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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Critical Thinking

Kersley Fitzgerald

I recommended a Stupefying Stories submission the other day.

Not because it was good. I mean, it was okay. Needed some editing. Okay, quite a bit of editing. But I approved it because it was a story. And after reading twelve manuscripts filled with telling, back-story, and ambiguous endings, a mere 3000 words with a beginning, middle, and resolution filled me with joy.

When I ask writer-friends to submit a story, of course the first words out of their mouths are "What are you looking for." Well, folks, here's what I'm looking for. And bear in mind that this whole thing is so subjective. All of us have different criteria based on our own interests and backgrounds.

Story. Not a message—although the story can contain a message. Not the summary of a novella. Not a detailed background of the setting and characters. A story. One of those things with a beginning that sets the stage and gets me interested, a middle that adds intriguing details along the way, and an end that wraps things up in a relatively logical fashion. It's amazing how few of the entries we've seen fit this criteria.

Resolution. ~brb gets on me for my short endings, so I say this with admitted chagrin. A resolution is an ending that is relevant to the plotline. It may reveal something that is important to the characters or it may be a logical outcome of the plot. It does not have to tie up every single loose end. In fact, the story may be more interesting if it doesn't. But it should bring the scene to a credible close. A resolution is not an abrupt ending mid-scene, a completely out-of-character twist, or a vague fade-away. It's okay to leave the reader wanting more, but not so okay to leave the reader completely confused or unfulfilled.

Empathy. I would like to care about the characters. I know this is a classic plot-based/character-based writer issue, but if all the characters are certified pickle heads or vile and nasty or just boring, I'm not going to care about the plot. And if they just are vile, hopefully they can at least be funny.

Depth. I don't mind short little tales that have a cute surprise ending. We have a surprise-ending story coming up, possibly in the next issue. It's really cute. And although I had an inkling of the resolution, I didn't get what was really happening until it was revealed. But only slightly less irritating than the story with no end is the story whose end is obvious too early on—if the surprise ending is the point. If the ending is obvious, as in Marc's "Don't Eat the Piano Player" (Hmm…it sounds as if something is trying to eat a piano player…), that's fine as long as the story is compelling by its own right (which his is, of course). In fact, for the most part, I'd prefer a deep, interesting story to one that ends in a one-liner.

Taste. Here is where the SS crew varies widely. I was able to look past the giant, quivering…uh…thingy…to see the sweet story of a man who's afraid to be a first-time dad. The lads weren't. I don't like stories about demons; they're fine with it. Bear in mind that Vidad is front and center in this whole process, so there is definitely room for creativity. And we're all good little Americans who have no problem with violence that is appropriate to the plot. But none of us were able to stomach what that one character did with a driving glove. *shiver*

Deliberateness. I am all for breaking the rules if it's intentional. What I don't like is sloppiness. I am a long-time fan of Douglas Adams, and I can usually understand what the Monty Python guys are saying, so I'm all about random and absurd. But those characteristics should be deliberate. Submitted work should be gone over with a fine-toothed comb, washed, blow-dried, and then gone over again. Contradictions in an absurd story are funny. Contradictions in a straight story are annoying.

Narrative. These are short stories. In general, back-story, info-dumps, and flashbacks should be kept to a minimum. Of course, some background information is necessary, but there's a great chance for creativity, here. No characters standing in front of a mirror describing themselves (is their appearance really that important?), no detailed information on things that aren't relevant, and no boring conversations that are obviously just an excuse to lay down a lot of information that could be better relayed in a more entertaining manner. If you're trying to pad the word-count to earn more money, you're probably submitting to the wrong anthology!

Having said all that, there is a time to throw all the guidelines to the four winds and see what happens. We have a story coming up that's quiet, confusing, out-of-sequence, and terribly lacking in emotional closure. It's also brilliant. When done well, these types of stories really shine. But it's like the chocolate mousse at the end of the meal—really rich and often emotionally draining. There's even more need for a big, meaty, juicy steak-of-a-story that makes you sit back at the end of the reading, satisfied. That's the type of story I'm really looking for.

As the wife of a marketing major, Kersley wants to know: what do you want to see in a short story?
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