science fiction

Haven’t I Met You Before?

Our last post dealt with women being typecast in reoccurring roles. But this one will be a bit more general. I’ve complied a list of a few characters that will fast track you to the rejection pile. They always have the same obstacles, and they slip in and out of our minds without leaving a mark.

The Struggling Writer. We all love writing here at FFO, and if you’re reading this I’m guessing you do too. Most of us are fiction writers just like most of you. And guess what? We’re all struggling. Yep. And I have it on good authority that even successful writers struggle. Why? Writing is an emotional grind. If you aren’t struggling then you aren’t doing it right.

So reading a story about a misunderstood author who waxes poetic about sunsets and sidewalks makes me want to scream! They should spend less time at the beach and more time with their butt in the seat.

The Shy Nerd. Confession: most of us here are nerds. And I’m guessing we all look at Revenge of the Nerds and see a battle cry that launched the revolution. But that was in the 1980’s. It’s a different world now. Nerds are successful. And now there is enough social media and conventions to form your very own gang of geeks in an hour. So writing a story where a shy nerd has to overcome an obstacle to demonstrate their value isn’t relevant any longer.

Try a story about shy jock with performance anxiety then we might get somewhere.

The Existential College Student. I attribute this to an excess of academic writing classes. At the time you’re probably discovering Franz Kafka and Ralph Ellison, it’s hard not to fall in with that crowd. We’re all a bit insecure with our place in this world. We all have the why-are-we-here questions.

You know what else we have?  We still have Ellison and Kafka to fill that need.

Fiction today, at least the kind we’re looking for at FFO, needs to focus on entertainment. You can go deep, but you better have a solid conflict to have us hooked by then.

Death Bed Declarations. I think this one is so popular because the deathbed is a hotbed for conflict. But you can also substitute car accident, bullet to the vitals, suicide, or any number of life ending scenarios. Inevitably these always have to do a lot of backtracking to make us care. They rarely hit that emotional core.

Why? Because other than an apology there isn’t much you can do on your deathbed to resolve anything. We read fiction to see people change, and if they change two minutes before death it comes across as pointless.

Reluctant Hero. This seems to be the new hero archetype in our culture. We see it all the time in books and films, usually done for comedy. And I confess that Matrim Cauthon, the epitome of a reluctant hero, is one of my all time favorite fictional characters. I don’t think this works in flash though. For a reluctant hero to work, they need to have enough redemptive values to balance their callous side. I can’t remember seeing it done effectively in just a thousand words. There simply isn’t enough time so the hero comes off as a jerk.

One last thing. I encourage you to use each one of these characters! Didn’t see that coming did you? But please, for the love of our sanity, take them in new directions.

Show us characters that break the mold!

Chris Phillips
Managing Editor
Flash Fiction Online

Buxom Bosoms and Chainmail Bras in Fiction…Or Not.

If I have to explain the title of this blog post, then you’ve probably been living on a different planet for, well, most of humanity.

Far too often in the slush pile, I read disturbingly violent stories about women.  Some even turn my stomach and leave me wondering how someone could write such a thing.

But most often, it’s the stereotypical female roles that overflow the slushpile.  Enough so that Suzanne (ie. Wielder of Great Editorial Power) recently updated the Flash Fiction Online submission guidelines with this little gem:

PLAYBOY: We’ve grown more than weary of stories in which women are objectified, little more than buxom prizes to be won or the targets of sexual victory or violence.  The same would also be true if we happened to receive a plethora of stories in which men are objectified in a similar manner.  But we don’t.  Come on, guys.  Take a leap into the 21st century.

So, a few hints on what’s definitely going to get you axed in the slushpile:

Betty Homemaker – she was created by Hollywood to glamorize women returning to their traditional roles when WWII vets needed jobs after returning stateside.  Betty doesn’t really exist.    Real women are complex and messy and have toddlers hanging on their ankles and answer the door in their yoga pants.  So when  women are written in the Betty Homemaker archetype, it immediately reads as false to anyone who’s ever had to pick smashed Cheerios out of her hair before a dinner party.

The Victim – weak and cowering, the Victim asked for violence in some way.  She made a bad decision — wrong place, wrong time; married the jerk; wore the short skirt; had too much to drink; left her door unlocked; went down the basement stairs alone…. The flip side of the Victim is always the Perpetrator (who usually gets some sick fantasy kick out of holding power over the Victim).

Little tip:  Women don’t exist in order to be controlled.   They are not a fallback plot device anytime you need someone to control or commit violence against.  Make someone/something else the victim for a change.
The Sexy Sidekick – her only job is to pop cleavage and make her man look good.  She might fire a few rounds off a high powered weapon  but she still isn’t a fully fleshed out character (except in ways that make her seams strain attractively under the male gaze).

Sexy Sidekick is also going to get your story axed in the first round.  She trivializes women who work hard, who get dirty and do what it takes.  Real women who throw down with the bad guys don’t need cleavage and fire engine red lipstick (unless they want to… and then, you go girl…) to prove both their strength and their femininity.

The Princess Prize – Ahhh… everyone’s favorite.  The hero suffers and toils.  He fights giants or his own depression, gets hit by a car or learns to walk over fire, and he’s rewarded by receiving the love of a woman.  He doesn’t have to woo her in any significant way.  He doesn’t have to get to know her, take her out for sushi, or cat sit her Siamese that won’t use the litter box.  Nope.  All he has to do is show up, wave around some dragon’s teeth, and she falls into his arms.

It’s not the Dark Ages anymore.  Daddy doesn’t get to hand over his daughter in exchange for watering rights to the neighbor’s land.  A wife isn’t a prize for winning at B-I-N-G-O.
Ladies, would you really want to spend a lifetime with some guy you met ten minutes ago?  Even if he did have a Gorgon head and well-muscled calves?

I thought not.

I have serious believability issues with the Princess Prize stories when they show up in my slushpile.  Hence, the first round rejection.

To be fair, I’m not just talking to the men here.  We get stories like this from men and women.  These female stereotypes are buried deep in our culture.  So I ask you, across gender lines, to think before you plot.  Re-examine your story’s casting.  Shake things up.

Rosie-the-Riveter

I believe in you.

Now go write me a story.  And submit!

Much love!

Anna
Publisher, FFO
annayeatts.com

 

 

 

 

The Hollywood Formula — Flash Style!

Today, Nancy DiMauro, FFO staff, blogger, and writer, breaks down the infamous Hollywood Formula:

I have a confession to make. I’m not a natural short story writer. I have to fight to keep myself from haring off after one plot thread or another. Writing short fiction is hard. So, I look for anything that helps me confine a story into the appropriate length and still have it be a story. One of the reasons we reject a submission at Flash Fiction Online (http://flashfictiononline.com) is that it’s only a scene, not a story.

So, how do you fit all the necessary story elements into 1000 words?

Writing Excuses (http://writingexcuses.com) did a podcast on the “Hollywood Formula” in Season 6. Lou Anders (http://louanders.com) visited the podcast and talked about how his mentor, Dan Decker, divided any story into its three parts (beginning, middle, end). I recommend you check out the entire Writing Excuses podcast at http://www.writingexcuses.com/2011/10/02/writing-excuses-6-18-hollywood-formula/.

The short version of the Hollywood Formula: a story generally has three main characters and three parts. The three characters are the Protagonist, the Antagonist, and Dynamic or Relationship character. In a non-modified formula the first act takes about 1/4 of your word count, the second has 1/2, and the third has the final 1/4. In a Flash Fiction story that means roughly 250 words for the beginning, 500 for the middle and 250 for the ending.

Certain story benchmarks happen in each act. In the first act, you introduce the three main character and what they want. About a tenth of the way into the first act (or at about 25 -30 words), the protagonist makes the fateful decision. I think of this as the red light moment. If the protagonist says no, the story’s over. Do not go past “go”, do not collect $200. In Flash, you probably have until about 100 words for the protagonist to make that choice. BUT the protagonist must make a choice.

In the middle, the protagonist needs to be asking and answering questions. This section starts about 1/2 way through the first act (or 120-130 words) and ends about 1/2 way through the second act (word 500). Once the protagonist knows what the questions are, he needs to start answering them.

Right about word 650 or so the protagonist hits his “low point” – the place in the story where things are at their worst and he’s as far from his goal as he could be. Act II closes around word 750.

From the “low point” to the end is the final battle. In this act, the protagonist must defeat his antagonist, obtain his goal, and reconcile with the relationship character. The closer these events happen to each other, the more emotional impact your story will have.

But wait, you say, my short story only has two characters, does that mean I need to add someone else?

No. The three act pattern should get modified based on your story. Some stories are all about the final battle. Some are all about asking and answering questions. But, a story needs to include all these elements. Stories that fall flat are missing part of the formula. If you can’t find these elements, you might have a scene, not a story. Now you know why short stories, and flash fiction in particular, are so hard to write. But you can do it. I know you can.

