SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
Chris Lambert: The first is narrative tension. The second is escalation. And last is conclusion.
Narrative tension is what gains my interest. Escalation is what holds it. And conclusion is important for reasons you might not expect.
What do I mean by narrative tension? The classic and grand example is the 800 B.C. text The Odyssey. It opens with a description of how Odysseus is "the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course..." Without knowing any more than that, I know the narrative will be about a man struggling to reach his destination. Will he or won't he be able to do that?!
In Odysseus's case, he's angered a god and suffers because of it, and because it's a mythical story: we get a ton of mythical monsters. Cool.
A more modern example is DeLillo's 2003 Cosmopolis. The book opens with:
"Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five. What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words. He tried to read his way into sleep but only grew more wakeful. He read science and poetry. He liked spare poems sited minutely in white space, ranks of alphabetic strokes burnt into paper. Poems made him conscious of his breathing. A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice. This was the nuance of every poem, at least for him, at night, these long weeks, one breath after another, in the rotating room at the top of the triplex. He tried to sleep standing up one night, in his meditation cell, but wasn't nearly adept enough, monk enough to manage this. He bypassed sleep and rounded into counterpoise, a moonless calm in which every force is balanced by another. This was the briefest of easings, a small pause in the stir of restless identities. There was no answer to the question."
What do we know? That we have someone who can't sleep. This carries certain expectations. Chronic sleep deprivation compromises a person. Unravels them. Will Eric Packer find a way to rest? The answer to that question is not what you'd expect.
So something like...2,800 years passed between Odyssey and Cosmopolis. But despite that, both texts open by setting up a "status quo" that begs the question of "will this thing happen or not?"
I think if you look at most of your favorite books, movies, plays, TV shows, you will find that almost all of them open in a way that creates a "will this thing happen or not?" narrative tension.
The tv show Breaking Bad is another example. Walt is diagnosed with cancer and wants to use what time he has left to provide for his family: will he find a way to do that?
This brings us to escalation!
Walt finds a way to provide for his family: using his chemistry skills to cook crystal meth. Now he has to sell crystal meth, which gets him into business with some shady people. Can this mild-mannered guy prove himself tough enough for the drug world? That question continues to escalate, as Walt climbs his way up the drug-dealer food chain and has to do more and more terrible things in order to succeed.
A similar thing happens in The Odyssey, though in a much more drawn out manner. But we have Odysseus dealing with, one after the other, pirates, lotus-eaters, a cyclops, a witch, sirens, the underworld, a six-headed monster, a massive whirlpool, then the wrath of the Sun God that kills all of his crew, then he's kidnapped for seven years by a love-struck nymph. That's a series of unfortunate events. Once Odysseus escapes from the nymph, and finally reaches his homeland, he has to reclaim his home and his wife from a slew of terrible suitors. He could not catch a break.
Cosmopolis escalates someone deciding to destroy his own life. The problem is that DeLillo hides this for a long time. So what most people think is a series of random conversations with no purpose is actually a progression where each conversation leads Eric Packer closer to self-destruction. The first part of the book is him looking at his life, then he decides destruction is great, and we pivot to him tearing his life apart, one step at a time. All because he wants to rest.
A more basic example of escalation is a story we published in February 2015. "The Art of Delivering Chinese Food".
The main character is supposed to deliver Chinese food to a couple. Being a hippy, the character delivers empty boxes to the couple, saying the Chinese food is in the couples' minds. They complain. The character's boss makes him redeliver the food. This time, the guy replaces the food with mud. Tells the couple, again, that if they use their minds they can have Chinese food whenever they want. The couple complains again. This time, the character is supposed to deliver food to someone else, but delivers it to the original couple. Then the next order he delivers to the couple as well. And the next. And the next. So much Chinese food he leaves the couple in this catatonic state on the brink of enlightenment.
The situation escalates from pretty silly to ridiculous to insane to meaningful.
Conclusion is important because a lot of storytellers, at all levels, from amateur to million dollar professional, don't know how to end a narrative. It happens in novels, movies, everything. You know what book has a horrible conclusion?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It's a cheap ending because Diaz doesn't finish his narrative, either because he didn't know he should or didn't know how or didn't want to.
Diaz sets up the idea of fukú and zafa. That a fukú is a curse and a zafa is a counter-spell. In the very beginning, Diaz says that this text is about a fukú but will be a zafa. Then he never shows us if the text is or isn't a zafa. In order for it to be, we would have to see evidence that the curse has been broken. But we never get that. Instead, we get that one of the cursed characters had a daughter, and the speaker believes that this daughter will probably eventually be cursed... So we're either to believe that somehow the curse has been broken...or that the curse is undeniable. One could make the point that Diaz is calling on future generations of Dominicans to overcome the curse brought on by the very real and very awful regime of Trujillo. Fine, yes, that's nice. But does that mean the narrative conclusion is interesting? To me, what Diaz did is lazy.
