It’s Our Problem–We Created It…

Posted: February 17, 2011 by ajbrown in Uncategorized
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I hold in my hand a wooden crate. It is black. Or, rather it was black. At one time it was simply a bunch of boards nailed together with large holes drilled on two opposite sides for handles. A little sanding, some gray primer and then some good old fashioned black spray paint, and voila, a crate was born of my own two hands. Over the years I have used this crate, not for carrying stuff around in or storing items, but for something else all together.

I now flip the crate over and set it down, open side to the ground, flat side up. It is just large enough for me step up onto with both feet mere inches apart. Now I am standing on this crate. Have you figured it out yet? I’m sure you have.

For those who haven’t, this is my soapbox. I only pull this out when I want to discuss things. No, not rant. If I want to do that I just go off, no soapbox needed. People scurry away when I rant. Some of them laugh because I am very animated when angrily running my mouth.

For those who do not know me, I am AJ—no, that is not Aj. It is A and J. I just prefer no periods behind my initials (I may have to reconsider that, though). I am one of the great pretenders. I, like many others, think I am a writer, though truth be known, I am not. That’s not entirely true. I do write, but I think most everyday average folks think of a writer as either a journalist or a novelist. I am neither of those. However, I am a story writer.

I think that is an appropriate term for me. I have no desires to write a novel and I don’t limit my stories based on word counts. I do not write for editors or publishers. I write for readers. I write stories. I am a story writer. Yeah, redundant, I know. For the sake of this piece I will say I am a short story writer.

If you have followed me at all, you know that I have lamented about the quality of stories being published by both big and small markets. Let me say this: ALL OF US ARE PART OF THIS PROBLEM. If you think you aren’t, then you don’t look in the mirror too often. At one point or other we were/are fledgling writers wanting to get published somewhere… anywhere. It is the nature of the writer to desire to have others read their work. It is also a bit of validation when an editor at any publication likes our story enough to say, ‘hey, I want to publish this.’

Don’t believe me? Answer a question then. When you receive an acceptance, what is the first thing you think? Come on. What is it? Is it, ‘oh, I just made some money.’ Or is it, ‘yes! They accepted my story!’ Which one? I bet it’s the latter of the two. Our validation doesn’t come in the form of money tendered for a few well written words. It comes in those well written words being accepted by someone other than your friend, mom or significant other.

This brings me back to the all of us are part of the problem bit. Many times our stories are not ready to be published. So, Mom or Bob or Sally say they like the story and that you should get it published. Not so fast. I know I’ve gotten stories published and then saw a glaring issue with the logic of the piece or saw a typo that not only I missed, but the editor missed as well or saw how poorly I had written it… I look at stories of mine that were published two or three years ago and I cringe at some of them.

As writers we are blind to our own words. We think everything we write is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Umm… no. It is a pot of something, but gold it is not.

I have strayed from my original thoughts, which I tend to do, so let’s try to get back on track here.

Quality is defined as the general standard or grade of something. This means that something with a low grade is generally held as low quality. Think about it. If you spend four bucks for two McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries and a coke, you are really getting about four dollars worth of quality, right? However, if you go to Fuddruckers and spend seven bucks on a burger and fries, the food is going to taste better and be more satisfying. The quality of food and tastes is higher at one establishment than the other. (Disclaimer: No offense meant to those who like McDonald’s or for those who work at or own a McDonald’s. Tastes and quality are subjective when it comes to things like food and I think Fuddruckers is better than Mickey D’s. Personal opinion there.)

If you send your kid to a school known for it’s teachers not being all that great and for the rampant rate of violence or teen pregnancies, then there is a good chance your kid is not going to learn much, get beat up or knocked up or all of the above. I know it’s kind of an extreme example, but you get the point. Quality.

This brings me to the quality of fiction that is out there—more importantly the quality of the short fiction form. Or maybe the lack there of.

Let me present you with Exhibit A, an article written by Stephen King in 2007 titled, What Ails the Short Story. It appeared in the New York Times or at least on their website. (Disclaimer #2: Before anyone says this was just his way of ramping up more publicity for Best American Short Stories of 2007, which he edited, read it for what it is, and for what he said.) Read the article here:

What Ails the Short Story

If you read through the article, I hope you gleamed from it a little of what I did. Granted I’m going to be taking a few things out of context, but not by much. If you did not read through it, I would like to quote bits and pieces of it. Fortunately, this is not a book of fiction, so I should be able to quote from it without being sued for stealing/plagiarizing.

What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.

Hey, you writers, did you catch that? Don’t make me knock on your monitor. That means I would have to get off of my soapbox and right now I don’t wish to do that.

