Posts Tagged ‘literary’

The Seven Fundamentals for Writing Fiction Stories Article About Writing Better

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016
William H. Coles

There are many ways to think about the great writing of great fictional stories. Both readers and writers can benefit by learning seven elements and appreciating the interaction of these elements in an individual story. For the reader, appreciation of authorial skills can be more easily enjoyed and admired, and for writers, learning to determine their strengths and weakness in the creation of the different elements can be valuable to balance story for an effective presentation.

Narration (POV)

Prose relates to diction, syntax, and voice. Lyric prose with intense poetic elements can be used to pleasing effects for a reader both as a secondary and prime element. Most readers prefer a distinct, often authoritative voice for narrator and characters.

Characterization is a key element for a literary story and is often most effective by in scene action predominating over discursive narrative telling. It’s importance in story development in the great stories is unique and individual and requires talent and practice. Dialogue, narrative, internalization, flashback, diction, memory, voice are opportunities for character development in effective ways different, and at times superior, to characterization in film or in drama. Almost without exception, great stories

Plot is all that happens in a story. For great stories plot is almost always structured with a beginning, middle, and end; frequently is character-based; depends for momentum on reversals and recognition, mystery and suspense; is primarily linear, and is interwoven with emotional, character, and story arcs. Great plots provide conflicts early, both in story and among characters.

Narration is storytelling. Characters act out in fiction stories, narrators tell story, and authors create story with imagination and uniqueness. Point-of-view choice is tailored to the needs of story. Each point of view has advantages and disadvantages and must conform to reasonable story-related credibility and reliability reliability, and adjust to requirements of suspension of disbelief. Authorial control of the narration through the narrator must be consistent in style, transparent (no authorial intrusion), carefully chosen for story understanding and purpose,, and meticulously crafted.

Setting orients the reader to time, place, and physical and psychic distance from story action, environment, and obstacles to plot progression. Most stories provide settings through subtle integration in other elements avoiding extensive description. Yet, some stories rely on the poetry of beautiful settings.

Imagery relies on imaginative prose with innovative yet absolutely accurate word choice within the boundaries set up by story development. Momentum in the writing with image-inducing prose should be pervasive to avoid loss of engagement of the reader.

Every story should engage a reader, entertain the reader, please the reader, and provide recognition or enlightenment (theme/meaning) so the readers will never see the world again exactly the way they did before the story was read. Fiction stories are not character sketches, memoir, biography, or journalism with untruths. And every story has to have more than an authorial catharsis describing authorial lives and events with description without imagination and discursive rumination of authorial thoughts and opinions. Fiction is art that emerges from imagination and is created with skill,  structure, and revision.

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.

A Wannabe's Guide to Literary Fiction Success Editorial Opinion

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015
William H. Coles

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

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

*Learn to write prose well.

*Learn essentials of good storytelling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Sex Scenes in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better

Monday, March 31st, 2014
William H. Coles

WomanWhat is a successful sex scene in literature? What are the acceptable decisions for writing a sex scene in serious fiction? Do you just reword a scene from erotica? Describe a pornographic video in as much detail as you can produce? Think of your best sexual experience? Take a vibrant scene from romance novel you enjoyed?

A major consideration is the nature of a sex scene in fiction. Like rage, the tension of a sex scene is difficult to sustain for long periods, and once the tension dissipates, it is followed by post climatic passivity and quiet that may stop story momentum and rebuff reader interest.  This can work well in some genres where emotional biological tension and its release fuels the fiction and is the purpose of the story.  In literary fiction there is often an overriding emotional arc(s)–say revenge, or jealousy, or unrequited love–that when kept suspenseful by delayed resolution, does form the lifeblood of a story.  And in literary fiction, emotional arcs intertwined often move the plot and subplots forward. 

Psychological tensions are the ingredients of good fiction, and sex as the physical interaction of humans often plays a role crucial in characterization and plotting.  But there are dangers that work against story success.  Sex scenes may scrape against a reader's cultural and moral sensitivities, and spoil the enjoyment of the work of fiction.

No one can really predict what will please a specific reader.  Most writers try to reach their "intended" readership–those readers whose respect will mean the most to the author.  What is acceptable in fiction is dependent on cultural norms, moral attitudes, and perception of artistic accomplishment of the individual.  For many readers in today’s world, anything is permissible, well, almost anything.  So if you write fiction, to be effective as a writer you may have wide latitude in using sex for plot and characterization.  But so much is written about sex it's hard to be original, to avoid cliche, and offense, or feelings of inappropriate writing and storytelling are always possibilities and need to be avoided. 

