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.

 

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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!

 

Video Essay Spotlight: Just Write

Time for another Video Essay Spotlight.  One of my absolute favorites is the YouTube Channel Just Write by Sage Hyden.  Each video is akin to a mini-lecture on various writing techniques and how they work when applied to a particular movie or TV show.

“But Liz, we write fiction not – ugh – scripts.

Well, first off, slow your roll, imaginary strawman reader, or you’re really going to lose your mind by the time I get to Lessons from the Screenplay.

Anyway, what I love about Just Write is how Hyden breaks down writing concepts and gives a clear example of how to use them, and why they work.  Take a look at last week’s upload for a primer on flat characters and characters arcs, for example.  In it, he discusses where we break the rule of character arcs and why it works – specifically in terms of Paddington, with nods to Back to the Future and The Hunger Games.

If I had to level a criticism, it would be that the earlier videos are titled by the media that they’re dissecting and not the lesson we’re supposed to be learning.  So if you click on the Wonder Woman video, for example, you won’t know until you start watching that the subject is “bathos” and where sincerity fits in a culture that’s oversaturated with irony and anti-heroes.  This naming convention makes it harder to remember the lessons he’s already covered, or circle back to get a refresher on areas where your own writing is lacking.  On the other hand, it does help you avoid spoilers for media you haven’t seen yet.

Further reading:

If you love this video, check out more Just Write content on YouTube. (And sorry, one more plug for their Game of Thrones video on everything that was wrong with Season Seven’s writing.  It was really cathartic, guys.)

If you love this video and want to pay him money to produce more content, consider supporting him on Patreon.

Special plug: if you pledge at the $10 level: “You’ll get my email where you can send me a sample of your work-in-progress, whether it’s a novel, screenplay, or a short story, and I’ll give you notes on possible improvements. ” (I’m not sponsored by him or anything I just thought that was a pretty cool option.  Who doesn’t love feedback?)

Lastly, check out the website for blogs and other content.  The reading list is pretty cool, I see those books quoted fairly often in writing craft videos.

How to Write Flash Fiction in 48 Hours or Less: Day One

Last weekend was the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition, 2018.  Well, the first round of it, anyway.  I’ve been dying to write a recap of what it’s like to participate in one of these, so if you’ll indulge, the following is a summary of my writing process for how to write a Flash Fiction story in 48 hours or less.  This is my process for Day One: Brainstorming.

The Prompts

So as per usual, I stayed up until midnight in order to get a first look at my prompts.  I do this mostly so I can let my brain go crazy in the middle of the night, coming up with wacky ideas and then banishing them with sleep so I can write something coherent in the morning.  This year, my prompts were:

Genre: Fantasy

Yes!  So exciting!  I’ve been doing this competition for the last four years and I’ve never gotten fantasy before.  Those of you who hang around here will know that this is my favorite, preferred genre, so this could not have been better for me.

Location: A Space Shuttle

Aaaaaand just like that my goodwill evaporated.  Fantasy in a space shuttle.  They just can’t make it easy, can they?  Unlike some other “think fast” writing exercises, this was going to take more than an hour for me to come up with a way to blend genre with a location that clearly belonged in a different speculative fiction category.

Item: A Can of Paint

brainstorm tweet
I also brainstorm on Twitter in the middle of the night. Gifs ensue.

This got side-lined entirely.  Usually I venn-diagram my prompts and pick two out of three to focus on initially.  Since the Fantasy/Space Shuttle combination was going to take the maximum amount of brain power I figured I’d work the item in later once I had my world building and premise sorted.

Brainstorming at Midnight

Ok, so technically I was brainstorming Friday night through all day Saturday.  I had all kinds of notes going on and spent a lot of time thinking and world building instead of actually writing anything.  I don’t recommend this, but it’s how I work.  After four years of prompts I can eyeball a story in my mind and know ahead of time what will fit into 1,000 words and what won’t.

I spent a lot of time trying to think of scenarios where Fantasy and a Space Shuttle would fit together, and the first thing that came to mind was this:

Valkarie
How were you not in Infinity War? I’m still mad about that.

No, I did not end up writing about Valkyries in Space.  But it was enough of a jumping off point that I was able to start brainstorming what fantasy tropes could carry over into a space setting without appearing out of place.  Gods?  Yes.  Superpowers?  Hell yes.

I wrote down a bunch of fantasy tropes in a list to see what I could pick from.  Halfway down the page I scribbled: “Move away from Sword & Sorcery.  With a space shuttle we’re looking at Age of Discovery.  What would magic look like in the future?  Sword and Sorcery –> Urban Fantasy –> Future Fantasy with science and magic.”

