Thursday, January 18, 2018

Impress the Editor: How an Editor Evaluates Your Short Fiction Submission

I'm human.  I'll do just about anything to make life easier for myself.

So, once again, I'm going to share my long years of knowledge and experience with you for entirely selfish reason.

The slush pile seems like a pit of vipers to authors.

Editors see it as a haystack, in which are hidden a very few golden needles that must be found.  

It is not, in any way, a trash can.  The trash can comes AFTER the slush pile.

All authors hope to avoid the trash can, and while I can never guarantee that following my advice will end in publication, I CAN guarantee that doing so will help keep editors sane and content.  Sane and content editors buy more stories.  Win-win.

Today I'm going to lead you through the process of choosing stories from my side--from the moment I first see your submission to the moment I send off rejections and acceptances.

First Impressions

We like to hope that we won't be judged by first impressions.  We like to hope we don't judge others by first impressions.

I mean, Wal-Martians.  Am I right?

But the value of first impressions depends entirely on context.  

Context:  Let's say you're a door-to-door salesperson.  You ring the doorbell, you wait, the door opens, and standing in front of you is a man with a knife in his hand.  First impressions?  "RUN!"  Fair?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe he's just about to slice a carrot for his salad.  

Context:  You're in charge of hiring at a law firm.  You have several interviews set up.  Your first interview of the day is a woman with an impeccable resume, but she walks in looking more like a construction worker--a stained, baggy t-shirt and torn jeans, her hair thrown haphazardly into a messy bun.  First impressions?  "Seriously?  This is a law firm.  We have an impression to make, and this is not it."  Fair?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe she came straight from a Habitat for Humanity job site.  Maybe she had an emergency and didn't have time to change.

In both of these situations, a spot judgment is made.  In one of these situations there is a stronger likelihood that 'you' would potentially take some time to learn the story behind the first impression.  I mean, I don't know about you, but in that first situation, I'd be running.  I wouldn't stick around to ask about that salad.  Am I right?

In the second, I'd be a little curious to find out about that unusual interview attire.  

The truth is, an editor is more like the door-to-door salesperson.  We're highly likely to run (interpretation: REJECT) at the first sign of danger, and we look for that danger from the moment we see the first page of your submission.  

From this point, I'll walk you through the process as I receive and evaluate submissions, taking note of my impressions through each step.

1.  Your Name; Story Title

We use a submission service to help sort and organize our slush pile.  When I open that service I see the title of your story exactly how you typed it into the submission form, and your name.  That's all.  

It's not much, but it can have a powerful impact on my impression of your story.

Is the title spelled correctly?  
Is it capitalized correctly?  
Is it interesting?
Is your name capitalized correctly?

Some of those things may seem trivial, but they're not.  If you can't be bothered to hit the shift key to capitalize your name, should I be bothered with a story that may not have capitalized sentences?  Because that's what your uncapitalized name or story title tells me--that you may find capitalization an unnecessary bother.

Your title is a crucial part of your story.  It speaks volumes about your story, and about you.

If you're too damned lazy to capitalize your title, I'm not going to be impressed.  If you're not careful enough to make sure the words of your title are spelled correctly, also not a positive impression.  Honestly, it's not that difficult to hit the freaking shift key, or to check for spelling.  If you think it doesn't make a difference, you're 'rejectionably' wrong.

Uncapitalized: Strike one

(Also, All-caps titling is ANNOYING.)

Is your title interesting, and why does that matter?  

Authors should put as much effort into titling stories as they do in writing them.  If your story is about a kid going to school and you title it "A Kid Going to School," I'm not going to be impressed.  

A title has a big responsibility to fill in only a few words.  It should:
--reflect the mood of the story (dark horror, humor, romance),
--reflect the genre of the story (science fiction, western, literary),
--hint at the storyline (but only hint),
--act as a hook to draw in your reader (carefully chosen words/phrases that are interesting rather than dull),
--reflect the literary style of the story (highly poetic or accessible, spooky or appropriate for kindergarteners).

