Saturday, July 20, 2013

Three-Minute Fiction's Finders Keepers: Cookies (commentary)

The previous post is my story "Cookies," submitted for the NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest, Round 11, called Finders Keepers.

This post discusses the

The Contest Prompt

I had never paid much attention to these contests before but when I heard about this one -- about 26 hours before the deadline -- I decided to write something. The prompt was: a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.

Immediately, an idea for a found item and a finder popped into my mind.  When I finished the first draft, however, I realized that my story did not exactly meet the prompt's requirement of "no intention of returning."  I was not all that concerned because I did not expect to win and I was enjoying the exercise.   Still, I made some changes in order to suggest that the protagonist, as she made an effort to return what she had found, not only expected to fail but was counting on failing.  Any reader willing to read between the lines would, I thought, understand that.

I was surprised then that the winning story by Ben Jahn did not meet the first requirement of the prompt:  his story is about stealing, not finding.  Reading between the lines does not change that. This is not a case of a chance finding that, due to a sudden impulse, becomes a keeping.    Some of the people who posted comments on the NPR webpage were similarly troubled by Jahn's ignoring the prompt.

Not Blind Judged?

When I submitted my story to NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest, I was surprised that there were no instructions to insure that judging is blind (that is, without knowing who the writer is).   I expected to see an explicit rule to omit author's name, date, or any other identifying information from the story itself.  But there was none.  Does someone take the time to black out the author's names on the stories?   I hope so but I doubt it.

Names may reveal gender or ethnicity, or they may mislead:  George Eliot, George Sand, Whoopi Goldberg ....  Names may even reveal or mislead about age:  how many babies were named Tiffany or Jason before the Kennedy administration?  And then there is the problem that a judge might recognize an author's name from personal knowledge or by repute.  If the judges know an author's name, their objectivity may be compromised.

Evaluators are often asked to do their work blind.  Enforced ignorance of identity is imposed, for example, on professors grading law school exams and on scientists asked to provide peer review of articles and grant applications.  This practice helps "avoid even the appearance of impropriety," in the words of Canon 9 of the old canons of ethics for lawyers I learned in the bar review course in my youth.  (NB:  This canon, which was in the Code of Professional Responsibility, did not make it into the successor Code of Professional Conduct.  See Kathleen Maher,  "Keeping Up Appearances.")

Judges are free to have prejudices against a writer because of the writer's own choices, whether of subject or language or style, but should not have prejudices based on what they guess, or worse, know from the author's name.  Having the submissions be anonymous would help.

When Current Magazine in Ann Arbor held poetry and fiction contests starting in 1999, it always required that the submission NOT have any personally-identifying information.  (Full - or boasting - disclosure:  I won three Honorable Mentions in those contests:  Poem: Clothes (1999), Story:  The Recycled Bridegroom (2002) and Poem:  Crocuses (2003).)  Each writer filled out a form with nis name and the title of nis poems and stories; the poems and stories themselves were to have the title only.  Otherwise, they would be disqualified.

Suggestion to NPR:  Use the Current rules:  Tell writers to put only the title of the story on the uploaded file that goes to the judges, not their name, the date or anything else that might reveal their identity.  To avoid the possibility of multiple stories with the same name, authors could be assigned a random number when they complete the initial submission form and then they - or NPR software - could put that number on the story.  Random numbers would be better than ordinal or date-based ones so as not to reveal when the the submssion came in.

More Critiques:  Tamara Breuer's Story, My Story

In the days before the contest winner was announced, NPR broadcast some of their favorite stories.  That is how I happened to hear the beginning of Ten Ring Fingers by Tamara Breuer.  I was interrupted part way through  and missed the resolution but what I heard was imaginative, very true-to-life and quite well written.  Now that I have read the full story, however, I understand why it did not win:  Breuer did not know where to take her concept and perhaps this was why the writing toward the end went downhill, too.  But unlike Ben Jahn or me, she did not violate the prompt.  Indeed, I would bet that her scrupulous attention to its words gave her the idea for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT:  READ THE STORY FIRST!]  If I had been Breuer's writing coach, I'd have encouraged her to stop at three rings and change the ending to  have the protagonist acknowledge that she felt funny lying to people about not having found their rings, that three rings were enough to get customers to start a conversation and that her tips were larger than they had been without a ring.  That would be an upbeat as well as a less melodramatic ending than Breuer's and it could incorporate some of the same details. The title would have to be changed from Ten Ring Fingers to Three, but that would have the same, dare I say, ring to it, and the number three would resonate, dare I say further, with NPR's time limit.)  This version might, however, be closer to a 1.5 minute story. Would that violate the implied rules?  Probably not, if the story were as original and beautifully done as Breuer's.

