Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Story Analyst: The Magic Of Context

Before you can tell a character’s story, you have to understand how context creates that particular kind of individual with the specific power to influence the world they inhabit, and thus drive narrative.

Take a look at the list below, then try to identify the novel it describes:

  • Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions
  • Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love
  • With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules
  • She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is
  • An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society
  • They have one daughter together
  • The end of a pregnancy almost kills her
  • Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand
  • Influential people in their social circle turn their backs on them
  • She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side
  • Others pay a heavy price for their choices
  • His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love
  • In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices

Now, with a few tweaks on the details this could describe just about any romance novel out there. But this isn’t just any novel out there.

In fact, it’s not even just one novel, it’s two very distinct narratives, one occupying the literary end of the spectrum, the other genre.

How can this be? How can a single, very specific summary fit two totally unique novels?

And get away with it.

And produce two masterpieces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the two novels are Anna Karenina and Gone With The Wind.

How did this happen and still work?

Context.

Every single detail of both novels bears specific and perfect working agency for each particular narrative. Agency is a kind of inherent power to influence, in this case in a fictional context.

So how does context work in fiction? Say you took the same narrative summary and superimposed it into Hollywood circa, oh, just now. How would those summary details muscle through?

For laughs, let’s call our fake novel Anna Kardashian and take on context point by point.

  1. Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions:  … so, um … going against Hollywood’s conventions would take our Anna into the realm of .. morals? and sexual decency? Okkaay, sssure.
  2. Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love: Let’s call him Brhatt Pittsky. He’s an amoral/immoral frat boy she meets at a kegger. Brhatt’s been with some whores in the past but he doesn’t really need them because he can always find girls willing to do the same things for free, so he saves a ton of money that way. To complicate things, one of the girls he uses for booty calls loves him and might/might not already have a child with him. Brhatt’s sole objective is to take Anna’s virginity even though she’s in love with a narcissistic rapper, Kanyley Welkes, who she thinks is totally fabs because of his pseudo-religious prosperity rap message. Unfortunately, although Kanyley is hot for Anna, he doesn’t really love her and wants to marry his cousin to keep it in the family. Brhatt goes after Anna with everything he’s got.
  3. With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules: Ooh, this is getting sticky already. So Brhatt does everything possible to get Anna to let her guard down, showing up at parties and getting friends to manipulate contact until she responds to his intense pressure. He super wants to video himself taking her virginity and gets her alone unchaperoned one night and convinces her that anything that feels so goooood has to be approved by God. When he goes to tape it, he accidentally presses the wrong button on his smartphone and instead of taking a video he ends up with a very blurry nightvision image of his butt crack. 
  4. She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is: Her motto is: WTF? LOL!
  5. An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society: she goes clubbing and, unlike everyone else, is not taking obscene selfies of public sex acts, nor snorting mountains of coke. Once their social circle finds out she’s a virgin, from then on that’s all anyone posts about on FB. Brhatt’s friends make up some pretty funny memes about it too, using Photoshop to superimpose Pepe the Frog’s face over hers to show how virgins have to be ugly to be virgins. None of the memes go viral, though.
  6. They have one daughter together: Of course, she gets pregnant her first time, and of course he denies he’s the babydaddy and demands a paternity test. And of course because the Bible says once you fornicate with someone you’re bonded to them for life, she realises she loves him and dedicates herself 100% to the relationship.
  7. The end of a pregnancy almost kills her: When her latest pics of the nursery and her mason jar crafts on Pinterest do not go viral she can’t deal and goes on clonazepam. Guys, it was super, super hard.
  8. Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand: Because they’ve already fornicated, she moves in with him figuring it’s as good as marriage in God’s eyes. She tries to withhold sex so she doesn’t feel bad about herself for continuing to fornicate but he pressures her to do gross stuff that makes her puke and also causes such severe sphincteral atrophy that she needs rectal surgery to prevent excrement from continuously leaking out, but at least it’s not technically fornication. Her frigidity drives him to shag (that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, right?) his booty-call buddy more regularly, and Anna starts getting paranoid about how much Brhatt truly loves her.
  9. Influential people in their social circle refuse to receive them: Obvs! She smells like feces all the time. His rapey frat-boy friends hate her guts more because she thinks they’re a bad influence and won’t let them in the house, thus preventing them from gang-raping her for a rape-fantasy porno they want to post to PornHub.
  10. She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side: A mousy sister-in-law whose only interest is children and housekeeping. She doesn’t actually so much as stand by her side as just not get all judgey.
  11. Others pay a heavy price for their choices: Her friends say she makes them feel bad and guilty and shameful about all their out-of-wedlock pregnancies with different babydaddies and the drug use, and they wish she would stop being so high and mighty.  And also do something about the rectal leakage. His friends are sick of them both for getting in the way of their viral-porn careers.
  12. His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love: After trying for too long to undermine her morals and get her to finally do that porno his friends think they can sell on PornHub, he finally does rape her in earnest, then sends pics out in an act of revenge porn. She finally realises that even though they’ve fornicated God will forgive her if she breaks up with him. Probably. But then in an epic turnaround Brhatt realises he likes Anna a little. It makes him sad, but not really.
  13. In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices: she requires years of therapy and corrective rectal surgery but otherwise just coasts along, eventually getting ultra-religious and distributing L. Ron Hubbard tracts for Scientology. He never finds fame and fortune with his revenge porn which, buried in an ocean of horrific, galling sexual imagery, never, sadly, goes viral. He blames her for his failure. She spends the rest of her life and her family’s fortune hiring lawyers to get the revenge porn images off the net but even after years and decades somehow they always manage to surface. The guy she’s living with, though, is super, super supportive and so sweet. LOL!

