Friday, January 30, 2009

On Constructive Feedback

It's easy to lash out. Ever check out a book on Amazon and found a 1-star review that burns a book? Sometimes you'll find that the author responds to that 1-star review with ferocity. I even noticed one author who created a fake identity to respond to a bad review (obvious through textual analysis). A tremendous misdirection of energy.

The point has to do with attacking versus supporting someone's writing and why working at Our Stories satisfies an editor.

Alexis said it perfectly in his essay "Begin, Again" in our Winter 2009 issue. We are sending out our own writing even while accepting, commenting on, and even having to reject work that comes to us.

Embracing a story that works feels good. Writing that email to that writer and saying, "Hey, your story is compelling, the writing clear and sharp, and I'm recommending it for publication," feels amazingly good. But even more rewarding is having an opportunity to focus our love of fiction onto a piece that isn't working, giving that writer a free workshopped story version or just a really long discussion of where in the story we thought elements weren't harmonizing. From experience, we know it's difficult to find even among friends someone who will read, really carefully read, your writing and give feedback. And from us, people who submit can know we're giving unbiased, honest feedback based on our mission to incite revision and to generate a community of writers who actually give a damn about reaching our potential as fiction writers (as Steve Almond comments on in our interview with him).

Finally, let me once again self-indulge by quoting something John Gardner says somewhere (I think in On Becoming a Novelist) about workshops and feedback.

Attacking a work, he says, leads to writer's block--but not only in the writer who was attacked. It also inhibits the attacker.

The opposite, that energizing someone to write also energizes the supporter, is equally true.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Winter 2009 Issue Has Arrived

Dear Writers,

At approximately 6am yesterday morning we put up the Winter 2009 issue. We are proud to announce Tom Lisenbee is the winner of the Richard Bausch Short Story Prize with his story "Pigs on the Levee." This contest was a very tough call and we were very pleased with all runners up. I hope you enjoy the issue. Thank you to everyone who submitted to the contest. I have been getting lots of emails from those who didn't win in praise of our staff member's work on your stories. Please know that we really appreciate your feedback.

For now, enjoy the issue--the interview with Steve Almond and all of Our Stories.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Contest is Closed!

Well, all good things and that sort of stuff. The Richard Bausch short story contest is closed for submissions as of January 15th 11:59pm. Me and the rest of the staff will be going through the last batch of stories and making some tough decisions. We should have a winner by the end of the month.

We thank everyone who chose to submit their stories this quarter and wish them all the best of luck.

Gotta run, got stories to read.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Something about Profluence in Fiction ~ Robert Olen Butler as Example

The stories that immediately grip me are usually the ones that establish some kind of forward momentum, or profluence--something to be anticipated--on page one.

Although literary conventions grow from mainstream attitudes about literature (think Foucault's manipulated discourses), it's worth thinking about something Aristotle says in the first line of _Metaphysics_, that "all humans by nature desire to know."

Assuming for now that Aristotle's premise is sound, it justifies a writer's concern with generating SOME kind of suspense (either through action or thought or description) in a story. Human cognitive tendencies, that is, seem to compel us to pay most attention to things that lead to answers.

I read a story the other day from Robert Olen Butler called "Salem" published in The Mississippi Review in 1995.

This story is an example of one whose current action is a character's looking at a pack of Salem cigarettes and thinking, but imagery and discovery (as well as some details from past events) provide compelling profluence.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Note on Editing Fiction

Once in a while, a writer will write an editor and ask what in the world that editor meant about a certain comment on a story.

In the end, comments from editors are sometimes well-meant approximations, general help from honest souls trying to do good.

Those approximations, sometimes accurate, sometimes off, sometimes just maybe can guide like Miyamoto Musashi (famous samurai and author of The Book of Five Rings) who believed that his teachings (not that editors are teachers--they aren't, but let's go with the analogy) best guide someone by keeping aesthetic laws, in Musashi's case those of swordfighting, just beyond concrete, tangible reach because aesthetic laws exist at such an abstract level that they are not very useful when steadfastly applied to, say, the writing of stories.

That's why the best thing to do, sometimes, for someone you're trying to help is, instead of telling them how to fix a story, letting them know where something wasn't as brilliant on paper as it is in the writer's mind.

In the end, the editors at Our Stories are unique. We signed on to give feedback on every single submission.

If we're off from time to time, as editors sometimes are, hopefully the love that guides our work at least offered some helpful, though maybe rough, calculations.