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.
Further to my positive outcomes post, I thought I’d give a little more substance to my aspirations for the New Year. Any of you who’ve had career or personal development training will probably be familiar with the SMART acronym for goal setting: Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic and Targeted. I’m not usually a lover of this type of strait jacket approach to growth or creativity, but when it comes to goal setting, it’s quite a neat and useful summary of where we should be headed. And knowing where we’re going and what we’re aiming for is quite motivational, to coin a phrase.
I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions that involve any sort of deprivation. So I don’t resolve to lose weight, drink less alcohol or give up eating chocolate. I much prefer positive resolutions – those that require some action or input on my part – so I might decide to take more exercise or adopt a healthier lifestyle, or, more usually, read and write more.
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.
A few weeks ago I rejoined my local writing group. I originally left because the weekly homework and reviewing of other members’ work left me with little time to write anything else, and I felt I was getting into a writing rut and not learning anything new. However, I soon found that without that weekly discipline, I did no writing whatsoever.
Ever looked over a piece of work and realised that you’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph? I sometimes do this deliberately when I’m in a hurry to get something down and don’t want to interrupt my train of thought with the thinking up of possible alternatives. Then, I highlight the offending word and come back to address the problem later.
No, the repetition I’m talking about here is the unconscious use of favourite words time and again. Once you’ve noticed it, it’s easy enough to substitute another word using your computer’s inbuilt thesaurus – what a miracle that synonyms function is – or a well-thumbed copy of Roget’s, if you’re still struggling to find the exact word.