Category Archives: creative writing

Chapters and Chapters

Nowadays, many novels are written with short chapters of no more than four or five pages. I guess this is supposed to go along with the limited attention span of today’s readers. However, short chapters create a lot of chapters.

How long should a chapter be? More importantly, how many chapters are too many and what chapter number should the novel end with?

To the first question, I think that chapters are like sentences and paragraphs. Important tools a writer can use to keep the pace of the story and the suspense. I don’t agree with many publishers who think short chapters should be in thrillers to quicken the tempo and longer chapters used in novels such as romance and the literary to slow the pace. I think it really comes down to what is right for the story and a writer should not hold to any nonsense guideline.

Another excuse given for short chapters is that readers need a break from reading. Readers can find a break from reading even with long chapters. At some point, the story has a transition from one event to another, a change of scenery, or the departure/entry of a character. This is where I can stop reading and take my nap.

To the second question, do readers really pay attention to the chapter numbers? They will if they are superstitious, have a need to read only to a certain chapter number, or believe in the ending of odd or even numbers. But, this is another issue.

I just ask the reader not to blame the writer, who probably ended on a chapter number only because that’s where the ending came.

Characters and Plots

I recently read in various writing articles and blogs that literary fiction is character driven and genre fiction is plot driven. This is nonsense. All stories are character and plot driven. At least the good ones.

What makes a story good is the balance between character and plot. Too much of either becomes mundane and not a real story.

As an example, if it is all about a character – that’s a monologue which is usually good only in standup comedy. Other characters are introduced, but just to support the monologue. Usually, the main character (protagonist) explains how they were a victim of some physical or mental abuse or misdeed and the mental stress it caused.

If the story is all about plot, there is no plot. Just a series of action scenes or events that take place (whether the characters are involved or not). The focus is on loud noises, violence, or someone/something running from/to some place.

Both types of stories become a series of repetitive scenes. This is fine for readers who just want to read something without an investment in too much thinking. Some readers enjoy the emotional ride they get and can forget about soon after.

I would rather look for a story balanced between characters and plot.

Plot is the main part of a story. Yet, plot comes from characters doing things. When there is a balance between character and plot, both share in driving the story along. Doing this type of writing may take an author more time to write. So, these stories are hard to find.

It is unfair to categorize all literary fiction as character driven and genre fiction as plot driven. Some good stories are found in both types when there is a balance between plot and character.

(In the picture, who is the character and who is the plot?)

Can creative writing be taught?

Some people in the writing industry say no. They believe you are born with the ability to write creatively. If a person does not have this birthright, they shouldn’t try writing that novel. I think this is ridiculous, highly snobbish, and arrogant.

Creative writing can be taught and at any age. If a person has the motivation and desire, they can learn to write creatively and maybe even get published. Learning to write creatively requires two steps.

First is to learn how to think creatively. Such as imagining a traffic stop on the way to work and an elephant walks over to ask for a ride. Creative thinking is about imagining something different within something routine. It could also be about thinking a “what if” situation such as what if extraterrestrials took over the military. Sometimes creativity can come by paying attention to people in a store and thinking about what kind of life they could be living.

At this point, some people are saying “easier said than done”, but they are listening to the “no” people in the writing industry. A person can learn to think creatively through practice and guidance. Most writing teachers and books do not explain this process or consider the impact of skipping this step.

A person can learn the first step while starting on the second, which is learning to write what is created so it can be shared with others.

In the beginning, it is probably best to write it all out. It may not make much sense, but practice at writing and learning the writing rules will eventually make the creativity readable. At least the writing teachers and books can help with this step.

I think not teaching how to be creative is why so many writers-to-be struggle with their writing. Teachers and authors assume the person already knows how to be creative.

So, self-teach yourself. Maybe keep a journal/diary. Tell your dog or cat or cow what you’re thinking. How about right now getting a pen and paper?

Stories without a Published Home (showing half published, half not)

Sometimes after sending a story out for publishing and getting a lot of rejections, I decide enough is enough. For my sake and the story.

