Signs blow in the wind as I walk the pathway that leads to the abandoned hospital. One of the signs bangs, hangs from a fine wire, and swings back and forth. Bread Moore Psychiatric Center. Branches latch together and make an arch overhead. The path is long and narrow.

The steps are steep as I walk up the moss covered stairway. Snow covers the windowsill of at least a hundred windows. Bars block the cracked, broken glass. Brick by brick, the abandoned psychiatric hospital stretches across the landscape.

Snow crunches with every step. My footsteps leave a path in the five inch blanket of snow. Bare branches snap back at me the closer I arrive to the entrance. I have to admit I am a little scared. I look back over the grounds. Bent street lamps no longer light the way.

At some point in time, someone has trespassed before me. The chains hang from the door and have been cut loose. Three blue wheelchairs sit alone in the empty room. I sit in one and roll around the room.

Now vacant the haunted history of the place pulls me back. Who sat in these chairs? A broken hearted child, maybe an aged crinkled faced woman gone mad, or maybe a deserted young man depressed and left behind by his wife?

Lemon paint peels from the wall. Lemonade was my favorite drink at a young age. I remember squeezing the lemons every summer. My tiny hands at the age of four or five would squeeze and twist the lemon and watch the juice squirt all over the place. Funny how peeling paint can trigger such a memory.

Light gleams through the right window and hits the floor.  There’s nothing left but broken windows, a water heater, and a table turned upside down. Light exposes the reality of day. Day light opens your eyes to see the beauty or ugliness of it all. Don’t we all have a light or dark side to us? We seem to be broken in places. Broken in our hearts. Broken in our souls. Broken in our thoughts.

A swarm of Blue Morphs scatter across the ceiling of the next room. The empty space resembles my dead heart. How odd the experience. Butterflies are frozen solid, they’ve clung to their death. My head leans back as I study their final pose. There must be a million. Their silence leaves a somber breath.

Death comes with time. Naturally, they have two weeks to live. Fate has cut their life short. Every Blue Morph has fragile wings. Wings that once fluttered.

Fluttered and spread out in the open space of the mountain side. If I could just allow myself to come alive and spread my wings.

I never quite learned how to spread my wings. Wings are for birds and butterflies, and I would give anything if I could hear the stories of this place from a winged creature such as a butterfly. I’ve been an introvert all my life.

And don’t you know people in this world never want you to fly. They clip your wings. And what happens when a butterfly’s wings are clipped? The butterfly can only crawl on its thread like legs and hope to survive. And if we’re not careful, the damaged wings become a disability. We’re so used to damaging our wings, and other people’s wings. We pretend it’s all we know.

Introverts always observe everything. Isn’t that what I’m doing now? Observing these frozen wings that are now delicate and fragile. Delicate enough to fall and shatter like glass in an instant. In one second they can fall from the ceiling on to the floor and shatter into a million pieces. The cruelty of my intention if I do such a thing.

Snow has invaded the interior walls of the building through the windows. The drips of water have destroyed everything in sight. A poor reflection of what the psychiatric center must have once looked like before the abandoned rooms were taken over by Mother Nature. Wind and rain, snow and ice, and even the warmth of the sun can be abusive to these walls that shelter the many parts and pieces of history.

Beds, chairs, photographs, case files, medicine bottles, and the left overs become a significance of humanities carelessness of even cleaning up after themselves.

What is neglect, but allowing someone or something to rot away in isolation, and to be forgotten.

In the middle of the room three metal beds line up in a row. Row by row there was a face that filled one of these beds. Each one had a name. A name and a label. A label to diagnose them with a certain problem. A problem that probably never received a solution. The only solution to stay hidden from society.

The springs bounce when I sit on this bed. The springs pinch my fingers. Water and rust blend together on the tips of my fingers. I rub it off on the side of my navy pea coat.

I was wondering if you could tell me what I’m doing wrong. I’ve been trying to learn on my own, but getting confused between Literary fiction and Genre fiction. I know I am more of literary writer and poet. And trying to sharpen up my writing skills. I spent a lot of time reading the wrong books that aim to genre fiction and have a hard time finding the technical aspects of writing literary fiction. I just found your site today. Thank you. Maddy

Instructor Response

Dear Maddy,

Don’t be discouraged.  There is nothing wrong about anyone’s writing.  You’ve learned well, and this is a very impressive performance.  Your distress seems related to not achieving what you, the author, wants to do, and many times not knowing what you, the author, really wants to do.  Your writing is so effective.  You create a mood, the imagery is well chosen and presented for your meaning.  In first person you’ve delivered a definite sense of hopelessness and unfairness in life, and discoveries about self.  Your protagonist, stimulated by the visit to the abandoned building, understands more about who he/she really is—nicely done.  You’ve said a lot about the inexplicable tribulations of life, and your excellent writing allows you to affect the reader by first person reflection on encountering a desolate abandoned room where humans suffered.  Don’t consider this piece a failure in any way; be assured it moved me … and I think it will move many readers.

Now let’s explore your writer’s funk.  Try to decide what you want to do as a writer.  Most of us want to be authors and want the recognition of being good writers.  Many times we see publication as the proof we are writers.  We sit at our computers and let things flow as they come to mind, send out manuscripts and wait for confirmation that we’ve arrived in the literary consciousness of English readers.  Once we got something underway, there is tendency to compare to historical (and contemporary) writers and often try to find the secret of what made them successful.  Well, they were successful in a different time, and usually they were successful to a small per centage of total readers who responded to their individual talents.  There is no reason to succumb to trying to write like Edgar Allan Poe or John Grisham to please readers.  No writer can succeed to copy a writer’s success and to try is to divert focus away from a writer’s strengths and potential.  This idea of getting off track also applies to getting people to comment on your work.  Only a minor portion of readers are going to like any specific writer’s work.  So writers need to find their audience through developing their fiction targeted to what they want to do  and then listen to how these sympathetic readers respond to their work.  Ignore opinions and advice of those not prone to like your writing.  And don’t expect universal acclaim for your writing.  Write to your own standards of excellence.  Writers improve by better craft and storytelling and most of all, being clear in what they want to achieve.

So what do you want to achieve?  Is it to be an author (we all want this)?  Do you want fame and fortune even in some small way (we all want this)?  But can you be more successful by divorcing yourself from fame and acclaim?  Can you honestly progress to want to affect readers through learning skills of writing and storytelling, regardless of fame and fortune?  How do you want to change a reader?  Entertain with mysteries?  Inform with histories?  Amuse with comedies?  These are the essentials fiction can bring through story and characterization.  But overall, it’s the audience reaction that is important, not your claim to fame or recognition by as many readers as possible for your skills . . . or financial reward.  You want to change a reader, not demand through language manipulation for  praise that will ironically come automatically if you’ve told a good story and written well.  You have the talent at your present stage to do this, there is no doubt, but you will also be successful if you write what you determine you want to be—be it fiction, memoir, or essay . . . even journalistic prose. But again, it’s best to know what you want to do for your target audience.  Then determine what you want to do with your writing to change your reader. 

Ask: do you want to engage the reader, enlighten the reader, engender an emotional or intellectual response in the reader, entertain the reader, stimulate new discoveries about what it means to be human, create memorable characters that can direct people in their lives?  This is what fiction can provide.  But if you want 1) admiration for prose construction, 2) admiration for your intellect through intricacies of description, 3) reader perception of the greatness of your talent through random ideas and images on the page, or 4) depend on reader’s appreciation of association of your writing with some great author, you could be off the mark.  It hints of being self centered and selfish because all the things about admiration of me are not earned achieved as through the traditional techniques of mastering craft, learning how to create story, and learning the complexities of character development.

