Friday Fictioneers – Sacrifice

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PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Everything about that building was wrong. Bastard amalgam of a hundred ages mixing turrets and pediments—a temple to some chimaeric deity, part saviour and part destroyer. The one terrible eye looked down on you from its riveted socket, like the porthole of a ghost ship.

And heavenly Marie Celeste it was, for I never saw its shuttered doors open to worshippers or supplicants.  Silas said god lived in the cabin perched atop the roof, winching his vittals up from street level. I disagreed, believing the tenant was a deaf hunchback, and dreamed of being sacrificed to the creature.

 

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 – Playing House

 

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PHOTO PROMPT © Ronda Del Boccio

He offered a smart home, a car, and flowers on special days. She took her long red hair and wound it tight about them both. Waited for love to move in. What arrived was habit. She polished that until its base metal sparkled.

 

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 Wrong Destination

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PHOTO PROMPT © Fatima Fakier Deria

Oi, mate! This is the wrong afterlife. You’ve made a mistake. I’ve no clue what to do with the Tupperware. Nothing against the ladies, you understand—they’re very pretty. Nubile even. And the fields are definitely Elysian. But I don’t belong here.

In case of further booking errors, I’m also not Christian. So no harps and heavenly choirs, okay?

I couldn’t have been clearer. Feasting, carousing, a little banging of fists on trestles, a spot of wrestling. The reservation was for Valhalla. Valkyries, not nymphs. No substitutions acceptable.

Unless….

This isn’t hell, is it?

 

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

124. Does politics mar literature?

Let me get the answer out of the way right from the top—no, of course not. George Orwell said, “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Our lives are political, so what we write is also political. Even fairy tales are political. If storytelling wasn’t political, tyrants wouldn’t trouble to ban or burn books.

Alice

What does political mean?

So, next, a definition. I don’t mean political with a small “p”, party politics, though some stories may legitimately be about such partisanship. I mean political with a capital “P”—the way power is distributed and how it affects everyday life. If a character doesn’t have enough to eat and must choose between paying the rent and buying school kit, that is a political context. If a character is saved from domestic drudgery by a prince, that too is political.

Breaking writing rules

But doesn’t this cut across so many writing rules? Literature, after all, is art, not propaganda. Readers don’t want to be yelled at or told what to think.

Yes, fiction writing isn’t propaganda, or political science, or journalism. But this doesn’t mean fiction doesn’t deal with politics. It just deals differently with the subject. Fiction makes political situations personal.

Characters makes us care

Fiction is about character. Even in plot-driven stories, it’s the characters who make us care. A story in which the characters are simply vehicles for a political argument would be dull. The politics of Orwell’s 1984 isn’t particular subtle or nuanced. It’s the plight of Winston Smith that engages us. There’s nothing special about the role of politics here. This is not different than any other over-indulgence in plot or theme. If the characters spend the whole story blowing each other away or discussing particle physics, it would be equally dull.

Characters live in three circles. They have an inner life and a circle of intimates, friends and colleagues. But they also have a third circle—the social setting that defines their concerns, their view of the world, and their beliefs. Ideology is a strong determinant of the third circle.

Readers don’t like being told what to think

You get this comment a lot in discussions about political fiction.  And, when you come to consider it, this is odd. Nobody ever complains they feel manipulated when a writer equips a character with some other trait like selfishness or courage. Writers devote a lot of care to telling readers what to think.  They craft the characters to engage sympathy, structure the plot to create peaks and troughs of tension. So, maybe the principle is readers don’t like being told to think in ways that challenge their preconceptions.  But isn’t that precisely what literature is supposed to do?

“Some people will suggest that dealing with themes is ‘didactic.’  Don’t be fooled.  Those same writers will put themes in their own works, and usually they’re taking stands that oppose yours.  For example, if you argue that morality is innate and central to what a human is, they’ll argue that it’s situational and we’re all just animals.  They don’t oppose the idea of stories having themes; they may just be opposed to your views.  So make sure that your arguments are rigorous and persuasive.”

David Farland How to Win Writing Contests and Big Publishing Contracts

We tend to notice ideology and feel we’re being preached at when the text departs from our unconscious biases about the world. There is a saying that the ideology of the powerful is the belief that their view isn’t ideological, just common sense. What makes an ideology work is that it articulates a lived sense of the world. One person’s common sense is another person’s propaganda. Readers who react with fury to having an ideological viewpoint thrust on them by authors rarely respond in a similar vein to, say, thrillers or romance.  Yet both tend to have a fairly transparent ideology.

