity.  Writing great literary stories is creating as only you, the writer, can, from the uniqueness of your personal existence as a human, and your time in the existence of all humanity, that contributes to a specific conscious era of thought and abstract reasoning.  It is the opportunity for writers to create their own style that provides fresh ideas and beautifully original stories – only they can create – for readers.

Almost all writers succumb to the influence of successful writers before them.  Reading the works of an author, appreciating the style of writing, and then incorporating that writer's style in your own writing is not, however, the way to achieve memorable, great writing and storytelling.  A careful reader will always feel the impression of another author in the writing, and publishers mistakenly feel that marketing blurbs such as, "He writes with the grace of Chekhov, the perception of Cheever, and the bite of Flannery O'Connor," will convince a reader they are about to experience  a great writer.  Not at all.  Such comparisons may sell books to readers who love these authors, but it is not a valid signal for that great literary fictional story, uniquely created, that will be remembered by many for generations.

Writers need to strive to find expression of their own individuality in life on the page and in their story telling.  That is where excellence is achieved, reader pleasure  generated, and memorability instilled.  And it does not come from copying the style of a favorite author.  The opposite, in fact.  The influence of another author can be so dominant that some authors do not read when they are in the creative process.  An author reading Flannery O'Connor, for example, especially if the author likes Flannery O'Connor, can shove the writing process and product into "the style" of O'Connor.  This, when perceived, even subconsciously, by a reader, is never useful and destroys the uniqueness of a writer's style for greatness and sustainability as a great piece of writing.  Of course, in learning, writing in the style of a favorite author is essential to develop as a writer, and a writer should be able to test the effectiveness of a story or a passage or a line of dialog by practicing writing the passage as he or she might imagine other authors would approach it.  But in the final work of art, the style must be created from the core of a writer's individuality . . .  his or her unique style.

Aristotelian thinking applies here.  Historians, he said, write about what has happened.   They describe the past.  Writers (the poets) write about what might happen  next.  These are the imaginative, dramatic creators of great literature.  It is in creating what might happen that the literary fiction writer develops that unique, enjoyable, informative style that fertilizes greatness.

William H. Coles





Great Fiction Is Creative, Not Intuitive: Getting Started Article About Writing Better


Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
William H. Coles


Story in fiction is special.  For the right story – one that is remembered and passed on to future generations – fiction is the best and most uniquely imaginative way to deliver a story.  But few contemporary writers write fiction created in the imagination for maximum lasting story effects on the reader.  The trend is to tell you, the reader, about me, the author, and the trend erodes the longstanding value of great, well-written and engaging literature.  As a result, there is little doubt the literary fictional story is disappearing and readers who love good fiction can only turn more and more to rereading the classics.  There may not be a cure to the defection from reading great fiction, but a possible vaccine would be for writers to write enjoyable stories well enough to be remembered.

There are differences between a writer and a storyteller that can be synergistic, but not ignored.   A writer often writes and uses story to suffice the urge to explain what happened; a storyteller needs to make his or her story interesting, entertaining and enlightening, and uses the process of writing to create imagined scenes that will best suit the reader.  The writer needing to write searches for inspiration through soul-searching until she or he finds something in their background to write about; the storyteller searches for the best way to form and narrate the imagined story – with a purpose – that she or he can’t wait to create on the page.

Among the reasons contemporary writers don’t produce great fiction are:

  1. Faulty thinking about story
  2. Fiction that ignores the valuable complexities of fiction
  3. Laziness that defaults to intuitive writing
  4. A cathartic need for writers to write about themselves

With any one of these failings, the easy, noncreative approach to writing a story often emerges and the writers fall to description and telling rather than imagining and showing. The resultant prose is more memoir or autobiography than fiction, yet it is accepted and published – and read – as fiction, dulling the reader’s expectations of what real fiction can achieve.   There must be a purity of purpose to please the reader.  The storyteller discovers a story idea and then begins to create a series of scenes with vividly imagined characters to entertain the reader and change the reader’s way of thinking.  This creative prose is literary fiction.

