Don’t write the same old stories


Stories, August 2008

Stories (故事会) is a hugely-popular magazine devoted to fiction, anecdotes, and other short-form literature. Its low cover price and mainstream content give it mass-market appeal; by some measures it is ranked #5 in the world in terms of monthly circulation.

Many of its readers are also aspiring writers, and their work fills the editors’ mailbox each month. In the editor’s note for the August issue (B) (which went on sale yesterday), Zhu Hong described what Stories does and does not want to see in its submissions box:

Editor’s Note

by Zhu Hong / Stories

This issue of Stories goes on sale the on the very same day as the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games. I’m really excited about this: it’s as if the spiritual food that I’ve spent so long preparing for my readers has been dipped in Olympic excitement. A few months ago, I noticed that major media outlets were collecting and publishing all sorts of stories about the Olympics, and it seems you really can’t count the sheer number of moving stories and interesting anecdotes about amazing people, both on and off the field. It’s always been this way every four years at the Olympics. So too in our own lives: day after day and year after year, something plain and drab on the surface may be in motion underneath, ready at any moment to break forth in thrilling, stimulating color.

Stories are a form of oral literature with a long history, and even today, people enjoy telling them and passing them around, talking about them at the dinner table, using them as moral examples for their children….compared to other literary forms, this really is something amazing.

So since stories exist everywhere and at all times, and given their close connection to people’s everyday lives, the material for those stories ought to be just as diverse. But I have discovered something: whenever something strange or important gets reported in the news, then for a while afterwards, stories on that subject will stream in from all over to our editors’ mailbox. After the Wenchuan Earthquake, for example, our mailbox was chock full of earthquake stories. Think for a moment: is it easy to to distinguish yourself from from a pile of similar stories as well as from the original, emotionally-moving news stories? Smart authors, then, are good at choosing different paths and different ways of expressing themselves. They don’t just stick with the latest news item. Instead, they truly experience life, and through their own insight they discover vivid topics that others have overlooked, they use their own wisdom and insight to boldly adapt and elevate that subject matter, transforming it into the core of a unique story. If you just act blindly using a single piece of news, then you either end up with something no different from anyone else, or you’re seriously out of touch with reality.

Below, let me round up some common, shopworn subjects that really shouldn’t make it into many more stories, in the hopes that it will be illuminating to you all:

  1. The Anti-Japanese War and the Cultural Revolution: Stories with these events as background have been written countless times over the last few decades, so it’s difficult to break new ground in plot and theme. In addition, these subjects are fairly distant from the real lives of readers today, so it’s hard to catch their interest or elicit their sympathy any longer.
  2. Old, familiar subjects: the lottery, online chatting, SMS scams, gifts and bribes, collecting, kidnapping, car accidents, leukemia, kidney transplants, twins, extramarital affairs, pickpockets, teacher’s assistants, crime investigation, mining, treasure hunting, hauntings…stories about these subjects, or whose plots that hinge on these subjects, make up the vast majority of submissions. If there’s a sudden death, if it’s not a car accident accident then it’s leukemia; crime investigations always start with the scene of the crime; a woman dies and returns to life, and if she’s not a ghost then she’s a twin….so for old subjects like these that have been written thousands of times, unless you can dream up a ground-breaking plot that stands out from tradition, it’s best to use them as little as possible.
  3. Rural subjects: There are many unsophisticated rural authors in the ranks of our story writers, which means that rural subjects make up a large portion of submissions. However, our readers don’t really enjoy reading stories depicting the poor, backward countryside and old customs and ideas. If a story begins: In such-and-such village, such-and-such town, so-and-so’s family was very poor. His father had died, his mother was paralyzed, and his child had no money to go to school….how many readers are willing to continue reading material that starts off like this? Of course, if you can write a new story, one that reflects new ideas and the new face of new rural life, we might like it.
  4. Sensitive political subjects and material that has a negative societal influence: These subjects will cause unwanted problems, so avoid them as much as possible.

Returning to the current issue of Stories, as editor, I consider how the subjects in each issue work together, and on a foundation of relative overall stylistic harmony, I try to make the content as varied and interesting as possible so that most readers will find the story of story they like in every issue.

For example, “Wagon Love” is without a doubt a romance, with an unexpected ending sure to make readers sigh with emotion; “Stealing the Sun” is a fairly distinctive wuxia story whose character design and fight scenes are high points; “The Spiral Shave” is a folktale in the chuanqi mode that contains an exquisite description of the art of shaving heads and a shocking, unforgettable ending; “Mermaid in the Deep” an imaginative, bold fairy tale of the sort I’m sure middle school students will like; “Guest in the Bathhouse” is an inspirational story, short, poignant, and encouraging; “Outside the Window” is a legal story, and although the law is emotionless, people have emotions; “Angelo’s Rich Woman is a richly-comic story from overseas, whose use of “sleeping under the bed” makes a significant impression….

I present to you the new issue of Stories, and I patiently await each reader’s critiques and corrections. As you watch the Olympic Games, do not forget to leave some time for your old friend Stories – you might find a different sort of spectacle!

The Stories website offers The Spiral Shave for free online; it doesn’t have a very original plot, but the editor wasn’t kidding about the shocking ending.

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