Posts Tagged ‘story’

How do unsuccessful novel writers build houses? Editorial Opinion

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017
William H. Coles

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

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

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

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

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

*”The Miracle of Madame Villard” is the story of a boy on a mission to find a cure for his dying mother. Set in the 18th century France, the story and all elements of story are imagined. You can read it online free.
The Miracle of Madame Villard

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

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

Excessive Pride and Self-Confidence as Motive in Storytelling: Characterization and Plot Example Article About Writing Better

Friday, August 12th, 2016
William H. Coles

An example of excessive pride and self-confidence in story excerpt from "Nemesis".
After he was fired from his job as audiovisual technician, Fred demanded early retirement, threatening to sue, and received forty-percent of his salary. A pittance of what I’m worth, he thought. Fred’s dismissal humiliated his wife Veronica. “Get a job,” she said, irritated to have him perpetually at home.

“I think I’ll start writing a syndicated column for the newspaper,” Fred said, emboldened by his recently acquired disgust–through his intent viewing of TV extremist news–of how seriously deficient America had become.

“You’re lazy,” Veronica said.

“Lazy people do not reach my levels of success,” he said.

Veronica was thin and had a nervous tick that shut her left eye making her right eye widen and exposing the white of the globe as if in unilateral fright. She would leave Fred after twelve loveless years. “You’re a jackass,” she said.

“Don’t be your unreasonable self, Veronica. It only demeans you.”

“A halfwit,” she said.

“Now it’s name calling, is it?” Fred said.

“It’s not a name. I’m not addressing you. I’m telling what everyone knows. You're an incompetent, unemployed, self-absorbed, idiot–the only human in existence who has pride in his failures. And I hate you.”

In an instant Fred assessed the entire scene as some hormonally induced, paper-lantern feminine crisis not worthy of his attention. She’d come around. She always did.
This excerpt is from the short story “Nemesis” about an arrogant man with excessive pride (hubris), failure to heed warnings, unshakeable belief in being right, inconsiderate of others’ views, and stubbornly ignorant of knowledge, who causes the death of the only love of his life. You can READ [5085 words] or LISTEN TO [34 minutes] the story here:

The Greeks knew excessive pride and self-confidence invited destruction (hubris–>nemesis). For the writer of stories, hubris is a human trait that can vitalize plot development and characterization. Look at these examples of hubris inviting destruction:

1. A famous athlete has extramarital affairs and said he thought that normal rules did not apply to him and that his excellence in his sport entitled him to whatever he wanted with no consequences. He lost respect of family, fans and sponsors and his career is ruined..

2. A president believes his status makes him invincible until his involvement in the illegal breaking and entering scandal forces his resignation.

And you might also enjoy these classical literature examples of pride and downfall: Oedipus Rex, All the King’s Men, Frankenstein.

The award winning novel McDowell incorporates full use of hubris that results in destruction of a famous doctor's career and freedom. He becomes a hunted convict that ironically allows new opportunity to regain some value to his life with unselfish caring for others. It’s a prime example of hubris and nemesis followed by a rebirth. It’s a good read. Available in all formats including audio.

Why is narration perspective important? Isn't understanding point of view sufficient? Article About Writing Better

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015
William H. Coles

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

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

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

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

Creating Excellence in Fiction: a comment to a student Article About Writing Better

Sunday, February 15th, 2015
William H. Coles

Thanks for your comment.  It seems you have all the experience and material to do great work, and you have an authorial attitude for how to approach and present your material that will serve you well as you continue.

As you write, it can be helpful to seek a clear purpose for what you write, not just the novel (or short story) but for every chapter, paragraph, sentence, even word choice.  Looking at broad purpose, you’ll come up with a theme and meaning for your writing. Try to make it as clear as possible: dependency destroy lives, incest is immoral, seeking truth is important to human existence; etc.    More than one is often involved, but only one should dominate for excellence in most works.  Then, as you seek purpose in shorter context, you can carry broader purpose and theme, but you’ll be looking for specific story-related purposes: does this sentence advance plot, build character, create images, clarify timeline, assure consistency in voice, etc?  All this may seem superfluous, but the habit of thinking like this helps strengthen the writing and the storytelling for the reader.  Purpose relates to (as you noted in your comment) creativity and imaginative thinking to write great prose stories. Nonfiction is different.  In nonfiction authors make their points through relating to and describing real events and real people and depending on accuracy of occurrences to evoke reader reaction, events and people that have caused an emotional response or some enlightenment that has changed (the author’s) life.  So in nonfiction creative imagination is curtailed to the presentation of story material rather than creating story material for specific story purpose–a purpose that will produce an emotional reaction or intellectual enlightenment in the reader through objective story action and conflict/action/resolution.  The nonfiction writer is evoking emotional reactions and intellectual enlightenment through abstractions (I hate rather than in scene action that shows the hate emotion, for example) and is prone to try to move a reader through narrative discursive rumination.  This is often perceived as an author writing from the soul but it is frequently not as engaging, readable, nor does it have the impact of objective in scene revelation through creative imagination for most stories.  There are exceptions for certain stories to be told, but failure to recognize the principle frequently results in inferior writing and storytelling for most stories.

I applaud you; it’s a hurdle you are already addressing.  You have the skills and the heart to use your valuable (and exciting and significant) material to maximum advantage; I wanted to emphasize that to achieve the significant responses with your writing, don’t resort too often to telling what it meant to you and how you perceived your world experiences caused you reactions.  Instead, explore all the elements that make you feel the way you did and do.  Almost always it is best to seek to fully understand your reactions, analyze the causes for those reactions, and then seek the knowledge (as you already are!) as to how the great writers learn to make readers feel the way they, the authors, want them to feel. Of course you will use life experiences as all writers do, just don’t be a slave to those experiences so opportunities to create significant stories through imaginative characterization and storytelling are ignored.   Storytelling and impeccable craft are the tools for significant story success–authorial human understanding of generation of story material; effective narration; consistent and unique voice(s); purposeful dialogue; uninterrupted engagement; objective decisions about desires, motivations, and emotional responses; and readable prose. These are important ways to produce reactions that are different than memoir and nonfiction, and usually, although harder to achieve, give better results for what you–and all authors, I think, want to achieve.  From your comment, I know you understand this and are on the way to achieve it.  I wanted to support you and wish you the very best as you proceed.  WHC

Eight Fundamentals for Writing Fiction Stories Article About Writing Better

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015
William H. Coles

Eight fundamentals for writing fiction stories.

Narration (POV)

There are many ways to think about the writing of great fiction stories. Both readers and writers can benefit by thinking of eight fundamentals and appreciating the interaction of the elements in an individual story. For the reader, appreciation of authorial skills can be enhanced and admired, and for writers, learning to determine strengths and weaknesses in the creation of the different elements can be valuable to balance story for an effective presentation.

1. 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, but clarity, accuracy, and concrete over abstract provide most effective prose for significant storytelling. Most readers prefer a distinct, often authoritative voice for narrator and characters.

2. Characterization is a key element for a literary story and is often most effective by in scene action predominating over discursive narrative telling. Its 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 integrate characterization and plot progression to create character-based fiction.  And each, at least, primary character has a recognizable core desire that contributes to solid logic of character motivations and reactions.

3. 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.

4. 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 credibility, reliability, and requirements of suspension of disbelief. Authorial control of the narration through the narrator must be consistent, complete, and meticulous.

5. Setting orients the reader to time, place, physical and psychic distance from story action, environment, and obstacles to plot progression. Best stories provide most settings through subtle integration in other elements avoiding extensive description.

6. 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.

7. Meaning/purpose. Every story should engage a reader, entertain the reader, please the reader, and provide recognition or enlightenment (meaning) so the reader will never see the world again exactly the way as before the story was read. Great fiction stories are not character sketches, memoirs, biographies, or journalism with untruths, and every great story has to have more than an authorial catharsis describing authorial events and characters with description and discursive rumination.  And for significance, authors create a moral framework for the story world that helps define character actions and thinking, suggest meaning, and enhance logic of the drama.

8. Drama keeps a reader's interest, moves the plot, and builds character.  Drama is conflict the precipitates action and requires a writer's ability to insert action in scene, in dialogue, and in narrative description.  Drama also can move the reader to feel the story and the characters.

Summary.  Writing fiction that is character-based with dramatic plots and meaning is an art form requiring both talent and diligent hard work and self evaluation.  Studying and learning the skills to use fundamentals effectively is essential in becoming a successful storyteller, but also useful in revision of early drafts to seek balance in the presentation and consistency in the writing.


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)


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.



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

Summer Workshops: Tips for Learning Literary Fiction Editorial Opinion

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011
William H. Coles


If you'll be attending a workshop this summer, here are a few ideas to consider.

1. Try to attend workshops where the purpose is to learn to write a literary fictional story (serious-purpose, character-based, and structured story creation). Many creative-writing workshops also teach memoir, creative nonfiction, some historical fiction and genre, in addition to literary fiction.   Classes with multipurpose agendas are a disadvantage to the serious literary fiction writer.

2. Take notes on every idea expressed in class sessions.  Review these in a private review later.  Categorize ideas for practice, further reading or consideration, and discussion.  Based on your notes and actions, write a daily summary  of your learning from a session as a permanent record for future reference.