Often, it is easy to tell intuitive writing in the first few sentences.  It is often first person, with the usual character/narrator/author separation collapsed into one – a memoir descriptive style.  Here are examples of various styles and different narration . . . some intuitive “memoir” based subjective fiction, and others closer to creative objective fiction.  Note that objective fiction is neither void of emotions nor boring.  The opposite, in fact, occurs as emotions are expressed in action, rather that telling, for more impact.

A scenario.

A writer has been fascinated by his or her  grandmother who delivered the writer’s mother out of wedlock, and whose father was never disclosed by the grandmother or known by the family.  The writer researches the circumstances, remembering family comments and opinions.  The writer has been disturbed by the effect of an unknown father on the mother and believes it is the  reason for her failure to achieve in life that later resulted in depression and dementia.  The writer sits down to tell the reader about the events and the emotions.

 General comment.

The fiction writer in control of his or her craft might well look at this scenario with these thoughts:

1. There needs to be more significance to the premise that withholing the identity of the father caused mother's decline.  Possibilities.  The mother (child of grandmother) has a serious geneticly transmitted defect with looming physical or mental manifestations that need to be identified for some action or treatment.  Or, the grandmother does not know the father because she was promiscuous and ashamed.   Or, the grandmother was raped by a serial killer and the family wonders what lurks inside them (probably too much but could be toned down for effectiveness, that is, the father could have done something seriously wrong without illegality – maybe something morally wrong).

2. The scenario, as it stands, especially if delivered in first person POV, is inherently sentimental.  There needs to be objective narration to filter out inevitable sentimentality.

3. The time line is a problem.  Grandmother’s conception, delivery, silence and then the family's worries decades later.  Chronological, in-scene narration will give a story covering decades.  If back story is the preferred technique to deliver information, story telling will become awkward because of what the narrator can know and not know. Decision needs to be made early to be effective.

4. Story idea may be, or at least border on, cliché.  To be effective, innovation in plot progression will be needed to keep fresh and original.

5. Always a thought of incest in this situation.  Needs early decision to rule it out or keep it as  a possibility.  Exposition of the information will be tricky no matter what technique is used.

6. The writer might try to use third person, with a distinct objective narrator telling story at time different than author real time – keeping the author out of the narration, but establishing credibility and reliability for the narrator.  Which characters will be used for internal reflection will need to be established early.  Which character will change, and be responsible for valued enlightenment, needs to be established.

7. Overall conflict needs to be defined as well as conflicts for each scene.

Here is a story-start.

Grandmother was crusty even when she was young.  She was sixteen when she delivered mother and her hair was the color of harvest wheat in the sunshine that waved in the breeze of my great grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania in the late eighteen hundreds.  The delivery was in her bedroom, with only her mother and a neighbor in attendance.  How afraid she must have been so young, but she never talked about the birth, or the pregnancy.  And when my mother arrived, and as she grew up, grandmother treated her with a distant sense of obligation, void of doting and barely associated with maternal pride and love.

Comment.  Accept, first, the awkward exposition, overwriting, telling, and poor writing in general.  Then carefully note the narrator.  At first glance, this might appear to be third person narration.  Actually it is first person without use of “I”.  This is immediately established in the first sentence.  The narrator is communicating directly to the reader, and the narrator is related to characters.  Later there is the use of “my.”  The narrator is probably the author.  With this established, note how difficulties pop up.  Much of the detail is almost surely conjecture – fear, never talking about birth or pregnancy.  How can the narrator know she never talked about it?  How she felt in the moment?  The narrator is loosing credibility because the writer has failed to choose the most effective narration for this story.

Another story-start example.

I am independent and secretive, but not to the extreme my grandmother was.  She never let on to me or anyone who fathered my mother, and I prayed, even at bedside when she died, she might reveal my grandfather.  Who really was he?  What had he become?