Yeah, pretty much the same, no?

The worlds from which Tolstoy and Mitchell drew not only created their particular heroines and all the bit players, those worlds made it possible to drive powerful narrative through context. The characters have agency because the contexts have agency and thus provide it to them.

In a Hollywood context – morally, spiritually, politically, economically – Anna Kardashian could not have been created in a way that might have driven her to Anna Karenina’s particular end. Hollywood has no moral or spiritual or social power to realistically or even hypocritically control, ostracize, and destroy one of their own over an extramarital affair and having a child out of wedlock, or for a defiant need for autonomy when that’s the accepted norm. This strips away the agency of any possible suicide, as well as its power as an end. Oh, Anna Kardashian might still have committed suicide but not with the same causal agency derived from the institutional pressures that snuffed out Anna Karenina’s freedom to choose as a human being and as a woman. Her world had her completely boxed in to an impossible corner, out of which suicide was the only truly autonomous choice she had left, and the only freedom. That’s not within the realm of Anna Kardashian’s story at all, and couldn’t be.

You could try working the morality/sexual decency angle against the business-as-usual moral degeneracy of LaLa Land but a socialite with money in today’s Hollywood has more power to turn away from that influence than anyone else in this life. She is not trapped anywhere by anyone, even if her parents or a trust controls the purse strings. If she finds degeneracy too overwhelming she can find belonging and a moral home elsewhere. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, kept ignorant and uneducated by her society, was powerless to survive alone without her husband’s or her lover’s wealth, nor the isolation of a social world that rejected her absolutely.

Now, make her a Muslim woman in ISIL-controlled Mosul or Saudi Arabia and we can start talking about the power social, economic, and cultural conditions have to control a woman’s autonomy when that woman isn’t even allowed to set foot in the street without a related male chaperone, nor drive a car, nor hold her own passport.

Not in Hollywood, though.

Similarly, the contrast between the decadent antebellum South and the Civil War’s brutality (as well as its devastating economic and social effects) create then drive Scarlett and all the others in the story toward their outcomes. Just as the combination of her low Irish and aristocratic coastal French lineages provide her with the “gumption” that allows her to both understand and navigate her rarified world then survive when it falls, the inbred Southern aristocracy of Ashley and Melanie makes it impossible for them to survive on their own when their world is stripped of its beauty and grace. Rhett, too, as a reject of that world, becomes detached from its value and autonomously survives on his own terms, allowing him to manipulate Scarlett into doing the same except with consequences he doesn’t foresee (because she is not entirely like him, and he is not as entirely unlike his world).

