Foreword for “Mouse”
I regularly enjoy attending Clarion West’s summer evening reading series, which is free to the public. Clarion West, in collaboration with the University of Washington, runs a summer boot camp for up and coming professional science-fiction and fantasy writers, some of whom will probably become household names and favorite authors just a few years from now.
Each week, a well-known writer or editor teaches the students, and one night a week during the series, that teacher reads an excerpt from either a recent or forthcoming story, and then answers questions from the audience. One of Clarion West’s stalwart supporters and occasional teachers was the late Octavia Estelle Butler (1947-2006, acc. Wikipedia).
Butler was an American science-fiction writer, multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner, and the first science-fiction author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as a “Genius Grant.” Much of Butler’s work contrasted the darkest side of human nature against a backdrop of alien or fantastical culture. Her protagonists were often Black, women, or disenfranchised people fighting a dog-eat-dog hegemony.
Princeton University Library’s article, “Afrofuturism: How Octavia Butler is moving us forward,” says, “Through her writing, Butler challenged gender stereotypes in American fiction, white privilege in their narratives, and racism in her profession. She helped reshape the genre of science fiction by offering grounded, naturalistic stories in which characters like herself could flourish.”
After toiling for years writing critically acclaimed short stories, novellas, and book series, Octavia Butler achieved well deserved fame and success. But Butler’s stories were usually grim, and are probably one cause of her widely reported, years long, depression and writer’s block, which plagued the latter part of her life.
When I happened to meet Octavia Butler in the flesh at a Clarion West reading, I found her to be one of the most kind, gentle, and generous writers I’ve known. But although I might be misremembering, or my imagination might be playing melodramatic tricks on me, it seems to me there was always something haunted behind her eyes. I admired Butler’s accomplishments, and was honored to have met her, even though I could not bear to venture far into her dark works.
A few years after Butler’s death in Lake Forest Park, a nearby suburb of Seattle, the Seattle Public Library sponsored a writing contest in her honor. The contest didn’t specify what kind of stories should be submitted, or whether they should contain the same dystopian social commentary of Butler’s early work. The only restrictions were that the stories should be science-fiction and limited in length.
Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” says in part that an author needs a place to write in peace. For me, one of those places is the neighborhood public library. Given that the contest had few limits; a library system was sponsoring the contest; and that I wanted to write a lighthearted story just as Butler did late in her career, I took a gamble and wrote a simple story reflecting what I consider to be an insightful observation about real-world library patrons, and how I imagine the evolution of computer technology might change our definition of libraries.
Submissions to the contest were limited to less than 750 words, which makes the stories flash fiction. Now, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you can guess it was like torture for me to try to shorten my story enough to qualify as flash fiction. How could I introduce characters, a meaningful conflict, and a decent resolution in only 750 words? It was impossible!
Eventually, I calmed down enough to realize I needed to write the story in journalism style. That is, start each paragraph with a clear topic sentence; use the rest of the paragraph to illuminate or comment on the topic sentence; make sure what’s at stake, the obstacles, and the resolution are clear; and then proceed in that fashion, paragraph after paragraph, to the end. The result won’t be flashy, since journalism shouldn’t normally be flashy, but you will have excellent control over the structure and length of what you say.
I already knew that style by heart from one of my earlier incarnations, but over the years, I had by turns foolishly trivialized and forgotten it. The Octavia Butler contest was a good reminder.
Tim Allen Stories is about becoming a better storyteller. The next time you discover you need to clearly and concisely tell a story, you might do well to remember journalism style.
Word to the wise.