How to Successfully Subvert Expectations

We need to talk about Game of Thrones.

Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone and their mother has posted something about the ending of Game of Thrones, but I want to talk in depth about one criticism in particular that I’ve been hearing: subverted expectations.

For those of you who are new here (hi!) you’ll notice that I’m not a reviewer.  I’m a writer, and my blog posts are specifically related to writing techniques and how to improve your skills.  So I’m not here to bash the series but to learn from it – not just to dissect what they did wrong but to praise what they did right, and learn how to navigate both so we can apply it to our own fiction.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about Subverting Expectations.

What do we mean by Subverting Expectations, anyway?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about writing that takes what we’ve come to expect and then turns it on its head, sometimes to great effect and sometimes, well, not.  Nowadays when someone says that the writing “subverted expectations” it comes across as an insult – a snide derision that the writing undercut its own narrative arc for shock value.  But that wasn’t always the case.

Back before fans started using it as a shorthand to criticize The Last Jedi, “subverting expectations” was generally seen as a positive thing.  Stories that relied too heavily on genre tropes to drive their narratives were seen as hackneyed, predictable, and didn’t add anything new to the cultural landscape.  Audiences crave stories that are new and different, or at the very least, those which present old tropes in a new way.  In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, this meant a new era of antiheroes, grounded tales in gritty realities, and ironic self-awareness.

spandex

But it wasn’t enough to just point out the tropes.

As the writing in film and TV became increasingly subversive, writers took more narrative risks beyond coy nods to the source material or surface level plot twists.  In order to truly subvert expectations, writers began to deconstruct the core tropes their genres were built on.

Let’s look at one example:

IronMan

I love this scene.

For context, at the end of the first Iron Man movie, Tony Stark gives a press conference.  His closest associates tell him to deny any involvement with Iron man, and as audience members we go into this scene expecting Stark to take their advice.  Secret identities are as integral to the superhero genre as their powers.  The conflicts that arise from keeping their alter-egos a secret is the basis of countless stories including Raimi’s Spiderman 2, Jessica Jones’ private detective practice in the Alias series, the debate over right to privacy vs. the superhero registration in the Civil War comics…  you get the idea.

So when Tony Stark comes out as Iron Man at the end of his first movie, the whole superhero universe is thrown on its head.  This is something that we’ve never seen before, something that’s never been done before in mainstream cinema, and we as an audience have more questions than the reporters in that room.

That’s how you subvert expectations.

When Game of Thrones Got It Right

So let’s get back to Game of Thrones, and why we all fell in love with it in the first place.  From the very first episode, Game of Thrones built its reputation on subverting our expectations.  I was hooked from this episode forward, as it proved that it was going to throw conventional rules of storytelling out the window.  Literally.

forLove

From Ned Stark’s beheading to the Red Wedding, the show and the books it was based on delighted in serving up the unexpected.  Every time we thought we knew where it was going, they’d take us in a new direction.

Given the rich history of plot twists, complaining that GoT’s ending “subverted expectations” is a profoundly weird criticism.  We knew what this show was about; it was the reason we were watching to begin with.  So I don’t think that fans are upset because the show went in an unexpected direction or because we had some unrealistic expectations that the show failed to live up to.  (Well, not all of us anyway.)  The problems come not from the twists themselves, but because they 1. weren’t set up in a way that made narrative sense and 2. didn’t contribute anything new or meaningful to the story.

To explain what they did wrong, we first have to look at what they did right in more detail.  Let’s compare subversive storytelling to a plot twist.  When I wrote about twist endings three years ago, I included the following quote (emphasis mine):

“[The surprise ending] depends on a writerly balancing act, in that to be successful a twist must be an ending the reader did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens.” – Nancy Cress

“Logical” and “plausible” are the two key elements here. In Game of Thrones, every subversive act was set up in advance and paid off in a surprising way.  The surprise comes from misdirection and your own expectations based on the fantasy genre tropes.

We’re conditioned to believe that Ned will survive because he’s been set up as the main character and main characters generally do not die, even if they’re played by Sean Bean.  But like Tony’s Stark’s press conference confession, Ned Stark’s execution made perfect sense given the clues they seeded leading up to that scene.

We already knew Joffrey was petulant, we were just led to believe that Cersei had him under control.  Of course Joffrey’s going to seize his first opportunity as King to pull a power move like that.  He’s too young to know the full political ramifications and is out to prove himself as a “strong” leader by executing his enemies.  Likewise, we realize that Cersei is neither as clever nor as powerful as she thinks she is, something that was also set up in advance.

The other reason this subversion works so well is that it was done with a broader narrative purpose.  It’s not just a random surprise, it also establishes a more grounded and realistic fantasy world where actions have consequences.  The idea that anyone can be killed is one of the core tenets of Game of Thrones .

At least, it used to be.

