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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Critical Thinking

The Middle Ground

We are getting more and more story submissions every day, and we're beginning to have the luxury of only accepting the very best. But, oddly enough, that doesn't mean we always get to choose our favorites. Because very often, the most creative, original, and even technically able writers have issues with the middle ground.

Okay, I'm sure there's a real term for that, but I don't know what it is. At one end, there's the grammar—punctuation, spelling, knowing how to write a complete sentence. That's actually the easiest to fix. At the other end is the story—originality, intro-buildup-climax-denouement, pacing. Frankly, if this is no good, it's the easiest to reject. And then there's that stuff in the middle. There are stories out there that are technically great; little to no copyediting needed. They have real originality. Pacing is great—real page-turners. Characters are well thought out.

But there's something missing in the middle—the story telling, perhaps. It's nearly impossible to edit. Often the stories are so good we don't want to reject them, either. But writing's more than spelling and action. It's also about the nitnoid stuff you don't want to do. It's the dove-tail joints or mortise and tenons that take time and no one notices if done well. Maybe it's boring, and maybe the writer didn't know how or doesn't have the ear. It's really hard to explain what's wrong, as well, because it could be any number of things. Here are a few I've seen lately.

One particular story had one of the more original plotlines I'd personally seen. The pacing was fast, too—I really wanted to see what happened next. It had a handful of characters with specific professions who had joined together to solve a problem. The character development was done by the book. The men were described, distinctive personality or physical traits were given, and the work they did was appropriate to their roles in the adventure. But something about the fast pace made it impossible for me to keep them straight. It might have been better if one had been called by his profession (for example, "Coach"). Definitely, with a short story, consider giving each character only one moniker; don't switch between Mr. Hammon, Bert, and "the Adonis-like godling." Short stories don't give the luxury of a slow, thorough introduction—especially if they're as exciting as this one.

Speaking of characters, another faux pas I saw recently: new characters showing up at the very end of the story. This is a little too deux-ex-machina for the writer. Perhaps the character(s) fills a role the author needs filled. But they should at least be mentioned someone earlier in the story. Just popping up out of nowhere feels contrived.

I imagine you've heard of the sacred need for motivation. The main character must have a reason for doing what she does. But that goes for support characters, as well. A story crossed my Kindle recently wherein a monster attacked a visitor. Absolutely no motivation was given as to why this visitor was so desirable when the owners of the house had lived there, unmolested, for generations. Even more puzzling, the monster followed the hero after he left the house—without a clue as to why.

This was a running problem with this particular story—the lack of explanation. Now, when "Borrowed Feathers" came around, I stood on top of a very tall soap box and yelled, "This one, now!" So I don't believe that every single detail needs to be spelled out. But I was that child who, when reading James and the Giant Peach for the first time, dismissed it in disgust because surely no one would live in such a sticky place. There is a place where mystery is part of the magic of a story, and there's a place where it's distracting enough to pull the reader out of the spell.

One more little oddity. I received a story with a main character who was childlike in personality. The writing style was appropriately childlike, as well. But I'm not sure this was intentional, because the POV was too wide to warrant such a close correlation between character and story voice. It could be that the writer's voice is immature (or that the writer often tells stories to children). But this particular issue could have been easily fixed had the point of view been very tight on the main character.

There are other things writers know, but may not realize they're doing—telling instead of showing, repeating words too often—things that would probably have been fixed had the author found a good writers' group. It is a particular frustration of mine to find a fun, exciting, original story but reject it because, as I too often say, "the writing's rough." I hope this will help.

(I should make it clear that if my writing ever reaches above the "rough" stage, it's because I have received a great deal of help from people who write more elegantly than I ever will.)


Oh, and oops! Ha, ha, ha!

Kersley Fitzgerald is awaiting tomorrow when she will be the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
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