Tag Archives: Sandra Chmara

10 More Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story

A few posts back I published 10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story. Here’s another ten.


11. Narrative before writing

In the writing paradigm, writing comes first. Most often, it’s the only consideration. It’s a symptom of our narcissistic age where anything that serves the Self supersedes anything that serves the Other. So naturally we’ve moved away from any narrative approach that puts the reader’s interests on the radar.

You see it a lot at the higher levels of literary writing: the complex or experimental pieces submitted to a group for review, which everyone else feels too inferior or stupid to critique. Silence feeds the writer’s hubris about his/her own intellect rather than serving as proof of the work’s utter failure to reach the reader on any level. After all, everyone knows that if it’s incomprehensible the writer must be extra-extra smart and, well, there’s not much we doofus types can add.


Incoherence does not equal smart. If you’re a writer who thinks stream-of-consciousness means just yakking out whatever comes to mind until the last yellow drop of literary bile has drained out, then you don’t understand that stream-of-consciousness is just fiction that’s been left to the reader to approach archaeologically or forensically. But it’s still narrative and there’s still has to be something there for the reader.

If you’re not reaching the reader through narrative, none of the fancy tricks of writing will help.

The best writers know that communicating with the reader comes before the way you use the language. If you don’t have a story to tell, then all the lovingly crafted language and lyricism or from-the-hip adjectiveless, adverbless plainwriting in the world might as well be left in a journal where you can admire yourself whenever you like.

Narrative is for the reader. Writing is for the writer.

How does this matter? Because as soon as the reader starts noticing the writing, the writer has failed. This has nothing to do with whether or not a writer produces quotable writing or beautiful passages. It means the writing can’t be an intrusive force. Writing should serve as invisible an element beneath the story as breathing, no matter the style.

The greats have always known this.

12. Narrative over ideology

Most writers use fiction as a platform through which their worldview can be realized. Often, they don’t even know this is what’s happening but even if they do they usually lack the objectivity or critical thinking to be bigger than their own perspective. They just want their characters to tell the world how it should be.

First-rate writers do this, of course, but they also simultaneously hold their ideals out at arm’s length, then brutally test them within the confines of their story world. They are able to boldly cope with moral, ethical, religious, political realities that are in direct and painful conflict with their own.

They remorselessly call their own ideals to task.

Great fiction is never an ideological screed or manifesto even when it takes a powerful stance for or against something personally meaningful to the writer. Ultimately, nothing is more important than creating the most honest kind of story, and the born writer knows that’s impossible if it’s filtered through a skewed and rigid ideological lens.

The truth within belief systems comes and goes. The truth that lies beyond that is forever.

That’s what great writers aim for.

Like a martial arts master aiming toward a point on the other side of a concrete block.

13. Humanity over ideology

Having said that, the best novels serve as public demonstrations of intensely personal values. That’s not a contradiction of the above point. The first concern is always the human story, not the screed that will be masked by a story. In fact, the human story is usually so richly expressed, and with such complexity, that even if there’s a position involved it just doesn’t seem like the important part for readers.

That’s because great storytellers don’t pit a particular Me against a particular You, even though the conditions of the story may be highly particularized. They do this by making sure that all their characters are threaded into the larger human tapestry, not just the ones that serve the writer’s value system. Villains exist (they must) but powerful writers approach Other without dehumanizing, demeaning, or demonizing.

Or by turning them into caricature.

Similarly, the characters representing the writer’s values don’t get the kid glove treatment either. The writer has the magnanimity to make their ideal pitiful, ridiculous, mock-worthy, or even contemptible, all without losing their purpose.

Strong writers write from – and to – an essential humanity against which no particulars of any ideology are able to survive. There is no Me and You.

It’s just Us.

14. Reader before writer

Similar to Story Before Writing, but not quite.

A good host makes sure their guests have the best time possible – even if the host has spent the entire party serving canapes and topping up drinks and whisking away dirty dishes.

Writers are inviting readers to a narrative party. Writers who put their own needs and ego ahead of the reader’s engagement is like inviting a bunch of people over then serving rain juice and sawdust crackers (because converting your guests over to your dietary morals was your true ulterior motive), and spending the entire time making sure you’re the one having the best time.

A really great host (even if not a great human being) will make an effort to give guests something worth coming for – and hopefully worth coming back for next time. Otherwise, don’t have a party. Sit at home with your rain juice and sawdust crackers and enjoy them the way they’re meant to be enjoyed – solo.

Give the reader something more important than what you want.

15. The second glance

This is a quality that adds longevity to a story. It’s a deep complexity that makes the story somehow different the next time you read it. And there always is a next time when a story is among the best. Read this post for a more detailed look at what goes into giving readers a chance at the second glance.


16. Writing




It doesn’t matter whether it’s lyrical or the flattest prose possible, writing that lacks clarity, control, and confidence is like listening to a third rate actor butcher an Australian accent. The agonizing effort and lack of skill and overconfidence scream out from the text.

The best writing just disappears into narrative. How and when to use punctuation, vernacular, switching back and forth between voices and times and points of view – all happens like a great conversation that veers from news to the utterly private to politics and religion without awkward pauses or anyone even noticing the switch.

Don’t know if you have clarity, confidence, or control? Let’s give’er a go. This sample has everything I usually seen in manuscripts. Lots of adjectives and adverbs, time flips, over-the-top actions, digressions, regressions, unbelievable dialogue/vocalizations, odd metaphors.

Kimmie trudged her way heart-breakingly across the dark and creepy room screaming and crying, so hard it was like her heart had exited her body and was now in the room and it was going to beat her to death with its throbbing pulse. She trudged on, her feet like lead torpedoes, a fist in the air, her mouth in a hideous, malformed grimace, saliva slathering down her chin, tears pouring like a water spout.

