Narrative Movement

In her writing book Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin discusses how a story must have narrative movement. The reader should feel that something is happening, that the story is moving along.

It’s easy to confuse narrative movement with action. In college, I was assigned an excerpt from Le Morte D-Arthur, which I believe suffers from this problem. (To be fair, it was written in the 1400s.) There’s a description of a battle that goes something like this: Sir Beefy Dude knocked Sir Muscle Guy off his horse, and woe fell upon Sir Muscle Guy, for he ran about the field, but the horse could not be recovered. Sir Turnip unhorsed Sir Radish, Sir Muffin unhorsed Sir Cupcake, Sir Balloon unhorsed Sir Moon…

At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s pages of detailed description about which knights got unseated. A literal blow-by-blow of the battle. Getting through it was a slog.

So why is this description so boring? There’s a lot going on–it’s a huge battle scene. But the problem is, there’s not much that’s actually happening. It’s just a list of events. The whole thing could be described in a few sentences, without loss of understanding.

Narrative movement isn’t about a flurry of activity–it’s about feeling like the plot has progressed. Are questions being answered? Are new questions arising? Am I invested in knowing what happens next?

Maybe if I know the backstory of Sir Radish, or if Sir Radish is somehow important to the fate of another character, then I’ll care that he got unhorsed. Otherwise, he’s just a name in a list of names.

But how do we get the plot moving along? Perhaps it’s more about how we build meaning into our stories.

Let’s take another event as an example. Not a huge battle, or an explosion, or anything so grand and terrifying. How about if we have a watch that breaks? This is not immediately exciting. I’m probably not going to run out and buy a book because someone tells me there’s this really cool scene where a watch stops working. But this is the sort of event that can move the story along, depending on the context.

First, we have to care about the watch. Who owns the watch? Does it belong to the main character? Her grandmother? Has it been handed down through generations? Is it a new watch given to her as a graduation present? And how does it break? Perhaps an accident? Or does her jealous sister stomp on it? Does the watch have special powers, perhaps allowing the user to travel through time?

When the watch breaks, it’s going to change something–the relationship between the sisters, for example. Or maybe someone will be stranded in time. The important bit is that the watch changes something significant in the story. Perhaps it forces the characters into action, or creates a new problem.

When I’m drawn into a story, it’s usually not because of explosions or battles, shouting or sex or gore. It’s because I care about the characters and the situation. And when something happens to change the situation, that’s what moves the plot forward.

The Huge Slush Pile

As a writer, I’m always hoping my story will battle it out to the top of the slush pile. But here’s what usually happens. I send out my story, wait anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months, and eventually get a rejection. (Looking at the submissions grinder, I’m not alone.) I let out a sigh, update my submissions spreadsheets, possibly do a quick revision, and send the story out to the next appropriate market.

That’s the writer side of things. What does it look like from an editor’s perspective?

Over at Slushpile Avalanche, Suzanne Vincent of Flash Fiction Online posts that their slush numbers are approaching 7,000 stories per year, averaging 18 stories per day. Holy moly, that’s a lot of slush. I’ve never been an editor, but I can’t even imagine going through that many stories a day (even with the help of slush readers.) Or rather, I can imagine it, and it seems like an huge amount of work. Especially since many editors do this as a labor of love.

From what I’ve read, many other magazines are getting comparable amounts of submissions. Clarkesworld keeps detailed submission statistics, which you can find in their backlogged blog entries. Submissions Grinder–a fantastic and free website for submission statistics–also records submission numbers. (Good for a general overview, although the data isn’t complete, because it only records numbers from writers who use the site.)

Knowing that the slush pile is enormous can be both daunting and comforting. Sometimes I wonder how my story will ever stand out amidst all of those other wonderful works? But it’s happened before, so I keep faith that it will happen again. And when I get rejected, I remind myself that rejection doesn’t mean my story is bad. It could just mean my story isn’t good enough. Or that another story was better.