Subversion without Set-Up or Meaning

In season seven we started getting scenes like this:

dragon

If this were an earlier season, Jaime would’ve been a dead man, and rightfully so.  This kind of death is reminiscent of the show’s earlier subversions.  In any other fantasy story, the dashing knight would slay the dragon, but in this grounded reality Jaime would’ve been burned to a crisp.  Furthermore, his death (while unexpected) would’ve felt earned in that it’s already been set up that Jaime is a self-sacrificing man who puts the safety of the kingdom ahead of his own well-being (he is the Kingslayer, after all.)

Instead, he inexplicably survives for another season and a half, probably because Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s contract guaranteed he’d finish out the series.

I was thinking back on when this show lost my confidence, and it was in the moment (or rather from this point on) where I felt like the show I loved was dead.  I started seeing narrative convenience crop up in places where it didn’t belong, and the subversions we did get were fundamentally lacking in both set-up and meaning.

The Night King’s death is the best example.

Night King

In order for this to be a good subversion, Arya killing the Night King would’ve been 1. set up in advance and 2. contributed something meaningful to the overall story.  Looking back on it, we should feel as though the twist was inevitable given the way the story had built up to this point.

Instead, the writers pay the barest of lip-service to set up by referencing a single line from season three and retconing its meaning.  I say “retconed” because in context, Melisandre’s prophecy makes no sense.  If she really believed that Arya would be key to defeating the white walkers, then why did she use Gendry Baratheon for a blood sacrifice immediately afterwards?  She spent the next two seasons so convinced that Stannis was the chosen one that she burned his daughter alive, but no, apparently she knew all along that Arya was destined to defeat the King.

The other argument is that Arya’s assassin training was set up to justify the subversion, but that doesn’t work either.  She might have the skills to get the job done, but her most powerful assassin ability – shape-shifting into the faces of the dead – isn’t used against the Night King or anyone else in the last season.  What is set up is that nifty little hand trick she used against Brienne in season seven, which doesn’t count.  Set up is spending two seasons watching Arya scrub corpses and lose her sight so she could learn to shape-shift, not reusing the same fight choreography.

As for the meaning behind this subversion, David Benioff had this to say:

“We hoped to kind of avoid the expected, and Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one whose been the savior, but it just didn’t seem right for us for this moment.” – David Benioff, Inside the Episode, Season 8 Episode 3

Oof.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with subverting the chosen one trope, but for contrast let’s talk about Red Wedding for a second, and another savior who doesn’t get his due.

On first glance, killing off Robb Stark feels like it has no meaningful purpose other than shock value.  Instead of a satisfying conclusion to the avenging son arc, his story hits a dead end when he’s killed off without fulfilling his goals.  Yes, it may be logical and plausible that he’s made mistakes (go check out HelloFutureMe’s in-depth breakdown for that explanation), but what was the point to his death?

Well, from a classical Greek tragedy perspective, his mistakes are the point.  We were so caught up in the righteous avenging son narrative that we failed to notice that Robb was setting himself up for a different story arc altogether.  Robb’s story makes sense if you view him as a tragic hero whose choices lead to his ultimate downfall. Robb’s death affirms that mistakes add up, and your allies will turn against you if it serves their own agenda.  Each house, even the minor ones, has their own motivations, and you can’t discount any of them: not the Greyjoys, not the Freys, and certainly not the Boltons.

Red Wedding

So if Robb’s choices lead to the Red Wedding, what are Jon’s choices that prevent him from fulfilling his narrative arc to defeat the Night King?

Jon Snow has flaws of his own, but they lead to his death by allies in season five, and his near-defeat by Ramsey Bolton in season six.  None of those flaws prevent him from fighting the Night King directly, which is why taking that away from Jon feels cheap.  Likewise, choosing Arya to deliver the final blow doesn’t mean anything in the broader context of the story.  As Just Write said in his video, if the writers meant to subvert the “chosen one” prophecy, then logically some random soldier should’ve killed the King instead of retconing the plot to imply Arya was the chosen one all along.  They threw out the trope for no reason, because they didn’t supplant it with anything of substance.

Every subversion in season eight feels like this.  Much of the set up for these twists are taken from very early in the show’s run.  You can’t point to Daenerys’s “when my dragon’s are grown we’ll burn your city to the ground” speech in season two as justification for her brutal actions when she’s had six seasons of growth in between.  Same thing with Jaime – why have him grow at all if they’re going to revert the character back to his starting traits to justify the ending?

