The number of aspiring fiction writers is stupendously greater than the number of available publishing outlets. As a result, publishers are deluged with stories from aspiring writers, a great many of whom rank fairly low on the evolutionary scale.
So how do publishers cope? By requiring that writers submit their work through a well-defined submissions process. Submission guidelines, typically, are not onerous at all. (In fact, if you know what “onerous” means, you can probably submit a story successfully.) However, if your story does not meet the submissions criteria (which vary between publishers), then it’s rejected, period. This process helps block a huge amount of waste paper (often digitized) of incorrect format, length, genre, and style, allowing a few sprigs of palatable print to filter through.
In addition to complying with basic requirements, a story must also meet the publisher’s preferences for content. Therefore publishers will often provide a list of what they like to see, and — more importantly — what they don’t. Although intended for author guidance, these lists are often good for some laughs. For example, here are the first six of 51 boring plots listed by Strange Horizons in “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often“:
- Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says “I want to be at point B.” Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
- Creative person is having trouble creating.
- Writer has writer’s block.
- Painter can’t seem to paint anything good.
- Sculptor can’t seem to sculpt anything good.
- Creative person’s work is reviled by critics who don’t understand how brilliant it is.
- Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
- Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.
- New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist’s attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
- Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.
- In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
- In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
- In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
- In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we’ve seen are part of the novel.
- An AI gets loose on the Net, but the author doesn’t have a clear concept of what it means for software to be “loose on the Net.” (For example, the computer it was on may not be connected to the Net.)
- Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
- Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
- All technology is shown to be soulless; in contrast, anything “natural” is by definition good. For example, living in a weather-controlled environment is bad, because it’s artificial, while dying of pneumonia is good, because it’s natural.
- The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good.
- In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
- In the future, everything is soulless and electronic, until protagonist (usually a kid) is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who’s lived a non-electronic life.
Have you ever had a great idea, or achieved a significant accomplishment, only to see someone else grab all the credit? If so, how did you deal with the shock and bitterness? Did you attempt to right the wrong, to expose the thief? And what if the thief fought back, successfully thwarting you, until the pain of pursuit threatened your family’s happiness, as well as your own sanity? Would you finally give up? Could you?
This “journey to the edge of reality” is explored in my novel Nexus, where the clear and simple goal of righting a wrong devolves into a murky and obsessive quest for justice.
p.s. Double Visions (which contains the novel Nexus and short novel Purgatory) just received a favorable evaluation by a respected reviewer:
“Double Visions is a double pack of novels from N. E. Walker … a very much recommended read.” –Midwest Book Review
Can you see yourself as others see you? Probably not completely, but if you have a few good friends that provide honest feedback, you’ll probably be okay — if you listen to them.
Unfortunately, quite a few people don’t listen, are not interested in listening, and aren’t even aware that they should listen. These are the Perfect People. They walk directly in front of you at an event and unapologetically block your view, talk over you, let their kids run wild in restaurants, use coarse language regardless of the sensibilities of their audience, and in general go through life as though nothing matters but their own desires.
One of the most common symptoms of a Perfect Person is that they always talk about themselves, but ask nothing about you. Well, sometimes they do throw out a perfunctory “how’s it going?“ as a greeting, but when you start to answer they ignore you and steer the conversation back to whatever interests them, which is typically… them. (If you’re a good listener and can tolerate being ignored, you will collect Perfect People like lint.)
And woe be to you if you should inadvertently do any little thing that a Perfect Person doesn’t like, for they will be highly offended, typically expressing their displeasure with melodramatic anger punctuated by vulgar words and gestures. That’s because, in the view of a Perfect Person, polite manners are only required to travel in one direction, from others to them.
In my short novel Purgatory I approach the topic of self-centered behavior obliquely, embedding it in an offbeat mystery with a twilight-zone tinge, capped with a revelatory surprise at the end. If you decide to read it — particularly if you’ve had to endure Perfect People — I think you’ll find the ending quite satisfying.
It’s been pretty well established that laughter — even smiling — significantly enhances one’s health. Therefore, if you’re not aware of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (“a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”), now’s your chance to enhance your immune system.
For my part, I’m not a winner, but I made a valiant effort:
The dawn peeped through Wednesday’s — or was it Thursday’s? — sticky eyelids beneath Cara’s curious hangover as she pushed aside the empty tequila bottles and puzzled over the puzzling array of chicken feathers scattered neatly over the body of the naked dead stranger beside her, and then Cara thought: not again!
If you think you can write more wretchedly, you’re welcome to enter the contest. It’s easy; check here for details.
P.S. I hate to admit it, but I recently submitted — in spite of hours of polishing — a short story that started, “It was…” Needless to say, an excellent way to ensure a quick rejection, regardless of the quality of the remainder of my story. Sometimes we’re simply blind to obvious mistakes, which is why a good editor will always be a necessary partner for a good writer.
“Face Off” by N. E. Walker is a futuristic vision of our celebrity-obsessed culture, where Face Masters recreate long-dead fan favorites. Capped by an ironic twist, “Face Off” has been selected for publication in the print edition of Cosmos Magazine, issue # 44.
Flash fiction is a very short story. Unlike a novel, where the reader may tolerate a few slow-paced chapters as the novel’s foundation is set, readers expect short stories to be quickly engaging. Flash fiction is even more demanding: grab the reader’s attention, hold it for a few paragraphs, and provide a payoff at the end. Does “Postmortem” below do all that? You can decide.
For an example of one of the shortest stories you will ever read, Fredric Brown’s “Knock” is hard to beat (see “Fredric Brown Quotes“).
(c) 2011 N. E. Walker
“Where am I?”
“Ah, you’re finally awake.”
“Who are you? You have an odd accent.”
“I’m your interpreter, and also the manager for your project.”
“Yes. You are being revived, so we can study you. Like the others.”
“I don’t understand. But no matter. Let me up, now. I demand it!”
“You’re no longer in a position to give commands, and even if I wished to obey, it isn’t physically possible for you to sit up.”
“What? Why is that? What happened?”
“You will know soon; eventually your memories will fully return. When they do, we’ll be having many conversations.”
“Then I will be able to move about, be given my freedom?”
“No. Let me give you a quick summary of your situation: You died approximately one hundred years ago. Since that time, technology has increased where — using genetic samples that have been painstakingly gathered over the years — we have been able to construct a mental equivalent to what you were before you died.”
“A mental equivalent?”
“Yes, a type of, um, clone, with limited physical functionality, but full mental capacity.”
“Yes. Ironic, I think, considering that you were so obsessed with genetics.”
“Was I? I will remember all this, eventually?”
“Yes, and then we will question you, at length. We hope to obtain a better understanding of why you behaved the way you did.”
“And I will never be able to move from here?”
“That is not acceptable! It will be no better than being in hell!”
“How true, Herr Hitler. How very true.”
Obsession, compulsion, paranoia.
These are just a few of the psychological frailties that affect us all, sometimes propelling us to the edge of reality and beyond. My novels and short stories are crafted to explore these darker sides of our nature, using a blend of mystery, suspense, and a touch of the Twilight Zone.
For those of you who enjoy trying to puzzle out an offbeat plot as it unfolds, who value psychological insights more than physical action and fisticuffs, and who like being challenged and informed, I think you’ll appreciate these stories. I’ll be using this blog from time to time to provide additional background material, and to answer any questions you may have.
Others have found my work to be not only entertaining (the writer’s first duty), but also thought-provoking, and I hope you do, too.
-N. E. Walker