Actual Writing Advice

Happy Monday! Sorry about the late post. My schedule is completely off for one more week. I was going to post a recipe today, but I changed my mind. Instead, you’re getting actual writing advice.

I’ve stayed clear of giving specific advice since I’ve started this blog because I feel I’m in the same boat as most writers without a major contract: we’re all trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. But after reading submissions to Photo Flare for a year, I’ve seen two problems enough that I think they’re worth mentioning. Plus, they aren’t ones many other publications offer up as “avoid this” in their guidelines. Maybe you’ll read them and disagree, or maybe you’ll read them and tuck them away for when you enter Photo Flare, or maybe you’ll think I’m brilliant. I hope at least they’re interesting.

The first problem is choosing the wrong protagonist. We’ve received several really good stories that aren’t great stories because the chosen main character doesn’t change or is acted upon by other characters and never does anything herself/himself. Almost always with these stories, there’s another character far more interesting because she/he does stuff and changes in a significant way. When you get done with the first draft of a story, go back and make sure the character is active and makes an important change by the end. If you find the MC to be passive, look for a different character in the story that is active and make her/him the MC, or dramatically change the original MC.

The second problem that tarnishes a good story, and this is specifically for short stories, is backstory and exposition. Leave it out. There just isn’t time to explain in a short story. I’ve been very loath to take this advice myself, so I hear everyone moaning and throwing wads of paper at the screen, but I see the wisdom in it now. Stay in the moment of your story. Always push forward; never go back. Do not tell me why all the fairies in your story eat only four leaf clovers, or why ice cream is against the law. Show me the reality of your world and hint at the reasons why. I thought I’d use a Jewel song to illustrate what I mean:

“You Were Meant For Me”

I hear the clock, it’s six a.m.
I feel so far from where I’ve been
I got my eggs I got my pancakes too
I got my maple syrup, everything but you.
I break the yolks, make a smiley face
I kinda like it in my brand new place
I wipe the spots off the mirror
Don’t leave the keys in the door
Never put wet towels on the floor anymore’ cause

[Chorus:]
Dreams last so long
even after you’re gone
I know you love me
And soon you will see
You were meant for me
And I was meant for you.

I called my momma, she was out for a walk
Consoled a cup of coffee but it didn’t wanna talk
So I picked up a paper, it was more bad news
More hearts being broken or people being used
Put on my coat in the pouring rain
I saw a movie it just wasn’t the same
‘Cause it was happy or I was sad
It made me miss you oh so bad ’cause

[Chorus]

I go about my business, I’m doing fine
Besides what would I say if I had you on the line
Same old story, not much to say
Hearts are broken, everyday.
I brush my teeth and put the cap back on
I know you hate it when I leave the light on
I pick a book up. Turn the sheets down.
And then I take a deep breath and a good look around
Put on my pjs and hop into bed
I’m half alive but I feel mostly dead
I try and tell myself it’ll be all right
I just shouldn’t think anymore tonight ’cause

[Chorus]

Yeah… You were meant for me and I was meant for you.

Yes, I realize this is not a story. It’s a moment. But it’s a moment everyone understands, and she never tells us why they broke up, or why they were together to begin with, or where the lover is now or anything that happened prior to the song. We empathize with the character going through the break-up by being shown how she’s dealing with it, how she’s feeling about it. We’re given hints that she might’ve driven him crazy with little habits like leaving the bathroom light on at night. The details of the moment are what holds the listener. Stay in the moment of your story.

So that’s it. Please come back this week to see the winner of Photo Flare! I’ll post the link on Facebook and Absolute Write Forums. Happy New Year!

One thought on “Actual Writing Advice

  1. That first point is excellent advice. Tobias Buckell points out something very similar in Nascence – that the big reason so many of his early stories failed so badly is because he was focussing on totally the wrong characters, choosing the showy and superficially special ones each time instead of the ones whose lives were most changed by the story’s events. This is something I always try to bear in mind now before I start writing. Thanks for the reminder!