“No, No, NOOOOoooo,” she kept crying.

With shoulders shaking with every heaving sob, she shook her clenched fist and lamented grievously, “DAMN YOU!!!!”, and when she reached the fireplace mantle she let out an animalistic “RRRRrrrr!” as she beat the fireplace mantle with both fists, screaming wildly and painfully, then sweeping the candlesticks and remote controls and vases off. They start falling around her sobbing shoulders in a rain of glittering glass and flashing metal and glowing plastic, and as her perceptions gear down into slo-mo, she stupefyingly watches the candlesticks fly by like existential nunchuks, end over end, their brass glinting in the twinkling light of the hot, searing sun.

The remote controls make contact with the gleaming marble of the old Victorian fireplace mantle made of hard wood, and split open like rectangular electronic skulls, their brain matter exploding off in every direction like the shrapnel that had hit Joe back in ‘Nam in the MeKong Delta when he served as a gunner in the Brown Water Navy and they used to patrol through snipers and booby-trapped sampans, and he’d tell her the mosquitoes and leeches were almost worse than the war itself.

Suddenly she sees the vase spinning through the air toward her, the beautiful, gorgeous yellow bohemian art glass vase in mint condition with hand-painted white roses that he’d bought for her at a flea market in Sacramento back in ’78 when they were still young and in love and he still thought about all the little things that make a relationship worthwhile, and it was such a good deal at forty five dollars and some change and went perfectly with her decor, so she reached out one hand like a ninja and saved the vase. Then she crumpled to the ground, still clutching the vase, and sobs incoherently, “why me, why me, why me? WHYYYY?”

You’re welcome. Indeed, why any of us?

If this sounds like you, start asking yourself if each word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and scene answers to clarity (are you communicating something that serves the purpose of your story?), control (are you using only the most value-added words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes?), and confidence (do your words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes represent your authenticity and mastery as a human being as well as a writer?)

Just like memorable, effortless conversations are a rarity in life, it’s a rarity in fiction.

17. Voice

Writing is the expressed You.

Voice is just you.

If you were standing with a group of people at a party and you started talking like your writing, would people start inching away backwards, then spend the rest of the night avoiding eye contact with you, and every time you came near they’d hide out in the washroom until the coast was clear?

When you know who you are you have a voice. When you have a voice, you have the control and confidence to make powerful use of it. When you make the most powerful use of your voice you don’t need tricks to impress anyone.

A writer able to write from his/her own authenticity and mastery is a writer with a powerful voice.

19. Authenticity is internal

Related to voice, but not quite. You won’t find out how to become your most authentic self as a writer by letting other writers tell you what that should look like.

If you need prompts to write or you have to look to others for ideas, the road toward your own true voice will be a lot more difficult.

First-rate writers have the opposite problem: too many ideas and not enough time to make them all happen. That’s not to say there’s no writer’s block, but that’s something completely different.

The only way you can become authentic is by staring yourself down in your own existential mirror to find out what you’re truly made of, because this is where all writing starts.

It’s not good ideas. It’s not using the latest software or joining the hottest group or enrolling in the best writing program.

You are It. The Source. The Root. The Cause.

It’s all in there, and you’re the one who has to get it out.

Nobody else.

That’s where authenticity comes from, and it’s where you’ll find your voice.

19. Allowable Input

The more serious/credible the writer, the fewer people they allow into their creative world.

First rate writers do not expose themselves or their writing to third rate talent. Or second-rate, for that matter. Sometimes not even first-rate, because who is worthy or not is so personal and subjective.

That’s because first rate writers protect their voices and their ideas with a jealousy bordering on pathological. There will usually be one or two people they can entrust with their work and their voices.

Take a page from their behaviours. Choose carefully who you let influence the kind of work you produce, your ideas. Ask yourself: can this person help your writing become the most you – or the most them?

It’s your voice.

It’s your voice.

20. Mastery is all DIY

Nobody can make you a better writer than you are willing to be – and it all comes from inside you, not from being around the right people or getting a hand-up. Even opened doors and knowing the right people won’t help if you don’t show up prepared with the goods.

It’s something you have to do for yourself.The learning curve is yours, it’s steep, and there’s no short-cut.

There is never a short cut.


Filed under Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Know Your Story: What’s Your One Word?

sandrachmara.comA follower of this blog brought up an excellent point about an earlier post quoting John Irving:

Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?

She confessed that while she appreciated – aw, heck, I’ll just let her say it herself:

I appreciate the quote, but I have to say it does make me feel badly about myself. What kind of a storyteller am I? Is “beginner” allowed? How do you get to know the whole story if you don’t commit yourself to writing it down?


For some insight on what John Irving meant and the difference between writing and storytelling, read the commentary on that post. The Know Your Story series that will begin with this post will be strictly to help writers find their way toward what Irving meant by knowing the story before you start writing the story. In other words, narrative – the part you’re delivering to the reader.


Seinfeld famously proclaimed to be a show about nothing. But we all know it was anything but. It was a canny satire on our society and on what we’ve become within it. Had the show come into existence out of Soviet Russia, it would have been its own canny satire on their society. I mean, let’s face it, Kramer being picked up off the street in broad daylight by the internal police of the US Postal Service has a very different tenor than a Kramerski being picked up off some Moscow street by anyone. We’re different societies but what would have stayed the same is our fundamental take on our own in/humanity and how we can frame our responses.

But to say that it was about “nothing” is about the most gutsy way to make fun of human stupidity. It’s absurdly existential, almost “nothingness”, but not quite. Because we can’t take ourselves that seriously, after all.

