The Joy of Deadlines

by Curtis C. Chen

When ShadowSpinners approached me about writing a guest blog post, I readily agreed—then asked for a deadline before I even suggested a topic. Because I love deadlines! No, I’m not crazy. Let me explain… Continue reading

What the Hell Is Subtext? by, Eric M. Witchey

PunchingImpliedWhat the Hell is Subtext?
by Eric M. Witchey

I’m a lucky guy. A couple of writing groups in and around San Antonio, Texas recently pooled their resources to fly me to San Antonio to teach. Some were publishing professionals. Some were aspiring professionals. All were wonderfully kind and accomplished. While there, I even got to do some touristy things.

So far, I’ve written in general terms about things that were fun for me. Readers may now be thinking, “Get to the point, Eric.” However, if that first paragraph were in a short story or a novel, the reader would be, in the back of their mind, wondering what it means in the context of dramatic development. If, as would probably be the case, it added nothing to the reader’s sense of tension or character change, they would get disgusted, drop my story, and never look at another one of my tales.

Go, readers!

That’ll teach me economy in language. More importantly, it will teach me to figure out ways to imbue even apparently mundane passages with some additional layer of meaning, subtext.

Normally, I teach subtext by introducing students to a seminal article in discourse analysis. I then extrapolate from that article into the use of implication in dialog. Once that has become clear, I demonstrate how “subjective interpretation of setting through the character filter” can create an underlying sense of changing character psychology in the reader’s experience. That all takes a day or two, and it takes a fair amount of practice.

Did you catch the subtext? I’ll translate. “This set of very specific skills takes time and practice.”

However, I’m writing a blog entry, so I’ll try to give you the quick and dirty. I stopped short of calling this a shortcut. It isn’t. The time and practice is still necessary.

For my first bit of sleight of hand, I’m going to replace the term “subtext” with another term I think is more descriptive of the function of a number of techniques. The term is “implication.” Writers manipulate the text in order imply things that are not actually part of the explicit text.

Above, in the paragraph beginning with “Normally,” I described a longish process that wasn’t actually necessary if I just want to tell you what I’m about to tell you. However, I did put it in the blog entry, which tells the reader that I am either just horribly wordy or was implying something. The reader tries to fit what I wrote into their growing sense of the purpose of this blog entry. Since I then talked about a shortcut and the technobabble paragraph is more than I needed to write about the shortcut, the reader tries to find additional, underlying meaning. If they can’t, they think I’m stupid. If they can, they think I’m brilliant. In truth, they don’t even actually know they are looking for that subtext. The brain does it automatically.

In fiction, if a character says more (or less) than they would normally say or than they actually need to say in order to respond to their circumstance, some other meaning is being conveyed. The reader unconsciously examines text in conjunction with context in order to draw the special meaning from the text.

In practical application in fiction, it looks something like this.

“Honey,” he said, “I need to take the car to Bend this weekend.”

“The Metzgers are having a lawn party on Sunday,” she said. “Jennifer will be sixteen, and her oldest brother, the Army doctor, is in back from Afghanistan. Can you believe he wants to meet our daughter?”

She said a lot more than she would normally say in response to his statement about the car. In fact, all she had to say was, “Okay.” Of course, she might also have said, “No. We have a party to go to.”

Instead, she said, interpreting the subtext:

You have other responsibilities this weekend. Show some respect to our friends. Demonstrate that you at least pretend to care about their daughter. If you can’t pretend to care about our friends, then think about the returning soldier and how important his homecoming is. If you can’t get your head and heart around that, then at least think about the happiness of your own daughter.

To get all that from a couple lines of dialog, the reader needs a little more background. In fact, the reader needs the same things we need in the real world in order to interpret the wonderfully obscure things we say to each other. The following is a classic example is of people communicating by using implication:

“Honey, what time is it?”

“The ice cream truck just went by.”

The answer does not, strictly speaking, answer the question. However, both people know it is four o’clock because they share history that involves the ice cream truck.

Consider once more the car and weekend problem from above. In order for the reader to get the full impact of the indirect statement made in response to the statement about using the car, the reader has to be aware of the same shared experiences of the characters that allow the characters on stage to speak to one another in indirect ways.

We use this kind of implication all the time when we talk. In fact, it turns out that when we are trying to cooperate and get something done, we speak pretty directly to one another. If you and I are building a dog house together, I can say, “Give me that hammer.” Your answer might be, “Okay.” It might also be to hand me the hammer. Either way, it’s pretty direct and clear.

However, if you and I have some personal history with home projects not getting done, you might answer differently. Consider this dialog couplet:

“Give me that hammer.”

“And the paint brush, broom, and shovel?”

Now, suddenly, you are telling me I have a lot more to do. Additionally, neither one of us is having a good time.

