Friday, April 12, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Story Arc: Without One, Your Roof Caves In"

by Barbara V. Evers

As a first reader for Stupefying Stories, I recommend rejecting more submissions because of incomplete story arc than any other element of writing.

What is a story arc? Think of it as representing the plot of your story. It’s the structure into which the characters, world, and action of the story must fit. Most stories follow the traditional three-act structure: the story begins with some action to hook the reader, which introduces a problem that must be solved or a question that must be answered. In the second act the tension builds, one stone upon the next, until in the third act, the climax answers the question or solves the problem.

Now, imagine you are building a house. You lay the foundation, but once you’ve laid it, you immediately try to put on the roof. This is often what I see in story arc development. The writer starts out well, but then skips part of the development, puts in fluff that doesn’t contribute to the story, or otherwise fails to provide any second act supporting structure. Then, when they put on the roof in the third act, there’s nothing there to support it, so it caves in.

Readers—and people who buy houses—don’t like that. They want a progression where each piece contributes to a solid structure and justifies the ending. We don’t have to see how it all fits together as it’s being built, but once it’s done, we should be able to think back and say, “Ah, now I understand why A happened, and led to B.”

Where do most writers go wrong? Short stories are tricky. You must start with action, setup, and tension, all in the first paragraphs. Every word and scene must contribute to the completion of your story arc, and usually in fewer than 5,000 words. In a novel you can slow down the pace, but not so in a short story. It much surge forward, each sentence and paragraph building a complete picture.

However, examining a novel’s story arc can help you see how this works.

Novels typically contain more than one story arc: there’s the extended arc of the full story, and beneath it several smaller arcs, or subplots. Fantasy and science fiction series also typically connect through an overall arc that bridges the entire series, beginning in the first book and concluding in the last book, and each book in the series has its own arc that is both self-contained and contributes to the series’ overall arc.

For example, take J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. What is the overall arc of the seven books? Harry must defeat Voldemort. Each of the books in the series contributes to this, but each book has its own arc, too. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book’s arc is that Harry wants to fit in and be accepted by a loving, caring family. In the beginning of the book we meet Harry, hopeless and lonely, living with the Dursleys. Enter Hagrid, and Harry begins to form a picture of his family that his aunt and uncle never shared with him. At the end of the book, when everyone is boarding the Hogwarts Express to return home for the summer, Harry says, “I’m not going home, really.”* He now knows that his true home is Hogwarts, where he is a hero with friends who care for him. Close of the story arc.

Everything that happens in-between these two scenes contributes to building this arc. Harry wants someone to care for him, and mysterious letters begin to arrive. He learns he’s a wizard. He learns that his parents didn’t die in a car accident, they were killed. On top of that, he’s famous. The tension begins to mount as Harry learns about his past and begins to place each new piece in the picture of his new life. Most of the arc of the first book allows Harry to learn about the world of wizards and witches, and the reader learns with him.  If you re-examine this book—or any book, for that matter—with the end in mind, you will begin to see how each scene contributes to the full arc of the story. When you read a book or story to study it, ask yourself: what is the overarching problem or question in this story? Then examine how each scene contributes to solving that problem or answering that question.

At the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone, we can say: “Ah. Now I understand why Hagrid picked up the secret item from Gringott’s on the same day that he took Harry to the bank. And now I understand that the scene of Ron and Harry playing wizard’s chess was in there to set up the scene where Ron must direct a life-sized version of the game, with his, Harry’s, and Hermione’s lives on the line.” Imagine if we hadn’t had the earlier scenes setting up those parts of the story. Ron’s winning at wizard’s chess would feel unrealistic and forced, and the discovery of something hidden on the forbidden third floor of Hogwarts would hold less intrigue without the knowledge that Hagrid withdrew something mysterious from the bank’s vault. Each piece contributes to the whole arc, and no questions are left unanswered.

That, in sum, is a story arc. Whether you’re writing short stories or a series of novels, your arc must be a complete structure by the time you reach the end. Don’t let your roof collapse because you didn’t spend enough time developing the supporting walls.

