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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

Managing Editor, Chris Phillips went into the trenches this week to bring you a Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review.

Released December 16, just in time for the holiday movie rush (and a Christmas shopping list tie-in), Rogue One fits in the Stars Wars timeline between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. So if you’re a Darth Vader fan, you’re going to have a lot to love.

darth vader rogue one

Starring Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, there are rumors that Rogue One is nothing more than a soft reboot. But according to Chris, the viewer gets a look at the gritty inside world of the rebellion–and it’s not the heroic Camelot we’ve imagined. It’s dark and dirty and more likely to get you shot in the back than anything else.

This definitely isn’t Star Wars like you’ve ever seen it before.

There’s another pronounced absence:

Lightsabers.

Yeah. You read that correctly. You’ll have to watch Chris’s YouTube video for more details, including a breakdown of story elements, why we engage or disengage with a character and the effectiveness of the CGI used.

And while you’re there, subscribe to our fledgling YouTube channel. We’ll have more reviews of movies and books plus insider tips on writing.

In the meantime, may the Force be with you.

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, Klingon, & Lawrence Schoen

Barsk The Elephants Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Flash Fiction Online welcomes Lawrence Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard

First of all, congratulations on the release of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard.

Before we get to Barsk, let me say yl’el, which I hope means “welcome” in Klingon. It was either that or “My hovercraft is full of eels.” My translation skills are questionable. But yours are not! I’m fascinated by your mastery of Klingon and the subsequent founding of the Klingon Language Institute. How did you become a Klingonist?

I was a psychology professor at a small college in northern Illinois that had been going through a period of declining enrollments. It got so bad that they decided they needed to terminate four faculty positions and unfortunately for me, I was the newest hire in the largest department on campus. But academia is funny; I basically had a full year as a lame duck to look for other jobs and wait to hear back. I’m not good at waiting, so I went looking for a distraction, and I stumbled upon a copy of The Klingon Dictionary. I’d grown up hanging out with people who studied Tokien’s Elvish languages, and it struck me that I could play with Klingon for a few months, maybe even pull together some other interested folk. Then the media found out about what I was doing and it all exploded!

I know how enthusiastic Star Trek fans can be, but your work translating Shakespeare into Klingon is staggering to a casual fan like myself. As such, the amount of detail you put into world building Barsk makes perfect sense. Still, how did you go about it? Do you have a time honored process — a note card wall or a staggering character bible?

Full disclosure, I’m not the one who translated (or as we prefer to phrase it, “restored”) Shakespeare into Klingon. Hamlet was done by Dr. Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader. And Nick also did Much Ado About Nothing. I handled the physical production, the layout and design of the books. I was the upper management on the projects, but other very talented people did the linguistic heavy lifting, not me.

With respect to worldbuilding in my fiction, I typically start with a character, and I work backwards from there. What sorts of things must exist in the character’s world that made him become the man he is? What factors were missing that led to her making the choices she did?

In looking at your biography — hypnotist, psychologist, psycholinguist, Klingonist — I could only feel that Barsk is a culmination of all these. That in order to achieve the level of world building, of social and political upheaval, with the emotional depth that you’ve achieved with such challenging characters, it would take a “Renaissance” author of sorts. Tell us how Barsk came to be, and if it did build upon your earlier experiences in a culmination of sorts.

Barsk started on a whim, a joke really, when the roommate of one of my students invited me to take part in a RPG based on an anthropomorphic animal comic book. The heroes were cats, the villains were rabbits. He said I could play any animal I wanted and for some reason I said “elephant,” but it turned out that wasn’t among the options in the rules. I didn’t care, I was off and running, spinning some nonsense about a planet the furry races didn’t want because it never stopped raining, and on and on. That was the start of Barsk.

We never did play that game, but that student was running a zine, and I promised to write him a novel based on that world and the elephants. I don’t know why I said that, I’d been writing a while, but I’d never had anything published yet. So I wrote a couple chapters, and he published them, and suddenly I was writing a novel!

I didn’t know much about writing, but I’d heard the phrase “write what you know,” so I started putting everything I knew into the story. Most of it didn’t stick. But I remember one piece very vividly that I should share. I wrote a scene in which a character dies by his own hand. He deliberately throws himself from a great height, from the canopy of a rainforest in fact, and falls to his death. It was a nicely visualized scene, but it felt flat. It lacked emotional depth. So I went back and rewrote it making one small change. I had him set himself on fire before he jumped. Suddenly, the thing had gravitas. But the difference wasn’t the fire. It was that instead of imagining someone committing suicide, I was channeling my experiences from earlier that academic year when one of my students killed himself via immolation. That’s when I came to understand what “write what you know” really means.

