Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Three Kinds of Stories

I have been cleaning up my hard disc and found this old Boot Camp article. It focuses on one fortnightly session and the differences in the stories. One block of stories is "easily publishable" a second block is on the cusp and a third block is clearly lacking.

What was most striking was the correlation between the scores given for theme and the overall scores.
It's a long article, but IMO, worth reading.


Story   AVG   crits   Marks in Descending Order
B-06    152       06     171 166 154 153 148 120 
B-12    145       07     176 155 150 147 145 136 104
B-08    139       05     151 150 141 131 130 129 
B-11    134       07     169 146 143 129 129 119 106  

B-07    114       08     122 122 117 114 113 112 109 104
B-05    113       10     128 127 126 121 109 108 106 102 102
B-10    111       07     116 114 113 113 110 107 101  

B-02    102       10     113 113 110 107 105 102 101 101 89
B-09    101       07     106 105 105 103 100   98   93
B-01    100       09     115 114 100   98   96   95   94   94  94
B-04    100       07     107 102 100 100 100   96   95
B-03      96       09     112 110 105   97   94    91   91  73

This is a much better session than normal (in terms of marks with the least-favoured story just 14 points away from an Ashes final place) but there are things to be seen and learned here.

The stories break into three groups, the almost universally seen as good top four, the middle three "knocking on the door" and the lowest five, not bad work, but...


New-B-07-Flying Over Ice
New-B-05-Mortal Remains
New-B-10-Third Traveller

The thing here is the lack of DANGER, lack of THREAT, lack of ambition, perhaps? Ice is almost a character study. It IS interesting, but it's "small". Imagine this same story by Updike, Bellow, McEwan, it still would be of-a-tiny-scope. It is aiming to examine "an obvious" (lots of men are bastards and will say anything for a fuck). It's INTERESTING esp where it captures close-in body-gestures, but even done perfectly its mark would be limited, simply because it doesn't set out to say anything which can echo.

Third Traveller is a little like this also, even tho' it has the potential to be richer. The story (so far) boils down to woman has had an affair with playright and now is jaded/sees through him/has changed priorities. The question is, again, even if done exquisitely by Mrs Munro, is that enough? Doesn't a story (which wants to be a winner) need to be aiming higher, saying a little bit more? Maybe tha extra might be language, some special, withering experience; maybe it's a few brilliant insights, a cutting character, but if none of these, the story doesn't SWELL, it doesn't VIBRATE, it doesn't get inside us enough. IMO, with this one it's because the author has just got an itchy story idea on to paper so as not to lose it. Personally, I wouldn't do that because I feel that once done, I've lost the unconscious connector.

And Mortal Remains: a little more bravery here, the shitty underpants etc... at least we got a range of responses... I'm guessing that the higher marks were awarded because of this slight difference, this slight plus (over other competent would-be-finalists) but again we have to ask, is the direction and destination dramatic enough to be a big story? All we have in the end is a woman thinking of a dead husband. Winning stories take this level of ambition as their starting point and LEAP into another direction.

The Third Group

New-B-02-Show and Tell
New-B-09-Old Alice's Girl
New-B-04-This Kind of Island
New-B-03-The Only Thing Different

Whereas the main ingredient missing in the middle group is not anything missing... (they merely lack the extra, ambition), these stories actually LACK a vital part (that which costs marks). That is the middle stories get par-plus but don't take off, the top stories DO take off, these have negatives, albeit minor ones.

Show-and-Tell loses out because it doesn't decide why it's a story, it doesn't ultimately SAY anything. It was vivid and interesting but it wasn't even an anecdote. This story has "the monkey", the central vivid element, but it doesn't have a WHY. We don't get anything concrete or powerful about the daughter, body or father, something that we can say about, "What this gave me was that..."

Alice has the same problem. What is it actually wanting to say? Since this core issue has been visited twice by this author I fancy s/he is trying to reach some deep, important feeling but isn't actually catching hold of it. it will be tougher now because twice it's been articulated on the page. The POV here concerned me. A child who's been kidnapped, abused, dumped by mother etc should be the focus (unless perhaps we wanted to write a story about an abuser's guilt or the anguish of helpless parents) but to use this driver as a comment on meddling neighbours, gossips etc seems to be an error of judgement.

Geometry fails (all these failures are relative, non of these stories stink) because it hasn't decided what it wants to be or what it wants to say. It's not enough to have vivid scenes, those scenes must matter and direct our thoughts. This is ill-directed, confused, come on to the page before it's been developed in the head. What I mean here is that the author has obviously "seen" these meal-exchanges but appears to have grabbed at them because they are seen as vivid but has not waited long enough to discover their POINT both externally (what the story should say) and internally (why the story says write me).

This Kind of Island has exactly the same issues. Vivid ideas come, but are not connected to the soul (that is the author hasn't found his/her internal needs, those which demand this story come to the surface)... thus the story becomes solidified without prpose and this results in doodles on the page, directionless or confusing.

The Only Thing Different. First note that when writing this overall review I couldn't remember this story and had to pull it up on my WP to remind me what the plot was. Now why did I forget it? Answer because the plot and theme are a total cliche. The top stories are going deep, trying to mind-exchange; the middle stories have purpose but the purpose is not quite vital enough, heavy enough. The lower stories are confused in their purpose and this last story has a purpose which has been done to death.

