In which I alienate all of you who’ve published short stories
On Wednesday I finished the 1100-page It by Stephen King, the longest thing I’ve read since Cliver Barker’s Imajica almost two years ago. I read it in about five weeks with a one-week break during my trip to Paris when I started Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy. It was interesting to read mainly because it was at the top of my list of books by King that I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I saw the ABC mini-series when I was a kid, taped it and watched it over and over, and always wanted to read the book. Twenty seven years later (no joke) I found a paperback of it for $1 at Boskone, and as is always the case with King, I couldn’t put it down.
Of all the excellent aspects of this book, one thing in particular stood out to me as a writer: every side-note, every piece of background, every seemingly insignificant fact, has a central character. There are passages throughout this book, told in an omniscient voice, as one would tell a ghost story around a campfire, where characters pop into existence only for telling the reader more about the history of Derry, or for the purpose of advancing the story, and nevertheless we learn a lot about that person even though he only lives for a few seconds. Which characters are central is very clear, never in doubt, but these characters who are not even side characters all have their own lives and histories and connections to different parts of the story. They are not functionaries, they are not useless page filler, and they are not the two-dimensional oddities of Gravity’s Rainbow.
Writers are told repeatedly to give side characters backstory, or their own story, but King does this well even with characters who are part of the much larger story. Over a few pages he gives the life story of the lesser villain Patrick Hockstetter, with a great depth on his personal psychology and how it led him to murder. But another way King gives great characterization to small characters in It is just through a little bit of background, maybe just one to three sentences right in the middle of some action:
A woman in Haven Village named Rebecca Paulson found a fifty-dollar bill fluttering from her back-door welcome mat, two twenties in her bird-house, and a hundred plastered against an oak tree in her back yard. She and her husband used the money to make an extra two payments on their Bombardier Skidoo.
This is in the middle of an action sequence where an entire town is falling apart (literally). He gives the character a name, says what happens, and relates a tiny bit of something interesting, something from the characters’ normal lives. Quite often, as you can expect with King, it’s not something as everyday as an extra payment on the snowmobile.
Now, note that this is rather different from what Robert Jordan does. The normal mode in the Wheel of Time is to introduce a character by having them interact dramatically with the POV character and then later give that character’s POV when it becomes important. Right now I’m thinking of Cenn Buie, although honestly I can’t remember when his POV comes up. I also don’t remember King doing this in The Gunslinger, so it is probably a matter of omniscient versus a tighter third person voice.
In other book news I finally got to meet Laurie Forest and bought her book The Black Witch. I am really looking forward to reading it.
This past week was an interesting one for my short stories. When in Paris I wrote a “weird western,” or “sixguns-and-sorcery” story called “Talons of the Sun.” The female protagonist, who is a damn good shot with a rifle, has a sickness that her fiance thinks can be cured by delivering an artifact called The Talons of the Sun to a powerful sorcerer. He’s wrong. I rewrote it and sent it to Lightspeed, which rejected it 36 hours, then on to Clarkesworld, who rejected it in about nine hours. I then sent it to Fantasy and Science Fiction and got it rejected in a whopping six days. This is not distressing, mind you, it was actually fun. This story has been rejected three times already, when most stories take months to get that many rejections.
Thursday I had two stories rejected before lunchtime. I was a little confused about what to do about one of them: the rejection came from a horror podcast and was personalized, saying that although their editorial team liked the story, it just wasn’t actually horror or “weird fiction.” That’s fine, I told them, I didn’t think it was either. This is “Stages of Man,” a fairly literary story that happens to incorporate a ghost. I thought it had a shot at being classified as horror, but when I think about it, I don’t really know what genre to put it in. I tried again sending it to a literary magazine, and we’ll see how that turns out. The other was “Killing Montherek” which is another hard-to-classify story, and I’ve already sent that to a fantasy genre magazine.
Every time I get a short story rejected I ask myself the same set of nagging questions:
- Why am I bothering? It’s certainly not about the money, but it’s not just about distributing my story, either.
- Why don’t I just put it on Amazon or on my blog and let people read it?
- Why doesn’t someone want this if it’s better than a lot of published stories I’ve read?
We tend to think of publication as a matter of an objective standard of quality, that if a story is good, it will get published, or that it’s the literary quality of a story that gets it published. I know writers who say there’s no such thing as bad writing, but they all agree that their writing used to suck, so there is an objective standard in fiction writing: you have to have a certain amount of clarity and originality, even if you don’t have well-constructed paragraphs. Even if your style isn’t that great, you have to have great content, i.e. a good story and you have to know how to tell it.
And yet, I see stories published in literary magazines and in the sci-fi and fantasy periodicals that are really just not that good. Nothing happens in them, there are stylistic problems, clichés, terrible dialogue or know-it-all characters, even spelling mistakes. Sometimes they just don’t work, or clearly attempt but fail to achieve a certain level of profundity. This keeps me going: I know that even if my story isn’t about a trendy topic, or if it’s more literary or slower than some others, that it’s still good and can still get published by someone who appreciates it. Maggie Clark gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had, which is just to submit as much as you can and learn what you can from the submissions process. You might not always get personalized feedback, but you will get rejections and be able to guess what it was about that particular story that got it rejected from a particular publication. So despite my questions, I will just keep submitting.
And Finally, My Pants
Auston Habershaw has a great post on his blog about pantsing versus plotting. “Pantsing” is just sitting down to write and writing whatever comes to you as you sit at the keyboard. The other extreme is plotting or outlining. Auston explains that for all its reputation of staunching creativity, plotting actually helps, and there’s a reason to be suspicious of pantsing.
Pantsing is seductive. When I first set out to write fiction, I benefited a lot from the advice of Stephen King: just sit down and write. For months I’d been writing out plans for three novels and had actually written half of one without much realizing it. My progress was slow, however, and after I read King’s advice to just sit down and write, I managed to start a new novel and finish it within four months. I had a 450 page draft, already longer than recommended for a debut and I was impressed with “sit your ass in the chair” advice. I started another novel right away.
Despite this seeming success, I started thinking about my second novel Firesage in a different way. I started to mess with the plot in ways that made sense, and I actually thought about what should happen before I sat down, even two or three moves ahead. I stuck to two narrow points of view, and I really worked on having a plot. The result was a book with a much better plot, ready to make into a series. I knew it would need a rewrite but that’s just the standard procedure: to make everything work you have to go backward and forward a few times to make sure everything links up.
Then I went back to my first novel, which became The Queen’s Night, and realized that its plot was terrible except at the very end. After three more rewrites I realized, with the help of a friend and reader, that it didn’t have a beginning! At some point in the course of all these rewrites I got very into scene construction and devised a plan for ensuring every scene was a properly constructed scene (it has a beginning, a middle and an end or a twist). Then I realized which scenes to have was important–all scenes logically lead to the next–and I stopped being a pantser. I started writing my short stories by planning out the characters very clearly, choosing which scenes I actually needed, and only writing when I understood the character’s motivation very clearly.
Suddenly my writing got a hell of a lot better. I have used the same process for rewriting Firesage, although many of the scenes don’t need such careful planning because they’re already written with clear rising action. The argument against plotting is always that it will kill the magic, but as Auston brings up, this is a little childish. You still discover things along the way: you can always change your outline if you find something that works better (which you no doubt will, as from a first outline you can’t predict all problems), and you will always discover symbolism and stylistic tricks to make the story clearer, but you won’t get stuck with a story that doesn’t work.
When you outline, you can start with a logline (“An armadillo with a dream and a suitcase sets out to find fame as a blackmailer, only to be thwarted by Accountant Coyote”) and develop your story in rough form. You can even pitch it to your friends and family and see if it makes sense. This is something that I did repeatedly while rewriting The Queen’s Night and it really helped ensure that I had a working story (which is the whole point!). You can write a pitch, a synopsis, and then a detailed synopsis, and then get into the actual scenes. I find this fun because it’s a lot easier to make sure everything fits together when it’s viewed this way, in a way that can be told in five minutes without all the details. Then you can move on to “show, don’t tell.”
Pantsing, on the other hand, is seductive. “Ooh, I don’t have to think about anything? I can just write?” Especially for me, someone who can write write write and it doesn’t matter what it’s about and I can come up with really long nonsensical sentences like this one and I don’t really care there’s never a stop in the stream of words in my mind it just goes on and on and on, pantsing is really seductive (and there’s no such thing as writer’s block). You’re telling me to interrupt that to make sure I actually have a story? As Auston notes, pantsing actually helps you procrastinate, because you don’t have to write scenes that are properly constructed, you don’t have to think about the depth of your characters, you don’t have to make anything happen in the story: you just write! What I discovered after pantsing 1.5 novels was that I didn’t know how to construct a story. I had a vague sense that there were rules, but rules are for squares, so I was going to just write!
The caveat is that I haven’t had the experience of outlining a novel from scratch, and given that the next novel I start will likely be a sequel, I don’t know when that will happen. I am going to try to outline Watermark, the follow-up to Firesage, but I will have a cast of characters, maps and everything else already, so that’s not quite the same thing. We’ll see how it goes.