The Thing About Gates

(Posted on Curious Fictions June 23, 2021 -- part of my effort to save everything from the site before it closes!)


You know, I thought I blogged about this somewhere? But maybe it just ended up on Twitter, which is where all the excess tends to spill when I'm near a keyboard. Anyway, my guest editor term with Apparition Lit is over, and I think it went very well indeed, with stories showing up on multiple recommendation lists for the month. My next stint, with Interstellar Flight Press (for novellas!) is about to begin, and I'm glad the short story editorship came first, because it was a great learning experience!


The process, briefly, was that the Apparition slushers went through the pile of submissions, winnowed them down to (I think) something like twelve or maybe fourteen stories, and put those in a folder for me to look at, along with a spreadsheet with story details and comments. Where I fell short was promising to dip into the slush pile myself a few times during the open period, but unfortunately that period coincided with a disgusting amount of overtime at my dayjob and a bunch of after-work commitments that I had signed up for (hubris, thy name is bugge) months before and didn't feel I could back out on. (The real editorial team, I should add, was cheerfully forgiving of this, and said it was fine if I just looked at the slush results; other guest editors had done the same. God bless, because I felt extremely guilty about it and was also nagged by lingering 'What if I missed something in slush that was right up my alley?' thoughts.)


Then a video call was set up so we could discuss those dozen or so 'maybe' stories, and pick out the four we could afford to purchase. And this was where I learned about the editorial process that goes on behind the scenes, and also (gratifyingly!) that I did have something to contribute as a guest editor! Or that is, my instincts from a couple of years of slushing at Escape Pod were a) useful and b) calibrated approximately the same as those of the Apparition editorial team.


During our discussion, we started by nudging out the 'easy no' and the 'tricky no' stories, leaving us with about seven from which to choose our final four. The no stories, more or less, were:


- Technically well-constructed but lacked an emotional impact

- Interesting but had fundamental plot holes that would have required too much time to fix (that is, they would have required re-writing too much of the story because the plot hole fix affected everything else)

- A series of anecdotes or 'people doing stuff' rather than a coherent story with characters who had goals and choices

- Characters doing things for reasons that didn't make sense based on what we knew about them (or didn't make sense, period)

- Predictable or formulaic in a way that wasn't satisfying (useful tropes deployed without examination, subversion, or modification, and so turning into cliches)

- Tried to fit too much into the length of the story

- Pacing felt unmanageable (for example, using 2000 words to explain the setup and 800 to have the characters confront their obstacles, devise ways to get around them, fail, learn, re-try, and succeed or fail at the end)

- Stories that over-explained the setting (these are oddly common in slush for some reason) and didn't leave enough room for the characters to interact with it

- Stories that had so much dialogue that there was no action or exposition (that is, dialogue that was way overrepresented in the story and consisted of 'witty' lines or 'banter' that didn't explain what the characters were doing, or going to do, or why they should do it, etc)


So basically, a lot of these stories had excellent components--but because of the time requirement to fix the matrix in which they were embedded, we had to say no. And time also factored into our yeses: if we had been one of those venues with eight or ten months between acceptance and publication, maybe some of those stories would have been chosen and fixed, maybe not, but it would have been a very different conversation. But we had a few weeks between acceptance and publication to do the edits on our end, send the edits back to the author, do one more round (if needed), get bios and headshots, and get the stories into the layout, so we really focused on stories that would need, at most, tweaking rather than heavy developmental editing.


The yeses were much harder after we had gotten the nos out of the way, but we put a high priority on stories that were:

- Unusual in the sense that they took a familiar setup and went off in unexpected but comprehensible directions (a hard right turn off the expected highway, but still onto a paved road!)

- Emotionally involving, made us feel as if we understood or even knew the characters, both good and bad

- Easily imagined, with the use of sensory detail that was unexpected, vivid, and precise (as a made-up example, it would be easy to say 'This close, he smelled like he hadn't showered for a while' and more evocative and interesting to say 'This close, he had the overripe-banana smell of unwashed hair')

- In need of minimal 'fixing,' most often just to clarify something rather than add, rearrange, or take away something in the story

- Similar-ish in tone (not three light or amusing stories plus one ultra-goresoaked grimdark one, for example)

- Playing with the theme in a way that felt imaginative and fresh, not as if they had gone with the first idea they thought of

- Filled with characters who caused the plot events to happen, and were affected by the events of the plot in ways that made them think, reflect, learn, and change

- Possessed of surprises or twists that made sense in the context of the story, and weren't non-sequiturs


"Thanks for the long list of writing advice we've heard before, nerd," everyone just said. Okay, absolutely, and that's on me, but this is learned on the job, not from a writing book, I swear! And also I just finished reading a terrible, terrible anthology that I kept assuming would get better (because each new story is a way to re-set the ticker, right? RIGHT?), and here is what is terrible about it: literally every single story did the exact same thing with the theme.


The theme was 'the end of the world' and all of the stories went:

- I, a man, shall deliver to you my explanation of how the world ended

- However I, a man, must do something related to my present circumstances, which are inconvenient because of the end of the world!

- (Man does something stereotypically manly or tedious or technical, such as fixing equipment or going on a hunt)

- (It goes horribly wrong)

- I, a man, miss my wife


It was horribly disappointing, you guys. Each scenario of the end of the world was exactly the same: a cataclysm, followed by anarchy and chaos and every man living for himself, with women as chattel and kids as trophies, also eating canned food. Any man from each story could have been easily interchanged with any other man. They had no personality traits except for 'determination' and 'nostalgia for the old Earth,' and I kept flipping to the front of the book to see when the stories were written (from the 1920s to 2004).


Any of those stories would have been a 'no' from me because while they matched each other tonally (yay!), they were all too formulaic. If I saw a bunch of these in the slush, odds are I would not have picked 'the best one' out of the group; I would have not picked any at all. The story idea that comes most easily is usually the one that leaves readers going 'Bleh, I feel like I've read this before.'


How might you construct a yes story from the premise of the end of the world? I would argue the best way forward is to pick through and discard the 'easy' choices, the ones that come to mind first, and go through to a later choice, one that takes a little more work to come up with. 'The end of the world' particularly benefits, I would say, from taking the time to sand off the thick layer of 'things that everybody knows about the end of the world' and get down to something fresher.


So you could break the story down into its major components and see if you could find something more novel (I certainly won't do all of these, but let's just say hypothetically):

  1. The end of the world: first thought that comes to mind is 'nuclear war'! So scratch that. Next might be 'giant object hits the earth and causes the same effect.' Scratch that too. Volcanoes, floods, plagues, too easy. Let's find a new cause for the end of the world, or work on these ones to make them more something, less something, or sideways from what they are. Maybe the volcanoes aren't putting out lava, maybe they're mud volcanoes that smother the earth in boiling mud! Maybe they exhaled at exactly the wrong moment and set the atmosphere on fire, like people worried early nukes would do! Maybe the aliens that invade don't destroy the world, but humans destroy it trying to get rid of the aliens! Maybe the plague doesn't kill people outright or turn them into zombies, but causes people to mentally regress to their infancy, or gives them memory problems, or causes them to suddenly pop like water balloons and let their disembodied consciousness float around unable to touch anything!

  2. The main character: first thought that comes to mind is 'tough and virile Big Man who's the star of one of those survival shows.' So scratch that. Next might be 'last man on earth, commenting sadly on his pitiful existence and how much he misses his wife.' Scratch that too. What about something from the point of view of the wife he did leave behind? What about someone who isn't the typical 'survivor type'? If it's a dusty apocalypse, why not someone with asthma? If it's an 'only the strong survive' apocalypse, how about a traveling busker with no other skills than his ability to play heartrending sax solos? If it's a flood, how about a group of people who are building a commune on a houseboat and welcome anyone who washes up near them? How about people who are curious, protective, nurturing, instead of ruthless and calculating? How about people reacting in surprising ways, maybe sharing instead of hoarding, becoming nomadic instead of building a castle to lord over the new serfs, taming the giant apocalyptic rats instead of shooting them on sight?

  3. Choices: all the choices at the end of the world point towards violence, possessiveness, and manifest destiny. Scratch that. Not every story has to be the monomyth; not every protagonist has to go on an adventure. To stay and rebuild is ripe for conflict, tension, pain, meaning, and tough choices! And conflict doesn't have to mean 'action,' either. People harp a lot about character agency and forget that people choosing not to do something is also agency; people choosing to sacrifice, forgive, turn the other cheek, and do nothing more than persist and live, is also showing agency. Someone saying 'I will forsake my spot on the caravan so that my sister can go' is not 'giving up' his agency. He's making an active choice. Someone saying 'I will let you kidnap me, instead of fighting back, so that you don't kill my mother' has agency too. (Slight digression that I think this may be the source of some of the friction when people who read a lot of genre get into litfic: it seems like there's no conflict because people aren't in danger, there are no 'stakes,' and there's no 'agency.' But let's look at it another way: a woman with a philandering husband isn't in physical danger, and it may seem like her story doesn't matter, but there are stakes. They just aren't the life-threatening, world-shattering ones you see editors clamouring for in fantasy and sci-fi. And she still has choices and agency. She can confront him; she can confront his lovers; she can hire a private detective to ensure an airtight divorce; she can do nothing and quietly save up to leave him; she can have him murdered; she can murder him herself; she can endure in silent, fuming dignity and try to craft a life for herself that's at least mentally, if not physically, separate from what he's doing. What's at stake is her marriage, but also her self-respect, identity, and her whole future as an independent person--where she lives, what she does for a living, what she resorts to, what values she sacrifices or intensifies, who will be in her life, who will judge her and support her, her chances to find love again with someone else. Even opting to live with him cheating shows agency; she's made a decision and that's based on what she thinks gets her closest to her goals at that exact moment. Like all good characters, she's not sliding bonelessly down the Plinko game of the plot; she's choosing which way to go, and if she does go limp, she's intentional about it, and her reasons are understandable, whether the author chooses to make them implicit or explicit. She wants to be happy and if she cannot be, that's conflict enough.)

Anyway yeah. This went on too long again because of course it did; but I think back to the stories we chose for Apparition Lit and how they made interesting choices and had interesting settings and how important that was, how they didn't make things easy on themselves. An arranged marriage could only go one way, right? Nope! If you have a chance to leave a scary situation, you just leave and don't look back, right? Nope! And so on.

It was a really interesting position, keeping the gate like that for the first time, having some say over whether a story was bought or not. And it was eye-opening for me as a writer of short fiction as well: there are just so many stories, mine included, and there's only so much money or so many available slots in a magazine for the issue or the year, and it really does cause editors pain to have to say no to stories they like that showed up at the wrong time or were too long or just required that little bit too much work compared to the next story. Truly, we wanted to let many more people through the gate, but the budget just doesn't work out that way. (And people far more intelligent than me have written about the problem of paying for more short fiction per issue, which is that the math doesn't work: readers want it for free and writers want to get paid for their work, and there's no way to resolve it without a miraculous injection of cash into the system from somewhere.)


I think for the Interstellar Flight Press novella call, we're looking for two or at most three novellas, so there are going to be some really hard decisions and I'm looking forward to seeing what the slushers pass up for our editorial team to discuss. Especially now that I've whetted the edge of my story knife a little bit with the Apparition team! (Thanks, Apparitioners! I lof you!)