Wet Petards And Swinging On the Gate

by Sarah A. Hoyt

Lately I’ve been delving in the depths of my own trunk stories.  This can be akin to pulling one’s on scabs but not nearly as fun.  It is also, however, useful, since I’m putting up most of those stories (well, the good – or at least decent – ones) with Goldport Press.

It is also, in a way, an education into how a writer grows.  And what (I think) is good and bad despite or besides gatekeepers and all that.

The first thing to shock me is how… mixed my stories are.  Years ago, while taking a workshop in Oregon, I had some inkling of this and told Kris “What annoys me is how mixed my quality is.”  Brother, I spoke a mouthful.  At the time I had no idea, myself.  I had some concept that some of the stories were way better than the others – what I had no idea was HOW MUCH better.  Take 1999, the year I started selling consistently.  It was a good year for short stories.  I wrote about fifty of them.  Twenty of those are – easily – as good as anything I write today.  The others range from bad to appallingly bad to “oh, my heavens, are you going to give me anesthesia before I read these?”

So, what is wrong about the very, very bad, no good, utterly rotten ones?  Am I sure they’re not just a matter of my internalizing gatekeepers’ tastes?  Um… quite.

Amid the stuff I’m putting up, for instance, is a lot of Space Opera, some of it in the Darkship Thieves Universe (well, one story out, for now) and those never sold, but there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them.  I suspect what kept those from selling are gatekeeper issues.  First, they were space opera.  Second, they were er… heretical when it came to the perspective of what would be a good future.  With a little clean up, some of it to make sure the history is coherent, there will be ten to fifteen short stories in the future history up by early next year, and maybe a couple of novellas, as well.

But the very, very bad ones are not gatekeepers.  They fall into three camps – the easily salvageable (with work), the “this needs to be seriously expanded” and the “what was I thinking?”

The first one is mostly wording issues.  Yeah, I know, I’m used to thinking of English as my native language, even if I acquired it fourteen years after birth – hey, some of us are built oddly – but let’s just say that in a lot of the stuff written in the late eighties and early nineties you can ear the stiltedness, the “not quite comfortable in the language’s skin” of someone who speaks English as a foreign language.  These grate on me probably more than they would on readers because that’s the way I’m put together.  There are perfectly good authors I can’t read because their language “clangs.”  Again, these stories can be salvaged, given a few rainy afternoons during flu season, when I’m not up to creating anything as such, but can spend time line-by-lining it and changing the wording.

The second category is mostly the future history – the stories that are not just gatekeeper-issues.  You see, I was learning to Heinlein things in with no explanation.  Like any skill you’re learning, I took it to an extreme.  It took me years after writing these to figure out that people like some idea of WHERE in future history the story fits.  Okay, it’s not natural for your character to think “Now that it’s the twenty fifth century” but you can find other ways to drop it in, and people like it.  Being dropped, deaf and blind into the middle of an incomprehensible world irks readers, for some reason.  So, a lot of the future history needs a good go-over and I suspect will become novellas.  (This is at least partly a gatekeeper-in-the-head issue.  I knew there was near to no market over ten thousand words, so I kept things over-lean in an attempt to slid under that bar.  Now the bar isn’t there.  So, never mind, I’ll grow them again.)

The third category is far more difficult and might have to rest-in-drawer though it might get cannibalized for its ideas.  These are wet petards.  In some of them I can, just vaguely, glimpse what I was trying to do, but the story reads like a wet petard – i.e. you get to the end and you go “oh, um” And that’s if you get to the end, because you usually know exactly what will happen all along the way from paragraph two.

So, what gives them their wet petardish quality?  Well… mostly foreshadowing issues.  If there’s only one way for a story to end; if, no matter how big the character’s issue, there is no hope of his succeeding, then why should I read the story?  Or, of course, if there’s no way for the character to fail.  (Series characters and novels are different here.  I’m talking short stories.)  Other serious defects consist of making my villain so loathsome that by page three I’m mad at the hero for not having killed him/her yet, and I don’t want to be in the same story with said villain.

However, let me make clear what’s so obvious to me now truly wasn’t then.  And yes, over time I wrote fewer shorts per year, but they are all decent reads with the usual “your mileage may vary” disclaimers.  I mean, I’m still uneven.  The range just has gotten narrower.

So, the take away?  If you write a lot, eventually you get better.  Also, if you’re in that stage where you know your output is uneven, write a lot.  SOME of it will be good.

Other things I’ve learned from this going over old stuff and putting some of it up: the story that’s outselling all the others ten to one is a seriously flawed story I couldn’t sell anywhere.  Note I didn’t say a BAD story.  It is enjoyable to read and kind of cute, but it’s one of those where things happen to the character – he doesn’t do much.  Is this a gate keeper preference but not a reader preference?  It would seem to be so.  Not that I intend to make an habit of writing flawed stories, but, it’s interesting.

Another observation is that most of my short stories are seriously, seriously depressing.  This is funny, because my novels aren’t.  On the other hand my shorts have gotten more cheerful as time goes by, so perhaps I’m finally growing up.  Or maybe the depression was the search for an emotional punch, which was difficult to come by when I was a young mother with two toddlers in the house the whole time.

One thing my limited marketing – I have less than a dozen short stories up – has shown me is that cheerful sells better.  (Give the lady a duh.)

So, if you’re writing stuff for the public, so far: Avoid wet petards plus write cheerful stories seems to equal profit.  And if the public includes Sarah Hoyt, for the love of heaven smooth that language.  (Like nails on the blackboard, it is.)

And that’s the week that was.  Now that I’m getting over the dreaded crud, I shall go back to writing and relegate the editing/putting up stuff to the evenings, when I’m useless for creative work.  (There is a time when my head feels empty and echoes.)

Oh, the other thing I have found out is that, given the fact I know stories will no longer need to languish in a drawer unless I put them there, I seem to have unleashed something.  I am writing MUCH faster than I ever have and keeping up that production longer.  No, I’m not going to write down numbers, because you’ll either not believe them; assume it’s bad if it’s being written that fast; or think I’m bragging.  BUT I’m truly laying down words at a prodigious rate – fast enough to scare me a little.  And I’m enjoying it more than I have in years and years.  Dean called this effect (not on me but in general) “the writer coming back.”  It is the best way to describe it.  And it feels good.


  1. I have this file drawer . . . I am not brave enough to open it, yet.

    And it’s so good to hear you sounding happy. “The writer coming back.” I like that.

  2. I’m glad you’re getting wordage in. I’m still hoping to get past the killer combination of life-eating job, over-stressed, and not enough me to go around. There’s a trickle of progress, but not nearly what I’d like to be happening.

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