Monday, November 29, 2010

The Short Story for the Editor, Part One: the Characters.

Let's gain for a moment the importance of the story at hand. If this story is merely a recount of old times, then it's not a story as much as it's an anecdote, and it isn't fiction at all. In any story, we readers still want description both of scene and character. We want to feel the sunny day on our faces, and we want to know what the library smells like. But when it comes to the memorability of the story it's the characters and their journey that we remember.

During my days at summer camp, during the latter half of the 1990s the Sunday night campfire skit I loved the most was modeled after a joke:
First Person: What're you reading?
Second Person: White Pages.
First Person: The White Pages? How's that?
Second Person: Great list of characters but not a lot of plot.
Yet it's true, the White Pages (Do they still print them? I know the Yellow Pages turn up at an alarming rate) are a great list of characters. And every one of them has a story. And each story had the essentials of good fiction: they all have back stories, desires, dimension, and obstacles. But as just a name in the middle of a long list of names, they are essentially meaningless.

Your characters too, if left flat, two dimensional, are just a name like those in the White Pages.

When we talk about a short story, or even fiction in general, I think of a character driven plot. Characters drive the story from beginning through the middle to the end. Without a character, or some entity, we readers cannot relate, and then a short story it is not. It doesn't matter if the characters writers chose are woman, man, beast or bug, a character we relate to makes the experience of the read worthwhile.

As this study of characters begins, let's look at some we may already know.

Gregor Samsa of Franz Kafka's “The Metamorphosis” comes to mind instantly. As I read the trials and events of this story, I feel like I can relate to all the characters: the father and mother, the cook, sister and the chief clerk, and this is not as much as Gregor Samsa himself. Some people may think the reason why “The Metamorphosis” has endured, or why it's successful as a story is because of the outlandish event, a man turning into a giant insect. Whereas that may be true, it's poor Gregor Samsa which I find so compelling. Here's a man, a traveler who has been in charge of family finances as well as paying off the debts of his bankrupt father and now he's turned into a bug. The point is, we know Gregor Samsa by name and we have a relationship with him. Without Gregor Samsa's back story, these family relations, and his past and current situations, we're bound to lose interest in a mere insect story.

Here are some names you may or may not know:

Muriel, Sybil and Seymour Glass in Salinger's “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Fuzz Littler in Vonnegut's “Fubar” from the 2009 collection Look at the Birdie. Debby from Mary Gaitskill's “Secretary.”

What do these four stories have in common other than being four of my favorite short stories? They all are driven by their characters.

For the writers of fiction and the construction of fictional short stories, I recommend reading as many as possible. Those who work in genre fiction: sci fi, fantasy; romance, westerns; crime, etc. I think the rules are the same. Read short stories. Make your characters real.

Breathing instant life into your characters:
1.Give them back story:
Gregor Samsa has taken over family finances, has worked as clerk, thought about sending sister to school. He has saved money, doesn't go out and wants then and now to be free.
2.Make them multi-dimensional:
Seymour Glass means something different to all three female characters in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” He is admired by Sybil, the lover to Muriel and the object of scorn of Muriel's mother. We learn and form opinions about this character because of the way others see him.
3.Give the character a tremendous obstacle to overcome:
Gaitskill's Debby has to overcome paralyzing psychological shortcomings and lack of work experience in “Secretary.” Later she must overtake rejection in the name of love.
4.Next give your characters desire, hopefully desire that can be fulfilled:
Fuzz Littler is such a pathetic man, a below average worker, and all around boring guy. But when he gets the attention of a pretty girl, we want him to win, to gain confidence, get the girl, get some. Vonnegut doesn't let Fuzz down in “Fubar” even if he doesn't let the poor lout exactly win.

As you begin your short stories, the ones written with your magazine editor in mind first begin enhancing your characters: back story, dimension, obstacles and desire (fulfillment). With these thoughts in mind, your characters will have more facets. Your use of this along with the dialogue, action and description is the next step in character design. Good luck and happy writing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Small Press Part Three: Notes from the fiction editor

(Preamble to the Short Story Series)

They come in all forms. They come in looking like something Hemingway could have written. They come in looking like something you wrote for your creative finger-painting project in Kindergarten. They come in complete. They come in as sovereign pieces. They come in with competence. They come in with a level of ineptitude which defies all logic. As I said, they come in all forms. They come in as the huddle masses looking for safety at Ellis Island. Sometimes, when I've punched the ol' time card at Umbrella Factory Magazine, I feel like I'm processing the refugees from far away and strange lands. Other times, however, I feel like I'm reading the next great writer of our day and I can't wait to bring light to this author's work. I wish the latter came more often on my shifts at the factory.

I can put another perspective on the whole business of being the fiction editor. On average, at Umbrella Factory Magazine we will publish three pieces of fiction in each issue. We publish quarterly. It breaks down to this: we publish well under one percent of what we read. It's not that we're exclusive, it's not like our guidelines are impossible to meet. I'm certainly not a difficult editor to please, our jury isn't tough to pass, and I don't think we're that particular. I believe that one percent of writing today is publishable. That's one hell of a thought, isn't it?

