Saturday, February 25, 2012

Premature Submission Syndrome (PSS)

My name is Bud Sparhawk and I suffer from Premature Submission Syndrome.  PSS is a horrible affliction affecting many short story writers.

In my case the onset of PSS was subtle.  When I first started writing I agonized over every word choice, spelling, grammatical parsing, and punctuation mark, ever fearful that an editor would become incensed over any deviation from perfection, dreading that I should lose a possible sale, if not my reputation, should I make a single, unforgivable error.  I never submitted anything until it had been thoroughly reviewed and even then, I hesitated.

But as the years passed and sales became more frequent I would occasionally fail to be so painstakingly careful with my prose. There were no adverse reactions from this lack of care and few stories were rejected for those sorts of problems alone.  More frequently, when I did get a grudging editorial remark, it would be along the lines of "Alas, this failed to interest me," which spoke more to style and content than production skills.

As I gained confidence my output grew as I cranked out story after story from the ideas flowing through my head. One story completed wasn't enough and I had to do another no sooner than finishing the last and sometimes even before!  Submissions became a drug, this driving need to produce, produce, produce until finally I was trying throwing off pieces as fast as I could type, one after another, submission after submission. I couldn't control my impulses, my crying need to finish.

I hadn't noticed that the speed of production meant that the quality of the stories suffered. More and more I noticed upon review after rejections, that there were scenes I could have done better, places where I could have improved the pacing, and lines that could have been enhanced by adding more descriptive elements.  I even found that I missed opportunities to boost characterizations.  That is when I realized that I had PSS. I was submitting my stuff too early. I was not allowing my internal editor to critically assess my stories. Worse of all, electronic submissions only acerbated the condition.

The first step to recovery was facing my weakness, admitting the problem, and asking for intervention from a writers' group, a beta reviewer, or simply having the will power to put something aside for a week or more and working on something else.  The secret cure for PSS is to use something that will break the cycle of getting it out there for someone, anyone, to read as fast as possible.

But I am making progress, except for the one I sent yesterday and revised this morning ....

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Got Rhythm

Stories and symphonies are similar in many respects.  Structural similarities abound: most notably, there are the refrain, a thematic central element that is repeated, and the coda or conclusion. Along the way both composer and writer weave patterns that reveal the unfolding story and, along with these, the rhythm that paces the piece. In music this is the succession of notes and with writing, the manner in which words are broken into sentence and how those sentences are parsed.  Both dictate the rhythm of a piece.

One of the first things I was taught about writing, as opposed to having discovered through practice, was the importance of sentence variation.  A paragraph composed of only five word sentences might be crystal clear and elegantly worded, but it would be tedious and boring to read.  Variety could be achieved by simply combining a few sentences that were related, separating them into comma delimited phrases.  Of course there are examples where variety is not needed - tech manuals are a good example. Legal documents are examples where carefully composed and complex sentences are absolutely needed. In both cases the enjoyment of the reader is not an issue, quite unlike fiction.

Variety is not the only reason to vary sentences in a work of fiction.  Sentence length can also be used to impart a sense of scene e.g.  She floated across the lake in spring, detecting the scent of blossoms in the air, listening to the buzz of insects aroused from their winter's rest, and basking in the warm sun. This languorous phrasing is far different than a fight scene that demands a more active sentence length e.g.  A foot flies.  You dodge and counter. He blocks your thrust. He falls. The fight continues as you circle and parry, slash and thrust, counter and defend until both of you, exhausted, fall.

Rhythm provides the difference in feeling between these two examples.  The type of descriptive narrative used in the first example would be completely inappropriate for the action scene where it would break the streaming continuity of what is taking place.

As I said in the opening paragraph, the structure of the overall symphony or story has a certain rhythm.  It is produced not merely by the words chosen to impart a scene, but the way the scenes vary in tension or emotion.  Do all the emotional peaks come in one lump or are they distributed across the entire span of the story?  Think of this as breathing.  Another question is if the high point of the action comes near the epiphany. If it is buried in the story's middle it will lose its punch. Neither do you want the story to peak too early.  Too early or too late are equally deadly for reading enjoyment.  Long stretches of exposition that slow the story also affect the rhythm of a piece and should be distributed in shorter sections if possible.  Another technique, if applicable, is to alternate narrative and dialogue. Too much of either becomes boring so balance is important.