For those of you needing assistance with my shorthand, Sword and Sorcery is what people normally think of in terms of medieval fantasy, but it’s not the only fantasy flavor out there.  You also have Urban Fantasy, which is set in contemporary times.  Twilight is the most prominent example I can think of at the moment since Harry Potter relies on a lot of traditional fantasy pastiches.  Anyway, “Future Fantasy” doesn’t exactly exist, so I had to brainstorm what fantasy elements could be carried forward in time the same way they fit into fantasy that is traditionally set in historic times.

What types of Magic?

So at this point I had decided that magic was what translated best from Fantasy into a future setting.  (More than fantasy races or monsters or the medieval motifs.)  So now I had to figure out what kind of magic would work best to correspond with or combine with science.  I made another list in my notebook:

  • Mystical, innate abilities (the force)
  • Pyrokinetic (like superpowers?)
  • Elemental (like Avatar)

Once I hit on that third item I knew I had something I could work with.  Also from my notes: “Elemental magic is a shorthand trope, used often enough, needs not a lot of explanation.”  This makes it ideal for flash fiction.  There isn’t a lot of room to explain complex world-building, so you have to stick to some tropes so that you have room to flesh out what makes your world unique.

So, what’s the plot?

I did spend a lot of time thinking about where I wanted to go from here.  Additional notes are scribbled regarding the different elemental powers and what they can do, what the backstory could be (why they are colonizing new worlds with their powers, etc) but much of that was worked and reworked on Sunday when I got to the nitty-gritty of actually putting words to my ideas.  So we’re going to leave off here and next week I’ll do a write up on how to take all your big brainstormed ideas and fit it into a cohesive, 1,000 word narrative – what there’s room for, and what there’s not.


Is this self-indulgent?  Well yeah, maybe a little, but hopefully it’s helpful to you as well.  Every writer is different, and I invite you to share your own process in the comments below.  Ask questions, give advice, get involved!  It makes the whole process a lot less daunting.

Video Essay Spotlight: Terrible Writing Advice

Man, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could really use something funny right about now.  Sometimes real life gets in the way of writing even small things (like blog posts) and I fall off the radar for a couple of weeks months.  So, with that in mind, let’s check out something lighthearted and dripping with sarcasm.

This is Terrible Writing Advice by J.P. Beaubien.  It comes exactly as advertised: tongue-in-cheek advice on what-not-to-do relayed through clever little animated videos deconstructing story tropes.  I’ve posted the Chosen Ones video below, but you should definitely check out the many, many other videos here.  They are equally hilarious and a good way to poke fun at ourselves as writers.

I’m a big fan of the phrase “write harder,” which is my go-to piece of advice whenever I think a fellow writer is leaning on lazy cliches or predictable plot points.  Watching these might make you a little self-conscious about your own writing habits, but it’s good to recognize where our own writing falls short by relying on trends.  Once you realize it, you can revise with that in mind and try to deconstruct the tropes – I promise both you as a writer and your stories will be better off for it.

While you’re at it, I recommend taking a look at Beaubien’s website, where he goes into full detail on what he actually thinks of the tropes he’s dissecting.  I’ve linked the page on Chosen Ones, so you can read the full analysis on why we love – and hate – that trope.

Got any of your own terrible writing advice?  Have an opinion on a video series that’s a must-see I need to cover?  Drop it down in the comments!

Happy writing!

5 Ways to Break your Writer’s Block

Few things are as disappointing as sitting down to write and finding that you have nothing to say.  Maybe you have an idea of what to write but you just can’t get the words to come out right.  Maybe you’re looking for fresh inspiration.  Whatever your situation, here are five ways to kick start your muse.

1.) Create a Playlist

This is my go-to tactic to get in the mood.  Some people have favorite bands who inspire the imagination.  My favorites are usually Pink Floyd, Vast, Radiohead and (appropriately) Muse.  Another tactic is to use specific songs that fit the atmosphere or tone of what you’re writing.  For example, my ghost story set in Louisiana had me listening to “House of the Rising Sun” and “Hotel California” on repeat.

Want something without lyrics that you can use for a specific scene?  Go on YouTube or Google “D&D background music” to find the sounds of taverns, towns, chases or whatever fits the scene.  (Movie soundtracks are great for this too.)

2.) Pick a Writing Prompt

Ok, but what if you’re completely out of ideas with no idea where to start?  Try looking up some writing prompts.  Set a timer and force yourself to free write for an hour to whatever the prompt is, and see what spills out.  Here’s some sites to get you started:

There are tons of these out there, so if that doesn’t do it for you, get over to Google and do some digging.

3.) Get to Know Your Characters

A big cause of writer’s block is that you’re dealing with characters you don’t know very well.  If you know who your characters are – their wants and needs, how they’ll react when you put them in a dire situation – then you can work on giving them conflicts that will enhance the story and build towards their arcs.