A few thoughts have come to me during these rainy November days. I'm quietly whiling away the late fall in a peaceful Northwest place reflecting on my life, my work, and the work of others. During this reading period for the December issue of Umbrella Factory Magazine, I've spent as much time contemplating the process of writing as well as the process of editing. It's such a strange relationship. In fact the whole process from the initial thought through the publication date is strange. We will get into the process more deeply as these weeks go on.

If you have it in you, let's start this series of workshops with one thing in mind: we're going to develop a short story with our editor in mind. Often times when an instructor of writing talks about the short story there is no real goal outside of writing a good short story. What makes a short story, and what makes a good audience and is this the goal? So many writers have this idea of publishing as being the end of the process, and in many ways, that might be true. Other writers want nothing more than to be published, and yet they do not submit work. Aside from being an editor, I too am a writer, and I too want publication. I look at publication as a reward for the hard work involved in writing, rewriting, doing research and developing relationships with editors, and in my case, filmmakers too.

A few things to think about as we start the next ten weeks. First, the condition of our stories will have to be of the highest quality. This is the bulk of our work. We'll take our time working on fiction so that when it leaves our desk, the old world, and hits our editor's desk, Ellis Island, it won't seem so devastated. This is something we can work on together, and this part of the process will be all our own.

Next, we'll do our homework when searching for places, or markets, to send our stories. There are tricks to it. For instance, at Umbrella Factory Magazine, there is a specific word count. When we publish only three pieces an issue, I want good work. Often, I get these strange flash fiction pieces and the author has less than 500 words. Believe or not, there are dozens, if not hundreds of magazines who love flash fiction, Umbrella Factory Magazine is not one of them. So to eliminate rejects, or at least to minimize them, we'll study submission guidelines and read, actually read, some magazines.

Next well look at the cover letter. Believe or not, I've rejected writers because I just couldn't get past the writing in their cover letter.

So, as these process goes along, let's get writing and let's get published.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Deadlines, Timeclocks and Paychecks

I wish I could be the kind of writer who waits around for divine inspiration. I wish I could idly wait for my muse, or hell, any number of muses to waltz by and kiss me. I wish I could be the leisurely kind of writer. If that were the case, it would be great to pass one afternoon, like Ray Bradbuy's “All Summer in a Day,” as a writer working on whatever it is a once in seven years writer works on.

I love to talk about writing. I'll talk to anyone about it. I'll listen to anyone too. It's a good discussion, and for me at least, it's not the normal mind-numbing stuff: reality TV or the highly organized things I find so disdainful. It's a conversation about writing. And I suppose at the base of it, it is a conversation about work.

Work. For years I agreed with Stephen Morrisey, while still with the pop band The Smiths, “work is a four letter word.” I don't know why I'd feel differently now. I just do. I love work and I love to be buried in it. Some people would claim it's because I finally found my life's calling, or that I found something to do in which I love. Neither are true. My life's calling, I think is something much more idle than this. And as far as loving it, I love aspects of it and I love those aspects only at certain times. Enough about that.

Even though it's work, there are still some tangible questions we need to address. I was visiting my mom last week. The subject of my work came up. She asked: “When are you going to get paid?” I kept cool. Even Janice said she thought I was cool. The appropriate response? Who cares? It's not about that. Will I be able to pay my bills with writing? Not today. What did I say to my mom? “It's going to pay, I got three projects going.” Then I tried my best to explain to her what the time clock looks like.

It's a big thing with hamsters in wheels inside of it. It chirps like a cricket. You just stand in front of it, wear fire resistant pants if you have them. Then you pull the handle down. The hamsters run faster and then a lemon falls, then a cherry, then a plum, you don't win today. The date and time gets stamped across the heavy cardstock which has your name written across the top. Then you go to work. Eventually a whistle blows and you can go home. If you're not already home, maybe you can go somewhere else.

Like I said, who cares?

As a writer it's about getting it gone. It's about doing it. It's about finally finishing that sentence or even finishing that novel. Just to have work, well, that's great. I've talked to people who want to be writers. I don't really understand that, but okay, I do like to talk about writing. They ask me, me of all people, how to be good writers. You can't be a good writer, no one can. You put the pen to the paper or the fingers to the keys and go. You do. You write and then write some more and eventually something good will come out of it. It gets easier, and it becomes that institution you get chained to. It's better than the church or the government or the death industry or just about anything else. If you have to be chained to an institution, shouldn't it be of your own creation?

So how is it done? Well, commit to it. Make unrealistic goals and stressful deadlines. It seems to work for me. Drink plenty of coffee. Get into a routine. Go. Go. Go. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything. And eventually, if you can meet all of your deadlines, then you'll hopefully collect a paycheck. If your mom is anything like mine, add a zero to the end of it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

From Life to Fiction Part IV: Dreams

I have never found anything worthwhile in a dream. I know it's good to have them, and I've even heard that it is an important function of sleep. But when it comes right down to the act of writing, the idea of a dream is exactly what it is, a dream.

