“Reading to relate is like looking in a mirror; I want to walk through a door.”
In this insightful Authors Talk, Patricia Ann McNair delves into the idea — and issue — of readers and writers only finding value in work they can relate to.
Many times she has heard the phrase, “I can’t relate,” from students and peers in regards to stories. As readers, it can be easy for us to become uncomfortable when confronted with stories that we cannot relate to and we cannot understand, but Patricia argues that it is exactly these stories we need to be reading.
When we read only stories we can understand, we are simply looking in a mirror; but, when we read stories that do not resemble our own, we are shown through an open door into a world we never would have encountered before.
“Write what you don’t know….”
Listen to her full Authors Talk below.
Check out Patricia’s newest work, Responsible Adults, coming out in December of 2020 (Cornerstone Press).
Today we are pleased to feature author Natalie Young as our Authors Talk series contributor. Natalie begins by reading “Notes on Earth Life” before explaining how the poem is part of a larger series about a human woman, an alien, and a monster. She shares that her “goal is to combine actual history and reality with speculative fiction to explore identity and human absurdities, as well as culture and environment.”
Natalie also explains how her manuscript attempts to “show a different perspective of things our culture does that we tend to accept as normal, but when seen from fresh eyes can be peculiar.” She reveals that using the voice of an alien helped her achieve this because putting on a mask adds distance. Natalie also delves into her inspiration and the process of choosing what topics to include in her poem.
Humans have always been obsessed with how things came to be. Originally, this started with existence, how humans arrived on Earth, how our planet was formed, what caused the lights in the sky; once those topics were milked for all they were worth, these stories narrowed down: how the rhino got its skin in the classic porquoi tale best told by Rudyard Kipling, how narcissism created the echo and reflection from the Greek myth, or why male genitalia looks the way it does as given in the Winnebago Trickster Cycle from the Winnebago Native American oral tradition. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how the same stories are told in a multitude of ways. This could be attributed to use of oral tradition, the passing down of stories through voice, carrying through different narrators with different styles of speaking and different interpretations of the same events. In this way, the story is always changing and refining through a never-ending cycle of editors in order to become the tales we know today.
There’s something satisfying about creation, too, like scratching an itch you didn’t even know existed. The act of creation through writing, art, music, and crafts is highly valued, even though nobody wants to do it. Everyone dreams of writing a novel but taking on writing as a profession is still generally met with hesitance (“Creative writing? What do you plan to do with that, teach?”). However, in a more visual sense, such as works-in-progress videos by various artists or with crafts like crocheting or knitting, people are hypnotized. I find there’s nothing more calming than watching someone make a watercolor painting, and when the work is finished, I want to find the artist and thank them for allowing me to watch. When I crochet in public, I’m always greeted with a “What are you knitting?” (I’ve given up correcting them) followed by the person watching me work as I wrap the yarn around the hook and pull it through the loops.
The downside to creating is, of course, dealing with doubt. I don’t think anybody in creation stories ever doubted their actions, but being in the arts requires juggling doubt and dancing with failure. One of the ways I personally deal with this is by writing my own creation stories. I’ve found it kick-starts my imagination and returns me to the mindset of seven-year-old me who loved to write how things came to be, to the point of writing a chapter book about star formation. Creativity is a must, too. Why do snails have shells? Well, obviously, a snail started out as a slug and decided it wanted to become strong, like the ant, so it found a shell to live in and now carries its own house on its back as a strength building exercise. It’s unscientific but gives us a new way of looking at the world which is exactly what literature and the arts aim to do: show new perspectives so that we may live without hurting others. Bonding through any form of creation, especially through storytelling, gives us the chance to understand something new, both in intellectual and empathetic standpoints. Even if your next work doesn’t make you the next Charles Dickens, it’s still creation and has the possibility to change someone’s viewpoint. Even if it’s not something you want published, tell the story to a few friends and tell them to pass it on to someone else; in a few generations, you’ll have a masterpiece.
I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.
This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.
Nail that Opener
Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.
The point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.
Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.
My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.
One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.
It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.
Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.
It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.
There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.
Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.
Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.