Why Your Story Got Rejected

Rejection is part and parcel of being a writer, and anyone who has been in the game a while learns to grow a tough(ish) skin about it.

What makes rejection easier to bear is when an editor takes the time and trouble to explain why a story was not chosen for publication. Most editors just don’t have time to give any response other than a standard rejection slip, which leaves a writer with no information on what she or he can do to improve.

I stumbled across this handy breakdown by Christopher Boone on the reasons given for rejecting 300 scripts, and it struck me that most of the faults listed can also apply to stories.

38-reasons-script-reader-passes-profound_whatever-reddit-problems
Stupefying Stories posted a harsher, but very funny, list of reasons for rejection recently on Facebook. “Burn this manuscript. _Now_”, “Ack! Ick! Gah! Barf!” and “Gave up on pg. 14, still waiting for story to start” made me chuckle.

None of these problems apply your stories, right?

From Reality to Fantasy (Part 8): Dobereiner’s Cigar Lighter

It doesn’t get much wackier than this when it comes to mad science and 19th century ingenuity. I’ve written before about matches, but why light your cigar with primitive matches or an ember from the fireplace when you can use an elaborate chemical contraption — and hydrogen gas!

Hamburg Museum 2010-1207-217Döbereiner_fire_gadget

Basically, sulfuric acid and zinc are reacted inside to create hydrogen gas. When opening the valve, the hydrogen gas shoots out and hits a platinum sponge catalyst, causing the hydrogen stream to heat up and ignite. This can be used to light a stick of wood, a candle, a cigar, etc.

This ingenious, though perhaps very dangerous, device was invented in 1823, before widespread use of matches. According to a paper on the subject there were 20,000 of these in use in Germany and Britain alone. In 1856 you could buy one in America for $2-$4, depending on the size you wanted.

Yet I bet you hadn’t heard of it. Why did I never learn this in history class … or chemistry class? I answer myself that we were all too busy learning BORING stuff, like how to memorize dates. Or maybe they thought we’d try it for ourselves if we feasibly could. I have not been able to find any source that clearly states how much use you could get out of one fill of sulfuric acid and one block of zinc. It would have depended on the size of the device. But obviously given how popular it was, it was economical. When the valve is closed, more hydrogen gas is generated by the well-designed layout of the chambers. Check out the video above for a detailed explanation. You can also see the Wikipedia article. Also Harvard University has a specimen in their collection, which you can see on this Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments page.

Now let me restate why Victorian fantasy is my hobby horse. You can’t get this kind of sophistication in pre-industrial fantasy worlds. Magic is often substituted for technology to give more civilized infrastructure and capabilities to medieval cultures. Not to mention an appearance of modern scholarship. But, tell me, is it ever this believably complex or charming? What is really more amazing? Enchanted floating stones that bear people around, or those early Victorian elevators? Words and spell tomes that produce fire in a world where you’d otherwise have to rub sticks together, or Dobereiner’s lamp? History is just the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe I’m lacking creativity with all this research, but not everyone can be Jules Verne. In fact, Verne routinely just extrapolated on and combined real existing technologies from his day, from scuba gear and air guns to miner’s gas discharge lights. He followed the technology of his day and saw its potential. I would never have thought of a cooler or more whimsical way for a character to light a cigar on my own. I would never have thought of using a jet of hydrogen gas, catalyzed by platinum, all from a device that is simple and 100% practical.

Capital!

Keep checking this blog for more about how nonfiction can improve your fiction.

-Bradley Verdell

From Reality to Fantasy (Part 7): Hand Washing and Hygiene Before Indoor Plumbing

The idea for this post came to me during one of the Taipei Writers Group critique meetings. We were discussing a fascinating horror/fantasy novel project by Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis. One of the settings conjured up images of cathedrals and monasteries and cloisters, and that struck a light in my brain. You know what a bloody world with that kind of architecture needs: more places to wash your hands.

Ah, the days before indoor plumbing. Chamber pots, outhouses, and wash basins. Think about what hands washing would be like with two dirty hands if you had to pour water from an ewer with one of them onto the other. This is same problem that airplane bathrooms have. How can you hold the faucet with one hand and scrub your hands? It’s baffling.

Well, enter the lavabo, and the lavatory it is kept in (hence the name). While mainly a religious invention, it saw secular use as well for the practicalities of washing dirty hands. The lavabo is an architectural feature of gardens and old religious buildings in Europe, which you have probably seen and not noticed. Before copper pipes and plumbing, a simple precursor existed.

Basically you just need some kind of container or reservoir in a high place and a basin to catch the falling water. Maybe the stream you use to wash your hands had a stone drain. Maybe it just was caught in a basin and carried off when full. Maybe they were operated by a spigot, maybe they flowed automatically like a fountain, or maybe you can to manually tip the water out.

What’s cool about these lavabos to me are that, instead of the modern sink, set on some kind of vanity in front of the wall, many lavabos were built into the thickness of garden and church walls. They came in many forms. Here are some examples I was able to find.

