Bending, breaking and shattering rules today. Careful where you step, they’re everywhere. Breaking one of my own right off the bat — I do not write about writing. Most importantly, I do not feel qualified to offer advice about writing. So, I don’t. And secondly, I found that when I am writing about writing or talking about writing, I am not actually writing. Stories, that is. And that’s what we do here.
But today is an exception, focusing on the writing specifically of the Little Red Bear stories. Keep your wallet in your pocket, there is no advice for sale here today. If there is any disquietude or anxieties concerning “The Adventures of Little Red Bear” with regard to breaking writing rules, I thought it might be a good idea to just talk about it all up front so no one is shocked, surprised or gets their feelings hurt when they get into the backwoods with the book.
“The Adventures of Little Red Bear” is a collection of six short stories featuring, as you probably guessed– my very good friend Little Red Bear. Or “Red”, as he is known by close friends. And when accompanying him on an adventure that will surely include you too, of course. Red enjoys meeting and making new friends. Just please don’t ask Red or I to follow a bunch of rules set down by other folks about writing our own stories.
Getting to it then, this is about the writing of the stories, so I’m just going to lay it out there– we don’t care. About following others’ rules, that is. The myriad rules, suggestions, pronouncements, advice and fads put out from so many sources about the mechanics of writing. To me, it seems like storytelling, the real art and heart of the matter, has been set to the side nowadays in discussions focused more on process.
Character building. Story arc. Simple Steps to Write a Bestseller. Style. Popular genres that sell. Story length. Story detail. Pinch points. Character action beats. Target and write to your market. Point of view. Story structure. Terrific hooks. Four ways to cut unnecessary. Creating unbearable tension. Story conflict. Conflict resolution. Eliminate backstory. Build up your protagonist. Ace your climactic moment. Prevent your protagonist from being boring. Golden rules to follow for a good plot. A great start sells the book! It’s all about the ending! Epic plot fails. Crafting a dynamic antagonist in three easy steps.
Pronouncements and others’ rules about how writing should be done. Formulaic, mechanical writing by the numbers. Follow this list and check mark your way to success! We appreciate that so many take the time to offer their advice and suggestions, but feel that is what works for them, and not necessarily for us here in the backwoods.
It calls to mind the old gold rush days. The vast majority of the actual miners went broke and never made a dime. It was all the shopkeepers, merchants and those supplying goods, services and equipment to the miners who made off like bandits and struck it rich. With so many new writers mining the literary gold fields today, well . . . . it just brought that to mind is all. It’s a wonder how Poe, Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and others all made it without the “simple-easy-step” plans to follow.
Rules by their very nature and purpose are confining and intended to ensure conformity to a standard, legislating and enforcing boundaries, and in the case of the arts, with the risk of restricting creativity and expression. I consider creative writing to be an art form, and it’s only by pushing the boundaries that creative growth is achieved. If we all do the same thing in the same way where’s the fun, excitement, creativity and expression in that?
So I don’t follow or feel encumbered by others’ writing rules or formulas for success. Neither does Little Red Bear. But of course, he is a bear after all, accustomed to freedom and making up his own rules as he goes along. I suppose some of that strident independence must have rubbed off on me. We’re simply telling his stories for fun here. Not planning on entering any “Examples of Great Literature Contests”, or any other for that matter. Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway can relax, with their reputations secure. We openly listen to all suggestions, but are pretty selective and particular about what we pick up and put into the shopping cart.
The Oxford Comma debate, for example. Some strongly advocate using it, or suffer being misunderstood. Others, just as notable, say do not use it. If I think a comma helps the reader understand a section better, or a comma helps set the pace of conversation or storytelling in a more realistic way, I will use one. If not, I don’t. I don’t feel obligated either way. My laptop is a comma safe zone. The Oxford Comma debate? Don’t care. (On a separate note, I am a noted squisher of colons, however. Can’t really explain, just don’t like them. Think the feeling is probably mutual, because they don’t come around to visit very often.)
“The pace of the story must be dynamically structured to hold the reader’s attention.” Here’s the deal on that one. I’m willing to bet six acorns and a pinecone that whoever said that never wrote a story with a bear sitting next to them. If Little Red Bear wants to take time out from the story action to stop for a few paragraphs and talk about a wildflower or explain how to make a bamboo fishing pole or extoll on the beautiful song from a Wood Thrush, I’m not going to be the one who tells him he cannot do it. Generally of a very benign and gentle nature, Red does outweigh me– by over 500 pounds. We wrestled for fun once. Let’s just say it was a lot more fun for him, and leave it go at that for now. Someone else’s advice about “story pace” is not going to be the reason I wrestle him again. Just sayin’.
They are Red’s adventures after all, I’m merely typing them into the keyboard as he relates them to me. Honestly, if it weren’t for his overly large bear paws making typing on a laptop or writing with a normal sized pencil so frustratingly difficult for him, he wouldn’t even need me around. He talks. I type. It’s a job.