And the meaning is even worse.  What’s the point of subverting Jaime’s character arc and sending him back to Cersei?  You’ll never overcome your flawed tendencies and redemption is a dead end road?  What’s the point of Bran becoming King?  That the best ruler is an impartial judge who doesn’t want to rule?  We had eight seasons of set up showing how Jon and Daenery’s compassion for their people made them fit to sit the throne.  But in the end we get an emotionless robot who literally uses his dearest friends as pawns and discards them after they’re no longer useful.  Yeah, he’ll make a great King.  Can’t imagine how that might cause problems in the future…

When you include subversions that don’t make logical, plausible sense and don’t comment on standard tropes in a meaningful way, you end up with shock value for shock value’s sake.  And that cheapens the meaning of subversion to the point that it’s become shorthand for “shit.”

Is Subversion Dead?

So, where do we go from here?  Has Game of Thrones ruined the idea of subversion forever?

I doubt it.

Going back to what I said at the beginning, audiences are always going to crave new and inventive storytelling.  No one bitched about “subverted expectations” when Thanos snapped his fingers at the end of Infinity War, after all.  We want fresh writing that goes into uncharted territory.  What we don’t want is stories that give us the opposite of what we expect regardless of whether or not it’s logical and for no reason other than to be shocking.

I think somewhere along the lines writers forgot that their subversions need to serve a broader purpose.  If you can pull of a logical, plausible twist in your writing then audiences will eat it up.  Keep pushing yourself to try new things; don’t just rely on outdated tropes to navigate you through a story.

Write harder.

But do it for the right reasons, not as a cheap substitute for narrative pay-off.

Baelish

Happy writing, y’all.

 

Publisher’s Spotlight: March 2019 Roundup

In lieu of a traditional Publisher’s Spotlight post, I thought I’d highlight a few publishers who have deadlines at the end of the month.  Some are new, and a few I’ve covered before on Publisher’s Spotlight.  I’ll link below any relevant info so you can get your last minute entries in before the end of the month.

Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores

I covered them last year on their own Publisher’s Spotlight if you want to hit up the highlights of what they’re looking to buy.  Be sure to double check their submission guidelines in case any information has changed.

Schedule: Opens tomorrow 3/21, deadline is 3/28/19.

The Arcanist

While this one is open year-round, they’re currently running a short story competition (5,000 words maximum) centered around the theme of “Magic.”  They also have rolling submissions for speculative flash fiction stories and non-fiction articles.  They were also featured on Publisher’s Spotlight if you want a quick run down on what they like.

Schedule: $15 entries end on Friday, 3/22.  Contest open for $20 entries through 3/29/19.

Flametree Publishing

This one I haven’t done a full spotlight on because they have specific calls that aren’t generally open very long.  Currently, Flametree Publishing is taking stories for their upcoming Detective Mysteries and Epic Fantasy anthologies.  Stories should fall between 2,000 and 4,000 words, pay rate is $0.06 per word.  More information can be found here.

Schedule: Open now, deadline is 3/24/19.

Pseudopod

Another market I’ve yet to tackle; Pseudopod is part of the Escape Artists publishing group that specializes in audio fiction via podcast format.  Pseudopod in particular is interested in horror: send dark, weird, stories in any flavor.  Check out their submission guidelines for more info.  Something of note: they’re one of the few markets that accept reprints, so if you’ve already got something published feel free to send it over to them.

Schedule: Open now through 3/31/19.

Mythic Beast Studios

Lastly we’ve got The Medusa Contest by Mythic Beast Studios.  Mythraeum hosts four short story contests a year, each one about a mythological archetype or character.  As of this point, the contests are free and the winner receives $300, but this is the last contest which will be free to enter.  Find out more about the contest here.

Schedule: Open now through 3/31/19.

Happy submitting!

“Skin Deep” now available in Unnerving!

I swear I am not usually this productive.

Still, I’m excited to announce that my flash fiction, Skin Deep is now available in Unnerving, issue #9!  This is a little different than my usual work, being the first horror story I’ve published out in the wild.  You can read it through their Kindle edition or snag a paper copy here.

I want to plug this issue in particular, not just because of my own work but because I’m excited to share the pages with two other authors whose work I follow, Christopher Stanley and Gwendolyn Kiste.

Stanley took second place with his piece The Lamppost Huggers in the 2018 Flash Monster contest over at Molotov Cocktail in addition to winning the Ghost story contest over at The Arcanist last October, both publications that I’ve been featured in (here and here.)

Kiste has a novel out with Broken Eye Books, who also produced the Welcome to Miskatonic University anthology, which features one of her short stories as well as one of mine.  I’ve heard that the pdf copies of WtMU are out to Kickstarter backers but I’ll post more on that once I’ve got the print copy in my hands.  She’s also has a collection out that was a Bram Stoker award finalist as well as a debut novel that looks awesome.  I don’t have any personal connection to those last two, I just think they bear mentioning because 1. I think they’re cool and 2. I’m a shameless suck-up.

Anyway, to circle back to my original point, Unnerving #9 is definitely worth a read and not solely because I’m in it.  Go take a look and tell me what you thought!

Thanks for reading!


Artwork by Eddie Generous

“Places We Go…” now available in Molotov Cocktail!