Great!  So how do I get to know someone who doesn’t exist, Liz?  Well, short answer: personality quizzes.  (Don’t laugh.)  Try some of these and fill them out like you’re answering for a particular character.  The quizzes themselves might be dumb, but it’ll rewire your brain to start thinking like them, and treating them like a real person.

Want a deep dive that’s more than just the usual Myer’s Briggs?  Check out the Enneagram personality test.  I did a cursory search for that link but there are a few of these sites out there that can go pretty in-depth.  Even better, some sites explore how the types interact with one another, so you can see how your characters might get along – or not.  Try it out and see what insights it unearths.

4.)  Transcribe Passages from Published Works

This is more for when I know what I want to say but the words aren’t coming out in the right order.  If I’m having trouble just forming sentences, I’ll pull out a favorite book and skip to a scene I like, or one whose voice or word choice I envy.  Then I’ll physically type or write out the passage word for word.  Not just read it, but actually transcribe it.

There’s something about the act of manually putting one word in front of the other that reminds me what writing is supposed to feel like, and what a complete sentence looks like.  It sounds dumb, but honest to god, it really helps to mimic polished writing until I can take the training wheels off and go wobbling off on my own again.

5.)  Don’t Write

This sounds counter-productive, but sometimes the best way to write is to not write.  Has it been a long day/week and you’re completely spent?  Have you slept well lately?  How are are your eating habits?  When was the last time you got out in the sunshine?  If you’re not taking care of yourself, then writing is probably going to be a struggle for you.  Well, more than usual.

Make sure you take time for some self-care.  Turn off social media, go take a walk and let your mind wander.  Go get bored.  Boredom is a great way to break writer’s block, but you can’t get bored if you’re on Twitter all night or binge-watching Netflix.  You’d be surprised what comes to you when you’re able to decompress and let your mind wander.


Anyway, those are my go-to solutions for writer’s block.  Did I miss any of your favorites?  Got a writing prompt site that’s the best thing since shredded cheese?  Post it in the comments and help each other out!  Until next time, happy writing!

Video Essay Spotlight: Storytellers

If you’ve been hanging around here, you’ll know that I have a recurring series where I highlight short story publishers and give you the low down on what they accept and how to submit.  Today I’m proud to introduce a new series highlighting video essayists.

Why video essayists?  Well I, like many others, binge-watch an awful lot of YouTube.  Lately, my favorite content has involved some sort of meaningful dissection on the art of writing which helps me better understand myself, my process, and how to improve as a writer.  I’ve learned a lot from these channels, and I wanted to share some of their work with you.

First up is a channel called StorytellersThe following essay on how to write like a professional is what first drew me to their site.  I go back to this video time and time again for a pep talk when I feel like I’m not generating the content I want to at the rate I’d prefer.  It reminds me that yes, writing is hard, and lots of other writers feel this way too.  But it’s not an insurmountable problem, if you can overcome that resistance.

Highlights from this video:

“The professional knows that the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work sets in motion a mysterious process that produces inspiration.  The amateur waits for inspiration.  The professional knows that it will come after he starts.”

“Playing for money is the device he uses to adopt a working man mentality. As Pressfield states, the muse of inspiration loves a blue collar work ethic.  She loves the working stiff and hates prima donnas.”

Further reading:

If you love this video, check out more Storytellers content on YouTube.

If you love this video and want to pay them money to produce more content, consider supporting them on Patreon.

Want to know more about Steven Pressfield’s thoughts on professionalism?  Here’s the book that’s quoted on Amazon.com.  Feel free to pick out your favorite quote on Good Reads and tack it to your writing inspiration board.

The 7 Deadly (Submission) Sins

It has been quite a year.  I admit that I had a rough…oh…six months or so…. when it came to submitting my stories, but I’m slowly getting myself back together after falling off the wagon.  I haven’t been out of the game that long, but some recent experiences prompted a conversation on best submission practices.  Today we’re going to look at some of the most common problems from both authors and publishers.

Not Following the Guidelines

Let’s start off with the number one frustration from publishers: not following their guidelines.  Literally every publication has guidelines for what they’re looking for.  Guidelines usually encompass the following specifications: genre, content, length, and manuscript formatting.  They will let you know who to send it to, what to include, how to include it, and some will even let you know when to expect an answer and how much you’ll get paid.  Every publication is a little bit different, and even ones you’ve submitted to before might update their preferences.  Read the guidelines, follow the guidelines.

