Got Depth? 8 Reasons I Reject Stories

With a poem and two stories of my own under review at three publications, now’s the perfect time to list eight reasons I reject stories at our online, speculative, short fiction publication.

These reasons aren’t one size fits all; every story is different. There will always be several unique reasons and several typical reasons that don’t fall into this list below. If you’ve ever received a form rejection letter from a publication and wondered why your story didn’t make the cut, this list definitely won’t have the precise answer. Only the publication that rejected your story knows that.

However, it will give you some valuable insights into what can often play a role in rejections, and what to avoid in your next submission.

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I wanted to be carried away by the sea of writing, the plot, the characters. Instead the story was so shallow I could taste sand.

The characters’ actions, reactions, and inactions weren’t believable. Things occurred simply because the plot required they happen, not because they had any logical or reasonable cause underpinning them.

The lack of that foundational depth reverberates through every other element of the story, creating a ripple effect that reveals transparent constructs, not the engaging story you’d meant to write.

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The story lacked challenge, conflict (not necessarily physical) and robbed the characters of an opportunity to grow or at least overcome some odds. The author handed them victory, rewards, and the apple of their eye on a silver platter.

This isn’t limited to easy but favorable outcomes for characters. Any major element (or minor, if glaring and obtrusive enough) that runs on the energy of convenience undercuts the story as a whole.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Convenient backstories that explain away rather than enrich.
  • Unearned and inexplicable, but very handy skills and know-how that grant an easy victory.
  • Throwaway tragedies that don’t examine the human condition, reflect, or dive into grief to some degree, but all the same attempt to garner reader sympathy or justification for character actions.
  • Convenient stupidity and laziness that facilitates an outcome a character should have otherwise foreseen.
  • A convenient romance that lacks any depth to the relationship, wraps itself in an over-saccharine blanket, defies any in-story logic and happens simply because a man met a woman (or any combination of that and with any gender). This is a pretty common trapping for writers.

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The editorial team was left scratching their heads in collective confusion as to what, exactly, the author was going for. The story went through a number of identity crises in search of itself and still wound up lost.

I love to be surprised, for conventions to be turned inside out and upside down, but it has to work. Experimentation, surprises, convention and trope busting all require an attention to detail, internal consistency, depth and reasoning that should be visible (overtly or covertly) when reading the story.

If an author’s attempt doesn’t work, it’s not because I just didn’t get it (though I’ll readily admit if I just don’t get it!), but because the story itself is still quite confused. Further still, making sure readers get it is our job as authors. If they don’t, that’s our fault.

Oftentimes, a story is jammed with too many themes, plots and subplots. On their own, each of them would be brilliant, but together they’re a directionless and conflicting mess, each one competing unsuccessfully for my attention.

Another component of this is endings that come out of left field. Poorly foreshadowed plot twists and endings, if they’re foreshadowed at all, leave a bad taste in my mouth.

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This requires a list of ways authors often indulge. To the bullet points!

    • Characters with runaway–and admittedly entertaining–dialogue and interactions that drowned out the entire plot of the story. I love my scene-stealers, too, but editorial control dictates I rein them in when they’re having too much fun at the story’s expense.
    • A sex scene that got down and dirty without a clear purpose and without adding any meaning to the character’s lives or the story’s progression.
    • A meaningless, over-the-top action scene, battle, fight, or otherwise violent episode that added nothing to the story and required me to take two showers to get all the blood out.
    • The prose reveled in its own grandiose purpleness. I love well-written literary, speculative fiction. The writing is rich, consistent, knowingly bends or breaks traditional techniques and rules, and often digs deeper into the characters, their motivations, and the story’s theme(s)–it also always has a firm, grounded plot.

Sporadic, inconsistent, and overwritten purple passages that disregard the fundamentals (without understanding them) are not literary fiction. Doing it poorly is the problem. Oftentimes this manifests as style and abstractness over substance, tangibility, and an actual plot.

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If a writer has to choose between entertaining, educating and preaching, always choose the first two or at least the first one. Never choose the third. I don’t normally speak in absolutes when I give writing advice, but I’m firm on this one. It doesn’t matter whether the writer’s gospel is anarchy, climate change, a religious belief, capitalism, moral relativism, or free-hamburger Wednesdays: if their story’s theme and message come across as preaching I’m more than likely going to reject it.

Here are a few telltale signs that a story is preaching:

  • Two-dimensional characters.
  • Demonization of one or more sides of the debate, argument, or conflict.
  • Physical caricatures which belittle an opposing worldview. Often this telltale sign acts in concert with the two above–especially when juxtaposed with the physical description of the characters who hold the dominant and often correct worldview.
  • The dominant and correct worldview (in the author or story’s eyes) goes unchallenged, as does the character who holds said view.

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Sometimes the story just needs more revision and editing to either lose 500 – 2000 words, or gain 200 – 500 words in order to improve the piece as a whole.

