My completely subjective list of my favorite books I read this decade and a few sentences to describe them.
5. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell & In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brenan
I put these two titles in a tie because they are so similar in concept and different in execution, and I love them both a lot. These two titles are send-ups/twists/subversions/homages to YA fantasy fiction of the last decades, with Carry On specific to Harry Potter and In Other Lands pulling from several sources. They both question who the real heroes and villains are, tell epic series-length plots in one book, have a character grow wings near the end (the strangest of the likenesses), and add in queer representation that this genre has been lacking.
Despite those similarities, they are very much both their own separate books in terms of style, theme, and characters, and both are deliciously fun reads with a strong heart pumping at the center.
4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I know Marie Kondo’s tidying philosophy has been the butt of a lot of jokes when reduced to soundbites, but if you haven’t read it and tried it, then you’re all just a pack of big meanies who don’t understand. :P. I used Kondo’s method to clean out my childhood bedroom post-college (which ended up being very useful to both me and my parents when I moved out a few years later) where I had pack-ratted up a lifetime of stuff.
While I rolled my eyes when reading the corny sounding suggestions of Kondo, like thanking the items you were getting rid of, in practice it really helped the emotional processes – whether sentimental attachment or guilt – of getting rid of stuff. I still use her methods of joy-bringing to cull my stuff every so often and the way she teaches you to fold laundry to fit in your bureau drawers ended up being a game-changer. Of all the books I read this decade, this one affected my day-to-day life the most.
3. Prince’s Gambit by C.S. Pacat
This middle volume of the Captive Prince trilogy has a little bit of everything that makes this series such an engrossing read: political intrigue, sword fights, hidden identities, enemies to friends to lovers trope, one of those scenes were they do a game of chase on the roof tops of a town at night, and layers and layers of themes. It’s the payoff to the slow build of the first book, leaves you with cliffhangers for the third book, and is overall a tightly written story that maintains both plot and character tension, and always reveals more details and nuances through rereads.
(But as much as I love it, don’t jump into reading this series without talking to someone whose read it first because the first book can be pretty off putting if you’re not prepared for the heaviness of the content.)
2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
It’s hard to explain what makes this book so good. It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but like a literary one? Crickets. No, I swear it’s great. Because it’s not a story about warfare and chaos, it’s about the fight to survive after the initial chaos where survival is more the act of living but found in art and music and the tangle of human bonds.
Post-apocalyptic stories are usually depressing, about societies falling apart, but this one is about hope and societies rebuilding.
1. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I’m letting the first book in this four-part stand in for the rest of this contemporary, character-driven fantasy series, because otherwise this list might’ve ended up just all four books of The Raven Cycle. If you like stories about ghosts, psychics, and/or dead Welsh kings written by an author who knows how to turn a clever and powerful phrase, check this beautiful series out. The amount of magic and character-depth Stiefvater can pack into these books is astounding.
Ever since I read it for the first time in 2016, I have been obsessed.
Interested in seeing more of my opinions about books? Check me out on goodreads.
My completely subjective list of favorite books I read for the first time in 2019, plus one sentence to describe them.
10. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
This investigative journalist account of the escalating fraud and artifice of startup Theranos and its CEO Elizabeth Holmes is a mutant child of a train wreck and a soap opera that you just can’t look away from.
9. The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
This near 800-page tome about grief, antiques, and lying to yourself is either brilliant or vastly overrated – I can’t decide which – but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it.
8. Crush by Richard Silken
The ‘you’ve probably seen quotes from this on a tumblr gifset’ book of visceral poetry that I know I’m going to had to reread to let properly sink in.
7. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Found the story from this translated novella about a young woman who must stand up to the pressures of conformity to live the type of life that makes her happy even if it seems too simple or unsatisfactory to others a personally relatable tale.
6. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The most prestige novel on this list, this story that flips between two timelines -- during the 80s AIDS epidemic and a survivor decades later -- was like a punch to the soul and has deserved all the credit it's gotten.
5. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh
A folkloric-esque fantasy novella about a magical woods, its caretaker, and the spirit that haunts feels like it was written to fit my exact interests and aesthetics and is making me eagerly await Tesh’s next publication.
4. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Steifvater
The much anticipated follow up to The Raven Cycle, Steifvater delivers on the Lynch family backstory, the world of the Dreamers, and the magical black market that had been suggested and brewing unexplored on the edges of her previous contemporary fantasy series.
3. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Technically cheating because I listened to the audio in 2018 but read for print for first time in 2019, this fantasy book has everything: a magic warrior school, battles, a school drama production, a matriarchal elf society, a bunch of last names that are only funny if you know too much about YA lit, a boy who grows wings all the sudden, and a caustic nerd who just wants to be loved.
2. The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers by Matt Bird
Screenwriter Matt Bird shares some writing tips that changed the way I write, with the major takeaway being the importance of creative contradictions in character and plot development.
1.The Prince and Dressmaker by Jen Wang
A teen graphic novel that is a beautiful story in a beautiful color palette about friendship, fashion, and gender representation with an ending that will make you go, ‘I’m not crying, you’re crying.’
To trace the trajectory of the various mutations of what ended up being “Barter for the Stars” would be long and convoluted. The element that remained the same was that there was a speakeasy-esque-slash-nightclub-esque singer in the future who wanted to get off her planet. Usually that planet wasn’t earth. In one version she wanted to get to earth. In the final version, she wanted to leave earth. The destination didn’t matter really, but the yearning.
Even more so, my singer morphed over time. In a variation of this story that was more a mystery, she was a femme fatale being, playing leading lady in a film noir-inspired story. (If that sounds cool, please understand that didn’t get very far because I didn’t know how to write film noir style mystery.) In a more recent attempt she was a deconstruction of this type. Still, that version of the story didn’t quite work.
Thus the story idea got put on the back burner again and again.
“Barter for the Stars” is part of an interesting project -- a shared universe anthology: Five Minutes at Stormcove Hotel. The editor had an extensive history for the fictional Stormcove Hotel provided and requested pieces of short fiction that happen sometime during this history -- stretching from prehistoric to the future -- somewhere on the hotel grounds, and that takes place within five minutes. Wooh, that’s a mouthful.
Reading these parameters, it clicked almost immediately that my singer might’ve finally found her home. All of the grand ideas and yearnings and deconstruction of archetypes pared down into six hundred words… And it was successful.
No idea is lost just because it doesn’t fit into the shape you first think it should. Ideas can fester, grow, shrink, mutatate, evolve, change, and be reshaped over time, just sitting in the back of your head. I’m glad this idea, after all this time, found its place. I’m glad that it taught me that all those unused or unsuccessful ideas of the past are not lost. They just might just need a little more time to firment
The Five Minutes at Stormcove Hotel Anthology where “Barter for the Stars” is featured can be purchased HERE.
“The Witch and the Runaway” was a unique submission experience for me in that I was accepted in the first and only publication I submitted to. That is that power of a perfect match. Briar’s Lit -- the online literary magazine which accepted and published my work -- is a publication for queer-themed fairy tales. And that is what I had written.
While I had only written this fairy tale back in October 2018 (this is quickest turn around from written to publication too), the inspiration is already a little fuzzy for me. I’m not sure if I ran across Briar’s Lit and its mission during my regular perusal of literary magazines and submission calls, and then this story sprung to me, or this story sprung to me and I fortuitously found Briar’s Lit. In truth, I think the two of them were more messily mingled together.
I think the inspiration and how it repurposes fairy tale (and Disney movie tropes) is evident. Take the princess who doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage because she wants to marry for love, and chop off that ending and make it that she doesn’t want to get married at all. Add a crotchety but fundamentally good witch and some found family themes, and there you go.
To be honest, this story probably reveals a lot of myself and my worldview in an explicit way more than my other stories.
If you missed it or haven’t had a change to read it yet, check it out Here.
…and the philosophy behind her book limit.
(Not that she needs me to defend her.)
Wow, it’s like deja vu. A snippet of Kondo’s tidying advice has gone viral and a lot of people are reacting to -- from joking and memes to more serious responses -- without actually knowing the context or Kondo’s tidying philosophy that goes behind it.
A few years ago it was about only keeping things in your like that spark joy. Now it is her comment from her new Netflix show (or promoting her new Netflix show… I’m not sure of the source of the screenshot) about only owning thirty books.
Now look… I’m a librarian, a writer, a reader, and a booklover, and maybe if I hadn’t had a previous experience with Kondo’s work I would be reacting like the rest of the book-loving internet, but have had previous experience -- positive experience and an emotional emotion -- with her work. Needless to say, I’m a Kondo fan and I’m defensive and I’m going to get into it right here.