Not even the LA Riots visited the total destruction of a way of life represented in GWTW to provide a modern equivalent of Mitchell’s complex statement about character and survival.

It’s the conflicted pressures of those contexts that propel Anna to her final scene. The antebellum/post-Civil-War South contexts created Scarlett O’Hara, and for the same reasons Anna is driven toward her suicidal end, context makes that same ending for Scarlett impossible.

In fact, in great fiction the opening lines and scene become the absolute nexus point of all those contexts, out of which the story runs like a torrent on its own power.

Take context away and the only power a story has left is plot and writing style, and those are almost never enough to carry a narrative without leaving the reader feeling like they just ate a meal that was mostly carbs and empty calories.

Why is context so important? Because it’s the way life works, and the best stories tell us the most about ourselves and our world in the best possible ways. Every single experience we have, our history, our culture and social/familial conditions create the context from which our very being arises. And because they create us, they create the directions in which we’re pushed and pulled, and they create within us the agency (or lack of it) to either react from basic animal instinct or respond as conscious beings to whatever happens to us.

Get context wrong or ignore it, and you signal to readers that you don’t understand much about life or people, or that you’re a simple-minded fool.

Take a look at how context has worked in your life and in the lives of the people you know. How are you giving your stories the contextual substance necessary for the kind of agency and self-propelling momentum that can get readers truly engaged with your story?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Advice

Poll: Have you ever returned a novel because it’s awful?

When we go to the grocery store we can never really tell if the fruit or vegetables are bad until we sink our teeth into dry, pulpy disappointment.

We all have books on our shelves we’ve loathed, books that make us mourn the trees sacrificed for nothing and that we’ve judged not worth the time stolen to read them.

If you believe this Nielsen data graph (courtesy of ingenta.com) on the performance of fiction in the marketplace, you have to know it represents people increasingly becoming disappointed in fiction.

Image result for book sales performance graph

And yes, that’s a nearly 50% drop you see there in General Fiction over the course of a mere decade.

You also have to know that the true statistic would be far worse if they included readers who keep buying books that keep on disappointing but there’s no way to count disgust or disinterest after good money has already been laid down.

Just for funsies, how many of you out there have ever returned a novel because it stunk? It would be interesting to find out. But more importantly it would be interesting to find out why readers don’t return terrible books, so in the comments section tell us why you don’t treat rotten fiction like rotten fruit.

Should we be sending that message to the industry and to writers for failing readers?

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing

“Word Crimes” – Great Fun For All You Wordmeisters Out There

As only Weird Al could do it, and the only version of this song worth listening to:

1 Comment

Filed under Editing, Professional Editing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Advice

The Alchemy of Great Storytelling

In the ancient world, the magic of turning lead into gold was thought to be achieved through alchemy. What are writers trying to do but work toward some kind of alchemy through words? Strong writing and great storytelling – not always concurrent expressions – are something exquisite wrought from the ordinary.

The Prima Materia of Great Storytelling

Water. Wind. Fire. Earth. Original elements – Prima Materia – in a particular combination, in particular quantities, combined with a mystical unknown element called quintessence by some, the Philosopher’s Stone by others, were thought to turn sundry earth-bits into precious metal.

So how do writers turn word-bits into that rare, lustrous, ductile narrative commodity? Is there a secret buried beneath great storytelling and strong writing (even if not exclusively great literature) that can be made more understandable through the old ideas of alchemy?

The classical elements recur in psychological theory, Jungian in particular, where alchemy corresponds to the process of individuation.

All this translates aptly into the literary realm, and has been woven through narrative in other guises. For some authors the classical elements relate to the seasons. The weight or focus upon a given season gives birth to genre. Winter/water is satire; spring/wind is comedy; summer/fire is romance; autumn/earth is tragedy.

It is the life cycle of conception, birth, growth, and death. In maturation it’s the stages that take us from dependency to initiation to mating to mortality.

In storytelling, just as it is in the specific process – the Magnum Opus or Great Work – that creates the Philosopher’s Stone or unknown element, precedence of order matters. In every great narrative, the crux of strong writing depends upon beginning in the right place. And if alchemy is really an expression of the universal and the primal, a structural truth springing organically from something that has existed in us since first consciousness – then the beginning, it seems, is really an end.

The Process of Great Storytelling

The Ordinary

The generative phase of the Great Work is that of Nigredo. In the realm of classical elements, this is the earth constituent,  represented by the Hippocratic humour of black bile – melancholy. Necessarily, this aspect of the mystical alchemic process is the decomposition of the ordinary and the known, the lead. It is the chaos before creation.  It is autumnal, the cyclical space wherein the past is in ruin but the future remains beyond reach. It is tragedy. It’s the spiritual death without which there can be no rebirth. For Jung, this was a confrontation with Shadow, the concealed subconscious aspect of Self. For Freud: Apocalypse, the breaking up and breaking down of the known.

It’s possible that this beginning place seems so natural in literature because it corresponds with the origins of our very existence: the beginning is the void. It’s what precedes the Big Bang, and the nothingness before creation and before birth; it is the nothingness without which the eventuation of human existence would have been impossible.

From the the Book of Genesis to The Satanic Verses, great narratives begin with void – of the soul, the psyche, the city, society, civilization, the personal life, the political and ideological life.

This is more than just a character who wants something, as writing advice often suggests. Writers who want a shot at something greater than invisible-making work must dig into the profundity of the void, what it looks like (deeply, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, existentially), how we share it, and how it translates into narrative. Jung’s Shadow occupies this space: it is the face of identity turned as much away from the self as the public, and its awakening triggers the ruin of the known self. Pull a scratch-n-sniff level excavation, or go full-bore into the bowels of human experience; how far depends on the writer’s capabilities and will. The richness and value to the reader(s) will be a matter of what’s been tapped, and how.

In Crime and Punishment, the void is ever-present in the bleakness of pre-Bolshevist Russian society, but the void is also – simultaneously – the looming presence of radicalism that forms in answer to Raskolnikov’s social reality. In every description is a suggestion that Raskolnikov is a product of a gaping social and ideological blackness. It is already in him, psychically formed of the Intelligentsia ideal like a pustule. It’s in the physical filth and greyness. It’s in the man who beats his horse to death as much as it is in the reactions of those who witness it. From the outset Raskolnikov is the embodiment of spiritual, intellectual, and social putrefaction. His choices are society’s choices. His actions are those of a man who has broken open the breach of false selfhood and recognized his own Shadow. He murders because his intellectual superiority makes him fit to judge the moral worth of another human being. So says the mask-self. But as Raskolnikov comes to understand his Shadow self he accepts what truly underlies his murderous side.

Similarly, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables enters a time and place already in the process of destruction. But more importantly, he is France’s benumbed conscience, the nowhere place out of which the future of France will be born. He is a grown-up construct of the society that gave birth to him, that made it possible for him to become a hardened criminal to begin with. On a dark and solitary road he begins to awaken to his Shadow self.

The Magnus Opus’ Albedo (white) phase is a purification of lead into silver. Water is the element. It is winter, and satire. The decomposed remains from the generative phase are washed through into two predominant opposing principles. Of the humours, Albedo corresponds with a phlegmatic temperament – unemotional, stolid, calm. For Jung the splitting is between the psychological Anima and Animus – unacknowledged femaleness and unacknowledged maleness that must finally communicate to achieve wholeness and eventually a fully individuated Self. It is Freud’s Deluge among the archetypal motifs.

No better literary exemplar for this idea of splitting and opposing principles can be found than A Tale of Two Cities. The famous opening lines foreshadow the ways in which England and France, London and Paris, and Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay come to represent social, ideological, and political cleansing, and the distillation of self and identity – all in opposition. They query the provenance of human and cultural development. They are at once forces that both compete and complete.

The Extraordinary

Nothing as common or predictable as a simple ablution will metamorphose the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even with strong writing and strong storytelling this holds true, and it’s what divides good from great.

In narrative, to misunderstand the core of this transcendent movement is to derail storytelling and character development. It’s to continue the trajectory of the ordinary, or to make an auspicious beginning only to lose narrative footing by attenuating its potential right back to ordinary.

Exactly where this moment occurs in a narrative is part of storytelling’s quintessence.

Citrinitas represents the yellow bile of the humours – elemental fire. Yellow bile is choleric, aggressive. In this phase an alchemic transmutation by fire occurs, where silver transforms into gold.  Of the Jungian archetypes, fire is the Wise Elder or Senex. For Freud it’s Creation.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz, both obliquely through the idea of him and directly with the eerily brilliant but dying Kurtz, changes Marlow. Most would argue that Kurtz is the evil genius archetype but the transformation of gold in this alchemic phase does not necessitate a gentle, coddling Wise Elder. It demands a catalyst for a trial by fire. That Kurtz is the evil genius is only one aspect of his own evolution into demigod and chieftain, a self-styled and perverse redaction of the Senex, but his role in the narrative is no less that of the Wise Elder for his depraved contribution to Marlow’s development. In fact, it might be argued that only Kurtz’ personal and projected dissonance with his own embodiment of “horror” could hold the power to purify Marlow’s Self.

Finally, signifying success in the alchemic process is the unity of the quintessence with the newly rarefied gold. This phase is called Rubedo. The element is air, and the Hippocratic humor is that of blood or sanguinity. It’s Jung’s archetypal Self.  The importance of this coalescence lies in the representation of red in both components of this final stage – gold and quintessence – and thus the unity of opposites; it’s material with immaterial, body with spirit, effable with ineffable; it’s a signal completion of the Magnum Opus and the fully individuated or actualized Self. As a Freudian archetypal motif: Unity.

Not all alchemic endings are happy, but they must ring true to the process that generates them. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the moment when Dorian stabs his own portrait symbolizes a confrontation between what he has learned of himself and what he has become. Only death can provide true unity. The metaphoric and symbolic synthesis is not just concluded through the redness of blood, it is made choate.

Raskolnikov and Sidney Carton choose self-sacrifice – that of freedom and that of life, respectively, to substantiate the unity between the past self and the discovered Self.

To some extent, all great stories contain elements of the alchemic. As humans, our very existence – our lives – play out that paradigm. Throughout literary history it seems to have always cohered with readers, and likely always will.

Perhaps this sheds some light on the qualities that make stories relatable and memorable. For writers, that is the eternal mystery. Its revelation lies both in the cosmic and quantum matter of human experience, that existential site either too big or too small to understand except in pieces, where we and our stories become one.

Writers must find that place, interpret its alchemic Prima Materia, then assimilate them in just the right way, in the right quantities, in the right order, weighted precisely, then – gold.

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing

The Best Editing Tool You Probably Don’t Use

All writers experience this problem: after hours or days or months staring at the computer screen while your imaginative gems appear before your eyes one pixellated word at a time, you no longer have perspective. As far as editing tools are concerned, you’re tapped. Is it writer’s block? You’re missing even simple mistakes. You don’t realise you’ve repeated the same word ten times on the same page. How is the narrative flow? Who knows? After reading and re-reading your manuscript you get …

Nothing.

You might as well have cotton balls for brains.

Print it out, of course, but in terms of qualitative effect as an editing tool it’s only one removed from what you see on the screen. Back to cotton balls. Plus, who needs to kill so many trees when there’s a better way?

This trick refreshes your perspective so that you can see your work with new editorial eyes. Mistakes and flow problems will pop out like never before, just as they do when you’re reading a novel.

Have you guessed what the editing tool is yet? Your e-reader!

