Thursday, December 15, 2011

Something Every Gonnabe Writer MUST Know


I've always regretted I didn't have a video camera with me the time I dropped in on Gardner Dozois at the Asimov's Science Fiction offices and, before going out to lunch, he went through a two-foot-high pile of submissions in fifteen to twenty minutes.  While we had a pleasant conversation about other matters.

The video would have shown Gardner pick up the first manuscript, read the first page, turn to the last page, read that, and then put down the story.  Then he did exactly the same thing with the next.  And the next.  All the way down to the bottom.  At the end of which he had two piles -- one for people who might someday write something good, who received a polite rejection slip; and one for those who never would, who received a discouraging rejection slip.  He set aside exactly one story to actually read.

Not buy.  Read.

I've talked with any number of editors about this and they all agree:  That's all the time they need to tell if a story might be publishable.  Fifteen seconds -- maybe thirty, tops.  

Over the years, I've taught at the various Clarion Workshops, and I'm here to tell you that the single most common mistake not-yet-published writers make is to spend several pages setting the scene before anything actually happens.  Reading their typescripts, I'll strike out paragraph after page before finally coming to the point on Page 3 or 5 or 8 where I write:  BEGIN HERE.

Because no matter how brilliant the story is, no editor is going to read it unless something interesting has happened before the second page.

So here's what every writer hoping someday to be published must know:  Your very best prose should come at the beginning and end of the story.  Because that's what's going to catch your editor's attention.

Oh, and the electronic submission revolution?  Last convention I went to, an editor told me that she loved electronic submissions because then she didn't feel obligated to read all the way to the bottom of the first page.

And here's a case in point . . .

I picked up the new Granta yesterday and read "The Infamous Bengal Ming" by Rajesh Parameswaran.  It's about a Bengal tiger with a complicated emotional life.  Here's the first sentence:

The one clear thing I can say about Wednesday, the worst and most amazing day of my life, is this:  it started out beautifully.

And here's the last:

I had never felt so much love in all my life.

The first sentence is an attention-grabber.  You wouldn't want the entire story to be written in such elaborate prose (not this particular story, anyway), but it alerts you to the fact that Parameswaran is one heck of a writer.  The final sentence gains its considerable emotional strength from the cumulative effect of the rest of the story.  But even the most superficial reader can figure out that this writer has stuff

And even the most superficial editor would put it on the To Read pile.

Above:  This card was sent to me by my college chum Mario, who collects pop-up books.  It has absolutely zilch chance of winning this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition.



Chad Hull said...

That sounds like great advice for the 'gonnabe writer.'

Do you think it applies to people who are already established and proven; such as yourself? Or can the already established writer get away with 3,5, or 8 pages of setting before something happens?

Michael Swanwick said...

There is just a smidge more leeway for a writer when the editor knows that if the story is really bad, (s)he's got a good bit of gossip to tell the buds at lunch. But then the story gets published . . . and must face the reader who has a similarly short attention span and may never have heard of Michael Swanwick. Or Connie Willis. Or Marcel Proust, for that matter.

More on this later today in my Friday blog.

Eileen Gunn said...

Michael, I will clutch this advice to my beating, still-bleeding heart.

JJM said...

Just tryin' to protect my standing as a contrarian, old chum.