J.M. Williams

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SHARE: Bards and Sages Fiction Score Card

Feb
28

Okay, I think this is pretty cool. Often it is very hard to divine how publishers evaluate the stories they receive. One publisher I have interacted with–including having a story accepted by them–goes out of their way to explain their view of good, acceptable writing (here are comments on the problems of first-person narrators). This includes the page linked below, a description of their scoring thought process.

I’m looking at this page and what I see is a very good checklist for short fiction writing. I almost want to put it into a form and make it part of my own revision process. It would also be great for giving peer feedback. They cover all the basics, including character, plot, POV, etc. It is quite general, yes, but for the first revision I don’t think you need much more than that.


Bards and Sages Fiction Score Card

To help writers better understand how we rate stories and what we look for in a story, we are making available our score card. This score card is used to judge all fiction submissions sent to Bards and Sages, whether it is for the Quarterly, our annual writing contest, or special projects…READ MORE

16 Responses to SHARE: Bards and Sages Fiction Score Card

  1. Good to see the insider evaluations. I will take a look at what they publish with the criteria in mind. Thanks.

    • Bards and Sages is publishes very conventional fantasy and science fiction. I think they require some element of speculation or fantasy in anything submitted to them.

  2. I really liked the link to the problems with first-person POV too, mostly because they complain about the same things I do but articulated them somewhat more clearly. That last bit, about how the narrator is even narrating the story, is a pet peeve of mine.

    • I actually disagree wholly with the idea that there has to be a logical passage of the message from a first-person narrator to the reader. Storytelling is fantasy, language is illusion. And additionally, why dont we hold third person narrators to the same scrutiny? I can give you a third person narrator that describes a failed mission on mars where everyone died and ends with “and they were never heard fron again,” and nobody will think twice about it. But how does the guy who is telling to story know what happened? I think there is a humanistic way we think about things that just assumes that someone speaking for themselves and using “I” must be present and accounted for. Our use of langugae doesn’t have to be confined that way. I’m half asleep lying in bed now, so I will have to check how crazy this sounds tomorrow. 😀

  3. Most of the time I read a story in first person, the issue doesn’t come up. But when it does — like when the person dies at the end — it breaks plausibility for me, takes me out of the story. This isn’t a problem with third person because the “third person” isn’t actually a person, much less a character in the story, and the “first person” is. You might as well ask, while watching a movie that shows someone who’s alone, who is behind the camera who’s watching them. That’s the third person narrator: the unobtrusive, floating camera. Through that narration, the reader can see over the shoulder of any character, even if that character dies. But the first person narrator is telling their own story. I’m not sure what you’re getting at with humanistic assumptions, but if the narrator is saying “I did this, this is me” then yes, I assume that character is a speaking for themselves. It’s not a matter of using language; it’s a matter of identifying who is speaking, which seems pretty obvious in first person POV. That raises the question of how they are telling their story (and to whom, but that’s another issue). If they are recounting their past from many years in the future, for instance, then their story would be affected by who they are now, and what they learned since then. If they die at the end, are they now telling the story as a ghost, or an angel? Did this suddenly become a paranormal story?

    Fiction may be fictional, but it still has to make sense. Sometimes it has to make even more sense than real life to be believable. Saying that it’s all just fantasy and illusion sounds like you’re not willing to write in a way that encourages the suspension of disbelief, you just want to tell people they have to believe whatever you write because it’s fiction, whether it makes sense or not. It’s clear that many readers don’t care about this issue, or not enough to complain about it, at least. But then, it’s also clear that a lot of readers don’t care about grammar or sentence structure or coherent plots or believable characters, so I tend not to use sales figures to influence my own judgment on such things. It’s definitely an interesting debate, at least!

    • Good points. Sorry for the late reply. Yesterday was a disconnect day for me. I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking when I wrote “humanistic” in my first comment, and I’m not sure why I thought I could explain my point in a few sentences. I think what I meant is that the common argument, which you have summarized very well, is based more on sentiment than raw logic. Hopefully I can explain.

      Most people fail to realize that a third-person narrator is not just a viewing angle, a third-person narrator, just like any narrator, is indeed a character itself. A third-person narrator should not be simply the author speaking, that is just bad writing. The narrator should have a different point of view, different beliefs and judgments than the author. It is a constructed point of view. Moreover, it is not simply a camera (even the camera analogy is flawed here as film review does take into account, often significantly, who is controlling the camera and why they do what they do). The use of language, which is subjective and selective, means that the narrator, any narrator, is a sentient consciousness. It is indeed telling its own story, as you say.

      Let me provide an example. Recently the editor who is helping me with my current book criticized me for my third-person narrator’s voice. It was not consistent throughout the book, which takes the POV of many different characters in different chapters. Since the chapter POV was all character-limited, I often added words that would represent the protagonists’ point of view. However, since the chapters deal with many different characters, both good and bad, there ended up being many contradictions as my narrator praised and condemned the same sort of behavior in different situations. For example, in one chapter, a lowly protagonist is being bullied by some other boys and I went deep into this character’s mind and threw out a phrase like “the bullies cackled like devils.” However, in later chapters which were limited POV to thugs and thieves, the narrator did not criticize their similar bullying behavior because it was the protagonist of the chapter doing it. This made it jarring for the reader, so my editor and I decided the only way to make the book work was to have a single narrator, and it should have a consistent, neutral voice. If the third-person narrator was just me, then my values and judgement would be completely on one side of the moral compass and it would be impossible to write chapters from the POV of anti-heroes or villains. That is why a narrator cannot simply be the author.

      A third-person narrator is another sentient mind. It chooses which details to relay, and how to characterize them. This is as important a character for your story as any, even your protagonist. You must know why your narrator chooses the words it does, why it judges things in certain ways, otherwise you are just fumbling around in the dark. The third-person narrator for my book is a mostly-neutral voice of history. It is concerned with the bigger picture and thus often lets little moral issues slide. That being said, there is still a limited sense of morality that does judge certain actions harshly: the foreign bad guys, who do not have a protagonist in the book, are not let off as easy as the local thieves. The narrator does make a judgement call in favor of the local characters over the foreign characters. This is not me, the author, making these judgements. It is a separate, sentient point of view. In stories with a single protagonist, you might have a narrator that is much more sympathetic to the character, allowing you to use more specific word choice (like referring to his bullies as devils). But that does not mean the narrator is the protagonist, they are still distinct characters.

      Third-person narrators are sentient, and are characters, but we do not question how their message comes to us. It may be a god or a spirit or simply a voice over our shoulder, we don’t care. But once you add an “I”, our minds (and training) tell us there must be be a transmission method. But why? Why can’t this “I” simply be a spirit, or god, or bodyless voice simply telling its story after the fact like the sentient third-person voice does? Knowing that the third-person narrator is indeed a sentient character, with thoughts and beliefs and judgments, makes the way we harshly separate the two illogical. It has no relation to grammar or structure, which are definitive rules (but still can be broken), this is purely a sentiment and preference issue, even if people do not realize it. It is a instinctive reaction based on years of being told this is how it is, and a lifetime of people standing in front of us telling us stories with “I”. No one is the real world would tell us a story about someone else using “I”. But these are real, biological people–fictional narrators are not. Fictional narrators are not bound by the laws of biology or physics, as the use of third-person narrators proves.

      All of this is not to say that people should feel free to go ahead and write their first-person narrators dying at the end of the story. As you rightfully point out, convention tells us this is wrong, and editors or publishers will follow convention every time. All this is simply to say that the idea is not logical, so someday we may find a shift in the common sentiment that will allow for more freedom and experimentation with first-person narrators. For now, writers should certainly follow the standard advice of first-person narration requiring a clear method of transmission. But they should also keep in mind that this could change because there is no inherent truth making this a requirement.

      Wow, this came out to be really long. This is probably a few blog posts on its own. But I hope this clarifies my perspective, which is based on a lot of experience, not just a lazy tendency to cast aside convention for no clear reason.

      • It’s curious to me that you say my position is based on convention. The reason I pointed out liking the other post’s opinion matching mine is that I rarely hear it. What I mostly see is the same thing you’re saying, that everything can go all willy-nilly crazy because… Literature? Because how dare you mix reality into my fiction? I based my opinion about first person narrators on logic and my own perceptions of reality, not to mention decades of reading books that did or did not make sense along these lines. I’ve never heard people discussing this convention you speak of that dictates that first person POV has to have a first person who’s telling the story. (Maybe we all thought it was too obvious to mention, way back when I took writing classes?) If that’s the convention, though, I applaud it. If the person is using “I” and telling about events that happened to them and things that they did, that they are a character in the story. They are describing their life, their beliefs, their actions… it’s them. That’s just basic logic. How is it not them? How is that a judgement from sentiment?

        I also don’t think this has anything to do with the issue of whether your third person narrator voice should be consistent across the story. The third person narrator may be telling the story, but they are, by definition, not a character IN the story. So, yes, all the characters in the story can die and the third-person narrator can keep talking about it, which is completely different than if one of the characters is the narrator and the person who is talking dies. Again, that seems so obvious that I’m having a hard time understanding why or how it’s a point of contention.

        I honestly can’t understand your reasoning here, and at this point I don’t think you could explain it any better. You seem to be dipping into some deep philosophical literary well of squishy ideas that I can’t relate to. Call me plebeian if you will. All I want is for the stories I read to make sense, and not to have to go back to college for a class in metaphysics to get where the author was coming from.

        • Fair enough. To clarify, I didn’t say (or mean) that first-person narrators were not the same as the protagonist, I was referring only to third-person, particularly limited POV. There are some examples of published, popular works that defy the rule, which is why I suggest it is convention rather than absolute. Regardless, it’s such a tiny, irrelevant issue that will rarely even come up, so it’s not worth such a winded discussion. I do appreciate the thorough feedback! 😀

          • I appreciate the occasional long-winded discussion about arcane writing issues, myself. 😉 I agree, this issue doesn’t come up that often. But when it does come up, it’s a real killer. Definitely something I’ll be avoiding, and not because of convention. (If you knew me better, you’d realize that telling me something is the “rule” usually inspires me to figure out a cool way to break it, not to follow it!)

          • The ironic thing is, I am the exact opposite. I love convention. I like the comfort that having rules provides, which makes my railing against the system here so odd.

          • Ha ha, I agree, that is funny. For me, rules are for grammar and punctuation, not for style. You would probably have hated the session I liked best at my most recent writers’ conference, called “Breaking the Rules: A guide to prologues, adverbs, and other literary taboos.” It was a hoot. 🙂

          • Oh, I love my adverbs. That’s one of the rules I am happy to break. And prologues, now that you mention it. My book has a prologue…

          • I am still debating whether to call mine “prologue” or “chapter 1.” But yes, it’s obviously a prologue.

          • I had the same concern. Mine reads like a chapter, but in the end it is a bit too disconnected from the central plot. It’s more a bit for setting things in motion. So, prologue.

          • Good luck with that; I hope the agents read it, even with the dreaded “P” word attached. 🙂

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