[11/4 Edit:I went to bed last night thinking all was doom and gloom. This morning I see rays of hope. This isn’t over, and counting votes doesn’t happen according to ANYONE’S timetable. Hang in there folks. We are living in Interesting Times.]
I am writing this, as I do most of my Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, ahead of time, a couple of days before election day. Naturally, I have no idea what the world will look like Wednesday morning. I am at times deeply afraid; at other times I’m hopeful, even confident.
Whatever happens, though, I know that I will soon need to get back into my work rhythm. For so long, I have been too distracted to concentrate on my writing. I have forgiven myself for lost days and low word counts and procrastination. I haven’t even started to read through the submissions for Derelict, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The deadline is still more than eight weeks away, but already the submissions are piling up. It’s time for me to start reading through them.
I have a novel to finish, and projects that need shepherding toward release. I have stuff to do, and I am sick to death of being trapped in my own head, debilitated by my anxiety, obsessed with things I can’t control.
More, I remain uncertain as to how I will deal with these tasks and projects going forward. That comes, I suppose, from still being in the dark about how events will unfold.
But I know that one way or another, I have work to do. If the worst happens on Tuesday, I will still wake up Wednesday a writer and editor with stuff to get done. As I said in Monday’s post, this week will be one of brief, inadequate posts. A week from now, I hope to be able to tell you much more about where I am and what I’m doing to close out this year.
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.
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!
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.
When I was in grade school (yes, grade school) we were taught about the rudiments of writing – not just grammar, mind you, but also the fundamentals of storytelling. We weren’t necessarily taught these things well, but they were, at least, part of the overall curriculum.
One of the basic tenets of writing fiction (even then, in the late 17th century…) was the centrality of conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Period. And while elements of writing have come to be thought of in different ways, this rule remains. Stories need conflict. I’m reminded of this each day as I continue to work my way through submissions for Galactic Stew, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The majority of our submissions do have some form of conflict, but a surprising number do not.
Now, the need for conflict is not what today’s post is about, but let me say that if you’re writing a story or a novel, and there is no conflict, then you’ve got a problem. “Conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” It certainly doesn’t have to mean “violence.” But it does require tension between two or more oppositional forces. Those forces can take many forms, but the idea of tension is elemental.
I still recall the material we worked with in those grade school lessons. This was maybe fourth grade – I was all of ten years old – but I already loved to write and I believe on some level I knew I was destined to spend my life pursuing that passion. We were taught that there were three forms of conflict, broadly conceived, that covered anything and everything we were likely to encounter in our reading. In the gendered language of the day, these forms of conflict were “Man versus man;” “Man versus nature;” and “Man versus himself.” Amazingly, a quick internet search can still turn up sites peddling this trio (in the arcane, gendered phrasing) as the building blocks of story construction.
And while I recognize the usefulness of these three broad headings, I think it’s also pretty clear that they were not developed with speculative fiction in mind. What about “Humans versus technology?” What about “Humans versus non-human sentient beings?” Sure, we can interpret “Human versus human” as “human versus ANY emotive creature.” And we can turn “Human versus nature” into “human versus the universe” to make it include all interactions with time or space, bear or bot. Still, the “three forms of conflict” construction, like any such rule when applied to artistic expression, feels too confining. We need conflict; that’s a great point. Let’s not muck up the lesson by then prescribing what conflict ought to look like.
Except that’s exactly what I’m about to do.
Because here is something I’ve noticed as I work my way through these hundreds of stories. In nearly every case “human versus any sentient being” and “human versus the universe” still isn’t enough. I’ve read plenty of stories that contain conflict in abundance, but too often the conflict as conceived feels flat and unconvincing.
And here’s why. The third category of conflict – “human versus self” – is really the one that matters. It’s the hardest to write, but the most rewarding to get right. More, it is, in my opinion, the single most important ingredient in any story. Sure, conflicts between or among characters are great and compelling, and watching a character grapple with natural and cosmic forces that dwarf her or him can be breathtaking. But those external conflicts feel empty without the added element of the internal battle, the protagonist struggling with her flaws and weaknesses, the antagonist plagued by doubt or guilt or the desperate desire to be understood.
Harry’s battle with Voldemort is only half the story. The elements that make that outer conflict so compelling are Harry’s self-doubt, his fear that he is too much like the villain he’s trying to destroy. Katniss’s efforts to overthrow the Capitol, while exciting, would not be enough to sustain the storyline without her internal struggles – her concern for Prim and her mother and her sense that she hasn’t done enough for them; her conflicted feelings about Peeta and Dale and her awareness that on some level she is using both of them.
The problem with those age-old three forms of conflict (aside from the fact that, as originally phrased, they exclude more than half the population) is not only that they’re too limiting, but also that they are presented as options from which an author needs to choose. “Stories should have conflict 1 or conflict 2 or conflict 3.”
No! Stories are more complex than that. More to the point, characters are more complex than that. External conflicts are glitzy and marketable. They’re the stuff of book jacket art and movie trailers. But internal conflict is the bread and butter of what we do. Unless we convey the emotions of our protagonists and antagonists – the “human versus self” conflicts that drive the people who populate our stories – our writing is doomed to lack depth and power. Conflict is essential to our stories, but it’s not just a menu option, a box to be checked. It ought to be nuanced and multi-layered. Just like our stories. Just like our characters.
