Why do fiction magazines take so long to respond to submissions?

Why do fiction magazines take so long to respond to submissions?

The obvious answer is that they receive many, many submissions per month. But I'm pretty sure that answer is wrong.

If the delay were due to receiving submissions at a rate faster than then can reply, their response time would steadily and rapidly increase. Let's see why. For simplicity, let's assume that all submissions arrive on the first day of the month, and they send all replies on the last day.

Imagine a magazine that received 100 submissions per month, but can only respond to 50 per month. Let's number the submissions S001–S100. After the first month, they would have replied to fifty submissions, numbered S001–S050, with a response time of one month. And they would have a backlog of submissions S051–S100.

In the second month, they would receive another 100 submissions (S101–S200). And they would respond to the first fifty in the backlog. And the fifty they respond to would be the ones that were already in the backlog at the start of the month (S051–S100). The response time for those would be 2 months. And they would not be able to respond to any of the new submissions. They would end the month with 100 submissions (S101–S200) in the backlog.

The third month they would respond to the first fifty in the queue (S101–S150), all of which have been in the backlog since the beginning of the second month. The response for those would be 2 months. Over the month, they would receive 100 more submissions (S201–S300). They would end the third month with 150 submissions in the backlog (S151–S300).

The fourth month they would respond to the first 50 submissions in the backlog (S151–S200), each of which has been in the backlog since the start of the second month. The response time for those would be 3 months. They would receive another 100 submissions and end the month with 200 submissions (S201–S400) in the backlog.

Every month, the backlog grows. And every month the average response time grows. This is always what happens if submissions arrive at a rate faster than the magazine can respond. (More generally, this is what happens to any system when jobs arrive at a rate faster than the system completes them.) The backlog grows without bound, and (if every submission stays in the queue) the response time also grows without bound.

But for most magazines the response does not increase. So the problem cannot be that submissions arrive faster than the magazine can respond. If the response time stays exactly the same, then the magazine must be responding to exactly as many submissions each month as it receives.

The problem is not that submissions arrive faster than the magazine can respond. The problem is that the backlog has a lot of stories in it.

For such a magazine, where there is a long delay, yet they respond at the same rate that submissions arrive, there is a simple way to (nearly) eliminate the delays: Close down submissions until the backlog is gone. Then when you re-open for submissions, you can respond to them at the rate you always have, but the response time will be near zero.

Just like Clarkesworld. ||||||| merged common ancestors ======= — title: Why do fiction magazines take so long to respond to submissions? date: 2013/05/24 tags: - submitting —

Why do fiction magazines take so long to respond to submissions?

The obvious answer is that they receive many, many submissions per month. But I'm pretty sure that answer is wrong.

If the delay were due to receiving submissions at a rate faster than then can reply, their response time would steadily and rapidly increase. Let's see why. For simplicity, let's assume that all submissions arrive on the first day of the month, and they send all replies on the last day.

Imagine a magazine that received 100 submissions per month, but can only respond to 50 per month. Let's number the submissions S001–S100. After the first month, they would have replied to fifty submissions, numbered S001–S050, with a response time of one month. And they would have a backlog of submissions S051–S100.

In the second month, they would receive another 100 submissions (S101–S200). And they would respond to the first fifty in the backlog. And the fifty they respond to would be the ones that were already in the backlog at the start of the month (S051–S100). The response time for those would be 2 months. And they would not be able to respond to any of the new submissions. They would end the month with 100 submissions (S101–S200) in the backlog.

The third month they would respond to the first fifty in the queue (S101–S150), all of which have been in the backlog since the beginning of the second month. The response for those would be 2 months. Over the month, they would receive 100 more submissions (S201–S300). They would end the third month with 150 submissions in the backlog (S151–S300).

The fourth month they would respond to the first 50 submissions in the backlog (S151–S200), each of which has been in the backlog since the start of the second month. The response time for those would be 3 months. They would receive another 100 submissions and end the month with 200 submissions (S201–S400) in the backlog.

Every month, the backlog grows. And every month the average response time grows. This is always what happens if submissions arrive at a rate faster than the magazine can respond. (More generally, this is what happens to any system when jobs arrive at a rate faster than the system completes them.) The backlog grows without bound, and (if every submission stays in the queue) the response time also grows without bound.

But for most magazines the response does not increase. So the problem cannot be that submissions arrive faster than the magazine can respond. If the response time stays exactly the same, then the magazine must be responding to exactly as many submissions each month as it receives.

