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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Talk" (Part Three)

by Bruce Bethke

Previously, in "The Slush Pile Survival Guide:" Part One | Part Two
And now the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad conclusion...

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This is the part of The Talk where English teachers and Creative Writing professors wince, aspiring writers plug their ears and sing, "La la la, I can't hear you," and even successful authors with long lists of publication credits sob and cry out, "Please, God, say it ain't so!" The essential dichotomy we're dealing with here is:
  • Writing fiction is a craft, which frequently aspires to be an art.
  • But publishing fiction is a business.
And what, pray tell, is exactly the sort of business that publishing fiction is?

This is where most discussions of the craft of writing run off the rails. We writers love to talk about all the fiddly little bits that make up the things we do. We can spend hours debating things like symbolism, metaphor, deconstructionism, narrative voice, character development, the three-act structure, and the proper use of the Oxford comma

Admittedly, there is value to be gained from having these sorts of discussions. The conventions of manuscript formatting are important to the aspiring writer, not in and of themselves, but because nothing screams "I'm an amateur!" at an editor as loudly as a page filled with single-spaced block paragraphs. Grammar is important, not because Miss Thistlebottom has her hobgoblins and they must be obeyed, but because it's the protocol that makes coherent interpersonal communication possible, and without coherence you have word salad. Words are the tools of our trade and it's important to know what they mean and how to use them correctly, not because we revere Webster's Dictionary like a bible, but because you don't want editors to laugh as loudly when they read your story as we did when we read the one that began with a description of the terror and loathing the lead character felt when he saw a man "wearing the cossack of Christ."

But all this is inside baseball. I have resisted coming to this conclusion for a long time -- resisted it quite vigorously, in fact -- but the evidence I've seen in two years of reading slush pile submissions is incontrovertible. To become a successful, commercially published, fiction author, you do not need to be a great writer.

You need to be a great story-teller.

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Are these really two distinctly different craft skills? The evidence of the slush pile says so. Every day I see and reject submissions that are simply overflowing with brilliant, genuinely beautiful writing, submitted by people who seemingly have no clue as to what a story is or how to tell it. Conversely, every once in a while I'll accept a submission that, if judged purely as a piece writing, has very serious flaws -- but Holy Cow, is there the story there!

You want to know something? That's (sort of) okay. Sloppy grammar, inconsistent voice, mangled syntax, and bungled tense are all mechanical problems. We can fix those in the edit cycle. We have the knowledge, we have the technology, and from time to time we have the time.

But no amount of editorial bondo can fill the void left by the complete absence of a story.

"Okay," some smartass in the back of the room always says at about this time. "Purely for my own reference, in your mind, what exactly is a story?"

That's easy. Any creative writing textbook -- say, How to Write Short Stories, by Sharon Sorenson -- will give you the stock answer:
"A short story is a narrative. It tells about imaginary events that happen to imaginary people, and the events lead to a crisis. [...] In the most simplified description, a short story has a beginning, middle, and end. The characters meet and somehow resolve a conflict, thereby permitting the author to convey a message, otherwise called a theme."
That's not enough, though. Remember, for the business of commercial publishing, we don't need stories that are merely very well-written; we need stories that are entertaining.

And this is where I begin to venture onto unstable ground, because this is a relatively recent epiphany for me. I never gave it much serious consideration when I was a working writer. I just did it, and most of the time it seemed to work. Thinking very seriously now about the distinction between the two...

The more I consider it, the clearer it seems to me that writers who consistently produce entertaining fiction are engaging in a form of temporally abstracted performance art, not unlike a musician laying down tracks in a recording studio. Knowingly or not, they are telling a story to their audience, but delivering it in a media format that can be enjoyed later, at the individual audience member's convenience.

Entertainment comes in many flavors. If you've ever watched a master story-teller at work -- Jane Yolen, for example (and if you ever get the chance to listen to her tell stories, by all means, do so) -- you'll be astonished by how interactive the process becomes. A great story-teller doesn't just plod through the words: she can make the audience laugh at the jokes, chuckle and smile at the wit, gasp with surprise at the horror, or shudder with chills at the terror. A great story-teller can make his or her audience cheer when the heroine tries and wins; choke-up when she tries and loses; sigh when someone falls in love; and snarl when that love is betrayed.

In short, a good story-teller elicits an emotional response from his or her audience.

A great story-teller can elicit that response without even being in the same room. Some can even do it at a distance of centuries. 

To revise and expand upon Ms Sorenson's rather antiseptic and clinical description, then:
"A story is a narrative that tells about events that happen to people (or equivalents thereof). A short story has a beginning that engages the reader's interest, a middle that rewards that initial interest by pulling the reader deeper into the story and engaging him or her on some kind of emotional level, and an ending that leaves the reader feeling, 'Wow! Thank you for telling me that story! Please tell me another!'" 
Note that a great story does not leave the reader feeling something like, 'Wow! That was really awesome, the way you used that McDonald's Shamrock Shake on page 4 as a metaphor for rebirth!" That sort of reaction only comes from other aspiring writers.

And herein we see the problem inherent in trying to become a good story-teller by exposing your stories to your writing group or creative writing class...

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So how does one become a good story-teller? At the moment, I honestly don't know. As I said, this is all a rather recent epiphany for me, and I'm still working out the implications. Was I born with an innate ability to tell stories that other people find entertaining (most of the time), or is this a talent I developed by accident during the decade I spent doing music and theater, before I ever started to get serious about being a writer?

When I have a workable theory, I'll let you know. Until then: keep writing!

Kind regards,


Arisia said...

I'm looking around for the "Like" button. Guess I need to *write* an expression of liking, huh.

I like it!

Jule said...

I like it.
I think most humans have an innate ability to tell stories. Toddlers excel at telling stories. Sometime during childhood that ability is suppressed in most people. A few refuse to be suppressed and continue develop and hone that ability. Of those few, a number remain verbal story tellers. Another number venture into the written /printed word.

GuyStewart said...

I'm not positive about the storytelling ability being supressed -- mostly because you should hear your average 10th grade girl relate story after story about "that b-----" or how "he cheated on me and then I says to him, I says..."; or adult male sportsmen telling the story of the one (or several) that got away; or any adolescent male relating his "love exploits"; and your average man or woman explaining that the whole reason they were late to work was because "this STUPID black pickup truck got in frount me me and drove like...two miles an hour the whole way here!"

I DO think that storytelling becomes more utilitarian than entertaining as we age...

Peter-John Campbell said...

Thank you for this.