Archive for May, 2010

Withholding

Posted in All posts, On writing, Pig in a Poke with tags , , , , , , , on May 6, 2010 by Trina

“I thought the story was well written, but nothing was happening.”

I write these words more frequently than any others in rejections letters for stories submitted to Pig in a Poke magazine. Lack of tension and conflict is probably the most common and unfortunate reason for rejection because many of these stories have real potential. Lack of tension is also a common problem in the fiction writing I see as a freelance editor, so I thought it deserved a blog post.

The best stories are the ones that keep us interested and what builds interests is tension. Tension is that feeling of conflict between what the protagonist wants and the barriers in the way of that happening. I don’t care how literary a story is, or how well the words are strung together, if there is no conflict, it is boring. No conflict equals rejection. Long or short, fiction must have tension or you lose your reader.

I recently read a 5,000 word story about a man who fought in Operation Hurricane backing up paratroopers dropped into Samara. I hated to reject the story, because it could have been really good, but instead was a dialogue about Eastern politics. Why wasn’t it good? There was no conflict, no tension. We learned the protagonist’s story only through his passive reflection on what had happened to him. There was no reason to keep scrolling down the page. It was well-researched and well-written snoozer. Withholding could have turned this story into a page turner.

Avoid the rejection pile by learning to withhold

Creating tension in fiction is about withholding. It might mean withholding the answers to questions like: Will Detective Alex Cross get the bad guy? How will James Bond will get out of this? Will Harry and Sally find a way to be together? These questions must be carefully planted into the readers mind and the answers revealed only through the resolution in the ending. Hints dropped sporadically can be a good way to build tension.

You create tension by continuous planting of questions in your reader’s mind. In the case of the Algerian soldier, tension could easily have been created by telling the story in real time and withholding by posing these questions either in the characters’ actions or dialogue: Is the hero going to save the day? Will our soldier make it out of Algeria? Will Algeria achieve independence? As it was written, these questions were answered before the story even began. Why would anyone keep reading?

Create tension by withholding in several ways:

  • change the order of how you reveal what happens, so that the reader will want to know what’s going to happen next–taking care not to reveal too much up front.
  • “mystify” one of the major revelations so that it’s unclear to both the reader and the characters what is really going on.
  • give at least one significant character a juicy secret that ties into the central storyline and will give a nice subplot at the same time.

Your characters are flawed. They should make mistakes. If your protagonist takes two steps forward, she must take one step back. There is a reason James Patterson’s books sell. He is a master of creating tension. When Alex Cross gets one step closer to the killer, something worsens in his life. His grandmother collapses and is rushed to the hospital. His girlfriend is kidnapped.

Here’s to conflict. May it always reign in your stories.



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The return of Pig in a Poke — live online today!

Posted in All posts, On writing, Pig in a Poke with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2010 by Trina

Big news today for fans of good writing!

Pig in a poke

Pig in a Poke magazine

I’m proud to announce that for the first time in decades, Pig in a Poke magazine is going to live again today, May 1st, 2010!

This was a team effort. I am happy to the second half of the team. My husband Harry Calhoun created the magazine from an earlier print version he published back in the 1980s. Then, he edited a magazine called Pig in a Poke and, when he ran short of money, its smaller, more affordably priced offshoot, Pig in a Pamphlet. (See Harry’s blog for details). This online literary journal offers what we think to be an incredible lineup of poetry and fiction, with a few essays too.

For my part, I edited the fiction and took a crash course (self taught) in Web design to create the look of the site. Harry and I worked together to develop the look we wanted … it allows you to spend time with the individual writers in their own intimate spaces. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished.

It’s a tribute to the quality and staying power of our writers that Harry was publishing some of them back in the 1980s … as long ago as 1982, in fact. And we have some newer talent that I think is equally impressive. And by the way, any poets or fiction writers on this mailing list are more than welcome to submit for future issues.

I hope you’ll drop by, give a read, maybe donate to the cause, and let me know what you think.

http://www.piginpoke.com/currentissue.html

The lineup for this issue includes:

Poetry by

Jim Daniels

Louis McKee

Lyn Lifshin

Howie Good

Christopher Cunningham

William Doreski

David Barker

Carol Lynn Grellas

Robin Stratton

Alan Catlin

Karla Huston

Corey Mesler

Donal Mahoney

Shirley Allard

Fiction by:

Burgess Needle

Sharmagne Leland-St. John

Daniel Davis

Marjorie Petesch

Anne Woodman

Ginny Swart

James Neenan

Essays by:

James Heller Levinson

Anne Woodman

Some well-knowns, some unknowns, but all, I assure you, quality stuff. Drop in and wallow a while in the Pig sty … it’s not a bad place to be!