Thrillers typically pit a plucky hero against the forces of evil. Over time these forces have varied from the Nazis, the Soviet Union, Islamic fundamentalists, shadowy corporations, and elite cabals, depending on who the “enemy of the day” is. The politics goes unnoticed because it’s an assumption about the forces of good and evil shared between author and reader.

Less obviously, romance too contains an ideology about people and relationships. In the classic romance (consider Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet) love is a force that is stronger than human will, incompatible with everyday life, and its proper end is death. More contractual or rational bondings are out, as is working at a relationship.

 

Readers should be left to make up their own minds

This is the “writer as witness” idea and it’s really back to the “readers don’t like to be told what to think” argument. The notion is that the writer should present the facts and leave the reader to judge their meaning.  And it’s an odd view, because it applies more to journalism than to fiction. Though, it has become such a truism among fiction writers that it tends to be said without question.

In reality, most of us writers don’t operate like this. The writer surreptitiously shapes the reader’s perceptions in a thousand subtle ways. How could the reader come to their own conclusion? We select the contents, we craft the order in which they’re displayed, we polish and shape in order to create the effect we desire. Creative writing describes events in the light of the ends we ordain for them. The open-endedness is an illusion. Of course, no two readers ever render exactly the same story in their minds, I accept that. They may even disagree with our conclusions, depending on their own concerns and life experiences. Even so the writer is not only witness and advocate but also judge and jury.

Everything reflects an ideology

What could be more natural than a fictional world with protagonists and villains in which characters undergo an arc of change? This is, surely, the ABC of how to write a story. And yet this too is a product of a particular (wealthy and individualistic) social order. There are literary traditions in other cultures that use very different conventions. I argued in an earlier blogpost:

There is a view of the person and of development contained within these formulae.

  • We are individuals
  • We choose our own fate and can change

These principles of character arc seem so obvious we hardly even notice them as assumptions. But they come from a particular kind of society and, to other cultural traditions, they are far from obvious. How about these propositions:

  • People become people through other people. This is the core principle of the Ubuntu cultures of Southern Africa. In other words, humanity is a quality we owe each other. Or, in the European tradition, John Donne’s famous “no man is an island”.
  • The number of people on the planet who can choose their own fate is extremely limited. The starting conditions of wealth, gender, race, status and caste circumscribe our choices. For many people, change is unthinkable. Those who do escape their circumstances are not representative of their peers.

These differences are not only narrative, but moral. The first principles are individualistic, the second communitarian.

 

Friday Fictioneers – Bar girl

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PHOTO PROMPT © Jean L. Hays

The pressure of his gaze weighs on me, like the compression of the machines in the dress factory. I switch on my face, but nothing I do can affect the outcome. He will chose me or he will reject me. I choke. In this bell jar, evacuated of love, it is hard to breathe. But at least, he might promise a bed for the night.

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 – Skin Deep

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PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

It was wrong, I know, but I was angry. I struck out, at a Master. My nail caught in his cheek, and a layer of skin sloughed off.

Underneath, not bone and blood, but levers and pinions.

I ran and ran.

In the dormitory, my workmates crowded round.

“The Masters,” I babbled. “They’re machines, not people.”

“Okay,” Slabbert said,” and so?”

“And so we have to do something.”

“What can we do? Better to concentrate on the things you can control. Like the choice between skinny latte and macchiato.”

 

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 – Vocabulomancy

photos-ted-strutz
PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

He opens the book, grabs its spine, and shakes. A heap of words tumble onto the table. Some verbs skitter and roll, ending up lost behind the pepper grinder. The scent of azaleas assails him from the vase. With the long forefinger of Michelangelo’s Cistine God, he stirs the lexical mound. Subjects swirl, encounter objects, and bind. Predicates zip on.

The battleship, the shoreline …. bombards.

Henry, the dog …. eats.

Nowhere is there love because that is one of the verbs that rolled away.

His brow dampens and his hands shake.

 

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 – All

dales-field
PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

The first shaft of morning sun lifts the courtyard from shadow, like an old-time cinema organ rising from the stage. Yes—another message. I smell gardenias and a hint of sulphur.

Hunkering down, viewing from a distance, turning round suddenly. I try stratagems to decipher the chalked words, but I can make out only the word all.

A threat or a promise? Give me all your money? You have been naught, you shall be all?

Of course, I could wait through the night to catch my mystery correspondent. But if you peek, Santa doesn’t come.

Perhaps the word is allo?

