Who Polishes the Diamond?

You see it in the submissions guidelines for almost every market–“Submit your best material,” or words to that effect.  If not stated, it’s implied, since they’ll just reject manuscripts containing too many editorial errors.

I’m speaking here of the traditional method of getting short story fiction published, dealing with editors.  However, the answer is the same even for self-published works.

Some writers chafe at the requirement to submit your best material.  “Why are they called Editors,” these writers ask, “if I’m the one doing the editing?”

Such writers think their job is to cleave the diamond shape out of rough stone, cut each facet almost flat, and then hand the gem over to the Editor who works it against the polishing wheel.  Finally the Publisher displays the brilliant, gleaming diamond in his store.

Advocates of this view say they can’t really be expected to get every little detail right.  It’s hard enough to be a writer without being an Editor too.  How is a writer supposed to be prolific and also submit perfect manuscripts?  If the writer is spending all that time with editing third, fourth, fifth drafts, she’s getting less real writing done, isn’t she?

Let’s look at the matter from the editor’s point of view.  I’ve never worked as an editor, so I’m guessing here, but all the editors reading my blog will tell me if I’m wrong.

There is some process involved in the decision to accept or reject an incoming manuscript.  I suspect editors judge stories against the following criteria at least:

1. How well does the story fit with the publisher’s needs?  Is it compatible with the magazine or anthology?

2. How original is the story idea?

3. Can this story sell in today’s market?  Is it in line with, or just ahead of, an emerging trend?

4. What is the quality of writing?  I don’t mean the minor editing issues, but instead an assessment of the writer’s talent in storytelling, choosing words well, creating compelling characters, setting a scene, advancing a plot, use of tension and suspense, etc.

5. How much editing will be required to bring this story up to the quality level needed for publication?

Only one of these criteria deals with the amount of editing to be done.  But your story could clear just over the threshold of acceptance in four categories and still be rejected.  I hear your objection already.  Yes, it’s possible your story could exceed the threshold in the first four categories by far so the editor decides to accept it even though the diamond needs considerable polishing.  Do you want to count on that for every story?  Every market?

I’m sure Editors would rather do the sort of editing that improves the manuscript’s quality, mentioned in item 4 in the list above.  Suppose, instead, she is dealing with matters of basic English–leaving out punctuation, wrong word choices such as farther/further or continuous/continual, wrong verb tense, subject-verb disagreement, overuse of the author’s ‘pet words,’ sudden point of view shifts, weak verbs, etc.  She must conclude the writer is not serious about his craft.  The decision to reject is much easier in such cases.

I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard, but my message is:  don’t make it easy for the editor to reject your stories.  As a writer, you are both the diamond cutter and the diamond polisher.  Those of you who self-publish have both roles by definition, so you must polish well.  So get polishing, writers.  Your prospective readers want to see your diamonds sparkle!  So does–

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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Change the Past in 5 Steps

Some time ago I blogged about historical fiction, but today I thought I’d discuss Alternate History fiction, or AH.  In this genre, the author supposes some historical event turned out differently and it affected all subsequent history; the story then takes place in that altered world.  Other names for this genre are Uchronia, Allohistory, and Counterfactuals.

To find out more about AH definitions and terms, go to this great site.  For lists of AH stories to read, go here, where they’re listed not only by author name, but also by the date of historical divergence.  The Uchronia.net organization also issues an annual Sideways Award for the best AH fiction.

The alternatehistory.com site distinguishes AH from other genres, such as Secret History, Future History, Time Travel, and Parallel World stories.  Many of my short stories are Secret History, where the altered event does not affect subsequent history.  I would classify my stories “Alexander’s Odyssey,” “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” “The Vessel,” “The Steam Elephant,” “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” and “Leonardo’s Lion” as Secret Histories.  More about that genre in a future blog entry.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is AH, since it features a Nineteenth Century inventor coming up with lasers and holograms, and demonstrating them on a large scale.  I chose to have the story take place at the Point of Divergence (PoD), but I could have set the story at some later time.

Would you like to write an AH story?  Here are some steps you might follow:

1.  Choose the Point of Divergence.  Select a historical event and imagine it turned out some other way.  Many people choose wars, since much is known about them and they have clear and significant influences on history.  Instead, I generally choose events associated with technological development.  I suggest you avoid the over-used events such as World War II and the American Civil War, or come up with a unique take on these.   Consider opting for a time in history you’ve studied to some extent.  It’s a good idea to select a plausible outcome for the event, or come up with an explanation that makes it plausible.  Having the Incas sail east to conquer Spain, for example, would take some explaining.

