Friday Fictioneers – I didn’t plan to steal your dog

dawn-in-montreal
Photo Prompt © Dale Rogerson

I didn’t plan to steal your dog, it just happened. A watery sun was rising, the morning still largely made of shadows. Slipping between the shadow of an acacia and the one lapping your house, I tried to walk right up without setting him barking. And he came to me, tail going like a metronome.

You must be musical because I saw the Steinway through your window. Perhaps you loved that piano more than your dog, or why was he locked out in the garden? I scratched his ear. He nuzzled my hand.

I left your music, but you didn’t deserve that dog. I call him Beethoven.

 

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

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Friday Fictioneers – The Mask

 

caged-liz
Photo Prompt © Liz Young

They say we are never so much ourselves as when we’re wearing a mask. But what do you do when your mask is inside? I feel him slowly filling my skull, peeking out through my eye sockets, wriggling white in the pupal case that once was me.

He started innocently as a pen name. Then he became a younger, more active, version of me. He frequented trendy bars, and sprang lithe across the fells with his Borzoi hounds. Last night, he fucked my wife, and she screamed in pleasure.

I may have to take drastic measures.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

107. Do Readers Prefer Long Novels?

I am cursed with brevity. It’s really hard for me to write a long book. My novel is currently a svelte 40,000 words. Yet the trend is against me. With long-haul holidays comes the “airport blockbuster”, a novel massive enough to last a flight across the world.

Blockbusters aren’t new. In the days when the reading classes tended to be the leisured classes, blockbusters were de rigeur. Think, for example, of what may be the longest novel in the English language, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa, weighing in at 467,870 words. It’s a Sumo wrestler of a book.

braille_divine_tome_of_carim

Not that shorter books haven’t made the literary prize list. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1818 novel Nightmare Abbey is an anorexic 18,300 words and John Buchan’s 1915 The Thirty Nine Steps is a skinny 29,725 words.

Ian McEwan says “I do love this form, the idea that we are sitting down to a book that you could read at one sitting, or within three hours much as you might go to a movie or opera or long play.”

From the author’s perspective, a book should be “as long as the story needs”. But publishing is a business, and has to respond to market trends. So what are those trends?

Current advice is that fiction for adults should be somewhere in the 70,000 to 110,000 word range, a little longer for fantasy and sci-fi. (See for example Harry Bingham and Chuck Sambuchino)

I took a look at how the trend changed over time, using the Guardian 100 best books list and, for the twenty-first century, the winners of the Man Booker Prize.  The trend indicates that the heyday of shorter books was in the hundred years between 1851 and 1950.

novel lengths table

From Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1615 (and arguably the first novel) to Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons at the end of the eighteenth century there are eight books, with an average length of 213,966 words. Only one book is less than 80,000.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there are 11 books, averaging 130,228 words, with two below 80,000. In the second half of the nineteenth century (16 books) the average rises a little to 176,680 words. But, at the same time there are more books (six) below 80,000 words of which half are below 50,000 words. This may reflect growing literacy among the “lower” classes and tastes for stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

1024px-dr_jekyll_and_mr_hyde_poster_edit2
1880s poster

Come the first half of the twentieth century, and the average of the 23 books falls to 104,189 words. Books below 80,000 words make up over half the list, and books shorter than 50,000 words are over a fifth. Oh that I were alive and writing then! The average length for the 39 books in the second half of the twentieth century doesn’t change much, but the proportion under 80,000 words falls to a third and under 50,000 to a tenth. The airport blockbuster had arrived.

In the twenty-first century, this trend seems to have continued. The average length of the 18 Man Booker winners shows a 13% increase compared with the previous half century, and the proportions below 80,000 and below 50,000 words have continued to drop.

This seems to be at odds with some claims that readers’ attention span has fallen and that there is a trend for shorter books. There is some indication of a rebirth of interest in short stories and other short-form styles, particularly in digital format. Agent Clare Alexander says that the marketing challenge may be that of selling middle-sized works.

However, few publishers are seeking novellas. A quick search unearthed:

So the idea of a growing market for short forms may be an urban myth rather than a reality. Agent Kristen Nelson in 2006 noted a trend for authors submitting shorter books, rather than a trend for publishers wanting them. In fact, other surveys have also noted a trend to increasing length. A study of 2,500 titles on the New York Times bestseller and notable book lists found that between 1999 and 2014, average length increased by a quarter, from 320 pages to 400.

