Saturday, March 7, 2009

Creating Tension in Your Plot

One of the best bits of writing advice I've ever gotten (not personally, mind you!) was from a scriptwriter for the 70's television show M*A*S*H. Remember M*A*S*H? Based very loosely on Robert Altman's movie of the same title, and even more loosely on Joseph Heller's novel, Catch 22, M*A*S*H portrayed the life of doctors in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War.

The show's writer, and I really wish I could remember his name, said that the best way to create tension in a plot was to take a character and put him in the place he least wants to be. Then you, the writer, sit back and watch what happens.

In the television show M*A*S*H, that meant placing the irascible, anti-establishment, pacifist surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in the highly regimented US army, far away from his beloved Crabapple Cove, Maine. Many of the show's episodes revolved around Hawkeye's rebellion against authority, his frustration over army regulations, and his struggle to remain sane in an insane environment.

I guess the lesson to be learned here is to not make your characters too comfortable. The unfortunate truth is that fiction without conflict is not very interesting. I doubt that a television show about a man sitting in an easy chair drinking lemonade and reading the newspaper would have won fourteen Emmys and ran for eleven years.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Multiple Subs vs. Simultaneous Subs

What's the difference?

This was one of my first newbie questions, and for a while - even after I knew the answer - I was still confused. Call me slow, but the concept didn't really sink in until I started submitting manuscripts in earnest. So, in case you are also confused, here's the low-down:

Multiple submissions:
This means that you are submitting more than one story (poem, novel, whatever) to the same market at the same time. Or that you are submitting a work to a magazine (publishing company, agent) when you already have one waiting in their slush pile. So let's say, for example, that you've mailed your short story, The Flight of the Walrus, to the magazine The Walrus Review. If you turn around the next day and mail a second story to this same market, then you are submitting multiple stories.

Generally, most markets frown on multiple submissions (although poetry is sometimes an exception). Read the submission guidelines carefully before sending in your work. Some markets even have a policy that states an author should wait a certain length of time between submissions.

Simultaneous submissions:
This takes place when you send a single story (novel, poem, whatever) to more than one market. So, using the previous example, you send your short story, The Flight of the Walrus, not just to The Walrus Review but also to Walrus Weekly and Walrus World.

Most of the time it is okay to send your work out to more than one market. It certainly can save time! But it is considered proper etiquette to let the markets know that you are doing this. You needn't tell them precisely where you are sending your work, but at least mention it in your query letter (something along the lines of, "I'm considering other markets" or "I have submitted this piece to other magazines as well as yours").

A caveat, however...
If you are submitting to a short story market, it is usually best to simply submit to one magazine (e-zine, anthology) at a time. Yes, it does mean you will have to wait longer for a reply, but most of these markets won't waste their time with simultaneous subs (especially when a new author is involved). The website Writing World has an excellent discussion on this, if you're interested.

The best time to use simultaneous submissions is when submitting a novel to an agent. But, again, it is very important to let the agent know that you are doing this.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Reading Re-Kindled?

I don't often get my news from Comedy Central, but last week, I saw a fascinating interview on The Daily Show. John Stewart, the host, was speaking with Jeff Bezos, founder of, about the newest gadget the Kindle 2.

In case you haven't heard of the Kindle, it's a 'wireless reading device'; a high-tech machine that allows users to download books and read them from a small, digital screen. Think I-Pod for literature.

There's been a lot of talk about how this may or may not revolutionize the world of the written word. Many questions crop up. Will bibliophiles want to curl up on the couch with a computer screen rather than an old-fashioned tome? At $360.00 a pop (plus an additional $10.00 for each book), aily show, john stewart, I-pod, reading, technology, television, fiction, copyright violations, copyright, Comedy Central, fiction, getting published, reading, wwill the Kindle ever be affordable enough for the average person to own? And - probably most important to those of us writers - where's the copyright protection? (Some even wonder if it is permissible for the robotic Kindle-voice to read the books aloud).

My take on this is that it's the twenty-first century and times are changing. Writers need to get used to it. I like to think of such technological advances as opportunities, and my hope is that the Kindle will make books more accessible to a broader audience. I would love a book in which I could look up the words I don't know simply by clicking on them or get editor notes with a touch of a wand. There may even be more opportunities for lesser-known authors to promote their work by offering free Kindle downloads on their websites. I, for one, would love to offer some of my short fiction to Kindle users gratis, hoping to build a reputation that would lead to more book sales.

Of course, it is impossible to know for sure what will happen, and I'm sure that the Kindle will have many unexpected effects - both good and bad. But one thing I'm fairly sure of is that devices like the Kindle are very much a part of our future.