Tag: on writing (Page 1 of 4)

Voice (re: finding of)

Pictured: Athena finding her voice.

Voice is one of those things that everyone agrees is really important, but no one can define really well. The best and worst definition I’ve come across is that voice is what makes you you. It’s the elements of your style, themes, grammar, character, choices, etc. etc. that make your writing unique. It’s everything and it’s nothing. Concrete, but ethereal. Chuck Wendig tried to break it down a while back.

For example, Stephen King is known for his voice. Sort of folksy, with vulgar flourishes and lots of references to music and movies. I would argue that even the translation of Haruki Murakami has a strong voice. His whimsy, the pointedness of his sentences, the normal characters thrown into fantastic situations, the Western allusions in an Eastern style. You know a Murakami book when you pick one up.

I don’t have a good understanding of my voice. There have been lots of times when I thought I knew, but would then be confronted with something that proved me otherwise. So, I asked a professional editor if she could describe it for me. This is what she said, paraphrased: “Your writing didn’t strike me as particularly voicey. I think that’s good. When I think of really voicey prose, this isn’t that. What you’re doing is worth publishing, good enough to query, but I think your voice is still in development.”

What I found interesting about that response is the idea that a voice doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Mr. Wendig up there points out that there is often a fine line between strong voice and bad writing, and I think that’s sort of what the editor is touching on. My writing style–my voice, as it were–is unobtrusive at this point in my development. Which is helpful to know as I’m working on honing those aspects of my personality and obsessions that will ultimately make my voice wholly me.

One thing that I think shows up in my writing without my necessarily meaning it to is a really dry, almost unintentional sense of humor. The novella that I had edited leans into that a bit more, but I remember in a writing group a few years ago someone told me they found my story hilarious. This was news to me, as I had meant to write a serious, dramatic science fiction story. But, on revisiting the story through his eyes I absolutely saw what struck him as funny. Even though what I was writing about was serious, the way I wrote about it acknowledged and even pointed out the ridiculousness of the situation. Sort of a wink to the reader to say, “This shit ain’t normal, is it? What is even happening?”

And you know what? I kind of like that. Storytelling is inherently silly, especially in the oral tradition. We create exaggerated versions of ourselves, step outside of who we are, to entertain and inform. That’s fun.

So, I think that’s an aspect of my voice I want to continue developing. I’ve also started to notice reoccurring themes (obsessions) in my writing that might be an aspect of my voice. Things like what governments are and how they should interact with citizens, death and its repercussions, fathers and sons, and deferred dreams.

Maybe one day I’ll have a firm grasp on what makes my writing unique to me. The only way to do that is to pump out words and then sift through the mess until patterns arise. Eventually that mess could coalesce into something more, and that something will be me.

Why Do We Tell Stories?

A bunch of stories.

In thinking about the type of writer I want to be, I’ve begun to consider what attracts people to stories. Obviously, there are a lot of different genres, each with its own audience expectations to be fulfilled. Beyond that, there is high-brow and low-brow entertainment, right? Your WAR AND PEACE and your TWILIGHT. I’m not talking about either of these things, as those are just a matter of preference. What, at a fundamental, elemental, atomic level attracts us to storytelling? What are we searching for in stories?

To be clear, there’s probably no universal answer. Just like genre or high-brow / low-brow art, different people search for different things in their stories. So, I can really only speak to what I want in a story, and what all the writing advice I’ve consumed tells me most other people want in their stories. Things like story structure, the “Hero’s Journey,” and other classic storytelling traditions aren’t accidents. They work.

In my opinion, people like me, MR(S). EVERY(WO)MAN, seek out things that reflect us and give us resolution. Let’s talk it out.

REFLECTION

People are vain, self-absorbed creatures, which is why we only ever tell stories about ourselves. Even stories with non-human characters assign them human traits. Emotions that are not natural to an animal, for example, like envy. When there is a purposefully inhuman character, it’s more of a contrast than a true other. Spock, for example, is an alien character whose primary trait is a lack of emotion.

There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that stories are told by people. In that fact alone we’re limited by our experiences. If, somehow, we came across a story that showed truly alien things we probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize it as a story.

But reflection is more than a limitation on our experience. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We tell stories that reflect us because they help us to understand ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures in the Universe that are consciousness of our consciousness. That’s confusing! We understand our own mortality, we have notions of abstractions like “justice” and seek order in an inherently chaotic world.

