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A Crash Course on the Best and Worst Elements of Writing

28 November 2014 | No Comments » | Ace Jordyn

What an enlightening month November has been! If you ever wanted a crash course in what makes writing the best or the worst, this was it.

There is so much to learn about writing craft and storytelling from the masters yet we can learn equally from writing that doesn’t engage us. Deciding on the ‘best’ means we need to understand why we like what we do and what constitutes the best for each of us (Kristin Luna). It also means not disregarding other forms of fiction because the best stories use elements of both literary and commercial fiction and knowing how each works makes us better skilled writers (Susan Forest).

Elements in the best writing includes:
precision of word choice, great imagery and detail plus an author who gets right into his character’s heads (Clancy); a grasp on multi-sensory prose which like a dream, makes the fantastical normal and lifts the reader to a place of wonder (Brenda Sawatsky); cliffhangers and when multiple story lines crash together in a maelstrom of calamity at the end of a book (Evan); well executed diverse fiction that helps the reader understand the world we live in and cultivates respect (Kim May); story matters and being a good storyteller with proper pacing and resolutions is key, but before telling the story, think about how much you can tell us by each word, each sentence, and the beauty you strive for in bringing them together (Colette); it’s not just about the protagonist against the antagonist but about how every character interacts with every other character (Jace Sanders); heroes aren’t heroes all the time. They are just humans with something about them that is extraordinary, and the more flawed a character is, the more human they seem (Leigh Galbreath); the best writing has characters who strive for themselves along with sentences that soar on their own (James Van Pelt); successful prologues convey information without being an info dump and they promise a story/writing style upon which they deliver (Ace Jordyn); a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict along with psychological realism where characters behave consistently (Al Onia); the key to the ‘best’ has less to do with perfect prose, and more to do with story impact when what we’re writing matters, emotions rise up, and the reader can feel it (Adria Laycraft).

What constitutes the worst writing includes:
meandering prose that loses the reader and is boring and there’s no beginning, middle or end and no characters to invest in (Clancy); it’s a bad idea to mislead readers about what kind of story you are telling readers for pick up books because they’re hoping for a certain type of experience. (Mary); when writers grab hold of a culture’s cool elements—Samurai swords, martial arts, ninjas—and throw the rest out the window because the history, philosophy, sociology, and traditions are so intertwined and influential on the cool elements that you can’t separate the two and do it justice. (Kim May); it’s not possible to root for a guy who seems like a walking pity party or if the main character lacks any sense of wonder (James Van Pelt); prologues don’t work if they create expectations that the book doesn’t meet either in story content or style, if they’re an info dump or if they are used to foreshadow or tease (Ace Jordyn); when writers betray the promises set in the beginning of the book and shatter the reader’s bond with the story (Frank).

So how can we judge how we each measure up at being the best? We can compare our work to those we admire and like to read or, as Nathan Barra observed, we can learn by comparing our earlier works to our current ones and being motivated by that.

In case you want to follow up on any of the excellent points I’ve summarized, here is a list of November’s blogs. Just click on the title and the link will get you there.

Happy reading and writing!

Lee Child vs the Boring Clancy
Not What I Signed Up For Mary
The Dreamer Brenda Sawatzky
In Loving Appreciation of the Story Swirl Evan Braun
The Emperor and the Impostor Kim May
Kneeling in the Silver Light Mary
The Importance of Word Choice Colette
Learning from the Masters Jace Sanders
A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins Kristin Luna
The Not So likeable Hero Leigh Galbreath
Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work James Van Pelt
SSWS Writing Scholarship: Should YOU Apply?  Colette
Clive Cussler, Guy Gavriel Kay and DJ McIntosh are Masters at … Ace Jordyn
Writing What I Like to Read Al Onia
Writing Stories that Matter Adria Laycraft
Looking for Progress in a Mirror Nathan Barra
Don’t Break Your Promises Frank
Using the Tools of Both Literary and Commercial Fiction Susan Forest

 

 

 

 

Writing Stories That Matter

24 November 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Adria Laycraft.

How do you decide what constitutes the best writing out there? ‘Best’ is so subjective. Some love the endless descriptive prose of Tolkien and others go to sleep. Guy Kay is by far one of my favourites for beautiful writing, but again some just can’t get into his style. Some love to devour long series and hate short fiction, other relish the small bites and can’t settle into anything over novella length. Then there are the stories we all seem to agree on, and that makes a hit. So what qualifies as the best?

We could decide that the best are the ones who made it big–Rowling, King, and Martin, for example. While they often get criticized for prose blunders or formulaic writing or ignoring deadlines, they must be the ‘best’ if they’re the household names with heavy pocketbooks, right?

Or we could look at best as award-winning–Robert J. Sawyer is the only Canadian to ever win the Hugo, the Campbell, and the Nebula. He’s also lost far more Auroras than he’s won, as he often jokes, but he still has quite a few. So does that make his writing the best?