“Alliteration is out of style.” Hogwash. I like alliteration and think it makes it more fun for young readers. And again, we’re dealing with the feelings of story characters, and some are fairly sensitive. I am not going to be the one to tell Bitterroot Bob, Packsaddle Pete or Bobo the Balancing Black Bear that they have to change their names because someone else doesn’t want us using alliteration in the backwoods anymore because it’s not trendy. Nope. I’m not going to be the one to hurt their feelings or chase good characters out of a story. So I don’t care what anyone thinks about alliteration. Not even a tiddly bit. And as an added note, Bobo is even bigger than Red, and not quite as well-dispositioned. So there’s that, too.
“The story must build to a climax, and then end right there, not drag on. Avoid irrelevant endings!” Personally, I think the people advocating that one were probably watching Peter Jackson’s final “Lord of the Rings” movie, “The Return of the King”, and had to go to the restroom very badly. I myself was in that predicament, wondering how many endings the movie was going to have and taking odds from those around me on whether the movie would end or my bladder burst first. In case I needed to cover hospital bills. But I made it thru the seven or eight endings okay and didn’t go make a new writing rule about it afterwards. There were a lot of storylines and themes that needed to be tidied up at the end and I understood that. I simply learned not to take a soda or water bottle with me into a Peter Jackson film next time.
After an action-packed, nail-biting climax, sometimes it’s best to take a moment and catch your breath. And for younger readers, slow it down a step to let them catch up to a message now and again. And if it’s a scary story, like the time when Red and the others went into the Broken Hill Mine, it can be good for us all to put a little space between the climax and pillow, if you know what I mean. So once again– “Build to a climax and end it!” Nope. Don’t care about that rule, either.
“Never use the word ‘very’.” And about forty more like ‘somewhat’, ‘really’, ‘behind’ and others. I just used the word ‘very’ in a preceding paragraph. Did you trip over it, fall and hurt yourself? If one has to go to the restroom ‘badly’, it’s uncomfortable. If one needs to go the restroom ‘very badly’, chances are there’s a lot of jiggling, crossing of legs and theater seat bouncing going on. There’s a difference. If I think the story is told better with ‘very’ or any other newly prohibited word, I will use it. Could we find a five dollar word to take the place of ‘very badly’? Sure. But I am neither trying to impress anyone with my vocabulary nor wanting to send readers scrambling for a dictionary every two pages. What the rule makers think? It’s a chance we’ll take.
And while we’re talking about it, what did ‘very’ do to upset people so? It’s a nice, hardworking, little four letter word that as far as we know, never harmed anyone. Dutifully serving to make the word following more enhanced. Sounds noble to me. I can think of a number of other four letter words that will never, ever see their way onto a page in one of Little Red Bear’s stories, yet folks seem to have no issue freely tossing those around. Foul language must have a stronger lobby at the writer’s guild.
“Character back story doesn’t matter, don’t bore your reader with it.” I don’t think it’s important for us all to know what a particular character had for lunch the previous day either, unless it’s an important part of the story to explain the insufferable heartburn or infirmities they may be experiencing. Roadkill can have that effect sometimes. But if their behavior and actions are influenced by events from their past, I think that’s something you should know about. So another– don’t care.
“Do not use adverbs.” I like adverbs. Always have. They are modifiers for verbs. If nouns are allowed adjectives, why should verbs be shortchanged? As the name implies– adverbs add to the meaning of accompanying verbs. “He whispered” is supposed to be better than “He spoke quietly.” To me, they are not the same thing. If Scritch the Chipmunk whispers into Little Red Bear’s ear, no one else is going to hear him. If he speaks quietly to Little Red Bear, chances are a sneaky weasel hiding in the brush is going to overhear what he is saying and that could greatly impact the story. So, like commas, adverbs have a welcoming home here. Sneaky weasels, not so much.
“Do not burden your reader with great detail. Tell them only what is critical to the story. Avoid unnecessary filler!” This is a corollary to the “bare bones” literary structure style. “Just the facts, ma’am, nothing but the facts. Move the plot forward. Move along now. Nothing to see here.”
I always enjoyed watching ‘Dragnet’ with Sergeant Joe Friday, but even as a kid thought his manner a bit brusque. Little Red Bear’s stories are about adventures with his numerous friends, both critters and humans, in the beautiful and scenic Ozarks Mountain Country. Inherently, a good deal to do about nature, taking your time, relaxing and enjoying the journey and quality of life. It’s not about a race to the finish, increasingly brought about by the electronic age and decreasing attention spans as everyone keeps one eye on the clock these days and the other on a web screen. Incessant visual stimulation with instant fulfillment and gratification. It is getting increasingly difficult to not only get someone’s attention, but also try to hold it for more than a few seconds. That’s why blog posts are supposed to be short, because they say — people do not have the time or attention span to read long works anymore. That’s what the experts say, not us. Red and I decided that’s a race and competition we’re just not even going to try to compete in. Little Red Bear’s adventures are old-fashioned stories and we are not going to strip away enriching sensory detail, or turbo-charge them so they run faster around the track.
