Perspective from the tip of the iceberg

I’m convening the CSFG novel writing group this year, and last month we did a session on connecting the reader to your story through point of view. We did an exercise where I got everyone to write a short, descriptive scene from a character’s point of view. I got each person to read out their scene, then the rest of us shared what information we had gleaned from the scene about that character. I only gave the group 10 minutes or so to write the scene, so they were very short. But, what was remarkable was just how much we all got out of a few well-placed details.

You’ve probably heard about the iceberg writing model. You know the one: only 10 per cent of what you know about your story, your characters and your world, makes it onto the page. The rest stays ‘under the water’, as it were, in the murky depths of your writerly brain. You need to know about it; it’s an important foundation for that tiny 10 per cent of your story that is the only part to ever see the sun.

Image courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Well, after hearing what we all got out of these tiny snippets of writing, it struck me that if you include the right details, your readers are going to be able to take that measly 10 per cent and use their imaginations to construct something far larger and more complex than that iceberg tip you gave them. They’ll be able to stand on it and look down through the ice into those depths you left lurking there. They might not see quite the same things that you do, or their vision might be clearer, and they might see stuff you never even knew existed.

But, for me, anyway, that’s part of the whole pleasure of reading: exercising your imagination and using the writer’s words like Lego bricks – to construct something wonderful that only you can really see.

 

 

Torn

I sent my most recent story out a couple of weeks ago. I’m really happy with it, and I wrote it for an anthology being put together by a publisher whose work I admire. It’s a great concept for an antho, and I’d love to be involved. However, I have found myself a little torn.

A nice, cryptic reference to my latest story.  Image courtesy of Black-HardArtstudio from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A nice, cryptic reference to my latest story.
Image courtesy of Black-HardArtstudio from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You see, being a realist, I have to acknowledge that, despite the clear genius of this particular story, and my brilliant interpretation of the anthology theme, this publisher may reject it. There’s a smorgasbord of reasons why this might happen (including that my estimation of this story’s awesomeness may be wildly subjective). So, being an optimist, I have had a bit of a think about where else I might send it, if it bounces, and now I’ve come up with some ideas that I’m really quite excited about.

So, now I’m feeling torn!

It would be just as awesome to be picked up by Publisher B as it would be by Publisher A. C, D, E & F aren’t bad either.

I have to say, this is a preferable situation to be in, than having to face the inevitable despondency that comes with rejection cold. At least now I’ve got a backup plan.

One of the most useful things my writing group, the CSFG, has kicked off in recent times (probably about a year and a half ago), is a thing we affectionately call ‘Rejectomancy’. I think Ian McHugh coined that title. The idea that is that those of us participating set ourselves a submission goal for the year, acknowledging that rejection is the norm, and we’ll probably rack up a fair few. You might go with a formula something like: 5 submissions per story before it gets picked up. If you have 3 stories in your trunk, and you reckon you might write another 4 that year, that would give you a goal of 35 submissions. Of course, if that seems overwhelming, you can adjust it up or down.

We then report back to the group on the number of rejections we’ve had to date. It’s actually kinda fun & takes the sting out of every ‘thanks but no thanks’ email.

(I set myself a goal of 25, and I’m failing miserably, having made only 10 subs and it’s August already. However, I’ve got the best excuse ever, being that I sold 3 stories early on and much, much quicker than I’d anticipated.)

Rejectomancy has given me several things.

  1. I feel much more OK about rejections now. It’s no longer soul-destroying (well, not always, shall we say) and I’m much better able to just see it as part of the professional process.
  2. It makes me put together a bit of a submission plan for each story. If I’m going to do 5 subs on Story X, where are those subs going to be? I make a list of the markets I think will suit it best, and go from the top down. (That’s another bit of advice from Ian McHugh. Start at the top. Always.)
  3. It means I almost always have a few out there, doing the rounds. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. Your chances of winning are small, but they’re non-existent if you don’t buy a ticket. As long as I’ve got the story out there, in some editor/slush-wrangler’s in-box, my dream of it being published is still alive.

 

 

 

The fear of not being original

On Wednesday night, at the monthly Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild general meeting, we had a fascinating presentation from author Russell Kirkpatrick. I’m gonna say it was about story shape, because that’s what he said it was about. But that’s kind of like saying Lord of the Rings is about hobbits.*

Somehow Russell talked us through sculpting the shape of a story using an analysis of wave files from his extensive and eclectic music collection, with a particular focus on prog rock. I’ll just leave that there.

One thing that really jumped out at me, though, was a point he made at the very beginning of his talk. This was: don’t let the fear of not being original stop you writing your story. He illustrated this with clever 1 second grabs from three wildly different songs. This showed how a particular element that has current, on-trend appeal might get picked up and used, not just in different songs, but across a range of music genres, either because it is currently looping in the common creative consciousness, or, if you’re more cynical, to deliberately broaden the appeal of a song. Probably even both. And what’s more, they get resurrected, as samples, years later for new works, by new artists in new genres that didn’t exist back then.

This struck a chord with me (see what I did there?), because earlier that day I had been thinking about an online news headline I’d seen. This is it, complete with the pic that accompanied the story:

A curious Ohio boy who sneaked into an abandoned house over the weekend discovered a mummified corpse hanging inside a closet, unnoticed for nearly five years

A curious Ohio boy who sneaked into an abandoned house over the weekend discovered a mummified corpse hanging inside a closet, unnoticed for nearly five years.

You can see the appeal, can’t you? There is story there. Layers of it. I spent my entire ride, both to and from work yesterday, immersed in it.

Imagining the boy: a bundle of trepidation and curiosity, creeping through the dusty, creaking, damp-ridden dark; peering into empty rooms, lit only by murky shafts of light leaking through boarded-up windows. Seeing the cupboard, wondering if there was anything interesting inside…

Or thinking on the story behind the guy who died – a homeless man who had bought the house for cash after inheriting a sum of money from his mother. What was it about finally owning a place to live that drove him to such despair that he took his own life?

And that’s just based on what was in the news article. There are endless possibilities for making stuff up from there. What about the police officer who had to attend the property after the call from the boy’s mother? Did she see something off-kilter that lodged in her mind and had her waking up in the middle of the night months later, wondering about the verdict of suicide?

Or…is there something else entirely? Something lurking under the floorboards of the house, scuttling through the roof space. Something bitter and steeped in spite that talks to you in your sleep and leaches the peace from your waking hours. Or perhaps it is the house itself. What happened there that sank into the fabric of the peeling wallpaper? That spreads across the sagging ceilings like black mould, and taints the very air with a grief you breathe from the moment you step inside?

The scope is endless!

But, it’s hardly original, is it?

Despite the fact that this one actually happened, I reckon you could probably find a dozen crime novels built around the premise of “Curious Kid Discovers Body In Abandoned House” without trying too hard. And probably another dozen each of psychological thrillers, horror stories, kid’s adventures and paranormal romances to boot.

And you know what? They’ll all be different. Some will be great. There will be memorable characters, sadness that stays with you and killer twists. And some will be pretty ho hum.

But at the core of each of them is that same identical 26 word hook (or one-second sound grab). Because the potential for story here is just so immense.

So, yeah. Maybe there’s a thing in your story that’s not so original. Write it anyway. Make it good. If it’s good enough, it probably won’t matter that we’ve seen it before. We can just lose ourselves in it all over again. The frisson of familiarity might even be what makes it for us.

Madonna’s Express Yourself v Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, anyone?

 

*Russell is from New Zealand. I kind of had to mention hobbits.