Or we could look at critical acclaim, high-rated reviews, whatever criteria we want. My point is, who decides what’s best? How do you define the word? And, more importantly, which kind of best are you personally striving for? It’s good to consider what constitutes the best in your own viewpoint when you think about where you want your writing to lead you. Winning contests might require a different mindset and writing style than earning rave literary reviews.

All I can give you is my own version of ‘best’, of course.

In my opinion the best writing fills the reader with a sense of awe and creates emotion in the reader. How does the line go? If the author’s not crying, the reader’s not crying.

When I’m reading as an editor, it’s not that I demand to be made to cry, but I’d better be feeling something along the way. This is why you might see a rejection letter saying, “We like your work but don’t feel we can get behind this piece in particular. Please continue to submit in the future.” The plotline is there, the prose is acceptable … those editors are just hoping you will hit the emotional mark at some point in your practice as a writer.

I love stories that catch me up with mystery and magic, and weave it together with threads of perfect description, subtext in foreshadowing, and plot twists that deeply affect the characters. They pull me along with those believable and adorable pretend people that we will never forget. The characters have to mean something to the reader for any story to fly, and the ‘best’ in my opinion make an art of this. My favourite examples include Frodo and Sam, Harry Potter, Katniss, House Stark, and Jilly Coppercorn of Newford (a place that becomes a character in its own right.)

What I see as the best writing is the kind that builds loyal readers that trust the author to deliver that same emotion again and again but always with fresh new stories. These are the authors that readers seek out on purpose.

There are far too many to ever do justice to here. Some fine examples I recommend studying include Patricia A. McKillip for the way she weaves fairy tales for a modern reader, or Charles de Lint for his mythical urban fantasy that allows us into the raw emotion of street life, or Guy Gavriel Kay for his lyrical historical fantasy that uses language and subtext and poetry to create incredible vistas of literary landscapes. Some newer finds for me include Michelle Sagara (try out her book Silence for a real emotional punch), and Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Boys), for a teenage viewpoint that doesn’t feel juvenile. All of these authors made an emotional impact on me.

So my ‘best’ has less to do with perfect prose, and more to do with story impact. Don’t get me wrong … I love it when word choice and rhythm all come together to make the story sing. But it’s meaningless to me if there is no emotional connection beyond the pretty words.

All we can do as authors is to write stories that matter to us. When what we’re writing matters, the emotions rise up, and the reader can feel it. No matter what else you might do right or wrong, I believe that’s the key to the best stories.

2012 bio picAdria Laycraft is a grateful member of IFWA and a proud survivor of the Odyssey Writers Workshop. She co-edited Urban Green Man, which launched in August of 2013 and was nominated for an Aurora Award. Look for her stories in Card’s IGMS, the Third Flatiron Anthology Abbreviated Epics, the FAE Anthology, Tesseracts 16, Neo-opsis, On-Spec, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and Hypersonic Tales, among others. Author of Be a Freelance Writer Now, Adria lives and works in Calgary as a freelance writer and editor. Visit her at: http://adrialaycraft.com/

Writing What I Like To Read

21 November 2014 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by Al Onia.

“Write what you know.” One of those pieces of advice intended to get you focused. Or, to keep you from writing. I mainly write speculative fiction, so in my case, it’s “write what you don’t know, but wish.” Then add another layer. I write what I like to read. Sounds simple; but what do I like to read?

What draws me in and what authors do I return to and why? How do I know the experience and invested time will be worthwhile?

I like to be immersed in a world which the author has taken time to know. It doesn’t have to be detailed excruciatingly but one can tell if the author has worked it all out so that the setting, (physical, economic, social, political, etc.) works, in the background. This provides the stimuli for the characters to act and react realistically.

So we begin with a consistent, believable setting. The effort to create this in mystery and even conventional horror genres is different than SF or fantasy. The setting must be no less contradictory to what the reader knows or expects. Now, I’m immersed in the author’s world, my disbelief is suspended, what’s next?

Character and plot arcs which intersect, in conflict. Goals which matter; inaction will be fatal. Big points for originality.

I desire characters who exhibit psychological realism. The protagonist may be flawed, may be damaged beyond retrieval, but I want to see their actions and motivations portrayed believably. Their flaws are often the main reason they are in conflict with their environment. They find themselves in conflict willingly or not, but inevitably. Now the writer shows his or her talent by solving the issue through exploiting the character’s weaknesses but building on their strengths as well. And I believe the protagonist should have some strength, otherwise why should I care about them? Making me care about them is the tough art. Put them in a familiar quandary, something universal for the reader to identify with (broken relationship, loss of a loved one or thing, financial hardship, disease, injury, injustice).

I read for entertainment. I write to entertain. I read to learn, not to be converted. I write to teach, not preach. The best writers let me take away their interpretation of an issue of importance. Not necessarily to convince me, but to stimulate my own thoughts on the subject.

The other lure for me is the book containing a ‘big idea’. Hard to define in absolutes but some authors consistently produce a concept and character(s) which transcend the genre; epic in design and originality. Think “The City and The City” by China Mieville.

So much for ‘critical reading’. Sometimes I read for sheer brain candy. Reading to decompress from life. These are the books with no hidden message but I still have my standards. Natural storytellers (Robert E. Howard, William Campbell Gault, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson) can create a setting and characters in conflict in a dozen strokes of their writer’s brush; like a pen artist creating a portrait or landscape in the simplest of lines. They make it look easy but like the artist, it took many false strokes and many wrong words before it became ‘natural’. They apprenticed under the gun of a penny or less per word in the pulps. They learned quickly because they had to eat. I don’t read them critically, as I would the aforementioned China Mieville, William Gibson or Peter Watts (three of the more consistent and original writers working in spec fic) but I do analyze passages which work well. Again the fewest strokes of the brush technique to paint the picture before getting on with the action, which is why I dropped by in the first place.

Summarizing, I appreciate and look for: a consistent background which functions almost as another character, widening the options for the protagonist’s conflict; psychological realism where the characters behave consistently within their limitations and strengths and use both to resolve the conflicts; and originality. I hope I succeed at some level incorporating these attributes in my own writing.

???????????????????????????????Al Onia is a geophysicist living in Calgary, Canada. His debut novel Javenny was released by Bundoran Press in August 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Ares, Perihelion SF, On Spec, The Speculative Edge, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Spinetingler, Marion Zimmer Bradley and the anthologies Casserole Diplomacy, Body-Smith 401, North of Infinity and Warrior Wisewoman 3. Al is a two-time Aurora Award finalist in the short story category. You can visit Al at: http://ajonia.com

 

Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work

18 November 2014 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by James Van Pelt.

By necessity, talking about “likes” explores only the reader’s internal landscape, at least if we talk about published work. Stephen King, for example, said, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

What a great snark! But Twilight has sold over 100 million copies. At least some people disagree with Stephen King.

If we’re talking about what we “like” in work that is published, and then compare it to unpublished work, the lines between the good and bad seem more distinguishable (but hardly written in stone—John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected numerous times during Toole’s lifetime, and when his mother tried marketing it after his death, it received seven more rejections before being published and then later won the Pulitzer Prize).

So discussions of what one likes best and what doesn’t work is seriously, severely, and irredeemably personal.

That said, I disliked Stephen R. Donaldson’s first book in the Thomas Covenant series, Lord Foul’s Bane. I don’t think it was the level of the prose that bothered me (because prose problems put me off in a hurry—I had the hardest time with Nicholas Sparks’ The Bridges of Madison County), but I really didn’t like Thomas Covenant himself. I couldn’t root for a guy who seemed like a walking pity party, who didn’t believe that the cool stuff that was happening to him was really happening, and who raped the only decent character he met in the book. I had students talk to me about Donaldson’s series who said, “Oh, you have to keep reading. By the time you get to the third book, it starts to get good.”

Sorry, that’s too far for me to go with a character I don’t like.

I had the same problem with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Grossman can flat out write, and sentence by sentence he is a wonder, but Quentin Coldwater, his main character lacks any sense of wonder. Amazing things happen to him. In fact, all of his childhood dreams come true, but no matter what happens, his attitude is, “So now what?”

“So now what?” is the killer of ambition. “So now what?” makes all achievement worthless. You can do magic, but so now what? You find the person you love most loves you back, but so now what? You become king, but so now what? As much as I liked the prose, I couldn’t bring myself to read the second book. I told someone that The Magicians felt to me like, as others have pointed out, Catcher in the Rye meets Hogwarts, and Catcher in the Rye didn’t work for me either.

Good prose and great characters work best for me. I loved Jeff Johnston in Connie Willis’ beautifully written Lincoln’s Dreams. I thought Jo Walton created a wonderful character in Mori in Among Others, and Neil Gaiman brought to life Richard Mayhew for Neverwhere.

Good characters go a long way for me. If the character is combined with compelling prose, I’m hooked I can’t put the book down. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes are transported by Bradbury’s poetic prose, as is Schmendrick in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and so is Stephen Huxley in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.

I was on a panel on characterization at WorldCon with Terry Pratchett once. He said that what most often made characters fail for him as a reader was when they were “pluckless.” Characters should have pluck, he said. They should fight to achieve their dreams and try to maintain their sense of selves, even if they are in hopeless situations. I agree with him.

If the writer can combine characters who strive for themselves with sentences that not only don’t stumble over themselves but soar on their own, then I will be a happy reader.

headshotJames Van Pelt has sold over 100 short stories to many of the major science fiction, fantasy, and horror magazines. His work has appeared in numerous ‘year’s best’ anthologies. He also has been a Nebula and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. When he’s not writing, he teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. Read his latest collection short science fiction and fantasy stories, FLYING IN THE HEART OF THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE, or find out more at http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com

 

 

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