What Do Editors Want, Anyway?

Most beginning writers, especially those who’ve suffered a few rejections, wonder about the answer to this post’s subject question. What do editors want?What Editors Want

I can’t pretend to speak for all editors. I’ve not reached the point where all my stories get accepted. I’ve never worked as an editor myself.

However, a few years ago, one editor* gave me his answer to that question, and it’s a good one. He wrote, “I’m a stickler for a story having not only a clear protagonist, antagonist, and plot, but a resolution of the plot (in which the protagonist participates) and a change in the protagonist on some level. I like stories that, as Twain once said, ‘accomplish something and arrive somewhere.’ Most accomplish nothing and arrive nowhere. It’s dreadful to read through an otherwise good story and have it end without ending.”

Let’s accept that as a working proposition and break it down.

  1. Clear protagonist. The reader shouldn’t have to wonder who the main character is. I believe the editor chose the word ‘protagonist’ rather than ‘hero’ since the main character need not be particularly heroic.
  2. Clear antagonist. Stories must have conflict. There must be some entity against whom the protagonist struggles. The antagonist need not be a person; it could be nature or the environment. Once again, once finished with the story, any reader should be able to name the antagonist.
  3. Clear plot. By this, I believe the editor was saying the story must portray events in a logical order. The events must relate to the conflict and follow each other with a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Some events will escalate tension and others will relieve it. Overall, there needs to be a gradual buildup of tension until the resolution.
  4. Plot resolution in which the protagonist participates. The resolution is that part of the plot where the conflict is resolved (the bad guy is defeated, the two people fall in love, the protagonist overcomes a character flaw, etc.). It’s important that the protagonist take action to bring about this resolution and not be some bystanding witness to the action. Note: the word ‘resolved’ does not imply happily or favorably. Resolution of the conflict could be accomplished by the protagonist’s death or other defeat.
  5. Protagonist changes on some level. If your protagonist is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, the reader will wonder what the point of the story was. The clause ‘on some level’ refers to the fact that conflicts are generally classed as external (bad-guy antagonist or unforgiving environment) or internal (character flaw, irrational fear, grief, unreasonable guilt, psychological problem, etc.). Many stories impose both internal and external conflicts on the protagonist. For internal conflicts, the change should be an overcoming of the condition, or at least hope of such problem solving. For external conflicts, the protagonist’s change is generally a maturation of some kind.
  6. Story accomplishes something. This is part of the Twain quote, and is a restating of points 4 and 5. The plot and conflicts must resolve and the protagonist must change. A great way for a story to accomplish something is if it says something useful about the human condition.
  7. Story arrives somewhere. By this, I take Twain to mean that the story must end at an appropriate point, not before the conflict resolution, and not too long afterward.

Save your editor some time, and save yourself another bout of rejection-grief. Check if your story meets all of the above criteria before submitting it. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready.

Of course, even if your story does meet these criteria, that’s no guarantee of acceptance. Who can pretend to know what all editors want? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Note: the editor who wrote that is David M. Fitzpatrick, of Epic Saga Publishing. He accepted one of my stories for an upcoming Epic Saga anthology. David has gone into more detail about what he looks for in submissions; see this wonderful blog post here, which includes some great writing exercises, too.

Arte/Scienza

Here is the fifth post in my series. I’ve been discussing how the seven principles put forth by Michael J. Gelb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci relate to fiction writing. Today’s principle is Arte/Scienza, or “Development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination, ‘whole-brain’ thinking.”

ArteScienzaIn the book, Gelb demonstrates how Leonardo embodied the kind of balanced thinking intended by the term Arte/Scienza. His artistic paintings contain precise mathematical shapes and geological features. His scientific and engineering drawings are, themselves, works of art. Da Vinci didn’t distinguish between the two.

Sure, you’re saying, that’s all very well for ol’ Leo, born way back in 1452. But a lot has happened since then, particularly on the science side. There’s too much to learn to be an expert in both art and science. The two are way too different these days.

Artists are all about brushes and canvas, lighting and shadow, color and imagery. They’re out to discover beauty, or deliver a message, or say something significant about human nature.

On the other hand, scientists groove on equations and numbers, test tubes and Bunsen burners, experiments and technical papers. They’re out to discover truth, and to solve the mysteries of how the universe works.

In our modern world, we’re used to a high wall between Arte and Scienza. The two are so specialized, require such different talents, and their practitioners use such different jargon that it’s difficult to imagine one person combining the two in equal measure. Even books discussing Leonardo da Vinci separate the chapters for his artwork from those of his scientific endeavors.

Today we speak of being left-brained or right-brained, as if each of us is putting only half our brain to work and leaving the other half idle.

Michael Gelb discusses how you can use the philosophy of Arte/Scienza in your everyday life, and promotes the use of mind maps, which I also advocate.

