Feedback – and How Not to Be a Slime Ball.

Feedback and How Not to Be a Slimeball

Amazing_Stories_Volume_01_Number_12.pdfIs feedback on a Work In Progress good for you as a writer?

I think the short answer is that it depends on the length of the piece and on what the feedback is. It’s certainly important to provide some kind of context. A novel is long, some 90,000 words. Flash fiction has a beginning, a middle and an end in some 500 words or so. If you have a piece of writing that relies upon previous scenes for context, or sets the scene for a denouement, then you probably will be wasting your time in reading it out. Or worse, it will be commented upon by helpful listeners and the points raised may be like speed bumps or diversions on your writing journey.

Take this example:

The other night, in a restaurant I overheard the following,

‘He’s a right slime ball.’

There’s no denying that it’s been taken out of context. After all we don’t know:

  • Who he is
  • What he’s done
  • His side of events.
  • Who is imparting this judgement – their shared history and back story.

By the way, do you know what a real slime ball is? It is snail vomit. Now, no-one wants to be that . . .be they writer, reader or listener.

When reading out a chunk of writing to others in your group, do yourself a favour and choose something that you think is reasonably self-contained, something that others can follow and hopefully be hooked by.

When it is your turn to listen and you don’t think the dots are quite joined up, consider the effect your words could have. If you have the time, ask to read a little more in private to garner context.

When you have a piece of work in front of you, yours or someone else’s, perhaps consider the following:

  • What happens in the story?

Summarise the plot (the gist of the happenings). Think about what this précis leaves out. 

  • Is the story told in chronological order, or are there flashbacks or flashforwards?

On re-reading, what foreshadowing (hints of what is to come) do you detect?

  • What conflicts does the work include?

Obstacles and ways to overcome them are the lifeblood to many a great piece of writing.

  • How does the writer develop characters?

Is character revealed by explicit comment or through action? With which character(s) do you sympathise? Are the characters plausible? What motivates them? What do minor characters contribute to the work?

  •  Who tells the story?

Is the narrator a character, or does the narrator stand entirely outside the characters’ world? What does the narrator’s point of view contribute to the story’s theme?

  •  What is the setting?

What do the time and place of the action contribute to the work?

  •  Are certain characters, settings, or actions symbolic?

Do they stand for something in addition to themselves?

  • What is the theme?

That is, what does the work add up to? Does the theme reinforce your values, or does it challenge them?

  • Is the title informative?

Did its meaning change for you after you read the work?

Above all, remember feedback is like fuel to a car. Put in the wrong type and the writer won’t get far before spluttering to a stop. Or worse still, they will have to clean out the tank and start again.

Tracy Thomson

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What Just Happened? Allusions and Settings are Oh So Character Building . . .

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: DAVID FRANKEL ON THE POWER OF SUGGESTION IN THE SHORT STORY

man shuffling

“In the short story there is no slack. Everything is a clue – a glimpse that hints at something larger. Often, a great deal of the plot is implied and this intensity requires more of the reader. It is a world in which it is impossible to be a passive consumer.

Graham Greene once advised that writers should ‘keep in mind the question the reader is asking.’ For writers of short stories this is doubly important. The tools of omission and implication are not only necessary because of the obvious constraints of length, but can be instrumental in providing the intrigue that keeps the reader involved. This can be especially effective at the beginning of a story where omitting backstory can engage the reader immediately, drawing them into a ‘live’ situation and prompting them to ask questions: why is this happening and what happens next?

Hemingway was a master of this. In many of his stories (two that spring to mind are ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and ‘Hills Like White Elephants’) we are pitched straight into the action mid-situation. Description is pared down to a minimum and dialogue is sharp. ‘The Snows Of Kilimanjaro’ opens mid-conversation .We read on, at least to begin with, in order to discover who is speaking, and what is going on:
‘“The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odour though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t! Please don’t.”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it the sight or is it the scent that brings them like that?”
The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick moving shadows as they passed.’

In ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the subject of the story (an unwanted pregnancy and prospective abortion) is never made explicit. This story is a particular moment in time, convincingly rendered with sparse but vivid detail and dialogue that makes no attempt to explain what is occurring for the benefit of an observer. The real theme is implied subtly. This has the effect of turning the readers into eavesdroppers as the protagonists skirt around the issue. It is our nosiness that makes us listen.

I often think of a short story like a low-budget film where characterisation and a limited number of sets are all that the director has, to evoke a whole off-screen universe. As though we are watching the protagonists through a single camera lens, and from that limited observation we must form an idea of the rest of their lives, projecting out into the world.

