Using Parentheses in Fiction Writing

 

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So, I was reading this book a while back. It was a pretty awesome book, too: great characters, intriguing plot, marvelous descriptions, skillful world-building. Everything was moving along as smooth as can be, and then – WHAM! Out of nowhere, I hit this one paragraph that completely threw me out of the story.

Fortunately, after taking a moment to shake off the jarring experience, I was able to plunge back in and enjoy the remainder of the book. The writer in me, however, couldn’t help but try to analyze what it was about this particular passage that so violently – if temporarily – derailed an otherwise highly entertaining story.

The answer: the entire paragraph was encapsulated in parentheses.

A few years ago, I read a review on Every Day Fiction that really stuck with me. I truly wish I could remember who posted it, so I could give proper credit, but the review went something like this: “Whenever I see parentheses in fiction, it’s like the author is stepping out of the story to address the readers directly.” The truth of this statement hit me so hard, I immediately went through my own novel and started taking out the parentheses wherever I found them.

Ever since I read that review, that’s all I can think of when I come upon parentheses in fiction writing – it’s like the writer wanted to convey certain information, but couldn’t come up with any other way to tell the readers than whispering it right in their ears. In that instant, the voice changes from “narrator” to “author” and it really does take you out of the story, if only for a moment or two. The only exception I can think of is the case of first-person stories.

If you’re writing in the first person, then your POV character is already directly addressing the audience. So, it might feel natural, depending on the character’s personality and speaking style, for him/her to take the reader aside and whisper something in confidence. It might even be humorous:

“Paul actually flirted with me today. (Yes, that’s the same guy who took Katie to prom and then dumped her the next day via text message. And no, I most certainly did not flirt back.)”

But in most cases, parentheses are something to avoid when it comes to writing fiction. They change the voice, break the flow, and jar the reader.

So, now some of you are panicking, right? Because your fiction story does have parentheses, and you don’t know what to do about it.

It’s okay – just relax and take a deep breath. Unlike some issues, this one’s very easy to fix.

The first thing you need to do is determine whether the information inside the parentheses is even truly necessary to the story. (A lot of times, it isn’t.)

Ex:

“Billy leapt from the car and raced into the parking lot to greet his fellow Boy Scouts with high fives and fart jokes. The troop leader (Scott) and his two assistants (Maurice and Isaac) stood off to the side, smiling at the boys’ antics.”

Well, maybe Scott, Maurice and Isaac aren’t very important to the story. Heck, maybe this is their only appearance in the whole book. If so, do we really need to know their names? Why not just cut that info out entirely and change it to:

“Billy leapt from the car and raced into the parking lot to greet his fellow Boy Scouts with high fives and fart jokes. The troop leader and his two assistants stood off to the side, smiling at the boys’ antics.”

Reads a bit smoother, doesn’t it?

But, on the other hand, maybe those three dudes are important in your book. Maybe this is the first of many appearances by the trio. In that case, try simply off-setting the information with commas, rather than using the parentheses:

“Billy leapt from the car and raced into the parking lot to greet his fellow Boy Scouts with high fives and fart jokes. The troop leader, Scott, and his two assistants, Maurice and Isaac, stood off to the side, smiling at the boys’ antics.”

It’s still a bit awkward, but less so than when the parentheses were in there.

Em dashes are also good ways to set certain information apart without completely breaking the flow the way parentheses do. In many cases, em dashes and parentheses are interchangeable:

Instead of:

“Jake flopped onto the couch, crossing his feet (which smelled like decomposing skunks) right next to Maria’s head. She quickly fled, wrinkling her nose and fanning the air.”

Try:

“Jake flopped onto the couch, crossing his feet–which smelled like decomposing skunks–right next to Maria’s head. She quickly fled, wrinkling her nose and fanning the air.”

By working with the scene a little more, you could probably do an even better job of integrating the information:

“Jake flopped onto the couch, crossing his feet right next to Maria’s head. A stench like decomposing skunks instantly enveloped her. Maria squealed and fled, vigorously fanning the air.