Losing words means losing a good chunk of dead weight (often a flashback, backstory, darlings, an abundance of filter words and repetition, or a scene that doesn’t add anything of value).

Adding words often means giving the piece the proper denouement it deserves. It’s good to leave readers with some unanswered questions, to leave them wanting more, but leaving off a real ending is not the way to achieve that.

I can’t stress how many stories I’ve rejected for being incomplete or simply ending without any resolution. It’s one of the most unsatisfying things to read.

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Nothing happened. The story wasn’t really about anything. No characters grew or learned. Not every character has to grow or learn, indeed. But those that don’t ought to drive the plot, move readers, or keenly observe other actors in their world who are doing something worth reading about. Setting a wonderful scene, creating a fantastic world or system, and crafting memorable characters for their own sake–simply to have them exist–does not a story make.

This ties into the point about overindulgence. I love character study, but in my field–speculative and genre fiction–and at our publication in particular, the story still needs a decent plot structure.

Stories come to life when something happens in that scene, when the world or system collapses or must survive internal and external forces, when those characters act, react, learn and grow, chase dreams and run from fears or face them. Stories are about living, breathing people, and what they do when challenged; stories are about what happens next.

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Wooden characters with stilted dialogue, plot holes, rushed endings, dropped subplots, deus ex machina solutions, consistent grammatical and spelling errors, and incoherent or rambling prose, all fall under the umbrella term underdeveloped writing. It neatly covers some issues mentioned in this post and several not listed here.

It’s also much kinder than saying bad writing. There are no bad writers. There is only underdeveloped writing. When we look at it that way, there’s always room for us to improve if we’re willing to put the work in. The image above illustrates this perfectly. Parts of the wall are covered in beautiful tile, but the job is unfinished. The old tattered brick, the structure underneath the polish, is still visible.

Likewise, it can sometimes seem like too much of an author’s earlier draft, their original unpolished core concept, is still visible.

If a writer is truly called to the work, if they must tell stories, underdeveloped writing can be turned into a beautiful work of art and an appealing purchase through study, hard work, peer review, revision and editing, and persistence.

Great writers are not born; they’re made of blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice. Their works are the fruits of a marriage between a love of literature itself and a dedication to their craft, to improving how they tell their stories.

In summation, here are eight reasons I reject stories:

  • Shallow story, lacked depth.
  • Too easy: relied on convenience.
  • Story tried to be too many things and failed at each of them.
  • Overindulgent writing or gratuitous story elements. Called attention to itself (themselves) and away from the story.
  • The story preached at me and potential readers.
  • Length issues: ran too long or stopped too short.
  • Bored me to tears.
  • Underdeveloped writing.

I’m a firm believer that enriching a story with depth tackles the above list head on, teaches writers to preemptively look for weak spots and strengthen them, guides them toward natural solutions to problematic constructs, and puts them that much closer to their goals of publication, recognition, and payment for doing what they love.

If you’re an editor, what are common rejection reasons not listed here? What would you add?

If you’re an author, which of these are a weakness of yours? Which did you disagree with? What hallmarks of underdeveloped writing do you routinely seek and destroy in your own works?

Let me know in the comments!

Thank you for reading!

-Whetstone

Catch me on Twitter at @WhetstoneEditor to continue the discussion there using all the apropos hashtags, and the Whetstone originals #FictionDepth, #DepthIsValue, #TimeIsValuable, #WhetstoneEditor, #GSFiction, and #DSFA (Dear Speculative Fiction Authors).

Stock Art – June 2018

Not only are these pieces fantastic, they’re FREE! It’s been a real treat to watch your artwork grow and change. Could easily see this style on a #bookcover. Looking forward to what you design next. #free artwork #FreeFriday #BlackGirlMagic #blackart

Pursuit of Natural

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Quick announcement: A brand new set is up on the stock art page! Avant Ava is all about color–watercolor to be precise–creativity, and inspiration.

Head over and check it out. All artwork on the page is free to use!

Also read: my previous post explaining the stock art project.

Take a second to share this post, if you’re so inclined! And follow me on Instagram: pursuitofnatural, for more art and works in progress.

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New Growth: Knowledge Is the Power to Change

Edin shares powerful words about self-care that we can all heed.

Pursuit of Natural

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Feeling Something’s Wrong

There’s a Nigerian utterance for every mood and every occasion.  On the occasion that my sadness turned to lethargy, my mom would describe my demeanor to me in one such utterance, which conveyed a sense that one lacked the energy to even be tired.  Doo-wehn, doo-wehn, doo-wehn. Clearly, something was wrong, but I couldn’t remember the last time I wasn’t sad, so I continued the process of becoming a zombie.

My mom said my hair looked “eaten up”. You know, as if by chemicals. But we had been relaxing my hair since I was a child, so even though something was clearly wrong, I continued to process my hair.

