31 January 2010

Short Story - or Study?

When beginner writers send in short fiction for constructive feedback they can be surprised to learn that they haven't written a short story but a study - of a person or a memory, of a place or a thing. There is usually masses of description, using words and in terms the cipher character would never use in real life. Dialogue might illuminate a flaw, or virtue, but this flaw, or virtue, is never put to the test; it's merely stated as a given as if that, in itself, is a revelation worth the reading. 

In some circles it might be, but not in markets looking for short fiction. Short fiction has to have a point, a reason for existing, and it needs to have a structure that moves it along to its finale. Think of this as the bones on which to hang the flesh:
  • Introduce the focus character and the scene
  • Show that character's problem
  • Add a complication
  • Which brings about a crisis
  • Have the character work out a resolution
  • Wrap up the story quickly so as to
  • Elicit a reader's reaction
The structure outlined above is not a blueprint, but a very basic, chronological, skeleton, and a little explanation wouldn't go amiss.

The first line does not read Set the scene; introduce the focus character. We live in a world of 24 hour news bulletins, with pictures being beamed from all parts of the globe, offering instant snapshots of life in all its diverse forms. Given a few clues, readers will happily paint in the colours of the background as they go. Characters should take priority, because your readers are people. Forget this at your peril.

Show that character's problem. No matter how many characters there are in a short story, though at such an early stage I wouldn’t suggest juggling with more than three, there is always a focus character. If that character doesn’t have a problem there is no story. Although we might strive to live happy and fruitful lives, reading about one is boring.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes but can be generalised into two categories: external and internal. An external problem can be a pile of quick-drying cement setting on the lounge carpet; I’ll leave you to work out how it got there. An internal problem can be the focus character's vanity, or selfishness, or extravagance - often a trait illuminated in a study - providing a 'ripe' situation.

The complication is usually external; if you like, a trick of fate or an unrecognised possibility. It doesn’t have to be exotic; it can be quite mundane. What it must do is bring about a naturally evolved crisis.

For the focus character the crisis is the turning point. The character may cast around for a heaven-sent solution, but none must be to hand. There should be no guardian angel perched in a tree, and no waking up to find it was all a dream. Through a change in the character's own thoughts or actions a resolution will be presented that should perceptively alter that character, perhaps for life.

After the resolution the story needs to be wrapped up as fast as possible. This is sometimes called the anti-climax, and often this element is omitted altogether leaving readers to complete the sequence of events to their own mental satisfaction. If readers have empathised with the character during the conveying of the story those readers will experience an emotional reaction - the ahh, err, ooh, ugh, factor. If readers haven't empathised with the character the story will be put aside with mutterings along the lines of ‘...load of old tripe’, probably not the emotional reaction the writer was looking for.

A good exercise is to take a recently published short story you have enjoyed reading and mark the structure. Half an hour and a few coloured pens are all you need to realise how difficult this can be. If you've chosen a story you enjoy it will invariably have been well written; well written because the writer not only knows what flesh is required on the bones, but what clothing and perfume is best suited to package, and therefore disguise, the whole. There may be more than a single complication or a single crisis, and the elements may not be in as neat an order as set out above.

A good writer uses sleight of hand with the same dexterity as a magician with a pack of playing cards. And the only true way to gain that dexterity is to practise.

25 January 2010

Page Layout - Punctuating Dialogue

Editing costs money - end of story. At least, it'll be the end of your story if you expect a publisher's editor to do it for you. Like all businesses, members of the publishing industry operate to make money, not haemorrhage it. Editing is labour intensive, and no one toils for free.

Editors work to a ratio of input (editing, production, marketing, etc) to sales potential. If your work's required input isn't a good deal less than its sales potential, then it'll receive a fast rejection slip. This is why celebrity faces splatter so many magazine covers, and books by celebrities find so much shelf space; their sales potential is, if not guaranteed, certainly more bankable than we mere mortals. But the balance can be evened up a little, in fact a lot, simply by cutting down the editor’s workload.

“So shes coming towards you is she Paul ”, Duffy offered gloomily looking into the night sky and wondering how many stars made the milky way, not that he could see it, “ And you tried to ram her with your bike”!
“ I swear I did n’t. Your just making this up!
      Duffy shuffled his feet .
“sure you did .”

If that tipped out of an envelope, or into an Inbox, it would be read no further. There is simply too much work involved in correcting the basic punctuation, never mind the time needed to sort the text. Here’s the exchange again, highlighted for problems:

So shes coming towards you is she Paul ”, Duffy offered gloomily looking [into the night sky and wondering how many stars made the milky way, not that he could see it], “ And you tried to ram her with your bike”!
I swear I did n’t. Your just making this up!
     Duffy shuffled his feet .
“sure you did .”

