Like many of you reading this blog post right now, I’ve written stories forever.
Reading came first, along with an overwhelming love for story and characters, and as soon as I could print my name, I began penning my own stories. I’m sure many of you have a similar background with the love of writing.
When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have my first short story published in a national teen magazine. It was Girlfriend (which still exists in Australia, and the equivalent US publication would be something like Seventeen). I had two more shorts published in this magazine before they changed the format and stopped publishing short stories. Around the same time, I finished high school and commenced law school, which left precious little time for writing for pleasure, and regrettably, I let my passion go for a few years. But, like every writer who has experienced “the calling”, I couldn’t leave it alone and a few years into my legal career, I again took up the creative pen.
It was then that I had my shocking reality check.
No one wanted my stories.
I didn’t understand. What was I doing wrong? They’d been fine when I was sixteen so surely, now that I was in my twenties, they’d be even better? Nope. It seems the vital missing part of my journey, was craft. I had, in essence, fluked those first few stories because I was/am an avid reader and could regurgitate lots of what I’d learned by osmosis. However, in today’s publishing world, that isn’t enough. When I complained about my failures to my mother and explained that I felt I really had to go and learn my craft, to treat this writing gig with the same degree of seriousness that I’d learned lawyering, her response was:
“Don’t people just sit down and write?”
I thought about that. Some do. Some writers are just brilliant geniuses who do not need to study craft. But for us mere mortals, learning craft is vital. In my attempts to really do this thing properly, I applied for a competitive Arts course through TAFE (a similar institution to colleges in the USA) which was a four-year professional writing course which included a mentoring component—18 months with a published author in one’s chosen genre to provide personal feedback and assistance. Oh, my!
It was this course that cemented my love of craft.
I learned that those astounding writers who create captivating story worlds and characters are those who are firmly in command of their craft. Like any job, writers need skills and tools to perform well. Understanding craft, wielding it to do your bidding, that’s how great writers become great. I suppose a bit of talent helps too!
Let’s fast forward again and I’ll tell you a story about a student of mine (because after I finished my writing course, I became a qualified adult teacher so I could teach in that course). This particular gentleman was of the “I just write” variety. Perplexing, seeing as he had committed to four years of study. Anyway, he had written a collection of short stories, strung together with a theme of violence. One, in particular, was about a famous writer who had gone to his cabin in the woods to finish a novel that was approaching deadline. His lady friend-with-benefits rocked up, which he wasn’t too happy about, but he let her stay. They had dinner, went to bed and when he woke in the morning, she lay beside him brutally murdered. There were confusing issues at this point in the story, but these weren’t the worst of it. Our writer hero then made a rash decision to bury her body and pretend she’d never been there, rather than risk accusation of her murder. After he’d disposed of her body and returned to his cabin, he spotted a fishing boat on a nearby lake. Someone waved to him and when he turned to go back inside, he heard a gunshot. This gunshot resulted in the hero’s murder, his brains splattered over the cabin doorway, with the last line “there would be no more deadlines for me.”
Now despite the many plot and character motivation issues (Why didn’t this shooter murder them both in the bed? Why wait to kill writer hero later? Why kill them at all? How did he manage to do so without waking the writer sleeping beside the woman? How did he get past the dog? It goes on…) my main “craft” concern was this closing scene. The whole story was written in first person past tense. That is, it was the “I” voice, and it was written after the events had transpired. What that demands is that the person telling you the story (the “I voice”) has survived the events of the story in order to recount them to you, dear reader. It is impossible for this writer-hero to die, to tell how his brains were splattered gruesomely and to then comment there would never be any more deadlines for him. This is only possible if that character speaks from beyond the grave, which was not the the case in this story.
I suggested a number of ways that my student could fix this aspect of his story (ignoring the others for another day!), including that he change it to third person (the “parrot on the shoulder” voice) as a third person narrator can die at the end. This is because while a third person POV can get extremely close to the main character, it is not the main character – it is someone else observing that character, or the “narrative voice”. Or, if he wanted to keep it in first person, he could have changed the tense to present tense. When writing in present tense, the reader experiences events at the same time the character does. This is the craft trick Paula Hawkins used in Girl on the Train when delivering scenes from the murdered woman’s point of view (POV). The reader knows this character has died, yet we get her take on the events that led up to her murder because she tells them in her voice as they happen to her. The reader “experiences” her death at the same time she does.
What actually happened with my student? I gave him copious, detailed notes explaining the problem. He didn’t get it. We then spoke on the phone so I could further explain it. His wife was in the background yelling: “Listen to her, she sounds like she knows what she’s talking about!”
He didn’t listen. His story has not been published.
I guess the upside for me is it provides a funny anecdote. Not much of an upside for him, though.
In February, I’m running my Fiction Fundamentals course. It’s a six-week course about, well, you guessed it, those fundamental aspects of fiction, like getting your POV and tenses right, amongst all the other important basics. It’s a bit of a dense manual covering many topics, but I wrote it that way so students would have something detailed to refer to long after the online component is over. It’s also full of HEAPS of creative exercises to hone your skills in all the skills. It’s perfect for beginning writers who aren’t sure where to start, and I’ve been told it’s also great for writers who’ve been at it a while and want to improve their craft. I’d love for you to join me.
Samantha Bond is a reformed lawyer and unreformed bibliophile.
Her first short story was published in Girlfriend magazine when she was fifteen. Since then, she has been published in anthologies, magazines, has agent representation, and she writes for Indaily and Glam Adelaide.
Sam teaches professional writing at TAFE, for Romance Writers of Australia, runs face-to-face and online workshops, and provides private writing tuition. Finally, Sam is an unapologetic chocolate and Buffy addict, mum of two littlies, and is a writers’ festival
It’s a time of renewal and growth. A time to shake off the winter doldrums and let the sunshine in. A time to ditch the old and welcome the new. A time when things blossom and bloom — often when we least expect it.
Spring is also a time for awkward first dates, fun flirtation, bad breakups, sexy men, hilarious misunderstandings and the first flush of new love.
After all, everyone deserves a Spring Fling.
The six mini chick lit tales include:
* Social Bea by Carla Caruso
* Blazing Hearts by Samantha Bond
* Second Chances by Laura Greaves
* Schrodinger’s Catfish by Sarah Belle
* The Eternal Bloom by Vanessa Stubbs
* The Spring Clean by Belinda Williams