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July 8th, 2012

Mondo Fiction-o

July so far has seen me embroiled in two different short fiction enterprises which seem to curiously mesh: I'm trying to write four short stories and (most of) a novella to meet my goals at the Clarion Write-a-Thon; and I'm working my way through reading nearly a hundred short story submissions for a month-long gig as a Wily Writers guest editor. (And as you'll see from the photo to the left, I have my own private editor who is the TOUGHEST EVER!)

I recently read a blog post by editor David Farland on "Ten Reasons Why I'll Quickly Reject Your Story" that nailed a lot of what I would say, so I'm just going to link to that excellent piece and offer only minimal discussion about some of Farland's points. Among the points he's mentioned, I'd say far and away #4 - "Nothing's happening" - is why I'm turning down most stories. I'm reading pieces that are 7 pages long but don't really start until page 4; I'm reading endless descriptions of what mundane things characters are doing or thinking (really, do I need to know how they brushed their teeth or made their lunch?) before I get to any real meat. I don't need your protagonist's life story on page 1. A good writer knows that they need to grab the reader up front, and then fill in that info as they go along (preferably subtly, not all in one big "there, I'm done with that now" chunk). 

One thing I'm surprised Farland didn't mention was the reliance on cliches. I'd say probably a full quarter of the stories I've read and rejected were positively bulging with cliches, whether in individual phrases or in the central idea of the story. Cliches puzzle me. I don't understand how anyone could write yet another story about a protagonist who drifts through a tale and turns out to be dead at the end. Do they think I won't be familiar with that trope? Or is ego so abundant that they believe they've put a fresh spin on things? And some of these phrases...my God, I've read stories that were simply cancerous with cliched phrases. I don't want to mention specific examples here because I'm not out to embarrass anyone, but let me see if I can offer something up that's similar: let's say you've described a quiet male as "the strong, silent type." Now, unless you're using that in a postmodern, ironic way, I'm going to stop right there and think, You're kidding, right? You didn't really just write that, did you? Oh dear, you did...and chances are if you did it once, you're going to do it again. Over and over and over. And over. And I'm going to say, "No, thanks," pretty damn fast. 

What's great about doing a big editorial gig like this and seeing all the mistakes and mediocre writing that make you turn down stories is that it makes you hyper-aware of the potential for these problems in your own work. I'm in the middle of trying to turn out four short stories that I owe various projects, meaning I need to not only write somewhat quickly, but change gears abruptly when I finish one piece and move onto the next. Here are the four stories:
  • "The True Worth of Orthography" - a magician who uses the physical act of writing to craft spells allies with a writer in his quest to reach the realm of the divine.
  • "Contagion" - a psychiatrist at an isolated institution falls victim to a strange disease rampaging through the inmates, and finds herself taking on all of their psychoses, including paranoid schizophrenia and sexual rage disorder.
  • "Zolamin and the Mad God" - a woman warrior in the ancient realm of Hyperborea is hired by a priest to retrieve his clan's stolen god, an entity that drives those near it to insanity.
  • As yet untitled - in the near future, the very wealthy have almost achieved immortality by recording their consciousness onto chips...but when one billionaire loses his money, he finds himself stranded in a strange, computer-controlled version of reality.
  • Summer's End - a novella about a Halloween expert named Lisa Morton who is brought in to consult on a newly-discovered scroll that changes our understanding of Celtic history, and ends up finding out that all of her notions of history, fact, magic, and of course Halloween are horribly wrong. 
So, we have a contemporary dark fantasy, a more traditional contemporary horror story with heavy sexual overtones, a Clark Ashton Smith-style heroic fantasy crossed with horror and religious commentary, a science fiction/horror hybrid, and a contemporary horror work that explores the notion of modern meta-fiction and some of my (ahem) substantial knowledge of the history of Halloween. 

Fortunately, I've never had much of a problem with the "Nothing happens" dilemma; if anything, I go too far in the other direction and have everything happen right up front ("Zolamin and the Mad God", for instance, opens in the middle of a huge, frantic chase). But I occasionally find myself taking a train ride through Cliche-Land. That's what rewrites are for, and several naughty little cliches have recently been jettisoned. If I can't find a simple or new way of saying something, I'd prefer to leave it unsaid.

So, how am I doing with my Clarion goals so far? Pretty well, I think. "The True Worth of Orthography" has been completed and accepted (look for it in the forthcoming anthology Blood Rites, published by Blood Bound Books). "Contagion" has been completed and submitted. "Zolamin and the Mad God" is halfway home now, and I hope to finish it over the next few nights, when it will be submitted to a Hyperborean anthology. That'll leave the untitled hybrid (intended for an after-life anthology) and the novella. By the way, I should issue a disclaimer here: I have no intention of trying to finish the novella by August 4th, when the Write-a-Thon ends. Summer's End already has a deal in place - contracts have been signed, deadlines set, and announcements are coming soon - and I'm only aiming for a good start that will take me through the next few months to complete the novella. I have high hopes for this work, and want to take the time to make it glisten. With dark light, that is.

It's not too late to support me in the Clarion Write-a-Thon! Remember, you'll be helping out one of the best genre writing programs in the world, and giving me a kick in the tailbone as well. I like kicks. Most writers do.