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 It's the perpetual lament of the unpublished writer.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!
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.