"My Little Hands"

We'll start a new fiction writing workshop tomorrow night with Philadelpia Stories; the class that I teach. Ten students signed up, all women. Funny, but most of the fiction classes I take or teach mostly consist of women.

I've been thinking a lot this weekend about what to discuss for the first night. My impulse is to tell them everything that they shouldn't do---to talk about the things in writing that don't work---mistakes that I see writers make frequently. But then, that seems negative and too many warnings can leave you feeling stuck every time you sit down to start writing. It's hard enough to write with your own voices of doubt in your head, let alone new rules given to you by an instructor. Instead, we'll talk about what a story is--what makes a good short story, how you get started, maybe a few ways to turn off the negative internal voice so that you can keep writing.

But, can I just mention to you a few pet peeves I have in fiction writing, just to you?

1. Day in the Life Of...These are the stories that begin with the alarm going off and end with the person going to bed or some variation of that theme. In these stories, we see a slice of life of someone--usually someone slightly unhappy (that's good--we want our characters to have some despair. Otherwise, how can we hope for redemption), but we also tend to get his story on the day that nothing much happens. It's like the writer mistook her own detailed character notes for an actual story, forgetting for a moment that this story should be the day that something exceptional happens--a day when the character's life is altered in a significant way. Often though, this leads to another problem, which is...

2. The Day That All Hell Broke Loose...Stories wherein the central action centers around a disaster--an earthquake, a suicide attempt, a car accident, a murder. While these stories are preferable to the Nothing Happened tales, the problem can be that the story gets enveloped by the action--the disaster--and there's no time for other elements of fiction, such as character development, internal conflict, description, or epiphany. It's simply a Really Shitty Day. You can save this story, however, by knowing what the really bad thing was and writing the story about a character who struggles with her entire self to get over that terrible thing. That plot line allows for change and growth, for insight and revelation.

3.  The Precocious Child First Person Narrator. This is so hard to do well and so hard to do without "cute-ify-ing" the voice.  These are the five year old kids who have adult observations and use adult vocabulary interspersed by somewhat age-appropriate language, something like, "My mommy sobs in the front seat of the Ford Tempo, big hippo tears that stream down her face in rivers of wa-wa. My mommy is sad. My mommy is inconsolable." Then you'll have sentences where the writer has the younger narrator describe herself in ways she would never be able to do, having no sense of perception, like, "My little hands patted my mommy's jiggly arm, my fingers like star fish on her flesh." Unless the child's hands are unnaturally small, they wouldn't seem little to her. It's too precious. Be careful of writing precious children. We don't want to be smarter than the characters we read about--we want in some ways for them to be capable of being smarter than us.