Thursday, February 15, 2007

Viewpoints Sought

My decision on Feb. 12 to repost a friend’s blog entry has raised some interesting points, as well as a few hackles. But it also has raised my curiosity, so I’m going to take a chance by bringing the conversation up here again.

First and foremost, for the official record let me start by saying that I'm truly sorry that anyone was offended by the post in question, because clearly some people were. I try to be very careful about what I say and do as editor of IGMS, and mocking people would be wrong. 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. Anyone who writes a story - good or bad - puts their heart and soul into it, and I know and respect that. And it's imprtant that you know that about me.

The thing that I don't understand – and this is where I’ll happily open the floor to anyone who has a reasonable comment on this subject - is HOW 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 the 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. If you can write a serous, poignant story from the POV of an elephant, that’s an even more impressive accomplishment. But it's still a funny concept.

And that, in my opinon, is the cux of the matter. Publicly laughing at concepts vs. publicly laughing at people. The latter is wrong and I don't think anyone would agrue in favor of it. But what about the former? At what point do we become so afraid of everyone and everything that there's no one left but a fve year old child to point out that the emporer is, indeed, naked?

Let me just conclude by saying that I am genuinely interested to hear your opinions. Do you think that public statements of this kind crosses a line, or do you see it as a humorous and potentially helpful insight into the editorial process (which is largely what I’m seeking to present with this blog).

There are no right or wrong answers; I just want to know what you think. Anyone who has thoughts on this is invited to sound off, and you’re welcome to do so anonymously if you feel more comfortable that way. The only thing I’ll require is that you keep it civil, and that you keep it about the issue, not any individual’s stance on that issue. (And no, if you have a story submitted here, a negative response is not going to count against you -- any more than a positive one is going to help get you published.)


Anonymous said...

Heh. I've already gotten my rejection, so I don't have to worry about that, anyway. ;)

Seriously, though, I think people are just way too sensitive to pretty much everything these days. It's like they go out of their way to be offended. Given some of the rejections I've gotten, what was on the blog was nothing. If you're offended by that, you're going to have to grow several more layers of skin before you start submitting too many places. Not all the editors are as nice as Mr. Schubert here.

And for the record, I enjoyed the post. It's good to know editors have a sense of humor.

-- Jeff P.

Anonymous said...

My attempts at Sci-Fi are laughable, therefore IMS isn’t one of my target markets. Your blog (the previous entry, specifically) was brought to the attention of a writing group I belong to by a member who does target IMS, which is how I ended up here.

Personally, I found the entry both informative and offensive. As an aspiring contributor to other publications, I know that editorial insight is rare, and therefore invaluable. So, honestly, you’re doing your disconcerting potential contributors a great service by writing this blog and making known your opinions and preferences . . . so long as it’s done with some professionalism. After all, this isn’t your personal blog. Not when the blog, at least in part, represents a professional publication.

What offended me about the entry in question was, in part, the tone in which it was written. Perhaps it wasn’t intended to be mocking, but the whole of the piece felt that way to me. Mocking and arrogant—and actually that’s something I can understand. Something I can even sympathize with, because I’ve participated in similar situations, and my fellow writers and I have had ourselves a good laugh at the expense of other people’s stories (always in private, however. Never publicly). It’s not pretty, but its human nature—especially after you’ve read a dozen or so stories that make you think gouging out your eyes wouldn’t be such a bad thing. So the mocking tone alone would have made me grin and nod along with understanding.

It was the specifics that nailed the offense for me. The Elephant POV, for example. The present tense story which received the generosity of one read line before it was tossed aside amid laughter. The eye-rolling at the apostrophes in character names.

On the upside, this specific information is very informative. Were I to ever submit a story to IMS, I would be sure it was a story written in the past tense, that none of my character names included apostrophes or sounded the least bit Celtic, and that my viewpoint was written from the vantage of a human (or, in the case of sci-fi, perhaps a humanoid). I’d also refrain from sending you a clone story, considering you’re apparently overwhelmed with them at this point.

On the downside, potential contributors read this blog. It doesn’t matter that titles weren’t shared, and names weren’t mentioned. I promise you that the contributors who recognized their work exampled in that entry feel ridiculed. I promise you they didn’t feel any warmth or hear any fun in your laughter. They might not admit it, ‘cause as writers subject to chronic rejection, we know we have to have thick skins, but inside, those folks feel like they just got sucker punched.