The problem is not that submissions arrive faster than the magazine can respond. The problem is that the backlog has a lot of stories in it.

For such a magazine, where there is a long delay, yet they respond at the same rate that submissions arrive, there is a simple way to (nearly) eliminate the delays: Close down submissions until the backlog is gone. Then when you re-open for submissions, you can respond to them at the rate you always have, but the response time will be near zero.

Just like Clarkesworld.

Sentence Length Exercise

This is the second in a series of exercises designed by Melinda Morris and me for WordForge, our local writer’s group.

Introduction

This exercise focuses on sentence length and its effects.

The exercise requires multiple revisions, so allow yourself plenty of time.

The Excercise

First draft. Write a piece in 3rd person that includes activity of some kind, but no dialogue. Start your piece any way you like. Write the first draft using your usual process. Write it as long as you need it to be, but try for at least 500 words, to give yourself enough material to work with.

First revision: Short sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no longer than 10 words each. No sentence may be longer than 10 words. Write the best short sentences you can.

Second revision: Long sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no shorter than 25 words each. Every sentence must be at least 25 words long. Write the best long sentences you can.

If writing either of these lengths is easy for you, adjust the lengths until it becomes difficult. If you usually write sentences of 10 words or fewer, use a maximum of 7 words per sentence, or 5 words. If 25 word sentences are a breeze, try 30 words. The point is to challenge yourself by working outside of your comfort range in order to observe how sentence length effects a piece. Within these restrictions, write the best sentences, the best paragraphs, and the best piece you can.

Write each revision as long as you need it to be. Make sure that each sentence within each version make sense, and that each version makes sense as a whole. w Analyze the effects of sentence length. Analyze your three drafts (the first draft and the two revisions) to identify the effects of sentence length. Make notes about what you observe.

Final draft. Write your final draft however you wish, but give particular attention to sentence length. Really look at the differing lengths, and apply what you learned about sentence length during the first two revisions. Always use the sentence length and structure that best serves your piece.

Guidelines

As you revise, notice the choices you make about how to shorten, lengthen, slice, or combine sentences. Notice the effects of each choice, and whether you like each effect.

When you’ve finished revising, consider:

  • What challenges did you experience? What was difficult? How did you solve the problems?
  • What surprised you? What meaning do you make of your surprise?
  • What patterns do you notice in the structures of your short sentences? Of your long sentences?
  • What patterns do you notice in the types, lengths, and arrangement of phrases and clauses in your long sentences?
  • In your final version, what similarities and variations do you notice in sentence lengths and structures? What patterns do you see in the arrangement of short and long sentences?
  • Read each version aloud. What makes a sentence easier or harder to read?
  • How did focusing on sentence length affect other elements of your writing?

Also, as you revise, keep in mind narrative flow.

Examples

First, a randomly selected long sentence from a randomly selected page of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror:

On reaching the palace, Marcel mounted with part of his company to the Dauphin's chamber, where, while he made a show of protecting the prince, his men fell upon the Dauphin's two Marshals and slew them before his eyes. [39 words]

Here is my favorite opening line ever, from John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. [54 words]

Finally one from Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, which I just started reading. Prior to this sentence, Clare has bumped into Henry in the library. She's met him many times, but he's never met her. (It's a time-travel thing, yo.)  Clare asks Henry out to dinner. Then comes this:

We plan to meet tonight at a nearby Thai restaurant, all the while under the amused gaze of the women behind the desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing. [59 words]

Invitation

Melinda and I would love to know how you use this exercise and what you learn from it.

If you have questions, suggestions, or anything else you’d like to say, please comment.

Narrative Flow Exercise

This is the first of a series of exercises designed by Melinda Morris and me for WordForge, our local writers’ group.

Introduction

This exercise focuses on narrative flow.

People use the term narrative flow to mean lots of different things. For the purpose of this exercise, we’re focused on a specific meaning: the connections among words, sentences, and paragraphs.

For more information, see the references section, below.

The Exercise

The prompt. Start your piece with this: I stepped out of my front door and walked down to the street. I looked around and saw everything I knew about the world

First draft. Write the first draft in your usual way. Write it as long as you need it to be.

Revise for narrative flow. Revise what you've written, focusing on one goal: Improve the narrative flow, the connections among words, sentences, and paragraphs. Rewrite sentences, restructure them, rearrange them so that each follows naturally from the one before and each leads naturally to the next. Add, remove, or change words. Reorganize paragraphs. And don't limit yourself to these suggestions. Change anything you can think of to improve the narrative flow.

