One of the challenges of writing fantasy is trying to create the impression of otherworldly, perhaps exalted language while still keeping your language accessible to the reader. Similarly, how do you create the impression of boring dialogue without actually boring the reader? How do you create the impression of a meandering, distracted narrator without actually meandering yourself and distracting your reader? These are some of the magic tricks that a storyteller learns to perform.
In response to a prompt about homesickness, Bethany Sanders wrote a piece in the voice of an aging bard from another world who finds herself exiled to earth. Bethany faced two significant challenges in this 500-word piece. First, there was just a lot of information to convey in a small space. There are always the questions of how much information you actually have to convey, how much you can imply, how much can wait until later. Second, there is the challenge I mentioned above: a bard from another planet isn’t going to talk like the rest of us talk. Her speech needs to be unusual and surprising (and probably somewhat exalted) if it’s going to be believable. But if readers have to work too hard to understand the narrator’s speech, they’re going to give up before they get to the good stuff.
In my commentary on this piece, I look at three main ways to make the language more accessible while still maintaining the impression of otherworldly, exalted speech: word choice, sentence structure, and the connections between ideas.
In response to a post about homesickness, Jennifer Monroe wrote an excellent piece about a woman whose homesickness hits her in her new grocery store, where she can’t find her daughter’s favorite cereal. It was one of those pieces that I describe as “too good not to be a little bit better,” so I went through and gave Jennifer some very nit-picky advice. (My comments are three times longer than the original story!)
In this episode of Line Edits, we look at the first paragraph of Kimberly Wetzel’s piece about grapefruit spoons. We will look at some ways that experience gets translated into information, requiring the readers to engage the “figuring-out” part of their brains–and some techniques for converting information-driven prose back into something that engages the “experiencing” part of the reader’s brain. Kimberly submitted this essay as a response to the Food writing prompt in October 2019.
In this episode of Line Edits, we look at Elizabeth Giger’s piece about two very different cooks: her mother and her grandmother. Elizabeth submitted this essay as a response to the Food writing prompt in October 2019.
Read Jonathan’s detailed critique of the essay here:
Below is JR’s 1100-word commentary on Laura Sherman’s 700-word story, “Teacher.”
In short fiction (even more so in “flash fiction”), you’re looking for just a scene or two that is a pivot point for a character. John L’Heureux said that the goal of the short-story writer is to “Capture a moment after which nothing can ever be the same again.” Capturing that one moment sometimes requires that you capture other moments as well, but to the extent that you can, it is important to whittle down your stories to as close to one moment as possible…and to express that moment as an external action if at all possible (rather than a direct account of a character’s thoughts and feelings).
When you start writing a story, you start getting more and more ideas, many of which are great ideas. Get all those ideas down. But then start paring things back down–way down.
Laura indicated that her story was a first draft. That is to say, it was relatively early in the process, before she had made a whole lot of progress in paring things back down. Hopefully these comments provide some guidance as to what that pare-down might look like.
Video: Align subjects and verbs with actors and actions. Grammar is never just grammar. When you express actions as verbs with the actors as subjects, your writing will become more concrete and specific, as if by magic.
Blog Post: The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment. More on showing and telling.