Adventures in Reading Darkover Stories Without Having to Write Them First.

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Title: Adventures in Reading Darkover Stories Without Having to Write Them First.
Creator: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Date(s): December 1978
Medium: print
Fandom: Darkover
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Adventures in Reading Darkover Stories Without Having to Write Them First. (full title: "Now Marion, What Was All That About Dragons Singing Gregorian chant in the Main Courtyards at Nevarsin*......? Or, Adventures in Reading Darkover Stories Without Having to Write Them First. COMMENTARY on the Darkover Short Story Contest") is an essay by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

first page of the essay

It was published in Starstone #3 in 1978.

It was written as commentary for the first Darkover Short Story Contest, an event created to encourage fan writers for Darkover, as well as to generate content for Bradley's fanzines, as well as her professional anthologies published by DAW Books.

Regarding the Asterix in the Full Title

In an article for Lynne Holdom's JUMEAUX, I commented, apropos of the way in which I tend to work on instinct rather than working out the society logically, that I thought up Free Amazons first and had to try and make them rational afterward; adding that even if I should wake up some morning with a clear and definite picture in my mind of dragons singing Gregorian chant at sunrise in the courtyards of Nevarsin Monastery, I would have to exercise my brain and figure out some way in which I could logically make those singing dragons part of Darkover. This, of course, is why other people's view of Darkover does not bother me, even if it is NOT my Darkover, and why I feel we can assimilate the world-view of many other writers....

Some Topics Discussed

  • how to get professionally published
  • the importance of following the rules
  • keeping clean typewriter keys
  • avoid stupid, flippant, or in-joke titles
  • what makes a story good for one one reader is different for another
  • just because a story gets published doesn't mean it's a good story
  • how the judging, and scores, were done for this contest
  • general writing advice


There were thirty-four qualified entries in the Darkover Short Story contest. I had to open the envelopes, assign each story a number and write the SAME number on manuscript and sealed envelope containing name and address, as a doubje-check on safety and anonmyity, before the story and envelope were separated. I could seldom—say never —resist the temptation to take a peek at the story, and I usually ended up reading it through. So I was the first to read each story, and this meant that I read each story twice, while the other judges may not have read any story more than once.

With five widely differing judges, I felt our prejudices and personal preferences would cancel each other out, and provide overall fairness.

Each judge could assign, as follows, thirty points to any one story; first, ten for AUTHENTICITY, which, I made clear, did NOT mean "Is this story written as MZB would have written it?" but "Does this sound like Darkover to you?" Second, ten for TECHNIQUE, in which I asked them to judge the story by the quality of writing and skill in handling, by the criteria of well-written fiction; and third, ten for ENJOYABILITY, or, pure and simple, "How much did you like it?" Theoretically, the grand prize winner could have received a total of one hundred fifty points; but I felt it unlikely that any story could receive the same appraisal from our five wildly different judges; the possibility of the same story receiving top category from all five of us struck me as being roughly those of a lighted match in Zandru's ninth hell. In point of fact, although the voting was very close, the highest rating was 134, and two stories tied for that. We also had a tie for second place, with two stories receiving 132 votes. As Jacqueline pointed out, if one judge had been—or WAS—in a bad mood the day he or she read some of the stories, the stories he read that day could have been out of the running, even though they were better stories than some of the winners. We could have asked a sixth party to read the winners and break the ties...which would have meant that only three of the four stories which placed within two points of one another, would have won; instead I chose to duplicate the prizes for the tied stories. Which meant that within a six-place point spread we had the five winners, and the three consolation prizes widened the point-spread only eight more points. So that Jacqueline and I have volunteered to give the detailed critique and conference on writing to anyone who placed in the top eight, instead of only to the two first-place tied winners. All eight of them may choose between a critique from me, and one from Jacqueline.

This is now we judged. There were five judges; myself, Randall Garrett, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Diana Paxson, Katherine Kurtz. All are published writers, and I had a special reason for choosing each judge. Katherine is a fantasy writer, although in a very different vein. Jacqueline also writes series fiction, and served a long apprenticeship writing for the Kraith Star Trek amateur fiction. Randall, in addition to providing a much-needed man's viewpoint (twenty-three of our twenty-six contest entrants were female) spent many, many years turning out formula fiction for the pulp magazines in the fifties, and knows how to write under pressure to a strict formula. And I felt that Diana, as a recently published writer with only a very few sales to her credit, might be less exacting than the four professionals, and add a weight to the amateur's point of view. (Only it didn't work out that way. Diana turned out, to my amazement, to be the most exacting of the judges, rating consistently lower than any of the other four. She is the only judge who did not give a single rating of "thirty" to any single story; in fact, she rated no story above 27. The most generous judge was Katherine, who found something extremely pleasant to say about every story. Diana's strict judging proves what I say; it is easier to spot flaws in someone else's work, and it can make you more critical and exacting about your own.)

