Posts Tagged ‘Literary Fiction’

Searching for Literary Fiction from Goodreads


Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
William H. Coles

Who knows what literature is? Few, I would guess, and probably not many care? For many, literature equates with boring, archaic, inaccessible, verbose, and most modern fiction authors seem to fail at quality stories achieved by past great literary writers. Remember The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Wings of a Dove, A Passage to India, Wuthering Heights, A Simple Heart, The Scarlet Letter, and so many others? Much contemporary fiction seems to fade before the ink dries.

If you carefully examine differences in what has persisted as literary fiction from the past and what is being written today, interesting similarities emerge from techniques that made great writers.

Great literary fiction is often character-based. With loving care, characters are meticulously molded to engage a reader, and to induce wonder as to what will happen. The character is complex with strengths and weakness that drive the plot, or at least direct plot turns and advancement. Great literary stories always have the essence of dramatic momentum at every level of the writing and storytelling. Drama is conflict, action, and resolution, honed by imagination, talent, and intellect.

And equally as important, great literary fiction has theme and meaning. It may not be always in-your-face obvious and need not always be defined, but somewhere, something is gained from literary fiction about what it means to be human struggling in a seemingly random, unjust, and chaotic existence. Some enlightenment of both characters and readers must occur and must not be contrived and described by an author but instead must emerge through story and characterization.

I wish the goals of contemporary writers included writing fiction with intensity to bring great storytelling and writing to readers of today. Great literature needs to be created along the lines of those who built the tradition and value of fiction.

What do you think? Are there readers still searching for fiction based on established techniques of the past, or is the enjoyment and sustainability of literature as an art form doomed to extinction?



The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor from Goodreads


Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
William H. Coles

No matter your opinion of Flannery O'Connor's collected work, discovering the author's life will bring you to new understanding through this collection of O'Connor's letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald.

O'Connor, a devout Catholic in rural protestant Georgia, remained unmarried, became seriously ill, and died at an early age. Writing was her life. Having the privilege of knowing O'Conner's mind–her thoughts, her fears, her doubts–will forever change your reading of her works and may even mystify you as to the loyalty of her readers and the sustainability of her stories. A reader's gem.

A writer's resource. And every reader's fountain of empathy for a life lived.



Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question Editorial Opinion


Saturday, September 7th, 2013
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.



Why Should a Serious Fiction Writer Use Second Person Narration? Article About Writing Better


Friday, December 28th, 2012
William H. Coles

More than a few editors see stories with second-person narration as trendy these days.  You enter the church; you kneel at the altar.  You stare into the downcast eyes of the statue of The Virgin, and you wonder if she's listening. Some readers accept this without question as good, and innovative writing. 

Others find it irritating.  Rob Spillman, Editor of Tin House, said: "I have a pet peeve against the second person that I call the second–person accusatory: 'You are walking down the street.'  I go, 'No, I am not walking down the street!'"[1]  Spillman reflects the views of many.  Using the second person the author constantly confronts the reader assuming the reader will react positively, presumably thinking the reader will be drawn into the story, but requiring increased suspension of disbelief (for narrator credibility and accuracy) for the reader to actually enjoy the story.

David Lynn, Editor of the Kenyon Review, recently presented [2] an erudite explanation of the use of second person in a story he was proud to have selected for publication.  “Ezekiel” by Segun Afolabi.  It starts:

You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. You see their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. You cannot count how many people are in the boat, but you estimate at least thirty, perhaps forty. When it lay near-empty you couldn’t imagine how all of you would fit inside. But here you are, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies. “Move your leg,” the woman beside you says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition—six or seven months, you think. You couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. You wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then you remember—it will be roughly only one week before you reach dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.

Mr. Lynn confesses usual dislike with the use of second person as a narrative choice but provides a number of interesting observations on second person narration, ideas that may be held by many academicians.  (Quotes extracted from David Lynn's analysis of "Ezekial.")

The second-person narrative successfully emphasizes his lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making. The “you” sets him apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.

“You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other.”  Such syntax could, of course, be a sign of mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill. Or, as soon becomes evident in this story, it may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation.

So the awkwardness and confusion of the language heighten the nightmarish qualities of the scene itself.

In reading the story I soon realized that the author is indeed marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.

