Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Too Good?

A question to more experienced writers...

Over the last X years I've experienced the black hole which (I think) is between good beginner/intermediate work and serious writing. You can improve the quality, depth and breadth of your short-stories until they become too good to pick up the previously-regular prizes and publications but you're either not-good-enough or not "in" enough to break into the seriously big places.

You start out a wannabee and sub, sub, sub, then begin to hit. Flushed with success you get a higher ratio of hits and in better outlets. You win a lot of prizes.

Then, suddenly, it dries up.

But you KNOW that this story blows away that winner, and that. You're experienced. You edit, judge, critique, teach. Frankly you can now "churn out" the kinds of stories you had to work hard to create (and then won prizes)...

One obvious answer (wrong, but obvious) is that you, as a writer have "disappeared up yer own arse". You fancy yourself, you've forgotten what story-telling is.

EXCEPT THAT YOU STILL DO PRODUCE PUBLICATIONS AND PRIZE-WINNERS It's just that they are casual, "throw-away" flashes or "games" or fun-stories. Easy stories which gratify very quickly and are soon forgotten.

MANY MOONS AGO I always entered three stories in every competition. In Boot Camp we grade stories and give a mark based on craft, the plot etc. I used to predict the following.

The top scorer (the "best" story) would place NOWHERE.

The intermediate story would make the longlist/shortlist/final.

The LIGHTEST, most trivial story would win a prize.

That must have happened for 75% of the competitions I entered.

One possible explanation is this. READERS for comps.

What level of writing and critiquing skill will most competition readers have? If they are "Joe Public" do they seek to choose absolute quality or "an easy read"? The bigger the comp and the larger the entry the more the problem (if it is a problem) is enlarged. Readers have to read fast and often and QUICKLY choose YES-NO... Do they therefore not have the time to savour the more subtle stories or stories that challenge?

Have YOU Blog-Reader sent more than one story in to a comp and found your makeweight winning while your classy pieces disappear without trace?

Second thought is this, especially where readers are beginning/intermediate writers. I bel;ieve that beg/Int WRITERS will choose writing which is close to what they believe they could write on a very good writing day, downhill with the wind behind them. That is they RELATE to this level of writing. It's currently SLIGHTLY beyond them (but not by much) and so they feel good about the work, identify-with/relate-to it.

But send them a serious work, a slightly heavier work or a very talented work that in the next writing year they could not DREAM of writing, what then? My belief is it scares them or makes them angry, or "pisses them off" or "makes them uncomfortable". The quick and easy solution is to reject.

I know in my own reading, when I was developing as a writer, I "rejected" the great writers as boring and pompous, and over-rated. I began to read stuff that was good general fiction (but not literary) because that felt "classy" but achievable.

That is, what I felt I liked and admired was what I could REALISTICALLY aspire to write. I believe now, looking back, that I rejected truly great work because it made me feel desperately inadequate. No way would i write like that (ever) so what better than to reject it out of hand?

I seriously worry that the UK market for short-stories is not a market for readers of shorts but a market for beginning amd intermediate writers. I read many of the magazines and though stories are often competent it is a very rare story indeed that stays with me for as long as an hour.

They are bland, safe, easy to read, quick to absorb.

I believe that if we modernised a Chekhov story or posted a Ray Carver story, or Alice Munro, or Saul Bellow, or William Trevor, or any one of twenty-thirty recognised top names THEY WOULD BOMB IN UK COMPETITONS.

If Boot Camp is having a flash session (usual max time 75 minutes but often shorter) and I join in, bang out a really fast story, sometimes using all the prompts as a challenge... if I remove typos but don't edit, if I send out that rough, there's a very good chance it will win something or place somewhere.

But if I WORK it. If I write, draft, build, sculpt. if I produce something that's ten times more satisfying, then it will take years to place.

And don't think it's lack of editorial skills. On countless occasions I've pointed out flaws in stories (in Boot Camp, in Seventh Quark submissions, in my work editing for payment and do on). I know what I'm doing.

I'll return to this, but would love to hear YOUR thoughts.



Zen said...

Hey up Alex and everyone else at BC.

Seems to me that the UK Literary short story scene is a writers not readers scene.

It's only writers who know or care about the comps, mags and ezines.

It's very unlikely you're going to be talking to someone who isn't a writer and hear...