My purpose is to discuss how Arte/Scienza applies to fiction writing. Most fiction writers identify more with artists than with scientists. They consider fiction writing a kind of art, and believe their creative temperament matches that of painters more than that of researchers. (The exception would be science fiction writers, who must use science in their writing.)

Here are some ways that even an author of magical fantasy, a writer who disdains all things scientific, can benefit from applying the Arte/Scienza principle:

  • Use mind-maps to aid in the writing process. These combine the logical orderliness of outlines with the free-form, colorful, image-laden right-brain preferences. Mind-maps can help you solve plotting problems, create characters, even plan book promotions.
  • Apply the experimental method to the development of your craft. The heart of science is the experimental method, used to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. You’re trying to become a better writer, so experiment!
  • Add a scientifically minded character to your story, even if he or she is the antagonist, a person of pure evil. Pour all your negative feelings about science into that character. You may just find, as you develop this antagonist, that he or she becomes one of your more engaging and interesting creations.
  • Embrace the overlap between art and science. If art searches for beauty, and science seeks truth, are those really that different? In the end, you’d like your book to say something new about the human condition, to expand reader’s knowledge about the theme you’re exploring. While working your art, haven’t you just committed an act of science?

Listen to your inner artist and your inner scientist. The more you do, the more you’ll find them getting along well together, and your writing might improve, too. So far, it’s working for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 27, 2015Permalink

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

Ex-Out Deus ex Machina

Strange term, that ‘Deus ex Machina.’ All it means is ‘the god from the machine’ and if your story’s got one, you probably don’t want it.

Deus ex MachinaAlthough the concept comes to us in its Latin wording, it dates from the plays of Ancient Greece. Performed in amphitheaters, these plays sometimes featured an actor playing the part of a Greek god, who would descend into the final scene apparently from the sky by means of a crane with ropes. The ‘god’ would solve the play’s central problem by means of magical powers.

Over time, the phrase came to mean the late and unexpected introduction in a story of a character, ability, or object that seems to resolve the story’s conflict in some miraculous way.

     Not Recommended
You’ll want to avoid Deus ex Machina (DEM) in your stories because it’s the mark of an amateur writer. You get positive points for burdening your protagonist with difficult dilemmas to solve. But you lose those points and more when you’ve painted your hero into a corner and you can’t get her or him out without resorting to some external savior entering the action at the end.

The presence of a DEM cheats the reader, who is expecting a story about the human condition.  The reader has, therefore, invested some emotional energy in your protagonist, following that hero along through all the conflicts, both external and internal. The reader is wondering how your protagonist will prevail. To introduce a DEM, therefore, is jarring and disappointing.

     Difficult to Avoid
Sometimes you’re working along with your manuscript and you find you’ve put your protagonist in such trouble that, try as you might, you can’t think of a way out. You like the story otherwise, and really don’t want to rewrite in a way that lessens the difficulty and allows your hero to win the day through innate virtues.

These are the times you might be tempted to call in the aid of a DEM. Again, for reasons noted above, it’s best not to do so. In most cases.

     When It’s Right
In the hands of a master storyteller, DEMs can work in two situations I’ve discovered: (1) when the author is making a larger point, and (2) in comedies.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the French army conquers the town, enters the Inquisition, and frees the narrator from his horrible prison. But Poe is making a larger point about life and the freeing of the soul to enter heaven when the clock (pendulum) of life ceases.

In H.G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, it’s true the invading Martians are defeated by tiny bacteria. But Wells is making a statement about Britain’s encounters with cultures having primitive technology. He’s saying that, but for the microbes, even mighty Britain would have been annihilated.

In Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian,” Brian is saved from a deadly fall by a passing alien spaceship. The DEM literary device is used here for comedic effect.

     A Final Example
If you’re really, really good, go ahead and use a Deus ex Machina. Otherwise, best to avoid them. Let your characters figure their own way out of their jams.

Hmm, as I write this, I have no idea how to end this blog post.

Enter Poseidon, appearing out of nowhere.
Poseidon: “Silly mortal. Just write ‘Poseidon’s Scribe’ below your other babbling text, the way you’ve signed off every other post.”
Me: “Oh, hehe. Thanks Poseidon. You mean like this:

Poseidon’s Scribe.”

Readers on My Mind

Just a few thoughts today about the relationship between writers like you and the readers you aim to delight.  Much of this will sound simplistic, but if you hang with me, perhaps we’ll both learn something.

writer-reader 2Years ago I took a classroom course in communication.  In essence, all communication is an attempt to convey one or more ideas from one mind to another, the trouble being that there are all sorts of filters in between so communication is never perfect.  In the class they asked, “Given that there’s a person transmitting and a person receiving, who is responsible for the quality of the communication?”