What if their one word hadn’t been “nothing”? What if it had been “friendship”? Or “absurdity”? Doesn’t it totally take the wind out of the show’s sails to lose that winking consciousness? It’s because the show nailed it with “nothing” that it somehow dug itself deep inside our perceptions of our own time, allowing us to laugh at ourselves in a different way from, say, Friends, which was about almost the same things – a pack of disconnected NY idiots living rectum-deep inside each others’ lives and doing stupid things all the time. Difference? One took itself seriously, the other knew it couldn’t possibly. Seinfeld knew we’re the sideshow. Friends played the sideshow straight. There is a knowingness about “nothing” that will put Seinfeld on a completely different map than Friends when we’re looking back at some of the most important shows of that time.

What one thing is your story about? This must be a moral, psychological, philosophical, spiritual, or emotional point, because we respond viscerally to the roiling mess that defines our very humanity, which distinguishes us from animals. Find that one apt, incisive word to encapsulate the story you want to write.

This is so hard it hurts, because really, no story is ever about one thing, right?

Except they all are. Well, the best are.

If we were to divide storytelling into two categories – For The Writer and For The Reader – this would be a strategic device mainly for the writer, the bull’s eye whose center the writer aims for every time, with every word and paragraph and chapter, with that one idea in boldface across its middle.

The benefits of getting this right serve the reader too, yes, in the long run. But only if it serves the writer first.

Whenever a word, sentence, paragraph, scene, character trait or choice ceases to serve the one word, it is no longer the story you intended to communicate.

Try. Here are some of my best guesses:

  • Misery: possession
  • Anna Karenina: genuineness
  • Gone Girl: self-deception
  • Middlesex: identity
  • The Quiet American: treachery

Yes, Anna Karenina is about adultery, love, romance, society, but what brings the story to its awful boil is the way Anna’s need to be genuine to her own ideals – in opposition to all those other things – plays out. Levin’s story is pushed through the same sieve. As is Kitty’s. If it were not about genuineness, it would not be much of a story. Just stuff happening.

Find that human center of your story. Name it. This is so important that if you get it wrong, it will bruise the delicate reader like a pea under a pile of mattresses. S/he will know you are claiming to be Seinfeld but delivering Friends, or vice versa. Or worse, the not-Seinfeld kind of nothing without the sly wink. If it doesn’t click with our moral, emotional, psychic cores it will have no pull for the reader. Or the wrong pull. Tap into human need, fear, anxiety –

Think about it. Would you rather read a story about alcoholism, or one about disintegration? The Shining knows.

Someone wrote a very promising supernatural story – I won’t name it because its quality doesn’t justify free promotion – in which a quirky, phlegmatic stranger appears in the protagonist’s life. Spoiler: turns out he’s an angel with a miracle earmarked for the end of the story because the protagonist is so deserving in his goodness.

Deserving was clearly the story’s one word. It was practically horse-whipped onto each page.

What did the protagonist do to deserve a forthcoming miracle? He spun a zany cast of friends around him who kept up several unrelated and pointless running subplots. He let his Alzheimer’s dad live with him and didn’t complain. He didn’t hate his ex-wife. Took care of his son.

With every chapter the steam just drained out of this story as it darted between wacky sitcom schtick and the everyday toils of the Everyman to build up to … absolutely nothing.

When the miracle is finally delivered (spoiler: the protagonist’s only child is saved from drowning and his wife comes back to him when she realizes she made an oopsie.) the reader is left to ask what part deserving had in anything.

The focus on deserving had this effect: it made the miracle mysterious but the deserving unearned – if the miraculous can even be deserved to begin with.

It’s the deserving/earning thing that’s suspect. The idea that anything in the realm of the mysterious can be earned or deserved (over all others striving for same) suggests something very dark and horrifying and categorical about our individual worth in the world.

The truth is, like the ordinary, the miraculous just happens. There’s no scale measuring our worth that triggers its dispensation. Go to Lourdes and pray, and if anything were to happen it would not be based on how much anyone deserved it. There’s always someone who can claim to deserve it more.

If we deserve a miracle it pits our worth as human beings against the randomness of the human experience. We deserve cancer? We deserve to be T-boned into oblivion on our vacation?

Deserving is the wrong one word. It cannot be sustained in any way that makes sense in reality, even factoring in the divine. Who decides? God? Then why bother with a story attempting to justify why this person and not that one deserves the miracle more? It’s something that absolutely cannot be justified by people sporting more than one brain cell.

Let’s change the one word. Putting the story’s focus on miraculous would make human ordinariness miraculous and the miraculous mysterious, even if nothing else in the story changes. The protagonist is still an Everyman. There could still be a suggestion of something magical about the stranger, except it can now be written in such a way that it’s never overt, and left to the reader – or protagonist – to interpret. How the boy was saved and how the wife came back can be left open-ended, subject to the personal frame of reference of each reader.

Now that’s a story with the potential to pack a real punch.

Oh, plus the pointless sitcom schtick has got to go. Got to. It doesn’t serve the one word.

So ask yourself what would be your one word; better still, ask what would be the best, most apt one word to help you know your story before you even start writing it.

Think about how different your story would be if your one word was slightly off, or wrong, or …



Filed under Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

The Workshop Model: 5 Reasons Why It’s Ruining Writers

Right now it’s all we’ve got whether we like it or not: sitting around a room together under the watchful gaze of some Published Elder, reading snippets of each others’ work, critiquing word use, sentence structure, character peccadilloes, scene quality and, if you’re lucky (or very unlucky if you’re the reader) an entire chapter.

… followed by crushing self-doubt, anger, calling your judges, jury, and executioners idiots, then doing your own thing anyhow.