[* Actually, that line of dialog is in the movie, not the book, but it merely makes explicit what is implicit in the book. Sometimes screenwriters get it right.]

In addition to being a first reader for Stupefying Stories, Barbara V. Evers has a Master of Arts in Professional Communication and is a writer, mother, wife, corporate trainer, avid reader and movie-goer, and generally curious individual. She blogs at An Eclectic Muse.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"Things Change"

by Bruce Bethke, Editor

Why bother reading submission guidelines? After all, you know your story inside and out, and you also know everything worthwhile there is to know about the magazine to which you plan to submit it. (Or at least, you read a paragraph or two about the magazine, on someone else's blog, about a year ago.) Why waste your time looking at submission guidelines now?

Short answer: because in the publishing business, things are constantly changing.

Magazines come and go all the time. If you've been in the writing trade for any length of time, you already know this. Even entire publishing companies can spring into being overnight and vanish again just as quickly, obliterated by bankruptcy or reduced to gray goo by a corporate acquisition.

Inside the typical magazine's office, things change just as often, and often just as abruptly. Some publishers should put revolving doors on the assistant editors' offices (if the assistant editors even rate offices) and seriously consider doing the same for the editor-in-chief. Editors come and go frequently, and when there's a change in a name on the publication's masthead, it's worth investigating. Did he jump, or was he pushed?

Sometimes the transition is benign: the outgoing editor got a better offer or decided it was time to retire, and there is an orderly transition of power to the groomed replacement. Sometimes it's bizarre: I know of one case where the editor simply got tired of pretending to be a man, and decided to reveal to all the world that she was in fact a woman. Even the most benign of transitions are still changes, and like Dr. Who, the new editor -- even if it's the same person -- is unlikely to have exactly that same tastes or make exactly the same choices as the previous editor.

Other times the transition is not so benign, and that's when paying attention really pays off. Editors get fired all the time because publishers are unhappy with monthly unit sales, or ad revenue trends, or subscription renewal rates, or the current editorial stance of the publication, or any of a vast number of other reasons, not all of them entirely sensible. When this happens the owners generally decide it's time to bring in someone new to shake things up and change directions, and I've seen new editors take their mandate to shake things up very profoundly to heart. I've seen new editors reject submissions precisely because "that's exactly the kind of [stuff] that [the previous editor] got fired for buying." I've even seen new editors go so far as to reject unread all submissions addressed to the previous editor, on the grounds that any author still putting that guy's name on the envelope clearly isn't paying attention. [An aside to those of you still addressing your submissions to M. David Blake: do I really need to say it?]

And then, once in a rare while, you get into a situation where the editor has an equity stake in the publishing company or is otherwise dug-in like a tick and well-nigh immovable, but the publication still undergoes a significant change in direction, because the editor and the other stake-holders have agreed that a significant change in direction is necessary.

Therefore, after a year and a half of going off in six directions at once, we are now announcing some substantial changes to STUPEFYING STORIES. First and foremost we've decided to stop calling it an anthology series, to abandon our ad hoc release schedule, and to change over to being a monthly magazine, released promptly on the 1st day of each month, and to begin selling it by annual subscription as well as by individual copy. The monthly mag launches in July. Stay tuned for more details.

Second, we've decided to let it become the science fiction and fantasy magazine our fans seem to want it to be. We're still willing to stray further out-of-genre that most other SF/F publications, but we're no longer buying straight-up mystery or crime stories, contemporary mainstream stories, or I-don't-know-what-the-heck-this-is-but-I-thought-you'd-like-it stories. We're still committed to publishing all the stories we have in current inventory, but we're not buying any more stories that do not have some kind of SF/F element.

Third, we've decided to expand beyond ebook-only publishing and currently are exploring our options for doing a print edition. To reiterate, this is still in the exploratory stage, and we'll be announcing more details when we know more.

There's more to come; it'll be filtering into our submission guidelines over the course of this coming weekend. But these are the most salient points.

Thanks for reading,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories