Are you a peacock or a weaver bird? Some writers – peacocks – flaunt their lovely words and beg us to admire them. Others are weaver birds, patiently building a structure that’s serviceable but dull.
Some preen. Some delve.
Or so I’ve discovered from three years of judging the Writers’ Village story competition. Who wins the prizes? Peacocks or weaver birds? Neither. The cash goes to those who combine both colour and craft, preening and delving – with flair.
Here are three fast ways to blend colour and craft and write a best-selling story – or, at least, win a cash award in a story contest:
1. Welcome clichés
You have a plot idea, right? A few dramatic events? A snatch or two of dialogue? Scribble it all down as fast as you can. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ words to come to you. Clichés, stagy incidents, clumsy expressions? Welcome them. They’re fine. Just get the tale written!
Then throw it in a closet for a month. Pluck it out with a sniff, tone it down and tune each sentence so it sings. The job should now be easy.
‘She rolled her eyes to heaven. “Joe,” she spat. “You are a lying bastard!”’
That’s formulaic. Boring. What are you really trying to express?
‘Camilla toyed with her bread stick. She wouldn’t look at me. “Is there somebody else?” I tried to smile. “Of course, not.” I leaned back in my chair. “That’s what you said before.” The bread stick crumbled in her hand.’
Now the incident, underplayed but loaded with body language, has gained depth.
2. Knock out the ‘show off’ language
Peacocks love to display their metaphors, fine sensibilities and erudite tropes. Tropes? ‘Tropes’ is itself an erudite term. They wouldn’t buy it at WalMart. Why didn’t I simply write ‘tricks of style’? Because I was showing off.
‘Show off’ writing stops the reader. It says: ‘forget the story. Look at me, the author!’ In commercial fiction, we are allowed to use just one show-off expression per thousand words. More than that and our name is Umberto Eco and the reader loses the plot.
‘Literary’ works are another matter. If our name is Umberto Eco we can strut our ego in every line. Alas, our name is not Eco.
3. Firm up the structure
A good story is a ‘globed compacted thing’ (Virginia Woolf). Every word, incident and exchange of speech should support the plot. Is your structure strong? Does your story cling close to the plot? Is your first paragraph arresting and the close emphatic and clear?
Does the reader finish your story and sigh? Like somebody who has just consumed a filet de bouef without a shred of gristle?
True, you can end with a mystery or question but the reader must feel: ‘nothing could have been added or taken away from this. The story works.’
Here’s a tip. Give your tale to a friend who has no cause to love you. Ask: ‘does it work? Can you spot my deliberate howler?’ Bless them when they frown and chortle and ask you: ‘What’s the point of all that silly chatter between Joe and Madge? Why does Joe dump her? Why doesn’t Madge protest? And what, exactly, is the wretched story all about?’
It’s music to your ears. We’re all too close to our own story to spot passages that do nothing or are obscure to the reader. Or, for that matter, stories that make no sense at all.
Just apply that three-step process. Add flair. And you’ll be points ahead of the average story contestant. Gulp, I might enjoy your story. I might love it so much that I read it three times. Worse, I may even have to pay you a cash prize!
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for profit can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/contest-success