Ring All the Bells

sohrab fracisWhen I was first entrusted with teaching a creative-writing course in fiction at the University of North Florida in 2001, I drew up a handy one-page feedback tool that nevertheless endeavored to be comprehensive. I wanted it to have an appropriate space, in terms of the elements of craft, for absolutely any comment that came to the mind of students while constructively critiquing a story manuscript.

I divided the blank sheet by horizontal lines into what eventually became a dozen broad categories of craft. From obvious suspects such as character, plot, setting, and dialogue, through jargony elements such as point of view and verisimilitude, I opened out into holistic matters such as style, reader interest, freshness, and unity. Related subtopics within each bracket allowed me to hit on less commonly considered aspects such as authenticity, structure, heft, wit, aesthetics, and texture.

Each time I reused the feedback template—as Visiting Writer in Residence at Augsburg College, workshop faculty at UNF Writers’ Festival, guest author at The New School, and now critique-sessions faculty at Florida Heritage Book Festival—I tweaked it, adding more of those nuanced subheadings. Atmosphere, voice, beats, art, depth, coherence, and other matters wormed their way into relevant brackets, the left sides of which grew crowded. But the page itself stayed predominantly white space, leaving plenty of room for the reviewer’s comments. I took pride in noting that never once did a reviewer complain of not finding an appropriate slot for any comment. I admit it helped that the bottommost bracket, Holistic/Overall Response, was a catchall. Anyhow, objective achieved.

The more I employed that comprehensive, versatile, and convenient tool, the more I saw that, while some broad elements of craft are clearly more prominent than others, they all matter. When playing racket sports, I’d realized the importance of a strong all-around game: any weak area can and will be exploited by your opponent. A limited backhand, for instance, invites an attack on that vulnerable flank. However strong your forehand, you’re likely to lose. Similarly, to write exclusively “character-driven” or “plot-driven” fiction is to severely handicap a story in terms of quality and, increasingly, publishing potential. Literary and genre writers alike today recognize the necessity of a balanced approach.

That an interesting storyline remains unsatisfying without strong characterization, and vice versa, is obvious. Less obvious is the extrapolation of that to the other major elements. A thinly evoked environment for those characters makes the story feel more written than real…. And no matter how action-packed and colorfully peopled, a story lacking originality feels stale and derivative…. Too much narrative and too little scene will leave the best story sounding told rather than actually happening…. But too loosely assembled scenes will make it seem aimless or incoherent…. And so on.

So I tell my workshop members as they run their eyes down the sheet: “Ring all those bells. Your story will be better for it.” To also “show” this and inspire, I read them exemplars. At last year’s FHBF, I read the gorgeous opening of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and all of Aimee Bender’s brilliant short-short, “The Rememberer.” Possibly intimidated by their rounded near-perfection, one of the writers emailed me later to say perfection is unattainable. I replied, “Yes, ringing all the bells at a high level, not perfection (a word I never used), is as much as even great writers can manage.” As great a songwriter as Leonard Cohen wrote these lyrics for his song “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Perfection is too big an ask, although the higher you set the bar the closer you get. For the majority of less-than-great writers like myself, I simply mean keep all the craft elements in mind as you draft and revise. Is even that a bit demanding? Yes, but not too demanding. It’s a demanding world of publishing out there.

Sohrab Homi Fracis won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, juried by the legendary Iowa Writers Workshop, for Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America (University of Iowa Press). It was re-published in India and translated into German. He was awarded the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature/Fiction and the Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in Fiction. He was Visiting Writer in Residence at Augsburg College, and an artist in residence at Escape to Create and Yaddo.