Maybe the correct response to that is, “yeah? What of it?” Rejection is something we all face, so we’d best embrace it. That’s true enough. And public ridicule is something we all hope to be fortunate enough to receive—because if you start making a name for yourself at all, it’s inevitable. You know you’re well on your way if the critics start circling and snapping. It’s the dream, man. It’s what we’re all striving for.

Thing is, though, the public ridicule isn’t supposed to happen until after you’ve had the benefit of having your work published. That way, when the critic proclaims to the public, “the author’s use of present tense made me want to gouge my eyes out,” the public can then read the story in question and draw their own opinions. Which is why, I guess, they say any publicity is good publicity.

None of the stories containing your specifics have that benefit. True, none of us know who wrote those stories . . .except, of course, the authors themselves. They know. And I’m betting while all of them steeled themselves for a rejection, and while all of them hoped for a line or two of constructive criticism within that rejection, none of them were prepared to pop in here and see their unpublished stories laughed at in public.

Makes me glad I suck so badly at writing Sci-fi. Because, frankly, if I had identified my story in that entry, I’d be pretty steamed after I recovered from the initial blow. I’d be canceling my subscription and blabbing to anyone who would listen about those unprofessional folks who edit ISM.

Sincerely, it was specifics that nailed it for me. Had the entry simply been a generalized snark about the overall experience of a slush party, I would have enjoyed (and empathized) with the read, zero offense taken.

My advice? Laugh all you want at specifics in private, where you don’t run the risk of looking unprofessional or crushing anyone’s spirit. If you want to criticize published works publicly, have at it—at least then the author has earned the privilege and the story has the opportunity to defend itself. I also think the place to post vast general preferences would be right in IMS submission guidelines. For example, “No present tense,” would be extremely beneficial to both you and your contributors. If they know right up front without having to dig through your blog that you’re going to toss a present tense story after only a glance at the first line, I’m betting the bulk of them won’t send you any. Saves everyone the trouble.

Thanks for hearing me out.

Brian said...

I really liked that last post.

It was a blast. I'm on staff at the little semiprozine Leading Edge in Utah, and I completely understand what you mean (Except my editor doesn't fill a room with beer and pizza. Phooey). A lot of good stuff comes across our table, and a lot of bad stuff does as well. Being able to laugh about things makes reading through hundreds of stories so much easier. And honestly, writers should learn to suck it up. Anyone who wants to make it in the genre fiction world should be ready for a lot of critisism far worse than anything inadvertantly offensive posted the other day. Most publications don't give any indication of why they rejected a piece. Someone who gets a hint (ie, clones), should really be thankful because it gives them some idea of what was wrong with their writing. The mind of an editor is a good thing to get into.

I got a rejection on Sunday night for one of my stories submitted to IGMS. I can only assume that it was ousted in the readathon you referred to. Oh well. I just moved on and submitted something else.

Kenneth Garr said...

A previous commenter questions whether people, in general are just getting too sensitive to everything and the concept that they're going out of their way to be offended. On the contrary, I believe that if anything, the internet, with its promise of instant gratification, has desensitized us to old-fashioned good manners. With real-time access to an audience of many, it's easy to throw a thought or two out there on whim, with little (if any) consideration to repercussions including professionalism or simply appropriate conduct. Perhaps what people are taking offense to is just that matter of inconsideration -- that any thought is fit for a public venue no matter

Many consider blogs to be diaries, a collection of personal thoughts and therefore a venue that should be free from judgment and accountability of those reading. We couch things in the knowledge that "this is my diary and I can say what I will". But once upon a time a diary was something to be kept under lock and key, hidden from prying eyes beneath a pillow. Many diarists would have been mortified to have their thoughts on public view.

Though maybe an overgeneralization, I doubt many bloggers would just as quickly offer up their opinions in a face-to-face venue where people have names and faces and nuances of expression that can clue the speaker in to an individual's feelings and personality. The internet, although I am a huge proponent of it for business and for leisure, has made us faceless masses, all the easier to dismiss.

On the other aspect of this argument -- and since this question was originally directed to me in a previous string of comments -- I'd like to address the question of what, exactly, was offensive in the instigating blog entry, because perhaps these arguments go hand in hand.

