Sorry that I have not posted for a few days — earlier this week, I was saddened, as so many readers were, to hear of the death of the great Ray Bradbury. I’ve been listening for days to folks praise his novels, deservedly so, and his television work, which was — well, in respect to his memory, I’ll just say that it was less consistent. Yet strain my ears as I might, I’ve heard barely any retrospective celebration of what is arguably one of the best American short story collections ever gathered between covers, I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.
Perhaps I am prejudiced: this collection contains one of my all-time favorite short stories in the English language, a little charmer called Tomorrow’s Child. The premise, introduced by Mr. B. himself above, is unparalleled, or perhaps I should say intriguingly paralleled: ordinary parents produce a child normal for a different dimension. Metaphorically, I think it’s one of the most sensitive, nuanced depictions of the problems of love, societal expectations, and fitting in ever written.
Not that your garden-variety writer would have any life experience with those types of problems. Nothing trajects a person more decidedly toward a literary adulthood than a perfectly happy childhood and stunningly untroubled adolescent, right?
Those of you who have even the faintest interest in how fantasy narratives can be handled, should run, not walk, to plunge into that lovely story. And while I’m shooing you toward Mr. B’s writing and we all have childhood on the brain, if you know a young person that you suspect might want to grow up to be a writer, or just want to clap your eyes on a darned fine example of evocative showing, not telling, you might want to pause in your headlong scurrying to pick up a copy of THE HALLOWEEN TREE.
Was that far-away moan of wind a group of slightly tardy banshees mourning the gentleman’s passing, or are some of you surprised that my brief eulogy did not sound precisely like the literally thousands of virtually identical tributes that have been floating around the airwaves over the past few days? “But Anne,” those glued to electronic devices point out, “you’re digressing. Furthermore, you’re breaking the rules. In order to fit in with this officially-designated period of public mourning, you’re supposed to be talking about FAHRENHEIT 451. Everyone else is.”
Why, yes, they are. Practically to the exclusion of anything else. Am I alone in feeling that is not necessarily the most meaningful way to remember the rich, diverse career of an incredibly prolific author?
Yes, yes, I know: those of us devoted to science fiction and fantasy are supposed to be falling all over ourselves with gratitude that a practitioner of a once-reviled (and still often looked down upon in high literary circles) genre is receiving any public recognition at all, but honestly, the man was a pioneer in two of ‘em. Doesn’t he deserve recognition for more than just one or two of his works?
Or is the other horrifying possibility coming to pass? Is it me, or do 97% of the people talking about him on the airwaves seem to be completely unaware that he wrote both science fiction and fantasy? Or, indeed, that there’s any distinction between the two? And if television news types do not make that fairly fundamental distinction, what other important distinctions are they not making?
What hellish new world is this? Does gravity even operate here?
And a forest of hands sprouts in the ether, bringing my tirade on respecting our literary elders to a screeching halt. “Um, Anne?” a few of you offer timidly. “I’ve been referring to my manuscript Science Fiction/Fantasy in casual conversation for years, because that’s how the bookshelf that holds similar books is labeled in my local bookstore. Yet your satirical scorn in the previous paragraph leads me to suspect that my old nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, might think I have conflated a couple of well-established book categories.”
Don’t feel bad if you fell into this particular trap — Millicent does in fact see it all the time. And for good reason: the distinction between the two is often as nebulously-defined as literary fiction; ask any six agents that handle that kind of books, and you’ll hear at least six different definitions. Perhaps seven or eight.
So I like to fall back on the classic definitions: science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable. Oh, and while I’m at it, literary fiction is closely-observed, character-driven storytelling via unusual or experimental narrative devices, assuming a well-read (and generally college-educated) audience.
Well, that solves three of the great cosmic mysteries. I guess my work is done for the day. Before I go, and so I won’t leave you hanging, here is the second part of that oddly-cast Ray Bradbury Theatre production of Tomorrow’s Child.
Just kidding; I know that some of you would like a bit more clarification of those categories. Traditionally, science fiction contains strong technological elements — thus the name — but not all science fiction presupposes advances in gadgets. Quite a lot of science fiction involves exploration of the improbable in the natural world: The world doesn’t actually work like that, but what if it did? Take the classics by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne: by making the improbable (time travel, a foodstuff that creates giant creatures, a journey to the center of the earth, etc.) possible, they were able to take those incredible premises and write about their implications in a largely realistic manner.
