Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Adventures in the Slushpile: Writing Advice

For the first quarter of 2006 (or so), I invested some effort in the hopes of publishing some of my short fiction. I have some people on the Slate Fray to specifically thank (or blame) for that, for either nipping my ass in just the right (lupine) way or for (water) buffaloing me with well-timed encouragement. This effort drew me away from the acerbic bosom of the Fray, however, into the realms of typewritten rejection, and ultimately into other forums through which I hoped to sell one of my bombs.

(Pathetic reach-outs: I also read some of this guy's stuff, and this guy's, who belongs in the blog roll. Also some stuff here and here, which are not blogs.)

I was lucky enough to find a publishing experiment: an interactive slush pile. For those who aren't familiar, the slushpile refers to the stack of unsolicited manuscripts sitting on an editor's desk. (The origins of the term are apocryphal, and it may refer to its habit of piling up on the floor of weary assistant editors' offices, or it may just have something to do with quality.) Anyway, since short stories do not take very long to read, it's not generally advised that you get an agent for their submission, and this publication took it one idea further and spread out the editorial task further. They made the submission public, with all other submitters free to comment as a first cut.

Although not an editor, and (still) never having published fiction, I think I did a pretty good job in my brief stint as a reviewer, and learned some lessons that would have otherwise been difficult to pick up. Among them, I learned that I don't want the assistant editor's job. Keeping up with only a couple or three stories a day was enough to burn me out in just a couple of months, and distracted me from my other reading pleasures. A lot of submissions were outright bad, but many were decent enough to scrape a positive comment or two to lead my critique.

Since this introduction is in danger of becoming boring, let's move along to the actual advice I generated from the experience:

  • The market matters. Although pretty much any editor wants a good story above all else, I found that these editors (and other users) pretty much ignored the pieces that attracted me (including my own), and lionized the crap I found dull. There wasn't much room for darkness and introspection in this publication, and it ultimately drove away a lot of my interest. That and an assistant editor called one of my stories icky. Ouch.

  • Bad formatting and bad spelling are huge warning flags. (Some forms of bad formatting are worse than others, though. An absence of paragraph breaks is absolutely criminal.) It's like submitting a resume. This slush reader is impatient to weed out the unredeemable submissions, so just give me an excuse...

  • On the other hand, any indication at all of narrative flair in the first couple of paragraphs and the prospective author got spotted a whole page or two to catch my interest. I have preferred more creative prose in general (a little metaphor wouldn't kill), but really, any manner of spark is good. A "literary" voice isn't strictly necessary, but it's absolutely critical that it sounds like the author's own voice. A lot of the styles I read were a pastiche of a hundred tired fantasy conventions.

  • More on that: standard modifiers are absolutely a disease on genre fiction. In sf, glinting eyes, raven locks, and hilt-fingering suck away my attention like a vampire. High-tech warriors have different mannerisms, but the same problem is the same. They can pet their horses and fondle their pistols all they want--still not interesting. Furthermore, any technology presented has to be really mindbogglingly clever to carry a story (and I've never seen anyone who's not Hal Clement pull that off, frankly). Weapons get way too much attention. A pistol under the pillow is a lot more intriguing than the mechanics of firing a XJ-27 energy neutralizer.

  • Still more on modifiers: wading through slush, I got a good chance to observe what the editors complain about about in this regard. Too many adverbs are bad. Too many dialogue tags are also bad. They tend to read like filler words in a high school composition for one thing, and they tend to dilute from important things like plot and character and setting.

    So show, don't tell, advise the editors, but you have to be careful there too. There's a host of uninspired facial cues that are almost as bad as adverbs. Widened eyes, frowns, drumming fingers: use these things just as sparingly. Because you can kind of tell when they've been thrown in only as a thesaurus-ized substitute for an adverb. Yes, it's hard to write without them all these sorts of modifiers, but it's much too easy to use them as lazy formulas. Rule of thumb: keep the gestures when they feel organic, keep the modifiers when they're natural in the flow of the text.

  • Reading the slush pile gives you a good idea of how important beginnings are. It's not so much important to throw a curveball on the first pitch, but it's necessary to to frame the expectations of the story quickly, especially for short fiction. And of course failing to nail that first paragraph is a good excuse to put your entry down and move to the next on the pile.

  • Short stories long enough to need multiple-part submissions are usually bad, but I tried to give the parts 1 an honest start. My reading time has shrunk as an adult, and I've grown to admire concision. Length is not necessarily bad, but bloat certainly is, and for a trial reading…again, give me an excuse.

  • The editors had their own beefs about story types, and reading random selections made it clear enough that certain forms generally correlated with badness. They suggested to avoid "woke up" stories (Bobby woke up one morning and everything had changed…); avoid stunts; avoid present tense. Yeah, maybe yours is the rare exception (I still like my stunt, but the advice to first succeed at conventional storytelling is well taken.) I'll add to their list: your warriors are not interesting because they are warriors, and fishing the first first thing out of the standard bin of stoic badass traits doesn't really cut it; fights are likewise boring unless you care about the characters, no matter how many fencing moves you may know; supernatural life allegories are inherently uninteresting, especially when they're asked to carry the whole story; feudalism is uninteresting in the way that fighting men are uninteresting--you have to tell a story around it, and the dwelling on the heirarchy usually correlates with the absence of one.

  • The neophyte screams that pros break these rules constantly, and he's right. They are more like guidelines than rules. But keep in mind that the exceptions are fairly rare, and the timing of when to bust through is every bit as important as in the delivery of a joke.

    My final advice, of course, is to keep writing, at least until your old stuff looks sort of inadequate to your own eyes. Keep in mind that before long, your new stuff will too.


    weldon berger said...

    I had no idea you were doing a blog. Would you have any interest in cross-posting your book reviews at my place? I'm sorely in need ...

    Keifus said...

    Hi Weldon, I replied to, but yeah, I'd be thrilled to do that.


    twiffer said...

    hey, it's here too!

    i'd visit more often, but they started blocking blogs at work. the bastards.