Narrative v Narration

I think it is safe to say that anyone reading this blog has a healthy appreciation for the beauty of language, and words. Both the glory of words, and the drawback, is they are simple used to represent concepts – they are not things in and of themselves. For example, what comes to mind with the word shambles?  Likely “a state of total disorder”. But it comes from the Latin scamellum, for bench, which became a word for stall which lead to Shambles being a butcher’s slaughterhouse, or meat market, which quite naturally lead to the way we use it today in reference to our kids rooms being messy (not as a scene of great carnage).

Words change. The concepts they represent change. But the beauty of a thing is not in its permanence. The same is true of books, of stories, as a whole – they represent concepts and ideas. Conversely from words themselves, though, the very fact that they represent deeper ideas increases their longevity.

Because any jackass can simply recount events. They can even arrange it into a three-act structure and tell a story out of it. Doing that takes time and effort, to be sure, and might even contain some pretty words, but it will be entirely forgettable if it doesn’t express a deeper idea.

A great example of this is Fight Club. Everyone knows exactly two things about Fight Club:

  1. The first two rules of Fight Club
  2. The twist at the end

beatBut that is not why people remember Fight Club (it is Brad Pitt’s abs in the movie). Because Fight Club, for being bokers, violent, having memorable lines and the all-time best twist, is memorable because of the ideas it represents. It’s about finding your identity, while also trying to find your place in the world and accept what you can and cannot change. All of that, painted with the brushstrokes of bull-headed masculinity – which, incidentally, is part of the concept and why it works.

I’ve been rambling about Poe a lot lately , mostly because I am reading through his works again, and because he is brilliant at things like this (Confession: Poe is the only author I enjoy MORE after writing in earnest). Perhaps – picking one story to embody this is a nightmarish chore – but perhaps the story that embodies this best is the Tell-Tale Heart. Because here, we have to parse it in twain: Narration v Narrative (roll credits). Put simply:

Narration: dude commits murder and is consumed with guilt.

Narrative: We’re really just deluding ourselves, aren’t we?

It’s a straightforward story – narration – isn’t it? First person, linear, with the plot to kill the old man, his execution, and the guilt consuming him to the point of confessing to the crime. All the while, our narrator is telling us how sane his:

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!

All the while, we read it thinking this dude is nuts, because a madman is the one who kills methodically, without apparent provocation. Certainly we – I – am incapable of such madness, because we are sane!

Aren’t we?

Are we?

The narrator is sure of his own sanity, even as his own actions belie him. The first-person narrative (which should only be used for this reason, seriously stop writing everything in first-person) makes this all the more jarring, because we interpret it as our own thoughts. And who hasn’t reassured themselves that I am sane, look at how sane I am being right now (you guys do this too, right?).

Thus- the narration becomes the narrative. Our eye turns from the story and the very obvious madness before us, and asks, in the space of a couple thousand words, are we really who we think we are? The story, the question, then haunts us, just as the beating of the heart haunted the narrator.

If you outline, you likely write down the beats of a story – the essential narrative plot points. But do you write down what your story is, what it represents when distilled down? Macbeth said it best:

…a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That is what is to be avoided – there is enough forgettable entries into literature. If you can represent ideas and concepts in a way that is deeper and stronger than your narration, you will end up with a better, more memorable work – one which signifies something.

-DESR

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And Then What?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your audience ask ‘what next’, but let’s play with that for a little bit. There are a lot of stories out there – more and more, it seems – that only answer that question. Sometimes they play with the structure of it, or offer some crazy twist, but in the end, all they do is answer that question. Make no mistake- it is a question you want your readers to ask, but your story should do more than that. In short, your narrative should not just be narration.

Think of telling someone about your day – I got up, and then I got dressed, and then I had some breakfast, and then I got in the car, and zzzzzzzzz. Bo-ring, right? Do you see the problem phrase? “And then” – if all you’re doing is saying “and then”, you’re telling a boring story.