We often get story submissions here at FFO with non-human characters, and from long experience, we know it’s hard to write a convincing yet relatable character alien. Not only in Barsk but in your earlier works including The Adventures of the Amazing Conroy, you succeed in giving us entire worlds of anthropomorphized animals and alien cultures. What’s your advice in writing as “the other” like this?

For me, writing “the other” is a lot harder than writing “the alien.” There’s no comparison really (he said and then went on to make a comparison) because “the other” is some reader’s “me” and “the alien” by definition won’t ever be. Writing “the other” means I need to get inside another culture or gender or orientation or race or religion, and I need to get all the bits right, both the conscious ones that are objective and in theory researchable and the unconscious things that everyone who is a part of that “other” knows without thinking about because it’s just part of the identity. And you’re always, always, always going to get parts wrong. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, I believe you should. I think every writer has an obligation to try to write characters who don’t look and feel and sound and act like them. And when you fail, great, look at why you failed, and do it better next time. This is part of growing as a writer.

Writing “the alien” is easier because you start by saying, okay, I’m going to pick some trait or perspective or biological quirk or cognitive process that is different in most humans and make it critical to the identity of my characters. Once you’ve worked out what that thing is, you just wind up the characters and let them loose, same as you would for human characters. If you’re writing humor, you play that difference for laughs. If you’re writing drama, you have the plot turn on it. If you’re writing tragedy, you play it for poignancy.

In Barsk, the Fants have a drug that allows certain users to interact with the recently dead. Both relationships and how we are remembered, including not at all, are important themes in the novel. Is this something that resonates for you on a personal level? Or in your work as a psychologist and mental health care provider, do you find the need to be remembered something that resonates with all of us?

I find death completely unacceptable. Not in terms of a physical ending, but rather the idea that a life of experience and thought and creation vanishes because the meat we’ve been walking around in hits an expiration date. This is a theme in a lot of my fiction, and one that I was oblivious to for years.

So in Barsk I invented a new branch of physics and tied it to cognitive psychology and explained how memory works, not just during our lives but afterward. Basically, the concept is that in life the thing which makes each of us completely unique as individuals is the vast collection of organized information that represents our memory and experience. So I offered an explanation for how that survives after corporeal death. Once I had that worked out, the fun part was positing a way that some people could still access that information, and in so doing effectively “speak to the dead.”

What advice, if any, would you give to aspiring writers?

Make mistakes. Don’t play safe. Try to write things you know you don’t know how to write. Fail, and when you do (and you will!), go back and figure out where you failed and why. Then do it again. You’re likely going to fail again, but you’ll also probably get a little further. You’ll learn how and why things work in your writing and more importantly, how and why they don’t. And you’ll get better.

Where can our readers find you on social media?

I have a website at www.lawrencemschoen.com, and a fairly active presence on Facebook. And I’m spending more and more (aka too much) time on Twitter where you’re welcome to follow me as @klingonguy.


 

SchoenHeadshot-1(300dpi)Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He spent ten years as a college professor, and has done extensive research in the areas of human memory and language. This background provides a principal metaphor for his fiction. He currently works as the director of research and analytics for a series of mental health and addiction recovery facilities in Philadelphia.

He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and since 1992 has championed the exploration and use of this constructed tongue throughout the world. In addition, he’s the publisher behind a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem, aimed at showcasing up-and-coming new writers as well as providing a market for novellas. And too, he performs occasionally as a hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

In 2007, he was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He received a Hugo Award nomination for Best Short Story in 2010 and Nebula Award nominations for Best Novella in 2013, 2014, and again in 2015. Some of his most popular writing deals with the ongoing adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist named the Amazing Conroy and his animal companion Reggie, an alien buffalito that can eat anything and farts oxygen. His latest work is a very different kind of book, an anthropomorphic SF novel that explores prophecy, intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and a drug that lets you talk to the dead.

Lawrence lives near Philadelphia with his wife, Valerie, who is neither a psychologist nor a Klingon speaker.

