Editors are looking for work that holds their attention. There are a number of ways that a story can do this, from the stylistic to the structural. As I go through these points, I’ll be including links to stories that emphasize some of these points. Some are works I admire that I’ve read online over the years; others are stories that caught my eye as I was reviewing submissions for Vol.1 Brooklyn.
Above all else, when I’m looking through our submissions, I’m doing so as a reader. The things that catch an editor’s eye when they’re evaluating a story that’s been submitted to their journal are the same things that will draw in readers once your story has been published.
1. Familiarity With Journals is Crucial
When you have a story that’s ready for submission to different journals, take some time to figure out how you’d describe it to someone else. It’s essential to have a sense of the journals that are out there. Some of this can come from what you’re drawn to as a reader: if you’re an experimental fiction writer who reads a lot of journals that focus on experimental fiction, you probably have a good idea of the places where you’re going to want to submit your work. But that isn’t always the case. Maybe you write fantasy stories set in an alternate past, but most of the journals you read focus on gritty realism. Or you’re an ardent reader of horror, but you write work that couldn’t be further removed from it.
If an editor gets the impression from your submission that you haven’t read anything from their journal, they’re not going to look favorably on your work. Some of that can come from the cover letter (more on that next week), but lot of that is in terms of the style. If you submit your carefully-observed story of someone sitting in their office thinking about their life and regrets to a journal that specializes in over-the-top horror, an editor isn’t going to think too highly of that, regardless of how well-written your story is.
There’s nothing wrong with submitting a story to multiple places at once. However, giving an editor the impression that you’ve sent this same story to literally every publication that’s currently accepting short fiction is not a good thing. This isn’t to say that you need to read every story published in every journal to which you want to submit. But you should be at least somewhat familiar with them: if one focuses more on humorous work and you’re trying to decide whether to send a more comic story or a more tragic one, having that knowledge going in can be helpful. Some publications also have special issues, both in print and online, that are dedicated to particular themes. The flip side of that is also true: the last thing you want to do is submit work to a journal whose work you don’t really like.
But, honestly, I can’t overestimate this: know what’s out there. (In next week’s lecture, I’ll talk about some resources that can help with this.)
Here’s one example from my own experience: a few years ago, I had a number of stories that I was looking to place. I’d had some luck placing a few with one journal, but I wanted to branch out a little. I wasn’t entirely sure where to look at first. Remember how I wrote about not submitting to experimental journals if you’re not a writer of experimental fiction? That comes from experience. I love reading experimental fiction, but I don’t write it.
I ended up looking at some of the writers whose short fiction I had been following in various journals, and found one whose work seemed to fall of the same stylistic categories as mine. I started looking at that writer’s publications, and found some journals through that process that I hadn’t been as familiar with. I did some research, realized I had some stories that might fit, and sent in some submissions; a few of those found homes. Most writers will list their publications on their website. It can be a useful way to research what’s out there.
2. Find a Memorable Opening
A first sentence, or a first paragraph, doesn’t necessarily need to knock me off my feet, but it does has to draw me in. Sometimes, that can be through a description of an action that suggests something just getting started: the key in the ignition of a car, or a character entering a new landscape. Sometimes, it can be through a sense of mystery, where an author describes something ambiguous and only gradually reveals what’s actually happening. (Though there’s a fine line there between mystery and frustration.) And sometimes it can be through a vision of a world that’s fundamentally alien from our own.
When I was going through Vol.1’s submissions a few years ago, I came across Brittany Goss’s “The Radiant Beginning.” There, the first sentence had me hooked: “I never volunteered to be the sun, but they all said I gave off the most heat.” As a reader, that drew me in; that made me want to keep reading. When you’re submitting stories, you want to make the experience for the reader kinetic. You want to get someone’s attention. This line has it in abundance: is the narrator speaking metaphorically? Is this a kind of folk tale or creation myth? And, in that sentence, we’re also told something about the narrator: “they all said I gave off the most heat.” I’d probably have been hooked from the first seven words, but the full sentence drew me in even further. It had a good blend of mystery and characterization.
Jac Jemc’s story “The Crickets Try to Organize Themselves Into Some Raucous Pentameter” (first published in jmww, and later in the collection A Different Bed Every Time) has a very effective first couple of sentences: “A secret search rolled from Odette’s eyes. A gulch split her down the middle and she had the world believing this was the way she liked it.” A character is presented; there’s an inherent contradiction in that character, and if you’re attuned to this story, odds are that that’s going to draw you in. And: note that it begins with an action, albeit a metaphorical one.
