Some Assembly Required

Joining Your Story Parts

Some scenes work as complete stories—from a beginning that immediately grounds the reader, lets the reader know who and what the story will be about, and introduces tension, to a middle that wastes no time in dealing with a complication, to an ending that satisfies the reader—all in real time. A ride on I-95 without rest stops. No meandering down side roads or stopping at scenic overlooks. No driving by the house where you grew up. The GPS map shows a straight line, and before you know it, you have reached your destination.

Many stories, however, like road trips, are a richer experience if they’re built from multiple scenes. And these scenes can be placed at various points in time—hours, days, weeks, or more time apart chronologically or moving back and forth between the present action of the story and the past. In some stories, you’ll notice an occasional foray into the future, too. You can take any story and diagram its progression on a timeline (and I recommend that you try this sometime). Whether the scenes are present action or flashback, they should be significant parts of the story, the parts with the most narrative weight, thestation wagon parts you feel most compelled to write, the parts you need to show the reader.

This is not to say that summary text is insignificant. Picture your shiny scenes, those dialogues and physical actions you created, as car parts on a factory floor. Some assembly will be required to make your story run. Right?

Some story joints will be invisible, white space, or symbols to indicate a transition, e.g., a tilde, asterisks, or dots. Some almost escape notice, e.g., a simple phrase like “a week later.” Others are passages of exposition to explain something about a character or situation, or to provide a description that enriches our understanding. Non-scene passages can be every bit as beautiful and engaging as a scene. Even so, readers will start to get antsy if you don’t return to scene mode within a reasonable period of time.

Note: Remember that tension is not about withholding basic information from readers that they need to understand what’s happening. Ground your reader quickly. No one wants to feel disoriented. Another workshop comment you don’t want to hear: “I didn’t figure out until p. 8 that the main character is a woman.” (Unless this truly should come as a surprise. Usually not the case.) Or “I thought this story was set in the present until you mentioned President Kennedy on p. 4.” You can let your reader know time and place quickly and simply without sounding like a Wikipedia entry. And if your character’s name is Jack, there’s no reason to refer to him as “he” for five paragraphs and then refer to him as “Jack.” Start with the “Jack.”

And a note of caution about adding too much detail, suitcases full of description and background information, that you want the reader to know.  If you find that your story is spinning its wheels on muddy side roads, and any actual scenes have taken the exit ramp right off your page, consider that maybe those are details that you needed to feel knowledgeable and confident enough about your material to begin your story. However, they may not be details that the reader will need to make sense of, and enjoy, your story. Leave something to your readers’ imaginations. If it’s not essential, take it out. (Yes, we can’t help wanting our readers to see exactly what we want them to see. Human nature. But try to let it go.) For readers, that’s much of the joy of reading. Give them the essentials, and a few spot-on details that lend specificity to your characters, and let your readers connect the dots themselves. They’re smarter than you think.

One last side note: Visual artists understand the concept of broken lines in paintings and the ability of the viewer to make sense of, and take pleasure in, seeing a complete image in a few lines, a few patches of color, and spaces in between. We can learn this, too.

Let’s look at “F-Man” by Colette Sartor in the summer 2014 issue of Carve Magazine:

With apologies in advance for use of the “f” word.

Within just a few sentences, we have a provocative image (someone yelling “fuck you”), we know who the story is about (Mila), we know where the story takes place (Los Angeles), we have a sense of the situation and can feel the tension (there has been an accident, and she is hiding from someone named Peter). I absolutely want to keep reading.

There are short paragraphs of explanation, but they are necessary; they don’t feel tacked on. For example: “Mary Gordon, not Mila Gennaro, was the name on Mila’s lease. Rune didn’t believe in credit or reference checks. She went on gut, she said. She kept her door open whenever she was home, sometimes late into the night, to encourage tenants to stop by.” This is information we need to understand what comes next.

After the first scene, we cut to the next with a white space (three dot) transition. Then we have a short paragraph describing how Mila has changed physically, which is integral to the story. This is not physical description for the sake of physical description.

Leaps in time are accomplished simply and unobtrusively with phrases like: “Days of picking up the phone, dialing, hanging up. Finally, she let herself call back.” Sartor could have written, “After several days, she called back,” but the way she wrote this shows the character’s hesitation, her insecurity, her fearfulness. I can see Mila with her phone.

A short leap ahead in time: “Rune was gone longer than a few hours.” This sentence does more than nudge the reader ahead in time. We understand that Mila will become attached to Fender. We also learn that Rune has a tendency to, perhaps inappropriately, leave her son for longer periods of time than she should and overstep boundaries with her tenant. Sartor provokes an emotional response in the reader.

“They fell into a rhythm: After F-Man’s morning round, Rune would send over Fender and Paw-Paw with doughnuts and milk.” That “fell into a rhythm” indicates an indeterminate period of time. We don’t need to know exactly how long, only that a rhythm has been established. The word “often” and the phrase “she had taken to” also accomplish this. Yes, there is that “would” word I mentioned back in Lesson 1, but we need to understand certain patterns in Mila’s life, and these passages are short, not long enough for my attention to wander. They’re also well written. The writing isn’t convoluted or confusing. It’s clear, and full of images that reveal character and relationships between characters.

