In fact, should I rate a tombstone, I’d be all right with that. I got a rejection today that at first glance was just another impersonal note stuffed in the return envelope. I almost didn’t read the text of the note; I’ve seen it before. This rejection was different, however, for two reasons. First, the text of the note actually was different: it said in part, “… your work shows a great deal of promise, and we’d very much like to see more from you.” They don’t have to ask me twice. Second, and even better(ish) was the personal message scratched at the bottom in handwriting worse than mine. The message read, “Some nice writing, but too much was left unexplained.”
Too much left unexplained. I’m trying to explain more now, really.
The reviews of “Memory of a Thing that Never Was” were generally good. There were a couple of professional critics that really liked it, and a bunch of armchair critics who thought it was pretty good. On the other hand, there was a minority of folks who said “I didn’t get it. What happened?” This issue of the magazine had been promoted to the blogosphere, promising free copies in exchange for honest reviews. That would seem like an open invitation to the nutjobs, but I read many reviews and most of these folk stepped up with fair and well-reasoned criticism. Those who rose to the challenge really were passionate about the genre, and ready to help it grow. So, when they ask “What happened?” it’s worth remembering that they are avid readers and champions of the genre.
Too much left unexplained. Some of my good friends here have said the same thing. (It takes a good friend to say something like that — caring enough to risk giving offense and trusting enough to know that the criticism will be taken constructively.) Graybeard, when he read “Memory”, thought for a bit and said, “this should be 600 pages.” From Graybeard, a brutally honest individual, that was for me a great compliment. “Memory” hints at a lot of other things that would take pages and pages to explain, but wouldn’t enhance the short story.
A lot of my stories have holes in them. It seems I’m not writing the holes well enough. Sometimes when I write a short story I’m trying to create a single instant, a moment in a person’s life. A mood. These are my favorite ones and the ones that are the most difficult to write. I worked at a pace of about a paragraph per hour on the rejected story’s opening. The time was well-spent, I think, as the Rejecting Authority appears to have enjoyed the prose. Often I write background bits that I subsequently delete because I see them as distractions. Unfortunately many people find the lack of background to be distracting. If I were to add that stuff, however, it would change the nature of the story.
Thinking about it, I write plenty of stories in which everything is explained. Some of them I even like. (My hard drive is a graveyard of stories written that will never see the light of day, unless I decide to hire some poor slob to find the ones I dropped only because I was in the wrong mood when I reviewed them a week after writing). But my favorites are the very short, very dense stories that are more like a painting than a movie; a single frame in a longer narrative.
Tonight I looked at the rejected story with some frustration. I really thought I was hammering on the important parts, almost embarrassingly so. There is much unknown, but no one in the story knows the answers. They even say as much. The story is about a moment of awakening, but one that has happened many times before. So what can I clarify? The mountains are forbidden. Why? I don’t know. Nobody in the story knows. Why is not important; what matters is that they all believe it enough to kill a friend rather than let him get there. In a novel or even a novella I would explore those questions, but there’s not time for that now.
Obviously I have some work cut out for me as a short story writer, but at the same time I can’t help but think that there is a readership that likes to fill in the blanks. I am more appreciative than ever of the people at Fantasy and Science Fiction for having faith in their readers to put a more difficult story in their pages.
I joked tonight that perhaps I should write my stories in czech because the last thing they want here is an answer. Of course that’s silly; I’m blaming the audience (or actually in this case, a single underpaid slush-pile reader) for failing to understand me when it is my job to be understood.
Too much left unexplained. Isn’t that just like life.