I have not watched any of her new Netflix show, but several years ago I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and, more importantly, used her methods to clean out my childhood bedroom. When I say childhood bedroom, this was the room I had lived in since I was a toddler through my mid-twenties. It had a closet I didn’t even go into, built in cabinets, shelves full of knick knacks collected over the years. I could never keep it organized and tidy, and I would often lose things in the mess that would take me a long time to find. I had a lifetime of stuff in there: toys, collectibles, magazine clippings on my favorite actors from various times in my adolescents and so on. Almost all had nostalgic memories attached.
Kondo’s method helped me sort through this childhood of accumulated stuff, pare it down, and get organized. Which is not as easy (or un-emotionally fraught) as it sounds.
Kondo’s method is built on a couple tenants.
The first is that the reason you can’t get organized and stay tidy is that you have too much stuff and you need to get rid of some of the stuff.
The second is that you get rid of stuff by categories (as opposed to a room by room process). In the book (and in her cleaning method when she works one-on-one in people’s homes), that starts with clothes, goes through several others (including books), and ends with sentimental items.
The third is that she uses an emotional gage for judging what items you should keep and discard. This is where the ‘sparks joy’ thing comes in that so many people make fun of or just don’t plan understand. She defines joy broadly, and honestly, it is not until you are going through the mountain of stuff you have that you realize how so much stuff that you keep is because of negative or neutral emotions. It’s obligation or guilt, because it was a gift, because you spent a lot of money on it, because you used to like it, because you really meant to get around to using it but never did, and so on and so forth.
Look, if you think ‘sparking joy’ is kooky, then you’ll think the part where Kondo suggests you thank each item you are getting rid for the joy it gave you in the past really kooky. Which I did think when I read it, but ended up being very useful in practice, because getting rid of your possessions can be very emotionally fraught it turns out. (Especially ones you that attached guilt to.)
Please note that Kondo, in broad strokes, is not one of those minimalist that usually ascribes numbers to the amount of this and that possessions you should have. The nature of sparking joy is very individual. We have different interests and tastes, so where on person may have a lot of… sports memorabilia that sparks joy, some others have none of that but have a lot of cooking supplies that spark joy, and someone else has a lot of, say, books.
Alright, books. We’re moving onto books.
Books is one of the categories Kondo has in her process of purging and tidying. I don’t recall -- although it has been several years since I read it -- Kondo giving that ‘30 book’ ideal in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I do remember her writing about winnowing down your books collection was this:
Imagine looking at a bookcase and it is just filled with books that you love. Imagine how good that would feel.
Seriously, just take that idea and seperate it for the rest of the conversation here for a second. Isn’t that a lovely image in your head? Doesn’t that fill you with an inner warmth?
Maybe you say you love every book in a 300 book collection, and maybe you do. I know I love more that thirty. But I also know that there are many on my shelves right now that I don’t.
Anyway, yes, I did purge a significant number of books from my collection, selling some via amazon and others at a new and used books store. (And then used the store credit to buy more books :P.) Many of them were books I had acquired at used books stores and had never read. Others were books I had acquired (as gifts or purchases) as a young person. I may or may not have read them in the past, but had no attachment to them in the present.
Did I keep more than thirty books? Yes. Could I purge that book collection I have built up again since then? Yes. Would it still be more than thirty books? Yes.
But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers may very well have more books that they L-O-V-E love than the average person. I know that between just a few book series that I do. But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers might like to remember than not everyone reads as much as they do or loves as many books, and that is totally okay. Thirty books might be a lot for some people and a little for others. Marie Kondo, who clearly greatest pleasure in life is tidying, may be part of that second group.
(And also, just because you don’t own a physical book doesn’t mean you aren’t reading. There are e-book and audio books people. People that use this thing called libraries that lets you borrow books. People that purchase books and then, once done, resell, give away, or donate.)
Sometimes I feel the booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers put a little too much stock into owning books for just the sake of owning them. I may be saying this as a perspective of a librarian who borrows most of the books I read (and then only buys the ones I love after reading… I rarely purchase a book before reading it unless it is in a series or from a beloved author). Maybe I say this as a person who has purged books via the Marie Kondo method and doesn’t regret it (it sure made moving easier a year later), and as a librarian because weeding (aka removing books from the library collection) is literally part of my regular job duties.