Comment.  This is using the “I” protagonist as a “narrator” to tell the story.  It will be limited because the narrator is limited to her or his world, and the reader must decide whether to trust this “I” . . . Is the story credible?  Is the narrator reliable?  The question will loom: Why is this POV chosen if it is not memoir, or written from life experienc?  If it is not fiction, the story may be limited in effectiveness.

This next example.

I’ll never forget my mother’s face the night grandmother died.  Grandmother had never divulged who fathered mother, her only child.  And my mother had been haunted by the insecurity of her unknown genetic heritage.  As grandmother lay conscious, but near death, I knew my mother prayed for an answer to her often asked question.  But grandmother passed quietly, without a word, and I could see the anguish on mother’s face.

Comment. The purpose of this passage seems to be exposition of the mother not knowing her father.  The “I” narrator here is awkward because it ignores the opportunity to dramatize with action and conflict a scene perfect for the talented writer to make an impact on the reader – and without sentimentality.  In this opening paragraph the writer (who is again the narrator and the “I”) is asking the reader to sympathize with the mother.  But there is nothing earned.  Nothing happens, and there is nothing for the reader to attach to and legitimately feel when the writer asks for belief in the “anguish.”

 Another story-start example.

The old woman lay motionless under crisp white hospital sheets, only her shriveled face visible with dusty gray hair splayed on the pillow.  Her mind was sharp, she  refused to speak, and she could hear every word, even in the corridor and the next patient's room.

The younger woman, an only child, had been by her mother's bedside for days.  She didn’t care really; she had grown to despise her mother over the years.  Now, glaring at her, she suspected her mother could hear her, and hated her for refusing to acknowledge she was even there.  This would be the last opportunity to know who her father was.  Her mother knew, had always known, and here she was at that moment when truths should be flowing, still refusing to divulge it.  She would try to convince her to speak now.  What difference does it make? she would say. Why not speak just the name, so that all the questions she and her children carried with them, laden with fear and guilt, could be justified or cleared up?  It took only a name!  Why can’t you do that?

Comment.  This is in third person POV using both characters inner thoughts as told through a narrator, who is probably created independent of the author (but by the author, of course).  It begins to set up conflict, yet it does not engage the reader as much as needed.  This could be improved by some interaction and responses, improved setting details, and  effective, expressive dialogue, maybe with an additional character.

Last example of a story-start.

I was with mother in the room where granny died.  I don’t think Mother did not care she was gone.  At least the expression of her face didn’t change.  Granny had never revealed mother’s father, my grandfather.  She was stubborn to the end, although we all believed she knew exactly who it was and probably where he was if he were still alive.  Mother’s life had been irrevocably changed by the mystery, and after Granny’s death I could see she still failed to find her self worth, always wondering what half of her genetic heritage had done to her.  So I determined I would find out.  Learn the truth, to give my mother a chance to enjoy her later years.

Comment.  This choice of narration pushes the reader away, although the author would believe the intimacy – an illusion, really, of intimacy – will entice the reader to read on.  But there is a glaring lack of dramatically developing conflict with this approach, often as a result of some egoistic urge in the writer, that continuously brings the focus back to the “I” when the real story is between mother and daughter – or whatever is chosen, children and mother, mother and new lover, etc.

Summary

 The lessons are plain.  First, none of these beginnings really succeeds.  Not enough thought has gone into them.  Second, certain essentials must be kept in mind.   Story ideas have to be good – as original as possible – and weighted with significance.   Choice of narrative technique is critical for story success, and first person POV must be used sparingly when it might lead to memoir description of life experiences, which can thwart development of some effective fictional stories.  Finally, stories require creative imagination; stories need to be thought out before writing; and stories must have dramatic conflict.

Writing the fictional literary story is not easy, but the rewards for reader and writer are maximally satisfying.


Additional resources: Narration1st person POV, Interview with Lee Martin.



Literary Fiction Needs Writers Who Care About Story Editorial Opinion


Thursday, October 8th, 2009
William H. Coles

These are tough times for literature. Fewer humans read for pleasure; publishers seek a true story, usually with salacious innards; and writers have lost the art of entertaining through a prose fictional story.

