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.
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!