Reflecting our emotions, our social structures, our politics, our dynamics, our everything back to ourselves through art and storytelling helps us to make sense of it. To pull it apart a little bit and put it back together in a different, perhaps better way. We want stories to reflect ourselves not only because we relate to it, but because we want to better understand ourselves.

RESOLUTION

I don’t believe we only want to better understand ourselves. In some sense, I think story helps us to enact some control over things we inherently have little to no control over.

Every day new mysteries come and go, in our personal lives and in whole societies. The sock that goes missing. The serial killer that goes uncaught. The $5 bill you found in jeans that you don’t remember wearing. The thought-extinct fish that suddenly shows up on shore.

It’s rare we get answers to these things. Our lives are an increasingly silly machine we’re building piece-by-piece, with little insight into its inner-workings. Stories give us the opportunity to step inside the machine and swap out its parts so that all the pieces fit.

In that sense, I think stories are about resolution. The happy ending. The mystery solved. The family gaining closure, either through understanding or not. In life things are rarely explained, and things rarely end conclusively. Storytelling gives us that satisfaction.

***

These are the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve thought about the type of stories I want to tell, and the types of stories I think people want to hear. It may sound obvious (because it is), but I firmly believe that sometimes in order to make progress you have to start with the absolute basics and then let those principles guide you.

Escalation: Why One Good Idea Can’t Carry a Story

Watch the scene above. And then watch the scene below.

For being similar scenes (the Trini and Kimberly scene from 2017’s POWER RANGERS is probably influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jackie Chan’s THE FEARLESS HYENA), the execution is vastly different. To me, the major difference in the scenes is that one stops at the idea and the other builds on the initial idea. And I think that escalation of ideas from an initial kernel to an exploration of multiple ideas is what elevates small moments in an overall story from good to great.

An idea is rarely enough to build a story around. A single thought or idea is usually pretty easily explored and can’t sustain the momentum needed to tell a compelling story. The chopstick fight, while only being a minute and a half long, throws a bunch of ideas at the audience, each building on the last, taking a single joke premise (as in POWER RANGERS) and elevating it into a truly great scene, culminating in the sly reveal that Jackie Chan has stones in his mouth instead of the chicken he was fighting his Uncle over.

Sketch comedy is a good example of this theory at work. A common criticism of Saturday Night Live is that their worst sketches are single ideas drawn out too long. Key and Peele, on the other hand, are masters at evolving their ideas to sustain a premise longer than it should go. Take the example below.

The joke escalates from being about the inherent silliness of rap battles, to an overexcited hype man, to a continuous escalation that becomes difficult to manage, and ends with a twist that satirizes Of Mice and Men. The initial premise builds on itself until a twist that feels different but is logical.

I think that’s what separates great stories from good ones. Similar to the way that Stephen King uses trauma, finding ways to continually freshen your story for the audience not only keeps them engaged, but allows the storyteller to explore different avenues, different ideas, with more depth.

Organizing a Short Story Collection

These are short story collections.

Last year I made a plan. In 2020 I was going to build a website (check!), consistently update that website (mostly check!), and I was going to self-publish a novella and a short story collection (… not check…).

So obviously, 2020 being what it is, things have changed. When I made this plan there was no Covid on the horizon, I wasn’t thinking about buying a house, and I didn’t expect to become a father. Yet, somehow, all of those things happened. And you know what? I kinda like the unplanned stuff more (except Covid–that can suck a big fat donkey dick).

Anyway, all of those things are a delay, not a cancellation. The novella is written (but needs some editing, and a rewrite of at least one section), and I have enough stories to put together a collection. The plan was always to pull down the vignettes and collect them with unpublished stories. I’m going to do that, but as I sat to think about what that could look like I realized that short story collections are more complicated than just taking a bunch of stories and throwing them together.

First, if I’m going to self-publish something, even if it’s only priced for $0.99, I want the reader to get value out of it. A book made up of 12 vignettes would top out at 15,000 words, if that. I don’t think I’d buy that book, especially when the vignettes were already free online at some point. This wouldn’t be as simple as just collecting and self-publishing what is already on this site.

The idea was never to only do that, but I did want to ensure that I had enough stories of varying lengths to make a purchase worthwhile. I went through everything I’ve written, including what I knew I wanted to include, some works I wasn’t sure about, and ideas that aren’t written but I’m excited about. I put them all into a spreadsheet (youse know how much I love spreadsheets) and wrote down the exact page count for each, as well as whether the writing was a vignette, short story, or poem.

