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What makes a story stand out in the slush pile?

I've been a slush reader at Jim Baen's Universe for a little over a year now.

Having read a couple thousand submissions, and having helped aspiring writers improve their stories in the slush forum, I've learned a bit about what makes a story work -- what makes one or two stories out of a hundred stand out.

I don't think I would have learned as much in the same amount of time by just writing, workshopping, and submitting.


For me, the story that stands out puts me in the character's skin -- makes me feel, at the gut level, what the protagonist is feeling.

Another story, with just as good of a story idea, just as good a plot, won't make the cut if it fails to put me "in the character," if it just has me riding along as a spectator.
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Scene-setting description

Personally, I prefer writing that's somewhat minimalist -- both in writing style and in the amount of description. I prefer just enough description to prevent the "talking heads in a white room" syndrome.

Others like a great deal of descriptive detail.

It's entirely a matter of taste.


Keep in mind that writers in the 19th century and earlier included an enormous amount of description -- generally far more than would be publishable in today's market.

Back then, many readers may have had backgrounds like Laura Ingalls, growing up in a "Little House on the Prairie." If a novel included a scene in the drawing room of a Victorian mansion, or in a fourth-floor office in a six-story building, many readers may not have ever seen such a room or such a building. So the writers included descriptions based on the presumption that they're portraying something unfamiliar to the reader.

In today's environment, everyone in the English-speaking world has, through TV and movies, already seen just about every conceivable setting. So if you let the reader know what the setting is, you don't have to provide as much detail as pre-TV-generation readers needed.


When you do add description of setting, make it serve double duty, when you can.

For example, you have a bar scene. If you let the reader know that it's the bar in an upscale hotel, or that the bar is a dive in a seedy part of town, you really have no need to describe the interior decor in detail.

Instead, you might want to focus on one or two things that sets the bar apart from all the others. Maybe the varnish on the bar-top has worn thin, and stains have seeped through -- and there's a stain that's shaped like Texas. The protagonist, who grew up in Texas and had a very bad childhood, sees the stain and has a strong emotional reaction to the memories the stain evokes. Or something.

Don't use description of setting just to describe the place. Use it to differentiate that particular place from all the similar places. And when you can, use it to help bring the character to life.

Sam
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Opening a Story

I've only done a handful of critiques in the past few week. In many of those stories, the opening simply didn't work.

Stories that start with a history of the society, or the world, in which the story takes place is pretty much guaranteed to bore the reader before that reader gets to the actual story being told.

Stories that start with many paragraphs of scene-setting description, with no characters making an appearance in the opening will likely not get read very far. (This applies primarily to commercial fiction -- literary or academic fiction may have different sensibilities).


This is the advice I've been giving:

In most stories, there's a point where circumstances, from the protagonist's perspective, depart from the ordinary -- otherwise, there'd be no story to tell. At that point, the protagonist faces conflict (against another character, against a situation, or against himself/herself).

If you start your story where that incident occurs, you automatically have "character in conflict" -- one of the more effective ways to draw a reader into a story.

That's more likely to grab a reader's attention than ... [fill in with whatever the writer now has] ...

To the protagonist, what's different about this day -- compared to yesterday, or last week, or last month? That difference is where the story lies. And that's probably where the story should start.


Sam
heart_of_galaxy

Point on submissions for Jim Baen's Universe

Hmm . . . we really need to update our submission guidelines . . . but no one has time. The entire staff consists of volunteers, and we all have lives -- or in my case, [::shrugs::] something that's at least vaguely life-like.

The posted guidelines aren't very clear -- partly because no one knew early on what would work, especially with the slush forum (or whether it would work at all). And we've been making up the rules as we've gone along.


We accept multiple submissions (though we don't accept simultaneous submissions).

And more importantly, if you have a story in the "awaiting decision from Eric Flint" pile, send more stuff.

If the editorial board has already recommended one of your stories, we really, reallywant to see more from you.


If you use the slush forum to submit (and there's no reason not to -- you might get some useful feedback that'll help you make the sale), you can post multiple stories. If you post more than a couple at a time, it'll probably be best to space them a week apart. But please feel free to post your stories as you write them -- no matter how many are already posted, no matter how many are in Eric's to-read pile.

The disadvantage of the slush forum is that there's no formal rejection, so a story could sit in the forum for 3 months before you know it's not going to be accepted. But I think you'll probably have a fairly good feel for whether or not any particular story is a fit for Universe within a few of weeks.

Sam
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Use of the word 'as'

On the Critters forum, I posted a reply to a question about the use of the word 'as' -- whether or not there's a rule that says you can't start a sentence with 'as':

http://webnews.sff.net/read?cmd=blogview&group=sff.workshop.critters&from=92062

Here's the thrust of what I said.


