Several conversations in an online writer’s group has inspired me to revisit a post on the importance of identifying desires and objectives, which was first published in June of 2016. This post contrasts the works of two authors with unique and distinct literary styles: James Joyce and J.R.R. Tolkien. Although they were contemporaries, born ten years apart, the two authors couldn’t be more dissimilar. And yet their works have one thing in common: the protagonists want something and are willing to go to some lengths to gain it.
This is the core of any great novel.
When we sit down to write a story of any length, a novel or flash fiction, we often begin with an idea, and great characters, and little more. To make those things into a story, we must first ask what the protagonist wants, and we must know what she/he is willing to risk in their efforts to achieve it.
Objectives + Risk = Story
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo is just an ordinary young hobbit, with no particular ambitions. On the same day as his older cousin Bilbo’s “eleventy-eleventh” (111th) birthday, Frodo (Bilbo’s heir) celebrates his thirty-third birthday.
At the lavish double-birthday party, Bilbo departs from the Shire for what he calls “a permanent holiday.” He does so by using the magic ring (that he had found on the journey detailed in The Hobbit) to disappear. He is aided in that by Gandalf with a flash and puff of smoke, leading many in the Shire to believe Bilbo has gone mad.
He leaves Frodo his remaining belongings, including his home, Bag End, and after some heavy-handed persuasion by the wizard Gandalf, he also leaves the Ring. Gandalf departs on his own business, warning Frodo to keep the Ring secret. Seventeen years or so pass, and then Gandalf returns to inform Frodo of the truth about Bilbo’s ring. It is the One Ring of Sauron the Dark Lord, and is evil. It forges a connection between the wearer and Sauron, and whoever bears it will be slowly corrupted, eventually becoming a Ringwraith.
From the moment of learning the truth about the Ring, Frodo’s goal is clear to the reader: he must get rid of the ring. In Rivendell, he learns the only way to do so is to carry it into the depths of Mordor and cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.
Frodo wants to achieve this goal badly enough to walk into an active volcano and certain death to accomplish this.
At no point in the narrative is the objective unclear. The path is blocked many times, and each of the characters is tested by the evil ring, some beyond their ability to resist it.
The objective creates the tension, which drives the plot forward.
But what about a book where the goal is not so clear?
Let’s talk about Ulysses, by James Joyce.
Ulysses chronicles the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, taking place over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinized name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce established a series of parallels between the epic poem and his novel. This book has one of the best opening lines of all time:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
Structurally, there are strong correlations between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom with Odysseus, Molly Bloom with Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. It is set in early twentieth century Dublin with the events and political tempests of the time. Themes of antisemitism and the impact of Ireland’s rocky relationship with Britain as it was felt in those days are the underlying pins of this novel. It is highly allusive and filled with allegories.
There is no obvious quest, although many minor quests are completed in the course of living through the day. The book opens with Stephen Dedalus, the first protagonist, having breakfast with Buck Mulligan, who is perhaps a friend, or maybe a rival. Stephen is not Leopold’s biological son as Telemachus is Odysseus’, but he fulfills that role. Unconsciously Stephen wants a father.
But what do they want? It’s James Joyce, so it’s complicated.
Stephen shares his opinions about religion with Buck Mulligan, speaking of how they relate to the recent death of his mother, and Buck manages to offend him. They make plans to go drinking later that evening.
What does Leopold desire? He wants a son. In Episode 4, the narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. He and his wife have a daughter, Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography. As the day unfolds, Bloom’s thoughts turn to the affair between his wife, Molly, and her manager.
He also thinks about the death of their infant son, Rudy Bloom, who died at the age of 11 days. The absence of a son is what leads him to form an attachment to Stephen, for whom he goes out of his way in the book’s latter episodes. He rescues him from a brothel, walks him back to his own home, and even offers him a place there to study and work.
Finally, we come to Molly. Within the city of Dublin, Molly is an opera singer of some renown. She is the mother of Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography. She is also the mother of Rudy, the son who died at the age of eleven days. A significant difference between Molly and Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is that while Penelope is eternally faithful, Molly is not. She is having an affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of her celibacy within her marriage.
The final chapter of Ulysses, often called “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” is a long and unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness passage. During the monologue, Molly accepts Leopold into her bed, frets about his health, and then reminisces about their first meeting and about when she knew she was in love with him. It is comprised of some 20,0000 words of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to Bloom. What does Molly want? She wants to be loved.
In The Lord of the Rings, we have a clear and obvious quest, straightforward and seemingly impossible: Destroy the One Ring and save the world.
In Ulysses, we have a group of people who all want something, but just as in real life, what that may exactly be is not as clear as we would like it. But there is an objective: they just want to get through the day and in the process, they find they are a family, thus achieving their individual goals.
Once we know what our protagonist wants and what he/she is willing to risk to achieve it, we have our plot.
How we dress it up is up to us—I admit James Joyce’s rambling is too daunting for me to read for pleasure. I had to read it in the environment of a college class to make it all the way through the novel with some understanding of it.
