Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines, Lynne Barrett (@LynneBarrett), the Review Review
If you’re writing, you’ve probably wondered what to do with those pages as they polish and pile up on your hard drive. Even if you’re writing a book, it’s important to have prior publications out there. In this helpful piece on submitting to literary magazines, Lynne Barrett takes a look at the publication process from multiple angles.
To begin, we get a look at what it’s like to be an editor with an ever-growing pile and a desire to find a gem in the slush:
The editor is tired and busy.
Much of the editor’s work is invisible. What gets published may, possibly, go on to win awards or be anthologized, which helps to cast some reflected glory back on the magazine, but recognitions for an editor are few. One pleasure is sending out the acceptances, and knowing somebody is made happy. At the same time, the editor sends out flotillas of form rejections. This is a job to delegate, if possible, it’s so depressing. Those who think the editor is rejecting with some pleasure in hurting are entirely wrong. The editor, with an eye to the long run and a pang for those who come close, may send a few rejections that contain a word or two of encouragement, or even a longer letter. (See below for how to handle each of these possibilities.)
Yes, the editor is a gate-keeper, controlling entrée to something you want, but that is really of more importance to you than to the editor. The editor’s eye is on the magazine.
Next, Barrett assigns us our task, as the writers: to submit polished, thorough, and appropriate work for the magazine we’ve chosen. In order to do so, she reminds us that we absolutely do have to read the magazines we’re considering.
“Does anybody ever read these magazines?”
Yes…people do. Writers do. Writers who want to learn what kind of writing gets published where, what it takes to break in. Writers who want to learn their craft. You’ll see things that you don’t like and things that stun you and teach you. In addition, other editors, agents, and even some people who just like to read, read magazines.
Barrett goes on to cover submissions, rejections, acceptance of those rejections (a toughie, often), and acceptances. It’s a handy walk-through guide to the process and the follow-up, whatever answer you receive.
Keep good records of what you send where, when.
Make sure your submission is done in the format asked for on the magazine’s website, and pay attention to the reading period. If a cover letter is part of the set-up, use the right name for the editor you are approaching, spelled correctly. You can include one sincere sentence about the magazine to show that you have really read it. “I especially enjoyed So-and-so’s story or poem in your Spring issue, because of: say something specific here.” You have no idea how ridiculously rare this is. (Note, if you do not like any work in a magazine, you should not be sending there. You and the editor are not going to be on a wavelength.)
For those starting out on the path to publication, this will be a helpful and eye-opening map for the road ahead.
7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn, Michael Noll (@Readwritestory), Huffington Post
In this older piece from the Huffington Post, Michael Noll gets right to the point with a concise craft lesson. What do we need to be working on? What do we need to master in the craft of writing to be successful? Noll gives us the explanation, and then he gives us an example. Short and to the point.
For example, are your sentences stylish? Are they poetic? Writers can achieve this effect by working on sentence length and structure.
Great sentences…strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).”Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary Review. Notice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:
Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)
Another interesting mini-lesson revolves around your timeline. Perhaps telling your story chronologically isn’t the best or most interesting option. Consider the alternatives, Noll suggests.
Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit—with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed Fruit. The story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:
Filet Mignon $51.95
They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)
You’ll find this piece is a quick read but holds lessons to keep a writer thinking.
True and False: Two Kinds of Narrative Suspense, Peter Selgin, JaneFriedman.com
In this piece, Peter Selgin takes a look at an author’s first page and offers a helpful critique. We get a look at the anonymous author’s prologue, a scene in which a boy films his own murder. Selgin notes the suspense in the excerpt and his response dissects the feeling.
We read fiction largely to learn two things: (1) what has happened, and (2) what’s going to happen next. Question #2 is the one raised by the condition called suspense, the state of anxiety produced by uncertainty. In real life, suspense is often unpleasant. In a work of fiction, however, it’s both desirable and pleasurable. It causes a mental itch that can only be scratched by turning the page.
In my years of reading works-in-progress, I’ve identified two main kinds of suspense, the good kind and the not-so-good kind. The good kind is what I call “true suspense.” It’s the kind of suspense that raises the question, “What’s going to happen next?” and that arises organically and authentically from characters and their actions as conveyed to us through a firmly established, consistent viewpoint.
The no-so-good kind of suspense, Selgin tells us, is “false suspense.” It’s generated when the author withholds information. You might detect this type of suspense in a passage that later turns out to have been a dream. Selgin explains how these two types appear in the selection, and how they do and don’t work from a reader’s point of view.
In that vein, he goes on to explore traditional points of view in a way we might not generally consider:
I’ve heard many definitions of point of view, most of them wrong. “First person” and “third person” are not points of view: they are merely the handles by which a point of view may be grasped. No, point of view is something much deeper than pronouns; it’s that crucial lens or filter through which fictional experiences are conveyed to us by a narrator, who, unlike the author (who typically inhabits a desk), inhabits the fictional world. Simply put: point of view is the difference between the author and the narrator. For this reason point of view is sometimes referred to confusingly as “voice.” But it’s the voice—the awareness, insights, and diction—of the narrator, not the author.
Selgin deepens his critique as the piece goes on, and it’s not only a good lesson for those who write fiction, but it also serves as an exercise in critical reading for any good writer. I appreciated the craft lesson and the chance to apply it to my own first page.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!