In the last article, I asserted that, for the most part, the gatekeepers of traditional publishing tend to be trained in English literature — they are employed in the basis of their familiarity with a wide range of fiction, most of it towards the literary end of the spectrum. Of course, this is ‘for the most part’: there will be exceptions, and on top of those exceptions the further qualifier that the majority of decision makers will be interested also in commercial viability — publishers are generally in the game to make money at some point.
What this leaves writers with, though, is a situation whereby to get their works published by traditional big publishers, they find themselves being assessed by people trained in a particular field — people who, as they read through submitted manuscripts, are reading them consciously and unconsciously from the perspective of their own educated backgrounds in the field. A writer’s story isn’t necessarily viewed entirely on its own merits but in the framework of literature as a whole, or as understood by the decision maker doing the reading.
Writers have two basic choices about what to do about this, both of which are perfectly valid:
Option # 1. They can ignore it, and just persist in trying to get published.
This will probably mean a lot of rejections. Over time, unless they find a sympathetic decision maker in a big, traditional publishing house, their work will tend to drift towards smaller presses whose editors might not be so highly qualified in the field and who might therefore look at a piece of work in isolation; and from there, if they still have no success, the work might get channeled towards self-publication.
Nothing wrong with any of those options. But it might be enlightening to look at things in this way and to better understand what is happening to a particular work.
Option # 2. They can take a look at their work in the light of the opus of literature around, and modify it.
This is the more radical — and possibly more interesting — option.
What if you could step back from your writing and look at it in a completely new way?
What if you could try to see it from the viewpoint of the readers and editors employed by the big traditional publishers?
What would it reveal? And, more intriguingly, what could that lead to in terms of deepening or widening your story’s impact?
I read a LOT of fiction — something like three million words this year alone. Manuscript after manuscript arrives on my desk, submitted for various anthologies and collections, and I make decisions about them all the time. Many make it through into published books; many don’t. Of those which get published, some go on to win competitions based on readers’ votes — in other words, of all the fiction published, some strikes more of a chord with readers than others.
It’s also possible to see, just by observing which authors gain more acceptances in the publishing field, whose stories have ‘built-in’ qualities which editors and publishers feel are going to successfully appeal to their markets. You might not personally like their work, but success after success indicates that there is something in the work that is effectively getting through to key decision makers somewhere.
I can tell you what the difference is, though you might object.
The big difference between stories that ‘make it’ and stories that don’t (apart from obvious issues like technical quality i.e. basic command of English) is literary depth.
What does that mean?
It means that the stories which are the most successful with readers — not just publishing house decision makers but readers — have more depth than the ones that don’t.
What do I mean by ‘depth’?
Without getting too technical — fuller explanations are given in my book How Stories Really Work — to be successful and linger in the minds of readers and get through the publishing gateways, a story tends to have to be about more than it appears.
You need some examples. Here are a couple, chosen very much at random (I have a lot to choose from).
'The Bear Trap Grave', a short story by Brent A.Harris, featured in Storm: The Inner Circle Writers’ Group Fantasy Anthology last year. On the surface, it was ‘about’ a lonely fur trapper and his grudging assistance to an old friend in a quest to kill a rogue bear. It was gripping at an action level — and action sequences are notoriously difficult to manage, but this tale did them well, as the trapper and his friend track down the bear in the wilderness and have a deadly encounter with it.
But it operated on another level too: the loneliness of the trapper and his painful re-association with humanity, the pain of the dog, the grim background to the adventure, all had an appeal beyond the events on the page. The sensitive reader — the one perhaps more educated in the literary field — might feel that the story was really about every human being and the broader struggle to interact and relate in a potentially and often very harshly cruel world.
Steve Carr’s story 'The Festival of the Cull', which has appeared in various works, is on the surface about a future in which humanity has ‘developed’ to the point of being able to democratically select which of its own members should be culled — murdered, removed from the general populace — because they are voted as ‘unpopular’. The reader follows the small events as they unfold and is masterfully held by the tension until the last moment — but they are also gripped by something else: a deeper sense of isolation, a coldness in human relations, a potential judging of others which can happen every day in our own times and in our own families. So the tale is ‘about’ more than it is about.
We’re talking about theme. Theme is defined in the dictionary as ‘an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature’.
Genre fiction tends to be about tropes. A trope looks similar to a theme but tends to be a recurring device or expectation or convention which readers expect in a particular genre. For instance, horror stories often have vampires, Westerns almost by definition have to have cowboys, love stories have dark strangers, fantasies a sword and a dragon — that kind of thing. As genre fiction moves along a spectrum closer to literary fiction, depth increases: we can still find some of the trope elements, but, as in the examples above, there are ideas in the tale which pervade it and go beyond it.
Dickens famous short story, ‘The Signalman’, which recently appeared in The Inner Circle Writers’ Magazine, shows such a thing at work. On one level it’s a ghost story about a haunted railway tunnel; on another, it’s about the strangeness of life and how isolating and alienating it can be.
Forster’s novel A Passage to India is an example of a literary work: ostensibly ‘about’ race relations in India in the early Twentieth Century, it turns out to be about the meaning of Life.
Works which are about more than they are ‘about’ have more appeal to readers.
It's almost a universal law.
And, in the case of our particular assertion here, those stories which have evident within them some kind of universal theme also have more appeal to decision makers in large publishing houses — because those people are soaked in ‘theme’ as part of their background.
This is potentially the most vital thing you can learn about writing fiction.