If you decide you want to be literary, I recommend finding those stories that have moved you the most.  For many serious writers those are writers in the past—Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Melville,  Conrad, Flaubert, Zola, Brontes, Austen, Forster, Hawthorne, and the like.  Storytellers who create great characters and write with zing for their generation.  You can look to contemporary writers if that’s what you want, but I believe most contemporary writer’s labeled as literary are writing about “me the author” in memoir first person styles and I think almost always miss any chance at greatness because of inability to create characters, excessive focus on themselves, lack of imagination and failure to structure prose in favor of loose often disconnected ideation overwritten.  (But it’s in vogue and making a lot of authors prominent with a declining of number of readers).

So if you choose to go the more traditional route to achieve what you desire, here’s what I suggest you learn:

1. Learn the elements of a great story and incorporate them in your creating through imagination: beginning, middle, and end; conflict and action; concrete rather than abstract; and a purpose for writing.

2. Study narration techniques clarifying roles of characters, narrators and authors so stories are effective and enjoyable.

3. Improve throughout your career your effectiveness in using narrative, dialogue, internalization, metaphor, imagery, description.  Train to know what you’re doing to keep use of techniques proportional to the effectiveness of story you’re writing.

4. Have a defined purpose for everything you write.  Don’t abandon yourself to the whimsy of writing down random ideas and descriptions and then revising.  Work with determination to sculpt your story including every essential for excellence but deleting everything unrelated to story momentum, meaning, and characterization,

5. Learn to dramatize.  Use conflict, action, and resolution at every layer and phase of your writing.

6. Hone craft.  Metaphor, description, setting, timeline, word choice, concrete over abstract, appropriate syntax, rhythm and pacing.

7. Learn to work desire, motivation, and emotional arcs into all your writing.

8. Workshops.  Avoid academic workshops until you’re confident in what your doing.  When you feel deficient and down, a workshop can be very destructive for your psyche and your writing/storytelling improvement.  Group commentary is ineffective and often wrong.  The quality of teachers available is distressingly inadequate.  (I’ve attended more than 110.)  Find a mentor who is capable of improving you as a writer, not teaching from rote recipes that stifle creativity.  And focus on self learning, as you are.

Now, if you think you see some advantage in this approach, let me suggest how you might incorporate ideas in the piece you submitted.  (This is not to suggest change is needed and that you didn’t do well.  You were great.  But it will give alternatives that if you see they might be helpful you can use as your writing develops.)

You could consider establishing the feelings, emotions, desires, and motivations of the protagonist.  Let the story deliver the message that life is tough and short and riddled with mistakes.  Why did the protagonist come to the hospital?  Was he/she looking for something?  Was a family member or a lover incarcerated and there is something important to be found about the person or his or her stay that will affect protagonist’s life; could this unknown protagonist be the thinking about the immediate things that trigger the reflections that are so beautifully presented (you’ve done this very well at times).  Is there some danger or obstacle (conflict) on entering the hospital–weak construction, fear of contagious diseases still around (unlikely but common fear—i.e. emotions are useful to writer).  Is something going to happen (story element) such as demolition that will destroy something the protagonist doesn’t want destroyed?  Is there a danger of fire that might destroy something or someone the protagonists loves or cherishes?  Is there a way through action (discovery, overcoming barriers, recovering memory, etc.) that will allow you to present the beautiful metaphorical ideas that support the theme without seeming to be told by the author/narrator?  Showing is often more effective than telling and it takes all writers much practice to know what that means and how to do it.

The idea is to get the theme and meaning across by building on a solid character-based story and through characterization.  And the essential of characterization in literary fiction is letting the reader discover the character through action, emotional arcs, enlightenment, and change.  I believe you are learning the skills and have the talent to become a very good fiction writer.  And you have imagination and empathy that not many writers today possess.

And don’t think you don‘t have the room to do it in your existing ms.   Much of the above is possible with only a minor increase in word count.