A great example of this is ‘Jesus’ Son’ by Denis Johnson. It is a collection of stories about people ‘passing through’, all seemingly at the end of a particular chapter in their life, or at the beginning of one. The collection follows an un-named narrator through a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, each with someone we will never meet again. Because of this, every action they take, every word they speak gains more weight. These glimpses become the evidence on which we will build our impression not only of them but also of the narrator’s world. Even more so than Hemingway, Johnson’s stories pitch the reader in mid-situation, forcing them to piece together what is happening. Unlike Hemingway, Johnson keeps the reader off-balance, never quite giving them all the information they need about the situations the narrator describes. The reader is prompted to imagine scenes that have happened off-screen, as in the story ‘Two Men’.

It begins,
‘I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light.’

What this ‘misunderstanding’ might be is never made clear. Nor, strangely, do we meet the second man promised by the title and the opening paragraph. This feeling that we are not quite being let in on everything makes us want to know more. His endings cut off mid-action too, as if the author is afraid to write what happens next, or the narrator too ashamed to tell. ‘Two Men’, for example, ends with the narrator in pursuit of an adversary.

After breaking into the man’s flat he finds that his quarry has escaped and in the final scene he holds a gun to the head of a woman he finds there:
‘I took two steps over to the living-room window and looked down into the parking lot. I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looked like Thatcher’s car was gone.
The woman hadn’t moved. She just lay there on the rug.
“He’s really not here,” she said.
I knew he wasn’t. “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry,” I said.’

It is a powerful ending precisely because it leaves so much to the imagination of the reader. A short story often works best when it signifies something bigger, when it asks us to imagine the shadow cast by what has happened on the page. In doing this, the short can get away with something that a novel rarely can – it can leave a question hanging, a life unexplored, an idea unresolved, inviting us to extrapolate from what we have read. In the hands of a skillful writer this gives short stories the ability to haunt the reader long after they have been read.”

Blog curated with kind permission from David Frankel, and Over The Red Line.

David Frankel is a writer and artist. His stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including The London Magazine and Lightship Anthology. His work has been shortlisted for a number of prizes, including The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and the Fish Memoir Prize.

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A Dog’s View – Paws for Thought

350px-BlackLab2009Dog-biscuit-icon

Some incidentals to start with: My Mistress, She Who Adores Me, is always telling everyone that Labrador intestines are the most robust in the world and should be thoroughly and scientifically investigated. Why? Because these studies would help find the answer of resistance to the most violent of indigestions or accidental poisoning.

I have to admit that the odd good old vomit has always been my answer to all that life can throw at me in the way of my rather disgusting, yet splendidly greedy eating habits. People tend to forget that we are like the newly overweight and no longer nomadic North American Red Indians*, in that we, like them, no longer have to search and forage endlessly all winter long in the icy and inhospitable weather of, in my ancestors case, Labrador of the Far Northern reaches of, um l’m not quite sure of its exact geographic location, can anyone help me out here?? Canada?

Anyway here we are, and I am, in the warmer climes of Europe. We remain nevertheless programmed to instinctively be always on the lookout for the slightest morsel which will add to our fat reserves. To cope with and to survive long cold winters in the land of our Sires of yesteryears. Subsequently we eat copiously and, some would say, greedily the slightest tit-bit which comes within our range whether it is our allotted meal time or not. (The indigenous** North Americans have given it the marvellous term “snacking.”) Thus, whether I have just eaten 5 minutes ago a huge meal of meat and veg and juices, the instinctive need is to carry on snacking. That is before She Who Adores Me yells and yanks me away from whatever delectation I have had the good sense to sniff out and attempt to devour without it touching either side of my mouth. Does she not realise that I may not get to eat again until the spring when the snow melts? Who could argue with the Labradorean logic of it all? Well, I ask you, who?

To tell you a little about myself is to impart that my breeding is ancient and impeccable. Simply tons of my nearest ancestors have come from Queen Elizabeth 2’s own breeding lines (Sandringham). Thus I have the most robust hips, quarters and a rather fab, though I say it myself, sprinter’s backside. (Oh you know, muscular and round). To the utter delight of She Who Adores Me, who has been a racehorse owner and knows a good rear end when presented with one i.e. mine! My cousins are various shades of black, yellow and chocolate. I am of a deep black. I started life in Wales, with my sister Mason. Oh by the way I’m called Fortnum. I do apologise most profusely for not introducing myself to you. And your name is?. . .

Excerpt from THE LIFE OF FORTNUM (LABRADOR, FEMALE AND GORGEOUS) by Deborah Camp-Simpson

    * Political incorrectness from Fortnum.

** Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Good girl.

Images: Dog Biscuit by Tommy Kronkvist, “BlackLab2009” by Erikeltic at English Wikipedia.
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Infographics – More Shared than Synonyms at an SEO Party.

Infographic-web small T1_it_guyIt turns out Infographics, not Orange, are the New Black. It also transpires there’s a knack to their creation. And it is something that Writers, Designers and Marketers should all learn. CopyPress does a great infographic guide where we learn how to turn boredom on its head, with the same stats that caused us to yawn in the first place.