‘Dude,’ she choked, ‘invest in some Odor Eaters.'”

So, when you come across parentheses in your fiction, and you feel like they just aren’t working, don’t panic – you can easily replace those curvy symbols with commas or em dashes, do a little paragraph restructuring, or even eliminate the text inside the parentheses entirely. All are acceptable solutions – it just comes down to taste and personal writing style. However you choose to deal with those pesky parentheses, the goal is always the same: a smooth reading experience for your audience.

Flash Fiction Chronicles’ Annual String-of-10 Flash Fiction Contest is BACK!

My absolute FAVORITE writing contest of the year is back again, and it’s only open for one week – starting today. The reason it’s my favorite – it’s the most creatively-challenging contest I’ve ever run across. Also, it’s free. Also, I never do well in this contest, which you would think would make me want to quit, but instead it inspires me to work even harder every time.

The gist of the contest: They give you ten prompt words. Your goal is to incorporate at least FOUR of the ten into a 250-word (or less) work of fiction. They also give you a quote for thematic inspiration, although I believe use of the theme is optional. They have cash prizes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, as well as a special prize for best use of the theme. All of the prize winners get published and also interviewed. As a bonus, the winners also get free books!

Possibly helpful advice: Think of ALL the different ways you might use each word, not just the most obvious way (e.g. “grave” can be where someone is buried, but it can also be used to describe a dire situation or a serious facial expression). Don’t necessarily go with your first story idea. And definitely read the past winners so you can get the flavor of what type of writing this contest favors.

This year’s prompt words:

SCRAGGLY – PECAN – ROUTE – SUCCINCT – ACCUMULATE – HANDLE – BIAS – EXIST – COAST – HANDKERCHIEF

Read the official rules and the inspirational quote here: http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/string-of-10-seven-flash-fiction-contest-begins-now/

Can you feel the ideas hatching already? Well, what are you waiting for – get cracking! These things are due on the 15th, people!

Best of luck!

-Gretchen

Great Reads, Volume One: Mmmmm, Brains!

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So, it’s Halloween, and if you’re like most people, you’re in the mood for some brains – er, I mean, zombie stories. Below you’ll find some of my favorites – two fanfics, and one original fiction. This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll be recommending some great fic and fanfic from around the web. Future volumes will feature stories about animals, superheroes, time travel, werewolves, and many more topics!

If you have a fic you’d like to recommend for an upcoming volume of Great Reads, feel free to leave a link in the comments section. My only rule – it has to be someone else’s story, not your own. It should also be either fiction or fanfiction, and free to read. Length and subject matter are completely open, so go crazy!

In the meantime, go crazy reading these great stories. Oh, and if you really like them, why not take a moment to let the author know? Reviews are free to write, and priceless to the author who receives them. 🙂

Original Fiction

“The Former King of Fort Wal-Mart” by Brock Adams

One of my all-time favorite Every Day Fiction stories – the character is deeply relatable, and the plot is different from other zombie stories I’ve read, giving it a very fresh feel. Well, as fresh as you can get when reading about rotting flesh. Go check it out!

Fanfiction

Supernatural

“Decomposure” by paperbkryter

Not exactly a zombie fic in the traditional sense, but close enough. It’s dark, it’s creepy, and it’s hard to get that “dead” smell out after you read it. I’ve been following this author for many years now. If you’re a fan of either Supernatural or Smallville, then paperbkryter’s stories fall into the category of “must-read.”

The Mentalist

“Red Ruin” by ruuger

Yes, you read that right, there’s a Mentalist zombie story. The moment I found this, I just knew I had to include it in Great Reads. Not only is it different from any other Mentalist story out there, but it also has the same high quality and great characterization that make all of this author’s stories shine. Go fight zombies with Jane and Van Pelt!

