The Quirks of the Slush Pile, P1

Ah, Wednesday. We meet again.

As you probably know, I’ve been a first-reader for Waylines Magazine for several months now. Long enough to see some negative patterns in the submissions. Today I’d like to cover one of those negative aspects, and though this might be a discussion that’s a little rough on the ego, I feel it’s an important one to have.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone based on my experience, and they do not reflect the opinions or official stance of Waylines or any other publishing venue.

So, what is the biggest problem I see in the slush? What do approximately 80-90% of the stories I vet have in common?

They’re boring.

Ok, well that’s subjective, you say. One story can’t be all things to all people, and I’ve read plenty of published stories that I thought were boring.

True enough. And I’ll be the first to admit that for the most part, the entire selection process is subjective. But thus is the way of any entertainment industry.

But, I bet (and hey, I could be wrong) that you don’t find 90% of the available stories boring. And I do have concrete reasons behind my boredom. I’ll list not only the causes, but also ways I feel a skilled author can counteract them.

Number one. The story’s premise is unoriginal. This is top reason I find the majority of manuscripts in the slush can’t hold my attention. When I open up a ghost story and it feels like the twelve other ghost stories I’ve recently vetted, there’s no help for it. I’m unengaged almost immediately. I see this especially in the genres of paranormal horror, epic fantasy and hard-er sci-fi. Why is it so hard to sell a zombie story or a vampire story? Because everybody writes them.

But wait! Why then are there so many published zombie stories and vamp stories? The TV show Heroes was essentially X-Men, but that didn’t seem to matter. And how is The Walking Dead different from any other zombie apocalypse?

I’ll tell you how: the people. The best way to counteract a run-of-the-mill premise is with deep, original, heart-felt characters. Why do viewers and readers keep consuming zombie stories if the premise by itself has been beaten to death? Because these stories offer characters in conflict in instantly digestible circumstances. A writer or filmmaker doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the milieu–which signals their intent is not to interest you in this exciting new idea, but interest you in these intense, fascinating people.

This is not to say that original ideas don’t need to be paired with great characters–they do. But a great character can carry an audience through almost anything. Most often I see these unoriginal premises supplemented by equally unoriginal characters. Which brings me to my next point.

Number two. The story’s characters are cardboard (and/or bad characters doing bad things apparently just because they’re terrible individuals).

I’ve only ever read one author who could pull off the cardboard character, and that was Michael Crichton. Why? Because he thought of things like, what would happen if I mixed real dinosaurs and theme parks? And then produced an engrossing plot from the premise.

What makes a character cardboard (ie. two dimensional)? Typically such characters are some form of stereotype fitted with a few quirks that scream LOOK, REAL PEOPLE ARE QUIRKY. Atypically, they’re simply non-people that could be replaced with any other person in the universe and the events of the story would still take place in exactly the same fashion (in other words, they have no effect on the plot, they’re just vehicles for it). Cardboard characters don’t seem to have any thoughts that are particularly special to them, their emotionality is flat, and their motivations are equally as stereotypical or non-existent as their personalities.

I pair this with bad characters who have horrific behavior for no apparent reason–ie., their motive is that they’re eeeevil, mwahah. I see this more in the horror genre than any other, but these characters are just as uninspired as the good guy who is just good because he’s sooooo good, or Orphan X that is the same as all the other orphan characters, or Female X who is more a prop than anything else, or Snarky Cowboy X who…you get the picture.

Even in stories where the protagonists are well rounded, a stereotypical I’m evil just to be evil bad guy can really kill my interest.

The fix? Well, you’ve got to have one hell of a plot to have dull characters–and one hell of a setting, and fantastic prose. After all, it’s difficult to become emotionally invested in a story when the story’s characters don’t have genuine emotional stake in it themselves.

Number three. The story has low tension or no tension. This is created through a variety of ways. It can happen through a lack of conflict, where the character is doing something like the laundry/getting dressed/walking the dog as usual–which means both the character and the audience are waiting for something to happen. Don’t make your audience suffer through a waiting-room like experience.

It can also happen through uninspired or false conflict. False conflict often manifests as a woes-me character walking down the street (or riding in a train car, or lying in bed) doing absolutely nothing (or a load of inconsequential stuff) while describing the world and how dark and dreary it is. This is not conflict, this is whining. Uninspired conflict is something like, my friend was mean to me today–which turns out to be the long and short of it. Conflict, like people, needs depth.

Conversely, dropping the reader into the middle of a war zone when they’ve got no concept of who is fighting or why also creates low tension–which I’m sure seems counter intuitive. One fight scene is largely like any other fight scene and is utterly boring without a reason to care about the fighting (especially when approached with movie-like detail. In film, lots of things happening mechanically at once can be absorbed in an instant. Trying to describe the same action in prose draws it out and sucks it of any tension created by the one thing fight scenes have going for them: immediacy).

These problems can usually be solved through a healthy amount of chopping (and in some cases, adding). Get to the good stuff–and no, none of the above is the good stuff.

Number four, and my last point. The story is filled with loving, repetitive descriptions of everything. Going over every object, every expression, every flit of the wind in minute detail gets really old, really quick. Now I’m probably more inclined to have a hair trigger on this than other people. While my husband is glad to have someone’s wardrobe described every time they come on the literary stage, I am not. Especially when we’ve already had someone’s general sense of style explained, and the adjectives being applied to their wardrobe are the same every time, and the only thing different about the dress or shirt or shoes the character is wearing today vs. yesterday is that they are green (but the author can’t just stop at green, oh no).