Literary writers shun the advantages of fiction

In truth, contemporary literary writers mostly write for themselves.  They are a fraternal bunch, obsessed with the clever metaphor or the strident oxymoron, intent on telling the reader about meaning rather than allowing a story to reveal significance, and searching their own existence for material.   These writers find readers who are like themselves, like poets at a slam, and they have long ago turned away those readers who enjoy a great story well told that is meaningful and unforgettable. In contemporary writing, stories progress based on shocking turns in the plot, overwrought voice, and faulty ideation that results from writing from experience. Rarely does the contemporary story evoke enlightenment in what it means to be human.

At the core of the problem is intuitive writing.  Many contemporary writers, even those who are published as fiction writers, are often writing memoir, autobiography or creative nonfiction as fiction.  This blurs the value of true fiction that entertains the reader and demonstrates, through story action and character development, significant enlightenment about what it really means to be human.   Contemporary writers frequently use the “I” protagonist—it is intuitive and easier to write since it depends on description of events, often from experience, rather than creating an imagined story.  But it is ego dominant and detracts from substantial character development.  These writers tell stories they’ve experienced as they would tell the story to themselves, unable to create a story in the dramatic ways fiction has developed over the last two centuries.

How does the talented literary writer achieve purpose in a literary fictional story?   Admittedly, it’s like trying to capture butterflies with chopsticks.  Here are only a few essentials:

  • There must be a quality idea for a story.
  • The story must be thought out thoroughly before writing.
  • Action dialogue and setting in story are imagined as the story is constructed, for maximum effect on the reader and for remaining true to story quality.
  • The story is written as a matrix of emotions with related details added, each with a clear purpose for story beginning, middle and end; a story is not details thrown one by one into a still-water pond to see what will happen until the author loses interest.
  • Enlightenment should come from story action, not narrator or author telling.
  • Emotions should be embedded in in-scene action, not told with abstractions and modifiers.
  • Characters must grow with a logical progression of actions, emotions and thoughts that are essential to the story.
  • Characters should be credible, if not likable.
  • The reader must be allowed to believe in characters, setting and plot.
  • Stories should be structured on a clear timeline.
  • Stories should have a series of dramatic scenes that are interrelated.
  • Characters should have identifiable emotional progress and change.
  • Characters must have believable choices and freewill (no fatalism).
  • A story should have an unanswerable metaphysical question. This may not be expressed, but it has to be embedded in the development.
  • Narration of the story must not be authorial, but it must be in control of the author.
  • Something has to happen, and the ending must have some significance.

This is said assuming a writer has mastered craft and style in ways that provide energy, momentum and drama (conflict, action and resolution) to the writing.  Unfortunately today, craft and style that contribute to a good story and solid prose fiction are not strengths of many contemporary published authors.

Fiction as an art form needs sharp definition.  Fiction allows prose to produce the most enjoyable and memorable stories.  To continue to label other forms of legitimate writing as fiction will continue to rebuff readers who read fictional stories for pleasure; it will also fail to attract readers to prose as a pleasurable way to meet their story needs.



Creating Effective Dialogue Article About Writing Better


Saturday, August 22nd, 2009
William H. Coles

 

Dialogue seems difficult for many fiction writers.  To be effective in fiction, dialogue must serve more than one purpose.  Characterization, plot advancement, revelation of emotional states, advancing imagery, providing movement to story, marking a timeline and introducing conflicts to be solved are just a few objectives.  Take a simple example of a snippet of conversation that occurs in real life.

"Would you like some sushi?"

"Yes."

This is unacceptable in good fiction.  It is flat, useless writing.  If, indeed, the purpose for the story is to indicate the acceptance of sushi, a more effective way of making the point might be narrative:  She took the sushi.

But there is also opportunity here, depending, of course, on context, what has come before, and what will come in the story and the prose.

"Would you like some sushi?  I prepared it myself."