Maximum word count. 500 words.

Guidelines

Give yourself plenty of time for this exercise. Our writer’s group found it more challenging than we had expected, some requiring five or more hours of work, and as many as eight drafts. Each of the writers who did the exercise found the rewards to be worth the effort.

As you revise, notice the choices you make, and how each choice affects narrative flow. Notice what enhances narrative flow and what interferes. Make notes about what you notice.

When you’ve finished revising, consider:

  • What challenges did you experience? What was difficult? How did you solve the problems?
  • What surprised you? What meaning do you make of your surprise?
  • What kinds of connections did you use in your writing? What kinds of connections can you identify in others’ writing? What effects do these connections create?
  • How did focusing on narrative flow affect other elements of your writing?

Discuss what you’ve learned with other people who have completed the exercise. Use these guidelines to guide the conversation.

References

Elisabeth George describes narrative flow in her marvelous book Write Away. The relevant section, available online via Google books, runs from bottom of page 159 through the middle of page 162. Particularly instructive is the excerpt from one of George’s novels, and her analysis of the connections from one paragraph to the next.

In “Creating Narrative Flow,” Sam Reeves describes one way to achieve narrative flow:

One sentence introduces part of a picture that baits the reader into subconsciously asking a question about the idea or action.  The writer, in turn, answers that question in the next sentence while simultaneously expanding information that prompts the reader into asking additional questions. And then the process repeats itself.

Reeves also shows a nice example of how he used this technique to improve the narrative flow of a bumpy paragraph.

Invitation

Melinda and I would love to know how you use this exercise and what you learn from it.

If you have questions, suggestions, or anything else you’d like to say, please comment.

Interviewing Characters: Follow the Energy

On November 13, 2007 I ran out of plot for the NaNoWriMo novel I was writing. I had no idea what to write next. That's not uncommon for NaNo novelists, but I hadda do something to jiggle myself loose. In NaNoWriMo, word count is everything, and I couldn't afford to fall behind.

So I tried something I hadn't tried before: I interviewed my characters.

Well, that turned out to be more interesting than I'd anticipated. And it boosted my word count to boot. And on top of that, it offered some plot ideas.

I didn't use any pre-planned questionnaire. There are zillions of character questionnaires on the web, and none of them ever seemed to get at the heart of the character.

Instead, I did what I do in many real-life interviews: Follow the energy. The idea is to:

  1. Ask a question that invites the character to tell me something new
  2. Listen for emotional intensity in the answer. Sometimes the emotion is subtle, and other times it's big and obvious.
  3. Ask my next question based on that emotion.

Rather than describing this process in detail, I'll let you read the interviews as I conducted them, unedited. I offer these interviews not necessarily as exemplary, but merely as examples. The thing to notice is how I followed the characters' energy.

Some background: The novel involves a time loop. Every 29 hours, the characters (and everyone else in the story world) loop back in time. The story follows two main plots.

In the first plot, Dan Roberge murders his wife Faith and her lover Zorem. Then time loops and he murders them again. And again. Police detectives Ray Andollo and Patty Yonce investigate.

The interviews:

In the second plot, Amy Anderson saves her son from drowning in a pond on the family farm. Then time loops and her son drowns. Then time loops again. After the first incident (before the first time loop), Amy's husband Frank becomes engraged when he discovers that Amy had been drinking while their sons played at the pond.

The interviews:

  • Amy Anderson. This was my favorite interview, because it so significantly affected my understanding of the character.
  • Frank Anderson

Introducing Gibberizer: Automated Gibberish

I've created a mostly goofy software tool called Gibberizer.  You enter some text into Gibberizer, and it produces gibberish that is somewhat similar to your text.

Mostly the thing is just goofy fun. I've spent several hours gibberizing The Gettysburg Address into nearly-meaningful nonsense that sounds like Honest Abe on smack.  If that ain't fun, I don't know what is!

But there's a potentially useful application for Gibberizer.  Fantasy and Science Fiction writers working in invented worlds and cultures can use it to invent names for people, places, and things.  Given a list of names from a culture, Gibberizer will invent other names that seem, more or less, to come from the same culture.

For example, I entered a list of 50 names from Lord of the Rings into Gibberizer, and it created these 25 "similar" names: Fimbreth Nimrodo Maggins Galad Peregolas Fladriel Nimroden Theodel Bregrin Elladriel Elladrif Fladan Elberegalad Pereth Halbaramir Boromiel Farad Beregalad Baggot Froden Beregrin Bregolas Bregond Brandalf Bereth.  Most of those names fit the Lord of the Rings culture.