Mr. Lynn points out many other aspects of the writing to admire.  But these extracts provide insight to second-person narration that impressed and pleased him as an editor. (See article.)

At the core, Mr. Lynn's admiration specifically saw use of second person providing:

1) Second-person narrative successfully emphasizes author lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making.
2) the “you” sets the author/narrator apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.
3) Mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation.
4) Awkwardness and confusion of the language heightened nightmarish qualities.
5) Author marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.

For creation of classic literary-fiction stories (it is true, "Ezekial" seems to be a memory-based "fictional" story), a number of essentials need to be considered to reach memorability and acceptance as great writing and storytelling: clarity of the prose narration, solid imagery that stimulates and engages the reader's imagination, clear ideation, unique and sophisticated character development with some reversal of thought and understanding, theme and meaning, and providing entertainment and enlightenment for the reader.

In second-person narration, there is a barrier set between the author and the reader.  When "you" is used instead of a first person or third person pronoun, there is little accumulation of valid characterization because the "you" is unanchored in an identifiable narrator, and the reader becomes dependent mostly on narrative description since internalization, action, and dialogue are now attributed to a hazy unidentifiable story presenter.  And it is often unclear, whether the author is using "you" as a singular entity, or to a "plural you," which would suggest an even more diffuse identification of who the story presenter is, and more than a little author arrogance in believing that all the world will believe as he or she does.  And, as Mr. Lynn points out, there is, with second person use, a lack of narrator control of the story.  However, for great fictional stories a strong identifiable narrator presence in control of the storytelling is almost always an advantage.

This issue of unclear narrator eroding characterization is best shown by example. 

Second person

You are insecure about Helen's meaning.  You see her raised eyebrow as questioning your authority, so you pull the trigger.  You are pleased at the puzzlement in her last look.

Almost surely the reader won't relate to this pronoun . . . accept responsibility for the "you's" thoughts and actions.  And if the reader accepts the convention of "you," characters fail to take on form and personality; the reader is left floating in a confused, awkward telling of a story and knowing of the characters involved.

First person

I'm not sure what Helen meant.  But her innocent look inflames me, and I pull the trigger, happy to see the surprise in her eyes as the life goes out of her.

Third person

He does not know Helen's meaning.  He is incapable of understanding a soul so trusting and pure.  Her pleading gaze he takes as mockery and he pulls the trigger; he smiles at her stare of surprise and disbelief as she dies.

In both 1st and 3rd person, action and thoughts allow the reader to know a character, a feat essential for good fiction.

Marginal writing aside, in these variations using 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person narration, 2nd person does not allow any assumptions as to how the narrator felt or why he or she acted.  Both 1st and 3rd person support the storytelling better.  It is hard to imagine storytelling situations where the failure of understanding the choice of narration, the clumsiness of the prose and syntax required, and the inability to use 1st or 3rd person would be an advantage.

Here is a version of the first two paragraphs of "Ezekial" with the only change of replacing the "you" pronoun (and adjusting tense where necessary) with a third person pronoun.  No other alterations are made.  Study the differences.  Evaluate the "obscurity and the awkwardness" differences on the effective imagery of this story in the original and the altered. Where does second person work or not work for you, and why?  See if there are things to learn about your own fiction writing and storytelling. 

He sails at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. He sees their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. He cannot count how many people are in the boat, but he estimates at least thirty, perhaps forty.  When it lay near-empty, he couldn’t imagine how they would fit inside. But he was, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies.
     “Move your leg,” the woman beside him says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition—six or seven months, he thinks. He couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. He wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then he remembers—it will be roughly only one week before he reaches dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.

Second person use with past tense is natural where a character or the narrator address another character and it is made clear to the reader.  [I know exactly what you did.  You climbed the tree to see the nest and you pushed the fledglings out!]  But if the narrator is addressing the reader with the "you" in a scene context without clarity as to whom the "you" is, the reader may again feel confronted, and fail to connect with story and character.  [You ate the fish raw.  You felt nausea.  You wondered if you'd ever eat fish again.]

"We" use is not always first person plural in the hands of the ambiguous-intent writer.  "We" can suggest "me" [the narrator] and "you" [the reader] with the same confrontation and reader-as-character effects.  [We bought the ticket, we slide it in the slot, we watched the gate open thinking we might never return.]  The purpose for such use and construction seems amateurish, calling attention to the author, and not supporting the story.

