A Second Opinion

I’m one of the West Coast’s least active science fiction/fantasy writers. Four years ago, after a very long hiatus, I did sit down and write some new stories. Three of them I sold, to the usual magazines (Asimov’s, F&SF). The others, disappointingly, didn’t sell. I went on to other things.

This week, for reasons too convoluted and not interesting enough to dwell on, I pulled out one of the unsold stories from 2008 and did a thorough rewrite. I could see immediately (as I had not seen at the time) why it didn’t sell. I have a tendency to pull my punches, emotionally. The resolution of the story was just too easy. The main characters didn’t have to work very hard to overcome their difficulties.

I think the rewrite is probably a lot better. It also grew from 7,000 to 12,000 words, which is an inconvenient length. It probably won’t sell at that length, no matter how much improvement I’ve wrought. That doesn’t concern me too greatly, because I certainly don’t plan to try to whittle it down to 5,000 words. What does concern me is that I don’t quite know how to get feedback from knowledgeable writers that would help me gauge whether the new version has succeeded.

One of my friends is an unpublished writer of what I guess you could call serious mainstream fiction. She has attended a couple of the summer writing workshops at the University of Iowa, and says she got a lot out of them. But I have also heard her voice frustration that the participants in the workshops didn’t always grasp what she was doing, or trying to do. They seemed, if I can put words into her mouth, more interested in setting forth their ideas about how they would have written her story, if they were writing it, than in accepting her story on its own terms and suggesting how she might improve it within the framework of what she was aiming at.

With my rewritten story, I have some very specific concerns. There are things I think work well (though I may be wrong), and there are a few things I’m not at all sure about. I’d like very much to talk with another writer about those things. But I’m not interested in inserting myself into an ego-deflating free-for-all with somebody who just doesn’t get it.

Shifting viewpoint, for instance. I was taught, and have long believed, that within a given scene only one viewpoint character ought to be employed. But in this story, for a couple of reasons, there are scenes where the viewpoint shifts. I tried to do it gracefully, but I don’t know if I succeeded. I might be better off forcing the narrative into the straitjacket of a single viewpoint character — or that might do violence to the narrative flow. This is the kind of technical point that a less experienced writer wouldn’t be equipped to discuss.

I had trouble finding a satisfying ending. The ending I eventually devised feels reasonably good to me, and I think it may be entertaining to read — but I’m compelled to admit that it’s a deus ex machina. And rather obviously so. Whether that’s a fatal flaw, a minor peculiarity, or a non-issue is something only a proficient writer would be able to judge.

In the final scene the main character’s mood goes through several changes. There were a few things I wanted to include in the narrative, and her mood swings provided convenient hooks on which to hang those points of dialog. But are the mood swings believable, or have I been cutting myself too much slack?

I wish I had a mentor with whom to bat these questions around. But when you’re 63 years old, you’re supposed to be a mentor. You’re not supposed to need one.

Oh, well. At worst, it’s a much better story than it was before. I might even open up one of the other unsold ones and kick it around a little.

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