Limiting the use of 'as' is a good guideline.

It's fine to use 'as' as a comparative:
"He's blind as a bat"
or
"As in the past, ..."


The problem occurs when beginning writers use 'as' to convey simultaneity. It's not that it can't be done -- it's just too often done poorly.

"As Zeldan ran down the stairs, he unsheathed his sword and started hacking away at the enemy soldiers."

This is the kind of sentence you see quite a lot in slush piles. It's usually followed by ten, or fifteen, or twenty sentences: "He did this, as he did this and that. As yadda yadda happened, he did blah blah and more blah blah." And the slush reader decides to reject the manuscript before getting through the passage.

Often, the simultaneity doesn't hold up. If he drew his sword and started hacking away while he ran down the stairs, then the enemies must be on the stairs. In that case, it'd be too crowded to run down the stairs.

And even if the simultaneity actually does hold up, the passage, more often than not, still feels clumsy and reads clunky. It becomes a chore to read, which detracts from the entertainment value of the story.

Many beginning writers seem to think that forcing an artificial simultaneity leads the reader to think the action is occurring very quickly. It doesn't work.

Actually, a series of short declarative sentences showing a sequence of activity imparts a greater sense of fast-paced action. Short declarative sentences read easier and quicker -- even if the actual word count to portray everything in sequence might be higher. So the reader gets through an entire high-activity passage, with a sense that a lot of action took place in a very short span of time.

"Zeldan ran down the stairs and drew his sword. He hacked away at the nearest enemy soldier. When that enemy fell, Zeldan turned to the next. ..."


Please keep in mind that I'm using an action sequence to demonstrate a point about using 'as' to convey simultaneity. When writing fiction, don't get sidetracked by the action itself. Readers care about the characters in the action. If you move too far away from the characters in order to narrate the action, it can get boring rather quickly.

Sam
flag

I may actually post stuff to this blog

I set up this blog 7+ months ago. Since then, I've hardly given it a thought.

In the interim, though, I've been "friended" by two writers: j_cheney and bobhowe.

That's two people more than I had expected, since my blog has been dead inactive.

I did, in fact, know that J. Cheney had seen my earlier post (though I have no idea how she came upon it). She mentioned it in the comments thread of her story submission to the Jim Baen's Universe slush forum. That story is, BTW, one of the strongest stories to have passed through the slush forum. It's as good as the very best stories we've published, written by the big-name pros.

Since I was one of the first to read J. Cheney's story in the slush forum, and the very first to comment on it, I wonder if I'll get the credit for discovering her. :-)

As for Bob Howe, I have no idea how he came upon me. I know who he is, because I've seen his stories in Analog. In fact, his story "Do Neanderthals Know?" has been nominated for the Nebula Award. (Big congratulations to Bob!)

In any event, I think I may be posting here on an irregularly regular basis.

Sam
scroll&quill

Helpful Tips on Writing, updated

Jim Baen's Universe is a Science Fiction & Fantasy online magazine, published by Toni Weisskopf (also the new publisher of Baen Books), and edited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick.

There are a number of threads in the Jim Baen's Universe section of Baen's Bar (the Web forum for Baen Books), that might be of interest to writers.

To access the Bar, you'll have to register and get a password. Go to: Baen Books
Click on "Baen's Bar" on the upper right corner of the Baen homepage.



For each of the links to threads, I show the thread name (which is the link), followed by the name of the originating poster [in brackets].

Links marked with {*} indicate threads that have been added since the last time I posted this (June 23, 2006).


These first threads are of interest only to those who post stories to "Baen's Universe Slush":

General info for newcomers to the Universe slush [Sam Hidaka]

{*} How to Post to the Bar [Paula Goodlett]

{*} Formatting Stories [Sam Hidaka}


The following threads concern critiques (some of it specific to critiques on the Bar):

For newcomers to Universe Slush: The feedback/rewrite cycle [Benja Fallenstein]

Techniques: Interpreting Critiques [Nancy Fulda]

Technique: On Amateur Criticism [Keith Higginson]

{*} Techniques: How long should one wait between revisions? [Nancy Fulda]

{*} On wondering if one is in over one's head [Laura Fraser]


These following threads concentrate on writing mechanics, at the line and paragraph level:

Techniques: Writing Tips 1, Adverbs [Sam Hidaka]

Techniques: Writing Tips 2, Dialog Tags & Gerunds [Sam Hidaka]

Techniques: Strengthening the Prose [Nancy Fulda]

Peeve Listing [Darwin Garrison]

{*} On swearing (definitely PG) [Drak Bibliophile]

{*} Freaking out about dialogue [Bret Booher]


