Yearly Archives: 2010

First Reader Exception

A first reader is that person you ask to read your story when it is completed, almost finished, or when you are so sick of it you don’t see it clearly anymore. A teacher said to me, “Your mother is not the ideal first reader because the goal here is constructive criticism, not praise.” My siblings read my stories and say it is difficult to comment because they see me in my characters, or sometimes themselves! And with other stories based on fact, “…that’s not how it really happened!” So, other family members can too create conundrums other than the gushing mother syndrome.

My mum is an exeception to the first reader rule. She has a tendency to point out what she doesn’t like first. She is also an avid reader (albeit, we have very different tastes), and her grammar and spelling are impeccable. Recently, I went to visit her in the hospital and gave her a story to read that I was close to submitting. I told her to disregard any real life connections she might infer and feel free to scribble on the page.

She let her ward roomie D. read it as well. Mum apologized to D. for the  F words in my story and the roomie replied, “Oh well, she’s a modern woman.”

Mum gave great comments regarding time line, grammar (I’m still explaining once you know the rules you can break them, regarding sentence fragments) and questioned factual information. Her notes were very professional and it has inspired her to write/journal about her experience in the hospital. Go Mum!

My first readers are the amazing writers I meet bi-monthly to workshop, but I may ask my Mum again.

Technology as Time

When writing stories I avoid using references to technology. I think I have only once mentioned a computer and I’ve never written the words cell, text, blog, i-pod, kindle, facebook etc. in a story.

I don’t find technological devices ascetically pleasing in real life or on the page. Then, I stumbled upon this Kurt Vonnegut quote:

‘I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.’

I admit, technology is a great way to pinpoint a specific time period, but I think it can also date a piece or exclude certain readers. Wondering if my characters need to get with the times.

No More Prizes, No More Contests! by Matthew Firth

In 1996 iconoclast singer/songwriter Nick Cave wrote MTV to ask that his nomination for Best Male Artist be withdrawn from competition. Cave was flattered but also nauseated by the idea of prizes and awards for artists. In his usual purple manner he stated his reasoning thusly:

“I am in competition with no one. My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves – in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition … My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel – this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!”

It’s a long quote but worth repeating and remembering. More writers should take Cave’s position.

In recent years, literary prizes and contests have become a cancer infecting all levels – from the glitterati to the humblest rural writing circle and everywhere in between. Literary awards are so ubiquitous that they are meaningless. They remind me of my six-year-old son’s sporting endeavours: everyone must get a trophy or medal in fear of treading a developing ego. Taking part is not enough, there must be some material compensation, some exaggerated recognition of achievement. Literary awards of all stripes aren’t much different – except in this case we’re dealing with adults’ egos, stunted though they may be.

To be blunt, as an editor, I don’t give a rat’s arse when someone submits a story and then boasts in their bio that they are the 2004 recipient of the Dumb-ass Valley Writers Association Short Story Award or what have you. I don’t care. Nobody cares. Wake up: literary awards and contests are a scam.

The big awards are particularly sickening. Longlists and shortlists are compiled. Nominees are trotted out like county fair pigs. Sparkling wine (or more likely real champagne) is supped. Pics of beautiful, clever folk are snapped. The winner is announced. Bland speeches are mumbled. Stickers to smear on the new print run are ordered. And then all the lemmings run out and buy up the award-winning book, eager to be onside with the bunch of nothing-better-to-do writers (i.e., the judges) who selected the big winner (in all likelihood a peer/pal of the judges in the first place). It’s a perpetual circle of self-congratulation more closely resembling a circle jerk than anything else.

Contests run by literary journals and mags must also be resisted or better yet, rejected outright. They are nothing more than unimaginative cash-grabs by editors at lazy, uninspired publications. For a $20 fee they dangle insipid awards before the noses of writers so desperate for attention they shell out the dough faster than you can say Doris Giller. But of course the unknown/naïve writer – chequebook at the ready though they are – probably doesn’t win the contest. Instead, he/she is let down gently with a year’s subscription to Cash-grab Review, said subscription the equivalent to the aforementioned six-year-old’s hockey trophy.

