Some Notes on Short Stories by Stephen King

Last Sunday, as I walked into the Borders where my SCBWI critique group meets, I spotted a winner in the discount racks near the entrance:  The Best American Short Stories of 2007 was marked down to $3.99.  This was a no brainer with the added bonus of featuring Stephen King as editor.

I bought the book without even checking the contents, so I was delighted when I got home and found a story by John Barth called, “Toga Party,” about a group of sixty and seventy-year-olds in a posh retirement neighborhood who all receive invitations to one of those parties, “like that crazy Animal House movie from whenever.”  The story begins humorously but doesn’t end that way.  In a similar vein, Stephen King’s comments on the state of the American short story begin humorously but don’t end that way.

King wrote about going into a large bookstore in Florida in search of that month’s stories to read.  The first thing he saw was a table upfront with titles by James Patterson, Danielle Steel, and himself.  Disposable stuff, but it pays the rent he says, “because money talks and bullshit walks.”   He continues:  “Bullshit- in this case that would be me – walks past the bestsellers, past trade paperbacks with titles likeWho Stole My Chicken?,’ ‘The Get-Rich Secret,’ and’Be a Big Cheese Now,’ past the mysteries, past the auto repair manuals, past the remaindered coffee-table books.”   He finds the magazine wall, next to the children’s reading area.

King says he found The New Yorker and Harper’s without much effort, but had to search the floor-level racks to find the stash of magazines, like the Kenyon Review, that feature short stories:

“So think of me crawling along the floor of this big chain store’s magazine section with my ass in the air and my nose to the carpet in order to secure that month’s budget of short stories, and then ask yourself what’s wrong with this picture.  A better question – if you’re someone who cares about fiction, that is – what could possibly be right with it?”

With an ever dwindling audience, some writers who still care about short stories keep on working, but too often, King notes, their audience is simply other writers who read,“not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells…and this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next…There’s something yucky about it.”

King then says he read “scores of stories that felt…airless, somehow, and self-referring…show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self conscious rather than gloriously open, and – worst of all – written for editors and teachers rather than for readers (emphasis added).

There we have in a nutshell what I have been trying to put my finger on lately.  The last time I went to a large bookstore to browse for books, I went to the mystery section and found the number of rows had been cut in half.  Tough luck for those who like to read and write mysteries – the marketing department, which is after all, just trying to survive – has decided you are not cost effective.

No need for me to belabor the point anymore, it is what it is, but reading King’s editorial notes made me glance at all I have posted here about ebooks.  I certainly never set out to be their champion, in fact I started out somewhat skeptical.  My ideas have changed 180 degrees.  When half the mysteries and most short stories can disappear for reasons that have nothing to do with quality, who can argue with writers who look at a new way to get their books read?

Last week a writer in London asked me to review her ebook after reading this blog and noting that YA fantasy is “my thing.”  Now that I have finished my blog-break, it’s time for me to get back to her work, and with renewed appreciation for her and all the other authors willing to take a chance with a new way to do what storytellers have always done – tell their stories.

Four Key Ingredients – Part Two

Wrestling with Originality:  A real-life Example.

It’s easy to talk in the abstract about things good fiction needs, but “originality” is an issue I have been wrestling with for real lately.  Recent “market research” – checking book jacket blurbs in stores and online – revealed a mass of new titles in the fantasy sub-genre where I have been working, in a two steps forward one back fashion, for several years.  Now that even the diehard fans are satiated with vampires, many hopeful writers have trooped to Faerie.

How many?  Well, two of the first half-dozen titles I sampled featured half-human/half-fairy protagonists – like mine.  A few discoveries like that throw the very possibility of being original into question.

I noticed something else too – several of these new books reuse a plot that was common in 1980’s adult fantasy – a war of good and bad fairies in which a human participant somehow tips the balance.  What I suspected then, I am sure of now – that storyline originated in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and online role-playing games.  It is simply not present in the original sources.

Given this seeming recycling of recycled plots, my choice seems fairly straightforward – give it up or dig deeper.  Donald Maass’ writing is full of encouragement for the latter choice, and I’m getting excited about some of the new ideas welling up since I started this process.  Here are a few of my current thoughts:

  • Go back to original sources.  In traditional fairy stories, there are no “good” and “bad” fairies – all encounters are problematic for humans.  Maass’ criterion of “inherent conflict” is built into the old tales and ballads of the relation between humans and the fey.
  • I’ve found a simple way around my heroine’s ancestry, since being half-fairy is now a cliche.  I like this even better.
  • I am probably going to rename the fairies and Faerie the way Sharon Shinn did in her 1995 YA story, Summer’s at Castle Auburn.  There the land and people are called, “Alora.”  Everyone gets it in “quack like a duck” fashion.