Look at this article graphic on the right here, now, that’s clever.

The data visualisation on the left’s not bad, either.

So these infographics things, aren’t they just graphics and charts?

So, haven’t they been with us since before the Flintstones went to school?

So isn’t this just putting a spin on things?

The answer is a resounding ‘No, No, No’. And here’s why: It not only simplifies, it captivates and brings the information to life. It creates in us an interest that pushes the information into the brain. That’s right, we learn, we acquire, we curate for the cycle to begin again. And we enjoy it. We beg to be allowed to pass it on to someone else.

Oh, I almost forgot, search engines love infographics! They tick the boxes and rock the boats of those word-thirsty robots crawling for interesting topics stated in a unique way.

Have you heard the one about the SEO expert who walked into a bar, grill, pub, public house, Irish, bartender, drink, beer, wine, liquor…, (but I digress).

Once we understand what infographics are it comes as no surprise to learn they are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles, that Publishers’ who use infographics grow traffic on average by 12% and that 40% of people respond better to visual information than to text.

Be it data visualisation or an article graphic, infographics are here to stay. Enough said.

By Tracy Thomson
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When Work Loses Fizz… Just Add Thizz…

There is a MOOC being run by the IOWA Writing University and Jonathan Lethem gave a talk that I have abridged below. The full version is available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QOnEumMvjk It’s all about how when work loses Fizz just add causality.

‘First of all… a lot of the stories that interest us, a lot of the novels that interest us, fundamentally take two unrelated things, two autonomous ideas, situations, possibilities, and shackle them. And in many ways this initial impulse can seem quite arbitrary, because what you’re taking are things that aren’t necessarily related, and you’re placing them together, that’s the juxtaposition. What takes this operation from being something…sort of abstract or absurd or pointless is the second term of my concept, and that’s the causality.

So what’s causality? Causality is basically the word “because,” … the stakes of the story are going to relate the two things urgently and extensively.

So what do I mean by this? I’m going to give you an example from my own writing. When I conceived the book Motherless Brooklyn, which is a novel about a private detective who has Tourettes…it’s also very much about my own childhood in Brooklyn and growing up in a certain neighborhood at a certain time and place. In some ways it felt as though two different books were announcing themselves to me simultaneously. But rather than resist that, or sort the two out, or think they were incompatible, it seemed to me my funny, sort of willful, post-modern conceit about the detective with Tourette Syndrome, and my intimate, confessional, passionate love letter to the city where I grew up could be combined, and ought to be combined, and not only shouldn’t I do them at the same time, but that I was going to make it seem necessary…I was going to make it seem urgent and obvious in a way that the only place that this detective with Tourettes could tell this story, the only place he could have come from, was Brooklyn. And, you know, once I make this assertion…so I’ve got my juxtaposition, right? Tourette Syndrome, hard-boiled detective story, and the autobiographical material, this really involved setting, time and place, that mattered enormously to me…the public schools I went to, the streets I walked, the slices of pizza I used to eat on Smith Street…the things that reminded me of growing up in that place, and that I suddenly wanted to say a lot about.

So there’s the juxtaposition, I mean, you could even argue that it was a triple juxtaposition because, you know, what are hard-boiled detectives and Tourette Syndrome doing together? But anyway, so I smashed these things into one project, and then I’ve taken the next step, I’ve inserted the causality, I’ve said… he becomes emblematic to them of Brooklyn, he seems to them to exemplify something that’s already true about this place, which is that language is exploding everywhere, that because of the varieties of classes and cultures and races that were all living together in Brooklyn, and the kind of frenetic, sardonic, intense, and sometimes very insulting street language was typical…that his Tourette Syndrome just seems like Brooklyn raised to the nth degree.

things that you wouldn’t think of as being compatible or coexisting or related to each other have been electrified, like the parts of Frankenstein’s body by the bolt of electricity.

I’ll give you another example outside my own work, one of the most grandiose, of course, is totemic book of modernist genius, is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes Homeric myth, takes Odysseus wandering home after the Trojan War and relates it to the events of a day in a neighborhood in Dublin. Now, you know, we take this for granted now…of course, well it’s Ulysses, those things belong together, but when Joyce conceived this they had no relationship, it was the bolt of electricity that he flowed between them that made them into one unified thing forever…and now we take it as a commonplace thing that these things are married together.

Where do writers get their ideas? Was it the character or was it the setting? Did you think of the voice first or were you more concerned with the plot and set pieces? Were you thinking about a theme or were you thinking about things in your life, people you wanted to write about? The answer is almost always, when you press a writer and they have time to expand on what they were doing, the answer is always more than one, it’s always both. And I think that you can seek this doubleness, … in your own… unfinished stories, … if moved into a conjunction with these other things, it might suddenly become something.
…I want you to look around for things that … haven’t become stories…aren’t active on their own, and try taking more than one of those and just relating them. …juxtaposition…causality.’

