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Lakeshore - [process] On competence and mediocrity
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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-10-20 09:36
Subject: [process] On competence and mediocrity
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Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:thoughtful
Music:rain on my window
Tags:links, process, writing
Responding to a few things here, here, and here (among other places), I wanted to say a few more words.

First of all, I think I took jeffvandermeer's original post in the spirit in which he intended. On the other hand, I know him reasonably well professionally and personally, and as I said to swan_tower, I bring a lot of extratextual context to reading Jeff's words. I also think people are feeling challenged, even stung, by the allegations of competence.

Competence is the death of art. Like the children of Lake Wobegone, we all must be above average.

My slush pile experience leads to some thoughts here. Understand first of all that I'm not a developmental editor, never have been. Of all the stories I've bought, either working alone or in editorial collaboration, I've sent less than a handful back for rewrite without first committing to buy them. It's not my job to develop new writers within my editorial projects. If I were editing a recurring market — monthly or quarterly, for example — I might well take a different view of this. Certainly many editors do, and rightly so. (For what it's worth, where I do pay forward and try to develop new writers is within my frequent convention workshopping, and on a one-on-one basis.) My job is to put together the best anthology I can, via the art and science of acquisitions editing.

I figured out this morning that I've read approaching 3,000 stories in slush piles over the past five or six years. While we tell each other tall tales about slush pile horror in convention bars and on panels, the reality is that the slush pile is a bell curve. The left hand tail is the laughable crap, the rising curve is mediocrity, the tall center is competence, the falling curve is quality and the right hand tail is excellence.

Competence sometimes sells. Books have been bought because a hole in the publisher's line needs to be filled right then. Stories have been bought because there was a certain sized slot left over in the anthology or magazine, and the story was "good enough." I think Jeff's point was that "good enough" isn't good enough. You want to be all the wait out on the Long Tail of excellence, at the far right of the bell curve.

Is that possible for every story, every time, with every editor? Hell no. Tastes vary, even within the same person's mind depending on their mood. But as someone else recently said to me in a different context, shoot for the stars and hit the moon. Don't be as good as someone else, or even your own most recent work. Be better.

I fail at this a whole lot more often than I succeed, even in my own writing. But I try. And I don't ever plan to die of comptence.

As always, write more.
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken: holmes confidence
User: matociquala
Date: 2007-10-20 17:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:holmes confidence
Actually, my response had nothing to do with being stung; it wasn't personal at all. I may not be the most gifted writer working in SFF right now, but I will stack my work ethic and my willingness to take chances and push my limits up against anybody's.

My response had to do with what seemed to me to be Jeff making a series of specious arguments arranged around a flawed piece of rhetoric.

On the other hand, apparently that wasn't what he *meant,* and I agree, more or less, with what he was trying to say. But what he said--and what the vast majority of his commentors are agreeing with--is that the short fiction market is a wasteland of not-very-interesting stories, and that this is because writers aren't trying hard enough.

Is some of the stuff you consider edgy or interesting likely to bore me to tears, and vice versa? Most likely: I find Grand Guignol theatre-of-the-grotesque (something both you and Jeff do quite well) to be incredibly, well, boring.

If you want to personalize, look at it this way: is the SFF short fiction market a wasteland of banal stories?

Yep. Have I written some of them? Yep. Have you?

Yep.

Does that mean we weren't working our asses off when we wrote them?

Well, I can't speak for you and/or Jeff, and maybe you guys weren't working to capacity, but you know what? I am trying. And I grant you the dignity of assuming you were trying, too.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-20 18:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am trying. And I grant you the dignity of assuming you were trying, too.

I would say exactly the same to you. The "stung" remark actually wasn't to your address, fwiw.
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken: comics invisibles lord fanny
User: matociquala
Date: 2007-10-20 18:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:comics invisibles lord fanny
;-)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-20 18:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
PS. I hope you know how much I admire you.
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken: froud tapestry
User: matociquala
Date: 2007-10-20 18:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:froud tapestry
Right back atcha, man. *g* (And Jeff too, honestly. If I thought he was a waste of air, I wouldn't bother to argue. He could go into the oubliette with Truesdale and some other folks. *g*)
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2007-10-20 18:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't think you and I use the word "competence" in the same way.

For me, competence is the halo bearing enemy of that curse of the writer, perfection. I know what competence feels like: it's a high sheen, fine edge, everything checked and polished and heading out of the door.

I teach my students to aim for competence because it gets work *done* and a manuscript can be perfect but if no one else ever reads it, is it still perfect?

The key thing tho is to get rid of the idea that competence implies low standards.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-20 18:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Mmm...I think you and I are perhaps indeed having a vocabulary gap. In this context, to me, "competent" means capable but without that fine edge you describe. To me, that is "excellent".
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2007-10-20 18:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But surely only the recipient can judge something excellent? I as the producer cannot.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-20 18:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
On that we agree. As I often say, the writer is the worst judge of their own work. At the same, striving for excellence and taking new risks is part of how we as writers grow. As producer, I cannot judge my work with any effectiveness. Still, I usually know, for example, when a story is flawed. I also usually know when I've phoned in a piece, as opposed to writing with the edges in my heart.
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2007-10-20 19:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
[grin]

It's the way *this* entry is written that reminds me how much I like you!
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russ
User: goulo
Date: 2007-10-21 06:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You seem to use "competent" in a more narrow sense than I am used to seeing and using. For you it seems to mean something like "exactly 75% good, no better and no worse" (to pick a random number) and for me at means "at least 75% good". So when I saw you railing against competence, I was confused and thought "WTF? Does he think it's better to be incompetent?" For me it is valid (but a weaker statement than, e.g., that he is an excellent writer) to say that Gene Wolfe is a competent writer, and for you it is invalid.
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Wendy S. Delmater: A&A
User: safewrite
Date: 2007-10-20 20:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:A&A
It's not my job to develop new writers within my editorial projects. If I were editing a recurring market — monthly or quarterly, for example — I might well take a different view of this.

Right, exactly. We're quarterly. That's why at A&A we often give guidance on rewrites before we buy.
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Leah Bobet
User: leahbobet
Date: 2007-10-20 21:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Understand first of all that I'm not a developmental editor, never have been. Of all the stories I've bought, either working alone or in editorial collaboration, I've sent less than a handful back for rewrite without first committing to buy them.

I...appear to be that editor. We send a lot back for rewrites, even if they're minor. We have been known to go eight rounds on a story with an author, and it seems to work.

What I'm currently having to think out is what to do if we send something for rewrites and they hit the wrong target -- it's happened once or twice and I don't think we handle it in the best way.
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User: supaluv
Date: 2007-10-20 23:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When I said "shoot for the stars..." I was talking about your professional ambitions. I think you're right to always strive to do better with your fiction. Publishing success, winning awards, they are great, but how many great works have you read that have been passed up for a prestigious award in lieu of something that wasn't as good? It's not a true measure of personal success unless you invest yourself in the awards, and not in your fiction. Why not pre-empt mid-life crisis--work the soulless professional stuff, but leave your heart in your art.

I'm saying, you aim for the stars, and sometimes crash on the moon--but at least you got off the fucking planet. ;)
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Douglas Cohen
User: douglascohen
Date: 2007-10-21 01:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I enjoy developmental editing, though I don't do it often. If I'm going to ask an author to rewrite something, I want to be certain that when all is said and done the story will have a legitimate shot of being bought by Shawna. Otherwise it's not fair to the author, and it's also not fair to Shawna. I'm supposed to pass along stuff to her that deserves further consideration. If a particular rewrite doesn't, but I still pass it along, I'm not doing my job. And I don't want to request rewrites and reject them, though I do make all authors aware that if I pass the story along to Shawna there is no guarantee of publication.

Developmental editing is also rather time-consuming, so if I'm going to put in this additional work I want it to pay dividends. Dividends don't necessarily mean a sale for the author (though those are preferable), simply that the story improves enough that it deserves further consideration.

I've never tracked how many rewrites I request a year, but I'm positive it's under a dozen, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-8. Of these, a total of 4 have been bought. So I'm VERY careful about asking for rewrites/revisions. I've also been on the other side of the rewrite request (multiple rounds that led to a sale with Interzone, and another rewrite request that ended in a rejection from IGMS), so I try to use these experiences from "the other side of the fence" to aid me when asking for rewrites.

Interesting topic, btw.
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ellen datlow
User: ellen_datlow
Date: 2007-10-21 15:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's funny, I've never called it "developmental editing" --it's "substantive" editing--at least that what it's called in trade book publishing. "Developmental editor" is a term for technical publishers. But whatever it's called, that's what an editor does--works with writers.

As an anthologist and not currently editor of an ongoing enterprise I do it a bit less, but I'll often go through at least one, maybe two rewrites with a writer--ask Jeff Ford--(during our Capclave mutual interview he mentioned that we went back and forth several times on one of the first stories I bought from him. I totally forgot because I do it so often). I measure editing by how many inches the emails are --one recent story went through an inch of rewrites/edits :-).

What I make clear is that I'm not committing to buying the story by working with the author --if I think the story needs extensive rewrites. More often than not, the stories I know I'm taking will still require if not a revision or two, at least a careful line edit.
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Douglas Cohen
User: douglascohen
Date: 2007-10-21 16:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Substantive editing, huh? Having not worked in trade book publishing, I wouldn't have known that. Thanks!
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ellen datlow
User: ellen_datlow
Date: 2007-10-21 16:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's where I started. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known either :-)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-10-21 16:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My bad on "developmental editing" — I was using the wrong term. And you have just elucidated one majpr difference between the high end of trade publishing editing and the independent press. Thank you.
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