I’ll make a few observations in the ms to give you some thoughts about craft improvement.  Stick with your writing–improvement is practice–no matter what you chose to do.  With time, I know you’ll soon be over the hump and find yourself satisfied and proud of what you’re creating.  And keep seeking help, as you have.  Good writing comes through learning—a process that for great writers is a lifelong endeavor.   (Be sure to see comments on ms below.)

All the best,

William H. Coles

Signs blow in the wind as I walk the pathway that leads to the abandoned hospital. Seek an alternative to “blow”.  This has to do with accurate word choice.  “Blow” is an act of creating dealing with air and wind currents.  It’s not possible for a sign to do, even in fantasy.  Be sure of using the right word and you’ll add a new level to your writing.  Live with a Thesaurus.  One of the signs bangs, hangs from a fine wire, and swings back and forth. Bread Moore Psychiatric Center. Branches latch together and make an arch overhead. The path is long and narrow.  Love your use of sensual detail, particularly sight and sound.  You might mention cold here, to augment the readers experiencing the scene with an additional sensory detail..

The steps are steep as I walk up the moss covered stairway. Snow covers the windowsill of at least a hundred windows. Bars block the cracked, broken glass. Brick by brick, the abandoned psychiatric hospital stretches across the landscape.

Snow crunches with every step. My footsteps leave a path in the five inch blanket of snow. Bare branches snap back at me the closer I arrive to the entrance. I have to admit I am a little scared. Of what?  An opportunity for significant characterization with a word or two. I look back over the grounds. Bent street lamps no longer light the way.

At some point in time, someone has trespassed before me. The chains hang from the door and have been cut loose. Three blue wheelchairs sit alone in the empty room. I sit in one and roll around the room.

Now vacant the haunted history of the place pulls me back. Who sat in these chairs? A broken hearted child, maybe an aged crinkled faced woman gone mad, or maybe a deserted young man depressed and left behind by his wife?  Is protagonist searching for someone specific?  Opportunity to enhance story and characterization.

Lemon paint peels from the wall. Lemonade was my favorite drink at a young age. I remember squeezing the lemons every summer. My tiny hands at the age of four or five would squeeze and twist the lemon and watch the juice squirt all over the place. Funny how peeling paint can trigger such a memory.  This little bit of back story halts the progression of front story (in hospital) and seems a little strained in the delivery.  Is there a way to just tie the color of the paint to a lemon yellow and maybe ditch the remembering the past (because it doesn’t seem to relate directly to story theme and seems insignificant in characterization).  If you had to keep it, tie the memory to something more significant than squeezing and squirting.  This is an example of almost purposeless writing that deadens interest and degrades style for many.  Still, perfectly okay if that’s what you want.

Light gleams through the right window and hits the floor.  There’s nothing left but broken windows, a water heater, and a table turned upside down. Light exposes the reality of day.  This just means daylight is in the room in some way.  The next few words tell the reader day light is present.  And what is said is repeated in next sentence more effectively.  As expressed, it tends toward overwriting.  Poetic description is effective, but requires taste and control.  Day light opens your eyes to see the beauty or ugliness of it all. Don’t we all have a light or dark side to us? We seem to be broken in places. Broken in our hearts. Broken in our souls. Broken in our thoughts. This is a bordering on second person confrontational delivery.  It might be more effective staying in first person, a change that might increase impact of the idea.

A swarm of Blue Morphs scatter across the ceiling of the next room. The empty space resembles my dead heart. How odd the experience. Butterflies are frozen solid, they’ve clung to their death. My head leans back as I study their final pose. There must be a million.  Credibility. Butterflies swarm in numbers around fifty.  That would mean 20,000 swarms.  I know it seems picky, but credibility and logic are important in all writing, especially fiction.  And to argue poetic license does not cover laziness in thinking and writing that is implied when credibility and logic are compromised.  Their silence leaves a somber breath.  Is breath the right word here?  I’m not sure what a somber breath is and silence seems unrelated to breathing.  The idea is well placed, just needs better expression maybe.  Use you imagination and seek accurate metaphors.