"My Grandfather was tortured on Okinawa."

A lot is now happening.  The giver has positive emotions and is offering a special gift, which would indicate a liking for the recipient.  The recipient has a dislike for the Japanese, because a relative was tortured (even killed, maybe) during the Second World War.  Time is indicated in that two generations have passed.  The recipient seems unreasonable in the response.  And the response is not logical, given that sushi is a food, and not a product of, or related to, participants in World War II.

This is taking advantage, primarily, of characterization, and indicating emotional valences in the scene.  It locks in a time period.  But there is another aspect of dialog that is useful and relates to drama.  It is the most often ignored opportunity, and the most often needed for story momentum.  It is conflict.

In real conversations, conflict is avoided as the easiest way to get through life.  But in creating a fictional reality, readers need conflict for interest and for movement and knowledge that the conflict action and resolution will deliver.  For example:

Real conversation.

"Look.  You'll hit the ball to the green if you line up more to the left and bring the club back farther."

"Good idea.  I'll give it a try."

But in fiction, the response has to be different.  It has to have purpose to be dialogue rather than conversation.  So the answer might be:

"Bring the club back farther."

"I've tried that.  It never works."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Your back-swing isn't so great."

Or . . .

"Bring the club back farther."

"Who the hell are you to be giving me advice?"

If this type of dialogue does not work for the story, then almost always the purpose for the attempted dialogue segment is better expressed in narrative, or even internalized in character thought.  The point being that poorly conceived and written dialogue on the page is deadly for story and style.  And if an author is simply describing dialogue from an imagined or real event, the advantages of created dialogue with a purpose in a fictional story will be lost, and the story will not reach its potential.

So much of fiction today is memoir based in conceptualization – a first person narrator telling what happened to them is common – that it is replacing creative fiction that is created for the enjoyment of the reader, rather than the pleasure of the author, and that grows from the techniques of structure, imagination and meaning.  The unhappy result is that great dialogue seems to be a diminishing accomplishment among authors.

Here are examples of dialogue from classic literary novels that multitask purposes in dialogue in the story's best interest, are enjoyable, and are alive.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

"Now he is here," I exclaimed.  "For Heaven's sake, hurry down!  You'll not meet him on the front stairs.  Do be quick; and stay among the trees till he is fairly in."

"I must go, Cathy," said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion's arms.  "But, if I live, I'll see you again before you are asleep.  I won't stray five yards from your window."

"You must not go," she answered, holding him as firmly as her strength allowed.  "You shall not, I tell you."

"For one hour," he pleaded earnestly.

"Not for one minute," she replied.

"I must–Linton will be up immediately," persisted the intruder.

Wow.  Note how the use of reversals, surprises, and opposition are employed.  And the insertion of will-it-happen? when he says, "But, if I live, I'll see you . . ."  And the conflict and action.  A great on the page performance.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"But who did he tell it to?  You and me?"

"And Porfiry."

"What does it matter?"

"And, by the way, do you have any influence over them, his mother and sister?  Tell them to be more careful with him today . . ."

"They'll get on all right!" Razumikhin answered reluctantly.

"Why is he so set against this Luzhin?  A man with money and she doesn't dislike him . . . and they haven't got a penny, I suppose?"

"But what business is it of yours?" Razumikhin cried with annoyance.

Again, reversal, conflict, opposition, emotions emoting, and information flowing by.  Dialog can do so much when written well, the information and ideas to be expressed well chosen, and the use appropiate for the time and happenings in the story.  There is also application of a general useful rule:  Try not to answer questions, especially with definitive answers.  "Do you like it?" followed by "I like it," does not work well.

 

It may be easy to see the worth of the examples, but difficult to know how to apply the ideas to your own writing.  When reading fiction for pleasure, look for flat, uninteresting dialogue that stops story momentum and breaks that unique fictional dream that envelops the reader.  Then you might imagine how, using the information already presented, you might create more dynamic dialogue that works.