The point so far is that ALL these stories fail on theme.

Now Look at this:

Theme    Total
   19         152    New-B-06-Body Fluids
   19         145    New-B-12-Bridie's Return
   17         139    New-B-08-Waking
   17         134    New-B-11-Obelisk

   13         114    New-B-07-Flying Over Ice
   14         113    New-B-05-Mortal Remains
   12         111    New-B-10-Third Traveller

   11         102    New-B-02-Show and Tell
   10         101    New-B-09-Old Alice's Girl
   10         100    New-B-01-Geometry
   11         100    New-B-04-This Kind of Island
   10         096    New-B-03-The Only thing Different

Top stories score well on theme. They have WEIGHT. They seem to matter.***

Slightly above par themes beget slightly above par stories.

Under par themes (even pars) beget stories which miss the cut.

*** Note that Joan's low scores for Bridie's Return (104) and Obelisk (106) were based on Theme scores of 12 and 13 respectively. For whatever reason, Joan didn't respond to the theme in these two stories, didn't see it, didn't like it, whatever, and the result is her total scores are subsequently much lower.

PS (AK) Both won First Prizes!

IOW the theme is the crucial element in stories working!! The correlation is .986, virtually perfect! let me add that I went back to the theme scores on seeing this and opened the theme scores to two decimal places (removing the rounding)

Theme   Total
 19.00     152
 18.71     145
 17.00     139
 16.71     134
 12.63     114
 13.60     113
 12.43     111
 10.70     102
 10.29     101
 10.00     100
 10.86     100
 09.56     096

And the correlation is .9921 

New-B-06-Body Fluids
New-B-12-Bridie's Return

Body Fluids doesn't merely investigate adultery. If it did it would be down there in the 110s. It USES the moments around adultery but adds in academia, sociobiology, a remembered murder, the death-sex diad, displacement activity (the cleaning), a view on old age (that maybe men opt for a late life displaced from competition for sex), imagery and metaphor, smells. It tries to access the reader's head and make the reader get a feeling for a pulsing, tortured mind. What's different here is the RICHNESS, the complexity, the bravery, the ambition. This BTW is one reason why it plays with language.

Bridie's Return involves loss, growth, love, then hopes dashed, a slow death. It's trying to say more, something which deeply cuts the author, about the world (plight of woman) through an individual (Bridie). It involves, two countries, travel, at least four nationalities/three races, many situations all of which can trigger human emotional responses (train, tunnel, running away, alienation in a big city, desperation and determination, menial work, survival then growth, friendship developing from work, missing our children, desire for something more (art & love), duty-guilt-collapse, dark barely functional sex versus real, joyous love-making) deals with personal respect (for Bridie), a horrible choice causing (effectively) damnation for life, alludes to social mores and religious pressures, the effect of neighbourhood gossip, sisterhood, and while doing all this manages to bring in social history (reference to darkies, Miller, Graham Greene, post-war bomb-sites)...

Waking, in 700 words tries to say something it hopes is profound. it hints at lonlines and isolation, the nearness (yet infinite distance) of nature to us (if only we look); the effects of computers, the internet, email (how it appears to liberate but further isolates our souls (arguing that we only have soul if we hang on to our animal nature) and it finishes by alluding to self-delusion, procrastination... all this done in a linguistic style which tries to mimic some of the sensations and overall asks "about our houses", that is "what we are".

Obelisk, while being at one level a lightweight story also brings in doors to bigger, echoing worlds. It deals at one level with sexual frisson, an idea that could carry many a story, but it deals ALSO with this idea that the emotional and intellectual are confused by the dick-led pathetic male. And it ALSO deals with the maturing male learning just-a-little control. From the setting, the author also deals with the milieu of creative writing, the dilettantes, the bitter failures, lack of ambition, pointlessness (and to some extent hero-worship versus dismissal of wannabes as a group). But the story ALSO deals with the modern literary world, no longer that but "media" performance, marketing, soulless, and meanwhile deals just a little with rising and fading stars, what it's like to age, how hanging on to youth can be pathetic. It's rich, can be walked through, mentally played with. The story can be read as titillation, can be read for the insights to writing, can be read as a comment on ageing/sex, can be read for what it says about the publishing world. These things echo and affect each other.

When you look at these four stories they are rich and multi-faceted. They are highly ambitious and on the edge of total failure. They involve language to reach the places otherwise not reached, and they are both dense while transparent, incredibly compressed, every word, every sentence having a real job to do. But, most importantly, all these stories produce high theme marks, produce reactions which say, this mattered, this resonated, this lingered, this made me think, made me emote.

and the theme scores:

23 23 23 
21 21 
20 20 20 20 
18 18 18 18 18 
16 16 16 16 
13 13 13 
12 12

And "Sue Lawley" also discussed, had theme scores of 23 23 20 18 15 15  an average of 19 and a total of 148. Adding this story to Session B gives an even higher correlation between theme and total scores.

Theme   Total
 19.00     152
 19.00     148    << Lawley
 18.71     145
 17.00     139
 16.71     134

 12.63     114
 13.60     113
 12.43     111

 10.70     102
 10.29     101
 10.00     100
 10.86     100
 09.56     096

I hope this makes sense to everyone (and I hope it makes you think a bit more about why you write and what you write).

PS, Just a note, but two of the top four won First Prizes, so hey, maybe the scheme works

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