WHAT I LOOK FOR IN A MANUSCRIPT: For the writers' workshops that the Imaginative Fiction Writers' Association sponsored after the When Words Collide festival in Calgary, I talked to the writers about what I look for in a manuscript: what makes a good manuscript good. I wanted to avoid a list of "don'ts" and concentrate on features that make a story stand out above the vast mass of the slush pile.
What I Look for in a Story
James Van Pelt – August 8, 2014
Comments Prepared for the IFWA Two-Day Workshops
• Strong beginning: There needs to be something arresting fairly early in a piece. I can be patient for a while, particularly if the language is nicely done, but even then, at some point I’m going to start to wonder why I’m there. What I need is two-fold: an event or conversation or description that tells me something important is happening in the world of the characters; and I need to feel I’m in the hands of someone who knows the end of the story. This may be because of my strongly held belief that the beginning exists to set up the end. The beginning is the first rhetorical shot the author takes. It’s a move, like in chess. It’s a strategy shoving the reader in a direction. Too many stories don’t appear to be written with the ending in mind. The beginning doesn’t feel like a confident first step in a direction. This is why I often find myself rushing right back to the beginning when I finish writing a rough draft. Most of the time the beginning is the most changed part of the piece.
• When I write a draft, the first opening is the writing I did when I least understood my characters and what the story was about. It’s only natural that it is the place that is most likely to need work.
• I want to get very early in the story a sense of the conflict. I need to know what the character wants, what stands in the way, and what is at stake. Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes it doesn’t focus until the end, but there should be a sense of urgency. The events have to feel like they matter to the point of view character or to the storyteller. Some stories are like a war, and there are opposing sides. I want to know who the combatants are and what condition would constitute a win or a loss for each. Some stories are journeys: there needs to be, then, a clear sense of where we are going and why it’s important to get there. Some stories are a birth. At the end, something will be born that didn’t exist before. In this kind of story, I may not get an immediate sense of direction, but I should feel characters under stress early in the story so I know that change is on the horizon. Occasionally, stories are a riddle or puzzle. The early events or the character’s situation are described in such a way that I want to know what happened to produce this condition. The payoff in the end is a satisfying explanation for the initial situation. I find puzzle stories the hardest to do well, by the way, and the kind of story I see way too often in workshops.
• I like to find “gems” on the page. These are clever, interesting, arresting elements that even if I don’t know what is going on, or I don’t like what I’m reading in general, that I recognize are cool. It might be a turn of phrase, a line of dialogue, a funny bit, a place name, an aphorism, or a touch (or bucket) of figurative language. The gem is evidence of the writer caring not only about the big picture, but also the details and style along the way.
• I need a sense of place in the story. Every scene requires enough information so that I know where the characters are, where they are in relationship with each other, and how the point of view character is experiencing the environment. Early scenes probably need more setting than later ones, but there’s a lot of flexibility in presentation as long as I have the essential questions answered in my mind: Where are we? Who is in the scene? Where are they in relation to each other?
• I want to see competent, confident writing. This is language that does not hesitate. In general, it’s language built on well-chosen action verbs with varied sentence lengths and types. It doesn’t accidentally repeat the same sentence beginnings or the same word too close to itself. It has a rhythm that doesn’t trip itself or make me reread to figure out what is going on. Pronoun references are clear, paragraphing aids in clarity, and the words are the right words. Of all the elements I want to see in a story, this is the one that is the most irreplaceable. Competent writing is what editors look for when they pull a manuscript only half way out of its submission envelope. If the writing betrays a lack of competence in the first half page, there’s no point in reading anymore. Nothing will save it.
• I need characters who are fleshed out enough that I care about their fates. Sometimes I care about a character just because they have a cool voice or an identifiable attitude. Sometimes it’s because of actions they take. Most often character comes out of a point of view that reflects who they are. Does their point of view color the world of the story? In most stories, if I don’t know the character well enough to care, then what happens to them won’t matter. In some stories, what happens is what is most interesting, and the characters are less important, but these are rare stories. Plot will occasionally be the star in a story, but strong characters save a plot way more often than strong plot saves the characters.