To be successful, literary fiction writers need a strategy about sex scenes. To start, an author needs to know what the goal is for the reader’s experience. Does the author want hearts to race, breath to quicken, arousal to the maximum? Or does the writer use the sex scene to build character in unique ways–sustain a love arc that is bolstered by a sex scene but with the love arc coming to its own more encompassing resolution, say marriage or divorce for examples.

And when creating a sex scene, what needs to dominate is a prime consideration–lust or love? Lust is sexual desire. Love is affection, caring, and so broad in meaning it’s difficult to define. But sex scenes need to have a decision about the purpose of the content to direct the wording, the ideation, and the contribute to story.  Indeed, the proportion of lust to love–and the credibility for character development and acceptance of the lust/love ratio in the story context–is dependent on a considered attitude of the author for what is the purpose of writing sex. It can be, of course, to sell books. But that’s not the driving force today for most serious fiction. It can be to purge an author’s fantasy. That may be self-serving satisfaction from the describing but doesn’t often fuel good fiction—it’s too divorced from the story core and the story is diminished. These dilemmas pose the critical question for any author's story: why should a sex scene even be in this work of serious fiction?

Many might say it's the suspense.   Will something climactic between humans that yearn for each other, or at least one yearns for the other, final culminate?  Would it be a release of longing and hedonistic desires of the biological tensions of human sex? Would it be just the admission of mutual attraction and yearning in both withheld because of fear that feelings were not reciprocated? Who really knows? But an author should try to find out for his or her story.  What the author chooses to write on the page makes a big difference.  Compare:  They made love?  Tongue licked flesh and her face flushed with passion?  He relished the presence of her desire.   A moan untethered escaped her full lips, her eyes squeezed as tight as a finger in a dyke, and she held her breath then gasped as if inhaling a shooting star . . . when she felt his slippery, salty-saliva-soaked tongue boldly massaging the excited flesh of erect delightfully rigid nipple. Extremes on a spectrum of detail and quality.  But in sex scenes the danger always lurks of overwriting, sentimentality, inaccuracy of word choice and syntax that might offend.

When in literary fiction should a sex scene be described in detail, as if observing human intercourse through a keyhole? Isn’t the summary of the actions between the two characters–the feelings, the unrequited attractions, the craving of tension release rather than the act itself often most important? For most literary fiction, a sex scene can be suggested and left to the imagination of the reader. He took her hand and led her to the bedroom, turning off the light.  Whatever happens is left to the reader to imagine (often more successfully that an authorial-detailed description).  The overriding principles are: no matter what the author chooses to write, it must relate to the story context in credibility and purpose; it must not stop story momentum with excessive description, sentimentality, or perceived offensive imagery; and it must be paced with respect to over all pacing of the prose.

Successful sex scenes are tricky to achieve in literary fiction.  Success takes practice and good judgment, and the reader reactions will be unpredictable, varied, and often critically intense.  Yet every author needs to develop capabilities to use lust and love as motivations in fiction successfully, but develop good judgment and use restraint that supports quality storytelling and writing.  Basically, a unique strategy for delivery is useful for every literary fictional story.

Story Beginnings (13): What Engages You? Article About Writing Better

Saturday, May 18th, 2013
William H. Coles

Below are thirteen story beginnings of less than sixty words all from award-winning stories.  Which engages you the most and makes you want to read on?  Which engages you the least?  Analyze why, to find principles applicable to your own writing.

All stories are available for free at

1. After a six-hour drive north from Toronto, John Hampton arrived at the family home of his departed wife, Grace, and her daughter Candy, both dead six days.  The house was dark; his sister-in-law, Ruth, greeted him in a nightgown and robe, and knee-length woolen socks . . . she led him toward an attic room.   Speaking of the Dead

2. His sweet troubled son, alone in his second-floor room, he and his wife sitting downstairs irritated by the bass thrust of the loud music.  They didn't know he had taken a loaded shotgun and while sitting on the bed, placed the barrels under his chin and pushed down on the trigger.  Dilemma

3. My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker.  And never at night.  But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile maker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn't even know I was bearing down on her . . .  Inside the Matryoshka

 4. Most of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset.  My God.  Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door.  She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts.  The Golden Flute

5. In 1959, a week after her seventeenth birthday, Catherine missed her period in February, and then in March.  By late April she was not sleeping well and most of her waking hours were spoiled by nausea and hating everything she ate.  Her mother Agnes made an emergency appointment with Dr. Crowder.  The Gift

 6. One summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags.  “They’re a danger.  Think of the disease,” Mom said.  The War of the Flies

 7. The wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin.  Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley.  Father Ryan

 8. My Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse.  Aaron, my older brother by two years, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back.  Dr. Greiner's Day in Court

