Month: September 2010

Commercial fiction vs. literature plots

I read a story for a friend yesterday; she’s in a college writing class and doesn’t yet have a lot of experience. I ended up explaining something that I hadn’t fully realized I knew, so I’ll add it here, too.

You may have heard this a bajillion times already, but in case you haven’t, I’ll say it: IF WHAT I SAY DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU PERSONALLY, IT’S NOT WORTH A DAMN, so forget about it. Every writer has their own journey, learning different things in different orders, to fit different times and mores. Don’t like it, NEVER use it. Don’t defend yourself and how you came to write what you wrote (explaining is okay); just write down that a particular thing didn’t work for a particular person, and decide whether you value that.

You have the character down–the character voice–but there’s a problem: no plot. I had this problem until a couple of years ago, too; I know it well.  I still have it.  (On the other hand, I’ve seen writers who can’t do voice, nyaaa nyaaa nyaaa, who never seem to be able to ride in other characters’ skins. Great plots, but nobody cares…)

“Woman comes to realization that she may be, at least in part, responsible for the bad things that happened to her” isn’t a plot–it’s a snapshot in a life. There are two ways to go with this: commercial fiction and literature.

To write a commercial fiction story, decide on a market or genre, decide on how your character will change, and decide how this will entertain your audience. For example, you’re writing a horror story, your character will change from being a “good mother” to being a “vindictive bitch,” and you will entertain your audience by showing your character chasing down the ghost of her dead husband and making sure it never finds peace. This could adequately show the same idea, by having her, at the last minute, regret what she’s doing to her husband’s ghost, but it’s too late. Be sure not to go with what you think a horror story is; read a few dozen current stories from free online horror magazines and then decide. In a commercial fiction story, the realization comes in the middle of a plot in which a character has a problem, tries to solve it, and either succeeds or fails. Your character has a problem but does not try to solve it, in no matter how misguided a fashion; to me, this is the start of a commercial fiction story: “And then what?” is the interesting part.

To write a piece of literature, decide on the situation you need to explore, decide how each character will (separately, and with different results) explore the situation, and decide how this will impress your audience. For example, you’re writing a story about blame inside a loveless marriage. Your main character blames her husband, then herself; the husband blames himself, then his wife; the kid blames a small dinosaur. You will impress your audience by writing this from the POV of the child, 100% in character and yet poetically. Showing only one possible perspective in the story–that is, specifically one way of thinking, rather than one character’s vision–is bad literature, preaching. The other perspectives (husband, child) can be implied or suggested, and you may want the reader to emphasize with one character in particular, but if they aren’t a part of the story, you’re not writing literature. Again, finding free online fiction and reading a couple dozen stories in a particular market is not a bad way to go; you shouldn’t be trying to write like other writers, but see what solutions they came up with. Try to find the core idea they used, then see how they turned that idea into a situation, varied the theme in each character, and impressed the audience.

It is possible to use techniques from both types of story, together.  Those tend to be the ones that I like best.

Writer Mom explains how to do your reading homework.

My daughter Ray keeps asking me to help her with her homework…not her math homework (she’s got that down; mostly I just need to check it for careless errors) but her writing homework.

Every time she does, I’m reminded how not everyone has writer brain.

For instance, she has a recurring set of questions:  “What is the beginning of the story?”  “What is the middle of the story?”  “What is the end of the story?”

To me, these things are easy.  To her, they are @#$%^&&!!!!!

So I found a way to explain them that helped her quite a bit.  Now I find myself using it when I write chapters:

1) The beginning is the problem of the story.

2) The middle is what the main character does to solve the problem.

3) The end of the story is whether the problem gets solved or not.

Simple enough for an eight-year-old to understand, right?  Until I find myself plotting out a chapter and realize THE PROBLEM DOESN’T HAPPEN UNTIL THE MIDDLE OF THE CHAPTER.


Oh, and a cliffhanger?  Just a hint of the next problem coming up.

New Slush Editor at Apex!

As you may know, I am trying to launch myself as a professional writer.  This has had its ups and downs, mostly a series of small, soul-eroding downs interspersed by a few interruptions almost-unbelieved ups.

One of the series of small, soul-eroding downs is the short story rejections I receive.  I am at [checks Duotrope] 23 short story rejections since I started keeping track, and no acceptances.  One maaaybe.

Obviously, I’m not writing the kind of short stories that people pick up, fall in love with, and can’t help but buy.  You can tell me comforting things if you like, that my stories are good enough and it’s them, not me.  That may very well be the case; however, it remains a fact that I’m not making so many sales as to offset (in my mind) the number of rejections I’m getting.  Maybe it’s because I’m an attention hog.  I know, many people do not see me as an attention hog; I’ve learned that attention is an investment.  Also, I like to listen to other people talk, so I can rip off their stories and personalities as fiction later.  Sorry about that.

Let me point out that I could have just said what I was going to say without writing paragraphs on paragraphs of blather.  I want just that little bit more of attention, you see, to feel witty and wise for just a moment more.

At any rate, I was at the point where I needed to find out why I wasn’t getting short stories published.  Ah, I said.  If only I could get my hands on what the slush editors read.  A few days later, Clarkesworld sent out a call for slush editors.  I like them well enough and they get a lot of awards, but I thought it would be too much work.

Then I saw a call for Apex slush editors, and I took the morning off to reread what they had online.

I picked up an issue shortly after they first started, in 2006-2007 or so, and sent in for a subscription.  Dark and creepy tales, ghost stories for grownups.  I like ghost stories.  The other magazine I was reading at the time was Weird Tales, which should tell you about my tastes, but they were doing more cthulu knockoffs than I could take (jaded much?).  At the time, I decided that I could write better than everyone I read in Apex, so there.  Only I couldn’t.  Stupidly, I quit reading short stories for a long time (out of spite) and gave away all my back issues.