Critiquing Myself:  If I had been my own writing coach, I would have asked me to do a rewrite of Cookies.  Reading the story now I see several things to change.  I would not necessarily recommend stricter adherence to the prompt because to do that would mean altering the concept, but I would suggest fixing the stoppers.  Stopper is my word for anything that disrupts the flow of the prose in the reader's mental ear. 
Stoppers are the subject of my upcoming blog,  I am in the process of completing the introduction and writing up one post for almost every book I have read since obtaining the domain last year.  The posts will consist of annotated lists of words not well used.  So far, I have finished only two books where my stopper list was blank.  The first was Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision, a very wonderful collection of short stories.  The second was Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos.  I did not find any stoppers but I thought that the book did need some work.
In "Cookies" my stoppers were a mild sort:  the words in question were used correctly, were accurate in context, and did not rise to the level of a red-penciled AWK.  I am not sure what to call such stoppers but I think of them as fruit-stoppers.  That is because of a passage in one of Bernard Malamud's earlier books in which a character eats an orange.  Malamud, to avoid repeating the word orange, refers to it as "the fruit."   This brought me up short:  in spoken English a single orange would be called a piece of fruit.  The fruit could mean just one of a species but it is more often a collective noun. "The fruit of the vine," for example, includes countless bunches of grapes, not just a single individual grape.  Anyway, more on fruit-stoppers (or a better term if I can think of one) in wordswellused, and maybe a post there on "Cookies," too, because it deserves one.

RJM 7/20/13

Three-Minute Fiction's Finders Keepers: Cookies (the story)

Three-Minute Fiction Contest 2013.  
 "Cookies" by Roberta Morris

Bertha took the first empty seat she saw.  It was next to a Park Avenue grande dame type whose Saks shopping bag occupied the seat on the other side.  With a sniff, the lady stood up, grabbed her bag and moved down the car.  A delicious aroma made Bertha glance down.  Behind where the shopping bag had been was a small box from a place called Martha's Pastries.  Bertha found the smell intoxicating:  party cookies. "Homeless I may be," she thought to herself, "but I was well brought up."  She breathed in one more time, and then, half rising and pointing toward the box, said to the woman's departing back, "You left something."

The man across from her shook his head and mouthed "Don't bother."  Bertha disagreed.  "Homeless I may be," she thought, "and I will accept contributions, but I never steal."  The lady would probably realize her mistake, walk back and give Bertha a sheepish smile.  Maybe she'd even let her keep the box.  It wasn't that big.

The subway lurched along.  Bertha contemplated the situation. "'On further reflection,'" as her boss thirty years ago had always written when he'd overlooked the obvious, "a Muffy's Mother like that won't come back while I'm sitting here."  Sure enough, as Bertha looked down the car, the arrogant face turned away.

"I could make it easy for her and sit somewhere else,"  Bertha acknowledged to herself.  Then she noticed a small envelope taped to the top of the box.  At that moment, the train pulled into 68th Street and the lady exited, stiff-backed and with a studied non-glance at Bertha. 

Bertha immediately pulled off the envelope.  Inside was a Macy's gift card for $100 and a note: "Winifred Higglethorpe!! Enjoy your birthday!!! Affectionately, Cousin Cynthia."  Bertha knew she would never keep that money.  What was in the box, though, was perishable.  And she might never find Winifred.

Bertha stuck the envelope back on the box and carried it off the train.  She headed for her favorite branch library. "I pray I'll die before the end of libraries," she grinned. "If I'm lucky I'll even die before the end of books printed on paper."  The librarian smiled at her -- they both loved Mrs. Gaskell -- and Bertha signed up for time at a computer.

When her turn came, she searched for Winifred Higglethorpe.   "Homeless I may be," thought Bertha, "But my computer skills are terrific."  Winifred Higglethorpe was a perfect name for the Google age.  "Not like Ellen Miller," she laughed.  Ellen had been Bertha's name until she was 37 and a construction worker had called out to her, "It's Big Bertha!"  She was more a Bertha than she'd ever been an Ellen.

The only Winifred Higglethorpe anywhere in the ether lived in the East 80s off Second Avenue.   Not a bad walk.  As Bertha reached her destination, Cousin Cynthia was getting out of a cab.  Bertha walked up to her and offered the box. "You left this on the subway."  The woman backed away and ran toward the building.  "At least take the gift card," yelled Bertha, "I only shop at Prada."  The Saks shopper turned, grabbed the card, and left Bertha with the box.  There were four Linzer cookies, four chocolate-dipped seashells, and four squares of pastry topped with stripes of marzipan and jam.  "Homeless I may be," thought Bertha, "but I do appreciate quality."

Clothes (Very Short Essays 02)

CLOTHES by Roberta Morris

I've lost my stomach
for naked emperors:
the big men
with the long titles,
the big words
in the long sentences,
the lack
of content.
And the listeners,
commenting on the leaves,
or worse, the spider webs,
never the forest,
not even the trees.
They are too polite
(too craven?
too self-absorbed?)
to say,
"That Versace is invisible;
that Armani is imaginary."

(These thoughts
on the academic life
can be generalized.)


This is the first serious poem I wrote after high school.  The year was 1998.  I had attended a talk at the University of Michigan Law School where I was an adjunct.  I won't say who spoke or what the topic was but the talk bothered me. The first line of this poem popped into my head and then I wrote the rest.  In the spring of 1999, Current Magazine, an Ann Arbor weekly, announced its first annual Poetry and Fiction Contest.  I entered my one poem and won an Honorable Mention.  I admit that this encouraged me.

Since then I have written a few poems a year.  Another poem, Crocuses, won an Honorable Mention in a later Current Magazine contest, one that The Way Back Machine captured.  I posted another of my poems, Merit Needs a Publicist, on this blog early on and may post more as part of the Very Short Essays series.
RJM 7/20/2013