What are All Stories About?

Many years ago I read somewhere that all stories, without exception, are about the human condition.  The writer stated made it sound like one of those obvious statements that require no explanation, as if any doubting reader must be stupid. It may seem obvious to you, too.  However, I stopped reading and thought about the statement in a critical manner.

First, any bold statement that all members of a class of things (stories) exhibit some property (are about the human condition) is subject to the simplest of tests for accuracy.  All the skeptic has to do is come up with a single counter-example—just one!—and that disproves the statement.

The statement can’t be true, I thought.  There are a few stories that have no human characters at all, and these stories are clearly about animals or extraterrestrial aliens, etc.  Surely these stories serve as counter-examples to disprove the statement.

On further reflection, I realized they aren’t counter-examples at all.  Even stories without any humans in them are about humans.  This is because the characters, however inhuman, are serving as metaphors referring to some aspect of the human experience.  Consider any story you’ve read that has no human characters in it, and you’ll see this is true of that story, too.

Okay, so all stories are about the human condition.  What exactly is that?  The human condition is the state in which essentially all humans find themselves—the common attributes of our existence, many of which are unique to humans.  These include the fact that:

  • We are born.   We also will die, and for most of us, the date of death is unknown.
  • We are conscious and self-aware, but we do not know what happens to our consciousness at death.  Because of that, we have a fear of death and seek to preserve ourselves, to delay or avoid death.
  • We are divided, as a species, into two genders which have similarities and differences.
  • We mature as we grow from a helpless infant stage through childhood to adulthood.
  • We are a social species, with complex and varied social structures, and a need to interact with each other.
  • We have developed methods to communicate with each other to some degree, but cannot know for certain what our fellow humans are thinking.
  • We are all born on a single planet, a planet with many fascinating features.
  • We are curious about our world and about ourselves; we seek to understand more.
  • We are able to fashion tools, to manipulate resources in ways we find useful, though we are not always successful in this.
  • We have fragile bodies that are easily damaged.
  • Our minds are limited and we make mistakes.

Obviously I could go on and on.  When you think about it, the shared human condition is quite a narrow one, and it’s easy to imagine that any of these attributes might have been different.  Although the condition is very constrained, it still allows for an infinite number of stories within those limits.  Story writers may assume their readers know and understand all of the attributes of the human condition without having to explain any of them.  Moreover, writers of stories can play at the edges of any of the boundaries, and even go beyond them.

So far, all writers are human and all readers are human.  In a sense, writers can’t help writing about the human condition.  It’s all we know, and it’s what readers want to read about.  Someday, many of the attributes of the human condition may no longer be true.  Someday we will likely encounter another sentient species and human authors can write about that species’ condition, and our interactions with them, perhaps even write stories for the other species’ readers.

Until then, all stories are about the human condition.  If you still doubt me, leave a comment for–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Aiming for the Anthos

You’ve heard anthologies are a way to break into the writing business, but you’re not sure whether, or how, to submit?  Well, you’ve surfed to the right blog.  This is an area where Poseidon’s Scribe has some experience.  Seven of my stories are published in anthologies.

An anthology is a collection of stories, often sharing something in common and usually written by a variety of contributing writers.  Anthologies appeal to readers because they can sample the writing of unfamiliar authors and enjoy a smorgasbord of different styles.  Publishers like anthologies because readers like to pay for them, payment to authors tends to be low, and sometimes anthologies can sell very well.

Why do authors write for them?  For beginning writers, anthologies may just be the easiest way to get a story in print and to start establishing writing credentials.  Also, sometimes the theme is so compelling you just feel the urge to write that story!  An anthology can be the very thing you need to break out of a writing slump.

In a future blog post, I’ll discuss how to find out about upcoming anthologies.  For now, let’s assume you’ve just read a publisher’s call for stories to fill an anthology.  This one’s looking for tales that involve musk oxen, the theme of the anthology.  As you surf the publisher’s website you see they usually publish horror, and that’s not a genre that interests you.  So you ignore that call for stories and move on.

Then a day or two goes by and you find you can’t stop thinking about musk oxen.  Your brain keeps re-chewing the mental cud of numerous story lines.    Some of the ideas might even make good horror stories.  What’s going on?  Your muse is offering you a deal  If you can stampede away from your comfort zone, then your muse agrees to whisper a steady stream of musk oxen story ideas, scenes, plot lines, and characters.

So you sit down to write a story about a musk ox.  Of the various ideas roaming the fields of your mind, which one do you pick?  Here’s my view.  Don’t select the most obvious one, or two.  Other writers will have grazed those grasses already and that lessens the chance of the editor accepting your story.  I suggest aiming for the edge of the anthology’s theme.  Look for a different angle, a thematic twist that will make your story unique.  Ensure your story idea still fits within the anthology’s rules, but just within the border of those rules.  Also, consider if you could market your story elsewhere, should your story get rejected for this anthology.

You finish your story and now you’re checking the anthology’s rules one more time before submitting.  Here’s something you missed before.  “Payment for this anthology will be hardened, dried musk ox droppings (or monetary equivalent).”  What the–?  Payment for anthologies is often low.  Still, if you’re a beginning writer, payment is not the most important thing for you right now.  Exposure is; getting a story in print is; establishing a writing credential is.  Plus you never know when an anthology can really take off.

The scenario above happened to me.  When I saw the call for horror stories involving fish, I skipped right over it.  My muse didn’t.  She wouldn’t let go, even when I explained to her I don’t write horror stories and asked her who would buy such a book.  Are there really that many fishermen out there who enjoy horror stories?  Shows what I know about what appeals to the public!  Dead Bait by Severed Press, in which my story “Blood in the River” appears, remains the best-selling anthology of which I’m a part.  Who knew?

For you publishers, the idea of a musk ox anthology is free for the taking, and please don’t credit me with it!  For you writers, please understand I am not publishing an anthology. Do not send any musk ox stories to…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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The first thing we do, we kill all the darlings!

The title of this blog post combines a bit of William Shakespeare with William Faulkner.  I’m fairly confident neither William will sue me.

Faulkner’s quote actually was, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”  What did he mean by that?  My interpretation is he meant for writers to look, as they edit their stories, for passages with clever phrases, little jokes, or humorous anecdotes—the passages that made them smile as they wrote them for the first time.  Then they are to ask themselves, “Does this passage relate to the story?  Does it advance the plot?  Does it help the reader understand the characters?  Does the style or tone of the passage match the rest of the story?”

Here’s the hard part.  If the passage does not pass these tests, the writer must delete it.  That’s difficult because the writer might consider the passage a demonstration of the greatest height of her talent.  The writer may have fallen in love with a particular clause, a sentence, a paragraph, a character, a scene.  However, for the sake of the story, the darling must go.

Here’s the even worse part.  As he was writing, the author might have thought of and written the darling, fallen in love with it, and then bent the story around to force-fit the darling in.  Now the question of killing the darling involves how much of a force-fit it was, and how much rewriting is necessary for the deletion.  Even so, the writer should think hard about this, keeping in mind the story is more important than the darling.

Fortunately, the darling need not be so terminated that it vanishes to wherever deleted bits and bytes go.  The writer can save it in a separate file, for potential use in a later story, one where it will fit better.  Perhaps an entire story can be written around that darling.  In the directories where I save my stories, there is almost always a “Deleted Sections” file I’ve created to dump the parts of early drafts that I’ve axed.

I don’t know that Faulkner was necessarily advocating more concise writing.  After all, a writer could go back, kill the darlings, then replace them with even longer passages that fit the story better.  I think he was advocating the writing of more integral stories, where each piece of the story is necessary and supports the plot and theme.

As you do this in your writing, don’t think of yourself as moving along the path to becoming a psychopathic murderer.  Think of it as your effort to become a better self-editor, a writer who produces well-crafted stories.  Though I may be known to my computer as the Killer of a Thousand Darlings, to you I’ll always remain—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Ah, the Sweet Freedoms of Rejection!

This post’s title will make sense when you’re done reading the post.  Rejection sounds like such a dismal subject, but it’s a fact of life for most writers.  Nothing I can say here will make you enjoy getting rejections, but maybe my musings will offer a little perspective and a way to help you look at rejections differently.

They say you learn more from failure than success.  They also say that getting fired from a job is sometimes the best thing that happens to some people.  Whoever they are, they seem awfully chipper about bad things happening to other people, don’t they?

In my experience, the first rejection is the most difficult.  Rejections get easier after that until they get routine.  Just like the message that “they” are trying to convey with their little aphorisms, it’s all in your attitude, your reaction to the bad news.

Suppose you could speed past the first four Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression) and reach Acceptance sooner.  One way to do that is to realize the editor is not rejecting you.  Remember, this is nothing personal.  It’s just business.  For whatever reason (and they don’t have to tell you the reason), your story was not a fit for them.

Remember, all you did was write the story.  The publisher is the one who would have been taking all the financial risks.  For some reason, your submission didn’t scratch the itch, didn’t yield a positive result in their profit/loss calculus.  That’s all.

The other way to look at that rejection is to consider that it just gave you two freedoms.  That’s right—your life now has two new options you didn’t have before:

1.  First, and most obvious, you are now free to send that story to a different market.  In fact, you should, and right away.  Same day, if possible.  Keep it moving.  (Note:  if two or more markets accept simultaneous submissions, then you might have already submitted your story elsewhere, in which case there’s no cause for great sorrow when one market rejects it.)

2.  The second freedom is that you are now free to send a different story to the same market that just rejected the first one.  Why not?  They just rejected one of your stories, not you as an author.  That last one didn’t meet their needs but the next story just might.  (Again, if the market accepts multiple submissions, you might well have two or more stories being considered by them already, so one rejection isn’t cause for alarm.)

Lastly, take some solace in the fact that even some classic and best-selling fiction works were rejected multiple times before achieving acceptance and great success, including:

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997).  Rejected about 12 times by major publishers.
  • A Time to Kill by John Grisham (1989). Rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishers.
  • Lust for Life by Irving Stone (1934).  Rejected by 16 publishers.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank (1947).  Rejected 16 times.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (1965).  Rejected 23 times by publishers.
  • A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962). Rejected 26 times by publishers.
  • Carrie by Stephen King (1974).  Rejected 30 times by publishers.
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936).  Rejected 38 times.

Though it’s hard at first, be persistent in the face of rejections.  Capitalize on the two freedoms given to you by each rejection.  Keep submitting.  That’s not only what they say, it’s also advocated by–

Poseidon’s Scribe


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