Saturday, February 25, 2012

Good Ambiguity: An Example

One of the authors whose story did not make the final round of judging gave me permission to quote a line from it that I greatly admired. 

His story opened with a family barbeque. The main character is an adult woman probably in her late 20's or early 30's. The opening paragraph ends like so:

While the [family members ate and drank], I tried not to think about sleeping with my sister's husband.

I liked that opening a lot, and I liked it even more an instant later when I recognized I wasn't sure if the narrator had already slept with her sister's husband, or was just imagining doing it. 

Now in my opinion, one of the problems with this story was how quickly that question got answered. The next sentence settled the matter, and I'd have preferred to see the tension stretched out a bit longer. The point is, though, that here we have an author who is being ambiguous in a way that helps a story, instead of hurts it. Usually it's a serious problem when we read a sentence and we're not clear on what it means. Writing is all about communication, right? 

Yes, and in communication, what is not said can be even more powerful than what is said. The above line says quite a bit, and teases us even more with what it holds back. That's compelling writing. If the rest of the story had impressed us as much as that line did, it would have made the final round of judging. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Rewrite Your Beginning Before Submitting

I've started editing the stories for issue #16 and I'm struck, once again, at how the bulk of the editing suggestions apply to a story's first few paragraphs. That's not always the case, but it's a safe bet, even for the stories that win a prize. In stories that don't win a prize, the beginnings generally have even more problems.

When you first draft a story, you're still making basic decisions about where it's going and what's going to happen in it. As a result, when you first draft the beginning, you know less about your story than you will at any other point in the writing process. But the beginning is the most critical part of any story you're hoping to sell, so why are you writing it when you're the most ignorant about your story?

I once said in a newsletter that you should write your story's beginning last, but that's hard to do. Even I have trouble with that rule, and it's my rule! So here's what I do instead: 

Once I've re-written a story enough times to be satisfied with it, and I'm pretty sure I could submit it as is, I put it away for a day or so. Then I go back and read the story starting from a few paragraphs in. In other words, I skip the beginning but read to the end. When I'm done, I understand much better what my story is really about, both plot-wise and thematically.

Armed with that knowledge, I read the beginning, and I usually cringe. Because now I see an image, or a word choice, or a phrasing issue, that fit the story I had in mind three drafts ago, but no longer fits the story I'm planning to submit.

Sometimes I just edit the beginning, but I've also had good luck deleting the first few paragraphs and starting from scratch, right then and there, because now I know what fits and what doesn't, and I also know the absolute minimum that has to happen to set up the rest of the story. More importantly, now I can finally get the tone right, and I know what details to put in to set up what's going to happen next. When nothing that is not vital to the story's plot, character, mood, or theme appears in the beginning anymore, I submit the story.

Three of the last six stories I used this technique on were accepted by the first place I sent them. Try it!

Friday, February 17, 2012

We Have Winners!

Something happened in this contest that's never happened before on OTP. We've always said we'd publish first, second, and third place, and then up to three honorable mentions. Well, this time, we had a unique scoring situation we'd never run into before. That prompted us to make two decisions.

1. We are going to publish four honorable mentions, for a total of seven prizewinning stories.

2. We're adjusting our scoring system so we don't find ourselves in this position again. We want to stick to the "up to three honorable mentions" rule.

We were going to list the stories by name and author, but my co-publisher reminded me sometimes authors want to use a pseudonym, and we've had people decide that at the last minute. I guess that means we need a third decision:

3. Starting with contest #17, we're going to ask authors to be sure to give us their pseudonym up front, in the cover letter, when they submit their entries. That way we can list the winners on our blog as soon as we know who they are.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A New Kind of Runner-Up

Today, we just want to tell you two things.

First, we sent out our newsletter this morning. If you don't subscribe, you can read it here.

Second, we're going to adopt a tactic seen in some other fiction contests. As you know, we always send ten stories to the prize judges. Only five or six get published, and you folks never get to learn anything about the stories that almost made it.

Unless authors object, we're going to announce the names of those runners-up, too. I think we've reached a point where even the stories we turn down at the last moment are better than many stories I read on other on-line magazines, so I say those authors ought to get some recognition. Plus, this way authors can prove their stories made "finalist" status in our contests, and that might help them sell their stories somewhere else. (Or maybe not, but it can't hurt.)

