Rose Petals in the Grand Canyon

WRITING 02I don’t know who said it first, since the saying has been attributed to many people over the years, but it goes something like this: “Publishing a short story is rather like dropping rose petals into the Grand Canyon and listening for the thud.”  As you’ve probably deduced by now, as a general rule there is no thud. If you’re lucky, a few people will care enough to comment on the story–pro or con–when it’s posted, and if you’re really lucky two or more readers will get in an argument about it which will make other people want to read it just so they know what these folks are on about. But mostly you publish a story, whatever the venue, and in a month or so it’s as if you didn’t do anything at all. This is not a complaint, mind you, but for most writers slogging in the short fiction trenches, it’s just the way things are. So when you get some recognition beyond that, say an award nomination or Best of the Year nod, it tends to perk up your day.

All by way of saying that “In the Palace of the Jade Lion” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies #100 was listed in Lois Tilton’s Locus Online year-end review as one of her favorite stories of the year. I’m glad. It was one of my favorites, too.

Happy New Year. May we all have something to celebrate this time around. Heaven Knows we could use it.

Getting It — And no, Not That “It”

I got a good review not too long ago that made me very happy. Those who recall any previous rants on this subject may be right to wonder why I’m in such a good mood after a thing so inconsequential in the Great Scheme of Things as a favorable review. “We don’t need no steenkin’ validation” and like that, and aren’t I being just a tad hypocritical?

First, my answer is the same as Emerson’s, namely: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” so get over it. Second, I’m not actually talking validation here, or at least not of the stroke kind. Human nature naturally prefers praise but whether the review was a praise or a pan really is beside the point. The reason I’m feeling all chuffed and preening is that the reviewer understood what I was doing.

That is a lot rarer than it should be. Fess up time: haven’t you ever finished a review, good or bad, and wondered just what bloody story they were reading, cause it sure as hell wasn’t the one you wrote? Happens to me all the time. Of the current crop of reviewers, Rich Horton and Lois Tilton are seldom guilty of this, but they’re the exceptions, not the rule.

I’m not going to repeat the “rose petals into the Grand Canyon” analogy. Too tired and obvious. Still, you other writers out there know it’s true. Few things will grind your soul more than realizing that the people who, at least in theory, are your intended readership simply cannot parse your work. “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge” is, in my not so humble opinion, one of the best stories I’ve ever done, and yet the early reader reaction wasn’t much better than a sort of vague puzzlement, and a great deal of: “but I figured out the ending!” Which I never did figure out the polite response to, though the appropriate response was “Then you were paying attention and have decent reading comprehension skills. Congrats.”

Yeah, yeah. He got a good review and he’s a happy guy. So what and why should we care? Why? Because reader reaction — and a reviewer is above all a reader — is one more bit of information that helps us judge whether we accomplished what we set out to do in any given story. While praise is always nice enough, if a reviewer pans OR praises a story of yours in terms that prove he or she didn’t have the vaguest clue what it was about, exactly how inclined are you to pay attention? You may allow yourself a few minutes of annoyed or bemused bafflement at why they could not see what was plainly there, but probably not much more than that. Now, what about a review that is clearly a pan but nevertheless explains the story’s shortcomings in terms that make sense to you? Was your narrative a little unfocused? Did you really indulge in a fun little digression that undercut your theme? Are they right? You can say they’re being too picky if you want, but deep down you know that, in fact, they are right. Chances are you knew the flaws were there and just didn’t want to see them, or knew something wasn’t quite right but couldn’t quite pin it down. When those flaws are exposed to you by someone who understands what the story is about, by someone who reads carefully, knows what the story was attempting and points out where it fails, the chances are much greater that you’re going to learn something you need to know. Such pans are worth reading and such praise is worth enjoying.

The rest is just so much noise.