Photo credit: Al Bogdan
Scott H. Andrews, 2005 graduate, will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Scott lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is a World Fantasy Award finalist for his work as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a Hugo Award finalist fantasy magazine that Locus has called “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”
Visit him online at http://www.scotthandrews.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @Scott_H_Andrews.
When looking for stories for Hugo-, World Fantasy Award-, and Parsec-nominated magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, you look for “stories that focus on the character.” What advice would you give to writers who want to create more well-rounded, fully realized, and interesting characters? Do you think there is a difference between coming up with interesting characters in short stories versus novels?
I think the core thing that every character must have is a motivation. All compelling characters want something. Even if they can’t articulate what they want or don’t know what it is, or even if what they want is an antithetical thing, like wanting to not have a goal.
For characters who are more well-rounded or fully realized, I like a concept I’ve seen attributed to the great SF and literary writer Samuel R. Delany. Characterization often isn’t in the details of the character so much as the contradictions between those details. Imagine a character who’s a stockbroker and drives a luxury sedan. Then imagine a character who’s a stockbroker but drives a beat-up old pickup. That contradiction between those two details immediately adds another dimension to this character. It instantly feels unusual, and thus interesting. It immediately brings questions to mind: why does this stockbroker drive such a car, whereas most stockbrokers don’t and most people who drive such a car are not stockbrokers. I think contradictions are an extremely powerful characterization technique for making characters feel well-rounded and interesting.
To go beyond characters that are merely well-rounded or interesting to ones who resonate with me profoundly, I love the concepts that Faulkner mentioned in his Nobel Prize speech, which George R.R. Martin–who is routinely praised for his characters–often quotes. Faulkner said the only thing worth writing about is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself;” the universal truths of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Things like that for me really cut to the core of what it means to be human. I often find that characters who truly move me, who make me sit there in stunned silence for a moment after I’ve finished a story, are ones who touch on universal facets of human nature like those. So Faulkner’s articulation of them, while for me not by any means a method or checklist, is a good yardstick for elements that can make a character resonate profoundly with me.
I don’t think there’s any innate difference between coming up with characters for short stories versus novels. They all still need a motivation, and for me they still need to be resonant in some way. Both stories and novels have plenty of room for characters to undergo a character change, in a convincing way. I think however there is a big difference in the amount of space that those different lengths allow for the writer to develop that characterization. In a short story, the characterization needs to be clear and concise from the start; there isn’t time for it to slowly accrete through multiple incidents and interactions the way that characterization can build in a novel.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a magazine for literary adventure fantasy. What suggestions do you have for genre writers looking to use more literary techniques in their writing? Are there any resources in particular that you recommend?
I think a great resource for genre writers looking to use more literary techniques in their writing is the vast wealth of literary-leaning genre stories published in online magazines. We are in a golden age of literary techniques being used in genre writing, especially in short fiction, and much of that short fiction was published in online ‘zines and is available for free. To find literary-leaning stories, I might recommend starting with pieces that were finalists for major awards; stories that receive notice for awards are often more avant or literary. Another strategy would be to survey magazines that tend to publish literary-leaning stories, like BCS or Clarkesworld, and look for authors who’ve been published there multiple times.
I would also recommend that writers looking to use more literary techniques be adventurous in experimenting with literary techniques or approaches in their stories. Experimentation works great in the smaller form-factor of short fiction, where you can try something unusual or off-the-wall but with a much smaller investment of time and work than a novel.
I also think that readings from bygone high school or college English class are resources worth considering. Much of that material if you’re looking for pleasure reading is pretty dry for most people, me included, but all of that fiction is considered quite moving or profound by a consensus of some experienced readers. If there’s a classic literary author whose work is still in your head years later or who you hear mentioned by genre writers, maybe look up an old piece of theirs that you might have been forced to read back in school and see if it offers you any inspiration or insight now. It might contain something interesting and different that you weren’t experienced enough as a reader or writer back then to notice, or that you haven’t seen in genre works that you’ve read. It might spark you toward something literary-leaning or open your mind to a different direction. Some of those English-class writers of course have solid connections to our genre–Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley–and some genre writers are becoming common in lit courses–Tolkien, Le Guin.
You’ve read quite a number of short stories over the years as an editor. For writers looking to improve their understanding of how short stories work, how would you suggest critically reading stories with an eye to improvement and understanding? Are there particular elements critical readers should look for?
As with all fiction writing, I think that breaking down what an author is doing on the page can be invaluable as a way to gain insight into writing.
One way I like to critically break down a story is to look at it overall. View it as chunks or elements summing to a whole. How was it structured, how did it flow and escalate, how did it reveal information about the world or character. What expectations did it raise, and how or whether it delivered on them. How did it build to a peak, and how did that peak resolve (or choose not to resolve). Did it overall work for you, as a reader, or did it not, and why. Is it similar to what you, as a writer, are trying to do.
Another important way to break down a story for me is to look very closely at the opening. A story’s opening must hook readers and editors, but there are a thousand different ways to achieve that. It must give readers everything they need in order to slip into the story, but it can’t give them so much that it drives them away. One way to break down an opening is to read it extremely slowly, one phrase at a time or even one word at a time, holding a piece of paper over the rest of the words to hide them from your eyes. Then stop after each phrase or word and think about what’s going on. For each word or phrase you read, does it make you want to read on, or not? And why. Is it interesting to you, or not? Are you engaged, and if so, by what? What sort of lures is the author using to make you want to keep reading–such as curiosity, mystery, disquietude, tension, humor? Because that sort of word-by-word analysis is exactly what’s happening in my head when I read the opening of any story. Each word and phrase in that opening is either engaging or luring me somehow or it’s not, and that’s what makes me keep reading. After the first paragraph or so, you can speed up the analysis to one sentence at a time. Are those next couple paragraphs continuing to keep you reading? Are they building things, such as character and world, at an engaging level of increase? How are they doing as far as raising questions and expectations for you as a reader, and escalating or answering questions and expectations that the first paragraph raised?
