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Slush Frustration
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ann_leckie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrored from Ann Leckie.


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And here's where my mediocrity rears its head: you say coffee naiad and I say, oh, hey, cute idea!

I do completely agree with you about needing a *story*, though. That was my problem with China Miéville's Kraken. It was chock full of cool ideas--things where he obviously was like, "hey, I know: how about [thing]? Cool, right?" And they *were* cool. But unlike in Railsea (which I loved), where he created a really compelling story in which to embed the cool ideas, Kraken remained, for me, more of a miscellany of ideas. There was a plot, sure, but the characters had to keep on reminding themselves of what it was. (And now you've just had a précis of what's going to eventually be an LJ post or Goodreads review.)


Eh, coffee naiads are kind of a cute idea. If I do say so myself ;) I don't think the idea itself would only occur to a mediocre writer--just to a writer who wasn't me, whose interests and preoccupations and anxieties aren't the same as mine. I would fall asleep trying to actually write about a coffee naiad, but like I said, someone else might write one and I'd be up till three unable to close the book because it was so compelling. But the idea doesn't grab me, as a writer.

Mostly it's the "I had a cute idea....now I will write it down and submit it!" where the mediocre comes in.

I have to admit, I very much enjoyed Kraken. But mostly I liked all the cool ideas in it--there was a story there, but not, perhaps, a novel. If that makes sense.

Looking forward to your review! :)


I suspect your reaction would have been totally different if this had been a tea naiad! *laughs*

A coffee nymph and a tea nymph have an illicit after-hours affair, both pursued by obsessed creepy men during the day, both risking the inability to manifest at night due to overzealous workers and their clean-up routines.

Well, there's *half* a story.

ETA: One of the obsessed creepy men gets himself hired at the coffee shop and takes the closing shift, thus putting the lovers' after-hours lifestyle in direct peril...

Edited at 2013-08-25 07:58 pm (UTC)

Prepare to receive a story about two rival cafe owners doing everything they can to make the coffee nymph appear at *their* shop. She's the best employee ever and you don't even have to pay her!


This could be awesome or not, depending! :)

Read up on coffee?

Rather, okay, if the other employees know about her, what do they know about dryads in general? Have they asked her about, yanno, stuff? Would she tell, or if not, why not?

Is she the only dryad in our world? Why? If not, is the place also full of chocolate dryads, chai dryads, etc? How do they get along? Does a double shot cuppa have two tiny dryads in it, or does the strongest urn have a big manic one? Why is she the only one that the Protag can see? Do different humans see different ones?

What does SHE want? To marry a human to gain a soul? To stay away from human love because she doesn't WANT a soul? She might lose her powers like Kim Novak did in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE? (No, woops, that gets into research.)

If this were in Discworld, what sort of things would happen? In Xanth? In a Disney cartoon, we might have better protagonists: the mice.

If any of that would be research, outside the writer's comfort zone -- then tropes from whatever he does know already.

The Disney mice vs the giant rats in the Sumatran coffee bag? (Woops, research again! But Holmes, not real coffee.)

But really, do we want to weigh it down with any real research? Isn't it better to go with just stuff on the top of his head, and presumably of the readers' heads also?

Nah, you don't want to weigh it down with research.

You want to read widely and extensively first, and then when ideas come they find lots of information that they can play nicely with.

(Deleted comment)
Fantatwee.

"But...love!" seems like what old romances and ballads worked on, so contemporary writers about coffee-nymphs are just trying to recapitulate that by borrowing the energy from the old stories, with the twist being...modern times!

The poor dears think they're writing archetypes and not cliches.

The poor dears think they're writing archetypes and not cliches.

Sigh. Yes. Yes, they do. I am optimistic that wider reading and more careful consideration before embarking on their projects will begin to show them the error of that. I know this is, in many cases, foolish, but live in hope that one or two might learn better.


Wow, talk about brainstorming! And I thought people had to drink coffee to get their brains working...

I once was in an online discussion where someone observed that real writers can get ideas from grocery lists.

Paragraph break.

In fact, real writers could get ideas from thinking about getting ideas from grocery lists.

Speaking as an inhabitant of the slush pile, I suspect that an alternative way of saying what you have been saying is this:

The idea is great, and you have to have one in speculative fiction: otherwise it's not speculative. But equally or even (heresy!) more importantly is the plot, the characters, the story itself: that's why it`s "fiction" as the noun, and not "fictive speculation". Here, the coffee naiad idea is yoked to a story that's boring and predictable (two sins) and to characters that are flat and stock (and hey, in some stories, one or the other can work, but not both), and to a setting that is predictable and trite.

The idea must shape the story, but it isn't the story.

One way to flesh out the rest (and the coffee naiad idea) is to mix with another idea or two, so the boring stuff doesn't fit any more. Another way is to keep on asking questions. An important tactic is to throw up the idea at the beginning of the story and have the story be "what happens then?" (that's the competing coffee shop owners).

Maybe the story is narrated by the coffee shop owner who has kept her here as a cheap employee, bound to the bag of green beans he has behind plexiglass ("Our first beans!") Maybe his daughter wants to move out but he won't let her: giving the beans to the naiad (she's more of a dryad this way) is part of recognizing the need to be free.

Maybe the story is actually about how roasting the beans kills the spirit: this was the advance of humanity, cooking food and destroying its spirit, so the naiad is actually out for revenge, and she hooks up with a feckless youth who thinks she wants to tear down the social order, right up until she forces the youth to face up to what that means.

Maybe the story is about cheap labour, and cheap beans, and the metaphorical imprisonment that many companies indulge in.

Maybe the big problem is that coffee spirits naturally move faster than normal spirits (Coffee Spirits don't notice it among Their Own Kind, which might bring in unpleasant racial thoughts but hey, if it goes that way), but she's a spirit of decaffeinated coffee, searching for her lost caffeine, and this medical resident slips her amphetamines on the sly, not intending to risk expulsion but...

Do I have a decent restatement there, modified by my own interests and whatever's on my brain?

(Hmm. Ann, I suspect you're going to see a number of coffee naiad stories in the slush, as people say, "I could do that better!" I hope you're prepared.)

I have to say I really like your plot possibilities here, and if you ever write them up, please remember to drop me an LJ note, because I'd like to read them.

I'm inclined to see a fellow who's comfortable with his life, in whom the permanently-wired coffee naiad Sees Potential. She pushes him to Improve Himself.

Skipping past the appalling scenes, he quits his job and runs away to Utah. (Mormons don't drink coffee.)

She returns to the coffee shop and spots another prospect.

The Illusion of Lost Time: Aswiebe's Market List Update 2013-09

User cloudscudding referenced to your post from The Illusion of Lost Time: Aswiebe's Market List Update 2013-09 saying: [...] * Slush Frustration [plotting]: http://ann-leckie.livejournal. com/191769.html [...]

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