Friday Fictioneers – Skin Deep

ssi-lights-of-jerusalem
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

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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

line-naama-yehuda
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.

Friday Fictioneers – Obedience

overhead-window
PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carrol

When things started falling upwards, I knew it wasn’t going to be an ordinary day.  The colander and the beer tankard whirled above my head, making a tiny planetary system.

If life gives you lemons, as they say, make lemonade. I spread my arms and prepared to float into the roof lantern. We’ve all dreamed of flying, right? But my feet remained planted.

That’s my failing. If there’s a rule, I obey it. The law of gravity held me sullen in its grip as the cat began slowly to ascend the blue dome of the sky.

 

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

122. The robot will see you now: writing apps reviewed

We’re a long way from robots writing compelling stories, but software can make an author’s life simpler. There are three broad classes of software intended to help writers.

  • Planners help you plan a story,
  • Organisers help you write it,
  • Editors help you edit it.

I list some of the main alternative here.

As I’ve said before, though I love software, I’m not a big fan of the Organisers for authors. I’m just as happy using an ordinary word-processor and a spreadsheet. So none of the programs in the Organiser category is in my toolkit and I haven’t attempted to test and review them. Remember, a computer program won’t write a single word of your novel for you. I do however recommend Beemgee from the Planner category and ProWritingAId from the Editor group. I’ve also tried Contour from the Planner group and it’s pretty good. I was less persuaded by the usefulness of Contour’s companion program, Persona, compared with Beemgee.

beemgee

Planners

Most of the software in the organiser group below includes some planning functions. However, there are more dedicated planners

  • Contour is aimed at screenwriters supporting them in developing an outline. It’s based on four key question: Who is the main character? What is the main character trying to accomplish? Who is trying to stop the main character? What happens if the main character fails? It costs US$39.95
  • Persona is character-creation companion software to Contour. It’s based on archetypes and costs US$39.95
  • Beemgee offers a very detailed series of prompts for defining character and plot outlines. I like the way Beemgee links plot to character. The basic version is free. The premium version with more functionality costs €59per year.
  • Dramatica, like Contour, is based on a writing theory. In this case, the central idea is that “every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process”. It costs US$99.95.
  • Storyweaver is a simplified version of Dramatica. It costs US$29.95
  • Snowflake Pro.  This is Randy Ingermanson’s famous method turned into software. It will cost you US$100. Or you can just read the ten steps of the Snowflake on his blog for free.

 

Organisers

This type of software acts as a word-processor and filing cabinet. They conveniently store your plot outline, timeline, notes on background research, and your stray snippets. Some include prompts for generating characters. All include a stripped-down and uncluttered word-processor. The particular advantage of word-processors for writers is that they’re designed for you to move chapters and chunks around easily. Scrivener is the best known of these.

In addition some include templates or other devices to help you build your story arc.  I’d recommend treating this facility with some caution. Following templates may lead to mechanical stories.

writenow storyboard
WriteItNow storyboard

For ease of presentation, I’ve listed all the features and the costs of the main products in a table.

story organisers

Editors

In a previous blogpost I reviewed Fictionary (which implausibly claims to give your novel a structural assessment), and copy editors Autocrit and ProWritingAid, as well as some free alternatives.  I recommended ProWritingAid as best value for money.

 

The bottom line

Many of the story Planners can be copied out as question templates. So you could try the demo version, copy the questions, and create your own tool. There’s pretty much nothing in the Organiser group you can’t do with a word-processor and a spreadsheet, or indeed paper and pencil. Only the Editing tools depend on algorithms and databases you can’t copy.

Friday Fictioneers – Until Yesterday

book-ceayr
PHOTO PROMPT © CEAyr

Yesterday was Tuesday. Much like Monday, nothing special. But today is totally changed. Until yesterday, you were in the world, and now you’re not. I don’t know how to comprehend this.

I pick up the book you were reading. Sniff it. But it smells of printers’ ink, not you. I try to read the words, the last words you saw, the same ideas that passed through your mind filling mine, as if some semblance of you might remain in them.

