Monday, March 9, 2009

Sign Me Up For The Decathlon -- with a brief digression on short story submissions

Last week a few of you stressed the importance of action and plot in stories. Agreed! The longer I write, the more I see how essential a great plot is and how entertaining and gripping some good action can be. I've spent almost all of the last few years submerged in classic literature, and while some of it is drenched with action (e.g. The Iliad), some of it is not (e.g. To The Lighthouse).

I want to kick off Action Week with a rant about the distinction between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story.

In all of my writing classes, in all of my readings of great writers giving out their opinions, people almost always say, "Start with character." But, when I read some of the stories that are really popular these days, many of them don't have characters that blow me away. I recently read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and After Dark by Haruki Murakami, and I'm currently in the middle of Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. All of those books were compelling and have exciting plots with twists and turns -- I could see why people liked them and I'm enjoying them myself. The characters in those books were perfectly fine, but none of them were as fascinating as, say, Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. So, are they somehow worse books for being so? My answer is, not necessarily, and one can't necessarily judge the talent of a writer based on this criteria.

So, while the rule of starting with character is a good one, I've decided to abandon it. I still want to craft the best characters I possibly can. But, I'm deciding that I will let my inspiration come from different areas, whether it be character or plot or setting or the small crocheted finger-puppet that caught my eye in a store window. The fact is, your inspiration can start from anywhere and your job, as a writer, is to flesh out that idea until the other components of the story are equally developed.

Along with that, I'm also deciding to leave the camp of people who defend themselves by saying that they write character-driven work. That's a hard group for me to leave because the members sort of held themselves above the other "Plotters", those vagabonds that only cared about entertaining people. (Who wants to entertain? We're making art!!!)

So, instead of identifying myself as preferring character-driven work versus plot-driven work, I'm going to strive to bring them both up to the same level, so that these elements marry and propel each other. Maybe we're being too easy on ourselves when we are choosing one element over another. Maybe, as writers, our event should be the decathlon instead of any of the individual events alone.

It's great to write an entertaining story. It's great to write one with depth. What if we as writers strove to do it all? And, with people out there like Lady Glamis, I know I'm not alone in this opinion. So, while I have eschewed action in the past, I'm embracing it now. Bring on the war paint and the army of dogs, I'm ready to make something happen!



A Short Story Submission Digression.

On Friday Justus asked for some tips to submitting short stories to literary magazines. I didn't want to put that off, so I'll mention a few tips here.

Literary magazines are great because they are often run by people who make no money who just enjoy showcasing the hard work of writers. I'm a staff editor for one, and trust me, I'm making no money and expending a lot of energy. You can find a database of them at Duotrope and other places. Specify your genre before searching to narrow down the field. If you're using literary magazines to help you get your novel published, then you will want to try and get into more popular places, such as the New Yorker or Ploughshares or Glimmer Train or Zoetrope: All Story or Manoa. These are not easy to get into, but once you do, you'll often have agents coming after you instead of vice versa.

Once you have picked some journals to submit to, go to their website and find their "Submission Guidelines." Sometimes this will be in a "Submit" link, but the more popular magazines will hide it a bit because they get so overwhelmed, so check out "Contact Us" or other tabs. In the guidelines, you want to find out how they want to receive your work (hard copy or email or whatever) and the approximate word count of the stories they publish and what times of the year they receive submissions. Basically, just follow the directions. You also want to find out the name of the Fiction Editor of the journal. Don't address stories to "Editor" if you can avoid it. Be personal so that they know you care about their journal.

Once you know all there is to know about the journal you are interested in, you want to write a cover letter. This is not a query letter. This is a very brief letter that accompanies your short story, along with an SASE if they ask for it.

The letter should say something like:

Dear (Name of Editor),

Enclosed is my short story, "(Name of story)" for your consideration. My work has previously been published in (list other fiction publication bylines you have, if any. If you don't have any, leave this out).

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.


Davin Malasarn

It seems too simple, but this is the generally accepted format, so use it if you want to blend in. The goal of the letter is to have it be ignored so that the editor pays attention to your story.

So, then you are ready to submit the story. If it's electronic, find out whether they want the story as an attachment or whether they want it in the body of the email. If they want a hard copy, mail the story in a large envelope. Don't fold it. Don't staple your pages together unless they ask you to. Include the SASE with proper postage.