Not Posting the Guidelines

I’m a proponent for equal opportunity bitching, so let me take a moment to address the publishers.  Dear editors: how are we supposed to follow your guidelines when you hide them, or worse, scatter them across multiple pages?  I don’t know who got the bright idea that formatting instructions should be separated from content guidelines but apparently that’s a thing lately.  If you must do this, such as in the event of a limited-time content call that’s separate from your usual slush pile, at least link the pages to each other.  The harder the authors have to work to research your guidelines the more likely they are to screw it up.

Too Many Guidelines

This goes with the above point, but suffice it to say that if your guidelines ramble on for longer than your max accepted word count, you’re doing it wrong.  Authors don’t have time to wade through a wall of text trying to figure out what you want and don’t want.  I don’t care why you think Courier is the devil; you do you.  And frankly, you don’t owe me an explanation.  But if you ramble on about it for three paragraphs I’m going to miss your note about single spacing and headers and then we’ll both be pissed.  If your formatting is really that specific just ask for a plain text file and copy/paste it into your preferred style.  Or learn to love Shunn, your choice.

Improper Sim-Sub Etiquette

When I first started submitting, simultaneous submissions were a huge no-no.  For those who haven’t heard this term, a simultaneous submission is a story that you’ve sent to multiple publishers.  At the time, most publishers wanted to be the only one taking your story under consideration.  If they rejected it, you were free to send it somewhere else and await their answer.  As an author, this was frustrating because the wait times could be arduous.

Nowadays most publishers (but not all – again, read your guidelines) are okay with sim-subs if—IF—you let them know if it’s been accepted elsewhere so they can remove it from their list.  That said, you know what’s coming, right?  You have to keep track of where you sent the story and let them know if it’s off the table.  And don’t be shady – if a publisher says no sim-subs, don’t try to get away with it anyway.  You’ll just piss them off if you have to withdraw it.

 

Snoopy-Writer
Don’t we all.
Arguing with the Publisher

Just… just don’t.  The publishers don’t owe you an explanation regarding their inner workings.  If they say “no pdfs” assume they have a good reason for it and move on.  If they reject your story without telling you why, accept it and move on.  Most won’t give anything more than a standard rejection anyway – they don’t have time to give you notes and doing so will only mean you’re more likely to argue with them.  Rejections are non-negotiable.

Note: Arguing is not the same as asking for clarification.  In the case of unclear (or, ahem, missing) guidelines it’s acceptable to send a quick note to the appropriate contact e-mail address, although commenting on a post or tweeting at them might be faster.  Don’t pester.  Please God don’t threaten.  What are you, an asshole?  You want to get blacklisted by that editor and everyone she talks to?  No, no you don’t.  Stop it.

form rejection
I could post these comics all day.
Poor Communication Skills

Publishers, answer your email.  Update your site.  Tweet once in awhile so we know you’re still out there.  It doesn’t bode well when there’s a long period of radio silence.  Did the magazine fold?  Are they behind schedule?  Why haven’t they updated their slush pile queue list since 2013?  We get it, you’re busy.  We’re all busy.  But if queries go unanswered we’re pulling our subs and going elsewhere.  You’re only hurting potential business by not having an active presence.

Same goes for terse, rude communication.  Most publishers are professional enough that if they don’t have anything nice to say about your writing, they won’t say anything at all.  As a writer, that can be frustrating, because you don’t know if you were close to hitting the mark or whether your sub was passed around the office for a good laugh.  Still, rude rejections are not the same as constructive criticism, and as a publisher it makes you look unprofessional, not helpful.  Writers compare notes too, you know, and you don’t want the good ones walking away because you trashed-talked a newcomer.

Thinking that You’re Special

This goes for both authors and publishers.  Neither of you has time to bullshit around.  Publishers have thick slush piles to wade through, and authors want to find a home for their piece so they can get paid.  Authors, don’t ask for special treatment.  Don’t expect special treatment, especially if you willfully ignore the guidelines that the publishers have posted.  You get precious little time to make yourself stand out and you don’t want any of that attention to be negative.

Publishers, hate to break it to you, but you’re not all that special either.  If you make things difficult or put excessive burdens on your authors to do all the layout formatting (or market your publication for you…) then they will go somewhere else.  Authors have more opportunity than ever before to self-publish, or to find another market.  If you’re going to compete with the various online publications and $0.99 kindle downloads it’s important to attract and retain quality content.  Try to meet them in the middle and you’ll get better submissions – you know, ones from people who actually read and follow your rules.

 

All right folks, there you go.  Did I miss any irritating habits?  (Probably.)  Have I ruined my chances for ever getting published again?  (Depends on if publishers have a sense of humor about themselves.  …So yeah, this was probably a terrible career move.)  Are we sick of rhetorical questions now?  (Most certainly.)

Anyway, if you feel like getting in on the action feel free to post your own pet peeves and guilty confessions in the comments, and let me know what habits REALLY needs to be corrected.