Feedback for New Writers, Part One
Clarendon House Publications has produced ten anthologies so far this year at this writing and I wondered if you would be interested in some general comments about what I have found as an editor. You might be able to make use of some of these comments to improve your rate of acceptance not only with me but with others, and they should provide perhaps an entertaining look behind the scenes.
The first part of this is to do with what I thought was going to happen as opposed to what actually happened.
I am not sure exactly what I expected when I first asked for submissions to Condor, the inaugural anthology, back in October or November last year, but I think I had a vague notion that the stories which arrived would be in worse shape than they were.
Back then, my hypothesis was that there were many would-be writers out there who were struggling to get published, and that the prime reason that they were not getting accepted was that their work wasn’t good enough. I theorised that their work was getting rejected because it was unknowingly violating the unwritten laws of fiction writing - laws which, through my book How Stories Really Work, were becoming less unwritten. My idea was to explore this marketplace and help writers by providing them with the editorial advice about those laws which they so desperately needed.
My hypothesis was almost entirely incorrect.
Though there were many would-be writers out there who were struggling to get published, it quickly became clear from the quality of the submissions coming in that the prime reason that they were struggling was not what I had thought. It wasn’t writing advice that was so desperately needed in most cases: it was recognition. Over the course of the next few anthologies I found more and more writers, some of them quite prolific, whose only lack was a channel to readers.
Some of the quality was astonishing. I compared some of the short stories coming in to works already published and found that, in many cases, what I had received from all over the world was better than the stuff that had been accepted and printed elsewhere. So I had to change my hypothesis: instead of offering writing advice, the main way I could help writers, it seemed, was by providing as many channels as I could for them.
There were writers whose prose read like beautiful poetry; there were writers whose plots gripped me so hard I thought I was reading a complex novel; there were others whose wit and turn of phrase was a delight in itself.
You might be interested to know that there were very few writers - perhaps less than 10% - whose work was what I might describe as ‘of insufficient quality'. In other words, of all the submissions I received, very few fitted into the ‘poor’ category.
Some ailments became visible over time: many writers struggled with plot, especially with endings. I might be reading a brilliantly descriptive and even emotional piece and then suddenly get to the end and realise that, basically, nothing had happened. This was revealing: here were writers whose technical and aesthetic skills left little to be desired, but whose grasp of what they were doing with readers was limited.
It’s worth pointing out that a weak or ‘missing’ ending is a sign of earlier or deeper problems in the story: if you don’t know where a story is going, it’s likely that you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve overall, and that means that your story will probably suffer in other ways too.
Endings are key: they are what readers read for, for the most part, though they may tell you otherwise. It’s the ending - the final resolution of something, the ‘filling of vacuums’ to use terms from my book - that powers the story behind the scenes. If a reader isn’t gripped by the potential ending of a story, it’s likely that he or she will drift off. If you as a writer struggle with endings, it would be worth your while breaking your story down a little to see if you can state exactly what it is you are trying to do. Are you trying to uplift the reader? Leave them chilled? Amuse them? Move them?
Look at your endings.
A few writers had problems with character, but that amounts, believe it or not, to the same thing: character troubles, like plot troubles, have to do with endings. Where is your story going? Clarify that and plot and character take their places as tools for the writer to use to get the reader to that ending.
Sound like magic? Need more examples? Check out my book.
But for the most part, the main thing I noticed time and time again was how wonderful the submissions that were coming in were.
This was a good sign. There was lots of talent out there. But it meant a new strategy: helping writers was going to be different from what I had imagined.
For more practical advice about what I found, stay tuned for part two, coming up soon.