So let’s assume you have build anticipation for that which is to come – so what next? Two simple words to replace “and then”: but and therefore. (for the record, I know I am far from the first to realize this, or point it out, but holy hell, it makes all the difference). Apply those two words to the simplest of anecdotes – it’s instantly more interesting: I got up, but I really didn’t want to, therefore I hit my snooze button like it owed me money, but I had to write that blog post on narrative structure therefore I dragged my sorry and slightly hungover ass out of bed.

See the difference?

But you obviously can’t just say but every other sentence – it has to be woven into the overall structure. Maybe you’re an plotter; maybe not, but either way this should be on your mind. Think of the beats in Fellowship of the Ring, after the fellowship sets out:

  • They try going over the mountains
  • but there is too much snow
  • therefore they have to go through the mines
  • but goblins have killed the dwarves
  • therefore they have to fight their way through
  • but the Balrog is too much
  • therefore Gandalf sacrifices himself

And there we reach a turn of the story, when they reach Lothlórien. Notice what this structure does: not only does it build anticipation for the beats to come, it shifts the focus from the Fellowship to their obstacles. The story begins to be more than simple narration. and then they went through the mines and then they fought goblins etc, makes it just about the heroes and makes them unrelatable, because they always overcome. But, because of all the buts, there is always the possibility of failure.

Writing Prompt: Write a story about this picture.

Writing Prompt: this picture

 

But you can’t just shove obstacles and consequences in the path of your story – you sort of have to handle that well. There are a million ways to go about this, of course, and you should do what works for you, with your style, but I invite you to think of cuts in movies for a moment. A director chooses what you see, and how you see it. You have the same control the lens in the mind of the reader – and used properly, it can be even more impactful than the audio/visual a movie provides.

How so? Because a movie only has access to those to senses – you can engage all of them within your reader. Scent, for example, is the sense most closely tied to memories. Ever get the barest whiff of something, and suddenly, you’re transported to a moment in time? That is what you can do for your readers. But that’s not news, is it? Of course you can describe anything – but we want to do more than just narrate it.

So choose carefully what your reader sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes. Don’t shove it in their face, either. That’s just narrating. Give them the whiff of sent, the whisper barely heard and invite their imagination to fill in the rest from their own experiences and sensations – that is what will put them in the environment. All of that frames your story, gives it context and depth – so choose what to focus on, and how long it is lingered upon.

Do that (and a few other things) and you take your reader from simply reading a story to being a part of it.

DESR

 

Smoke, Mirrors and Monsters

Everyone loves a good mystery. The feeling of reading something, that feeling of need to know the answer that forces you to keep turning pages even after you promised yourself just one more chapter eight chapters ago.

The bigger the mystery, the better. The ones that seem unsolvable are the best. They make you wonder how it will resolve satisfactorily. Only, so many times they seem unsolvable because they are. Because, as great as that mystery is, the low that comes from a conclusion that is a total letdown is even worse. It was a dream – they were dead all along – it was in someone’s head and a myriad of others make me drop books (and shows and movies) in utter disgus

disappoint.gif

Me, upon finding out your character was dreaming or dead or some crap

t, and makes all the good from the first 90% of a story seem bad.

 

So, dear reader who is also a writer, how do we avoid doing this ourselves? Or, more to the point, to our readers?

In the first place, never bet more than you can afford to lose. What I mean by that is, never raise the stakes beyond what your payoff can be. If your reader is heavily invested every step of the way, and you let them down at the end, your work will not be remembered fondly. BUT, if you give them a solid payoff – even if the mystery itself isn’t as deep – they’ll like it a whole lot more. So if you have this great premise, make sure you have an equally great ending.

Also, don’t go all in at the end (to continue the betting analogy). If you have a super crazy twist that no one will see coming, clue them in a bit. Give your readers some hints that something is coming, or at least some Easter eggs that make sense upon re-reads. Obviously, you don’t want to telegraph what is coming (otherwise it’s not really a twist), but if your story just takes a hard turn out of nowhere, readers will be bewildered, not intrigued.

Finally, know when to fold. Some ideas just don’t work. It’s better to walk away and work on something that does work – and, let’s be real, will sell – than to waste time on something that will ultimately overwhelm. Make a note of the idea, let it stew, and work on other, better projects.

And, for the love of all that is good, please do not let them just be dreaming.

-DESR

Reader Debt

Every so often, I see a plot post/meme/tweet/pagan incantation about what readers owe authors- reviews! Word of mouth! – or something along the lines of this:

Which.. no, no that is not. The only way you keep writing is if you keep writing (Note: Tez is quoting from a newsletter there). You may or may not make some/much/any money from it, but that’s the definition, folks.

But let’s be abundantly clear about what a reader owes you: the price of the book. That’s it. If, for example, you wish to read *my* book (which you should- it has been favorably compared to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Firefly and Twilight Zone!), you may purchase it for two dollars and ninety-nine cents, which you should most certainly do. Once you have done that, our transaction is concluded! I hope you enjoy it!

nothing

What readers owe authors

And, in the event that a reader does like it, I hope they do leave a pleasant review and tell all their friends that they should purchase said book as well. But they don’t have to. And so many authors see this as a must. But, friends, it is not. Do they help? You bet! I only have 16 reviews on my silly little collection, mostly favorable, and that helps. Is it the end-all, be-all of book selling? It is not. Does it have any bearing on my continuing to write? Certainly not. If everyone in the universe went and bought it and my next royalty check was for some absurd amount of money, or simply had more number to the left of the decimal place rather than the right, it would probably make writing more easier. But it doesn’t determine if I do.

 

Likewise, if you do not enjoy my book, I hope you keep your pretty little reader mouth shut and not tell everyone what a steaming heap of prequel-level garbage my book is, and leaving a scathing review that makes me want to never even think about words again. But you can do those things if you want! You don’t owe me jack beyond the two dollars and ninety-nine cents you spent on my book. In fact, if you want everyone who reads your book to write a review, you might regret that. I’m sure people didn’t enjoy mine and refrained from saying so. That is probably a good thing.

So authors, please, enough badgering. Market to people in a way that makes them want to buy your book, and write books that people will want to leave (favorable) reviews of. Stop worrying about how each review and each sale affects your career/sales ranking/ego/whatever.

DESR

The Approching (Learning) Curve

Writing, as a profession, is a nebulous and often silly thing. Writing, in and of itself, is straightforward. You write, tell the story that is in your head, and that is about it. But the attempt sell ones work commercially introduces all manner of grey area.

These areas are those things you wish you had a map for, the things that I now say I wish someone had told me that when I started. To quote a friend: Here’s the thing: It’s all out there. All of it. You just have to look. If you do, you can save yourself a whole bunch of heartache, work, and, hopefully, rejection.

I talked the other day about submissions, manuscript format and the like. Those are hard-and-fast things. Please, follow them. Always. This is basic and common to every market, every book, every editor.

But what about the grey areas? What should you do when the rejection comes? What about reviews?

Honestly, this is a problem. There are so many wonderful things about the internet, and what it does for the writing and reading communities. It brings us all together. You can get to know your favorite authors, authors can thank readers. It’s grand. Only… some people take to far. There are far too many instances like that, things which are completely inappropriate. So let’s run through a few scenarios and see how you, and author, can comport yourself professionally.

 

oreo

Trust me

 

 

I got a rejection from [an agent, and editor, etc]: Sorry. Eat an Oreo. That’s it. Do not reply to the editor. Do not say thank you to them. Do not ask for feedback- it is not their job. Editors and agents get literally thousands of emails. If you just clog them up with more emails, they will remember you, and not for any of the reasons you want.

