I'd forgotten that I'd bought the book. I picked it up, processed the cover and what it was and started crying.
I've been jumping around in it since. The book is an organized collection of Jay's thoughts on a variety of writing-related subjects that he posted at his blog. Since I'd been a long-time reader of the blog, and I respected Jay a great deal, I know that I've read almost all of them, but what I've read so far sounds new to me again and helpful. They also sound like Jay.
At least for the moment Jay's voice is alive in my head as it should be. We should all be able to carry on like that--to live on.
Jay couldn't walk on water, despite the cover of his book, but man could he create the illusion that he could.
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.
They're at the point where they have to start writing their papers, so I put the steps we'd already taken toward writing the paper on the board:
- Studied the background to the novel and Henry James
- Quiz and discussion
- Read and discussed the novel (with writings along the way)
- Read and discussed critical approaches to the novel (with writings along the way)
- Chose among the approaches (the four approaches were Psychoanalytic, Gender, Marxist or Reader Response criticism)
Write a thesis. This might be something like, "The ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are illusions in the head of the sexually repressed governess."
Today I asked them to do a 10-minute freewriting on where they are in the writing of this essay. While they were doing that, I wrote on the board what I thought were the possibilities. I'm very interested in what is their real writing process rather than the idealized one where everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.
Here are what I thought were the possibilities about what was in their free writing:
- I do/don't remember quite a bit of the book
- I do/don't remember quite a bit of the critical approaches
- I do/don't know what I believe about the book
- I do/don't know a direction I'd like to take
- I do/don't know what to do next
- I am/am not already writing the paper
- I have an attitude about the book or assignment that is blocking me
Why this freewriting is important is because it will determine the student's next step. Many students wait until the last moment, and then plunge into what I've come to call the "desperation draft." This is a top-of-the-head, least-well-considered version of their response to the wriiting prompt. This kind of essay is so prevelant that it upsets the curve in the class. So many papers are written this way that the whole idea of what is an adequate response to the prompt is scewed downward.
What I want most of them to do is to do at least one more step before trying to draft. Possibilities include reading some more (particularly for students who say they don't remember or understand the book or the criticism), researching more, talking to other readers of the material, freewriting, and, in some cases, skipping all that and beginning the draft because trying to write the paper tells them what they need to go back to do to make the paper good.
In the meantime, I need to decide what is an appropriate deadline for the rough draft of the paper. The entire piece is only 1,000 words long, so I might want to see them on Friday.
And study them!
I'm reading Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn now. It's a book that I'd heard quite a bit about, but I never got around to reading.
Lucky for me, because now I get to read it for the first time. It's kind of a fable, for those of you who don't know, about the last unicorn searching for others of her kind. It has a heroic prince, and a bumbling wizard, and an evil king, and a truly frightening monster (plus plenty of curses and spells and castle stuff that makes my heart go squee).
But there are two features about it that I really, really like. First, the book reads to me as if Beagle decided to absolutely, as often as possible, bend similes and metaphors to the breaking point. There's hardly a paragraph that doesn't offer up a startling bit of figurative language, like this bit:
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was not longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moon lit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.
Isn't that cool? It's poetic, but I'm hard pressed to tell you exactly what I see in it. What is a "lilac wood," for example? I know what a lilac is, but it's a bush, not a tree. Is it a forest that has a lot of lilac? And then, what is the difference between the color of sea foam (which I have seen), and snow falling on a moon lit night (which I haven't seen, but I can imagine)? How does a shadow move on the sea?
The point isn't that the description strains my ability to see it; it's more that the description is evocative. It's spoken as if there is a significant difference between sea foam and moon light on snow, and that I should know it. And for the moment of the sentence, I DO know it. At least I feel I do.
I'd heard once that a writer should use similes and metaphors sparingly, since they can compete with each other for attention. If Beagle heard that advice, he must have thought, "Screw that, I'm going the other direction!"
So I like this book because the language is consistently interesting and entertaining.
The other reason I like it surprises me. The language drew me in and kept me going, but now that I'm 61% done (thank you Kindle for keeping track), I find that I'm emotionally attached to the characters. Prince Lir's tragic love is heartbreaking (and, frankly, he started as a ridiculous person), just as the unicorn's quest has me scared for what will happen next, and Schmendrick, the bungling wizard, unexpectedly developed depth and pathos.
I'm delighted that I found this book because it's both fun to read, and I like what Beagle does with the writing. I'm learning more about the possibilities of prose through reading him.
The advice is simple: find the writers you like, and then pay attention to how they do what they do. Maybe you'll become more of the writer you want to be by doing this.
To me, the titular school is the ultimate place of learning. I call it "the school eternal." She said of it, "The strength of the vision is such as to make readers wish it could all be true, that this is the place learning could have in the world."
Very cool, at http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2013/09/l
As part of my sponsorship of the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club at the high school, I have established a club blog. Our librarian, Ira Creasman, will contribute articles to the blog too. We want the kids to have a place for advice and writing resources that are aimed at them.
Here is my blog entry for this week:
I love starting a new story. There’s something special about a blank sheet of paper. It feels like beginning a long hike into unexplored forest.
There seems to be a continuum of approaches to starting a writing project, from the I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going writer who starts anyway, to the writer who can’t begin a project unless there’s a completed outline (and the outliners start with nothing too, remember).
Certainly there are many ways that a writing project can go awry (although successful writers hardly every think of a project as going “awry.” They think of writing projects that have taken a new direction), the surest ways to not succeed are not starting, not working consistently, or not working at all.
For the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club, a great way to be sure that you are behaving like a successful writer is to have completed work every week.
Make a goal for yourself to always send in a WIP, and to always be able to tell the group that you’ve made real progress on your project.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” I believe he was right.