A more challenging but incisive way to break down a story is to analyze its voice. Voice, for me, is the key factor that sets a story apart and makes it feel unique. How is an author you admire, or a story whose voice affects you, pulling off that voice on the page? What word choices and tone and style are they using to do it? How could you execute that sort of voice, in a way that might work for your characters or story? Voice is ephemeral and more difficult to analyze, but doing that can offer great insight into how great writers achieve it on the page.
Can you talk a little about a story Beneath Ceaseless Skies has recently published, explaining what initially drew you to it and why you bought it for the magazine, and providing a link to the story? That will allow our readers to compare your reaction to their reactions and perhaps gain some insights.
Last October in our Seventh Anniversary Double-Issue, we published “The Sons of Vincente” by I.L. Heisler, who coincidentally is an Odyssey graduate. It’s concise yet vivid; a great story to experience as a reader, then analyze more closely. It’s available at this link, as text and ebook and audio podcast:
Several things in the opening drew me. From the very first paragraph, the voice has a great feel to it for me; imposing and intense, slightly poetic but not overly so. The opening lines have vivid and tactile images, shown very concisely and with a tone of emotion to the details. That’s important to me, that details are not just details but also are conveying a sense of mood or emotion.
The opening also gets immediately to a situation of character conflict, in the second and third sentences: the narrator is fleeing, and his mother is assuring him he will be safe. But we don’t know why or what from, and that makes me curious. We also don’t know, from his childlike perspective, if his mother is lying or not, and that makes me feel uncertainty. I want to keep reading to find out. We also get concise hints of the paranormal world: the narrator has snakes on his scalp; he must be some sort of Gorgon-like creature.
As the opening continues, the narrator’s situation gets completely upended. It’s a moment that shapes his motivation for the rest of the story, and it’s portrayed so emotively that it makes me not only understand his motivation but also feel it along with him. That’s always important to me–I need to not only know or understand a character’s motivation, but I need the story to make me feel it too. I am moved by what happened to him, so I feel why he is driven to do what he does.
The story overall is intensely character-centered, about this young man working toward what he’s driven to do. The story never spells out what exactly he wants ultimately to do, but it shows you his intense attitude about what he’s doing, and that attitude makes me feel his motivation for myself even though the story isn’t yet revealing exactly what he wants.
The story is told over a long span of time, which sometimes makes a story feel less acute or immediate to me, but this one zooms in from its time-lapse narrative to include vivid and emotive episodes of character interaction, and those live-action episodes keep things feeling acute for me. It has details showing this particular society, and details of a craft or trade, in this case stonecarving. I always want to feel the world that a story is set in, and I always like getting details and jargon of interesting trades.
As the conflict builds, there are threads of escalation that are clear and others that are subtle. There are strong emotions from the characters, like love, grief, and cruelty. There is emotional pathos. All the incidents and threads fit together and resonate with each other as the story builds to a climax that ties in the subtle threads and casts a new light over everything that came before.
And all over a rather short length; the story is only 2800 words long. In addition to all the great things it includes, I think it’s also a fine example of a fantasy story with very concise world-building. Some settings require more story room to show them than others, but this story demonstrates that it’s definitely possible to write secondary-world fantasy short fiction at short lengths.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
I think the most important advice I can give to developing writers is about being a neo-pro writer or workshop grad, about experiences that many neo-pros or workshop grads will face. I think I’m uniquely qualified to lecture about that because I’ve seen it from both an external perspective and an internal one. I’m a workshop grad neo-pro myself, and I’ve been through many of the experiences that neo-pros and workshop grads encounter. I can speak directly to those thing from an internal, personal perspective. I also am friends with over a hundred such writers from Odyssey and other workshops, and I’ve interacted with probably another thousand neo-pro writers who’ve submitted to BCS. I’ve seen that same neo-pro stage of being a writer also from the outside, a more objective viewpoint, so I can speak to that side of it too. I’ve lived the challenges of being a neo-pro, and I’ve watched a thousand other neo-pros live through them too.
A single and important piece of such advice for developing writers would be this: regardless of whatever studying or instruction or workshops or courses or critique groups you are using to improve your writing, I think it’s important to always make sure to still be yourself. Make sure that your writing still is uniquely yours; make sure you still keep in it whatever unique essence or slant or personality that is you. Writers often ask the question “why do you write.” Another variation on that is “what are you trying to say with your writing.” What do you want your writing to do. I think it’s important, especially when studying or workshopping or critiquing, to not lose sight of the unique personality that your writing has, and what you want it to accomplish. That is the element that sets your writing apart from everyone else’s in the galaxy. That is the thing that will let your writing offer a unique contribution.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I am trying to write a novel! It’s the third or fourth novel I’ve tried to write in the last five years. I’ve had to tear down and rebuild my process multiple times, but I think I have found one that will work, so I am at the same time trying to write a novel and trying to learn how to write a novel. Hopefully I’m on my way out of Rivendell, not merely still stuck in The Shire.