Friday, January 21, 2011

Day 5 Update and An Exercise in Reading Slush

Today's Progress: 979 Words
Running Total: 9425 Words

9425 / 60000 words. 16% done!

Okay I need sleep. I did to the end of what I had notes for and I'm calling it quits for now. Tomorrow I can start dealing with the gaps.

Last week I gave you some exercises in finding your pace and setting your goals. I'm thinking I might make a regular feature of little assignments and exercises. I haven't decided if it will be weekly or every other week, but I think I'll do this on Fridays. You'll be reading a Friday night post on Saturday, most likely, and that will give you a chance to do something with it.

Today's exercise is in developing some judgement. Lee Goldberg did a guest post on Joe Konrath's blog the other day, and he's a guy who is very worried about the flood of awful writing out there in Indie-Land. So even though I think what other people choose to do is irrelevant to the rest of us, I thought I might do my part toward helping the world learn to judge writing a little bit better.

This exercise, BTW, could be just as much fun for non-writers as for writers, because it involves reading. Specifically, it involves panning for gold in the slush pile.

The Assignment:

You are the new intern for an overworked, but generous, editor. She has an enormous slush pile; it's just huge. There is simply not enough time to read them all, and they are all completely unsolicited. And you don't have time to read them all either. So she has decided that when you have a little time to spare, it's your job to pick ten of the manuscripts, and read a couple of pages. You don't have to read more than 2-3. And you have to pick ONE of them to put on her desk.

As I said, she's a generous person. She is willing to read dreck, but she can't get through more than a tenth of the pile and it's YOUR job to narrow it down to that ten percent.

So, since Lee says that 99.9 percent of the samples available at Smashwords is unreadably bad, we're going to use that as our slush pile. To make it random, we're going straight to the Smashwords home page and taking a sample from each of the ten most recently uploaded stories.


*If a single author has uploaded a bunch of files at once, you should only pick one and skip down to the next author.
*You may engage the "prude filter" (the link is at the bottom of the page) so you don't have to read erotica if you chose. You may skip things that seriously offend you, but not things that are just not to your taste.

And just to make things easier, the editor has given you a rubric to help you judge the work. If you were reading a whole story, she might give you something more formal where you assess characterization, plot, ending, setting, writing style, voice, market oomph. But since this is just an opening, she'll keep it simple. She is leaving it up to you to choose what to emphasize, and she'll even allow you to add some criteria of your own.


1. Does the story actually START in the sample?
Do you have a sense of who the story is about? What it's about? Where it takes place? What the beginning problem is? Does it ramble or seem pointless?

2. How is the writing style?
Is it full of typos and grammatical errors? Is it clear? Can you make out what the writer is trying to say? Is it "correct" but sloppy -- wordy, poor word choice, point of veiw problems, etc? Do you have a sense of "voice" or style? Does the style itself get a response out of you?

3. Does this sample make you want to read on?
Is the character appealing? Is the situation intersting? Is there a compelling problem or puzzle introduced? Do you just _like_ the darn thing? Is there a hook?


Reading just ten samples may depress you (or excite you if you get lucky). However, if you are a beginner, especially if you have no old pro to help you learn, this can be a wonderful thing to do every single week. I mean it. Do it for ten weeks, pick one sample out of ten and save it -- and then after ten weeks, pick the best of those. And go ahead and change the rubric to suit if you are learning something from a writing book or blog or magazine.

I can hear some old pros scoffing at this as a learning tool. They can't imagine you raising your standards without someone telling you how. But I can tell you from experience, that a thousand teachers can't equal the power of having to pick one out of ten time after time, and then picking the best of the best, and the best beyond that.

Practice makes perfect.

The other thing you will learn is that Lee Goldberg is at least partly right. There's a lot of awful writing out there. You as a writer can write better than that. You as a reader can _find_ better than that. You'll find yourself looking at the book covers and descriptions and see how they can often telegraph the problems of the book. (Or how badly they can decieve you about a book.)

AND when you get sick of the crappy stuff, change where you're getting your samples. Read the top rated books. Go to Amazon and download samples from the best seller lists in your genre. Start choosing one out of ten among the BEST books. (That's a lot harder, but it's also a lot more pleasant.)

If you don't have the resources to learn other people's standards, you can at least set your own. Become choosy.

Tomorrow evening I'll post another short story. Probably a quick and fun flash fiction.


ModWitch said...

Love this. I've been participating at critiquecircle, which is basically a slush pile in progress. The challenge there has been finding something I think has enough good qualities to be worth adding input to try to make better. If my own stuff is dreck, I hope someone will tell me, because phew, there is a lot of dreck.

Definitely going to try some variation of this exercise, thanks!

The Daring Novelist said...

The key difference here is that you aren't trying to improve it. You're doing something very practical -- you are choosing the best among ten. You don't get a larger pool, and you don't get to choose more (or less) than one.

And then when you do it among GOOD stories, you really start to learn, because you discover how low your expectations were.

I never learned so much as when I was judging the Derringers. In that case we didn't so much have to pick one as to rank them. So all of them had to be judged in terms of "better or worse" than others. And all were published fiction which had been nominated for the award. (Some were nominated by the author, but most were nominated by the publisher.)

I'll be honest, picking the best out of ten is pretty easy. Picking the best out of a hundred mostly great stories or more? Yow.