Knowing What’s Wrong

Damaged.

There’s a range of emotions that accompany finally knowing the trouble and naming it.

Fear: is it worse than I thought?

Shame: why didn’t I know sooner?

Relief: I’m not imagining it.

Anger: how could I…

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Guest Post: Celebrating Writers Who Persevere

Today I’m excited to join writers participating in Writers Persevere!, an event that authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are running for the next few days to celebrate their release of their newest book, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma. This book looks at the difficult experiences embedded in our character’s backstory which will shape their motivation and behavior afterward.

Because Angela and Becca have spent the last year exploring painful human struggles, they wanted to highlight a very important aspect of overcoming difficult circumstances: it can make us stronger. I promised to let Angela hijack my blog today, so please read on!

-Whetstone

***

Hi everyone! When you set out to find examples of inner strength, you don’t have to go very far. Right here in the writing community we see it every day. Writers more than anyone understand the swirl of emotions as we work toward publication. We dream of making it and seeing our books in the hands of readers…yet doubt and frustration can be a constant companion. For us, there is a lot to learn, much to steel our nerves for, and unfortunately, a host of real-world problems that can try to derail us. And, even as we slowly move forward and grow, we can sometimes feel like impostors. This is a tough road.

But the fact that writers face this battle, day after day, and KEEP GOING…this should be celebrated! We need to be reminded that we are much stronger than we sometimes believe. We dream, create, and force ourselves to keep striving. Through the ups and downs, we persevere!

Have you encountered something on the writing road that made you question yourself? Have you faced an obstacle that required a force of will to get past?

If so, we want to hear about it! Join Becca and me at Writers Helping Writers from October 25-27th, where we are celebrating writers and their stories of perseverance. Stop in, and tell us about a challenge or struggle your faced, or if you like, join this event by writing a post on your own blog and share it using the hashtag #writerspersevere. Let’s fill social media with your strength and let other writers know that it’s okay to question and have doubts but we shouldn’t let that stop us.

GIVEAWAY ALERT!

We also have a prize vault filled with items that can give your writing career a boost, so stop by Writers Helping Writers. I would love for one of you to win something that will help you get closer to your goal!

If you struggle, remember to reach out to others. We are in this together, and by supporting one another, we cross the finish line together (and then keep going!).

Happy writing!

Angela & BeccaSave

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Free Services Month: October 2017

I’m excited to introduce a month of free Whetstone Editing Services. I’ve wanted to launch this for several months but felt the timing wasn’t quite right.

I know, I know, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Not to ignore the wisdom in the adage, but I’m going to ignore the wisdom in the adage. I’ve never mistaken my confidence for arrogance. Neither should you. I’m nervous about making this offer, but I’m also ready, and I know what I’m capable of–that I’m capable of even more if I challenge myself.

That, dear readers, is where you come in. As much as I’m offering seven of you free services, you are offering me the chance to push and challenge myself.

Are you ready? Let’s do this!freestuff-ninthWHO:

  • I’m offering up to 7 (seven) subscribers 1 free Whetstone Editing Service per person.

As long as you’re a subscriber and you follow the requirements within each individual gig, you are eligible.

WHAT:

  • 1 (one) standalone Whetstone Editing Service per person
  • Plus any two gig extras for their chosen gig

Here’s a good overview of my services (some samples here).

This link details my requirements for each gig. Though you won’t need to register to or log into Fiverr, these requirements will apply.

If you need help deciding what a standalone service is or understanding which items are gig extras, check out my Services and Rates page, my Fiverr gigs, or just ask me.

Manuscript Formatting is unavailable at this time but will return to my Fiverr gigs (and my Services and Rates page) once I restructure it as a standalone gig.

WHERE:

This month-long offer takes place right here on my blog. Subscribers only. It’s free to subscribe, and I won’t bombard you with posts (I post every 2 weeks, with the occasional once-a-week run).

WHEN:

Monday, October 9th, 2017 to Thursday, November 9th, 2017.

HOW:

  1. Subscribe to Whetstonecraft for free, bi-weekly writing advice like my Depth Series.
  2. Send me a message and be one of seven to secure a spot on my schedule.
  3. Once you’ve initiated contact, I will work with you to iron out exactly which one service and two gig extras you need.
  4. Please ensure that you’ve read my gig requirements before selecting a gig.
  5. I will then tackle your request (in the order it came in). This does not necessarily mean I’ll complete the work this month.
  6. I’ll let all readers know how many slots are left, and when all seven have been filled.
  7. Once the work has been completed and agreed to, you’re encouraged to leave honest feedback via the testimonial page.

WHY:

As noted above, everyone likes free stuff, and I need this challenge.

Does this free offer interest you? Do you know someone else who would benefit from it? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you for reading!

