Plot and Meaningful Choice

I don’t talk much about how I’m submitting stories to magazines here, because I don’t find it very interesting as a reader.  I got a personal rejection letter this week which has rearranged how I am looking at the conventional arc plot, and plot in general, though, so I want to leave it here for further reflection.

The letter said, in part:

[The story] devoted much more time to explaining the worldbuilding than to constructing a conflict in which the characters had to make choices.

I had been thinking of plot in a sort of good-versus-evil, Hero’s Journey kind of context, which I don’t like, and feeling very bound by the idea that the character needs to change in some way.  Saying that “the character needs to change” phrases it in the character’s passive voice, though — the author changes the character by manipulating them like a puppet through the action of the narrative, which as a reader I always find very flat.

Saying “the character needs to make choices” phrases it actively for the character, and makes it the author’s job to use the narrative to construct an environment in which the character needs to make choices, which I like.  I think I know how to do that.

So that idea has reduced my anxiety about plotting, maybe enough that I know how one or two of these stories go.

It also idea lined up nicely with this bit, from Rules of Play (p. 33), a book of academic game design theory, which chapter I had just read a couple days before:

Playing a game means making choices and taking actions.  All of this activity occurs within a game-system designed to support meaningful kinds of choice-making.

That is an interesting symmetry, which I had not noticed before.

At first I thought John Brunner’s The Squares of the City might be an example of that symmetry breaking down — or at least I didn’t care much for the book, whose action is based on a famous chess game, and which I found to be much more a narrative where the characters were acted-upon.  But the Internet reminded me that Brunner’s main character explicitly represents a piece on the board, and it’s not the pieces whose choices are meaningful but the players’.  So my reaction supports the thesis after all.

Anyhow, I don’t know what it means.  But it will bear thinking on.

Three Things I Learned After Viable Paradise

'after the rain i' by suttonhoo on Flickr (CC 2.0 by-nc-sa)

A short, informal note to the graduates of Viable Paradise 17.

It’s been a month since you stepped off the ferry from the island.  (Or off the plane.  Or out of the car, if you live on Martha’s Vineyard.  It can happen.)  You crossed the threshold of your home or your apartment, and you weren’t the same person who had crossed the other way a week and change before.  Now you crossed it a fresh-faced and eager graduate of Viable Paradise — the seventeenth Viable Paradise, to be specific — inheritors of a long tradition, ready to go out and write and publish and change the world.

A month on, I bet that has faded some.  The demands of your job, your partner(s), the kids, the pets, laundry and bills and video games…  A lot of the leaf-litter out of which lives are made is still there.  And that leaf-litter makes good and necessary soil, so don’t mind it too much.  It feeds lives and stabilizes them, and when the rains come it stops them from washing everything away.

In the same way that in book series we look for our characters to learn and grow between volumes as well as during them, so the learning of Viable Paradise doesn’t end at the Oath.  Here are three things I learned after Viable Paradise:

  1. The Oath says, “I will submit to paying markets only.”  But how do you find paying markets?  It turns out that SFWA maintains a list of paying markets which it considers “pro” markets in its membership requirements.  This is especially useful for short fiction, as almost all of the markets listed accept unsolicited submissions and have a link to their guidelines.  This doesn’t cover semipro markets, but Asimov’s can’t ever accept your Thursday story if you don’t submit it, and you may as well start at the top.  Following the SFWA list, you can keep your story productively tied up for months.
  2. If and when you run out of pro markets, there are a few sites that can help you find semipro markets.  Ralan is one.  The Grinder is another, and the one I use.  Both are free and donation-supported.  The Grinder is also a story-submission tracker.  It can be an unfortunately attractive avenue for cat-waxing, and it can feel a bit like playing Progress Quest to watch my little purple dot advance through the forest of red rejections (it provides graphs of the past 12 months of recorded submissions to each market), but I find it a useful tool.  (Okay, let’s be honest: it’s exactly like playing Progress Quest, if Progress Quest had random character death.)
  3. I’d strongly encourage you to join the Codex Writers’ Group, which you’re all eligible for now that you’ve graduated from VP.  It’s an incredible community of writers sharing critiques, experiences with markets, acceptances, rejections, laughter, and tears.  The way I actually find semipro markets to submit to is by watching where other people on Codex are submitting.  Even if you just lurk, there’s so much knowledge in the discussions available just to read, I’ve found it extremely valuable. It will also show you that even big-name, Hugo- and Nebula-nominated writers get rejected out of the slush pile.

And that’s the secret fourth thing I learned after Viable Paradise.  I still write stories one word at a time.  Many doors are closed yet, and maybe they’ll open later once I’ve learned more, or maybe that means they’re not the right doors, and I need to go find the right doors first.  The embarrassment of opportunities my life has provided me means I’m writing standalone prose fiction more slowly than I would like, which is not the same thing as not writing at all.

And so I put my head down and do the work, trying to nurture and grow the seeds that were planted on the island.

Toes in the soil, hands reaching upwards towards the sky.

While of course I hope for wild and quick success for all of you, Viable Paradise 17 grads, in the event that that doesn’t happen, I still hope that, whatever else is the case, a year from now you can say that too.

Toes in the soil, hands reaching upwards towards the sky.

The post image is ‘after the rain i’ by suttonhoo on Flickr, used under the terms of its Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.  The photo has a short accompanying microstory — go check it out!