The Stories That Have Legs

Around this time last year, I intended to write a silly joke for Twitter. It was intended to read along the lines of ‘Does anyone remember before the Internet, you had to phone in your YouTube order and wait for the videos to be delivered?’

I never posted that joke because I kept thinking of details I wanted to add. at last count, that one-liner has gradually morphed into a short story of more than 1,800 words.

Now another piece is currently growing legs in a similar manner. My old school sports grounds are on a main road, so I often walk past them. This prompted a one-off story about a group of teenage school pupils who are required to take games class, but either loathe it or are at least indifferent about it, so they find other ways to keep themselves occupied during this time.

Unusually for me, I posted it to a popular writing website to see what the feedback would be like. Some commenters pointed out there was a potential cliffhanger, so I wrote a second part to fill that gap.

That second installment received as much attention as the first. By this time, the characters were so well-rounded that I could take them out of games class and into other locations, so a third part quickly followed.

In an effort to avoid confusion in the one-off story, I’d only named a handful of the 14 characters. This was fine for the sequel, which took place in the same location the following week. However, it had been established in the one-off that the summer break was nearly upon them. The narrator is shown to ask the named characters to meet up again during summer, but none of them were keen for their own reasons.

I therefore injected some retroactive continuity in an effort to avoid inconsistencies.

It would have been possible, but implausible, for all the named characters suddenly to change their minds about meeting up again. However, there were two unnamed characters mentioned en passant by the narrator. I pushed them centre-stage when said they had somewhere to meet over summer. This in turn persuaded the best friend of the narrator to change her mind and join them.

As such, the number of characters reduced to four, arguably a more manageable than 14. Introducing that new location then meant I was able to introduce other characters who weren’t necessarily required to have been in the previous installments.

The third part hasn’t made nearly as big a splash on the website as its two predecessors. I’ve nonetheless planned for a series of six or seven short stories because I really need to write this tale, almost regardless of the reaction.

I’m now considering releasing them as one collection, which will give me even more opportunity to make the continuity seamless rather than retrospective.

Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.

Giving Quality Feedback on Poetry

It’s something of a badge of honour when someone asks me to read over a poem they’ve written and to provide feedback. So I was only too happy to oblige when a friend sent me a three-part piece she wasn’t sure about.

On receipt of a poem, I first of all go through a mental checklist of features I would expect to see. As I write, I realise this is the first time I’ve written down these features, so I might return to this topic and make amendments.


Punctuation

Although poetry often employs types of line breaks that don’t appear in prose, it’s a convention that sentences are still punctuated in the same way with commas, full stops and other marks.

Capitalisation

Before 1900 or so, the first letter of a new line was capitalised whether or not it was at the beginning of a new sentence. Beginning in the 20th century, however, that first letter is not usually capitalised unless it also begins a sentence.

Forced rhymes

Not all poetry rhymes, but when a rhyme is included, it’s conventional to make it sound as natural as possible. I hear too many cases where the poet has written in rhyming couplets and the order of the words in the second line of each couplet is altered to make it fit with the first.


After those three checks, I consider other aspects such as word choice, whether any clichés have been used, the rhythm of the piece, and how the structure might be amended for greater impact on the reader.

But these are only conventions and they can be broken. In the second part of her poem, my friend eschewed punctuation and capitalisation so it read like work from Allen Ginsberg or E E Cummings. If you’re planning to break poetic convention, the best way is to make it clear to the reader that you’re not following the rules.

Overall, I was pleased with the piece my friend sent, and I look forward to hearing it in its final form.

More E-Rejection™ Slips.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the content of rejection slips, or their modern electronic equivalent, which I’ve dubbed E-Rejection™ slips. In that entry, I discussed the feedback to one of my stories, The Strange Case of Mr Brown. I felt the editors had missed the point of the story by their response.

Last weekend, I received another E-Rejection™ from a local publication, and the sender told me that one of the two pieces had been discussed until a late stage in the decision making process, but both had ultimately been refused. That piece was The Strange Case of Mr Brown.

The latest slip didn’t provide any other information about either piece, but I had faith in Mr Brown. It’s written from the point of view of a lawyer in the late 1800s, so it has a certain period style that needs to be believable but understandable to a 21st century audience.

Yet there is such a fine line between self-belief and self-delusion, and not just in writing. It’s terrifically difficult to judge yourself honestly. Just look at the singers on talent shows who are so convinced they’re the next big thing while missing every note.

I’ve considered the question of how to decide whether your self-belief is justified or not. There is probably no single good way, but it’s worth examining any recurring themes in your feedback. If editors or reviewers have different negative comments to make, you probably haven’t made a complete hash of it. But if they all focus in on one or two negative aspects, then there’s a chance you need to put it more work.

One recurring theme I find is that editors like my writing style, but feel that the plot never took off. That often spurs me on to add twists that I otherwise wouldn’t have felt the need to include.

But if you have a better way of using feedback to your advantage, I’d like to hear it.