Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Big Hazy Rejectometer...it's GOOD!

Speaking of looking for an agent in 2010, literary agent Janet Reid breaks down a number of rejections on her blog (all after requesting full manuscripts). Scary.

As an English teacher, I'm well versed in the haze of writing well. Some of Ms. Reid's stats are very helpful (structural problems, starts too slow, characters are caricatures...). Then we have "Just plain not good enough".

What, exactly, does "good enough" mean?

Good is uber-subjective right? We all know when we've read something good. Of course, I often read the Year's Best collections (at least skim each story, looking for the real gems), and think "Really? That got in here?"

So how do you know good? Do you have the internal compass to "know"? Can someone be taught how to recognize "good"?

I score high school students' papers with a rubric called 6-traits. Each trait--voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, ideas and content, and organization--receives a number rating (usually from 1-5). We can pretend that it's math, only it isn't math. It's still subjective.

Sure, I can quantify further. Five grammatical errors = 3 in conventions, etc. But, in the end, subjectivity creeps in. (How do you quantify voice?)

So, I really want to know: what defines good, at least in your opinion?


Cate Gardner said...

The definition of good, for me, is a story that I enjoy, knowing full well that because I like it doesn't mean anyone else will. As you said, it's subjective.

I guess, in the case of agents, we can only hope our voice catches their attention.

Elana Johnson said...

Hey! I bet I score some of your students papers at the end of year test. I grade for NCS using that exact rubric! 6th grade and 9th...

I digress.

Anyway, I think -- for me -- "good" is something that makes me moan and go, "I wish I could write like that." Or "Man, I wish I'd thought of that."

Fox Lee said...

Good, to me, has objective merit combined with a visceral reaction to the story.

Brendan said...

I think a unique voice is most prone to catch my attention quickly. After that, it might be something interesting happening on the first page or two, or a quick segue into action ("Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.") Very, very bad. But go-o-o-d.

Aaron Polson said...

Cate - And none of us have the magic "voice" formula. Darn.

Elana - Our 11th graders take the assessment, but NCS does the scoring. I'm sure that's loads of fun. I find myself saying "I wish I could write like that" quite a lot.

Natalie - The best "stuff" I've read hits me in the gut (visceral reaction).

Brendan - The word that makes that sentence work: staggered. Without it, snooze fest.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I enjoy visual works. If it can put an image in my head I will probably enjoy it. If it can't paint a picture I will probably put it down.

Katey said...

Something that doesn't bother me, mechanically speaking, and something that sticks with me subject/character wise. I think that's all it takes... I say "all" but god, it's not easy.

My last full rejection was incredibly vague: "There's just something off about the voice, I think." Oh dear.

Brendan P. Myers said...

Agreed, Aaron. Credit him as well for (yes, clumsily) establishing the name, occupation, location, and apparent health of the subject, in a mere 14 words, in the very first sentence.

Brendan P. Myers said...

PS: He does almost the exact same thing at the beginning of "Angels & Demons": "Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own."

BT said...

An interesting exercise. I've just got back all the comments from my copy editors in regards to putting Dark Pages together and lined up their short lists alongside my own - 70-80% of it lines up with us having very similar top tens. There are a few differences, and these increase as you move into the 10-15 rankings and more so the further down you go.

Strangely, we all picked the same story as number one. Why? Because it is something which resonates. The story flows effortlessly and weaves its way into the heart and soul of the reader and stays there as an echo for days (or weeks) after. Managing that is good.

Robert said...

I'm leery of "best of" collections. A lot of the horror ones usually have the same feel because they're edited by the same person who likes certain stuff. And if you, the reader, don't like that stuff, then you're screwed. That's why I like the process of the Best American Short Stories anthologies and those similar; a series editor picks what they think is the top 100 or so and the guest editor chooses their top 20. Sure, you as the reader may not agree with all the choices, but at least it presents good variety.

Tyhitia Green said...

When something catches my attention and holds me there, I've found a good story. :-D If I can't put it down, I love it. :-D And if I wish I could have written it, all the better.

Aaron Polson said...

Jamie - I'm all over imagery.

Katey - I received a "you need to work on your craft a little". Right. Let me get on that...

Brendan - One would think the pain of being on fire would tip you off before the smell. Was the guy paralyzed?

BT - Managing that is too good. Glad you found one of those in the pile.

Robert - I was a little naive at first. Every time I come to a new venture, I expect purity. Excellence at the top. Off-target book blurbs...pedestrian Year's Best(s)...the sickly self-promotion of awards season....it all adds up to something.

Tyhitia - I'm a little ADD myself, so holding my attention is an achievement.