Posts Tagged short stories
In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre. I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers. The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book. (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it. Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case. The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.) But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology. Then I started a novel.
And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing. I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both. And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published. (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.) Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me. But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.
Now when I read, I read more like a writer. I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write. I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise. I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha! He’s introduced an new character/concept. That could be important. I will follow this. To a lesser extent, I am more aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this? Or this?). I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently. I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to. Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever. And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together. Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction. Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.
That extends to watching TV and movies. I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together. I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there. I look for oddities and peculiarities. I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first. (Some of the things he did—wow.) But enough of that; who cares? Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run. A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers. This is one reason why.
What is it we are actually doing by being creative? That is, by making up a story such as a novel or a short story, or by producing a scientific paper that adds to the sum of human knowledge about some aspect of humanity, what is it that lies below the surface of this creativity? As a scientist trained to work with viruses, and later as an aspiring novelist, I’ve taken on and conquered (hopefully) two aspects of creativity: fiction and science. Both utilize the power of the human brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and do something with them. The question I’m trying to answer here is simply, what is the end result of that creativity? Where does all that thinking up experiments with viruses and writing fiction go? What do we get out of it? (I certainly don’t mean to imply these are the only ways to be creative; they just happen to be the two I’m most familiar with. You can probably think of others. But my comments here will apply to all.)
My first answer is two-fold. First, scientific experiments are done to gather information. Information that, somewhere down the line, can be used to improve the health of people, animals, the planet, or whatever. Some scientific papers are so esoteric that their ultimate usefulness to society may be hard to grasp in the immediate aftermath of their publication, but somewhere, sometime, they should be important. Creative writing, on the other hand, has as its most immediate goal that of entertainment. A good story is worth a thousand words. A story or a movie seeks to take us away from the cares and woes of everyday life and let us lead a different life vicariously in the guise of a fictitious character. Always fun.
But I maintain there is a higher purpose to creativity, and that is to teach. Scientific experiments produce good information about a subject, but they are also used to teach students how the scientific process works, and students learn more than what is written in the paper. They may learn a new technique from a paper, they may learn how a technique is applied to study a given subject, but most importantly, they take that information and merge it with all they’ve learned previously and begin to understand how the scientific process works in the broadest of terms. Each paper is a brick, and brick by brick, a wall can be built, and eventually an edifice can be constructed in the mind of a student that tells him/her how to proceed with the smallest of experiments he/she may be currently working on. They learn something, specific and general, at the same time.
Likewise with a novel or a short story. A reader gains access to the details of the story, the plot, the hero, the villain, the setting, and so forth. But a student of literature will also read to learn how a story is put together—point of view, description vs. dialogue, telling vs. showing, etc. Reading is the best way to learn, and ultimately, by reading many stories the student learns how to put his/her own story together. Creativity, therefore, is ultimately a teaching tool, not merely a device to convey information. Creativity is death to indifference and boredom, and we need as much of it as we can get.
I just sent a short story to four journals. Same short story; four literary journals. Now comes the waiting part. I may not hear from one or more of those journals for up to six months. Which means I will be looking around for other journals for which to send the same short story. I think it’s one of my best short stories. I’ve sent that short story (in several slightly modified forms) to at least twenty-three other journals over the past seven or eight years, and gotten thoroughly rejected by all who received it. (Except for one journal whose editors did say they liked my style of writing, but they didn’t like the story’s ending and so declined to publish it.)
So, now I will wait for the results, which, if past history is any guide, will probably also be rejections. That may sound somewhat pessimistic, but my scientific training tends to look at numbers like this in an objective, dispassionate way. Granted, that’s probably not the best way to look at my submissions history because writing is such a subjective field. A frustratingly subjective field. One has to look at each submission as a separate, unique event, and hope someone else will like my style of writing. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I did change the ending.)
But still, I send stories out. I continue to cling to the hope that someone, somewhere, will like my story well enough to publish it, and that would mean they might publish another story, and I might get still another story accepted at a different journal, and so on. There’s a real endpoint here, a point at which I can say I’m a published author. But the only way I can reach that goal is to send stuff out. No sending, no publishing.
I’ve heard that some people have difficulty sending their work to journals and magazines. For some indefinable reason, they’re hesitant. Afraid of something, I guess. I’ve never suffered from that phobia. That may stem from the requirement of my profession as a scientist to publish any results I obtained in the lab, and working in the lab was fun as well as life-affirming and profitable. Well, reasonably profitable, anyway. I enjoyed sending stuff out. For several reasons. A published paper got my name out into the scientific world, it added a little to the total knowledge about viruses, and I became known to a very tiny group of other virologists as an expert in an even tinier aspect of the overall field. What’s not to like?
So, where does this hesitancy to send writing out come from? I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I wonder if people are afraid the editors at a journal will laugh at them, or throw their submission in the trash, or send out an all-points bulletin to other magazines as to just how bad a writer they are, or even worse, send the writing police after them to yell at them, “Don’t ever send anything out again. EVER.”
Ridiculous. No one is going to laugh, or try to intimidate you if you send something out. The worst that could happen is that they’ll say no. And if they do, there are plenty of other journals to send to. It’s a numbers game. If you’ve vetted the story well enough, and polished it until you can’t make anymore changes, it stands a good chance of being accepted somewhere. Send it out.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and try and define a characteristic of fiction that is, at least to me, new. I’ve written a few short stories as well as three novels, but when I finished a short story of about 4600 words a few weeks back, and read through it several times, I was struck by the story’s lack of a characteristic I’m going to call “import.”
What’s import, you ask? It’s going to be hard to define, and I’m not sure I can do a very good job. Perhaps the best way to define it is to look at stories that lack the concept. A story without import is bland, unimaginative, listless. That’s not to say that a story without import can’t be well written, or well conceived, or well executed. But when I finished reading through my story I asked myself, “What the hell was that?” It wasn’t that the story wasn’t satisfying, and it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of it, but it fell flat on its face, and I was left with the feeling of, “So what?”
To be effective, a story has to mean something. It not only has to have a real beginning, middle and end, the final impression left in the reader has to be real. My story didn’t do that. I thought it was reasonably well written, it has a real beginning, middle and end all right, and when I was through, I felt it gave the reader a lot of interesting information. I even had to do some research to get my facts correct. Yet, it was flat. Dullsville. Again, I said to myself, so what?
This was the first time this had happened. All my stories I feel give the reader something significant to take away. But this one didn’t, and I can’t really define why not. A story has to leave an impression on the reader. That can be either a positive or negative impression. Leaving a negative impression is at least an impression. If a reader says, “I hated that story,” that’s better than, “I got nothing out of it,” or “I didn’t understand it,” or “So what.”
I’m not sure how I can fix the story to make it more significant. It actually tells the story I wanted to tell, and does it effectively, with even a little humor, yet it lacks something important. The story falls into a category called magical realism, a relatively new genre which is sort of a subdivision of science fiction, and a genre I’m just getting into. I suspect no reputable journal or magazine would ever accept it, though; it’s too bland. I could spice it up, yet that would be to pollute it with details that have little to do with the plot. That probably wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.
Ah, the vagaries of the writing life.