literary conventions


by Erin Entrada Kelly

When you’re immersed in a slush pile and a story fails within three paragraphs, there’s no need to sit on the fence and consider its rank and file on the subjective scale used for rejections and acceptances.

Unfortunately, most of the slush isn’t that easy.

The majority of stories fall on the fence and sit there, waiting for a fiction editor to nudge it one direction or the other. Where to nudge isn’t always an easy task, considering acceptance rates are typically around 2 percent and there isn’t room for everybody—nor should there be.

When I’m dredging through the slush piles, the stories that defeat the no-nudge and get pushed in the direction of YES are those that succeed where the vast majority of fence pieces fail: Originality.

There’s a school of thought that there is no such thing as original fiction anymore. People argue that fiction—specifically, genre fiction—has fallen victim to its own formulas and has sucked the life force out of any new thoughts or ideas. Experimental writers who believe they have come up with something new blame the market’s taste for conformity when their work fails and to some extent, especially for novelists, that may be true. But short fiction and flash fiction are other beasts entirely. It is in the shorter masterpieces that writers are truly able to stretch their creative wings and find publication.

Why, then, do so many writers fail to be original?

  • They see originality as the technique of a piece, rather than a quality of it. Being original doesn’t mean utilizing strange or quirky punctuation, printing on all sides of the paper a la House of Leaves, or using unusual fonts. In some cases that approach may work, but in many cases it fails because the writer doesn’t understand that originality has to live deeper within the manuscript—in its depths, as a quality of the work, not as a gimmick.
  • On the surface, life stories lend themselves to conformity. You can pick up most any traditional slush pile and find a story about cancer. Death. Love. These things have touched the lives of just about every person on Earth in one way or another, so it’s no surprise that more than one person wants to write about it. Unfortunately, many writers fail to see that the power in the story isn’t the cancer. The power of the story is in the characters. I’ve read dozens of well-written cancer stories where husband and wife are in the living room or the dining room, moving through fairly solid but uninspiring dialogue about the future. Nice and touching, okay. But the story that will truly resonate is the one that happens outside of the house or the doctor’s office. It’s the story that sneaks up on you because you are in a new setting, with new and interesting characters and you don’t know what to expect, even though cancer has been written about in thousands of stories before this one.
  • The characters aren’t original enough. Human beings have everything and nothing in common all at once. The reason we resonate with characters in life and fiction is because we can relate to them, but at the same rate, we are all eccentric individuals—even the most “normal” of us all. You can write about John Everyman, but we need to know what makes this John Everyman different from the others living in the slush pile.

It’s hard enough to get published. It’s even harder when you’re one of five stories that week that have the same setting and the same concept. Reading slush piles makes me a better writer because it teaches me a very important lesson: No matter how clever I think I am, there are other writers just as clever, and more so.

To stand out, you can’t blend in.

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Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. She currently has two novels under representation with the Jenks Agency and works as a freelance fiction editor, as well as assistant editor of Thrive Magazine. Read more at www.erinentradakelly.com.

by Dawn Maria

The instructor told the class, “I want you to finish this sentence: I would never want to write—fill in the blank.”

Soft giggles were heard around the room, my own included. I sat in a new writing class feeling both excited and nervous as I took in the new teacher, who appeared younger and more daring in the wardrobe department than I would ever allow myself to be. Here in the first few moments of class, I’ve already been challenged to demonstrate my brilliance (or shortcomings) in front of a built-in audience.

The answers come from around the room without much fanfare. Some people hate science fiction while others dread historical settings. The young Marine seated next to me declares, “I would never want to write about falling in love… or ponies.” Everyone laughs after that one. I’m up next.

After stating my name and writing history I finished my sentence quickly. “I would never want to write a graphic love scene.” I noticed several nods and felt less anxious than I did before.

The last to speak was a young man who hadn’t laughed out loud with the rest of us. His hair was matted and messy, an effortless chic like I’d seen in ads for expensive fragrances. Slim, with torn jeans and thick black combat boots, I saw a thin line of white T-shirt visible underneath the opening of his faded, black leather jacket. I couldn’t call him handsome, but I felt drawn to him nonetheless. An energy floats above his body and I almost wanted to risk grasping for it in front of everyone.

I don’t remember his name, even moments after he said it. What I recall is how he filled in the blank. “I would never want to write,” he began in a smooth voice with a chord of sharp angst at the end of each word. “I would never want to write anything that makes someone feel like a better person after they read it.”

His words sped through the room making others uncomfortable and me the most interested I’d been since class began. What was inside this young man that needed to come out? And in that moment I felt longing; a longing to hear the words in his heart assembled to paint the picture of his soul.

Having listened patiently to our answers, our instructor smiled while one hand played with an unusually large earring that dangled from her ear. Her other hand released a pen.

“Your first assignment,” she told us. “Is due next week. One page on the very thing you named just now. No cheating, I took notes.”

I spent the next week laboring over a dismal scene between two doomed lovers. Since this was my first written love scene, I foolishly modeled the female character after myself, thus halting any wild fun the pair might enjoy. Weighted by the clinical details of various acts, my best efforts couldn’t conjure up a morsel of intimacy.