-Whetstone

Catch me on Twitter at @WhetstoneEditor to continue the discussion there using all the apropos hashtags, and the Whetstone originals #FictionDepth, #DepthIsValue, #TimeIsValuable, #WhetstoneEditor, #GSFiction, and #DSFA (Dear Speculative Fiction Authors).

A Contest and Some Library Love

Show some library love and enter for a chance to win Kory Stamper’s “Word by Word” — and a signed copy at that!

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I love libraries. In elementary school, I’d grab one of the whistle chairs, drag it underneath the reshelving desk, and hide under there with a stack of books until the verrrrrry last moment of line-up call. My last two years of grade school, my teachers made a deal with me: if I finished all my work early and well, I was allowed to go to the library to read on my own. Heaven. I’d shovel my math worksheet at my teacher and zoom across the hall, where the librarian was ready with another book recommendation, another reminder that I still had two books out, my favorite whistle chair in place under the reshelving desk. The library was the only place I could relax into who I was: a frizzy-haired, buck-toothed, book-loving nerd.

That love continues. While writing Word by Word and while researching for this next book…

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What’s New?

What’s new in your work-life balance? How are you managing your time to achieve goals, meet deadlines, and still have enough time for friends, family, fun, and rest?

It’s important to remember the latter, even as we strive to succeed.

Today, I’d like to use a new short story I’ve written to illustrate some editing tips and do some Whetstone housekeeping. As always, I invite you to share your stories with me in the comments, and your work with me on Fiverr.

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While I haven’t had time to properly flesh out a new entry in the Depth series, I managed to revise and edit a new short story for the sixth or seventh time. I’ve lost count. It’s in the last stages of polish before I send it out to a market tonight. Wish me luck!

Revision and editing managed to shave off another 1000+ words of fat the story didn’t need. The most common fatty culprits were redundancies and stating the obvious: anything the reader can assume, presume, or understand without it being written.

A good rule of thumb is to always ask yourself if the intended meaning will be changed or lost if you trim the fat. If yes, then it’s not really fat. If no, then you’re safe to cut away.

Before I send it out tonight, I’ll likely make more edits and polish it further. Below are three examples from my story.

Passage A before revision and editing:

Instead of watching the Interstellar Observation Network from home, like most Thagnans, he’d been invited to the viewing party that doubled as the smallest and last of three faculty meetings for the post-holiday activities.  Julie had invited him.  No one else had thought to in the larger meetings, Brandon knew.

Passage A after revision and editing:

Instead of watching the Interstellar Observation Network from home, Julie had invited him to the viewing party that doubled as the smallest and last of three faculty meetings for the upcoming post-holiday activities.

It’s gone from 50 words down to 33. While the note about Julie thinking of him when no one else had is gone, her consideration for him is still visible in the surrounding prose. That makes the note above needless, expositional, and entirely fatty. I could trim this passage further still, but I’ve left it as is for now.

Scene B before revision and editing:

His coworkers were fixated on the muted ION signal, Lansinger’s Comet hurtling toward Thagnan’s closest moon.  Brandon was fixated on the heavenly presence behind him. Her dark and solitary weight, like a cold, dead planet pulled his satellite to her orbit.  Julie was not most women.  It scared and thrilled him.

Scene B after revision and editing:

His coworkers were fixated on the muted ION signal of Lansinger’s Comet hurtling toward Thagnan’s closest moon, but Julie’s gravity pulled Brandon to her orbit.

The scene’s gone from 51 words down to 25. Here, the text has gone from repeating the connection between Brandon and Julie a number of different ways, to stating it in just one concise, clear way. The intended meaning is conveyed without beating the reader over the head with redundancies.

Snippet C before revision and editing:

“Huh?”  Julie mused quizzical and pushed Brandon on ahead of her, back toward the seating area.  Brandon passed Susan Igwe her mug as he and Julie made their way back.  When he tried to move toward his original seat, Julie hooked his arm and led him back to her seat closer toward the front.  Brandon sat down beside her even though he knew he’d taken Phil’s seat.

Snippet C after revision and editing:

“Huh?”  Julie said.

Brandon passed Igwe her refilled mug as he and Julie headed back.  He made for his original seat, but Julie hooked his arm and led him to the front of the lounge.

It’s gone from 63 words down to 35. The intended meaning remains, but the directional minutiae’s been trimmed. The reader doesn’t need to know Brandon’s taken Phil’s seat until Phil enters the scene. It’s needless information slowing down the narrative.

Another good reason to revise and edit your stories? Those extra words can often prohibit you from submitting to more markets. The higher your word count, the fewer markets are available to you at that word count.

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You can send in that 7,500-word short story, but try to cut it down to six or five-thousand instead. 17,500-word novelette? Edit it down to 15,000. Even if you can’t shave off a full 2500 words, you’ll improve the quality of the work dramatically with what you do wind up trimming.

This doesn’t mean the world can’t have long and extra-long short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels. By no means must truly gorgeous and meaningfully long-winded prose be forced into a more digestible container.

It means most starving writers–who’d like to be authors and winning and eating–need to give publications and publishers fewer reasons to reject their story, and give themselves more markets to submit that story to in the first place.

For new and unproven authors, there are more markets for a 30,000 to 50,000-word middle-grade book than there are for an 80,000 word one. More markets for a 100,000-word science-fiction novel than there are a 150,000-word one.

Short fiction markets also prefer shorter works to longer ones unless otherwise stipulated. It doesn’t mean they won’t take a long work that’s great. It means they’re human and prefer shorter works.

Remember, brevity is a virtue…that some, myself included, don’t naturally have. (I mean, have you read my blog posts? Ha!)

And Now, Time for Some Whetstone Housekeeping

 

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Fiverr places all gig requirements behind payment. Only after buyers purchase a service do they see what documents and details they’ll need to give the seller. For clients’ convenience, I’ve added my gig requirements to their own dedicated page.

I’ve Revised My Services and Rates Page

The page has been revised to reflect the changes on my Fiverr page. Those changes include:

  • Manuscript Assessment is now a standalone gig.
  • Manuscript Assessment sample is now available. (My real assessment of a real story. The piece was a 13,000-word novelette written by a colleague.)
  • Gonna Need a Hacksaw (A new Proofreading and Editing gig extra).
  • The removal of the Manuscript Formatting gig extra.

Manuscript Formatting will return to my Fiverr gigs and my Services and Rates page, but only after I restructure it as a standalone gig.

That about wraps it up for me. What’s new with you? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you for reading!

-Whetstone

Catch me on Twitter at @WhetstoneEditor to continue the discussion there using all the apropos hashtags, and the Whetstone originals #FictionDepth, #DepthIsValue, #TimeIsValuable, #WhetstoneEditor, #GSFiction, and #DSFA (Dear Speculative Fiction Authors).

 

I’ve Been Nominated for a Liebster Award

Edin–aspiring music producer, artist, natural hair blogger, and programmer (did you figure out she’s multi-talented and driven yet?)–has nominated me and my wee little blog for the Liebster new blogger award.

Thank you, Edin. I’m honored.

Don’t forget to visit and follow Edin’s Pursuit of Natural blog, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, and stop by my fellow nominees listed here.

Unfortunately, almost every blogger I currently follow has more than 200 followers. I won’t be able to nominate anyone at this time.

If you are a new blogger with less than 200 followers, DM me on Twitter or send a message via my contact page here. I’ll take a look at your content and consider nominating you in the future.

Edin’s Questions

Edin: Does your blog have a message, and if so what is it?

Whetstone: Aside from general writing advice, my blog encourages writers to enrich fiction with life-approximating depth. That concept encompasses a lot of writing dos, steers writers away from a great deal of don’ts, and makes tackling writing problems easier.

Edin: If you could describe your relationship to your blog in one word, what would it be?

Whetstone: Easygoing.

Edin: Can you share your other social media handles and how you feel about doing self-promotion, if you do any, in these other places?

Whetstone: Not at this time. As a freelance editor, I’ve chosen not to rely on my work as a senior editor elsewhere, or on connections made as an aspiring author. I may revisit this decision in the future.

Self-promotion is one of my least favorite activities.

Edin: What is your favorite way to de-stress and relax?

Whetstone: Sleep. Boring answer, but it comes in at number one. Music (I just discovered Oh Wonder‘s eponymous album), listening to music until I fall asleep, and sitting outside and enjoying the weather work great for relaxation and de-stressing. Working with my hands and cooking are other stress reducers for me, not so much relaxation. I seem to have lost the ability to have relaxing reads.

Edin: What are some of your sources of creative inspiration?

Whetstone: For my own stories, often music. For blog posts, usually other writers’ stories: deconstructing why we loved and accepted a story or why we couldn’t use it and rejected it. A great deal (or lack) of depth is often part of those reasons.

Edin: Big or small, can you share one thing you’ve accomplished recently that you are proud of?

Whetstone: No. If you asked me this a year ago, or several years ago, then my answer would’ve been yes. At this stage in my life, all my small achievements stand in the shadow of the mountain I’m still climbing.

That said, every little victory (they do exist!) is important to me in two ways. First, every success builds my confidence and prepares me to take the next step. Second, I like seeing another part of the plan fit into place. Even when I don’t know what the plan is, when the victory doesn’t fit the plan I made, and whether or not I still have faith in God’s plan.

Edin: If you could have an all expenses paid vacation anywhere, where would you go?

Whetstone: Never been out of the US, so I’d go anywhere interesting, tolerant, and breathtaking. Not picky. Warm or cold, as long as the destination gives me an experience to remember, I’d be content.

Edin: Are you multilingual, and if not what language would you like to speak?

Whetstone: I’m not, and I’d love to speak anything as a second language. I suppose I’d favor something I’d be able to actually use and share with others.

