I spent months slaving away on my first story, a science fiction epic of grandiose proportions. When I completed it, I thought to myself, “This is great. Everyone’s going to love this.”
I was nine years old.
But seriously. I had written something I’d never read anywhere else before. It was new and bold. It was, in fact, a science fiction adventure called “Mr. Mooney Goes to the Moon” about an ordinary guy selected (by mail!) to go to the moon, where he has adventures and comes home again.
I liked it.
My parents oohed and ahhed appropriately. My sisters and brothers said, “Good job, bro!” My best friend politely said, “Nice. Now let’s go ride bikes.”
At nine years old, the secret to a really great story was still a mystery. My knowledge of those particulars lay in my distant future; I was a long way away from writing The Ultra Thin Man, and I had a lot to learn.
I’m still learning.
Learning how to write is cheap. I listened to professional writers give me conflicting advice. I heard writers and editors say use common sense. Some said intuition leads the writer in the right direction. Some believed writers write when they’re inspired. Some touted the importance of complicated outlines. Some said just start writing and see what happens.
After college, I started submitting short stories with serious intent, emerging from my insular writer’s lair to put new stories out there, competing with a scrum of writers bent on similar goals. But I still didn’t have a clue about what made a story great.
My first rejection letter came to me in 1981: a little card from Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, with a cute illustration of a pig dressed as a mailman looking up with consternation at an open mailbox, a slimy tentacle sticking out from the inside holding a letter. Editor George Scithers had typed an actual note on the card. I would’ve been awed by this personal attention if I hadn’t immediately noticed the first word, “Sorry.” He went on to say: “This fails to hold interest. The characters are one-dimensional and they tend to give long lectures about the situation instead of live in it.”
And, finally, he inserted a small dagger to the heart: “The story lacks any central wonder or new idea.”
Not ready to give up, I cranked out new stories and mailed those out, and the rejections piled up. Some were form rejections, some had a few encouraging notes. I took some classes. Attended some workshops. Eventually sold some stories. Not many; I still received way more rejections than acceptances. Then I debuted Talebones, a small press magazine I edited for 14 years until 2009. I received about 200 short story submissions a month. At a twice-a-year schedule, that meant 1200 submissions an issue, and I could only buy about eight stories.
Mostly, these stories (like my earliest attempts) were boring. I admired the courage of some of these writers, who were chucking their work into the mail as fast as I could reject them, but I started to learn more about my own writing. I began to see that it wasn’t so much the courage of these writers that mattered. It was about how well they could communicate with readers. You see, as an editor, I was now an audience. I had certain things I liked about stories, things I hated. I wanted to be entertained. I wanted stories to pull at my heartstrings, or strike me with fear. I needed the best stories in my magazine because I had subscribers who expected great stories.
What I learned is the same thing filmmakers intuitively understand when they make movies. The audience is most important. The audience desires story. They want to be entertained. They want to be enlightened. How do filmmakers do that? They merge language and style with strong actors and powerful images and emotional music, and they draw a cathartic response from the audience without them seeing who’s pulling the strings.
When I understood this, I realized the same rules applied to writing short stories, and when I started working on novels, I found that the rules held sway here as well. Language creates that relationship between the writer, the characters, and the reader. Maybe I could even write the type of book that got picked up for film or TV. (It’s a dream I have.) But I knew, deep down, a book that paid attention to its relationship with the audience, if nothing else, was a book that had soul.
A book with soul is faithful to itself, but it shares that experience with the reader, and that makes for a great book.
Guest post written by Patrick Swenson, author of the novel “The Ultra Thin Man.” Swenson is the publisher and proprietor of Fairwood Press, a small Fantasy and Science Fiction publisher based in Washington state. You can find him online at www.patrickswenson.net and on Twitter at @patrick_swenson. “The Ultra Thin Man.” is his first novel.
Photo Credit: Bobbie Climer