2.  List as many consequences for the new historical outcome as you can.  How would this altered event affect national boundaries, culture, language, technology? What subsequent events might happen as a result?  Start to map out a logically consistent chronology of subsequent history along the most probable and plausible lines.

3.  Figure out when and where to set your story.  It can take place around the time of the PoD or relatively long after.  For a story set long after the PoD, keep in mind no empire lasts forever, and cultures and languages always change.

4.  Write the story as you would any other, with engaging characters, vivid settings, tight plots, a conflict for your protagonist to resolve, and the aim of passing the So What? test.  The story can be a romance, steampunk, western, horror, mystery, or anything, really, but it must take place in the alternate world you’ve created.  You need to be consistent with the norms of that world.  There’s no need to show the reader the PoD, or even refer to it in the story, so long as the reader can understand it from context.

5.  Avoid the AYKB trap.  Also resist the urge to have characters speculate on how things might have been if the PoD event had turned out differently.

AH is a fun genre, with infinite possibilities and good readership.  Did this blog entry help you understand how to write an AH story?  Do you disagree with things I’ve stated here?  Leave a comment and let me know.  In the meantime, there’s a new version of the past about to be written by–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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Book Review – Supervolcano: Eruption

For some time scientists have known Yellowstone National Park is the site of a volcanic caldera, and if it suffered another major eruption, world-wide and centuries-long effects would ensue.  What a great potential disaster for an author to write about!

I just read Supervolcano: Eruption by Harry Turtledove, © 2011.  I listened to the Recorded Books version narrated by Jim Frangione.  I had previously read other books by Turtledove, namely How Few Remain, The Breath of God, and Opening Atlantis.  That author is known as the Master of Alternate History, but Supervolcano is not alternate history.

This book follows the life of California Police Lieutenant Colin Ferguson and his extended family and a few acquaintances as they deal with the consequences of the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano.  It appears from Turtledove’s website it’s supposed to be the first of an intended series.

The novel is populated with intriguing characters all of whom have depth and quirks.  It’s easy to identify with them and to care about them when bad things happen.  Most of the characters whose point of view the author alternates us through are part of Colin Ferguson’s extended family.  They become widely separated geographically which gives Turtledove a chance to show the effects of the eruption on various parts of the country.  The author has done his research, and a reader who pays attention will come away with a much better understanding of the Yellowstone volcano.  Jim Frangione provides a fine narrative voice as he reads the tale.

The book suffers from some significant deficiencies.  In any disaster novel, there must be some introduction to the characters before the catastrophic event; however, Turtledove’s book goes on for a very long time before the volcano does its thing.  I wondered if it would ever get around to blowing up.  The entire book is too long, having extended stretches with no real advancement of the plot.  Indeed, there is little real action in the entire novel.  Worse, none of the characters experience any internal change, despite the self-reflection they go through on a continual basis.

Moreover, the author takes nearly every character’s action, follows it with an adage or rhetorical question thought by that character, and then relates what they think about the adage or question.  This is fine every so often but not all the time.  This is not a quote from the book, but it could have been:  ‘He tied his shoe.  You were supposed to tie your shoes.  Everybody said so.  And he wasn’t about to argue with Everybody.  What was the point in that?  No point at all, that’s what.’   This sort of thing happens far too often in the novel.

It seems to me Supervolcano: Eruption is a great idea, poorly executed.  I can’t rate it any higher than 2 seahorses.  Fans of Harry Turtledove’s works might enjoy this departure from alternate history, but I did not.  As always, if my review has gotten you angry enough to erupt, leave a comment and spew your (metaphorical) molten lava on–

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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Book Review – Tree Soldier

A relative suggested I read Tree Soldier by J.L Oakley, ©2010, and I did so.  Usually I read books on CD, but I read the paperback version of this book.  Yes, I read the “dead tree” version, and yes, I see the irony in that, considering the book’s title.

The novel takes place in 1935 in the Pacific Northwest.  It is mainly about the character Park Hardesty, who hails from Pennsylvania, but joins the Civilian Conservation Corps, partly to escape the guilt over some events of his past.  He falls in love with a girl who lives in town near the CCC camp, but there is a rival for her affection and Park’s past eventually catches up to him.

The book seems to be well researched, and gives a vivid picture of life at a CCC camp in the state of Washington during the Depression.  It seems a realistic portrayal of the interactions of a quasi-military camp of young men from various parts of the country living in close quarters, and their interactions with each other and with the “locals.”  We see their rough behavior, rough language, jealousies, and developing interests in some detail.  It’s clear the protagonist is trying to make a new life and put his past behind him.  The romance between Park and Kate seemed realistic and blossomed with the right mixes of thoughtful tentativeness and emotion on both parts.  The ending is exciting and well-paced.