We were not required to read aloud our weekly homework assignments. I still wonder today whether the young man would have returned to class if he had known that.

In his one sentence, he knew something I believe the rest of us didn’t. He knew why he wrote and whom he wrote for. This forced me to consider my own audience. For whom did my bell toll? For the readers I hoped to have or for a release of the pressure inside my being? The work was mine, but what did it stand for? Sure, I could learn to spit out mechanical details that gave a reader an idea of what was happening, but could I also learn to give the reader something more? Something that transcended his own experience in such a way it floats by, leaving no visible mark but instead a sense of satisfaction? Perhaps he is not a better person afterward. Perhaps he merely remains a human being: thinking, breathing, desiring the touch of another.

Perhaps it’s all a graphic love scene.

And I need to keep practicing.

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Dawn Maria lives in Scottsdale, AZ surrounded by books and stories. By day she works as a Media Tech in a high school library and at night she works on her novel. She draws humor and inspiration for her work from her busy life as a  mother, wife and harried pet owner. Visit her blog, Method to the Madness, at www.dawnmaria.com

 

 

by Erin Kelly

If you prefer to think inside the box, you will discover that there are two big boxes in the world of fiction writing. They are marked LITERARY and MAINSTREAM. As a writer, you’re left wondering which box is best for your personal masterpiece. This is true whether it’s 500 words of flash or 500 pages of a novel.

Literary magazines and publishers often distinguish themselves as accepting literary works rather than genre works, or genres with the exception of X, Y, Z. Meanwhile writers are scratching their heads because the more they are asked to define their work, the more they realize that the definitions aren’t distinctive.

The black-and-white question of what it means for a work to be “literary” is anything but simple when you’re a writer who operates in the gray.

I searched around on the Internet for some good, solid answers to the following question: What is literary? Then I mentally pulled The Cartographer’s Girl by Matt Bell from my bookshelf to figure out if I could place it in an appropriate box.

So – what is literary? According to writers and agents lurking on the Internet, literary works are:

  • Stories driven by character instead of plot. The Cartographer’s Girl is about a deeply wounded man who obsessively searches for his lost girlfriend after she’s disappeared sleepwalking. Strong character motivated by a strong plot – but it’s not science fiction, erotica, horror or steampunk. So based on this definition, I assume the work is literary.
  • Stories with strong underlying cultural and social issues which motivate the characters. As far as I know the cartographer isn’t driven by any cultural or social standards, other than love for his lost girlfriend. So: Mainstream. (But good luck trying to figure out which genre.)
  • Stories that are marked by a polished writing technique that focuses on deliberate word selection and sentence structure and appeals to a smaller, more intellectual audience. (As someone who reads lots of genre fiction and has read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy five times, I take a little offense to this “more intellectual” label, but I digress). Under this definition, the Matt Bell story is literary.
  • Work that is difficult to describe to other readers because the plot is bubbling underneath the surface. Uh, well, I just easily described the story in bullet point one, so I guess we’re back to mainstream.
  • Stories that incorporate all of the above elements. I suppose this means we are back to putting The Cartographer’s Girl in the “literary” category, but now what will I do with The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, which is a science-fiction novel (i.e., “mainstream”), which also incorporates everything we’ve just named?

Consider Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot by Robert Olen Butler, The Hamburger Story by Lauren Becker or Dead People I Have Known by Charlie Taylor. Good luck fitting any of these in a specific box or mainstream genre, especially if you adhere to the above definitions.

When considering what it means to be mainstream, the world of short fiction – and even more so, flash fiction – is uniquely forgiving and wonderfully flexible because the markets are open for all types and there is far more room to operate in the gray. That’s why I consider it an ideal place for writers, especially novice writers, to flex their creative muscles, throw definitions out with the trash, and write what comes to mind, heart and pen. In other words: Think outside the box.

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Erin Kelly is staff editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles and has served as editor for Flying Word Inc., guest editor for Cha and former fiction editor of Sotto Voce. Her work has appeared in Kyoto, Monkeybicycle, Johnny America, Keyhole and elsewhere. She currently has two novels under representation with the Carolyn Jenks Agency and works as assistant editor of a lifestyles magazine. Read more at www.erinkellywrites.com.

I’m not sure exactly how “genre” fans get away with bashing “literary” writing, and “literary” readers and writers get away with mocking “genre” fiction, given that “literary fiction” is just another genre. It has its various styles, techniques and conventions, just as every genre does; it has its past masters and its modern greats, as do all other genres; and it has just as much imitative dreck as any other genre, too.

I think the problem might be that the word “literary” is confusingly close to the word “literature”, which suggests that there may be some relationship between the two (other than that both involve reading, obviously). But to make that assumption presents a serious problem: it means that either you have a special limited genre only open to total geniuses, and less-than-perfect writers are not allowed to call their work literary, or you have a situation where free passes to the genius club are issued to anyone who writes literature… er, literary fiction.

