We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.
A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.
A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.
They say that’s it’s a brave writer who exposes their work to the critiquing of a bunch of fellow writers. And those who do it face to face, in a writing group, must be especially heroic. I am one of these people. I’ve belonged to a local writing group ever since I started writing seriously. I don’t consider myself to be particularly heroic, in fact it takes a certain kind of masochism to lay oneself bare like this, but I do think that the advice I get from this disparate group of like-minded men and women has helped my writing career progress.
Writing groups take different forms. Some read out all their work and invite comments from members. We do things slightly differently – producing hard copies for everyone to take home and study properly. As well as storyline, we look at grammar and punctuation (we are very hot on the apostrophe), layout and presentation, none of which is evident when hearing a piece read out loud. Some groups don’t meet physically at all, getting together regularly online instead. Saves on rent, and you can have members on all seven continents. Horses for courses, I guess.
The trouble with writing humour is that it’s so subjective; lines that will have one person giggling up their sleeve will leave another completely unmoved. Consequently, many writers don’t even attempt it. Some say they don’t have sense of humour themselves, or that it’s just too difficult. I don’t write much humour myself, though I do like to inject sarcasm and understatement into my characters’ thoughts and dialogue. But conjuring up funny scenes is just beyond me.
Criticism is part and parcel of the writing process. Without it we will never know if our work is any good, but to benefit the writer the comments must rise above the personal – those kindly responses that don’t offend but don’t offer anything useful either – and address the problems with the writing itself, rather than with the writer.
My mother always used to say, If you can’t think of something pleasant to say, don’t say anything. This might be useful advice in some areas of my life, but it’s completely useless when critiquing another’s work. Writers, particularly beginners, want to know if their work hangs together, makes a thumping good read, has believable characters and plot. Some even want to know if they’ve got the spelling and punctuation right, too. Hearing that the result of sleepless nights, tortuous plotting sessions and numerous rewrites is ‘quite a nice read’ is more likely to send us into a slough of depression than any amount of constructive criticism.
Friends who have achieved a similar age received diamonds, or trips to Venice. What did I get as a birthday present? An invitation to take part in a bowel cancer screening programme. Be still my beating heart.
But it got me thinking about the nature of failure in general, and that of budding writers in particular. I thought it would be useful to discuss some of the pitfalls that can betray us as amateurs and which should be avoided at all costs.
My first one and a half novels were love stories. The plots were rather convoluted, and they strayed from the acceptable norm of romantic novels in lots of ways, but basically, they followed the traditional rules of romantic fiction. Even though the storylines featured fraud, death and dishonesty the stories were, at their hearts, romances.
The new novel, however, features much unpleasantness and a lot of humour, but I’m struggling to identify the romantic thread. With this in mind, I revisited the accumulated advice on writing romantic fiction to decide, once and for all, if what I was writing could be considered a romance.
Non-verbal communication is usually understood to mean the process of creating or representing meaning by sending and receiving wordless, usually visual messages. These can include facial expressions, gestures, body language and eye contact. But how, I hear you ask, can this possibly help the writer? We need to examine the concept in a little more detail.
Previous posts have discussed the art of showing, not telling. Non-verbal communication falls firmly into the ‘showing’ category. Our characters don’t have to say anything to convey how they are feeling. The postures they adopt, their facial expressions and unconscious actions or tics will all reflect their moods and tell the reader more about the characters’ thoughts and feelings than long paragraphs of description, speech tags and adverbs.
As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.
I know this old chestnut comes up time and again, but I’m revisiting it again because it still causes problems, particularly for those new to the writing game.
Every writer will have come across the expression, ‘Show, don’t tell’, whether it’s in a creative writing how-to book, during a writing tutorial or in an on-line forum or blog. It has become a cliché in itself, but what does it actually mean to the fledgling writer? It’s a surprisingly tricky concept to get the hang of, so let’s pick it apart and examine it.
All writers need to understand the motivation of their characters. Strong motives produce convincing storylines; weak motives make for flimsy and unconvincing stories. Your characters’ problems and desires contribute towards their motivation; but these must be logical and believable. In fact, they should be inevitable; your characters should have no choice but to act in the way they do otherwise weaknesses and holes in the plot will be revealed and the reader will not be convinced.