I suppose from the librarian perspective I believe that a book’s value is in its use. It is meant to be read and referenced, or to store important information, and even to be aesthetically appreciated. (I wouldn’t own multiple version of Lord of the Rings with different cover art if it wasn’t for aesthetic appreciation… And, yes, they all spark me some joy). A book isn’t sacred because it's a book. A books is important because it is useful. For information or pleasure or entertainment or artistic enlightenment.
I feel that a book stuffed in the back corner of a bookshelf that is unread, forgotten, and unwanted is not, well, fulfilling a book’s purpose. And maybe that same book could be filling its purpose on someone else’s shelves.
I guess I am one of the rare booklovers that thinks it is okay and even appropriate to purge and weed your personal book collection every so often, the same way you would purge your wardrobe or any other collections of stuff you have. Most people are going to have to purge it at one point anway. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are difficult to move. So whenever you move house… Just think about it.
So before you make reactionary posts about Marie Kondo’s thirty book comment, please consider the following…
That it is not a dictate or a judgement. It is just part of her tidying philosophy.
That the 30 books is just a suggestion for the average person, but that numbered dictates are not really a cornerstone of her philosophy. The ‘joy’ is. If you have more books that give you joy, than more books for you. But many people hold onto books (and other possessions) for negative reasons.
That if you ever need to weed down a book collection (such as for moving) rather than just spring cleaning, that her practice might be a guiding light.
And that if you prefer maximalism to minimalist, then that is your right, your prerogative, and more power to you. Kondo is there for the people who are seeking to organize and tidy, and her first step is purging. If you’re not looking for organization tips, then this has nothing to do with you and your life. Let the water roll of your back and please don’t engage in internet, snobby, booklover elitism or condensation that makes all of us books nerds look bad.
Please and thank you.
P.S. - Kondo’s method for folding clothes and how to fit them in your bureau draws is life changing. If you are constantly digging through your drawers unable to find the thing you’re looking for, messing up all that folding you dig, or otherwise have overstuffed drawers… seriously, look it up. There are diagrams and youtube videos. If you disagree with everything else here, please just do yourself and your drawers a favor. It’s so great. I’m serious.
P.P.S. - I’m just really passionate about how Marie Kondo changed my life, okay?
2018 was an up and down writing year.
Five short story acceptances and five short story publications... Yay!
(I know this sounds like the same five stories, but it’s not. Some stories were accepted in 2017 and not published until 2018; somewhere accepted in 2018 and will not be published until 2019.)
Falling short of my yearly writing word count goal... Boo!
(Yearly writing goal was 300,000. Had to be lower to 250,000. Will likely make that.)
Getting to read my second place winning short story on a panel at a Sci Fi conference (and getting to attend that conference for free)... Yay!
(The Pawnshop of Intangible Things got second place in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Ametuer Writing Contest. Later it was published in Deep Magic, my first professional sale, thus making me not an ametuer anymore. The con was Balticon. It was really cool.)
No one showing up for the panel… Boo!
(Except the readers, the panel moderator, and one other panelists three family members. Still worth it though.)
Establishing official social media author accounts on facebook and twitter… Yay!
(Find me on facebook @margerybayne and on twitter @themargerybayne.)
Not really knowing how to use twitter… Boo!
(WTF is a subtweet?)
Learning much from my ‘write 1000 words a day for 30 days’ challenge… Yay!
(This wasn’t NaNoWriMo. Podcast on my experience to come.)
Struggling with original fiction… Boo!
Still making progress with original fiction despite the ups and downs, changing jobs, and making my halfway point through graduate school… Yay!
With great aplum I would like to announce that my story “Another Life” has found a home in Vol 3 of the sci fi anthology series Future Visions.
Buy it here.
“Nothing’s been right since Dana awoke from 23-year long coma: she hasn’t aged a day, her memories don’t feel like her own, and her husband Ben is having locked door meetings with her doctor. Secrets are being kept from her, and she’s going to figure out what they are.”
I don’t want to spoil this story, a la the secrets Dana is seeking out, so below in “Behind the Story” I will only talk in broad strokes about “Another Life”
What makes us human? This is a question proposed in a lot of science fiction as technology encroaches on our lives, for good and ill, and as technology advances in intelligence and human capability. Is our memories downloaded into a computer our continued existence or just a computer with memories? Can artificial intelligence reach the point of humanity? What standard even is that? What about androids? What about clones -- separate individuals or the same? How much of us can become technology and still be us? Are we bodies or brain or souls?
