The Moment of Truth

I’m preparing for a writing workshop right now, a place where people like me, people who love to write and would like to take it to another level, sit around and try to help each other become better at our craft. One must meet certain quality standards to be accepted, so the group is not spending its time on people who have a way to go to imagine actually getting paid to write.

So what we will be doing is this: criticizing each other’s work. The criticism may or may not be useful for the recipient, but in thinking about the writing of others we should each learn more about our own. In the short-story workshop, each the dozen participants has submitted three short stories. Now I am reading them all, and trying to come up with helpful advice and explanations for exactly why certain things don’t work. Already this process is changing the way I feel about my own work — sometimes for the better, sometimes… not so much.

I have not read all the stories yet, so there may be an exception waiting for me, but even if it’s not universal, the trend is certainly obvious. At the moment of truth, at the time when life is on the line, I’ve been reading a lot about the character’s actions, whether running or ducking or fighting or whatever, but nothing about their reactions. No heart beating out of the chest, no urge to scream, not even breaking a sweat. No blind panic or tunnel vision, and god forbid someone should pee their pants when an alien is kidnapping them. At the critical moment in the story, the tone becomes oddly dispassionate.

My own submissions for this adventure are, alas, also lacking in this regard, although to be honest I think I come closer than most. (It wouldn’t surprise if all the other writers felt the same way, feeling emotions that we all think are implicit in our work but are in fact in the writer’s head.)

When I give myself this better-than-average rating I intentionally don’t include one of my stories, a relatively fluffy bit that would not benefit from the protagonist peeing his pants. Only… actually, that would be pretty good. He’s the narrator and he’d never admit he did, except he’s under oath. He’s promised to tell the whole truth.

Dammit, even that story could benefit from a bit more viscera.

8 thoughts on “The Moment of Truth

  1. Personally, I love to pee my pants. Even better, tho, is peeing someone else’s pants. AH, that is truly something.

  2. so I had been reading a story and I set it aside to write that episode; there was a point where I had written NEED FEAR in the margin. I picked the narrative back up, and in the very next paragraph the protagonist actually pees his pants. Go figure. I amended my comment to say “need fear sooner, and more.”

  3. I have found that the scary scenes are where they are most obviously missing, but there are a lot of places where a physiological reaction would improve the story. That’s not to say that there are other ways to transmit emotion or stress, but overall any reaction would be welcome.

  4. This is an exercise that I have used successfully with my students — they are to tell about some occasion when they felt a strong emotion, but they are NOT allowed to name the emotion or tell what they are thinking; they must convey the emotion purely by telling what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. They’re not allowed to say, “I was nervous”; rather, they must say, “My hands were clammy with cold sweat, my heart was pounding, and I felt like I was going to faint.”

    I actually got the inspiration for this exercise from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in which there are people who are trained observers — they report exactly what they observe and don’t make any judgments about it. As a demonstration of this skill, one of these observers is asked to tell what she sees (if I remember correctly, it’s in Kansas), and she reports on a farmhouse: “This side of it is painted white.” She does not extrapolate that the whole farmhouse is painted white.

    That is the sort of thing I ask of my students in this exercise — they can report on what they feel, but not on what emotion causes those physical sensations. If they have done a good job with the physical sensations, their reader doesn’t need to be told what the emotion is.

  5. Ya wants criticism? You look funny and you smell.

    Oh, writing criticism? OK, take out some werds. Which? Pff, you’r the writer. Moar heroic squirrel stories.

    /mah bill. let teh mails shows it to you.
    //easiest money i made all day
    ///oh thats right, i went 2 werk

  6. If you decide to take out some words, I would suggest starting with the ones that don’t mean what you want to say. Then you just replace them with the ones that do mean what you want to say, and that say it beautifully, flawlessly, hauntingly and unforgettably. Simple, really, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.

    Yet another lesson on the difference between “simple” and “easy”.

    Stupid lessons…

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