Turns out that we figure out what these kinds of non-responses mean because they differ from direct, cooperative responses in one or more of the following four ways.

  • The response says more (or less) than is needed.
  • The response doesn’t appear at the surface to be a relevant to the initial statement or question.
  • The response isn’t clear.
  • The response somehow lacks the needed quality to be a full response.

The short list is quality, clarity, quantity, and relevance. Even so, this kind of communication relies on shared experiences. Those experiences can be shared within culture, community, family, or individual association.

Given the above, getting dialog to be indirect so that it implies more than is said is a pretty direct process. Start with something direct and revise it until is drips with additional meanings.

Draft 1:

“Take me home,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

Draft 2:

She says, “My bedroom ceiling is more interesting than these people.”

“That guy,” he said, “spent last year in Tibet.”

“And my bedroom is warmer than this field.”

“They’ll light the bonfire in a minute.”

“Two cuddled under quilts is the best warm.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ll just say goodnight.”

In draft one, the two people are being cooperative and direct. In draft two, one is being too clever, and the other is being a bit dense. A lot more is going on in terms of the psychological interactions of the desires of the two people. Of course, the passage could be improved—a lot. That’s not the point. The point is the implied meanings. In this case, the reader gets them because of shared experience in cultural context.

If, as writers, we understand our characters, their growth, their needs, and their backgrounds well enough, we can manipulate the text so that multiple layers of meaning appear from this kind of indirect interaction.

Narrative, when compared to implication in dialog, is both the same and different. If the narrator is external, the narrator can be seen as engaged in a sort of dialog with the reader. What has come before in the main story or in back story can be used as shared knowledge (the ice cream truck). However, narrative is usually more powerful if it has moved into the heart/mind of character.

The following two passages represent a transformation from one of the great traps into which writing instructors fall, focusing on the use of “concrete details,” to the use of those same details to imply more about the life of the character than is strictly accounted for by the text.

Yes, concrete details are necessary. However, students of the written word often focus too tightly on the detail and miss the point that the story is about a character who inhabits the fictional world.

Passage 1 (concrete details):

He entered through the south door and paused. He wore J. C. Penney docksiders, pale blue argyle socks, tan cotton Dockers, a burgundy, button-down Bugle Boy shirt, and a thin gold chain around his neck. His build was medium and toned. He had a sharp jaw line, straight nose, blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a businessman’s haircut. He looked to his left. He looked to his right. He crossed from the door to the dining room table and placed a small pile of envelopes on the table. The table was made of stained cherry wood veneer over a pine base. In places, the veneer was worn through and the pine was visible. The table had brass screws holding it together. Three chairs were mission, two were Victorian, one was a folding steel chair. He walked around the table, called his wife’s name, and exited the room through the north door.

Passage 2 (implication through the use of details):

Squeaking hinges announced his arrival and reminded him that Sharon had a honey-do list for him this weekend. He crossed the threshold into neutral ground, the dining room, paused, and turned his head to better catch noises coming from the kitchen. Concentrating on the sounds of the house, the ticks and creaks and movement of air through dry, old cracks in the walls and floorboards, the mail he held nearly slipped from his sweating hand. He gripped it more tightly and crossed to the dining room table, careful to tread lightly on the white-rubber balls of his topsiders. He sorted the mail so the bills were on the bottom then set the stack in a neat pile at Sharon’s place, in front of her martyr’s chair, the folding metal church chair she insisted that she use so no one else would have to be subjected to its indignity. He wiped his palms on the burgundy Bugle Boy she’d given him for his interview, then he thought better of it and checked to see if he’d stained the shirt with his own sweat. Satisfied that he was presentable, he rounded the table and headed for occupied territory–her kitchen.

I showed these passages to one of my writer friends. Their response was, “Eric, that’s just close, subjective narrative.”

Well, yes. It is.

That’s sort of the point of close, subjective narrative. We know the characters, their needs, their current desires, their underlying desires, their changes, their emotions, their back stories, their relationships, and their minds. Because of that knowledge, we can write in a way that implies many things that are not explicit in the text.

For example, we can write narrative that reveals levels of marital tension, the nature of personal fear, levels of social dominance, tacit agreements about control of territory, habitual behavioral dynamics, and the psychological underpinnings of two people who have driven one another to estrangement. Later, the reader will share this understanding with character and narrator. If done well, the reader won’t even know they have picked up on these cues. These things can then be exploited more deeply through indirect dialog and subjective narrative as a story moves forward.

The subtext of the opening paragraph, based on shared experience with my friends in Texas, is, “Thank you.”

I suppose I should stop now. This blog entry is late, and I have said a lot more than I needed to say in order to fulfill my responsibility to my cohort of shared bloggers.

Since I have written more than was strictly needed, there is subtext. The subtext is, to be explicit, that I believe this idea of implication (subtext) is very important for writers who want to enhance the reader’s experience of story.