Years ago, Ryan Lamb and I lived together on Poet's Row in Denver's downtown neighborhood of Capital Hill. We lived in the James Russell Lowell. I didn't realized then how cool it was living in a place where all the buildings were named after poets. Anyhow, Ryan was in his last semester of college, and because of it, the economics major that he was, he had to take a psychology 101 class. We had spent years making fun of all the psychology majors mostly because we were mean and they were weird. Being an English major myself, I had spent my time reading Freud. Ryan, for his part, knew an awful lot about psychological factors in regards to economics. Before I go any further, he enjoyed that class immensely, and because of some of his projects, so did I. I became involved with Ryan's psychology class on a Sunday.
“Hey man, I need a favor,” he said from the other room.
Don't blow your nose in the shower, I thought. Wash the dishes with less soap, I thought. I was ready for him to coach me on the ways of the world, after all I had learned not to use the small toaster oven when cooking a potato because we paid for electricity, I had to use the oven which ran on the natural gas of our landlord's tab. “What?” I called back.
“Can I watch you sleep?” he said as he stood in the doorway of my bedroom.
“What? No,” I said.
“Come on, it's for a class project.”
“I don't care if it's for a class project, a life and death moment or creepy curiosity, it's weird,” I said. “What kind of project do you need to watch someone sleep?”
“Well, it's to watch someone dream.”
“Whatever pal, it's still creepy,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. He looked down at the paper in his hand. I can still see the look of disappointment on his face. Ryan was a very serious student. He wasn't one of those guys who did whatever he had to do to get the grade, no he wasn't one of those students. Ryan was the kind of student who really took the time to learn something, he really took his time with his studies so that he could be the kind of student who learned something. I really admired Ryan and I still really look up to him. “Well, I guess I don't have to watch you sleep, I just have to know when you normally get up, then I'll come in and when you go into REM sleep I'll wake you up.”
“I don't really dream,” I said. He left the room. And as I went back to whatever it was I was doing, I remember a funny feeling that came over me. I felt like I had a sudden responsibility in his grade. “Ryan,” I called. “Hey Ryan, okay, I'll do that.”
We talked about the logistics. We talked about my normal patterns of sleep. Fortunately, during those days, those long ago college days, I had classes everyday of the week at 8 am.

The dream I had on the first day of the 10 day observation was pretty strange. And each day the assignment went on, the stranger they got. But to tell you about them now, well, it isn't that great. I mean, the idea of two young men, college students, turning their apartment into a dream lab is a more interesting idea. Of all the dreams I've had, or all the ones I remember, the only ones worthwhile for an audience were the ten dreams I had during Ryan's physiology class assignment. The only time I felt it was appropriate to talk about dreams, my dreams, was then.

I guess I always felt like the charm, or the strangeness, or the horror of a dream is completely lost during the telling. For some reason the story or the plot of a dream or the detail of a dream wanes in significance when translated into words. Anytime I feel like telling someone about a dream I keep it short: I had a strange dream, and you were there, or I had a strange dream about this. And I leave it at that. If the other person wants details, I simply say that I cannot remember anything but a vague recollection of their appearance or whatever. And likewise, when someone tells me they had dreams about me or a common situation, I always want the shortest statement as possible.

I do not burden my friends and loved ones with my dreams, and I generally hope they feel the same way. When someone feels the need to tell me all about it, I start to think of the snow in the Alps.

Likewise, when a piece of writing is called dream-like or a portrait of a dreamscape, I want to run the other way. Not to say that certain things about dreams cannot be found in fiction. Alan Lightman, a physicist, wrote a beautiful little book called: Einstein's Dreams. The whole premise of the book reads like a dream, I guess, but it's so much more than that. Each dated chapter is another supposition of time, how time might work in the confines of that particular universe. The language is lovely, and so is the book especially when the chapter dates are the days and weeks leading up to release of Einstein's theory of relativity. Also, Eduardo Galeano's book: The Book of Embraces kind of reads like little dreams, or little anecdotes or little, well embraces.

But, the idea of reading page after grueling page, a list or a plot or a description of a dream seems horrible. I find a snippet of a dream here, or a precedent of a dream there less offense.

I've even been known to use an idea of a dream in a story. I say this now only because I want to illustrate a point. I can think of one novel: Undertakers of Rain and a few short stories, namely “Fluid” (see story of the week 11/04/10) and “My Hide” that were inspired from dreams. Now, had I not said anything about the dream part, a reader would have no idea that the original impetus came from a dream. For instance, I dreamed that I was a soldier (this part re-occurs) and that I was in a town of spies. I then was given maps, and had to run and hide. In the hiding place I met a woman who was guarding a stack of jewels. We agreed to hide there for the rest of war. That was the dream. In Undertakers of Rain, I have two sets of three jewel thieves. The first set knock off a few jewelery stores and then run off to fight the Nazis in WWII. The second set of thieves imitate the first. The two aforementioned short stories I used only a feeling I had in their respective dreams and then used a single image to build a set of circumstances for their stories.

Just to simply record a dream is only a record for posterity. Like so many pitfalls in the writing of fiction, a record of dream may be fun to write, but it may not be very interesting to readers.

In this endeavor of life to fiction, be careful with dreams.