Most e-readers allow you to download pdf files, so the next time you need to do a major read-through, create a pdf file that will allow you to throw your manuscript onto the little screen and give it a published-novel look that will completely alter how you see your own work.

There are some formatting issues you will need to take into account first. If you don’t make them, it just won’t work. These instructions are for KOBO in Microsoft Office Word, although other devices can’t be very different.

  1. First create a copy of your file in Word and tweak the name (eg: My Novel2 or My Novel – e-reader). You will  need this secondary Word file as a base to create a pdf file. Always keep your original document intact.
  2. On the Home tab in your new Word file:
    • Select All. Formatting changes must be done with all the text selected
    • Under Font choose Palatino Linotype – Size 14. The PDF/KOBO sync did not handle some fonts well, especially Times New Roman, creating a dog’s breakfast of the file, so this was one that worked cleanly. You can try others yourself. The goal is to be viewing a product that most closely resembles a finished novel even if you prefer to work in sans, which is why a classic serif font works best.
  3. Go to Page Layout tab
  4. Choose Page Setup:
    • Paper Size:  8.5×11” Borderless (this is an important distinction, usually used for printing photos). You may need to create a custom paper size to accommodate the borderless feature.
    • Orientation: Landscape
    • Multiple Pages: 2 pages per sheet
    • Margins: Top: 0.5”; Bottom: 2.0”; Inside: 0.5”; Outside: 0.5”; Gutter: 0.0”
  5. Choose Paragraph:
    • Indentation: Special – First Line by 0.3” (standard 0.5 eats up too much space on the small screen)
    • Line spacing: single

When Saving As PDF:

Choose Save As. When the screen for the Save As PDF feature pops up, choose Options:

  • Page Range: All
  • Publish What: Document
  • Include Non-Printing Information: Document Structure Tags for Accessibility (allows table of contents and bookmarks in e-reader. Without re-formatting the tags and bookmarks it won’t be pretty but at least you’ll be able to navigate through the KOBO Menu’s Table of Contents feature)
  • PDF Options: Bitmap text when fonts may not be embedded

Try creating JPEG or GIF cover art for your book and insert it as the first page, with the title and your name splashed across the front. It’ll do wonders for how you imagine your project. You can stretch it across the whole page by selecting a Through text-wrapping option to give you control of image placement, and then dragging the edges.

Finally, plug your e-reader in, open the folder that contains your pdf file, right-click on the file and choose Send To from the drop-down menu to select your removable storage device. Done.

The beauty of this editing tool is that you can send your file to someone who also has an e-reader. It’s a highly accessible feedback tool. Although you can’t make changes like you can with an open Word document, you can certainly keep your original file open and on hand to make changes as you read. Alternatively, keep a paper pad nearby to make notes on the changes you need to make in your original Word document.

Make all your changes to the original Word file, not the pdf Word file. Although it’s a hassle, even if you copy and paste the text into the secondary document, each time you want a new copy for your e-reader you’ll have to change the formatting once again. Merging files may work, but it’s an experiment you’ll have to try yourself.

This is probably the best editing tool you will ever use to give you a fresh perspective. Try it, and see if it doesn’t completely change the way you read and edit your own work.

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

3 Comments

Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing

Making Yourself Submission-Ready

Remember the scene from Seinfeld where Elaine develops a rash, and every attempt to seek medical help ends in the ominous click of a ballpoint pen and a permanent notation in her file that marks her as a difficult patient – all the way up to the government level? What, you may ask, does that have to do with writers making themselves submission-ready?

Well, my friends, you are Elaine, your masterpiece of fiction is a rash, and somewhere out there is someone ready with a ballpoint pen.

What if your submission makes an editor never want to hear from you again? Are you prepared to make a name for yourself for all the worst possible reasons, all of which tie your name to literary garbage? What do you suppose that does for your chances of getting published in the future?

Everyone makes mistakes when they start out, but writers who begin the submission process rarely think about submission-readiness or the effects of a premature effort.

