The Forgotten Writer
I recently read an article, written by a literary magazine reader of 5 years, entitled Petty Reasons for Why I’ve Passed on Your Writing Submission.
The writer of this article employed the usual pretentious stance taken by people trying to appear literary: she claimed to suffer actual physical anguish over people's writing mistakes. If I were that sensitive, the title of her article would have left me writhing on the floor clutching my ears. (I'm not; I didn't.)
Can I suggest "Petty Reasons I've Rejected Your Submission?" Good lord, don't any inhabitants of glass houses own a compendium of common proverbs?
No, I didn't create this page to complain about someone's sloppy title-writing. The "petty reasons" themselves are what I want to stand aghast at; join me?
Weak Opening Lines
Color as Description
Ostentatious Cover Letters
(Notice her second entry - ye gods!)
Now come; let us reason together. This Lit Gal claims to have read 1,000 submissions in five years. So, 200 submissions a year, or roughly 17 per month.
Now that the math is out of the way, imagine reading four or five submissions a week, and being so desperate for reasons to reject them that you resort to this list. Imagine that you are looking at 4 stories and you are so confused about which is the best one that you find a place in one of the stories that says "bluest sky," and toss it.
"Phew! Job done!"
Are you still not catching my drift?
Let's suppose for a minute that this person - who runs a very popular blog, with advertisers, reviewing other literary mags - let's suppose she's representative of the breed.
I'm not complaining the breed is petty. I'm not complaining the breed is pretentious. I'm complaining the breed has no meaningful literary criteria!
So. As an inhabitant of a glass house myself, it is now my turn to pull up the drapes, parade up and down in front of the walls, and tell potential writers some of the reasons I've rejected literary submissions.
I will do my best to demonstrate that my criteria is meaningful. In the process, I do sincerely hope that someone out there will recognize his own silhouette in the negative space left by these rationales for rejection.
I can help you with a new title. I can delete your commas and suggest grammatical fixes. I can kindly suggest that your work is better without an epigraph (after all, good writing does not always come along with perfect social judgment.) I can copy and paste your submission onto a new page with a more preferable font. And I understand perfectly that opening lines are weak because people agonize over them... because literary gatekeepers harp on them.
The difference is that rather than being desperate to reject writing, I'm desperate to accept it. And it's not because the people who submit are poor writers. They aren't. It's because the writers I need - and who need me - have not generally found me yet. Why? Because they are discouraged and forgotten. They don't know anyone is looking for them. They've largely given up looking for themselves. They are misunderstood and even contemned by the literary establishment.
The Writer I'm Not Looking For
Here are some reasons I've rejected writing.
1. The writer refuses to revise.
This seems to happen for two main reasons. In the first scenario, the writer is genuinely original. He hasn't gotten the support he needs from authorities and establishment figures, so he's gotten used to being his own editor. He has a vital streak in his writing that he wisely has not allowed to be snuffed out by false criteria. At the same time, he's unevenly developed, and shows awkwardness, poor technique, and naivety right in there along with the unusual maturity and mastery. This writer is truly gifted, but he interprets all criticism as stupidity and all suggestions as subversive attempts to destroy his unique artistry. This is the hardest writer to say no to. I want to publish this writer. He just can't see his own flaws. I end up passing on this fellow and publishing a perhaps less-gifted writer who is willing to do his best.
My best advice to this writer is to begin editing the work of others. Possibly that is the only way a writer with so independent a mindset can even out his development. One way to do this is to help youngsters with their writing assignments. Another is to find a lit mag or even a genre mag you don't like, and edit the heck out of everything you find in it. (Don't share your results; that's copyright infringement!)
I also suggest he read The Magic Key to Successful Writing, by Maxine Lewis. Although it was published in the 1950's, it's still the only writing advice book I know that contains advice specifically for the gifted writer, or literary prodigy.
The second scenario is the one where the writing is fine, but it doesn't quite suit the target readership of this journal. I sometimes ask people to make changes for this purpose, and often they simply can't manage it. From what I've seen, other editors simply accept this kind of situation, saying that the person's "voice" isn't "right for us." I believe this kind of thinking comes from an economic rather than a literary viewpoint. It comes from a mindset of scarcity that says, "In a world with millions of writers, the only way to be successful is to develop a unique voice and stand out from others."
Sadly, it's impossible to stand out just by refusing to write to your readership. Giving editors what they want is the surest way to develop working relationships with people who can pay you and give you publishing credits. Of course, if ideological differences get in the way, there's not much you can do about that except part ways.
2. The writer has no idea what overall point his work is making.
There are two common scenarios here, as well. The first scenario involves a writer who doesn't understand how the reader's mind will respond to his technique. Again, gifted writers often struggle with this. This writer is bursting with ideas about what to say and how to say it. When it's all put together, however, the finished result does not lead the reader to a single, overall meaning. Parts of the story or poem direct the thoughts in different directions but in the end, questions aren't resolved, objections aren't addressed, agitation isn't calmed and most importantly, the parts aren't tied together into a coherent, unified thought.
My advice for this writer is to choose a story or poem which he loves but which editors have rejected or beta readers have shrugged at, and re-read it with one question in mind - what single point am I making? Of course, the longer a piece is, the more points it will make. However, each of those sub-points should add up to one great point. What is it?
Once you know what it is, go back through the story and change each smaller point to conform to the great point. Then, change each detail to make it support the smaller point it belongs to. Finally, if you find anything that isn't contributing to the great point, you can do one of two things. First, you can leave it in but indicate clearly that it's an aside, a footnote, or a by-the-way. Purely for giggles. Second, you can take it out. If you do take it out, paste it into a "literary scraps" document you keep in your files. Most likely, it's the product of inspiration and will become the seed of a new piece that will explore the idea more clearly.
The second scenario involves a writer whose writing is not incoherent, but it simply doesn't rise to the level of having any point or overall meaning. This writer just wants to say what happened, and hasn't put any thought into what it all means. Even in genre fiction, there's such a thing as a metaphysical viewpoint. This writer should try to clarify in his mind what it is he wants to say. It doesn't have to be fancy. It could be as simple as, "Sometimes people think they know what they want but really they would be more satisfied with something else." Or, "Isn't it funny when you find what you were looking for once you stop looking?"
Above all, no story or poem should be pointless.
3. The writer's mindset is overwhelmingly negative.
I know; I know. Grim is the new funny. Optimism is infantile. The world is dying. Everyone is dying. Auschwitz happened.
Guess what? This isn't geopolitics, a realm where the individual is helpless. This is art, a realm where the individual is King. This is the part of the world you get to make. Your poem or story is the part of the world you are responsible for.
Your reader, bless his soul, goes through his day getting all sorts of coal in his stockings he doesn't deserve and that doesn't make him any better a person. Don't pile on. Give him the best possible thing you can give him.
4. The writing is too literal.
The reason I'm publishing a journal of inventive literature is because I get the same thrill out of seeing literary inventions and figurative language that some people get out of curious carvings or new dress designs or computer animation in movies. Basically, that curious human capacity for making up things that didn't exist before - purely for the delight of other human beings - this is what I want to see exercised in literature.
If a writer sends me excellent writing that is too direct, plain, literal, uneventful, and realistic, I regretfully tell him, "Not for us." I also advise writers to practice rhetorical techniques that they are unfamiliar with. There probably has been no generation of English-speaking writers less versed in rhetoric than ours.
5. A poem attempts a technique that the writer has not mastered... and he refuses to revise it.
Because I ask people to send me musical and formal poems, I do get submissions from people who are used to being told that they should stop using old-fashioned techniques. If you persist in using techniques that no one wants you to use, you are not likely to get help perfecting your technique. These writers tend to be protective of what they have kept safe from the world with such difficulty... and oftentimes, personal pain.
These writers should realize that there is a huge body of knowledge about how formal and musical techniques work, and about how the mind and ear react to them. I do spend time studying this body of knowledge, not only in theoretical instruction but also in the examples of past masters. They should either study themselves, or listen to someone who has studied. Above all, they shouldn't write alone anymore.
Here are some mistakes writers often make when they try to write formal poetry.
A. The meter is only partially achieved.
1. The line is arbitrary.
This writer writes prose sentences and then ferociously chops them into sections of three, four, or five feet and calls it meter.
Here are a couple of iambic sentences. (English naturally falls into iambs.)
"I wanted everyone I ever knew to go away and not come back. This was the only way I knew to find the thing I thought I lost."
Here it is chopped into lines of four stresses each.
I wanted everyone I ever
Knew to go away and not come
back. This was the only way I
Knew to find the thing I thought I
Is that craft? In regard to a back-and-forth rhythm of stresses, it is; in regard to the poetic line, it is not.
Let's switch it up a little to make sure that the most important word occurs at the end of the line.
I wanted everyone I knew
To go away and not come back.
I knew no other way to find
The thing I thought I lost.
Please note also that the foot changed from iambic to trochaic in the first example, because the extra syllable at the end of the first line forced it to happen. This is why teachers who teach meter tell you to count syllables. Tetrameter has 8 syllables per line if iambic or trochaic; 12 if dactylic or anapestic. However, the final syllable can be left off if it is unstressed. The mind will fill in the beat.
2. The foot is arbitrary.
In this scenario, the poet has forced syllables to "count as" stressed and unstressed syllables in the meter, but syllables don't "want" to be spoken that way.
Here's an example. The poet tells me this is trochaic tetrameter. I try to read it as "STRESS un STRESS un STRESS un STRESS (un)"
Shed your light under the shed
Unfortunately, this requires me to pronounce the word "under" as un-DER, when clearly it wants to be pronounced as "UN-der."
This objection comes with a big caveat. Classical poets of excellence will often diverge from the meter here and there as a conscious choice. It breaks up the monotony. Here's the thing. If every line reads like the line above, that's rhythmic poetry, not metrical poetry.
As a rhythmic (but non-metrical) line, it would be pronounced as follows:
SHED your LIGHT (-) UN-der the SHED
And if I tell you it needs to be fixed, you may be sure it does.
C. The poet has failed to observe the difference in sound between long syllables and short syllables.
In rhythmic and metrical poetry, unstressed syllables should nearly always be short syllables, while stressed syllables should be long as often as possible - particularly if such a syllable is the first or last word of the line.
This is part of what makes English metrical poetry more of an achievement than say, Latin metrical poetry. Latin metrical poetry only worried about syllable length. English also has to worry about natural stresses and unstresses imported from normal speaking patterns.
Under these conditions, it's natural to be so focused on those normal speaking patterns that you forget about syllable length. Nevertheless, meter and foot are founded on syllable length, and you can't get properly smooth metrical verse without paying attention to it.
What is a long syllable?
A long syllable contains one or more of the following:
An 'r' you pronounce as such.
A long English vowel. (A in 'Tray'.)
A long Latin vowel (A in 'Spa.')
Quite a few sounds that, when added up, take a while to pronounce.
Any other syllable is short, especially those with short vowels and few sounds.
My time is short; I will continue this discussion at a later time.