Sunday, April 05, 2009

Rejections, I've Had a Few . . .

And so has any other writer who's sent his or her work off for consideration; one of the reasons why writing isn't for the thin-skinned. After all, you've slaved over your creation, made it the best you can, sent it off into the world convinced others will love it as much as you do, and the response is a letter informing you that your work does not meet the editor's requirements at this time (or something along those lines). On any list rating life's enjoyable experiences, getting a rejection letter would be nowhere near the top. The best you can do is learn from them: what was it about your work that didn't make it a fit for this particular editor or venue? Then you have to chalk it up to experience, file it away, and get on with something else.

I'm in the somewhat odd position of having to write rejection letters, something I discussed in a previous post here ('Editing Part One', March 2008). One thing I didn't touch on then was something I see fairly often in submissions, usually from beginner writers, or those not overly familiar with the genre. This is the dreaded Conveniently Discovered Missing Link, which ties up the loose ends and ambiguities of the tale with all the thoroughness and efficiency of a Boy Scout intent on getting his Knot-Tying badge. You'll know them when you see them: they usually come after a point where the story has naturally concluded, and take the form of a conveniently-discovered letter, or newspaper article, or diary, or written confession, which connects all the dots of the story in such a ruthlessly clinical manner that any sense of mystery or wonder shrivels and dies on the page before your very eyes. CDMLs are not, by the way, restricted to the ends of stories, although they grate more there; you often find them in the middle, at the point where the protagonist is trying to sort out what's going on, and makes a trip to the local library where—what do you know!—he or she discovers a wealth of old papers which explain all manner of previously inexplicable plot points. Another common CDML is the garrulous old neighbour who remembers the folks who used to live there, yes indeed, and a terrible story it was, too; got hushed up, didn't make it into the papers, but I recall every detail as if it were yesterday—come in and have a cup of tea and I'll tell you all about it. . . . For what it's worth, I was guilty of this myself in a story I completed recently, introducing a chatty neighbour who filled in a lot of blanks in the story for the somewhat clueless protagonist (thus ignoring my advice to others of 'trust the reader'). I liked the scene but wasn't entirely happy with it, and when a friend to whom I sent the story put his finger on what was wrong (thanks, Jim!) I knew what I had to do, and despatched the neighbour and her tale into that realm labelled 'seemed like a good idea at the time'.

Which brings me, rather neatly I think, to my recent writing. In addition to the story mentioned above (which is now complete), I've been working on another tale, this one set near Ashcroft, and involving a small piece of family history. It also tackles the idea of 'true' ghost stories, and what it is that makes so many of them unsatisfactory: it's all very well to read of someone being frightened in the night by a misty grey figure standing at the foot of the bed, but we want to know more than that. Who is the figure? Why does it return? What happens to it, and how? Think of how unsatisfactory a read Perceval Landon's 'Thurnley Abbey' would be if all we had of the story was the apparition showing up in the bedroom, without the buildup or any sort of explanation after. I'm trying to fill in enough background detail so that readers can make a stab at puzzling out what 'really' happened, while at the same time not over-explaining matters. Time will tell if I succeed in walking this fine line. On the cards after that are two more Holmes stories for different venues, and I'm looking forward to returning to that world where it is always 1895 (although someone needs to change the calendar, I think). First up, however, is a story for Exotic Gothic 3. After venturing to the Prairies and Antarctica for my first two EG stories, I'll be staying closer to home for the third one, which is set in British Columbia. It's a beautiful and mysterious part of the world, sadly underrepresented in weird fiction, and I'm trying to remedy that situation, one story at a time.


TheMadBlonde said...

Ah, see now, as a reader, I greatly prefer to have the CDML. I actively dislike it when writers leave major loose ends, & the more history I get, the better. Not knowing WHY something happens or how to fix it or what exactly an author means is as unsatisfying as a word with no true etymology. When a writer says "well, what do YOU think happens?" to me that is the penultimate cop out (the ULTIMATE cop out is when it all turns out to be a dream, or a drug or near-death induced fantasy).

