“We are all apprentices
in a craft where no one
ever becomes a master.”
In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right” and I’m busy sharing that with you.
While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!
This one happened for a lot of reasons.
First is that several years ago, me and science fiction writer (1995 Phillip K. Dick award-winner for his novel HEADCRASH, inventor of the word “cyberpunk”, executive editor of the online magazine STUPEFYING STORIES, owner/publisher of Rampant Look Press, and computer genius at CRAY) reconnected after initially meeting in the 1980s. Both of our lives had changed dramatically since the first meeting of a flesh-and-blood writer’s group and his encouragement of my writing on a blog he’d started called The Friday Challenge set the tone of our friendship. A semi-shared life crisis drew us closer together and eventually led to me being one of several slushpile readers for STUPEFYING STORIES (SS).
While I had been reading stories written by students and friends for years, this was the first time that my input would lead to someone getting a story published!
SS was entirely a short story venue and when Bruce first opened the submission doors, the trickle of stories was small enough that he and his wife were able to handle it. But once it became known that he was both paying for stories AND publishing them, the floodgates opened. I don’t know who he “hired” first – my guess would be Henry Vogel – but eventually there were seven or eight of us in addition to himself and his wife. We were to read and rank stories on a scale from 0 to 6, with the highest being qualified as “I would quit my job in order to buy and publish this” (or something like that). A story ranked 0 was rare, but usually meant that none of us could make heads or tails out of it.
Of course, Bruce had final say on what he accepted and published. Thus far, he’s accepted two of mine and published one (and reissued it in a small collection with four other stories, so I DO have a vested interest in SS!
At any rate, as Bruce started passing the stories to the slushers, we fell into “specialties”. I often read pieces that would be classified as “hard science fiction”; others gravitated to horror; still others to the less-quantifiable “speculative fiction”. Even so, the ones that came to me ranged from straight-forward colonies on the Moon stories, to less linear alternate history visions of dark futures. I read all of them and “graded” them.
I also began to learn what made a good story and what kinds of things prompted my instant rejection. First of all, I discovered that many, many, many writers didn’t write stories but formless meanderings that pretended to be stories. After five pages, if I still had no idea what was happening – and another thing I learned is that SOMETHING has to happen in a story! – then I graded it with a few notes and sent it back to Bruce. Somehow, I discovered after reading a few hundred stories that some sort of character has to do something.
Another thing I discovered was that whatever the character was doing had to make sense. This is a slippery slope however and I learned to take the whole story as the context in which the character was doing something meaningful. It might not make sense in THIS world, but it had to make sense in the world the writer had built.
Thirdly, I had to somehow connect with a character. This doesn’t mean I have to LIKE them. It DOES mean I have to understand and agree with some aspect of the character. This of course, precludes the “perfect character” (which I don’t understand at all!) or the “entirely evil” character (which I don’t understand at all). The viewpoint has to be one that is comprehensible by me. BUT it also has to make sense. One story in which I understood the character’s actions still didn’t make sense even within the framework of the story.
Fourth, the writer had to be GOING somewhere with the story. You have no idea how many stories I read where nothing happened…let me amend that, nothing significant happened to the character. This is the most startling lesson I learned from slushing: the story has to have clearly important events. It doesn’t even matter if they’re important to me (as the invisible reader), but they have to be significant to the character!
Last of all is that there are lots of stories out there that are not obviously bad – they’re just not obviously GOOD. This was the hardest thing I learned – I rejected countless stories because, while they were OK, they didn’t stick in my mind. I can’t say that I ever recommended an “award-winning” story, but I HAVE recommended a few that had been published and that are GOOD. What does it take to make a story good – and then consistently do that?
I clearly don’t know yet.
- SOMETHING has to happen in a story!
- Whatever the character was doing had to make sense.
- I have to somehow connect with a character.
- The story has to have clearly important events.
- Write a story that will “stick in my mind”.