Vol2 Updates 09 Jun 2011 12:49 am by David !
Flickr photo by Peter Engels
We want to love you.
This whole process, from 2007 till now, has given me an incredible respect for the agents, editors, assistants and interns who daily read manuscripts from authors, screenwriters, poets and everyone else.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned — if there’s one thing I want you, as a writer, to learn — it’s the bold words just above. We want to love you.
Think about how easy it would be if we said “We’d like to publish an anthology of about 30 stories,” and then the first thirty stories we read were all perfect in every way. Compelling narratives populated with remarkable characters, all with interesting points of view, each paragraph of prose self-assured and crackling with storytelling power. We’d finish each story and say, “Wow. The world needs to see this!” After reading thirty stories, boom! We’d have our book.
It would be so easy!
Well, that’s what we want to happen. That’s what we wish would happen! It’s what everybody wants to happen — every agent, every publisher, every editor. Nobody has it out for you. We all want to love you.
You even do it as a reader, right? You open books with high hopes for what you’ll find. You want to be blown away by every word!
But it doesn’t always work that way, does it?
Charging boldly into battle
Picture yourself, the reader of a story, as a warrior riding into battle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the most powerful editor in New York or a recluse at home in an armchair. You’re a warrior ready to engage with this piece of fiction.
Hopefully you’re fully armored, in great health and sitting astride a fresh steed, although we know that’s not always the case — maybe you’re tired, or on a plane, or stressed, or maybe you’ve just read 600 stories on the same theme in the last month. It’s possible for your armor to be a little chipped from the start.
Regardless, you charge into the pages with every intention of slaying the mighty beast and thrusting your lance through “The End” like it’s the heart of a fearsome dragon. You want to come to rest victorious, breathing hard but invigorated, utterly energized by the experience and feeling on top of the world thanks to the wonderful journey you’ve just been on.
So you start! You gallop full-speed into the first paragraph, and then the second!
Then a stone hits you. A paragraph is poorly-worded.
An arrow stings your shoulder: a character does something unbelievable.
A mace knocks your helmet off: the internal logic of the story is violated.
And it only gets worse from there! A snarling wolf tears your shield from your hand: the plot goes completely off the rails! Your horse is creamed by a cannonball: the ending of the story comes out of the blue! You’d hurl the book across the room if you weren’t face-down in the mud on the battlefield! The metaphor falls in strips to the bloodstained muck like the tattered standard of your foully murdered King!
The story can fight back. The story can kill the knight. The battle can be lost.
I don’t want any of that to happen. I don’t want to read stories that fight back, that refuse to let me enjoy them.
When we, as readers, start to read a story, it’s perfect. It’s always perfect. But most stories, at some point, start fighting back. Stone by stone, arrow by arrow, they fight off the reader.
Your job, as a writer, is not to let your story fight back.
Know the enemy’s attacks.
Here are what we’ve identified as some of the most common attackers. Stop them before they can do damage to Sir (or Lady) Reader!
Now — we are not experts. In fact, Matt just explained to me how a story I wrote for Volume 2 is full of narrative holes. But we have by now read around 1,000 short stories with a critical eye for whether they work or not. I’ll revise my own story, and if you see something here that hits a little too close to home, think about revising yours too.
I’ll also cite examples from Machine of Death Volume 1 that I think successfully avoid these pitfalls. It’s the strength of these stories that made us choose them for the book, so I think they’re good illustrations of writing that works — or at least, writing that appeals to us.
And finally, with each point I’ll share some notes we wrote while reading Machine of Death submissions back in 2007. Not to mock anyone or make fun, but rather to share a bit of how we think, and give you insight into how we decide which stories we’d like to buy.
These will deliberately be negative notes — so don’t get the idea that we’re super mean all the time! We liked a ton of stuff too. Just…not these.
1. The story doesn’t get to the point.
For stabbing people who don’t get to the point.
[MOD VOLUME 1 SUBMISSION NOTES]
…This is a decent story, and some of the ideas about the origin of the Machine are interesting. But there’s not really much conflict — there’s a lot of TALK about conflict, sure, but nothing really stands in the main character’s way except his own moroseness. And honestly, I didn’t get interested until about halfway in, and that’s too long to wait.
…This doesn’t even get going until two-thirds of the way through, and even then not really. Great premise, boring story.