One of the most frustrating moments in my entire life as a reader, one that still grates every nerve every time I read it, is in _Gaudy Night_, when Sayers has Harriet thinking something like "If that was the case, it would be easier for her to do what she meant to do." NEVER are we told WHAT THAT IS. Is it foreshadowing of her eventual acceptance of Lord Peter, or does she change her mind about "what she meant to do" at some point & decide to accept him. Sayers NEVER makes it clear & it bugs the sh*t out of me EVERY TIME.

a-HEM. Sorry, rant over. We will simply agree to disagree over the desirablity of the CDML. ;-)

Barbara Roden said...

I see your point about loose ends; I'm not overly fond of hugely ambiguous stories either. On the other hand, I also don't like stories where the author has tied up every loose end so thoroughly and completely that the reader has absolutely no room to imagine his or her own solution or interpretation. That's where the CDML comes in; the author obviously feels that he or she hasn't given the reader enough clues or information - the basic tools, if you will - to draw his or her own conclusions, and panics for a moment at the thought of having to overhaul the story, and then thinks 'Ah, heck, I'll just have someone come across a newspaper article that explains everything.' Which it does, in excruciating detail.

If, as a writer, you've done your job properly, you've put enough information throughout the story so that a reader can puzzle it out. Sometimes different readers will puzzle out different solutions, and that's wonderful. If you have to drop a CDML at the end, then you haven't put enough info in the story, or you don't trust your readers enough, or both.

It's not so much about saying to the reader 'Well, what do YOU think happens?' as it is saying to the reader 'The clues are all there for you to work it out, but I'm not going to hold your hand and connect all the dots; and you might just surprise us both with your conclusions.'

TheMadBlonde said...


I was going to post something about some of the CDMLs in MRJ's stories, but it occurs to me that MOSTLY they are pretty subtle & do still leave SOMETHING to the imagination of the reader.

For me, it's a very fine line between what is & is not enough. _I_ prefer authors to err on the side of TMI, but then I've also been known to read the endings of books first. This is also why I have never bothered to read _Mystery of Edwin Drood_, because it's unfinished & who knows WHERE Dickens was going with it. Me, I find that annoying.

Todd T said...

I think that the CDML examples Barbara describes are close cousins to the infodump and expository lump, which usually are structural mistakes. But when it not so clearly a flaw, I guess the CDML must be a matter of taste. Given a choice between too much information and too little, I fall towards too little. There can still be all sorts of revelation about the characters, life and ourselves without the story wrapping up neatly. Also, the unknown and the inscrutable are unsettling on their own merits, so if the goal is a chill or frisson, there can't be a neat wrapup of everything.

There are also stories that head in both directions, oddly enough. I love Robert Aickman. Some of his stories have all sorts of signposts to what he wants us to feel or see, even to the point of distracting a bit from the narrative, and yet it is never clear what we are meant to take from it. And I like them. I feel what I feel and I see what I see, and you might feel and see other things there, and I am satisfied.

As for "real" ghost stories, I believe that there are several reasons they do not resonate. Some have no plot, as you mentioned, or they have plots that are too pat. Also, most do not fulfill the payoffs we want from fiction. They do not convey anything about our own lives, the characters are undeveloped and do not grow, and most of these stories do not even evoke any sort of emotion beyond "huh, weird". In some odd way, this almost makes them more believable, because life doesn't come structured like a story, either. If the phenomena were real, it stands to reason (of some kind) that they would not create literature on their way through the lives of the witnesses, any more than storms, raccoons or cases of the flu do.

Glad to see your writing is going strong, Barbara. Looking forward to all of it.

Todd T said...

Forgot to say: I have had conversations over the years with a number of submitters who shall remain nameless, and they all said that your own rejection notes are unfailingly fair and helpful.

Maybe for Christmas someone should send you a rubber stamp that says "Bah, not this again" or "This does not meet our needs at this time, but may I suggest that you submit it to THE CIRCULAR FILE?"

Barbara Roden said...