Until I reach the word “yesterday”, such an innocent word. But I cannot continue.

 

 

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 – Cracks

penny-gadd-shelves
PHOTO PROMPT © Penny Gadd

The day before yesterday, it was charming—a sport of nature. I popped it into a wine glass and provided water to drink.

The seed grew so fast, tendrils unspooling and feeling along the walls. Even when I realised, I did nothing. Perhaps it was already too late, but I didn’t try.

These were not branches but emptiness, spreading cracks in reality. You’d expect to feel terror, but the mind adjusts, as if to an ache. I can admit only to curiosity about events.

Maybe the cracks will widen and something will come through.

 

 

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

121. Test-driving the Story Grid tool

Can systems reproduce what a genius does intuitively? I’m a sucker for the idea, and every now and again I take a look at a new writing method. I usually end up disappointed.

There are many systems for constructing, analysing and editing stories. The most elaborate are the Snowflake method, the Scene and Sequel method and the Story Grid.

There are also methods based on templates, such as the Hero’s Journey and the Contour software suite .

I’ve covered the Scene–Sequel method in a previous post . In this post I’ll look at Story Grid.

sg-genre-clover-1

 

Why a system?

Systems are seductive. They carry the promise that anyone can copy the skills of craft masters by following a step-by-step recipe. In the business world, the equivalents are the strategic planning methods which claim to turn the mental processes of successful entrepreneurs into guides that the averagely gifted executive can follow. And so it is with story systems.

 

Story Grid

Story Grid is at pains to say that it’s an analytical tool, not a recipe. It derives from the editing process of identifying problems and fixing them, rather than from the writing process. The method rests on two elements: an analysis of genre and of scenes. It also includes a useful template for analysing the entire arc in a single page (the Foolscap summary originally developed by Norm Stahl).

 

Story Grid and genre

The first question Story Grid asks about a work is “What is the genre?” The second question is “What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre?”

Their notion of genre is a little different from normal. When we think of genres we normally mean Westerns, Thrillers, Romance and so on. Those categories, which it calls Content, are there in Story Grid. But there are four other categories too—Reality, Style, Structure and Time.

Rather oddly, Science Fiction and Fantasy, which most readers would consider to be Content genres along with Romance and Thrillers, are part of the Reality category. This troubles me. The Content category also includes elements you won’t find as part of the shelving classification in your bookshop—Society, Performance, Status, Worldview, and Morality.

In part, this is because of a rather interesting idea about what content genres are.  Each is related to a different human need. Some social theories postulate that human needs follow a hierarchy from the physical requirement for food, water, air and shelter to more spiritual goals like self-actualisation. When we’ve met our physical needs, safety becomes important. When we can assure our safety, we seek love, and so on. Story Grid attempts to relate this hierarchy to content genres that respond to each need.

Story Grid need and genre

Hence the need to invent (or discover) unusual genres at the more spiritual end of the hierarchy. These new genres trouble me. How troubled you are will depend on what you think genres are.

The method also has interesting notions about the controlling idea behind different genres and the core emotion each genre must evoke in the reader.

 

Genres are for readers

I believe genres are for readers. Some writers decry genre, equating it with formulaic tales and denying that their work should be constrained by genre. Readers rarely do this. They know what kind of books they enjoy and seek out similar stories. Genre assists their selection. They expect certain elements to be there when they pick up a book in a particular genre. Romance fans, for example, will expect that the lovers must meet, surmount obstacles, get together, break-up (usually in an all-is-lost moment), and then get together again in a proof-of-love climax.

This doesn’t mean they want formulaic repetitive stories. On the contrary, most readers want to be surprised and delighted by the inventiveness with which an author plays with the conventions of their favourite genre.

We only become writers when we create for readers.  Complaining about these reader expectations is as pointless as complaining about their insistence that we use words which have agreed and understood meanings. Everything in writing is circumscribed by rules—of grammar, spelling, prosody, narrative structure and genre.