More and more, the public discourse on the proliferation of workshops (and courses based on the model) are pointing out the same thing: it’s not making us better writers, and it’s not making our output better.

In fact, it’s possible the Workshop Model (thanks, Iowa) is the most destructive component of the writer’s development.

That’s because the model is not only flawed, but flawed in the worst ways possible. It’s not just one thing, but any combination of some or all the flaws that ruins it for developing writers.

1. The Mentorship Factor

Oh, she’s up there at the front of the group. So is he. You might have once heard the name. Somewhere. At least you think so – no, you’re positive. Maybe. Well, at least they’ve reached that Pinnacle that is the brass ring for all writers: Being Published.

Because Being Published must mean you know what you’re doing, right?

It’s possible your Published Elder is even famous or better still a Somebody, all capitalized and everything. Just meeting them makes you suddenly inarticulate and gushing. Your ability to make direct eye contact lowers proportionately with the heights of their accomplishments, but by the end at least you can brag about being on a first-name basis with a Somebody.

So you crack your knuckles, ready to get all smartified by osmosis. Or something like that.


There are real dangers in letting this unquestioned dominant-submissive interplay take charge of your writing and your development as a writer:

  1. Bias – We are biased, and therefore they are biased. Biased opinions can snuff out your individuality and your voice – the very qualities you’ll most need to develop as a writer to differentiate your work from everyone else’s. The group mentor might hate genre, hate everything but social realism, hate lyrical prose and linear execution. Guess what? Do you think you’ll actually get as fair a shake as s/he believes will be delivered? Do you think s/he’ll give you the wide berth you’ll need to develop your own voice and style, or will you be judged against some personal template and found wanting? Chances are, you will be funneled and pushed in an approved direction. Chances are with every comment and well-meaning critique you will be driven farther and farther from the story you were meant to write, and the farther away you get the harder it will be to come around to your own center again. That’s if your center isn’t completely obliterated by then.
  2. Lack of perspective -There is no way your mentor can understand your project holistically from bits and pieces of sample submissions or from its raw stage of development at that particular moment. How can anyone help you reach something they don’t know about or can’t share, especially if they don’t understand narrative development to begin with?
  3. Blind spots – Not everyone who has been published is smart enough or deep enough or perceptive enough or intuitive enough to achieve full and clear cognizance (in fact, that number is realistically zero). If aspects of your work meet your mentor’s blind spot, there is no way they can help you in a way that won’t be compromised by that blind spot.
  4. Perceptual limitations – A short leash intellectually, artistically, emotionally, psychologically, experientially means they just won’t get it because they don’t have the mind to deal with where you’re going, and they don’t have enough (or the right) tools in their toolbox to overcome their own limitations sufficiently to make your work shine. What it took to get them somewhere is not what it will take to get you anywhere.

2. The Trusted Person Factor

A little secret: as a rule, first rate writers wouldn’t attend writer’s groups or workshops if their lives depended on it, graduate work being an exception that mercifully only lasts a year or two.

(Oh, but they’ll teach them all right.)

They know something you don’t know, and that’s how dangerous it is to have many valueless voices interfering with a work-in-progress. Anyone allowed to have a hand in the unfinished project of a truly powerful writer has to be a Trusted Person offering the writer uncompromising vision as well as reason, someone who won’t undermine the writer’s voice or developing narrative, but who will call them on their BS.

Finding that Trusted Person is about as likely as finding a gram of astatine in your back yard, and in fact many of the finest writers have no one to whom they can vet their work at all except the editor who will see them through the publishing process at the end.

That we would ever find more than one Trusted Person to play that role in our writerly lives is tempting the bounty of the gods. To expect that the Published Elder will volunteer to be your Trusted Person when s/he can’t, by virtue of a vested interest in their own work and development, care about you or your work enough to also invest themselves in you in any way that matters, is unrealistic at best.

But a room full of rank amateurs with fragile overblown egos, all Trusted Persons? That’s not just tempting the gods but strutting across the divine stage and delivering atomic wedgies.

Bounty will not be had.

 3. The Sampling Factor

Really? Five or ten static pages here and there, and we really think we’re going to understand the dynamism necessary to tell a story anyone cares about? Five or ten pages to represent the entire project vision, and if that sample happens to be the worst – or the best – of what we can do, how can anyone see the full truth we’re trying to reveal, much less help us reveal it?

The Workshop Model lives and breathes on samples that can’t possibly impart the breadth or depth or vitality of what a story will or can or should be, nor can samples adequately represent the whole picture or the movement of narrative.

So what exactly will our workshop critics be helping us with? How will they ever be able to sink their teeth into anything that matters long enough to help us sink our teeth into what matters in the story?

Of course, this point is far worse for long projects like novels and novellas, not so bad with short fiction. But still …

4. The Ignorance Factor

Ay. What do these people know? Really, what do they bring to the table that matters, that isn’t wrapped up in their own egos, their own ideas, their agendas, their  resentment toward you for being a slightly less terrible writer than they are or for having their time and energy wasted by so many writers so much worse than they are?

Does anyone in that room actually know how to help you? And if they did, what do you think might get in the way of even their most noble motives for enlightening you? (Hint: return to beginning of post and re-read).

The Workshop Model might be therapeutic and a mutual support venue that allows writers to feel better about their dreams and the very real struggles of trying to be a writer, but putting together a group of people who don’t know enough about the creation and development of a work of narrative is not the way to make better writers.

Or better writing.

The Workshop Model should be like group therapy where you talk about your frustration and fear and hopes and dreams and trials and errors.

It should not be allowed to touch anyone’s literary junk.

5. The Limitation Factor

What we really need to understand about narrative – where story begins, how it develops, and how we can attract and sustain reader interest from beginning to end – can’t be provided by the Workshop Model.