Before I review the novel’s weaknesses, I should note I read the book in brief snatches over a period of months.  It’s possible a more concentrated reading of more than a few pages at a time would have yielded a better impression.

Although the beginning and ending are both thrilling and action-packed, the rest of the book is very slow.  It’s as if the author wanted to include all her research in the book to give it credibility, but much of it ends up slowing down the plot.  Also the work suffers from poor editing, with word errors, missing quotation marks, a name spelling change, and anachronisms (people didn’t say “no way” in 1935).

For me the most maddening part involves what happens following the commission of a vicious crime.  The entire town seems to leap to a conclusion about who did it; that’s just human nature.  However, the victim comes out of her recuperation to announce a fact about the prime suspect.  Not a peep about who might have done the crime, and no one seems interested in asking her.  The authorities launch into an investigation of footprints and combing the territory with search parties, etc.  All the while I’m wondering why no one is asking the victim any questions.  Perhaps she has some clue about the perp, or even knows who did it.  No mention of any of that until the scumbag is caught and locked up.  Then we learn the victim remembered the smell of his breath and one facial feature.  The only part important to Oakley’s plot is that announced fact about the prime suspect.  After that, there’s no point in concealing the victim’s knowledge from the reader.  In fact this reader began to suspect the town of being populated by idiots.

Tree Soldier is getting excellent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and has won some awards, but I’ll have to dissent from that majority.  If you have an interest in that historical period, or setting, or the CCC, you might enjoy it.  It is a nice romance between two strong and well-drawn characters.  But the weaknesses lead me to give it a rating of 2 on my seahorse rating scale.

Whether you agree or disagree I’d like to know your comments about the book.  Leave a comment for–

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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Tom Swift and His Psycho-Subliminal Writer Inspiratron

When I was a young lad growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the mid-1960s, my Aunt Betty gave me a precious gift, a copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Lab by Victor Appleton II, ©1954.  It was the first book in “the New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures” series which eventually included 33 novels.

The series involves the adventures and inventions of an 18 year old engineer and scientist.  Each book features a new invention and typical titles are Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane, or … and His Electronic Retroscope, or … and His Subocean Geotron.  The series is a continuation of the previous Tom Swift (Senior) series that ran from 1910 to 1941.

Aside from the blond main character with the crew cut, there was Tom’s sidekick Bud Barclay, Tom’s sister (and Bud’s girlfriend) Sandy, Tom’s girlfriend Phyllis Newton, Tom’s father Tom Sr., his mother Mary Nestor Swift, and the executive chef for Swift Enterprises, Charles “Chow” Winkler.  I remember these characters as if I knew them as real people.

Story lines typically involved some trouble somewhere, like a kidnapping, a stolen invention, or some other evil being done in some exotic locale.  Often one of the dastardly countries of Brungaria or Kranjovia was behind it all.  Tom, fresh from some previous adventure, has just invented (or proceeds to invent) some gadget used to save the day.

We are not discussing superb literature here, admittedly.  The characters were stereotypical and lacked depth.  None of them changed or learned anything as a result of the conflicts they dealt with, either within any book or across the series.  Tom himself had no character flaws whatsoever, other than paying insufficient attention to his very tolerant girlfriend.  The writing style was amateurish.  In an earlier post I already mentioned the occurrence of “Tom Swifties.”  Any notion of realism was abandoned in these novels, from the basic premise of an 18 year old being the sole inventor of all the gadgets, to the implausibility of the inventions themselves, to the fact that one young man could be the hero in so many dangerous escapades.

I loved that series, and still do.  I begged my parents for the next book I hadn’t read until I could afford to buy them myself.  I thought about how cool it would be to have such machines and vehicles myself, or to be able to invent them.  I compiled a personal library of about 2/3 of the series.  Decades later, I found my mother had disposed of them, thinking I no longer wanted the set.  That saddened me, but my brother scoured garage sales and helped me rebuild the collection.  Thanks to him, I now have 18 volumes from that series, and 20 novels from the earlier Tom Swift series.

It appears I’m not Tom Swift’s only admirer.  There’s at least one website dedicated to the series, and an active discussion group.

None of Tom’s inventions mentioned were actually built.  Indeed, most are impossible.  But one of his gadgets, a mechanism never actually named or referred to, worked really well.  That’s Tom’s Psycho-Subliminal Writer Inspiratron.  The Tom Swift Jr. series, so loathed by librarians and English teachers, motivated my interest in engineering and in storytelling.   It prompted me to read other things, better books, including the works of Jules Verne.  Tom kindled an interest in adventure and traveling to distant places, and is a big part of why I joined the submarine service.