I took that classic quandary of what makes us human and what defines are personhood, and grafted that together questions of womanhood. At the time of writing, I was having a lot of personal anxiety about my personal identity and role in the world as a woman in terms of the set roles that are often expected of us. Motherhood, marriage, taking your husband’s last name, etcetera and so on. This definitely comes across in this and some other short stories I wrote about the same period. I think those themes of sci fi personhood and female identity converge as natural metaphorical partners.
It sounds so deliberate and grand when I explain it like that, but it was a lot more intuitive in the actual writing. I’ve realized certain anxieties and opinions that have influenced by writing after the fact.
I recall having a very specific vision for “Another Life” with the ending known and very specific beats imagined along the way. So I wrote it, beginning to end, hitting those beats and coming to the end in a pretty painless experience. Reviewing it, however, I quickly saw that all that emotional beats I had imagined weren’t enough to support the entire story. The ‘twist’ reveal of the end came out of nowhere and needed better set up. My rewrites of “Another Life” were, in this case, mostly additive.
This experience speaks a lot to my process of writing. What draws me to the story is the characters, the themes, or the emotional beats. Plot is of secondary interest. Plot is something I have to work on and build more deliberately.
“It was just there. Like paint on the wall.”
Sorry, this post is long enough, but I can’t help to stop and highlight one of my favorite, perhaps innocuous lines. I remember writing this line. I remember where I was when I wrote it. That’s how much I like it.
If you haven’t read “Another Life” yet this line drops when the main character Dana comes to a certain realization. She is lying awake in bed, on her side, back to her husband. I like this line because it implies a lot, it is a metaphor so integrated in the scene it is barely a metaphor. Like the wall she is staring at and finally noticing the paint color that has been there surrounding her the entire time, so to does she this revelation come to her. Just there. Like paint on the wall.
This and “The Pawnshop of Intangible Things” are two of my favorite short stories I’ve written. I have been shopping around “Another Life” for a while and have never wanted to give it up to a throwaway magazine. I’m excited that it found its place in this rather cool indie published venture of Future Visions and editor Brian J. Walton. I’ll probably write a blog on that experience when I’m a little farther down the road with it than now.
There is limited time discounted pricing on the ebook for launch week only, so check it
Of course, Thanksgiving is the time of year we are called on to think about what we are thankful for. So, here I am, being thankful.
I am thankful for my new job. In August of this year I started a new job at a new library system. This was after several months of job searching after I decided I couldn’t continue with my current position due to the unsupportive and rough conditions at my place of employment. Just a few months in I am so glad of the change, of the new teamwork-oriented environment, and of how this has reflected positively on my mental and emotional health.
I am thankful of my new living situation. This October marks one year being roommates with my brother and it is a very nice situation.
I am thankful for the publications I have had this year. 2017 was a breaking point for me, getting some publication acceptances and placing second in a writing contest. That momentum has carried into 2018. I got to go on a panel at a scifi conference. I have several other publications and publication acceptances. One of them was my first ever “professional” publication, meaning the pay rate was at/over .06 cents per word. (It was also one of the two of my most favorite stories I’ve written, so I am thankful it found its place.)
I have two more publications coming out before the end of 2018. I’m thankful for that too.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
A few months ago, I was sitting in the audience of a literary panel for “Writing Characters with Agency” at Balticon, a science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore. During the panel, one of the audience members asked for writing advice on how to keep characters internally consistent when making them do something essentially “out of character” using an example of a lawful good character doing a bad thing. While the panelist shared many a insight, this question got my brain turning and coming up with answers that were not brought up at the time.
So I’m sharing them here.
So how you keep a character “in-character” and consistent while also working to a moment where they break that mold?
For the sake of this, I will use the audience member’s example of a character who is lawful good do something bad. (“Lawful good” is a Dungeons and Dragons moral alignment that writers, readers, and nerds all over the internet will align their favorite characters too. Learn more here.)
So let’s break down some different ways to get characters do believably do “out of character” things.