Welcome to the first of my 2020 Writing Tip Wednesdays (name still very much negotiable…). Every Wednesday, I intend to post a tip for writers about some element of the craft or business of writing. I don’t really have in mind any long-term structure for this feature – at least to begin with. I’ll probably be ranging somewhat randomly from one topic to the next. And I will be soliciting your input on what you’d like to hear about in these Wednesday posts.
For this week, though, I am thinking about short fiction, mostly because I am reading stories for the Zombies Need Brains anthology, Galactic Stew, which I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. In particular, I am thinking about the way in which stories ought to be submitted to editors for consideration, in terms of both appearance and content. Bear with me if you’ve heard some of this before.
Let me begin with this: Joshua and I received 409 submissions for this anthology. Our plan is to accept six stories (the other eight in the anthology are to be written by our anchor authors). Again, six stories will be selected from 409. Think about that for a moment. It is harder to get into our anthology than it is for a high school senior to get into Harvard. And so you want to give your story the very best chance of being selected, and that means a couple of things. Yes, naturally you want to write the best story you can. But you also don’t want to disadvantage your entry by failing to follow our submission guidelines or by presenting your work in a manner that is less than professional. So with that in mind, a few tips:
1) Follow the submission guidelines. If you have been to a convention I’m attending, you’ve probably heard me say this before, because it’s that important. Every anthology, every magazine (paper or online), every publishing house, every representational agency – EVERY market – has guidelines. Your job as writer is find them and follow them to the letter. Do not assume that the guidelines for one market apply to all. Chances are they don’t. ALWAYS check the guidelines. Always follow them. If by some chance you find the one market in the world that doesn’t have guidelines, then I recommend that at the very least you follow standard manuscript format: one inch margins all around: 12 point font, preferably Times New Roman; double-spacing; indenting at the beginning of each paragraph; headers containing page number, your last name, and the title of the story; .doc or .docx format (NOT .pdf). These are basics; they should be second nature. This is how professionals present their work.
2) Word count matters. In part this means that if we say “no longer than 7,500 words,” you probably shouldn’t send us a 9,000 word story, even if it is the greatest piece of short fiction since “The Lottery.” But it also means think about how long your story should be at minimum. Many sites will help with this, offering a word range, or, as with the Zombies Need Brains site, specifying an average length of story (in this case, 6,000). Still, even without such information, the upper word count limit should give some indication of desired length. If a market says they want stories no longer than, for instance, 7,500 words, that is likely an indication that they are not looking for flash fiction. Often publishers are trying to produce something (a book or magazine issue) of a certain length, and so they might well have in mind a page count, a word count, an approximate size for the project. For this reason, unless markets specifically ask for flash fiction, or very brief pieces of short fiction, a story that is only 500 or 1000 words long, probably is not going to make the cut.
3) Theme matters. Sometimes. Not all anthologies are themed. Sometimes editors are simply looking for the best stories they can find. At other times (as with the Zombies Need Brains anthologies) theme is everything. For anthologies like these, you want your stories to embrace the stated theme fully. It is usually not enough simply to have a passing mention of, say, food (the theme for Galactic Stew); it needs to be the focus of the story. To give a theme-appropriate analogy, it’s like on a cooking show, when the host tells you it’s not enough simply to use your basket ingredients. Rather you need to make those ingredients the star of whatever dish you’re making. In the same way, the theme should be central to your story.
4) When working with a theme, your first story idea might not be your best idea. This bit of advice I borrow from my co-editor, Joshua Palmatier, who offered it during a panel we shared at RoberCon in Binghamton back in September. This tidbit works on a number of levels: To begin, quite often, the first idea you come up with as you grapple with a theme is going to be the most obvious idea, not only to you, but to everyone who intends to submit. So, again using the food anthology as an example, if you write about, say, poisoning (which is actually an approach we urged people to avoid, but stick with me for the purposes of the example), it’s possible – likely even – that your story will be competing against dozens of poisoning stories. Yes, yours might be the best of them, but chances are we’re only going to take one, so you’re potentially putting yourself at a disadvantage. But also, don’t settle for the first idea works in a deeper way. Sometimes the most obvious idea is also the least interesting. The best stories we’ve seen have been those that surprise us, despite the fact that we’ve read literally hundreds of offerings. The more you think, the more you delve into the possibilities presented by the theme, the greater the chance that you’re going to discover something truly creative and unique. And that, after all, is your goal.
5) And finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if your story isn’t accepted. Did I mention that we received 409 submissions? These days, with so many people hoping to publish and so few markets available, editors and agents everywhere are inundated with stories (or manuscripts, or queries). It’s a tough market, and rejection, while painful, is not the same as judgment. A rejection does not mean your story sucks. It means that for this market, at this moment, the story is not what the editors or publishers or agents are looking for. And that’s ALL it means. The story might well be perfect for the next market to which you submit. Keep trying. If, after a while, the story still hasn’t sold, try another story, and maybe share this one with Beta readers who can offer constructive feedback. But do not freak out, and do not lose hope or get down on yourself. As I have said before, rejection is not the final word; it is simply a step in a long-term negotiation.
Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.
But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…
I recently completed revisions on TIME’S DEMON, the second novel in my Islevale Cycle. Almost immediately after finishing them, I began editing submissions to the upcoming anthology from Zombies Need Brains, TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, which I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. So for obvious reasons, I have had revisions and the editing process on my brain.
When we talk about craft, we usually focus on elements of initial creation – world building, character building and development, plotting, structuring and pacing a story or novel, and all the pitfalls we encounter when writing our stories. And certainly those are topics worthy of vigorous exploration.
The fact is, though, the purpose in working on all of those things is to sell our story or novel. And should we be fortunate enough to do so, pretty much the first thing we will be expected to do is revise our manuscript in response to an editor’s concerns and criticisms. So doesn’t it make sense to turn some attention to that part of the creative process?
Receiving editorial feedback on something we’ve written can be incredibly difficult. Chances are, if we submitted a story or novel for consideration at a magazine or anthology or publishing house, we thought the story was pretty good to start with. So hearing that it has flaws – in certain cases significant, pervasive flaws – often comes as both a shock and a blow. Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.
But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…
Kidding aside, accepting editorial feedback and turning it into a positive revision process is one of the greatest challenges we face as writers. Especially early in my career, I found that my own reactions to criticism from editors ranged between two extremes. At times, I reacted with a knee-jerk defensiveness: “They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do with my story. If they were better readers, they’d get it, and they’d see that there’s no problem here.” At other times, I internalized it all and allowed it to feed my lingering imposter syndrome: “Yeah, they’re right. This is shit. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I have no place even attempting a story this complex or ambitious.”
Of course, both extremes had little basis in fact. My editors understood perfectly what I was trying to do with my story. There were just elements of it that I hadn’t handled well. Which didn’t mean that I was a shit writer. It meant I was human. My story wasn’t perfect. But it was good, and with my editor’s help, I could make it even better.
The emotional health in that previous paragraph was pretty alien to me early in my career. Sometimes it still eludes me. But it’s what I strive for when I receive editorial letters. So, here are a few things I try to keep in mind when trying to turn editorial feedback into effective revisions.
1. Editors are not our adversaries. The reality is that at times we find ourselves thinking of editors this way, in part because the editor-writer relationship is something of a hybrid. It’s a business relationship. Editors buy our stories and books, and at times we want them to pay us more than they’re willing to shell out. But it’s also an artistic collaboration. Our editors want our stories to be as good as they can be, just as we do. Every margin comment and line in an editorial letter is intended to help us get the most out of our narratives and characters.
2. A second set of eyes helps. No matter how much experience we have, or how good we might be at editing our own work, our stories will ALWAYS benefit from another reader’s perspective, especially if that reader is a professional in the field. We can’t possibly anticipate every problem with the things we write; we’re just too close to the material, the emotions, the creative process. Distance is our friend, and almost by definition, another reader brings that distance.
3. Our initial reaction to criticism is not necessarily our most productive reaction. I read through editorial notes the day I receive them. But I never respond until I’ve let myself process them for a day or two or three. Often I find that my first response to certain criticisms is to disagree, but over time I start to see what the editor is getting at. I generally wind up agreeing with 90% or more of the feedback I receive, although on that first day I probably agree with less than half of it.
4. I find it helps when I ask myself why I’m disagreeing with one point or another. Am I being overly sensitive? Am I too attached to a certain turn of phrase or narrative moment? Or is there really something vital here that I don’t want to sacrifice? A good editor will make clear up front that suggested wording changes are just that: suggestions. Early on, my first editor would cross out what I had written and put in his own wording. And sometimes his wording sucked. But when I talked to him about these instances, he said, “I don’t care if you use my wording. That’s not the point. I just want you to look for another way to say this.” Once I understood that he was pointing out problems rather than trying to make my book into his book, I found his comments much easier to take.
5. Sometimes we do have to fight for our artistic choices. There are times when editors get it wrong, and our way really is the right way. And in those instances, we have to hold strong for what we believe in. I try not to do this too often, because, as I say, we are all prone to defensiveness, and I want to be certain that I’m not opposing changes for the wrong reasons. But there have been times when I have had to stand firm on points about which I felt strongly. And a good editor also knows when to back down.
6. The revision process can be tremendously satisfying. Insights from a skilled editor can make the difference between a book that is just fine and one that is truly excellent. I try to approach revisions with my ego as much in check as possible, my mind open to possibilities I might not have considered before, and my commitment to my original artistic vision foremost in my mind. That last point is key. Clinging to my original vision does not mean resisting change. My original vision and my original wording are NOT the same things. Indeed, sometimes my writing carries me away from that first inspiration, and it takes the input of a perceptive reader to get me back to it.
Be open to new ideas, to the possibility that the current draft might not be the best possible draft, to the notion that the person pointing out where you can improve your story really does have your best interests at heart. Do these things and you might find, as I do, that revising a manuscript is every bit as gratifying as creating one.