It’s not necessarily the transmitter, nor the receiver.  The Zen-like answer they were looking for is you.  Whether you are the transmitter or receiver, you need to strive toward a clear conveyance of the idea from one mind to another.

When we consider writing, it’s different from other forms of communication.  Some forms, like talking, dramatic plays, stand-up comedy, or musical concerts have an advantage in that the receiver is present in the room with the transmitter.  The transmitter gets instant visual feedback about the quality of the communication, allowing her to alter her approach in real-time to improve it.

Obviously that’s not the case with writing.  The writer and reader are almost never present in the same room.  In fact, thanks to the permanence of the medium, the writer need not even be alive when the communication takes place.  The writer gets no immediate feedback from the reader, and certainly cannot adjust the communication on the fly.

So the measure of your success as a fiction writer is how well you transfer emotionally appealing ideas from your mind to the reader’s with minimal loss of clarity.  Using written words alone, you must convey the following things I’ve discussed in earlier blog posts:

It should be apparent, then, that you must keep the reader ever in your mind as you write.  Form a mental picture of someone reading your story.  That clever turn of phrase you’re so proud of—would a reader stumble over it?  That little plot detour you stuck in to show off your knowledge of some arcane fact—will it bore the reader?  You must be willing to sacrifice them all for the reader.

In the end, only readers can determine the quality of your story.  Editors can’t; reviewers can’t.  Certainly you can’t.  Readers are your customers, and the customer is always right.

I mentioned that fiction writers don’t get immediate reader feedback, and that’s true.  However, you will get valuable delayed feedback that is useful for altering your approach in later stories.  This feedback comes in several possible ways:

  • Virtual feedback from the reader you’re imagining as you write, the one looking over your shoulder
  • Feedback from members of your critique group
  • Feedback from an editor
  • Feedback from reviewers
  • Sales figures from your earlier stories

All of these can be useful for improving your writing, making that mind-to-mind communication as clear and enjoyable as possible.  Speaking of feedback, I’d welcome some concerning this blog post, so feel free to comment.  With my mind full of imagined readers, I’m—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

September 8, 2013Permalink

Ay, Now the Plot Thickens

When George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham wrote those words for his play “The Rehearsal” in 1663, I believe he had today’s blog post in mind.  For, ay, I intend to discuss how to plot a story.

First, what is a plot?  It is simply a series of connected fictional events.  Here are two rules about these events:

1.  In a non-humorous story, the connections between events should be logical, with a minimum of lucky coincidences; the events should be related by cause and effect.

2.  To make your story appealing to readers, there should be a certain structure to these events.  That is, experience has shown this particular plot structure (sometimes called a “dramatic arc”) to have a maximum emotional impact.

But how are rules 1 and 2 related?  What does it mean to have a cause-and-effect chain of events that rises and falls?  Think of it this way.  Your story must have a protagonist with a problem, a conflict of some kind.  Often there is both an external and internal conflict.

I’ve said before that stories are about the human condition.  More specifically, stories show human ways of dealing with problems.  It may seem strange to generalize that way, but without a problem or conflict, you have no story.  Even if there are no humans in your tale, your non-human characters are really just standing in for people.

Plotting diagramsBack to plotting.  Think of the series of events (Rule 1) as events showing your protagonist encountering an initial obstacle, overcoming it, then encountering a worse one, overcoming that one, etc.  Each obstacle thrown at her causes her to struggle against it.  Her struggle causes the antagonist (which may be a person or nature or anything) to oppose her even more.  That’s what Villiers described as a plot thickening.

Think of the dramatic arc (Rule 2) as a portrayal of the increasing difficulties for your protagonist as she contends with her problems. Tensions should increase in this section, culminating in a climactic turning point.  There she must confront both her external and internal problems.  The remaining events convey the resolution of the conflict and represent a decrease in tension.

Although I’ve geared this discussion to short stories, all fiction is similar.  Screenwriter H. R. D’Costa has written a wonderful blog post providing the secrets of movie plot structures.

Oh, one more thing about problems and resolutions—if you have a problem with what I’ve said in this blog post, leave a comment and I’ll try to resolve it.  I also accept praise by the heapful.  I’ll close by saying, Ay, now the plot’s been thickened by—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

September 1, 2013Permalink

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Tightening the Screws

Today I’m discussing why and how writers increase conflict in their stories.  Long-term fans of this site with keen memories will recall that I promised to get to this topic in a previous blog entry.  Far be it from me to let you down.

Conflict is a necessary part of all stories and it’s a good idea to ramp up the level of conflict as your story proceeds, both to hold your reader’s interest by building tension, and to subject your protagonist to a progressively more difficult test of character, forcing him or her to confront inner fears or character flaws.