How do you reach the reader? Do we ask the workshop’s Publishing Elder, who once sold maybe a whopping 1, 287 copies to friends, relatives, colleagues, and a few curious strangers, or do we read about it from Stephen King who admits to being so stoned throughout most of his career that he can barely remember actually writing many of his works?

(Although his output does make being a junkie seem pretty darned attractive …)

Stephen King and writers like him have a lot of important things to say about writing, and we should all pay attention.

As a generality. Like that stuff about adjectives and adverbs and purple prose, all good. All industry boilerplate. It just feels better coming from someone who has accomplished a heck of a lot more than we have.

What you will hear from your Published Elder and even a Somebody is – well, nothing you can’t get for free on the internet. From anyone. Anyone at all. Your Published Elder will point out your purple prose and weak character development (whatever that means, since they have no way of knowing where you’re going with it), your lack of focus, your misdirected blathering, your pathos, the same advice you’d get from anyone anywhere online. Likely, there is even software out there that will take care of some of these pesky problems with the same efficiency offered in a workshop.

To specifically understand your own work through someone else’s filters, it’s just not going to happen (for more information, return to top of post and re-read).

Most people teaching writing workshops are not exactly (how can I put this delicately?) Stephen King or Tolstoy material. How can any writer who can’t reach readers teach other writers how to reach readers?

It’s by studying fiction that has succeeded in reaching readers, all kinds of it from literary to straight genre, rather than the writer’s opinion of their own work that writers learn what they need to know about themselves and their projects.

Your work is not special to anyone but you – until it hits the marketplace and you find out the hard way whether or not you’ve made it special to anyone beyond yourself.

Unless you understand first how to make the story born in your imagination come to life in the reader’s imagination.

The only chance you’ll have at figuring that out is if you learn how narrative develops from its very DNA on until you have a perfectly articulated, functioning, vital story instead of some patchwork monstrosity you’ve stitched together and set lumbering into the world.

I’m not saying writers shouldn’t participate in workshops ever or that you can’t gain anything of value if you do participate in them, but if you do please go with an understanding that it’s not a venue built to help you develop the voice or the individuality you’ll need to create a meaningful, unique, original narrative from the inside out from beginning to end, which is something writers need to do more and more in order to stand head and shoulders above what’s become an ocean of published books that will never be read.

The workshop is there to criticize your literary hair and clothes, sometimes in the nicest way possible like your friend’s good-hearted mom who shows you how to use a scarf to deal with that turkey-wattle neck of yours, or sometimes like your own mom (“You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?”); other times it won’t be so nice or benign, like a group of guys Snapchatting (did I get that right?) your most vulnerable moments because berating you makes them feel better about their own failures.

Well, at least you might have a shot at telling your kids you once knew a Somebody. That’s pretty cool.

After over 20 years spent deconstructing and analyzing the best fiction ever written, Sandra is now developing a course specifically to help writers understand where story begins within themselves, how to develop narrative infrastructure organically so the story establishes and sustains its natural strength, dynamism, and power, and finally how to maximize the potential for reader engagement.

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

10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story

sandrachmara.comIt seems that once certain stories appear on the literary radar the whole landscape changes and nearly everything that follows pales by comparison. What do these works offer readers that can help writers at all levels and styles better understand their own projects – and what’s missing?


1. Individuality

Notice I didn’t say “personality”? The writer is consistently able to create separate, distinct, incorporeal humans on the page whether they’re primary or background characters, and whether they’re highly developed or not. Even the most cardboard hard-boiled gumshoe in great detective fiction is just the visible mask of something truer humming below the surface. There’s just no need to elaborate because of the nature of the genre. These are not just caricatures or sketches of humans with quirky traits that allow the reader to distinguish between them. People don’t just have traits. Life creates those traits. Each character has its own independent agency and motivations.

The mouth-wiping tic Stephen King gave Jack Torrance in The Shining would be little more than an annoying motif if it weren’t a symptom of the character’s slow and traceable crack-up. Rather than serving to define Jack’s nature, King comes at it from the opposite direction: the tic exists because of Jack’s nature, and that’s why it works. At the same time, Wendy’s paralyzing depression is a realistic and important response to living with an addict, but more importantly it frames up what must eventually happen far more dramatically than if she were written as someone coping just fine, or as a mountain of feminist strength. This is human. Together, the family forms a credible, traumatized portrait of mental fragility.

On the more literary end, every single member of the Bundren clan in As I Lay Dying is unique and palpably so, drawn in strokes as simple as Vardaman’s “my mother is a fish”; and who could ever forget the cringe-worthy scene of a boy unwittingly boring holes through his mother’s face trying to provide air for her in the coffin? The whole novel is a master class in individuality and family dynamics and culture – together a grotesquerie of human experience.

2. Understanding human nature

Not just the ability to draw a believable human being on the page, but to understand how humans think and act – almost as if the writers were born with a set of templates in their brains, which allows them to get what sets a particular type of personality off in any given direction. They’re not starting with a circumstance and throwing a character in there to deal with it. Rather, great authors understand how certain types wind up in those circumstances to begin with in order to get themselves slapped around by the disaster that’s about to come. Back story isn’t just a filler, it offers up the root source of the story’s purpose and the character’s role in it.

Take The Quiet American, for example. Greene completely gets the brokenness and essential disconnection that creates the funnel into working in foreign correspondence and intelligence. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, in Alden Pyle you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with intellectuals to see how dehumanizing too much knowledge with too little understanding can be. How easy it is to core out the need for one kind of morality for ideals deemed far superior – and to apply to it the intellectual’s fervor that replaces the less savory fervor of religiosity. For Raskolnikov, for Greene’s Alden Pyle, ideals trump reality every time.  It’s a blindness that hasn’t changed one iota for centuries in certain people and never will, and the greatest writers know this. It’s part of the human template.