Mr. Schubert finds nothing offensive in Ms. Harris's post, and perhaps there is truth in this, in that perhaps no offense was intended. The truth is that Mr. Schubert knows Ms. Harris personally. Accordingly, he can ascribe her sense of humor to the words she wrote. He can, perhaps, imagine her tone of voice, a laugh here or raised eyebrows there, cues that would let a person -- face to face -- know that no harm is intended. To those of us reading, we have only the written cues.

In reading (and re-reading upon being asked the question previously mentioned), it's hard for me to understand how someone could not see the intent to mock in Ms. Harris's post. I could pick the items out piece by piece, but often it's a matter of a well-placed "Huh?" over a particular instance, or charged words such as "snicker" or "giggle". Realistically, when you hear that someone "snickered" at something, what connotation does that have? There's laughter at a story being discarded simply for being written in present tense, certain turns of phrase or dialogue such as "Really, let it go and move on." These words carry certain charges that most people are, at least on some level, sensitive to, and that changes a potentially "factual statement" into something less factual.

Several have suggested that those offended should develop a thicker skin, or that writers (and perhaps the general reading public) should just suck it up, but I wonder at that. It seems to me that people are misconstruing what is being said, and I'm finding myself surprised because it seems like people are hearing only what they wish to hear and not what is actually being said here.

No matter what your business, constructive criticism is a wonderful tool. As far as I've been able to tell, nobody has disputed this. From what I've gleaned in the reading of this series of threads, is that what's in question is not the ability (or lack thereof) of anyone to take criticism, nor is it the particular judgment passed on any given piece of work but rather the fact that judgment was passed in public on what potentially was, to these authors, a private matter, and a matter of respect.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

I've seen plenty of authors at SF conventions talking about their experience helping with this slush pile or that. I even went to a book signing at my local Borders once where a literary agent from NY told everyone present that her office kept a box full of the worst MS they ever received and sometimes when they had had a tough day they pulled that box out and read from it to entertain themselves. She even told us the plots from one of those MS. I'm not saying it's okay to disrespect people because other agents and editors are doing it, too. That would be lame. My point is that in all the times I've seen this kind of thing come up - in public settings, one and all - I've never seen or heard anyone express the first iota of a thought that this was unacceptable to them. They all gathered around to learn what they could and laugh in the process. That's why, although I now understand and appreciate the concerns being raised, I never suspected such a reaction might occur.

BTW, did anyone notice the part of the blog entry that said, "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."" Or the part where she said, "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."

Has it not occurred to anyone that a perfectly good story can have a sentence or two that sound funny when taken out of context? There was one story that was passed on to the next round that had a line that read, "My grandmother's voice came from between my breasts." In the context of the story, the main character was wearing some sort of communication device on her necklace, so it made sense. But out of context it is a funny line. We read it as such, laughed, and moved on. And speaking of laughing, for the record, when they laughed about me putting a story in the 'no' box because it was written in the present tense, they were laughing AT ME.

This whole thing seems to have turned out to be one of those situations that has to be explained, and, like jokes, situations that have to be explained are never funny. :-( Please take my word for it that there was never any malice intended.

Juliette Wade said...

This is certainly an interesting discussion. My own feelings when I read the original post were that I was pleased not to recognize myself among the comments. On the other hand, I NEVER drew the conclusion that the story that was rejected with the comment "It was in present tense" was actually rejected because it was in present tense. It seemed to me even at the time that the story was rejected because the reader didn't enjoy it, and when they put it in the reject pile they commented, humorously, "it was in present tense."

If I were an editor myself, I can't imagine how I could possibly get through the process of reading so many stories without a generous dash of humor. If I ever wrote a clone story, I would hope it could be so utterly brilliant that IGMS would publish it even after seeing the first ten clone stories in the pile.

As far as the extreme sensitivity issue, well, I don't really agree that everyone is oversensitive. On the one hand, we're all sensitive about the stories that we write, because we care whether they get published, or we wouldn't be submitting them. On the other hand, when we submit stories, we are officially submitting them to the judgment of members of the public, because though editors are few, they are still members of that group. Once it is out of my hands and in someone else's, my story has to speak for itself, and I can neither apologize for it nor defend it if it cannot keep its feet.

