I hate formatting. A part of this, a big part of this, is due to the fact that I’m too lazy to remember the rules. Cathy C, over at the AbsoluteWrite forums (www.absolutewrite.com/forums) has posted a hugely useful guide for formatting manuscript submissions. The guide covers submitting both short story and novel manuscripts. While the guide is designed for print submissions, unless dictated otherwise, online submissions are expected to follow the same submission rules.

The guide covers the following points of interest, their definition and when they’re used in industry:

– Bold fonts
– Chapter breaks
– Chapter start points
– Courier 12
– Courier new
– Cover sheet
– Font size
– Formatting
– Headers
– Indentation/Tab stops

and many others…

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He is seen by many to be one of the most important and influential American short story writers. For me, Carver’s short stories showed me how writing can be architecture, in that it can be both beautifully organic and at the same time clinically measured, restrained. In The Art of Fiction, No. 76, Carver talks about his own writing process, his drinking stage and the impact of drinking on his life, but he also talks about that thing that used to get him going – the first sentence. His writing habits, Carver explained, were either all out or nothing, when he wrote, he wrote as much as he could, and when there was no inspiration, he would wait for it to arrive. The revealing, personal interview has something for everyone, whether you are a Carver fan or not.

My last post concerned Aristotle’s poetics. Today I’m going to have a look at the first of the concepts covered, that of poetic imitation.

On imitation of characters as real people:

‘…it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are.’

Aristotle’s point is a subtle one, but hugely important. As writers we must be aware of the choices we make, of the words we use and when we use them and for what purpose. In representing characters we need to have a conscious understanding of the reasons why we depict one character as good and the other as bad.

Most actors will tell you that they don’t play bad characters as bad people. Nobody thinks of themselves as bad, most sane people have a reason for the way they are, the way they act. It is these reasons that we must carry across on the page.

On imitation of objects through rhythm:

‘For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, imitate and represent various objects through the medium of color and form … the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or ‘harmony,’ either singly or combined.’

Writing styles act like instruments – the order of words on the page contribute, shaped the meaning ascertained. Not only does the way an object comes into existence change, the rhythm of our writing forms the world itself.

Aristotle talks about the pleasure of rhythm. He knew about the power of chants and persuasive speaking, all using common elements of melody. Today, science has confirmed that our ear is a finely tuned calculator, it enjoys repetition, a steady beat, and order.

On imitation of events through narrative voice and tense:

‘For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration- in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged- or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us.’

The narrative mode, or the way the narrative is delivered is something I personally don’t give much thought prior to starting the writing process. In other words, for me, it just happens, I get a fairly good idea at the start of the story that POV should be second person, for example. That is probably not the best way to go, indeed Aristotle argues that poets imitate (a conscious decision, therefore) the world around them, and it is their imitation that gives meaning and life to the objects and people inhabiting their world.

– Dynamics

– Action

– Character

– Thought

– Diction

– Spectacle

– Melody

The full version of the concepts covered can be found at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.mb.txt. It’s a fascinating read.

My own writing journey began with the short story form. I remember how in primary school (this was still in Sarajevo) we had to do these writing exercises where we would write as much as we could in forty-five minutes or so. The teacher hadn’t called it a short story, but the result almost always was. The next week he would give us our mark along with his edits. He didn’t do any rewriting, of course, the focus was on getting the grammar and the sentence structure right. We’d then spend time rewriting the story, making sure it was as perfect as an eleven year old could make it.

There were a lot of good lessons in that exercise: free-writing, editing, polishing your work, writing for a deadline, writing even when writing might be the last thing on your very young mind. It was from these early beginnings that I fell in love with short fiction.

What it’s all about

Before we can start writing a short story we have to know a few things, I think. We have to know why we’re writing it, and we have to know how and where to begin.

The why is important because it immediately gets our mind on the right track. The why can be anything from something that’s happened to us during the day, or something (an emotion, an experience, a thought, a dream, an idea) that we want to explore in our short story. This why, when we’re done, often becomes the theme of the story, or its message. But it doesn’t have to be that initially. Initially, curiosity is enough.

For me, the short story starts with a feeling, a thing that, more often than not, cannot be grasped. Rarely am I able to see the start, the sentences that will get me going. I don’t worry about the details too much, the important thing is that there is something there, that there is something in the room that ought to be talked about. A good start, a good beginning, is what allows us to go from A to B. It makes the inevitable possible.

A metaphor

Consider two trains barrelling toward one another at high speed. The crash is inevitable, that much we know. The crash is where our story will take us. And our story will end a few minutes after, as the cloud of dust is lifting, revealing the mayhem and the damage. The end is us trying to work out who has made it, and, more importantly, seeing how they’ve been changed by the experience.

The image of two trains highlights three things I look for in a story:

–          Urgency

I want the writer to take me to the end in the most efficient way possible.  I hate verbiage, especially in writing. It has been hammered into me that if a paragraph, a sentence even, doesn’t advance the plot or develop the character it must go. There is some provision for setting the scene, but you don’t get much. If I get bored, I’m out.

–          Impending danger

Think about the last action/thriller movie you saw that had a bomb as a device to generate conflict. I am almost certain there was a timer visible on that bomb. Apart from the fact that no real explosive would have a convenient timer (unless it showed the wrong time), I find it does the opposite of what the writers wanted. It kills tension. The conflict becomes constrained to those last few seconds when our hero has to make the choice between the red and black wire. And we know they’ll be fine.

Do away with the timer, I say. The bomb should go off any second now. Our characters should be living on shifting ground. Any second now things could irreversibly change. Conflict should not be constrained to character interactions. It should bleed right through the pages. It should be everywhere, like a thick fog descending into the world of our characters filling each living second in suffocating uncertainty.

–          Realism

Fiction is not about writing real life. Short stories, especially, are anything but real life. Short stories do not need to be accurate, but they need to be truthful. This is something they teach you in creative non-fiction: how to get to the truth of things (a higher truth, if you will, if such a things exists) even if the facts are partially or fully missing.

The point is you’ve got to get to the good stuff, the stuff that drives our lives. Emotion. Everything in a story should be set up in a way to squeeze the sponge that is life. That sticky thing that’s left, that’s feeling, that’s experience, that’s emotion. It doesn’t have to be anything strong or big, it doesn’t have to be life or death, but it needs to be concrete. The reader should be able to go, ‘Ah, yes! I recognise that. I can imagine. I can relate.’ Even if they’ve never lived it, if the writing is strong, they should be able to empathise, to connect. Because, no matter if you’re writing about aliens, a balloon swallowing a city or talking giraffes, fiction ought to stand firmly planted in our own humanity.