Nancy DiMauro is a writer, blogger, and Flash Fiction Online staff member. If you can get a story past Nancy, you’re golden. And whatever you do, don’t use “alright”. It’s “all right”. You’ve been warned. You can find more of Nancy’s writing advice as well as links to her own fiction at http://nancydimauro.blogspot.com.

A Peek Behind the Editorial Curtain — The Winnowing Boards

So your beautiful little story has survived slush! Hurray, right? You’ve officially passed a major milestone. The vast majority of submissions never make it any further than the slush round, and here your story is, scooped out and passed along to the second round we call the Winnowing Boards.

Now, only a couple dozen stories out of the four or five hundred we get every month actually make it to Winnowing. So make sure to give yourself a pat on the back. A writer’s life is tough, and you’ve got to see seize those little moments of validation when you find them.

When the stories go up on the Winnowing Boards, the entire staff scoots on over to take a gander. And this is when the blood begins to flow. There’s no simple yes/no/maybe in this round. Oh no. This is where the scalpels and magnifying glasses come out. The plot holes are teased out. Dialogue is poked and prodded. Errors in tense and grammar are brought to light.

Basically, it’s brutal.

And still some of us will fall in love with your story, ready to defend it to the Editor until the bitter end. Or some of us will hate it, thinking it too dreadfully flawed to ever be saved. But still, most stories will fall back into that dreaded middle land of “good but not great”.

Then comes the vote. Quite democratic, eh? And here you thought we threw the manuscripts into a cauldron and any that bubbled blue smoke were the ones that we published… Silly hobbitses…

Finally, watching all this very closely, is She with Great Power aka our Editor in Chief, Suzanne. She reads all the comments with the staff has left, takes in the voting, and most of all, the merit of the stories themselves.

Cannot stress that enough. The merit of the stories themselves. Not their message. Or author. Or group popularity. Or what’s trending on Twitter.

The story.

And the acceptance letter is sent.

But let me tell you a secret…

If you can make the slush readers fall in love with your story, they will lobby the Editor, battering her with pleas for your story, and sometimes…sometimes…they can change her mind.

So my advice for all three wooden nickels it’s worth is this: write the best story you can. Write from your heart. But most of all, keep writing. And submit!

Much love,
Anna

Confessions of a Slush Reader — The Big Ten to a Rejection Letter

Today’s list is compiled by Nancy DiMauro, Flash Fiction Online staffer and slush reader extraordinaire.

In an average month, my FFO team will have about 80 stories to review. Only stories with two votes for publication are guaranteed to move into the next round. A story can still be sent on if someone likes it enough to fight for it. So, when you submit a story for consideration your first hurdle is to get the slush pile reader to like it.

So I’ve complied my top ten reasons why I reject a story. Keep in mind that the items on the list are my reasons for saying “no,” other slush readers may, and probably do, have different reasons for rejecting stories. When I started the list I thought I was going to have to work to fill it up. Sadly, I didn’t.

10. The “Meh” Response. Sometimes there’s nothing technically wrong with a story, but it still isn’t working for me. Often this is because I can’t find anything “special” in it. What do I mean by “special?” If you are using one of the tried and true tropes (girl meets vampire, they fall in love, she becomes a vampire to be with him forever, for example), you need a new take on the trope to set it apart from everything else out there. Stephanie Meyers had sparkly vampires – that was new. The more tried and true your base storyline, the more you’ll need those “special” elements to make the story stand out for me. It could be your main character (MC) doesn’t have any particular strong traits and doesn’t make me hate him enough to love him, or there’s no real setting (or a “usual suspect one”). In every story you write, something and usually several somthings have to be special. It has to draw me in and make me take notice. Stories that get the “Meh” response are often at the “close, but not quite there” level because they don’t hook me.

9. The Main Character Is Too Stupid To Live.  Okay, we’ve all done it. I’ve done it. If an MC is making obviously dumb choices just to move your story along, the writer will have a problem convincing me to move that story to the next level. Often this problem is because the MC doesn’t have enough of a personality to make the stupid choice. We’ve all picked a path that was obviously wrong even when we knew it was. Why’d we do it then? Because that’s who we are. The same has to be true for characters. A teenager making a bad choice (like shoplifting) on impulse, I’ll find plausible. I won’t find the same action plausible if the person is a fifty-year old male who is successful, rich, and a pillar of the community if I haven’t seen in advance that he has poor impulse control, or some other credible reason why he’s suddenly willing to throw his life away to snatch a t-shirt. A character’s actions must line up with her personality traits and motivations.

