SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
A. Immersion, This is easily the biggest factor in my enjoyment of any fiction, by an order of magnitude. It's all about point of view (POV). The stories that I enjoy the most are the ones in which I forget that I am reading a story because I have sunken so deeply into the POV that I feel that I understand why they make the choices that they make, and feel like I played a part in that.
Not surprisingly, this is also one of the hardest things to pull off. There are certain writing techniques that can help and those that can hurt. First and foremost, though, is what I call the "narrative lens". You want your reader to use the text as a lens to see through the eyes of the characters, and the reader should know everything pertinent that the character knows. A few bullet points for how to attempt this:
- Choose your setting/character descriptions to show what your character would notice, as well as vocabulary, and emotional responses. A warrior will react differently to many things than a seamstress.
- Don't have your character withhold important information because you think this will make for a great twist. When I realize that this character has been withholding information from me, the immersion is lost in a flash, and will probably never be regained. That doesn't mean the character has to reveal every detail of their entire life, but anything pertinent should be on the table.
- Keep the author invisible--Anything that draws attention to the author is a bad idea. This can be a variety of things from purple prose to overuse of metaphors to improbable coincidences in the narrative. If I, as a reader, think of the author at all while I'm reading, then my immersion has been broken.
I have gone on about this topic at greater length, with illustrative examples, in an article I wrote called "Through Another's Eyes: The Narrative Lens".
B. Arc. In short, something needs to happen. This might seem obvious, but there are a great deal of stories that come through my slush where nothing happens. Ideally, there will be two parallel arcs: a character arc and a plot arc which should be closely tied together so that the character changes as the events pass.
C. Tension. Even if you have immersion and you have an arc, the story may still not hold interest. You need some kind of tension to keep a reader's interest. The good news is that tension can be any kind of tension, from the tension of trying to survive a deadly situation, to trying to keep a marriage together. Some questions to help find the tension:
- What is the source of the conflict? The conflict in most stories can be boiled down to a few basic types: person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self, person vs. supernatural. I admit, these are simplistic labels, but they might help you decide where the driving tension is originating.
- Why should I care about what happens to this character? If I have no reason to care about a character, then I probably won't care what happens to them. This doesn't mean that all characters have to be likeable. If I hate a character and I want to see them die a horrible death, that is caring what happens to them.
- Where in the story does the tension begin? I've read many stories where the story starts in the wrong place. For 1000 words, a character will ramble through their dull daily life, and then suddenly some amazing event happens that drives the rest of the plot. For a short story, unless their everyday life is wildly entertaining, this story started too early. Your average slushreader has already given up by the time the tension arrives. Some writers suggest starting the story at the inciting incident, the event which fires off the plot arc. Often, this is good advice, but keep in mind it may not be best for every story. Sometimes the reader needs a little background information before the inciting incident even makes sense. But in the preliminary portion, make sure that there is something to keep the reader interested, whether through character interaction, strange setting, humor, etc...
- Where does the tension end? Likewise, if the tension ends and then the story drags on and on, a reader's going to be likely to get bored. This isn't as much of a problem as the beginning, because the beginning is where most slushreaders will drop out, but it will still hurt your chances.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?
A. Stagnation. Okay, so I cheated a little bit. I meant this is the inverse of "Arc" from the last question. But I don't think this can be overstated. Something has to happen. There has to be an arc. If you are just describing a society but nothing happens, that is not a story. If there are no characters, that is not a story.
B. Unoriginality. The more original story is, the more likely it is to stand out, for better or worse. If you write something that sounds like a 20 year old D&D campaign, it's probably not going to go anywhere. It could even be a good campaign, but if there are a million other stories like it out there, what's to make it stand out? The worst culprit for this are serial killer stories. At the Drabblecast, I think about 1 in 4 stories has a serial killer protagonist. And guess what, they kill people, the end. Girl falls in love with a vampire. etc... There are some stories that have just been done to death, so unless you have something new to add to it, try to find something novel.
C. Therapy. I have seen way too many stories that seem more like writing for therapy than writing for entertainment. Generally they take the form of a protagonist who is supposedly faultless and has been wronged by the world, and usually ends up getting their own back in some way, usually by killing people, or otherwise harming them (again, the serial killer thing). Too often, I get the impression that the author is trying to work through some deep-seated hostility. If this is true, I am very grateful that they have merely written about killing their wife/son/daughter/grandma/co-worker/boss, rather than taking action. Writing CAN be a very useful therapy tool. But please, please, don't send this therapeutic writing to my slushpile. Consider sharing it with a therapist to work out your troubles--there is no shame in that.
D. Incomprehensibility. Hey, look a 4th answer. Guess who gets an F in reading comprehension? I'll justify it because my A answer was a bit of a repeat, so I didn't want to cheat you out of your 3 novel answers. Anyway, this one seems like a no-brainer, but it's pretty important. If I don't understand what's happening in a story, I won't like it.
SQF: Which of the following statements is true and why? Plot is more important that character. Character is more important than plot. Plot and character are equally important.
DS Of those, the MOST true is "Plot is more important than character." That's not to say that character is unimportant, not at all. The reason I answered that way is that I can enjoy a story with very little character--a lot of "golden age" SF has very little in the way of character, it's all about the ideas. Asimov's "Last Question" for instance, is a very idea-oriented story. There are people in it, but no one that's a really fully-fleshed mind, they are just workers who move along the plot. But I really enjoy the story anyway, because the ideas are so neat, and the story is told in an entertaining way. On the flip side, a story with characters but no plot is terribly terribly dull, because nothing happens. I have read some published stories advertised as "literary" fiction that is along these lines, and I can't stand it. No matter how interesting the character is, I will not like a story with no plot.
Ideally, the best stories will have plenty of both. A nice juicy plot will give you plenty of opportunity to develop and reveal your characters.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
DS: Sometimes, when I feel that I have something constructive to say. I'll be much more inclined to do so in cases where I thought a story was close to being good, if just one or two things were tweaked. Then I feel it's worth it to offer information to help the author bridge the gap.
SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?
DS: My responsibilities as a slushreader are fairly straightforward--pick out the stories that I would be proud to publish. Stories that, if I read them in a magazine, would make me want to read more issues of that magazine, and more stories by that author. And, if I really like a story, to be an advocate for stories that I feel are the best of the best, to convince others why that story is particularly good.
An editor's responsibility are much broader: to take the inputs from their slushreaders (if they have any) and choose a set of stories that fit their publication. To balance the style of each issue, and determine the ideal order of the stories. Often editors will wear many hats as well, dealing with the financial aspects of the publication, layouts, etc.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
DS: "David, how did you get to be so talented and charming and good-looking?" To which my answer would be: "It's a mystery, Jim. I guess it just comes to me naturally."
But seriously, I have no idea. I would've happily answered other questions, but I left my mind-reading device in my other pants, and I can't know what questions you should've asked without it.
Oh, I guess it could be a question like "How do you find the time with everything else in your life?" One reason why I read slush for FFO and Drabblecast is because they have guidelines that ask for nice short stories. FFO only accepts submissions less than 1100 words, Drabblecast less than 2500. When I have a spare ten minutes, I can easily flip through a few quick stories at this rate, vote on them, and then go back to my other activities.
Thank you, David. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 3/22-Six Questions for Ian Chung, Editor, Eunoia Review