Like many neophyte fiction writers, I often find myself perplexed and distressed at the steady stream of rejections flowing into my inbox. Assurances that our literary betters slogged through similar swamps in their formative days may bring little bursts of temporary comfort but they provide no real clarity; I once read one of Asimov’s universally rejected early efforts and found it to be all but indistinguishable from his classics. What’s up with that?
Advice from many of those betters, as well as some not-so betters, flows free and easy, figuratively speaking, through seminars, online courses, blogs and newsletters. Only a fool would ignore such wealth and I, for one, hate being called names. So here is my stab at cracking the code. Here is what I think I’m hearing from the voices whispering across the pro/amateur divide. In no particular order…
- SHOWDON’TTELL!! More on this later.
- Absolutely every element of a good story must appear in the first paragraph, preferably the first sentence. The consummate pro can get it all into the first word but let’s not fly too close to the sun here. This is not to say the whole story must be told in the first paragraph; that would be ridiculous! There’s plenty of room in the second paragraph for the climax and denouement. The point of view character’s age, gender, national origin, worldview, locations of identifying scars, color of eyes, motivation and reason why the reader should care; the setting, which can be any place and any time in the known or imagined universe; the nature of the conflict, be it bold and immediate, subtle, internal, gradually developing… but it really should be bold and immediate, and of course THE BIG IDEA must all be established dramatically, naturally and unobtrusively AT ONCE in order to knock the editor unconscious and not let him up off the floor until he’s read every word and sent you a contract.
- The reader MUST have somebody to root for, preferably the protagonist. If your alternate history piece takes place in Hitler’s bunker it must emphasize der Fuehrer’s affection for his dog Blondie.
- Show, don’t tell. Explaining stuff or “exposition” as it is known among the pros is the calling card of the rank amateur. Just ask Dostoyevsky. Actions speak louder than words and volume is what we’re all about in this post-literary world of ours. So if your protagonist is a philosophically oriented Wiccan who finds herself conflicted because her fundamentalist Christian upbringing is starting to make a kind of sense while her atheist philosophy professor is also pretty convincing, for God’s sake don’t tell us! Make her take action! Do the kind of things that show us how the subtleties of these contradictory forces weave themselves into her personal synthesis. When possible, draw pictures.
- Every molecule of dialog must be attached to a speech tag. Each speech tag must be “said.” Failure to comply will result in panic among readers due to an inability to follow the thread of continuity and the catastrophic failure of the story. Penalties to include, but not be limited to: verbal warning, written warning, time off without pay and termination. No exceptions!
- Here’s a sensitive one. Submission guidelines often declare the editor’s undying love of science fiction because it is the literature of “ideas.” So have ideas. Be bold. Challenge the reader’s most dearly held beliefs and suppositions. Shoot her sacred cows! Shake him out of his comfort zone and open his mind to the limitless possibilities! Take no prisoners and make no apologies! But be careful who you offend. Edit yourself so others don’t have to. Because they will. ‘Nuff said.
- Here’s one of my favorites. The writer owes the reader everything; the reader owes the writer nothing. It is up to you, the writer to telepathically examine the soul of every potential reader and find the bait he can’t resist. Remember; no reader is looking for a radically new experience. He reads for the enjoyment of comfort, not the exertion of challenge. Even if he pays money for your book or story he does not owe you his attention or any effort to comprehend. Not at all. You owe him spoonfuls of tasty enjoyment and attractive tour guides to take him by the hand and lead him gently along the well-lit path of the plot. Just ask Ray Bradbury, James Joyce or Cordwainer Smith.
- Know your market and adjust your artistic passions accordingly. The ruts of taste are well established and heavily traveled. Is this the place to mention a certain SFWA pro pub that rejected my story about an obsessive philosopher whose idea destroyed the world then proudly published the tale of a dreamy princess and her darling unicorn? Why strain yourself breaking new ground?
- Science fiction has a long, venerable pedigree. Many of its conventions are so well integrated into the popular lexicon that taking time to explain them would be like including a biography of Henry Ford as the preface to a car chase. That is, unless the editor doesn’t want to use your story. In that case, extraterrestrials that LOOK DIFFERENT from humans are hopelessly confusing and warnings about the consequences of humanity’s folly are incomprehensible. ACTION: Take special care not to tax or confuse the editor.
Following these and other simple, common sense rules will separate the potential pro from the perpetual amateur. Above all remember to write what you know… or write what you love… or write what you would like to read… or… or…. JUST WRITE!
“Rules for Writing” first appeared in Bewildering Stories issue 573, May 19, 2014. Revised.