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Author Topic: The Same, or Different?
Merlion-Emrys
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Something was brought to my attention a while back, and I'm curious if anyone else has noticed or contemplated it.

As writers, we are frequently told by editors and others to read the publications we submit to, to get a feel for the types of stories they buy.

But then, nearly in the same breath in many cases, the submission guidlines often state that they want new and different, they want things they've never seen before etc etc.

Seems a bit of a contradiction to me.


Now I realize it can be said that when they say you should read a publication to know what they want, it can mean in a rather general sense. Whether they prefer character oriented or plot oriented, more action packed or more cerebral and things of that nature.

However it remains that the two admonitions are often rather at odds with each other. And it seems to extend beyond that as well. We're told to be original and unique, and yet even here on Hatrack people will frequently quote various rules and tropes of whats "required" for a good story.

So if all good stories must follow so many of the same rules, where does the originality come in?


Has anyone else noticed this? I can think of several possible answers to the (mostly rhetorical) question above, but I'm more interested on peoples overall views of these some times contradictory signals.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited May 28, 2009).]


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MAP
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I have definately contemplated this.

I think they want something different but not too different. They (meaning editors and agents) want something that they know they can find readers for (similar to other books/stories that have a good following), but with something that makes it stand out and feel original.

I know I find this frustrating. On those moments when I allow myself to contemplate publishing what I am writing, I question whether my story is original enough or too different to find readers at the same time. I guess I will let the publishing world be the judge of that if I ever actually finish.


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satate
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I have often read that you have to know the rules and then when you understand what they do then you can break them accordingly.

My personal views on originality are two fold. There are things in this world that are original, but those are exceedingly rare, once in several hundred years rare. Then there are things that are original because they are a different spin on the same old thing. Like old styles coming back, except they are never quite the same, but more of a reinterriptation.

I think the magazines simply want a general feel for what they publish.


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Crystal Stevens
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I am currently reading "FINDING YOUR VOICE" by Les Edgerton, and he brings up this very point time and again. His view is that they want something more original in the writing style, meaning your voice. They want something different than the same bland (what he calls "beige") voice that almost everyone writes in to stay within the rules we're all taught to follow from 1st grade on up. In other words; Write in your own voice and let the words flow naturally onto the page. Each person has a distinct personality and a different way of saying things. This is what makes your story stand out from everyone else's, good or bad.

I've found this an interesting read and agree with much of it. I'm not saying he's 100% right, but he is correct that our own personality is what makes the difference in what we put down on the page. His advice is not to try to be like everyone else when you write. Instead let your true self come through on the pages and the rest will take care of itself.


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Robert Nowall
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After a point, I was just inclined to Write What I Want, and then decide where to send it. Not that I've been terribly successful, but I Gotta Be Me.
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rstegman
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The reason you are to read a number of what is published, is to avoid sending sword and sorcery to a space opera magazine, or sending vampires to a mystery magazine. Also, magazines have their own flavors. One might like quests and high magic, while another might prefer character stories.

This goes to reading books. They tell you that you need to read a lot of books. Part of this is to find out what you like to read, so you know to write that. You know that you have a place to publish if you like what you have already read. Also, you learn what each publisher prefers. Stories that happen in space is a lot different than stories that happen on alien planets. Stories of a magician in school is different than a magician searching for the holy grail.

You must read a lot to know what is published.
(there is an added benefit. The publishers have another reader to buy their stuff........)


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Owasm
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Ahhh. rstegman has hit part of the nail on the head.

Let's say you are a magazine with a circulation of 4,000 and you get 5,000 submissions a month. Wouldn't you want to tap into that marketing potential? I would.

It may not be the major reason, but it sure is a good one, to get the submittor to grab a copy of the mag.


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BoredCrow
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At FFO, we sometimes ask the question, "This is a great story, but is it right for our publication?"

Such a question sometimes has to do with the plot of the story, but much more often, it has to do with the tone of the piece or the feeling it invokes.

So I think that's what they mean when they say they want original stories that fit their publication. Some 'zines are dark fantasy, but they want you to take that genre, and their particular corner of it, to new and fascinating places. Like, they've had tons of zombie stories, but then you bring up zombie peaches from Mars. That's different, but it still fits in the dark fantasy genres once your peaches go on the rampage. I mean, zombies are way overdone, but perhaps your zombie peaches aren't out to eat brains, but, um.... toe nails, let's say.

