In the Green Room: Thoughts on the 2011-2012 Contest Submissions, and Some Advice

[Edit: It’s been brought to my attention that one of the points below can be misinterpreted as complaining about the quality of the fiction submitted to the Contest. I’m going to leave the post as it is, but let me make this absolutely clear: No disparagement on the quality of the stories submitted, and especially on those which hit the finalist set, was intended. I was merely commenting on the fact that we had hoped to see more stories (in general) with a diverse perspective than we did. I have taken responsibility in the Comments below for not making that clear enough when the Contest began – you should probably read the Comments on this post, incidentally, since I have responded therein to a question about content admissibility for next year]

While getting the website ready to house the winning stories, and dealing with the rest of the preparatory work that goes into the final stages of a fiction contest, I’ve been thinking back on the body of submissions we received for this contest. We did a statistical overview of the contest entries already, but there are several things that occur to me about this body of submissions. And, since the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest is to be an annual event, I thought I would share those observations with you all now and give you some time to think about them before the 2012-2013 contest opens to submissions later in the year.

Oh, and before I get started, now that we’ve put our submissions process to the test over the course of the 2011-2012 contest year, we’re going to up the word limit on entries to 5,000 words per story going forward. Just thought you might like to know …

So, you may recall from our statistical breakdown that we had 102 total submissions for the 2011-2012 reading period, and our statistical breakdown actually aligns perfectly with what most pro rate Spec Fic magazines see in a given period (based on publicly available statistical information). The male/female ratio of submissions, as well as the higher female to male ratio of advancement is standard. As are the country of origin numbers: magazines that do not exist solely online, but which have a physical presence in a specific country tend to see higher submissions from that country. So it is with us, and the fact that we saw a much higher percentage of submissions coming from Canada was expected. And, because the Merril Collection itself is based in Toronto, we saw a great many submissions from Toronto, though our Canadian submissions did come from many, though not all, of the Canadian Provinces.

Actually, one of the most surprising things about the submissions, totally unrelated to who, or where, they were coming from, was the total lack of any stories with QUILTBAG protagonists. There are a couple of stories that come to mind where secondary characters might have been something other than cisgendered heterosexual characters, but if so that was something that was never addressed. It’s … unusual … in a submissions pile that large to find a total lack of protagonists, or even secondary characters, of any of the many QUILTBAG orientations. And I find it troubling.

Though I think it may speak to a larger issue in the slush pile for the 2011-2012 year.

And here is where I pause and say that, yes, all the opinions on this page are being issued by one person, i.e. me: Michael Matheson. And I will also take this opportunity to remind you that there is a Comments field at the bottom of this page where you are free to refute, conversely agree with, or debate anything I say herein. This is not a dais. I am not on a soapbox. I am giving you a view behind the scenes of this contest’s submissions process with an eye to opening up discussion, and hopefully getting you thinking seriously about what you’re going to put together for the next contest year. And, just possibly, getting you thinking about what you’re writing next for anywhere else you’re sending work as well.

Now, when I say that there is “a larger issue”, what I’m talking about is the fact that none of the submissions that came in were pushing the envelope (though you’ll note that didn’t prevent us from picking winners, or from picking a full complement of finalists, either). That’s not a throwaway line here, nor an easy out: fiction should push boundaries, and seek new ground. It should challenge the reader’s perceptions, or seek to do something innovative (in terms of content and/or execution). I could, technically, take that point further and talk about the impetus placed on all artists to comment on, and change, the society in which they exist through their work. But I know that not all writers write for the same reason and that some of you are bound to be uncomfortable with the idea of giving your work a social, political, or more controversial basis, so I will simply say this instead: it is entirely fair to say that every single submission that came in for the 2011-2012 contest year was written from an author’s comfort zone.

You don’t have to engage a sociopolitical agenda in your work to have it break new ground. The sheer totality of ideas not yet addressed in fiction is literally immeasurable, and their complexity only bounded by the limits of your own imagination. Science Fiction is probably best at pushing that particular envelope, but going fascinating, mind-altering, consciousness realigning places can be managed in any genre. And this is not to say that what we saw was not good, because the bulk of the submissions were at least competent. Many better.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

In many cases entries were paying tribute to famous authors – and I can only assume that this was intentional. At least, I hope so. And while it’s excellent that people are fans of classic SF authors, playing in someone else’s sandbox only gets you so far, and you end up with things like the following:

One submission was an inversion of Isaac Asimov’s “Profession”. Another was a variant of Damon Knight’s “Not With a Bang”. Yet another story borrowed heavily from Steven Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, and married those elements with other readily recognizable components from non Spec Fic sources. And we saw several stories that were homages to the works of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. Incidentally, the Vonnegut/Dick tributes were the most interesting of those by far, which is kind of what you’d expect, actually, given how far both Vonnegut and Dick regularly managed to push that omnipresent envelope.

And there were, admittedly, times when homages just struck too close, and two stories did end up disqualified because they had actually moved into fan fiction territory. One because it used Kilgore Trout (Kurt Vonnegut’s recurring character who began as a fictional alter ego of Theodore Sturgeon and later metamorphosed into Vonnegut’s own alter ego in his fiction) as a central character, and the other because it name dropped Fafhrd (of Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories), claiming him as a relative to a central character.

But these instances were in the minority. In fact only three stories were disqualified over the course of the reading period: the two mentioned above, and the one story that was subbed to us which had no speculative element whatsoever, and was in fact passable, if not inspiring, Lit Fic social commentary.

And that’s not to say that there weren’t some delightful titular homages as well. I particularly enjoyed seeing a story titled “Toronto My Destination”, among others, show up in the slush pile (for those, likely quite few of you, who are not familiar with the reference, that title is a tip of the hat to Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination).

Another point that kept coming up, too, is the large number of stories that came through which were just ideas with no substance to back them. A good idea is a great starting point, and I’m not one to argue for Aristotelian plotting as the most engaging form in which a story can be told, but a story lives or dies on how you utilize the themes it’s built on; there’s a reason people who spend their lives talking about how to write fiction advocate for active characters and stories where things happen. Stories are far more engaging, especially in shorter form, when something occurs. The opposite can, of course, be interesting, though it’s often … problematic.

Waiting for Godot, for example …

Ultimately, if you’re going to take anything away from this post – and you’re not obliged to, though one can hope – it should be that we hope to see a field of very diverse work in the next contest year: different – inclusive – viewpoints, ideas that make us stop, take a deep breath, and say “wow”, and breathtaking writing.

So, let me leave you with several pieces of advice.

The first couple, from Julia Rios, from her article “Reaching into the QUILTBAG: the Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction“, which appeared in the March 2012 issue of Apex: “write complex characters”, and “actively encourage diversity”. Careful readers will note that that second piece of advice from Julia was intended for editors and publishers, but I think it applies to writers as well. And you’d do well to read the entirety of that article, if you haven’t already.

The next comes from Catherynne Valente, from her stint as editor at Apex, and was the heart of the submissions guidelines page while she was editor (and Lynne Thomas left that section in when she took over as editor last year):

“We do not want hackneyed, cliched plots or neat, tidy stories that take no risks. We do not want Idea Stories without character development or prose style, nor do we want derivative fantasy with Tolkien’s serial numbers filed off.

What we want is sheer, unvarnished awesomeness. We want the stories it scared you to write. We want stories full of marrow and passion, stories that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. We want science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mash-ups of all three—the dark, weird stuff down at the bottom of your little literary heart. This [venue] is not a publication credit, it is a place to put your secret places and dreams on display.”

And we, too, would be interested in seeing the kind of work Stone Telling‘s statement about the kind of diversity they would like to see covers:

“[W]e are especially interested in seeing work that is multi-cultural and boundary-crossing, work that deals with othering and Others, work that considers race, gender, sexuality, identity, and disability issues in nontrivial and evocative ways.”

And, lastly, you should read Expanded Horizons‘ list of what they want and what they don’t want to see, as discussed in the Expanded Horizons submission guidelines. You will write better stories for thinking about what they’re talking about.

As I said earlier, feel absolutely free to use the Comments section below to discuss any and/or all of these things. If you haven’t posted any Comments on our site before your Comment is going to get caught up in the moderation filter (which we leave in place because we’ve had literally hundreds of spam Comments since this website went up). Your comments will be approved in short order (although trolling or flaming might conceivably prevent that), and then once you’ve been approved you can post freely on the FoMSSC website as often as you like.

Thanks for listening, and luck to everyone pitching something our way next time round.

Michael

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Posted on March 28, 2012, in Status Updates, Uncategorized, Writing Advice and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. When I was preparing my submission (didn’t win) I got the impression that the contest was on the conservative side, partly because the audience was intended to be general and the stories were to be publicly viewable in a library. I do write stories with all sorts of characters (going way beyond binary gender, race, and species categorization) in all sorts of weird/dark/out there settings. I didn’t even consider subbing anything like that though, and maybe that applies to a lot of other people who subbed. The advice in this post should be incorporated into next year’s guidelines, and I assume it will–with a clarification on what is not acceptable for the general audience as FOM intends it (i.e. how far can we go in describing sex or violence? What about cursing or political criticism?)

    • Hi, sorry for making you wait so long to get this through the moderation filter.

      When we began the submissions period we had no idea what was and was not going to be allowable, in no small part due to the fact that the contest is run through a library friends organization. Though I had no intention of limiting diversity in the submissions, merely reigning in harsher content, I think we never really did end up being clear enough about the fact that we wanted diverse perspectives and more challenging notions in the fiction. And, truthfully, I had never considered the notion that people would self-censor when considering submissions.