I'm making Gibberizer available for free for any use whatsoever.

You can download Gibberizer at The Gibberizer Project Page.

System Requirements:  I've used Gibberizer only on my Windows computer.  As far as I know, this will also work on any Mac or Linux computer, as the computer has a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) 5.0 or later.  My understanding is that OS X comes with JRE 5.0 pre-installed.  If your computer doesn't already have a JRE installed, you can get the latest JRE from Sun Microsystems.  If you try Gibberizer on Linux or a Mac, let me know how it goes. To run Gibberizer, just download the file and double-click it.

The sketchy documentation includes:

Developing Story Ideas by Clustering

In early April eleven of my local writer friends and I held a weekend writer's retreat at a dome house in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

One of my goals for the retreat was to practice developing ideas into story ideas, and then into stories.  And I had a technique in mind that I wanted to practice: clustering.

I'd learned about clustering years ago from a writing teacher in New Hampshire, who had learned it from Gabriele Rico's book Writing the Natural Way.  Dustin Wax describes the technique nicely on his blog, and you can see a Flash animation of clustering in action at the top of Rico's web site.

I'd used clustering dozens of times for my non-fiction writing (and also for general problem-solving), so I knew it was a great technique for tapping the creative, associative workings of your mind.  But I hadn't yet used clustering to develop story ideas for fiction, and this was a great opportunity.

So that's how I would develop ideas into story ideas.  Where would I find the raw, undeveloped ideas to cluster about?  From my brand new copy of The Writer's Book of Matches, a small book filled with hundreds of intriguing writing prompts.

So I had plan:

  1. Pick a random prompt from The Writer's Book of Matches.
  2. Cluster around the core idea of the prompt until a story idea hit me.
  3. Write down the story idea.
  4. Write the story.

Then I went to work.

My first prompt was:

"He's probably just as disappointed in me as I am in him."

The core of this idea is mutual disappointment.  But who are the people involved, and what are they disappointed about?  This is a great job for clustering.  I grabbed my pen and an 8"x5" index card and drew this cluster (rendered here using MindJet's MindManager software):

Cluster for "Dinner at Gourlay's" (click for full size) As I dumped associations onto the card, I quickly found a story idea (in the branches I've bolded on the map):

A father has long expressed disappointment in his son's sexual promiscuity.  Then the son catches the father having an affair.
This story idea had some real juice for me, especially if I wrote it from the son's point of view.  I didn't want to cluster any more, I wanted to write.  I dashed off a 1,000-word first draft of a story called "Dinner at Gourlay's". The next prompt that I pulled out of The Writer's Book of Matches was:
"It's supposed to be a game, but he treats it like life and death."
The key words seemed to be life, death, and game, so I put those words in the center of an index card and created this cluster:

Cluster for "Double or Nothing" (click for full size)

This time the story didn't jump out at me instantly.  It took a whole five minutes to find an idea that interested me.  The "bet too much" bubble caught my attention because it connected game with death.  Digging yourself too deeply into debt with your bookie (so the stereotype goes) can put you at serious bodily risk.  So imagine a guy deeply in debt and being threatened by his bookie.  What might the guy do?  Maybe he'd kill the bookie, or try to.  Then I thought of a twist:  What if the guy bets a second bookie that he can kill the one to whom he's in debt?  After a few more twists, I had enough of an idea to start writing:

Norm is deeply in debt to his bookie Paulo.  He tries to hire Emile, a competing bookie, to kill Paulo.  But Emile doesn't like the idea.  Instead, he offers a deal:  If Norm can kill the Paulo in a week, Emile will pay off the debt.  If Norm can't kill Paulo in a week, Emile will still pay off the debt, but then Norm will owe Emile twice the amount he owed Paulo.  Double or nothing.

That prompt led to this story idea?  Cool!

I wrote the first scene, which I quite like.  But at the moment I don't know where the story goes next.  I like the idea that the Emile tips off Paulo that Norm is coming to kill him, but so far I can't figure out Emile's motivation to do that.  But it would be fun, so I'll keep looking.

Time for more clustering.

Fantasy and Science Fiction July 2008

Last week John Joseph Adams posted a promotional giveaway for the July 2008 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Adams offered a deal: You get the free issue if you promise to blog about it.

