Sunday, January 29, 2012

Contest #16 is over!

I swear this gets harder with every contest.

Contest #16 received 237 entries, not counting resubmissions (authors replacing their own entries) and one we had to disqualify. Out of those 237, about 40 seriously impressed us, and by the time we woke up this morning, 16 stories were fighting for the 10 finalist slots. Bethany and I have debated and argued and pointed out strengths and weaknesses in those 16 stories, and we're still not down to 10.

It's a sign of our maturation as a fiction market that we are now turning down stories that, at one point in our history, would have easily made the final judging round. I'm not convinced that the best stories in contest #16 are better than the best stories we've published in previous issues. I am convinced that the 16th best story we received for this contest is heads and shoulders above the 16th best story we received for our early issues. It's probably better than the 8th best story we received for our early issues.

What that means is, we're looking at stories that we both like and we're still forced to turn them down because each contest forces us to get even pickier about stupid little mistakes and minor problems. Three years ago, I'd have said, "This story has a significant flaw, but let's put it in the top 10 and if it gets published, we'll fix the problem in editing." Now we say, "Sorry, story--you're out."

Stories that it absolutely killed me to turn down include:

...a heart-rending story in which the last 85% of the prose was as good as anything we've ever received. Too bad we thought the first ten paragraphs were not just unnecessary, but detrimental to the story, which in our minds, begins with its eleventh paragraph. Writers! Deep in your heart, you know where your story really begins. Cut everything that comes before that point, okay?

...a highly believable story about Earth's possible future, which would have enthralled us except that the main character is taking a stubborn stand against something for no reason we can figure out. Writers! If your character is doing something unusual, please give that person a reason we can relate to, okay? 

...a story that we're convinced would be a contender, except it's set in a culture we know very little about, and the story thinks we're much more familiar with that culture's basic concepts than we really are. Writers! Even the most real-world story requires worldbuilding. Are you sure your American audience will understand your culture's subtle elements?

Anyway, we're not down to 10 stories yet, so the debate will continue. I expect to have figured out our finalists by Wednesday. Sincere congratulations go out to the increasing number of writers who improve with every submission, and who make our job harder with each contest.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Negatives Used Positively

Last time, I wrote about how grammatically correct double negatives ("I don't mean to say I don't like it") are harder to follow than positive statements ("I mean to say, I like it"). Generally when I write, I try to use positive statements about what is instead of talking about what isn't

Sometimes, though, negatives can emphasize a point that positives wouldn't make as strongly. Here's a quote from one of British comic P. G. Wodehouse's later novels, the 1974 Jeeves in the Morning:

At a moment like this, with old boyhood friends meeting again [...] you might have expected a good deal of animated what-ho-ing and an immediate picking up of the threads. Of this, however, there was a marked absence.

The second sentence strikes me as a very droll, and much more clever, way of showing how awkward the meeting must have been than just talking about how awkward it was. 

This technique can work in more serious situations, too. Imagine you're writing about a character whose child ("Sally") was gone and there was no expectation of her return. (Dead? Or just gone to a distant college? Keep those two options in mind.) You could write something like:

Everywhere I looked, Sally wasn't.

Note how the "dead" versus "college" options change how hard a sentence like that can hit the reader.

My all-time favorite negative description, though, comes from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Adams is writing about spaceships appearing in the skies all over the world and the effect they had on people.

Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

I find that last bit astonishingly evocative, and I struggle to come up with a positive comparison that would work as well as the negative one does. By using the negative, Adams gets across how wrong it is for the ships to be hanging in the sky like that, and why they are boggling so many minds.

(Oh, and congratulations to reader "Dwarzel" for guessing what my favorite Hitchhiker's quote was.)

Do you have any examples of negatives used positively? Quote them in the comments--I'd love to see them.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A weird double negative

The only time nowadays that I see grammatically incorrect double negatives like "don't have none" are when writers deliberately break rules for effect. I can't remember the last time I saw anyone, published or not, write such a double negative while thinking it's grammatically okay.