As I mentioned last week, my story The Places We Go Where Others May Not Follow placed fifth in the Phantom Flash contest presented by Molotov Cocktail!

You can read the story for free which is always awesome, and you can also find the full list of top ten stories right here, so check ’em out as well and give ’em a little love!

If you’ve got a story you’d love to see on their site, you can submit that today!  They take rolling submissions throughout the year and also run themed contests on a semi-quarterly basis (by my rough estimation.)  Be sure to follow them on twitter so you’ll know when the next one is announced.

I also wrote about Molotov Cocktail on Publisher’s Spotlight about two years back in case you have a special fondness for bullet point submission guidelines.  Usual rules still apply: I don’t edit the Spotlights for updates so be sure you read their guidelines in full.  (And uh, upon re-reading those, warning for language?  I don’t think I’ve ever had to issue a content warning for guidelines before, that’s exciting.)

Thanks for reading!

Publisher’s Spotlight: Deep Magic

Time for another submission opportunity!  This week we’ve got a publisher interested in some good, clean, speculative fiction.  Check out what Deep Magic wants to publish below!

  • In their own words: “Deep Magic is a quarterly electronic magazine that publishes clean short fiction in the fantasy and science fiction genres…We want a broad, family-friendly audience; think original Lord of the Rings trilogy or Star Wars.”
  • Preferred Content: “What you first need to understand is that we aim to be the dominant magazine for clean fantasy and sci-fi stories. It’s our tag-line. If you can tell a gripping story that doesn’t rely on sex, swearing, and graphic violence—you’ve come to the right place.”
  • Word count limit: 1,000 to 40,000; but note that we cap payment at 10,000 words.
  • Payment: $.06 per word for the first 9,999 words, with payment capped at $599 for stories longer than 10,000 words.
  • Reprints:  For re-printed stories that are not currently available elsewhere on the internet for free, we pay $.02 per word for the first 10,000 words, with payment capped at $200 for stories longer than 10,000 words.
  • Simultaneous Submissions*: No
  • Multiple Submissions**: No
  • Response Time: We strive to respond to submissions within ten to twelve weeks, but our times may fluctuate. Please do not inquire within the first six months.
  • Current Submission Grinder Stats:
    • Accepted:  2.17% – avg 108 days
    • Rejected:  97.20% – avg 58 days (17.25% of rejections are personal)

*This means whether they will allow you to submit this story to another publisher at the same time or not.

**This means whether you can send them more than one story at at time.

Reminders when submitting:

Read the publication:  You’ll need to purchase an issue to see what they publish, but it’s usually worth it to buy at least one copy to get a better handle on their style preferences.  This will help you determine if your work is a good fit, or if you’re like me and you writing varies, it will help you narrow down which submission to send.  It will also give you an idea of what’s been done before so you don’t end up sending them something too similar to a recently published story.

Also – and I feel like I need to point this out, because paying magazines are getting scarcer – support your publishers.  Buy their content.  Read your contemporaries and follow them on social media if you’re so inclined.  Writing is a small community, and it’s important that we contribute to its future.

Read the guidelines: I don’t post everything required for their submissions, just the basics.  Furthermore, this is a static post.  Publishers change their submission requirements at will so it’s always a good idea to read and re-read them, even if you’ve submitted to them before.

Follow the rules: Do I really need to say this?  Don’t send pieces over the word count.  Don’t send content they specifically warn against.  Don’t send weirdly formatted manuscripts if they give you specific instructions.  “But Liz, I–” Nope!  No, no, no.  If you do not follow the rules you risk being a pariah to that magazine – and worse, editors can exchange notes on who’s being a pain.

Happy submitting!

Publishing Update

Hi all!  The holidays – and aftermath – really did a number on me this year, so I’m taking a break from sharing my thoughts on writing technique and spotlights to share with you some publishing updates and exciting news of what’s to come!

Birds of a Feather is out NOW in the Bubble Off-Plumb Anthology

This one hit in the middle of the holiday craziness, so I missed getting a chance to post about it until now.  One of my shorts, Birds of a Feather, is included in the Bubble Off-Plumb anthology currently on sale through Amazon.com.  This story is a personal favorite of mine, a ridiculously fun little piece about an odd-couple living situation featuring an elderly woman and a penguin.

Penguin
Googling surreal images is a great writing prompt exercise, by the way.

The whole book is like that, so if you’re looking for the odd and unexpected collection of short stories, you should absolutely get yourself a copy.

The Places We Go Where Others May Not Follow takes 5th in Phantom Flash

I’m still fantastically excited about this one, even more so than yesterday when I heard the news!  I’ve been trying to breaking Molotov Cocktail for awhile, and it didn’t seem real until I sat down to write this post.