Only in non-fiction is there evidence of a trend towards brevity. A study of 272 non-fiction bestsellers on the New York Times list between 2011 and 2017 found a downward trend in average length, from 467 pages to 273 pages.

 

Do you suffer the curse of brevity? What do you do about it? Do you enjoy short novels? Where do you find them?

Friday Fictioneers – Blank Pages

leg-up-jhc
Photo Prompt © J Hardy Carroll

Spuggy had run out of time. I don’t mean he was dying. At twenty-four-years-old he had decades ahead. But the age into which he went to war was dead, and his story had ended, leaving him nothing but trekking stubborn through the years, dragging the prosthetic leg behind him.

Once, in the pub, Spuggy spoke about how that hurt. “The only time they ever talk about ‘our brave soldiers’ is the sodding dead ones.”

As he spoke, he drank, like he was firing and reloading a number 8 rifle, technically, methodically. His was a journal of blank pages on which no more words will ever be written for as long as he lives.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – The Dance

music-room
Photo Prompt © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

The drumming starts. A chant rises. I’ve come home.

Almost a lifetime ago, big men drew a line on a map. This, they said, is ours and that is yours. The line cut through our family. With great sympathy they told us uncles were enemies, and sisters became strangers.

And now, at last, we meet again. We no longer share any spoken language, but I recognise you by the weave of your robe and I hear the way you dance. My body speaks in the same rhythms.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Bargee

venice-fatima
Photo Prompt © Fatima Fakier Deria

Oily water slaps glaucous against the barge’s flank. A dead rat floats past. I unload crates of strawberries, already sweet-scented in the early morning sun. By lunch-time, ladies and gentleman in the piazza will remark on the fruit’s succulence as they lean conspiratorial towards each other across starched linen tablecloths.

I was not born to labour. Perhaps my father was a Duke. They tore me from my mother’s arms and gave me to Mabel and Henry, good honest people who pretend to be my parents. This is not my past, but it’s the only one available.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

A Mentee’s Journey 2: First Pass

As I reported at the beginning of the year, I was awarded a year’s mentoring by Cinnamon Press for my novel The Tears of Boabdil. I got first comments back from my mentor, Adam, in March, and more detailed comments in May.  So I can now honour my promise to update you on how it’s going.

Adam made very helpful observations about a recurring aspect of the novel, which I had rendered as “voices” in the narrator’s head. He pointed out that this was confusing, and I have now turned them into separate characters with a distinct story thread. There were useful comments too on places where the story needed more room to breathe. I’ve added about 10,000 words so far.

More problematically, he has also been emphatic that the opening doesn’t work because it prevents the reader immersing themselves. It jumps around in place and time. He’s right, but the thing is I don’t want the reader to immerse themselves in the first chapter. This is a book about lies and I want the reader to consciously interrogate what is being told them. So, we have different visions of how the book should work.

I was aware how risky it is to ignore the usual imperative to hook your reader. So I tested response to chapter 1, using thirteen independent beta readers on Scribophile, only one of whom had any relationship with me. Over three quarters of them said they would read on. As an ex-scientist, I’m driven by the data. I’ve made the chapter a little less demanding to navigate, but I’m going to stick with my plan.

Of course, you don’t have to agree with everything a mentor says. But a mentor is a trusted counsellor and guide. They will normally have more experience and knowledge than the mentee, though peer mentoring is possible. The relationship is neither that of a critique buddy, nor that of a teacher, though there are overlaps with both roles. I think the difference is the degree of trust required on the part of the mentee, and the degree of nurturing on the part of the mentor.

mentor
Mentor Me MD

There is no agreed definition of what mentoring is. So, compiled from various sources, this is my best sense.

The mentor should:

  • Manage the relationship
  • Encourage
  • Nurture and champion
  • Teach, advise, and coach. Play Devil’s advocate and “truth-sayer”: provide the tough feedback that mentee needs to hear in order to move forward; push the mentee to take risks when appropriate
  • Offer/ develop mutual respect Support mentees’ own development and resist temptation to create a clone. Help mentee find own solutions
  • Respond to learner’s needs

The mentee should:

  • Identify learning goals. take an active role in their own learning and help drive the process
  • Be open to and seek feedback
  • Follow through on commitments
  • Take informed risks as they try new options and behaviours in support of development goals.

This is a complex relationship. And that complexity is probably the reason why both mentor and mentee need to have a role in choosing who they want to work with. Experience is that assigning mentors often does not produce good results.  In my case, the mentor was assigned. Time will tell about the results.