 

Up Next: Movie reviews for X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Wolverine

A Dream Come True…Times Three

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It all started with a simple dream: to complete my first novel. It took about three years – plus another two to type up the handwritten manuscript – but I did it. By the time I was finished transcribing, my heart was crowded with more dreams: write some short stories, get published digitally, get published in print, learn to write a screenplay, pen a piece of fanfiction (and have the guts to actually post it). One by one, all of these dreams came true…save #3.

I love getting published in e-zines for many reasons: your story is free for anyone to read, you can link to it on your website, and it’s just a great thing to have a sample of your work in such an easily accessible format – not to mention the awesomeness of instant reader feedback! But I must admit there’s something magical about being published in print. Just seeing your story in the pages of a book, being able to hold it in your hands and run your fingertips over the words…I wanted that. I think a lot of writers do.

And, for one reason or another, the dream just kept drifting out of reach. My very first acceptance was for a print newspaper in the city where I attended college. I was thrilled. Then it didn’t happen. No explanation, never heard from the editor again. I spent long months feeling baffled and hurt, then eventually moved on.

My next acceptance – or, as I like to call it, my first real acceptance – came from Every Day Fiction. One of the many things that drew me to them was that they were a digital market, but they also put out an annual print anthology of their best stories. Sadly, they stopped doing this shortly after I started submitting to them. As far as I know, they’ve never restarted. I think it was just too expensive. Completely understandable, but once again, I had to put the dream on hold.

Then, just last year, I got the acceptance I’d been waiting for: one of my stories had been selected for a print children’s collection. Cloud Nine, here I come…right? Wrong. In December, I received an email from the publisher that they were no longer doing multi-author children’s collections and there was no guarantee they would ever publish my story.

I started to think I might be cursed. I started to think this particular dream would have to stay just that: a dream. I started to think maybe it was time to let it go.

Thankfully, I didn’t listen to those little whispering cockroaches of doubt. I kept submitting to print markets, and finally, it paid off. A few months ago, as I shared right here on ATHF, I received notification that my story “The Greatest Gift” would be published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?

But the awesomeness didn’t stop there. A few weeks after that, I got another email from Chicken Soup for the Soul: my dog story, “Legacy,” had been selected to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Did What?

A few weeks after that, the unimaginable happened: my werewolf story, “Burn,” was accepted to appear in the August 2014 issue of Trysts of Fate, a dark paranormal romance magazine presented by Alban Lake Publishing. A print magazine.

After all those times the dream had slipped away, it seemed just too good to be true. When the hyper excitement wore off, I began to worry that maybe it was too good to be true. Both of these publishers were very reputable, but still, I’d been burned in the past – multiple times. I couldn’t truly let myself believe – not until I could hold the books in my hands. Like, for real.

In mid-July, I got my wish: the first batch of contributor’s copies arrived, and I ran my fingers over the glossy cover of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Did What? for the very first time. I touched my name on the page, saw my words in print at long last. Less than a week later, I was holding a contributor’s copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?, caressing the pages, smelling the crispness of fresh ink on paper. Then, about a month after that, my third baby arrived. Trysts of Fate was just as glossy as the other two, the striking cover art looking even better in person than it had on the publisher’s website. There was even something special about just knowing that they were advance copies – something most people weren’t able to read or touch just yet.

Nowadays, of course, anyone can hold my babies. Anyone can read them. The Chicken Soup books officially came out on August 19th, and can be purchased in bookstores and online. The August 2014 issue of Trysts of Fate is available in Alban Lake Publishing’s online store.

The dream has finally, officially come true. And in the process, two other dreams got fulfilled, as well: 1.) I got a non-fiction story published for the first time, and 2.) I got published in a book with one of my absolute favorite authors: Beth Cato. (Her wonderful stories “Welcome to the Navy” and “All About the Balloon” also appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?)

So, now that I’ve had a month or so to bask in the glory, what’s next?