For those of you who haven’t been following my nonsense on twitter (for shame, go do that), yesterday Molotov Cocktail announced the winners for their Phantom Flash contest and my entry, The Places We Go Where Others May Not Follow placed at #5!  Check back next week where I’ll link to the story so you can enjoy it along with the other fabulous tales that made it in!

If you want to get in on some of that for the next contest, go check them out!  I wrote about Molotov Cocktail on Publisher’s Spotlight about two years back; they take rolling submissions throughout the year (no payment, sorry) and run contests every couple or months or so with low entry fees and a shot at prize money for your efforts.  Keep in mind that their original Spotlight might have some out of date info in there, so check out their site directly for updated submission guidelines if you want in.

Other Publishing News

Also coming down the pipeline, I’ve got a horror short story due out sometime this month so expect a link when that drops, and I have an advance PDF copy of Welcome to Miskatonic University sitting in my inbox.  If you ordered a copy through the Kickstarter you should be seeing that in the mail sometime next month, according to the updated schedule.  I’ll be posting about that one as soon as I’ve got it in my hands.

Thank you all for your support and for checking out what I’ve got out there, I’m excited to share much more with you this year!

5 Free Resources to Find Active Submission Calls

Hi all, and happy December!  I hope y’all have had a productive year with your writing projects.  For me, December is the time to reflect on my goals from last year and plan for the future.  This year I met my goal of 52 submissions (one per week) and I even managed to get a few acceptances out of it.  (Info forthcoming as the publications hit shelves… er, interwebs, etc.)

So this year I’d like to pay it forward by offering up some of my resources for finding publications.  As long-time readers know, I often post Publisher’s Spotlights to highlight recurring publications and the occasional one-off submission call.  You can look forward to more of that in 2019, but in the meantime, here are five resources that will help you find the perfect home for your work in progress.

1. The Submission Grinder (and Duotrope)

I did a full blog post on how to use The Submission Grinder to find the perfect publisher, and I recommend checking that out if you’re new to researching publishers in general.  For the rest of you, here’s a quick recap of what they offer:

  • Searchable database of current publishers, including an advanced search to match your WIP with the perfect fit
  • Research a particular market’s submission statistics, pulled from voluntary data submitted by users (this is free to view)
  • Log in to track your submissions and submit your data (this is also free)
  • Check out Sub Grinder’s FAQ for a quick run-down of how they operate

If you’re feeling fancy, you can also check out Duotrope, which has similar functionality.  Duotrope is a paid service but you can get a free trial if you want to compare it to Sub Grinder and see which suits you better.  For more on Duotrope, click here.

2. Submittable

If you don’t already have an account with Submittable, you should get one, for the following reasons:

  • Many publishers already use this system and require you to submit through it
  • It tracks your submission data automatically when you submit to publishers through it, as opposed to Submission Grinder, where you have to enter everything manually
  • It’s free

When you log in to your account, you will also get access to their “Discover” feature, which lists upcoming calls from various publishers.  That link won’t work unless you’ve got an account, but here’s what it looks like:

Submittable search
Yes, I realize it’s back-dated from last week, it takes me awhile to write a blog post.

You can filter down search results based on fees, deadlines, and search for publishers based on tags.  It’s not as advanced as Sub Grinder or Duotrope but you can follow publishers like you would on social media and save upcoming calls to check back on.  There’s a Submissions tab to track what you’ve sent to whom, and you can also save personal info in your profile so your bio/cover letter loads automatically in those fields.

The main page and “How it Works” section are tailored for companies looking to accept submissions rather than those who submit, so you’ll want to check out this page for more relevant information for writers.

3. Horror Tree

Don’t let the name fool you, Horror Tree isn’t solely for Horror markets, but it does lean heavily toward speculative fiction and genre calls.  Like the other sites on this list, it has the functionality to filter based on submission type and pay, but my favorite feature is the calendar view.

I need a deadline to function, so a lot of the time I will write a new piece for a specific submission call.  This is a great way to see at a glance what calls are due when so you can plan out your month and find new opportunities.  I often start here if I’m dealing with writer’s block and looking for fresh ideas and new projects.  Then, if the piece I write for a call isn’t accepted, I’ll circle back to the Sub Grinder to see who else might want what I wrote.

For more info on what they offer and their general mission statement, click here.

4. Master’s Review Blog

The Master’s Review is a publication in its own right that will get its own Publisher’s Spotlight next year.  They tend to be more literary and have a soft spot for emerging voices.  Each month they compile upcoming deadlines to highlight various opportunities for writers on their blog .

You can expect their January post in the next couple weeks, but in the meantime check out their post from this December to catch any last minute 2018 submission calls and bookmark their page so you can check back after the new year.

For more information about The Master’s Review, click here.

5. Freedom with Writing

What’s easier than a newsletter that e-mails writing opportunities directly to your inbox?  Freedom with Writing comes exactly as advertised: they send you writing jobs.  What kinds of writing jobs?  All kinds.  Publishers looking for articles.  Contests.  Fiction publishers.  Mileage may vary on this one just because what they send is so diverse.