I feel guilty when I stop sending out a short story. It is a strange ending to what I created. No one will ever read it except me.

I keep my stories printed out and in manila folders. Inside on the left are magazines I sent the story to along with date and when it was rejected (or when I never heard back from the magazine).

One folder has red wine stains, another splotches of strong coffee, and still another drips from black tea. Some are peppered with food stains while others are not so anointed (it didn’t take as long to write them).

When I run out of room on the inside cover, I write the rejections on the back. At some point, I stop and file the folder and story away before I run out of room on the back and there’s nowhere else to go.

These stories I file away don’t sit far from the stories that were accepted. Maybe I’ll bring the old stories out and try again one day.

Leo Tolstoy’s “Art is an Infection”

Brenda Ueland wrote about Tolstoy in her 1938 book If You Want to Write. Tolstoy believed, “the artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it, too.”

Ms. Ueland explained that when an artist exhibits feelings “honestly and courageously” onto a canvas, through music, in writing, or some other venue and means, the artist infects the creation with passion. Through this, the artist brings emotion to the viewer, listener, or reader who experiences it within themselves.

Is this what an artist should strive for? An infection of their feelings in their work? Or, should they just produce something that makes them money?

Of course, it is not possible for everyone to be infected by an artist’s work. Also, artists do not always succeed infecting their work with passion and honesty. Some don’t even try and see their work as a product to be sold.

This is all right because some buyers only want a distraction in their life or a decoration to be ignored. Besides, making something honestly and courageously takes time. An artist can make more products (and money) if they don’t spend a lot of effort in their creation.

It’s too bad because Ms. Ueland thought that, when an artist tells what they truly feel, the infection could become universal. “Everybody understands it and at once.” I think today we call that going viral.

I think an artist should strive, at least one time in their life, to create an art they will always love. Something they want the world to witness, an infection of their honesty and courageousness, passion and emotion. Even if it may not become a classic at first.

Starting Off and Writing to the End

People in the writing business talk about how important it is to grab a reader’s attention at the start of a story. Yet, the beginning, middle, and end all make the story. The catchy beginning is only remembered by what followed.

As an example, Moby-Dick’s opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” is considered a memorable beginning. However, if a reader never heard of the book, the line is meaningless. It is famous only because of what followed.

After reading a story, I have no clue what the first line said. I remember more the middle and end rather than the beginning. I think a story can recover from an okay beginning, but not a so-so middle and ending.

Catchy beginnings are pushed more in the commercial industry who largely do not care if the story falls apart soon after it starts. The reader has already been caught in a purchase. As for readers, some give up on a book if the beginning drags on. They worry too soon that it may foretell the rest of the story.

In a book about writing I read that, if a writer thinks a device of words is necessary to insure the story is read, the story is better not to be written at all.

I write the beginning of a story without thinking about a catchy anything. I think the start of a story should be with the expectation that a buildup with an end is coming. The start should be done in a natural way with the development of the story.

Not long after I write the beginning of a story, I write the ending. It gives me something to aim for, even if I probably change the ending when I get there. Probably the beginning, too.

I just make sure the beginning and end connect with the middle, which is enough for a story.

It takes time to create

In my attempt at being a published short story writer, I try to spend more time being creative and less time finding a home for my stories. Finding a magazine to send my short stories to can take a lot of time.

Over the years, I used sources such as Duotrope (costs to subscribe, but worth it), Poets and Writers Literary Magazines database (free, but please subscribe to their great magazine), and the annual Writers Digest Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Using these sources saves time from randomly searching the internet.

I also use a spreadsheet I created with over 250 magazines who publish stories similar to what I write (see the blog post “Keeping Track of Things). The spreadsheet doubles as a way to keep track of the stories I send out.

After I narrow down my search to a few magazines, I go to the magazine’s website for more information.

I read what the magazine has published, the editors’ biographies, their mission statements, and submission requirements. One of the most important items is meeting the word count. I stay at least 500 words below their maximum number of words because shorter is generally better.

When I finally pick a magazine, I follow the submission process exactly. I don’t want my story rejected because of a technicality. And, the most important part of the process is spelling the editor’s name correctly.