For the past 25 years I've read very little short fiction. Lately I've been writing some short fiction myself, and have become interested in learning what makes excellent short stories excellent. I began picking up the odd copy of F&SF and other speculative fiction magazines to study as well as to enjoy. This promotion seemed right up my alley.

I ordered my copy on Thursday, received it on Saturday, and read the final story tonight.

Here are the stories and my reactions (no spoilers here).

"Reader's Guide" by Lisa Goldstein. I was surprisingly touched by this lovely story about one of the more mysterious aspects of the art of writing fiction. I can't say anything about the plot without giving away the beauty of the story, but the story is written in the form of a reader's guide.

"Fullbrim's Finding" by Matthew Hughes. A "discriminator" goes in search of a client's lost husband, who has himself gone in search of the meaning of life. (From this story alone, I get the sense that a discriminator is something like a galactic private investigator. F&SF's intro to the story suggests that the main character has appeared in other short stories and novels, and I suspect that "discriminator" is clarified in those).

"The Roberts" by Michael Blumlein. Technology helps a man solve the problem of finding a "perfect" mate. But what if the imperfections are not in the mate?

"Enfant Terrible" by Scot Dalrymple. A story of a man doing a job that is both necessary for the protection of society, and dirty enough that it's best kept quiet. Dalrymple tells this story second-person point of view–i.e. the main character is "you".

"Poison Victory" by Albert E. Chowdrey. In late 1949, a German chemist struggles to atone for his role in bringing Germany to victory in WWII.

"The Dinosaur Train" by James L. Cambias. A setback in a family business–a sort of circus with live dinosaurs–brings three generations of unresolved conflicts to the moment of truth.

My strongest reactions were to the two more experimental stories. I liked "Enfant Terrible" least, specifically because of the second-person point of view. Second-person always makes me fear that the perspective was chosen more for the author's amusement than for its ability to illuminate the story. In this case I stumbled over the POV, and it didn't offer any compensations that I could see. I liked the story, but I liked it less for the POV.

The story I liked most was "Reader's Guide." I enjoyed my initial puzzle of "how the heck do you tell a story in the form of a reader's guide?" As it turns out, there's something about the experimental form that seems necessary to the story. The story itself arises partly from the form, and without that form would not be as effective. That's an experiment that works.

When I pick up an issue of a fiction magazine I expect to enjoy one or two of the stories. I enjoyed all six of these stories.

Scenes and Beats

Two types of scenes. Most of the scenes I write fall into one of two types: Action scenes in which the point-of-view (POV) character acts toward a goal and encounters conflict, and reaction scenes in which the POV character reels from a setback and decides what to do next.

Each type of scene has a typical structure. For an action scene, the structure is:

  1. Goal: The POV character has an immediate goal (called the scene goal), and acts toward the goal.
  2. Conflict: The character hits an obstacle, usually in the form of an opponent, another character whose goals conflict with the POV character's. For the bulk of the scene, the POV character and the opponent struggle with each other, each to attain their goal.
  3. Disaster: The POV character either succeeds or fails to achieve the goal. Most action scenes end not only in failure, but in disaster: The character is worse off at the end of the scene than at the beginning.

The structure for a reaction scene:

  1. Reaction: The POV character reels from the preceding disaster. This may include an emotional reaction, an rational reaction, or both. Usually the emotional reaction comes first.
  2. Dilemma: The character calms down enough (perhaps just barely enough) to explore options for what to do next. All of the options are bad.
  3. Decision: The character chooses the least bad option and commits to it. This becomes the scene goal for the next action scene.

Beats. The middle of each kind of scene proceeds in beats. A beat is a tiny cycle of flow and ebb, of forward and back, of progress and setback.

The conflict in an action scene proceeds in conflict beats. You can think of a conflict beat as starting with either the POV character's action or with the opponent's (or environment's) action. Here's the POV-character-first version, which I think of as an Action-Result beat:

  1. Action: The POV character takes action toward the goal.
  2. Result: The opponent acts against the POV character.

And the environment- or opponent-first version, which I think of as a Stimulus-Response beat:

  1. Stimulus: Something happens to which the POV character must respond.
  2. Response: The character acts in response to the stimulus.

Each kind of conflict beat gives a different perspective on the events of the scene. With Action-Result beats, the POV character appears to drive the sequence of events. With Stimulus-Response beats, the opponent or environment seem to be driving. Neither perspective tells the whole story: The POV character and the opponent co-create the sequence of events. I find it helpful to explore a sequence of beats from each perspective.

