One Problem Too Many

Ok, writers, let’s talk about “one problem too many”

In this, the writer has set the stakes, usually pretty high, say, “the world will end if this McGuffin doesn’t get put in the right spot”

That’s a pretty big problem. So we go along, watching our heroes work to overcome this. Inevitably, though, I’ve seen the “one problem too many” problem.

Which needs a better name.

The point of this new found problem is to increase tension, raise the stakes… but the stakes are already raised. You already have the world at stake.

To give an example, hopefully spoiler free, both Sunshine and Interstellar do this, and in the book, The Martian, it comes pretty close. The problems in Sunshine and Interstellar are high, impossibly high. And yet the movie still devolves into stacking additional little problems, which nearly overshadow the purpose.

This is not to say that you should make it easy for everyone. But rather that once you start stacking impossible problems on top of each other, the point where overcoming them is believable is left behind pretty quickly.

An example: Armageddon (yes the movie). They go to Mir to get gas, no big deal, meet the Russian, and then before we know it, it is a crisis and the station explodes.

Because the on-coming Texas sized asteroid isn’t enough.

Then one of the crew goes space crazy, or whatever, and starts to shoot the machine gun, which I’m still not sure why is there, and they have to duct tape him to a chair.

Because the on-coming Texas sized asteroid isn’t enough.

Then there are problems with the drilling, but that devolves into the group dividing in two and fighting over how they should proceed.

This. This is fine, this is the right kind of problem escalation. This is related to the on-coming Texas sized asteroid.

Then! at the end, someone has to stay, sentimental scene, the others take off, but NO, THAT ISN’T ENOUGH. The ground shakes, he loses the thing, it goes to the last second…


So, when you are looking at your scope, think of your problems. The Texas sized asteroid was enough. It was always enough.

To counter, think of Star Wars. The Death Star is there, coming to destroy the base on Yavin. The base is in orbit, and once it is in line, the base will be destroyed. As the fighters get in close, the Empire launches fighters, one of which is Darth Vader himself.

Vader, however, is not one problem too many. He is simply an extension of the station defenses that have been plaguing the fighters. The problem is the Death Star.

There are not sudden betrayals, random broken parts, ship crippling solar flares, or the like to cloud things.

When you think about your climax, your overall plot structure, when you think about everything, make sure you aren’t stacking too many things on top of each other.

The Story isn’t the Whole Story

Anyone who says ‘the story’ is or should be the only thing that an editor uses to pick out a table of contents is being at a minimum naive.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have an open call for horror: no caveats; no themes; no restraints. Now, in your top ten stories, SIX have nearly an identical plot. For example: family haunted by a demon, turns out to be kid’s teddy bear.

Now, these are all great, they are in your top ten after all, but you will not pick all six to be in your anthology. In fact, you probably won’t pick more than one of them, despite the fact that they ranked as highly as they did in your reading. Why? Because if you put six stories with identical plots in your table of contents, people will not like your book.

‘The Story’ fails you as solo criteria in this case, and now you have to re-address criteria for decisions.

Think of ‘the story’ as step one in the process. If the story isn’t good, then the rest doesn’t really matter. But, just because the story is good doesn’t mean the rest doesn’t matter.

The quality of the prose is a factor. A fantastic plot with amazing characters and a great hook will utterly fail if the prose fails. Prose is easily the glue that holds everything together. If it is weak, it takes the story with it.

Is a story a reprint? Where is it reprinted? In your open call, are all your top stories vampires? werewolves? Lovecraft? Does this fantastic story even fit your call? (I do get this one all the time; great stories that aren’t right for the publication) Is the story great, but relies on something factually incorrect to work, like Romans with diamond tipped weapons, or Denver’s very large sea port?

Is it too long? too short? Do I have the word count in my budget for this one? The financial aspect of making a book cannot be overstressed.

Does it completely not fit with the rest of the TOC in theme, tone, length, or any other host of reasons? An anthology is a lot like a mix tape in composition. The stories can ebb and flow as you read, but some, no matter the quality, aren’t a good fit.

Even with the authors themselves, we still have criteria. Was this person in the previous issue / anthology? Did they just generate a lot of bad press about something? Sellability and marketability can both be factors (though, personally I try to not use these as criteria).

The idea that ‘the story’ is the only criteria a piece is chosen for is simply not true.

If the product of this open call was an anthology of all straight white men, no one would notice. If it was all black women, the implication would be that it was a ‘special’ call, or that I had somehow sacrificed ‘the story’ to get such a TOC in the first place.

That is the real insult. The implication is those of us who produce work with diverse TOC’s have somehow sacrificed ‘the story’ to get there. It is insulting to the editors, to the writers, and to the readers.

This is, of course, for open call anthologies. If it was an invite-only anthology, then the makeup of the TOC is 100% on the editor. The criteria for these anthologies was not ‘the story.’

But the open call editor’s don’t get a reprieve on this. Every table of contents is choice by the editor.

Every table of contents was a choice made by the editor.

Say it again until you believe it.

Every table of contents was a choice made by the editor.

As a gatekeeper it is important to audit yourself, important to look back at your decisions and choices. It is important to look at ourselves with the same level of scrutiny we are looking at the writers.

And if your TOC’s have been homogeneous, it may be time to reflect and ask yourself “why?”

The reason why these factors should be taken in account is that they can help you see any personal biases you may have. What is your reading list? Did you reject a good story because it was too “feminine” or too “foreign”? Is there something in your tastes that is influencing “the story” in ways you aren’t noticing?

As editors, we do not have the luxury of ‘comfort zones’. We should be constantly stretching ourselves just as we ask the same for writers.

Because, to be blunt, if you say your criteria is “the story” and your TOC is all white men, I don’t believe you.

So, You Want To Write Poetry, Part Four

Life, Death, Love

When we think of poetry, we often associate them with these three–attaching poetry with emotion, the spontaneous overflow, as Whitman called it.

These things, however, are too big for your poem. They will rip it apart at the seams. The weight is too much.

This is not to say you cannot write a poem with these elements. I dare say poetry and language itself owes quite a bit to these things.

But yours is not a poem about LOVE, rather it is about your love. But even then your love for someone is a huge thing, and will not fit on a page.

Instead your poem is about a moment–breakfast two years after your wedding; the wilted flowers in the vase from your first date; the stolen glance back when you saw them dancing as they walked away from your first kiss.

Don’t put a net around the galaxy and try to hold it in lines of poetry. Instead look at the moment for poetry, find the whole galaxy in the sparrow on the window sill.

Keep your images tight as well. “Love” or “Death” may bring a grocery list of things to mind, but a list of those things is not as strong poem as a poem about each thing is.

So focus your poetry on the moment, the specific.

And in these small moments, you’ll say what you need to about life, love and death.