Fast forward to the present day.  I’d started reading Apex again; it was a) online, b) free, and c) full of stories that I wished I was good enough to write.

I begged, I pleaded, and I got the job a week ago.  Somewhere between three and five stories go through my inbox a day.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned so far:

  • A form rejection can mean any one of a number of things, like “You didn’t follow the formatting guidelines” or “You went over the specified word count” or “This isn’t what we publish.”
  • So far, I’ve been reading everything I receive, all the way through. I haven’t seen ONE submission that wasn’t formatted correctly (standard MS format) that I’ve been even remotely tempted to send forward. I’m sure I will eventually, but the odds aren’t good.
  • Likewise, manuscripts with typos are also the ones with sloppy plotting. It isn’t that a typo will kill you; it’s that a lack of professionalism seems to repeat itself on all levels.
  • I see a lot of stories that are limited somehow, so that you can read the first paragraph (in some cases, just the title) and know how it’s going to come out. Some are bad puns. Some are simple reversals of a common idea. Some are just a common idea, like “bad things happen to xxx kind of people.” I’m not truly solid on why this is, but it seems like there’s some idea that the story is about, and that’s it.  Nothing happens organically, but only in service to said idea, which is black and white.  Well, this is a magazine about wonder and mystery (dark miracles?), which are not produced in said pure colors, for the most part.
  • Those stories aside, I see a lot of passable stories.  I’m not supposed to pass them on to the editor unless they’re outstanding, exceptional.
  • I hang on to the ones I like for a few days.  If, when I’m reading the rest of the stories, I look at that e-mail and find myself reluctant to send out a rejection on it, because I’ve been thinking or dreaming about it, I’ll send it on, because it moved me the way the stories in the magazine move me.
  • Whether or not that means I’m sending up the right stories for the magazine has yet to be determined.
  • Here’s who gets the non-form letters:  new writers (if I can think of anything useful to say); the one rewrite request I asked for, because I couldn’t get the story out of my head but yelled out loud with disappointment when I read the ending; when I feel like I have something useful to say (not often, oddly).
  • The passable stories and the stories that belong at other magazines don’t usually get any comments.  The badly formatted stories get a link to the guidelines Apex uses (although I think I’ve forgotten to delete this on a few properly formatted stories…oops).
  • A well-written voice will hook me faster than anything else, even faster than action action action! The stories where I settle in comfortably, reading every line instead of skipping past the description–it’s because of the voice.

I’ve sent three stories up (they know who they are) and have two more in the bucket to see if I continue to like them as much as I do.  I think that’s my favorite part so far, going back over the stories that I like, running my tongue over them (not LITERALLY, ow).  Yes, that’s it, a good one.  Like a vampire, selecting prey 🙂

What kind of writer are you?

Ever have one of those moments when you realize that you’re about to know something you don’t know yet?  The Buddhists call it approaching a gateless gate; with my nerderiffic background, I tend to think of it as preparing to level.

I’m preparing to level.

I’ve been thinking, off and on, a lot about audience.  Some things that I write, I just have to write.  Whether or not anyone else likes it is secondary; I hope other people like this stuff, but it’ll probably be by chance.

But, from a business perspective, who do I want to be my audience?  In general?  Do I want to carve out a niche, or do I want to spread out all over the place?  I can alter my strategy through the creative use of pen names, but what do I want?

And then there’s the “what do I want to write” perspective, because what you write is intimately tied to your audience.  Do I want to write a genre?  Kids, adults, or both?  What ages of kids?  Again, focus on a genre?  What about length?  Short stories or novels?

What do I want to do to my audience?  Make them laugh?  Cry?  Wrap them around an axle?  Encourage them to grind their axes?  Take them away for a while?  Make them remember what it was like to fall in love?

What if I want to do all of this higgledy-piggledy, and not plan any of it ahead, taking life as it comes?

When I think about audience (which is, essentially, thinking about career) in general, I find a lot of dead ends, a lot of unsatisfying answers.

What kind of writer am I?

Well, I’m funny (sometimes); I like to pull reversals; I like to include metafiction but so much that the story’s pointless; I adore transformations, the tests of true love (and its strange varieties, like the love of adventure), and characters who do things that aren’t necessarily the best things they could do.  I love to scare myself, to make myself tear up, to snigger.

What kind of writer could I be?

I used to be a poet, so I could be a more poetic writer; I passionately admire books and writers that include both joy and tragedy but end up on the side of joy; I chase down stories that explore love and sex from the perspective that the ending is romantic but doesn’t look like a romance novel (for example, tragic endings); I love hearing ghost stories; I love sifting through the current news to find the what-ifs ahead.

I used to have the ambition to be a Shakespearean writer, as opposed to a specialist.  Tragedies, comedies, histories, all containing the basic, opposite truths about life:  Love is transcendent; love is petty.  Revenge possesses you; revenge is nothing.  “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

That’s been lost lately.  I’ve been doing the next thing that comes along, without thought to it.  And there’s value in that; I find out things I could never come up with consciously.  But I think I’m going to find out something soon about what kind of writer I am.  My “writer’s voice”?  My perfect audience?  (Not that I’ll know how to please them, not right away.)

When I was a child, I wanted to be everything.  A singer, a dancer, a nun, a doctor, a mother of fourteen, a princess with a killer wardrobe, someone whose every dream came (literally) true (my alter ego super power name was going to be… “Dreama”).  Then I found out I wanted to be a writer.  (Thank you, Mrs. Sanderson.)

Now, I feel like that’s narrowing down somehow.  I don’t know how, but I feel it.

What about you?  What kind of writer are you?

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