"Yeah I read this great short story in a mag/on the web/that won this comp."

It's unlikely you'll even hear that from writers. The interest for most begins and ends with the writer's own story.

So with writers only caring about outlets for their own stories, it would seem most comp judges (writers themselves)will be unlikely to care for any story or writer they feel is beyond their own ability.

So I agree with what you're saying about comps and judges but think it's part of a problem with the uk short story scene. A scene in such bad health that it regularly gets pronounced dead.


Vanessa G said...

I think perspective is important here.

It is true that it is mainly writers who follow the major competitions. But agents and publishers are also interested and I’m sure that those writers in BC who have placed or come close in Fish and Bridport can confirm that.

Many solid writers have had valuable affirmation from these comps at an early stage in their careers, and acknowledge them in their bios. It is undeniable that they can open doors. And those doors almost always (seems to me) include the word ‘novel’ on the nameplate.

Coming close or placing is great; there is a cheque attached. But I do think the comps must not be seen as an end in themselves. They are one small step up a tough, unpredictable and often ‘unscientific’ mountainside.

The market is what it is. We just have to get over the fact that it - like life - unfair, and carry on.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Allt that, to me is irrelevant (and I'm not only talking about competitions, anyway). The question to hand is whether the best stories get published or win prizes.

I think they do NOT.


Vanessa G said...

'Good, better, best'. It is all subjective.

How many of us can really 'see' our own work for what it is? I know I still have to learn to do that.

I recognise that all writers must get to a point where, as you say - you know that everything you write is OK or more than OK. You have developed your own internal feedback loop.

But that ain't good enough.

How do you know without external feedback whether your work is better than the average piece appearing in Paris Review, Granta, Ploughshares, TNY?

You don't.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Good, better, best is NOT subjective.

Occassionally good/better might be marginal and have a degree of subjectivity but it's dumb to pretend quality is subjective. If that's the case then all criticism is pointless, so are editors and judges.

But you keep moving away from the basic point.

I wasn't talking about New Yorker or Ploughshares or Paris Review, I was talking about Bridport, Fish, Wells, Cadenza, and the like. I was talking about the UK market which is for writers not readers as Zen pointed out.

As for "do we know what is right and good?" OF COURSE we do. You wrote a story in Boot Camp and I told you what it was worth and SPECIFICALLY which comp it would win. It duly won that competition.

Second I "know" because I can routinely win a percentage of competitions, BUT ONLY IF I SEND IN MY SECOND TIER WORK, typically "flashes" and exercises.

I "know" because I predict what will happen to which stories, mine or those by others.

One of the most commonplace comments when a BCer wins a comp is something on the lines of, "I sent in 2/3 and this one was far weaker."

That has been my experience and the experience of DOZENS of writers I know. I've seen comp winners and shaken my head in disbelief especially when I know what didn't make the final listings.

I have seen fine writers say things like, "A womag plot with one or two good sentences will usually win." Another, an ex-BCer has stated that the winning story is an instant-gratification story. His best stories (his definition and I admire his judgement) remain unpublished.


Vanessa G said...

I do take your point... and I think when you are talking about the lower end, it is easy, sure, to say that a well written, solid but unchallenging piece might do well. Or 'will' do well, as you predicted.

Most strong writers simply do not enter these things. So send in the relative 'big guns' and they sweep the board... but in what?

Is it as easy when you are talking Cadenza? There were some very strong pieces submitted in the previous comp, from some very good writers, and I was grateful for the analytical grid in separating my responses right through the reading'judging process.

I don't know Wells. Is it well thought of?

Fish and Bridport are harder, aren't they? Both market on both sides of the pond. It can't be a coincidence that they both chose American writers as judges this year. Which means that they are getting many hundreds of entries from the MFA programmes as the prizes are far greater than most US comps.

But I digress again.

You have been placed in Bridport. Would you say that your own stories were 'womag with a coupla decent sentences'?

I'm not sure of the first one... was it The Card? Hardly womag. Deceptively simple, if I remember. Strong, strong thematically.

The second I know well. Again... hardly womag. Strong voice, great characterisation, punchy thematic stuff. So if you were getting placed with decent work, is it not possible that others are too?

Or are you saying that standards have fallen in the last few years? You may be right. (grins) I would need evidence.