8. Overuse of a thesaurus, “denseness” or other forms of “purple prose”.  In my definition, “purple prose” or “dense writing” happens when the writer is busy showing us her style and that style is getting in the way of the storytelling. Fifty cent words are great when the character, and not the writer, would actually use them. Yes, use all five senses, but not in the same sentance. Not every noun needs an adjective. Not every verb needs an adverb. This type of “dense” writing is hard to read. My attention wants to stray to something else.

I tend to be guilty of “sparse” writing. I don’t get into interior thoughts or scene setting enough. My editor’s comments are often – “add more X here.” As a result, when someone else is laying it on thick, I notice. Pare your work to only use the descriptions that matter. While 66 word sentences are fine on occasion, they shouldn’t be the norm. If your sentences look like paragraphs, you might have a problem to address.

7. Numerous Grammatical Errors. Bet you thought this would be higher didn’t you? No matter how many times you go over a manuscript, there will be typos, dropped words and other errors. I can forgive some. If you have a lot, you’re telling me you don’t care enough about the story and don’t respect my time enough for me to waste any more on the story.
By the way, knowing when to break a paragraph is essential. Knowing how to write dialog, including internal dialog, is essential. Sixty-six word sentences (no joke, I do count) almost always need to be broken down as they express more than one thought.

Check to make sure your pronouns link to the noun you wanted. After a 66 word sentence with numerous nouns the word “it” in the next sentence refers back to the last noun, which is probably not the one you wanted.

6. A Forgettable Main Character  Or One I Have No Sympathy For. I don’t have to like your main character, but it helps. If you are writing an unlikable main character you have your job cut out for you. You need to make me care about John the Bastard if you expect me to read his story. The anti-hero story can be wonderful when done right. And I can reject a story about a perfectly nice main character. Whether your character is likable or not, I need to have some connection to her. Without a connection, you make it easy for me to reject the story.

5. Lack of Clarity. I’m not going to work too hard to figure out what’s going on. If I can’t do so in a paragraph or two, you’ve given me a reason to stop reading. I MIGHT go back and look at the story again to see if my confusion was because I was tired or preoccupied, but I might not. Don’t risk your story on that chance. Stories that I end up saying, “huh?” or “what just happened?” get voted off the island.

4. Telling me the character’s bored or it’s just an ordinary day. If the character’s bored why should I want to go on a journey, even the short one in flash, with her? The same issue exists with telling me that “the day started out like any other. . .” I groan a bit when I see that. While common wisdom says start your story before your MC’s world gets blown to heck, common wisdom is also wrong. If you need an “establishing shot” of every day life, it needs to be short and absolutely required for me to understand what happens.  I’ll give you a paragraph (which in flash is generous) to give me an issue or a character to get involved with.

3. Not submitting a complete story.  This is actually easier to do than you would think, especially in the flash (500 – 1,500 word) format. I’ve seen some wonderful character sketches and scenes, but that doesn’t make them publishable. A complete story has a beginning, middle and end. If your story doesn’t have all of these it will get the “NAS” (Not A Story) label and a reject vote.

2. Withholding the main character’s name.  You aren’t creating mystery; you aren’t making your main character “any man.” You are annoying me as the reader. There are a precious few times when you should withhold the main character’s name like when your story is told in the first person, but the MC doesn’t interact with other characters right away. But as soon as the MC does run into someone else, you should tell me the MC’s name.

1.  Withholding information the Point of View character known as a means to create a mystery or a twist.  This is PET PEEVE #1 for me so be warned. I see many stories where the writer withholds a critical piece of information that the point of view character knows, like the ghost in the story is really the main character’s little sister, to “create suspense” or a “twist.” If your suspense is based on hiding information from your reader, you don’t have suspense, you have a trick.

The Sixth Sense worked because the main character didn’t know the twist, and early on in the story the viewer is told the critical piece of information that makes the main character’s lack of knowledge credible. If you dissect The Sixth Sense, you’ll see hints scattered throughout the movie leading up to the “twist.” It’s why we accepted it.

If you are going to withhold information you have to be very careful which point of view you use so that person doesn’t know the truth and the reader figures it out with him. Otherwise it’s a quick trip to the reject bin for the story.

Anyway, those are some of the reasons I’ll turn a story down. They apply whether you’re writing flash or an epic fantasy. Hopefully knowing how this slush reader thinks will help you get published. Good luck and keep submitting.

Nancy DiMauro is a writer, blogger, and Flash Fiction Online staff member. If you can get a story past Nancy, you’re golden. And whatever you do, don’t use “alright”. It’s “all right”. You’ve been warned. You can find more of Nancy’s writing advice as well as links to her own fiction at http://nancydimauro.blogspot.com.