From the slush minion’s diary #12: stories that are boring

When I started reading slush, I feared the onslaught of the great unwashed grammar monster and the evil spelling pixie. You sometimes hear people gripe about how the content of slush is soooooo bad. But the reality is that those people are just jaded whingers. The vast majority of submitting writers know how to spell and use correct grammar. By far the most important reason a story gets rejected is this:

The story is boring.

Now I should perhaps rephrase this: the beginning of the story is boring. Because if the beginning is not interesting, a slush reader won’t read on. Really. A slush reader (or any reader) has no obligation to finish reading a story. As writer, your task is to make sure a reader finishes the story. Actually, I should rephrase that again: the beginnning of the story is boring to me.

As you can see, I’ve just put a couple of caveats into the statement. What is boring to me may not be boring to others.

That said, I tend to look unkindly upon stories that do any (or, heaven forbid, all) of the following:

The story starts with an interesting tidbit that grabs my attention, usually in a very short scene. The second scene is a huge slab of narrative explaining the situation in retrospect. Repeated use of the word ‘had’ is indicative. The third scene involves the character going through some mundane, everyday situation. These scenes often start with statements that establish time, such as ‘The next day’, or ‘That day…’

The story starts with the character gazing reflectively out a window, or similar, and thinking about something that has happened or is about to happen. It is really hard to pull this off as an effective start to short fiction, even if your window looks out over a spaceport that is being blow apart in an interstellar war. The point is that the character is detached from the action and is not doing anything. Watching action does not equate taking part in it.

The story starts with a scene (or even more than one scene) in which the character does everyday stuff. Sometimes, you feel a need to establish a character’s living situation before the inciting incident. If the living situation is interesting enough, you can sometimes get away with it, but usually it’s more interesting to start with the inciting incident.

A slush reader is under no obligation to read the entire story. If something interesting happens halfway in the story, start the story with that. Don’t cheat and start the story with the interesting thing, and then backfill the next few scenes with the not-so-interesting, mundane stuff that was the original beginning of the story. You shall be found out. The mundane stuff is not interesting. You don’t need it.

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Depressing, no?

Someone said about my post yesterday that it was depressing to read how many potentially good stories are not published. It is true that a good magazine gets many, many more submissions than it can use. It even gets many more good submissions than it can use.

Being a writer can be depressing. You start off the year with good hopes, but as sale-less months pass, you feel less like a writer and more like hack.

This is normal, and another reason why you shouldn’t get too hung up about rejections. Although I made a really good sale this month, I sold absolutely nothing after 6 January last year. This is because I raised my own standards, and because I didn’t write as many short stories.

Everyone gets rejections, and the high of a sale usually lasts less long than the dry periods in between.

Rejectomancy: why are editors rejecting your stories?

Rejectomancy = over-worrying about rejections, trying to analyse, no-matter-what, why the editor didn’t buy your story, a compulsion to ‘learn from each rejection’ in order to find the holy grail to publication.

ASIM 53 has gone to print! This finishes up another editing project. Being on the other end of the rejection process gives you some insights on why stories are bought and why they’re rejected. Apart from the regular slush reading gig, this is my second editing project, and the more I’m involved with editing, the more I realise that the acceptance, or rejection, or stories is a pretty random process.

Just to be clear, at ASIM, stories that have been ‘approved’ by three slush readers go into a pool from which editors, sometimes several editors at the same time, can choose for their respective issues. These stories have already been vetted against standards of grammar and plotting.

Why do I choose one story and not another?

Of course, the story has to be well-written. But, actually, more important than well-written is a kind of spark. If the story has enough spark, I’ll put up with a certain level of pedestrian writing. I want spark.

And, here comes the rub, what is a spark for me is not a spark for someone else. And that someone else can also be an editor, who would have chosen a completely set of different stories. I like hard SF (there is some of that in the issue), I like space opera (some of that, too), and I like concepts that make me laugh.

A good number of the stories that I looked at and didn’t choose will be returned to the authors with a rejection letter that says that the story was good enough to go into the pool and may well sell elsewhere. There will also be reader comments. Each of these comments are the opinion of one person. They may not even be the reason that the story was rejected. The reason that the story was rejected may not be that the story wasn’t any good. It was just that no one felt any spark while reading it.

A rejection means one thing, and one thing only: the editor couldn’t use the story at that time.