Great authors are students of human behaviour. They’re masters at translating it for us ordinary folk who suffer from perceptual dystrophy. In all the best stories, the deeper you look the more there is to see. The farther you pull back, the more it all connects. As your life evolves and you go back to these narratives, your own maturation and life experience opens up new perceptions about what the story is about. And there’s always something you never saw before. That’s why there are some books people read over and over, each time seeming to evolve into something surprising.

3. Interpretation and translation of human speech

They’re the greatest mimics on the planet. They can capture the nuances of human communication so perfectly that the reader knows instantly, without any unnecessary tricks, who a character is – education, upbringing, intelligence, beliefs, even gender. Accents sound natural, even when the writer is not from that particular culture. Rather than risk creating cartoonishly absurd diction, they opt to tone down so transliteration captures the essence of speech rather than merely the sounds of it. Under-doing has no down-side; over-doing it is all down-side.

4. Character development = story development = character development

Character development works in tandem with story development. They’re inextricable. If you mess up story development, you mess up character. If you don’t get the right character in the right circumstances, you mess up story development.


5. Setting as character

Setting serves the story or, if that’s not possible or desirable, it’s symbolized completely, letting character speak for and lend meaning to place (which Death Of A Salesman does superbly). Place becomes a living, breathing actor upon the characters’ circumstances. Think of the oppressive, sweat-inducing humidity and heat that go hand-in-hand with the oppressive political conditions in Koch’s The Year Of Living Dangerously and Kingsolvers’s The Poisonwood Bible or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

6. Place is never just a location

If setting is just window dressing because you happened to vacation there with your mom and dad in ’04, don’t bother. Although great writers do their best work writing about the places that created them, they write with equal authority about other places because they do not seek to expose the outward trappings of place like some literary tour-book; rather, they are able to uncover the beating heart of place without even having to hint at publicly definable tourist-trap features. When they travel, they go with their perceptual eye peeled wide open, watching behaviour, observing atmosphere, taking notes. They have a knack for understanding and crystallizing what they’re seeing, often better than the people who live there.

7. Human and place

Place is creative. It’s generative. Deep observers of humanity see those connections in everything. How a person grows up, how their character is formed, is as much a product of place as family and culture and genetics.

Could you write a story like Dickey’s Deliverance without tapping into the outsider’s fear and misunderstanding of mountain people and inbreeding? Would there even be a story if Dickey had set it in Long Island or Nunavut?

No. Because place is generative. Place creates. The best writers know this.


8. Time and character

The breakdown of Anna Karenina occurs in tandem with the breakdown of Russian society that presages the Bolshevik Revolution. The novel is a reflection on and a statement about a particular time. In Beloved, Sethe and her family’s struggle to free themselves of a supernatural force mirrors the struggle of ex-slaves to free themselves from the past in the years immediately after the Civil War.

Characters are both subject and product of a time. In order for Sethe’s story to encompass the greater story, it must be materially and rawly connected to the relevant past. It must be Sethe’s own experience, with very real cause and effect (to be so desperate for freedom that she is willing to kill her own child to prevent her enslavement).

A particular time creates the window of opportunity for a character’s particular experience, out of which only one story seems possible or worth telling.

It’s a potential for character that would lose its reach and potency told at any other time in history. Time seems to cleave open for great storytellers who recognize in the moment a kind of synergistic opportunity, in the same way great sculptors seem to look at a piece of stone and know instantly what lies within waiting to be revealed – that only one particular story must be formed out of it to reveal something much larger.

9. Time and place

Some places only exist in a particular way for a brief time. Before, they were too small or too undeveloped or too stable to fund a story of any significance; any later and place loses its storytelling characteristics. It’s too big, too changed, or altogether gone. Alaska during the Gold Rush. Dustbowl Oklahoma during the Depression. The Old South.

But great writers somehow always manage to show us that no place, even the most unknowable blips on the historical horizon, is ever truly unfamiliar, or ever truly known.

10. Time and Time

In the same way that time and place can form a storytelling nexus, time can also create its own meaning that becomes synonymous with an era. If someone mentions the Sixties, that simple identifier funds an entire cultural memory for different parts of the world. The Soviet Sixties evokes its greyscale oppressiveness in contrast to the wild, colorful, rule-breaking Sixties of the West.

Great writers don’t play into cliche, but rather they take the unavoidable realities of a cultural time and create something unique without stepping outside truth. They do this in delicate strokes and in nuance, so readers know the when of a story that isn’t defined by it.

Creating the cultural-era equivalent of a guide-book is not an option unless you’re writing satire or farce. That’s because real people just don’t live the guide-book. Most people rarely have first-hand contact with the cliches; only Forrest Gump could get away with it. For the most, those cliches just sort of brush by us or appear in the distance.

Stay tuned for Part 2: 10 more Non-Negotiable Qualities of a Timeless Story



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The Story Analyst: Good Openings vs. The Right Opening

Ever wonder why great novels always seem to get a better start than just about all the rest? If not the perfect first line perfectly delivered, then the perfect opening scene that seems to embody the story’s every narrative potential, like some quantum flux about to give birth to a narrative universe.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

You better not never tell nobody but God.

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

The authors didn’t choose a strong beginning or a good beginning or a powerful beginning. They chose the right beginning.

It was the best of times and the worst of times for a reason. The clocks strike thirteen on a cold day for a reason.

In this post I’ll be exploring two conditions that create the right opening lines or scenes in master storytelling.

