NY Times bestselling author, Rosemary Edghill shares her knowledge and her wit in one of her “Dear Author” commentaries. I’m been a fan of her “Dear Author” posts on Facebook and feel very lucky to share the laughter and insight this one brought me.
You and I should talk. I know you’ve been sending stories in to that online magazine regularly—sometimes five or six a month!—and I’ve been rejecting them (with a form letter, not even a personalized reply), just as regularly. But you keep trying, no matter how many rejections you get. I think that’s great.
I just wish you’d learn how to write.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: your grammar’s fine, your spelling’s good, and your sentence structure is usually adequate. But you see, the magazine only buys STORIES, and you aren’t sending me stories. You’re sending me ideas—some could only be handled properly (by “properly” I mean: “in a way that does not make me want to gouge my eyes out and run screaming through the streets of Poughkeepsie”) at novel length. Some are clichés (and you don’t know that because you have very little exposure to the last hundred years of written science fiction and fantasy) that you haven’t found a fresh spin on. (And do not get me started on your endless thirst to do grim’n’gritty remixes of Disney cartoons: recursive much?) The worst of the lot—the stuff that makes me beweep deaf heaven and turn to drink—are the ones that have a wonderful set-up, an exciting idea, a great set of characters…
And stop. In the middle. Without a resolution.
Dear Author, I know your mentors and moral exemplars said that you get points for showing up, that half of life is showing up, and so on. NEWS FLASH: THEY LIED. You get ZIP for showing up (as with all of these half-baked “flash fictions”). You get the brass cupcake for SEEING IT THROUGH. Another lie the mentors tell? “Leave something to your reader’s imagination.” No, no, no, no, NO! Especially when what you, with a fey and elfin delicacy, want to leave to your reader’s imagination is the ENDING. (Yes, dear Author, I am capslocking in a paroxysm of anguish. I like you, I really do. And I want you to stop shooting yourself in the foot.) Trust me, readers have plenty of imagination. They’ll find something to do with it when they read your story. But they aren’t signing on for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” experience, and when I review your submission, neither am I.
I know you watch a lot of television. (So do I: stop trying to slip re-written Supernatural fanfic past me, because filing the serial numbers off your fanfic is a whole ‘nother rant.) Television is a five-act structure in 42 minutes: Freytag’s Pyramid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure). Five-act structure is long-form structure: if you model your narrative on the storytelling structure you see on television (or in the movies) you are going to be writing a novel. That’s fine, but don’t send it to me: the magazine publishes short stories. And a short story has a three act structure.
Dear Author, you rarely send me the second act, let alone the third. I’m starting to suspect you have no idea what happens in the third act. You need to figure that out before you submit your story, and it needs to be on the page.
Take, as an illustrative example of the thing done right, C. L. Moore’s masterwork, “Vintage Season”. In Act One (the set-up), we establish that the time is now, the place is here, the narrator is Oliver Wilson, and some very odd people are renting Oliver’s house. (Dear Author, you may think Act One is for “Setting The Scene”. Nope, sorry. You get a paragraph—at most—to do that, and it’s PART of Act One.)
In Act Two (the reveal), we discover two things: 1. The odd people are Time Tourists. 2. The Time Tourists visit the most perfect seasons in Earth’s history, after which they leave. And this is where (in your own stories, dear Author) you usually stop. Protip: this is not (yet) a (finished) story. This is a set-up for a finale that you do not deliver. Because in Act Three (the blow-off) of “Vintage Season” we find out that the perfect seasons—the vintage seasons of the title—come just before terrible disasters, which the Time Tourists are aware of and do nothing to prevent.
If you’ve managed to get an equivalent part of Act Three into your story, bravo! dear Author. But your story still isn’t over. (This is where I send you the form letter saying your story “lacks sufficient closure”, BTW.) Because here’s the rest of Act Three: Oliver, in possession of all this information, writes it down in a document meant to serve as a warning to others: the Time Tourists are easily recognizable, and their presence is a warning of disaster. Unfortunately, his message is destroyed (along with Oliver) in the very disaster to which the vintage season was the prelude.
And that, boys and girls, is how you end a story. Something happens. We find out what it is. We then see its consequences. And seeing what your set-up resolves as is really important to the reader. Does the princess marry the goatherd? Does the spy complete his mission? Do the aliens destroy Earth? Don’t leave us in suspense! “So what happened then?” is the eternal cry of every audience ever. And we would like to know. Really we would. All of us. You can come up with the prettiest and most amazing situation ever limned in English prose, and it is just going to lie there like a dead flounder unless you do something with it. By the conclusion of your work, its reader should be able to answer the following questions: 1. Who is the protagonist? 2. What do they accomplish? 3. Why do they do it? 4. What are the consequences of their actions?
Dear Author, if, based solely on the information you provide in the text, that would be impossible for the reader, do another draft. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. No matter what Meatloaf may say, two out of three is bad.
Rosemary Edghill is the keeper of the Eddystone Light, corny as Kansas in August, normal as blueberry pie, and only a paper moon. She was found floating down the Amazon in a hatbox, and, because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, she became a creature of the night (black, terrible). She began her professional career working as a time-traveling vampire killer and has never looked back. She’s also a New York Times Bestselling Writer and hangs out on Facebook a lot. Her webpage is: http://www.rosemaryedghill.com/ and there is not now nor ever was an E in the middle of her last name.