Please comment and let me know if Tom Swift also inspired you, or let me know what other books of your youth did.  For now I’d like to say thanks for everything, Tom, especially your amazing Inspiratron.  Sincerely,

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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A Mystery to Me

Do you love reading mysteries?  Ever think of writing one?

The genre was invented by Edgar Allan Poe and popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories.  It remains a popular genre with a devoted readership.

The mystery genre is hard to define.  All fiction involves an element of mystery, since there’s always a conflict and the reader doesn’t know how the protagonist will resolve that conflict.  Here we’ll speak of stories where the focus is on the puzzling aspects of the conflict, which is often a crime or some unexplained phenomena.  In addition, the sleuth in the story uses attention to detail and deductive logic to solve the mystery.

In your mystery story, make sure the mystery itself is something important, something the reader will care about.  That’s why there are so many murder mysteries, and so few involving a missing 99¢ comb.

Before writing your story, develop various timelines or storylines:

1.  First is the actual timeline of events in which the real perpetrator commits the act.  This must be logical and in accordance with various character’s motivations.  As author, you’ll be the only one who knows this one.

2.a., 2.b, 2.c, etc.  You may need a series of fake timelines, in each of which one of the other suspects could commit the act.  These need not be completely logical or reflect character motivations exactly, but at first your sleuth won’t know that.

3.  A timeline pieced together by your sleuth, formed through evidence and logical deduction.

4.  You might even have a separate timeline that is revealed to the reader.  However, Timeline 4 usually matches Timeline 3.

Most mysteries involve the commission of a crime.  To do so, a criminal must have means, motive, and opportunity (MMO).  The challenge for the sleuth is that either (1) several people seem to have all three, or (2) nobody seems to have all three.  Of the three necessary parts of MMO, motive is often the first part presented to the reader.

Among frequent readers of the genre it’s considered unfair to (1) withhold evidence from the reader that the sleuth knows, including specialized skills or knowledge, or (2) have the sleuth confront the guilty suspect with insufficient evidence (that wouldn’t gain a conviction in court) but still the criminal breaks down and confesses.

Your writing challenge is to present the reader with all the evidence needed to solve the mystery, but to make the puzzle difficult enough that the reader would rather just read to the end to see how the sleuth cracks the case.  Bear in mind the necessary evidence need not be emphasized in your story, just present.  It could be buried in the middle of a paragraph.  Or you could distract the reader’s attention with some dramatic action that happens to include a piece of evidence easy to gloss over.

The genre has been so well explored, it’s difficult to think of mysteries that haven’t been done.  For example, I wish you luck in thinking up a new version of the locked-room mystery, where a crime is committed in a sealed enclosure where the only entries are locked from the inside.

For that reason, writers of mysteries these days seem to be focusing on the character of the sleuth, or the setting.  In today’s market, the way to set your mystery apart is to have a very compelling sleuth.  The minimum attributes for this character are: (1) attention to detail, and (2) an ability to deduce a chain of events from disparate facts.  Or you could have two sleuths working together, each of which has one of these traits.

Another way to distinguish your mysteries from others is to use a historical or unusual setting.  Depending on how far back a time you choose, it could present a real challenge for your sleuth due to the lack of modern crime investigation technologies.

Did this blog entry inspire you to write a mystery story?  Leave me a comment and let me know about it.  Just make sure the answer to whodunit isn’t–

                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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Book Review – The Clan of the Cave Bear

Go ahead and chastise me now.  Yes, I’m one of the few who hadn’t read Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear © 1980.  Until now.  Along with the rest of the world, you read the book, and perhaps the series, long ago.  You already formed your opinion.  What follows is mine.

I listened to the Brilliance Audio CD version, narrated by Sandra Burr.

In brief, an earthquake collapses a cave containing a clan of Cro-Magnon people and the only survivor is a five-year-old girl named Ayla.  She is taken in by a clan of Neanderthals and her differences from them complicate all their lives.

The novel seemed, to this listener, to be authoritative and well-researched.  I liked how the author didn’t paint the lives of these prehistoric people as being simple; these characters had complex lives and traditions, as well as sophisticated knowledge of their environment.  I found the characters to be distinct, memorable, and intriguing.  Descriptions of the settings and characters were vivid, making the events of the book easy to imagine.