Whatever the rejection letter says does not matter. A line like ‘please consider us for your next story’ may be standard for that magazine. Or it may not. Either way, it means nothing. Regardless of what the letter said, you’d likely send them something else anyway. You may think you’re getting closer with that publication, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually sell something there. It doesn’t matter whether the editor says this or that, or whether you got through one round and was passed to the editor-in-chief. It doesn’t matter that they kept your story for a month where the average rejection time is two weeks. It doesn’t matter…

It just doesn’t matter.

They didn’t buy your story. At this point in time, your best hope is to send the story elsewhere and send that particular magazine another story.

Some data points from my own stack:
magazine 1: first story I sent them got a personal rejection. I’ve been unable to raise a peep from them since.
magazine 2: never received anything except form rejections. Then a sale.
magazine 3: I have a string of (quite rare) personal rejections longer than my arm, but cannot seem to sell anything there.
magazine 4: two rejections, then a sale
story 1: everyone likes this story. I have a string of almosts from every big magazine. Still unsold
story 2: my WOTF non-winning finalist. Do you think I can sell this story?
story 3: sold on first submission

These data look random, because they are random. Editors are people, and they have preferences. Preferences are not set in concrete and will change from issue to issue. They will depend on what else is in the issue.

Stop worrying about the meaning of rejections. Just send the story somewhere else, and write another story.

from the slush minion’s diary #9 long stories

I see the following question being asked a lot by writers: which magazine accepts stories over 10,000 words?

There are a few such magazines, including, if you’re Australian, ASIM. You can find these magazines on Duotrope.

But I would like to ask a counter-question: are you sure the story needs to be that long?

Because, you see, most stories I see of this length could be shortened. If not, the story is usually very good. In ten thousand words, you can do a lot of worldbuilding and character work.

Mostly, though, stories are that long because they’re too flabby. They’re overwritten, repetitive, or start in the wrong place or all of the above. Sometimes I feel that the effective content of a story takes up less than 50% of the total word count.

So, yes, there are places that accept stories over ten thousand words, but before you send your story to such a place, consider the following:

– Is your inciting incident (i.e. ‘where the story really starts’) in the first scene on the first page? Or does your story start with lots of backstory/character navelgazing and thinking about the past or otherwise sitting still and doing nothing in particular or going through boring, domestic tasks?
– Have you described everything, every place, every emotion, every action, only once? Or does your story contain dialogue that comes back to the same point in a circular motion? Does your description describe the same place/person/scene type/action twice? Also consider this within a sentence. I see a lot of sentences with two clauses that mean pretty much the same thing.
– Are your sentences taut and effective? Or do they contain lots of fluff words, which are imprecise, waffly and just words for the sake of words? I call this ‘that was what that was’ type of language.

By looking at all these things, you can often cut an awful lot of verbiage from the story. I can guarantee that if you cut a 10,000 word story down to 7000 words, you’ll end up with a far better story, and more places to submit it.

The ASIM pre-slush workshop now open

Thursday 24 March 2011, 8pm. Entries have now closed. We have a number of good examples, which will be posted here within the next week or so. If feedback is good, it’s likely that we will do this again.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is run by volunteers. We believe in supporting new talent, but we recognise that with as many submissions as we get, it is very hard to be published. This is why we run this workshop. Please support our magazine. To coincide with the release of issue 50, we have a number of special deals. See the ASIM website.

Important rules. Please read all of them:

– Your story must be Science Fiction or Fantasy

– Short stories only, no novels

– Please enter only the first 300 words. If 300 words leaves you with half a sentence, finish that sentence, but please, no more.

The work in question MUST be yours, must be finished and must not have been published. We may ask to see the rest of the story, but as this is not a submission to our magazine, submitting to this workshop has no bearing on your submissions elsewhere. If we do ask to see the rest of the story, use your discretion as to whether the story is free to send.

– All entries should be anonymous, like our slush.

Submitting will be through an anonymous entry on another blog at Livejournal. Please make sure your name doesn’t appear anywhere on your entry. If you have a Livejournal account, log out, and post anonymous. I will not respond to any posts, so at any one time, you’ll only be able to see your own entry.

I will then post each entry on this blog, with editor’s comments. We will do our utmost best to give comments that give writers something to work with. While the nature of most comments will inevitably be ‘negative’, since like all magazines, we reject the vast majority of slush, we will tell you where the story could be improved and how you could possibly do this. Please remember it’s only one opinion.

This workshop is designed with new writers in mind, and by that I mean writers who have not been published in the magazine, or similar semipro magazines, before. I hope it will give writers insight into the slush process at our magazine. The comments on each entry are not law, because other editors and other magazine may well think differently. For ideas about our preferences, may I suggest your read the ‘slush minion’s diary’ posts on this blog (see tags on right).

How many entries we can take depends on how many we get. First in, best dressed.

