Feb. 26th, 2018
The workshop’s second assignment was another difficult one. The theme was “Broken Dreams” and the editor specified that she didn’t want the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Even with the 8000-word limit, I wanted to skip this uncomfortable subject.
But I had to try. Otherwise, I’d be wasting my time and money, and losing a chance at getting some valuable feedback and insight on how to do it better later.
I’d been researching privateers for some reason (probably because something shiny flew by and led me there) so the first thing that came to me was to do a story about a guy that got cashiered and lost his opportunity for command. This turned out to be one of those cases where I was doing pure discovery writing (I had no end in mind at all) and no idea how to get there. I started with a character and waited to see where he took me.
After a couple of false starts, the character took 5500 words to take me here:
Romantic space opera about a cashiered naval officer turned privateer who takes a job to hunt down and destroy a ship with bioweapons. Instead, he finds the dead sailors betrayed by his government, and the woman trying to bring them, and the truth behind their deaths, back home.
- Editor 1: Not SF; not enough setting; fake details; didn’t read that far into it.
- Editor 2: Liked opening; Lucy reminded him of HAL; light sci-fi; enjoyed story; not sure why it didn’t become a buy; maybe list
- Editor 3: Absolutely loved first line; middle was confusing; loved the ending. Still a no.
- Editor 4: It is SF: it works; loving it as I go through 1st half; lost setting at explosion; information flow issues on manuscript level; lost towards end so it went from a maybe to a no.
- Editor 5: Got confused in the end; feels like it’s not done yet; the characters had just discovered conspiracy; questions about what happens next; needs to be a longer story.
- Buying editor: She sets the bar for SF higher than for other genres; this story can be quite powerful but manuscript has no setting; needs more details; there are town-level details but no planet-level details; needs to be longer; over-write it and over-describe it so we can see it; setting and characterization is not there; no buy.
In addition to the discomfort of the subject matter, I allowed previous input from other writers/editors to get into my head. I’ve been told—more than once—that I shouldn’t put novel-level setting details into my short stories. On more than one occasion, someone I trusted has hammered me for over-writing and over-describing and not getting to the plot quickly enough. Because it’s sci-fi and sci-fi readers read for plot. This is grade-A gold-plated BS. I’m a sci-fi reader and I don’t read for plot. I can’t be the only one. And I knew that. And I still let it influence me and get into my process.
Writing this story turned out to be an important object lesson about not allowing others into my process and writing the stories I want to write. Because while some sci-fi readers may not care about characters, I do. And my stories are better for it, as you’ll see later (guess which one I did sell?).
But I was, again, not surprised that this particular story didn’t make the cut. The whole theme of broken dreams turned me off. It calls for tragedy and sadness and I like to write happy endings. What was interesting is that at the end, the buying editor did actually chew us all out for not wanting to deal with this difficult subject.
Her main complaint was lack of emotion and keeping characters at arm’s length. We didn’t want to go there. We didn’t want to be there, suffering with those characters. And I think that’s definitely true.
Like with the superstition story from the first week, I would’ve never touched this subject, not even with a ten-foot pole. And now that I know that I should be over-writing and over-describing, I will. And anyone who rejects my sci-fi for that reason, well, it’s their loss…
Several pieces that were intellectual rather than emotional were also rejected despite being solid and well-written. Again, we are back to what the editor wanted.
Without giving you the details of the submissions (they are not mine to give), or the source of the comments, I would still like to share the substance of why stories were rejected.
1. Story/characters at arm’s length—in other words, we were not in the characters’ heads/hearts, feeling things with them. It’s an issue of narrative distance, one I’ve often talked about, and a specific pet peeve of mine as well. This is why I personally don’t enjoy stories written with narrative distance (omniscient, distant third, 1st person, present tense). We were told that 1st person present tense is the second most distant narrative tense (second person being the most distant). It is appropriate in one instance–PTSD. Like first person in general, 1st present tense distances the reader from the story, but even more than first person past tense. I’ll be the first one to celebrate the death of this “1st person present tense” fad; it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me and those were the only stories I couldn’t read.
2. Lack of setting. The “fake details” mentioned above mean that the writer didn’t give enough of a description of things to make the setting solid and specific. It’s an issue of showing vs telling, as well as information flow, i.e. requiring a reader to rethink an assumption they made based on too little information.
3. Lack of clarity.
4. Loss of point of view.
5. Needs to be longer (i.e. feels superficial, not enough detail; reads more like an outline).
I hope you’re detecting a trend here, even among subjective opinion. Some things work better than others when the submission requirements call for emotion, i.e. character over plot; setting over talking heads in a white room.
What’s a white room? Image a stage with white walls, a white floor, white furnishings, upon which people in white Morphsuits (full body suits that cover everything, including the head and face) are going through the motions and delivering dialogue. You can have plenty of plot in this white room full of talking heads. But you won’t have emotion because your characters are no better than cardboard.
I have yet to see a submission call for talking heads in white rooms. Maybe you’re into those kinds of stories, but that’s not what any of these editors wanted.