A special mid-month blog by Senior Editor Joe Ponepinto, posted on publishing industry guru Jane Friedman’s site. Joe discusses a writing technique he uses to keep fiction from becoming predictable and uninspired. Big thanks to Jane for sharing this.
Orca’s September blog is hosted by Jane Friedman. It talks about taking the writer out of the story—one of the techniques that makes a story truly literary. It also discusses the characteristics of a story that speak to an editor’s subconscious aesthetic. Pretty important for writers who want to be published in lit journals (especially ours).
If you’re not familiar with Jane Friedman, you should be. A former editor at Virginia Quarterly Review and publisher of Writer’s Digest, she’s gone on to become one of the most knowledgeable and influential publishing experts in the business. Her email newsletter, website, and books provide writing and publishing advice helpful to writers from beginners to established pros. Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). You can subscribe to Jane’s newsletter on her site…after you read the blog, of course.
Big thanks to Jane for sharing the blog with a wider audience.
Have you ever shared a draft with friends and colleagues to see what they think and been disappointed with the feedback you received? Conversely, have you ever read a friend’s manuscript and been unsure of how to give them actionable critiques?
Feedback can be uncomfortable on both sides of the fence: we feel put on the spot, we aren’t sure how to articulate how we felt, or we aren’t even sure whether what we have managed to articulate is useful! I’d like to share a couple strategies to reduce this stress and optimize your results.
Hey! I was hoping you could read the attached story and let me know what you thought! Thanks so much! 🙂
Don’t send this email unless you already have an ongoing critical relationship with the recipient; surprises are for your stories. An email like this out of the blue can cause many people to panic. What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t give the kind of response they’re looking for? Your email may get a quick “Great job, this was a fun read!” or it may get relegated to the deep recesses of your friend’s unread pile. Instead, ask your friends and colleagues if they’d be willing and interested in reading and critiquing your work in advance of sending them your latest draft. This way they are prepared and have a chance to bow out gracefully if they haven’t the time or inclination.
Ask specific questions
Are you wondering whether the dialogue works? Whether the twist on page 20 is too out of the blue? Ask! It’s much easier for someone to give you useful feedback when it’s specific. Sending your story along with 1-3 specific questions you’re trying to answer will help your reader target their commentary in a way that they and you both feel is useful. “Did you like it??” doesn’t count —it may be what you want to know, but it’s not very useful as you head into your next draft.
A handful of our favorite questions:
- What is your favorite part of the story? This is fun to talk about and usually gets people primed to give you honest responses. Readers will be more comfortable if they can give you some positive words off the bat.
- What do you feel is missing or unclear? Were there parts you felt like skipping over? Is there anything you wished there were more of? These are good for identifying deficiencies—maybe a character or plot point needs further development. The implied reverse questions are also a fair ask.
- Do the climax and resolution make sense? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in getting to the climax of a story that we forget that our readers have to buy into the plot that gets them there.
- Is the main character sympathetic? Stories often fail because readers can’t identify with or sympathize with the main character. Asking them to consider this aspect can be very helpful.
- Is the dialogue in this scene realistic? Sometimes we tend to make dialogue too explanatory in an effort to make things clear. But dialogue needs to sound natural, like people actually talking.
– Renee Jackson
Lately I’ve been rejecting a lot of fiction submissions written in the first-person point of view. So many that I’ve begun to ask why—what is it about these stories that’s turning me off?*
First-person has long been an excellent choice for conveying a character’s individual view of the world. Examples like James Joyce’s “Araby,” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” are classics that quickly come to mind. More recently some of George Saunders’s stories as well.
When done well, first person offers a glimpse into a character’s inner psyche. But remember that it’s also often referred to as the unreliable narrator; that psyche is tempered by motivations and long-buried embarrassments, which are suppressed in the name of ego, the image a character presents to the rest of the world. That person’s past is usually revealed through the story’s subtext, the signs and symbols within action and dialogue that serve as illumination of the character’s soul, and place it in relation to the reality that surrounds it.
That conflict between characters’ inner and outer worlds—how they relate to other people and experience growth—seems to be missing in some of what comes in through our submission portal. The result, especially when presented in first-person, are stories that exhibit a deliberate ignorance of the world. They are self-indulgent, sometimes self-aggrandizing. And for sure, they lack subtext.
First-person is, on its surface, the easiest POV to write. Just adopt a persona and a situation, and off you go. Maybe that’s why we get so many. No need to worry about other characters too much, since the story is about this one person. I think that’s the problem, though. One of the attractions of stories written in third-person POV is their world building. The characters are part of a world, not isolated from it. They must react to its demands, relate to other characters—in short, participate. So many of the first-person stories we get seem to want to escape from that. They seem narrow, limited, not fully formed.
Some of this seems to be a function of our times. In a culture in which every person is encouraged to express his or her inherent “specialness,” it’s easy for writers, especially younger ones, to misinterpret that to mean to the exclusion of others.
One writer who I admire, Rachel Cusk, has shown how the opposite of self-indulgence can make first-person POV truly work. In her Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) she has created a first-person narrator who remains primarily in the background, letting other characters tell their stories, and barely even reacting to them. It’s incredibly refreshing to read these novels, in which Faye (the POV character) acknowledges the world and perhaps more importantly, her place in it.
It seems that such engagement with the world is what’s needed now, both in fiction and reality. You have to live in the world. So do your characters. Give them the opportunity to do that and maybe your first-person story will find its way into our pages.
– Joe Ponepinto
*Note: I am aware that writing a blog about the shortcomings of the first-person POV in first-person POV is something of a literary oxymoron. But it seems unavoidable, since the nature of a blog is opinion. So bear with me.
Quote of the Week: Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story
As much as I try to educate writers about writing through writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this painfully true in the last week when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!
This seems to be how most people live now; they understand and think through image, not words or concepts. Even some writers understand writing better through images. And I believe most writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the storytelling craft.
Visual media has a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. (And keep in mind that a primary goal of writing is to create an image in the mind of a reader.) It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into images. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer. There’s no need to parse meaning to create images—that part is done for you, and allows for immediate identification with the characters in the story.
Writers need to know both ways of communicating. Which is why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.
The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Not surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.
McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through a series of inciting incidents and turning points, and how that tension is heightened by creating gaps between the viewer’s (reader’s) expectation and the actual results of actions.
Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the first inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much poor writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.
Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)
Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.