The following threads concentrate on story-level issues:

Techniques: Focus [Nancy Fulda]

Techniques: The Evils of First Person [Nancy Fulda]

Techniques: Making the Reader Care [Nancy Fulda]

Starting a story with dialogue [Laurie Hicks]

Techniques: expectations and surprises [Eyal Teler]

Techniques: Turning Ideas into Stories [Nancy Fulda]

Case study, turning an idea into a plot [Ori Pomerantz]

Case Study: Minor Characters [Ori Pomerantz]

Technique: representing thought [Keith Higginson]

Techniques: Disguising the Infodumps [Nancy Fulda]

Techniques: POV (please) [Beckysue H]

Techniques: Action Sequences [Nancy Fulda]
(This thread contains a post by Eric Flint, in which he excerpts an action scene from his novel, 1634: THE GALILEO AFFAIR, Chapter 37.)

A Cautionary Tale [Benja Fallenstein]

{*} Technique: Show Me An Alien? [Mike Barker]

{*} Knowing vs Showing [Dale Josephs]

{*} Techniques: Raising the Tension [Nancy Fulda]

{*} Techniques: Integrating Genre Elements into A Story ['nother Mike]

{*} Characterization Q [Rocky Perez]


The following threads cover other topics that might be of interest to writers:

Case Study: Early Solar System Colonization and Economics [Ori Pomerantz]

When to Break the Rules [Laer Carroll]

Techniques talent v. Training [John Zeek]

{*} The Unsung Collaborator [Laer Carroll]

{*} Judging mil-SF [Darwin Garrison]

{*} rate of travel [M Cellar]
(This thread contains an article by Karen Bergstralh, "Horse Gaits and Speeds 101" -- the most informative discussion of the travel by horse I've ever seen.)

{*} Late 19th, Early 20th century Women's clothing [Jebediah Barr]

{*} Story Question [Joe Rettzo]
(This thread starts out as a question about posting stories set in someone else's established universe [the answer is NO]. But the thread veers off into various directions.")

{*} Parts of Song Lyrics and Poetry [Ruth Burroughs]

{*} Line-level writing quality [Sam Hidaka]
(This is a discussion of why line-level writing quality is important, not a how-to topic.)


Sam
scroll&quill

Helpful Tips on Writing

Jim Baen's Universe is a new Science Fiction & Fantasy online magazine, published by Jim Baen, of Baen Books, and edited by Eric Flint.

There are a number of threads in the Jim Baen's Universe section of Baen's Bar (the Web forum for Baen Books), that might be of interest to writers.

To access the Bar, you'll have to register and get a password. Go to: Baen Books
Click on "Baen's Bar" on the upper right corner of the Baen homepage.



For each of the links to threads, I show the thread name (which is the link), followed by the name of the originating poster [in brackets].


This first thread is of interest only to those who post stories to "Baen's Universe Slush":

General info for newcomers to the Universe slush [Sam Hidaka]


The following threads concern critiques (some of it specific to critiques on the Bar):

For newcomers to Universe Slush: The feedback/rewrite cycle [Benja Fallenstein]

Techniques: Interpreting Critiques [Nancy Fulda]

Technique: On Amateur Criticism [Keith Higginson]


These following threads concentrate on writing mechanics, at the line and paragraph level:

Techniques: Writing Tips 1, Adverbs [Sam Hidaka]

Techniques: Writing Tips 2, Dialog Tags & Gerunds [Sam Hidaka]

Techniques: Strengthening the Prose [Nancy Fulda]

Peeve Listing [Darwin Garrison]


The following threads concentrate on story-level issues:

Techniques: Focus [Nancy Fulda]

Techniques: The Evils of First Person [Nancy Fulda]

Techniques: Making the Reader Care [Nancy Fulda]

Starting a story with dialogue [Laurie Hicks]

Techniques: expectations and surprises [Eyal Teler]

Techniques: Turning Ideas into Stories [Nancy Fulda]

Case study, turning an idea into a plot [Ori Pomerantz]

Case Study: Minor Characters [Ori Pomerantz]

Technique: representing thought [Keith Higginson]

Techniques: Disguising the Infodumps [Nancy Fulda]

Techniques: POV (please) [Beckysue H]

Techniques: Action Sequences [Nancy Fulda]
(This thread contains a post by Eric Flint, in which he excerpts an action scene from his novel, 1634: THE GALILEO AFFAIR, Chapter 37.)

A Cautionary Tale [Benja Fallenstein]


The following threads cover other topics that might be of interest to writers:

Case Study: Early Solar System Colonization and Economics [Ori Pomerantz]

When to Break the Rules [Laer Carroll]

Techniques talent v. Training [John Zeek]


Sam