Taking classical style and making it active…

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little mentoring for a talented young writer. I don’t get to mentor often and I enjoy it when I do. Several weeks ago she allowed me to read a short story she had written and to give her a high level critique. What follows below is the critique that I gave, posted here with permission. I thought it might be profitable for other you writers who are enamored with a classical fireside style of story-telling.

First of all, let me tell you that I enjoyed your story very much. I thought the premise was great and for what you did it was written excellently. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the style is something that is mostly unmarketable in the current fiction market.

When I started writing, I imitated all the great classical literature that I enjoyed. Classical literature is heavy on prose, low on dialogue, and mostly passive. In the current market trends, this doesn’t sell. At all. It took me years to learn this lesson. You can still see this classical style in the first drafts of Winter. So I appreciate and understand all about using this style.

However, some people disagree on whether or not a person should write to please the market or simply write however they want. The answer to that is something only you can determine. There are some questions you should ask yourself. Why are you doing this? Who are you doing it for? What kind of future do you want to have in this hobby? If your only goal is to write for yourself and God, with no ambitions to enter into publication, then by all means go forward and write whatever and however you want. But if you have a goal to enter publication, which means you’ll be writing to attract editors, publishers, and fans, then there are some specific changes you should make. So take all this with a grain of salt, depending on what you want to do with your writing career. Only you can make the final decision on that.

To make your story marketable, and by that I mean you could probably get it published in a short-story anthology or eZine within the year, then here are the changes you should make. Unfortunately, it will probably amount to an entire rewrite.

Make sure you define your POV. Zoom in from an omniscient POV to one that is very close to the character. Write and present the character from the inside out. In other words, focus on emotion before action. Limit all knowledge and observation to that only experienced by that one POV. If you need another, then create a line break and move the camera to the eyes of the other person. In the end, your reader should only know what they’ve learned through the eyes of the POV characters. Nothing more. If it’s important to your story, then put your POV character in the middle of it…experiencing it firsthand. Don’t tell me “it was a beautiful day and the birds were singing” show me your POV experiencing the beautiful day and hearing the birds singing.

Next, get active. Look for verbs of being and exterminate them. Look for –ly adverbs and delete them. Use better verbs and adjectives instead, unless there is absolutely no other way for you to get the point across. And there’s almost ALWAYS a better way.

Reveal details through actions. By “telling” me a detail, you’ll always fall into the trap of using a verb of being. But if you “show” me the detail through a resultant action, then the verb is an action verb.

Another helpful tidbit that often shows up in a classical style is post-positive action. This is when  you put events in a single sentence out of order of their occurrence. “Steve cleaned up his dishes after he ate dinner.” This post-positive writing should not be done. Look out for it. “Steve ate his dinner and then cleaned up his dishes.” Put action in the order it occurs.

Below, I’ve taken a paragraph from your story and rewritten it according to what I’ve said above. It’ll be in my voice and style and you should certainly develop your own voice and style, but at least it’ll give you an idea of how to redo the story if you want to make it marketable in today’s market.

Original:

A long time ago, in a forest old and green, there was a bird. His feathers were red and orange and shone gold in the sunlight, and his voice was soft as the first light of dawn and pure as the fresh morning air. He would travel through the forest, as other birds would, finding berries and insects for food, strings and feathers and fur for his nest, and any shiny bits and pieces that happened to catch his eye.

Rewrite:

The bird soared past the castle battlements (<-to show the “long time ago” without telling the reader) and pitched toward the ancient forest below. The first light of dawn spilled into the fresh morning air, shining like gold upon his red and orange feathers. He opened his beak and greeted the sun with a soft song. As he wove through the trees, he searched the underbrush for berries and insects to eat, or perhaps something to add to his nest, such as strings, or feathers, or fur. Something shiny gleamed in the morning light and he swooped low to investigate.

See? The difference between yours and mine is that you are in the chase helicopter reporting on what’s happening. I’m in the bird’s head. That’s where you need to live…in the head of your POV.

I highly recommend you read The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, by Jeff Gerke. http://amzn.com/0982104960. I’d let you borrow my copy, but I’d probably never see it again. 😉

Good luck!

-k

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