A vampire walks into a bar

Anyone who reads slush at a magazine can often tell when there has been a call for submissions for a themed anthology. Recently, we’ve been pummelled with vampire stories. Why? Because of Ticonderoga Publications’ Dead Red Heart anthology.

Those stories didn’t make it into the anthology, and the ones I’ve seen so far won’t be making the cut into the magazine either.

Why? Because they’re ‘A vampire feeds’ type of stories, stories that rehash tired plots. Everyone says that it’s OK to write about tired tropes, as long as you bring something new but very few people attempt to quantify what ‘something new’ means other than ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’

Here is my take on ‘something new’. If there was an anthology covering a tired trope, such as vampires, such as zombies, such as elves, such as, indeed, first contact, I’d make sure that the discovery of the subject matter was never the plot point.

What do I mean? Consider the following two (lame) love story plotlines

Storyline 1:
Mary meets Jack and likes him, but as she becomes more familiar with him, she notices that he never seems to eat. After some poking around, Mary discovers that OMG he’s a vampire! But aaawww, she likes him anyway and that doesn’t matter.

Storyline 2:
Mary likes Jack and knows he likes her, but she knows he’s a vampire, and she doesn’t know if he’s good or bad. Then the zombies attack, and people are dying. Mary realises that hey, vampires are undead, too, so they can drive away the zombies. Jack does this and wins her over. Aaaawwww!

In the first one, the fact that Jack is a vampire is the point of the story. Having read one or two of these stories (already published), I can see the ending coming from miles off. It brings nothing new. In storyline 2, the fact that Jack is a vampire is a given, and is used to resolve the plot. Vampires attacking zombies is fairly lame, but this is where the writer can think of new ideas. How do you use a trope to resolve the plot?

That is the way I would deal with writing a story about a tired trope.

Why maybe you shouldn’t start at the top

It’s the mantra amongst short story writers: when you submit a story, start at the top. Send your submission to the highest-paying, best respected market and work down from there.

Personally, I’ve never done this until recently, and I don’t think it’s something I would advise everyone to do, certainly not if you’ve never or rarely sold a story to a paying market. Sure, it could well be that your work is so awesome that a pro-level magazine will buy it immediately, but more likely (much more likely) it isn’t. So by starting at the top, you set yourself up for a lot, and I mean a LOT, of rejection. To give any indication, I made 169 submissions last year, most to pro venues, and not even 10% of those ended up in sales. To be honest, there were some very good sales, but had I done this a few years ago, I would have collapsed in dejection and poor confidence.

One of the strange things about Twitter is that you become a voyeur into other people’s moods. Since almost everyone I follow is a writer, I’m seeing writers slide into rejection-depression almost every day. Not everyone easily climbs out of this. Not everyone has the stomach to shrug off 130 rejections, especially when you’re not selling anything. Because that will happen when you start at the top.

But you never know. They might like it.

No. They won’t. When you’ve just started writing, and haven’t sold much, your writing is probably mediocre at best. You may have some original ideas, or you may be good at writing about your characters’ emotions, but you probably need more practice to write a pro-level story.

But you may just be a natural talent!

Sure, that may just be true. However, what do you have to lose if you submit a story to a low-pay magazine, they buy it immediately, then you submit a story to a semipro magazine, they buy it immediately, too? OK, in that case, you are obviously a talent. You have just ‘lost’ two stories you *may* just have been able to sell elsewhere, but…

Words are cheap. If you can sell a story that easily, you’ll be able to produce more words just as easily. It’s unlikely that those stories were the best thing you ever wrote anyway.

Most likely, though, you may get an acceptance or two at the low-pay level, but will often take much longer to consistently sell to semipro magazines. A lot of them, including ASIM, are quite hard to get into.

Words are cheap, but the writer’s confidence isn’t.

If you’ve never sold a story, start submitting at a lower level, until you find those markets where you have a reasonable chance of getting accepted. Then submit at a higher level. Sure, try pro level magazines every now and then, but only send your very, very best stories.

Don’t be a princess. You just need to develop a thicker skin!

Sorry, but for a great number of people, it does not work like that. After a while, when you get ‘used to’ rejection, you may no longer display any princessy behaviour and wail all over your blog each time you get a rejection, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t feel anything about your inability to sell anything in the darkest hours of the night. Staying positive matters, a lot. It matters to your health, your work output and to the people around you. With a few small sales under your belt, you will feel better about your writing. A stressed and dejected writer most likely doesn’t produce great fiction. A stressed and dejected writer is a pain-in-the-you-know-where to his or her family.