More dreams, of course! I have so many waiting in the wings: do a non-profit book signing, run a workshop with my writing group, finish my nano novel (yeah, still working on that…I think it’s become a trilogy at this point), have one of my stories illustrated, write a TV pilot, write a spec script for Castle, write a movie script, attend the Austin Film Festival, and of course the biggie – become a published novelist!

But that’s just me – what about you? What are your writing dreams, and how are you pursuing them? Maybe the only difference between a dream and a goal is doing something to make it happen…or simply not giving up the hope that it actually could.

Whatever your dream is, don’t give up on it. Even when Fate seems to be telling you, in a firm and convincing voice, that things are simply not going to work out for you. Sometimes there’s a nice surprise – or three – waiting just around the corner. 🙂

Keep writing!

-Gretchen

Call for Funny Fantasy Fiction

Hey, who doesn’t like a little alliteration? 😉

And who doesn’t love a hilarious fantasy story that makes you spray Pepsi all over your computer screen?

Unfortunately, although fantasy/humor is one of my all-time favorite genres, it doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of love from the publishing industry. Fantasy is supposed to be a long, epic journey filled with really evil dragons and sword fights and heroic deaths…right? So, if you’ve written a funny story about a disgruntled warlock, it can be doggone hard to find someplace to submit it. (Believe me, I’ve looked).

That’s why I was so thrilled to discover this new anthology that is specifically looking for funny fantasy stories: Alternate Hilarities 3: Hysterical Realms. My first thought was, “They’re already on number three? How did I not find this sooner??” Alternate Hilarities 3: Hysterical Realms is currently open to flash fiction (500-1,500 words) and short story (1,501-6,000 words) submissions. They pay half a cent a word plus one share of royalties for flash, one cent a word and two shares of royalties for short stories, and all authors get a copy of the E-book. They’re also planning a Kickstarter campaign to increase author payments and hopefully fund a print edition of the book.

The deadline for submitting to this anthology is July 31st. So what are you waiting for? Dust off that warlock story, polish it up, and send it in!

Looking for even more places to send your laugh-out-loud fantasy tale? Try Unidentified Funny Objects (you’ll have to keep an eye on their website to see when they’re opening up to submissions for their next anthology). Also, Every Day Fiction loves humor in all of its glorious forms, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is one of the few mags known to favor fantasy and scifi stories on the more lighthearted end of the spectrum. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction  is another option, as their guidelines state a continuing need for humorous stories.

All this talk about funny fantasy stories got you in the mood to guffaw? Go read “Letter to the Editor” by Joshua Brown. I guarantee you’ll be wiping Pepsi off your monitor. 🙂

-Gretchen

 

Rejection Letter Revisited

The following is a personalized rejection letter I received from Every Day Fiction back in 2011. You might be asking yourself why I’m publicly displaying my failure. The answer: I learned from it. Someone in my writing group learned from it. And maybe – just maybe – you can learn from it, too. At the very least, it can be a comforting reminder: Rejection happens to everyone – not just you.

Dear Gretchen Bassier,

Thank you for your submission to Every Day Fiction. I regret to inform you that we are unable to use it at this time.

Very competent prose here, and I liked the buzzing of bees metaphor that you used throughout for Allison. The switcheroo was obviously a nice twist, especially in light of that fact that the attributes given to the other “patients” were all very reasonable and dark-edged when the roles were reversed. This is a close story for me, because I like the twist and enjoyed the flow, but I wanted something a little more from it. I wanted the twist to lead to some other plot development, such as figuring out what was behind the locked doors (the wail from beyond was a foreshadow begging for more). This doesn’t go much further than introducing the switch and then ending, giving it a “first chapter” feel.
— Joseph Kaufman

The prose is pretty solid, except I noticed a typo at the very end with Brute instead of Bruce. The author sets the stage nicely, and this has a very cool Shutter Island sort of feel to it. That said, I’m concerned that this plot has been overdone and that it won’t feel fresh enough to our readers.
— Sealey Andrews

