Saturday, January 13, 2007

READING STORIES

Reading for Best American Fantasy has been very interesting. Unlike reading a slushpile, there is a basic level of competence but sometimes not much more than that. After reading continuously for several days and weeks now, a few negative trends emerge.

Wrapping up!
I think this trend is definitely due to the influence of television, in particular the end shot after the main storyline has been resolved. Like, all the cops back at the station and a conversation like "Boy, that was scary." Yeah, glad I had my flashlight." Laughs all around. Cut to commercial. A crippling number of stories in print seem to end with this kind of inane resolution after the climax, trivializing the seriousness (sometimes) of what went before.

Inability to construct a solid paragraph
I have to say I found this in genre magazines more than in the literary magazines. At the paragraph level, there's a whole lot of nothing going on in a lot of published stories. Instead of recognizing that sentences and paragraphs can do triple or quadruple duty, the writers are using them merely to advance the story. But you can encode paragraphs with a lot more information about character, setting, and subtext without actually making them longer. But a lot of writers are apparently looking ahead to the next event rather than understanding that the events occur on a word, sentence, and paragraph level as well as at the level of action or conflict. If your sentences or paragraphs are dead, in a sense your story is, too. I'm not just talking about emotional life, but intellectual life as well. In most short stories, you should be able to pull out individual paragraphs and parse some deeper meaning or take a pleasure out of them that is both relevant to the larger story and also exists independent of the larger story.

Ridiculous dialogue
One particular magazine featured ridiculous, unbelievable dialogue in story after story, issue after issue. Basically, if anyone--from the writer to the editor who took these stories--had read even a page or two of these stories aloud, they might have realized that the dialogue had invalidated the protagonists' credibility to the point of invalidating the remaining worth of the story. The dialogue I've read is particularly heinous in secondary world fantasy, which is exactly where it needs to be the strongest, to support the necessary suspension of disbelief. I think the problem is the same problem you see in much historical fiction: a kind of subconscious belief that everyone needs to talk like they're in a Shakespeare play, or with a kind of false and ensanguinating bravado. At base, if your character talks like an idiot then he or she is an idiot, no matter what their actions. There are times when you want to use this as a counterbalance or counterweight to some effect you are trying to achieve, but only writers really skilled with dialogue can pull this off.

Inability to flesh out an idea or concept
At the level of concept or idea, far too many published stories seem very proud of having been able to come up with a semi-unique fantastical idea. Period. A kind of brimming with self-congratulatory ardor. "Look at this cool, shiny thing I thought up!" And the story ends with the "look at my originality" when that is often the starting point of a story and all else has been preamble. Nascent is not adult. It is as child is to parent. Often, this coincides with a flattening of characterization, in that the fruition of the idea lies in the fleshing out of the characters as well. I also think this failure is tied to ego.

Anyway, we have found lots of wonderful material, but I have found it interesting how many published stories display the flaws set out above. Perhaps more depressingly, there have been whole issues of publications which feel like dead weight, where the stories are inert and lifeless. Going through the motions. Writing from a plot spine and just draping papermache over the skeleton and hoping no one will notice the creature isn't alive. When there is nothing personal or at stake for the writer in the story, there often is nothing personal or at stake for the reader. But this is not just the responsibility of the writer. It's the responsibility of the editor. The fact is, there are few enough stories in any year that really needed to be published, needed to be read, and will survive in the public imagination for more than a few hours or months.

And, yet, as I mention, we have found loads of good stuff, too.

Jeff

16 Comments:

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Gursky said...

I feel the same way when reading some of the mags. I try not to think of it as reflective of an editor's skill, but if it's the same problem issue after issue, what other conclusions are there? Good luck with the anthology.

 
At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to read and review a lot of genre fiction for Lit Haven, and a lot of your points fleshed out here were very true, especially this one:

"Perhaps more depressingly, there have been whole issues of publications which feel like dead weight, where the stories are inert and lifeless. Going through the motions. Writing from a plot spine and just draping papermache over the skeleton and hoping no one will notice the creature isn't alive."

I was amazed at how many stories fell into this category. One thing I did notice was that their highest concentration seeemed to be in the mid-level markets paying 3-5 cents a word and the more prestigious small press mags, the ones who were likely getting a lot of trunk stories from "pros." I think the internet has made the genre scene a little too close-knit for its own good. If I'm to submit to a genre magazine, there's a very good chance that I've bumped into the editor either at a con, a workshop, or somewhere online. Everyone knows everybody else. It might make it hard for an editor to approach a story with complete objectivity.

 
At 9:37 PM, Blogger David Moles said...

The word "ensanguinating" needs to be aired more often.

 
At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Inability to flesh out an idea or concept"

That's kind of what separates the pros from the novices, don't you think? I've known some otherwise fantastic writers who've remained unable to do this, for whatever reason. For me, outlining the idea dramatically enhances my ability to sustain things over a longer work -- having some sort of idea of where I'm going instead of simply free-writing until I feel a certain literarily satisfying closure (which can come way too soon).

(Nothing against free association or stream-of-consciousness, of course. Those are valuable toolbox items that shouldn't be tossed away. Just stating something that often works for me.)

 
At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, so I have ask, in your criticism "Inability to construct a solid paragraph," are you discussing clarity of language or prose construction? Is this a word choice issue? Is this akin to character development through dialog (i.e. show the character by how they speak, not info dump disguised as dialog)? Or is it something else? As a new writer I really want to understand this part to make my writing stronger.

 
At 7:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, it's not really what separates the pros from the novices, apparently. Not from my reading. Honestly, except for a need to fill issues, I can't imagine why some of these stories ever got published.

I'll address the paragraph thing when I have more time.

JeffV

 
At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the lack of efficiency at the paragraph level extends to the macro level as well, or at least I've remarked on it as being the norm in SF. There doesn't seem to be any focus on telling stories efficiently. I cut the most succinct and germane portions from my Amazon review of Crache where I discussed this in some detail:

--my impression of a typical SF novel's elements. This schema, which covers most of the recent field, is built-up from three largely independent parts. There is an event driven plot, character development beyond what the plot would require, and world building. As the form is mostly practised now, readers follow the broken spoor of the plot through vast tracts of encyclopedia like exposition (or at best a Tour Guide's spiel) and they also have to hack through much superfluous/redundant and sometimes-counterproductive elaboration of characters. In some sub-genres of SF, the elements that are normally subordinate to the story telling have experienced a fetishistic growth to ludicrous proportions similar to what we've seen with monster trucks, where a few parts have grown beyond any reasonable sense of beauty or function.

 
At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ummm. I am not sure that a good piece of writing needs to follow any formula as far as physique goes. I would rather read a weird lopsided story personally. I would also rather read a story that was “not professional”, because fiction shouldn’t be professional. It is a product yes, but a good piece of fiction, or any sort of art for that matter, does not look like a product. There is no recipe. It either does something for you or it doesn’t and this, I am convinced, has less to do with plot, structure, grammatical acrobatics and fresh ideas than it does with a certain spiritual residence that a good piece of writing contains.

Brendan

 
At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

resonance that is

 
At 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the same about much of the short fiction I read too. Maybe for half-way decent writers it's too easy to get published now and they don't put the work in to maximise the potential of every piece they submit.

And maybe, as you suggest, it's also a case of sticking a shiny idea on a stick of plot, like a top heavy lollipop because the real skill in genre fiction is not the idea itself, but the extrapolation.

And I'm with David on "ensanguinating". I've been rolling it around my mouth like a big fruity gobstopper and I imagine it'll last me all afternoon.

 
At 6:19 PM, Blogger JeffV said...

I think I should make it clear that "under-developed" doesn't mean, necessarily, anything to do with plot. Short stories, unlike novels, often have very little in terms of overt plot--some of the best short stories ever written seem to have very little going on whatsoever. It's more about underdevelopment at a paragraph level and not drawing out the implications of character motivation.

JeffV

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger JeffV said...

AND, we found TONS of great stuff. Just not in some of the places you might expect.

JeffV

 
At 5:58 AM, Anonymous Jamie said...

Great article, Jeff.

More and more, I see the loss of basic storytelling skills in short fiction I wonder if it isn't a symptom of the heavy influence of rhetoric in modern creative writing.

 
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At 11:52 AM, Blogger برامج said...

yes Gursky i agree with this i don't know why but the same here
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