Part of what I've learned in my writing and submitting life (six years of it so far) is that everyone has something to say about a story, and that almost no form of criticism or feedback can ever be taken at face value, without consideration for context. A genre reader will have entirely different comments from a non-genre reader, and a reader familiar with the fantasy world I have created will have very different comments from anyone who does not. The editor considering my work for publication is the ultimate stranger (even if I do happen to read his blog), and if I get comments, I have to re-analyze them before I then try to figure out what I want to take back to the process of rewriting. When people say things that hurt my feelings, I ask what it was that they touched on, that felt so close to me that I would be hurt. Analysis for me is the key to returning to my manuscript for revisions that will make it better, yet not detract from my own vision of what I'm trying to achieve. The stranger's viewpoint is the only one that truly tells me what my story can mean without me there to explain it, and thus it is often more valuable to me than the opinion of ten friends, hurt feelings or not.


Anonymous said...

“My point is that in all the times I've seen this kind of thing come up - in public settings, one and all - I've never seen or heard anyone express the first iota of a thought that this was unacceptable to them. They all gathered around to learn what they could and laugh in the process. That's why, although I now understand and appreciate the concerns being raised, I never suspected such a reaction might occur.”—Edmund Schubert

It’s me again. The same putz who wrote the second in this list of comments. I get what you’re saying here. Really, I do. And in the public situations you’re referring to (conventions, seminars, workshops . . .the Borders book signing), I agree with your logic. In most cases, these are instructional venues. People come to soak up wisdom and to learn from the mistakes of others. Laughable things get laughed it. It’s all good.

This, too, can be considered an instructional venue. But the difference between those public venues listed above and this blog is the audience. Let’s consider your Borders example (although it applies to conventions and the like as well). Chances that the author of the plot the literary agent exampled was among the audience members are miniscule. I’m also quite certain that if the literary agent knew the author of the plot was in the audience, she wouldn’t have exampled that story. Even if the agent was exceptionally calloused, intentionally kicking the handicapped in his hopeful face is just bad form.

The audience of this blog is filled with hopeful faces, Mr. Schubert, and that’s the difference. A good portion of your blog’s readership consists of people who have submitted stories to your publication. They check in not only to gain wisdom, but sometimes hoping to catch a crumb of information about the stat of their story. How far along is the process? Did my story make it to the next round? The examples detailed from your recent reading party—the writers of those stories were in your audience. And that’s why, while the information gleaned from examples shared isn’t any less valuable, it’s not as funny. You’re not physically in the room with them, so you don’t hear them not laughing.

Imagine that you and a bunch of your colleagues attended a writing conference at which an editor you respected used your work as a public example of poor form. How would you feel? What would happen to your respect for the editor? Whether you laughed along with the crowd or not, would you really think it was funny?

Like I said before, I think this blog in which you share your insight is an excellent thing, and an invaluable tool for your potential contributors—for all aspiring authors, actually. I’ve read back through a fair amount of your previous entries, and already I’ve learned a few things, so I plan to read on a regular basis. I think you should keep on keeping on. I just feel in the case of the blog entry you borrowed (which I realize was never intended for this readership) that you should have given a bit more consideration to who makes up your audience.

As for the rest of your comment, I really don’t know what to say, except to agree a joke that has to be explained isn’t funny, and that I appreciate your obvious concern.


Edmund R. Schubert said...

For the record, that sentence about "S'djme and the riders Fl'bbn'ron" is made up to make the point; she didn't quote anybody. But this is a good perspective for me to have on how much to reveal (or not reveal) in the future.

And because a few folks have asked me about this now, I’ll say that there is nothing wrong with using apostrophes in names, the problem comes when writers overdo it. What's the difference between doing it and overdoing it? That's subjective like so many other things. And as for writing in the present tense, it's like writing in second person. It is so unusual that it draws attention to itself and writing that draws attention to itself distracts from the story. Can it be used effectively as a literary device. Sure. But it's SO hard to do that most writers would be better off not trying it. Look through any magazine or anthology you can lay your hands on and see if you can find even one story that uses it. I doubt you will.

