Saturday, March 22, 2014
Writing Short Stories
On the Winning Writers Newsletter this morning appeared some great advice from author Arthur Powers in a column titled: Advice from the Judge. I think it applies equally to the memoir genre, and it is worth passing on.
Arthur Powers will judge this year's Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest sponsored by Winning Writers.
Here are Mr. Powers' thoughts on fiction entries. According to Mr. Powers, unlike real estate, it is not about place. It is not about plot either. It is about characters.
Advice From the Judge
As judge of this contest, I've been asked to provide some advice for contestants. I'm half-reluctant to do so as I don't really want to influence anyone's short story. Your story is your story, and you should write it the way you feel called to write it.
However, it's fair that you should know something about the way I think, so here goes:
I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. I believe the short story allows a writer's craft to be honed in a special way, and I enjoy seeing the different ways that different writers approach their stories.
All the rules you have ever learned about writing are important. You should know them, master them, then work around them. People will tell you it is important to show, not tell; they are right—yet sometimes you should tell, not show. People will discuss whether to write in first or third person, from a specific or more omniscient viewpoint—all this is interesting but, in my experience, it is the story that tells the writer what viewpoint to write from, not the writer who tells the story. People (including me) will tell you never to write in the second person—yet I once wrote an entire novella in the second person and it worked (won an award and was published).
In his wonderful novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok says much the same thing about painting: "This is a tradition...Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it or to rebel against it."
I tell my students that character is the most important element in fiction. You should know and love your characters. Plot is what happens when characters interact with one another or situations. This is true not only of psychological and literary stories, but of science fiction, thrillers, westerns, even mysteries (where the temptation to distort characters to fit the plot is particularly strong).
Atmosphere may also be important to a story—the way a place, a situation, and the story itself feel. Texture may be created through a few key phrases, through the words you choose.
Walter Pater said that all art strives toward music, and there is a great deal of truth in that. The rhythm of a story—pacing, timing, speed—is very important. I find it sometimes helps to think of my stories in terms of musical composition.
Avoid cliches—not only in words, but in thoughts. Try not to be too self-absorbed—take your craft seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Write what you feel called to write the best you can. Enjoy writing—I'll enjoy reading it. Good fortune!