In a fantasy, however, the premise can, and often does, involve something that couldn’t possibly happen in the world as we know it, so there’s no need to adhere to the rules of the normal universe. The aforementioned parents finding themselves cuddling a blue pyramid, for instance. A child’s noticing that something remarkably similar to the man paying the bills in his household growing in a vat in the garage. Dorothy and Toto’s being swept up by a tornado and whisked off to Oz. A vampire and a werewolf compete for a mortal teen’s affections.
Oh, come on: you think vampires in the real world sparkle? Where’s your notion of probability?
I see half of you rolling your eyes at the very notion of having to commit to a book category, but just think about how reductive most of the eulogies we’ve been hearing about Mr. Bradbury have been: science fiction writer, period.
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, accompanied by a passing reference to his having written a few Twilight Zone episodes. That’s far more limited than a Millicent working at an SF/fantasy-representing agency would have been in describing his writing.
Let’s face an unpleasant fact that I think most writers would change if our world were occupying a fantasy: we live in a reductive-minded period of history. One of the perennial annoyances of literacy lies in just how often one has to hear people clearly unfamiliar with one’s favorite authors’ work rhapsodize about them after they have died — and in how frequently one has that sinking feeling that the writing is being devalued in the process. As fond as anyone who might actually have read FAHRENHEIT 451 might be of it, it’s hard not to become slightly less so after the third or fourth newscaster mangles the plot. Or after the fifteenth or sixteenth celebrity gushes about it as though it were the only thing Ray Bradbury ever wrote.
Oh, I’m pretty sure I can tell you why we’ve been hearing about such a narrow swathe of his work: even though the man was no chicken, not everyone seemed to have a eulogy ready to hand. The television (and a surprising amount of the web) response seemed to be entirely informed by a quick trip to IMBb, rather than, say, his website. Or, if the would-be eulogizers did visit his website, they don’t seem to have read beyond the first three novels listed in his bio (FAHRENHEIT 451, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN).
Don’t get me wrong: all of these are fine pieces of writing. I would be the last person on earth to dissuade a reader from falling into a story after having been grabbed like this:
“Hey, the Illustrated Man!”
A calliope screamed, and Mr. William Philippus Phelps stood, arms folded, high on the summer-night platform, a crowd unto himself.
He was an entire civilization.
Now, I’m no fan of opening a narrative with a quote from an unidentified speaker (neither are most Millicents, incidentally), but that’s some lovely writing. But we haven’t been hearing Mr. B’s fiction quoted very much over the last few days, have we?
That’s the problem with telling about a writer’s talents, rather than showcasing his work: it’s not an adequate substitute. And in this case, I have to say that I also find it just a little snobbish. Short stories are writing, too — so isn’t it a trifle odd that the public mourning for one of the finest short story writers this country has ever produced should have included so few references to his short stories?
It seems a trifle, well, ungrateful, literarily speaking. (Especially since Morrow brought out such an excellent collection of a hundred of them a few years back. Which anyone interested in how to put a short story together might conceivably want to flip through. I’m just saying.)
A sense of continuity would be more fitting. So would a sense of history.
To be fair, though, my feeling that Ray Bradbury was insufficiently appreciated does predate his death by a couple of decades. Now that perfectly respectable adults read science fiction and fantasy as openly and shamelessly as folks read literary fiction in public, it’s hard to remember just how difficult it was for the science fiction and fantasy authors of Bradbury’s generation to get their writing taken seriously as writing. The prevailing wisdom used to be that only adolescent boys habitually read either — and that they would grow out of the taste.
Talk about fantasy, eh? Yet it had a very tangible real-world effect: for many years, newspapers and magazines seldom reviewed adult science fiction or fantasy novels at all.
That meant, among other things, that until fairly recently, science fiction and fantasy writers seldom had the luxury of assuming, as their more literarily-acceptable brethren and sistern did, that their publishing houses and book reviewers would do all of the necessary work of alerting potential readers about their books. They started going to conventions long before even writers in other genres did; they would travel far and wide to meet their readers. And, like Bradbury, they tended to have to do a heck of a lot of writing in order to make a living at it.
Okay, so that last bit hasn’t changed all that much.
All of which might perhaps explain something that should not have happened in a well-organized world: in the mid-1990s, I was walking between stores on the second floor of a large mall in a North American city that shall remain nameless when I spotted Mr. Bradbury sitting all by himself in front of a chain bookstore on the lower floor. Just waiting behind a card table and a large stack of books, ready to sign one for anyone that wanted it, without so much as an index card Scotch-taped to the front of the table to let people know who he was. No one seemed to notice him.
Seems almost unimaginable, doesn’t it, given how the media’s been talking about him for the last few days? Naturally, I trotted down to the bookstore to say hello and give him my mother’s regards; after some prompting and the purchase of several books, a store employee scared up a chair for me. And in the almost two hours we sat there, not a single passerby stopped to buy a book. Heck, no one even paused to shake his hand. And no one, but no one, dropped by to say, as we’ve been hearing the media say all week, “Hey, Mr. B., thanks for FAHRENHEIT 451. It changed my conception of (fill in the reader’s personal mental revolution here).”
Tell me, do you think one of the nation’s most beloved author’s being ignored like that is a better example of the improbable made possible, or the impossible made probable?
So can you really blame me if, each time I heard one of those doubtless heartfelt praises of FAHRENHEIT 451 or THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, and of them alone, I found myself recalling that Thomas Seward poem: “Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead/Through which the living Homer begged his bread”? Or if, the next time I heard an author complain about the necessity of promoting her book, I treated to her a quite possibly over-the-top diatribe about how she should be proud to participate in a long-standing genre tradition?
Aren’t you glad that I held off from posting?
I’m eager to get back to the business at hand now, however — which was, if you can recall as far back as a couple of weeks ago, an ongoing, in-depth discussion of what does and does not tend to work in a literary contest entry. Not too many of you have been commenting upon this series, I have noticed; hard to know whether that’s due to relatively few of you planning to enter a writing contest anytime soon or to the undeniable fact that smartphones and iPads have transformed many formerly-commenting blog readers into non-interacting column-perusers.
Speaking of how times have and have not changed. I honestly do like to hear from my readers.
Because so much of what tends to trip up the average contest entry can also annoy Millicent the agency screener, I shall be pressing ahead with this series for the nonce. To render it more broadly useful, however, I shall veer away from that subject dear to Mehitabel the veteran contest judge’s heart — how to avoid technical violations that might get your entry disqualified — and steer us into the murkier waters of ways in which writing often loses points for larger reasons.
That’s right, people: we’re going to be talking about style.
And the masses shout for joy. I can’t say as I blame you: before we paused for our recent Series Series of guest blogs, I had been urging those of you who like to enter contests to run through your entries with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, searching not only for spelling, grammar, and formatting errors, but tiny rule violations as well. Somewhere in the ether, writers’ subconsciouses were wailing, “But I thought the point of a literary contest was to judge the quality of the writing, not how well I could follow directions or if I know how to format a manuscript correctly.”
I sympathize with that cri de coeur. Truly, I do. But it is my sad duty to remind potential contest entrants — and potential submitters to agencies and publishing houses, while I’m at it — that to a professional reader’s eyes, incorrect formatting, odd typefaces, and other unexpected manuscript peculiarities are darned distracting. Reading past them is sort of like trying to enjoy a ballet while a drill team performs maneuvers with large flags in the orchestra pit.
To continue our running theme: while it is possible for a determined Mehitabel or Millicent to concentrate upon the artistic values of the performance, it’s not particularly probable, even with the best will in the world. Revising your good writing to minimize those distractions is essentially showing that drill team the door, so the ballet may proceed undisturbed. (And so the orchestra will have somewhere to sit.)
Yes, it’s a rather unpleasant process, especially on a tight deadline — but hey, welcome to the life of a professional writer. We’re constantly having to revise our work on deadlines. It’s grumpy-making. And at the risk of depressing you, for most authors, that grumpiness never really goes away.
Don’t believe me? If you want proof, try having a civil discussion about grammar with an author who is proofing his galleys. Caged tigers ten minutes before feeding time are friendlier.
So I like to think of pre-contest (and pre-submission) revision as the farm team games for the major leagues of writing. No one hits fifteen home runs in a row the first time she picks up a baseball bat, right? The pros put in a heck of a lot of batting practice before they get good at it.
In that spirit, I have an observation– and what I’m about to say next may startle some of you, so go ahead and grab onto the nearest heavy object, to brace yourself: the less a writer enjoys revision, the more important the pre-entry once-over is.
And not merely for the sake of the entry — although, since virtually no writer’s first draft is so polished that it couldn’t use a spot of revision, it is a genuinely good idea to make a sweep for common problems, over and above a standard spell-check. The ability to look at one’s own work critically is a vital skill for a professional writer.
Why? Because even if the Archangel Gabriel himself dropped a perfectly-formatted manuscript by Shakespeare, proofread by Mme. de Sta?l, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, and Confucius, and with ready-made jacket blurbs from Edith Wharton, Gustave Flaubert, and Sophocles onto the desk of the most literature-hungry agent in the land, I guarantee you that the agent will ask for at least one revision.
And that’s before the editor gets her hands on it. Or anyone even begins to consider the problems of attracting one’s admiring public to a book signing.
This comes as a shock to most writers who have just landed an agent or sold a first book — but their reaction is a minor tremor compared to the major earthquake that writers who have not learned to read their work critically experience. Writers who have never gained the skill of accepting feedback as part of the job of writing, rather than a personal attack, tend not only to be knocked off their feet by their first encounters with professional feedback, but to feel as if a tidal wave hit them as well.
This sight always makes me feel just a bit sad, partially because there’s so little sympathy in the industry for this particular stripe of culture shock. As I’ve mentioned many times before, professional readers don’t typically pull their punches: if they’re critiquing your work, it’s because they think you have talent; if you didn’t, they would not take the time. So learning to take critique gracefully, as well as rejection, is a valued skill in a writer.
If you’d like to know just how strongly your garden-variety agent prefers writers capable of self-revision after feedback to ones that have meltdowns about it, drop in at that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from the registration desk at any given conference, wait until the third round is in hand, and ask the nearest agent to tell you her favorite client horror story. 99.9% of the time, that story will involve an author whose response to feedback was negative.
Brace yourself, though, for every other agent and editor in the bar to have a story like this to tell. You may be in for a long night.
I can feel some of you shifting uncomfortably in your chairs. “Um, Anne?” I hear a few voices murmur, “I thought we were going to be moving on to style. Have you merely digressed, or are you telling us all of this just to pass along general information about working in the biz? Or — and I have a feeling this is what you’re doing — are you trying to brace us for the shock of the next set of standards you’d like us to apply to our entries before sending them out?”
Set your minds at ease, my darlings: I’ve been doing both. I’m about to encourage you to add another valuable wrench to your writer’s tool bag. The next common contest entry problem is going to require you to muster all of your concentration to weed out, but believe me, once you learn to spot it, you’ll wonder how you ever self-edited before.
I’m referring, of course, to skipping logical steps in arguments or plots, assuming that the reader will simply fill in the gaps for herself. This pervasive problem affects both coherence and continuity — and can consequently cost an entry a ton of points.
One really does have to see this phenomenon in action to understand why. I can do no better than to refer my faithful readers to Nietzsche’s THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA as an illustration. (Take that, literary snobs that don’t believe well-educated people read science fiction or fantasy.) Try following this little gem from Part II. I dare you:
Behold, this is the hole of the tarantula. So you want to see the tarantula itself? Here hangs its web; touch it, hat it tremble!
There it comes willingly: welcome, tarantula! Your triangle and symbol sits black on your back; and I also know what sits in your soul. Revenge sits in your soul: wherever you bite, black scabs grow; your poison makes the soul whirl with revenge.
Thus I speak to you in a parable — you who make souls whirl, you preachers of equality. To me you are tarantulas, and secretly vengeful. But I shall bring your secrets to light; therefore I laugh in your faces with my laughter of the heights. Therefore I tear at your webs, that your rage may lure you out of your lie-holes and your revenge may leap out from behind your word justice. For that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms.
Hands up, anyone who didn’t say, “Huh?” at least once while reading that.
That’s not the only confusing passage in the book, either. Following the narrative of Nietzsche’s book is like watching a mountain goat leap from crag to crag on a blasted mountainside; the goat may be able to get from one promontory to another with no trouble, but those of us tagging behind actually have to walk up and down the intervening gullies. The connective logic between one point and the next is frequently far from clear, or even downright wacko — and in a book that proposes that the writer and reader both might be logically superior to other people, that’s a serious coherence problem.
Would you believe that this type of argumentation actually isn’t all that uncommon in contest entries? Particularly in nonfiction entries on political or social topics — where, as in this case, the author can make the fatal mistake of assuming that Mehitabel will share his political and/or social beliefs. Even a judge who didn’t feel that the metaphor was forced and tautological (Nietzsche likes neither tarantulas nor egalitarians, so they must perforce be similar enough to have the same motivations?) might well dismiss the argument as prejudiced (he’s presuming that tarantulas are all mean, whereas I have known some very sweet ones not at all inclined to bite philosophers).