Death comes with time. Naturally, they have two weeks to live. Fate has cut their life short. Every Blue Morph has fragile wings. Wings that once fluttered.  Fluttered and spread out in the open space of the mountain side. If I could just allow myself to come alive and spread my wings.  Good.  And important too.

I never quite learned how to spread my wings. Wings are for birds and butterflies, and I would give anything if I could hear the stories of this place from a winged creature such as a butterfly. I’ve been an introvert all my life.  The significant change in the protagonist.  Great.

And don’t you know people in this world never want you to fly. They clip your wings. And what happens when a butterfly’s wings are clipped? The butterfly can only crawl on its thread like legs and hope to survive. And if we’re not careful, the damaged wings become a disability. We’re so used to damaging our wings, and other people’s wings. We pretend it’s all we know.

Introverts always observe everything. Isn’t that what I’m doing now? Observing these frozen wings that are now delicate and fragile. Delicate enough to fall and shatter like glass in an instant. In one second they can fall from the ceiling on to the floor and shatter into a million pieces. The cruelty of my intention if I do such a thing.

Snow has invaded the interior walls of the building through the windows. The drips of water have destroyed everything in sight. A poor reflection of what the psychiatric center must have once looked like before the abandoned rooms were taken over by Mother Nature. Wind and rain, snow and ice, and even the warmth of the sun can be abusive to these walls that shelter the many parts and pieces of history.

Beds, chairs, photographs, case files, medicine bottles, and the left overs become a significance of humanities carelessness of even cleaning up after themselves.  A discovery.  Good work.

What is neglect, but allowing someone or something to rot away in isolation, and to be forgotten?

In the middle of the room three metal beds line up in a row. Row by row there was a face that filled one of these beds. Each one had a name. A name and a label. A label to diagnose them with a certain problem. A problem that probably never received a solution. The only solution to stay hidden from society.

The springs bounce when I sit on this bed. The springs pinch my fingers. Water and rust blend together on the tips of my fingers. I rub it off on the side of my navy pea coat.

Consider strengthen the story line and the characterization.  Inserting desire and motivation.   And, whenever possible, insert action and resolution related to core desire.  You are a poet well suited to making great prose literary fictional stories!  

  1. I thank you for taking a look at my writing. I suppose my motivation for writing is to help others understand themselves and teach. I am a spiritual teacher/life coach/ and have a degree in Human Services/Like social work for the most part. My aim was to write fiction books on social problems and the obstacles they face. The naysayers, the faultfinders, the multiple belief systems of the world, and how they cause chaos and confusion. I suppose writing about human nature, the thoughts, emotions, feelings, and going through the multiple scenario’s that we face in the world culturally, religion, psychology, philosophy, spiritual, social norms, addictions, and setting one self free.

    The last four years I have studied a lot and to say I am a person that has experienced a lot since a child with different issues, and not sure anyone could have quite the same story. I’ve been around disabled, mentally impaired, and elderly as I was a nurse aide, but had parents in mental health and AA counseling. I suppose I have the ability to create realistic characters, give them emotions, feelings, and it’s not hard too for me. I can place myself in many scenario’s, so I learned from your blog here, and I suppose separating myself from the characters is hard to do when no matter what issue I would choose I would have had the experience and perspective at one point or another through the years.

    I have been working on a Novel the last few years, but not a lot of proper instruction, so this is what I’m seeking. I would like to display the thought process people go through when they face the other person. I don’t believe people understand the thoughts one goes through, as they only face the experience from their point of view, but not the others or the pain and suffering they may cause.

    I have traveled as well in different cultural diverse groups as spiritual, religion, philosophy, psychology, rich and poor groups online and offline, and forums. The purpose of understanding the differences that separate us, and are we really that different? I’ve done the research on many levels, and want to write fiction that impacts humanity. lol I’m sure there are lots of people that want to do this.