The Break Down
1 - Character Development
Character development can be either positive (with the characters become more brave, heroic, or “morally good”) or negative (with the characters becoming crueler, more selfish, or more evil). I bring this up, because many people only think of a character development in the positive direction -- becoming a better person -- but it can work in the other direction. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great example of negative character development, in that he becomes a more morally bankrupt person as the show progresses, starting out with understandable and sympathetic motives for his life of crime, but slowly becoming more power-hungry and/or more willing to do more and more drastic things (like murder) to keep on top.
A character can start out good and then through a series of circumstances, conflict, and drama that we will call the plot, slowly turn into a worse person.
2 - Conflicting Motives/Trolley Problem
Another point to remember is that people are complicated, conflicted, and complex. We have multiple belief systems, motivations, wants, and needs in our head at the same time.
Say we have our lawful good character. He is sheriff, a law man, who believes all crime should be stopped and put to justice because them are the rules. But he is not just a sheriff. He’s a family man whose family is the most important thing in the world to him. He loves them and would do anything for them to protect them and keep them happy.
And now it turns out his adult son is the no good head of the gang of bandits that have been terrorizing the local towns. And it is a trusty sheriff that has been called on to stop him, dead or alive.
Opps, now our character has to choose between upholding his moral system about the law or his moral system about his family.
I like option above because it is very internal, but you can also give your characters bad and worse options in an external conflict. Give them a trolley problem. Think of all those superhero films where the villain gives the hero an option to save like their girlfriend/sidekick or some innocent kids/the entire city. Usually the superheroes come up with the third option to save everyone, but not always (Ahem, the Dark Knight.) But much better is when the character has a much more active hand in the dark, bad and worse option. The ending of season 3 of the BBC show Torchwood had one of these. Make your character’s options a trolley problem.
3 - Breaking Points
Human beings… we’re complicated. We have belief systems but we are often hypocrites. We give ourselves or loved ones a pass when we wouldn’t give the same benefit to strangers or acquaintances. Beyond hypocrisy and exceptions, we have breaking points. On tv tropes, that can sometimes be called a berserk button.
Find a character’s breaking point and them drive to it.
But this all these examples lead up to this ultimate fact of writing characters and stories:
It Needs To Be Earned
We say that a lot in storytelling and fiction writing. That… twists need to be earned. That sad deaths need to be earned. That endings need to be earned.
Relevant to here -- when a character is driven to that breaking point, you as the writer need earn that. And all the other examples listed above.
But what does that mean?
In screenwriting, because I watch a lot of film criticism youtube videos, the idea is phrased as: set up, reminder, and pay off.
In writing, we talk about foreshadowing. I had a professor in college who always called these things “rehearsals” which is a really apt metaphor that I think should exist more preventable in the creative writing discourse. When I took dance classes as a youth at the end of the season we had a dance recital, but not until we had the stage rehearsal and dress rehearsal beforehand. If you are going to have a lawful good character do something morally reprehensible, you need to hint -- and in an escalating manner -- that he can do something bad.
To remix the earlier example … you have the lawful good lawman who always brings in his guy alive because they should stand before a judge and jury. He’s never killed and never will. Then he does when his son is threatened. Now a lot of readers might find that reasonable because of our understanding of family bonds, but you want to set that up in the story. Show how close he is with his family. Have a minor threat happen earlier in the story for him to break his cool over. The reader may not straight out know the character's breaking point before it happens, but it should feel natural once they get to that point. There would have been hints. We should’ve maybe guessed a second before it happens.
Like plot twists, character twists should make sense in retrospect.
Those big, defining moments for a character, good or bad, have to be earned. They have to be deserved. These are the results of character development.
In 2017, I entered a Maryland-based writing contest and ultimately had my short story submission “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things” place second. It was a pretty amazing experience that has involved an awards ceremony, a nice check, and free admission to a sci-fi writing conference where I read my story on a panel. Last but not least of all the honors, I was asked to be a judge for the 2018 contest.
I was sent the five finalists' stories that had been selected by the first round of readers. With the other finalist judges I was charged to rate each story between 1 and 10, and those ratings were be compiled and totaled to determine the first, second, and third place stories. I was also able to write commentary that was sent to the authors.
While I gladly volunteered, there was a little dread when I received the attachments of the stories in my inbox. See, I have a Bachelors in Creative Writing, and if you are familiar with creative writing classes you might know that they are usually done in the workshop model. We would read two to three of our classmates’ stories in preparation for each class, write critique letters, and discuss them in round table fashion during class. I read a lot of boring, not good, and pretentious stories in my pursuit of that degree to the point where I lost all perception of what was good and what wasn’t.