When writers who write to please readers write in second person, they risk alienating the reader, risk confusing the reader, risk failure to develop strong characters, and risk clouding motivations, desires, and cause and effect of characters in the telling of the story.  Yet, the trend seems to be developing a form that pleases more than a few contemporary readers who strongly support use of second person narration.  Every writer will have to evaluate and make decisions based on their own goals for telling fictional prose stories.  However, for quality literary fiction that persists in the literary consciousness of English readers, second person narration may not be a lasting or dependable tool.

 

[1]  http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/interviews/spillman-rob-interview/

[2] David Lynn,  "Why We Chose It"  Kenyon Review  September 11, 2012



Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion


Thursday, September 20th, 2012
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.



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


Monday, September 10th, 2012
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.

 



The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self Editorial Opinion


Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
William H. Coles

In Brooklyn, in a rock-bottom economy, a sixty-one year old unmarried mother will be evicted from the apartment she has lived in for eighteen years.  She is a college graduate but lost her job as a magazine writer more than a decade ago.  For more than a year she has failed to find a single ad hoc writing assignment or editing job.  Even a token payment on the more than $10,000 in back rent could delay action, so she appeals to friends and family: her 24-year-old daughter–an unsettled, unemployed, college dropout who takes family welfare money and disappears into a social strata the woman does not approve–refuses to assist; a life-long friend tries unsuccessfully to mortgage her house to help; the husband of her dead sister is amused by her predicament and refuses to help.  Methodically, she applies to New York State, the county, and the city for relief assistance.  The employees she deals with are presented stereotypically as  either incompetent, uncaring, or vicious in their refusals.  

            In the end, the protagonist refuses a $9,000 dollar loan from the city–she expected an unencumbered grant–and she turns down employment as a receptionist that Social Services has arranged because she feels it is beneath her dignity and not commensurable to her educational achievements.

             The writer has more than adequate skills.  The entire 6800 word story is well paced.  The prose is more than adequate and although the work is "fiction," the story is based on perceived personal injustices and frustrating experiences in life of the author that have left her angry from a vague but very real ingrained sense of being discriminated against and mistreated.  The author was deeply involved in her plight and with her writing, fully expected a reader to be involved in her anger and her despair.  Her writing purpose was to vent . . . to expose a perceived crass, cruel, social system and the greedy cruelty of a landlord.   But she couldn't step back from the story to create a story with credible characters and reliable narrator that would promote valid sympathy and understanding.   The secondary characterizations of welfare and social workers, family and friends, were skewed to stereotypical, single-minded, ogres.  Motivations were also difficult to accept.  She wrote on the premise that living in an apartment for eighteen years entitled a tenant continued occupancy without paying rent.  And finally, the author-protagonist refused to take work, or accept assistance, without sufficient reason. A story created without objectivity by an author writing for self and ignoring the needs of the reader that a well constructed and reasonably delivered fiction story could provide. 

            How does a writer lose his or her way?  There are no rules.  Judgment changes with the progression of society and the maturation of the writer.  And even more daunting, there are thousands of decisions to make about appropriateness and effectiveness of story elements to create a story as an art form.  A great literary author doesn't make many mistakes, allow even a few contradictions or inconsistencies, or think illogically.

            How might this author have created a more acceptable story?  Primarily through objective characterization, writing through a broader understanding of the desires, actions, and motivations of all involved, and letting the outrage emerge in the reader–rather than being told to the reader–so as to avoid unsubstantiated victimization.   

            All writers need to write from a broad view of the world.  They need to incorporate points of view that allow consistently objective creation of characters so the story is accepted and achieves a reader-identified purpose.  They need to avoid excessive use of authorial subjective voice and create stories through accurate and unique character voice and story worlds.   

            Great fiction is imagined, character based, dramatic storytelling in perfected prose that is remembered, reread, and imbedded in the literary consciousness of readers sufficiently to pass onto future generations.  It is sad, but the few contemporary writers who might achieve greatness can fit in the back of a mini van. 

            The most common failure among writers is just inadequate ineffective prose–prose that is unclear, purposeless, arrhythmic, uselessly ungrammatical, and with non sequitur ideation.  Without well-written prose, great fictional literary stories cannot be created . . . no exceptions.