Unfortunately, writers waste a lot of time with false starts – not just their own, but that of the publishers and editors and agents who must slog through acres of tripe and dreck just to waste more time sending out rejection letters. Are you one of those writers who make editors want to quit their jobs? Will you get it wrong? Did it already happen?

Are you submission-ready?

Find out. Before you lick that stamp, here’s a check list that can help you determine your submission-readiness:

  1. You’ve vetted your entire work somewhere for detailed feedback, and parts of it broadly through different venues:
    • workshops
    • writing conferences
    • writers’s groups (with at least one person who knows something about writing)
    • writer-in-residence programmes
    • college/university coursework
    • MA/MFA
    • professional editing services
    • legitimate competitions
    • publication history
  2. You’ve learned to self-edit:
    • POV is clear and strong, without confused multiple points-of-view within a scene
    • purple prose is under control (and you know what it is when you see it as well as when you write it)
    • sentences vary in structure, length, and word choices, and partipate actively to convey pacing and tone
    • able to pick out repetitious words and phrases both in close textual proximity and overall
    • minimal spelling and grammar mistakes
    • no errant homophones (it’s/its; their/there/they’re, etc.)
    • able to maintain focus on the main story line and excise anything that detracts from moving the plot forward – even when you love it
    • facts are checked and double-checked
  3. You understand what kind of story you’re writing:
    • genre
    • style
    • category
    • form
  4. You know whether your characters are flat or dimensional, you know the narrative uses of each, and you made a deliberate choice based on the kind of story you’re writing.
  5. Your plot choices are focussed and well-considered:
    • chronology
    • appropriate use of flashbacks
    • setting
    • structurally sound
    • tone
  6. Character development arc is defined
    • purposeful
    • tied to events and experiences
    • keeps the story moving forward
    • you can easily describe it to someone
  7. You’ve identified your audience
  8. You’ve made conscious and purposeful structural choices:
    • you know how your narrative is shaped
    • you know how to start and end a paragraph, and why
    • you know how to start and end a chapter, and why
    • you know where to start and end your story
  9. You’ve mastered dialogue:
    • it’s natural
    • each character voice is distinct, even without indicators
    • it drives the story forward
    • it adds to character development
  10. You display a mature attitude about writing:
    • you are able to accept analysis and criticism without falling apart
    • you understand that nobody is going to steal your work or your ideas no matter who sees it
    • you are able to distinguish between valuable critique and misdirected criticism
    • you show an ability to simultaneously work and wait
    • you’ve read books produced by the publishing house(s) to which you are submitting, you can see an obvious pattern of literary tastes, you know that the publishers’ preferences either relate to your writing or don’t, and this research informs your choice of publishing targets.

Everybody who ever started out writing stinks. Everybody. There is a learning curve that takes longer for some, and less time for others. For some writers the window of opportunity and the story’s readiness won’t come together for years or even decades. A great story is worth holding onto, and worth waiting for that conjunction of time and talent and tastes that turns a seemingly futile effort into literary magic. The key is having the strength of character to resist sending your material out simply because your wrote it, and knowing the difference between your story’s readiness and your own.

No matter where you are on the curve, there is no advantage to rushing unless you’re writing a shocking expose about political candidates and the election is in a few months. Even then, opportunity does not make a well-told story.

Your chances of getting published are greatest when your work displays a consummate consciousness of craft, professionalism, and maturity; when you’ve faced the death of any illusions about the writing life or your own magnificence; when you show a willingness to do the hard work of making yourself as submission-ready as you have made yourself author-ready.

Because if you don’t … CLICK!

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing

How Narrative Is Like A Symphonic Score

Few people have even seen a symphonic score much less followed its complex flow instrument by instrument, bar by bar, page after page, but there is an important storytelling connection between scoring and writing.

Below is a single score sheet for Brahms 4th Symphony (courtesy mfiles), and a link to the movement. Unless you’re a musician, this won’t mean much. But play the piece in the background and for a moment just contemplate the way the score serves the entire narrative, then scroll down to continue reading.