What would most likely get a contest judge to run screaming from this passage, though, is not the overworked metaphor, but the skipped logical steps. Let’s take a look at why this phenomenon is so disturbing in print. An argument with a logical leap in it appears from the reader’s perspective to run rather like this:
1. Socrates was a man.
2. Socrates was wise.
3. Therefore, men who want to be wise should not wear socks.
Clearly, there is some plank of the argument missing here. In order to prove Proposition 3, the writer would first have to show that
(a) Socrates did not wear socks (I have no idea if this is true; the statue above is no help on the subject. But hey, Greece is a warm country, so it’s entirely possible he didn’t.)
(b) non-sock wearing had some tangible and demonstrable effect upon his mental processes that cannot be explained by other contributing factors, such as years of study or having a yen for conversation with smart people, and
(c) the bare ankle experiment’s success was not dependent upon some exogenous variable, such as the fact that socks would have looked really stupid worn with a toga.
It would make sense, too, to establish that Socrates is a proper role model for modern men to emulate, as opposed to scruffy old sock-wearing moral thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps the book could even include a compare-and-contrast of the intellectual achievements of famous sock-wearing individuals versus those of the air-blessed ankles. By the end of such a well-argued disquisition, the reader might well become converted to the author’s premise, and cast his footwear from him forever with a cry of grateful liberation.
And half of you are once again rolling your eyes. “Talk about the improbable made possible!” you hoot. “This could not possibly be common in contest entries or submissions to agencies!”
You obviously have never been a judge in a literary contest. (Or advised an undergraduate thesis in political philosophy, for that matter. I could tell you tales.)
Admittedly, Nietzsche allegedly wrote his book in a three-day frenzy while confined to an insane asylum due to a — avert your eyes, children — particularly virulent case of syphilis, so perhaps it is not fair to expect world-class coherence from him. The average literary contest entrant, however, does not have so good an excuse, and should not expect the judges to cut him any slack in the logic department.
If Millicent ever has the opportunity to write connective logic??? in one of your margins, your presentation score is sunk. Ditto if your pages are lurking under Millicent’s pen.
So I must advise: make sure you’re filling in the relevant gullies. Read over your entry for coherence.
Should I be concerned about those of you that have sunk to the floor, moaning? “I could take the discussion of death,” the overpowered gasp, “as well as the sober contemplation of just how little support living authors, even famous ones, often receive for their literary efforts. I even kept my chin from trembling while you were telling me it was my responsibility as a serious writer to get used to submitting my work for unblinking critique. But now you’re telling me that I might not even be able to tell without re-reading my work if my narration is coherent? I feel myself slipping into a stupor.”
Oh, dear. What can I do to cheer you up?
Oh, I know: Nietzsche did one thing in THUS SPAKE ZARTHUSTRA that might help him win back style points from Mehitabel — include genuinely funny lines. It’s actually quite an amusing book, coherence problems aside, and not only because of them.
On the remote chance that I’m being too subtle here: very, very few contest entries are genuinely funny — and you wouldn’t believe how much even a single good laugh from an entry will improve the average Millicent’s opinion of it. I’ve seen it add enough points to raise a borderline entry into the finalist round, in fact.
I’m not talking about just fleeting smile funny, mind you, but stop reading long enough to laugh aloud funny. But that’s a subject for another day. For now, I leave you to ponder the joys and benefits of logical coherence. For practice, perhaps you might like to examine how I brought this little essay through short, comprehensible consecutive steps from a discussion of writerly hypersensitivity to a contemplation of comedy.
Hey, I’m a professional; it took years of practice to perfect that trick.
It also, in case you had been wondering, took me years of contest judging and manuscript editing to appreciate Millicent’s frustration with the ubiquity of the borrowed-from-short-stories plotting practice of not leaving the reader with a well-defined, dramatically-satisfying ending. Not sure why? Well, let me ask those of you that watched the first two parts of Tomorrow’s Child: didn’t you want to know how it ended?
So will both Millicent and Mehitabel. It’s a natural human urge to want to see a storyline dramatically resolved. So here you go.
Thank you for everything, Mr. B; you will be missed. Far off in the literary heavens, I know you will be keeping up the good work.