Monday, March 01, 2010

Lessons from free fiction

I'm not writing this post to impugn any publications that aren't paying pro-rates. I know that they are being published out of love, and the writers writing for them love their work, love writing, and are sometimes submitting fantastic stories. Amazing work. And I also know that just because a market pays more doesn't mean it's higher quality.

But I also know that there comes a point in someone's writing career when they can create a story that some editor is willing to buy for 5 cents a word, and after that point, those writers aren't settling for free anymore. That's because they've worked long and hard and feel a certain kind of entitlement. Or maybe empowerment, depending on if they're your friends or not.

Anyway, the point is that I've been reading a lot of writing from folks who are not a member of the 5-cents-a-word crowd (heck, I'm not a member of that crowd yet!), and I'm starting to get a feel for what doesn't work in their stories. It's hard to explain, because I'm just getting the idea, but at the request of a pal, I'm blogging about the few problem areas I can definitely describe. Here in a handy list, some frequent problems in free or reduced price fiction:

Failure to create and sustain tension/conflict throughout the piece. I just reviewed a story where a couple goes to stay at a haunted cottage and are eventually killed, and they spend the first 500-1000 words being romantic and jolly and joyous. Then they get a little nervous by the appearance of a shadowy figure on the beach. Dude, it's a horror story. If I don't have a bad feeling by the end of the first paragraph, I'm not interested. At least have the characters wonder how on earth they got such a terrific last-minute deal on a beach cottage!

Pacing issues. Once again, the beach cottage story--about 1000 words before any unpleasantness, and the wife doesn't get it until the next to last paragraph. And the dude is dead just a few sentences later. Beginnings are almost always too long in free fiction. Middles limp along, and then the end snowballs onto us before we've had a chance to cheer on the evil ghosts!

Failure to show what is at stake or failure to raise the stakes. We can't get invested in the characters if they're just going to prance around, having fun and then going home from vacation. Something must be seriously threatened by the story--maybe it's their lives, maybe it's their relationships, maybe it's their dreams, but whatever it is, they need to be ready to fight for it or lose it.

Failure to create expectations or failure to live up to the expectations created. You've heard the old saw that if you show a gun in the first scene, you better use it by the end of the movie. That's an example of the failure to live up to the expectations you created. But if you don't set people up to look for anything--if you don't show an abandoned makeup bag in the bathroom, raising questions about why the previous renters left in such a hurry--it's impossible to work up a sense of excitement.

Elements that do not relate to the EMOTIONAL CORE of the story. Everything that you reveal within the framework of the story needs to relate to the emotional core of the work. EVERYTHING. Think about the movie "Signs." They really milked the strange relationship between the doubting pastor and the failed baseball player brother, didn't they? They went into a lot of detail about that failed baseball career BECAUSE Baseball Brother uses his slugging powers to destroy the aliens. And that's only important BECAUSE Dead Wife's dying words about Baseball Brother's batting destroyed Doubting Pastor's faith. And remembering those words saves them, thus restoring his faith. The emotional core of that movie is the conflict between doubt & faith, not aliens. Who cares about aliens? Not that many people. Who cares about doubt and faith? Anybody who has ever place their trust in anything outside themself--and that's 90% of humanity.

Have a central core that is larger than the surface of the story. Make it about humanity, not aliens, just like M. Night Shyamalan did.

Logical connections. Another free story I just read features a man who learns his wife is into sadomasochism. He also learns that his daughter kills dogs. Then later he finds his daughter getting involved with the sadomasochistic neighbors (pretty kinky stuff), and then worries that his wife has killed a toddler and served it for dinner. And all I can think is "How does that make any sense?" The wife is a perv. The kid is a murderer. One thing or another, unless you can hang them together--wife has created perv/murdering kid. You're talking a few thousand words. Everything needs to have a logical connection to everything else, or your story falls apart. If there is a connection, for god's sake, show it.

So far, that's what I know that I've learned. There's a lot of other stuff about grammar and dialog tags and crap like that, but that's just frosting on the cake. If you can ferret out these kinds of problems in your story, you just might take home semi-pro payment on your stories. And then you can afford to have your cake and frost it, too!


JRC said...

Interesting post - and really, really useful: I always like to have little reminders of things to avoid in my own writing.

It seems to me that the central failing here is writers who simply don't think their stories through. As a rule I like to (or at least attempt to) approach my story from all possible angles: does it start at the right place, does the end make sense in context, do the characters have a natural journey, have I identified the right theme(s)... and so on.

With the case of the story you used as your first example it sounds as though the writer thought no further than: "It's a story about a couple who go on holiday and get horribly killed". If you've got the natural talent then it's possible that you could wing it from there, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if most novice writers simply don't think beyond the basic plot of their stories.

Wendy said...

I totally agree with you! The truly weird thing is that somebody did publish that story, even if it was just an online publication.

kristina said...

Some really helpful bits here - AND you helped dust off my memories of "swing away" and all that. You rock.

JohnR said...

hehe, I groaned through this whole post, recognizing aspects of my own stories in each. Thank you for this helpful advice!