Lately, whenever I’m reading a book, slush-reading, or working on my novel, I’ve been struck by this idea that in order to be good writers we have to unlearn practically everything we were taught in grade school about creative writing.
If you google "writing tips," one of the most common pieces of advice you'll find is to avoid dialogue tags. You should write "he said" or "she said," instead of "he growled," "he railed," "she whispered," etc. You keep the tag simple so it doesn’t distract from the story.
But when I was in the fourth grade, our teacher taped a large cartoon speech bubble to the classroom wall and on it she wrote, “Instead of Said.” Our lesson that day was to come up with dozens of goofy dialogue tags (e.g. bellowed, fumed, screeched, roared, etc.) to add to the speech bubble. We were encouraged to use those tags in our creative writing exercises throughout the year.
It’s no wonder then that when I slush-read, I see people using excessive numbers of these same phrases in their short stories. They’d been taught to in elementary school, just like I had! To be honest, I don’t think I stopped using bad dialogue tags until I read Stephen King’s thoughts on the subject in his excellent book, On Writing. But it’s funny, even now when I should know better, I still find myself trying to use words “instead of said” when I’m writing dialogue. The habit is hard to break.
And there are so many other ways well-intentioned elementary school teachers managed to turn us into bad writers, or at the very least, establish some very bad writing habits.
When my fifth grade teacher taught us to “show, don’t tell,” she never really explained what that meant. If you take that phrase literally, it’s becomes impossible to explain what a character is thinking. It’s hard to show thoughts. Instead, you get stuck describing scenes purely in terms of spatial physics. Stories get hyper-linear and boring because you’re showing every single thing that happens in excessive detail.
“Show, don't tell” has also created my biggest pet-peeve when I slush-read, which is excessive descriptions of body language; the tilt of a head, a shiver, clenched stomachs, pounding hearts, etc. It gets purple, distracting, and cliché fast. But how are you supposed to explain to the reader how a character is feeling if you're only allowed to "show" and never "tell."
Sometimes, I think it's better to just say your character was frightened as opposed to going into a paragraph long description about the character's bodily functions. Or use dialogue to your advantage. Or trust that the reader will know that under those circumstances anyone would be scared (trusting the reader is a massively undervalued skill in creative writing).
The truth is, “show, don’t tell,” is a gross over-simplification. You have to do both. You want to show as much as possible, but some things just have to be told to the reader. For a great explanation about “showing” and “telling” check out this brilliant blog-post by Emily Lowery.
In grade school, how many of you were taught the “Elements” of a story? Setting, Character, Conflict, Resolution, and maybe Theme? Probably all of us. It’s not that those aren’t real elements of a story, but it’s how they’re taught, like literal instructions on how to write a story. Step one: establish the setting. Step two: describe the characters. Step three: create conflict (things got a little vague when we got to this step). Step four: somehow, the conflict resolves itself and ends. If you were a “good” writer, you were the kid in class who could get all the way to Resolution, but I think 99% of us got stuck at Setting and Character.
The problem with this way of teaching writing is that it artificially divides the story into discrete components. It makes us believe that the “right way” to start a story is to begin with a physical description of the setting in hyper-descriptive language (because according to my teacher, good writing was descriptive writing, with lots and lots of adjectives). Then if you managed to get past your multi-paged description about the weather, only then did you get to Character, and you described them, in lots and lots of detail; their raven black hair, their almond eyes, their five-foot two-inch height, and their clothes, you could not skip their clothes.
It’s only when you’re older and you read good books do you realize that most authors spend as little time and detail on the Setting and Character as they can get away with. What did Holden Caulfield look like? I have no idea and frankly, I don't need to know.
When you divide stories into neat little elements and then teach your students to “show” us those elements using hyper-descriptive language, it gets really hard to know anything about the character beyond their physical appearance, even if that may be the least important part about them.
And Conflict? This seemed to be my teacher’s least valued part of the story. She wanted adjectives, lots of adjectives. Conflict and plot were secondary to the mechanics of the language she was trying to teach us. In retrospect, I can see that she was trying to get us comfortable with reading and writing more than she was actually trying to teach us how to build a good story (though you could make the argument that you’ll never be much of a writer, creative or otherwise, if you have no feel for storytelling).
But when everything you know about writing stories can be traced back “rules” you learned in the third-grade, well, it’s no wonder we struggle to write a decent short story or novel. It’s hard enough as it is, but it’s even harder when you’ve been taught a lot of bad habits.
A quick post.
I slush read for a science fiction and fantasy magazine (I'm not going to say which) and I've been noticing some reoccurring patterns in the short stories I read that tend to get rejected. I wanted to share a few of those problematic themes I keep seeing. Maybe this will help you get published? I figure it can't hurt.
So here they are, things I think you should avoid in your stories so you can avoid getting rejected:
1) Your protagonist dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by suicide.
2) Everyone dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by mass-suicide or mass-murder.