Had I just volunteered to relive that experience and read through five dull stories?
I clicked on the first one, opened it, read the first line and had my fears realized. The line was outright amateurish -- bland and generic. I was back in undergrad.
Thankfully, that did not end up being the case. After reading the story in full -- although avoiding it by saving it for last -- it did improve once it got into the story proper. It was still a weak opening, but fears did not realize completely.
What I ended up doing was reading five stories ranging from decent to heart-eyes-emoji (that’s the technical scale) and learned a lot from it.
What I Learned:
Point 1: Story is King.
The story I subjectively thought was the best wasn’t the one with the best prose. It was the one with the best story. Of course, story is both concept (but ideas are cheap), and the execution of that concept.
Point 2: Execution makes all the difference.
All the stories had interesting concepts. The contest was SF/F focused, so they were ‘high concept stories.’ Listen: AI’s as narrators, folk tale demons, space-time travel, visions of the future, and werewolves. Come on. That’s a goldmine. But as I (and of course many before me) have already stated, ideas are cheap. It’s all about how you present those ideas.
As one would expect, to get this far in the competition all were competent stories. It’s that fine polish of execution that makes a difference between competent and awesome.
Language and prose are part of the execution: the narrative strategy of POV, timeline, voice, and what not. When to start the story and when to end it and when to hit the other beats in between. All important.
Point 3: Setups and Payoffs are a balancing act.
Reading this selection of stories, one aspect of execution I became very aware of was ‘setups and payoffs.’
My favorite ‘heart-eyes-emoji’ story was a well-paced space adventure with the setups and payoffs interwoven from the first page to last. In contrast, there were stories with not enough setups, or not early enough, sapping the pay off of its power. There were stories that had a lot more setups than were ultimately paid off, which is like having a question without an answer.
That balance is so important to the reader because a story needs to make sense. It’s like laying out the clues in a mystery novel. All the plot workings need to be laid out for the reader bit by bit.
Point 4: Pacing is Important.
Like setups and payoffs, good pacing is essential to a well-balanced story. I saw one particular pacing hang up occur over a few of the short pieces I reviewed. The stories were… front-heavy. They spent too long in the beginning on things that weren’t the main point of the story.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s great pieces of writing advice is “Start as close to the end as possible.” Every writer should take that to heart. I often think about this, if not in the drafting stage, than the editing stage. (It’s very common in first drafts to start too early.)
To bring back another memory from my undergrad creative writing days, I recall how often a particular fiction writing professor of mine would often instruct students in workshops that their story actually started on page three, or five, or nine. There was always some sort of silent-eyed horror that passed over the face of whoever’s story it was, because there was a lot of hard-worked prose in there they were being asked to cut, but it was an important lesson. Remember you can integrate backstory in a lot of ways without starting at the very beginning!
My heart-eyes-emoji story dropped the reader right into the moment. All the world-building and character growth were part of the actual scenes.
Point 5: The Little Things Don’t Matter (When Everything Else is Right).
There will always be stuff to nitpick. There will always be an awkward sentence, or a moment that could’ve been tweaked to be stronger.
But when a whole story is a strong, compelling, and well-balanced all the nitpick-y sand falls from your eyes as a reader. You're too engaged being carried along by a well-crafted story to let the other things ruin the experience.
So… that’s what I learned. Maybe other people judge stories for competition by other criteria. Maybe they have a checklist or grid, giving out points to certain factors like this was an episode of Chopped: Presentation, Taste, and Creativity.
I read with my intuition. I can never exactly turn off my writerly brain when reading, seeing the tricks of how a writer pulls off a certain twist or thinking how I would’ve differently. I acknowledge there is always a measure of personal taste in something like this and any judging of the creative arts is subjective.
However, we humans are storytelling animals. We are surrounded by stories from birth on -- books, movies, television shows, the stories we tell each other, narratives in video games and other media, and on and on and on. We love a good story and absorb some feel for when a story works or when it feels off. We might not all be able to identify exactly what is off, or have the vocab for it, or be able to analyze it or write it ourselves, but we have the intuition.
I was glad I was able to use my storytelling intuition, in combination with my learned and practiced knowledge of creative writing and literary analysis, to learn about making and reading a good short story.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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