How to Write Flash Fiction: 15 Short Story Cliches That Need To Die

 

As writers, it’s our job to keep stories fresh and exciting.

Humans have been writing stories for thousands of years, so it’s inevitable that some story conventions get overused. yet many of us still struggle with ideas and wind up using clichés that ruin the experience for our readers (and therefore, get rejected by publishers or magazines to which you submit).

Here are some of the most used short story clichés and why authors should stop using them:

books on a shelf
Put that cliched idea back on the shelf and try again.

1. It was all a dream/game/hallucination.

Let’s start this list off with the one I hate the most. You can find this storytelling cliché everywhere: movies, TV, books, comics… It’s a cheap and underhanded way to make a reader fear for the protagonist without putting them in actual risk. The only way this would pay off is if the dream turns out to have very real repercussions (e.g. Ender’s Game).

2. Non-human point-of-view twists.

This is kinda related to the first story-writing cliché, except here the twist is in the narrative perspective. It’s not as cheap as the dream cliché, but you have to go the extra mile to ensure that the POV’s narration is:

  • accurate to the character – how can a dog understand English, for example
  • hidden from the reader – it is a twist, after all
  • compelling to read

3. Racial/cultural/genderstereotypes.

Wow, really?

I thought we had gotten past that in these modern times. This tells me more about you as a person than it does about the story.

4. Evil human race.

Yes, we get it. The human race has effed up the planet so badly that animals don’t want to live with us, aliens don’t want to meet us, and our own children think adults are monsters. But I don’t like stereotypes (as I mentioned), and stereotyping humans in your story as evil isn’t any better than stereotyping a race.

5. “Little did he know.”

Way to kill the tension in your story, buddy.

You just removed the drama and surprise from any conflicts your main character would encounter. This is a short story, not a daytime soap opera.

6. Trophy references.

I’ve enjoyed many stories that reference pop culture or anything related to the story’s theme, but there’s a difference between adding it in because it’s cool and showing off. Don’t let these references interfere with the story’s plot and the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

7. Happily ever after.

I’m not opposed to happy endings, but I am opposed to ones that aren’t justified. It’s never as simple as waving a magic wand, or scolding a villain into changing the error of his ways.

Make your protagonist earn that happy ending.

8. “In the beginning…”

There are novels that can pull this off, but you’re not writing a novel, are you? You’re writing a short story, which has a tight word count.

Drop us in the middle of the story, in media res, and don’t waste time reinventing the universe.

9. “Woe is me.”

Readers love stories where characters are put in emotional conflict, but you have to be careful not to turn your conflicted protagonist into a whiny protagonist. The former is compelling and dramatic, but the latter is annoying and melodramatic. This is especially true of short stories where the character spends most of the word limit moaning about his situation rather than actually doing anything about it.

10. The glorified joke.

Humor in fiction can be a very tricky thing. Not only is humor subjective, but a lot of authors fall into the trap of putting a joke in at the expense of the story. Even more make the bigger mistake of making the joke the entire point of the story. The story becomes a thousand-word setup for a single punchline—which usually falls flat.

11. Author’s revenge.

Many of us have been through unfair situations: an overbearing boss, a bad relationship, bullies, etc. And though we fantasize about getting payback, we (as functional human beings) rarely act on it.

Writing short stories about getting even may be therapeutic, but nobody else is going to want to read it.

12. Weather reports.

If you’ve read fantasy novels, you probably know what I’m talking about. Cue opening scene on a mountain range, the onset of a storm, or the blistering desert. It’s picturesque, it’s a good writing exercise, and it has no place in a short story.

Space is at a premium, and you have no time to be talking about how fine the grains of sand are.

13. Pop culture knock-offs.

Do you have sparkly vampires in your story?

Plucky, bespectacled young wizards?

How about short, hairy Canadians with claws for hands?

It’s probably not for us, then. Influences are one thing, poorly-disguised fan fiction is another.

14. Aesop / Chicken Soup for the Soul stories.

It’s perfectly fine to have a central theme in your story, and try to express a worthwhile message. But beating your reader over the head with environmental activism, or religious conservatism, or any other sort of overt preaching does not make good fiction.

15. Artist with artist troubles.

I’m a writer. I get how agonizing the creative process is, and I don’t want to read about someone else going through the same thing. Only Neil Gaiman ever pulled this story off successfully, and he had trapped his muse in a dungeon in his basement.