Edin: What’s something you used to do for fun and don’t anymore, but would like to get back to?

Whetstone: Video editing. I was making a lot of the fan-made film and TV show mashups, trailers, and montages you see on YouTube before YouTube existed, and without the now readily available digital means. I moved over to digital (and gaming highlight videos) like everyone else, but haven’t had the time or desire to continue the hobby in earnest for various reasons.

Edin: What’s your favorite time of the year?

Whetstone: Late spring to early summer. I can walk and/or work outside and enjoy the weather without freezing or melting.

Edin: And because this is an important question OlenaRosanne asked, I’ll pass it on: What advice would you give new bloggers?

Whetstone: Don’t churn out content. Make meaningful posts and pace yourself (remember to find your own pace). You’re not competing with the blogosphere, and you shouldn’t be focused on SEO alone.

For me, that’s meant blogging every two weeks and making each post a little longer than average. Incidentally, that’s why my blog and I are pretty easygoing. I won’t always post long entries or meet the deadline, but my schedule gives me time for the people that matter to me, my other projects, work, to breathe, and enough creative landscape to construct posts worth building, worth looking at years later.

Thank you for the nomination and questions, Edin! This was fun.

Got Depth? I Think My Wife is a Werewolf

Is your main character an eternal fool? So long as they’re believable and their idiocy is rooted in depth, there’s nothing wrong with that. But steep their stupidity in nothing more than convenience and you render them a mere vessel whose sole purpose is to move the plot along without conflict, resistance, and challenge, and you deny your MC an opportunity to grow.

To top it all off, you’ll vex editorial team members reading your submission. You won’t like us when we’re vexed.

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In my first installment in the Depth series, we delved into what depth was, why we needed it, and how to create it.

Today, I’m going to use the nonexistent story I Think My Wife is a Werewolf to illustrate issues my colleagues and I see in the slush pile with infrequent regularity: a lack of depth and convenient stupidity.

Descriptions of off-screen, graphic violence ahead. Please skip the block quote below if you are so inclined.

                       The cabin’s air, gripped with winter, chills Cedric Van Osen’s skin through his nightshirt.  Had Agatha put out the fireplace?  Why?  He gropes along oak walls in low lamplight toward the horrible breaking, sucking, gurgling sounds—toward Agatha’s studio.

The studio door yawns open and the vile, putrid stench of spilled innards and bile crawls over him.

“Agatha?” He calls his wife and steps over downed easels and paintings ripped to shreds. “Agatha!”

Menace hulks in the darkened corner of the room.  Cedric raises his lamp as it turns to face him.

The werewolf that had terrorized the town straightens and towers above him.  Its eyes, Agatha’s eyes, glow in the light.  Behind it, in a heap of crimson and salmon, lies a mutilated Lady Wintermore—Agatha’s newest muse.

The werewolf, Agatha, approaches, licks her teeth and extends her claws.  Cedric clamps a shaking hand over his mouth as tears stream down his face.

END

Out of context, that ending isn’t bad.

In context, it’s the end of a 5000-word story where it was obvious to readers Agatha was a werewolf within the first 500 words, yet Cedric never discovered this until his—and the story’s—end despite ample clues, evidence, and questions with no other logical answers.

Cedric is a product of convenient stupidity, and convenient stupidity is a hallmark of underdeveloped writing.

Those might sound like harsh words, but through bluntness, I intend to drive home a point.

Often our characters and their actions don’t come off as stupid to us. It’s the farthest thing from our mind when we write them. But to a reader or an editor, it often comes off as convenient and stupid when our characters do things that are against their best interests, out of sync with the world logic, not in tune with the characters’ internal logic, and otherwise serve no purpose but to facilitate the plot’s progress.

Worse still, no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears we pour into the piece, it will come off as lazy.

It happens. I’ve done it myself.

Oftentimes an author might subconsciously decide that it’s the only way to move a story toward its jaw-dropping ending.

An author might wonder, “If the big reveal isn’t a mystery to the main character, how will the ending have the intended gut-punch?”

There are two problems with that.

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First, are you certain what you’ve written is a mystery? Or is it a story that simply leaves out a lot of important details and confounds the MC without any reasonable explanation?

Mystery, as any story element, can be utilized in any genre. Mystery works especially well in speculative fiction.

A good mystery doesn’t take the easiest path to its ending by running circles around an easily and inexplicably befuddled character.

A good mystery challenges. It leaves enough clues for the main character, and reader, to make logical deductions and ascertain the answers to the story’s riddles, puzzles, and questions.

Test whether your story’s mysterious elements are handled well.

A reader should be able to think back over the story (or read it again), notice all the clues that were there all along and be delighted that you had them fooled. If they weren’t fooled, they’ll be pleased they figured it out and feel rewarded for having paid attention.

If there aren’t enough clues to make the logical links necessary to solve the puzzle, you’ve got more work to do.