And I can do something about a story that isn’t quite there yet. I can keep writing. I can get better. I can be thankful that I’m not an editor.

Square Brackets

What’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received?

Use square brackets.

Seriously, this has helped me so much. My first drafts (and second and third) have square brackets scattered throughout.

I use square brackets to indicate sections that need work, so that I can write without breaking flow.

Instead of stopping to look up the internal components of a lawn mower, I can write:

I jammed the [weird thingy inside the lawn mower] with a wrench.

Instead of trying to figure out believable dialogue on my first try, I can write:

[“As you know, Bob, the aliens are invading right now,” she said. “And they don’t look happy.”]

Here’s an actual example from a work in progress:

He began the class by reviewing [physics thing], his [some identifying characteristic.]

Who knows if any of that sentence will make it to the final draft? Or any of that scene?

And that’s another good thing about square brackets. I don’t have to waste time getting each scene right in an early draft, since at that point, I’m still playing around with the structure of the story. I can block out the scene, writing down a rough idea of how I think it will go. If I switch stuff up, or even delete the scene entirely, I won’t have wasted time doing unnecessary research or agonizing over a sentence that I didn’t even keep.

Square brackets are searchable, so if I want to do some quick revisions, I can find the places that need work. I also use brackets to block off new sections of writing to review later.

And the brackets are a visual reminder that a draft doesn’t have to be perfect. When I stick something in square brackets, I feel relieved, knowing that I’ll go back over it again and make it better.

Goal: Don't Be Boring

When I first started writing, I scoured the Internet for advice from the experts.

Not writers (although I certainly read a lot of writer blogs too), but editors.

I figured that slush pile readers were exposed to more new writing than anyone else, so perhaps they’d have some good advice for someone just getting started.

As I browsed through many “tales from the slush pile” and interviews of famous editors in the speculative fiction field, there was one thing people seemed to be saying over and over again.

Most of the slush pile, it seems, is not actually that bad. Many submissions are grammatically correct and tell a story in a somewhat proficient way. But lots of stories are just average. Lots of stories are boring.

So one of my biggest writing goals is to not be boring.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. A lot goes into telling a story. And what, exactly, makes a story not boring?

Plotting is an important element. I try to give my characters a goal right away, something that the reader can latch on to. I try to raise questions that the reader will wonder about.

Some of my strategy hinges on putting in strange details, stuff that’s often a bit silly, like a sea monster who sings drinking songs or aliens landing on Rabbit Island (which is actually a real and amazing place).

As a new writer, I know that not everything I write will be publishable. But I strive to write the stuff that only I can write. The weird stuff. The silly stuff. The stuff that could only come out of my brain.

And I do believe that every writer, at whatever level of skill, has a voice that is theirs alone. I believe that everyone has a story that only they can tell.

Overcoming Doubt

Like many people, I’d always had the dream of becoming a writer, but I’d never written anything. When I decided to actually make a go of it, the first thing I realized is that writing is a lot of work.

Writing is hours of sitting at your computer, outlining, drafting, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, submitting, getting rejected, and then writing some more.

And it can be hard to justify spending all that time writing when you aren’t meeting any of your goals. Or when everything you send out gets rejected.

When the tendrils of doubt start to creep in, I tell myself a few things.

  1. No one starts out knowing how to write.
  2. Writing is a craft. It can take years to reach basic proficiency.
    • It’s normal to work really hard and still not be that good. I actually find this idea heartening, since it’s means there’s hope that if I keep working, I’ll get better. Ira Glass (of This American Life) created some videos on storytelling, where he offers some great insights about the time it takes to become competent in creative pursuits.
  3. Being rejected doesn’t mean your work is bad.
    • Editors get a lot of great stuff they want to publish, but can’t. Maybe they loved it, but it’s not right for the magazine. Maybe they just accepted something with a similar theme. Just keep submitting.
  4. Writing is a joy in and of itself.
    • External validation is nice but feeling that I’ve completed a story I’m proud of is even better.