How many times have we read in the guidelines of a publication for us to ‘buy a copy of our publication so you know what we like.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. We should buy the publications we are submitting to, if anything to support them, because most of us short story writers are published in the smaller markets where the owners/publishers/editors are folks with one or two jobs who put these products out as a labor of love. They shell out their own money in order to put out their product. Many of the good smaller markets go for years on the negative side of the profit barrier or fold altogether.

Go back and think about it for a moment. How many publications have we purchased just so we can find out what a market likes so we can, in turn, submit to them with the hopes of getting accepted by them? I have done just that: purchased a copy of a magazine or anthology just to read the stories in them and see if I even stood a chance in getting into them. That’s the wrong reasons to read anything. People should read publications because they enjoy them. We should read with breath held and minds racing, trying to keep up with the words and the images in our heads. My opinion, folks. Just my opinion.

That quote also mentions the dwindling audience that we writers are writing for: other writers (and in many cases, editors). So, herein lies another part of the problem. What about the average reader, or as King puts it, the Constant Reader who wants to be entertained? Have we forgotten about them?

Let’s take this a step further with another quote from that article:

Last year, I read scores of stories that felt … not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.

There it is again, a reference to writers penning stories for someone(s) other than real readers. There have been times that I have disagreed with some of the things King has said in interviews or articles, but for the most part, I think he hits the nail on the head. As he does here. King wouldn’t say that stories were dead on the page, but I will. I have read many stories—mine included—that have been lifeless, one dimensional wastes of words; stories with no feelings, no mood, no real direction. I am guilty of writing some of these and I try to keep them hidden on the hard drive of my computer. But a few have escaped and now I can’t seem to kill them off. Or at least reel them back in.

As a writer I wish to get published, but am I—are you—writing for the readers enjoyment or just in order to get published? Are you writing stories that hop off the page and grab the readers by the throats or do you go for the tried and true methods? Are you a cookie cutter writer?

Think about it.

Stop staring at me like that. I don’t need to be knocked off my soapbox just yet.

A writer friend of mine, I’ll call him Mr. W. so that he remains anonymous, had this to say when I presented the King article to a group of writers:

He has an interesting take on it. I find I have to agree with him up to a point that a lot of “literary stuffs” is a lot of hubris, filled with a sense of its own importance and relevance.

Something I’ve been mulling over lately is a pattern of stories I’m seeing accepted by a lot of the pro-level sci-fi and fantasy publications.

It might be just me, but it appears that the kinds of stories most of them are taking are pretty much “video games” short stories.

A lot of action, not much character development. A good bit of ho-hum dialogue and no real depth to the stories.

Read that last part again. Go ahead, I have time. There’s not much entertainment value in stories with lack of character development, so-so dialogue, no mood and no depth. Sure, there is action, but if we don’t care about the characters then, really, why should we keep reading beyond the first page? What attachment do we have?

If my friend thinks that a lot of the paying pubs have developed a pattern of stories—never mind that they are ‘ho hum’—then writers will gear their writing in that direction. It is at that point where the art of writing becomes a finger painting instead of an oil work. And, please, remember that writing is an art form, not just putting two words together with two more words and then two more after that and so on. Writing—story telling—is about conveying a message in a manner that leaves the reader wanting more, not just of the story, but of you, the writer.

One of my favorite writers is a guy by the name of Dameion Becknell. Hell of a writer. Hell of a good guy, but I bet you’ve never heard of him. You see, Dameion is a friend of mine who writes vividly brilliant stories that suck you in and leaves you breathless. However, Dameion isn’t in the habit of submitting stories to markets. I fuss at him, nag him, chastise him for keeping his art to himself. If I had the choice between reading something by Dameion and reading ANY well known writer, I would choose Dameion every time. He’s that good. But, you see, Dameion doesn’t write for an editor. He doesn’t write to get published. He doesn’t write to fit the mold of any other writer out there. No, Dameion writes because he loves telling stories—and he has it down to an art form.

And there lies the answer to the short story’s popularity. If you’re a writer and you’re in this business for the dollar bills you can make, then you’re probably in it for the wrong reason. However, if you are a story teller and you want to entertain readers and you write for them (as well as yourself) then you’re probably on the right track.  If you want to tell a story, well, I think you’re ahead of the curve.

The majority of us writers have become those cookie cutter writers. We’re sugar cookies, at best—maybe even just the dough. We need to add some life to those cookies. Put in some chocolate chips. Maybe some nuts or peanut butter. How about some white chocolate or M&M’s?