    To a degree yes, I would like to be paid for writing. On the other hand, I know that is a lot of self-promoting, fan-base, engaging, trying to figure out how to market. I don’t suspect that every writer makes much off writing. And only a few achieve greatness as a writer that produces a lot of money.

    Money can’t really be the motivation. I think mostly it has to come from the heart and soul. And I do try to stretch my mind to be creative. I do have to laugh because I wrote my novel first without reading at all. I think basically the idea was to stretch my creativity without being influenced. I suppose others start out by reading others work. I am just getting to that point now. So, I thank you for your recommendations. I want to read quality work, and I agree there isn’t a lot of creativity. I see a lot of formulas, same common theme’s and I suppose what I find is people follow the trends. On the other hand, I believe to be original you must go beyond what everyone else is doing.

    And so I aim to be different, but I do need to learn to hone my writing skills and grammar. I was happy to find your site, because it was I need to be challenged to become the better writer and I suppose I felt it was going to head me to be the writer I want to be.

    Thank you for your help. I hope you had a good Christmas as well and have a good New Years.

    • Thanks for your comment. It seems you have all the experience and material to do great work, and you have an authorial attitude for how to approach and present your material that will serve you well as you continue. As you write, it can be helpful to seek a clear purpose for what you write, not just the novel (or short story) but for every chapter, paragraph, sentence, even word choice. Looking at broad purpose, you’ll come up with a theme and meaning for your writing. Try to make it as clear as possible: dependency destroy lives, incest is immoral, seeking truth is important to human existence; etc. More than one is often involved, but only one should dominate for excellence in most works. Then, as you seek purpose in shorter context, you can carry broader purpose and theme, but you’ll be looking for specific story-related purposes: does this sentence advance plot, build character, create images, clarify timeline, assure consistency in voice, etc? All this may seem superfluous, but the habit of thinking like this helps strengthen the writing and the storytelling for the reader. It relates to (as you noted in your comment) creativity and imaginative thinking to write great prose stories. Nonfiction is different. In nonfiction authors make their points through relating to and describing real events and real people and depending on accuracy of occurrences to evoke reader reaction, events and people that have caused an emotional response or some enlightenment that has changed (the author’s) life. So in nonfiction creative imagination is curtailed to the presentation of story material rather than creating story material for specific story purpose–a purpose that will produce an emotional reaction or intellectual enlightenment in the reader through objective story action and conflict/action/resolution. The nonfiction writer is evoking emotional reactions and intellectual enlightenment through abstractions (I hate rather than in scene action that shows the hate emotion, for example) and is prone to move a reader through narrative discursive rumination. This is often perceived as an author writing from the soul but it is frequently not as engaging, readable, nor does it have the impact of objective in scene revelation through creative imagination. There are exceptions for certain stories to be told, but failure to recognize the principle frequently results in inferior writing and storytelling for most stories.

      I applaud you; it’s a hurdle you are already addressing. You have the skills and the heart to use your valuable (and exciting and significant) material to maximum advantage; I wanted to emphasize that to achieve the significant responses with your writing, don’t resort too often to telling what it meant to you and how you perceived your world experiences caused you reactions. Instead, explore all the elements that make you feel the way you did and do. Almost always it is best to seek to fully understand your reactions, analyze the causes for those reactions, and then seek the knowledge (as you already are!) as to how the great writers learn to make readers feel the way they, the authors, want them to feel. Of course you will use life experiences as all writers do, just don’t be a slave to those experiences so opportunities to create significant stories through imaginative characterization and storytelling are ignored. Storytelling and craft are the tools for significant story success–authorial human understanding of generation of story material; effective narration; consistent and unique voice(s); purposeful dialogue; uninterrupted engagement; objective decisions about desires, motivations, and emotional responses; and readable prose. These produce reactions that are different than memoir and nonfiction, and usually, although harder to achieve, give better results for what you–and all authors, I think, want to achieve. From your comment, I know you understand this and are on the way to achieve it. I wanted to support you and wish you the very best as you proceed.

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