I thought the conflicts in the novel were clear and challenging, both the inter-character conflicts and the conflicts with the environment.  The conflicts posed bedeviling problems for the characters, especially Ayla.  I thought the book contained profound lessons about leadership, with both positive and negative examples.  Anyone aspiring to lead a team would do well to emulate Brun, the clan leader through much of the novel.  Moreover, Jean M. Auel wrote in an easy-to-read style that flowed well.  Sandra Burr did commendable job of narration.

However, I found the novel repetitive, as if the author felt she had to remind the forgetful reader of previous events and who the characters were, on a frequent basis.  In addition, for every big decision made by any character, the entire deliberative thought process was described.  The author presents detailed pros and cons for every choice.  Once the reader understands the motives driving a character, it’s no longer necessary to drag the reader through the careful weighing of pluses and minuses.

I found the point-of-view changes distracting at times.  Auel did a fair job of signaling which character’s POV we were in, but it’s not necessary to describe how each major character feels about significant events; the reader can discern a good deal of that from expressions and actions.  In fairness to Auel, it’s possible she also signaled POV changes using breaks in the text, something I couldn’t tell from listening to an audiobook.

A few events in the book strained credibility, though these events were necessary, perhaps, to make the novel relevant to our present and to help readers identify with Ayla.  They included (1) Ayla becoming a huntress despite strict clan tradition against that; (2) Ayla learning, with apparent ease, every Neanderthal skill including cooking, medicine, weapon-making, tool-making, as well as hunting; (3) Ayla reasoning out the connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy as well as the fact that people are products of a father as well as a mother; and (4) the holy man Creb foreseeing the end of the Neanderthal people.

Taking strengths with weaknesses, I’ll give the book a rating of four seahorses using my much-coveted book review rating method.  The novel deserved its good reputation and popularity.  I don’t need to recommend you read it, since the only remaining person who hadn’t read it was —

                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

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Fleshing Out Your Story

Perhaps you’re a beginning writer with a great idea for a story.  Or maybe you’re an experienced author and someone has come to you with a  story idea and suggested you just whip up the story inspired by that idea.  Either way, there’s something writers know that non-writers don’t — the idea is the easy part.

Would you approach a sculptor with a sketch, then gesture to a nearby block of marble and suggest the sculptor merely chip away at the block until it looks like your sketch?  Would you hum a tune to a composer, and suggest she spend a few minutes penning some lyrics and orchestrating all the instruments to play the harmonic parts to fit with your hummed tune?

It’s not clear to me why people think writing is so different.  Somehow the belief got started that writers search and search for something to write about, that we spend 90% of our time enduring the agony of waiting for the idea to hit.  Once it does, we simply dash off the story and hit send, apparently.  A particularly long novel might, they think, take the better part of an afternoon to jot down.

I hate to be the one to burst the bubble on that myth, but it just ain’t so.  On occasion, it’s true, some writers struggle to figure out what to write about.  For a time, they seek some prompt.  There are books and websites to supply these, but there’s also real life–it’s all around, filled with plenty of things that could form the basis of a story.  Even that’s not enough.  Next the writer must turn this ‘prompt’ into an idea.  This idea forms the skeleton of the story.  An idea includes main characters, a rough primary plot, and some notion of settings.

I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of getting that far.  But a writer reaching that point is a long way from finished.  Moreover, we have no sense yet of whether the resulting story will be good.  Promising ideas still can suffer from poor execution when converted to finished form.  Alternately, a truly wonderful tale can be spun from a trivial, humdrum idea.

A writer with an idea now faces the task of fleshing out that skeleton.  He must breathe life into the characters, making them identifiable and engaging.  She must select such descriptive words for her settings so as to transport the reader there.  He embellishes the plot with understandable motives for actions, and adds subplots.  She imbues the story with her own style and flair, ensuring she touches on universal human themes.  When his first draft is crap, as it always is, he edits and rewrites, often several times. During these subsequent drafts, she might spice the manuscript with symbolism, alliteration, foreshadowing, character quirks, tension-building techniques, allusion, metaphor, and the other little things separating good from average fiction.  Then, because the story is now too long, he goes through it again, compressing, trimming, cutting, and making each word defend itself.

I’ve made this fleshing-out process sound like drudgery, and sometimes it is.  True writers find enjoyment in it, or at least tolerate it.  But it is not the easy part.  For me, writing consists of the same proportions as Thomas Edison’s formula for genius–1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  Perhaps someday when I’ve written many hundreds of stories it will get more difficult to come up with new ideas, but I’m a long way from that.  Even then the percentages will likely be 2% and 98%.

Were you laboring under a misconception about the difficulty of ideas and the ease of writing?  Have I changed your mind?  Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.  While I wait for you to do that, it’s back to the hard work of fleshing out another skeleton for–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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