Advice from Arthur Powers, Judge of the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest
As a past judge of the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest, I've been asked to provide some advice for contestants. I'm half-reluctant to do so as I don't really want to influence anyone's short story. Your story is your story, and you should write it the way you feel called to write it.
However, it's fair that you should know something about the way I think, so here goes:
I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. I believe the short story allows a writer's craft to be honed in a special way, and I enjoy seeing the different ways that different writers approach their stories.
All the rules you have ever learned about writing are important. You should know them, master them, then work around them. People will tell you it is important to show, not tell; they are right—yet sometimes you should tell, not show. People will discuss whether to write in first or third person, from a specific or more omniscient viewpoint—all this is interesting but, in my experience, it is the story that tells the writer what viewpoint to write from, not the writer who tells the story. People (including me) will tell you never to write in the second person—yet I once wrote an entire novella in the second person and it worked (won an award and was published).
In his wonderful novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok says much the same thing about painting: "This is a tradition...Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it or to rebel against it."
I tell my students that character is the most important element in fiction. You should know and love your characters. Plot is what happens when characters interact with one another or situations. This is true not only of psychological and literary stories, but of science fiction, thrillers, westerns, even mysteries (where the temptation to distort characters to fit the plot is particularly strong).
Atmosphere may also be important to a story—the way a place, a situation, and the story itself feel. Texture may be created through a few key phrases, through the words you choose.
Walter Pater said that all art strives toward music, and there is a great deal of truth in that. The rhythm of a story—pacing, timing, speed—is very important. I find it sometimes helps to think of my stories in terms of musical composition.
Avoid cliches—not only in words, but in thoughts. Try not to be too self-absorbed—take your craft seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.
I do not want to overly influence any writer—it is the individuality of your work that makes it interesting. But here are qualities I am looking for in essays:
- Have something to say.
- Say it in a way that makes readers see differently or understand differently—that provides a new angle or a new insight, without necessarily doing acrobatics to try to be different.
- Say it with style—a style that has texture, that readers can savor.
- Make it memorable—words, phrases, thoughts, images that will stay in readers' minds for days—perhaps years—that will give them something to ponder.
- Develop it beautifully (whether the subject is beautiful or not)—with a quality that carries readers along with you, whether elegantly or on a bumpy (but meaningful) road.
May you break any of these guidelines? Of course. Surprises are always welcome. Write what you feel called to write the best you can. Enjoy writing—I'll enjoy reading it. Good fortune!