Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Freak Filter Redux

A while back, some of the assistant editors for IGMS elaborated on what it takes to make it through the slush pile.  You can find those ruminations here. 

Our standards haven’t changed, but after 8 months of slushing, I thought I would take a moment to reiterate my point of view when it comes to reading short stories.

Mo’ Shorter is Mo’ Better

One author called novelettes the perfect form for speculative fiction—long enough for truly creative world-building and characterization, but short enough to demand some textual snappiness.  As a writer, I completely agree—I love the novelette form. 

As an assistant editor, though, my feelings toward the longer form are drastically reversed.  I admit it—long stories got no reason

Well…not quite.  But who can pass up a Randy Newman reference?

IGMS of course accepts longer works.  But let me tell you—I despair at seeing word counts above 7000.  It’s been my experience that for all the strength of the form, most writers who think they need a novelette  to contain their story are just blabbermouths.  Most of the novelettes I see can be and should be reduced; rarely do I encounter a novelette that is lean.  

And lean is what you need to make a novelette successful.  Justify the word count—trim your submission until it is svelte.  Selling to pro markets is hard enough; a novelette has to be exceptional to make it through. 

Go For the Funny Bone

I’ve said it before: if you want to stand out in the slush pile, be funny.  When John Joseph Adams was reading slush for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, he made a similar comment.

Sturm und drang is easy, and so I see a lot of it.  I cherish the funny stories I get.  I love the quirk, the sarcasm, the quick wit. 

Heaven help me, I also love the puns. 

Bring It When You Begin It

Let me quote Sara Ellis, the long-time slush reader for IGMS:

I love captivating first paragraphs, and dislike impotent last lines. For most short stories, you have two pages to capture my attention. Do not waste these on exposition. Do not throw away first paragraphs with exposition.

Are you paying attention?  You have two (2) pages to prove your story’s worth. Make them count.

Accentuate the Positive; Eliminate the Negative

Sort of.

Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable.  He doesn’t have to be a saint; she doesn’t have to walk around petting kittens and saving puppies.  I appreciate anti-heroes; I have a fondness for the rapscallion, the brigand, the hard-bitten and cynical protagonist. 

But don’t make them defeatist.  I’m afraid I have no patience for nihilistic characters.  The story can make the point that life is absurd, capricious, or meaningless; but the character had better be an active participant in her own story, or it’s going to be an exceptionally hard sell.  He’d better be striving for meaning, or for conquest, or for something.   

Grande Finale

I’ve read some great stories recently.  Some really great concepts, excellently executed.  Powerful characters, moving conflict, fantastic story-telling…that in the last pages of the story seemed to morph into textual goop.  Or worse, textual sap.

Maybe you know how frustrating that is.  Maybe you saw A.I.  Or caught the finale of Lost, or Battlestar Galactica.  Terrible endings, all—because they didn’t live up to the promise of excellence that the bulk of the story made. 

A lot of these stories have the feeling of just ending too quickly—like the author was in a contest or something, and wrote an ending that felt slapdash and hurried.  Or that they tacked a standard, cliche ending on in order to just get it out the door.

Excise that impulse, authors.  Take your time with the ending; make sure it is worthy of the rest of your story.  As much as I love a good beginning, I love a good ending more because it means the author hasn’t wasted my time.

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Editor

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