The story was well told and gave the reader many things to be curious about. I liked the imagery in the piece and the use of figurative language in the beginning of the story with the bees. Though I’m left confused- I’m not sure what has happened at the end and think it would need to be played out better for the reader to understand. I get the feeling it is some kind of twist- but I don’t know what the twist was.
— S. A. Ross

Great introduction that really draws the reader in. This story has some good description, too, and the beehive metaphor works.
While the initial dialogue is useful in a show-don’t-tell sort of way, it’s not very unique. This story could start shortly before the forbidden door appears with just a quick summary.
But then things get interesting! Bruce is terrifying and poor Shiri has issues. The perspective totally flips.
This ends up nicely.
— Shelley Dayton

There’s sometimes a fine line between stories that challenge readers preconceptions (which done right, are good) and those that seem to be set ups for trick endings. Here it’s “they’re not really staffers, they’re patients!” The other readers are mixed on this; my feeling is that this one isn’t quite what we’re looking for. I’ll send it along for a final opinion.
— John Towler

Well written with interesting characters, but I’ve seen this twist before (and the reverse of it too, that the “patients” are really staffers), and since the point of the story seems to be the twist itself (rather than character development or a plot beyond the twist) it left me slightly flat.
— Camille Gooderham Campbell

Breaking It Down

As you can see, there are six different critiques in this rejection letter. A six-critique rejection letter is highly unusual, and I think it speaks volumes about EDF’s commitment to helping writers – especially new ones – succeed. I’ve yet to encounter another magazine where every reader takes the time to write detailed comments on every single piece submitted. To this day, it still amazes me.

The reviews are, as one editor mentioned, very mixed. Almost every reader had a different reaction to the story. If you look closely, however, you can see two common threads: 1.) Several readers had seen this plot twist used before, and 2.) There wasn’t enough substance to make the story complete. These are the main two reasons that the story was ultimately rejected – lack of originality, and lack of change.

Re: Lack of Originality:

I once heard a published novelist say that book editors claim to be looking for fresh material, but they’re really not. Novel publishers want something safe. Something proven. Something that will sell. Otherwise, it’s too much of a gamble. And that makes perfect sense – for BOOKS. Short story publishers, on the other hand, are a completely different species. When it comes to short stories, fresh, edgy and innovative are all the rage. Magazines can afford to push boundaries and try new things because there are typically multiple stories per issue – if one particular story flops, there are plenty of others to make up for it. Many mags actually have lists of plotlines and character types they see too often. Read these lists carefully. Read ‘em and heed ‘em.

Re: Lack of Change:

This is exactly what I was talking about in my post The Whole Story. I said I had rejection letters to prove my point, and now you’ve seen one of them. A story isn’t a story without change. Characters need to grow. Stuff needs to happen. There’s only one magazine I know of that doesn’t require a complete story. I think it’s called Vignettes, and I’m pretty sure my story didn’t even qualify as one of those. Remember: A twist ending, on its own, does not a story make.

Hurts So Good

The awesome thing about getting a personalized rejection is that you know exactly why your piece didn’t make the cut. The sucky thing about personalized rejections: you know EXACTLY why your piece didn’t make the cut. Gone are all the little lies you try to tell yourself about why your undeniably incredible story somehow got rejected. No more “Maybe the slush reader just got dumped by her hot boyfriend” or “Maybe they only read the first paragraph and didn’t really give the story a chance.” It wasn’t the slush reader, and it wasn’t an unfair partial reading. It was the story.

That said, not all of the news was bad. They didn’t say I was a crappy writer, just that this particular story didn’t work. In fact, you may notice that most of the readers followed the feedback guidelines I talked about HERE, including positive comments to balance out the criticism. Some nice little nuggets for me to cling onto until the rejection-burn wore off.

