No Shit, There I Was, thinking about successful stories

I made a little list yesterday, about some basic problems I noticed repeatedly in my slush pile. Things worth fixing that’ll help a story survive the savaging of the slush jackalopes, at least.

But what about the stories we liked and loved? And I’m not talking here about just the ones I sent acceptances for. I had 15 or so additional stories beyond those I could accept that I desperately wanted to keep and didn’t have room for. These were decisions that made me cry tears of blood because I didn’t want to make them.

The thing is, it’s way easier to tell you what doesn’t work about a story than quantify what does.

After the initial Rejectopocalypse, I had 58 stories left. How did I get that down to the stories I ended up picking?

There was a sort of two-tiered process to how I filled out the ToC . There was an initial set of stories that I read that just clicked with me so well, I put them in a file labeled “You can have these stories when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.” Each one of these stories was a hill I would have been willing to die on, so to speak. And there weren’t that many of them. They didn’t even take up half of my available space, when all was said in done.

A few of the stories that ended up on that list didn’t even make it there on first reading; I thought they were good and liked them a great deal, but wasn’t immediately ready to fight a great white shark armed with an assault rifle for them. But those stories lingered, and niggled, and refused to let me go, and a week later I was still thinking about how utterly fucked up they had made me feel. I realized I couldn’t let them go either.

But the bulk of those 58 stories in the second round were simply “stuff wot the jackalopes and I liked,”  and there were way too many of them. So I went over those with a much less forgiving eye. A lot of stories, I enjoyed, but had to tack on a mental caveat of “but X needs to be tweaked.” Unless X amounted to copyediting issues, I made myself let those go. Other quite good stories were too similar to stories that I considered non-negotiable, either in plot or tone or topic, so those I let go as well. That took us down to around 35, when things got really brutal.

I ended up dragging my excellent slush jackalopes onto a Skype call so we could sit down in real time and look at what we had. Fights were had. Alcohol was imbibed to deal with the pain. Stories were sorted into keep or go piles. But the reason I wanted the slush jackalopes on the call was that each of them had a few stories that were hills they were willing to die on, and I thought that was important. A story that I thought was very good and merely (“merely“) liked might be a gut punch to one of them. I needed perspectives from outside myself, from people who knew the shape of the slush, because otherwise I was at a stalemate of, gosh I like all this stuff equally and 35,000 words of it has to go, what do I do?

So what made for the stories we universally liked and someone was willing to fight for? There’s not a single answer, partially because I tried to choose a wide array of stories that cross the genres from hard scifi to high fantasy, the tones from utter bleakness to screwy hilarity. (You’ll see what I mean when I finally show you the ToC.) The best I can come up with is:

  • Stories with a strong narrative voice and tone. This isn’t just about first person narration; there’s a tone that goes with third person as well, that’s evident in word choice and sentence structure. Every story we loved had a consistent tone and a strong voice that made us want to keep reading.
  • Good pacing. Pacing is what knocked a lot of the stories out at the second round; pacing hiccups are one of the most frustrating things in the world to try to fix as a writer, and I didn’t even want to deal with it as an editor. I won’t say that all of the stories we kept were fast-paced; there are a couple I’d consider to have a very deliberate feel to them. But they don’t stop. They don’t bog down. They’re exactly as long as they need to be.
  • Fascinating characters. Most of them, we liked. Some of them, we just wanted to follow and see what kind of train wreck they’d be getting into.
  • The stories that were funny made us laugh out loud. Heartily. Inappropriately.
  • We have a profound weakness for ridiculous, long titles, but only if the story that follows supports it.

But those things? Aren’t that helpful if you’re looking for a blueprint, except perhaps for the point about pacing. You can get into some useful wonkery with pacing and arranging your beats and making sure none of them are lasting too long, and that might help. But I don’t think anyone sets out to write characters who aren’t fascinating, or stories that don’t have a strong tone. I’m sure everyone who sent us a funny story thought we’d find it funny.

And that’s perhaps the point. While there are objective measures (many of them grammar-based) that can tell us if a story isn’t going to work, there’s not a rubric I could give to say what does. This is your reminder, then, that getting published is ultimately a crapshoot. You could be at the top of your prose game, you could have a tight story with great characters and an interesting plot, and unless it hit one of us in just the right way to make her say I would wrestle a bear for this story, it wasn’t going to make it. And I think it’s worth remembering that the stories I was willing to go to bat for were not all the same stories the jackalopes defended with their antlers filed to razor sharpness.

I know we’ve all had the experience of reading a story and thinking who the hell paid actual money for this, my story is way better. Sometimes you might be right, but sometimes it’s that your story didn’t deliver the plot payload the way you’d hoped, because no two editors are the same. Maybe you got the wrong editor, the wrong time of day, the wrong phase of the moon. There’s no knowing. If being able to write a story that punches someone in the gut and steals their emotional lunch money is the best part of being a writer, it’s also the most frustrating. Because you’ll never know if that punch landed until you open your email and see yes instead of no.

Leave a Reply