Keep in mind there are always exceptions.

The reasons these have become clichés is because they’ve been done so many times and so poorly that now they’re just… lame.

But if you can put your own unique spin on it, in a way that’s new, fresh, and—above all—justified, then go ahead! Just be aware that there’s a much higher bar that you have to overcome.

For more tips and tricks on How to Write Flash Fiction, sign up for the Flash Fiction Online Youtube Channel.

And We’re Live!

Flash-Fiction-Online-2014-Anthology-KindleWow. Talk about a labor of love. There were moments when trying to get the first EVER Flash Fiction Online Anthology up and running reminded me of labor (yes, I have two wildling children so I know what I’m talking about here.).

But it’s done. It’s here. WE’RE LIVE!

The first ever Flash Fiction Online Anthology is available now from your friendly mega-million bookstore Amazon.com (Kindle users) and the local guy on the corner, WeightlessBooks.com (epub, mobi, PDF). And did I mention it’s only $3.99? For an entire year’s worth of fiction by some of the top authors in the business, that’s a steal.

Never spend another coffee break staring at the leftover muffin crumbs hiding at the back of your desk. No more train rides trying not to make eye contact and picking at your thumbnail. No more holding a paperback and trying to rock the baby one-armed (yes, I did that too).

Thirty six stories in a variety of genres from scifi/fantasy to surreal pigeons and choose-your-own adventure zombies.

So click here for Kindle.

Or here for everything else.

Go on. Do it.

Thanks. We appreciate you.

All my best,

Anna

Publisher, Flash Fiction Online

 

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 – How to Write Flash Fiction With Style!

Nancy DiMauro, FFO staff, blogger, and writer, breaks down the infamous Hollywood Formula: Flash Fiction style.

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 is that it’s only a scene, not a story.

How do you fit all the necessary story elements into 1000 words?

Writing Excuses did a podcast on the “Hollywood Formula” in Season 6. Lou Anders 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.

A story has three main characters and three parts.

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. When writing 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. When writing flash fiction, you probably have until about 100 words for the protagonist to make that choice.

BUT the protagonist must make a choice.

In the middle of the story, the protagonist needs to be asking and answering questions.

This section starts about 1/2 way through the story’s 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 story’s “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 is 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 stories 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.

A Peek Behind the Editorial Curtain

So now that you’ve submitted your story, what happens next? Other than shaking in your sneakers at the idea of fearsome fanged slush readers ripping it apart even as you read this.

Your manuscript has been whisked away into our submissions software and is headed toward potential storydom.

….I have an odd compulsion to sing the “I’m a Bill Song” at this point but I’ll spare your bleeding eardrums…

All those hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts land in a big electronic pile in our submission sorting system. Only myself, Suzanne the Editor in Chief aka She with Great Power, and our slush editors can see your identifying information and cover letters.

And what cover letters they are… Wowza.. I really did NOT need to know about Bernie your seventh grade goldfish. But we’ll save cover letters for another blog day.

Suzanne, aka She with Great Power, assigns all that slush into two piles. Each pile is assigned to one of our slush editors, either Anne, Sabrina, or Chris. All the personal information gets scrubbed away and each story gets checked to make sure it fits our guidelines.

Now on to the serious slushing work… the slush readers extraordinaire are assigned stories by their respective slush editor. Usually at least two readers, sometimes three, are assigned to each manuscripts in addition to the slush editor.

Now remember, the slush readers are reading anonymous manuscripts. It could belong to their neighbor, a stranger across the world, or a best selling short fiction author. But the slush reader has no way to know. They read. And vote:

YES: fireworks, love, sparkles, and send this baby into the next round (winnowing… More on that later)

MAYBE: it’s a good story but no fireworks. Or maybe not their personal cup of tea. More like a gin and tonic when you really wanted a lemonade.

NO: ahhh…. The infamous no button…. Guess you’ll have to keep reading this blog to find out why the No button gets pushed…

Each slush reader votes. If there’s a tie, Anne or Sabrina is the tie breaker. Feel free to bribe them with plushy robots. They totally dig cute ‘bots. Just FYI…

The YES’s fly off to winnowing. The NO’s and any MAYBE’s left hanging around are rejected.

Next up: Round Two. Winnowing aka Where She with Great Power Flexes Editorial Muscle.

Much love!
Anna