My advice?  Sign up, delete the e-mails that don’t interest you and save the ones you do.  Here’s a link to one of their newsletters from this month so you have an idea of what to expect.


Hopefully those sites are enough to get you started with next year’s submission planning.  Got any go-to resources to share with the class?  Link them in the comments below and share the love!  Also, some of the calls linked above are good ’til the end of the month so see if any interest you and get those last subs in for December!

Have a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Submitting, y’all!  See you in 2019!

Why was my submission rejected?

So, you’ve done the hard work of writing your short story, editing it to the best of your abilities and sending it out to a publisher.  Then, a few weeks later an e-mail pops up in your inbox: thanks but no thanks.  “So what went wrong?” you may be asking yourself. Why was my submission rejected?

First off, you’re in good company.  This year was one of my best in terms of output with 45 submissions and 4 acceptances, but you’ll notice that even then I’m only at a 10% acceptance rate.  That’s a lot of ‘no’s.  So many that I default assume that a submission e-mail is a rejection before I open it.  (And statistically I’m right.)

But anyway, we’re not here to sulk or boast, we’re here to talk about what you can control and how to improve.  So let’s look at three reasons why submissions are commonly rejected and how to keep yourself in good standing.

It Wasn’t a Good Fit

Ooh, tough break, kid.  Probably the highest tier rejection; your piece was good, but not quite good enough to make the cut.  This can be for a number of reasons:

  • Your story might not have worked well with the others that were already selected
  • Your story might’ve been similar to another one, and they chose that one instead
  • If this isn’t for an anthology, it could just be a timing issue – I got a rejection once because my story featured a unicorn in the opening scene and “we’ve just seen too many unicorns as of late.”  (For the record: the unicorn only appeared in that one scene but hey, their fault for not reading past the first page.)

How do I know if this is me:  Sometimes a publisher will be kind enough to offer feedback or tell you how close you got it.  Maybe you got a second-round confirmation but didn’t make the final cut.  You can also check out the anthology to see what did make it in and see if your piece might not have worked well with the other content.

How do I fix this:  Check out other publishers.  Your best bet with a good story that didn’t make the cut is to send it somewhere else, preferably somewhere where your style and voice fits right in.  Be sure to give it a cursory read-through when you get it back to see if it has any glaring errors or if you need to revise the content for the next publisher.  Then, send it back out there and try, try again.  At any rate, don’t despair.  Most stories will get rejected a few times before someone picks it up.  In the meantime, make sure you’re reading the publications you submit to.  It will give you a better sense of what styles they like and which pieces you should send them in the future.

It Needs Work

So your story has been out to a few publishers and hasn’t gotten any takers.  It might be time to swallow your pride and admit that this one might need a serious revision before you send it back out there.  If you want to explore what might not be working, I suggest going back to the Content Checklist and make sure that your story doesn’t have any major issues with any of the three core story components:

  • Pacing: does it drag?  Is it confusing?
  • Characters: are they interesting?  Do I care what happens to them?
  • Conflict: did anything meaningful happen?  Was it a satisfying conclusion?

How do I know if this is me:  Publishers will rarely tell you why a piece isn’t working for them, but if you go awhile without any notes whatsoever it might be time to solicit some feedback.  Do you have over five rejections?  Over ten?  When was the last time you revised it?  Read the stories the publisher selected and compare them to the story you sent them.  Are you writing on the same level as the competition?  Check that above link for more details on common content issues if you think this might be you.

Another note: it’s possible that if you have an objectively good story and you’re just aiming too high to compete.  Are you submitting to only pro-rated publishers that pay $0.05 per word or more?  Are they the kind of publisher who only prints established authors, winning Hugos and Nebulas year after year?  I’m not saying don’t submit to them, aim as high as you please, but maybe curb your expectations a little.  The competition is that much fiercer at the pro level.

How do I fix this:  Revise.  Start there.  You know that nagging feeling in the back of your head that says this flash fiction piece really ought to be expanded but you don’t want to because that’s a lot of work?  Listen to that feeling.  Same thing if you have a 10,000 word epic that drags in the middle.  Learn to kill your darlings.  You’re going to have to learn how to make those hard edits if you want to be published.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s wrong with the story, make friends with some writers on Twitter.  Join a writer’s group through MeetUp, or even ask someone who knows something about what makes a good story.  If I have a story that I know is good but has problems, I will send it to a publisher who routinely gives out feedback just so I can get their professional opinion.  And no matter what kind of feedback you get, be open minded.  Sometimes the best thing for a story is a complete re-write.  It can be tedious, but you have to put your ego aside and do the real work to whip it into shape.