3. Student  comments are required on most manuscripts and in-class exercises.   Don't let your own subjective likes and dislikes swamp your critiquing or your learning, and don't respond to subjective responses of others with your own subjective approval or disapproval.  Value judgments based on personal taste are not useful for learning.  Avoid comments like: "I don't like stories about fishing.", or "I don't care for priests as characters,", or "I'm tired of dysfunction families or abused children." or "Who cares if the gray wolf is on the endangered species list?"

Instead, look to the core of great literary stories.   Ask: What is purpose of the writer ?  Did something happen?  Did the major character change in some significant way?  Identify ways to improve:  story structure, characterization, prose craft, plotting, clarifying ideas and images.   (For a learning resource, click here).

4.  Don't think in terms of good and bad writing.  Think in terms of effective or not effective writing for what you think the writer was trying to do.  Then determine if improvement is dependent on improved storytelling (thinking), better characterization (imagining), better focus on story (ideation and information delivery), or more precise prose (craft).

5.  Ask the question when evaluating stories whether in scene action or narrative description suit the purpose of the scene to develop story and character.

6.  When your own prose story or fiction writing is critiqued, never be defensive.  Don't say things like: "Well, I worked on that for two weeks." "That's not what I read on the Internet." or "It really happened (implying, therefore, any criticism is unjust). "   Remember, good fiction is not described truth.

There are more than a few classmates who will be attending class more for the joy they receive in critiquing others rather  than for learning writing–it seems to boost their self-perceived qualities of their works and talents–and who will take self-important attitudes that can be distracting and useless, will irritate you, and be unhelpful for your improvement.  Ignore these critiques.   Never succumb to action based on unreasonable or unfounded critiques specifically; it is dangerous for your career as a writer.

For the most part, sort out objective helpful comments unfettered with thoughtless value judgments.  Don't be discouraged if you find less than 20% of student comments useful.   Instead of depending on student comments, encourage and direct the instructors to reflect and teach.

Good luck!  Keep focused.  Don't let socialization and networking-to-advance-your-reputation swamp your goals to improve your writing and storytelling.  Meticulously summarize and record every positive idea you captured during the sessions for future, frequent reference.  And if you have an unsatisfactory experience, share it with other writer-friends so they will not waste their time and money.


For further thoughts about workshops, you might be interested in these essays and articles:

Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence

Exposing the Dark Side of Academic Fiction Workshops

Workshops: I. Making the Right Choice

Workshops: II. Making the Experience Valuable

Workshops: III. How to Critique a Manuscript

Workshops: V. Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops

What Exactly Is a Character-Based Plot? Article About Writing Better

Saturday, November 13th, 2010
William H. Coles


This post has been moved to Click here to read.


Exposing the Dark Side of Academic Fiction Workshops Editorial Opinion

Thursday, August 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

The end of a number of summer fiction workshops highlights again the influence of academic writing programs on the quality of contemporary literary fiction. Most contemporary literary writers progress through their careers, with variations, like this: college English major; attend MFA program; published work (often workshopped to the point of committee writing) promoted by MFA program; teaching position in creative writing; new work poorly received and published mainly by friends and colleagues in the literary community. This scenario produces unpalatable fiction not of the quality to have any commercial value, and usually consists of autobiographical or memoir material, usually told in the first person and strong on voice because story is lacking, and usually consists of descriptive narrative of past events with minimal dramatization. And this scenario almost never develops quality teachers capable of the complexities and challenges that writing of great fiction demands.

The result, and many will argue although the raw truth is evident, is literary fiction is boring, unpalatable, and unreadable to the majority of readers. A writer who has the intellect and the talent to produce great fiction with meaning has few resources to learn the skills of writing fiction, and studying in an MFA wastes valuable writing time. The most devastating effect of MFA programs is the result of the universal trend to tag any graduate as writer and teacher, which is often not true on either count, so these teachers are thrust on eager students as competent.

Here are recent events, all true, in workshops that work against the writing of great literary fiction. Collectively, these scenarios dominate the teaching of creative writing and erode valuable education of writers eager to write literary fiction constructed with dramatic scenes and affecting meaning and enlightenment about the human condition through story.

One teacher demanded that the action in a short story could be no longer than twenty-four hours, citing Aristotle as the source of this command. Aristotle, of course, never conceptualized a short story. And mention of famous short stories such as "A Simple Heart", by Flaubert (a lifetime) and "Lady with a Pet Dog" (months) by Chekhov were not mentioned in the pronouncement.