Seeing all the stories laid out quelled my fear that I wouldn’t have enough writing that I was proud enough to publish. I saw there was a decent mixture of lengths that, together, added up to something worth $0.99. The next step, then, was figuring out how to organize them.

I didn’t quickly find many articles online for organizing short story collections. That said, much of my thinking from here on out is influenced by this blog post from BOOKFOX, so instead of cribbing from it I’ll just point you there.

Specifically, I found guideline #3 to be helpful: “Build your own structure, and then order stories according to that logic.” The post describes five different types of structures for a collection–hourglass, möbius strip, mosaic, musical improvisation, and instant replay. The hourglass structure most appeals to me for this particular collection.

Having decided on a tentative structure (it may change as I work toward publication), I had to figure out how to fit the stories I chose into this concept. My stories tend to wander between genres, but touch on common themes or play with similar styles. I went back to my spreadsheet and added “Genre” and “Subgenre” columns. Sticking to only a few genres so as not to overcomplicate the exercise, I put the writings into loose groupings.

Then, on the advice to start with your strongest story to draw the reader in, I arranged the order from that story down. From there, I tweaked the order in which stories appeared to have a better flow from genre to genre, and from idea to idea. Now, the collections starts with a series of horror stories, eases into existential dread, turns into experimentalism, dovetails into romance and sci-fi (I tend to use sci-fi to explore romantic notions–who knew?), and ends on a dramatic note.

This collection has required far more thought than I expected, but it’s also challenged me to think deeply about what I’m including and why, and illuminated common themes in my work.

I hope to have the collection on Amazon by December or January.

GHOST STORY: Structure and Style

This is the movie logo, but it’s not that far off from the book’s aesthetic.

Unless experimental or post-modern, most novels progress along an easily followed, predictable structure. The author chooses a point of view (first or third person, usually, but sometimes second) and structures their novel either by character perspective, like what GAME OF THRONES does, or by events, usually breaking out specific events in chapters. These are the most natural ways to tell a story and ensure that the reader won’t get lost too easily.

Peter Straub’s 1979 novel GHOST STORY does all of these things at once and even throws in a prologue and epilogue for good measure. In short, the novel goes out of its way to break assumed writing rules and does it effectively. So what is its structure and why is it the best way to tell this particular story?

In screenwriting parlance, the story is broken into three acts (or parts, according to the book) with a teaser up front (prologue) and a tag in the back (epilogue). Nothing crazy so far. Each of these acts is broken into three parts, except the first act which only has two. Again, in terms of ebb and flow in the story, this is an unexceptional way to tell a story.

The chapters themselves, though, do some interesting things with perspective and time. Each act is broken up into short chapters, and those are sometimes broken into shorter scenes. The chapters are told from specific points of view, with the person whose perspective we’re seeing identified in a bold header at the start of each section. However, within each act that perspective shifts multiple times, and then begins with new chapters.

There are other times, too, when the point of view shifts further out. For example, after spending nearly 200 pages bouncing around the four main characters’ points of view–the Chowder Society, as they call themselves–we’re suddenly thrust into a third person omniscient narration with “The Chowder Society Accused.” Not long after that, at the start of the second act, the story shifts into a first person viewpoint, as we read the journals of a relatively new character that had only been mentioned before. The story is a constantly shifting, full of differing perspectives.

The same goes for time. The story starts around the one year anniversary of a Chowder Society member’s death, and then the second chapter of the first act jumps back in time to the night he died. The second act, being a series of journal entries, takes us to yet another time period, although at first it is unclear when in relation to the other events of the novel. What we do know is that it’s sometime before the prologue.

All that said, the unusual style suits the story. It keeps the reader off-kilter, for one, just as the characters feel. But it’s also the most logical way to tell the story, in a sense. The story would need to leap ahead and juggle multiple, unrelated character arcs if it was told linearly, which would be confusing to follow and lead to several slow sections that would likely bore the reader.

The lesson here (to me, anyway) is that what perspective and what structure you use to tell your story is just as important as the characters and events that populate the story. The way in which a story is told can confuse or illuminate a reader, depending on the author’s intentions. As GHOST STORY proves, mixing and matching perspective, time, and structural elements in new ways can accomplish both, drawing the reader deeper into the mystery you’re presenting.

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