Writing Secrets: The creative magic of the soft owl

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

“Every human situation, every sort of meeting or conversation, is something you have read before or know by heart. But then here comes a story – maybe only a couple of paragraphs in that story – and you are knocked over.

“Your morning has been changed; you are changed.”

These are fiction editor Roger Angell’s words, on what The New Yorker looks for in a short story. The article highlights a perennial conundrum: what makes good fiction?

Everyone knows the anecdotes about great books in history which were rejected any number of times before some far-sighted fiction editor accepted them. We know there’s no formula, and there’s definitely a subjective element to it. But what is it that we look for in a piece of writing? What moves us?

“There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about fiction,” Angell writes. “‘How do you get a story published in The New Yorker?’ somebody asks. ‘Send it in, and if we like it we’ll publish it,’ I reply, and my interlocutor shoots me a knowing look and says, ‘No, seriously…’

“A visiting reporter from a media journal once asked, ‘What are you people looking for in the fiction line? What are your standards?’

“I stalled for time. ‘I don’t know what they are,’ I mumbled at last. ‘We’ve never decided. We want something good … you know, something we like.’

“‘No, seriously,’ she said, but when she saw that we were serious (I had cunningly laid on some colleagues) she closed her notebook. Her piece never appeared.”

So what is that “something good” which Angell refers to? The problem is that it’s always different. Sometimes the distinction of a piece of writing lies in the details, the way they’re used to immerse us in a time and place. Sometimes it’s the craftsmanship, the devices used to capture and keep us reading, or its compelling characters. It can be the words, the flow of the sentences, the images.

Always, I think, it will leave us with some insight, some fresh understanding of humanity, which we didn’t have before.

It’s not straightforward, and it’s not something you can teach. Greatness, that is. I firmly believe that you can teach creative writing – just as you can teach music or pottery or painting.

We’ve seen that it is possible to make anyone much better. We can certainly help with the craft. But sometimes there’s also that touch of magic which elevates a particular piece to greatness.

We can’t teach that, although perhaps we can make you more aware. I like to think that we can train your eye to see – and care about – your sentences, the words you use, so that, just sometimes, you can spot that magic when it flits past your mind’s eye.

“We editors wait for whatever it is that the writers are trying to discover, and sometimes it arrives here in surprising forms,” writes Angell.

“Rereading them, you relish the craftsmanship, but then your eye is caught, once again, by something else. Birds, for instance. I had remembered ‘. . . and the rooks came out of the elms like bits of black paper,’ in ‘The Key to My Heart’, but not ‘A soft owl flew over the lane.’ The short adjective, instead of the expected adverb, is art itself, and makes a place and a mood and a time of day, an entire scene, out of seven words.

“Call back the interviewer. This is what we’re looking for in the fiction line: We want that owl.”

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The little miracle that enables readers to read what writers have written

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