From the start of The Writers Circle, I made it my weekly habit to share interesting readings about writing, publishing and the writing life. The very first one, I recall, was Francine Prose’s Atlantic Monthly article “Close Reading” which introduced the core topics of her equally wise book, Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s premise – that to learn to write well, one must read not only well, but closely – invited all of us to read for details of technique, voice, character, plot development and more. By doing so, we all become students of the true masters of literature.
I find myself enlightened and amused once again by an Atlantic Monthly essay, this time Tim O’Brien’s “Telling Tails“. O’Brien points out a blunt but inescapable truth: that unsuccessful stories don’t necessarily lack of technique. Sometimes, they are simply boring.
Many writers workshops harp endlessly on the need for truth portrayed in full detail. But lacking imagination, all the exquisite detail in the world won’t hold a reader’s attention.
O’Brien lists several things that a well-imagined story is NOT (I’m paraphrasing here):
- It is not predictable, or not wholly predictable;
- It is not melodramatic, relying on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes;
- It is not formulaic or cliche;
- It does not rely on coincidence to achieve dramatic effects;
- It does not use purple prose to attempt to elevate events beyond their due.
But what IS a well-imagined story?
O’Brien’s answer: a story that is “…organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”
This doesn’t mean that all good stories must dip into the supernatural or superhuman. Everyday people often face unexpected events that shape and reshape their understanding of the world. How each person handles them, with all the idiosyncracies of character, history and circumstance, are the stuff that make extraordinary fiction.
A well-imagined story must force us to pay attention. It tries to reach into the rich complexity of existence, even as it might be destined to portray very ordinary lives. Each sentence must be crafted to build upon that last, begging us to read just a little bit farther. And within those sentences that depict our characters and their struggles, we are helped along immensely by vivid, engaging and believable detail.
I came across several writing contests that look really intriguing:
Narrative’s FALL CONTEST is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers. They’re looking for short shorts, short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction.
Narrative is a high quality literary magazine looking for works with a strong narrative drive, characters that affect us as human beings, and with language, situation, and insight that are intense and total. They look for works that have the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world.
• $3,250 First Prize
• $1,500 Second Prize
• $750 Third Prize
• Ten finalists receive $100 each.
• All entries will be considered for publication.
There is a submission Fee of $20 for each entry, but with your entry, you’ll receive three months of complimentary access to Narrative Backstage.
The contest deadline is November 30, 2009.
Fiction Open (2,000-20,000 words)
1st place—$2,000 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories.
2nd-place—$1,000 and possible publication.
3rd-place—$600 and possible publication.
Reading fee is $20 per story. Open to all writers.
Results post November 30, winning story publishes in issue 77.
Best Start (not to exceed 1,000 words)
Prizes: The 50 most engaging pieces will each win $50 and make Glimmer Train’s Best Start list, which will be announced in our December bulletin as well as on other major blogs for writers.
Reading fee is $10 per piece. Open only to new writers whose fiction has not appeared in a nationally distributed print publication with a
circulation over 3,000.
* * *
Finally, for anyone who knows an ambitious young writer or two, one of my favorite local bookstores, Watchung Booksellers, is publishing its FIRST EVER LITERARY ZINE. They’re accepting written works from 4th to 12th graders for a Fall Literary Zine as well as suggestions for a creative and catchy title.
The Watchung Booksellers’ staff will choose works based on content, organization of ideas and mechanics, creativity, and originality. This FIRST EVER Literary Zine will be unveiled at an author signing party on the evening of Friday, October 23rd for family and friends. Copies of the Zine will be sold at the store – all proceeds will go to IMANI, Improving Montclair Achievement Network Initiative.
Poem (up to 2 pages long)
Short Story (no more than 1000 words)
Essay (no more than 1000 words)
* for 4th – 12th graders
* entries must be received by September 25, 2009
* winners will be notified by October 9, 2009
* all work must be original and done without adult help
* entries must contain appropriate language
* two entries can be submitted per person
* all entries must be typed in 12 point font and double spaced
* fill out an entry form and attach it to your work
* DO NOT write your name on your piece, so we can judge it fairly
I wish my own sons were old enough to participate!
Good luck, everyone. Keep us posted if you submit. We’re rooting for you.
Take a look at A.O. Scott’s lovely and appropriately brief survey and prediction of the American short story in Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the American Short Story. It’s especially relevant to so many creative writers who often focus at least initially on the short story form.
Short stories have only very rarely brought any writer the attention of the reading world. Even finding a home for these carefully crafted vignettes can be frustrating and is almost never lucrative. The short story’s true reward must be in savoring the satisfaction that comes from the realization of refinement and excellence.
Yet A.O. Scott predicts that, like so many other forms of media, literature too is undergoing a monumental transformation in our ever more scattered and digitized world. As with music and movies, perhaps the future writer’s goal will no longer be the “Great American Novel” but something more compact, more succinct, more digestible, more suited to shortened time and attention spans. To distill the total essence of the “now” in a single story of 20 or 30 pages is an almost inconceivable challenge. But perhaps that is precisely the correct way to attempt to capture this American moment. It’s certainly something for all writers to strive to achieve.