Tag Archives: Galactic Stew

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Monday Musings: Learning to be an Editor

I’m pretty good at diagnosing both narrative trouble spots and problematic wording. Over the years, I’ve had tons of practice, having found plenty of both in my own work.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I am coediting an anthology, Galactic Stew, with my friend Joshua Palmatier. (The anthology will be out from Zombies Need Brains this summer.)

Joshua and I are done reading slush for the anthology and have selected those stories that will appear in the collection. Now we are on to the actual editing of the individual stories. I’m still relatively new to editing. Stew will be my second anthology, after last year’s Temporally Deactivated (also from Zombies Need Brains, also coedited with Joshua). I am still learning about the process, still gaining confidence in myself. Over the years, I have become pretty good at editing my own work (though NEVER to the exclusion of having outside editors), but editing the work of others is different, and challenging in unique ways.

The edits Joshua and I do on these stories is a combination of developmental editing and line editing. For those unfamiliar with the terms, a brief pair of definitions: Developmental editing focuses on improving story elements and larger narrative issues. Edits of this sort address structure, pacing, character arc, and a host of other matters relating to storytelling. Line edits, on the other hand, deal with issues of prose, syntax, concision, clarity, word choice, etc. It is, in a way, smaller in scope than developmental editing, though it is no less important to the ultimate success of the story.

For me, as a newcomer to editing, the challenge of both line editing and developmental editing does not lie in spotting the things that need fixing. I’m pretty good at diagnosing both narrative trouble spots and problematic wording. Over the years, I’ve had tons of practice, having found plenty of both in my own work.

Rather, the hardest part of editing for me has been trying to help authors fix problems in their stories while preserving their intent and their voice. The best editors I’ve worked with over the course of my writing career are those who help me make my work as strong as possible without making it any less my work. Identifying problems remains roughly the same, whether the issues are in my stories or the stories of others. Sure, it’s possible that a “problem” I see in another author’s fiction might be something they intended to do. The fact is, though, if it doesn’t work, it still needs to be fixed.

And that’s the hard part: coming up with solutions that remain true to the author’s overall intent, finding alternate wording that will fit seamlessly with the author’s style and approach, suggesting changes and fixes that make the story, as conceived, as good as it can be.

I’m still learning to do this well. It takes practice. It demands that I ask myself again and again if the change I’m suggesting is in keeping with the author’s vision and intent. The author-editor relationship is built on trust, and, speaking now as an author, I can say with confidence that nothing undermines that trust faster than the sense that the editor’s comments are making my story into something I don’t want it to be.

Receiving editorial feedback is always hard. As I’ve said before, just once I would love for an editor to come back to me with one of my manuscripts and say, “David this is perfect; don’t change a word.” But that’s never going to happen. I have never seen a perfect published book, much less a perfect manuscript. I’ve certainly never written either. Let’s be frank: It sucks having the flaws of our creative efforts pointed out to us. That, though, is the job of an editor. They/we don’t identify problems to be cruel, or to show how smart we are, or to engage in one-upmanship.

They/we do it to help authors realize the fullest potential of their stories and books. That may sound trite, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s true. And early in what I hope will be my continuing growth as an editor, I am learning to do this.

Wishing you all a great week.