Most of all, do not be angry. They are doing their job. Do not threaten them, do not send an all-caps rant to them, nothing. Don’t even subtweet them. You think editors don’t see that stuff? Even if it is much later, and another editor/agent/whatever sees that you are in the habit of bashing people online… do you think it helps your chances?

In short: Do not reply to a rejection in any way, shape or form.

My book got a really nasty review! Sorry. Eat an Oreo. Leave it alone. They were wrong? They were stupid? They gave you two stars because their Kindle battery died in the middle of your book (it’s happened). I cannot be clear enough about this: do not reply to a review ever. It is a bad look, no matter how right you are. If there is clear abuse/misinformation/whatever, contact wherever the review is hosted. Don’t leave a reply. Ever. And certainly don’t do anything close to stalking, intimidating, or threaten them. If you do, though, please make sure I can see it, because there is nothing that brings me greater joy than watching stupid authors melt down publicly.

My book got a great review! Awesome! You may eat Oreos at you discretion. Do not reply. Not even to say thank you. It’s a bad look, and looking like you got a nice review from a friend (even if they are not) won’t help you.

Also, if you buy reviews, you are an ass.

My MS is ready! Time to submit! Hold up, tiger. Eat an Oreo and slow down. Real talk: Your manuscript sucks. Look at it, typos all over the place. Did you really write in first person present? Why? Look, you couldn’t even keep it straight and wind up in past half the damn time. You forgot about Carl’s B story for, like, six chapters. Your ending is flat out boring. Seriously, your mom is embarrassed for you.

Still with me? Good. First off, you needed to hear that, because you are in for a world of hurt over the next few months. But you can prevent some of that! Get beta readers. GOOD beta readers. Not your friends, not people who like you. People who will tell you what I just told you up there. Your friends will be all “OH EM GEE DEEN UR SUCH A GR8 RITER”. I’m not joking, this happens, so get people who will make your work better, not tell you how great it is– even if it is great (which it isn’t. You suck. Give up now).

Which brings us to query letter time!

PFFFFT DESR, my book is a special snowflake and I hate the idea of writing a query letter. Totes don’t need one. This doesn’t fit anywhere else, so you get it here, and it gets its very own paragraph:

You are not a special snowflake, and neither is your book. You and your precious baby are another drop in the ocean, and agents and editors are drowning in them. So get it out of your head that you’re special, that you’re the exception and that you don’t have to play by the rules.

Harsh? You bet your ass. But not writing a query letter, not polishing your MS until it shines, is like showing up to a job interview in Bermuda shorts without ever turning in a résumé. You’re just going to get laughed out of the office, and the only small mercy you get as a writer is that you only get a form letter, instead of seeing them laugh. That’s harsh.

So sit down and write the letter. Did you do it? GOOD. It sucks. Your mom is embarrassed again. Why do you do this to here? Google ‘query letter critiques’. Polish your query letter. Make it shine. Then, maybe, your mom will look at you again. Don’t get your hopes up, though.

hope

God, I love that gif.

No one has bought my book and I have submitted it everywhere! I told you it sucked. Write another one. Every writer has a million words sitting in the garbage. Very nearly every book that has been published has been rejected literally dozens of times. Life goes on. Can it, start a new one. It can be hard, to be sure, especially that first one. You worked so hard on it, were so sure it was *THE* book and… no one wants it.

Eat an Oreo.

DESR

So You Want to Be a Professional Short Story Author?

Not that *I* am, or whatever (OK, I kinda am), so take all this with appropriate grains of salt. But friend o’ the blog David Winchester recently challenged me to write a short story, submit it, have it rejected, repeat. To which I replied:

DONESO.