I was heavily influenced by William Faulkner’s writing early on, famous for his long and sometimes run-on sentences. And we’re dealing with a loveable, but long-winded bear who tends to ramble on when telling his stories. So please be advised and cautioned upon entering. On the one hand, we have — “Red and friends looked for honey.” Short, snappy, to the point. Bare bones. Tells you all you need to know about the action. “See Spot run.”
On the other hand, we have– “Little Red Bear and his friends,traveling around the southern end of Big Bend Mountain in search of honey after depleting their pantry following a breakfast of hot country buttermilk biscuits and tea, strolled leisurely next to a softly babbling brook, soothing streams of cold spring water gently washing and rippling past smoothed-over pink, grey and moss-covered river rocks, a Red-winged Blackbird calling from rustling cattails at the stream edge on a cool spring morning with a bit of wind-blown mist in the air as the sun struggled to peek from behind greying clouds while still managing to intermittently spotlight the sheen of a rainbow trout, patiently and hopefully stalking a newly-emerged Mayfly at the water’s edge.”
I cut that off for brevity just then as merely an example, not even describing the enchanting blackbird for you, but Red and I both agree that we would be remiss not telling you about how beautiful it was that day by simply telling you they went looking for honey– period. And we didn’t even touch on the sweet smell of Honeysuckle vines perfuming the air as the morning breezes whiffed past, or the pink and white dogwoods beginning to blossom and flower on the hillside, gently sloping as it does until blending seamlessly into the Sweet Clover meadow below with its yellow, glistening dew-tipped flower tops stretching to reach the morning sunlight, waving and undulating back and forth caressed by the wafting breezes along the edge of Pickleberry Creek as it winds its way around granite boulders overhung with wild lilacs in bloom and past the thicket of Mountain Laurels at the end of Persimmon Holler.
Image courtesy of Barbara Taylor Woodall, author of “It’s Not My Mountain Anymore”
We advertise these stories as “old-fashioned storytelling” and we put it right on the back cover for all to see, so readers have some idea of what they are about to get into. Little Red Bear wants you to know what he and his friends are seeing, feeling, tasting, hearing and smelling, and to be as close to being there with him in the Ozarks Mountains as you can be reading a book. If that’s too much detail in the story for the ‘hurry-uppers’ nowadays, well, Red suggests they wait for the CliffsNotes version, and I’m just not willing to wrestle him over it. If you’re looking for a fast race to the finish, check out NASCAR. Red’s stories are written at what we describe as “Country Comfortable” speed, a lower gear setting which we feel to be much better on reader mileage. We take our time, do things a little slower here, and tend to average more words to the period.
I respect Edgar Allan Poe, the short story master, a great deal. In his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition”, he stated that a short story should be read in one sitting, one to two hours. Some now say a contemporary short story can range from 1,000 – 20,000 words. Others say, hold on– if it’s over 7,500 words or more it’s no longer a short story– it’s a “novelette.”
By that new standard, technically only one of Red’s six adventures is a short story then, and even that one is a close call, with the rest all being novelettes, and a couple almost reaching novella status! (One story goes all the way to 14,000 words– almost two stories! Red wore out my fingers on that one.) I suppose you should know that, about the lengths and all, because we’re not describing the book as “A Collection of Novelettes.” That’s silly, and Red thinks it makes him sound like a sissy, so not going to do it. We’re sticking with Edgar Allan Poe on this one– Short Story Adventures. Some longer than others.
Although Brooks the Badger, our esteemed attorney, does make the strong argument that readers may think they are getting more bang for the buck by describing them as novelettes as opposed to short stories, thereby increasing their perceived shelf value and market appeal. A valid point perhaps, but still not going to do it. We never started these stories to win any sales contests or awards. They’re Short Stories. End of discussion.
Now, we don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression, that we’re a bit cavalier regarding the writing process. On the contrary, Little Red Bear and I care a great deal about his stories and have worked tirelessly to relate them to you as close to how his adventures actually took place and happened in the best way we can. We just tend to focus a little more on the storytelling and less on the mechanics of doing it. And we truly hope you like them. (That ‘truly’ there is another on the “do not use anymore” list. But then again, so is “there.” And “that” come to think of it, too. There are probably a number of uneasy words filled with trepidation in the dictionary these days.) We’re just not overly concerned about how the rule makers and grammar police feel about it. I suppose if they really (another “do not use” word) feel bothered by it all, then they can come wrestle the bear themselves. He’ll be waiting. Red’s always up for a good tussle. Just not going to be with me again. Not over someone else’s rules, anyway.
Thanks as always for reading and following along, and please know we’re just trying our very best here for you. (There’s that pesky “very” word again. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself.) “The Adventures of Little Red Bear” will be released for Kindle on June 23rd and is available for Pre-order on Amazon right now. Paperback versions are available immediately.
It’s a fun and entertaining collection of old-fashioned, family-friendly, nature-oriented Short Story Adventures with themes of positivity, kindness, family values and helping others. Told with a little tongue-in-cheek humor here and there. Featuring my very good friend, Little Red Bear. And his backwoods friends. Both critters and human folk. Suitable for General Audiences and entertaining for all ages. But you probably get all that by now.
Thanks so much for stopping by! — Jim (and Red!)
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