• I also need characters who struggle. The struggle is what makes them interesting. The main character should be an active participant in her/his story. Even if they don’t know what is going on in the story, and events are motivated by outside agencies, the character should be trying to survive, trying to get ahead of events to control what is happening. I look for active characters who are not merely passive victims. Characters don’t have to win, but they shouldn’t lose because they didn’t move. The actors must act.
• I love stories where the ending resonates. It’s not just that the plot ends and the conflict is resolved, but that the story feels like it has been told to illuminate some mystery of existence. This is a fancy way of saying there should be thematic overtones in the end. The storyteller told the story because she/he thought the tale was interesting, and what makes it interesting is that it is a revelation. It uncovers, even a little, the mysteries of the human condition, or it tells us something important about the universe we live in, or it challenges our complacency or apathy about life. The ending should feel larger than the whole, like a poem. I should finish with a rueful grin of recognition because the writer shared a truth that I hadn’t thought about before, or I should feel an empathetic spark for the characters because they went to a place or completed a cycle that I now understand because I read their story. The end of the story answers the question of “so what?” It’s the reason the story was written in the first place. All the good writing before the ending should be fun or interesting or amusing, and good writing is a kind of payoff on its own—after all, the journey needs to be worthy—but everything in the story exists to make the end work. There has to be a good ending.
I've written a few stories in the last year that have felt emotionally close for one reason or another. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to try to make a difference in school when you are a kid for this one. "Aubrey Comes to Yellow High," is now live at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. If any of my students read this, they'll have a (probably disturbing) insight of what goes through my mind during the day. As a side note, the illustration captures almost exactly the look of my high school's hallway, without the wild west action.
My author interview that accompanies "This Gray Rock, Standing Tall," in the JOURNAL OF UNLIKELY CARTOGRAPHY is now live. I really liked the stories in this edition of the zine. It's worth the read.
There's this Far Side cartoon I like a lot that shows an orchestra conductor being led into hell. His demon guide is opening a door for him while saying, "Here's your room, maestro." On the other side of the door are what look like a class of junior high music students, waiting patiently with their banjos.
This is one of the essential contradictions of teaching. Many of us chose the subject we teach because we love the subject: the band teacher who listens nightly to his collection of classic jazz albums; the art teacher who plans her summer around visits to art museums; the English teacher who goes to bed every night after having read two or three classic poem, and who spend their days listening to musical instruments badly played, trying to convince students that there are art forms other than anime, and reading Twilight fan fiction.
One of the things I find hard to do as a teacher or a workshop leader is to read a bunch of student short stories in a row. It messes with my ability to suspend disbelief, and after a while, I want to start writing "What's the point?" after every paragraph.
Of course a lot of that comes from most of the stories not being successful. The narrative voice is muted, dull and unauthentic. The stakes ...feel low or false. The settings are weakly imagined (or absent). The stories don't clear the imaginative-world bar, and there's little or nothing to tickle the part of my sensibility that loves to read.
Sometimes I wonder if the problem isn't in the story I'm reading, but in me, reading the story with that weirdly critical approach that being a teacher creates. I'm reading a set of stories from my college Creative Writing students for tonight, and although I find the occasional gem in the prose, I'm mostly turning the page, thinking, "This sucks . . . and this too . . . and this also sucks."
It's a terribly negative way to read. Naturally, when I talk to them, I'll pump up the positive areas, make suggestions for the rest, and then send them on the path of revision. I'll ask them what they hoped the story was trying to accomplish, and maybe help them to identify the narrative heart that they have missed so far.
I want to be a good reader, a helpful one, because my stuff sucks too at times. Writing saints responded to my work in my past. I never imagined what patience was required to be a writing teacher (or and editor!) before I became one.
Then, before I go to bed, I'll read some Phillip K. Dick or Ray Bradbury or Connie Willis to cleanse the palate so I won't have red-penned dreams and rejection slip nightmares.