Friday Fictioneers – Window

meep-by-the-window
Photo Prompt © Jean L. Hays

Inside every head there’s a world. Simon’s skull was like that–when he looked at you, he wasn’t seeing what you did in the mirror

“Why don’t I raise the blind?” Natalie would always say when her brother stared out the kitchen window, “so you can see better.”

With weary patience, he’d explain the screening pattern of the fabric revealed how things are.

“There goes Mrs Abercrombie,” he said. “She’s one of the lizard people. Her eggs are blowing behind her like leaves.”

Natalie realised just because a thing doesn’t exist this doesn’t make it untrue

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

106. Story tricks: making surprise work for you

I’m a literary snob. I tend to look down my nose at stories with a surprise ending, a “twist in the tail”. They seem to me gimmicky and superficial. And yet, I have been struck by a disturbing question: is surprise, after all, what writing is about?

A good story always has us eager to know what comes next. But now think about a bad story. It’s plodding and predictable. We know what’s going to come next—the bad king will be overthrown, the princess will marry the peasant, who will, of course, turn out to be a prince and the true heir. If we can predict what’s coming next, why would we read on? So, logically, a good story must have surprise.

surprise

This is what cognitive scientist Vera Tobin argues in her book Elements of Surprise. The book shows how the glitches in our cognition works informs the way successful plots are constructed. Jane Austen’s Emma, for example, turns on the consequences of the protagonist’s mistaken belief that she is an accomplished matchmaker.  She has great difficulty imagining that, once she has arrived at an interpretation of events, others could think otherwise. The surprise comes when she realises that she, after all, loves Mr Knightly.

 

Twists and jokes

Twists, or surprises, can work in different ways. In the classic version, the reader is led to believe things are one way, and then that belief is turned on its head. The scattering of clues must be sufficient for the ending to seem inevitable, and yet they must be sufficiently disguised not to be noticed. This, of course, is the recipe for the detective story. It is also the recipe for the joke.

Two gay men watch a beautiful woman hipping her way down the street. One sighs and turns to the other, saying “it’s at times like this you wish you were a lesbian”.

The mind is led down one path, only to be shown at the end a completely different meaning to the chain of events. The natural physiological response is the sudden explosive exhalation we call a laugh.

The problem with this version of the surprise is that it only works once. There is nothing to the lead-up that would hold our attention once we know how it will end. Once we know the punchline, once we know the butler did it, the magic is gone.

 

Twist in the tail and twist in the character

But I now realise there other kinds of surprise. And Tobin holds the key to them. She argues that two “flaws” in cognition are at the heart of stories, and at the heart of social interaction. The first is our difficulty in understanding that others may be different from us. The second is the “curse of knowledge” – we find it hard to model the mental states of people who don’t know something that we do. There is infinite room for fashioning dramatic misunderstandings in these two facts.

Since a character with a desire creates a plot, I suppose a character change is a form of “twist in the tail”. But it’s a more satisfying one, and one to which we will return again and again. Our reaction is less like that to a joke and more like that to a loved one.

But, I think there is more than just surprise available here. There is also delight and understanding. Fiction allows us to experience the one thing we can never really know—what the inside of someone else’s head feels like. When a character in whom we are invested undergoes change we experience a twist in the character. And, if the author has achieved the trick of making the change both inevitable and surprising, we understand something profound about ourselves and others.

It all makes sense

There is, perhaps, yet a third kind of story. It’s like a numinous form of the first, the twist story. In this kind, the writer reveals to us how the world works, or at least how their world works. There is an aesthetic pleasure of discovery when we understand how all the pieces fit together. Vicariously, it’s like experiencing the “aha moment” of a scientific discovery. When we have the whole picture, suddenly it all makes sense.

What kinds of surprise work best for you in a story?

 

Friday Fictioneers – Capitol

the-met-roger-b
Photo Prompt © Roger Bultot

The first remarkable thing about the space was its spaciousness. Hall after colonnaded hall receded into the far distance.  Clouds obscured the vaulted ceiling. Even Marcus, safe big Marcus holding my hand, was diminished.

The second remarkable thing–the Capitol refracted identity. Mirrors on every wall reflected mirrors, and I saw myself seeing.

The third thing, well, everyone knows that –the mortality of gods. They killed the Emperor that day, right in front of me. And the mirrors multiplied his dying into a massacre of thousands, one death for each of his crimes.

Now we must learn to worship ourselves.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here