Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lessons From the "Send" Button

“The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.” 
- John W. Campbell

Nothing beats the irrevocable “send” button for unleashing the flaws in your latest story. Only the act of slipping an envelope into a mail slot can equal it.
You send your story out into the world, and your unconscious hits you with a two-by-four, and sometimes the two-by-four has a couple of rusty nails sticking out of it.
This just happened when I sent a story called “The Home Run” to Charlie Finlay’s guest-edited issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. For the first time, the magazine will be accepting electronic submissions. When last I checked, Charlie had received nearly 600 submissions. The race was on. It seemed fun. I’d already suggested to my students that they join in the pile-on (poor Charlie!). And the deadline was a great incentive to finish a story that wouldn’t leave me alone and kept getting in the way of my other writing projects. If I don’t try for the deadline I might be diddling with this story for months. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!
Not long after I sent the story out (thirty minutes before the deadline for submissions) I discovered what might be a flaw in the structure of the story – a flaw for me, at least.
The story takes place almost entirely as a conversation between two people. One is the narrator. The other is, for lack of a better term, the protagonist. The protagonist in this story is Louis H. Sullivan, the famous architect. The story takes place just a few weeks before his death in 1924. He is penniless, obscure, forgotten. Worse, from his perspective, he is plagued with doubt – “the darkest color of all.” By the end of the story he will be delivered from that darkness.
But has he done so through his own actions? Maybe. He has at least worked out the meaning of his “vision,” as he tells the narrator, Cornelius Hooper. Sullivan has been given the opportunity to glimpse the future, at least as far as the neighboring building to his Auditorium offices. Sullivan is famous for coining the phrase, “Form must follow function,” but he admits he cannot comprehend the possible forms and functions of constructions a century ahead of his time. And yet he does come to a resolution – one he can live with for the brief time he has left. On that level, the story works, perhaps not admirably, but it holds itself above water well enough to qualify as a story rather than an episode.
But what about Hooper? Have we presented his “problem,” his “conflict” sufficiently? Has he found a resolution to this problem by the end of the story? I’m not so certain. Do we have to? A story needs only one protagonist. Two is nice, if you can manage it. Three? Now we’re getting complicated.
Two characters in a story, even when they’re not opposed to each other, seems to call for a kind of complementary effect – the problem of one should reflect the problem of the other. Somehow, the two inner conflicts (or outer conflicts, I’m not picky) should reflect each other. The solution for one should suggest the solution for the other – or in a more conflicting relationship between characters, the key for one should be the padlock for the other, and maybe vice versa.
I’m not sure I managed it in “The Home Run.” I think I managed to save Louis Sullivan. I’m not sure if I saved Cornelius Hooper. What I do see, however, is where I need to work on the story if/when I get it back.
And had I not sent the story out, I’m not sure this potential flaw would have been revealed to me.
The other day, I heard from one of my students. He loves writing and says it’s the thing that makes him happiest. He’s also afraid of sending out his work.
I thought about it. Of course he’s afraid. Sending your work to editors is a scary thing. It can’t not be scary, if you’re doing it right. It will always be scary. And yet, you must do it. Really. You must. It is of existential importance. If you are going to be a writer you must learn how to make that leap into what may be (very likely) the void.
Well, maybe you can be writer and avoid this part of the process – and with all the electronic self-publishing going on these days, many people do. You can be a writer, but you’re missing the opportunity to become a better writer. First, simply enough, because those editors more often than not know what they’re doing. You can learn from them, even when all you get is the standard boilerplate rejection. Second, because every time you send your work out into the Great Void, you have to ask yourself, “Is it good enough?” Some writers will say yes, it is. Others will say no. It doesn’t matter. It’s an opinion, an educated guess. Opinions are good things to have, but they’re dime-a-dozen. When you are willing to submit your work to editorial scrutiny, you’re backing up that opinion with a positive act.
And, the added bonus: the unconscious always kicks in and tells you what you did wrong after it’s too late to haul the manuscript back. And there are times when your unconscious is the toughest editor in the world.
Submission: there’s nothing like it to teach you about writing, if you’re concerned with learning it. And even if you’re not, you can’t win if you don’t play. If by the time you’re about to hit that “send” button you’re not thinking the story isn’t good enough, you’re not concerned about the quality of your writing. You know it can be better, because it always can be better, but you still have to hit the button if you’re going to learn the next lesson.

So, to all those writers sitting on the fence – Come on in! The water’s ice cold, or boiling, or both, and there’s a deadly whirlpool in the center, and it may be filled with a dozen toxic substances – but it’s fine.

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