Go check out the MOOC, it’s GREAT

Tracy Thomson

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“She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”

She's not a stranger; I've read her book
She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book

Our guest blog this month comes from Caro Clarke, author of ‘Furry Dice Chewing Gum’. She reflects upon the writer’s voice and what makes us who we are. As they say in Thailand, ‘Same, same but different…’

Writing: It’s Personal

‘When I was a girl, back in the time of cave painting and discovering fire, I learned penmanship, and the teacher expected all of us to write our letters exactly the same. And yet, graphologists say that our handwriting reveals who we are, the aspects about ourselves that we know and don’t want to tell, or aspects we might not even know. We cannot help revealing ourselves in what we shape with our hands and minds, and why shouldn’t we? Isn’t penmanship the way we communicate ourselves to the world?

 

As with handwriting, so with fiction writing. When we tell stories, we are not just telling a story, we are telling our readers about ourselves. One of the reviewers of my first novel let me stay in her house while she was away. She had never met me (we arranged it via email) and, when her friends said, scandalised, “You’re letting a stranger stay at your house?!?” she replied “She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”

 

When we find out that the author of a particularly beloved novel was not, in fact, a lovely person, I think we sometimes question our faith, but often we decide that the author’s “better angel” did exist, but only existed when he or she was writing. I have known writers of very moving or funny books who were dull or morose in real life — until they did something (shelter a moth from harm’s way, suddenly cap a joke) that revealed the secret angel of their nature, that wellspring from which their books flowed.

 

We write who we are. What we choose to write is shaped by more than the specific inspiration (that headline, that family myth, that half-memory), but by the complete connection of ourselves to our world. This is something that we can’t help doing and what we must do. We must be ourselves, must be true to ourselves. The world doesn’t want another Atwood or Patterson or Lethem, it wants something new — and we are that something new.

 

What we bring to a story no one else will bring. We are each of us unique, and unique always sells. As a former fiction editor, and as someone who has worked with literary agents, I constantly said, and heard said, “What’s different about this? What’s its USP (unique selling point)?” It was never just the amazing plot-twist or the unusual setting or the brilliant evocation of time, but what I can only call “personality”. The book “had” something. It wasn’t a pile of paper, it was a creation.

 

I am not convinced by software programmes that will “teach you to write.” They might teach you to structure and improve sentences, but they can’t bring creation to a story. They can’t make the best-structured narrative come alive. Only your mind can do that. Only your heart can do that. How you write might be unusual. I know an author who writes on sticky notes in very tiny letters. He finds it easier to do micro-writing and then use a wall to assemble his book. I know another author who plots for two years, and then writes one single finished draft in three months. A friend of mine will only write in certain kinds of notebooks (unfortunately, these come from France, so how lucky that his books sell well).

 

I would worry if there was only one way to write. That isn’t how anything works, except perhaps for robots putting silicon chips into a hard drive. There might be a “best way” to brush your teeth or to apply bathroom tiles, but not when it comes to tapping into the mysteries of creation. I have mentioned wellsprings. I believe that we each have our own depth of wisdom, joy, anger, bitterness and fear that we draw on, only half-consciously, when in the grip of our story. How can that ever come forth in the same way from every heart and mind?

 

How we write is an expression of what our books will be. I myself write my first two or three drafts in pen in notebooks. I then type in, amending as I go, and then grind through a number of drafts either on-screen, or in print-out, hand-writing changes and typing them in after every go-through. I have done as few as four drafts, and as many as fourteen. Whatever it takes to make it right. And I think my stories reflect this. They are considered. They are (I hope) thought through. They are certainly felt through. They might not be great stories, but I have had readers’ comments back, and it seems that I connect in a particular way with particular people. That’s all I ask.

 

Would my way of writing work for anyone else? Yes, I’ve met many writers who find that the book becomes itself, creates itself, only in the last few of its many rewrites, but this is because that’s who we are. Our books are good on the little details, the small touches, because we work at that level. Others don’t sweat that small stuff; they do the sweeping narratives, the sagas, the larger-than-life characters, because that’s who they are. Even if they seem small on the outside.

 

Nobody is small who wants to write. Nobody can be small when they want to reach out to the world with a story in their hands, that thing that might become eternal, as Homer’s stories, as Shakespeare’s as Twain’s, have become immortal. How can it be taught, this impulse, this need to create? Like water from a high source, it will come down the mountain and cross the valley by the path it wants to take, must take, to reach its sea.

 

Who are you? What makes you write what you write? What makes you write how you write? Whatever it is, if you are producing living creations, then it is right for you.

 

And who cares about your penmanship.

www.caroclarke.com

© Caro Clarke All Rights Reserved.
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