Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Constructing the Short Story: Fiction (Part Six)

On Construction the Short Story: Fiction (Part Six)

I occasionally review literary works for a friend’s magazine, offering criticisms and suggestions where I feel it would be helpful and, when asked, my opinion on whether or not the piece in question is worth publishing. I also am asked by friends and acquaintances to read their work, and I do so on the understanding that I’ll be honest.

So I’m quite frankly irked by writers who don’t seem to understand (or perhaps they don’t care) about such things as paragraph indents, closing a set of quotation marks (“I see what you mean he said. What are you going to do about it?”), or by being miserly with punctuation.

Really, if you consider yourself too much of an artist to be bothered by convention, why send your work out at all? And if, God forbid, you’re too lazy or inept to give your work an even casual edit, why on earth should an editor want to read your work?

The conventions of grammar and punctuation are, after all, merely unspoken contractual agreements between writer and reader, undertaken to facilitate clarity. Given that language is itself at best a slightly ambiguous, and at worst, an inexact method of communication, clarity is a must. Until we begin to communicate telepathically, the written and spoken word is the best we can achieve. Why muddy your meaning by using a vague or incorrect word when a precise and correct one will do?

People often ask me what it takes to get published. What they really ought to be asking themselves is, “What must I do in order that the editor not reject my work out of hand?”

So here is a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for you.

Don’t fail to proofread your manuscript.

Remember, every quotation mark is part of a pair.

Speaker attribution is NOT part of the text that belongs within that pair of quotation marks (as in
the above example).

Indent every paragraph.

Each time you change the point of view, even if only after one single sentence, begin a new
paragraph.

Check your punctuation. Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and keep it near you
at all times when you are writing. This is “Cliff Notes” for grammar and punctuation.

Check for continuity. A story I recently read had a line like this. “’I’ll bet she’s forgotten my name,’
Bob thought as she approached. “Hi Bob,” she said, then introduced her boyfriend. ‘Bob, this
is Pete. Pete, Phil.’ ‘Yes, she had forgotten his name alright,’ Bob thought.” It is NOT a crime
to go back and add something to your story, but for Pete’s sake (or is it Bob’s? Or Phil’s?) check
to see that you’ve inserted it seamlessly and take corrective measures if you haven’t.

Don’t send your manuscript on pastel-tinted paper, or, worse yet, paper with floral patterns or bucolic scenes from nature in the background. This says you are not serious about your work. It also says that there may be something bizarre about you, and that if the editor were to publish your work you might become a stalker.

Don’t send your manuscript in non-traditional typefaces. No script Italics, No old English block lettering, and especially no special characters such as smiley faces in lieu of periods☺ This, too, says that you’re not a serious writer.

Remember John Gardner’s rule for writers of short stories – that it is YOUR JOB as a writer to effectively communicate the emotion of the story without pushing the readers away or breaking their concentration. It is YOUR JOB to invite the reader into your story and make the experience real enough that you keep them there in what Gardner calls “the waking-dream state.”

Incidentally, the title of this series of “how-to” articles is quite deliberate — constructing a short story is a lot like building a house, or, say, a bridge.

(from The Broadkill Review, Vol. 2 No. 2 March 2008)

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