      And though we will be updating the submissions guidelines next year (and the FAQ as well I think) to reflect the material covered here, I can address your question concerning content right now:

      A story has X words to work with. Everything that is included in the story which doesn’t move the plot forward or address your themes hinders your story. The overtly sexual isn’t generally an issue if it’s handled well, but sex scenes rarely, if ever, work in a short story because they detract from the time given to something else. The obvious exceptions are the works of Poppy Z. Brite among others, and stories like Kij Johnson’s “Spar“, which is a brilliant exploration of a whole host of themes, using the central pivot of “sexual” interaction as violence and trauma. It’s also one of the most disturbing (and potent) horror stories you’ll ever read. And, yes, if something as explicit as “Spar” came in and finished in the top three, we’d post it on the website with a disclaimer warning people that it contained adult level content.

      Violence is trickier. The shorthand is that if it serves the story (and that story isn’t a blatant case of torture porn or revenge/rape fantasy) then it’s admissible. If the violence is just there to shock, offend, or experiment without purpose, take it out and do something more interesting in that part of the story instead. I routinely see stories coming my way in the slush pile at Apex where the violence is unnecessary, painted in loving detail, and falls into that “personal fantasy” category that submissions editors cringe when they see hit the inbox. And worse still it’s almost uniformly directed at women. I don’t really expect anyone entering this contest to be doing that, but it should be on record that we don’t want to see that.

      You can feel free to curse in the story – but in most cases it detracts from, rather than strengthens, a story. And you’re welcome to engage in political criticism, but remember that subtle is better, defaming actual people is libel, and polemics don’t make good fiction (well, alright, they can, but it’s pretty rare). Also, Clarkesworld in their submissions guidelines mentions the following as something they’re not interseted in, and it’s true for us as well: “stories where the Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or the Spartacist League, etc. take over the world and either save or ruin it”.

      Okay, that was long winded, but I think it addresses all the points you raised.

      And we look forward to everything coming in next year, whether it pushes the envelope or not. And if you’ve got, as you put it, “weird/dark/out there” stories, send them. We’ll judge them on quality primarily, content second 🙂

      Hope that answers everything. Thanks,

      Michael

  2. Thanks yes, that does 🙂

  3. colleenanderson

    I just have to say it took half an hour to find the comments. Too well hidden. 😦 In regards to your observation, Michael, I have this to add. You can’t know for sure that every author was in their comfort zone and not pushing their boundaries. For my story I wasn’t topically pushing a boundary but I was trying for a lyrical, almost incantation like style, which I’ve only really managed once before in fiction.

    Someone else might be pushing their boundaries by just writing speculative fiction, or even writing at all. While the story might not exceed the norms of what’s in the genre it might very well be a reach for an individual. I could try writing something like China Mieville, and it would definitely be a boundary pusher, but might end up an homage nor be my best work. 🙂 This might be why people entering a contest wrote within their comfort zones; they want to win with their best.

    As to QUILTBAG, yes it’s important in speculative fiction, which looks at the future, especially to imagine worlds where the norms are different, more expansive. To get into my story character’s gender preference/orientation would, like the sex scenes you mention, would have been a diversion from the plot. I only use my story as an example, not as an argument about it. While I do understand that you were surprised that there were none, that might also change with a longer word count. As a woman, most of my main characters tend to be women. So yes, it’s more of a challenge for me to write about a man, a child, an intelligent animal, a lesbian, an intersexed person or a sentient vegetable. I have tried some of these and have yet to explore them all. Thanks for this analysis. One thing speculative fiction should do is generate commentary, observation and discussion.

    • Too true. There’s no way to tell who was pushing their boundaries or not. And even if not, it was still wonderful to see all the submissions that came through for the contest. And I agree, there are definitely going to be people out there for whom just writing Speculative Fiction is definitely not a comfort zone, writers for whom SF is earnestly trying out something totally new.

      Also, too, I don’t have any problem with people writing to their strengths in order to vie for a win 🙂 It’s an estimable strategy, to be sure. It’s when people try for a white bread, Americana vision of the future that I start feeling iffy …

      And, in the case of your story, one of the reasons your entry made it to the final round is because you nailed the lyrical, almost incantation like style you were aiming for. The best submissions had something that put them over the top. That was something different for all of the finalists, admittedly, but it was good to see so many different styles and approaches.

      As to the QUILTBAG content of a story, I think it was just odd, to me anyway, that something which isn’t exactly outside the mainstream was so noticeably absent from the entries. I don’t totally agree that it’s a length issue – it can be, yes, but I think in this case it was just something people weren’t working into their stories. Granted, stories needn’t revolve around this, just as it wouldn’t make sense for a story to revolve around the character being cis-gendered, but it was odd that none of the submissions had anything but cis-gendered characters in them.

      Oh, and now, because you brought it up, you have to write a sentient vegetable story for next year :p

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