            Those writers who learn to write well, and creatively, often fail in storytelling, succumbing to many pitfalls–a result of insufficient learning and practice that results in failure to embrace:

1. Structure.  Ignoring necessity of a definitive beginning, middle, and end, with full control of information release and prioritization of scenes and action and internal reflection.

2. Emotional arcs.  Inability to maintain character thoughts and feelings in a logical progression that ends in change and enlightenment.

3. Drama.  Insufficient skill to infuse conflict, action, and resolution at all levels of writing and storytelling.

4. Purpose.  Writing without story purpose and ignoring meaning and theme, and a significant message.

5. Characterization.  Failure to creatively construct characters with a connected series of actions, thoughts, and feelings.

6. Reader satisfaction.  Failure to provide engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment for reader in story structure and delivery.      

            The rare writers who accomplish creative prose and effective storytelling are not guaranteed success for greatness.  At this level, an author needs to be more than who they are: they need to understand the world and humanity and how they fit into it; they need to be able to write from their characters' worlds to create effective, entertaining, meaningful stories; they need to write with a definable and consistent moral cobweb in their fiction; they need to suppress arrogance, acting with humility in creating their stories.  And authors must never write to achieve an imagined, famous image as a writer, or to fulfill the dream of financial riches from their work; with little doubt, writing is not a reasonable or practical way for most humans to attain fame and fortune. 

            Writers must understand humor . . . what about an individual molds his or her humor–or prevents a humor response–that produces pleasure and understanding in a reader.  Finally, writers must seek to define what they feel is beauty in the broad context of their generation.  Beauty is subjective and individual, but an author's matured understanding of why people and things are beautiful to specific characters enhances characterization and imagery specific to a story that promotes great stories.  Where is beauty in art, music, literature, life, religion, nature, science?  In essence, defining beauty helps crystallize understanding of human nature.

            But most of all, authors need to develop understanding and supportive attitudes towards others, including their readers.  And they need to write stories with a purpose–without limiting themselves to their own lives and attitudes–to convince readers of opinions or evoke emotions.  They need to enlighten readers through exceptionally imagined and constructed characters, and strive for meaningful credible enlightenment.  In essence, literary authors are challenged to reach beyond their own limitations, and write from a broader understanding of humanity and the world we live in.

 



The Renaissance of Literary Fiction: Join the Revolution Editorial Opinion


Wednesday, May 25th, 2011
William H. Coles

Literary fiction is barely breathing, but the Internet has critically wounded commercial print publishing and provided opportunities for literary writers never before imagined.  If you're a literary writer of real literary fiction, write well, and have a substantial body of literary work . . . you've been rejected by agents, ignored by publishers and editors as nonprofitable, relegated to nonvisiblity on booksellers' top shelves because you don't fit into memoir, romance, mystery, autobiography, or other eye-catching genres.  But the Internet has given literary writers lifesaving, thirst-quenching water on the desert of prose print publishing, and the unlimited opportunities developing will soon make the failed literary writer responsible for his or her obscurity.

Look what has happened to great literary fiction.  Teachers, especially academicians, teach "creative writing"–mainly memoir and creative nonfiction–and have neither the knowledge, inclination, nor the talent to teach the art of creating literary fiction.  What is literary fiction?  Why can't memoir be literary fiction by changing the names of the characters or the timeline of the plot?  Basically, literary fiction creates a story, and does not just describe events happened and people lived.  Literary fiction is storytelling with strong, uniquely-crafted characters with complexities that change significantly and are the core of a character-based plot that has meaning–usually revealing what it means to be human.   And the publishing industry, including agents, have greedily ignored the great literary fiction that is written today as a marginally profitable genre of prose writing at best–usually unprofitable–so that literary fiction is rejected not on quality of writing or storytelling, but because it is perceived not to have blockbuster potential.  Well, literary writers don't need print publishing any more.  Go electronic and if you desire print backup, publish on demand, where your work is available in perpetuity, inexpensive, and you have no pressure to sell a print run that if not sold out almost guarantees you'll never be published again . . . the landmine of print publishing that extinguishes many a good writer in any genre.  That's enough to sport change away from commercial, traditional, print publishing.  But it's only the beginning.

There's money.  Literary authors have never been able to make even a poverty-existence living in the print publishing world.  Voilà! The eReader!  People who have long claimed never to abandon the feel of a book cover or the sensuality of a page turn to read on an electronic screen are switching so reading on screen.  A bestselling medical-thriller writer has seen her online books go from 15% to more than 50% of total sales in a little more than a year, and with continued increases expected.  And her profits soared. Innovators are making reading on Kindle and iPad sort-of-devices amazingly enjoyable, and to boot, readers have access to hundreds of thousands of books, soon to be millions, free or modestly priced.  Why would literary writers fly to New York to fall on their knees and beg an agent to take fifteen percent of their royalties that are based on the fifteen percent returned by the publisher?  Really, electronic publishing is offering up to 90% on royalties to the author, and with no agent slicing off a chunk of the return.  And for those doing their own relatively easy Internet publishing, there are no middlemen.  And there are still reasonable-access and inexpensive ways for writers to satisfy book readers.  Haughty literary agents, and publishers, have popularized the term "vanity publishing" for publish on demand, and, in truth, there is always vanity in any publishing.  But the state of the print publishing industry today makes publish on demand, combined with electronic publishing, practical for a writer's career advancement, and for more than few good writers, financially exciting.

How long does it take to get literary fiction print-published? One to five years.   Publish on demand?  As few as forty-five days.  And electronic publishing?  Hours.  Is traditional commercial print publishing a reasonable option for literary writers?  Not really, and a resounding "no!" by the end of the decade . . . without doubt.

Electronic publishing for literary writers has bone-crushing advantages over literary and small presses too.  To start, more than a few presses have succumbed to poorly run, pay-to-submit contests to attract gullible writers.  What used to be free submissions to be considered for publication now, through contest schemes and reading fees, can cost $10.00 to $200.00 per submission.  One publisher requires $15.00 to submit a six-word story.  And your chances of being chosen are unknown, and the criteria for selection are never clearly revealed.  And repeated documentations of frank nepotism in a few contests have been documented by disgruntled writers.  Be reminded!  Publishing electronically does not cost per submission, and the availability to readers does not depend on surviving the subjective rejections by agents, editors, and publishers.  With electronics, if it's good, it can easily be read by the rapidly growing numbers of readers accepting online and mobile-device publishing, and even if the work may not be great, it's still there to possibly be discovered.

Short literary fiction, like poetry, continues to evolve and improve, but is dying because ways to reach readers are vanishing.  Eureka!  Salvation!  Imagine you're a literary short story writer and you would like recognition for your stories.  You submit to literary presses, often academically based, and the handful of commercial publishers accepting short stories.  You are rarely accepted in a process that is often nepotistic and insensitive to quality of writing of short fiction in general to favor alumni and established writers (often with inferior quality work), and prefer writing that shocks; has salacious content with memoir overtones; and caters to fatalistic, fantasy-laden fiction with voice-heavy characters instead of credible, caring characters that engage a reader.  Even if you have a single story accepted, the magazine circulation ranges from 500 to 3000, rarely 5000.  Maybe thirty percent of circulation will read the magazine cover to cover (and that's optimistic), and the chances of readers reading your story drop to maybe a few hundred at most.  Compare the Internet.  In two months, a literary short story (posted free) had more than 15,000 readers.  Another story averaged more than 500 readers a day for months, supported by advertizing.  By comparison, is there ever any reason to submit your best work to a literary magazine or small press?  Realistically, it is buried alive, and the chances of being exhumed are miniscule.  Electronically published stories are always alive, and easily accessed, often without purchase.  And there are no length restrictions!

But wait.  There is the number of readers an author can reach.  App use for eReaders by literary writers will be tested within the month.  The potential of readers for all mobile eReaders is projected to be, by the end of the year, more than forty million.  So, for a free App, say one in a hundred eReader owners are fiction readers, and one in five hundred are literary fiction readers.  That makes an author's work available to 400,000 fiction readers, 80,000 with a potential strong interest in literature.  Compare that to a collection of short stories by HarperCollins or a literary novel by Random House.  A few thousand at most!  It's staggering.

As of 2011, the great literary prose fiction of our generation will not pass to future generations through contemporary commercial print publishing, but will survive and flourish in the yet unborn minds and souls of those to come through the bestowal of electronic publishing.  Every writer, of any genre, can, and should, contribute to shaping the opportunities in electronic publishing that are evolving . . . and by shaping those opportunities can promote the ease-of-use and the benefits to all writers.  As a working writer, shaping the future will be a gift to literary writers that will elevate once again the importance of telling significant stories in literary fictional prose.  Truly a blessing from the gods.

 



Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence Editorial Opinion


Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
William H. Coles

Twenty years ago, avid fiction readers eagerly opened mailboxes looking  for the New Yorker to arrive to flip first to the fiction page assured of finding an engaging, well-written literary short story.  But things have changes.  Ask readers today how many New Yorker stories they like: "not many,"  "one in ten," "I stopped reading short stories in the New Yorker."  Short stories in other magazines have failed to attract readers too.   Story went defunct.  The Atlantic stopped publishing fiction.  And many small presses have failed.  One would have to assume that readers weren't reading because the quality of story failed to meet what literary readers expected.

Most contemporary short fictional stories are structured differently than those that evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries.  A study of great literary fiction (fiction that is reread for generations and has meaning) shows relatively consistent characteristics in an author's approach to writing.  These writers seek theme and meaning; accurate, sophisticated narration of story; exploration of what it means to be human while writing with an expanded-view of the world and a broad knowledge of humanity.

In the main, academic teachings of today have failed to create writers who can make a difference on the page.  Academics encourages writing about self.  Here are quotes from teachers of creative writing classes and workshops: "I want to read about you."  "Write about your family."  "Write from your view of the world."  "Isolate yourself and let the character emerge [rather than you create] from your subconscious."  "Write only what you know, what you've experienced."  "Don't write knowing where the story is going or ending, it stifles creative impulses."  "I see no difference between creative non-fiction and fiction."  "[As a fiction writer] ask: Where am I in time and space?" A writer is taught to frame a story from his or her view of the world.   It has brought success to many writers, but it has snuffed out availability of great literary fictional stories and turned away literary writers longing for the careful creation of story as an art form.

In essence, academic teachings have produced writers of self.  Even when "imagining fiction," these writers describe memories of humans for characters, memories of events for plot.  The storytelling is all me, the author, telling so that even in a narrator's or character's point of view, characters and their actions are described with the author failing to reach beyond self into the value of collective thinking and human experience of the time.  Most great fiction is told with an expanded view of the world beyond the author, and usually has theme and meaning of what it means to be human.  And although there is variation, great fiction also seems to have a foundation on the unanswerable metaphysical questions—Who are we?  Why are we here? What is justice? Why do I suffer? Does God exist? et cetera—that change readers, enlightening them in ways so that they will never see the world again as the did before reading.

In an interview, Graham Greene quoted Joseph Conrad who said: "Literature is a contrived process of forgetting." And Greene expanded on the idea: "The power to forget is part of the created thing too. It comes back from the unconscious in another form. It's a difference in a way between the job of a reporter, and that of a novelist. It's yours [the journalist's] to remember, mine [the novelist's] to forget. In a way what one forgets becomes the unrecognized memory of the future."

Embracing creative imagination as opposed to describing memory, so antithetical to contemporary workshop teaching, results in fiction with unique, often complexly-profound characterization and stories with purpose to present new, stimulating ideas about our human condition.   Imagined fiction has great potential in story creation.  Memoir (and creative non-fiction) restricts writer choices to produce–through prose and drama–maximum effects of intellect, emotion, and meaning on the reader.

Writers of self have generated a critic's comments at a conference about writing contemporary literature: "I don't want to read about another author's telling of [his or her] dysfunctional family or abuse-laden childhood."  Of course, family and childhood are valuable sources for literary stories, but only with an objective writer creating from a broad view and knowledge of the world that allows a reader to engage and evolve with a character rather than simply be told a character's feelings or events, often related to salacious or shocking revelations.

The literary story, both novel and short story, may have reached its pinnacle as writers of self have successfully inserted memoir and creative nonfiction, even autobiography, into what is presented as literary fiction, and teaching programs have prompted the writers of self with the insidious effect that great fiction with meaning and longevity is rarely promoted and published.   Writers of self, like a federal bureaucracy, form alliances that sustain them in writing their view of the world.  What the reader of literary fiction needs is well-trained storytellers creating stories with objective, broad views of the world imagined from a studied, deeply considered knowledge of what it means to be human.


You may find these interviews with Butler, Shepard, Carlson, Spillman and others interesting. They provide insight into the differences in the ways authors think about writing.



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?




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