Hi Todd,

Glad to hear that people have found my rejection letters helpful. They're difficult things to write, and I like to try to offer pointers and tips where I can. Sometimes, in the case of a good but frustrating story, it takes longer to write the rejection letter than it does to read the story; but if the result is a better story then it's more than worth it.

Barbara Roden said...


I, too, lean towards the to much rather than too little school of writing. As you note, every reader brings something different to a story, and to my mind explaining too much takes away some of what a reader can bring to the tale. In one of my early stories, 'Tourist Trap', I had a big lump of exposition towards the end, explaining (more or less) what was in the maze, and why. On re-reading the story prior to publication, though, I realized that it simply gave too much away, and robbed the reader of a chance to imagine what was going on. So two pages of deathless prose were gone, just like that, and I think the story is stronger for it.

You also make some good points about 'true' ghost stories. Most of them leave me with that 'That's weird' feeling, and no more; and while that's pretty indicative of real life, human nature demands some sort of resolution or explanation, however sketchy or unsatisfactory. Perhaps that's one reason why writers write; to try to make sense of an essentially senseless world. But that's a subject for another blog post. . . .

TheMadBlonde said...

Well, Todd, I suspect you & I not only have very different tastes but pick up very different things from our reading.

I've never found a tidy ending an obstacle to the frisson that comes from good scary writing. I love the old-fashioned stories where everything gets explained away & many of them still manage to scare/creep me out. However, if I'm frustrated by wondering what the devil the writer is trying to say/ hint @/ go, that's pretty much a guarantee that I will simply be annoyed, not frightened.

As for "true" ghost stories, I'm wondering which ones you both are reading. I have books & books of them & nothing is more effective in scaring me, even though the writing is usually pretty dire. Regardless, most of them DO try to come up with some meaning for the phenomenon because that is what people do- they try to understand what is happening. They reason. They research. Who died in this house? Who used to wear a blue dress? Who walked with a limp & loved to play the piano? Whether or not they can ever prove their theories, I've almost never read a "true" ghost story where somebody didn't have one about who the ghost was.

& unlike "literary" ghosts, these "true" ghosts are just so possible. They're right next door, or even down the hall. I find that pretty darned scary. & sometimes they are truly sad or funny or even comforting too, because the "ghosts" involved WERE part of the lives of the people who see them. They are highly relevant & immediate, much more so than an "invented" story.

Anyway, as I began by saying, it just sounds like we have very different tastes & want different things from our ghost stories, which is good, because there are so many kinds.

Todd T said...

We are indeed onto something interesting here, MadBlonde.

You are right that I generalized too strongly about whether neat wrapups and frissons are mutually exclusive. It may be too that we mean different things by the neat wrapup. What I'm thinking of here is the story where, not only is there no possibility left for readers to have different ideas of what really happened, or what could happen next, but the story finishes by explicitly telling you. "The bones were properly buried that very afternoon, and the ghost never bothered anyone again."

You're right that there are classics that meet that definition, and are very effective. But my own personal taste does lean - very generally, not absolutely - towards stories that reflect how far outside the norm the events were by leaving us unsure how to label and file those events. Certainly, though, this can be done badly too, leaving the reader frustrated, puzzled, and finally uninterested, as you said.

And having said all of that, one of the plots that I am not so wild about generally is the one about "was he/she insane, or was there really something supernatural going on?" This is by definition left open to question, yet I typically don't care for these (though I can think of several exceptions right away, by Karl Edward Wagner, Mark Samuels, Simon Strantzas...).

Re true ghosts: again I was probably careless in my wording. I would not say that none of them creep me out. I do think that most of them that are presented as true or putatively true do not work as fiction, even when the writer builds up a story around the phenomenon. It's a different animal, is all.

There's a huge series of some dozen thick books, by a guy whose life's labor it seems to be, on the Ghosts of Virginia. In these, there are many, many tales that I find spooky, intriguing, entertaining - but not one that I can recall that worked as fiction. There are many that come with lots of details and theories, tragedies, ironies, romances, etc., but none that achieve the objectives of fiction, as I see them.

