Monday, February 12, 2007

Story Reading & Borrowed Blogs

The following comes from the blog of a writer/editor friend of mine (she is, among other things, assistant editor for NCCNM, aka "that darn busniness magazine"). Her name is Dena Harris (http://blogsbydenaharris.squarespace.com/), and I recruited her to help me knock the IGMS submission pile down to a more manageable size. She is much a funnier writer than I'll ever be, which is but one of many reasons why I hate her. Every word she wrote about yesterday's adventures is true, except fr the sentence about "S'djme" which is made up to make a point.


A Writerly Afternoon by Dena Harris

I spent Sunday afternoon feeling very literary. A friend of mine who is the editor for an online Science Fiction/Fantasy magazine invited 6 writer friends to join him for an afternoon of reading and evaluating short story submissions to the magazine. (He's relatively new to the position and the magazine has a backlog of submissions--some writers have been waiting for over a year to hear a "yes" or "no" on whether their story has been accepted.) So he filled a room with pizza, beer, wine, lemonade, and dessert and we plopped ourselves around a table and read for 5 hours.

It was challenging as this was not slush-pile reading. (Slush pile reading is the first go through of the huge pile of collected manuscripts. It's called such because it's easy the first go around to eliminate a bunch of crap--or slush--based on little more than reading the first page, first paragraph, or for the really bad writers, the first sentence.) The stories we read yesterday had already made it through an assistant editor's hands so all of them had merit. The challenge was to separate the very good from just the good.

For the first hour or so the room was quite as we worked through the manuscripts, marking an "X" across ones we didn't feel measured up and assigning a value of 1-10 for the ones we thought should make it to the next round. After a while though, patterns started to emerge, and we couldn't help but giggle.

"Oh my God, this is my third clone story," exclaimed one reader (Mark Rainey, who edited the horror magazine DeathRealms for 10 years). "What's with all the clones?"

"This person just spent 3 paragraphs describing the color purple," said another. "Really, let it go and move on."

More silence. Someone made a funny noise and we all looked up. The reader looked at us. "This one is written from the point-of-view of an elephant," she said. We all agreed that should be an automatic go-through. (Kidding.)

Then there were the sentences we read aloud to amuse each other. A hazard of Sci-Fi or Fantasy writing is writers get carried away with unpronounceable character names and places. Inserting an apostrophe in place of vowels in a name is one favorite trick, such as "S'djme." As a writer in our group said, "They think anything with an apostrophe and a vaguly sounding Celtic name is going to get them thr0ugh." So there would be sentences that read, "S'djme rode the Vrturn, descendents of the noble Miturian Roskslors toward Ti-quothis, clutching the Namr'iste Alqutian in his fist." Huh?

My friend the editor grabbed a fresh story from the box, read a sentence and tossed it in the discard pile. "It was written in present tense," he explained and we all laughed.

I had a hard time with it. Out of the 12 or so stories I read yesterday, there were maybe 3-4 that were a clear "no" for me. I liked all the others and had a difficult time choosing. It came down to who had the best package. One story I liked quite a lot had a weak opening and horrible ending--but the middle was quite intriguing so I considered saving it. But in the end it would take so much editing to get it to work it probably wasn't worth the time. A lot of us felt like one woman in the group who placed a manuscript in the "no" box with a sigh and the comment, "I so wanted it to be good."

At the same time, out of all the stories I read, there was only 1 for me that stood out as an absolute, "YES! This one must go in!"

Even though there wasn't much talking during the day, it was fun to just be around writers and their energy for the afternoon. I need to do more of that. I've become a bit bored lately with writing and have been thinking I need to attend some conferences or workshops or just reinvolve myself with writers communities to stir up some energy.

Meanwhile, kudos to the writers who made it to the next round and for those who didn't, take heart. We still really liked your stories.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I must confess I was relieved to see no comments in Ms. Harris' description that recognizably described my rejected story! Yet I have joined the barrage again so hope springs eternal. :-) It's so hard for a writer to sit at home and wait nearly a year knowing nothing about what's going on "on the other side of the wall." So thanks for the peeks - this blog is definitely both entertaining and illuminating!

Juliette

Jim C. Hines said...

Oh, shoot. I was just getting ready to send you my present tense tale about a purple elephant and his clones...