9. I was fifteen, never in love, and yearning to leave home when a red, two-seated convertible drove up to our gate.  The driver’s door opened, and a girl of twenty-two with a perfectly shaped, light-skinned body emerged in a see-through dress that showed almost everything, and I imagined the rest.  The Stonecutter

 10. Associate Professor William Possum was looking for student Denise Witherspoon, this attractive, slightly overweight, moderately intelligent woman who was destroying his class.  Denise had caused five angry letters, two dropouts, and a formal complaint that said she “made an evening of anticipated learning a dreadful experience.”   The Perennial Student

 11. “I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said.  She said this often.  She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn.  Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.  The Activist

 12. In college, I had been attracted to my roommate, Peter Townsend.  But after fifteen years of marriage to Amanda, my thoughts of Peter had faded, until I heard a rumor that he would interview for Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University where I was a professor of botany.  Curse of a Lonely Heart

 13. My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two-lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from.   On the Road to Yazoo City

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.


Student Critiquing in Workshops: Analysis and a Caution Editorial Opinion

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
William H. Coles

While at lunch with a writer friend, and teacher of fiction writing, she confessed she rarely read contemporary fiction anymore.   It's not just lack of time; it's the poor quality of writing and the dearth of even rudimentary storytelling skills.  Why have good fiction writers become buried in the amazing proliferation of memoir and nonfiction, genre and therapeutic confessional stories?  More than a few would say writers are not being taught well.

In truth, the modern literary author with visions of creating memorable and lasting stories[1] has few resources for learning.  Workshops have become the predominant opportunity and most workshops rely–for a majority if not all of the teaching time–on students' critiquing their fellow students' work.  But student critiquing has a shaky foundation for learning: the inexperienced and unknowledgeable, and sometimes the untalented, teach each other.  Who could imagine eight to twelve wannabe neurosurgeons meeting to discuss the practice cases they've been doing alone, without guidance or supervision, in their garages, basements, or attics? 

What are the effects of workshops on writers?  The physiology of student critiquing in workshops was analyzed from eighty-six fiction-writing workshops taken over two decades.  The motivations for students attending sessions varied.  Almost all students wanted to be recognized as a writer  to be published and admired.  Few had developed, as a prime objective, the writing of literary fictional stories that would impact readers with a purpose, meaning, entertainment, memorability, and enlightenment.   It was apparent that dreams of publication and the successful writer's lifestyle were prominent with little desire to create excellence of a story art form.  

Almost all students believed that at their personal level of education, experience and intelligence, they were capable of writing great literature, although they would surely deny it if asked.  Almost all brought their work seeking reinforcement in their abilities and talent, and poised to reject a suggestion their writing was not up to the greatest literary achievement and creativity.  This prevalent attitude worked against learning, a clash between justification of my pride-in-my-work and a desire-to-do-better.   

One dominant effect of student-critiquing workshops was particularity, rather than entirety.  Teachers of workshops required student participation.  "I expect you to contribute."  A fair number of teachers methodically went from student to student when a student's work was considered so no required participant's comment was left out of the session.  In the atmosphere of required contribution, most general opinions and suggestions were stated by the first one or two critiquers.  As a result, many students–pressed by the need to respond with brilliance and uniqueness to meet there own need for admiration as a critiquer–descended into minutia rather than seeking ways to improve the fundamentals of storytelling and craft of the writer.  These students groped for edicts they'd read or learned to fill their need to respond.  Examples: Too many adjectives.  A misspelling.  A comma splice.  Don't use characters' names that start with the same letter or have the same number of syllables.  Show don't tell.  Never begin with dialogue.  Number your pages.  Write from what you know.  These were presented a maxims by those with varying degrees of ignorance.  This particularity without addressing entirety of a work resulted in insufficient learning about story and craft through insignificant and do-not-apply or dogmatic misdirected statements.

The imposed need to contribute also frequently caused student critiquers to default to useless  anecdotal "counter stories" or "global pronouncements."  I visited Paris once in winter and it wasn't cold at all, or, I don't think narcotics are necessary for sports injuries. or I taught sociology for twenty years, an enjoyable career.  Unacceptable in a serious, productive workshop.

Authors presented work with the often unconscious attitude that the work was finished and probably as perfect as they could get it.  Such thinking did not allow for improvement by the writer, but it also contributed to tensions and anger; the writer who believed he or she achieved perfection in their work, felt criticism was unfair and personal. They often smoldered into silence, or lashed out against the critiquer.  This type of response could be eliminated if students are screened for level of accomplishment and attitude toward their work, which should be focused on how to make the story better and improve the writing.

Emotion often dominated class sessions crowding out objective teaching.   A major contributor to this phenomenon related to class structure and ineffective teaching that inserted competition and tension into classroom settings.