We used to have friends in Milwaukee, now both passed, sadly, who lived in a haunted house in the city. The third floor had been unoccupied for years, yet they told of how the ancient servant bell from that floor rang now and again. One could feel the cold breeze in one bedroom, I was told, in the summer, with all doors and windows closed (there was no central air). One could see, on at least one occasion, the cat utterly freak out, bristling and hissing and looking up the stairs at nothing, as though something threatening but unseen by human eyes was coming down those stairs, right next to said humans. Was this all scary, even hearing about it later, as I did? Damn straight. Especially when they told these tales in those same rooms and dimly lit corridors. But did it work as fiction? No, it's a different form entirely.

But I misspoke, in retrospect, to say that most of these stories don't evoke any emotions. Many of them try to, but a good many of those fall short of complete success, I feel, because the writing is iffy, or because they are essentially the equivalent of flash fiction, which simply has limits on how powerfully it can develop anything. Even the ones that work in this regard do not evoke those emotions as strongly or meaningfully, for me, as good fiction does.

But as you say, YMMV, and this is a good thing.

Yipes, I am apparently trying to take over this blog by bloviating at huge length. I apologize for that.

TheMadBlonde said...

Todd, thanks for clarifying. While I'm not quite sure I know your definition of "fiction" I suspect I understand it well enough to agree. I look on the "true" ghost stories more as campfire tales. The atmosphere of scariness is already present from the "real" situation; it is not being created by the author. Any author who CAN create that is very worth reading & probably 80% of the "true" ghost stories I read are NOT.

As for the wrap up, DEFINITELY YMMV. I really do enjoy a nice, neat, unambiguous ending. I'll make up my own afterwards regardless; I just like being sure where I stand. I have a VERY literal mind & not a lot of patience, so I guess I don't mind being told what's going on without equivocation. I'm one of those people you can't spoil a book or movie for by telling me what happens. I'd just as soon know, then I can really sit back & enjoy the journey. I suspect I'm in the minority on that one. ;-)

Barbara Roden said...

Whoa, Todd and Karen, slow down. . . .

True ghosts: I'm not saying a lot of these accounts don't make me shiver; they certainly do. But I still think they're like reading, in many cases, the middle third of a ghost story: we find out the what, but not the who or why. I get as creeped out as anyone by stories of bristling cats and strange noises and cold spots and cloudy figures, but I guess I want just that little bit more: I want to know WHY, and true ghost stories, for the most part, don't give us that, which is unsatisfying for me at some basic level.

What I DO like about true ghost stories is that they happen anywhere. One reason I like to write ghost stories set in B.C. is because there are so few of them. I remember the first time I read a fictional ghost story set in my home province, and thought with a thrill 'Hey, I know that place! I've been there!' I've been to places in Britain that are supposedly haunted - heck, we lived a mile or so from Plas Teg, the most haunted house in Wales, supposedly - but it was wonderful to read a ghost story set in the area I grew up in.

Todd mentions the cop-out of the 'is he/she mad, or is it a ghost?' story, and I have to hold up my hand and say guilty as charged, in my story 'The Wide Wide Sea'. I was, more or less consciously, trying to riff on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wall-Paper', and leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not the protagonist was mad or haunted. I like the idea of leaving things this nebulous, and up to the reader to decide, without the author weighing in and proclaiming truth one way or the other.

Thanks for the great discussion! Maybe I should post more often. . . .

TheMadBlonde said...

Barbara wrote: "Maybe I should post more often. . . ."

Well, YEAH!!!

I'm still wondering which true ghost stories you're reading though. Almost every one I've ever read tries to pinpoint the origin of the ghost. Some don't succeed, like the particularly creepy one in the Chippewa Flowage, but most do end up with some kind of identification (Aunt Ethel, George Washington, the crazy usher who killed himself in the parking lot). A lot of them even try to figure out WHY the ghost is there (new family, renovation, batsh*t crazy person died & wants to cause trouble). I've probably read more "true" ghost stories than literary ones, so maybe my basis for comparison is skewed...?