Great dialogue is rarely inherent in writers and requires practice and attention throughout a career.  Without exception, for great literary stories, effective dialog, well written and tastefully used, is essential.

WHC



Reevaluating Student Critiques in Creative-Writing Workshops Editorial Opinion


Wednesday, August 19th, 2009
William H. Coles

Students are not experts in how to write literary fictional stories, yet student critiques are, to different degrees, a major part of almost all creative-writing workshop experiences.    In these workshops, students are given the opportunity to act as experts making comments about quality of writing and what is needed for excellence.   Some might argue that critiquing is essential for learning, but for unaccomplished critiquers to critique beginning writers in workshop settings is not a valuable activity for anyone.

There are many reasons to avoid student-critique based workshops.  To start, student critiques may have detrimental effects.  Students often give vague or wrong advice about how to master the difficult art of creating a great literary story.  Frequently, students judge work on what they like or dislike about a story.  This approach can easily be perceived as personal criticism of the author, rather than the manuscript, that is hurtful.  This is so common that many writers dread in-class evaluation of their manuscripts.  (The valuable critique is whether the author achieved what he or she was trying to achieve, why or why not, and how should his or her goals be adjusted.  This requires objective evaluation by experts, not students.)

Over the last few years, another negative aspect of student critiques has developed.  Some  students attend workshops for the opportunity of a forum for their ideas and opinions about writing.  These students have little desire, talent, or passion to become good writers, and they  find joy in being allowed to enter a student-teacher relationship without qualifications.  These critiquers are often wrong about facts on the page, often fail to read the works of others carefully, and are often poor writers.  Yet, they frequently express destructive comments about subject matter and process – particularly narration, POV and drama.

To make matters worse, there is the natural tendency for students to form cliques that bolster confidence in speaking out, but this increased confidence often results in unjustified and inaccurate observations about a student’s writing that are rarely effective, and, at times, are hurtful.  These cliques can be subtle, but are quickly established as friendships and attractions develop in workshops.

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Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops Article About Writing Better


Friday, January 9th, 2009
William H. Coles

Although creative-writing fiction-workshops vary greatly, the general format is a student manuscript critiqued by fellow students under the direction of a leader. Exercises generated from prompts may be added (at times, workshops may focus exclusively on exercises and omit manuscript review). Required reading of famous authors may be discussed, but this is surprisingly infrequent. Lectures are rare:  didactic teaching is replaced by a loose Socratic method where questions to students may be abstract – "What did you think of this?" – or based on personal preference rather than writer improvement – "Did you think the serial killer was a sympathetic character?” Student readings may be allowed for short periods, typically around five minutes. Readings by faculty and known authors are common, but rarely do they present effective fictional stories.

The predominance of workshops for teaching creative writing has not improved the learning opportunities for students seeking to write imagined, significant stories that provide enlightenment and a very special enjoyment for the reader. Improvement is needed in how workshops are structured and how they are marketed, to assure students of a valuable education. Presented below are principles and rationale that need to be adopted and advertised to better train the serious writer of literary fiction.

1. No student critiques.

Students critiquing manuscripts rarely contribute to improving the skills of the writer whose manuscript is under scrutiny. Personal taste in topics, character types or settings frequently is the source for comments generated from students and is not helpful. Many students cannot create a well-written work of fiction, and they will grab one rule they think is the key to improvement and apply it relentlessly to their critiques. This results in comments such as, “Outrageous deviation from point of view here,” or “Narrator intrusion! Delete!” In other words, students tend to apply a cherished, self-satisfying rule without understanding the complicated process of writing fiction.

Invariably, students’ critiques make the writer feel bad and inadequate because students (untrained and often unsuccessful in writing) tend to be inaccurate and unfair in their perception of why they think a story doesn’t work for them.

Students also tend to be competitive; they want to succeed in being the “best critiquer” (perceived as harsh) and compete by comparing the manuscript under discussion to their own writing and dissing anything that does meet what they are creating – an attitude that justifies (and they think glorifies) their own work. This often results in meanness, which is never helpful.