What’s the problem here, you ask. Everybody wins, right? The journal boosts their subscriber’s list so they can go cap-in-hand to suck at the Canada Council tit for one more year. The writer thinks he/she is the cat’s pyjamas because he/she is one of 250 runners-up for (insert name of vacuous lit-rag contest here). All winners? No. Nobody wins but nobody loses either – all concerned just drift in an ego-stroking fog of mediocrity.

Writing decent fiction isn’t about yearning for a medal to pin to your chest. And it’s not about compromising or altering your work to comply with silly contest specifications. It’s not about beating down the competition. It’s not about ego. Writing decent fiction is about conviction, not contests and awards. Write what you want, what comes from your heart – the bourgeois awarders and indolent contest-judges be damned. Cave has it right: this isn’t a horse race so we should all stop betting on the muse and get back to writing decent shit rather than ogling odious and hollow awards.

Matthew Firth
Black Bile Press

Synchronistic Reading

Meager living creates a particular kind of reading continuum. Books present themselves to me with an element of synchronicity attached – at second hand book shops, at the Goodwill or Salvation Army, from friends, or in a pile at the end of someone’s lawn. Reading becomes like Gump’s box of chocolates.

I’ve started borrowing from the library again. It’s been a while. I go there every week with my little charge but hadn’t thought to take books out for myself – silly me! I felt saavy using their electronic catalogue to find Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (excellent). In Kanata, where I grew up, the first library was in a portable. Sometimes you had to wait to get in because it was so small. My mum volunteered at the Kanata and Carp Pulic Libraries for years. She borrows, orders, reserves, and reads stacks of books every week.

We Are Who We Are

I believe our individual personalities are formed by age five, often earlier. I have every report card from kindergarten to grade eight. The same adjectives were used over and over by teachers to describe me – quiet, diligent, conscientious, neat, well organized, polite, reliable, and consistent. These are still me, as well as some not so flattering ones. In my family, the kids were good in school, bad at home.

Mrs. Hobbs, my grade two teacher wrote, “In her stories, Julie writes good sentences and expresses interesting ideas.” Hope this still applies.

Frankenstein and Mary Shelley

‘My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.
-Frankenstein, the creature

‘I am sick of myself… My head aches. My heart – my hapless heart – is deluged in bitterness… I strive to survive, I strive to write, but I cannot live without loving and being loved, without sympathy; if this is denied to me, I must die. Would that the hour were come!
-The Journals of Mary Shelley, September 5, 1826

Short Story Process

*idea formulating for a month or longer in brain
*longhand scribbling
*1-4 pages
*very crude, little resemblence to final story
*stream of consciousness
*done in quiet place, no distractions
*little dialogue written in
*little to no formatting
*sometimes this draft will sit a long while

*typed onto computer
*bit more detail, added scenes
*length often doubles
*bit more structure, paragraphs
*choose appropriate P.O.V. and tense
*all drafts printed, revised on paper, then typed to computer

*dialogue added
*cutting unimportant characters, scenes
*taking a closer look at structure, time line
*focus on showing, not telling

*cementing time line
*fleshing out character descriptions
*begin to recognize themes, symbols emerging
*begin to read aloud, see how story and dialogue sound
*removing redundant info, words

*usually 8-12 drafts total when fiinished
*story begins to shrink in length
*strengthening of verbs
*amping themes
*thinking about five senses throughout story
*letting someone read/workshop when close to done

*process is a neverending process

Ray Bradbury on Perseverance

“You have to feel the editors are idiots or misconceived. We all do that. It’s wrong, but it’s a way of surviving. I try to teach young writers to say the same thing. You sit down at the typewriter again and do more work and try to get a body of work done so you can look at it and become your own teacher. If you do fifty-two stories it’s better than doing three, because you can’t judge anything from three stories. It’s very hard to write fifty-two stories in a row and have them all be bad. Almost impossible. The psychological benefits from my first sale, which I got no money for, had to last me for a year before I made my next sale. That year I sold two more stories and had a little extra residue of belief.”

-Ray Bradbury, Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives by Lawrence Grobel