Since I teach Pride and Prejudice to A.P. Lit students, and see many advanced seniors struggle with this two-hundred year old novel of manners, I was surprised that someone proposed moving the book to a less-developmentally ready age. The joy in teaching Austin's novel to motivated seniors is that as a group they are just at the point where, with some help, they can appreciate this deeply funny, insightful satire on 19th Century attitudes and behavior.
But for most of the 12th graders, it does take a lot of help, the kind of help that I wasn't given in college when the book was assigned to me. I hated Pride and Prejudice when I first read it. Nothing happened in the book! My memory of it was that there were pages of descriptions of boring dances where the key action was that somewhere in the midst of it, someone gave someone else a glance or thought of saying something to someone but didn't say it. Yuck! I disliked the book so much when I was twenty that I wouldn't even consider Wuthering Heights because it was also by a British woman author writing in the 1800s.
It took another teacher, Sandy Haulman, who has long since retired, to guide me through Pride and Prejudice and to help me see it for the marvelous book it is.
The point is that I needed to be a much more mature reader (with a lot of support) to get into that book. I wasn't ready for it when I was twenty. I certainly could not have handled it when I was fifteen, and if someone had dragged me through it, I'm pretty sure that I would have just ended up not understating it, and hating it to boot. Remember, I'm the kid who grew up to be an English teacher, and I would have hated it.
Surely, getting kids to hate literature is not one of the desired results in an English class.
Thinking about developmental readiness came to mind for me this week when I read an article entitled "The Disturbing Transformation of Kindergarten."
The author talks about how test-driven curriculum changes may be asking kindergartners to attempt tasks that research shows us they're just not capable of accomplishing. As the author says, "It may satisfy politicians to see children perform inappropriately difficult tasks like trained circus animals. However, if we want our youngest to actually learn, we will demand the return of developmentally appropriate kindergarten."
What worried me about the article is that maybe this is true in the higher grades too. Saying "The 12th grade is the new 9h grade" doesn't make it so, developmentally. Getting 9th grade kids to parrot 12th grade behavior, even if they don't really understand it, isn't a good goal.
I know what the tests ask of our students, and I know what kind of preparation is necessary to help them show well on those tests. We have plenty of information to look at to help guide our lessons. But what I haven't seen are the studies that show the developmental readiness for our students to tackle the preparation and tests. What I haven't seen is the researched based evidence that shows the curriculum and the approaches we were using were not good ones or that we were giving our kids lessons they should have learned a couple of grades earlier.
Our job in the classroom has become how to present the curriculum to our students in a developmentally appropriate way so they have both a chance of succeeding on the tests AND actually learning the material.
I think we also have a mission to make the lessons interesting, relevant and, if possible, fun.
Remember the anecdote I started this with? The administrator who argued that Pride and Prejudice should be moved to the 9th grade curriculum was a part of a book club with some other teachers. The book club decided to read Pride and Prejudice. When the meeting came to discuss the book, the administrator admitted he had not read it. He said, "I couldn't get into it. It was too hard."
I can't decide if that story is funny, or if it makes me sad.
I wanted to write things like, "My students will love reading" and "My students will discover through writing what they think" and "My students will value their own ability to create literary works," and "My students will understand themselves and the world more profoundly through literature."
Nope, none of those outcomes would fly because they were not measurable. I really tried to get with the program, but it turns out that rewriting my first goal as "My students will love their reading 20% more" is not really an educationally acceptable outcome even though I cleverly (I thought) inserted a number in it.
I had to write measurable outcomes, like, "Students will correctly spell 85% of the district approved vocabulary list for 10th graders," or "Students will identify incorrect sentence structure 90% of the time on the unit test for understanding sentence structure."
My ideal lessons always involved a lot of reading, writing and discussion. I wanted to set up situations where students could grow impassioned about their opinions, would be moved by what they were reading, and inspired to write and read on their own.