Here are a couple of examples taken from today's slush pile: (I can do this with titles without permission from the author, as titles are not subject to copyright law.)

"Jello Elvis"

Two words.  Just two.  But it tells me volumes about what to expect from the story once I get to it.

First, the story is likely to be humorous, though it could be something a little wistful.  It's likely to be set in the late 20th to early 21st century--in other words, a contemporary setting.  That title grabs me.  It's interesting.  It juxtaposes two things that I don't expect to be mashed together.  It has a pleasing rhythm between the two rhythmically compatible words.  Say it aloud.  Jello Elvis.  That just feels nice on the brain and sounds nice to the ear.  When I open this story I will do so with hope that the story will live up to the title.  The genre could be one of many, but I'm open to finding that out in the first paragraph of the story.  I also expect the literary style to be fairly accessible, not flowery, not technical.  

I won't share details of the story, but nothing in the story contradicted my evaluation of it based solely on the title.

I have, for your information, requested title changes prior to publication.  One example stands out to me.  The title indicated humor, but the story was in no way humorous.  The author graciously agreed to change it to something more relevant.

How about a poor title example?

Here's one: "A Visit."

Ho hum.  What does it tell me about the story?  Nothing.  Nothing maybe except for a bunch of people sitting around talking.  Because isn't that what happens when someone visits someone else?  The visitor is invited inside, everyone sits down in comfy chairs and sofas, and they talk.  Chat, chat, chat.  Talk, talk, talk.

In a story I want action, action, action!

Uninspired title: Strike two.

2.  Your Cover Letter

Now I've clicked on the title of your story to open your submission.  The submission viewing window opens and I see your story, but I decide to click over to your cover letter.

Is it short?
Is it succinct?
Is it polite and respectful?
Does it avoid the tendency to a) summarize your story and b) give you a platform to talk about yourself?

Your cover letter is an important part of your writerly resume.  A good resume is all of these things.  As short as possible, succinct, polite, focuses on RELEVANT details of your publication history, employment history, education, and training.

If you're applying for a position as a t-shirt printer, your PhD in Zoology isn't going to be relevant.

I don't want to read about your recent trip to Barbados (your story is set in Mongolia).

Do you have an English degree?  Creative writing degree?  Publication credits?

That's relevant.

And don't--EVER--summarize your story in a short story submission cover letter.  Those summaries are ONLY for novel submissions, meant to tantalize a slush reader into wanting to read more.

Short story submissions don't need that.  We have your story--a SHORT story.  Let the story speak for itself.

Also, be sure to WRITE a cover letter.  Don't leave that portion of the submission form blank.  Again, it shows laziness on your part.  I'm not keen on working with lazy writers.  Prove to me that you're committed, dedicated, serious.

Overdone or missing cover letter: Strike three

3.  Your Story

You've worked hard to create that perfect title, your cover letter is everything it's supposed to be, now you're going to bare your soul to me in the form of your blood, sweat, and tears on virtual (sometimes real) paper. 

I'm not going to go into grammar and syntax in this article.  But it is a problem in a shockingly large percentage of submissions.  There are two causes for these problems.  The first, for those raised in an English-speaking country, is simple disregard for the conventions of the English language that you learned throughout your school years.  The second, for those raised in non-English-speaking countries, is simple lack of knowledge of the conventions of English grammar and syntax.  Neither is an excuse for poor grammar and syntax in a story submission.  You, as the author, have the responsibility to use the language correctly.  You have the responsibility to learn or to seek the help of native English-speakers who can help you smooth those out.  But that is not a magazine editor's job.

I'm also not going to go into narrative style, voice, artistry in prose.  Only to say that they, too, are crucial to a successful writing career.  These are more difficult to learn, and many authors come by them naturally, absorbing them as they read the published work of others throughout their lives.  But they can be learned, through conscious study of them.