The point of giving these personal details is to underscore my belief in Donald Maass’ suggested lines of digging deeper.  “What if?” is a good question for any storyteller.  I have a long way to go, but I am enjoying the process again, and confident that I am on the right track.

Gut Emotional Appeal – Donald Maass’ Fourth Criterion for Really Good Novels:

There’s a formula for this:  create a likable character who must struggle to achieve something important.  Good as far as it goes, which is not very far.  And never mind that someone like Jonathan Franzen can throw out the advice and still win critical acclaim – the rest of us should not try that at home.  Most writers I know really care about their characters; the problem is how to make an audience care.

At a recent conference, a presenter used the Michelangelo analogy – chipping away what doesn’t belong – for the writer’s craft as well.  I think this is pertinent to the character breakthroughs I watch others make – they keep working, and eventually come to characters who somehow embody some of their own deeper truths.  In practice it isn’t nearly as weighty and ponderous as it sounds.

One critique group friend has long been enamored of Raymond Chandler type hard boiled detectives, with a dash of James Bond thrown in.  My friend worked and worked, creating better and better versions of characters we have seen before.  Recently, his own humor and mischievousness got into the mix, and a hero emerged who parallels, in my opinion, the tongue-in-cheek charm of the chick-lit detective who curses the bad guys if she breaks a nail while taking them down.  My friend’s character, Jonathan, a wastrel ex-Royal Marine, returns fire when assassins attack him on the golf course, furious that they ruined his score.  The battle had me in stitches as it caught up a foursome of startled ministers who realize the Lord moves in more mysterious ways than they had imagined.

Another critique group friend, writing about a troubled teen, made a quieter but equally profound breakthrough.  You see it in a little shift.  The bravado falls away, and the character is quietly real and telling her truth beyond any stereotype.

We have to start with characters and situations that matter to us, and then go deeper into ourselves that we expected – this much I am sure of.  How and when that happens is a mystery.  None the less, I find Donald Maass’ criteria:  Plausibility, Conflict, Originality, and Gut Emotional Appeal valuable questions to ask of my own or anyone else’s writing.

You can’t always say what or how but you know writing that has these things.  And if they are missing?  It simply means there is more chipping away to do.

Four Key Ingredients – Part One

Stories begin with ideas and these can come from anywhere. For some writers, some of the time, they may arrive fully formed, but I suspect that for most of us, they show up as seeds which we have to nourish and grow, in acorn-to-oak fashion.

Since I have allowed myself to drop back to the “acorn stage” of my own story, I turned once again to Donald Maas who has a lot to say about brainstorming and the care and feeding of story ideas as the critical first step in writing what he calls, “the breakout novel.”

Another name for that is simply “publishable novel,” because according to Maass, good is not good enough anymore.  I see antecdotal evidence to support his claim.  I still find the phrase “breakout novel” a bit high-falutin, so I just tend to think of “really good novels.”  Really good novels begin with a really good premise.

Maass uses the word “premise” both for the initial seed idea (“What if there were a whole other world at the bottom of that rabbit hole”) and for a more polished, high level description (“A girl named Alice follows a talking rabbit and…”).  He insists that really good, breakout ideas can be made.  He gives many useful examples of brainstorming and suggests that a key skill is learning to ask “what if” questions and then throw away one’s first responses which are likely to be obvious and cliched.

In the second chapter of Writing the Breakout Novel, he asks the reader to go find their three all time favorite books – the one’s we have read so many times the bindings are cracked.  The ones that have nourished our hearts and spirits for decades.  Maass suggests that four elements common to our favorite stories are likely to be, Plausibility, Inherent Conflict, Originality, and Gut Emotional Appeal.

Plausibility is perhaps the easiest of these concepts to understand and build into a story.  Avoid the extremes of the obvious and the impossible; according to Maass, we want our stories “surprising yet credible.”   As a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I would add that this applies to alternate universes as well.  Google on “world building” and you find a ton of information – much of it coming from gamers – on constructing internally consistent fantasy or extra-terrestrial worlds.  The internal consistency is what matters.  Orcs are all right in Middle Earth, in fact we expect them; Martians would be over the top.

Inherent Conflict:  If the story is set in an era and world where conflict is part of the situation, it aids the writer, but with craft, we can find or create conflict anywhere.  The nominally placid suburbs can be battlegrounds according to John Updike, and now Jonathan Franzen.  Anywhere you have teachers and students, parents and children, boys and girls you have the raw materials for conflict and tension.  Even better, according to Maass – you have conflict between groups or individuals who both have a claim to be “right.”.  It is our job as writers to find the conflict and keep in in the spotlight, for this is the stuff that generates excitement.

