When in Doubt, Delete. Unless . . .: Guest Blog from Author Karen Pullen
Posted August 1, 2014on:
What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.
Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.
I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.
Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.
I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:
1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.
2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.
3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.
4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.
5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.
The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.
I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.
Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.
Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.