Eventually I did learn what my instructors wanted in my lesson plans, and I dutifully wrote them in. When I started teaching, though, I found that there was a divide among the teachers. Some of them really took the measurable outcome path to heart. Their classes featured lots and lots of repetition and drill. It turns out that the measurable stuff can be changed through repetition and drill. When they assigned literature, it was always with the idea that the literature would lead to a measurable outcome, like "The student will successfully identify a theme in the poem and be able to support his/her claim for the theme with three, fully explained, defendable examples."
Frankly, I don't fully trust a teacher whose first response to Death of a Salesman or Romeo and Juliet is, "Do we have a good multiple choice check test for this?" or "Students, now that we have finished reading this towering literary masterpiece that so brilliantly revealed a truth of the human condition, would you please identify its rhetorical strategies. Be sure to use the rhetorical strategy graphical guide to identify the relevant evidence."
In fact, I not only don't trust this teacher, I think that teacher is the metaphorical equivalent of a serial killer, filling the field behind his house with shallow graves containing the hearts of kids who might have found language and literature deeply moving, but instead decided that the main reason for the existence of literature was to provide obscure problems in literary code that only a teacher could fully solve.
Then there were these other teachers. Their first response to literature or an essay assignment was to treat the reading and writing as a philosophical, intellectual and emotional adventure. They climbed onto the raft with their students on the first page and rode the rapids to the end with them. Along the way, they might teach comma placement and vocabulary and how to fix sentence fragments, but these results seemed like side-effects of the instruction, not the goal. Grammar study improved the students' ability to discover what they thought and to create their own literary works. Literary analysis helped students love reading and to understand the world more profoundly.
I'll bet that if I look at those teachers' lesson plans, I'd find goals written exactly the way I was taught to write them: as measurable, observable data. But I also bet that if I looked at their hearts and could read the lessons they really wanted to teach, the plans would be very different, and not measurable at all.
Of course, he's a little insane. Teaching feels a little bit like weight lifting to me. You go to the gym, workout, which breaks the muscles down some, and then rest to give the muscles time to repair and strengthen. That's how your muscle fitness improves. I like Mondays and returning to the classroom from breaks because I feel stronger. More fit. Ready to roll.
And then there are snow days. When I lived in Denver, snow days were a regular thing. Denver doesn't live in a precipitation shadow like Junction does, and a school-closing weather event came through two or three times a year most years. When I was a kid, if there was snow, the first thing we did was turn on the radio to hear which schools were closed.
Snow days are so rare here as to be practically non-existent. We're a tough breed on the western slope! A little snow on the road doesn't stop us. I also think that a snow-day, public relations catastrophe we had in the early 80s didn't help. During the night, a fast moving snow/sleet storm moved through the valley, followed by a quick temperature drop. Every road in town had a half inch of ice on it. Still, we tried to keep the schools open. What happened, though, is the first bus out of the parking lot where most of the buses are stored hit the turn onto the road, slid sideways across the street, and ended in the ditch. The second one out did the same thing. I don't think they went for bus three.
They called a snow day.
Unfortunately, the sun came up, and the cold front disappeared. By 11:00 the temperatures were in the upper 50s. There wasn't a patch of visible snow or ice anywhere, and teachers were on the golf courses. The local media had a field day with that. I don't think we had another snow day for a dozen years.
I thought about that snow day as I was driving to school today through the remnants of last night's storm. At the gym, a regular workout schedule is the best way to build fitness and strength. You don't want to break the routine. Still, on the day that the doors are locked because the gym owner overslept, there's a certain lightness in your heart.
We love the work, but the occasional, unexpected break feels so sweet.
I still check the radio when a snow storm comes through. I did this morning. Silly of me, of course. We're Grand Junction. We don't get snow days (often). The snow day we had this year was a rare event.
I imagine teachers a decade from now, sitting in the teacher's lounge, and one of them says, "Do you remember that snow day we had in 2013?"
They'll all look into their coffees and sigh. I don't blame them.
Our administrators were relentlessly positive and upbeat, as they always are. They celebrated the successes in the school in the last month (kids and teachers do a lot of awesome things when you put their achievements in a list). The meeting didn't drag on, and there didn't seem to be material that would have been better handled in a memo.