So, that's not the kind of double negative I have qualms about. This next kind is. My example comes from Eating Las Vegas, 2012 ed. by John Curtas, Max Jacobson, and Al Mancini. This book talks about 50 "essential" restaurants in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that despite how this particular quote (from page 44) comes across, I'm taking it out of context. The reviewers admire this restaurant (named Bouchon).

Bouchon is a copy of a copy and has exactly the soul of one. That doesn't mean the food isn't fabulous, but it does mean...

Look at that second sentence. Why use two negatives to express something positive? Because the author, John Curtas in this case, is trying to make a point that even though this restaurant is a terrific French bistro, one aspect of it bothers him.

Had I been the editor, I'd have asked John if he really wanted to start out text that's supposed to be praising the restaurant with quite that much negativity. Also, I'd ask his opinion about whether the double negatives might make his thoughts harder to follow than they have to be.

I'd have suggested:

...and has exactly the soul of one. Yes, the food is fabulous, but... 

Some might argue that the "Yes" in that revision is unnecessary, but I think putting it in captures the feel and intent of the original better than just saying "The food is fabulous, but..."

Sometimes using negatives in this way can enhance a text, but I'll save my favorite negative-to-express-positive example of all time for the next post. Hint: it's from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Any guesses?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Creative narration in "Girls Only"

I subscribe to the magazine One Story, and I particularly liked the piece featured in issue #157: "Girls Only," by Karen Shepard. Shepard weaves a narrative spell by using a definitely non-standard point of view. The story's about a group of young women who became friends more or less because no one else wanted to become friends with them. They're kind of rotten to each other, but the story admits they don't know how else to get along. 

Anyway, this excerpt might make you think the story uses standard, everyday third-person omniscient POV:

They watched some more, all of them thinking some very unbridesmaidly things, some of them ashamed of themselves and some of them not.

But I say this story uses something else. The narration seems, too often, to come from inside the characters, or inside a character who's just like the main characters but is not one of them. Consider this:

"The playground," Anna repeated. "What was he doing there?"

"Playing?" Cleo suggested.

Sometimes Anna hated Cleo, she really did.

See? That's more attitude than you usually get from third-person omniscient. Plus, the narrator is not omniscient, as we see here:

"Where've you been?" Ticien asked, as if she already knew, and maybe she did. She was more like Cleo than any of the others.

At key points in "Girls Only," the narration can be more judgmental than the characters (which is saying something), but it can also be more sympathetic. The narrator, if it were a person, might be a better friend to these women than they are to each other, and I think that's a difficult, effective, and interesting trick to pull off. It certainly makes "Girls Only" into a kind of story it could never have been had it used a much more standard approach to point of view, at least in my opinion.

Have you read this story? Do you agree with me, or do you think something else is going on?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Editing a chess master

If you want to practice editing, go find something written for a fairly narrow audience by an expert in a field other than writing. Such publications usually don't get the degree of editing you'd expect for books or magazines that sell many more copies. 

Today's "needs editing" entry comes from what might be the best advanced chess instruction book since... well, maybe ever. So please understand I'm not giving How to Reassess Your Chess, 4th Ed. by Jeremy Silman a bad review. It's a terrific book for chess players. But I'd have edited it more tightly, especially in the areas that don't relate to chess.

In this excerpt from page 45, Silman talks about things we like that are bad for us:

The hot fudge sundae that makes your taste buds scream in bliss--it also carries about two million calories. My wife's favorite old (but classic!) MG sports car--it's fun to drive but tends to catch on fire from time to time for no reason in particular.

"scream in bliss" doesn't work for me. I think of bliss as a quieter state of mind than the word "screaming" evokes. I can see screaming "in joy" or "with delight," maybe, but not "in bliss." Still, I wonder why Silman's reaching for such exaggerated effect here. I think he's trying too hard.

On the other hand, the "two million calories" line doesn't bother me. I think that exaggeration works. 

Now look at the last line. "tends to catch on fire" implies that the car doesn't catch on fire every time, so "from time to time" is redundant. "For no reason" is also implied to me, since no reason is stated, and "in particular" strikes me as useless in this sentence. In my opinion, every word you write makes your text either stronger or weaker. So if the words aren't making your text stronger, "weaker" is the only remaining option.