First, the opening lines – like the titles – are fully keyed-in to a driving contextual core that lies at the heart of master stories that have been given the right start. Second, the master writer’s understanding of in medias res (in the middle of things), differs from the way we average schmos understand it.

And by the way, chances are if a story has the right opening it’s going to be one of those powerhouse novels that just keeps a hold of reader consciousness no matter when it was published. It’s because the writer who understands the difference between a good opening and the right opening already understands his or her story to the bone. It’s this deep consciousness of the story’s context that won’t let the story go off the rails.

Contextual Core

So – contextual core? You’re probably thinking: What on earth is a contextual core?

Glad you asked.

Context is defined by a set of conditions that create meaning or signification. Woman murders husband. Battered wife kills abusive husband. Mother kills abusive husband as he holds a gun on their children. Same people, same story, but context is what lets us understand what’s happening more clearly.


In fiction the set of contextual conditions in a story create agency.

Pay very close attention to that idea.

Context can make all the difference between a Tolstoi and a Jackie Collins. Without clear context, everything from tone to authority and credibility are compromised. Place Anna Karenina in modern-day Hollywood and you take away all the contextual influences that hold enough agency to push Anna toward her end. All the same plot points transposed into Hollywood conditions would turn Anna’s suicide from social tragedy to mere melodrama. Huge difference. If you’re writing melodrama, that’s one thing. If you’re aiming for social tragedy and do a belly-flop into melodrama, chances are your context is wrong for the story.

Without a particular contextual foundation, each unfolding outcome would lose more and more credibility and authority – and, eventually, the reader.

In fiction there’s context and there’s the right context. Great stories embody an exact mix of contextual elements that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.

The Quiet American. A Tale of Two Cities. The Year of Living Dangerously. Middlesex. The Shining. Gone With The Wind. Heart of DarknessThe Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Rebecca. The Power and the Glory.

These are contextually almost pitch-perfect, and it shows in their openings (lines or scenes). When you come across stories like these it’s like coming upon Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. You can’t explain why, but you know you’re looking at a piece of art that’s like nothing else. The hands, the expression (dead-on and from below), the stance – none of it could ever be any different. It’s as if that sculpture was always in that block of stone from the beginning of time, awaiting only the right artist to come by and recognize what had to be chipped away to reveal such a wonder.

It’s the same thing with master storytelling. It’s as if the entire story has always existed fully formed,buried there under a pile of words and letters until some genius comes along, dusts away the excess and reveals this marvel of narrative construction.

So what does context have to do with getting it right in story creation?

Remember the old chestnut write what you know? Well, the master storyteller writes what s/he understands. That’s a world of difference. You can know life under the torture of a drug abuser without ever understanding it. What great writers understand about themselves and life seeds their storytelling context, which in turn becomes the reader’s deepest, most subconscious connection to the story and, inevitably, to the writer and humanity.

Graham Greene, for example, understood the psychological double-bind of his devout Catholicism and his personal moral failings. He explored it to great effect in his best works, thereby creating vital connections between himself and the reader through narrative.

Greene’s The Quiet American opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for Alden Pyle to show up for their dinner plans. Even the names are perfectly chosen to suit the context, especially the apt mangling of Fowlair on the French colonials’ tongues. Opening at this exact moment is brilliant because (spoiler alert!) Fowler isn’t really waiting for Pyle to show up for dinner, he’s awaiting a defining moment of moral conscience – to see if he has succeeded in getting Pyle killed or not.

There’s so much wrapped up in starting precisely at this moment – Fowler’s manipulation of the situation, of Phuong and Pyle, the authorities, his ability to psychologically hive off and justify his own moral failure but not Pyle’s, his opportunism and narcissism. All these are characteristics Greene knew well in himself, through his many affairs and betrayals, and his own personal character and politics.

There’s also a pivotal geopolitical context in this specific opening: Fowler (colonialism) thwarting an early (1955) attempt at American interventionist policy (CIA/Pyle) in Vietnam (Phuong). It’s not just genius, it’s downright prescient. The perfect context sets up the story conceptually, symbolically, thematically,  relationally, and morally.

When Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities on those famous lines, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, he’s setting up a context of dissonant binaries that define and fuel the entire story – geopolitics, morality, social structures, family, love.

Context – the right context – informs not just story development, but character development as well. It’s what lets it all work together, separately, to move a story in the right direction instead of just toward some kind of plotted conclusion.

Unsound context creates dissonance with readers. Scarlett O’Hara is a very different character than Pansy O’Hara would have been had Margaret Mitchell not renamed her heroine at the last minute, even if not one other detail about the story had changed. The name alone would have been a confusing red herring, intimating weakness and frailty and, perhaps, somehow the inconsequential. It would have stripped GWTW of an important driving subtextual allusion: Scarlett and the scarlet woman, the whore of Babylon; Babylon with Atlanta, Atlanta with Belle Watling, the whore of Atlanta; Belle with Scarlett the Southern Belle; Scarlett connected with ruin through Atlanta and Rhett (the beast upon which the whore rides). The average reader might not pick up the chain of allusion, but it’s there in the background pulling a vital part of the storytelling load.

A story with no context at all is unfocused, weak, lacking in life force and drive. That’s when writers just throw in some random opening because it’s “hot” or puts the character in a high-action moment to get readers interested, only for the story to crumble to pieces with every page and chapter.

The right context won’t let that happen. The right context gets a story off and running in the only way that’s possible, and keeps it going toward the only ending possible, not in a way that suggests predictability or stock storytelling, but in the way that David could only have been sculpted as it was.

In Medias Res

Whenever you hear or read people discussing this idea it’s always somehow associated with the middle of the story’s action – something linear, a moment in chronological time.