This slows down the plot and character development for a bit of self-indulgent authorlyness, in my opinion. Some call it world building. But to me, once the world is built, you don’t then need to show me a scale model, and five more sketches, and some of the prototypes, and a few of the extra nuts and bolts you threw in. Give me a sense of the world, then move it along, please.

These repetitive descriptions are especially irritating, in my opinion, when paired with the dull premises I mentioned before.

This is a kill your darlings moment, I think. The way to solve this is to tabulate how many times you’ve described Queen Odessa’s hairdo, and, unless her hair is somehow important to the plot or her character development, scale back.

Everything on this list basically goes back to the idea that all aspects of your writing needs to sing. But I think everyone needs suggestions on how to counteract weak points because, let’s face it, we’ve all got ‘em. Boring just happens to be the issue I see most often. Hopefully this short list is helpful to you.

If you’ve got any other points on why a story might be perceived as boring, let me know!

~Marina

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6 thoughts on “The Quirks of the Slush Pile, P1

  1. kkline922 says:

    Well written points! Thanks for sharing. To me, it’s all about characters, and I could forgive many things with compelling characters along with a superb story. But agreed, the other stuff makes it more difficult. Great post.

  2. D.M. Bonanno says:

    I’ve been thinking about doing a write-up as well – yours is lovely and to the point. It’s an excellent summary of my experience as well, though yours is more eloquent than miy thoughts.

    Have you found any lessons for yourself in the slush?

    • Thanks, Dawn. For me, reading slush has put a big emphasis on how important the first page is. I’ve not yet gotten comfortable enough with the process to feel I can stop reading a submission after a ‘bad’ first page, but typically my first impression does turn out to be true. As a writer, I know logically I’ve got to put my best foot forward, but after becoming a first reader, that’s been emphasized times a hundred.

      I’ve also noticed that a lot of the stories I like enough to read until the end have rushed endings–which is just so sad. And I think this is a problem I tend to have. I’m so happy to get to the end when I’m writing that sometimes I fail to give it the attention (and word count) it needs to feel fulfilling.

  3. Oh god, all of this is true. And I say ‘oh god’ because reading it just emphasized how badly the stories on my blog need to be edited before I try submitting any of them anywhere. Thanks, actually, for providing a bit of perspective.

    I don’t think my work is -bad- per se, but I feel like I could definitely use more practice editing (read: SOME practice editing) to see what I can do with it. I dunno. I think yeah, a great majority of what makes a story good is subjective. You can say ‘that’s great sentence structure’ and yet someone with less/different education will say ‘that sentence is worded oddly’ or ‘that doesn’t sound right’. And when it comes down to characters, some people LIKE them to be two dimensional. Some people don’t want to think. I’m not saying that’s a great thing, but it IS something that happens.

    As a writer I’m finding that I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. It’s terrible. I don’t have the time for it. It’s terrible and I don’t have the time for it. If I could, I would spend my waking days reading and my sleeping nights writing and never edit. But the stories that I do read, I read and immediately identify plot clichés, two dimensional characters and poor sentence structure, and that makes it hard as heck to pick anything up at all. The stories that surprise me are always fun. The stories that have excellent dialogue can be fun. But the myriad things which can take the fun out of any story I read boil down to three things:

    Poorly expanded worlds
    and/or
    Predictable plot (search for the mcguffin, defend the mcguffin, defeat the mcguffin)
    and/or
    totally or partially flat characters, be they protagonists or villains.

    Usually if the first page is bad I turn to the next one to see if it’s any better. I know, I’m so awful.

    Very few stories I pick up seem to break free from one of those norms. Fewer still can effectively draw me in anyway (though often those books are awesome). Maybe I’ve just grown jaded to plot structure. I know I can’t really say much. -I- like my stories, but I can’t pay me. I guess it’s a good thing publication isn’t everything to me.

    Alright, I’ve babbled on and said my piece.

    Hi, by the way! Found your site through the Writers of the Future forums (which I had in turn been browsing while thinking of entering the contest). Thought I’d drop by and give props and ended up staying for the wicked blog post.

    Cheers,
    Eris

    • Hi Eris,

      I’ve been out of town for a while, so sorry for the late reply!

      I definitely support entering the contest–not just for all the great things the winners get, but for the submitting experience as well. Just remember that if you’ve got a story up on your blog most venues (including WotF) consider that already published (which means you can’t sell them the first print rights [ie. the right to publish the story before it can be seen anywhere else] that most magazines and anthologies are after). You’ll only be able to send those stories to reprint venues.

      And it is difficult for a picky reader to find lots of things that fit their tastes. I personally tend to like a wide variety of things in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, but not a lot outside of it (which doesn’t make other genres bad, it just makes them not to my liking). It sounds like you’re having a hard time turning off your critical mind when you read, which can be irritating, but also a good thing. It means you’re actively learning when you read. If you’re like me, you should be able to eventually turn that off and just relax again when you want to–but don’t lose that critical edge!

      When it comes to short fiction, I say focus on the venues that publish the kind of stuff you like to read and write. Don’t feel bad if you don’t like everything out there, and don’t think that means you won’t be able to find a venue that likes your work. If you work hard (on the craft and business side), stay focused, and never fall in to the ego trap a lot of newbies do, you should eventually find your niche.

      Good luck! And thanks for the comment; I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. 🙂

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