Instead, I'm going to concentrate on the framework of a story: 

A story has three parts: Opening, Body, Resolution.  The three have different jobs, and each needs proper attention.

The Opening of a story has a big job to do in a short space.  It must introduce all the elements of a story (setting, character, situation) as quickly as possible.

Why?  Imaginative engagement.  Your reader is being brought into this story, and with every word you put on the page he is creating an imagined world inside his head.  Your job is to make sure your reader gets a clear picture up front, and then to maintain that picture throughout the story.  The opening is the 'clear picture up front.'

By way of example, here's the opening of a story published at Flash Fiction Online in March of 2008, "Just Before Recess" by James Van Pelt:

Parker kept a sun in his desk. He fed it gravel and twigs, and once his gum when it lost its flavor. The warm varnished desktop felt good against his forearms, and the desk’s toasty metal bottom kept the chill off his legs.

Today Mr. Earl was grading papers at the front of the class, every once in a while glancing up at the 3rd graders to make sure none of them were talking or passing notes or looking out the window. Parker would quickly shift his gaze down to his textbook so Mr. Earl wouldn’t give him the glare, a sure sign that Parker’s name would soon go up on the board with the other kids who had lost their lunch privileges for the day. He could feel Mr. Earl’s attention pass over him like a search light.
Setting: 3rd grade classroom
Character: Parker and Mr. Earl
Situation: Parker keeps a sun in his desk, and there's the problem of stern Mr. Earl.

All that in two paragraphs, six sentences.

Note that the main character, the setting, and one of the situational elements are all present in the first sentence!  Seven words.  Parker--character.  Sun in his desk--situation.  Desk--setting.

The following sentences enlighten us further (and quickly) to firmly establish Parker's age, that the desk is (as could easily be surmised) in a classroom, that it's a third-grade classroom, placing Parker's age at 8 or 9, and that Parker isn't fond of his teacher, Mr. Earl.  We know that Mr. Earl is a stern teacher, and probably not well-liked by his students.  We also see that Parker seems to enjoy having that sun in his desk.

Van Pelt is also successfully building a sense of empathy for Parker and his situation.  The vast majority of us have sat in some kind of classroom situation in which a stern disciplinarian holds court.  It might not be a teacher.  Maybe a boss in a meeting.  Maybe a parent forcing you to do Saturday chores.  If not, we've seen it on television or in films.  We can very much relate to Parker.

Can we relate with having a sun in our desk?  Maybe not specifically, but we can certainly relate to having something that no one else does--something unique, something special, something that makes us happy or, in Parker's case, warm.  Parker actually treats the sun like a pet, feeding it gravel and twigs and gum.  We can relate to the 'secret pet' idea.  It's a story element we can find everywhere.  Little Orphan Annie and her dog Sandy.  Gremlins.  A book I loved as a child about Parker's age, The Secret Pony.  The "Look, Ma!  It followed me home!" idea.

Openings of this sort are crucial in short fiction.

Your reader is investing a fairly short chapter of their lives in your story.  A long flash fiction story (1000 words) only takes about five minutes to read.  A long short story (around 10,000 words) less than an hour.  They want that time to be well-spent, and they want to know it's going to be well-spent right up front.

If you take a novel in your hands (I'm currently reading Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, which tops out at over 1200 pages of 9 or 10 point font), you understand the investment of time is going to be considerable.  You're willing to move more slowly into the environment--like the difference between attending a dinner party with maybe 8 attendees and going to the Grand Canyon.  You walk into that party and take in the actors and the situation almost immediately.  The action takes place within the small space of the banquet hall.  At the Grand Canyon you take in the vista after a revelatory hike to get to the rim, in which you've passed signs and buildings and parking lots, and then the vista you reach is only a small part of the entire wonder.  You have to drive and walk more to see the rest of it.  