It would be like...think about The Lion King. We open with the song "the circle of life". Simba, the lion prince, is born. Scar frames Simba for the death of young prince's father, then tries to kill Simba. Simba runs away, meets Timon and Pumpa, and grows up in anonymity. One day he crosses paths with his childhood friend, Nala, who tells him Scar is ruining everything, his cruel and harrowing. Simba tells Nala he can't go back, but then the wise-man Rafiki shows up and challenges Simba. Simba has a vision where he confronts his dead father and his father chastises him, "You've forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself Simba, you are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life. Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king." Simba decides to go home and fight Scar. He does. He and his friends manage to win. The dying land returns to its original majesty. Simba has a kid. The circle of life is complete.
Tension: circle of life.
Escalation: Scar disrupts the circle
Conclusion: Simba re-establishes the circle
Imagine if the film ended with Simba deciding to go home. Not with him going home. But after his dead father yells at him. We wouldn't know what happens! Does he succeed? Does he fail? We have no idea. It's a lazy conclusion that avoids the hard work of bringing things to a finale and tying up the plot threads.
That's what Diaz did. He got so far and then said...eh.
I'd say over 50% of the submissions we receive at Red Fez have poor endings. There is usually a climactic action, but a climactic action isn't a meaningful action.
Say a 19 year old boy wants to marry his boyfriend, but his dad won't let him. An easy and cliche ending is to have the boy or the boyfriend kill the dad. To a lot of authors, that action is enough. The obstacle/dad has been gotten rid of. That's a climactic action but not a meaningful action.
The tension was "will they or won't they get married?" So when the dad is eliminated, the question still stands: will they or won't they?
The author could wrap this up in short order: guilt from killing the dad overwhelms the relationship, ruining it; the couple does get married and is happy. Either of those endings would satisfy me as a reader and as an editor.
But the real tension of the narrative is, in my opinion, what happens when this couple gets married? They're 19. They've never lived together. Here, they killed someone to be together. Are they able to make it work? What if, to use a cliche example, one is a neat freak and the other is a slob? What if one works all the time and the other is lazy? How do they handle real problems? And what happens once they betray one another? Will they just go their separate ways? Will one want revenge? They've already murdered...so we know they're capable of violence...what we don't know is the limit of that capability.
That's how you stretch a story into a novel. Lolita could have just been a short story about a guy moving into a house and then sleeping with a young girl. Instead, it goes beyond that to: the guy covets the girl so plans to eliminate her mom. Then it goes beyond that to: now that the mom is eliminated, what kind of life do the guy and girl have? Then it goes beyond that... Tension escalation conclusion, tension escalation conclusion, tension escalation conclusion.
There's more to say about understanding the relationship to "tension" and "story length," but I would be writing for thousands of more words.
SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?
-lack of tension
-lack of meaningful actions
-a conclusion that fails to address the initial tension
-not removing the spelling and grammar check lines
-the MFA opening/the Workshop opening
"The MFA opening? Workshop opening?"
Yeah. That thing when a story opens with one of those lines that is supposed to hook a reader... like...
"Little did I know that by the end of today I would be dead."
"The hardest thing about life is knowing what's worth fighting for and when you have to give up."
"The summer of 1999 was the summer that I found love in all the wrong places."
"I used to think the wind was my friend, but I found out the wind is without loyalty and without mercy."
Openings like that bother me...a lot. It's like someone walking into a room and yelling "I'M INTERESTING! GIVE ME ATTENTION!!!!!" That's a bit harsh of a comparison. Most people who use the MFA/Workshop opening are trained that way and think it's the way to do things. To a certain extent, yes, those kinds of openings work for the mainstream because those openings create immediate tension. But they're the equivalent of fast food: cheap, filling, and easy to find.
It's much better to open with an image, or get right to the narrative tension in a less attention-seeking way.
Narrative tension in a less attention-seeking way: "Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five. What did he do when this happened?"
Opening image: "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."
Adverbs are almost always unnecessary. I'm fine with them in non-fiction writing. Use as many adverbs as you want in non-fiction or conversation. But in literature? No. Even the above Steinbeck quote: "calmly" is not necessary. What about "calmly" is not implicit in "the last rains came, and they did not cut the scarred earth"?
Often, I find adverbs are redundant. But the "ly" sound also bothers me because the musicality of it.
I'd be more willing to accept "gentle" rather than "gently". "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, gentle, the last rains came, and they did not cut the scarred earth."
There's just something about "ly" adverbs that I find grating. I've never liked them in poetry or prose.
'The dog follows Charles along the fence, barking wildly and jumping longingly. Its desperation stops Charles, brings him to the fence. He cautiously holds out a hand and the beagle eagerly licks his fingers. He notices cigarette burns on its coat. A voice inside the fence says menacingly, "Stop harassing my property or else." Charles decides to steal the man's dog.'
