What do stories want?

Well, I wrote half a paragraph the day before yesterday. Only an exercise from Steering the Craft, because it would be pretty lame for me to read the book and not to do the exercises. I also wrote a review today, because I had to. Not “had to” as in someone was making me, but “had to” as in felt the need as the human thing which happens to live in my skin. So maybe I’m getting back to normal. It doesn’t hurt that someone just sent me money for a poem. At least I’m no longer mentally screaming “I hate writing!” every time I look at my laptop.

A couple weeks ago something inside my head just… I don’t want to say “snapped.” More like my desire to write abruptly committed suttee. Yes, I’d just gotten a disappointing rejection, but that only struck the match. The gasoline came came from the mounting feeling that it’s impossible for me to make any sort of progress, because I don’t write the kind of stories that get published. This feeling came from reading a whole lot of professionally published spec-fiction stories and really, really hating them. It’s like, if I can’t even navigate this stuff as a reader, how am I ever going to write it?

Some things I find hard to accept:

1) Many stories seem to go out of their way to confuse people. I love mystery, misdirection, figurative language, metaphor, and all that other good stuff. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about stories where the narration jumps around, as if you were looking through a jerky camera held by some self-important undergrad film student. I don’t mind being a little confused for the first page or two of a story, but I do not like having the rug pulled out from under me every time I start to find my footing. If I’m still confused by the end of a story, it just makes me feel stupid. I get the distinct impression that’s half the point of some of the professionally published stories I read.

2) Many stories are cold and nasty and violent without reason. I understand the world is full of nastiness. But to me, the purpose of filling a story with darkness is to explore that darkness, not wallow in it. Virtually every set of submission instructions warns writers not to include erotic or violent elements unless they have a purpose in the story. Okay, fine. Yet often, when I read the stories these publications actually put out, I find pieces that are plenty erotic and plenty violent, yet seem to have no real purpose at all. What conclusion is possible but that darkness is loved for its own sake?

3) Many stories aren’t very imaginative. I’m fine with deep characterization (though the phrase “character-driven” is starting to get on my nerves). But if that’s pretty much all there is to a story, how is it speculative? In several of the Nebula nominees I read, I had a hard time finding any speculative element. These were stories I enjoyed, for the most part; I just didn’t see how they fit into the field. Much worse are stories that use the same well-worn ideas over and over. Established writers, especially, do this. All the time. They either retread whatever sci-fi or fantasy elements that are currently being passed around from author to author and magazine to magazine, or else cannibalize their own ideas by writing the same type of story over and over.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing things I wouldn’t want to read; I’d be miserable even trying. I do enjoy writing for its own sake, to some extent, but it’s an awful lot of work. Is it worthwhile to draft, edit, and polish words just to print them on toilet paper and flush?

Maybe so. I don’t really know what to think. Writing it down helps some.

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