…A pretty good idea, but unfortunately this author has a nasty habit of aimless writing. I found myself mentally crossing out whole lines and paragraphs as irrelevant.
Start when the action starts. Backstory is only kind of interesting. If you can think of a way to communicate backstory through dialogue or action, while something is happening, even better.
Do we need to know Indiana Jones is an archaeologist before we see him hunting for the idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Do we need to know why he’s there or who he’s working for? No. We’ll learn that later. Just get to the point.
Start the story right as, or even slightly after, the first unusual thing happens.
One possible test: Make a copy of your story in a new file. Delete the first paragraph. Does the story still fundamentally make sense? You didn’t need that paragraph. Repeat with the new first paragraph. Keep deleting paragraphs until you find the real beginning of your story — the point at which something actually happens.
Examples: The Machine of Death story “EXPLODED” starts at the exact moment when Pete learns that the machine works. “STARVATION” starts after the helicopter has already crashed on the island. “ANEURYSM” starts just as Norma wheels the machine into the room. In every case, we catch up to the backstory as we go.
2. Nothing happens in the story.
“10,000 words about being depressed? Don’t mind if I do!”
[MOD VOLUME 1 SUBMISSION NOTES]
…Aimless, undirected, just idea after idea not really linked into any kind of coherent narrative.
…This person has a lot of ideas and is a very good writer. But even though the language is fine and the story is occasionally affecting, it has some serious structural flaws. It feels very sloppily put together and without any real sense of build or climax.
…I like the set-up to this one a lot. But the argument that drives most of the story is too much like a real argument. It just goes around and around with people saying the same things over and over again. I wish something actually happened with this one. It’s got a neat central idea.
…Kudos for the ambitious scope, but it’s just another story that summarizes a bunch of ideas in exposition without giving us any flesh-and-blood characters to relate to.
…This is pretty depressing. I’m not sure what the point of the whole thing is besides showing how miserable this character’s life is.
A list of ideas is not a story. An explanation of a concept is not a story. A person having an internal monologue is usually not a story. Two people having a conversation, in which one person explains an idea to the second, is usually not a story.
If that second person then goes and acts upon that idea, and interacts with other characters and brings about a change in the world, that is a story.
Can stories be told about small events, or about ideas? Sure, absolutely. Are stories better when a person does something active to illustrate said idea? Usually.
Indiana Jones went out to find the Ark of the Covenant. The movie isn’t about him sitting in his classroom talking about all the ways he could go look for it.
One possible test: Name an event in your story that causes a character to make a deliberate decision and act on it. Do we see the result of that action? Your story should include at least one cause and effect; at least one decision made and its consequence.
Examples: In the Machine of Death story “PIANO,” the narrator decides to join the military to escape his fate. In Camron Miller’s “CANCER,” Marion continually fights the temptation to use the machine, but finally gives in. In “SHOT BY SNIPER,” Grale dives out from behind cover to save Simmons. The story cannot end before the character decides to act.
3. A too far-away view of the action.
“The protagonist of my story is Polk County.”
[MOD VOLUME 1 SUBMISSION NOTES]
…The writing is competent, but the first half suffers from Greek chorus syndrome, where someone breathlessly informs us what’s happened off-stage, instead of us actually seeing the events firsthand.
…Too talky, too boring. Politicians talking at length about a nuclear strike is far less interesting than an actual nuclear strike.
…This is such a detached, top-down view of this character that I never really feel anything for him one way or another.
…The beginning is pretty good, but I started to get bored about halfway through. I think it suffers from jumping around in time so much; for such a short story, it’s got a really big scope and the “time passes” interludes kill the momentum right when things should be picking up. The writing is fine and there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it didn’t keep my interest.
It’s tempting, when inventing a new, exciting fictional world, to talk all about the setting and describe the beats of the plot. But this is telling, not showing, and it rarely makes for a good story.
Don’t tell us that Bob was mad — have Bob kick the cat. Don’t tell us that the police discovered the hideout — have the SWAT team smash through the door. Don’t tell us that the world changed — show us that people now act in strange and different ways.
For some reason, a lot of stories have this problem around three-quarters of the way through. The story stops being about characters doing things and starts becoming a summary that skips forward in time, in a rush to get to the end of the story. But the reader wants to experience things with the characters, not be told what happens later.
