Science fiction round-up

One of the big cliches in modern science fiction – probably right up there with ‘a spaceship with two people arrive on a planet, and their names turn out to be Adam and Eve’ – is a time traveler going back in time to kill Adolf Hitler. That in and of itself has become a cliche, but here are two funny takes on it:

1. a Subnormality comic strip: The home of Adolf Hitler, 1933: Doubt sets in

2. a very short story: Wikihistory

The latter, though, is completely unbelievable. Not because of the time travel, but because everyone on that forum uses correct grammar and punctuation. I can suspend disbelief, but some things go beyond that. *grin*

Also in the realm of the unbelievable: Arthur C. Clarke died. Night has fallen.

I’ve never been a Discworld fan. I know, I KNOW, but I just never got into the books. Hang on, let me check which ones I’ve read. I know I ditched Hogfather partway through, but I completed The Light Fantastic, Guards! Guards!, Equal Rites – huh, I could have sworn I read The Color of Magic, but it isn’t on my list. Anyway, feel free to shriek ‘but you need to read [x]!’. I’m going to have to ignore you, though, because I have yards if not miles of unread books.

However, my opinion of his novels aside, it is a shame that Mr. Pratchett has Alzheimer’s. He recently donated a lot of money for research, and fans are trying to match his donations. Over at the Donald Maass Literary Agency, agent Jennifer Jackson (who I’m guessing has a license to kill your e-mail if you send an attachment without permission) is making a very nice offer:

To the person reading this blog that makes the highest donation by midnight on Saturday, the 22nd (and sends me some verification thereof), I will read and review your synopsis plus 50 (or so) pages of a work-in-progress (limited to novel-length fiction in the adult/YAgenre categories I actually represent). Go to the entry to get logistical details.

Alas, I don’t think I can donate nearly enough to be in the running, but if any of you do, please let me know!

I caught this morning writers writing

I don’t have many short stories suitable for submitting to little contests, simply because the word limit tends to be 2,000-3,000 words and it’s not a length I’ve recently worked with. (The other competition ceiling is 5,000 words. That was the really nice thing about the Willesden Herald prize – no word limit. Though I sent one of the 4,500 ones, as it’s my best work to date.)

Anyway, I was pleased to check the website for a competition I entered back in December and find that I’m on the shortlist. Said list is here but the page has been overwritten at least once. (For reference – mainly my own – the competition guidelines can be found on Sally’s blog.) I presume the shortlist will vanish when the winners are announced, so what it says right now is:

Thanks again to everyone who took the trouble to enter our competition. With great difficulty we’ve narrowed the entries down to our short list of twenty. As writing club members ourselves, we know the disappointment of not getting this far. It’s been a difficult but democratic process and many individual’s favourite stories have not made this cut so please don’t give up if you’ve not made it this time in our competition.

And my story title is one of twenty on the list. Woot!

The group awarding the prize is the Brighter Writers Writing Circle, which name always sets me off reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins (specifically, ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion’).

Anyway, fingers crossed! It’s a nice little story, if I do say so myself.

Behind the curtain

Submitting manuscripts, whether for publication or for competitions, rather feels like the literal meaning of ‘over the transom': you put everything lovingly in an envelope, seal it with a kiss, and then hurl it through a window above your head. If you’re lucky, you hear the PLOP-sssssssslide as the envelope hits the top of the mound consisting of all the other envelopes and then sinks to the floor. Sometimes you can hear the spiders laughing. You know, the spiders who have spun eighteen zillion webs since the last time anyone kicked the pile of envelopes and said, “sure are a lot of envelopes here.”

I don’t normally discuss submissions-in-progress because, well, it jinxes things! Yeah. But back in December I submitted DNP to the Freedom in Fiction prize. My dad, bless him, not only insisted on paying for the postage, but sent it priority mail even though regular would have been fine (and even though I’d already put it in an envelope which we then had to pay for, rather than the priority mail envelope which would have been free).

This is an unusual prize – in fact, I don’t know of anything else like it, though that isn’t to say nothing similar has ever existed. Basically, they are looking for novels which are (to use shorthand) libertarian in outlook: free market and personal liberties good, government oppression and two legs bad. The first stage is submitting a two-page outline (that bugbear!) and two sample chapters. No entry fee, neither! Then they’ll announce that none of the entries is gooder writing select ten finalists.

Those finalists each get 1 kilodollar, which would certainly be appreciated round these parts. Everyone has a year to get their complete manuscripts in. The winner gets 10 grand and, if the novel sells more than 10,000 copies in the first year after publication, a further $90,000. (And before you ask: ixnay on the vanity press route.)

Because I have the patience of Thundercat, i.e. zero, I dropped an e-mail to the contest administrator in mid-January politely asking whether they had in fact received the envelope, so I could cross off “lost by US Mail” from my interminable list of things to worry about. (I didn’t say that part.) Received back a polite e-mail saying yes. A few days ago, I got the official acknowledgement letter, which suggested we entrants could get in touch if we had any further questions.

I couldn’t resist asking: how many entrants?

The contest was advertised around on plenty of blogs, and I found three other people who talked about entering – Taran Jordan (who seems to have taken down her ‘I submitted it!’ entry [yes, indeed; see comments]), Daniel J. Davis, and, blast, I know there was a third one! – ah, Eric M. Shear. But obviously, four entrants do not a competition make.

I was also curious because generally, everything about a competition is cloaked in secrecy. How is the judging actually done? Who judges it? If you submit two copies, does that mean only two people read the entries? (Or maybe only one, and the other gets thrown down the stairs in the old ‘the one on the bottom gets an A‘ grading scheme?) Do the judges mark every entry ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then draw up individual shortlists? Do they hold an interminable coffee-fueled meeting at which they sit at a table piled with manuscripts, arguing over merit, occasionally pulling something out of the pile, getting paper cuts, and brandishing a chapter while shouting “this one goes through or I never speak to you again!”? Is there any cake at these meetings, and if so, is any of it lemon poppy seed?

(I am very fond of lemon poppy seed cake.)

Well, I don’t know any of those answers. But the administrator kindly wrote back to say they’d received just over a hundred entries. Which he (and I) feel is a healthy start.

Regardless of whether I place, I think it’s a fantastic competition, and I hope it continues. Best of luck to all my fellow competitors!

Published in: on February 12, 2008 at 9:03 pm  Comments (3)  
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Two links and a letter

The Guardian picked up the Willesden Herald story, which I suppose makes the debacle officially artsy. The comments are a scream, largely consisting of a) flame wars (with the active participation of the WH guy) and b) people writing really bad prose. Oh, wait, these things generally happen in Guardian comments. Anyway, if you’re looking for the blog entry I linked to yesterday, it’s still there, but the misquoted Swift and the hand-glued-to-forehead stuff have been mercifully excised.

(Interestingly, I didn’t look at the excerpt of that Swift poem and think, that’s wrong! I just had the feeling it was misquoted. EngLitdar? Well, dammit, this degree should be good for something.)

When you’ve tired of all that, the Guardian also has a lovely article on Persephone Books. ‘The people who ran Virago believed in a much rawer kind of feminism. Mine is gentler, but I’m just as much of a feminist‘. Wait, women are allowed to be just as multi-faceted as men? Stop the presses!

And back in the world of other competitions, I got a polite acknowledgement letter from a competition I entered a few months ago. Even though there’s no possible way that the finalists could have been selected yet, I still went into hypermode upon opening the letter – that peculiar combination of time slowing down and every thought in the world going through your head. It often goes something like this:

*starts ripping open envelope*

Did I win? I could so use that prize money. But they couldn’t have chosen a winner yet; it’s barely February. Maybe mine was so excellent they stopped reading all the other entries because I was so obviously the winner. I can feel there’s only one sheet in this envelope! That means it’s a rejection. They’re burning the manuscript and cackling as they toss bits of Barbie dolls into the flames. Barbie dolls? – where did THAT come from? Why do these envelopes always rip halfway through opening them and then you have to pry from the other end? Can’t these people get better envelopes? I don’t have TIME for this. Did I win?

*pulls out acknowledgement letter*

Right. That’s what I thought.

Willesden Herald: fin, part 2

The Willesden [you'd think I could finally spell that without having to check the tab] Herald has offered its really final statement. In brief:

  1. They’re donating the prize money to charity.
  2. They’re misquoting Jonathan Swift.
  3. They’re taking their ball and going home possibly ending the short story competition. Or proposing to do so. Or just mentioning the possibility so people will feel bad. (More on this below.)

I think the prospect of situations like this are why competitions include lines to the effect that ‘all decisions are final and the judges will not enter into correspondence’. I wholly support public enquiry, transparency, and all that jazz, and I like the way that t’Internet allows us to have these dialogues whereas before we just had to scribble tearfully in our notebooks, but the post-announcement actions and reverses feel as though they were prompted far more by anonymous blog commentators than the integrity on which the competition took such a controversial stand. I suspect the legacy will be much less ‘they wanted excellence but failed to find it in the slush pile; we shall all try harder to be excellent next year’ than ‘they kept waffling and everyone got annoyed’.

In summary: a shame. I do hope the competition continues – and I expect it will because I can’t see how a major decision could possibly be taken in the immediate aftermath. But I’d recommend adding that one clause to the rules – and sticking to it, no matter how many people take anonymous potshots.

Published in: on February 7, 2008 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Willesden Herald competition: fin

Wow, I should write snarky entries about competitions more often; I’ve gotten more search engine hits for it than about anything else I’ve ever written. Do stick around! No doubt I’ll soon have equally irascible commentary about markets who don’t even bother e-mailing out form rejection letters.

Anyway, the final statement is here, but the important details are:

  • out of 850 entries, only two got ‘yes’ votes from all three judges who did the initial reading;
  • Zadie Smith read about 20 entries, after the rest had been either dismissed (with three ‘no’ votes) or haggled over by the judges;
  • judging competitions is really really tough [I'm not being snarky about this];
  • the shortlisted writers don’t want their names announced NOR do they want any prize money, and many seem to have been outright hostile about it (unless the blog writer’s statement ‘They told us to f*** off’ is meant in a metaphorical sense);
  • ‘to be worthy of first place in a competition which celebrates outright excellence’ is better than ‘to be the best of a batch’ though the latter is also good.

The bottom line is that they were unable to find even one story of ‘outright excellence’ [insert acknowledgement of relativism here], and only 1/425ths of the entries got a thumbs up from all three initial judges. I’m glad they have standards of excellence, and no one should feel obliged to compromise because heaven knows there’s enough mediocrity in the world, but with a pool of 800+ entries, it’s clear that few of us have the slightest chance of reaching those standards.

Published in: on February 6, 2008 at 5:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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Willesden Herald competition: update

According to their blog, they have decided to split the prize money among the shortlisted contestants. Which I applaud. Apparently there will be a further announcement made in the course of time, which I suppose could be anything from ‘we’ve chosen a winner after all’ to ‘we’re never running this again because we got so much flak for it’ or anything in between.

In relation to my discussion with Sally yesterday: nothing wrong with striving for excellence, and I’m sure we’ve all seen contests where the winning entries were dramatically underwhelming. However, if (as Sally pointed out) this competition is actively about ‘nurturing writers’, it seems counter-productive to demand a phenomenal level of excellence. The BBC short story prize requires you to be actively publishing in order to submit, and I presume that acts as a way of cutting out the less professional semi-pros (though people like me will still be able to submit). There’s probably a way of balancing the two, but being inclusive does have some drawbacks.

I guess the problem is: are the WH judges willing to award prizes (whether this year or in future) to the best of the stories they receive? Because they’re clearly setting a bar over which none of those 800 entries flew. Either they lower that bar (even a little), or they rejig their entry requirements. Because this middle ground isn’t happy for anyone.

Published in: on February 6, 2008 at 10:28 am  Comments (1)  
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800 entrants, no hope

The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, judged by Zadie Smith, said that they couldn’t find a story good enough to win.

I say, bah.

It attracted 800 entries. Yes, some of those are going to be crap. Badly spelled, under punctuated crap. Some will be so dusty from sitting in the drawer that you can’t turn the pages without having to brush bits of fuzz off your jeans. But I simply can’t believe that there isn’t something there that doesn’t make you shout, YES! The short story is alive and well!

And to forestall any ‘but you can’t imagine the kind of drek a slush pile generates’ objections: in fact, I can. I interned at Copper Canyon Press (waves to J.B.) and I had to wade through the mound of hundreds of poetry manuscripts to find the shortlisted ones. Some of those manuscripts had pictures for each poem, and explanations of why they were significant. I’ve also been an editorial assistant for an academic journal that also accepted fiction and poetry, and made actual real decisions. Does this mean I’d always get it right if given a box of stories? Hell, no. But I can’t imagine finding nothing that popped my cork.

(One thing that bugs me about competitions like this (meaning, big name judges) is that the judges don’t see all the entries – just the ones that ‘qualified judges’ send forward. If I ever judge a contest like this, I damn well want all the entries. Even the ones that can’t spell. Because that’s the second major short story prize this year that I know of where the judge complained about the quality of entries, but who’s actually making those decisions?)

This is an international short story competition with a £5,000 prize and no entry fee. While many big name writers are going to be too busy fulfilling their book contracts to write short stories, plenty of semi-pros aren’t. And they did, in fact, come up with a shortlist. (One suggestion in the comments of the official announcement suggested dividing the prize money among those top ten.)

I suppose I should be all pleased that they have enough integrity to announce no winner. But if standards are so astronomically high, why should any of us bother?

Yes, I’ll reapply next year. After all, big money prizes with no entry fees are not ten-a-penny. And as I don’t write ‘jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London [...], cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires’, then maybe I have a chance.

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