In a reaction scene, the dilemma proceeds in dilemma beats:

  1. Forward: The character thinks of another possible action toward the goal.
  2. Back: The character realizes the disadvantages of that action.

A caveat. These scene and beat structures are templates. If you apply the templates too rigidly, your story will read as if, uh… as if you wrote it by rigidly applying templates. I reach for templates like these only when I don't know what to write next. They're a great way to jiggle my brain. If the words are flowing without the templates, I don't think about these structures.

Further reading. I learned these most of these ideas from Dwight Swain and two other writers who have expanded on Swain's work:

Other names for these ideas. Swain uses different names than I do for these ideas, and Bickham and Ingermanson follow Swain's lead:

  • What I call an action scene, Swain calls a Scene (capital S).
  • What I call a reaction scene, Swain calls a Sequel.
  • What I call a Stimulus-Response beat, Swain calls a Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU).

As far as I know, "dilemma beat" is my own idea, though it's probably implied by Swain's description of Sequels.

Also, other people use the term beat in other ways.

Writing with Variables

Here's a writing exercise I invented to help me jiggle my brain and find ideas for fiction.

  1. Write down any character, location, object, situation, action, theme, or other story element.  It may be fascinating or mundane.  It may be one you've thought about and written about extensively, or one that just popped into your head.
  2. Write down every variable you can think of for the story element.  By variable, I mean anything that you could vary.  Ask yourself:  What could I vary about this?  What else could I vary?  When you run out of ideas, ask yourself:  If I could think of one more thing, what would it be?
  3. For each variable, write down every value you can think of.
  4. Pick a few variables that seem interesting to you.  Try different combinations of values for those variables.  What story ideas does this give you?

Let's try a mundane action:  Sharpening a pencil.

What could you vary about sharpening a pencil?  Here are some of the variables I can think of:

  • The kind of sharpener.
  • The sharpener's condition, age, mechanical soundness, rustiness, sharpness, squeakiness, color, shape...
  • The location of the sharpener.  It's orientation.  The soundness of its mounting...
  • The state of mind of the person sharpening it.
  • The person's dexterity, eyesight, hand strength, height, olfactory acuity...
  • The pencil's age, color, length, composition, dryness, wetness...
  • The brand of pencil.
  • The brand of sharpener.
  • The person's reason for sharpening it... intentions for the pencil...
  • How easy it was to find the sharpener, or to travel to it.
  • The climate, weather, temperature, humidity, noise level around the person and the sharpener.
  • ... and so on ...

Now let's pick a few variables and identify lots of values.

What kind of sharpener is it?

  • Electric.
  • Mechanical crank style.
  • A small, plastic, hand-held one with an angled razor blade edge.
  • A pocket knife.
  • ... What other kinds? ...

What is the person's reason for sharpening the pencil?

  • To write something.  (To write what?  A novel?  A Dear John letter?  A contract?  A manifesto?  This gives a new variable to play with, which may lead to yet further variables.)
  • To mark a board for cutting.  (To build what?)
  • Well, duh!  Pencils are supposed to be sharp!  (Where did this rule come from?  What other, related rules might the person have?)
  • To poke a hole in something (what?).
  • To stab someone (who?) or something (what?).  (Why?)
  • Because the aroma of freshly shaved wood and graphite reminds the person of a simpler time, when the world (and he) was more innocent.
  • ... What other reasons? ...

What is the condition of the person sharpening the pencil?

  • Too young to manipulate the pencil or the sharpener well.  Or too old.
  • Shaky hands.  (Why?)
  • Drunk.
  • Angry (about what?).  Jealous (of whom?).
  • Hemophiliac.
  • Wearing gloves (what kind of gloves?).
  • ... What other possibilities? ...

What combinations of values seem interesting?  Using the pencil as a weapon seems obvious, so I'll try something else.

An elderly, arthritic man twists a yellow, Berol Ben Franklin No. 2 pencil in a small, forest green razor-type sharpener.  He doesn't need the pencil to be sharp (he has nine sharp pencils in a Texaco cup on his roll-top writing desk).  And he can't see well enough to write, anyway.  But the smell of the wood and paint and resin and graphite takes him back to his childhood, transports him away from the terrible reality of the deed he had done -- not impulsively, not in haste, but after careful, prolonged consideration -- just two hours earlier...

Your Turn.  Try the exercise yourself.  Let me know what happens.