220px-Jurassic_Park_posterLet’s look at a couple of examples.  In the 1993 movie “Jurassic Park,” directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, we see a gradual step-up in conflict.  The central protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant, is persuaded to leave a paleontological dig to conduct a review of a theme park.  Once there he is awed that the park engineers have re-created living dinosaurs.  He is put in close contact with children, which he dislikes.  When part of the park’s security system is deactivated, a Tyrannosaurus attacks the group.  Grant and the children must spend the night in the park, with predatory dinosaurs on the loose.  They encounter cunning Velociraptors, and finally both Velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus.

Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterConflict need not be physical, or even dangerous.  In the 1964 musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the conflict is of a different nature but also increases.  The village milkman, Tevye, must first contend with the fact that his eldest daughter has chosen her own husband against tradition and his wishes.  Then his second daughter likewise makes her own marital match, but with a political and cultural radical.  Later his third daughter seeks to marry outside the Jewish faith.  Finally, on orders from the Tsar, Russian authorities expel the Jewish villagers from their town.

Notice how, in each case, the author chooses plot events that begin with small conflicts and then escalates, figuratively tightening thumbscrew devicethe screws as with the medieval torture device, progressively challenging the characters with more taxing situations.  Just as the protagonist resolves or comes to terms with one disaster, a worse one occurs.  Moreover, the nature of the conflicts is such that they strike at a character flaw.  In Dr. Grant’s case, it’s his dislike of children.  In Tevye’s case, it’s his over-reliance on tradition.  The protagonists are forced to grapple with their own weakness and try to overcome it.

It’s sad, in a way, that writers must put their characters through the torture of increasing conflict intensity, just for the sake of reader enjoyment.  But as long as the characters stay imaginary, it’s all legal, so ease your mind about that.  You’re welcome to comment on this topic of increasing the level of conflict.  I’ll return now to my Work in Progress (WIP).  Please don’t mind any screams you might hear as the screws get tightened by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

Donkey and Elephant Stories

donkey elephantIs it wise for a fiction writer to inject personal political beliefs into his or her stories?  Or is the question moot; is all fiction in some sense political?  Let us roam with elephants and donkeys.

Arguably, both politics and good fiction are about ideas.  The ideas explored by politics surround questions like:  How shall people be governed?  What is the role of government?  What is the nature of power? Can we arrange governing systems for maximum benefit to all?

Fiction also deals with ideas, though these are not limited to political ideas.  Often they boil down to basic questions of philosophy:  What is beauty?  What is truth?  What is justice?  What happens after death?

But my real question is whether writers should make their political leanings obvious in their stories.  Some authors certainly do.  L. Neil Smith is very libertarian.  Robert Heinlein, too, leaned libertarian.   Isaac Asimov leaned to the liberal side, though not blatantly so.  Ayn Rand was passionate about her political philosophy, which she felt was new and different enough to have its own name—Objectivism.

In my view, there are dangers in making your political views obvious in your fiction.  For one thing, you can turn off at least half of your potential audience.  Those who disagree with your political stance won’t read more than one of your books.

If your intent is to persuade, consider this.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like this after a political argument: “Thank you.  I’ve come around to your side, based on the strength of your logic.  I see now that I’ve been voting the wrong way my whole life.  Thanks again, for helping me see the light.”  Almost nobody changes his party affiliations that easily.

Another danger in overt political fiction is predictability, and therefore dullness.  When the good guys believe as the writer does, and the bad guys are of the other political party, the reader knows who will win.  The reader can feel like she’s being preached to.  Clever and rare is the writer who can represent the opposite side in a fair and convincing way.

NightOfJanuary16thIt’s my view that Ayn Rand achieved this in her stage play “Night of January 16th.” The play occurs, for the most part, in a courtroom.  Near the end, the judge dismisses the jury to their room to render a decision. At that point it’s announced to the audience that they are the jury and will be allowed to vote guilty or not guilty.  (Either that or twelve audience members are selected at the start to play the jury.)  A vote of not guilty represents a tilt toward Objectivism, and a vote of guilty means the opposite.  There are two endings to the play, and the actors perform the one voted on by the “jury.”  I understand that, in all the plays performances since it premiered in 1935, the ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ outcomes occur about equally often.

My recommendation, if you’re set on writing overt political fiction, is to (1) do so in a subtle, metaphorical way without preaching to your readers, (2) poke fun at or lambaste all politicians equally, focusing on the separation between politicians and the rest of us, or (3) be as even-handed as possible, with bad guys and good guys on both sides.

What are your thoughts?  No, not about the last election—I mean about the prudence of putting politics in your fiction!  Leave a nonpartisan comment and let me know.  Steering well clear of donkeys and elephants, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

February 3, 2013Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink