When I met up with Sharon Bakar last Sunday for our "Readings from Readings 2" promotional slot at Art for Grabs, we chatted a little. She said that I have paid my dues in terms of publishing short stories in magazines and anthologies. Now I have to concentrate on having a book published, be it an anthology of short stories or a novel. A whole book to myself.
Well, I do have several projects running. I've even received the green light for a proposal on an anthology of novellas. I have at least 2 novels in the process of getting written. Somehow, however, I have a difficult time finishing those stories. I am an impulsive writer, you see. I write in spurts, and then stop for long periods. I pour my soul into writing, and the process drains me. I'm not being a writerly snob. Ask Breanna. She knows this is true. That's why I excel at short stories. It only takes that single sprint to come up with 5,000 words.
I have those stories to write, but what am I inspired to do today? Write about writing. I have not garnered accolades, nor have I made a significant mark in the publishing world. I have science fiction, horror and fantasy stories published professionally, but the good people of Malaysia and the SEA region do not even acknowledge my existence as a speculative fiction writer. However, fame and fortune from writing are not the things I seek. If I can reach out to even one person, and make a difference at the time my stories are read, I feel accomplished. Honest.
So. It doesn't matter if you don't really care about what I have to say about fiction writing, but I know there is at least one reader for whom my advice will be useful. So for that one reader, I give my all.
Here it goes.
Storytelling has played an important role since the time of cavemen, as evidenced by the paintings on walls they have left behind. More often than not, those paintings tell stories of the Hunt, of how a group of warriors felled a great beast, of how some of them had fallen during the hunt. Storytelling is a way to help us remember, to help us learn, to help us make sense of the world around us.
Can anyone be a writer? Surely in school we have written essays and stories. Even a kindergarten child learns how to make proper sentences. Do we have stories to tell? The longer we live, the more experiences we gather, and the more stories we have within us.
The question is, are you a storyteller?
Let's take a newspaper article. I know stories about children being abused and killed are rampant right now, but let's not be insensitive jerks, now shall we? We'll use an article about a foiled robbery attempt instead (the article is taken from The Star Online). In the article, a young man, believed to be a policeman's son, was gunned down by police officers when he and his accomplice tried to rob a convenience store.
Juicy, isn't it? A policeman's son, a robber, shot down by police officer. I am sorry to hear the news, especially how devastating it is for the family members, and I do feel guilty using the article as an example. Still, no identities were released, so I hope it's okay. Is this a story?
It's an article, it's news, but no way in hell does it a story make.
Other writers may disagree with me, but I have traditional values when it comes to storytelling. I have not received a formal education in creative writing--wait. I did attend a semester-worth of creative writing course during my university years. But I am an avid reader, for as long as I can remember. Sharon Bakar also says that I can see the patterns in stories, that I can tell which part works, and which part doesn't. I also bought and read plenty of books on writing when I re-launched my writing career in earnest.
So. Traditional values. A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the newspaper article, we learn that the robber was 19, that he robbed a convenience store using a machete (God, people, when will you learn to use 'machete' instead of 'parang' in an ENGLISH context?!), and that he and his accomplice panicked when they saw a patrol car outside the store. We learn that he brandied his machete and got gunned down in the process. We also learn an important detail: he was the son of a policeman. We have all this information, but at best we have a scene. We do not have a beginning, a middle, or an end.
So what can we do to make this article a story? Well, it depends on how long you intend the story to be. For a short story, you have one scene, three at most, to create an impact, to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Publishers and editors like it when a story starts in media res--in the middle of an action/scene.
Here's my take on a possible story:
Khairul (we have to give the character a name) runs his finger along the edge of the worn machete. He's listening to his friend Samad coaxing him to rob just one more convenience store. They've done it three times, and they've made almost RM1,000 from those robberies. A small amount, but it was easy money. And they haven't been caught. It's not the money he's after, but robbing is a way he rebels against his stand-up but abusive father. His father is a law enforcer; how ironic it is that his son robs convenience stores. Khairul agrees to rob just one more store.
It's late at night, and only one sleepy-looking guy barely out of his teens (the same age as Khairul and Samad) mans the counter. There are a few people walking about, but the convenience store is empty save for the cashier. Khairul keeps his machete safe under his jacket. He's done this before; the rush has taken over any signs of nervousness. Samad walks to the end of the store to make sure no one else is around. Then Samad comes back and asks for a pack of cigarette. The guy behind the counter doesn't even ask for an ID, but reaches up toward the top shelf to get the pack of 20s. When he turns back, Khairul already has his machete poised near the cashier's neck. The cashier fumbles and stammers, and Khairul loses his patience. He nicks the shaking guy's neck, drawing blood. Samad demands for all the money in the cash register. What they don't know is that the cashier activates a silent alarm.
They've hit it big this time. A thick wad of RM50 bills gets shoved into a plastic bag. There are several RM100 notes too, along with smaller change. Samad grabs the full bag from the cashier and Khairul uses the back of the machete to club the guy's temple. He crumples, unconscious. Khairul and Samad elbow each other as they exit the store; they can't wait to count the loot.
A patrol car waits for them outside the store (in the article, it might have been a coincidence that the police car was outside. In fiction, there are no such things as coincidences, hence the alarm trigger). Two policemen are behind opened doors, guns pointed at the boys. Samad panics and runs away, but Khairul brandishes his machete at the policemen.
One shot. Two shots. Three shots are released, puncturing Khairul's lung and abdomen. The distraction he's created has enabled Samad to escape. That's not Khairul's intention, but maybe it's better this way. He gurgles out blood. Suddenly it's difficult to breathe. It's painful. His vision is blurring. He doesn't recognize the policemen, only the familiar dark-blue uniform. The same uniform that he hates the most. He hears his name called. One of the policemen knows him. Knows his father.
As he suffocates on his own blood, Khairul can't help but smile. His father's reputation will be tarnished forever. His revenge is complete.
Note: well, one of the police officers can be his father, but it's predictable and I have to say, overly used.
In the beginning of the story, we promised a young man's rebellion against his abusive father. That becomes his motivation to rob convenience stores. That is the promise we give readers, that by the end of the story, Khairul will either get his revenge or he doesn't. Either way, we get a complete character arc. Boy seeks revenge, boy acts on it the way he knows how, and boy finds his revenge in an unexpected way. If your story is plot-driven, you concentrate more on the actions and less on the character arc. It still exists, but not prioritized. If your story is character-driven, you concentrate on Khairul, of his fears and motivations, of his need to rebel against his father.
What's important here is fulfilling the promise. You've promised the reader at the beginning of the story that Khairul wants to rob a convenience store to get back at his father. If your story ends at them exiting the store with the loot, you don't show readers how the robbery affects his father. It's also unexciting. If your story ends at the police officers pointing the gun at them, you'll leave readers hanging, and NO ONE likes to be left hanging. You'll only create anger and people don't want to read your stories anymore.
Somehow, this is a trend with a lot of Malaysian short stories. Letting people think and figure out what happens next. The writer thinks himself as brilliant for doing this, but believe me, he's delusional. NO ONE LIKES TO BE LEFT HANGING.
If you end the story with them successfully robbing the shop, but suddenly Khairul gets hit by lightning (divine intervention) or gets run down a drunken driver, WHAT THE HELL?! This is called deus ex machina--god of the machines, which is a fancy term for shitting on your readers. Trick endings that come unexpectedly and out of nowhere is one of the greatest sins a storyteller can commit.
Somehow, this is also a trend among Malaysian (and Singaporean) writers. Again, WHAT THE HELL?!
First rule as a storyteller: always fulfil your promise to your readers. ALWAYS.
I don't know if this will be a regular thing. I don't dare make any promises. Heh.
Tell me what you think.