Friday, January 15, 2010

New Blog!

I've re-started this blog thing, taking into consideration a web address and a blog title that is more appropriate to what I'm trying to do, and more focused specifically on writing.

It is:

Slushpile Avalanche

I'll be moving my writerly posts over there, as well as adding new ones (Adventures From the Slushpile) in which I'll discuss what I see as I swim through a sea of slush, all in an effort to improve the quality of the stories that come flowing over the transom and onto my desk. It'll be the musings and dreams of a slush editor/reader.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Writing Mechanics: Name Your Characters!


Someone, at some point, decided it would be clever to write a story without ever actually giving his main character a name. I don't know when it first happened. It may very well have been centuries ago.

At any rate, it's been done.

Too many times.

Writing fiction is all about decisions--choosing the first word, where to start the story, who to populate the story with, POV, tense, on and on.

A skilled writer will consciously make every one of those decisions with a specific purpose in mind. Therefore, a skilled writer will have done his homework, he'll have made writing a focus of study and practice, he will intimately understand the mechanics of writing so that he knows WHY he makes the decisions he does.

A skilled writer, for example, carefully chooses not only the point of view through which he will tell the story, but which character's point of view will work most effectively to tell the story.

A skilled writer will also carefully construct a character, will choose a name that fits the character and the story's setting and plot, and will use that named character to engage the reader in the story. That's what characters do.

Because we are human, we tend to like to be around other humans, but we tend to like to be around other humans we are familiar with.

Imagine you're going to a party tonight. You don't know anyone there, and you're not going with anyone you know. You're just going to this party alone.

Are you going to have a good time? Odds aren't good you will.

Are you going to waltz right in and strike up a delightful and witty conversation with the first person you see? Probably not. If you are brave enough to strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger, you're most likely to look around the room a bit to find someone you think might have something in common with, or someone you think might be interesting to talk to. Still, what's the first thing you're going to do when you approach this person? You're going to say, "Hi. My name is So-and-so." And the person you're talking to will say "I'm Such-and-such." And you'll spend the next ten or fifteen minutes in small talk, looking for clues as to that person's character, seeking commonalities or topics that interest you both.

So is the opening of a story.

When a reader begins your story, he's walking into a party where he knows no one.

Are you going to leave him alone and lonely? Or are you going to give him a person of interest to which he can relate? At the very least a person whose name he knows?

A point of view character has a vitally important job to do in any story. That job is to take your reader's hand and walk him through the events of the story. A virtual trail buddy.

Some writers use more than one POV character. That's fine as long as the reader is introduced to each new trail buddy and clearly understands when he is being passed off to someone new.

For flash fiction, it's rare to change trail buddies. And for new writers it's advised that you intentionally stick with one POV character for the duration of the story. If nothing else, it's a good exercise in writing in POV.

As an editor, I see FAR too many stories that begin with an unnamed 'he' or 'she.' Sometimes the character is eventually named, sometimes not at all. Either way, it rarely works. VERY rarely works. I would MUCH rather see a story begin, FIRST WORD, first sentence, first paragraph at the least, with the main and/or POV character's name.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Horror: Building Suspense


Today I finished reading Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell.

The novel is not horror, but horror writers could learn a great deal about the buildup of tension, suspense, and the effectiveness of a masterfully handled climactic moment.

Beware! I'm about to give away the plot of this novel, so if you'd rather read it first, do so now.

Teodor, an immigrant from Ukraine trying to provide a life for his family, has had some hard breaks and struggles. As a convicted felon he is unable to obtain land through the homesteading program, so he makes a deal with his sister to acquire some homestead land under her name. She puts her name on the contract, he does the work, they both end up with land in the end.

Things go wrong when the sister's husband, a cruel lowlife of a man, returns form his most recent months-long foray away from his family and responsibilities, and begins to stir up resentment against Teodor. Bad blood runs thick, Teodor is betrayed by this brother-in-law and his emotionally impotent sister, and Teodor--again--loses everything. The story culminates in a horrific act of desperation and despair.

Ms. Mitchell beautifully intertwines the use of present tense (which gives the events a sense of immediacy) with a continually shifting POV (which I don't recommend a newer author attempt, but which Mitchell also masterfully handles, never leaving the reader confused as to POV, and giving the story an uncanny depth of understanding for the characters and their dilemmas), both of which add tremendously to the developing suspense. However, Mitchell (unlike, for example, Dan Brown) gives the reader time to breath, breaks at which to ponder what has occurred and what might occur after the next page turn.

So how does Mitchell successfully build her tension to the heartbreaking conclusion?

1. She lets us know immediately, on the first page of the book, that we should expect tension, heartache, death. Does that detract from the tension? Does it take away from the horrific revelation at the end? Not at all. It is a story UNFOLDED. The tension is provided in the reader finding out HOW it unfolds, NOT in the reader being suddenly surprised by things that come out of left field.

2. She gives us time to become deeply involved in the characters' lives. The reader weeps for them, rejoices with them, loves them, hates them, truly cares for them, because she has drawn them in such a way that the reader KNOWS them. She makes her characters believable, real, sympathetic. And by SYMPATHETIC I mean we can relate to them. Even the nasty brother-in-law is a sympathetic character. We don't have to feel sorry for him or like him to be able to relate to him, but we can relate to who he is, why he does what he does, because we can see something of him in ourselves or in someone we know. Because we can believably see some part of ourselves BEING him, or marrying him, or falling in love with the man he tries to show the world. Even at his most vile, I pitied him. When other more innocent characters made choices that brought the conflict to an explosive head, I cried for them, for their feelings of desperation and helplessness, because it's that helplessness that every human being most fears, and desperation that causes otherwise good people to do despicable things. If that isn't horror, I don't know what is.

3. Ms. Mitchell NEVER betrays her readers' confidence by withholding information. She lays it all out, bare as a newborn baby, for the reader to feel and experience along with the characters. Does it diminish the tension? Exactly the opposite. We know something's going to happen. It's a story, after all. Something always happens in stories. It's how it comes to happen that we love to read about. It's the middle of the story that we relish and savor with every turn of the page. The opening merely leads us in, the ending wraps it all up, but the middle comprises the overwhelming bulk of the story. It must never disappoint or mislead.

4. Ms. Mitchell masterfully engages her reader's imagination and never betrays it. Imaginative engagement is crucial to a well-told story, and it's a challenge to maintain it. It must be nurtured with accurate information and kept clear of any disruption. Disruption occurs when the information you give contradicts what the reader imagines. If your story gives clues that one of your main characters is, as a very simple example, a man but turns out to be a woman, you've betrayed your reader, disrupted his imaginative flow, and given him an opportunity to put your story down--and NOT pick it up again. If you give clues that one of your main characters is a powerful wizard, but then he is unable to actually DO anything to help resolve the story, you've betrayed your reader. If you set up one character as a favorite, as the hero, then you kill him halfway through the story, you've betrayed your reader. I know of one best-selling author who did this. I still feel betrayed more than a year after reading that book, and am much more wary of his work, which translates, quite frankly, to much less likely to buy.

You're a writer, so you should understand this metaphor. I call it the train metaphor:

When I'm writing, it's like I'm driving a train down the track. When I'm interrupted, the train stops dead, and it takes a considerable amount of mental effort to get it chugging again. This is why many authors choose a secluded nook somewhere to do their writing.

In relation to imaginative engagement, your reader is riding an imagination train. Every piece of information opens a visual image in the reader's mind that both emotionally and mentally involves the reader in the story. When the reader is misled his train stops until he is able to recallibrate his visual image before proceeding. Sometimes it takes only a second or two to recallibrate, but every time the reader has to do it, the likelihood of his continuing with the story diminishes. Sometimes I've been so confused by misinformation in a story that I'm completely unable to get the train going again and the story dies in my hands. A well-written story must engage me, and it must maintain that engagement with accurate and complete information to keep the train chugging along.

If you've been reading carefully, you've no doubt noticed that these four elements intertwine a great deal. Unfolding, characterization, reliability, imaginative engagement. They are so intricately woven together as to be a single thick rope, but the rope can't hold together if any one is missing. A well-written story needs them all.

And one last thing, I tend to think (and it may just be my opinion) that horror told in first person POV immediately loses a huge amount of potential tension because we know that the main character/narrator is going to live to tell the story. Peril is lost and the fear of its potential with it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bad Horror


Flash Fiction Online publishes all genres, so I read everything from westerns to romances, to historicals, to literary, to Tolkienesque fantasy, to space opera.

But of all the genres, the one in which I read the most really awful ficiton is in the horror genre.

Why is that?

Let me tell you.

The greatest error in wannabe horror writers is an overabundance of concern for the punchline at the expense of telling the story. So, what I end up reading is horror story after horror story in which superficial characters engage in superficial activities that end up leading to a totally unexpected ending. The old "SURPRISE!!" ending; an ending that was not set up for within the story. For example, some time ago I read a story in which the protagonist was hunting the monster. First of all, the story offered nothing hugely unique, nothing particularly interesting that made it stand out from the hundreds of other gritty-hero-chasing-monster stories out there. At least until the ending in which, SURPRISE!!--it turns out the protagonist is actually a VAMPIRE!! Gasp! Horrors! Oh, my! Punchline, no story.

This type or story shows that the author fails to realize that the suspense in a story is not provided by the surprise at the end. It's created by the events leading up to that ending. And the ending should never be a complete surprise. Never. Not even if you think it's clever. The ending should always be a logical conclusion drawn from the evidence given. It may be startling, it may be somewhat surprising, but it should never be nonsensical.

On the converse, the ending should never be too predictable.

It's a fine line that's challenging to walk, but mastering it is essential if publication is the goal.

Secondarily, wannabe horror writers often rely too much on violence. Horror, as a genre, is not about violence. It's about fear. It's about an emotion rather than an action. Violence doesn't always elicit the type of emotion that a good horror writer wants.

As Ramsey Campbell, author of The Influence, said: "In the worst horror fiction, violence is a substitute for imagination and just about everything else one might look for in fiction."

In other words, it's the lazy horror writer who relies on violence, blood, guts, and gore to create the fear and suspense.

Besides, it's not violence that's so frightening. What's REALLY frightening is the THREAT of violence. What's REALLY frightening is the capability of the human monster to create fear in his fellow humans. Thanks to Stephanie Meiers, vampires aren't scary anymore. Thanks to JK Rowling, werewolves are just our old friend, Professor Lupin. In reality, Mary Shelly's monster was never as frightening as the idea that man messing around with the powers of the gods creates things that we are unable to control. Thanks to the film, I Am Legend, zombies are still frightening, but only because they represent a loss of control over the circumstances of Legend's life--not the fear that they eat us, but the fear that they MIGHT.

Control. That's where horror lies--in the fear that circumstances are beyond our control.

Unfortunately, not many people read this blog, so it's unlikely I'll be reading fewer badly written horror stories because of it.


Good article on writing Horror:
How to Write Today's Horror

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas at Valley Forge, 1777


With apologies to my writer friends who, I'm sure, will find a plethora of writerly errors in this first-draft manuscript, [but, DANG! I got it done in time for Christmas!] I offer my annual Christmas story.

Christmas at Valley Forge, 1777
By Suzanne Vincent

Snow fell at Valley Forge that Christmas Day.

By all apparent measures, but for the new snow, the day would be no different from the one before. Men still worked at hewing trees to build winter huts and provide firewood for the hundreds of campfires around which other sicker, weaker men huddled. The commissary still warned of perilous shortages--only 24 barrels of flour remained to feed 11,000 men and boys with no promise of supplies to come. Graves still needed digging to bury the men who had died during the night.

General Washington knew all this, as he knew every detail of the camp and the men who wintered there. The morning had seen a constant stream of Colonels and Captains coming to the command tent to report the day's conditions to him, of patrols reporting the doings of the British army, of camp doctors reporting the tolls cold and illness continued to take on the Continental army.

Near midday he refused an offered portion of gruel seasoned with a few precious grains of cracked pepper, and called an aide to his side.

"Mr. Tilghman," he said, "I wish to draft a letter to Congress."

Mr. Tilghman, as always, responded promptly, gathered paper, quills, and penknife, retrieved the bottle of ink he kept in his breast pocket to prevent it freezing, poured some ink into the inkwell, and sat at the small desk kept in the tent for this very purpose, the desk at which he had transcribed dozens of letters for the General. He expected, after the morning's grim news, that he would be sending yet another plea for food and blankets, shoes for men with nothing but rags wrapped around half-frozen feet, fodder for starving horses.

"I am ready, General," he said, his pen poised over the inkwell.

Washington did not immediately begin. He stood beside Tilghman, looking down at the empty page. He placed a long-fingered hand on Tilghman's shoulder.

"You should know," he said, "you will be transcribing my resignation."

Mr. Tilghman looked into the General's eyes. He saw nothing but weariness there and knew its source. Tilghman, one of three aides-de-camp to General Washington that December of 1777 and a member of the General's military 'family,' had seen what few others had seen. He had seen the grief and rage and tears shed for the men who had left bloody footprints on the road that climbed the hill to the Valley Forge plateau on which their camp stood, for the threats of desertion and mutiny which he could blame no one for, for the men who hungered and suffered from cold and illness with no food or coats or medicines to ease their distresses. Tilghman knew also that, were it left to him, he would have resigned long before now.

But it was not left to him. It was left to Washington, and Tilghman believed, as many others did not, that if Washington could not succeed in the cause of liberty, no one could.

"Then, it is over," he said.

Washington pulled a chair close and sat heavily in it. "I do not see how it can be otherwise," he said. "It is Christmas Day, and while our congressmen feast on goose and plum pudding and sleep in their feathered beds, the men entrusted with securing the liberty they crave starve on this God-forsaken hill." He hunched over and rested his head in his hands. "I save myself by resigning, Mr. Tilghman. It seems a conceit for me to do so, but I cannot observe the suffering of my men one more day. I sell my soul to save it."

Mr. Tilghman nodded. "I understand, Sir."

The General sat up and looked Mr. Tilghman in the eye. "I knew you would," he said. "Which is why I gave this unhappy task to you. I beg your forgiveness, Tench."

"There is nothing to forgive, General," he said.

Washington nodded and frowned. "Then we shall begin."

Tilghman dipped his pen and held it at the ready. Washington spoke.

"Addressed to Henry Laurens, President, Continental Congress, United States. Dear Mr. Laurens..."

For more than an hour, Mr. Tilghman's pen scratched gently on the paper as the General spoke, interrupted only occasionally by messengers reporting conditions, or officers bringing information from the British lines, or Tilghman's own need to cut a new nib on an overused quill. With each interruption Washington's resolve seemed to Tilghman to weaken. He paused longer before proceeding, spoke more slowly when he did. All the while the snow fell, hissing faintly on the roof and walls of the tent.

As the short midwinter day began to subside, a disturbance arose in the camp. Shouts could be heard, calls and whistles.

General Washington rose, his face pale, and went to the tent door where a guard always stood. Tilghman heard the General speaking, sending the guard off to discover the cause of it then turning to his bed where his coat and hat and gloves lay.

"Your Excellency?" Mr. Tilghman said as the General began to dress.

"We've heard rumors of mutiny for some time, Mr. Tilghman," the General said. "I fear it has finally come to that."

Tilghman abandoned his inks and pens and reached for his own coat and gloves. Without waiting for the guard to return, they walked out into the sea of tents, Tilghman jogging to keep up with Washington's long energetic stride, following the noise to its source.

There, greatly to the surprise of Tilghman and Washington, they found men gathered around a large fire, stirring a pot of something boiling thickly and singing. One among them spotted the General and called out to him in a cheerful voice:
"Hail to our Chief!"

A chorus of voices joined his:

"Good Christmas, General! May God grant that Liberty prevail! Long live the United States!"

General Washington, wide-eyed with astonishment, stuttered his own greetings of Good Christmas, and God Bless, then strode on to the next fireside where he found conditions nearly identical to the last. And the next fireside, and the next.

At one fire he waved down the chorus of good cheer and asked, "Have you not suffered enough?"

A lieutenant, his head wrapped in a tattered scarf, responded: “Having come this far," he said, "we can but go the rest of the distance. With you to lead us, we can’t lose!”

Tilghman followed on as Washington completed a round of the camp. Nowhere did they find the expected misery and mutiny. Instead they found carols of Christmas and an air of celebration. With dark descending, and the night's cold with it, the General finally made his way to the command tent. He spoke not a word, but went in, picked up the letter that lay undisturbed on Mr. Tilghman's desk, folded it once and handed it to Tilghman.

"Burn it, Mr. Tilghman," he said, "then see that I'm left alone for a time, will you?"

Mr. Tilghman folded the letter again and tucked it into his breast pocket, then helped the General with his coat and hat, then turned to exit the tent again. As he did, he glanced one last time at Mr. Washington, and saw the General lowering himself to his knees.

Outside, Mr. Tilghman gave orders to the guard to see that the General was not disturbed, then started off toward the nearest fire, joining in on the song. "Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel."


NOTE: As far as I have been able to discern, the historical information in this story is factually correct. The Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge on December 19th, 1777. Most would still be in tents, with little time or able-bodied manpower to have made much progress building the 12' by 16' winter huts Washington had ordered. The General, in empathy with his troops, remained in a tent himself until most of the huts had been completed some weeks later. Tench Tilghman was, in fact, an aide-de-camp of General Washington's at Valley Forge that Christmas and would have been as likely as any of the other two then serving to have transcribed the letter he began to Congress. I suspect Washington might not have chosen Col. Robert Henry Harrison, as Harrison suffered from chronic illness; or that he would have chosen John Laurens to whose father (then President of Congress Henry Laurens) the letter may very well have been addressed.

Washington wasted no time seeking to rectify the lack of provisions as best he could from his end, sending out an order that Christmas Day that the following day (Dec 26th) detachments, under the order of the Commissary General, would be sent out "for the purpose of collecting flour, grain, cattle and pork for the army."

However, as the hardships of my ancestors strengthened their resolve as Mormon Pioneers, so did the hardships of that winter of 1777, and the help of a few key men, strengthen the resolve of the Continental Army and see them emerge in the spring a force to be reckoned with--as would be seen.

Among my sources, I viewed several pages of The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress website. Most of the papers are images of the actual letters written by, for, or to Washington. Some are transcribed into a more readily readable modern font format. At any rate, they are fascinating to search and view. You can find them here:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Presents or Pinochle? Withholding vs. Unfolding a Story


Is your story developing like a Christmas present or a game of Pinochle?

Hopefully you're NOT writing a Christmas present.

'Huh?' you say. 'But I like opening Christmas presents.'

Who doesn't?

But a Christmas present withholds information until the moment you open it to find out what it is. Writers should NEVER withhold information that is important to the development of the story. An artfully constructed story is not JUST about the present. But once you've opened a present all the carefully folded wrapping paper, the artfully tied bows, the layers of bubble wrap are all tossed in the trash, forgotten for the sake of the gift itself.

A writer doesn't want to have those things forgotten. He wants them to be just as memorable and important as the resulting present.

An example: I recently slushed a story in which the author withheld all the important information about the storyline and the main character until, literally, the last 2 paragraphs. I'm sure he intended it to be clever and surprising. Instead it was disappointing and misleading, and when you mislead your readers you betray their confidence in you, the writer. Sure, the ending was memorable, but the story showed itself to be just a bunch of cheap paper and curl ribbon.

So really, a well-constructed story should not be like a Christmas present, regardless of how wonderful presents are.

A well-constructed story SHOULD be like a game of Pinochle.

I've been playing Pinochle for coming up on thirty years. It's an intricate game of luck and strategy.

The game of Pinochle begins with the entire 48 card deck being dealt to the four players. At the beginning of each hand I hold 1/4th of the available cards. That's a considerable amount of information to begin a game with. From those 12 cards, a seasoned player can tell a great deal about how the game may play out. As the hand continues, I receive more bits of information gleaned from the bids of the other players, the suit called as trump, the exchange of cards, the melding of certain cards for points, all followed by the meticulous playing of tricks that ends the hand.

The game is never boring, often surprising, but instead of having information withheld from me, the information UNFOLDS at the precise moment when it is crucial to the game.

For example, if I take the bid and am able to construct myself a sizeable number of points, I still must remove the power cards from the hands of my opponents and win tricks in order to keep those points. While I know which cards I'm missing, I don't know for certain who has them. In some instances the very outcome of the game depends on the distribution of those cards, and the resulting play, whether for good or bad, is always a surprise and a delight, even though I've made good, educated guesses at the potential outcomes beforehand.

The interesting part of the game is not in KNOWING how the game will play out, nor is it in being COMPLETELY CLUELESS as to how the game will play out, it's in being fascinated with how the game--despite or because of my clues, information, and guesses--ACTUALLY plays out. The same is true of good story construction.

Unfolding. A story, like a game of Pinochle, should unfold.

In order for that to happen, a writer must be open about a few things, and open about them in the first few lines (paragraphs for longer stories or novels) of the story.

Some absolute basics:
*Too many writers withhold the very name of their main character. Why? I scratch my head over this one. When you give your character a name, especially in the first line of your story, you give your read a familiar arm on which to enter the party. It seems overly simplistic--like looking at the serpent on the staff. Unlike the disbelieving Israelites, JUST DO IT.

*Establish time frame and setting immediately. Don't take your guest into the party blindfolded.

*Establish a conflict early. Giving your main character a problem provides the reader with a 'talking point' at the party. He immediately becomes concerned with the main character and wants to see the problem solved (translate: he CARES).

*Open the story with action, rather than inaction. Don't take your guest into the party before it begins, or after all the exciting events have already taken place. Things HAPPEN at a party, your story should be about things happening, not about things that will eventually happen or have already happened.

These principles are like the deal at the beginning of a Pinochle game. You have your hand. Now let the story unfold.

Another important principle related to UNFOLDING a story has to do with Point of View. If you do not have a clear grasp on the mechanics and importance of Point of View to a story, you need to stop now, buy a copy of Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint, and read it cover to cover three times.

Too many beginning writers fail to understand that your reader sees what's happening through your POV character's eyes, therefore, what the POV character knows, the reader should know. What the POV character discovers should be discovered by the reader at the exact same moment.

If your character walks into a room, sees a beautiful woman, describes her in loving detail, walks up to her then says, "Hi, honey," she turns and kisses him and says to the people around her, "This is my husband, Paul," you've withheld crucial information that your POV characters knows.

It's confusing, it's demeaning to your reader, it's withholding, and I see it far too often.

That scene should look like this:

Paul shook the rain from his hair as he entered the gallery. He saw Grace near the Gaugin, talking with a group of people he didn't know. She seemed to know them all, laughing with them like they were old friends, one of the men--an Armani-suited blonde jock-type--stood close enough anyone might have guessed HE was her husband.

A waiter came by with a tray of champagne flutes. Paul took one, sipped at it, stood there watching her. He liked watching her, to see her smile, to see her laugh, to know she would leave the gallery with him tonight, not the jock with the expensive suit.

Finally, like he knew she would, she turned to look for him, her neck craning, her lips parting, her head twisting this way and that, causing her hair to sway just so. When her eyes found his he smiled and waved, then worked his way through the crowd to put his arm around her, kiss her lightly on the cheek, and see her eyes light up when he whispered "I put your purse in the trunk" in her ear as if it were something sensual.

Grace turned to the jock. "Eddy, this is my husband, Paul."

Paul shook the man's hand.

"Paul," she went on, "my cousin, Eddy."

Before you tell me that last line is withholding, let me tell you you're wrong. Grace isn't the POV character. Paul is. Paul doesn't know Eddy, never met him. He knows (or guesses) only that Grace knows him, therefore that's what the reader knows. If this scene had been written in Grace or Eddy's POV, and that information had been withheld until that last sentence, then it definitely WOULD be withholding.

This article addresses story development through conflict, and while it's geared towards literary fiction writers, it's precepts are applicable to all fiction writers. Pay special attention to section 2: Be Dramatic in Storytelling.

Conflict in Literary Fiction

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

New NEW Low in Submission Etiquette

Get this:

A novella.

Someone sent us a novella.

Is the name of our site not clue enough that we don't publish novellas?

*shakes head*

Maybe we need to call ourselves Flash Fiction (not novellas or poems or oddly formatted stories) Online.

Think it'd work?

Me neither.