Author Topic: What I've learned  (Read 17044 times)

ajames

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on: March 01, 2007, 11:32:08 PM
A few people [including myself] have commented upon how much they've learned through reading the stories and comments during this contest.  So I thought I'd jot down a *few* of the things I have learned, and a few things that  perhaps I already knew, but that were reinforced through this contest.

So, some things I have learned~

[1] When writing and proofreading your story, always ask yourself if you've done all you can to show, rather than tell, the story.
[2] There is acidic soil, and there is acid soil.
[3] No matter how good your idea is, or how compelling your story, or how beautiful your prose, your idea/story/prose will always seem better if you carefully proofread your story.
[4] Steam power might have saved the Roman Empire, if discovered early enough.
[5] The greater the logical gaps in a story, the harder it is to keep the reader "in" the story, but...
[6] ...the better the writing and the story, the less I care about the logical gaps.
[7] A great definition of sentimentality [manipulation of feeling] and discussion of sentimentality.
[8] Many authors of mysterious writings prefer to keep their writings, well, mysterious.
[9] For flash fiction, it is often better to try to write the story from a different angle than simply try to cut out *a lot* of information.
[10] The Escapepod community rocks!  [I hope that wasn't a Fo'shizzle]

So there's a few of the things I have learned.  If others want to comment upon or add anything to this list, I'd love to see it. 



Heradel

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Reply #1 on: March 01, 2007, 11:56:35 PM
[11] A fair number of people seem to have a human-on-robot/robot-on-human fetish.
[12] The singularity is nigh and cartoon-y. Or forced upon you.
[13] Nazis are devious time-travelling bastards.
[14] Spend more time with the characters rather than the techno-shiny-bits.
[15] In word-limited flash, it's better to tell the story than have florid language.

I Twitter. I also occasionally blog on the Escape Pod blog, which if you're here you shouldn't have much trouble finding.


Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #2 on: March 02, 2007, 12:08:45 AM
lessee.

I made a few of my students do this, and we critted them in class. (We critted one of mine, too; several of them thought it was confusing, which is interesting since no one here did that I noticed. Possibly they just aren't up on their SF reader conventions.)

It was interesting, because my students recreated a lot of the errors in the contest. We had one story which was about a man committing suicide after his brother dies, which specifically avoided naming the instrument he was committing suicide with (a bottle of bleach) even though much of the story was about it. Consequently, we all had to read it a couple times to work out what was going on, and even then, the characters were unclear. (It was a strikingly written piece; he's working on a longer version.)

Another story was all narrative without a character; a third had taken a concept and expanded upon it without ever naming what it was, in such a way that the class came up with 5 or 6 different interpretations, none of which matched all of the text.

We also brain-stormed a shorter piece together as a class, and it turned out to be... wait for it... a shaggy dog story. :)

So, concealing information seems to be a major pitfall. I don't see students doing it quite the same way in longer work. I wonder what it is about the 300 worders that's making it appealing to avoid naming central conceits, especially when you end up using more words describing around the bleach bottle (for instance) than it would take to name it?



hautdesert

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Reply #3 on: March 02, 2007, 12:37:23 AM


So, concealing information seems to be a major pitfall. I don't see students doing it quite the same way in longer work. I wonder what it is about the 300 worders that's making it appealing to avoid naming central conceits, especially when you end up using more words describing around the bleach bottle (for instance) than it would take to name it?

My guess.  And I am making this up as I type.

My theory is that working at such a small scale really reveals problems with structure.  Now, finding the right sentence to end a longer story with is a problem in itself--far, far harder to find the right ending sentence to something that's only 300 words long.  You want an ending to have a certain...impact, a certain sense of closure.  And so you get... the punchline ending.

Now, similarly, you want, in a story, some suspense, something to keep you guessing and moving forward.  But at such a small scale....it's a problem.  And one thing I've noticed critting places like OWW and critters, it's the tendency for writers to conceal things that don't need to be concealed, for a sort of false suspense.  It's really, really common--and nine times out of ten, you don't need to conceal anything, just trust the story to be itself.  At a small scale, the temptation is even more overwhelming, and also woefully more glaring. It doesn't seem the same as in longer work because it takes up more space inside the very tight constraints of the story, and becomes the actual attempt at structure instead of just a cosmetic attempt to inject suspense.

This is my theory.  I may change it in an hour or two.



hautdesert

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Reply #4 on: March 02, 2007, 12:40:15 AM

[15] In word-limited flash, it's better to tell the story than have florid language.

[15a]  But if you can do both, then by all means do.

(edited to add--in cases where "florid language" = "pretty writing" and not "unreadably dense and purple")



Swamp

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Reply #5 on: March 02, 2007, 12:45:45 AM
Here are some of my learnin's ;) with regards to writing, critiquing, and forums in general:

[16] Avoid the shaggy dog and/or puns (though puns in titles are typically OK if done well IMO)
[17] Do not blatantly conceal information from your reader for dratatic effect; or if concealing, use a POV character who would not be privy to the information.
[18] The Turkey City Lexicon is a great resource in avoiding common sf&f pitfalls.
[19] Heavy-handed politics never works well for a story, regardless of its leanings.  Not that characters shouldn't have political views, but when the writing itself is political it doesn't serve the story IMO.
[20] When posting to a forum, do not simply type and send.  Think about how your post will be perceived by others.  Try to be clear in your message and the intent of your comments.  Single words can misinterpreted or convey an unintended meaning by those who read it.
[21] When posting to a forum, do not assume the gender of the forum members.  Again, don't post hastily; think before you hit the "send" button.
[22] When critiquing, have a consistant voice or criteria that you look for.  Don't simply comment on the story based on your gut reaction at the time.  Think about the story and its merits.  Compare it to your preferences, things you've learned, and past critiques.  This is not to say to have a checklist or a formula for critiquing, but just to be consistant.
[23] When critiquing, give constructive reasons for your like/dislike.  Saying "This was great. I liked it." or "This just didn't work for me" doesn't help the writer improve.  This one is hard.  I know I have been guilty of this.  Sometimes it's hard to respond in depth, especially with 12 stories a day, but I know I have benefitted most from thoughtful constructive comments and critiques.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2007, 12:52:29 AM by kmmrlatham »

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GoodDamon

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Reply #6 on: March 02, 2007, 03:53:59 AM
[24]GoodDamon (usually) agrees with palimpsest.
[25]palimpsest (usually) agrees with GoodDamon.

 ;D

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #7 on: March 02, 2007, 08:49:43 AM
Quote
My theory is that working at such a small scale really reveals problems with structure.

I think you're right. The concealed information in "Memorial" was definitely evidenc eof a structural problem -- there needed to be a full scene with the confrontation, but I didn't want to do it because I didn't have space, so instead I cut and concealed, and it made the story much more awkward.

Quote
[24]GoodDamon (usually) agrees with palimpsest.
[25]palimpsest (usually) agrees with GoodDamon.

Awww   :D

I didn't do the numbery thing. I'll do the numbery thing.

[26] Much of what one learns in Creative Writing classes is non-intuitive. It's been sixish years for me since I began doing academic workshops, so I forget that it doesn't all slide effortlessly into receptive brains, like some kind of literature-from-air osmosis.
[27] Standards of polite criticism vary sharply in different communities.
[28] 1950s archetypes of gender, setting, relationships, etc. are a powerful default for our society, and difficult to move away from even after one is aware they're there.
[29] When editors talk about a weird slush zeitgeist - like how Ed Schubert says there were lots of clone stories in his last slush pile, or when (I think it was Gordon?) says he once received two stories about sentient garbage piles in one week - this is a real phenomenon.
[30] (related to 28, and stolen from haut) All those lists from editors of things to avoid, because really, no, they see them in the slush all the time, they promise, please please just don't, are based on things that show up with some regularity, even though one wouldn't know it from reading the magazines (where they're screened out, in large part).
[31] (also stolen from haut) Research matters! Even on silly little details you think you got right.
[32] Anonymous critiques are fascinating... I began trying to react rather than critique, until it became clear this was an author-centered event (somewhere around group 12 for me; I was slow). I was much harder on "Those Girls Nowadays" than I would have been if I'd known it was Maria, because -- granted, based on very little data -- I like Maria and understand she's still in process, so I would probably have tried to spare her feelings rather than make a blunt critique. In contrast, there are probably stories I would have given more vigorous critique if I'd known who their authors were, because I know their authors are interested in polishing. It's hard to tell which stories were in formulation and needed to be treated as works in progress, which stories could be critiqued the way I'd critique anything that gets handed to me, which stories the author is looking at as done and just wants to shut off feedback for... and those are all perfectly natural stages of writing, I think. Anonymity prevents one from getting that feedback from the author, with mixed results, I think.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2007, 08:51:39 AM by palimpsest »



Maria

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Reply #8 on: March 02, 2007, 05:49:56 PM
Quote
I was much harder on "Those Girls Nowadays" than I would have been if I'd known it was Maria, because -- granted, based on very little data -- I like Maria and understand she's still in process, so I would probably have tried to spare her feelings rather than make a blunt critique. In contrast, there are probably stories I would have given more vigorous critique if I'd known who their authors were, because I know their authors are interested in polishing. It's hard to tell which stories were in formulation and needed to be treated as works in progress, which stories could be critiqued the way I'd critique anything that gets handed to me, which stories the author is looking at as done and just wants to shut off feedback for... and those are all perfectly natural stages of writing, I think. Anonymity prevents one from getting that feedback from the author, with mixed results, I think.

Hey, Palimpsest, don't worry about my feelings.  :) I've participated in workshops before, and I've never taken the feedback personally or negatively.  But I do take it seriously, as suggestions for how to improve a story and feedback explaining why or why not a story works can be valuable writing tools.  I haven't done a lot of flash fiction writing, and I thought it would be interesting to try writing in a totally different style and voice. And what I submitted, I did consider to be a complete story at the time. I didn't realize that the stories would be getting critiqued, which has turned out to be a great bonus.  Although I didn't agree with all the comments on "These Girls Nowadays," I did find them interesting and thought-provoking. I'd much rather have blunt feedback than none at all.

« Last Edit: March 02, 2007, 06:42:40 PM by Maria »



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #9 on: March 02, 2007, 07:40:38 PM
Quote
I've participated in workshops before, and I've never taken the feedback personally or negatively.


Oh, good. :)



GoodDamon

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Reply #10 on: March 02, 2007, 10:38:31 PM
I've participated in workshops before, and I've never taken the feedback personally or negatively.

Then you are a saint. It's very hard not to take harsh critiques personally. I went into my first one knowing what it would be like, and it still stung.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


Maria

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Reply #11 on: March 02, 2007, 11:14:49 PM
I've participated in workshops before, and I've never taken the feedback personally or negatively.

Then you are a saint. It's very hard not to take harsh critiques personally. I went into my first one knowing what it would be like, and it still stung.

Well, I'm definitely not a saint, and I wasn't trying to make myself out to be one.  :-[ Some critiques are annoying and frustrating, but I don't see a negative critique as a judgment against me and I don't let it get in the way of doing what I love and enjoy. I think most people I've workshopped with have been sincere in their critiques, and those who had been dismissive or ridiculed someone's story/writing without offering anything constructive, well, that's their problem.

However, if I write a story and most people think it sucks, I know it means I need to fix it or move on and focus on making the next story better. It probably doesn't mean I suck.  ;) 



ClintMemo

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Reply #12 on: March 03, 2007, 11:10:27 PM
[33] People's tastes have changed a lot in the last twenty years.
[34] The people on the internet and in sci-fi/fantasy have gotten more diverse in the last twenty years.

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


Roney

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Reply #13 on: March 04, 2007, 02:49:01 PM
[24]GoodDamon (usually) agrees with palimpsest.
[25]palimpsest (usually) agrees with GoodDamon.

I have learned:

[35] to listen to everything that palimpsest and GoodDamon say.
[36] that I have so much still to learn.
[37] that Escape Pod listeners are great people.  Constructive, encouraging, engaging, endlessly fascinating...



Roney

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Reply #14 on: March 04, 2007, 03:07:36 PM
[37] that a lot of authors are able to control very diverse styles.  All my own stories (over the years: I only had one in this contest) sound much like my own.  But I've been surprised to see who's 'fessed up to what.



ajames

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Reply #15 on: March 06, 2007, 10:54:45 AM
[38]  The try/fail cycle.

I ran across this the other day in the 'Them Girls Nowadays' comments [Maria, I enjoyed all three of your stories very much!]  Thanks  for the comments on the cycle, Gooddamon.  Made me realize what was missing in the last revision of a short piece I'm working on [and made me think of 'To Build A Fire' by Jack London, too.  Now there's a short story that has stuck with me over the years!]



GoodDamon

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Reply #16 on: March 06, 2007, 11:35:54 PM
Don't take the try/fail cycle as gospel, please! It's best when it's just one of many tools in the toolbox. Think of it as a reminder to make things difficult for your protagonist, not as a mold into which all stories must fit.

Oh, and don't listen to everything palimpsest and I say, either. Take what works, leave what doesn't, and always remember: It's your story, not mine.  :)

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


ajames

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Reply #17 on: March 08, 2007, 11:50:05 AM
Don't take the try/fail cycle as gospel, please! It's best when it's just one of many tools in the toolbox. Think of it as a reminder to make things difficult for your protagonist, not as a mold into which all stories must fit.

Oh, and don't listen to everything palimpsest and I say, either. Take what works, leave what doesn't, and always remember: It's your story, not mine.  :)

Now that's great advice.

I really have enjoyed reading about different perspectives and tools on writing fiction.  But to take any framework and apply it rigidly to all stories would be stultifying, indeed.



Roney

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Reply #18 on: March 08, 2007, 11:13:27 PM
I really have enjoyed reading about different perspectives and tools on writing fiction.  But to take any framework and apply it rigidly to all stories would be stultifying, indeed.

Ooh, that could lead me to a rant about the curious style that emerges from some creative writing courses and other writing groups (not SF ones, in my experience) where the author's individual style is smoothed away until there's nothing left but a lowest-common-denominator literariness that is very polished but totally unlovable.

[walks away from the keyboard]
[breathes /]
[/walks away from the keyboard]

But let's not go there.



Jane

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Reply #19 on: March 10, 2007, 01:07:21 AM
<quote>Ooh, that could lead me to a rant about the curious style that emerges from some creative writing courses and other writing groups (not SF ones, in my experience) where the author's individual style is smoothed away until there's nothing left but a lowest-common-denominator literariness that is very polished but totally unlovable.</quote>

There was a great discussion on this very topic going on a few months ago over at the Interzone forum. Sadly, the forum is down for renovation at the moment, but the blog (re)post that started it all is here. The basic gist is, it's better to fail spectacularly than succeed blandly. Good advice.



Roney

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Reply #20 on: March 10, 2007, 01:33:04 AM
I said I wasn't going to rant about it, but I've never before walked away from a forum where nobody was listening to a word I say...

I believe that it's fed by the second-favourite everyone-can-agree-on-it winner tendency in prizes (large and small, in whatever field).  You can have the smartest, bestest, originalest work in the competition but amongst the judges you'll have one champion and the others won't get it.  The other judges will have theirs, similar.  And what they'll argue themselves down to is the one entry that nobody can seriously disagree with.  So the winner ends up being everybody's second choice, and the next year anybody with half an eye on that prize is bearing in mind the second-choice prose that won the previous trrophy.

I leave out of this meta-analysis the Whitbread that was given to The Amber Spyglass, which is clearly magnificent.  (Although, like the Oscars for The Return of the King, partially recompense for the overlooking of the previous instalments.)



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #21 on: March 10, 2007, 02:08:27 AM
I don't really believe that the flattening style thing happens. I hear it complained about a lot, and I'm at the Iowa Writers Workshop which is sort of the poster boy for the complaint, and I don't see a flattening of style here. I mean, yes, there's a favored style -- lots of people would love to be Raymond Carver -- but the ones striving for that wanted to be Raymond Carver when they were accepted to the program.



floatingtide

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Reply #22 on: March 10, 2007, 06:09:20 AM
I believe that it's fed by the second-favourite everyone-can-agree-on-it winner tendency in prizes (large and small, in whatever field).  You can have the smartest, bestest, originalest work in the competition but amongst the judges you'll have one champion and the others won't get it. 

I half-agree.

I do think that most competitions do drift toward the universal second-favorite. I think it's a matter of accessibility, but I also think accessibiity has little to do with bestest or worstessness.

I've noticed that people are strongly drawn to works that are accessible to them and difficult for others. They feel more unique and personal to the do people who understand them. This is why niche markets and niche contest exist. This is why bookstores need 10,000 books, not 100. This is a good thing.

Now, inaccessibility can (though doesn't necessarily) go hand-in-hand with being smartest and originalest. However, the flip side is that writing accessibly involves at least as much talent and skill as anything else in writing -- and for every possible audience "accessible" means something different, requiring separate skills.

Personally, I'm working to have the power of accessibility. I don't think I'm as good at it as I could/should be and I don't intend to use it in everything I write, but I want the tools. After that, I can try to get the right story to the right audience -- the audience that feels it's just difficult enough and will be willing to champion it.     

I think few authors have decide they're going to write what they consider base, uninteresting dross and then rake in the money and fame with the product. It just feels like it when what -I- consider coolest (such as my own perfect-baby of a story) is shoved aside for Mr. Boring-Easy.