 

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 Line

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PHOTO PROMPT © Na’ama Yehuda

It might, of course, have been pure chance—a group who happened to be standing one behind the other. But I didn’t think so. This looked purposeful. These people were waiting for something. I joined the back of the line.

Leaning forward, I caught hints from the conversation of those ahead of me.

“Well, that one’s no better than she ought to be ….”

“Five-nil. What a  ….”

It started raining.  Some raised umbrellas but nobody left the queue. This must be important.

I rejoiced I’d chosen the right line, as water streamed down my face.

 

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

123. How to Win Writing Competitions. Fifteen great tips

Dickens

There are many articles about winning writing competitions. Just do a web search to see them. This piece will take most of that advice as read, and concentrate on things that may be less obvious. These flow from my experience as creator and administrator of a writing contest and as reader for a literary magazine. I’ve also won a couple of competitions.

 

A brief summary of the obvious

  • Read the rules. If there’s a prompt or theme, use it. If there’s a maximum word length, don’t exceed it. If judging is anonymous, don’t put your name on it. If there’s a required format, follow it. If no format is specified, use something standard and easy-to-read like Times New Roman 12 pt., double-spaced.
  • Proofread. Nothing will annoy a judge more than spelling and grammar mistakes, poor punctuation, and uncorrected typos. They may well decide, if you can’t be bothered to proof the thing, they can’t be bothered to read it.
  • Write well. Use active voice and strong verbs. Avoid clichés, strings of adjectives, and overlong sentences. Read it aloud to yourself so you can hear the rhythm of the prose. Leave yourself plenty of time to edit.

 

The less obvious stuff

  • Devote time to researching the interests of the judges, if you can find out who they are. Look at previous winners to get a sense of what the judges like. Craft your story, if possible, to fit this brief.
  • Select your competition. Again, research counts. Your chances of winning or placing in a competition vary widely from contest to contest. The most prestigious competitions like the Bridport have thousands of entries, while smaller competitions like the Yeovil have hundreds. Accordingly, your chances of placing in the Bridport are 0.22%, while in the Yeovil your chances rise to 4.9%. I’ve researched the stats for some major competitions and you can find them here.
  • Understand the contest. Is it a “literary” competition or a “fiction” competition? “Literary” is likely to mean they’re looking for character-driven stories with depth, subtext, and beautiful language. “Fiction” or “Writing” is likely to mean that popular fiction will do well, and here, plot is central.
  • Make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But somewhere between 40% and 50% of the stories submitted to my competition and to the magazine I read for are not full stories. Often, this is because they lack a proper ending. If you have a full story, you’ve already reached the top half of the pile.
  • Write something unusual. By the time the judges have a short list of, perhaps, twenty entries all the stories will be good. But they won’t all be winners. And they’ll begin to merge into each other in the judges’ minds. Make sure your story has something unusual and memorable about it. Maybe this will be the character, or perhaps the setting. Don’t go with the first idea you think of—other people will generally have written something similar, particularly if there’s a prompt.
  • Pay attention to cast and point of view. If you’re writing a short story, don’t overburden it with too many characters and shifts in point of view. These will just confuse the reader. Unless you’re feeling very brave, stick to one point of view character and keep the cast list down to two or three other characters.

 

The final secrets

  • Submit early. Why? Most entries will come in as a rush at the end. In our case, about half the entries arrive in the last week. So, the judging will take place in a rush at the end too, If you submit early, you’ll be read more thoroughly and perhaps more sympathetically.
  • But don’t rush it. After you’ve written and edited a draft you’re satisfied with, let it settle for a few days. When you read it over again, you may notice mistakes or opportunities for changes you didn’t see before.
  • Writing tricks. Readers really like stories that loop back on themselves or where the ending echoes the beginning. Recurrent motifs may also help to make a story stand out.
  • Think like a judge. Understand what’s happening in their minds. Judges are not looking for reasons to accept your story—they’re looking for reasons to reject it. Don’t give them a reason.
  • Understand what judges are looking for. Many competitions don’t have standardized judging formats, but my competition developed one to make the assessment fairer. This is what our judges are looking for:

Judging criteria

  • Judging is still a subjective process. The winning story will usually be one that lingers in the judges’ minds hours or days after they’ve read it. You can enhance your chances that this one will be yours by choosing an unusual character, location or theme and by using the writing tricks noted here. As an example, I’ve been a reader for a magazine for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve read around 1,500 submissions. I selected 45 of them. I can still remember one. That one stands out for its superb atmosphere and characterization.