Back in June and October, 2012 Page & Spine published two poems (Rockies and Bug War) by a novice writer named Fred Waiss. The following month we wrangled over the name of his short story Salvation (which he still insists is entitled Duty--what does he know?). Since then, this former English teacher has graced virtually all our pages and those of many other publications, both electronic and print. He often critiques our offerings so I’ve asked him to share his insights right here on the last Friday of each month. I know you’ll enjoy Fred’s comments as much as I do. – N.K.
There's one cardinal rule about fiction writing. STORY comes first, last, and always. Everything must serve the Story. If it's a literary story with no particular plot, but the emphasis is on the characters, or the setting, or a point of philosophy, everything needs to serve that end. If it's a story with a plot, everything must serve the plot and the characters that are involved and the setting of the plot.
Anything that does not serve the story—everything that does not advance the point or the characterizations or the plot needs to be discarded.
This is especially true in short stories. In novels the writer can get away with irrelevancies here and there, if he doesn't get carried away, because the reader expects more verbiage. The descriptions of characters and actions and settings can have hundreds of words devoted to them in a novel. In a short story, it must be short and sweet.
Another rule is: don't aggravate your readers. Not if you want them to want to read more from you. Don't leave them hanging, wondering, What the hell was that for?
The January 2 story from The Reading Lamp, The Real Thing, is really good—and slightly bad. First, the good. The narrator of this story is a pathetic loser. What makes him pathetic, rather than just an average loser, is that he doesn't realize he's a loser. He thinks he's a winner. He has almost convinced himself that he is on top of the world. He has money, good looks, and he knows how to score. He's good at the game.
He's a loser because he believes that the game is all there is...and even then he doesn't quite play it right. He cheats, but only he will ever know, and he doesn't even recognize the fact that he's cheating—cheating himself.
I could easily do several hundred words of psychological analysis of this poor chump, but that's not the purpose here. My task is to analyze the writing, not the characters.
This story is good because the author, Jeff Suwak, uses the character's own words and perceptions to show us his "losership." This is much more effective than having another character, an enemy or a coworker, for example, reveal how much of a loser this guy is. One of his female conquests could relate it, too. But those outside characters could only reveal what he does. The narrator reveals what he thinks and what he feels. And he tells us that he considers himself a winner while revealing those deficiencies that make him a loser. Well done.
However! (There's always a "however.") He puts something in there that has no purpose. He's built a great sound system, but then near the end of every song there's the sound of a bubble machine with calliope music, intruding on the ending:
"What the hell was that for?"
“Look,” she says, pointing at her quivering thighs. “Look.”
I toss the towel to her and walk over to the window to look out over the bay. I like the way the water looks at night with the lights reflecting off it.
“Look,” she giggles, "look."
The “Look,” she says, pointing at her quivering thighs. “Look.” is okay. Although not necessary, it fits in with the characterization of Jules. The story would lose nothing if he simply tossed her the towel without that bit of insistence from her.
But the second pair of "Look" commands really hurts the story. The author has bestowed a certain importance on the utterance by having it repeated. The reader is now invested in what she wants him to look at. Her quivering thighs again? Or is there something else, perhaps something significant or unique she wants him to see. And then...nothing. The reader is left wondering what was so important to her that twice (four times, really) she urged him to "Look." He ignored her insistence. That would be all right if the narrator made a point of dismissing her urging. If he revealed some kind of action or reaction to that second urging, fine. But he just let it lie, like an unexamined yet obvious clue in a mystery story.
Those laughing entreaties from her add nothing to the story, and the repeated appeals are an example of subtraction by addition. They do not serve the story, they only weaken it.
While The Real Thing is aggressively absent of grief or guilt, No Words by Maggie Giles (the July 9th Story) is a study in those two emotions.
There are obvious similarities in the stories. Both are told in first person and the vast majority of the narration is internal. But after that, the stories head in opposite directions.
These two narrators, on a first shallow read, seem to be complete opposites. The young man seems to be a winner. The woman in No Words would seem the quintessential loser. She's been divorced for years and obviously not remarried. And now her son is dead and it's at least partly her fault—through silent acquiescence if naught else.
But the young man has invested nothing of himself in his life—he is, in fact, determinedly avoiding investing anything beyond time and money. That's what makes him a loser that thinks he's a winner.
The woman has invested everything of herself. She has married, given birth, helped raise a son, severed the ties with the man she loved, and now an accident has severed her ties with her son. But she is already re-investing an emotional attachment to her ex. Will it last? We have no way to know, but we do know that even if it is disappointingly temporary, she has the courage to invest herself again. And, in so doing, she eases the burden of the grieving father. She knows, emotionally and intellectually, that things matter outside herself.
And, Maggie did something clever that is nearly the opposite of Jeff's flaw. She didn't tell us too much. Ryan is dead because of a stupid accident, because neither parent wanted to say no.
She could have elaborated, but did not. The reader is free to guess what that accident might be. Motocross for the first time? A party, and he—or a friend—driving under the influence, was in a crash? Skydiving? A drug overdose at a friend's house? Instead of including something that did not belong, she gave us just enough to understand her situation. And it was realistic, too. A grieving mother might not, in her internal dialog, think out the details of that stupid accident. The details are not important, only the result.
Another good story.
However! (See previous parenthetical observation). On first reading a sense of "flaw" made itself felt. On second reading, I pinpointed it. Two flaws, really, in the same single statement:
The last piece of my baby boy, though he hadn’t really been my baby for eighteen years.
This sentence is included, I suspect, to tell the reader Ryan's age. The first time I read it, it struck a note of discord. She didn't think of him as her baby for eighteen years? That's not realistic. Every mother thinks of her son as her baby for at least the first year or two. Some for the first forty. So, was Ryan eighteen, or twenty?
If he's eighteen, he's old enough to enlist in the service on his own, vote, live alone, get a job, and he doesn't need Mom and Dad's permission, really, for anything if it's not in their house or their car.
If he's over eighteen by a couple of years, again, he doesn't need permission and probably wouldn't ask for it. Yet, this tragic accident was caused by some activity that either parent could have vetoed.
The easy fix is simply to change the years from eighteen to fifteen.
With that, Ryan's age might be fifteen through seventeen, an age when he's going to want to do something risky, but will need one or both parents' permission. Plus, the younger age increases the feeling of tragedy.
In my own writing I'm always on the alert for little clashes with logic or reality like this because I know there are plenty of other buttheads out there, just like me, who will gleefully jump on a perceived inconsistency and rate the entire story poorly because of that one little thing.
My completely subjective thought about the flaws in these two stories is that both are pulled from reality. Some young lady after getting nailed on the couch really did repeat the appeal to look. And some young man killed in a stupid accident really was eighteen.
I may be completely off base. But even if so, it is still worth pointing out that, when writing fiction, an author must alter or delete certain actual happenings that helped inspire the work if those things do a disservice to the Story.
An author very naturally develops an emotional attachment to the details that inspired him (her). He wants to share those details with the world; so she writes the story and sends it in, not for the money but for the sharing.
Sometimes the branches of that beautiful story tree must be pruned so that the reader can enjoy the whole tree without the occasional distorted branch obscuring part of the view.
A writer needs to step away from the tree for a week or more, and then re-examine it with a fresh eye. What branches might need to be pruned to improve the whole view will be a little more obvious.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher of English and physical education. He writes mostly speculative fiction, but tries his hand at literary fiction on odd days. His fantasy novel, Prophecy of Honor, will be published by Double Dragon Publishing this summer.