Once you have submitted a story, wait. Don't bother the same journal again until they get back to you. Some of them can take months. I often send the same story to multiple journals since they usually get rejected and I don't want to wait eight years to publish a story. Journals will specify if they allow this "simultaneous submission." Some don't. I tend to ignore the ones that don't because I think that's inconsiderate.

Once they have reviewed the story, you are going to get one of three results. One, you will get a form rejection. Fine, don't worry about it. Don't let it get to you. Two, you will get a personal rejection, which means that you got REALLY close to getting in. My journal gets hundreds of submissions a month and we write, perhaps ten personal rejections a year. Three, you'll be accepted. Congratulations!


  1. Like you, I strive to make both plot and character come to light. I have found that a book with only one side featured (i.e. Plot in many action-thrillers; Character in many literary works) is just not something that I enjoy. It needs both.

    It comes down to the same old formula: make a character the reader loves, then torture him (with plot, obvs.).

  2. Beth,

    What about taking a character the reader hates then showering him with gifts? Ha ha.


    Great post and thanks for the tips. I'll review what you have said when I'm ready to submit. For now, my brain is overloaded.

  3. Thanks for the link to Duotrope, it looks like a great resource.

    When you write the first draft, include all the action and the character development that comes to find. When you revise it and edit it, par back to what's necessary.

    Keep in mind the reading preferences for your target market. If you are writing a thriller, in depth character studies do not sit well with the pacing you need.

    In the first and second drafts of my manuscript, I had about two pages of detailed backstory that basically said this:

    "a flood of Greta’s memories swamped his mind. Her teenage years were filled with strife; she spent time as a prostitute. Her marriage to Will Flaherty was a sham, a loveless union inspired only by pregnancy. Her love for her daughter played second fiddle to her alcoholism. Will had the sense to quit drinking when she got pregnant. She tried, but could not do it. Once Julie was born, the stress of parenthood made the affliction worse than ever before."

    I took the history and turned it into the action... a ghost devours someone's soul and sees her memories. I don't lose any of the value of the character, and this history plays an important role in establishing motives, but I tell it without it hindering the advancement of the plot.

  4. Thank you so much for a great post, Davin. And you are too kind for mentioning me.

    I definitely strive for plot and character. I love character and relationships. And it's in the relationships that I find the story. But I'm a huge sucker for action plots. Guns. Crime. Suspense. Explosions. All that fun stuff.

    Mish-mash it all together with the right balance (that's the trick) and you've got a darned good book!

    I agree with you. We're being lazy if we choose just one side!

  5. Bring on the war paint and the army of dogs, I'm ready to make something happen!

    Word, as the kids say.

    I think you've got to have both, even in so-called literary fiction. If your characters aren't doing something, they aren't alive. And I think action enables us to show character, and one of my important epiphanies came when I realized that action was a great way to write exposition: characters are in places because they do things in those places; characters own things because they do things with their possessions. Characters meet other characters because they are doing things with (or to, depending on the type of story) those other characters.

    Short stories? Let's have an "on submission" contest! Though I won't have time to write anything new for a while, I have some dusty old things I can shop around.

  6. beth, or I've heard, "get your characters up a tree, throw rocks at them, and then get them back down again."

    Justus, I hope the comments are helpful. Submitting can be complicated the first time, but it gets easier real fast. Give it a whirl.

    Rick, Yes, Duotrope is great. If you register, your statistics also help to inform other users by helping to calculate turn around times and rejection rates of each magazine. It's cool. And, it's free, although I try to donate at least a few bucks a year. Your editing of that scene also sounds like a great move.

    Lady Glamis, yes, it's all about balance. Every story has SOME description and SOME action. Whether or not it works depends only on that balance and how the different elements are combined.

    Scott! I'm definitely up for a submission challenge. Let me know when is good timing for you. I know you've got your deadline. I can make it official here or you can do it on your blog and anyone else who wants to can play along. Great idea!

  7. Davin, great post, plot and character are both important for a great book. I like to think I start with a character and the plot unfolds.

    Also, I love Duotrope, although, I still haven't gotten back to any of those short stories that I started. I don't think I have the talent for writing short stories at all. oh well, back to the novels.

  8. I start with characters, but always end up focused on plot. I'm of the camp that despises description in my novels (both reading and writing). I am perfectly happy reading a novel and never knowing what the MC looks like.

    As to the short story submissions, what if you don't know what genre your story is? The short I've been subbing, A Mother's Best, I just call it mainstream because I don't have a clue.


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