Actually, if you look at the greats (and why look at anything less?), in medias res has less to do with the story action or chronology, but rather a contextual crossroads (yes, that again!). It’s a 3-D collision point, after which we witness the unfolding carnage and aftermath.

In The Year of Living Dangerously, a brilliant and forgotten masterpiece by Christopher Koch (the movie is a pale but beautiful ghost of the novel), the story opens at a crossroad of the characters’ lives both individually and together as a group, and in terms of geopolitics, driving symbolism, and Wayang allegory. Although Guy Hamilton is technically the protagonist, the novel introduces Billy Kwan first. It has to. Billy is the spark that sets everything off toward conclusion. That’s agency. Without Billy, Guy’s story would have slogged through with a resounding meh.

The Power and the Glory does the same thing, opening on what seems like an odd note: not the morally compromised Whiskey Priest, the story’s protagonist, but a sickish, abstracted ex-pat dentist heading through a dusty, broiling Mexican town toward a wharf to pick up canisters of ether. This scene sets up, first, the contextual breadth of the story’s experience with the Whiskey Priest. Second, it establishes the oppressive atmosphere and menace that bring the Whiskey Priest to us in the middle of it all and, eventually, delivers him into legend. The heat, the poverty, the corruption, the hopelessness – all work together like cogs. The story’s eye can’t be focused directly on the priest, but rather obliquely; an internal exile on the run, he enters and exits, enters and exits each scene and each perspective, so that we the readers feel the dogs of pursuit (his own, personally, and ideologically) that continually drive him on toward martyrdom. It’s a fraught, contextually rich opening scene.

To create good stories, and to engage in storytelling as the only delivery system possible between writer and reader, you need a solid contextual bedrock.

How powerful is it to get context right?

Context helps you put the right characters into the story, with the individual and collective agency to enact your storyline. It keeps you on track, focused, because you’ll understand what your story is about instead of just following a series of plot points that, alone, can’t generate the vitality or dynamic momentum that otherwise originate in the writer, from inside the story, out toward the reader.

Even a strong theme and premise can’t do that.

Starting with the right contextual core and understanding its power means that the right opening will be easier to find – the in medias res, that crossroads, that quantum flux where your story’s universe will come to glorious life.


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Writing Quote: Walter Benjamin

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. - Walter Benjamin

No writer should go without reading Benjamin’s work, especially The Storyteller (available free here)

Walter Benjamin (pr: Ben-ya-meen) was one of the greatest critical theorists to come out of the turmoil of interwar Europe. As a Jew he fled Nazi Germany and lived in exile all over Europe, then decided to seek refuge in the US after his arrest and imprisonment by the French Vichy government. A problem with transit documents from Fascist Spain meant certain repatriation to Nazi Germany and thus death in an extermination camp. Benjamin chose to commit suicide instead.

Shortly after his suicide the rest of his party gained safe passage to Lisbon.

His death was an unthinkable loss to the theoretical community, yet it was because of his death that we know him at all: a theorist and philosopher whose work had gone completely unrecognized during his lifetime was posthumously edited and published and thus saved from obscurity.

This quote is a great idea to ponder for writers.

Do the architectonic and textile stages mean anything to you as a writer? Do you understand what Benjamin means by approaching prose as musical vs architectonic vs textile, and why he differentiates between composing, building, and weaving?

Most writers stop at stage 1: composition (yes, even published writers). So what do you think Benjamin’s second and third stages add to the process, individually and together, that can’t be achieved through composition alone?

Does it make a difference if your work is literary or genre?

It’s well worth giving yourself a stress headache to wrap your mind around this one.





“Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.” – Walter Benjamin

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The Relationship Between Structure, Technique, And Development

What writers tend to do to put together a story:

                           Image result for wooden blocks                            

Linear                                  Non-linear                                 Abstract

But this is how writers should understand fiction creation:


Linear                              Non-linear                                        Abstract

Delivery structure as well as compositional technique (like stream-of-consciousness, for example), shouldn’t change the Big Picture. No matter how you present your story, it should still be something. That “something” is the role narrative development plays. It’s what helps the reader process the presentation in order to understand, ultimately, the story as a whole.

Otherwise what is it but a jumble of nonsense?

Here’s why:


The writer leaves the least amount of work for the reader in interpreting the story vision. Each part is distinct and fits into a conjoining part because individually and together they add up to something unique and specific to give shape to a coherent, holistic narrative creation. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are closely paralleled, and narrative benchmarks are met point by point. 


The writer purposefully re-orders (as opposed to disorders) sections of the story to control how and what the reader interprets, usually to heighten tension and suspense or to make a philosophical, stylistic, or symbolic point. The non-linear technique is not random or based on whim. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are not paralleled, and where benchmarks are not fully met, point by point, they are suggested, hinted, or left to be intuited.


The writer fragments the story and leaves only select pieces for the reader to interpret in an almost archaeological or forensic fashion. Abstract narrative is not built on incoherence or chaos; rather, the writer works from a complete developmental vision then deliberately chooses, for artistic, philosophical, or symbolic reasons how to let the reader experience it. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are not paralleled, and benchmarks are not fully met point by point; some are suggested, hinted, or intuited; the rest is a deliberate omission. Never does the writer lose control of coherence developmentally.

This analogy helps writers understand the difference between story development that’s just writing and plot, and story development that has an overarching purpose.

Regardless which technique you use to convey your narrative, it still has to be a story in the same way an intact skeleton, a disassembled skeleton, and skeletal fragments are all still a human skeleton.

Most writers approach storytelling like stacking and ordering blocks without ever realizing that despite plotting that makes the story seem coherent, there is no ultimate vision being imparted.

Storytelling delivers the writer’s vision .


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