In our sleep, guilt which cannot be shrugged off falls drop by drop like a runny nose that thwarts God's own Nasanex, until, in our exhaustion, comes the point where we schlep our carcass off the couch and finally get around to doing something that was due two weeks ago.
Sorry, Aeschylus (and Bobby, and Dr. King, and everyone), but the point is I have finally finished providing responses to all seventy-three stories that arrived in my mailbox. Wheh. My apologies (again) to those who had to wait until this morning for the watery words that pass for wisdom on my part. It has been... a long week.
This week: what you did that made it so hard on yourselves, how and who in your stories should die, and the great writing group meet and greet.
Why Do You Want To Work So Hard?
In my mailbox, I found detective stories, literary stories, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and mixtures of several of the above. (No westerns. As someone who loves a good horse opera, I have to wonder why no one was itchin' to pick up a shootin' iron.) There were stories set in the past and the future, stories set in Chicago and in Spain and on the far side of Jupiter. And most of them -- a surprising number of them -- were very good.
However, there were a few things that showed up so often, I felt like I ought to bring them up. Why did you make things so damn hard on yourself? Here, let me show you a little piece of a story.
One morning Mamzelle Aurélie stood upon her gallery, contemplating, with arms akimbo, a small band of very small children who, to all intents and purposes, might have fallen from the clouds, so unexpected and bewildering was their coming, and so unwelcome. They were the children of her nearest neighbor, Odile, who was not such a near neighbor, after all.
That's from "Regret" from Kate Chopin. There are at least a couple of names in that first paragraph, and several unnamed children. In the very next paragraph, all these kids get names, but that doesn't confuse the fact that this is Mamzelle Aurélie's story.
Here's another piece.
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift--all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance.
That's from Ambrose Bierse's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The character in this story isn't even named, but we still have no doubt that it's his story.
These stories are both third person. The camera stays firmly affixed to the shoulder of these main characters. We don't see things that they can't see. We don't know things that we don't know. And we like it that way. Here's one last snippet from Willa Cather.
IT often happens that one or another of my friends stops before a red chalk drawing in my study and asks me where I ever found so lovely a creature. I have never told the story of that picture to any one, and the beautiful woman on the wall, until yesterday, in all these twenty years has spoken to no one but me. Yesterday a young painter, a countryman of mine, came to consult me on a matter of business, and upon seeing my drawing of Alexandra Ebbling, straightway forgot his errand. He examined the date upon the sketch and asked me, very earnestly, if I could tell him whether the lady were still living.
This time, there's absolutely no doubt where the story is centered. It's on the character who is telling the story.
Yes, it is possible to write using an omniscient point of view that sees all, knows all, and goes anywhere. But this is hard. It's especially hard in a short story. Writing a short story with an omniscient viewpoint is like trying to paint the details on a postage stamp while wearing boxing gloves. It can be done, but it's something best left to someone who has already painted a lot of stamps. Worse yet, a few stories were a bit in someone's head, a bit in another, and a bit who knows where. This is not illuminating for the reader. It's only confusing.
One other thing to note about all the snippets above. What's the verb tense up there? Mamzelle stood. He closed his eyes. A young painter came. Past tense. These stories are in past tense. Yes, Cather dabbles a bit in more complex tenses before settling down, but believe me, the story is in past tense.
If past tense is good enough for these writers, why do so many folks insist on trying to do present tense, or some tangled pluperfect concoction? Leave it alone.
When you have won the Flannery O'Connor prize, then you can launch into that sliding POV, time-shifting story. Of course, Flannery wouldn't have done it that way. (I'm southern. I have to love Flannery O'Connor. There's a law.)
In the meantime, I'd suggest that while you are trying to get your writing legs under you, stick to past tense and third person. You will be in good company, as that's the formula for about three quarters of all the stories out there. Besides, remember when I said that a story was about a character with a problem? How can I follow along if I can't even figure out whose story this is?
You Only Hurt The Ones You Love
One of the other things noticeable in the stories I received was how many people died. In seventy three stories, the entire population of the Earth was killed twice, and most of them were done in a third time. A couple of families met grisly ends, children, parents, and lovers met with tragic accidents, and no less than a dozen named characters were murdered.
I don't think this indicates that we're a particularly violent bunch. Stories are about problems, and death and mayhem make for pretty clear difficulties. But there was one thing that distressed me in many stories -- the death of people we didn't know.
To see why that’s important I'd like to use two classics of the cinema: Alien, and Alien 3.
In Alien, exactly six characters die: Kane, Brett, Dallas, Ash, Parker, and Lambert. That's in order of death, and yes, I did that from memory. And you know what? We care about every one of them. We care because Brett is a smartass, and Lambert's a whiner, and Ash is a son of a bitch. We care because we know these people.
Compare this to Alien 3, in which... I don't know. Dozens? Hundreds? Of names, interchangeable characters are dismembered and shredded with much more attention to how they are killed than who they are. If you're going to kill someone, make sure we love them, or hate them, or feel something for them.
Otherwise, they're not worth killing. Okay, I know that every body in War and Peace is not named. It only seems that way.
And now, the moment you've been waiting for. I asked those who were interested in being in a writing group to send me their IDs so I can mix and match folks by writing styles, areas of interest, etc. However, what I didn't do was get permission to share your email addresses with each other, so I'll leave that to you.
It was tempting to try and shove people together who were all at the same level, but since I'm hoping that there will be some degree of mentoring within the groups, I've mixed it up a bit. Besides, some people asked to be in a group who had not written a story. I've scattered those folks around.
I've lumped you together as "group A" etc., but do us both a favor. Introduce yourselves in the comments and decide on a name for your group.
JanetT in MD
SME in Seattle
I know I left some people out -- including some of those who wrote among the best storie submitted. Sometimes I had a story, but not a screen name. Sometimes I couldn't tell between an email address or general nickname and a kos name. Please feel free to start a thread below to gather those folks together.
And for the one person whose kid wanted to interview me, I'm very sorry I haven't replied. It really has been an extremely busy couple of weeks. Pester me one last time. I promise to respond.