Originality:  This is one of those magical qualities – we know it and applaud it when we see it, but can we set out to deliberately be original?  To a degree, I think we can.  If we can allow ourselves to brainstorm or play with ideas, and are willing to reject our first (and usually obvious) solutions, we put ourselves in a place where something new can emerge.  (strictly speaking there may not be any “new” stories, but in practical terms, there are books that make us think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that”).

I assume we all have practical ways of generating ideas – taking a walk, sinking into reverie, listening to music, keeping things silent, free writing, or some combination of methods like this.  The next step is to apply it.  If one can pull an entire plot out of ether, like a magician pulls an endless string of scarves out of a hat, bravo, but at some point, we’ll get stuck or have decisions to make.  I cannot remember where I got this piece of advice but I find it effective.  Ask an important plot question.  Write down 20 solutions.  Throw out the first 19 and the one that is left will be something original.  Twenty or ten or pick a number that works, as long as it doesn’t make things go too easy.

NEXT:  A real-life example and the fourth ingredient

A Conference and a Resolution

“If we had more stories as children, we would need fewer psychiatrists as adults.” – James Hillman

On Saturday, I attended the Spring Spirit Conference of the North/Central region of the SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  This all day event took place in Rocklin, just 20 minutes from home.  It featured seminars and critiques by writers, editors and agents, aimed at people who write for children and young adults.  I had registered at the end of December, but as the day rolled around, I wasn’t that anxious to go.

Part of it was simple fatigue, the after-effect of this spring’s flu.  Part of it was a kind of burnout.  Earlier this week, as I was reviewing a manuscript for one of my critique groups, I caught myself writing a comment out of habit – a knee jerk response I was not even sure was true.  I’ve found myself doing that several times recently, and as a result, I was feeling an impulse to step away and sort out some ideas that didn’t feel like mine.  I wasn’t sure I needed a professional gathering where I was likely to pick up more.

I was pleasantly surprised by the keynote speaker, author and teacher, Bruce Coville.  “Take everything the presenters say with a grain of salt,” he said.  “Your job is to find your own truth.”  Those words turned my day around.  They set the tone of the day, as did his later seminar on writing fantasy, a genre he notes is snubbed by some literati as less than properly serious.  “Tell that to Homer, to Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare,” Coville said.

Sometimes I write fairytales because it’s the best way to tell the truth.” – C.S. Lewis

As I went through they day, an ongoing problem that is really mine came into focus.  I’ve been stalling out on my current book because several key plot elements need to be re-imagined.  Slogging away is not going to do it this time.  I’ve known I need to take a break, take a step back, but that isn’t easy for an A-Type, yankee-ingenuity, roll-up-your-sleeves mentality.  I needed some kind of plan to make it okay to take a break.  And I found one.

When in doubt, read, read, read.  That in itself is a great idea, but I find it hard to study really compelling books when the great ones sweep me into the story from the start – I’ll do the objective stuff later, and later never comes.  I happened to flip through the first book I ever bought specifically to help with plot and structure, called (would you believe) “Plot and Structure,” by James Scott Bell.

Toward the back of the book, Bell addresses that whole issue in a section called, “How to Improve Your Plotting Exponentially.”  It involves getting half a dozen novels, ones you have read or new ones.  Read them first for pleasure, then read them again with a stack of 3×5 cards and note the events, characters and purpose of every single scene.  Review them when done (like “forming a movie in your head,” says Bell).  Finally, lay out the cards and see how the scenes fit into the traditional three-act structure.  Where are the key plot points?  Where is “the door of no return?”  Where is the final battle joined?

This will take eight to twelve weeks, Bell estimates, but because of all that I earlier learned from him, I’m willing to test his estimation that during those weeks “you will jump ahead of 99 percent of all the other aspiring writer out there, most of whom try to find out how to plot by trial and error.” Trial and error has always been iffy for me.

So I’m giving myself permission to take a reading break.  I’ve already downloaded three books to my Kindle:

1)  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, an acclaimed, post-apocolyptic story for young adults.   I started it yesterday and found to my delight, a YA story I can’t put down – I haven’t come upon too many of those recently.

2)  Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben.  This violates Bell’s instructions to stick with the type of book I want to write, but I’ve meant to read this ever since I saw Donald Maass praise the story in his Breakout Novel Workbook.  Besides, I really enjoy action/adventure and believe the genre contains elements that can improve any sort of writing.

3)  Hollowland by Amanda Hocking.  About time I read something by her!

From time to time I will report back on how this goes and probably review at least some of the titles, but right now, I have to get back to  The Hunger Games!

What Is Tension?