I’ve done that once or twice, and have received more words in rejection letters than I have written in my life. I’ve written about rejection before, and why it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. If you want to write, commercially, you’ll be rejected. It’s a fact. If you have written and tried to peddle your wares, you crack up every time you read one of those breathless headlines about how someone was rejected X times before being published.

futurama_benderBut, for what it’s worth, here is my approach to writing and submitting short stories. Feel free to use and/or ridicule it as you see fit.

Write: I mean, obviously. But it’s not as easy as that; not always. Life prevails upon us all. And, at least in my case, at a certain point, writing becomes a job- which is fine- but we are not as excited to get to our jobs as we are our hobbies. In any case, this is the obvious first step. So do it, and do it well.

Submit: Here is where is gets interesting. Where does one submit their stories too? Ralan is great resource. Here is my method, such as it is:

  • Market specificity: Sometimes I will write a piece with a specific market in mind- either because something in the market (such as an anthology or collection) inspires me, or because I have something that seems to suit them. In either case, it goes there first.
  • Best opportunity: Some markets are only open for a period of time, and these are the ones I usually submit to first- generally the reason they are open for a limited period is because the pay is better, or they are a large market, so these opportunities are usually at the top of my list.
  • Pro-Paying Markets: SFWA defines pro rate as $0.06 a word. If I am rejected by the above, I look to the markets which are continually  open. This is generally the longest part, and at this juncture, I want to say this: READ SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.  Look, you can write the all-time crappy story, and the next time you submit, they will read it with fresh eyes. If you submit in 8-point comic sans, in the body of your email? Welcome to the auto-reject list. If you think that’s not a thing, you need to meet more editors. Be professional, be respectful. Read each guideline, and follow it.
  • Semi-Pro Markets. One should not confuse this with ‘lesser quality markets’. There are many places that publish fantastic fiction, and have fantastic editors, but pay less than $0.06/word. Nor should you confuse with selling to these markets with any manner of failure- it is a SWFA guideline, used for their membership criteria. So selling to a semi-pro market isn’t a knock on you, or them. That said, I submit here next because, hey, I like money.

win.gifIn light of the above, though, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Know your markets. Read them, and while you can’t read them all, at least read one issue of places you plan to submit. Have an idea of what they are likely (or not) to accept. In line with the first point up there, start with the place that publishes fiction most similar to your own. That’s not to say a market won’t accept your work if it is of quality, but, you know, keep the odds in your favor.
  • READ SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Literally, if there is nothing else you take away from this, it is READ SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Because here’s the thing about submission guidelines: If you write a catastrophically bad story- like, really bad- they will reject it. And the next story you write, they will read and judge on its own merits. If you send in a story in single-spaced, 8pt, comic sans format, they will never ever read anything you send them again ever. Here is a guide to standard manuscript format– which will guarantee you are at least not offensive- read it, know it, love it. Start a SMF template. Read submission guidelines.
  • Learn to deal with rejection. Because you will be rejected. Sometimes it will be a total form letter, sometimes person. Sometimes it will say get better and sometimes it will say it was very good and just missed the cut. Each one stings in its own special way, so get over it. Have a routine. Eat an Oreo every time you get rejected. But then log it (submission grinder is a great way to track your submissions), make a joke, and submit somewhere else. Also helpful: write, and submit, enough that it doesn’t matter. If you only submit a few things, each rejection stands out. If you submit a lot, it just kind of happens, and it’s easier to take in stride.

Over the coming year, I am going to be doing a few things. I am going to

bender

All of us in a year

write at least one (1) new short story every single month, and submit it (and submit it, and submit it, and..). I am also going to track the results here (I already track them on submission grinder, obviously). Why? A couple reasons: Accountability. This way y’all can yell at me hey jackass you haven’t submitted anything this month. It’s a big motivation. Also, to encourage you to do the same- set some goals, be it word counts, submissions, sales, whatever. Post your results as well. That way, at the end of the year, we can look back and you can laugh at me for not selling anything while you have a book deal. Wait, no, we can celebrate our success. Yeah, that.

 

*drinks*

DESR