James Van Pelt

Jul 21, 22:58 by John Frost
Comments on Ken Rand's interview...
Jul 22, 00:06 by Jim Van Pelt
It was a pleasure being interviewed by Ken. He's professional and genuinely interested in writing and people. Can't beat that for a combination of attributes!
Jul 22, 04:41 by Terry Hickman
Great interview! Fascinating interviewee, as always. Thanks to both IROSF and Jim.
Jul 22, 05:36 by Lou Antonelli
Very good interview. It was enjoyable and enlightening.
Jul 22, 07:43 by Janine Stinson
Congrats to Ken Rand on a fine interview, and thanks to James Van Pelt for being the interviewee. Good (implied) questions, good (informative) answers. Thanks!

Jan S.
Jul 26, 01:03 by Wendy Delmater
Jim, we loved having you for the plot foucs at OWW. Glad you're turning that into a book - it was very informative (and fun!). Hope to see you at Worldcon.

Wendy S. Delmater
Jul 26, 08:33 by Jim Van Pelt
Hi, Wendy. I'm not going to WorldCon, darn it. I had to choose between Disneyland for the kids or WorldCon for myself. The mouse won.

A careful reader pointed out to me that it almost sounds like I'm saying DON'T use an action verb, DON'T be specific and DO use cliches in your first paragraph of a short story. Sheesh! I reread the article tons of times and didn't notice that. I also see I said "that" when I should have said "who" several times.

This is the result of doing an oral interview and is not a reflection on Ken's writing of it. I'm just naturally ungrammatical.
Jul 27, 11:04 by Jim Van Pelt
I think any new writer who really wants to give himself an education ought to try a stint of slush pile reading. It's the quickest path to seeing several things at the same time:

A) It's easy to be competitive (so much of the slush is awful)
B) It's easy to be original (so much of the slush isn't--more on this at the bottom of this post)
C) A lot of people are deluded about their own abilities
D) The standard mistakes are easy to spot and easy to avoid

But the only way to make all those conclusions is to read slush for a while. You might get the same effect by reading all the entries for a writing contest. When I was reading slush, just like it says in the interview, I was stunned by good stuff, and all the good stuff had to do to be good was to use action verbs, be specific and avoid cliches.

So, a word on creativity (which I promised earlier). The problem with being original and creative (are those synonyms?) is that a lot of people only equate originality with original ideas, but original ideas are EXTRAORDINARILY hard to come up with. It almost doesn't matter what you come up with on the idea level. Someone will say, "Oh, yeah. That kind of reminds me of . . . " I remember I wrote a story once that I was very proud of the idea. The main character was a writer who had a subconscious telekinetic power. He was filled with such self loathing that his telekinetic power would whip up monsters out of yard trash, and they would try to kill him.

I thought that was a great idea, until I realized that I had just redone the plot device in "The Forbidden Planet."

So, what I tell my students is that it is easy to be original and creative. Just be specific. The more specific you get in location, character, mannerism, actions, etc., the better the chance that NOBODY has ever written that specific story before.

That doesn't mean the story will be saleable. That doesn't mean that the story will even be unfamiliar (since the plot might be standard or contain no worthy payoffs or whatever), but at least your story won't be like so much of the slush pile where the author doesn't bother to be specific about ANYTHING until the middle of the manuscript, or maybe not even by then.

I can't believe the number of writers I've worked with who actually defended not being specific. "I didn't name the character (or even give it a gender) because I wanted any reader to identify with him/her," or "I didn't make the setting specific because I wanted the readers to believe this could happen in their backyards," or "My writing is too noble and pure to be sullied with wordly matters."
Jul 28, 16:20 by Mike Bailey
Jim,

Thanks for your insights. I can see why reading a slush pile would build confidence because when I read through 20-25 short speculative fiction stories per month to review them for Tangent Online, or for my own reading pleasure, I often catch myself saying, "This thing actually got published?" I get headaches trying to find something nice to say about some of the published stuff.

Have you checked out Critters.org? I joined Critters.org to get more practice at critiquing, and I have found that workshopping can feel similarly frustrating. Some of the "critted" works are very hard to read, and seem like they will never sell, even with major revisions. Qualification: There is some good stuff there as well, so don't take this as a slam on Critters. It seems to be a useful tool for writers who do not have access to good proof-readers or workshopping pals.

Is it possible that reading published short fiction would be a better way to learn than reading a slush pile? At least the reader would be seeing work that sold, and emulating "winning" habits.
Jul 28, 21:06 by Jim Van Pelt
Hi, Mike. Kudos on the work for Tangent, which I think is one of the writer's best resources on the web.

Yeay, I think that you learn a ton from reading work that sold, of course, but what's counterintuitive about the advice to read just published work is that for most of the slush pile writers published work is ALL they've ever read, and yet they produce these horribly written manuscripts. It's like there's a giant disconnect between the beautiful (or at least competent) prose they've read and the disjointed, hardly comprehensible prose they produce.

And that's just on a sentence level. A story, naturally, exists on much more than the sentence level, and the writer who can't produce at least sentence level readability (despite being deeply read), will really struggle at the larger task of making a story hang together.

This problem is discussed in composition theory, by the way. It's the difference between reader-based prose and writer-based prose. Many beginning writers work on the writer-based level. Everything they write sounds clear, reasonable, and even artistic to them because they know what effect they intended the prose to produce. They react to what they thought while they wrote, not what they actually wrote. It takes a lot of work for most writers to get to the reader-based prose level, which is where the work actually produces something close to what the writer intended. This is the writer being able to do the hard trick of performing and seeing the performance at the same time. Not easy stuff!

Reading published prose doesn't help clear this hurdle. All the work the writer is reading works. The writer knows that it works because it is published (circular reasoning is going into overtime here). So the writer reads the work differently.

However, when the writer reads work that the writer has to judge (i.e. a slush pile), a whole different thinking mechanism comes into order. The writer has to judge, "Does this work?" And it doesn't take much of a jump to say, "Why doesn't this work, and this other one does?" That's a great lesson for any writer.

I know that reading the slush taught me more about writing in a month than reading all the literary greats taught me in a lifetime.
Jul 28, 21:11 by Jim Van Pelt
That last statement about the literary greats is probably a bit of an overstatement. Reading good stuff for a lifetime prepared me in all kinds of ways for writing, but the preparation was incremental. Reading slush was like a high-voltage slam into writer theory. It made me think harder about what writing is about in a short period of time than any thinking I'd done to that point.

Because I've read slush, I read the published stuff differently too. I can ask with some context, "Why was this published? What separated it from the rest of the slush?" That's a pretty good question to ask as a writer also.
Jul 29, 07:26 by Marsha Sisolak
The last question is a great one to ask yourself when you spot something published in a pro venue that has obvious flaws. Rather than dwelling on its flaws, searching for what the work does right can focus your attention on how to improve your own skills. And I've found writing is all about improvement.

I don't know that it can nail that 'indefineable something' that jumps out at you when a submission crosses your editorial desk. Or maybe it can, but only on a subconscious level. I can point to those works that chime for me--chance's "Elvis in the Attic" short up at SciFiction, Bear's Kit Marlowe story in the same venue, Charlie's Trolls in F&SF, Ruth's "Looking Through Lace" in Asimov's... I could go on.

But only some stories in each magazine hit my "Oooh!" button, which is probably more related to editorial tastes (with a solid nod to knowing their readership's preferences).

There's a lot of competent work in the slush, in addition to the truly awful. What separates 'competent' from 'sold' can be a very fine line. One of these days, I should probably try to define the spark for each story in a couple of issues. If nothing else, it might give me an insight into the editor that purchased those pieces.
Jul 30, 13:36 by Jim Van Pelt
The effect of reading slush for me was horrifying. After a lengthy session I'd become increasingly frustrated and angry. It was not a good idea for me to read more than a handful at a time, and it certainly was a bad idea for me to write rejection letters after I'd been reading for a while. The comments could become downright toxic.

Slush had a cummulative effect on me, like exposure to mercury. I don't know how long-time editors do it.

On the other hand, I don't seem to have much trouble wading through stacks of badly written (oops! I should say the teacher PC term, "in progress") high school essays.
Jul 30, 17:14 by Bluejack
Perhaps the difference is in the nature of the task: rejection is toxic work, teaching is not?

I am sure this is why editors use form letters for rejections: sometimes all you have to say is "No Thanks" and trying to say it personally is hard on both parties.

Just guessing.
Jul 30, 18:06 by Jim Van Pelt
Hi, Blunt. Good to hear from you.

You could be right. The slush pile is filled with anonymous manuscripts, and the editor's purpose is to find the good stuff.

The stack of essays has real people the teacher has worked with behind it, and the teacher's purpose is to help the writer to improve.

An entirely different mindset.

I'm reminded of a Gary Larson cartoon, though, that shows a jazz musician being showed to his room in hell (Charlie Parker maybe). It's a middle school band class.

Many teachers have exactly the same fate. They go into subject because they really, really love it. Imagine the art teacher who spends the summer in the art museums in Italy, or the band teacher who has a complete collection of all the recorded blues from the 30s and 40s, or the English teacher who goes into ecstasy over a collection of Emily Dickinson's works. What did all of them choose for a day to day life? The art teacher looks at poorly done Frank Frazetta wannabes, the band teacher directs the umpteenth version of a Phillip Sousa march, and the English teacher gets to read page after page of mangled prose.

The irony is palpable.
Aug 2, 11:01 by Mike Bailey
On teaching: Fortunately for me, my wife, who is a math teacher, does it more because she loves kids and happens to be good at math, not because she wants to come up with the next great equation. I can imagine her frustration if she was a true math connoisseur.

On the slush comments: Jim's remark about the "giant disconnect" makes sense to me, and when I examine exactly when I began to understand why stories work for me, I find it was when I began reading Critters and lower-quality fringe markets, and not the good stuff, because until then I didn't really know what did NOT work for me.
Aug 2, 17:14 by Jim Van Pelt
Hi,Mike. I have a friend who is a middle school math teacher for exactly the same reasons as your wife.

Some people teach because they love kids. Go figure *g*.
   

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