I am a huge fan of Joyce’s magnificent one-liners, though.
History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
--Ulysses, Episode 2
CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:
Desires and Objectives © 2016 – 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on June 13, 2016. Reprinted by permission.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
Despite being primarily a novelist, I submit a lot of short stories to various publications over the course of a year. Many times, they are rejected for various reasons, but I polish them up and submit them elsewhere.
Therefore, I keep a list of what short story was submitted to what magazine or anthology. If it is rejected with comments, I make a note of the remarks. I then consider them, and if they are valid, I make changes and immediately submit it elsewhere. The fact is, rejection can be a positive thing.
If you are a member of a professional writers’ organization, such as NIWA, you may want to submit a piece to their annual themed anthology. These anthologies want stories that showcase their members’ best work and will want previously unpublished work that strongly represents the theme for that year. The theme of this year’s NIWA anthology is ‘Carnival’ and I’m looking forward to reading it.
I strongly recommend you do not submit your work to vanity publications.
Don’t even consider submitting to the slick-looking publishing house that contacts you by your WordPress blog email saying they want your work for “regional anthologies.” They want your work all right—and want to sell you publishing services you can do for yourself. You won’t benefit from any of their “services” but they will benefit from your desperation to be published. They will publish your work, and your payment is the glory of having it published, as they offer you no payment or royalties. They will expect you to market their product and they will offer you all manner of for-payment services that are dubious at best.
When I first began this journey, I didn’t understand how specifically you have to tailor your submissions when it comes to literary magazines, contests, and anthologies.
First, you must research your intended market. This means you must buy magazines, read them, and write to those standards.
Go to the publisher’s website and find out what their submission guidelines are and FOLLOW THEM. (Yes, they apply to EVERYONE, no matter how famous, even you.) If you skip this step, you can wait up to a year to hear that your manuscript has been rejected, and they most likely won’t tell you why.
Formatting your manuscript to your intended publisher’s standards is crucial. If you are unsure how that works, see my blogpost of July 24, 2015, How to Format Your Manuscript for Submission.
Only submit your best, most professional work. It’s not worth a publisher’s time to teach you how to be a writer—you have to learn that on your own.
A sci-fi magazine like Analog Science Fiction and Fact will not be interested in fantasy from an unknown author. If you read Analog, you can see they mostly publish hard, technology driven sci-fi. If they publish a fantasy piece at all, it will be by one of their regular contributors, and will likely have been solicited by them for a particular feature.
Analog’s Submission page clearly says: “Basically, we publish science fiction stories. That is, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!
The science can be physical, sociological, psychological. The technology can be anything from electronic engineering to biogenetic engineering. But the stories must be strong and realistic, with believable people (who needn’t be human) doing believable things–no matter how fantastic the background might be.”
You have been warned. Analog wants science, not magic.
Therefore, I never submit to this magazine as I don’t write hard science fiction. I don’t enjoy the kind of work they publish, and that is an important clue: If you don’t read what they publish, you likely can’t write it to their standards.
An excellent article that addresses that well is “What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines.”
Because I have so many short pieces floating around in the ether, I now keep a document listing all my submissions by the
Remember, only submit your best work. If you have a well-written piece that reads smoothly when read aloud and is rejected for whatever reason, find a different magazine, contest, or anthology to submit it to. Chances are it simply didn’t resonate with the editor at that place, and who knows–it may be exactly what the next place is looking for.
However, finding these contests and publications has been challenging, as often by the time I hear about them, the closing date is approaching which means I may not have time to get a rough piece into the right shape for submission.
But even that is becoming less of a problem for me. I use an app for a submissions warehouse that makes it easy to find publications with open deadlines and contests which have several months lead before their closing date.
The Submittable App.
Many contests and publications use the Submittable platform to accept and review the large volume of manuscripts they received from writers. When a publisher uses this platform, it’s great for us as authors because we can use the app to keep track of what we have submitted, and where it currently is in the process.
On your personal page, Submittable lists four stages in the process:
I can connect though both my PC and my phone so no matter where I am, I can check the progress of a particular story. It is the responsibility of the contest manager or publication to notify Submittable as to the status of their entries and submissions, and while most do, some contests managers aren’t as diligent about that. I assume that if it has been in process for more than a year, they didn’t want that piece.
But, even better than being able to track your submissions, all the contests that are currently open via Submittable are listed on the Submittable Website in one place on the “Discover” tab, so the question of where to submit your work is easily answered. Every open call for submissions is listed, and any entry fees are clearly shown.
At the top are the contests and calls that are closing that day. But if you scroll down to the bottom, you will find calls closing thirty days from now and beyond.
If you are new to this, a good place to start is the Lascaux Review. This is a literary magazine, but they have great contests for flash fiction, drabbles, and poetry–and offer cash prizes. Their rules are fairly relaxed.
The Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction
CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:
Short stories, submissions, and vanity publications by Connie J. Jasperson was first published April 18, 2018 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy. Reprinted by permission.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy