Recital Pieces

You don’t have to read Kris’ piece this week. You should, at least if you’re trying to make a living in this incredibly screwed up field, but you don’t have to.

If you’re writing for kicks, to amuse yourself or simply because you have vast reams of paper crying out to be dirtied on one side (or is that vast reams of electrons, nowadays) never mind. Carry on as you were.

What interests me about the piece above (I have only minor quibbles with some of the things she says, on the order of “oh, and you didn’t mention” and “Besides, did you ever think that” not disagreements) is that, like an A. E. Van Vogt novel, it “throws out” at least five concepts that could be articles in their own right. (In A.E. Van Vogt, I always felt like he threw out at least two ideas by page, that he disposed of as casual mentions/speculations, which could have made novels in their own right.)

One of them was her saying in the article above that most pieces that land in slush pile are “recital pieces” – comparable only to the piece of music most kids learning music learn by heart, until they play it perfectly. Or, as she put it, the piece that these people can still play years later, even though they’ve given up the instrument.

I knew this, of course. Look, I’ve done my time in the trenches. Years ago, when we were green in judgement, we started a micro press magazine. Slush, we had it – back in the days when it was still in paper form. We also had a cat who peed on the unreadable manuscripts. No, I don’t know how he knew. But the envelopes he peed on were ALWAYS the worst of the worst. Fortunately by that time most people didn’t want the manuscript returned anymore. Because I’d have hated to send a rejection that said “It’s so bad, the cat pissed on it.”

Since then I’ve read for friends and business associates, when they get themselves rained in under a pile of slush. So I knew it. In a way.

It’s just that lacking the experience of learning an instrument (and though my husband is a superb musician, he used to be too shy to play in public, so I don’t think he ever did a recital) the entire concept was unknown to me. I didn’t know how to describe it. If you’d cornered me and forced me to tell you what was wrong with most slush pieces I’d tell you they read like “boiled oatmeal” without the flavor.

So, why am I writing about it, if what Kris says above encapsulates it so well?

Because publishing a small press magazine – as terrible an experience as it was, because the minute we decided to do it our finances went topsy turvy (G-d hates editors) and then I got near lethal pneumonia, which together killed our magazine aborning – was perhaps the last step into making me into a RELIABLY pro-level writer. Before that I oscillated between pro and not. But having dug through the slush, I got a back-brain impression of “this is what not to do.”

Part of this was the gauntlet you ran in order to get published: hell in order to get on the editor’s (I almost said teacher’s) desk.

Kris also mentions in the piece above that there were entire workshops designed to teaching you how to game the system, in order to get published. She is correct. And btw, the “system” by which manuscripts were picked in a process that was designed to – basically – keep off newcomers, is interesting in itself and deserves an article of its own. Or two. Because if you think self-publishing allows for flawed selection, let me tell you bub, you ain’t seen nothing.

What she doesn’t mention is how many of these workshops – and how to books, and… – were designed to justify the system.

I’m not saying that any workshop, or any how to for that matter, ever said, “this is the best system, in the best of all possible worlds.” No. That never happened. No one was that crazy who knew the system from semi-inside even.

But the how tos and sometimes workshops all said “your manuscript has to be perfect.” And then proceeded to give you rules on how to make you so.

First, I’m dyslexic. I misspell in seven languages. I almost flunked my German final in college by misspelling every single word of more than one syllable. (Sometimes those too.) I know it’s hard to believe reading my posts, but not only do I spell check them, but I also read them over three or four times, and correct typos. The queen of typos, that’s me. Worse, I’m the queen of the Freudian type-o. Only it’s not Freudian, unless Freud’s theories were much weirder than I learned in my brush with psych courses (on first pass spelled spych courses.) Because one has to twist logic into a pretzel (on first pass written passel) to get why I would substitute words like “happiness” by words like “number.” And, of course, most of the time I read these as the word I intended.

Second, when writing works – for me – it’s done in what I call “flying.” That’s the state when, after slogging for several hours, days, weeks or months (depending on length) at a story, it all magically comes together, you can see the shape of the whole thing, and you’re flying on a natural high, assembling it all. It’s euphoria better than can be produced by any drug. (And incidentally, it’s where I am right now on Darkship Renegades, which explains my post yesterday.)

The prose this produces is by no means perfect (as anyone ahem “lucky” enough to read my first drafts knows.) The state induces run on sentences and a sort of happy go lucky casualness about wording. I know this, you know this, I’ve grown resigned to it. But what that means is that, at a rational level, I’m ALWAYS very suspicious of prose written while flying. It’s not… blood sweat and tears, and therefore there must be something wrong with it.

Third, I’m an English As A Second Language speaker. I think at this point, to be honest, English is my primary language. I’ve spoken it as a primary language for longer than I spoke Portuguese. Never mind that. There is always that pit-of-the-stomach insecurity about it, like “if I were native, would I use this word this way?”

At the time I was trying to break in, this insecurity was well nigh pathological. I KNEW, somehow just knew that everyone reading my manuscripts could tell something was askew.

Now throw onto that type of mind the injunctions from how-tos on being perfect on paper. No typos. Description, setting, character, and oh, yeah, a perfect hook line coming in on cue. NO MISTAKES. What do you get? Perfection? Ah. you only wish.

My first publishable short story, Thirst was written while LITERALLY flying on morphine, after giving birth to Robert.  If you wish to check it out, it is free — part of the collection Crawling Between Heaven And Earth at the Baen free library.

I wrote it and of course, I couldn’t send it out as was. No. Instead, I started rewriting it. Over the next two years, I rewrote it. Carefully and minutely, till every word, every punctuation mark had been labored over for hours. And then I sent out. And started getting rejections.

As I was prepping it to send out the twentieth time or so, it occurred to me to read it. This was while we were doing the small press magazine. And I was suddenly appalled. I’d been sending THIS out?

Because, you see, it read like… a recital piece. It was boring. Boiled oatmeal with less flavor.

I unearthed my original version, to see if I’d only imagined the specialness. (Children, never throw away your first versions.) And… no. Oh, I cringed at the misplaced punctuation, and the misspellings, but there was a life in that story that hit you in the face and begged to be paid attention to.

I’m not smart, but I can read print, when it’s written in letters of fire ten feet high and right in front of me. I took the original version, fixed typos and grammar, forced myself to do NO more than that, and sent it out. It sold. (Over the next five years it sold eight times. It didn’t get published for another six years or so, because it killed editors and magazines. No, I don’t know why. No one does. But one of the magazines survived long enough to PRINT it – it just got confiscated immediately after – and to send ONE copy out to the year’s best editors, which is why my very first publishable short, first draft with typos cleaned, was a honorable mention in the year’s best 1994 [I think] Check it out if you don’t believe it.)

Lesson learned. Which is why my short stories get two passes – at most – and my novels no more than five. (Novels are messier, you need to make sure your foreshadowing is in place and all your pointers point right. Some need fewer passes than five, but I don’t allow myself more than five, period.)

There is nothing wrong with that recital piece version of Thirst. Even now, reading over it, I can’t find anything wrong, as such. It’s just that the whole, taken together, has about as much life and appeal as boiled lettuce on a bed of blah. And no, the story didn’t change, just the wording and the punctuation.

I think Kris nailed it. It’s a recital piece and like those, it is played minding all of one’s ps and qs. Which means it has no feeling, no artistic expression.

(There is ONE workshop that shall remain unnamed, which acted as a pass to “get on editors’ desk free” and I often thought that it must be the only reason its graduates do well, because heaven help me, I could tell the graduates without looking at the cover letter [I usually didn’t, till I read the story.] I was never wrong. They produced perfect recital pieces, as exciting as a diet of cream of wheat. (Mind you some of these people kicked over the traces later and are d-mn good writers, but when they were freshly graduated, you could tell.)]

So, now that you’re not writing to please the publishers (or not only) since there’s always the alternate ability of going directly to readers, is this going to stop?

Of course not. Like kiddies getting prepped for a concert in front of all those important people, your own nervousness will work against you. And I bet as we speak there is someone writing an how-to book that starts with “To make a million dollars on Amazon you have to eschew the word “the”” or some other nonsense.

I’m not even going to say you shouldn’t read how-to books. I’ve learned a lot from how-tos, sometimes by going against what they say, of course. (You should keep in mind, though, that most of these how tos are actually “how to get on the editor’s desk” or “how to get in good with the publisher.” Not necessarily how to write in a way that readers enjoy. Look, for the last twenty years, sf/f at least – I don’t think romance? – has been in the grip of a minimalist current. It’s just a current, and the editors swore by it. By and large, I’ve found readers don’t like it though.)

All I’m saying is, when you’re done polishing to the Nth degree, get an original version of your story and read it side by side with the last version, and feel for it. REALLY feel. Is the recital piece really better? Or did it just take all the passion out of it? Did you remove anything that might offend anyone, and thereby make it as exciting as last week’s newspapers?

Consider. Perhaps your first version, with typos corrected, would work better. Or your first version with typos and logic flaws (if you have them. I, of course, never do [Grin]) fixed. Or some combination of both pieces.

But don’t assume your recital piece, because it’s “flawless” is what readers want. You’re not polishing the apple for teach. You’re not trying to get on the editor’s desk. It’s going to take learning a different dance.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

One comment

  1. This is interesting Sarah. When I was running hte Envision manuscirpt development course I had one writer in particular who would clean up her work, and cut it down util it was really hard to tell what was going on.

    I tend to think everything is too obvious and try to cut back. Then I worry that I’ve cut back too much and made the meaning obscure.

    Oh, we writers are neurotic creatures.

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