 

Story Grid and obligatory scenes

It follows from the argument that genres embody readers’ expectations, that there will be defining features of each genre. I don’t have a problem with Story Grid arguing that there are conventions and obligatory scenes, though this will rub a few writers up the wrong way.

Obligatory scenes are, as the name suggests, scenes that must be there for the work to fall under that genre. For example, the lovers’ break-up in Romance, or exposure of the crime/caper in Crime.

Conventions are not scenes. They are elements like cast of characters, setting, and method of turning the plot. That said, the Story Grid website exhibits occasional confusion between scenes and conventions with features appearing as conventions for some genres and scenes for others.

I did two exercises to check how useful these lists of scenes and conventions were. The first was to assess my own work-in-progress against them. I classified my book as a Status genre and was pleased to find most of the five conventions and eight obligatory scenes for the genre.

But that made me wonder. Since I’d never heard of the Status genre when I drafted the novel, how had I matched so closely with the expectations? Another writer who’d done the same exercise told me:

“To be honest, it wasn’t hard to make it fit, but only because I was able to re-interpret inner meanings and motives of what I’d written to suit the criteria it was supposed to meet. The actual prose I’d written didn’t need to change at all to tick the boxes – I just had to alter my interpretation of its purpose at that particular point.”

The second exercise I did was to tabulate all the obligatory scenes and conventions for seven genres (Action, Thriller, Crime, Love, Society, Status, and Worldview). This was a way of testing how unique to each genre those lists were.  The yellow shading indicates areas where the overlap between lists was greater than 33%.

Story Grid genre conventions and scenes

The overlap between criteria at the “survival” end of the hierarchy of needs (Action, Crime and Thriller) is perhaps not surprising. Nor, arguably, is the overlap at the social end (Society, Status and World-view).

What is more astonishing is the overlap of obligatory scenes between Action and Society and World-view.  This should only occur if the scenes are inappropriately vague and generic. And that is, indeed, the case. The scenes that cause the problem include:

  • Protagonist avoids responsibility to act
  • Initial strategy to defeat antagonist fails
  • All-is lost-moment: Protagonist must change approach

You could push such scenes into almost any work. I conclude that the obligatory scenes list in particular is too vague.

 

Story Grid and scene analysis

The other major part of the method is the scene-by-scene analysis. A scene is the atomic unit of the story where something changes. Scene analysis allows the writer to check that the story contains changes that will interest the reader and to identify precisely where a story goes wrong and fix the problem. Typically, a novel will contain between 50 and 75 scenes. Story Grid uses an extensive list of 13 elements to analyse each scene. I won’t go into the detail because there are lots of different methods of analysing scenes.

The big distinction of Story Grid is that it uses this fine tooth-comb to build back into a big picture analysis. The chart below is their analysis of Silence of the Lambs.

Story Grid Silence of the Lambs arc

The blue line is the character arc of the protagonist, Clarice Starling. The red line is the plot arc.  Here’s where I wanted to understand the magic. It turns out there is no magic. You construct the arc by subjectively assessing the magnitude of the change in each scene and whether it’s positive or negative. Well, I can do that without the Story Grid method. And once I’ve done it, all I’ve really checked is that the arc … well … arcs. It doesn’t tell me where any big structural problems might lie or how to fix them.

 

The bottom line

In summary:

  • A lot of thought has gone into Story Grid. The initial summary format is useful
  • The comparison of genre and the hierarchy of needs is interesting
  • The list of genres is odd, including categories that don’t fit with reader ideas of genre, and not including some major genres like Science Fiction and Fantasy in the list of content genres is a (forced) omission
  • The lists of conventions and obligatory scenes for each genre are deficient. They do not uniquely identify each genre and create meaningless overlaps between very different genres
  • The scene-by-scene analysis is not unique to the method and, like other forms of scene analysis do not lend themselves to better analysis of the large-scale structure

Have you used Story Grid? What was your experience with it?