Inside the Story

I had a really good run of slush stories to read for Apex Magazine in the last few days; I sent up about three issues worth of stories to the editor, Cat Valente.

Yay! Good stories!

But there were some stories in there that didn’t make my personal cut, and I’ve been trying to figure out what made the difference for me. Instinctually, I knew within a few lines whether the story was going to work for me or not – but not logically.

The ones I accepted, I didn’t think “this story is good” or “this story is not good.” I just read, in some cases until 2/3 of the way through the story, and knew that even if I didn’t think Ms. Valente would like the stories, it would be dishonest of me not to send them to her: each would be a credit to the magazine and enjoyable to a majority of readers, even if they don’t fit her vision (and I can’t argue with that; she’s picked some almost unbelievably magical stories, and I have enjoyed every one). Sadly, you can’t publish everything you like if you’re going to pay the writers.

However, with the stories that I didn’t like, I thought, “this story isn’t what I want” almost immediately; I was extremely conscious of reading the story, as a story, all the way through.

When I read the stories I liked, I went somewhere else. When I read the stories I didn’t like, I stayed on the page.

Logically, there was no substantive difference between the writing in two sets of stories. When I went back and compared the sentence-by-sentence writing of the two sets of stories, they weren’t much different. The writing in the good stories had, in most cases, a slightly higher level of taste; they didn’t use a lot of adverbs, had active verbs, etc., but weren’t poetic or startling or anything (except in one case, but the experimentalism in the sentences wasn’t consistent throughout, and that’s not why I picked the story; the writing was a distraction rather than a natural addition, but the story was good enough that after the first page, I didn’t care).

But here’s the trick: I didn’t consciously notice the writing in the good stories until I was further along in the story, after I’d made my decision. It might have mattered subconsciously, but not logically; I didn’t use the quality of the sentence-by-sentence writing as the touchstone for my decisions.

Something I did notice was that the good stories were never “outside” the story.

I’m not sure how to explain this; I’m just barely getting a feel for it. In the good stories, something happened, the characters reacted to it, which made something else happen, which made the characters react to it… The writer never described the story itself, never explained backstory unless it was the kind of thing the character felt necessary to explain (as though the character were telling me the story to my face), never talked about right and wrong. Never talked to the reader. Never judged.

I don’t think I’m saying this right. It felt like the writers had been hypnotized and had entered their own worlds and were babbling about what they were seeing and feeling, right in the moment, as though conscious thought were something abandoned. I couldn’t see any signs that the writers were outside their stories, that they made any conscious judgments about their stories. I don’t know whether they really did or didn’t, but that’s how it came across, as though none of it were deliberate or planned or tweaked.

As I’m slowly improving in my writing, I suspect that the technique here is to build up your ability to write well, consciously, painstakingly culling adverbs, writing believable dialogue, etc., but turning all that off when you’re sitting down to write, turning off all judgement of right and wrong, all ability to see anything but what’s going on in your head as you type.

It doesn’t sound that hard, as I type this, but I know, sitting down to write, that it can’t be easy, or everyone would be doing it. I’d be doing it, doing it consistently.

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