Thursday, November 3, 2011

Slushpile Secrets Part 1 - Teaching

I'm still building up to a post about why I think most of us -- indies and traditionalists alike -- have the wrong end of the stick on the subject of writing quality and what we need to do about it.

Frankly, I think the emperors of both sides of this issue ain't wearing any clothes, but those who are most nekkid are those who are sticking to traditional ideas.

The problem, as I see it (aside from fear and defensiveness) is that everybody makes assumptions about where everybody else is coming from. So before I say much, I want to give you some context.

Last week I brought out an old post about
pulp fiction and editorial standards, and how different markets have different needs. eHow didn't need perfect spelling. Pulp Magazines didn't need literary grace as long as giant earthworms attacked buxom women.

This week, and next, I'm going to talk about my experiences with the slush pile.

The Slush Pile's Dirty Little Secret

When I started writing, I was told time and again about how those of us who took the time to learn manuscript form and to proofread our work were far ahead of 90 percent of the slush pile. We were told horror story after horror story about manuscripts which were written on pizza boxes, and authors who sent nude pictures of themselves, or threats to the editor's life, or nude pictures with threats written on them which were included in pizza boxes.

Most writers submitting over the transom, I understood, did not type their manuscripts neatly in black ink on white paper, double-spaced, single-sided. And most could not spell or put a sentence together to save their lives.

I heard this from everyone -- editors, agents, well-established writers, teachers, and especially my fellow new writers -- and I believed this so completely that once I was published and got a job teaching writing, I passed it on to my students.

Eventually I did get some experience with the slush pile, and what I discovered is that it was not nearly as bad as I was led to believe. Sure, there was a lot of really bad writing, and mediocre writing. But not that many personal threats or pizza boxes, or even all that many which were single-spaced on pink paper with red ink.

I'm going to talk more about that tomorrow, when I discuss the actual breakdown -- level by level -- of what I saw in the slush pile.

What I want to talk to you about today is what I saw as a teacher.

Because frankly, those editors who complain about the slush pile are wimps. Seriously, they never see the worst of the worst, and they don't have to take it seriously, word-by-word, the way a teacher does.

Most of the students I had in teaching Introduction to Creative Writing never submitted a single manuscript to an editor, and are not self-publishing either. (Not unless their teachers are making it a part of the class to do so.) And the very worst stories? Never got finished. I noticed this even in advanced classes.

What really interests me, though, is the best writing I saw. (Most of which I doubt was ever submitted to a magazine either, for reasons I'll mention below.)

Generally, as a teacher, I was dealing with raw material. Unstudied, untutored. Sometimes students who had never read fiction or poetry at all. Even so, I've got to tell you that I did learn something:

I believe in a thing called talent. (And it ain't what people think it is.)

First year of teaching I had one class with two very different students. One student -- I think of her as a little girl, not a woman, because she was small and shy and immature. She couldn't spell, and did not naturally write in grammatical sentences. She was, however, very bright, and had got into college in spite of that. The other student was a very well-schooled and intellectual young man. He always got top grades, and he was artsy too.

The first assignment in that class was to write a descriptive poem -- to use visceral detail to show something without telling. The intellectual wrote a "poem" with no physical detail at all. He told us what to think of his subject, and that, to him was "describing" it. He did a good job of writing a clever essay, perfect in language use and presentation, but it was a lousy descriptive poem.

The shy "little girl" wrote a poem in which every third word was misspelled, and it took effort to figure out the sentences in a few places, but even so... that poem grabbed you by the gut. I'm trying to remember what it was about. I think it described the clothing of a humiliated child or something like that. Oh, my God, she zeroed in on exactly the right details in every line.

The intellectual never learned a thing in that class. He was as smart as he wanted to be, and his stuff was all perfectly proofed and presented and he resented not not getting an 4.0. (His last project was a screed attacking ignorant young women who get favored treatment for their asinine emotional girl poetry.) But he was smart and driven, and he knew what he wanted out of life, and so if anyone in that class grew up to be a writer, he probably did.

The young woman took the criticism of her spelling and grammar seriously, and improved dramatically. She went to tutoring to deal with it, and by the end of the class, she was handing in properly proofed work. The high impact of her writing never waned, but I suspect she did not go on to be a writer, because the spark that made her writing so good was not limited to writing. She was a "noticing kind of person." She saw subtle details and understood what they meant. She also had high empathy, and I suspect she went on to be a crusading lawyer, or a doctor... or a teacher.

The difference between these two students was that the shy kid was more mature than the arrogant young man. That's what talent is. She could see further. She had her eyes open so she could learn.

Now, I bring this up for two reasons -- there are two lessons here. One is the above lesson about what talent and potential are. The other lesson is the poem itself.

When you're reading raw student work, you don't often get pleasure out of the writing itself. You get the intellectual pleasure of digging out potential instead. But those poems that young lady wrote -- in spite of the spelling and grammatical problems -- were worth reading just for their own sake. If I wasn't required to read them, I would still enjoy reading them, spelling mistakes and all.

That young lady may have needed a tutor to get a decent grade or be respected by fellow students and potential employers, or to be traditionally published. And if she were self-publishing, she would need a tutor to help make her presentation more... well, presentable.

But her poetry did not need an editor.

Next Thursday I'll talk about my experience of the slush pile, and the way manuscripts stacked up within it. And also a curious factoid about skiing competitions which lines up exactly with what I saw.

See you in the funny papers.


ModWitch said...

Sigh. I probably had more in common with your young intellectual. Fortunately, some of us grow up, even if it takes a while :D.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, that young lady was unusual in that her talent did not coincide with arrogance.

Let's face it, arrogance is just a form of confidence -- a step in maturity. Some never grow out of it (politicians and other narcissists, for instance) but most of us do. Thank god.