Lastly, if you’re aiming for the big leagues, you might want to try a less competitive publisher with semi-pro pay rates.  Build your skills in the minor leagues while you work up some credits and keep trying for those pro-rated markets.  They’re tough to get into, and there’s no shame in missing the mark.  Even successful authors get rejected; it’s a numbers game.  That said, keep revising.  You’ll never consistently get into the pro markets if you don’t sharpen your skills.

You Done Goofed

I really debated skipping this one, but it shows up so often on the list of publisher’s pet peeves that I figured it was worth a nod as one of the top three reasons for rejection.  To recap, this is for all those submissions where you messed up:

  • Sent in content that didn’t fit the submission call
  • Didn’t follow the word count limits
  • Ignored the formatting (either on purpose or because they stuck it somewhere obscure on their website)
  • Either did not read or assumed that the rules did not apply to you

How do I know if this is me:  Did the rejection come back so fast you wonder if they read past the first paragraph?  They might not have if you didn’t follow the rules.  To be fair, maybe you missed some rules on accident, but this is more of a problem with carelessness than content.  And if you deliberately ignored the rules in order to stand out from the crowd?  Hoo boy.  Sit down, we need to take you back to square one to explain basic etiquette and how not to get yourself blacklisted among publishers.

How do I fix it:  Read the directions.  This is an easy fix, guys.  If you thought you could get away with being careless, you can’t.  If you thought ignoring the rules is clever, you’re probably going into the reject pile before they even open your file.  We all make mistakes, but you’re only going to improve your acceptance count if you learn from them.


So there you go!  Got any tips on how you improved your own rate of acceptance?  Questions about how to revise?  Post ’em in the comments and share with the class!

Happy submitting!

What’s the difference between Suspense, Thriller and Action Adventure?

Hi guys, this is going to be another NYC Midnight genre primer post.  In the past we’ve discussed the different flavors of the comedy genres, particularly political satire, but this is another common issue that vexes NYC Midnight contestants.

Every year I see the same flurry of panicked tweets and forum posts asking if anyone knows the difference between thriller and suspense.  I’ve had my own issues with it in the past, but after some diligent research I think I can help shine a light on where the categories overlap – and where they differ.

To start with, let’s take a look at NYC Midnight’s official genre definitions before we break this down a bit further (I’ve edited them down to their core components for brevity’s sake, but the full definitions are linked above.  Emphasis mine.)

Summary of Genre Definitions

Suspense: A story that slowly generates feelings of anxiety, anticipation and uncertainty in the audience. Common elements: slower pace, heightened anticipation, audience knows more than main character, dramatic music.

Thriller: A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story…usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset. These fast-paced stories typically involve major threats…and the attempts to prevent something from occurring. Common elements: faster pace, action scenes, plot twists, prominent villain, “ticking clock” timing.

Action-Adventure: A suspenseful story in which a mission involving risk and danger forms the primary story line…Action sequences are frequently featured, especially those involving chases, explosions, and attacks. Common elements: likeable hero, unlikeable antagonist, physical action, fast pace, violence, changeable setting.

Ok, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the three areas that best define these genres as a group: Pacing, Plot, and Dramatic Tension.

Pacing

Pacing is the most obvious way to define these genres, which is why I grouped them together initially.  Think of it as a sliding scale, with Suspense on the low side, Action-Adventure on the high side, and Thriller somewhere in the middle.

Pacing scale

Suspense has the slowest pace, with tension gradually building to a climax. Thriller is more fast paced, and centers around what happens after the danger has been established.  If suspense is waiting for the shoe to drop, thriller is the sequence that follows the reveal.  Action-adventure is also typically fast paced, but the scenes more often involve direct conflicts such as fight scenes or escape from imminent danger, whereas a thriller can have more of a psychological element that’s common in suspense.

Plot

Like pacing, plot drives the story for these three genres.  Don’t think of plot as how complicated the story is (it’s flash, you won’t have room for complex twists) but rather, what is the conflict and how does it play out? 

Suspense, with its focus on anxiety and building tension, can have a much more mundane set of external events while focusing on the internal conflicts or employing dramatic tension (see below.)  Action-adventure is on the other end of the spectrum with more overt conflicts between two opposing forces, be it a conflict with a nefarious villain or the natural environment as in disaster movies.

Thrillers fall in-between by having a more action-oriented plot than suspense, while still digging into the complex psychological aspects that make suspense so engaging for the reader.  You want to capture that edge-of-your seat feeling here more than either of the other two genres.  In terms of content, thrillers are one of the hardest genres to define because they blend so well with other genres:

Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre’s most enduring characteristics.

But what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, it’s not doing its job.

— 45px, 45px, James Patterson, June 2006

For all three genres, you want to make sure that the stakes are high.  Tension is a major factor in these genres, and you can’t have that if the outcome doesn’t make a impact on the protagonist in a meaningful way.  The conflict can be a perilous situation, a threat of impending disaster, or even something that is important to the protagonist on a personal level.  Stakes need not be world-ending cataclysms, but they still need to be high enough that engage your reader throughout the full narrative.

