Thursday, March 4, 2010

Nobody understands my brilliance!

They're just jealous!

We've all heard it - and yes, to my shame, I've been known to say it. It's the perpetual lament of the unpublished writer. "If only those horrible [insert villains of choice] weren't blocking my master-works I would be FAMOUS!"

Okay, I admit I haven't gone that far. Not yet, anyway. When I start with the evil cackling and "if only they'd listened" then you may lock me in one of those nice rooms with the padded walls. Just leave me a computer with always-on internet and I promise I won't harm myself.

The thing is, as always, there's an element of truth in these complaints. Editors can and do block pieces for any number of reasons (most of them fairly sensible like "no, girl on guy on midget on sheep is not a large enough market segment, especially with the red leather" or "it looks like English, most of the words appear to be English, but they do not form anything resembling intelligible sentences in English") What's far more common if you're a relative or complete unknown is that you've fallen for one of the classic blunders! Never get involved in a land war in Asia!

Um. Sorry. (Inigo Montoya, I did NOT kill your father, shut up and let me write).

Inexperienced (and experienced) writers can sometimes commit horrible crimes against Story, because they don't know not to, because they're too tired to think straight and that deadline is tomorrow, but mostly because when you're caught up in that wonderful world inside your head, it's way too easy to forget that the person who has to read your stuff isn't there with you.

You know you've done that one when your first readers (you DO have first readers, right? Honest ones, who'll tell you when Baby is ugly and even on occasion the wrong species?) respond to you story with something along the lines of "huh? Where did you get from "here" to over -------> "there"?" That usually means you've left something critical out. I suffer from this, particularly when I'm tired. The more tired I get, the less supporting detail I write, leading ultimately to floating speech balloons in empty space. This is, I assure you, not a good thing.

Another common mistake is to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. AND your little dog, too!

Oh. Sorry.

This is a very common short story problem - and me being the overachiever I am, I have a novel on the shelf (okay, actually on my hard drive) that suffers from this. There's probably six or seven novel plots crammed into the 160k words of uber-stripped-down prose, all of them tangled together in a mess of subplots that will bite if you look at them wrong. Yes, my short stories have a tendency to do this too. Just because it's a neat idea or he/she is a fun character doesn't mean they have to be in THIS story. As a general rule, the more you've got in there, the more confusing it gets for the poor reader. For a short story, one or maybe two points of view, one decision point (i.e. decision that changes the direction of the POV character's life in some way), and no subplots is about right. For a novel, one major plot, one secondary plot, and a few supporting sub-plots. The key here is supporting - they have to actually work with the major plot or they distract from it. If you've got the proverbial cast of thousands, you've got fewer words per book to devote to your majors, and you end up with thousand-page atrocities that move your story forward ten miles and maybe a week. Most editors will treat these as if they have some horribly contagious disease - UNLESS (and this is very important to remember) you are already a proven good seller.

Then we have the terrible demon of PC. Yes, political correctness. No, I'm not going to rant about anyone's politics. I'm just going to point out that there are certain things you can't do in stories now or they won't be published. Period. No ifs, buts or maybes.

You can't have one character who is obviously Asian/Black/Insert ethnicity of choice in a story and have that character be the villain. If there are two of that ethnicity, one of them can be evil so long as one is good, but you can't do something like a heroic Sherlock Holmes fighting the dastardly Fu Manchu. Unless of course, you're already a bestseller, in which case none of the rules apply. It's not fair: neither is life.

You can't have every character of Insert ethnicity of choice be bad. You might get away with all of them being good, if you choose the correct ethnicity, but bear in mind that slush readers may not share your ideas of a) what constitutes 'good', and b) which ethnic groups should be favored or not favored.

You can't write an evil matriarchy, and you'll have a hell of a time getting a good patriarchy through, unless of course your name is something like Stephen King or Terry Pratchett or... But you get the point.

