Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers
One Loopy Sentence At a Time
As demonstrated in the previous column, I like structure. Sometimes the first thing I know about a story is the structure that I’m going to try to use, even before I have any inkling of who the characters will be or what the story will be about. To many writers — probably most writers — such an approach is exactly backwards. Most stories probably begin as a character, a situation, a plot twist, or an idea that the writer hopes to get across to the reader. If beginning with structure seems odd, then the topic of this month’s column may seem downright bizarre. What I want to discuss now is the idea of writing stories according to some completely artificial set of technical constraints: fixed forms.
Fixed forms, which are common in poetry, require that the writer follow a set of arbitrary rules. A sonnet will always be fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. If it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, the rhyme scheme will be abab cdcd efef gg. That is, the first line will rhyme with the third, the second with the fourth, the fifth with the seventh, and so on. The last two lines, the couplet, will mark a rhetorical shift in the poem. Those last lines may sum up what the previous lines were about, may show the subject of those lines in a new light, or may entirely contradict the rest of the poem. All of these elements are part of what defines the Shakespearean sonnet: meter, rhyme scheme, some kind of shift in the last two lines.
A poet who chooses to write a sonnet might begin with an idea of what the sonnet is to be about, but he’s going to expend a lot of creative energy getting the poem to fit the sonnet’s technical rules. The meaning of the poem is bound to shift as he has to choose words not just for their meaning, but for their obedience to the meter and rhyme scheme. Often, the fixed form will force him to try some words that weren’t part of his original plan, and the poem will head off in a direction that surprises the poet.
At other times, the poet may begin the sonnet with no intention other than to write a sonnet. He works out a first line that sounds good. On roads that glisten black with rain and ice, he writes. The third line is going to rhyme with ice, and he thinks about suitable candidates: spice, price, twice, rice, slice... He may decide on slice as a good active verb. He doesn’t have to know what’s going to slice at the end of the third line. He just knows that by the end of the third line, he has to arrive at slice somehow. I keep my motorbike upright with speed, is line two. He still may not know how he’s going to get to slice, exactly, but now he knows that line four will rhyme with speed. And confidence in the black tires that slice...
I have now written three lines of a sonnet without any idea of where I’m going in the poem or on the imaginary motorcycle. I have been figuring out the contents of the poem by solving one technical problem at a time.
The process is the same for writing fiction to fixed forms. The writer chooses some arbitrary technical constraints and begins to write a story according to those rules, whatever the rules may be.
Poets have a lot of existing fixed forms to choose from: Shakespearean sonnet, Petrarchan sonnet, sestina, villanelle, ghazal, and so on. When fiction writers want to write to a fixed form, they often have to start by inventing the form. The constraints that they choose can be just about anything. They can specify word counts, sentence lengths, vocabulary requirements (no use of the letter e, for example, or the story must contain 26 nouns, one for each letter of the alphabet, which must be capitalized and must appear only once and in alphabetical order), or the same rules that poetry employs, such as rhyme and meter. There isn’t much of a tradition in fixed forms for fiction, so the writer is free to make up his own rules.
And why would the writer want to make up such rules? Writing a short-short story is hard enough already, isn’t it? Why add completely artificial constraints?
I have two answers. One will appeal only to a few writers who are as odd as I am. We like adding completely artificial constraints because it’s fun. If the mountaineer climbs the peak because it is there, we like inventing arbitrary composition rules because we can. Such writing is fun, and we try to do it in a way that makes for fun reading.
The second answer should appeal to a wider array of writers. Writing to fixed forms gives you something to do when you feel stuck. If your creative juices refuse to flow, if you can’t think of anything you want to write about, you can at least try writing to a fixed form. As with my three lines of motorcycle sonnet, many fixed forms will allow the writer to start composing without an idea. A blocked writer, a writer without ideas, can at least write one sentence that follows the rules of a particular fixed form. Concentrating on the rules frees the writer from having complete responsibility for content. The writer who is writing sentences according to some rule will make choices, will put details down, and may find that those details add up to a story worth telling.
A story that starts out as a fixed form doesn’t have to remain a fixed-form story. Writing a fixed-form story may give the writer a story that the writer then re-drafts in a more conventional way.
In future columns, I will introduce some other fixed forms for stories: the prose villanelle, the prose sonnet, the Fibonacci sonnet, the 369, and the symmetrina. For now, consider a fixed form with one deceptively simple rule. The form is the word loop, and the rule is that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. That is, the first word of the story must also be be last word of the story, and the last word of each sentence must be the first word of the following sentence.
In my example, "The House of Women," I tried to make the repetitions as inoccuous as possible. In a good word loop, the reader can read or hear the story without immediately noticing the "rule" that shapes the narrative. The repeated word might be used as a noun at the end of one sentence and as an adjective at the start of the next, for example. But it does have to be the same word, at least in terms of spelling and pronunciation.
I like writing word loops because they usually take me down a path other than the one that I expected. Often I start without any idea of how I’m going to return to the first word in the story. At some point I will think that I know how the word loop will end, but the chain of sentences often won’t go quite where I thought I was aiming. The key to writing an effective word loop is to partly surrender to the process, to intend to get to the end, but allow yourself to be detoured along the way.
Even if this seems like a crazy way to write a story, creating a word loop is a way to write on those days when you can only make creative decisions one sentence at a time.
Read Bruce’s next column here.
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About the Author
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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