What this is all about is the expense of time. Writing and getting published are about many things, including writing a good story. Having enough time to do this creativity and finding someone to like what is written is important.

The Length of the Story

Several decades ago, a viable market existed for stories at 5,000 words or more. Now, the market for short stories drops off quickly after 4,000 words. This creates more competition for lengthy stories and leaves writers with reduced chances for publication.

I try to keep my short stories to no more than 3,500 words, usually less. To do this, I place my stories in a single time period and in a particular place with no more than three main characters. Focus is important.

Each word of description and dialogue should support the plot without the reader asking questions. Each event has to relate to the story in a direct way. There should be no more than one subplot, preferably none. Ignoring these points, the word length grows quickly.

Some short stories are just not made to become short stories. They may be an outline for something longer like a novel. If I find that a short story does not want to be short, I try to break it up into several pieces to try to tame it.

It generally does not work. In one case, I gave up and turned the short story into the novel it wanted to be. At the other end, sometimes a novel can be nothing but a series of short stories.

I wrote a book that just did not work. To salvage something out of it, I made five of the chapters into short stories and three were published.

I find it is best to listen to the story and let it grow into what it wants to be.

Quote: Keep writing and the truth is revealed quietly one day.

 

What I learn from creative writing that I use for grant writing

Writing short stories has helped me a lot to write grants. Not the part about making stuff up, but how to think creatively and find places to send my stories (or grants).

Creative writing develops characters, introduces conflict, and presents a solution (mostly). A grant writer develops the story behind a community’s need and finds the resources to fund that need.

Yeah, this doesn’t really compare that well. Maybe with examples.

For example, writing short stories gave me the skills to write concise. I learned to write in the active voice and be conversational. I learned how to move a plot along quickly to a conclusion.

Grants require concise writing because of limited space. A writer has to tell everything in as few as words as possible. Like in short story writing, every word counts. Writing in active voice helps.

Active sentences use fewer words and explain things more directly. Also, using words from everyday conversation help define a need better than using broad, scholarly words.

Short story writing also helps in research. With each story, I try to match what I wrote with what a publisher would accept. I learn to follow the guidelines exactly when submitting. This is the same for submitting grants. The simplest thing is to follow guidelines, which is where most people mess up.

Finally, all writing requires editing skills. There are an over exaggeration of material to learn from, but the best is to simply re-read what was written. Over and over.

Ask questions about each separate thought as if someone is reading it to you and you have questions about each separate thought. Don’t be upset if you yell at yourself for writing some nonsense. It just needs to be rewritten.

In the picture, who represents grants and who is about creative writing?

Three things about a character’s name

A name means someone existed who meant something to another person. Names are important in life and in a story.

1. A name should mean something to the character (and reader)
When I read a name in a story, I expect something out of that character. I want to see what happens to the named person and what part they play in the story. When I’ve read enough and find that a writer has named people and never mentioned them again, I stop reading. Naming every character just because they are in a scene makes me wonder who is important. Maybe none of them.

2. Way Too Many Names
Some writers believe the more names, the better the story. I quickly become lost as to who is who. How many characters should be named in a story? Not that many. I like for named characters to be developed in some manner. To do this with a lot of names can only result in a story filled with character sketches and no story.

3. Characters with similar names
Each name should be unique in some way. As an example, if several names start with the same first three or four letters, it is difficult to keep them all straight in my head. The first couple of letters are mind catching and should be different and as unique as the characters. My mind is not caught when too many names sound the same.

What’s in a name?
I use the term “name” loosely here. Really, it is any title given to a character in a story. It doesn’t have to be their name, but could be a title like “detective”. I picture three levels of characters:
• Those with names who have some significant part in the story.
• Unnamed people who are described in some detail and generally have a title. These characters may appear in several scenes before disappearing. They add to the story.
• Unnamed and briefly mentioned characters are mostly for only one scene and can be important for the atmosphere they provide.

A name should help develop the character’s personality and give the reader a reason to keep reading. A name should be treated with care because it is what is remembered. Just like in real life, a name identifies who is who.