It's not that the mysterious all-powerful "they" hate your stuff. "They" are human too. They have hot buttons and prejudices, and like any other human, they're more comfortable with things that are familiar to them (which is why Stephen King could probably sell his grocery list for a small fortune and it would be a bestseller - although I really do not want to know why he has items like 'stakes' and 'holy water' on it (yes, I am joking)) and that more or less fit into the way they believe the world works. Whether you agree with them or not doesn't matter: if you don't want to end up boring everyone you meet with how horrible "they" are and if they'd only look at your books with an open mind they'd know how great you are, you need to know what will get your book an express trip to the recycling bin.

Any other examples of common things that will get a story bounced? I admit freely that I've made every one of the mistakes listed above, and seen them all in other writers work, but you don't have to use your examples.


C Kelsey said...

First I inflicted mass mayhem on Doc John and Amanda with my current short story. Showing versus telling issues? Check. Massive data dump (of DOOM with LASERS!)? Check. Etc.

Now I've completed the rewrite based on their extremely helpful advice but I've been having a heck of a time getting enough sleep. The result? Last night, during my final re-read before I plonked down in bed, I caught my POV character being "metafictional" as Carrie Vaughn described it on facebook a couple days ago.

My POV character was openly questioning the reader. Umm, I'd have to guess that would disqualify a short story in a hurry. Tonight, if I can stay asleep, I need to scrub the story for those mistakes.

Anonymous said...

A serious mismatch in tone and subject matter can be offensive.

I had a light space opera bounced for being too lightweight and flippant about serious issues like space piracy and rape and beauty contests.

Oh, wait, the Beauty Contest was on the flippant side (Three contestants for the Miss Outer Space Pageant hijacked on the way to the contest planet). Well, grumble, grumble, I thought it was a good idea.

C Kelsey said...

Uh... I meant to say "tonight, if I can stay awake". Maybe I really did mean "asleep" though. That would explain a lot...

Chris McMahon said...

In terms of plot? That's a hard one, because its really down to the paticular editors.

I know that female lead characters seem to be pretty in vogue with local Australian publishers - in fantasy particularly.

Trying to present something too far out of the norm or too complex seems to be risky as well. Most of what is published seems to be very familiar re-hashes.

A professional reader gave me really strong advice to try and be different in fiction, to avoid the familiar in settings. Somethings I think this advice has worked against me in the long format. Short format it has been good advice.

Come to think of it I can't think of a single Australian heroic fantasy - with a male OR female lead.

Kate said...

Chris K,

This is why it's always a good idea to wait a bit before you perform major surgery on a story. Sometimes the answer isn't obvious - and if you push, you can make it worse.

Kate said...


Ooh, yeah. For some reason you have to be named Terry Pratchett to do that.

Kate said...

Chris K,

Sleep-writing is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Speaking from experience, here

Kate said...

Chris M,

It's a long time since I last looked at what Australian publishers are doing, but when I was looking, they were aiming for "Australianness" first - which tends to lock out a lot of content.

Plus, any small community has a tendency to be self-reinforcing, sometimes in odd ways.

Kate said...

I don't know why Blogger ate my title, but it's back now.

Dave Freer said...

Blogger didn't understand your brilliance, Kate ;-). And it ought to. (sigh) I have moments like this myself - alternating between thinking I must write crap, because I am still barely surviving, while some of my peers seem to be doing well. The truth is all we can do is keep trying...

Kate said...


Few people understand my brilliance, and most of them run screaming into the night ;-)

And yes, sometimes you do wonder why you keep trying, when you seem to be constantly beating your head against a brick wall of monumental proportions.

What I said to Chris M. applies to SF/F publishing in the US, too. It's a small community, everyone knows each other, and the majority viewpoint gets reinforced to levels that end up looking incestuous.

So, you do what you can, stealth the things you know will get "them" frothing at the mouth, frame the rest in ways you hope will pass under the radar, and keep on trying.

The game is rigged, so I see no problem with using the rules to my advantage.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Depends on what you're trying to do. Athena questions, talks to and admonishes the reader all the time. Frankly, I stole it from Heinlein and I'd bet Heinlein against any of the current crop of writers.