I’ve often refused to write the way editors and publishers have wanted things written. I’ve always stated that I enjoy writing the way I write, with mood, with feeling and less action than most folks who decide the fate of my submissions care for. But, that’s okay with me. I want to write. And I want to get published. But if that means writing the same boring words that every other writer who wants the same thing, then it’s not for me. I’ve written for editors. I’ve written to get published. And, to be honest, I hated it.

Now, I write to tell stories. I write to entertain. I’m not King—I don’t want to be. But, I also don’t want to write those same self absorbed words that everyone else writes.

A couple of years ago I wrote a story just to write it. I had no intentions of getting it published, but after a year or so I sent it out. It was picked up and a few months later I received an e-mail from the editor. He had forwarded an e-mail he received from a woman who read that story. She said that it so touched her by its beauty and sadness and redemption that it made her cry. As a writer, that is the best thing I could have ever asked for from a reader. To feel my words. I gave that lady an experience in my story and it moved her to tears.

As writers, shouldn’t we strive to move people to feel something? Anything? Shouldn’t we feel something as well? I’ll never be the great American author. I’m not so sure I want to be. A story teller however… now there’s something I can strive for…

Okay, now to hop off the soapbox… I have stories to tell…

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Comments
  1. JAM says:

    A wonderful, introspective essay. I enjoyed it very much. I have this theory: if I’m having fun writing the story, then the reader (hopefully) will be having fun reading the story. At least, readers with similar interests as mine. But if the story I’m writing is merely stretching my vocabulary, making me think, and feels like I’m writing a puzzle… then it’s work, and often it’s high-brow fluff. Readers enjoy getting sucked in. But if I’m “working” on a story too hard, I think the reader will have to “work” to get into it.

    I basically quit writing for publications. Validation means more to me now; I’m just trying to figure out how to achieve it. And personal validation is most important to me. Which is why I’m submitting 1-2 stories every 3 months instead of 10-20 stories every 2 months. It’s just not as important to me on a personal level. And whether people read this comment and agree or disagree – that’s not very important to me, either. Self-expression leading to validation. First comes self-validation (and tons of editing). Then peer-validation (workshopping). Then the submission of the story for the ultimate validation. The problem: the stories I’m writing aren’t good enough for me to validate them and move them on to the next process.

    Loved your soapbox.

  2. Debs says:

    I’m going to disagree with you, AJ. I read the stories in the professional press and they make me angry. Angry that I’m not that good. I don’t believe that you have to be a cookie-cutter writer to make it.

    Just make it outstanding, make it shine, so that the editors have to buy it. That’s where I’m shooting.

  3. ajbrown says:

    Not all publications are bad–my Favorite is Necrotic Tissue and they constantly put out great stuff. Shroud does as well. Dark Recesses falls into that category.

    But, if we are not writing for the reader, then we are not writing for the right people. It’s really all about the reader and entertaining them and that is really the gist of this–NOT to be a cookie cutter writer and to write what we feel will be entertaining and enjoyable to read.

  4. Debs says:

    I look at the Year’s Best Anthologies, and every one of them is top notch. Say, one of the Years Best SF, even the hard scifi which I don’t really go for is outstanding.

    So the good stuff is still being published. Perhaps there is a dulution effect. Too many publication, perhaps driven by the aspriring writer market? But then again, they’re a market, too.

  5. ajbrown says:

    The Year’s Best are indeed great, but that’s a whole different ball game, simply because they are the year’s best, which even King said there are a LOT of great stories out there but they seemed show-offy, self absorbed and that is where the heart of this blog is.

    I think there is a dilution effect as well, but I don’t think that would fall on the writer so much as the market itself. if the market puts out ho-hum stuff, then I would think it would be the market that is driving down the quality of the submissions that they receive.

    I love that some markets are really tough to get into. You have to be good to get into them. That’s not a bad thing at all. But some markets… some markets take anything and, in my opinion, that is bad.

    There are some great reads out there, but, again this is just my opinion, the not so good stuff outweighs the really good stuff.

  6. Moray Paul says:

    After writing for a while now, I have a hard time reading without that inner editor whispering in my ear. The more I write and strive to be creative, the more annoyed I am by predictable and bland stories. So while it may be true that the quality of published stories, in general, may not be top-notch, I think the fact we are pickier than we used to be comes into play when we’re reading. The stories you wrote a few years back that you loved and were so proud of may be stories you look at now and cringe, so it stands to reason that you read more critically than you used to. I would think it’d be incredibly difficult to impress an outstanding writer, one who spends a great deal of time polishing their own work ’til it sparkles, one who has read stories centered around the same tropes time and time again. But when you think of the markets that will publish just about anything, they aren’t the pros, they’re usually online zines where the editors simply copy/paste and post whatever was sent to them – as is. I truly believe stories with heart that are original and well crafted will always find a home and be appreciated.

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