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Second, does that devastating ending you conceived at 4 AM (and hurriedly scrawled onto a notepad before the lingering effects of the inspirational waking dream wore off) still make sense upon sober reflection?

As an author, I get brilliant ideas for openings, endings, characters, fight scenes, romances, moral dilemmas, tragedies, and set pieces at the oddest hours.

In the harsh light of day, these ideas often aren’t so great when I pore over my notes.

Sometimes I have to scrap them entirely. Other times I need to write them out of my system and then lock them away. Then there are those times when the core of the idea holds up rather well after scrutiny and several rounds of revision.

Give your brilliant ideas a little time to mature. Put your devastating ending through the paces. If it only makes sense because your MC unknowingly facilitated it through author-imposed ignorance, it’s time to edit and revise or scrap it.

You might want to shout, “He’s crazy! I can’t. It’s too brilliant.”

Truth is you’ll have ideas that outshine even those you think you’ll never top, and with modern technology, you don’t have to throw anything away.

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An author should be ready to let go of an idea that’s holding the story back, even if they love it. That goes for devastating endings or a character with convenient ignorance instead of thought-provoking, reflective development.

This is especially true for writing that is so baldly a transparent construct. As noted in my July 31st piece, our constructs must be the antithesis of that.

Depth is the difference between facilitating I Think My Wife is a Werewolf’s progression through the convenient stupidity of its central character and methodically crafting a believable explanation for Cedric’s ignorance.

The reasons for his ignorance are only limited by the imagination.

Perhaps he wore blinders due to deep-seated personal reasons.

Back story brainstorm notes – 8/09/2017:

Cedric had always known there was a supernatural darkness within her when they wed four years ago, he had heard the tall tales about her family. He’d chosen to ignore all of it. He prefered to see the best in people.

She had been a vision to his eyes, her kind, generous and caring nature a warm and welcome respite from painful and failed relationships with opportunistic women who’d come before.

That creates a good deal of emotional depth, but what about some practical reasons?

Perhaps Agatha’s family wealth was a safety net.

Back story brainstorm notes – 8/10/2017:

Six months before he met Agatha, he’d returned home from a failed three-year business venture (his partners had swindled him and their customers, burned the building to the ground and set sail with the money) to inherit his father’s failing business just before the man died.

His life was at an all-time low. Agatha and her inheritance had rescued Cedric and his family business.

By freewriting a little backstory (one of the depth creation methods, among many, that we covered last time), we’ve shaped Cedric’s convenient stupidity (that would be right at home in a slasher film) into a willfully-blind ignorance born of his inability to see the darkness in people, a genuine admiration of and affection for Agatha, and a desperate need for her companionship and money.

We’ve given him an entirely human yet twisted agency: he chose to look the other way time and again regarding Agatha’s secret. They may not have been good reasons, they may have been immoral, but they were his reasons and a reader will understand them.

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Remember that original ending? Cedric seeing Agatha’s true form for the first time and backing away in terror before he’s eaten might still fit this deeper narrative.

It might.

Conversely, it might also cheat the readers out of something more meaningful, something deeper, more twisted, and more interesting that sets itself apart from a generic horror ending.

With an extra 500-1000 words, we could give the story a memorable ending directly influenced by the depth we’ve now created.

Perhaps our newly layered Cedric sees that Agatha’s murdered a woman, an important woman, and that she could well do the same to him.

Scene brainstorm and outline – 8/11/2017:

Cedric could keep his head, ignore Agatha and slowly shut the door. That night, he wouldn’t sleep. Through the silent terror waiting for Agatha to burst through the door and take his life, he keeps himself calm by making plans to cover up Lady Wintermore’s death as a bear mauling.

In the morning, awakes to find himself unharmed, Agatha gone, and Wintermore’s body missing.

A hunting party is formed to find Wintermore and the werewolf. Cedric volunteers to join it, surprising everyone who knows him as such a taciturn fellow. He gives the reasoning that Wintermore was a such a dear friend of Agatha’s and now his wife is too sick with grief to leave the house.

On the hunt, there’s trouble; at dawn, another hunter finds Agatha moments before Cedric.

The man tells Cedric to call the others over covertly as not to alert the beast, and sneaks up on Agatha’s sleeping werewolf form.

Cedric has a choice to make.

He stabs and kills the man, then Agatha wakes.

Without knowing if she will comply or kill him, Cedric tells his wife to attack him, and tear open the man’s wound with her claws.

After she complies and runs off, Cedric fires off a few rounds and points the hunting party in the wrong direction.

Back at home that afternoon, Cedric returns to find Agatha in human form. They both tend to their wounds.

They discuss what to eat for dinner, Lady Wintermore’s death and no doubt upcoming funeral, parties they don’t feel like attending in the coming season, and how much they’d both like a change of weather and scenery.