One teacher suggested an"'inventory" of things a character would have — empty a purse, go through a hope chest, explore a glove compartment for things to stick in the story as revelatory of character. This inventory-list activity does have value, of course, but it suggests that character development in a great story is description of things, when in truth great characters are best developed by unique and story-specific actions in scene and clear exploration of desires and emotions.

More than one teacher required a notebook. Ideas, scenes, characters, all described in detail from life. The idea was that when you were writing and you got blocked, you could go to your notebook and pull out a cute scene, an interesting character trait, or a vivid image to insert. Ridiculous. Great story writing is not a collection of unrelated ideas, no matter how cute or clever. Great literary stories come from story specific details imagined for best story effectiveness, not pulled from (although they may be stimulated by) the pantry of authors' experiences.

One teacher emphasized the importance of going a little crazy with the writing, a sort of free association in bizarre contexts and without fear of salacious or shocking effects on some readers. When asked if clarity in prose and structured story telling was important even in the crazy periods to keep the reader oriented to story, his answer was "no." "Writing stories is an art form," he said. But the great, memorable, literary stories are founded on clear prose, clear ideas, clear plot progressions, and not random, disparate ideation. To profess otherwise is to send beginning authors on a self-destructive, albeit easier, path to mediocrity.

One author/teacher shared his desire to fully incorporate the author's voice in his stories. He did not see this as memoir or autobiographical, and did not see the danger of excluding imaginative story development outside the author's experiences, nor of promoting ideas and opinions as the most reliable way to create the great literary story with meaning that readers might enjoy. His teaching of authorial catharsis as story writing also arrogantly assumed that what the author thinks and says will be important to a large number of readers. In his case, he had neither the intellect, talent, nor life-fascination of others to attract the attention of a serious reader of literary stories.

One class was the completion of many exercises during six workshop sessions. No manuscripts were reviewed. Not one exercise was designed for in-scene action, or developed for effective inclusion with what would come before and after the exercise when inserted in a story. Every exercise was based and judged on descriptive narrative and dialogue, all static approaches to the creation of fiction that is structured on a series of interrelated scenes that contain conflict, action, and resolution.

In one class students held hands with neighbors, closed eyes, and thought of words that were called out into the silence in the hope of stimulating something to write about. The goal was to get something on the page based on a random thought. It implies that writing fiction comes from the subconscious, and then is developed through description of the random idea, and other ideas that might follow. Definitely not the way to learn to write a memorable, meaningful, literary fictional story that needs structure. Literary stories are not built on description, but on the actions of characters and the change in perceptions of characters and readers as a result of these actions. The subconscious is a source, but it is the conscious where imagination develops action with meaning.

Many classes are openly advocating an author writing about him or herself. "I want to read about your story, not someone else's," one teacher said. He yearned for creative memoir, often enjoyable, but not the same as creating the great literary fictional story with dramatic scenes, meaning, and enlightenment.

A common practice occurs in every workshop. A student's writing is evaluated on word choice, rhythmic sentences and pleasing syntax, surprising and delightful prose, but rarely (if ever) is a writing segment (or story) considered for purpose. Does the writing have a purpose that develops character? Is the purpose of the writing to advance plot logically? Is the purpose of the writing to contribute to meaning, theme, and enlightenment? Is the purpose of the writing to meet your 3000-word daily quota or to structure a story with well developed characters through action? There is an alarming inability of present day teachers of creative writing to understand and teach the essence of a great story. And there is little awareness of the consolidated negative effect of workshops on the writers trying to create literature with the advantages of traditional storytelling.

One prominent teacher/editor said: "For me, there is no difference between creative nonfiction and fiction." He unintentionally revealed his dismissal of the potential of fiction as an art form to create great literary stories, and his promotion of literary fiction as a description of the author's memory and thoughts, as opposed to the creation of story through dramatic action on imagined characters. At another occasion, he admitted he preferred nonfiction, even though he made the final choices for fiction selections for a literary journal. These attitudes are discouraging to writers of literary fictional stories, and destructive to the survival of great fiction as a venue for lasting, memorable stories.

Beginning writers have few ways to evaluate the value of workshop leaders. Word of mouth is most helpful. But finding a workshop valuable to the writing process of great fiction requires multiple workshops to begin to know the true value of any one teacher's abilities. Moment for moment, the best way to improve in the writing of fiction is the meticulous study of authors who have achieved what the student wants to achieve. Students need to discover how authors created their effects on readers. This is not copying style, as so often advocated in workshops. It is, instead, learning how to tell stories effectively, with clear prose and solid control of characters' desires and emotions within the cobweb of a structured, purposeful plot. Writers must make their own discoveries through individual study on what will bring success. Overall, workshops can be valuable, but should not be a primary source of learning for the writer.

You might enjoy the post Top Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops.


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