So, why the depression?
I think that's because part of the meeting introduced changes in procedures and new procedures. What is depressing about this is that changes in procedures and new procedures always sound like more work than we were doing before the meeting, and this happens every month. The trend towards putting more things on our plates also seems to be a feature of many of our PLC meetings.
The truth isn't exactly this, but it feels like this: what a teacher can expect to learn from meetings is that they will have to work harder to change what they are doing, work longer to reach new goals or raised goals, do this work with fewer resources and less time, do the work for more kids, do the work with less support, or suffer more fragmentation and interruption.
That's not always true, but it happens so often that I have a Pavlovian reflex to meetings now: I go into them depressed.
Am I experiencing my meetings poorly? Is there a way to go to them and come out of them uplifted, inspired and more motivated to do my job well? Am I just missing the message somehow?
I tried to think of the last time I went to a meeting and the main thrust was "Here is a change that will make your job easier." Here is a change that removes a distraction or streamlines a procedure. Here is a form or report that we've eliminated so you can focus more on preparing your lessons and interacting with students. Here's a new person we have hired who will take some of the interventions you have to do with your struggling kids off your hands. Here is a way that we've given you more planning/introspective time that you can use on your own to improve instruction. Here is a change in our approach that trusts you are a professional who can make autonomous decisions. Here is some testing that we are going to cut back on. Here is a way that we're guaranteeing you work with smaller class sizes so you can individualize and teach to diversity.
We occasionally do have meetings like that, but I don't remember them.
That last time I went to a meeting where I came out thinking, "This will make it easier to do my job," was when we switched from figuring all of our grades by hand to entering them on the computer. I used to end every quarter with a couple of hours crunching all the hand-written numbers in my grade book, before turning them into a final grade. Since the switch, I double-check that all the grades are entered, and then I hit submit. What used to take hours is done in minutes. Woo hoo!
I've been teaching for a while, and I've come up with a metaphor for what educational change looks like. It involves the concept of "roil." Roil is what water does in a turbulent part of the river. The water gets caught in a loop, circling from the top to the bottom, picking up muck on the way. It's moving rapidly, but it's not going anywhere. It's full of bubbles and sediment and motion. Not clear. A bit violent. Chaotic.
Some people like the roil. The river is exciting there. But it's difficult to navigate, and it becomes tiresome. I'd like to have some meetings where the current smooths out and the water is clear. It'd be nice to get the place where paddling is just about going forward and not mostly about keeping roil from swamping the boat.
I notice that my body shuts down around 3:00 pm everyday also. I'll be energized and roaring to go at 2:30, when I'm teaching my last class, but a half hour later, ten minutes after the students have left, I'm ready for a nap.
This wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, but I have about a twenty-five minute drive home. That is not the time to be sleepy!
Through years of this schedule, I've gradually learned that bed time is important (it took years because I'm a slow learner). I feel significantly different the next day if I'm in bed by 10:00 rather than 10:45. It's hard for me to believe that the first few years I was teaching, that I would meet with a bunch of other teachers for Thursday night basketball. We'd play until 9:00 or so, and then go to Otto's for a nightcap. I shudder to think how many Thursdays we didn't leave until Otto's closed. Of course, I wish I could have tape recorded those conversations. I'm pretty sure that we solved all of education's challenges on those evenings; I just don't remember now what we said! I must have been a mental zombie on Friday. I know I couldn't do that schedule today.
Teachers' bodies adapt to their schedule. Many people have shared with me how the teaching day has impacted them physically. At FMHS, many teachers are hungry for lunch at 10:45, which, outside of our buildings is not lunch time. I know teachers who claim that if they are going to get the flu or a cold, the symptoms start on a Friday or right before a break. It's like their bodies know they have to hold it together until they have a day off. Others report that their bladders are exquisitely timed to the bell schedule.
I know that my emotional, physical and mental reserves always run out just as we reach a vacation. Is my system inventorying my resources, and then parceling them out in exactly the right amounts to keep me upright until there is recovery time?
It's a strange phenomenon.