The Art of Writing Short Fiction

By Sarina Dorie

If a short story falls under a thousand words (1500 words in some markets), it is considered “flash fiction” or “micro fiction.” With a number of new markets out there publishing flash fiction: Penumbra, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online being a few among many, it is a plentiful market to send to. Because writing short, succinct stories is a skill I wanted to develop, there is a high demand for flash fiction, and it takes less time to write flash fiction than a long story (in theory) I decided I wanted to take a stab at it. When Daily Science Fiction opened about three years ago, Wordos, my speculative fiction writing critique group in Eugene, Oregon decided we wanted to dissect flash fiction in order to hone our skills and see what makes a short, short story work. It isn’t surprising that because of our critiques and dissections, quite a few writers from our critique group went on to sell flash to Daily Science Fiction.

What we noticed about these stories is that they were tightly written, with limited details, often had an interesting idea, a twist or punch line at the end, and were emotionally powerful or shocking or funny. The format these stories had been written in ranged from someone telling a story to a friend, in the form of a letter or letters in an epistolary fashion, were written like a fable, joke or essay, or used some other unusual writing device to tell a story. Many of these stories weren’t even traditional stories in the sense that there was a character arc, plot or conflict. Still, there was something that happened in each “story” that made it catchy, edgy or worthwhile. These are just my observations, as well as some that I remember from members of Wordos. My advice to someone genuinely interested in breaking into the flash fiction market is to read and analyze lots of flash fiction and decide what it is about each piece that made the editor choose it.

As a result of studying the market and trying to think in the “short” mindset, I wrote about twenty flash fiction stories in a few months. Some of them I submitted to my critique group and got feedback on, some of them I later turned into slightly longer short stories, and some of them I left unfinished because there wasn’t enough there to create a story—but I didn’t feel guilty about not finishing because they were so short and I considered them experiments. Though I had been submitting stories to magazines for several years, it was my flash fiction stories that first sold. The four pieces I first sold in 2011 were “Zombie Psychology” to Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, “A Ghost’s Guide to Haunting Human’s” (which won the Whidbey student choice award, “Losing One’s Appetite” to Daily Science Fiction and “Worse than a Devil” to Crossed Genres. From there, I went on to sell slightly longer short stories as well as more flash. After building up my resume with short stories, I sold my novel, Silent Moon and then my novella, Dawn of the Morning Star.

Sarina Dorie

Sarina Dorie

In Praise of Short Fiction

by Cynthia Coate Ray

Now that the rainy season is upon us, I look forward to downloading new novels from my favorite authors (like fellow Shadowspinners Eric Witchey, Liz Engstrom and Christina Lay among others) and laying around all day just reading and sipping hot chocolate.

But you won’t find any novels with my name on them here, or any long unfinished manuscripts in my files.  Short fiction is my passion.  The challenge of crafting a compelling story within the confines of 1000 to 8000 words spins my gears.   It’s also because I enjoy actually finishing something.
Short stories lend themselves to experimentation, and if it fails, I’ve learned something, but the time invested is not so much that I regret it.  A novel could go on for years, but I can finish a short story in 24 hours.  One day I woke up and wrote a 500-word story in an hour but that is the exception; most of the time it takes me from one to six weeks to finish and polish a good story.

The short story renaissance is evidenced by the multitudinous venues, both in print and on line for short fiction, from microfiction to novellas.   Short fiction lends itself to creative venues as well.  For example, Lectores Coffee Company solicits original manuscripts and poems for display on their coffee bags.  Short stories are accessible; you can sign up to receive a beautifully crafted 1000 word story delivered to your inbox every morning from Daily Science Fiction to enjoy before you go to work, or on your lunch break.  You can download many excellent, but inexpensive short stories from Amazon and others, for example Shadow Spinner Matt Lowes, ‘The Music of Timothy Shean’.

Perhaps people crave short fiction because, like me, they enjoy finishing something. Perhaps they appreciate, as I do, the perfection of a well-done story, where all the feeling, the conflict, the satisfying ending is there like a small present to be unwrapped.

Here are links to a few of my published short stories.

The Truth about Love and Revenge:  This story started out as an idea for a novel set in modern times and ended up as a short fantasy story.  It was first published in Fringe Magazine and reprinted here in Sourcerous Signals

Crab Feast:  This is the story that I woke up and wrote in an hour, as part of a writing exercise I do every morning.  Wake up and just write what comes out.  It appears here in Dark Bits, an anthology of 52 flash fiction horror stories.

Passage:  I wrote this story in 24 hours one of Liz Engstrom’s Fantasy writing workshops.  It is about dragons, and appears in this anthology dedicated to the memory of Anne McCaffery; In Memory of Dragons.