Can you imagine a world in which only the most skilled writers were allowed to term their fiction romance, and anyone learning his or her craft who attempted a romance piece would be mocked and told to call it humour or just “other” instead? Or a world in which any science fiction story was automatically considered literature?

So, no. The literary genre does not somehow equal great literature.

Literary fiction does mean an emphasis on style, form and language. The literary voice is often distinctive. Story arcs in literary fiction are often more subtle than in other genres, and may appear in the form of a character arc, a moral or emotional arc that takes place within the protagonist. Does this make it automatically better or worse than any other? No. That would be down to the writer’s skill.

I don’t believe in a free pass for any genre, I don’t believe in a genre label that excludes the less-skilled, and nor does it make sense to me to deride any genre as a whole.

In my work for EDF, I read stories of every genre and style from writers of all skill levels, and there’s just one thing I know for sure – a good story is a good story, and when it grabs you and won’t let go, you don’t even notice the genre label.

Reprinted from Camille Gooderham Campbell’s February 6 post at Copy.Edit.Proof. blog.

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Camille Gooderham Campbell is the managing editor of Every Day Fiction, a copywriter, and an obsessive proofreader.

She has an Honours B.A. specializing in English Literature from the University of Toronto, where she was privileged to study creative writing with Professor J. Edward Chamberlin. She has also studied advertising copywriting and marketing communications at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Writing!  The blank screen is a white shroud caressing my face in the morgue.  And then, slowly the words drip feed down the page, accelerating until they become plasma filling my flaccid veins with life.

How much simpler to say the blank page terrifies me, but would it be as memorable?  Crime writer Donald L. Westlake told Ken Follett to skim the first pages of the bestsellers and try to find five out of a hundred that were memorable.  Why?  If writing is memorable a reader will return to your work.

That made me think of rhetorical imagery that readers comment on in my stories.

“Giersbach,” people say, “where’d you get that image?  ‘Her breasts were like two supermarket chickens reincarnated into flying eagles, threatening to escape her skimpy red tank top.’”  While my plot, character, style and atmosphere are just so-so, they remember my metaphors and similes.

In “Laura Lard Takes No Prisoners,” my protagonist has a penchant for heavy-set women.*  The narrative hook is a set-up of four metaphors and similes comparing a city and personal obesity.

New York City is a lean town. Not mean, just full of thin-to-middle-weight people who walk fast, talk faster and move through pedestrian-clotted streets the way a Giants’ running back weaves toward the goal line …  Combine the driving impulses of acquisition and apprehension and you leave no room for calories to collect and twiddle their thumbs on your thighs.  There’s no place for slow-moving vehicles in the fast lane of commerce.

Allen and Laura are a metaphor.  “As they walked away, it was as if the Trylon and Perisphere had come to life and were marching toward Second Avenue.” Imagery from the 1939 World’s Fair is the trick to never forgetting the “skinny” and “overweight” couple.

Metaphor, as your 5th grade teacher told you, is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase ordinarily used to designate something stands in for something else.  In the case above, Laura fought her childhood tormentors by “doing an Elliott Ness against the Prejudice Mafia.”

Simile, kissing cousin to metaphor, is a figure of speech comparing two essentially different things.  At Allen and Laura’s party on New York’s Lower East Side, a guest states the obvious about Laura’s unnecessary avoirdupois:  “‘Yeah, but she’s fat’ sounded like the PA system in Grand Central Terminal announcing the all-aboard for the apocalypse.”  The key word in a simile is like or as.

Without getting too carried away, a good writer also can look for ways to use synecdoche—using a part to refer to the whole, such as “wheels” for autos and “head” for cattle.  And (gasp), there’s also metonymy— identifying a person with a thing, such as “crown” for royalty and “brass” for military officers.

Well, let’s get carried away a bit more.  Consider chiasmus (Greek, crossing arrangement; X = chi).  Here, you want to reverse the order of words in two parallel phrases.  “She came in like a lioness in heat and, in defeat, left like a pregnant lamb.”

Finally, there’s zeugma, a way of imaginatively yoking together different thoughts—each appropriate, but in a different way.  “On Hemingway’s visit to Havana, he caught two sailfish and the clap.”

Now, you give it a shot, being mindful that it’s easy to go over the top using rhetorical imagery.  This simile was culled from favorites collected by teachers.  “The hailstones leaped from the pavement, like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”  Or an unfortunately mixed metaphor from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities: “All at once he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost.” And watch out for clichéd analogies that will sink your boat:  “Even though the job paid peanuts, Joe was pleased as punch because he had gone through hell and back, keeping a firm grip on reality the whole time, and was finally seeing his dream come to life.”

Try creative imagery and watch your writing soar faster than a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon escaping its kidnappers.

* “Laura Lard Takes No Prisoners,” from Cruising the Green of Second Avenue by Walter Giersbach, Wild Child Publishing (www.wildchildpublishing.com).

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Walt Giersbach has published a number of crime stories, introducing Newark Detective Mike Mullally in “The Bone Yard” (http://www.bigpulp.com/chill_giersbach_boneyard.html) and “Chain of Events” (http://www.overmydeadbody.com/giersbch.htm).  He’s putting Mullally into a novella now.

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