My thanks to everyone who has commented on this matter. Whether I wrote the words in the blog entry in question or just borrowed them from someone else, ultimately it was my decision to copy them here and so it must be my responsibility to deal with the consequences – good or bad. If you were amused and enlightened, good. If you were offended, I’m genuinely sorry. And if you’ve ever written a story from the POV of an elephant, please, don’t stop taking chances with your writing. Even if it doesn’t always work out, you’re more likely to produce something truly exceptional by taking a risk than by playing it safe.

Anonymous said...

Just adding some thoughts...

> Publicly laughing at concepts vs. publicly laughing at people. The latter is wrong and I don't think anyone would agrue in favor of it.

Ms Harris' blog post explicitly attacked the people writing the stories, not the stories themselves. Expressions such as "really bad writers", "this person", "writers get carried away", and "they think anything with an apostrophe and a vaguly [sic] sounding Celtic name is going to get them through", clearly refer to writers rather than stories.

> The thing that I don't understand – and this is where I’ll happily open the floor to anyone who has a reasonable comment on this subject - is HOW 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.

Given an atmosphere of jeering and ridicule, almost any factual statement may be construed as mocking. ('You've got a funny walk!' 'You've got a spot on your nose!' 'You're really ugly!')

As for whether such posts are helpful -- no, I don't think so. If IGMS prefers not to receive, say, submissions written in the present tense or referencing Celtic languages and cultures, updating the guidelines would be far more sensible.


Edmund R. Schubert said...

To clarify -

1) There is nothing intrinsically wrong with stories written in the present tense; I just see very few of them that I think are well done. I'm not going to say "don't do it" in the guidelines, because if someone does it well I'll happily buy it. I'm just not holding my breath.

2) Same for referencing Celtic languages - I just bought one that does so. But there's a big difference though between using it effectively, and thinking that "anything with an apostrophe and a vaguely sounding Celtic name" is going to do the job. It's important to understand the difference.

Julie Wright said...

I am taking Ed's side here. The reason being is this: He didn't say they were terrible stories. They obviously made it to this second round so they had merit. This fact was pointed out several times in the blog.

I believe him pointing out reasons for rejection are helpful. I use apostrophe's in one of my novels, not to make it celtic, but because I liked the names that way. The point wasn't, "never use apostrophe's!" The point was if you're going to use them, at least make them pronounceable. If you're going to use exotic language, be smart and make it something that is still humanly relatable. I wish more authors read their manuscripts and stories through out loud before they submitted them. If they had to stutter over their own sentences, they may understand the purpose of revision.

The point of this post is that humans are reading your work. Make it something that pertains to them in some human sort of way. Because even if you get a work accepted by an editor, your readership still consists of humans who have to make sense of the language you use, and want to relate to the characters found within the story.

Cat Rambo said...

As the writer of the piece in question (unless there's a herd of them out there*), I've got to say I don't mind having the story talked about and I also think it's a premise worth laughing at. When being critted, one critiquer told me "When I realized it was from an elephant's pov, I couldn't read any farther," which was a bit daunting, but I like the characters and the time period, and there's a lot of fun stuff going on in it, including one point that gets me choked up, at least, so I kept on working with it.

When I send a story off, I generally detach from it and wish it well and move onto the next. They're stories, not little bits of my psyche strewn about (at least I hope), and I'm just delighted to have people reading them. And look! this one has scored an awesome market that was on my list of places I'd like to see a piece of mine appear in! Huzzah!

*yes, yes, I like puns.

Louise Herring-Jones said...

It's rather daunting to see well-meaning authors or their ideas discussed in a public forum without their advance permission in spite of some of those authors' later acceptance of what occurred here. Not having had the same level of success with my own work as Cat Rambo has earned and still having a good bit of my psyche attached to some of my stories, the potential of having this done with one of my unpublished works makes me wary of submitting to IGMS. At least one other online magazine who suggested doing just this (I believe it was AlienSkin) asks for and apparently receives the author's permission before discussing their work online. IMHO, that is the more appropriate avenue to travel before placing what is assumed to be a private review in a public, even if well-intentioned, blog.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

To say that the subject of submissions will never come up again would be dishonest; that is, after all, what a lot of people come to this blog to read about. Bbut when it does come up, rest assured that the tone and delivery will be quite different. Made up sentences will be clearly identified as such, as will the observation of trends (which are just that - trends, not judgements).

But in the end, Louise, everyone has to make their own decisions...