While composing a story the writer should attempt to categorize each scene in terms of depth of description, its emotional content, the amount of tension, and the density of exposition.  The point of this is to arrange the scenes to balance tension and release, follow bathos with pathos, shift from emotional highs to despair, and use humor to offset horror. I have a little checklist to make certain that the right questions get answered.

Of course this begs the question of content and style, but that's another subject entirely.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

That Damned Subconscious Thing

I usually write these blog posts in small stages; a sentence here, a paragraph there, a bit of editing, a bit of cutting, and finally a quick read-through and posting.  I generally spend no more than sixty to ninety total minutes on these, which explains their brevity and lack of deep reflection.

The source of my posts' subjects vary. Sometimes it is an idea introduced at a panel discussion, a chance remark overheard at a writers' meeting, or the result of fighting with whatever demon happens to be hectoring me at the time.  I hardly ever lack for an interesting - to me, at any rate - subject.

Until recently I imagined these little blogs as things apart from my writing, an experiment in writing journalistic non-fiction and, at the same time, paying forward by providing others with some of the hard-won lessons I'd learned over the years. At times I egotisticly entertain hopes that I've helped some novice writer become a little wiser and, more importantly, a little more comfortable with their writer's curse.

All of which brings me to my point (I do ramble a bit, don't I?)  I recently wrote, in all innocence, a piece about feeling like an impostor only to realize later that it was the key that unlocked the heart of the story I was struggling with.  Had the blog, I wondered, been my subconscious telling me the solution that my writer's brain couldn't see?  Was I aware that I was actually working out the issues something I believed was quite apart from the story? Perhaps it was, so I began reviewing my previous blogs correlating these to the dates of when the stories had been completed.  I didn't find an an absolute correlation, but there were enough instances of subject similarity to convince me that I have been talking my way through many of my story issues as I write each week.

Coincidentally, this week I just happen to be working on a story about reflections and self-discovery.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rule of Three

One of the "rules" writers learn is that three successive actions tell a good story while more become boring and fewer are less interesting.  That is to say that the protagonist's first, and most obvious action must fail in some sense so that he or she must adjust, only to fail again, but for a different reason.  The protagonist finally succeeds by understanding and overcoming the reasons that prevented the success of the first two attempts. More simply put; If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  Note that it doesn't say just try again nor does it say try, try, try, try again or even keep trying until it works, damn it!  Nope;  three time's the charm.  It's what works best and cursed be any writer who ignores it.

But why does this pattern work to the point that it almost becomes a rule?  Why does it work so well?

I think the answer lies embedded in human psychology and frankly the reader's need for drama. The first encounter with the situation should make the reader experience literary frustration of facing a seemingly intractable problem.  Hope is kindled when the reader realizes the protagonist has conceived a solution and tries to implement it. That hope is dashed when this  first "solution" not only fails to succeed but places the protagonist in a more serious or precarious situation than before. Of course, if the solution worked at this point there wouldn't be any reason to continue reading the story, except to see if the protagonist has learned anything useful.

Tension is increased when the reader is surprised to discover, along with the protagonist, that there is a second possible solution that offers an expectation of success.  This solution seems so perfect that hope is briefly renewed, only to be dashed by a second failure that sets the protagonist even further back than before. There seems to be no way out as Frustration is joined by sister Despair and the reader is sent into the depths of depression at at the protagonist's absolute certainty that there is no possibility of a solution. None whatsoever.  This is the dark night of the story's soul, the nadir where only bleak certainty of doom awaits.  "Is there no way out," they might think and feel and be left with only grudging acceptance of the way things will remain.  Forever.

Then a glimmer of light appears, a tiny spark that brightens the gloom to illuminate another way. This spark draws the reader/protagonist from a well of despond.  In a few short sentences the reader/protagonist develops a deeper understanding of the reasons for their previous failures (and it is usually something about their character or dedication).  Not only that, but through that understanding the reader/protagonist finally sees the proper course of action and at last we arrive at the third solution, the epiphany that makes the path crystal clear. With that revelation the reader is swept up in feelings of relief, of also understanding what was hidden until now. Exhalation fills the reader's mind as the protagonist unflinchingly applies the solution, succeeds, and takes the reader racing at speed into a satisfying denouement that nicely rounds out the tale, often refers back to some opening scene element, and leaves the reader in a state of complete relaxation.

That is why the "rule" of three works.