Electric Spec’s List of Five Top Tough Sells

I was reading blogs the other morning and came across a list of the “Five Top Tough Sells” according to one of the editors on ElectricSpec. The original post can be found at: http://electricspec.blogspot.com/2011/03/top-five-tough-sells.html

The Five Top Tough Sells according to this editor were things in the writing that will almost always mean that the story will be rejected. They included the following things:

1. Stories that do not introduce the protagonist quickly.
2. Stories that are almost all dialogue.
3. Stories with too many author created world-specific idioms in the first few sentences.
4. False suspense. An example that was given was…”Everything was fine 
until he came along.”
5. Stories that begin with the protagonist waking up (bad) in bed 
(worse) from a horrible nightmare (worst).

I think the editor from Electric Spec wasn’t saying totally don’t do any of these. They were saying that they are a harder sell because they aren’t always done well or with purpose. I think the way to look at these lists is to look at why stuff ends up on them and then be more thoughtful about how one is using the writing. I think if you have thoroughly examined the list and understand why something is on it then you can avoid the pitfalls of why that particular thing often doesn’t work– then if you still have good reason to use it by all means do so.

It is always easy to find “violations” of these advice lists in good, already published fiction by experienced authors, that to me does not mean that the lists should not be thought through.

For instance I have seen on different advice lists that one should not start with descriptions of setting, but then there is Perdido Street Station. It starts with setting. Not an info dump, but still it starts with describing the setting. The title of the book itself gives great clue that perhaps 
starting with the setting is a good move and that this strengthens the overall integrity of the book.

Another piece of advice that I have seen on lists like this is to not start by describing the weather, but Neuromancer does just that.

The point that I am trying to make here is not to simply throw out every thing that anybody says by way of advice, but to really think 
about the craft of writing and how to achieve writing a great story. I think these “advice lists” are not commandments, I think they are clues. Clues to consider what might make the fiction stronger.

Pretty Good vs. Great and Hopefully More Sellable Writing

I have been frustrated with my fiction writing for quite some time and recently wrote about the Fearless Act of Writing in another blog post. A few weeks ago I was reading an article in The Writer titled “Create Your Own MFA in 5 Steps” by Rachel Eddey. I have repeatedly thought about applying for a masters of fine arts program in creative writing because I enjoy academic settings, would like the time to focus exclusively on my writing, might enjoy teaching writing which an MFA in writing would qualify me to do, etc. However, the cost of taking an MFA program causes me to pause. Also I have concern over the idea of MFA programs because while it gives the student a chance to focus on the writing and make contacts and has many other benefits, it is no guarantee of being published and there is no promise that a teaching job will be available at the end of the course.

I liked the way that Eddey in her article presented the idea of creating a program of self study so I began working on my own writing self study program. It includes the following components:

1. I write daily. Sometimes it is only a post on this blog. Sometimes it is only poetry. Sometimes it is a character study. It does not matter. The point of this is to just get comfortable and in the habit of writing something daily.

2. I read. I have been reading and studying a novel by Graham Greene titled “The Heart of the Matter.” Greene was a master and as I am reading I am both enjoying the book and analyzing his methods of characterization, subtext, and scene setting. I have also been reading short stories and last month one of my writing groups discussed two short stories to identify what made them work. One was by Nancy Kress titled “Act One.” I learned a great deal from reading and thinking about “Act One.”

3. I specifically read books on writing, consider elements of fiction, and study various aspects of how to construct a good piece of writing beyond mere mechanics.

Today a friend of mine posted on a forum that I belong to a link to a post titled “Pretty Good v. Great–and Sellable” written by Carrie Vaughn. In this post she discusses that she believes that three areas that a writer must engage with to make the fiction better are: structure, voice, and having something to say. I agree with her that these things are important elements and Vaughn’s blog post made me stop and consider what I think of these elements.

In regards to structure, I have been struggling with ideas of plot. I have been studying the hero’s journey and considering the 3 act structure. I have been thinking about questions to ask myself to make all the plot elements in a story fit together in the best possible way to concisely relay the story and have the structure add to the meaning of a story. For instance, a story can be unfurled in a chronological order or it can be done in a series of flashbacks. A story can be told from the first person point of view or from the deep third person. Either of these decisions make a difference in how the plot elements will fit together. I also think that stories where the plot unfolds very naturally from the decisions that the characters within the story make makes the story feel more effortless and anytime that a story is a struggle the reader is pulled out of the story and this diminishes the story.

What Vaughn in her blog post calls “voice”, I call word choice. I think some writers do have their own distinctive voice and this can be cool. Roald Dahl always sounds like Roald Dahl. I see word choice as making every word count and be the right word– true to conjuring the feel of the story, adding to the subtext, relaying a character’s voice, etc. I drive myself nuts with this. Words are relative to one another and this fascinates me.

I have debated with other writers about whether or not it is a good idea to have a theme in mind when writing a story so that the theme will come out. I don’t think it is a good idea to preach on a soap box. I do think that ambiguity and having many possible views on a theme is a good thing. I try to include a relevant idea/commentary in the stories that I write that does come through. I think stories that make an impact and are remembered are those that risk stating a position and also let the reader think through the aspects of it for themselves. That may seem contradictory, but I think that it is possible to entertain people by challenging them with ideas and letting them think things through for themselves. The very act of putting the relevant sides of an issue with some depth in a story is presenting a theme.

I will continue to think on writing and will probably post some of my ideas from time to time. Both Eddey’s article in the February issue of The Writer and Vaughn’s blog post at: http://www.genreality.net/pretty-good-v-great-and-sellable are worth checking out just for stimulating thoughts.