Lavabo-19e-p1030512

081 lawaterz1

 Sala delle udienze di vittoria della rovere (oggi refettorio), lavabo lorenese

Ferme-castrale-musee 08Puisette dans son lavabo 2

I personally love the idea of a sink built into the walls like this. They could do that in old castle-like chapels because the walls were so thick, whereas modern houses rest the sink on the top of cabinetry or a vanity because our walls are too thin for all that.

What about a shower?

Writers of medieval type fantasy, and even writers focused on the 1800s like me, may have wondered how people stayed clean without a daily shower. Days of hard manual work with no air conditioning surely left their mark on people’s aroma.

I saw the answer when I very little. When I was a kid, I loved playing at my Great Aunt Margie’s farmhouse. She had all sorts of interesting old stuff there. She even had an antique washstand, whose use I could not figure out at the time.

 233-washstand

Sherlock Holmes Museum 006

Obermillstatt3Even as a kid, I figured it had something to do with hand washing. I never realized that this was how people took showers back in the day.

Ruth Goodman is probably the world’s foremost expert on the daily and family life of working class Victorians. Her latest book is a trove of information for writers. I’ve read it twice it was so good. Every page is packed with detail. She really pinpoints the practical realities of life in the past and explores them in depth.

victoriamechfinal.inddIn this excellent book, How to Be a Victorian, she writes this:

“All a person needed was a bowl, a slop pail, a flannel, some soap and a single jugful of hot water brought up from the kitchen … Victorian soap simply did not work in cold water — it neither dissolved nor lathered …”

Goodman goes on to explain the stand-up wash in great detail, of which I have excerpted just a little:

“With a single jug of water it is perfectly easy to wash and rinse the whole body. A little water is poured into the bowl and the flannel is dipped in and then wrung out. Some soap is applied and the scrubbing of the body can begin. When this first bowl of water begins to look murky it is emptied into the slop pail and freshly filled from the jug. And so it goes on until you are clean all over. Rather like scrubbing a floor, body washing could be done in sections, one bit scrubbed, rinsed and dried before moving on to the next. This allowed a person to remain mostly dressed throughout the operation … You could wash in this way without becoming severely chilled in a January bedroom, and with a great degree of modesty if you had to share accommodation (as most people did). … A loose nightgown or nightshirt could be worn throughout if necessary, while still allowing access to all parts of the body with a flannel.”

So there you go: the 19th century hygiene routine that crossed the classes. But before all that, there was another way to clean yourself, without using water at all.

Goodman also writes about the constant changing of cotton or linen underwear to take away the sweat and dirt from the body. She explains simply rubbing one’s skin with a linen towel that was dry and could be laundered thoroughly and often.

Then she writes, “A quick daily rub-down with a dry body cloth or a ‘flesh brush’ (a pad of suede leather on the back of a wooden brush) leaves the skin exfoliated, clean and comfortable. The longest I have been without washing with water is four months — and nobody noticed. … Many modern writers and historians like to revel in the opinion that people were dreadfully malodorous in the past, before modern washing with water took hold. My own experience makes me sceptical about their claims.”

I highly recommend the book for many reasons, but the first is that it has these types of descriptions. The author writes about many subjects with the complete knowledge of someone who has experimented authentically with Victorian living. As I learned as a newspaper reporter, there is no substitute for eyes on the ground, for checking things out hands-on.

Other Factors

I guess that most modern writers loathe the idea of life without hot showers, and I’m no exception, however, I hope this little glance into the washing contrivances of the past has been fun.

I could go on forever on this topic: the role of perfumes and colognes, hair oil, Roman baths, washtub bathing, the Victorian Turkish baths, how the San people of the Kalahari bathe in animal blood, and on and on.

Whatever time frame you are writing in, check into the hygiene of the time. It sounds like a boring topic, but most of what at first sounds boring about history turns out to be fascinating. Especially in fantasy, where there are monsters to dissect, poisons to handle, wounds to wash, and long wilderness journeys to be made, remember: give your characters a chance to wash up once in a while.

-Bradley Verdell

Worldbuilding: Designing a Creature

Having just finished writing the scene where this creature appears, I thought I ought to reblog it over here on the Taipei Writer’s Group blog.

JeremyTeG

Leading off from my last post about worldbuilding the little details, I thought I’d write briefly about creating creatures, which is one of my favorite aspects of worldbuilding for fantasy settings. In this post I will briefly discuss how I go about creating fantasy creatures, using this charming little guy as an example:

He's a cutie pie. what a cutie pie

That is a creature which I’ve called a “Fulminan Demon,” an extra-dimensional insectoid of moderate intelligence that can deliver a deadly electrical shock as lightning jumps between the tips of its moth-like antennae. I’ll admit that it isn’t a completely original creature, but I like it, and I think the final design in the drawing turned out well.

This particular creature–and this is fairly typical of my process–originated to fulfill a different worldbuilding need in one of my stories, and began as nothing more than a name. I wanted a character in one…

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