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

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