One of the things I’m involved in as an editor at an indie press is adjudicating fiction in our competitions. This year we’ve amalgamated the fiction prizes into one so that people can submit across prose genres — short stories, novels and novellas.
Every year there are pieces of fiction that jump out as strong contenders but trip themselves up along the way. What is it that Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story? a young friend recently asked me. What makes a good story?
Don’t tell me…
It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work.
The stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it) but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in rarely work. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Other stories fail because they drown in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with a rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every word has earned its place. And some words never earn a place — really, just, suddenly, somehow… As says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft:
Nothing happens somehow
Cut the qualifiers. Chasten the adjectives and adverbs (especially the latter). Instead of cluttered or clichéd writing, readers are looking for prose that flows. Give them active verbs, specific details that are concrete, not abstract. Don’t tell me someone is ‘wracked with guilt’, let me see it in their actions.
Descriptive passages benefit from strong sensory details. A writer needs to move through the world with all her senses open and collect the details. When you write a scene, think of every aspect: the smells, the textures, the sounds, the sights, sometimes the tastes. And then make choices.
There is a wonderful scene in the film, Wonder Boys, in which a student is critiquing her professor’s new manuscript, a huge tower of typed foolscap. She comments that he is always telling his students that when they write they must make choices and that he hasn’t taken his own advice. For instance, he could leave out the genealogy of the horses and the chapter about their dental records.
Ernest Hemingway puts it like this in Death in the Afternoon:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
In other words, first do the work. As the writer, you should know everything about your character. Think about every sensory detail of every scene, but don’t put it ALL in. Convince the reader with the choices you make. This allows your prose room to breath and allows your reader room to get inside the story for herself.
Trust the process
Hemingway has more good advice on writing prose in A Moveable Feast (which I recently read on a train):
But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
William Barrett says that for Hemingway,
style was a moral act, a desperate struggle for moral probity amid the confusions of the world and the slippery complexities of one’s own nature. To set things down simple and right is to hold a standard of rightness against a deceiving world.
Truth doesn’t need to be ‘the facts’
True sentences do not have to be ‘the truth’. So often fiction writers come unstuck on the notion that they have to get in everything (especially if ‘real life’ was the inspiration for a story).
Putting aside philosophical debates about the possibility of objective memory aside, the truth in fiction (and even in much excellent non-fiction) is more complex. It’s more about what Simone de Beauvoir characterised as ‘véridiques’ — a truthfulness that makes sense of the world rather than anything simplistically ‘true’. We don’t choose either to narrate or to live. Rather, as Satre suggests in Nausea, we live to narrate.
To write in this way, you must ‘cut away the scrollwork’. It bears repeating: cut the qualifiers, be sparing with adjectives, prune the adverbs. Write concrete, lucid sentences with active verbs and start in the action. We don’t need pages of scene setting. Allowing the scene to unfold within the story draws the reader in.
Get in quick
A story that won one of our previous competitions, ‘Jericho’ by Vivian Hassan-Lambert, began like this:
Etta May Josephs opened her eyes wide as the whistle blew. She’d been sitting in the same clothes for two days and her mouth was dry and sour. She leaned back to look out the window at miles of farmland…
It was a taut story in which threat and sinister racial hatred bristled whilst Etta May’s character emerged with lucid precision. It gripped.
‘Feeding the Cat’, another previous winner, by Lindsay Stanberry Flynn begins:
Julian looked at his watch: Hermione would be waiting.
‘What will you do when you get back?’ George asked.
Julian stared out of the bus window.
‘I said — ’
‘I heard what you said.’ Julian kept his eyes fixed on a woman in a tweed coat, waiting at the traffic lights. Mother had a coat like that.
We’re straight in. We begin to know who Julian is and why he is anxious about the time. We get an impression of Julian’s voice when he is short with George and the significance of Julian’s mother makes a first appearance. There is not an unnecessary word here.
A master of short story, Matthew Francis, packs in lyricism and keeps the wit sizzling below the surface. He does so in a few well-chosen words, as at the beginning of the title story of his collection, Singing a Man to Death:
I keep hearing the tune. Not out loud, of course. It’s just that some mornings, usually when I’ve had too much to drink the night before, I wake up at first light and find it running through my head: Mete üöbik oo tänabu. It’s been more than twenty-five years. And I only heard it once, or twice at the most. In any case nobody died of it, as far as I know. The music probably isn’t fatal, no more than any other of those things that stay with you: the smell of toast, say, or the mauve fluttering the gas fire used to make when you lit it, or the scrape of a stylus across the shiny black grooves of a vinyl record.
We’re into the story from the first phrase and the conversational style implicates the reader. Then, as soon as you’re drawn in, the writer hits you with the surprise ‘nobody died of it, as far as I know’. Music that nobody died of? This is intriguing, but we’re kept wondering while we hooked further. Perfect.
One true sentence
Cinnamon Press’s next fiction competition has a deadline at the end of July. The adjudicators will be novel and story writers Adam Craig and Tracey Iceton.
All you have to do is write one true sentence.
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