Student contributions to fellow writers are most valuable as alternative ways to accomplish a clear purpose to the writing, and to improve and assure pleasant and positive effects on the reader. Leaders must direct comments to be constructive without condemnation, and should be experienced, and trained, in conducting a workshop. There should never be, even implied, a this-is-wrong attitude to teaching that is so common in today’s workshops.

Careful vetting of student’s work and experience is essential before being accepted for admission. Alternates should be selected to fill in if a student must cancel his or her attendance.

Workshop participants need to be diverse in thinking, age, education, background and gender.

2. Emphasize fictional story.

Workshops must emphasize writing story and creating fiction (imagined) rather than encouraging descriptive prose of personal life experiences or opinions. Emphasize story structure, emotional arcs, core character desire and character driven plots – plus, and most importantly – effects on the reader. Instructors should deemphasize right voice and consistent tone, while stressing the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and suppressing the latter. The curriculum should also systematically present major skills of fiction writing:  clarity, momentum, conflict, dialogue, transition, timeline, pacing, objectivity, narration, and others.

3. Eliminate ineffective gimmicks and prompts.

Gimmicks and prompts are rarely effective as techniques for initiating and sustaining the writing of great stories. Fiction must thrive on discovering something to say, then using the written story to create emotions and intellectual enlightenment in the reader. Prompts and gimmicks do not do this well. Almost always, prompts call for descriptions of characters and events from experience, which results in telling, not showing, and supplants fiction with memoir. Of course, reality can, and often does, stimulate the best-imagined fiction. But reality should not be the source of a fictional story; a fictional story has the imagined elements that provide the dramatization so important in successful fiction. Writing from experience alone hinders drama, blunts conflict and restricts meaningful resolution; so prompts that depend on personal events should not be encouraged. Instead, seek emotional motivational elements and core desires that are at work in a personal experience, discover what these elements and desires might contribute to a story with significance and meaning, and then learn how to structure the story from the imagination for maximum effects on the reader.

4. Temper the importance of the craft of prose.

The craft (skill in doing something) of prose should be an essential part of workshop experience, but should not override the importance of structure (story, scenes and prose elements). Leaders must strive to teach easy-to-read, momentum-packed prose, and always tie prose into a definitive story-purpose for everything that goes on the page.

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The Devil in Literary Contests Editorial Opinion


Thursday, January 8th, 2009
William H. Coles

Writers desperate for recognition need to face the reality of contests as an increasingly common source of income for magazine publishers. For an active writer, yearly costs to submit work to contests – rapidly becoming the main way for new writers to get published – can mount to hundreds of dollars. No writer knows the value of this expense:  there is a disturbing lack of transparent disclosure of contest motives that seem more profit oriented than a means to attract good authors. The contests have an aura of lotteries, and writers are forced to gamble with buried, fixed odds. There is no reliable way to determine the chances of winning or getting published. This will discourage writers, and threaten prose as an important, but beleaguered, resource of great fictional stories.

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Save Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion


Sunday, January 4th, 2009
William H. Coles

What has happened to the literary fictional story? Where can a reader find imagined stories structured as a series of dramatic, often in-scene, events? Where are the stories that entertain and enlighten and show us what it means to be human? What has happened to rich fictional characters immersed in a consistent morality, with at least a touch of hero, and objectively rendered through sophisticated narration? Maybe these stories are not extinguished, but certainly they're hard to find. Publishers want profit, and contemporary readers seem to seek gossip in the reality of memoir.

It is not reasonable to argue that short and long literary fiction are evolving, and we have not lost anything, only seen change. Good fiction has been replaced by memoir and creative nonfiction often labeled as fiction. This is not evolution. Great fiction is imagined, structured, and has a story with a beginning, middle and end . . . elements memoir and creative nonfiction use differently or ignore. It is inescapable; equating memoir techniques (let me tell you what happened or this is my story) to fiction techniques (this is a story created for your enjoyment and enlightenment) is relentlessly extinguishing literary fiction. (more…)




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