And this one did sting – I remember just feeling frozen as I sat there reading the letter for the first time. Kind of crushed, actually. I took it personally (which it never is) and became defensive, wanting to explain some of my creative choices, like the reason I included the handshake scene, or that fact that the “typo” was actually intentional. I had the letter all planned out in my head. I can’t tell you how pathetically grateful I am that I never actually wrote or sent it. Besides being unprofessional and sounding like a whiny two-year-old, it would have accomplished nothing except to annoy the people who spent valuable time trying to help me. Above all, it would have damaged any future chances of being published by the magazine. Thankfully, the intelligent portion of my brain took charge, and I wrote a simple note thanking the staff for their detailed comments.

Now that I’ve had a bit more experience with the submission-rejection cycle, the big “R” isn’t such a troubling thing to find in my inbox anymore. I just sigh, feel bummed out for a few minutes, and then move on. Every now and then, there’s one that I can’t quite shrug off. Usually it’s only when I a.) really thought I had a good chance, b.) really love the magazine, and/or c.) don’t have many/any other submissions out there. I can’t do much to curb a.) and b.), but c.) is an easy fix, and there are a few other things you can do to minimize your trauma and handle the big “R” like a graceful pro:

Some DOs and DON’Ts

DO stagger your submissions, making sure you have several pieces out to several different mags (I like to call this “Keeping Hope Alive”)

DO let yourself feel a little sad about rejection, especially if your hopes were up, BUT,

DON’T EVER act on the urge to defend your work to a publisher who’s already said “no”

DON’T get your hopes TOO high (if you can help it)

DON’T obsess over waiting for one particular result – learn to let each one go and move on to the next project

DO write a “thank you” note if you are lucky enough to get personalized feedback (UNLESS the magazine’s guidelines discourage it)

DO send the same piece to five different markets at once (if they all allow simultaneous subs), but…

DON’T send the same piece to eighty different markets all at once – after the first wave of comments comes in, you may want to make changes before sending the piece out again

DON’T get so caught up in submissions and rejections that you forget why you started writing in the first place

And, above all, DON’T let rejection stop you. If writing is in your heart and your blood and your dreams, then YOU ARE A WRITER. Use criticism to feed your fire, not douse it. Try, fail, learn, get better.

Keep writing.

-Gretchen

Worst Story Ever Written

We all know that it’s a good idea to read good stories and figure out what makes them so compelling. Ninety percent of the time, that’s what you want to be reading – stuff that’s so unbelievably awesome that you hope the writer’s skills will actually rub off on you somehow. But, from time to time, it’s also beneficial to read a really bad story and analyze exactly what makes it so darn unreadable. If you can determine what caused you to give up on a novel after only ten pages, you can hopefully avoid making those same errors in your own writing. It’s a great way to sharpen you editing claws, stretch your critiquing muscles, and improve your own writing, all at the same time.

Sounds good, right? Now, all you need is a story to practice on. A really bad, really horrible story. And I happen to have the perfect one. A few years ago, I read what is quite possibly the worst story ever written. It’s so completely awful, that it almost comes around full circle and becomes good. Seriously, you will cringe when you read it. You will roll your eyes and think, How in the heck did this thing ever get published? In the end, you won’t know whether to laugh or weep at the sheer wretchedness of it.

You probably think I’m being mean, talking like this. You probably think I’m ignoring the whole “support other writers” spiel I gave in my constructive criticism post and being a total hypocrite. I’m not. The reason: This story was written badly on purpose. The author, who is actually very talented, takes basically every single mistake that would make an editor twitch, and crams them all together into one hilariously groan-worthy short story. It’s absolute brilliance, and a super-handy guide for what you should NEVER EVER do when you’re writing a short story. Or a long story. Or a novel. Or anything.

So, go check it out, and try to find every example of awfulness you possibly can in this piece that can only be described as bad writing at its very best. 🙂

http://www.everydayfiction.com/the-most-epicly-awesomest-story-ever-by-randy-henderson/

Enjoy, and keep writing!

-Gretchen