Literary Techniques

Recently, I’ve been looking for guidance about writing short stories. Why? Because short stories are recommended for new fiction writers, and I’m new to fiction writing. They help us hone our skills before delving into the complex work of writing a novel. Practice makes perfect. Mistakes can be made without wasting a lot of time because writing is an investment of time. Staying true to my nature, I ignored this advice and dove head-first into a novel. I might be setting myself up for failure, but I feel have nothing to lose at this point.

So if I’m not creating short stories to practice the craft, why am I interested in learning about writing them? Simply said, to make money. According to some sources, making money selling short stories might be as improbable as a new writer tackling a novel. The trade-off is the loss of time spent on my book. But at least, I’ll be practicing my craft using the recommended approach. A win-win from my point of view. And if I’m lucky, I’ll make a few bucks, too.

During my quest to educate myself, I happened upon a book about the subject. The Write Practice Presents: Let’s Write a Short Story! by Joe Bunting. It contains a lot of great content about writing short stories and selling them, too. While I highly recommend this resource, this post is not a book review. It is about something I learned about my own writing during this exploration.

My ah-ha moment occurred while reading a segment about the literary techniques used for award-winning stories. Namely, Pulitzer, Book, and Nobel award-winning pieces. Now I am not a literary writer by any stretch of the imagination. My genre of choice is speculative fiction, urban fantasies in particular. The style of this genre tend to be edgy; some have a noir feel to them. But my style is more characteristic of literary writing.

Let’s start with a list of the techniques cited:

1. Using long sentences
2. Using short sentences
3. Lyrical prose
4. Making and allusion
5. Using an eponym for character names
6. Be specific
7. A story within a story
8. A wide scope

Using Long Sentences
Whether it’s technical or fiction writing, I tend to write long compound sentences. Here’s an example of my writing:

Holding her Celtic cross necklace in the palm of my hand, I whispered a few verses of her favorite song, “Vincent,” into it and told her to wear it tonight to keep my spirit near her heart.

My sentences aren’t too long. The above example is only thirty-seven words, which is about average for my long sentences. Eleven words less than Cormac McCarthy’s forty-eight word sentence cited in the book. Neither of them even close to the Tim O’Brien’s seventy-seven word cited example.  

Another difference is both book samples are full of conjunctions whereas I rarely use more than one in my long sentences. Also, they disregard the punctuation rules whereas I’m a stickler about it, even if it’s first draft. I know it’s a fault, but I unabashedly own it.

Using Short Sentences
One of my favorite techniques is punctuating my long sentences with short sentences. It’s so satisfying.

Twilight cast brilliant shades of yellow and orange bleeding into red, purple, and deep blue upon the horizon as we cruised over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the gateway to our destination, Sullivan’s Island. Red brake lights flashed intermittently.

They are great at grabbing the readers’ attention after a series of compound sentences or long run-on sentences, full of conjunctions.

Lyrical Prose
My style has a lyrical quality:  

A warm summer breeze scented with the sweet fragrance of nearby lilac blossoms caressed my skin. My grandpa sat next to me. With each gentle rise and fall of the swing, his voice grew stronger and louder, drowning out the static noise ringing in my ears, until I heard his words.

I hit the jackpot with this example of my writing. It includes a long, a medium and a short sentence. More importantly, it has quite a rhythmic flow to it. I used it as my illustration because several critique partners commented on its quality. In particular, they noted my descriptive language which I think is characteristic of fantasy writing. But not so much for urban fantasies like my story. Descriptions in this genre are more straightforward, not too fluffy or willowy.

Making an allusion
This term was new to me; I had not heard of it before I reading this book. It involves making a reference to another literary work by using an image, a character, or even a direct quote. Most readers won’t recognize when an allusion is made, but it’s exciting for those who “get it.” It adds depth to their reading experience and makes them feel like they connect with the author on a different level.

Technically, I don’t make allusions. Instead I pepper a lot of symbolism throughout my story. For example, the theme of my story is new beginnings, and I refer to birch trees whenever possible as they are symbolic of new beginnings. A grove of trees is described as a grove of birch trees. A character throws a couple more birch logs onto the fire. Another character makes a cup of tea with Chaga mushroom, which grows on birch trees. Most readers will miss these subtle details, but they will be really cool for the reader who picks up on them.

Using an eponym for character names
Eponym, another literary term I was unfamiliar with, but its definition is simple. It means naming a character after someone famous in some manner. Oddly enough, I was very deliberate when I bestowed my characters with their names. I wanted them to be have significance and mean something to the reader. Some of the names I use are Lilith, Sam, Darcy, Quillon, and Damion. They are a bit cliché, but again, I proudly own it. Other names include a nod to King Arthur and Magnum PI.

I suspect I’m not unlike my peers when it comes to character names. They are something most writers are thoughtful about. If you’re a writer and haven’t thought about the role of your characters’ names, you might to think about them. On a side note, rethink using names that are difficult to pronounce. While they add nuance to your story, they can distract your readers, too.

Be specific
This technique means not speaking in generalizations, and I associate it with the artful use of descriptions. Based on examples in the book, literary writers describe blue birds as blue jays and red birds as cardinals. Or the wind whipped the willow’s branches rather than the tree branches.

If one thing is consistent in my young writing career, it is my descriptions. I’m a very descriptive writer, and critique partners either love them or hate them.

A story within a story
I’m not sure if my story within a story is comparable to this literary technique. Simply put, it means one character tells a story to another character. An example used in the book was from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where the courtship of Petruchio and Katherina is a play performed for a drunkard who is made to think he is a nobleman. A little bit of a complicated illustration of the concept, but illustrative nonetheless.

My story involves a legend about the demise of former rulers. Throughout the tale, details about the legend are revealed, which impact the plot. To me, this scenario seems like a story within a story. In fact, a lot of the Book 2 is included in Book 1.

A wide scope
The scope of most literary novels is national or international, meaning they are set in times of war like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bells Toll set during the Spanish Civil War. Or other notable time periods like The Great Gatsby’s portrayal of the Roaring 20s.

The setting of my story is contemporary, but the legend mentioned above is rooted in the early 19th century England. A time of transition between the Georgian and Victoria eras. The culture and practices of these eras are interwoven throughout my novel. Another technicality where my setting doesn’t quite fit the definition. Yet there is a presence of a historical time period.

Literary writing is about experimental styles and breaking the rules. I’m certainly not an Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, or Cormac McCarthy. But I think I’m breaking the rules of my chosen genre by using some of the same literary techniques used by them.

More importantly, I didn’t intentionally apply these technique; they came naturally to me which still surprise me. It proves we learn about ourselves as we seek knowledge. So never stop learning, make it hobby.

Dear Critique Partner

Let me start by thanking you for your thoughtful feedback about my recent submission. It’s apparent you spent a considerable amount of time on it.

First, I hope my effort to provide a good clean copy for your review didn’t go unnoticed. I don’t believe in submitting a first draft because it inevitably includes more telling than showing, the dreaded info-dumping and careless grammar mistakes. I don’t want these obvious issues to hinder your review. I want you to focus your expertise on the story elements like plot, characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding. I think I accomplished this goal as most of your comments are related to what I’m looking for.

I noticed several of your comments were tagged “it’s only my opinionandit’s your story.” Yes, it is my story, and I want your opinion. I want to know what you learned about the world in which my story takes place in. Do you understand their culture and customs? Their magic system? Do my characters have depth, their own voice? Do you know what they look like? Do you care? Are my descriptions flat? Or over-the-top and distracting? In your opinion, what do you think about the pacing, dialogue, the rhythm and flow of the prose? Was there enough tension? So please, please give your opinion to me.

Where you commented you couldn’t remember or recall certain details, I understand. There are gaps in time between the review of chapters. I have the same problem at times. But being a hoarder pays off when it happens to me. I think I have every critique I’ve ever written. The hardest part about looking to see if I missed something is the time it takes to find the right submission. Most of the time, it’s my forgetfulness. If it’s not, I let the writer know to make the detail in question more memorable.

Another favorite comment of mine is “I’m not very good at explaining myself.” I’m sure you’ve gotten it a time or two yourself. I struggle with this remark because we’re writers. Describing a character’s thoughts, their emotions and actions and settings are the essence of our work. So shouldn’t we be able to convey our thoughts in a critique? I know it can take some time to find the right words to express ourselves, but take whatever you need to voice your impression. Otherwise, don’t make the comment if you can’t explain it. Right?

Many thanks for a couple of your suggestions. One of them triggered an ah-ha moment about how to fix a pacing problem that’s been testing my patience. Another inspired me to approach the description of a scene from a different angle. The result was a black and white noir-type setting. Escorted by the detective, the protag trudged down the shady hallway in a surreal daze. Nondescript gray walls, gray doors, gray linoleum. The dim overhead lights cast shadows as they marched towards their destination. The sterile morgue. White walls, shiny white floor, bright lights, and the stark reality. A truly wonderful writing experience for me. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

Oh, and by the way, my main character is a woman, not a man. Just want to make sure you knew since you used the masculine pronoun “he” throughout your review.

Sincerely,
Suzanne

* * * * *

The above post is my cynical look at the critique process. It is a vital part of writing, and I honestly appreciate and enjoy the feedback I receive. But at times, I question its authenticity. Yes, we are reminded to take critique comments “with a grain of salt”, which literally means to not take something literally, but to view it with skepticism.

Writing Styles: Active Voice

Another writing exercise using an active voice.

Learning the craft of writing includes lots of reading, and as an aspiring writer, I read several novels over the holidays. One of my favorites was Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews.

A husband-wife team co-authored Magic Bites using the pseudonym Ilona Andrews. Published on March 27, 2007, it is the first book in the Kate Daniels series. There are twelve books from Kate’s point of view and a number of novels from the other characters’ point of view. I aspire to be as prolific as this writing team.

The urban fantasy takes place in Atlanta, where magic and technology vie for superiority. Set in 2040, Kate’s sole-surviving family member, her guardian, Greg Feldman is murdered. During her investigation, she interacts with rival factions, each with their own agenda, and an ancient supernatural being.

Kate earns her living as a mercenary in a world of shapeshifters, necromancers, and vampires. In the simplest terms, she’s badass. Obstinate and sarcastic, she wields a magic sword, named Slayer, which she carries in a sheath on her back. When looking for the leader of the Pack faction, Curran Lennart, a lion shapeshifter, she calls out, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” The undercurrent of a developing romantic relationship between Kate and Curran flowing throughout the tale is palpable and enticing.

The created world is well developed. But I’m not sure the book would have been as enjoyable if not for the bonus material including FAQ, character bios, and descriptions of the factions. I love speculative fiction, but the worlds in even well-written books boggle my mind sometimes. In this case, reading the supplemental information beforehand kept me engaged through the entire 366 pages.

For me, Magic Bites was a great case study since I’m in the process of writing an urban fantasy from a first-person point of view. I’m looking forward to diving into the prequel soon.

Copy Editors

 The following is a writing assignment in my latest class, Copyediting Certification.

What exactly does a copyeditor do? Many people think a copyeditor and a proofreader are synonymous. Both roles involve correcting grammatical and spelling errors. Thus, they both require a comprehensive understanding of the English language and its usage. However, a copyeditor’s role encompasses much more. 

Let’s start by exploring the publishing process. In general, there are three steps to publishing a novel: the writer and editor make changes to the raw manuscript; the copyeditor makes sure the manuscript is free of grammatical errors, is easy to read, and conforms to the publisher’s style; the proofreader performs quality control to ensure the manuscript is formatted correctly and free of errors. Before going to print, a reader with a fresh perspective may give the manuscript one last quality check.

Now let’s take a closer look at the role of a copyeditor. First, a copyeditor is responsible for performing the initial check for any grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. Next, a copyeditor fact-checks to make sure everything is accurate and correct. The spelling of names, places, and organizations are double-checked as well as the accuracy of facts, dates, and statistics. Finally, a copyeditor fixes any problems with style and tone to ensure the prose flows and no awkward sentences.

Like other professions, both hard and soft skills are necessary to be a successful copyeditor. Most employers require a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism, communications,  or other related field. Copyeditors are passionate about the English language and are often skilled writers themselves. They must have a keen eye and be detail orientated. Good communication and interpersonal skills are needed since copyeditors interact with both the writers and editors too. Exchanges with both of them must be civil and courteous.

Writing Styles

This week, I’m posting some of my writing. The following paragraphs are from an exercise for a class I’m taking. Writing style is the voice an author uses in a piece to tell the story. There are many different styles. The following pieces are examples of deadpan (The Catch) and stream of consciousness (The Audition).

THE CATCH
With the hook set, I knew I had a good catch from the fight the fish put up, and it took close to an hour to land it. About the same time it took me to land Julie, which should have been a clue about the tenure of our relationship. But she was a fine specimen, just like my tournament catch. She bolstered my standing in my long rivalry with my bro, Joe. Like Julie, my catch was going catapult me to the top of the leaderboard. At least, that’s what I thought. Before I held it in my hands. Once I got the catch onboard, I knew it was not trophy material. Like Julie, it looked beautiful, but lacked the substance to elevate my status. Like Julie, I released my catch and moved on to my next conquest, confident I would land the catch of my life to beat Joe in the tournament. (word count: 156)

THE AUDITION
Oh, my gosh, I’m so nervous; remember, he has no idea how I feel about him, he’ll never think I’m expressing my feelings for him so relax and get a grip, I need to channel my feelings into the character, if I don’t, I won’t get the part and won’t get the chance to hang out with him during rehearsals; he’ll give it to his regular leading lady, Janice, she’s been in the lead role for the past two productions when he’s been the director, maybe there’s something going on between them, but they don’t seem flirty when they are together, all business when they interact, and I’ve never seen them together outside of the theater, she’s never joined us after rehearsals or any other time we get together at the Irish Cue; where I fell head-over-heels for him, attracted by his charisma, he was so charming when we talked, especially when we talked about theater, remember he invited me to the audition for this production, I hope he doesn’t think I’ll sleep with him to get the part; Oh my gosh, I have to stop psyching myself out about this audition. (word count:192)