No, I am not playing Jeopardy; I am trying to zero in on what Donald Maass considers the make-or-break element of all successful fiction.  I posted a general appreciation of Maass, agent, author, and writer-about-writing in December:

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass says:

Tension on every page is the secret of great storytelling.  Everyone knows that.  Practically no one does it...It’s so simple, really, and yet so many manuscripts that arrive at my office go right back to their authors in their self-addressed stamped envelopes.  Why?  The number one reason is insufficient tension.

Tension on every page works, says Maass, and low tension does not.  Good to know, but as I have considered the subject, I’ve come to think there is much misunderstanding of what tension really means.  Especially with the rise of digital special effects, you see it in movies all the time – the delusion that enough explosions can make a good story.  At the other extreme, I know writers who don’t understand that, according to Maass, tension is independent of the fictional situation:  it can happen – or fail to happen – in any situation, be it a battle or a walk in the woods.

At its simplest, tension results from anxiety over the wellbeing of a character we care about, and in the best fiction, identify with.  The Latin roots of “tension” and “attention,” are very similar, which is interesting, for as our bodies know, attention always follows tension.

One of the most interesting sections of Maass’ Breakout Novel Workbook is Chapter 22, “Low Tension Part I:  The Problem With Tea.”  In his workshops, Maass tells writers to cut “scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths.”  According to Maass, “99.9 percent” of such scenes never make it into print because they:

“…lack tension.  They do not add new information.  They do not subtract allies, deepen conflict, or open new dimensions of character…Typically scenes like these relax tension, review what has already happened, and in general, take a breather.  They are a pause, a marking of time, if not a waste of time.  They do not do anything.”

Maass spends the rest of this and the next three chapters showing examples of authors who make such potentially low-tension scenes work.  How?  But creating “a mood of unease.”  In dozens of ways, conjuring “small anxieties [that] keep us on edge,” even when nothing appears to be happening.  “Mere talk does not keep us glued to the page,” says Maass, but, “disagreement does.”


If tension on every page is the secret of page turning fiction in any genre, I ought to be able to find it in my favorite books, the ones I have read more than once.  I have devised a little experiment I am going to try for my next post, and I invite anyone who is curious to try the same thing and comment on what you find.  Here is what I am going to do:

  • Take a half-dozen of my favorite books, especially the ones I have praised here.
  • Flip them open at random and carefully read the page I land on unless something “exciting” is going on – I want to avoid a fistfights, gunfights, or car chases, and the action-adventure genre in general.
  • See if there really is tension on that page, if that is one of the factors that makes these books so special.

In the past, I have studied these favorites for things like characterization and dialog; for descriptive language; to see how the authors deal with backstory, but I have never focused tension.  If Maass is right – and I bet he is – then this something to look for!

To Be Continued.

Workshop with Donald Maass, Feb. 21, in San Francisco

In response to my post yesterday about the agent workshop in Sacramento, I got a very nice email from Margie Yee Webb, President of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s club, and author of Cat Mulan’s Mindful Musings: Insight and Inspiration for a Wonderful Life which is scheduled for publication in February, 2011. Congratulations Margie!!!

Ms. Yee informed me that Donald Maass, whose, Writing the Breakout Novel, I reviewed here (see the December archive), is giving a half-day seminar called “Micro-Tension: The Secret of the Best-Sellers.”  This will be a post-conference session in connection with the San Francisco Writer’s Conference:

This workshop has been given to rave reviews throughout North America by the man who wrote the book (and workbook) on writing the novel that will break you out of the pack. In the course of two decades Mr. Maass has arrived at a number of definite and highly perceptive conclusions on just what the differences are between an ordinary, pedestrian but enjoyable novel and an ostensibly similar work that catapults the book and its author into an entirely new plane of literary success.

Details on the San Francisco conference and this workshop can be found in the comment Ms. Yee was kind enough to post here:

Workshop, Feb, 5: Make Yourself Irresistable to Editors and Agents

On February 5, the Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club is hosting a workshop called, Make Yourself Irresistable to Editors and Agents

Steve Liddick, who is in his second year of organizing workshops for the club, has posted a notice to Craigslist and asked us to spread the news:  I’ll be happy to email the brochure upon request (click the gravatar for my email). 

Times are 9:00-4:00, in the conference room of the Luau Gardens restaurant.  This is the club’s regular meeting venue, has wi-fi, and is close to the intersection of all the Sacramento freeways.  Steve said the presentation will be lively and enterataining, and everyone will have the option of a three minute, for-real pitch to one of the agents in attendance.  Price is $99 for non-club-members, $85 for members.

Steve organized the all day blogging workshop last June that got me started in this endeavor.  The California Writer’s Club also gives me a sense of connection to one of my writing ancestors – it was founded by Jack London.  If you haven’t seen my post on a visit to his ranch, please look in the October 2010 archive.

If you do decide to attend, I’ll see you there.