Bewildering Stories Discusses
Rules for Writing
or: What the Heck Do Editors Really Want?
with Harry Lang
[Harry L.] Like many neophyte writers I often find myself perplexed and distressed at the steady stream of rejections flowing into my inbox. Assurances that our literary betters slogged through similar swamps in their formative days may bring little bursts of temporary comfort, but they provide no real clarity. I once read one of Asimov’s universally rejected early efforts and found it to be all but indistinguishable from his classics. What’s up with that?
Advice from many of those betters — as well as some not-so-betters — flows free and easy, figuratively speaking, through seminars, online courses, blogs and newsletters. Only a fool would ignore such wealth, and I, for one, hate being called names. So here is my stab at cracking the code. Here is what I think I’m hearing from the voices whispering across the pro-amateur divide. In no particular order...
SHOWDON’TTELL!! More on this later.
Absolutely every element of a good story must appear in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence. The consummate pro can get it all into the first word, but let’s not fly too close to the sun here. This is not to say the whole story must be told in the first paragraph; that would be ridiculous! There’s plenty of room in the second paragraph for the climax and denouement.
The point of view character’s age, gender, national origin, worldview, locations of identifying scars, color of eyes, motivation and reason why the reader should care; the setting, which can be any place and any time in the known or imagined universe; the nature of the conflict, be it bold and immediate, subtle, internal, gradually developing...
But it really should be bold and immediate and of course THE BIG IDEA must all be established dramatically, naturally and unobtrusively AT ONCE in order to knock the editor unconscious and not let him up off the floor until he’s read every word and sent you a contract.
The reader must have somebody to root for, preferably the protagonist. If your alternate history piece takes place in Hitler’s bunker, it must emphasize the affection der Führer feels for his dog Blondie.
Show, don’t tell. Explaining stuff — or “exposition” as it is known among the pros — is the calling-card of the rank amateur. Just ask Dostoyevsky. Actions speak louder than words, and volume is what we’re all about in this post-literary world of ours.
So, if your protagonist is a philosophically-oriented Wiccan who finds herself conflicted because her fundamentalist Christian upbringing is starting to make a kind of sense while her atheist philosophy professor is also pretty convincing, for God’s sake don’t tell us! Make her take action! Do the kind of things that show us how the subtleties of these contradictory forces weave themselves into her personal synthesis. When possible, draw pictures.
Every molecule of dialog must be attached to a speech tag. Each speech tag must be “said.” Failure to comply will result in panic among readers due to an inability to follow the thread of continuity and the catastrophic failure of the story. Penalties include but are not be limited to: verbal warning, written warning, time off without pay, and termination. No exceptions!
Here’s a sensitive one. Submission guidelines often declare the editor’s undying love of science fiction because it is the literature of “ideas.” So have ideas. Be bold. Challenge the reader’s most dearly held beliefs and suppositions. Shoot his sacred cows! Shake him out of his comfort zone and open his mind to the limitless possibilities! Take no prisoners and make no apologies! But be careful whom you offend. Edit yourself so others don’t have to. Because they will. ’Nuff said.
Here’s one of my favorites. The writer owes the reader everything; the reader owes the writer nothing. It is up to you, the writer, to telepathically examine the soul of every potential reader and find the bait he can’t resist.
Remember, no reader is looking for a radically new experience. He reads for the enjoyment of comfort, not the exertion of challenge. Even if he pays money for your book or story, he does not owe you his attention or any effort to comprehend. Not at all. You owe him spoonfuls of tasty enjoyment and attractive tour guides to take him by the hand and lead him gently along the well-lit path of the plot. Just ask Ray Bradbury, James Joyce or Cordwainer Smith.
Know your market and adjust your artistic passions accordingly. The ruts of taste are well established and heavily traveled. Is this the place to mention a certain SFWA pro pub that rejected my story about an obsessive philosopher whose idea destroyed the world? And that the editor then proudly published a tale of a dreamy princess and her darling unicorn? Why strain yourself breaking new ground?
Science fiction has a long and venerable pedigree. Many of its conventions are so well integrated into the popular lexicon that taking time to explain them would be like including a biography of Henry Ford as the preface to a car chase.
That is, unless the editor doesn’t want to use your story. In that case, extraterrestrials that LOOK DIFFERENT from humans are hopelessly confusing and warnings about the consequences of humanity’s folly are incomprehensible. ACTION: Take special care not to tax or confuse the editor.
No matter what, you must understand that editors want you to keep submitting to their fine publications and hope you find a home for your rejected story. They really do, so take them at their word and keep it up. Maybe you can know for sure what ought to catch on, but you never know what will.
Following these and other simple rules will separate the potential pro from the perpetual amateur. Above all remember to write what you know... or write what you love... or write what you would like to read...
[Don W.] Thank you, Harry, for rousing, jolly fun! In fact, you illustrate why we have our Classic Rejection Notices. Here’s one. Or you can see them all, if you want to do “refresh” 36 times:
I found myself chuckling and nodding right along with you... at first.
• This one is a real thigh-slapper:
THE BIG IDEA must all be established dramatically, naturally and unobtrusively AT ONCE in order to knock the editor unconscious and not let him up off the floor until he’s read every word and sent you a contract.
That’s a truly Bewildering story all in itself: “I dreamt I was reading a submission and woke up to find I’d sent the author a contract.” And, of course, that is where the story begins, not where it ends!
• But this one is a more of a tentative knee-slapper:
Absolutely every element of a good story must appear in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence. The consummate pro can get it all into the first word, but let’s not fly too close to the sun here.
Now that is a first-class challenge. I immediately thought:
“Call me Ishmael.” — Melville
“Il faut vous fuir, mademoiselle...” — Rousseau
“Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.” — Proust
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was perfect and upright...”
All those classics begin with good, solid “hooks”:
- Melville gives the reader a command.
- Rousseau makes the reader wonder,“Why?”
- Proust begins with action, even if it is only going to bed.
- The Book of Job makes the reader think, “Uh-oh... this sounds too good to be true.”
I gulp in apprehension: would any of them meet the standards of today’s professional editors?
• Another one, though obviously pushed deliberately over the top, gives me pause, because it may prove counterproductive:
Every molecule of dialog must be attached to a speech tag. Each speech tag must be “said.” Failure to comply will result in panic among readers due to an inability to follow the thread of continuity and the catastrophic failure of the story.
And that’s where I break out in a cold sweat. I recall one of our mottoes: “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.” Will we be henceforth deluged with submissions containing little more than speech tags, all with “said”?
“Oh, okay,” she
“Thank you,” he
sighedsaid. “I’ll come right home after the bowling tournament.”
• Finally, the rubber of creativity hits the road of reality. You have my every sympathy about the SFWA “pro” who rejected your philosophical tale in favor of a “dreamy princess and her darling unicorn.” What author would not eat rugs of wrath?!
The contretemps makes me imagine an author (not you, of course) and an editor (nor I, either) making parallel diary entries analyzing each other’s supposed psychological aberrations:
Editor: This author is a stuffy, constipated old camel. What a bore!
Author: This editor is a prude who secretly regrets her unmislaid virginity. What a bore!
And then they meet. The author is witty and charming; the editor is a suave sophisticate who comes on to him. They live happily ever after. Now that might even make a “truly Bewildering Story”!
Copyright © 2014 by Harry Lang
and Bewildering Stories