Small cliques often formed within the class.  Surprisingly, some teachers were also members of these cliques.  These cliques served to reinforce a clique-member's imagined reason d'etre and generated unfair and often mean criticism of one or more fellow students work–with barely submerged derision–related not to writing but to certain personality features or ideas.  These cliques isolated nonclique students and targeted students the clique did not like by excluding or ignoring their participation.  At times, clique activity provoked anger and frustration with weeping, acid retorts, and in a few cases leaving the classroom not to return. These tension-filled, depressing classes were not necessary and could have been eliminated if workshop teachers would control  student responses related to personality and fortified with cliquish behavior. 

Because critiquing, especially by amateurs, was frequently hurtful to the writer under consideration, most teachers required positive critiques before more potentially-hurtful observations were allowed.[2]  These obligatory positive comments often were insincere and tangential and brought the writer to a false acceptance of worth of the writing, destructive because the required positive comments collectively dulled the author's perception of needed improvement.

Using student critiquing as a workshop norm required low requirements for teachers since ideas came from student amateurs.  Little preparation was necessary by teachers and few skills and little knowledge easily qualify a teacher for workshops even in MFA settings.  Reality confirmed this. 

The quality of teaching skills and knowledge in fiction workshops was not high.   Teachers might have MFA degrees, but many were not educators but writers adding to their incomes and seeking recognition for their work.  Many teachers, even with MFAs, had published work completed in school for degree requirements, but had written little or no fiction since graduation.  With only rare exceptions, teachers in workshops had never been educated as teachers and had no background in the teaching techniques of story and craft, or the evaluation of student progress, which is required in most effective academic disciplines.

Teachers without knowledge or training depended on an atmosphere of student critiquing, not teaching and learning assessment.  Less than five percent of teachers had skills necessary to direct and control what students said or wrote in their critiques.  The atmosphere of these classes tended to be that of book groups as social occasions.  Rare vetting for student knowledge and experience in critiques was so common that often a student might be critiquing as a rock-bottom beginner.

Workshops will only be valuable for writers when teachers teach how to form a story, how to learn craft to support your own unique style, how to support what each individual writer wants to achieve, and how to guide writer's thinking about the writing process and how it can provide enjoyment and meaning for the literary reader.

In general, developing serious writers should take writing workshops with caution.   A writer may leave with destroyed visions for improvement, and unclear understanding of individual potential.  Workshops with lectures and literature study included as well as craft-enhancement skills taught are better than student-critique dependent workshops.  And when a workshop is attended, it is essential to clarify reasonable and attainable personal expectations and goals for the workshop, and keep the focus on how to improve rather than seek confirmation of perceived excellence


[1] Stories created for the reader's pleasure by writing well crafted literary stories that reach levels of reader engagement, enlightenment, and entertainment.
[2] Hurt usually came from opinioned, incorrect, and often unfounded judgments intensified by a lack of skill in wording, syntax and tone in delivery; and an unclear, competitive purpose for presenting criticism.


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?

Fertilizing Imagination Article About Writing Better

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
William H. Coles

There is no science to guide a writer to strengthening his or her imagination.  But here are a few practical ways to hone what the writer has been genetically given as imaginative potential.

Live to experience and discover.

A rich life reliably stimulates imagination.

Learn to live actively, not passively.

Reading is active.  Watching TV is predominantly passive.  Listening to music is passive.  Creating original music by composing and/or playing an instrument is active.   Looking at travel photos of France is passive.  Two weeks of backpacking in the Loire Valley is active.

Learn as much about everything you possibly can.

Disparate ideas and unlike associations seem to sprout new images and ideas.

Examine metaphysical questions.

Who are we and why are we here?  Is there an afterlife?  Why do we suffer?  Who is God?  Is there an ultimate truth?  Why is there no justice?  What is beauty?

Musing on the unanswerable helps with character development and significant story meaning that intertwines plotting.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses.

Determine as truthfully as possible how you fit into a world with billions of other unique, vastly different human beings.  This may require painful self-examination.

Practice imaginative writing.

1. Study the great literary creations of the past, and carefully filter out any useless or harmful dogma of contemporary teaching.

2. Explore daily metaphors . . .  the timing of delivery, acceptability, and the logic and credibility.

3. Learn the use of clear and accurate language in all communication, and expand vocabulary with image provoking words and active verbs.

Learn to structure stories and create characters imaginatively.

Discover the reason for success of stories and characters in all forms of storytelling and all prose genres, and then imaginatively create your own new and immediate ideas for success in literary story fiction.

Publishers: Gorging on Authorial Hope Editorial Opinion

Friday, February 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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