"The dog follows Charles along the fence, barking and jumping. Its desperation stops Charles, brings him to the fence. He holds out a hand and the beagle licks his fingers. He notices cigarette burns on its coat. A voice inside the fence says, "Stop harassing my property or else." Charles decides to steal the man's dog.'
If you want to convey the "wild" and "longing" then it's better, I think, to describe them.
"The beagle, wagging its tail, follows Charles along the fence. Then, whining at him, the dog leaps against the fence, barking with increasing hoarseness. Its desperation stops Charles, brings him to the fence. He lowers his hand and the beagle licks his fingers. He notices cigarette burns on its coat. A voice inside the fence yells, "Stop harassing my property or else." Charles sees a thin, angry, middle-aged man, and decides to steal the man's dog."
One is an outline, the other is a sketch, the last is an image drawn and colored.
SQF: Will you publish a submission an author posted on a personal blog?
SQF: Is there a preferred upper word limit for stories submitted to Red Fez?
CL: No joke, someone submitted a 290,000 word novel. We didn't read it. But they submitted it.
We're a monthly publication, so these figures are per month.
I'd say that 80-90% of submissions are under 4,000 words. 20% of those are under 1,500. About 60% are under 3,000. Around 20% are between 3,000-4,000.
We usually get two or three around 5,000-7,000. And maybe one that's over 7,000 words. Over 10,000 words happens, but months go by without receiving one.
I have no problem publishing a longer story. If someone sent me a 30,000 word story and it was awesome: (I'd first ask them if they were sure they wanted us to publish it, and if they said yes) I would totally publish it.
But most of the time the longer stories aren't polished enough when it comes to tension and escalation to warrant publication. That's not to say they aren't well-written. Each sentence will sound nice. The characters are thoughtful and thought out. The dialogue is crisp. But tension and escalation are lacking. What justifies narrative length, for me, is chaining together cycles of "tension, escalation, conclusion". If a story is 10,000 words of indecision...meh. Most of the longer stories we receive could, I feel, be slimmed by thousands of words.
I once asked an author if we could cut her 3,200 word story down to 71 words of the final two paragraphs. I explained why, and she agreed. Those 71 words encapsulated the tension, the escalation, and the conclusion.
SQF: What kind of submissions would you like to see more of?
I think once every two or three months we'll get a story about a young boy or girl having sex for the first time. I honestly believe that the basic "first sexual encounter" story is played out. If you want to write it, go big with the setting. Have it set in medieval times. Have it set in a space-age future. Have dinosaurs still exist. Spice it up in some way that makes it unique.
As much as I dislike a lot of Brief Wondrous Life, Diaz did a smart thing and took a "kid wants to have sex" story and couched it in the history of Dominican subjugation and magical realism.
So what do I mean by daring?
This last month, we published a story where a kid has captured and kept as "pets" a praying mantis and a black widow, but his parents tell him he can only keep one. So the superficial narrative is that the mantis and widow fight one another and one comes out victorious. But the narrative has a deeper insight into the idea of nostalgia. So we take the idea of the "gladiator battle" and make it fresh by having insects battle, but we make that meaningful by crouching it in nostalgia and a sense of loss.
I want to see stories that are dynamic in that way. They dare to take you where you never expected to go, yet get at emotions that are familiar.
That doesn't necessarily mean a story has to be sci-fi or fantasy. The mantis/widow story is told in a realistic way. It just capitalizes on tension/escalation/conclusion.
For example, the sexual encounter premise. Instead of making the setting something more hyperreal or surreal, have the sexual encounter dependent on whether or not the main character can steal various items for his/her potential partner and how that affects the main character: is the sex worth it? Why or why not? Like maybe a 17 year old has a 14 year old steal a classmate's bike, then another classmate's dog, and then another classmate's inhaler. Each theft has repercussions, but the 14 year old has sex with the 17 year old...annnnnd.....how does the 14 year old feel after?
Really, I guess what I'm talking about is "mash up". What I just described is a coming-of-age story mixed with heist. The mantis story takes elements of ancient rome (gladiators) and mixes them with fantastic reality (gladiators are insects). The Chinese takeout story I mentioned earlier mixes slapstick (repeated Chinese deliveries) with a teaching narrative (delivery driver is imparting a lesson). Another story we recently published was a guy traveling to Istanbul to fulfill a life-long goal and it ends up being a travel narrative fused with coming-of-age with aspects of disillusionment and inner revolution.
That's not to say that every mashed-up story will interest me, or that a more traditional narrative won't interest me, but I find there's a lot of power in the fusion of disparate elements.
What I want is to feel surprised. And usually that surprise is caused by an author escalating narrative elements, drawing us along in a way we can't predict. Or combining elements in a way that creates something new. One story that stands out is a flash piece where the author had a girl become friends with an alligator and they hang out as friends do until one day the alligator kisses her. It's just...such an image. For a flash piece that's a couple hundred words...that's enough for me.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
CL: No clue!
Thank you, Chris. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 5/22—Six Questions for Michael Prihoda, Founding Editor, After the Pause