Okay, I got distracted there with my zombie peaches, but hopefully you get what I'm saying.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I think they want something different but not too different. They (meaning editors and agents) want something that they know they can find readers for (similar to other books/stories that have a good following), but with something that makes it stand out and feel original.


The trouble is though, you never really know what a given editor or whatever has or hasn't seen which is another of the many reasons I believe that in the end perserverence...writing your stories and sending them out over and over till they stick...is really just about the only "key" to this whole thing.


It's also annoying as when in the case of at least one market I know of...I can't remember which specifically...they say "cliched" themes are ok, but not cliched plots. I find this particularly annoying since as far as I know, all plots have been used at least a few times.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I have often read that you have to know the rules and then when you understand what they do then you can break them accordingly.


Yeah we (writers) here this a lot to, but I have a couple of problems with it in general and in the context of this discussion.

For one, if the "rules" arent really rules...if they are simply just things put into place to, through some sort of reverse pyschology teach us what to do by telling us not to do it, why not just teach/learn/practice all of it at once?


Nextly, some of these "rules" (especially the stuff some people here on Hatrack seem a bit stuck on) aren't really rules, they are preferences or at best trends. I'm not talking basic writing rules. I'm talking things like the idea that there MUST be conflict in the first 13 lines or that you have to have a sympathetic main character to draw a reader in.


But within the context of this discussion the fact remains that there is an element of contradiction in the adominition to be original and send them things they've never seen and the duel admonitions to "follow the rules" and to check the publication to see what they buy.


However, as an aside to that, its also interesting to me that many, many of the published stories I have read from various magazines do fly in the face of some times even what I thought were relatively basic rules of writing and storytelling...both many of the ones obessed about here on Hatrack and those I've seen editors speak of as well.


quote:
My personal views on originality are two fold. There are things in this world that are original, but those are exceedingly rare, once in several hundred years rare. Then there are things that are original because they are a different spin on the same old thing. Like old styles coming back, except they are never quite the same, but more of a reinterriptation.


Yes, this is pretty much how it is. However, especially in terms of plot lines the fact also is that most have been done and more than once, and the more you try to put a new spin on it, the more likely you are to go into the zones of things that are "too different", that break to many "rules" or what have you.

quote:
I think the magazines simply want a general feel for what they publish.


Yes, thats often the case. But that doesn't make it any less strange that some of them more or less say "Send us something we've never seen before, but be sure to read our magazine to see what we've seen and purchased."


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TaleSpinner
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They hardly know themselves, much beyond "I can't describe what I like but I know it when I see it."

I think it's a reflection of reader tastes, which are inherently contradictory. We want the thrill of something new, but the assurance of a happy ending--or, in horror stories, an unhappy one. I like SF, so I want new scientific ideas, and an exploration of what they might mean for regular Joes and Joannas. I perceive high fantasy as different quests, heroes and villains, but always grand in scope and background, and almost certainly with swords and sorcerers. In every genre, something different, something familiar.

The only thing that's constant in the process of deciding what gets into the magazine is the editor, a human with taste (or not) hoping to sustain a balance of consistency and difference she thinks the market wants. By reading several issues of the mag I think one can determine something of its requirements, though not precisely: I've reduced some markets to these nutshells:

1. Strong imaginary science, strong characters, how would they interact?

2. Literary characters and allusions on a pseudo-scientific canvas

3. Dismal, hopeless, nihilistic projections of today into a fantasy future

All three do other things as well, but these seem to me to be their core tastes.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
I am currently reading "FINDING YOUR VOICE" by Les Edgerton, and he brings up this very point time and again. His view is that they want something more original in the writing style, meaning your voice. They want something different than the same bland (what he calls "beige") voice that almost everyone writes in to stay within the rules we're all taught to follow from 1st grade on up. In other words; Write in your own voice and let the words flow naturally onto the page. Each person has a distinct personality and a different way of saying things. This is what makes your story stand out from everyone else's, good or bad.

I think that is part of it, at least in some cases. Thats really the most logical point of view...to a large extent, what you speak of...voice, word choice, style, those are the areas with the most potential for orignality. There are only so many plots, and most characters fall within certain existing archtypes.

Setting I think is another area where more of this can be achieved (so says the editor of Black Gate in that Clarksworld interview) and I think both those things are often overlooked and underemphasized here on Hatrack.


And this brings up another contradiction...in writing advice in general, but here on Hatrack especially I think.

Again we're encouraged to be original and to "stand out," and yet we're also encouraged, it seems to me, to stay within that "beige" voice. We're told not to be to verbose or descreptive, to be clear concise and short.

And generally more emphasis is placed on "character immersion," action and "hooks" in the first 13, with not a lot of talk about voice beyond the things I mentioned above.

I think we as writers get a LOT of conflicting messages from a lot of places...editors, fellow writers and workshops like this one, books on writing etc.


I found this interesting, from the Clarksworld interview:

quote:
Read the magazines you're interested in submitting to, to get a "feel" for how the editors' tastes run; but don't try to imitate the stories you find there. That's what they were buying last year; they're looking for something new now


This is kind of what I mean: which is it people?

Like TS says I'm not sure they really know.


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skadder
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If there was a formula you could follow, we would all be rich and successful (...er, no we wouldn't!).

There isn't.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
If there was a formula you could follow, we would all be rich and successful (...er, no we wouldn't!).
There isn't.


I agree. However, that doesn't change the fact that we DO get a lot of mixed messages even from the "professionals" in the field (editors etc) and that they some times present advice/urgings which are inherently somewhat contradictory.

Its also been my experience that there are some writers...especially in this forum...who seem to think that there IS a magic formula, or at least certain set objective criteria that most or all editors/slush readers/etc use. Certain things that will automatically prevent a story from being published (including things that I frequently see in published work) and certain things you must include to get published (many of which I don't see in many published works.)

So I'm just looking to here some other peoples thoughts on these contradictions and how they deal with them.


That Clarksworld interview was very interesting, one of the things most so, I thought was that in the advice to those trying to sell fiction section, most of them did have one or two similar things to say, but mostly their views and preferences were quite different.

More and more it just leads me to believe that the closest thing there is to a formula is try to make your stories the best versions of what they are they can be, and keep sending them till they stick...



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zerostone
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TaleSpinner said,

I've reduced some markets to these nutshells:

1. Strong imaginary science, strong characters, how would they interact?

2. Literary characters and allusions on a pseudo-scientific canvas

3. Dismal, hopeless, nihilistic projections of today into a fantasy future


Yes, I'd say that, in my own research, that about sums up Analog, Asimov's and F&SF


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TaleSpinner
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Well spotted :-)

Except the third one was Interzone. I don't know F&SF well enough to characterize it because, for some reason, it's harder to find on mag walls in England ... maybe F&SF's sales prospects are hopeless here because Interzone has dismal covered.

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited June 06, 2009).]


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TaleSpinner
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quote:

other peoples thoughts on these contradictions and how they deal with them

I think the first thing to feel comfortable with is that, eventually, one will discover one's own voice, and no matter how "good" it is, there will be people who don't like it, and some of them will be "good" writers, or Hatrackers.

Thus, the objective of critting and being critted is, not to find a voice that's universally loved, but to find one we feel comfortable with, and one that reaches those we respect or would like to be read by -- whose likes and dislikes are hopefully represented by some of our friends at Hatrack.

Also, I think it's vital to remember that our guidelines, "rules", call them what you will, aren't cast in stone, that there's an element of taste involved and that --crucially -- quoting a rule in a kind of tick-box crit is rarely helpful. For example, I found the advice to "scrub the adjectives and adverbs" from one of my first 13s very discouraging. There were only one or two; I thought they were necessary, and I could not understand why they needed scrubbing. (They're still there.)

When critting I try to avoid simply quoting rules, and instead give specifics, a reason why it's worth at least considering the rule in this particular case. For example, instead of "There are too many adverbs", perhaps, "Have you considered replacing 'she ran quickly' with 'she sprinted', or 'she scuttled'? A more descriptive verb would, I think, punch up the action."

Or, instead of saying "It's in passive voice," perhaps explain that "MC was transported swiftly along I4 by his Aston" makes MC sound like a passenger in the story, whereas perhaps "MC thrashed his Aston up the outside lane of I4" might express his sense of urgency, and an active MC is more engaging.

I react to crits with the same ideas in mind. When I'm reminded I broke a "rule" I ignore the comment unless either I understand and agree with it, or the critter gives me a reason to consider unbreaking it. When crits are more about taste and style than the "rules", I listen more carefully to critters who have the sensibilities to intuit where I'm going, or who offer a perspective that has not occured to me. And then I let my own taste (or lack thereof) be the final arbiter.

Finally, as one gets better as a writer, and learns to avoid the basic mistakes, our crit process offers less -- not nothing, less. One has to develop confidence in one's voice, research and plotting, and maybe work with a few trusted readers who are on the same wavelength. I often wonder where novelists find all those people they thank in the preface, and how they get them to read the work.


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