And while all of us enjoy one another's work, we are all very different people - personality and temperament, and we have different tastes and prejudices which is what I wanted. It would have been easy to fill the ranks of judges with people who echoed my own attitude about Darkover; this is one reason Walter Breen, who created the Concordance, and knows more about Darkover than I do myself (because he remembers all the things I have forgotten) was not chosen as a judge; his tastes and mine are entirely too similar, so much so that for several Christmases in a row we gave each other the same book!

When I started to write this article/editorial, I thought of calling it HOW NOT TO WRITE A DARKOVER STORY. Then I decided this might mean I felt there was only one right way to write a story, namely my way; and that isn't what I meant at all. But many of the entries in the contest were not professionally salable at all, even some of the prizewinners, and it occurred to me that reading all of these entries in one lump would constitute a pretty good course in how not to write fiction; because, among the thirty-four entries, the twenty-six entrants made every conceivable mistake it is possible to make in writing fantasy, science fiction, or just plain fiction of any kind.

Now, don't get me wrong. One learns to write good stories only by writing bad ones. I have written my share of the bad ones; I have written worse stories than the worst of the stories entered in this contest. and some of my early clunkers actually appeared in print and sometimes I even got paid for them. New writers are more sophisticated, in these days, and editors demand more even of novices. But it is by writing bad stories that we learn to write good ones. And sometimes it is by reading bad stories that we learn to recognize the difference between a good story and a bad one. In my early days as a writer, I could not tell the difference between a story which would sell, and a story which was too bad even for the pulps of those days; I was pleasantly surprised when I sold a story, and outraged when I received a rejection slip, because seemed to me that the story the editors rejected was just as good as some of the ones they actually printed. It took me a long time to learn the difference between a good story, a bad story which an editor might buy anyhow because it was good in the ways that his audience demanded, and the readers could not tell the difference between bad and good in the other waysj a good story which the editor could not print, however good it was, because it failed in small ways which were not important to me, but were important to his audience (I have just written a very good story which cannot sell because it is too sad for any market now in existence);and a bad story which an editor would not buy because it was bad in the wrong way for his audience. In fact, the subtler points of that difference still escape me; I expect to go on learning them for the rest of my life; but having to act as editorial consultant on STARSTONE, making the final decisions between amateurish stories which we can print because their faults are minor and the readers will forgive them, and amateurish stories which we cannot print because, even if the stories are very good in some ways, they are not right in the ways that matter to us and our readers—that kind of decision has helped me to see the flaws in some of my own work , and to write sharper short fiction. Most of my early short, stories were, I say with confidence, absolutely terrible.

Which, let me say at once, is why we intend to print, in STARSTONE, almost all of the thirty-four stories submitted in the contest, including some of the last-placers as well as the top winners. In reading some of these stories, you may be able to say, not only "That's a bad story," but to recognize what makes a bad story bad, and what, even more important, makes a good story good. When you see someone else doing something wrong in a story, it's easier to say "Hey, that's exactly what I was doing when I wrote THE FREE AMAZONS ON VULCAN" (I hasten to add that nobody was quite THAT bad) "and in my next story I'll be more careful!"
There were several stories I wished I had written, because of their wildly original ideas; on the other hand, some of you stuck so close to "My" Darkover that I felt the only reason I hadn't written them was that I hadn't gotten around to it yet! The most original ideas were probably In Crossover, Nina Boal's The Meeting, (A real new twist on a Free Amazon story, of which there were, I think, six.') Linda Prankel's Embassage to Corvesanti, (one of two stories which dealt most convincingly with a meeting with aliens, the other being Cynthia McQuillin's The Forest) and John Hopfner's CROSS-ROUGH, which had a more convincing explanation of the multi-levelled matrixes than anything else I have seen!) The stories which came so close to my personal view of Darkover that I felt I might have written them myself, if I had thought of it, (and I am not accusing these writers of slavish imitation, simply saying that they see Darkover from a place somewhat closer to that where my own preceptions lie) were Penny Ziegler's A Simple Dream, Awakening by Eileen Ledbetter, Paul Crunk's A Message from Marius, Mary Frances Zambrene's second place winner At Nervarsin; Valdir and Valentine, and Cynthia Anderson Frazer's masterly evocation of Kennard Alton on Terra, Choices. I also felt very close to Patricia Partridge's A Change of Heart, though I don't think I could have written it myself.
My own personal preferences did not overwhelmingly affect the ratings. Although I rated all five of the winning stories high, 1 gave a vote of "thirty to only one of them; and only one story received a "thirty" from as many as three judges—but it didn't win first place. Details of the voting are confidential, for obvious reasons. My own three top favorites placed, respectively second, first, and eleventh, in that order, with my other top ratings placing as low as fourteenth. The story which received three "thirty" votes rated as low as 16 with another, just nudging it out of first place.
What does all this mean? It means that one cannot say that there were five "good" stories which won prises, a few more which were "pretty good" and received honorable mention, and the rest were all bad. On the contrary; one really bad rating could destroy a story's chances at first place (one story-rated middling-well with four of the judges, while the fifth assigned it a total value of zero, plummeting it down to the lowest of the ratings. And one story which received low ratings from everybody (THREE of the judges gave it no votes at all, saying it was not a story and should have been disqualified was nevertheless liked by almost all the judges, their sole comment being that it was a gimmick or a joke, not a story. (it is printed in this issue; we think you'll like it; and remember, out of a total of 150 votes this story received so few that I will not upset the author by telling her how few.) Which just goes to show that what they say about rejection slips about "The rejection of this story does not imply any lack of merit...." is literally true. Two of the stories which placed only in the ALSO ENTERED received votes of thirty from one judge, so that their low rating implies only that they were highly controversial or that they appealed to a very specialized audience. Judges, and even editors, are still human beings. For instance, the Del Reys simply HATED my book THE RUINS OF ISIS, and rejected it even though they had approved an outline and commissioned it. Wollheim backed them up and refused to buy it, saying they were right and it was a bad book, when my agent, offered him second refusal. I have just sold it to a New York mass-market paperback for more money than I ever before received for a paperback. This doesn't mean that Don Wollheim and/or the Del Reys were stupid and imperceptive; it just means that the story was more controversial than the average publisher could manage, and they didn't like it well enough, personally, to fight the unwritten laws of publishing it.

A word or two about titles. Editors, of course, have all kinds of theories and prejudices about titles, and in general they will accept a story with a title they don't like and proceed to change it, not always for the better, so it doesn't matter what you call your story unless it is really silly. I have very strong personal prejudices about titles myself; I have never been able to bring myself to read a story which is supposedly good enough for a Hugo, because I absolutely refuse to read any story which is called REPENT HARLEQUIN, CRIED THE TICKTOCK MAN, and I won't go to any play which is called by the ghastly title of THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS UPON MAN-IN-THE-MOQN MARIGOLDS. Probably I am the loser by this prejudice, but there it is.

However, I feel strongly that the title should give me some kind of idea what kind of story it is. There is nothing to object to in The Fall of Neskaya, for instance, unless the story had turned out to have nothing to do with Neskaya. But there were titles which annoyed me. A story called The Forest could have been about anything from chieri to hunters. Actually it was a nice tale of a small girl's encounter with Yamen. Suicide is Painless struck me as a pointless title; the author later explained to me that it was from M.A.S.H., which I suppose is some kind of television show, but I resented the implication that everyone would automatically have known that. I don't use Shakespearean titles, unless I quote the origin of the title in context, because I think it's arrogant to assume that everybody has read my favorite plays. There were titles whose meaning I never did figure out; Cross-Rough, for example. I read the story twice, and I still don't know what it means. And I was so outraged by the title I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat that I probably wasn't fair to the story; it was a pretty good story, but not by any means silly enough or flippant enough to justify that title. It was a nice, serious little story, and not bad at all. But personally (and, I hasten to add, this is a personal prejudice) I considered that title to be the pits! In general, amusing or flippant titles should be reserved for slapstick humor.

I ought to comment that the longest title was given to the shortest story. The Sociological Impact of Certain Terran Trade Imports on Radicalism in larkovan Society was somewhat less than half a page long. The title wasn't really longer than the story, it just seemed that way.

But in general, these stories were very good for amateur stories. A few were good by professional standards, or could be with a little more know-how. But even those which did not place very high showed considerable talent. Some ideas were so wildly original I wished I had thought of them myself. A few made me giggle. One or two made me cry. And all of them, one way or the other, made me THINK.

My personal thanks to each and every one of you who made this contest so much a success. My compliments to the winners; my encouragement to all of you. I think you are all wonderful. I wish we could print all of these stories in STARSTONE. And who knows? Maybe we will!

The Essay: Sample Pages