3) Your characters have hard made-up names (i.e. Hyiliawpha, or Wjusta), particularly if there are a lot of characters. I don't think it's a coincidence that the characters in Game of Thrones tend to have modern derived names (i.e. Joffrey vs Jeffrey/Geoffrey, Margaery vs Margery, Jon vs Jon). It helps the reader keep track of so many people.
4) The Apocalypse has happened and there's no hope for the protagonist. I think we amateur writers (myself very much included) tend to confuse emotional depth with despair. To be honest, despair is really not that much fun to read. I mean, where do you go with it? I'm not saying there's never been a great story about the end of the world, but I feel like the good ones rarely start at the end (Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the only example I can think of that contradicts this "rule.")
5) The speculative elements of the story are marginal. This rule really only applies to genre submissions. Here's an example: if your story is about a family in some kind of conflict, and the family happens to have a magic broom that sweeps the house while they fight, but the broom has basically nothing to do with the characters or the story, then I'd say there's not enough speculative elements to warrant publication in a science fiction or fantasy magazine. This comes up a lot in the stories I read for the magazine.
Anyway, I hope these are of some help to you. I'm not going to say these are hard and fast rules; a lot of it depends on execution. But I've yet to read a story I liked where the character committed suicide (you'd be surprised how often that comes up in these submissions).
I have a little confession to make. Something I’ve been doing, but haven’t yet shared with you kids.
I’ve been slush reading for a short fiction magazine.
Why's that? Well, I read that a good way to learn what kinds of stories get published in short fiction magazines is to volunteer as a slush reader. The slush reader is the first person to read the unsolicited fiction submissions. They’re the gatekeeper. They read the short stories and decide whether to reject outright, or to pass any promising submissions to the editors, who then make the final decision on what gets published.
I have to admit, I’ve been really enjoying the work. There’s nothing glamorous about it. There’s a lot of non-publishable stories to wade through, but it’s teaching me how to read my own fiction with a slush readers eye, which has been incredibly helpful. (Plus, I get to read tons of short stories and whether they're good or bad, I still kind of like having new stories to think about.)
When I read a submission, there are several things that jump out to me right away that cause me to reject it. Ironically, I had just submitted another short story when I began slush reading and several of the items I’m going to share with you guys are things I realized my own story was guilty of too. Sure enough, it got rejected. But now I know what to look out for in my own writing and can re-edit that story to address some of those issues I see now as a slush reader. Maybe I’ll have better luck with future submissions as a result.
So let me share my slush-reading insights and maybe they’ll be of some help to you too.
1. Do your sentences contain excessive numbers of adjectives and adverbs? Is there more description than plot or character development? If yes, go through your story and be brutal. Cut all that stuff out. I don’t know where we all learned that good writing was hyper-descriptive writing, but I feel like it’s something we all have to unlearn. Take out every description that doesn’t move the story along. If it isn’t adding anything tangible, delete it. A cleaner written, simpler syntax instantly reads better to my ears as I’m combing through stories.
2. Avoid hokey narrative voices or attempts to be funny. Trust me, I’m guilty of this too. I don’t know, I guess we all can hear the joke better in our own heads as we’re writing it, but it rarely translates to an external reader. Again, keep it simple. Cut those parts out and focus everything on telling one griping story.
3. Don't forget about character. If your reader couldn’t tell you anything about the backstory, likes, dislikes, fears, desires, motivations about your characters, or if there’s nothing remotely unique about your characters, that’s a red-flag for me. This one is harder to fix, because you actually have to write more to address it rather than take stuff out. But character arc is important. Without it, I reject.
4. Is there excessive violence in your story? That’s another almost instant rejection, for me. Usually the magazine’s submission guidelines counsel against gratuitous, graphic violence anyway, so ask yourself, do I really need that evisceration scene? Does the whole story depend on someone’s brain’s getting blown out? If yes…maybe consider submitting a different story? It’s really unpleasant to read something so gross and violent. There was one story I read that took a sudden graphic turn that I seriously felt angry that I had to read such a disgusting thing, with no warning whatsoever. (There was also something borderline excessively violent in my own recent submission, and I have to wonder now if that was one of the I'm sure many reasons it was rejected.)
5. Is your story idea unique? If I can easily categorize your story (i.e. vampire romance, a fantasy version of Hamlet, search for a lost crystal, etc.), then I’m probably not going to pass on your story to the editor. It’s better to avoid clichés and aim for something totally original. Those are the stories that are getting published.
6. Is your manuscript really long? I feel bad about this one, but honestly, if your story is really long, I’m already not looking forward to reading it. I think as a rule most of these magazines’ slush readers are unpaid. They’re doing this in their free time and maybe they have other things going on in their life. If it’s possible to cut down your short story from 5000 words to 4000, then by all means do so. Those 1000 words could mean the difference between a tired/bored reader, and one who is excited by your idea and ready to pass it on to the editor.
Anyway, those are just a few thoughts for now that I might add onto later. I would highly recommend you try slush reading if you’re interested in publishing. It’s teaching me how to read my own work with more detachment; how to see it through the eyes of someone who is considering it for publication.
Writer, editor, scientist.