A bit of explanation:
  • speech marks can differ between publishers, check publicatons from your intended market, but the default is single speech marks for the UK and double for the USA
  • speech marks sit tight against the speech they are enclosing – there are no extra spaces – and all other punctuation marks – commas, exclamation/question marks, etc – are captured inside
  • beware of exclamation marks on every line; they are regarded as the mark of an amateur
  • narrative before, interrupting, or after speech should be pertinent to it, otherwise readers lose the thread, or think they are missing something and jump back for a re-read. Either way the flow of the story has been disrupted
  • capitalise words that act as names/titles - Milky Way
  • if narrative interrupts a person’s speech, and that narrative ends with a comma, the continuing speech does not restart with a capitalisation; it does if ending with a full-stop
  • commas are used to ensure the correct pauses are made by the reader, and the correct sense is taken from the text. Does Duffy offer his speech gloomily, or is he gloomily looking into the night sky?
  • correct dialogue tags - is Duffy actually offering his spoken words, or is he asking? It’ll depend on the text that went before
  • apostrophes exist, in part, to show that something is missing, in this instance the contraction of two words
  • proofread for correct use of a word – your or you’re?
  • proofread for errant spaces – did n’t
  • paragraphing – all should be indented, and each person speaking needs a new paragraph. Actions made by the speaker usually run on the same line.
Let’s try it again:

      ‘So she’s coming towards you, is she, Paul,’ Duffy offered, ‘and you tried to ram her with your bike?’
      ‘I swear I didn’t. You’re just making this up.’
      Duffy shuffled his feet. ‘Sure you did.’

All this work to get three lines of dialogue in order. Would you do it for a full novel – someone else’s novel? Then don't expect an editor to do it for yours, even if yours isn't anywhere near this bad. Get it right before submission and you are less likely to get it back by return.

19 January 2010

A computer word count, or a white space count?

Most publishers, paper and ebook, will work from a computer generated word count. If so, no sweat.

However, some paper publishers ask for a white space count, which floors many writers. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but a little history will put the request into perspective.

A white space count is a throwback to the days when manual typewriters ruled and Courier 12 was the only font available for those crafting a novel. Courier is a mono spaced font, meaning that “i” and “o” take up the same width (as against the Arial font used on this blog which is proportionally spaced). With 25 double-spaced lines to the page and 1 inch margins all round, it was reckoned that each page would roughly occupy the same “space” on a book page. Editors could, by eye, a flick of the wrist and use of a ready reckoner, produce a rough estimate of how many book pages any typescript would occupy.

This was, and still is, particularly of use to editors fulfilling a publishing line with a pre-determined number of book pages, and thus needing typescripts of a particular length. Let's consider a typescript of 90,000 words, computer counted. It will be appreciated that a typescript containing long paragraphs of narrative and little dialogue will take up less book pages than a typescript containing short exchanges of dialogue and little narrative. Sometimes the differences in calculation can be startling.

Modern default fonts, usually New Times Roman or in this blog’s case Arial, are proportionally spaced, meaning that the same sentence takes up less room than when using a mono spaced font. It is highly doubtful, though, that it will be the same proportionally spaced font used in the production of a book. Publishers requesting a white space count often give detailed instructions of how this count should be achieved, but for a fast rule of thumb the following calculation can be used:

  • ensure the script uses a right-ragged margin (not fully justified)
  • that each page carries the same number of lines (turn off widows/orphans)
  • pick from different parts of the typescript 20 full margin-to-margin lines and count the number of words on each
  • add these figures together and divide by 20 to get an average words-per-line figure
  • multiply this figure by the number of lines per page to get an average page count
  • multiply this figure by the number of pages, including partial pages for chapter beginnings/endings, to give an overall white space count for the typescript.
Ebook publishers only work with a computer generated word-count, as the free-flowing nature of reader-enabled font sizing makes the idea of static pages redundant. Didn’t you just know there had to be a perk.

17 January 2010

Presentation - Layout

It shouldn’t need to be repeated, but considering what comes across my desk I feel I must. Writers do themselves no favours if they don’t stick to the industry standard when approaching markets. Ensure your typescript has:
  • double spacing
  • wide left/right margins 3 cm / 1.25 inches; top/bottom 2.5 cm/1 inch is fine 
  • consecutively numbered pages (yes, honest!) 
  • a 12 point clear script 
  • printed in Normal, not Draft mode 
  • indented paragraphing without a space between paragraphs - so if your software adds in a line space, or a half line space automatically after a hard return, go into Format and turn it off
  • been thoroughly proofread (yes, honest!)
  • a word count – computer counted is usual for short fiction and articles; for novels check whether your intended market uses a computer count or white space count. There could be up to a 20% difference. 
  • do not bind. Paperclip short work and use a C5/C4 envelope for posting. Long work can be secured with elastic bands and inserted in a cheap cardboard wallet file for protection; use a padded envelope for security
  • SAE for short work, return postage for long – or you’ll never hear from it again
If your market accepts submissions via email, study its requirements and adhere to the letter. Most markets are inundated with submissions and use an automated, or semi-automated system, to deal with them.