Seriously, thanks for the encouraging comments on my story! I'll be sending you another shortly, just as soon as I double-check the names for extra apostrohpes!

Dena said...

Why else do you hate me? (Aside from my startlingly good looks, I mean.)

CharlesP said...

A) Dena I've met Ed... startling good looks could be the bulk of your problem :D

B) Sorry Ed, as I intend to send in some stories once you get caught up with the backlog I probably should avoid making smart-alec comments in your direction... hmmm.

C) when in February is "Coming in February" Ed? I finally finished all the stories from issue #3 and I'm ready for more. I've taken to cutting and pasting them into the "Notes" section of Outlook and reading them from the leash...err... I mean Blackberry when meetings run late.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Funnier than I am and startling good looks aren't sufficient, Dena? (Work with me here.)

Charles, The goal is Feb. 19th, which is getting imminently closer. Just waiting on some artwork one last story from a certain author...

Kenneth Garr said...

Mr. Edmund Schubert says: I even fail to understand how people can be offended by her saying so in public (which is a point that, though I don’t agree with, is one of the more reasonable points to be made so far).

Talking about it in public is no different from complaining in public about stupid things that happen in the office. Do you go onto people’s blogs and get offended when they point out foolish things that go on in their office? Are you one of those people who is offended by Dilbert cartoons? How is what Dena did any different from that? That’s really the heart of my point. If someone has a serious answer to that, I would be happy to hear it (on MY blog), because I’m genuinely interested to know.


--

I would like to respond to this comment made on the blog of Ms. Dena Harris. My intent is not to flame, but simply to respond, because I believe that there is a difference. Respectfully, I am bringing the discussion here as requested by Mr. Schubert.

A published cartoonist, as a published novelist or short story writer has put themselves out there for potential public commentary, whether high praise or ridicule. Bad behavior in an office is perhaps a less clear-cut scenario, because those being commented on are more easily identified. Still, those who behave in embarrassing or downright stupid ways in public are also, in their own way, opening themselves up to public commentary. Does that make it right to comment in your blog? More on that later.

Writers sending subs to a particular magazine are in a somewhat different category, because the subs they're sending are private. They're intended for the eyes of an editor (or yes, granted, those the editor chooses to entrust to assist him/her in the reading). Once a sub has been purchased by said magazine, published, and put out there for all to see, it is fair game for public praise, trashing, or ridicule.

But ridiculing submissions that are being read for potential publication is more akin to a human resources department ridiculing interviewees. Of course it goes on behind closed doors. Most people understand and accept this. However, to put it out there in a public venue changes things immensely. Were I to read a Human Resources Manager's blog ridiculing interviewees, it would certainly reflect on my feelings toward the company. It would also, without a doubt, make me think twice about interviewing at said company. Even if the details were changed. It's more a matter of decorum.

Much of it goes to intent. Different would be if the HR Manager were to list things not to do in an interview. Miss Harris's blog was, to my eyes, intended to be funny. Many people found it quite the opposite, as did I -- and for the record, I am neither writer nor editor but rather an avid reader of science fiction. From the reading of her blog, it appeared that Ms. Harris had the intention not of being helpful nor simply of relating this tale of an afternoon spent, but of mocking those whose work she had been enlisted to help read.

Although several commenting parties obviously responded in over-the-top ways, there were also valid points made in the comments to Ms. Harris's blog. Yes, many of the posts were obvious flames, but I also read others that rather expressed concern with the content and spirit of the blog. Perhaps I didn't read as closely as I should have, but I didn't read anyone saying they were offended by the possibility of rejection, nor by the idea that editors might have some fun and release while attending to the task of selecting submissions. What I read was frustration from people who objected to public ridicule.

Blogs are interesting beasts. In essence, they are diaries made public, but isn't there a certain responsibility that comes with that? Perhaps not for the everyday Joe or Jane, but for the editor of a prominent publication I would suggest that there should be some measure of self-imposed responsibility to uphold the good name of their organization and to keep in good taste. Ms. Harris's blog and Mr. Schubert's subsequent posting of her words on his own blog -- and perhaps more the reposting than anything -- were perhaps not using the best of judgment.