If your story made the final round of judging but didn't get published, would you want us to congratulate you publicly for coming so close?

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Bad Kind of Ambiguity

A problem I run into all the time with both my own writing and other people's is that some text can be read more than one way, and sometimes the various ways have different meanings. This kind of ambiguous writing can be easy to spot, as in the following example:

Susan told Kelly she didn't know where her shoes were.

You can see the problem. Whose shoes are we talking about, Susan's or Kelly's? On top of that, who is the first "she" referring to? You could mean:

Susan told Kelly that Kelly didn't know where Susan's shoes were. 

(As some strange kind of insult, I assume. "You're so dumb, you don't know where my shoes are!")

Most writers can spot these kinds of mistakes and fix them almost as soon as they're written. But here's a subtler one I ran across on Slate, a news/opinion site:

We disparage things we don't approve of as phony.

Here's the article I saw it in if you're interested.

I can tell the author's trying to say that if we disapprove of something, we call it phony. But can you see the other way to read it? Try this:

"If we don't approve of the level of phoniness in something, we disparage it."

I know the author doesn't mean us to read the sentence that way. But you'd be surprised how many times I run into contest entries that contain a sentence that could be read more than one way. When that happens, I can guarantee you the author doesn't want anyone reading the sentence the other way.

I can also guarantee that if you have enough readers, some small percentage of them will read it the wrong way.

Here's how I'd revise the Slate sentence: 

If we disapprove of something, we disparage it as phony.

So, when you're writing, read over your material once in a while and try to deliberately misunderstand it. If you find you've written something that's easy to draw unintended conclusions about, consider rewriting it to make your intention clearer.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

I Can Take My Own Medicine

We've handed the 10 finalists for Contest #16 to the prize judges. By next weekend, we ought to know which stories have been accepted.

Coincidentally, after three rejection slips of my own, I got an acceptance letter, too. 

What that means is, there's a good chance that while we're editing the winning stories from Contest #16, my own work will be undergoing editing from the people at Cliffhanger Books, who will be publishing a short story anthology I'll have a story in. Since one of this blog's areas of focus is editing, I've got a chance to show behind-the-scenes secrets of editors from two perspectives. Assuming the authors permit, we'll be giving you glimpses of how and why we edit our winning stories, and I'll also be sharing some of the edits the Cliffhangers people make to my fiction. 
None of these features are likely to start for at least a week, of course, so until then we'll be doing what we've done so far: highlighting prose I especially admire from great short story writers, and occasionally questioning the decisions of editors who let something pass that I would have wanted a bit more thought put into.

So for now, I'll leave you with an excerpt from an author who writes in a way I've never been able to. This prose comes from Silver Water by Amy Bloom. It's used to describe a family counselor whom the narrator admires. 

Three hundred pounds of Texas chili, cornbread and Lone Star beer, finished off with big black cowboy boots and a little string tie around the area of his neck.

Bloom describes the character in a way that gives you a perfect idea of what kind of person the counselor probably is, yet the description is nearly 100% metaphorical, or at least greatly exaggerated. (Surely he's wearing more than boots and a string tie.) Talk about "evoking" as opposed to just "showing" or "telling"! Before I read that line, I had never considered attempting to describe a character based solely on his or her diet. I'm not sure it would work for many characters or in many stories, but it works in this one.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rejections Are No Fun For Anyone

So today I had to perform the worst job that comes along with running a magazine. I just sent 227 rejection notices.

The much better part comes next, when I tell 10 people their entries made the final round of judging. I'll be doing that later today. 

I've received plenty of rejections myself, and being a person who sends them doesn't change the disappointment I feel when someone tells me what I wrote isn't useful to them. The difference is, I really believe that's all a rejection is telling me: This story doesn't suit a magazine's tastes. 

I've read intriguing debates about the best way to write a rejection notice. There is no consensus, but the majority opinion seemed to be to keep it short, simple, and direct, while never saying anything about the author. That's why ours say "your entry" didn't make the final cut, and encourage people to keep reading and writing.

Still, I know that someone out there probably sent us the first story they've ever written, and they just got a rejection notice, and their inflated hopes just got hammered flat. That's not fun for anybody, but it comes with being a writer and with being an editor/publisher. I don't see how that will ever change, so we just have to thicken our skins a bit and get used to it without ever becoming obnoxious jerks in the process.