Slush Frustration

You guys. Seriously. There are things I see over and over again in slush and after the fifteenth or sixteenth example of it I just want to shout “Stop doing that!” But of course, the writers don’t deserve to be shouted at, and it’s certainly not their fault that their story is the nineteenth I’ve seen that day that does exactly the same thing.

It’s something I’ve mentioned here before. But it’s so, so common that it could bear mentioning again. Put briefly, an idea is not a story. In fact, a single idea is generally insufficient to make a story with. You need at least two, and then you need, you know, a story.

Let’s say I’ve had an idea–coffee naiads! Like water nymphs, you know, only for coffee!

This is the sort of thought you have when you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. The best thing to do with this kind of idea is to set it aside. Maybe put it in a notebook if you keep one (I don’t, mainly because I never actually look at notebooks. This is a problem I have with calendars, too. Thank goodness for SMS alerts, is all I can say). Maybe it will come in handy some day, and maybe it won’t. Probably won’t–most of these idle idealets don’t turn into anything more. If it will, it won’t do so on its own–the idea of a coffee nymph, with nothing more, really can’t support even a flash piece. It needs something else–another fantasy premise added to it (perhaps a very careful working out of what that would mean, for such beings to exist), a very compelling character with a definite problem or crisis that is, somehow, linked to the existence or nature of coffee nymphs. Something. Anything.

Anything but what so often turns up in slush. The writer had the idea of the coffee nymph. Like a good, industrious writer she sat down to make something of it. “What do I do with my coffee nymph?” she wonders, and the first thing that comes to her mind is….oh, a guy who goes to Starbucks every day and is in love with a woman he always sees there. He doesn’t know how to get closer to her, or perhaps he talks to her every day but she’s not forthcoming about who she is or where she lives and won’t agree to meet him anywhere but at the coffee shop. The employees there obviously know her well, and they look at him with pity, and they warn him to just leave her be, he doesn’t have a chance, she’s not for him. Ah, but if he gets a job there, he’ll know what they know! He will, they agree, but warn him that he will regret knowing it.

Nevertheless, he is driven by love to quit his high paying corporate job and take work as a Starbucks barista. At the end of the first day, they empty the urns and turn them off…and his love vanishes into thin air. Because she is the spirit of coffee, you see? No coffee, no coffee nymph. He can never have her and he has given up his former life in vain! His heart breaks, but he will stay there to Be With Her Always. The End.

(There are, of course, alternate endings available. Our MC might find a way to triumph, investing, perhaps, in an industrial coffee urn for his apartment, or buying the coffee shop and making it 24 hour so he can have her at his beck and call, for a “happy” ending. Or alternatively, he can find that he is now trapped forever, and will for the rest of his life be only a mindless slave to Coffee.)

Nine out of ten folks who write this story give it to us in a very predictable fashion. We open in the coffee shop with our main character in line watching the coffee nymph, musing on how he’s come there every single day to see her. We probably have some backstory inserted–if we’re lucky it’s a paragraph or so of straight narration. If the writer has spent too much time exposed to The Rules of Writing we get some As You Know Bob dialogue–not one sentence of which is even remotely likely to actually appear in an actual human conversation–that takes up four times the space. We get the conversation with the sympathetic barista, we probably get a scene where he talks to various other people in his life, perhaps a scene at the MC’s work where he reflects on how empty his life is without Her. We’re told (or, gods help us, shown in great detail) that he quits. Our last scene will be an extended description of taking the Starbucks job, showing up for the first shift, explaining how much he anticipates finding out the truth about Coffee Nymph (Oh, her name will, of course, be some kind of pun or clever joke on her nature), and then, finally, the tragic Truth is revealed.

The tenth writer will realize that, in fact, there isn’t actually enough here for a story to run on. You want a story to propel the reader forward, to keep her reading. That’s actually not easy to do, and it’s even more difficult with insufficient material. What that tenth writer ought to do with this realization is to either put this story away until more material has appeared, that she can combine with this to make something that will really do the job, or else she should spend a lot of time and thought on this idea, build it up into something less flimsy, something that will really, truly hold the weight of a story, really, truly, interest a reader.

But this tenth writer, having seen that her story is lacking a certain something, decides that what it needs is suspense. So she’ll write this story from the point of view of the coffee nymph. While carefully never mentioning just what the character is, just lots of mournful references to “But I could never be what he wanted me to be, what any of them have ever wanted me to be.” And in the end, she will explain to her would-be lover (and to the reader) just what she is. Surprise! You’ve been waiting all through the story to find this out! On the edge of your seat, even!

Well, no, not. The reader gave up a few paragraphs in.

These are not stories. These are “Once upon a time, I had this idea–coffee nymph! The End.”

To be honest, I am profoundly uninterested in the coffee nymph idea. I produced it with about five minutes’ worth of flailing around, while I sat here on my couch. The plot outline took another five minutes. If I wanted to write this story, it might take a few hours. As outlined above, anyway. But I wouldn’t do it, and won’t. It wouldn’t be anything anyone would actually want to read.

Now, another writer might really make something of the coffee nymph. Perhaps next week I’ll read a coffee nymph story and be really fascinated by it. That’s how these things go–you have to make your reader interested in your story, and if you’ve done your job really well, you can even interest the reader in something she’d have told you an hour before was inescapably, deadly dull. But that takes work. You can’t just rely on what you assume you know about coffee or naiads. You’ll have to do research. You’ll have to think hard about your characters–who gives up a good job for a woman in a coffee shop who so far hasn’t given them more than the time of day or some light conversation? No, I mean, really what sort of person does that? Don’t just lean on “but love!” There’s not enough structural integrity in “but love!” to hold a styrofoam cup off the ground, let alone support a reader’s interest. And there are actual implications in “but love!” and in that character’s actions. Who goes to desperate lengths to court a woman who has repeatedly indicated her lack of interest in his courtship? Whose friends have warned him off? Let’s say this guy is convinced that even though she has continually said she is uninterested and unwilling to share more with him, somehow in her manner she has conveyed that she might actually love him–in that case, she said “no,” but this guy is sure she must really have meant “yes.” Suddenly “but love!” takes on a sinister, pathological air. The writer didn’t mean for this to happen–she only had this idea about coffee nymphs and she knows she should write every day and this seems cute and clever.

You guys. Think your ideas through. Combine them with other ideas, or break them open and look at what’s making them tick, examine them exhaustively from every angle so that you can find the things about it that really intrigue you, that raise questions maybe.* Write down the first two dozen things you think of, when you’re first putting the coffee nymph story together, and then throw that list away and don’t use anything on it. Learn about coffee–I mean, really learn about it. Read a bunch of really good fiction. Think about the coffee nymph some more. How would your favorite writer handle it? Spend months pondering. Why have you spent months pondering a coffee nymph? There’s something there that interests you, what is it? Dig that out.

Then write the story. Otherwise I can pretty much guarantee you’re getting another form rejection.

*”What kind of asshole won’t leave a woman alone even though she and everyone else have asked him to leave her alone?” isn’t sufficient, here, but might be a good start. It would, however, be a distinct improvement on not asking anything, just slapping the story down and submitting it.

**This is, you argue, an awful lot of work to go through for a silly two-thousand-word story about coffee sprites. And yes, it is. But I suspect that most people submitting these stories are trying very hard. They want to sell stories, they want to be good. They will never achieve even half of their aims if they aren’t willing to put in that work. If you want sales, and readers who say “Wow, that was a great story!” you won’t get it without actually, yes, going to such lengths for what is, in the end, a couple of pages of fiction. You want editors and readers to take your writing seriously–so you should take it seriously.

***I didn’t want to use one of the many ideas of this type that I’ve seen in slush over the last couple of years–like I said, I’m pretty sure every single one of them was written by someone who is genuinely working on their writing, and none of those writers deserves to feel as though they’re being held up for ridicule. And ridicule isn’t my intent–I just want more people writing those kinds of stories to understand why they keep getting rejections for them.

4 thoughts on “Slush Frustration

  1. Great post. I used to read slush for Strange Horizons, and I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    There’s also the problem that a lot of times people don’t choose a plot / character that are thematically aligned with their idea. For instance, here you have the coffee sprites and the plot is just a standard love story. The question is, well, why the coffee? What’s the connection?

    In a more well-thought-out story you’d sense the thematic connection here. It wouldn’t need to be totally explicit and obvious, but maybe there’d be something in there about the dude’s dependence on coffee in order to meet the demands of his horrible job (or something else, I don’t know). Something that makes the story more than just, “Well…coffee sprites.”

    1. Ann says:

      There’s also the problem that a lot of times people don’t choose a plot / character that are thematically aligned with their idea.

      This, yes. And there will have been some reason the writer wanted to write about coffee sprites–some resonance for her somewhere. Taking the time to think and read and whatnot–that’s crucial. If she doesn’t do that, whatever resonance the idea had for her, she’ll never find it, it will never get down onto the page, will it.

  2. J
    Jonathan Laden says:

    When I see two dozen coffee sprite stories in my slush next week, I will remember…

    1. Ann says:

      Eh, they’ll be indistinguishable from all the Deal with the Devil stories, and the ones where the narrator is something unusual but won’t tell you what until the end, or the ones where [inexplicable random event] occurs and the writer riffs on that for way longer than is warranted. 🙂

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