So you Wanna be a Writer? How Far Are You Willing To Fall?
First off, I intend this hub to be an open letter to anyone out there who is trying to become a writer. I invite open discourse and am genuinely looking for feedback, the more the better, because the biggest problem a writer faces is his inability to stay objective in the face of his craft. As writers, we are too close to our art to be able to examine it critically from all angles, and without this ability to step back and look at our work from a stranger’s neutral perspective, there can be only stagnation. To that end, I hope you will consider the theories I present herein thoroughly and give your most heartfelt response, and in doing so perhaps we can all understand what it takes to become successful writers a little better.
This attempt at assessment was spurred on by my reading a story featured in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, pretty much one of the most prestigious magazines a sci-fi writer can get his work in. They were congratulating the story of a writer they featured who won 2010’s Hugo Award for short fiction. http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_1003/art/bridesicle.pdf
If you’ve a good ability to sublimate a sense of anger or outrage into more productive behavior, then I encourage you to read it before going any further, though it is not necessary.
Entitled “Bridesicle,” it is beautifully written, but the concepts presented within turned my stomach, which, given how my brain works, is very hard to do. I forced myself to read it in its entirety because I wished to know what made it so special, but the voice in my head was screaming all the while, “You’ve gotta be kidding me! This is science fiction? It looks more like an erotic sadomasochist’s idea of horror!” The violations of basic humanity and free will espoused within revolted and angered me to the degree that I had to spend time working over the punching bag in the garage to calm myself down.
Nevertheless, the writer made many thousands of dollars for writing what amounts to what is in my opinion an eleven page piece of domination/submission erotica. However much I may be turned off by such things, if I want to be a writer I have to concede that this peer-reviewed work was chosen above thousands of others. My own sense of morals cannot come into it if I want to entertain, but let me set that aside for now. Let’s call this moral issue Point One for future reference.
Seeking reassurance that this was a fluke, perhaps as some form of mind bleach to get the nauseating concepts from my thoughts, I went through as many professional magazines I could find in various genres and read through their award-winners. The supposed crème de la crème. Far from being reassured, I was stunned by yet another realization. I found they all follow a pattern, of sorts.
To make my next point crystal clear, allow me to explain a little about my work. My idea of a short story has always been a cut-down version of a novel, in which a cast of characters is presented, the plot carries forward to the appearance of a problem or hurdle which must be overcome. The protagonist embarks on an adventure in which he/she gains the knowledge, abilities, or plot device necessary to overcome the story’s problem. Then there’s the conclusion and summary or moral intended at giving the reader a sense of satisfaction in knowing the characters have learned something valuable. Whether said characters are in a position to use this newfound knowledge is what determines the ending. Knowledge gained too late is a sad ending. Knowledge from which one has or will benefit is a happy ending. This is what I understand a satisfying story of any genre to be at heart.
The short stories that win awards are constructed differently. First off, they tend to be plot driven rather than character driven, wherein the protagonist’s history or past holds the key to overcoming the presented problem, rather than anything learned by adventure or experience, which is omitted entirely in favor of wistful, half-assed reminiscing in between story events. The fact that the character can even overcome the problem tends to come down to dumb luck, or statistics. Often the same events have played out a thousand times before, but only in this particular occasion which were are reading do things turn out differently. In other words, rather than present a story in which Doctor Frankenstein is unique because he tries to bring someone to life, these writers are presenting institutionalized stories. Doctor Frankenstein is one among millions bringing people to life in what has become a thriving industry, but because of sheer statistics, it’s a given that the person he brings back to life that we’re reading about turns out to be a monster.
This can do one of two things. It can present a new spin on the Frankenstein idea without making people roll their eyes, because by institutionalizing the concept or presenting it on a mass scale, it makes it more subdued, so the reader knows that bringing people back to life isn’t the point the writer is trying to make, merely the springboard for his take on the concept. The other thing is it can attempt to force the reader to accept unpalatable or downright sickening concepts as a given by showing it happening at every turn. This is what “Bridesicle” attempted to do, in my opinion. By making it seem that the protagonist’s predicament was one among countless millions, it tried to get the reader over the fact that said predicament was more at home in some sicko’s erotic fiction than it was in science-fiction.
And, most importantly of all, the prize-winning stories are almost entirely talking heads. Without exception, the story boils down to some variation of two people in a room talking. And while the writer may do a great job of coming up with a way for that to seem more engaging than it really is, there’s no action and no growth. The characters are completely one-dimensional from start to finish, pre-equipped with the means to overcome the problem they face from the very beginning. Meaning, there are really two stories playing out in any short story: the protagonist’s backstory and history, in which the solution to the problem will be found; and the situation the protagonist faces in that point in time, in which the problem is presented. As such, predicting what will happen once the problem has been sufficiently presented is painfully easy.
If writing were cooking, this type of writing would be fast food. I never think to write something like it because it results in death by malnourishment. The closest I ever got to that was entitled “Strike Three,” which I wrote in a day as a quick middle-finger at editors. It was a way for me to rake them over the coals for their shortcomings, but, due to their own laughable obliviousness, they are now considering it for publication in a professional magazine. This fact only adds weight to my theory. This all makes up Point Two.
Violation of Humanity not equal to Originality
Theory: Point One
Point One in a nutshell is that editors and even readers seem to be mistaking the violation of morality, mores, and social taboos for a sense of originality. The story to which I referred did an excellent job of violating the protagonist’s sense of humanity and relegating her to the level of a piece of furniture, with all the lack of rights and choices it implies. This dehumanization is particularly popular in modern fiction.
Point one also states that the institutionalization of taboo concepts is used to take them from the realm of the obscene to something that might be considered edgy in a society too inundated in moral ambiguity to tell the difference.
Do you believe it worth creating stories which personally sicken and make you feel dirty if it means they will be published? Also, do you believe my assessment of Point One has validity? Do you agree, disagree, what?
Theory: Point Two
Point Two states that a story’s construct must boil down to talking heads and a predictable resolution once you’ve reached the halfway point. Though it is against my own instincts and what I find entertaining to present a story which is essentially just talking heads, do you believe publication worth stifling your own sense of creativity? Again, do you agree or disagree with my assessment of Point Two?
I mean, sure, I’ve read plenty of stories that are so much more than talking heads, but none from debut authors, and even fewer from authors who were recognized for their ability within their own lifetimes. Lovecraft comes most strongly to mind.
Looking forward to talking.
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