Get your reader into that party immediately.  Social comfort in a dinner party is equal to swift familiarity with the people, your place at the table, and situation.  Otherwise, you feel a little lost and out of place.  If you don't know the people at the table, your friend will almost certainly introduce you, and he'll do so the moment you enter the party.

"Everyone, this is my dear friend, Suzanne.  Suzanne, this is Jack and Jill, Mary and Joseph, Simon and Garfunkel..."

Even in most novels, it's crucial that readers understand enough about the characters, situation, and setting that their expectations are not crumbled later on by conflicting information.

So what might happen with "Just Before Recess" to interrupt those expectations?

We might find in ensuing paragraphs that Parker is actually 14 and has been held back because he's not very smart.  We might find out that it's not a school classroom at all, but a prison for gremlins.  The story opening has set up for none of those possibilities.

Fortunately, Van Pelt's story is true to his opening to the very last period.  

The Body:  The body's job is to open that world up, to expound, to expand, to explain, to enlighten, to follow the action introduced in the opening.

Back to "Just Before Recess." What does that opening promise?  Obviously there's going to be some sort of trouble with Mr. Earl over the sun in the desk.  Which is exactly what happens in the story.  We get a few paragraphs of details about, first, how the sun came to be there, and second, what Parker does with the sun in his desk, adding interesting layers to the development of the situation.

For example, as Parker feeds the sun it grows larger and begins to have a gravitational pull so that, for instance, a marble rolled across the top of the desk will roll in circles over the sun until it comes to rest exactly over the sun inside.   One day Parker opens his desk to find that all his materials and textbooks have been sucked into the gravitational pull of the sun and are gone.  He can't retrieve his reading book for group reading.  It's gone.

How does Parker explain this?  And, predictably, Mr. Earl gets angry.

Predictably?  Yes, predictably. Predictable in a story isn't a bad thing.  It lends itself to a readers ability to believe and to empathize.  There are no secrets here.  There's no withholding.  The story unfolds and reveals everything as it happens.

I could go on and on about the evils of certain types of withholding.

But understand that suspense is not created from the reader knowing nothing.  Suspense is created when the reader knows everything the characters know, and then must imaginatively hold a character's hand as the consequences of what they know take place.

In "Recess" we know exactly what the problem is.  There's a sun in Parker's desk that is drawing stuff into its gravitational pull.  And it's growing.  And Mr. Earl is mean.

Do you have a good idea of what's going to happen?  Of course you do.  Mr. Earl and that sun are going to cross paths.

Resolution: The delight in this story comes with the Resolution.  It's the resolution's job to release the build-up of suspense with an entirely expected outcome!

Expected, you say?  Absolutely.

If you were to read a mystery novel and the author revealed the murderer and you sat there staring at the page and thinking, "What?  No way.  I don't believe that at all," then the author F-A-I-L-E-D to do his job.  He withheld crucial information that SHOULD HAVE resulted in an entirely expected, yet somehow surprising outcome.  Our reaction at the end of that story should be, "Of course!  I should have seen it from the beginning!" Or in the case of Parker, "Of course!  That's perfect!  I loved the way the author handled that entirely expected outcome."

Which WILL be your reaction when you read the rest of "Just Before Recess." (Hyperlinked again, in case you missed it the first time.)   And, no, I haven't ruined the ending for you.  You'll see what I mean.  You'll be delighted with how the author resolves this story in a surprising, and yet entirely expected, way.

Delightful story!

Have I just taught you everything there is to know to write a successful story?

Not even a drop in the bucket.  This article is a resource, but only one.  As a writer you have an enormous responsibility to know your craft in every way.  Books and books and books (some much better than others), innumerable articles (some much better than others), workshops and classes (some much better than others).

Eat them all up--as many as you can. Learn from the good and the bad.

And ALWAYS do your best to make a good first impression!

Not like this:

1 comment:

Jim Van Pelt said...

Hi, Suzanne. I'm glad you liked that story. It was fun to write too.