At first glance the score may seem nonsensical until one realizes that each staff represents an instrument – with every note, every silence occurring in simultaneous, synchronized time. Each part is related to every other part in the piece. Sounds lope and flitter and hammer; they compete, call and respond. Some instruments dominate while others barely register, yet each carries a particular weight in the composition. The timing that brings one instrument in while others crescendo or drop away is crucial in sparking our engagement with the piece. Separately it’s meaningless. Together – a masterpiece.

This is composition at its purest. So compelling is the whole that we seldom notice the fundamentals of interaction or the timing and arrangement of what we’re hearing, in the same way that we don’t see among the symbols of language strung together into sentences and phrases and paragraphs that Tolstoi and Brahms were doing the very same work. For that matter, so was Led Zeppelin – only in a different way.

It’s the richness of the score and the ways in which all the pieces of literary and musical narrative are brought together that create story. The spectrum is wide – from Shakespeare and Mozart to Mother Goose and Happy Birthday.

Every writer and every composer falls somewhere within the spectrum. Some create magic from very little. Can anything simpler be more fraught than Joyce’s An Encounter? Can we ever extricate Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez from the ineffable arc of joy and tragedy and redemption that formed its very heart? Through the blind composer we see.

In music, the score allows the listener a chance to witness the intimate workings behind what we experience aurally. The composer’s creative mind is approximated – vaguely so, but approximated nonetheless. Allegro non troppo, the composer commands, and viola and violoncello thrill to life. The eye passes up and down the page, taking in the very building blocks of genius. We may never understand why certain instruments are brought in rather than others, but the brilliance of the choice is indisputable. Why this tempo and not that – and why exactly here but not one beat sooner? How much more we appreciate the music when we can follow a score and marvel that a single mind was capable of pulling combinations of sound and silence from some place of light within, translate what only he or she can conceive into commonly understood symbols, and become for the listener a kind of medium through which we are somehow able, in some cases, to access the truly sacred.

The blueprint of any narrative composition – the literary arrangement from the writer’s own hand that expresses the order and combinations and signifiers for timbre and pace and character and the indefinable quantum matter of creativity – does not exist. It remains part of the imaginative mystique lost forever by the time a piece enters public consciousness.

Even when drafts become available archivally for later study, they are not at all what the score represents, which is more mapwork than iteration. Access to drafts is access to choice – a change in dialogue, adjustments in character or setting or focus. They cannot let us see at a glance the working map of the finished piece.

The writer’s process is no different from that of the composer’s. The writer begins with emptiness and silence. Just as the composer chooses from a standard array of instruments through which the story will unfold – characters in strings, woodwinds, brass – it is the way they are played that give them voice. The same instruments and the same character types become distinctive in the hands of different masters, and from period to period.

The writer assigns tempo – narrative pace; here slow, a build-up, a quickening or a pulling back. Through the combination of pace and character choice, how characters play off one another, the way they speak, the setting within which they will be given life, the writer creates timbre or tone. The galloping pace of a thriller, the slow, contemplative tone of literary fiction. Mixing up the relationship between pace and tone can be an act of narrative transgression as much as a writer’s lack of skill or talent, but even if the writer is conscious of the choice, the reader must inevitably agree that the discord is not evidence of inability.

In the end, written composition is very much like only having the symphony but no score to better understand how the work comes together. Though there is no formula or template to create a brilliant piece, the elements a writer brings in – when, and how – and the ability to sustain the narrative through each choice are the essentials of magic-making.

Until the literary equivalent of a score is invented, use my Fiction Timeline Worksheet 2.0 – sandrachmara to create a narrative map for each project.

(UPDATE: This post gave me pause for thought, and I have since spent a great deal of time coming up with a tool for writers that will help us do what composers have been able to do with their tools while composing. Read this post to learn more about the Writer’s Studio Series Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative); be sure to subscribe to this blog if you want to be updated about the progress so you can be among the first to claim a copy.)

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing