Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Giving Writers a Chance

Minishorts raised some important issues in her comments to my entry about Silverfish writers and I thought I'd like to answer them. She wrote:

i'm not sure how silverfish does the screening process, but somehow when i read the anthologies, i feel many others could have been given a chance.

as for every 20-story anthology, where are the other 100 stories that got rejected (and there would have been more than just a hundred submissions, i believe). there have been multiple opportunities not to waste these works (whether or not they're works of art). sometimes, all it takes is a small recognition from a significant publishing house to fuel a spirited writer/author.

as for writing a novel, let me put it this way... i've come this far (which is not very far at all) to notice that there's a great deal of 'knowing the right people' to get that dream off the ground. Seriously.

I'm just being honest about this.

I can tell you about the "screening process" because I was editor of one of the collections, Collateral Damage.

Now let me say at the outset that editing is a very personal thing. Every editor has his/her own set of prejudices about the kind of fiction they like and this will be reflected in the selection made. It's for this reason that any publisher of anthologies will make sure that each collection is edited by a different person - as Raman has done.

I received all manuscripts submitted - there was no prior screening, and did not know the identities of the writers involved. (I was able to guess one or two from the style and subject matter, but was careful not to let this influence me.) I read all of them. There were, if I remember correctly just 97 manuscripts, not at all a large number. (I think many got put off by the title of the collection, which had been chosen before I came on board, and which I decided to interpret as widely as possible to give everyone a fair chance.) A large number of the manuscripts came from non-Malaysians and Malaysians living overseas. How many local writers actually grasped this opportunity? And a large proportion came from writers who had already been published in the series. How many new writers made the effort?

Now quality is important: you can't put out an anthology and expect people to pay just for the kindness of it. Each story has to earn its place. I describe my criteria for selection in my forward to the book.

Some of the stories (fortunately, a minority) were so badly written that it was an effort to read beyond the first couple of paragraphs. Attrocious grammar and spelling, cliched language, the point of view jumping all over the place ... how much of a chance do such writers deserve?

Some stories were excellent (a larger minority) and earned their place in the book immediately.

The rest of the stories I reread, reread again. There were tough decisions to make. In the end I went with what I felt were the most interesting pieces to make up numbers. (I'm the first to admit that there is a certain patchiness to the collection. The reviewer in the NST compared the collection to Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans - an analogy I quite liked!)

Of the stories I selected, I felt that some of them needed to be edited or worked on further and contacted the writers with suggestions that I felt would improve their work. It was entirely my own decision to do this. I did not have the time or opportunity to actually sit down with any of the writers (and many were overseas anyway) so we corresponded by e-mail. Most of the changes I suggested were made. But where writers didn't want to make changes, I respected their decision. All this was very time consuming, but worthwhile. (And Robert Raymer who edited the next collection was perhaps even more supportive to his writers.) My point - isn't this giving writers a chance? Would editors in the UK or US, where the pool of good writing to choose from is much larger, have taken the trouble?

Now let's think about the stories that didn't make it into the collection.

Minishorts writes "there have been multiple opportunities not to waste these works" and I think she's got a point here.

Some promising stuff got rejected. I did indeed feel sad about it. (And have been on the receiving end of such rejection myself so know how it feels.) Editors aren't unkind vicious creatures who rub their hands together in glee when consigning other people's work to limbo!

Many of the stories frankly needed more work. There were good ideas, interesting characters perhaps but a great deal more effort in polishing and shaping was required in many cases. And of course writers need to learn more about the craft of writing.

The best way to learn is simply by reading enough quality writing. If you want to learn how to write short fiction, immerse yourself in the best short story writers and learn from the masters.

I also think that new writers need more support in terms of facilities to workshop their stories. Courses, workshops, resources, facilities, writing groups, readings. We do need to fuel our new writers, as you say Minishorts, but it does not have to be the responsibility of a publishing house.

I applaud those people who are doing something to help local writers. Names that spring to mind are Bernice, RuhayatX, Pang, Beth Yahp and MPH Writer's Circle. And Raman's Silverfish which has played an enormously important role in encouraging local writing in English. These are all small-scale initiatives sure, but don't you feel a groundswell of something happening here?

There are no magic wands to be waved but a great deal of collective responsibility on the part of those who care about the state of local writing.

So over to you now, Minishorts. What would you like to see happening? And more importantly - how do you think it could be got off the ground?


The Visitor said...

there is a groundswell of something happening in everything from writing to film. we live in interesting times.

i think my generation has finally come into their own, and we are hungry for better films, better books.

bibliobibuli said...

>i think my generation has finally come into their own, and we are hungry for better films, better books.

Yes, maybe it is a generational thing ... that makes me happy to see.

Certianly this is a more exposed generation.

One filmmaker friend said that he reckoned that Malaysians had become educated film watchers because of all the pirated videos they watch!

And I'm sure that the recent wonderful availability of books will do more for the cause of writing than anything else.

XMOCHA! said...

Good stuff Sharon!


Mag said...

Hi Mrs Bakar. Can you please further tell us about how you worked as an editor. I have read the anthology you edited, it was a fine job, and I am curious to know the WHYs. WHY did you choose this story? What were it's strong points? WHAT made it so good to you? If you can go over the list in the book, it would be quite an eye-opener, in terms of what (some) editors look for. Thank you.

bibliobibuli said...

Mag - glad you found the post useful ... okay, yes I will talk a bit more about why I chose certain stories. I learned a great deal freom this experience ... both as an editor and a writer.

minishorts said...

First, to digress, as an editor myself, I too have meet many (and many, many) 'authors' who are so conscious of their 'superiority' that even the tiniest effort of the editor to help spruce up a written piece gets damned into the huge bin they would call 'no sense of art'. I've been accused many times, of trying to take the voice of the author away.

In reality, I choose not to do so, and if I am guilty of that, it's usually unintentional.

As for what I think, how do we get things 'off the ground'...

I personally feel that many writers who dance around the heathen fire passionately proclaiming their love for the written word are, sadly, hypocrites. Writers like these say they would love to see new blood, and that they find it a pity that new blood is so scarce nowadays. In reality, very few 'successful authors' are laying out the welcome mats to fresh young talents. Many authors I know fiercely guard their rights and successes as if these were indispensable gold. Very sad, but true. This is why I said, 'There's a great deal of 'knowing the right people' to get that dream off the ground.'

Many unplucked talents are still seedlings in a jungle where the huge, taller tropical kings reign supreme while jealously blocking the sunlight from reaching the ground.


I've noticed that good writers in this side of the world are usually very shy creatures who will not heed calls or invitations to attend courses, workshops, resources, facilities, writing groups, readings... While I agree that it does not fall solely upon the shoulders of the publishing houses to 'nurture new blood', I also feel that editors should also 'do more', so to speak.

How many editors/writers, in their own capacity as 'successful i've-dunnits' would scour the biggest library of unknown gems screaming to be recognized as good writers. I'm referring of course, to the blogosphere, and the good sea of new, good blood that lies within it.

And thus, while at workshops we meet with people who are dying to 'be known' for their 'talents', how many vials of good blood we will miss.

Not many good writers know that they have talent, you know. Most merely write, because they like to write. And fame, or recognition, was never on their list of to-do's.

(I'm probably going to post this to my blog too, if you don't mind.)

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks minishorts. I left you a note on your blog. Makes me happy that there's debate going on ...

The Visitor said...

"Not many good writers know that they have talent, you know. Most merely write, because they like to write. And fame, or recognition, was never on their list of to-do's."

how true...but maybe they do know they have talent, but they are not interested in writing for fame or fortune.

i know someone who is exactly like that...she has written a few short stories, and they are just brilliant...but she chooses to remain an executive of some big firm instead of plowing the creative field.

bibliobibuli said...

Yes ... I know someone like that too ... really exciting writing but doesn't want to put work out ...

And face it, it is scary to put your work in front of others ... and of course face the inevitable critics.

But do encourage her.

bibliobibuli said...

Post script, Visitor ...

Why does it have to be an either or decision? Executive or writer? Most published writers have a day job. Look at writer Shashi Tharoor who read at Raman's shop not so long ago ... he has a day job as Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public
Information for the UN! Then at night he morphs into one of India's most loved novelists.

The Visitor said...

for that friend of mine, it's not really a case of either-or. she just isn't interested in pursuing a career in professional writing.

Anonymous said...

Actually, who in his right mind _wants_ to be a writer ? long hours, uncertain incomes (and low at that.) Compare that to being an executive of a big firm.. with all the perks and privileges (and that's before you even consider the hefty pay packet) and you'll easily see why no one wants to be a writer. I think people become writers because they are. It's like breathing, you have to do it so you might as well be paid for it. But if you could do something else that paid more and had better privileges, why wouldn't you ?

Namra said...

"I've noticed that good writers in this side of the world are usually very shy creatures who will not heed calls or invitations to attend courses, workshops, resources, facilities, writing groups, readings."

I don't know about shyness, but I do know about being too broke to go to any of it.

In addition, the announcements of said events is not widely known and the information about it; to someone new and not as well inform as me, looks like as if it’s being transmitted inside another dimension.

There is no road map or a yellow page; that is easily accessible from outside the circle of people that is already involved, where a new writer in Malaysia could go, to find out about writing circles, workshops, seminars, events, reading etc.

Often than not when I read in Sharon’s blog about certain events, its already passed, and I was like huh? There’s a course/events of this?

As for the topic at hand, in my opinion, relative to my own situation, true, as a new comer, I would like the chance to see my work published (but then again that is one of THE goal of any writer anyway), and seeing that it does, would burn up my enthusiasm further.

However, I don't like the idea of my work getting into print out of an act of charity.

Why am I curious to get my work to print, is the opportunity to get my work reviewed by an editor. Because I am also curious to know where is my actual place, am I as good as I think? Am I getting warmer? Colder?

An editor could give me this insight, for I need the third party point of view, because it is not possible for me to tell if my house is crooked, or tilted when I am in the house. Someone from the outside must point it out for me. That would save me from my comfortable delusional stratosphere-bubble-prison.

Sure, I could get defensive and say, “Ahhh you’re crazy! Where got my house is crooked meh? I see it from inside here just fine.” but what’s the point? I like being a writer and tell stories, yes, but what I want is to be a good writer that can tell a damn good story, now that would be something worth to live for.

I believe it when experienced people in the field say that writing is about 10% of writing and 90% of re-writing.

Sometimes, too much kindness is the cruelest treatment a human could ever receive.