This post by friend and author Anne Leigh Parrish first appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books on December 15, 2014. Thanks for sharing, Anne!
As the fiction editor for Eclectica Magazine, it’s been both a privilege and pleasure to read story submissions. Finding the handful of pieces that take my breath away is what it’s all about. The good ones shine through, those that are brilliant positively sparkle.
That said, it’s too bad that so many stories that come my way miss the mark. These are usually decently written, no obvious grammatical errors, no huge prose clunkers. What they fail to do is hold my interest and make me care about the outcome. I see the same mistakes over and over. I thought I’d make a list of these, as a sort of guide to aspiring authors.
~ Not telling a story. So many writers don’t seem to know what a story is, and isn’t. A story is not a nice description of how things are. It’s not a sensibility, or a mood. While those elements surely contribute to a story, a story itself is a narrative where there must be a change in the reader’s understanding of the events, or in the protagonist’s understanding. You leave a story seeing something you didn’t see at the outset, something that makes sense of what’s come before.
~ Trying to tell too many stories at once. In a short story, you need to figure out what the core is – the central theme, event, action, upheaval etc. All other story lines wrap around that central core, supporting it, or opposing it as a way to further illustrate what you’re driving at. Keep it simple. Don’t have too many characters, or an overly complicated plot. As you write, it’s very tempting to bring in an element that seems really interesting or colorful, but unless it fits with the whole, leave it out.
~ Characters with no inner life. A lot of stories that come through my queue feature people I couldn’t care less about, because I don’t know what makes them tick. I see what they do and where they live. I hear their conversations. But what do they feel? What do they care about? What are they most afraid of losing, or willing to fight for? If I don’t know what a character has at stake, I stop reading. So, make me care. Show me your character in a moment of crisis. She doesn’t have to act bravely or wisely, but in a way I recognize as a fellow human being.
~ Dialog that’s stiff or unnatural. Think about how people really talk to each other. They often don’t use complete sentences. Sometimes they swear. Are they cynical, sarcastic? Are they barely holding themselves together under an emotional strain? Make note of funny, strange, or colorful things you overhear people say, and find a way to work them into your fictional exchanges. One of my stories has my protagonist overhearing two strangers talking, and one says, “She’s as crazy as a box of hair.”
~ Bad pacing. Nothing kills a story faster for me than bad pacing. I give any piece about five pages, and if the action hasn’t gotten off the ground, I bail out. Equally bad is pacing that races along, skimming crucial scenes. Figure out what’s most important in your story, and spend enough time on it, but don’t drag it out. You have to keep moving.
~ Keeping the reader at arm’s length. Beginning writers tend to over-explain, as if they’re afraid that their readers won’t “get it.” Readers are asked to trust authors and suspend their disbelief; and writers must trust readers to be smart enough to fill in a few gaps for themselves. If you think you have to spell everything out, you may be assuming that your reader is pretty dumb. You need to show, not tell. Draw the reader in; let her experience what’s going on right up front, not from some cozy seat up in the balcony.
~ An ending that’s too neat. When I come to the end of a story, I like something left to my imagination. Maybe the protagonist will get the boy back, after all. Maybe she’ll get to a point where she can really move on with her life. Maybe she’ll meet someone even better. I want to decide for myself what happens. At this point, the author no longer gets to call the shots. It’s okay to leave some ambiguity and room for interpretation. You don’t need to tie everything up and have your characters live happily ever after, and in fact, it’s a lot better if you don’t.
I close with what someone once told me about the goal of fiction: “To lift us off from reality, and startle us into recognition.” Avoid mistakes, write the story only you can write, and do it brilliantly!
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Anne Leigh Parrish’s debut novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, came out in October 2014 from She Writes Press. Her second story collection, Our Love Could Light The World (She Writes Press, 2013) was a finalist in both the International Book Awards and the Best Book Awards. Her first collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home (Press 53, 2011) won a silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She is the fiction editor for the online literary magazine, Eclectica. She lives in Seattle.
Check out Anne’s debut novel What Is Found, What Is Lost.
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Good advice, well written. Looking forward to Our Orbit. Something different.