Monday, November 15, 2010

“A Comprehensive and Totally Universal Listing of Every Problem a Story Has Ever Had”

Douglas A. Van Belle, slush reader for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, has assembled what he claims to be "the official universal list of all problems that have ever gotten stories kicked out of a slush pile." Excerpt:
As a tolerably mediocre author who has seen more form-letter rejections than penis-enlargement spams, I want to know how the internet people found out that I need a larger penis. I may never figure that one out, but as an author I do know how difficult it is to get any kind of hint at why stories get crapped on, so I thought I would offer a few insights from Dante's eleventh level of hell, also known as the slush pile. There has been a bit of discussion on this, and Ian Nichols was kind/evil enough to point out that every single entry on this totally official list was contravened by at least one great story. However, I would point out that all of those very naughty writers knew that they were flirting with, seducing, or making a web-cam porn flick with one of the problems on the official list. There's probably some pithy comment I should put here about knowing the rules before you break them and having a reason for breaking them, but then we would have to have rules. I hate rules. I hate meetings and paperwork more, but I hate rules.
Read the entire thing. A few of the items on Van Belle's list are blindingly obvious ("telling instead of showing," "dead dialog"), but most prove thought-provoking. He devotes three of his twenty-five points to dealing with point-of-view problems, reminds writers that they usually ought to compress rather than chronicle (a technique Ursula Le Guin calls "crowding and leaping") and makes a strong case for flatter characters. If I had to argue with any of his reasons, it would be the very first one; can we really say that not starting in medias res is the biggest problem with new writers' stories?

A Postscript: Not only does Van Belle's article contain lots of useful content, it is also penned in a rather offbeat style, by which I mean it's simultaneously humorous and ribald. Exercise caution while reading at work unless you want to explain to your boss metaphors about condom sizes, bowel obstructions and the amount of adipose tissue in breasts.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
DonnaGrayson ; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)


C. N. Nevets said...

I'll give his list points for being an entertaining read. Maybe it's just where I'm at in my own writing, but I increasingly find these sort of lists more distracting and destructive than helpful. I think most writers would benefit from a more organic analysis of good writing vs. bad writing than this sort of deconstruction that seems to rob writing of its spirit and turn what must needs be an entity into a collection of pieces.

Davin Malasarn said...

Thanks for the link, Loren! Some of the points are interesting and unexpected. The writing is great!

Loren Eaton said...


You, sir, have a point. I mean, I like propositional advice on writing; in many ways, it's indispensible. But there is something grand about the organic consumption of a darn good book.

Loren Eaton said...


Glad you liked it! I certainly got a chuckle or two from reading it -- and hopefully a few needed tips.

C. N. Nevets said...

Propositional advice on writing definitely has its place, but I think it's best either (a) as deductive refinement for folks who already understand the big-picture great book, or (b) as inductive steps along the way for folks who have not yet determined what a great book is and are experimenting.

I think what I see too often is people who pretty much know what a great book is, may even have a draft of their own ready, and are going in to tinker.

I think that creates confusion and frustration all around.

But then I am also the son of a logician, so I may be over-analyzing that process...

Loren Eaton said...

You see, I have no such highfalutin pedigree. I'm the son of a farmer, and all I know is that if you work hard and long enough usually something happens.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

They missed one. Some writers create a story that they like, but that is long, maybe not too long technically, but too-long enough. So that they hold the hypothetical author's story for three months, send the hypothetical author comments about why they liked it and shortlisted it, and then decided it didn't have a place in Andromeda Spaceways.

Of course, said hypothetical author has no reason to be bitter; they gave him or her feedback, which is a quite generous thing for publishers to do.

Scattercat said...

Oh, God, ASIM feedback. I once had them send a story back after the first round with the slusher's comments.

The comments were literally, "I really liked this one. The characters were great."



Loren Eaton said...

CR and SC,

I find myself filled with sympathy for both the hypothetical and historical authors in your comments ...