One of the things I’m involved in as an editor at an indie press is adjudicating fiction in our competitions. This year we’ve amalgamated the fiction prizes into one so that people can submit across prose genres — short stories, novels and novellas.
Every year there are pieces of fiction that jump out as strong contenders but trip themselves up along the way. What is it that Cinnamon Press is looking for in a story? a young friend recently asked me. What makes a good story?
Don’t tell me…
It’s often easier to start from what doesn’t work.
The stories that tell me what is happening (sometimes several times to make sure I get it) but which don’t ‘show’ me anything so I am never drawn in rarely work. Telling has its place in bridging passages, in some forms of first person narrative, but for the most part I’m with Chekhov on this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Other stories fail because they drown in adjectives or (even worse) adverbs. Descriptive passages can sing off the page, sometimes with a rich seasoning of adjectives thrown in, but only if every word has earned its place. And some words never earn a place — really, just, suddenly, somehow… As says Ursula Le Guin in her invaluable guide to prose writing, Sailing the Craft:
Nothing happens somehow
Please read on on Medium – this is a post particularly for writers and if you have a novel or short stories that would be eligible for our fiction prize, take a look at that too – thank you for reading.
For some of us, saying no is hard, even anathema. I’ve been a people-pleaser for over five decades, but the seeds of saying no were sown when I left a vocation. Not only was I assaulted three times at work, but those I worked for were anything but sympathetic and it was time to say ‘no more’.
But as a publisher and editor I soon slid back into my old people-pleasing ways. This may not sound like much of a problem, but it is.
Why always saying yes isn’t healthy
1. If you always say yes, what’s it’s worth?
When we agree to give time or skills or resources to something it should be of some import.
If you say yes to everything then nothing is more important or valuable in your life than anything else. The creative project that is your dream and passion, quality time with your family and friends — are these of no more weight than random requests or unreasonable calls to work more hours than a week contains?
2. If you always say yes you’ll end up in difficult situations…
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Why do we do it? The reasons for writing are as various as writers, but among them are common threads that unite us.
1. For the trance
I can lose a whole day writing. I forget to eat or drink. I come round hours after beginning and discover I’m cold. Writing takes us into an inner world that is endless and extraordinary.
In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, John Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on luminous, otherworldly quality:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
When we write, we’re opening ourselves up. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
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The best advice we give is usually the advice we most need to listen to. This is the case for me when it comes to getting overwhelmed. I’m far too good at saying yes. My to do list usually contains at least 5 miracles to perform before breakfast. And every time I eliminate a task that isn’t important or essential, I have a tendency to think of two things I should do in its place.
Recently I’ve been making a much more concerted effort to stop this cycle of wild optimism followed by overwhelm. It’s so easy to overestimate what we can do in a short period but the converse is also true: we can underestimate the amount of change we can accomplish in a longer time. Getting the flow right is the trick.
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Being someone who makes sacrifices is often held up as a virtue. But whether we’re trying to form creative, autonomy-respecting relationships with your children or relating to adults in different areas of life, ‘giving in’ is not a solution. Giving and ‘giving in’ are not the same thing.
This year in my journalling, each week I’ve been focussing on a different quality that I’d like to encourage in myself. I’ve got thirteen to think about over the year, so each quality will get four weeks of attention.
But the quality I return to most often and which seems to me to be the most fundamental is generosity. I’m not talking about having pots of money to give away, though that might be a factor for some, but something deeper. We can be generous whether we are wealthy or in financial poverty. The point is that giving, whether it’s of time, skills or resources is a key virtue.
But if we’re always giving, doesn’t this lead to always self-sacrificing? …
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Change is hard. When we are striving towards big goals, whether personal or creative, it can feel like an uphill struggle. In the short term, it can be difficult to see change taking place. And even when we do see the difference, the results can be fragile. There are several reasons why making big shifts in life can come to a halt or even slip backwards.
Despite the adage that habits take only 60–70 days to establish, we all know that that they can disappear in a much shorter time. We can wipe out the habit of good nutrition in one holiday or the ritual of daily yoga during a minor illness. Moreover, the fact of having been successful can make us complacent. After the initial euphoria we find ourselves on a plateau, feeling stuck.
How do we keep the vision alive? What is it that allows passion to thrive and grow rather than wither?
Part of the answer lies in knowing how the vision has become dimmed in the first place and there are plenty of possible reasons.
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