Sunday, February 13, 2011

Of Themes and Writing Prompts

My Extinct submissions spreadsheet is littered with one notation more than any other: not on theme. Surprisingly, this turned out not to be an auto-reject issue.

What was a rejection pretty much across the board, though, was stories tagged: too much on theme.

Let's examine why that is.

To do this, choose a site that offers writing prompts and then publishes the written results. If you don't have a favorite, you can go here. Scroll down the sidebar to "Past Contests." Between all the contests and all the entries, there are probably close to 1000 short fiction stories that will either bear out or refute my argument.

A story prompt may be a picture, a phrase, or a premise. Given a large enough sample, I think you'll find the best, most professional-sounding stories -- not just the ones that have the basic mechanics down cold -- are those that examine the subject more metaphorically than literally. Stories that simply describe what's going on in the picture are usually pretty bland. Those that repeat the word prompt somewhere in their text are often too predictable. And the ones that don't deviate at all from the premise lack any life of their own.

Writing that's on task invariably feels labored and pedantic. It thuds instead of soars. It stands out by calling attention to the fact that it was too afraid to roam too far from home, to color outside the lines, to take a chance.

Professional writers know how to transcend boundaries and bring new, often unexpected, insights to a given topic. They dance teasingly around their subject, brushing provocatively against it maybe once or twice. They take off on tangents that in the end turn out not to be tangents at all but signposts that illuminate the subject by comparing or contrasting it in impossible ways that only make perfect sense once it's been done.

Writing fiction is not the same as essay writing was in school. There, the reward was for those who honored the imperative and adhered to theme. In fiction, the reward is in the deviation.

It can be scary -- those first few tentative steps outside the neighborhood, those first blossoms of color outside the lines. But successful fiction doesn't lie in the familiar. It's found in those spaces we must stretch ourselves to reach.

I'm working through the very last of the feedback. There will closure soon for all, I promise, as well as a more in-depth -- but generic! -- breakdown of what worked brilliantly and what didn't.


fairyhedgehog said...

This is all very interesting. Thank you for sharing it with us!

lexcade said...

Huh. Go figure. Anxious to see the results ;)

Wilkins MacQueen said...

I can't get over the amount of work you do for us, teaching, sharing, showing, guiding. I also appreciate the comment critters. Such a valuable place to hang out in. I'm fresh out of energy, after I charge up a bit I'll feel more like writing again.
Thanks for the guidance and insights.