If constant rejection makes you stressed and depressed, find another way of achieving your goal. Start at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle, and sell your way up into respected venues.

Just don’t forget to keep challenging yourself.

from the slush minion’s diary #6 stories that sell

Today, fellow WOTF-er and WOTF forum master Brad Torgersen posted a very informative interview with Eric James Stone on the Writers of the Future forum. You can see it here. Eric of course is the author of a recent much-praised flash story called The Greatest Science Fiction Story Ever Written. The title may sound a tad pretentious, but I assure you, it fits the story perfectly. As to whether it describes the story accurately, I leave that to you, but do go and read it and make sure you read the last line, because it’s hilarious.

Anyway, in the interview, Eric discusses slush disappointments (he’s assistant editor at IGMS), and I can very much relate to his ‘disappointing ending’ letdown feelings. Yet, lacklustre endings are disturbingly common even in published short stories. I once read an issue of a magazine that shall remain unnamed, in which all the stories appeared to be ‘slice of life’ stories, at the end of which nothing much had changed, and the characters wandered off into the blue yonder, leaving the readers to scratch their collective heads.

Maybe it’s fashionable, and sometimes the sheer power of the setting is worthy of publication, but in all instances, I believe the story would have been much better with a stronger plot.

Writers: you want to sell stories to better venues? Look after your plot. While you may be able to sell a story in which nothing changes, you’ll do better if you write a story in which somebody learns something and somebody changes direction.

Plot bunnies #1

An SF writer said,

The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story

Was it Ray Bradbury? I can’t remember. If you can, help me out of my misery.

In any case, he’s right. A short story is not a situation, not even an event. A short story is a change, a discovery, a revelation.

What’s going to be revealed in your story?

This is a story about a girl who can fly – is not a story. It’s a situation. Presumably early in the piece, we’re shown this girl can fly. And then? What happens then? The fact that she can fly needs to lead to something, needs to help solve a problem, or maybe the girl has a problem because she can fly.

Alternatively: this is a story about a girl who finds out she can fly – is also a story. The girl will start off noticing some weird thing, and weirdness will get worse until the revelation at the end: Hey, I can fly!

So – what about your stories? What elements are setting and situation, givens that are revealed close to the beginning of the story, and which elements are true plot bunnies, discoveries that will change the situation, that will change your characters’ lives?

how to write a good short story

Ha! Fooled ya!

I don’t think there is one single how-to in order to write short stories, but since I’ve been doing a fair bit of short story writing, I’d like to share some thoughts. Feel free to discuss and disagree.

In general, short stories work best if they contain the trifecta: plot, character and voice. Now I’m sure everyone can point at stories that lack one of these elements. Pieces that are all character where little happens, stories that are all explanation of some weird thing where there are no characters, but I’m pointing at the first two words of this paragraph. Have trouble writing a sellable good story? You might just make sure it has a strong plot, interesting characters and a distinct voice.

Plot. Obviously, when writing a SFF story, it has to have a fantastical element. The story is usually stronger if this element is integral to the plot, in other words, if the story resolution depends on it. Showcase your inventions here. I think it also pays to make sure your story contains a mix of scene types. Action, hiding, talking, a physical fight, a word fight, they’re all scene types. A story with all action tends to be just as monotonous as one with only talk, or only travel scenes. Try to order your scene types so that the most exciting one coincides with the climax of the story.

Characters. Which character are you going to use to carry the story? And does this character have enough at stake to carry the story? The character must have an interest in the fantastical element that forms the basis of the story, and must have the means to learn more about it. The choice of character is one of the most important ones you can make, I feel. The character also has to be appealing. I don’t necessarily mean sympatic, but the character has to interest the reader. A lot of readers dislike whiney characters. In addition, the character should have something else at stake besides the main plot element, something on a personal scale. But, on the other hand, you’re not writing an episode in the latest soap, so keep the soapy stuff in the background.

Voice. I feel voice is related to character, not half as much to the writer behind the keyboard. A different character (young, old, formal, uneducated) requires a different narrative vocabulary. Voice contributes heavily towards the tone of the story. You don’t need a strong voice, and voice is often very subtle, but if you write a story in a bland, cookie-cutter voice, it lacks a certain passion. Voice and character must match, which is another reason I point at character selection.

The most important thing I’ve realised is that you shouldn’t submit a story until all three of these elements are as strong as you can get them. Get the plot right first, then work on the character, then work on the voice. Edit each time. Take out words the character wouldn’t use, add little bits of colour. Only submit when you feel you have done the best by your story and you can’t possibly wring any more leverage from your idea.