Here's my suggested revision, with help from co-publisher Bethany:

The hot fudge sundae that makes your taste buds sing carries about two million calories. My wife's favorite old (but classic!) MG sports car is fun to drive, but tends to catch on fire.

Co-publisher Bethany points out "carries" might not be the best verb for the sundae. I think it's good enough that I'd rather stick with the author's original wording, even though I agree "packs" makes more sense.  On the other hand, I agreed that "scream" should be replaced with "sing." Bethany likes putting "for no reason" back in. I disagree only because in this case, I think shorter is funnier and the reader's imagination gets more involved without those three extra words.

I think our revision is less cluttered and flows better. If you've got different ideas on how to revise the original, I'd love to see them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My favorite opening sentence

I have to start the real "writing and editing" part of this blog off with the opening of one of my favorite short stories of all time. It's George Lassos Moon by David Gates, originally published in GQ magazine and then collected in the 2002 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories book.

Here's the first sentence:

Aunt Lissa's saying something very serious, and bad Carl's playing with the metal creamer thing.

My mind boggles when I think about how much of this story's world the author creates with one simple sentence. Look what we can deduce:

1) Carl's easily distracted and probably kind of dopey. We don't know how old he is but we suspect he's fairly young. 

2) The word "bad" in front of "Carl" is, to me, amazing. Who's saying that? In whose view is Carl "bad"? This is not a first person story, and the narrator isn't omniscient either (though you can't tell that from the first sentence alone). "Bad" is such a value judgment. Who's forming that value? It's either Carl, or the world. You can read that sentence both ways, and both ways, it works. (Can you tell it's not the aunt?) I think the word "bad" is what elevates this sentence into something multi-layered. Try reading the sentence aloud, once without the word "bad" and once with it. See what I mean?

3) "the metal creamer thing." Now, here the story makes an assumption that you, the reader, have been in one of those chain restaurants that has a little metal pitcher of milk or creamer on the table. Something like an IHOP or a Denny's. If you grew up in a country other than the US, you might have no idea what a "metal creamer thing" is, but even such a reader can tell Carl doesn't know what else to call it and probably, right about then, doesn't care. "Metal creamer thing" indicates lazy thinking and a lackadaisical attitude, as does the fact that he's "playing" with it. And of course, he's playing with it so he doesn't have to hear the "very serious" thing that his Aunt's saying. 

I smile every time I read this sentence.

Are there any first sentences of short stories you find especially powerful and effective? If so, go ahead and put one in the comments section. Be sure to name the story and the author, though. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two of My Favorite Books on Writing and Editing

Our first post!

What better way to start a blog dedicated to the writing and editing of fiction than to suggest two of my favorite books on the subject? If you want to improve your fiction writing technique and you aren't already getting published in the top literary magazines, then I think you could do a lot worse than to treat these two books like textbooks. 

By that I mean, don't just read them, put them away, and never think about them again. I mean re-read them like they're a manual on how to live a better life. 

The first is one I've been recommending for years: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 2nd. edition, by Renni Browne and Dave King. I haven't read every book on editing every written, but I've read quite a few and this is the one I keep coming back to. Before I studied this book, I got lots of personalized rejection letters from paying markets. After studying it, I sold five short stories to paying markets within 15 months. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what one is. It's less than $10 on Amazon as I type this. You will never get better writing advice for $10.

Want to dig even deeper, and think about fiction in a way you might never have before? Then try How Fiction Works by James Wood. Right now it's only six dollars on Amazon. This one's a tougher read because it's not a how-to manual like the other book; it's a series of thought-provoking essays and an exploration of the mechanics of fiction through example and discussion. I would say it's not for beginners, but I would still recommend it to any and all serious students of fiction writing.

Since I want this blog to be a series of dialogues, not lectures, I ask for your input: What books on fiction writing have you found most useful? And if you're familiar with the two books I've mentioned, do you agree with my recommendations?