Do these things go on behind closed doors? Certainly, as well perhaps they should. Should they be put on display in a public venue for anyone to see? Ultimately, that is up to the author of the blog. Do they have the right to put it out there? I suppose they do.

So perhaps the question should be more about good judgment and professionalism, and though perhaps that is indeed a gray area, I myself am also in the camp that considered it unprofessional and in poor taste.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Kenneth,

I greatly appreciate your comments and the obvious care and thought you put into them. A sincere thank you.

For the record, I agree with 99% of what you said. Unequivocally.

The thing that I still don't understand is HOW someone saying that there were a lot of clone stories could be construed as mocking. How the factual statement that there was a story written from the point of view of an elephant is mocking. Yes, we laughed at the concept. It's a funny concept. But does it say anywhere in her blog that we rejected it because of that? No. If you can write a great story from the POV of an elephant, God bless you. It's still a funny concept.

For the record, I'm truly sorry that people were offended by this. That was not anyone's intention - mine or Dena's. I try to be very careful about what I say and do as editor of IGMS; mocking people is just wrong and would be a terrible, unjustifiable thing to do. If I thought for a minute that anyone would have taken it that way I would never have allowed it to go up in the first place.

Thank you again, Kenneth, for adding your viewpoint on this, and for doing such an exemplory job of expressing yourself in a thoughtful way. I wish I had put that much thought into my initial reply on Dena's blog. My biggest mistake there was reacting to the people who were thoughtlessly flaming someone I respected, rather than having an intelligent conversation with the people there who had legitimate concerns.

Rachel said...

Hi Ed,

I hope this question isn't taken amiss... you say you'd happily buy a story in present tense if it was well-done... in that case, was the note in the entry saying you threw one aside after a single sentence hyperbole? I have nothing against hyperbole, of course, but I'm not sure I could dazzle someone with present tense in a single sentence, should that be literal. :)

One reason I haven't yet submitted to IGMS, personally, was because you mentioned in an interview something along the lines of believing that you'd never seen a writer who wasn't ruined by an MFA. As an MFA student, I figured that was a pretty strong signal from you that you weren't interested in my writing. Though I'd note that the author of the elephant story does have an MFA, and I am a great admirer or hers, so perhaps that was hyperbole, too.

Other than the present tense thing, which just makes me curious, I found this entry very funny and accurate to my experience with slush and not-quite-slush.

I look forward to reading about elephants and wysteria in IGMS, as well as the many other wonderful stories which I'm sure you've accepted.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Rachel,

There were three stories we read that day that were written in present tense. The one mentioned in the blog was badly written in the present tense. And that, I'm finding, is the one of the biggest problem with much of what was written in the blog entry that has caused all this fuss - it's been presented out of context. And without the larger picture, it's (becoming) easier for me to see how the blog posting got blown out of proportion to the intent of the original author.

As for my comments about MFAs; well, I haven't met every MFA out there, but the ones I have crossed paths with were highly literary types who were more interested in discussing the inuendo in Chaucer's work than I'll ever be. I only find it amusing for about the first five minutes. On the other hand, some of my all-time favorite authors are F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. I'm not opposed to great literature; I just have little patience for people who are snobs about it.

I apreciate you adding your comments to this duscussion.

Rachel said...

"•This story needs a way to dramatize the conflict. We know what the conflict of the story is, because the story tells us. Now you need to show us the conflict, which is going to have to happen through events. What events might those be?"

Heh. Yes. Cheever, Carver, Alice Munro, more Carver, and then some more Carver. Did I mention Carver?

Oh, and:

Other person: I don't like science fiction.
Me: Really? What about Handmaid's Tale?
Other person: Feminist science fiction isn't really science fiction.
Me: It takes place in the future... what about Octavia Butler?
Other person: Oh, well, that's literature.
Me: ...

To be fair, that conversation happens much less with people under 30. :)

Rachel said...

"•This story needs a way to dramatize the conflict. We know what the conflict of the story is, because the story tells us. Now you need to show us the conflict, which is going to have to happen through events. What events might those be?"

AUGH... stupid clipboard, that's a splice from a crit I'm writing for a student.

I had meant to quote part of your comment:

"I haven't met every MFA out there, but the ones I have crossed paths with were highly literary types who were more interested in discussing the inuendo in Chaucer's work than I'll ever be."