It’s like hanging out with your buds at a party — but then they leave and do something else, while you can only follow what they’re doing via their Facebook updates. It’s not the same as being there with them. When in doubt, stay right there with your characters, in real time.
One possible test: Does your story feature summaries of scenes that we don’t get to experience firsthand? Are there any full pages that feature only summaries, and no scenes? There shouldn’t be.
Examples: In “AFTER MANY YEARS, STOPS BREATHING, WHILE ASLEEP, WITH SMILE ON FACE,” we learn about Ricky’s personality when he’s thrust headlong into an awkward situation at the party. In “DROWNING,” we learn about Nick’s business through examples of the various dreams he’s had for clients. In “FIRING SQUAD,” the story of the narrator’s friend is told in the first person as he recalls exactly what happened in the mountains.
4. A world without a personality.
“I mixed these and now I need some PINK STOMACH LIQUID.”
[MOD VOLUME 1 SUBMISSION NOTES]
…The setting is unique, but suffers from a lack of concrete details. The characters are laughable — why did he change his mind so easily? — and talk mostly in ideological pronouncements. The basic idea is fine, but the story’s got a long way to go before I buy any of it.
…Everything in the story is just so superficial. Did you know, for instance, that some people respond to the Death Machine by being afraid? And that others take risks they otherwise wouldn’t? Also, did you know that it is better to live life than to obsess over death?
…The writing isn’t bad, but stories about schoolkids are getting really boring to me, as are stories about hot girls inexplicably liking dorky guys, as are stories that don’t actually come to any sort of resolution.
Generic Awkward Guy shows up a lot in stories. So does Generic Hot Girl and Generic Wisecracking Friend, and they all seem to work in Generic Office in Generic City. Or Generic Soldiers fight in a Generic Desert, or Generic Businessmen are Generically Evil.
Writers, invest your work with specifics. Generic Awkward Guy and Generic Hot Girl are boring. What makes them different from every other person on the planet? How do they see the world differently? What in their past has led them to that understanding?
Think of people you know. Steal mannerisms, traits, and prejudices from them.
Think of places you’ve worked, buildings you’ve been in. What’s unique about them? What details can you steal to color the setting in your story?
Think of the city where you live, or places you’ve visited. What’s unique about the culture, the architecture, the weather, or the attitude of that place? We don’t care about Man and Woman who live in City, U.S.A. We want to be transported to specific places and meet specific people.
(I should add, this is equally true of clichéd settings in any genre. We’ve all already seen Hogwarts and Middle-Earth and Blade Runner. Show us a place we’ve never been, and make us feel like we’re there.)
One possible test: Describe your characters and setting to someone without telling them any of the story. See if they sound interesting on their own, without a plot to move them around.
Examples: “IMPROPERLY PREPARED BLOWFISH” takes place in a grungy Japanese lobby. “WHILE TRYING TO SAVE ANOTHER” is a story of unique unlikely friends who meet in a church basement in Britain. “ALMOND” is set in an office, but it’s described in minute detail, and although we never leave the office, we know it’s in Cleveland.
5. Things don’t make sense.
“Well, Captain, if everybody starts wearing them, then it will be a uniform.”
[MOD VOLUME 1 SUBMISSION NOTES]
…What’s up with the stilted language? It’s overly formal and repetitive. This sounds nothing like any conversation that anyone would ever have, ever.
…This is pretty well-written, and the character interactions are interesting, although I don’t really understand why she did what she did. Good writing, but ultimately raises more questions for me than it answers.
…I just cannot believe any of these stories where people get their predictions and say, “I have to completely isolate myself and change my entire life in order to survive, even though the life I’m choosing is awful.”
…This is so removed from any conceivable realm of human behavior that it’s almost insulting.
Unless otherwise specified, the reader usually assumes that a story takes place in a world that operates like the real world. So when people act unlike humans that we know, or when physics don’t work properly, or when a blatant factual error or oversight becomes the basis of a plot point — it’s incredibly distracting.
The most common, and most insidious, example of this is the “why don’t they” situation. You can watch a horror movie and ask “Why don’t they just use their cell phone?” This is where the reader sees some obvious logical flaw that the characters (or the author) do not.
It’s tough to combat, because if you’d thought of the thing they should have done, you’d have addressed it in the story! This is where allowing time to pass and reading your story with fresh eyes, or having other people read your story, can really help give you another perspective.
And definitely don’t be afraid to ask experts about, or look up information on, technical matters. You may not be an expert on shotguns, but you can bet that someone reading the final story will be. And if you’re hinging your action scene on the main character being able to snipe his enemy from a bell tower with a shotgun, you’re going to lose some readers.
It’s even worse when the logic error happens with characters. “Why would she fall for him?” is a really common question that’s often not answered to my satisfaction. What does the cute barista see in the dorky loner? Why would she like him? Go deeper into your characters to make them unique.
A character doesn’t just “do something.” Actions are part of patterns. Actions come from personalities, which come from experiences, which come from past actions.
One possible test: Ask someone to read your story and point out anything that doesn’t seem believable. Tell them that you’ve deliberately included one illogical thing in the story and see if they can identify it.
Examples: In “SUICIDE,” Tommy embarks on his crazy crusade because he wants to prove himself to the woman he used to be with. In “DESPAIR,” the doctors are forced into inaction because the NHS prohibits doing anything that might hasten a patient’s predicted death. In “COCAINE AND PAINKILLERS,” Kelly is unable to work on the campaign because she’s paralyzed by the expectations Jack has placed on her. The characters all behave counter to their best interests — not because they’re illogical, but because of their personalities and the circumstances.
6. Going off the rails.
“Sorry! Sorry, I was texting.”
[MOD VOLUME 1 SUBMISSION NOTES]
…Great writing, cool details, aimless story, dumb ending.
…This is one that I really wanted to be good. The setting is great and the writing is very good. I was willing to spot it a “maybe” up until the very end, but it just goes way too far over the top. I will never in a million years believe what happens at the very end.
…The narrator’s conflicted feelings seem natural and interesting. But then the end of the story just comes out of nowhere and broadsides the whole reasonably-subtle piece into a light pole.
…NOOOOO!!! The first 3/4 of this was sooo good. And then it just veered. The “twist” at the end makes absolutely no sense.
There is nothing, nothing more frustrating as a reader (and as an editor) than a story that’s going great — but then takes a hard right turn. All you can do is cringe as the beautiful story smashes into a brick wall.
Surprise endings are fine, if they’re set up properly. But for some reason, some authors think that the last three paragraphs of a story are the perfect place to introduce brand-new concepts not hinted at anywhere else, or to suddenly change genre and tone, or to simply…stop, without resolving anything.
Short stories are tough, because it can be perfectly all right to leave a situation hanging in the limited space we have. We don’t always need a narrative conclusion to a story, in which the bad guys are defeated and the good guys retire to a private island. But we do always need an emotional conclusion.
If you’ve started your story at the proper point (see #1, above), then the the ending of the story should answer the question posed by the beginning. What kind of question should the beginning pose? Why, one you can answer by the end, of course.
Machine of Death stories in particular often end with a character’s death. This is only sometimes satisfying. Other times it feels like a cop-out at best, and an implausible turn of events (see #5) at worst. In real life, people die rather rarely. So when a story that’s been about a relationship suddenly veers without warning into murder, or a grisly death suddenly occurs, it’s disorienting and doesn’t respect the emotional arc that’s been building to that point.
One possible test: Ask yourself, “What am I trying to get the audience to wonder throughout this story?” And make sure the ending answers their question.
Examples: In “TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS,” Simon suffers constant criticism, but the story ends with an affirmation of his purpose. In “VEGETABLES,” Mick helps Frank get over his fear for reasons that are revealed only at the end of the story. In “FUDGE,” Rick’s feelings for Shannon, established throughout the story, are suddenly recontextualized in the face of his prediction.
Ride on to victory!
“OWW OKAY FINE YOU DON’T LIKE DIRTY JOKES”
It’s hard to craft a story that works. It really is! And constantly wanting to improve your work, and being dedicated to doing so, is one of the main hallmarks of a great writer, or one who will become a great writer. Be tireless in your pursuit of self-improvement!
But even more importantly — put something on the page. You cannot write something great if you do not write anything. As my old art teacher used to say, “Vomit now, clean up later.” Put words on the page. Don’t think, just write. Then, consult this list as you rewrite.
Here’s more about the kinds of stories we’re reading for Volume 2, and the things we want and don’t want. And of course, we are always available for advice — just use our Ask Us Anything form. You have approximately five weeks left to submit a story for MOD2! We can’t wait to read your work!