what builds up must pay off and the underpublished writer

I decided a while ago to use “underpublished writers” as a term to include newbies, unpublished writers, and published writers who are able to write a large enough volume of work necessary to occasionally write a short story that deeply engages the reader from the first draft. They are all stuck in the mentality that assures them learning how to make structural changes is what is keeping their work from reliably telling meaningful stories.

There was another post on reddit today talking about mistakes “newbies” made with hundreds of replies in it. The biggest mistake underpublished writers make is assuming they can make mistakes instead of learning opportunities. To an editor, there is no mistaking the level of skill a writer has in the work they produce. It’s as obvious as the font they use or the language they chose to write in.

New writers can write stories that will knock it out of the park. They don’t even have to be perfect drafts. I’ve grabbed two stories from the slush so far that I saw the potential of from a mile away and they were both of the author’s first sales. One was a brilliant, if disgusting, story of an alien invasion that was told from an older woman’s perspective I thought was truly unique, and the other had a sense of place that was so alien and familiar I could work with the pacing issues.

The horror story was so awfully wonderful in the final version that I had to read it as detachedly as I could because it was making me feel faint to read the story itself in the final read-through.

Meanwhile, I rejected hundreds of stories because the only thing the work did extremely well was build their world.

There is no one mistake underpublished writer make that point them out as underpublished writers. They show it through their prose. Every shortcut the author takes to tell us what the author thinks the reader needs to remember is a missed opportunity to build up a reader’s experience that asks them to notice what exists outside of the character’s understanding.

Stories are made up of two parts. The build-up and the payoff. This exists on every level from the scene, to the theme, to the events of the story itself. What builds up must pay off. The build up must show the reader everything they need to know to understand the payoff of the story. But it has to engage to its ideal reader from the start to get them to the pay off so it matters.

Tanya Huff once compared her method of writing to a rollercoaster where the hard work is in the beginning. I think it’s a great metaphor where momentum building has to be not just a part of the ride but the very first part of it.

Fiction is not a waterslide where the reader has to do all the hard work on their own and the author doesn’t have to worry about getting the reader to the top of the staircase.

Can the reader read five flights of conversations in which they are told the five things they need to know for the sixth conversation to be the climax of the story from a plot and emotional that is worth all that word count? Sure. Is it the most engaging way to have the reader learn those five things they were told through exposition and dialogue? Heck no.

Did this one particular story do all those flights of conversations it took to the start of where the story gets good particularly better than the seven other stories I read in the same session whose authors all thought for sure their sixth conversation paid off as much as it needed to?

Probably not.

The same year I realized I still needed to learn how to structurally edit my work was the year I got an Honourable Mention in a Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. If I wanted to just look at my results, I would have said my method of writing a dozen pieces of spaghetti so one of them could stick to an editor worked perfectly.

But the story that got the nod was the story that made me realize I didn’t know everything. (Ed: shocking, I know.) I’d gotten a critique for the work I disagreed with so viciously it was all I could do to thank the person for the time they put into telling me they knew nothing about how fiction worked as a concept. I had sat on the floor, read the critique one more time and threw it, dramatically, behind the futon.

I had always appreciated the big gesture. But it wasn’t until we were packing up to move to Lethbridge that I found the critique I had flung. I sat down to read it, partly to take a break, partly to remind myself of how brilliant I had been to have thrown it there in the place. Instead, I was dumbstruck at how dumbstruck I should have been.

The critique nailed everything that was wrong with the story. “Little Black Boxes” was from my era of “a good story follows the rules. A great story breaks them” mentality that had led to my .001 batting average that needed rounding up to the nearest significant digit. The story was told out of time because the protagonist had “started” the story previously blown up and the black box installed in the character replayed how the human had gotten through the alien’s mind-reading defence by hiding the memory of what they’d done out of order.

I’d put them in a particular order I thought needed to be told to tell the events. The critiquer had put them in an order that better told the story. He was right. I wasn’t. The changes were so profound that when I made them the story, the work sold to Apex within a few weeks.

To truly feel staggered is a sensation few people face more than a few times in their life. It staggered me to realize how much I had to learn to make what I couldn’t do automatically as automatic as what I’d always been able to do automatically. I loved dialogue and I loved finding a parallel door #3 to the binary options of the plot so that the reader wouldn’t see the next turn of events unless the very astute clued in or the rest of the audience needed hindsight to see it. Any other part of fiction I had to learn how it worked first before I could hope to reproduce it reliably in my work.

But of all the gifts a writer needs, the ability to be unexpected is the most important one for crafting the experienced reader’s experience.

Most underpublished writers either tell perfect, expected stories or deeply-flawed, unexpected ones. The writer who could always write a perfect story with unexpected prose is far more likely to be teaching the class than taking it.


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