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.

Archival Work and Writing

Being an archivist influences how I write stories–the subject matter, how I think about the world, and even plotting. (Not sure what should happen next? Throw in some archival documents!)

It’s common advice to write what you know, but I’ve never written about archival processing, and it’s uncommon for me to use the archives as a setting.

Instead, I find myself thinking about broader issues, like how memory works and the relationship between the present and the past. I’m interested in what constitutes a document and how our idea of history changes over time. I’m interested in artifactual value (which is that awe you might feel in the physical presence of something really old). I want to think more about our sources for historical knowledge and the differences between oral and written histories.

These were all issues that interested me in my day-to-day work, but that often got shoved out of my head while I sorted correspondence by date or researched the particulars of the Burma Walkout.

Now that I’m not working with collections every day (due to being a full-time mom), I have time to process (pun intended) some of these ideas, which are coming out in my fiction.

Often, if I’m stuck on a story, I just have to think about archives, and suddenly it all clicks.

Publication at Freeze Frame Fiction

My flash fiction piece “The Sound That Carries Across the Ocean” is up at Freeze Frame Fiction.

If you like reading about sea monsters and drinking songs, you might enjoy this one.

The story is illustrated with some wonderful art by Luke Spooner of Carrion House.

Levels of Distance in Writing

I recently read The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardener. The book contains a good deal of practical advice mixed with some interesting thoughts on the purpose of literature and its relation to truth.

The tone of the book is both encouraging and stern, and Gardener’s thoughts for the new writer go much deeper than a simple list of rules. He assumes that the young writer is serious about learning the craft, so he presents the difficulties of writing in their full complexity. However, the book is geared toward newer writers, with a list of common n00b mistakes and some basic plotting structures.

I found his discussion of psychic distance particularly useful. He defines psychic distance as the distance the reader feels between herself and the events in the story.

Here are Gardener’s examples, from greatest to least distance.

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snow storms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes…

Gardener also notes that the writer may use different modes in the same story, depending on the action.

I’ve been thinking more about distance in my own writing, especially as it relates to character voice. Perhaps the trickiest part is knowing when to dive in close, hoping that the reader can feel what the character is feeling, and when to back away, giving the reader some space to think.