Today I read dozens of fiction manuscripts. That's because it was the reading party for Writers at Work, where volunteer screeners go through reams of paper trying to identify the very best fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction manuscripts. That also means that we identify the not-so-good ones. Also the awful ones, if you want to be uncharitable about it.
Of course, screening activities such as this one tend to bring out the uncharitable part of a reader's character. The way it works is: the manuscripts are divided by genre, and then into packets of ten. Each packet of ten has a scoring sheet rubber-banded to the packet. Reader #1 writes "yes" or "no" in the far column next to the manuscript number, and when Reader #1 finishes with that packet of ten, s/he folds the scoring sheet over so that her/his column is not visible to the next reader (Reader #2). A disagreement between the first two readers results in a third reading.
So, Hypothetical Reader #1 starts out the session without any grudges, looking at the first pile of manuscripts with anticipation--or at least without hate--in her heart. But she doesn't even have to finish the first set to start making rules, like:
1. Is one of the main characters a vampire? Then no.
2. Is the story set in a historical time period/place, such as pre-Revolutionary colonial America? Probably not. In fact, no.
3. Are there characters named after someone in Arthurian legends? No. Really.
This was just for the fiction. My compatriots reading poetry noted a disturbing predilection across many manuscripts for bee imagery.
4. Does the poem contain bee imagery? Probably not. Although possibly, exceptions can be made for really good bee manuscripts.
The worst thing was that, as I read manuscripts that I knew wouldn't make the cut, I still couldn't stop reading. Just because a story is poorly written doesn't mean you don't want to know what happens.
Note 1: The City Library, where the reading party was held, is a swell place to spend a good chunk of the day. I saw families, little kids, teenagers, oldsters, everyone having what seemed like a great time.
Note 2: I have sent the rage remix version of my manuscript out, having possibly done too much to it and also possibly not enough. Also, I changed my Johnny Cash poem, maybe for the worse. However, I find myself optimistic anyway. I'm currently on the hunt for the file of a poem which I seem to have misplaced, at least the electronic version of it. Luckily, there's still paper. Anyway: Poetry is happening all around you! It is the cruellest month--National Poetry Month!