I recently finished my latest submission for my critique group. My usual routine is to take the week off while waiting for my critiques to come in. The time away from writing lets my story simmer for a bit and refreshes my mind in preparation for the next round of 8,000+ words. Something fun I like to do during this time off is look back at what I researched for my latest submission.
My obsession with research comes from two sources: my career as a tax professional and a science fiction literature class. First, substantiation plays a huge role in the field of tax and accounting. An auditor is not going to buy your explanation without proof substantiating your claim. The key to indisputable proof is thorough research of the law as it applies to your facts and circumstances.
Also, a college literature course ingrained the concept of plausibility in my mind. Readers must be able to suspend their disbelief in the created worlds of speculative fiction. Plausibility is achieved on several levels, but research is essential for factual believability. In my created world, a human subspecies is threatened by extinction. In order to be credible, I spent the good half of a day researching extinction.
Hence, research accounts for a lot of my time at the computer. Sometimes, I spend more time researching a topic than writing about it. While I’m a firm believer in doing my homework, I stress about the time it takes away from adding word count to my manuscript. An inner struggle inherently ensues to rationalize that this time is well spent. When I find myself in this place, I remember what I learned from a virtual class with best-selling author, David Baldacci.
An entire lesson of Baldacci’s lecture series was dedicated to research. During one part, he talked about his collection of binders full of notes. As an example, he referenced a 3-inch notebook with his research about nuclear weapons. He used these notes for only two paragraphs in one of his books. Vindication; my research time is a good investment. Oh, and I have a lovely collection of binders, too.
For my last submission, my research topics included: ~ Burns as in first, second, and third-degree burns. ~ Swordsmanship for one never knows when a character might need to lob the head off of a menacing creature. ~ Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit ~ Body language of horses ~ Ancient woodlands ~ Barn floorplans
Always a fun exercise, but heaven help me if my computer is ever search by authorities of any kind.
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 TheGreat 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.
Outside, the sky was dark with rain-laden clouds. The lightning temporarily blinded the people coming and going on the sidewalk. Thunder rumbled, shaking the foundations of the centuries-old buildings lining Main Street. One thunderclap released a torrent of rain, soaking everything not shielded from it within minutes. Soon, water rushed through the streets, and the awnings over the front doors sagged from the weight of the rain collecting in them. But the violence outside was nothing compared to the battle raging inside the bakery.
It was Fat Tuesday, celebrated in Pole Town with paczki, fried fruit-filled donuts. Bakers across town labored all night, making sure they had enough inventory for the hundreds of fervent people who started lining up at 4:00 am to get their hands on a dozen of the delights.
With wands drawn, late comers Doretha and Eloise waged war over the last dozen, scattering chairs and tables with bolts of energy when they missed their mark. Among other casualties were shattered dishware and cracked glass of now empty display cases. As the combatants danced around each other, Doretha’s bolt made contact with Eloise, thrusting her out the front door onto the sidewalk. Doretha rushed forward to gauge the effectiveness of her strike when the awning above the entrance collapsed, sending a wall of water crashing down on Eloise. She screamed in agony as she melted into the sidewalk. Turning away from the scene, Doretha casually collected the last dozen paczki.