Dramatic Tension

Here we come to the part where the genres branch out most distinctly. Dramatic tension asks: who knows about the conflict, and how is it conveyed through the story?  The biggest difference comes from how the tension engages the reader.  A key point in the above suspense description is that the characters don’t know about the danger, but the readers do.  Alfred Hitchcock said it best:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.

Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one.

In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

Alfred Hitchcock (full quote available here.)

This is what makes suspense distinct.  In a thriller or action-adventure, the protagonists are often aware of their predicament and are fighting to resolve the conflict.  To continue Hitchcock’s analogy, a thriller would involve the characters attempting to defuse the bomb and engaging the readers with the tension of their actions, whereas suspense draws its tension from the dramatic irony of knowing something the characters do not.

It’s important to note that suspense, like thrillers, can also blend with other genres, most notably horror.  Thrillers can also overlap with horror, but as noted above, that type of horror is the kind you’d find in 80’s slashers, whereas suspenseful horror is more likely found in gothic stories and weird, Lovecraftian tales.  For more on the creeping dread-like qualities of the suspense in horror, check out this video below:

Conclusion

The most important thing to note when comparing and contrasting these genres is that they exist on a spectrum.  They often share many traits with each other and the variance is mostly due to the intensity of their story components.  You should feel free to explore different flavors of these genres as well: try a suspense that doubles as a mystery.  Make your action-adventure a swashbuckling historical fiction piece.  Spy thriller?  Absolutely.  These genres are limitless in their possibilities, so don’t freak out too much about what is and what is not allowed, so long as you engage your readers with a tension-filled narrative.

Want a typical example of each you can read right now?  Check out:


Got any tips to share with the class?  Questions about what may or may not qualify?  Leave a comment and let’s brainstorm some examples together!

 

Publisher’s Spotlight: Bards and Sages Annual Writing Competition

So, y’all may remember last year, when my short story, Confessions of a Modern Galatea, took first place in the Bards and Sages Annual Writing Competition.  Well, I have two pieces of follow up good news: the first is that you can find my winning entry in this year’s Bardic Tales and Sage Advice: Volume X (also available in hard back) and the second is that the 2018 Competition is open for submissions!

Ready to win big?  Check out the below summary for submission guidelines:

  • Summary of the contest: Dating back to 2002, the Bards and Sages Annual Writing Competition originally started as a stand-alone event to benefit the International Women’s Writing Guild.  Following their subsequent successes, in 2009, Bards and Sages decided to showcase contest winners in an annual publication.

“This year’s competition will benefit local animal shelters. The winners of this year’s writing competition will be able to direct the charity portion of their prize to their own local animal shelter.”

  • Genres they accept: This year’s competition is open to all fiction genres except romance, erotica, young adult, and children’s literature.”
  • Word count limit: Up to 25,000 words.
  • Entry Fee:  One Entry: $5, Two Entries: $9, Three Entries: $12
  • Prizes Awarded
    • Grand Prize
      • $250 Donation to the winner’s local animal shelter
        • or animal charity of choice
      • $250 cash prize
    • 2nd Place
      • $100 Donation to the winner’s local animal shelter
        • or animal charity of choice
      • $100 cash prize
    • 3rd Place
      • $50 Donation to the winner’s local animal shelter
        • or animal charity of choice
      • $50 cash prize
  • Simultaneous Submissions: “Simultaneous submissions are fine with us. No need to point it out. Just let us know if it is accepted elsewhere so we can remove the story from the queue if needed.”*
  • Multiple Submissions: You can send up to three stories. “If sending multiple entries, please attach all entries at once. Do not send multiple emails for each entry.”
  • Reprints: “Stories that are previously published but not currently available for sale are eligible, but you must specify where the story was previously published when submitting.”
  • Schedule: Open for submissions now through October 31, 2018.  Winners are announced in January, 2019.
*Note: I read this on their general submission guidelines page, so I think it still applies.  Double check my work and think real hard about if you want to be in the position of turning down prize money because someone else accepted your piece before January.

Additional information:

Read the publication:  This is where I’d normally point out what a good idea it is to read the publication and see what kind of stories they enjoy.  You can check out my winning entry from last year as well as the other stories in Bardic Tales and Sage Advice: Volume X.  You can also check out what they publish in Bards and Sages Quarterly by signing up for their newsletter.

Read the guidelines: Please, please, please read both pages for comprehensive guidelines to enter.  I don’t post everything required for their submissions, just the basics.  They have guidelines specific to the contest, but you should also click on the second link for formatting requirements.  (Read them well in advance of the deadline; they’re not standard manuscript and they are very specific.)

Good luck and happy submitting!