Tag Archives: First Reader

So You Want To Be a First Reader

I thought I would share a few things about what my first reader experience was like. The mileage of other first readers and potential first readers will vary.

I read slowly, so slushing took up a significant amount of time for me. I didn’t keep track for the first four months, but for the last six months (February through July 2013) I first-read 357 stories for a total of 1,391,500 words. That’s like between eight and thirteen novels. And I was barely “keeping up”.

On a few rare occasions, I skimmed after the first 1000 words or so. But most of the time I read the entire story. Many first readers don’t do that – because it’s not a requirement – but I did. I’m not completely sure why I kept reading to the end. I guess I didn’t get jaded, but by the conclusion of my stint I was feeling burned out.

jellybeans

Reading from the slush pile was like eating Bertie Bots Every Flavor Beans. Sometimes the one I pulled out of the queue was like tiramisu. Occasionally I bit into earwax flavor. But generally I read a lot of interesting stories.

An often-repeated piece of writing advice is to read what you’re aspiring to create – read the best authors in the genre you’re writing in. I personally found that the time I spent reading slush severely limited the time I could spend reading anything else. On the plus side, I was exposed to genre stories I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I discovered that I really dislike “squick” and body-horror. I discovered that I quite like character-driven horror. (btw, Strange Horizons is NOT a horror market)

One of the bitter-sweet parts of my First Reader Experience was that when I read a really good story, I couldn’t share it. Because of course all submissions are confidential. But on the up side, if I wanted to I could read submissions even if they weren’t assigned to me. So occasionally I got to read brand-new stories written by authors I knew or knew of from their previous publications.

So, would I ever volunteer as a first reader again? The short answer is yes. I learned a great deal, and it was generally a positive experience. But first, I need to refuel. I have a huge stack of novels at home waiting to be read. I have a bunch of short stories and a novel churning in my head, begging to be written. And I want to apply some of what I’ve learned to my own writing.

I would definitely encourage my writerly (and readerly!) friends to apply for a First Reader position. My main caution would be make sure you have the time.

Have you ever thought about applying to be a first reader? Have you ever been a first reader? What was it like for you?

Happy Writing!

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Slushy Confessions

I resigned from my position as a First Reader at Strange Horizons. I held the position from mid-September 2012 to the end of July 2013, so that’s about eight-and-a-half months (SH was closed to submissions in December and January.)

Slush: crushed ice and syrup. Tasty.

the other kind of slush

I’m a bit sad it’s over. Slushing was a good experience, and I learned a great deal.

Writing instructors will often say slushing will benefit your writing. They’ll say it’s good for you. But I have to admit that when I applied I was a little vague about exactly what that benefit would be.

Here are a few things I learned from my first reader experience.

First, I learned that all of the standard advice about writing good fiction that gets repeated in every writing class and how-to-write book is actually true. I knew it on an intellectual level. Now I believe it, on a gut level.

Second, a form rejection letter/email means exactly what it says. The magazine has decided not to publish my story. That’s it. Really. As a First Reader, I sent form rejections most of the time. A thoughtful personal comment for a rejection letter takes time to write. Time that could be spent reading the next story in the FR queue, or writing, or reading that neglected novel.

Third, a personal rejection doesn’t necessarily mean my story is “close” or my submissions are getting better. As a first reader I occasionally added a personal comment to the rejection email because I thought I had something useful or helpful to say about the story. But even then, I only wrote that comment if time allowed.

Fourth, I think I’ve gotten better at giving feedback to members of my critique groups, at least when it comes to identifying story problem areas. Whether or not I’m better at identifying problems in my own writing, or figuring out how to fix them, remains to be seen ;-)

Lastly, I learned the secret to getting your story past the slush reader, and into the hands of an editor. The secret? Write a fantastic story. So simple in theory, but of course difficult in practice. As a first reader, it was the best feeling ever to read a story that I could pass on to the editors with a note that said I loved it. That made my day.

And now that I’m retired from slushing, I’m looking forward to spending more time writing, and making a dent in the piles of books that have accumulated around my house (at a faster rate) since I started slushing.

Happy Writing!

Character Building in Layers

Photo of a lilac tree Miriah saw on her walk in Bellevue on 30 April 2013

Lilac tree in Bellevue. It’s Spring!

Looks like Spring has arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Happy Beltane!

I’ve been busy with real life, the kids, etc. Slushing has also kept me busy (since February 1st I’ve first-read 179 stories totaling 702,600 words).

About two weeks ago I attended a Clarion West ONE-day workshop with Mary Rosenblum “Step Into Their Shoes – Breathing Life Into Your Characters”. This workshop was amazing. Mary Rosenblum is not only a wonderful author, she is also a fantastic teacher. If you ever get the opportunity to take a class from her, I urge you to do it!

One thing I learned in the class is that depth can be added to characters during the editing process. An approach Mary suggested is to edit for characterization in layers, progressing to the next level on each pass.

Levels of Characterization
1. External – What the character does in reaction to physical stimuli.               (The first draft)
2. Internal – How the character reacts physically. Body language, facial expression, etc. that indicate thoughts, attitudes, emotions, etc.
3. Modify the internal reaction to convey a sense of backstory.
4. Modify the internal reaction with character faults that are known to the character.
5. Fine tune so that as the story progresses, character traits that the character is NOT aware of are revealed to the reader.

Photo of a fern Miriah saw on her walk in Bellevue on 30 April 2013

A tentacle fern, ready for Spring!

Here are some more things I’ll be thinking about when I try to create deep characters. (This is sort of from the notes I took in the class, filtered through my brain. Mary’s version and numerous insights were SO much better.)

Voice – What the character says and does.
I’ll be asking myself, would my character really SAY that? Because if I write a character speaking with my vocabulary instead of their own, then that character will sound like me instead of himself. I’ll also be asking myself, would my character really DO that? As the author, I am holding the puppet strings. But the reader should not be aware of those strings. So if I need the character to notice a clue or look out the window to further my plot, I’ll make sure she has a believable reason to look.

Environment – How the character is molded by their world and society.
It can be really easy to fall into the trap of having my character react to situations the way I would. But if (for example) I have created an oppressive world, then my character needs to reflect the pervasive world view. I will ask myself how my character has been affected by living in that society and how he has internalized that society’s ideals. Then I’ll ask myself if she is reacting in a way that makes sense.

Perspective – How the characters evaluate what they observe.
People are constantly noticing what other people are doing, and observing their environment. So I’ll be asking myself how my character relates those observations to themselves. How do they interpret the surroundings and people around them? What does it mean to them? A person who gardens will notice more specific things about a room full of plants than a person with no interest in plants.

Change – How the character changes over the course of the story.
I will remember that like regular people, characters don’t just have an epiphany and change suddenly. The character needs to change as the result of external stimulus and experience. In a character-driven story, the character should make one step along their character arc in each scene.

For more about getting into a narrator’s head, check out Cat Rambo’s recent blog post.

Happy Writing!

Villains

photo of a Robin, Western Washington, June 2012

A robin in the tree outside my house.

Last weekend I attended Foolscap, a small, local Fantasy and Science Fiction convention. One of several cool things about Foolscap is the Friday Writer’s Workshop. I got to attend four presentations, all of them extremely useful and informative.

The Villains workshop was particularly eye-opening for me. It was taught by the amazing Kat Richardson, author of The Greywalker Novels. She recently wrote an essay, “A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy” about how important a Villain is to a story. Kat is not only a gifted writer, but also an excellent teacher.I had several actual “ah-ha” moments during Kat’s workshop. In particular, I have two short stories I’ve been working on that were sort of “stalled” because I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Now I know – they need a “better” villain! The villain defines the conflict. If the story is kind of ho-hum and uninteresting, it’s probably because the conflict is too vague or undefined. What does it need? A villain. A villain that’s as deep and fleshed-out as the hero.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. A couple weeks ago I was in the process of creating my new character for a GURPS-based role playing game. My husband and I joined a group that is just starting a new campaign. So I was paging through the “GURPS Basic Set: Characters” book, reading about possible Advantages and Skills for my character. I mostly skimmed through the positive traits I could “buy” with points. The Disadvantages (faults) and their consequences were far more interesting. (I chose “Weirdness Magnet”, -15 points.)

photo of a Robin, Western Washington, 2012

A robin and his breakfast.

Speaking of villainy, I am now a First Reader at Strange Horizons!  I am very excited about this opportunity. It’ll take a lot of time and work, but I feel so honored to get this awesome learning experience!

No, I will not be blogging about reading from the “slush pile”. For anyone that is interested in an “inside perspective” from the point of view of experienced First Readers, I  recommend Sarah Olson’s blog post (from a few months back) “Slush Readers’ Advice for Writers”.

Happy Writing,

Miriah