With the prospect of a move to a new country in mind, they go to bed and fall asleep in each other’s arms for the first time in a long time.

Cedric wakes during the night when Agatha stirs. He lies awake, still enamored with his wife, but gripped by the fear of what she becomes—unsure if love is enough to keep the monster at bay.

The rough outline of I Think My Wife is a Werewolf’s new ending isn’t perfect and would require quite a bit of work to flesh it out, properly foreshadow the events, and necessitate a title change. There’s also the hurdle of traditional genre conventions: werewolves typically have no control over their appetites when shifted.

It’s a different story now, but from my experience, the added depth has drastically improved its chances of being held and accepted in a broader set of markets.

Instead of a common horror story ending where the dumbfounded MC meets their end at the hands of a monster, unique characters with agency have taken shape and given the story an unexpected yet natural ending.

The premise that Cedric could ignore all the clues his wife was a werewolf is supported with believable rationales.

Time is valuable, and stories shouldn’t waste it—not for the author, a publication’s editorial team, or the publication’s readers.

No matter what side of the dynamic we’re on in the publishing business, a story with depth is that much more worthy of our emotional, financial and temporal investments.

If the editorial team was torn between two stories with the same concept, an equal level of entertainment value, and both were well-written, I’d fight tooth and nail for the one that dug deep over the one that merely scratched the surface of its central premise, characters, and world.

As a senior editor, even if that story’s imperfect it outshines the one that perfectly executes a generic concept I’ve read twenty-five times in one year.

Adding depth to your story is a great way to avoid the pitfalls of the slush pile, and ensure an editorial team takes note of your submission—putting you that much closer to gaining traction, recognition, and payment for doing what you love.

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An oversimplified answer is “as much as is needed.”

A swashbuckling romp of an adventure might not require the same amount of depth as a psychological horror piece, nor will it need the same kind of depth. Depth would also be utilized in keeping with adventure genre conventions.

Witty banter and sweeping action and set pieces might be the focal point in the swashbuckler, so an author might invest more depth there. But is there really any reason not to invest logical and deep underpinnings as to why the story’s heroine fights? As long as it doesn’t get in the way of the fast-moving plot and fun, I think it’s worth enriching more than just dialogue and action with depth.

If readers understand why the heroine fights, who or what she fights for, they will invest emotionally—they will care.

In summation:

  • Be conscious of writing convenient stupidity or otherwise letting the story and its underdeveloped writing lean on similar convenient crutches. This absolutely includes inexplicable brilliance, uncanny and unearned expertise, or similar attributes.
  • If you need to write such characters, then write ignorant, dense, gullible, blindly stubborn, willfully ignorant, or one-track minded individuals because it is their nature—not because it’s the easiest path through the plot’s development.
  • Establish and explore their nature with depth, weave it into the fabric of the story with context, and make it part of the bedrock of who they are.
  • Don’t overstuff the story with visible backstory. Keep it in context and remember the iceberg theory.

Overall, it’s often a question of balance. Will new levels of depth change your characters and story, and is that a bad thing? Will things stay the same?

All this and more is up to you.

Remember, a lack of depth only limits your story, while layers of it create more possibilities. In my capacity as Whetstone editor, I’d love to work with you to create depth and possibilities in your stories.

Whatever you decide, make your readers believe because make believe is your business.

How do you feel about convenient stupidity in literature or media? How do you feel about inexplicable brilliance and uncanny and unearned expertise? How do you tackle it in your own works? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you for reading!

-Whetstone

Catch me on Twitter at @WhetstoneEditor to continue the discussion there using all the apropos hashtags, and the Whetstone originals #FictionDepth, #DepthIsValue, #TimeIsValuable, #WhetstoneEditor, #GSFiction, and #DSFA (Dear Speculative Fiction Authors).

Everybody Goes Natural in the Zombie Apocalypse

As a hyper-critical TWD fan (but only of the show, I never followed the comics) who was often frustrated with the writing and Sasha’s character, Edin’s post wonderfully shed depth-revealing light on Sasha’s character for me.

Pursuit of Natural

#spoilers

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the-walking-dead-season-7-sasha-martin-green-gallery-700 Sasha / Sonequa Martin-Green (source: amc.com)

Michonne is a badass, but it takes a tough woman to brave the inevitable detangling sessions of wearing free natural hair at the end of the world. Do you think they have vegetable oil in Alexandria, let alone coconut oil?

We saw how Sasha tried to wear her fro in the beginning, trying to look cute in her low puffs and high puffs, knowing good and well that Southern heat and humidity would sabotage her with a quickness. Who among us hasn’t said “Screw it! I’m enjoying my length!” when we knew better?

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But when it got down to business, our girl Sasha was not messing around. Same protective style. Every day. And she rocked it every single time. Such elegance and efficiency in its simplicity. Look how even the end of her braid is tucked in! Length retention game on point.

Sasha was…

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