Cindy's First HK Literary Festival


I am going to join two class for  the Hong Kong Literary Festival: 
  • How to write a short story;
  • How to write a memoir.
I am thrilled as this is going to my first time to be meeting writers in Hong Kong. I wanted to build a community or at least join one, like how I did in the Philippines or online. I have met plenty of writers in the Philippines, but never in Hong Kong where I live. Okay, I met one, but that was all. There are plenty of talented writers here in such a small city, and joining these classes is a sure way to meet them. 

First of all, I am an introvert in real life, so I am also very nervous. I hope that we only get to sit down and listen, as I don't think I could speak tomorrow. I am going to update this blog about my adventures in the Hong Kong Literary Festival. 

Regarding the first lesson on writing a short story, we have Ms. Jenn Chan Lyman to tell us what she knows. She is from Shanghai and writes Fiction and non-fiction stories. For this class, we were asked to submit a short story, and tell her our struggles with it. I wrote a short story entitled "Headache", which I posted earlier. You may read the story here: HEADACHE.

This morning, I received an email with her two-paged comments on my story. 

Comments from Cindy: 
The difficulty in writing this short story is ensuring the voice of the story remains. I have to make the protagonist sounds sane, even if deep down inside, she is an actual crazy person. I need to maintain the element of surprise in the end, so I need to make my story my story believable.

I also weighed it, whether I should use the past or the present tense. I usually write stories in past tense, but sometimes I would get lost. I think this story will sound better if I write in present tense.

I also had a struggle with the delivery, how to end a scene and jump to the another one, without making it look like I rushed to finishing it, or simply cut the scene out. I had the same problems in the past, and I often received comments that my stories lack delivery, and I wanted to improve on that.

Notes from Jenn: 
Thank you so much for submitting “Headache.” The story was interesting and the poor character makes us wonder about what everyone around us is capable of. I first want to address some of the concerns you shared above, and then move on to some other notes.

With regard to voice, your character’s voice is quite strong, and as you mention, this is an important element to keep the reader within her frame of mind and stay with the story until its end. If the point is for the ending to be a surprise, I would suggest not to bring up her fantasies of how to kill him in the first and second paragraph. Perhaps instead, you could have the character discuss more about their relationship, so that we get further into her head and understand more why she would do the things that she ends up doing. Or, you can set up the framework of the story in these early paragraphs, even letting us know what she will eventually do, and then lead the reader through why she did it. 

For present or past tense, the story can work just as well in past and in present depending on how it is told, and with what conviction and commitment of the character to really keep the reader within her mind. 

For delivery, the story could be structured in such a way where the explicatory passages and scenes work together. Right now, the story is structured with one section in the front that is summary, as in mostly explicatory, and happens largely within her mind, with no scenes or movement, and then the second section is one long scene with the big reveal in the end, and then the third section is a short revelatory scene. The question to ask yourself would be what the significance of her going to the office is and what you are trying to show with that scene and setting. The scenes of your story should work towards moving forward or deepening the characterization, or presenting some significant metaphor that serves to enhance the storytelling. Scenes can also be present with the sole purpose of advancing the plot, however, such scenes can leave the reader feeling a bit hollow if there are no other layers present within the scene. For your story, this is especially important to develop further as there is only this one major scene in your piece. The best way to find the right delivery for your story is to read as many good short stories as possible and study the myriad ways that masters of short story telling have structured their stories. Map out the different ways your story could unfold many good short stories as possible and study the myriad ways that masters of short story telling have structured their stories. Map out the different ways your story could unfold through scene and summary.

The other point that I would stress for your piece would be to look at all the things that your character is mentioning and filter her comments through an additional layer of compassion that allows us to relate to her more. This goes along with the point you had mentioned about wanting her to sound sane. In fact, in her universe, she is completely sane, and that is where we need to reside for the length of the story to want to see it through to the end. The reader must be allowed to care about the character or at least care what happens to her. In fact, it does not need to be a secret from the beginning what she ends up doing. If the narration is happening AFTER the fact, the you could reveal what she does through the character’s narration, and then reveal through the course of the story why she did it and even how.

Also, for a lot of the explication that happens throughout the story, you could weave the explication within the forward movement of the story. For example, when she is complaining about the size of her flat, perhaps she can complain about it while she is moving through the flat, so that we can also feel the cramped constraint that she herself feels. Allow us to see and touch through her eyes, rather than being told. This goes to the old adage of showing rather than telling.

Examine every detail that you are putting into the story and understand what the purpose of that detail is to you as the author and to the character, and what you hope the reader will therefore glean from those details. For example, describing the three gowns she had to change into at her wedding banquet – what is the use of that detail? How does it relate to her psyche? Does it relate to this need for her to be rich and show off her wealth through this extravagant banquet?

Lastly, check throughout for grammatical mistakes and tense agreement. Although these mistakes may seem minor, all mistakes distract the reader and are a disservice to your piece.

Recommendation: Read short stories that relate terrible or unexpected deeds through the eyes of the perpetrator. One great example would be Robert Olen Butler’s “Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire” (in the collection Tabloid Dreams). This is an example where right upfront you already know what crazy thing this woman is going to do from the title alone. Through the narration, Butler has a few frameworks for telling the story, with the narrative present being a bake-off contest, and the narrator going back and forth to reveal the story with flashbacks and commentary. The obsession with baking cookies is also used as a device for the narrator to connect with not only the reader, but her best friend, and towards the end, with her grandmother and mother, which is really the part that brings the most emotional impact to the story. By the last line where she sets herself on fire, the reader understands, for the most part, the reason she acts as she does. “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” by Mary Gaitskill is also an excellent story through the eyes of a not-so-nice character that reveals what he did towards the end of the story.  

I hit reply and wrote back to her: 
Dear Jenn, 

I don't know where to start, but your detailed comments are extremely helpful! It helped me understand what I am writing and how to improve it. I must admit that at the beginning, I didn't have the outline in mind, which is how I mostly write my stories. I would always let the story reveal itself to me, which I know is not okay even if I would edit it afterward. 

I will find your recommended stories and will read them. I have also noted your comments on tenses, and grammatical errors. You are also right on the purpose of the details I put on the story. Next time I write a story, I would keep an eye on these. 

I look forward to meeting you tomorrow, and I'm excited to hear more on how to write stories. 

Thank you very much! Really appreciate it!

Best Regards,

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