- Not naming the characters. It's supposed to be either mysterious or to make it clear that they are in some way archetypal, but in practice it rarely works, and usually introduces a rather stilted effect. Look at it this way: if I didn't name my cat, would that make him more mysterious? No. Would it make him archetypal? No. Would it make it incredibly awkward to shout him inside for his dinner? Be practical, give your characters names.
- Pronounceable ones, for preference. If it sounds like it was rejected by the Welsh Scrabble Association (and I really hope that exists, if only for the world records) then you shouldn't be using it. Also, be consistent. The only way three characters named Xzthl, Fargamon and Fred can co-exist is if someone is making fun of the whole thing. Yes, I accept that I write this having created Bob the Vampire, but I am making fun of the whole thing, so that doesn't count.
- Talking of which, who decided that short stories had to be so deathly serious? Admittedly, humour is a subjective thing, and therefore quite capable of falling flat with any given editor, but not every short story has to be quite so full of human misery, thank you.
- The natural extension of this point is that you should consider the appropriateness of what you're writing for the place you're sending it. Or, to put it another way, try to write with some taste and decency. "Person goes mad, kills everybody in gratuitously gory fashion" is a surprisingly common theme in my inbox, but is pretty much never going to get any response beyond a polite version of "go away and get some help". If you've written some particularly hardcore erotica, there are probably plenty of specialised sites that will want it (this is the Internet, after all) but is the literary zine you're planning on sending it right for that? I'm not saying that it never will be, but there do seem to be some people who mistake writing with emotional impact for simply trying to shock people.
- Almost at the other extreme from the above is the group of people who try so hard to be "literary" that it gets in the way. There's nothing wrong with literary fiction, but there is quite a lot wrong with utterly over-egging the language in an effort to make it beautiful. One particularly annoying manifestation is the stacking up of needless petty silly adjectives before every nice lovely perfect noun. Or, having heard of the importance of description, putting in a lengthy description that still somehow avoids what might be key details, like a...thing.
- Pointlessly long stories. Avoid. Sorry, that was probably a bit too brief, wasn't it? Actually, the length of the piece is not necessarily a problem in itself. There are good novellas in the world, and good very short flash fiction pieces (hint fiction?). This is one of those piece of string moments, I'm afraid. The thing is, a story needs to be as long as it needs to be to tell the story, or explore the scene, or do whatever it was you were hoping to do. It doesn't need to be any longer. Sometimes, I see things where the first five or six hundred words has no connection to the eventual ending. It shows some aspect of a character, but not one that has any bearing on the piece as a whole. Do without it.
- In particular, avoid pointlessly long stories where nothing happens. This is not necessarily an argument in favour of heavy Plot, and antiplot can be fun when it's done by someone who knows what they are doing, but the number of people who can really make it work over page after page is tiny.
- Take a certain amount of care over the thing. There seems to occasionally be an attitude that says "it's only a short story, and it's not like I'm getting paid, so I'll dash it off". That's fine, but be prepared to run into the editorial attitude that says "they obviously can't be bothered, so no". There is possibly a lot to be said for working fast in the initial moment of inspiration, for skimming over the keys at finger-blistering speed to keep up with the white-hot idea bursting to get out. It's just that, once it's out, I suspect it might be worth reading it through to make sure it's come out right.
Sunday, 9 August 2009
Not that I'm particularly in a position to correct the short story writing of others (no, hang on, I edit them, don't I? So I am by definition in a position to do exactly that. Oh good. I thought I was going to sound like I didn't know what I was doing for a moment there). Still, there are some issues that I keep seeing in short stories, whether my own first drafts, or those sent to GC, or simply things I've run into elsewhere. Because everybody loves being told exactly where they've been going wrong (or is that nobody? I forget sometimes), here are some of the ones that crop up surprisingly often.