The flashback beginning with “the night of the accident” is one paragraph slipped into the present action of the story. After this one, very revealing, flashback paragraph, Sartor segues smoothly back into the present with the simple phrase “on the phone.” The reader is never confused.

The story ends with a strong image: Mila, breathing from her diaphragm like the singer she is, shouting her own “fuck you.” A reverberation of the “fuck you” from the beginning of the story, but transformed into something much more significant.


Read Like a Writer

I encourage you to read this story carefully to discover how the writer joins all her scenes and summary parts to create a complete story. Examine how other writers do this, too. How do you respond? How would you incorporate certain techniques into your own writing?


Reading for Week 4:

Colette Sartor, “F-Man”

Writing Assignment:

For your final assignment, you may flesh out one or more of your assignment scenes into a full story or submit two or three scenes that you plan as part of a larger work. Total word count in the 3,000-4,000 word range. Shorter is fine, of course. Submit at the usual time, but we’ll have an additional couple of weeks (I’ll let you know the exact date) to post our feedback and chat before the forum closes.

  • Due Date: Sunday, 6 pm.
  • Submission Link: Submit to the forum below.



A Few Tips:

Some questions to ask yourself when submitting your stories to literary journals:

But first, a step back.

Overall, am I satisfied with my story and feel good about sharing it with readers? Have I put it aside for a while, so that I could read it with a more objective eye? Have I revised it more than once?

Have I read my story out loud to catch any usage issues, awkward syntax, choppy sentences, words left out, words inadvertently repeated, spelling and grammar errors, language that doesn’t flow well, anything that just doesn’t make sense?

Great. Now, about those literary journals:

  • Do I feel that my work fits the overall aesthetic of this journal? Do I really enjoy the work that this journal publishes? Comb through a resource like and read as many journals as you can. Two others: and Great lunch break activity.
  • Have I read the submission guidelines? There’s no sense submitting your 10,000-word story to a journal with a 5,000-word max, or your 5,000-word story to a journal that publishes flash fiction only. And many journals accept submissions only during certain months.
  • Does the journal seem to publish only “big name” writers, emerging writers, brand-new writers, or some combination thereof? The same writers issue after issue? Do you care?
  • How do I feel about the editorial staff of this journal? The journal’s website should list the editors.
  • How long as this journal been in operation? Does that matter to me? Does the journal have a good reputation?
  • Is the journal an online publication, a print publication, or some combination of these?
  • If online, does the journal archive work and include other content on the site? What kind of content? Is the website attractive and easy to navigate? Are the stories presented so that they’re easy to read?
  • Does the journal accept simultaneous submissions? What is their acceptance rate and response time?submit
  • Is there a fee to submit? How do I feel about that?

What matters to one writer may not matter to another, but you should know what matters to you.
So now you know where you want to submit.

  • Most journals use an online submission system now. Many use Submittable. The submission guidelines for each category may be included there as well. Be sure to read them.
  • What to include in the cover letter box: Not much. Seriously. Keep it professional. Yes, your work is what counts, not the content of the cover letter box. But make a good first impression. Show that you take yourself and the journal editors seriously. This is not a big joke. Keep it simple. Start with something like, “Thank you for considering this story for publication in ______(insert correct name of journal here; watch for cut-and-paste gaffes)__.” Saying something like “I enjoyed the stories in your spring issue (including a couple of titles of stories you really did enjoy)” is a nice touch. Not necessary, but nice. Then include a brief, professional bio, similar to bios you see in the publication. I would recommend that you not include information about your pets, family or relationship issues, personality disorders, medical conditions, addictions, financial challenges, athletic and musical abilities, hobbies, or love of rainbows and butterflies. Do not brag. Do not be self-deprecating. Do not be overly witty. You do not need to include anything resembling a CV or resume (you are not applying for a job), a long list of your awards and quotes from famous people about your talent (which can make you look, well, pompous), or a synopsis of your story (your story should speak for itself). A “thank you for considering” sentence and a short bio. Really, that’s all you need.
  • Unless the journal specifically asks for something else in the guidelines.
  • Attach the story in a standard, double-spaced format. One space after periods. Save your creativity for the story.
  • Be sure to include your contact information (unless you’re submitting to a contest and asked not to include identifying information on the manuscript).
  • All that said, a mildly quirky cover letter or a couple of punctuation errors in the story aren’t likely to be deal breakers. The story is what counts. All editors want a fabulous story to land in the submission queue.
  • Most writers submit their stories to multiple publications. Most publications have no problem with simultaneous submissions. If you receive a decline response, don’t take it personally. Blow it off and wait to hear from the other journals, or send your story out to a couple more. If you believe in your story, yes, keep sending it out—but you may want take another look and possibly revise if you think you may have been too hasty in sending it out the first time. There is no need at all to respond to the editors’ form letter responses. Keep in mind that journals can receive hundreds or thousands of stories to consider for each issue. They can publish only so many.
  • If your story is accepted by one publication (congratulations!) immediately withdraw it from the others. You can do this with a click of a button in the online submissions system. No need to email the editors of the other journals (unless they don’t use an online system). If you don’t withdraw your work, massive headaches can ensue, believe me.
  • Very important: Once you submit your story, try to forget about it. Go right back to writing. You have more stories inside you. Write them. 




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