Michael LaPointe’s “Impartial Record of the Break-up” was another case where the first sentence got me hooked. This one is a little longer, and it helped to establish both the style of the story and the approach that its writer was taking.
Just as no one in 19th-century Sarajevo would have believed that an unassuming little Ottoman bridge could one day provide the setting for something so significant as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so neither Janet nor James can believe it’s all coming to a head here in a parking lot outside Taco del Mar.
From that one sentence, I got a sense of the characters, the situation, and–most importantly–the sense that this was a story that would take a classic situation and put its own unique spin on it.
And Jackie Corley’s “Kiddie Ride” brings the reader into the story from its first sentence, which begins with a journey already in progress.
The Plymouth turned a corner onto Beachway Avenue. Eric felt Keansburg closing in around him when he wandered into this part of town at night.
We know the character and the setting; the next thing we’ll need to know is what they’re doing there. But as a reader, I’m going to be curious about how all of this plays out.
3. Make the Classics Feel New
Editors read a lot of stories. Certain stories will feel more familiar than others: there are certain plots and situations that have endured for a reason. Families come together, families fall apart. Love begins, love ends. Characters wrestle with mortality–theirs and that of the people around them. If you’re going to write something with a familiar scenario, how are you distinguishing it from another writer’s treatment of the same themes?
In 2013, we published a story from J. David Osborne called “Like Most Things Easy.” (It’s also in his collection Our Blood In Its Blind Circuit.) It’s about a couple who meet, are briefly in love, and eventually drift apart. From the highest possible altitude, that’s the story being told. But in this story, it’s the way that it ever-so-slightly veers away from realism that makes it click, and that kept me wanting to read more. In the first paragraph, we meet a man and get a short description of him as he leaves work and heads to a bar. In the second paragraph, he meets a woman, and they hit it off. And then this happens:
At the end of night he was full of her smile and her laugh ringing in his ears and he paid his tab and the two of them exchanged numbers. When she gave it to him the sequence set his teeth on edge and for a moment he thought he was being played. Told her, that’s my phone number. She said, no, I promise that’s me. He picked up his phone and dialed his own number and sure enough there in her hand lit her phone casting them both in a pale glow.
For me, that’s a fantastic central idea for a story, and it took a familiar plot and made it fresh (and, later, incredibly bittersweet.) If you show a reader something tried-and-true and reinvent it as something unexpected, chances are good that you’ll get their attention.
That same year, we published a story from Nicole Haroutunian called “To Be Old.” (You can also read it in her collection Speed Dreaming.) It’s about a young woman living alone in the city who is slowly dying, and how she deals with that. What impressed me about this story was how it emphasized small details. It’s a story that made the experience of its main character viscerally felt.
Outside, the spring wind rippled the silk across Sabrina’s skin and as she tilted her face up, the sun drew freckles across her nose and cheeks. She felt lighter than she had in weeks.
Illness and death are themes one often encounters in fiction. What caught my eye here were the subtle details; the way that the protagonist’s experience of having a body has changed. Earlier this year, we published the story “The Bulletpoints of Valley Pete,” by Leland Cheuk. (It’s also in his collection Letters From Dinosaurs.) It’s the story of a businessman dealing with a sense of discontent and his own penchant for infidelity, both of which can be found in plenty of short stories. But this particular story is told through, as the title suggests, bullet points in the style of a corporate memo, heightening the sense of its protagonist’s world.
4. Find a Compelling Voice
When you meet a new person at a social event, it make take time for you to get a sense of what they’re all about. Or they might have such a bold personality that you’re left with a sense of them from the first words that come out of their mouth. If you’re writing a narrator with that kind of attitude, it needs to be present from the beginning. That’s something that can draw in an editor or a reader: how does this particular character interact with the world? There’s an automatic tension there, which can make for a compelling story.
You can get away with a lot if your narrator is distinctive enough. In the hands of the right narrator, a quotidian experience can become the stuff of high drama. Nicholas Bredie’s story “Memoryfoam,” which we published in the fall of 2014, is about a couple’s purchase of a mattress and the tensions that result. But it’s the narrator’s way of describing the experience that first hooked me:
“But the mattress operated as it was meant. Each night, the mattress was all the more ready for my form, its topology fitting with my contours. My dreams took on a fluidity without losing their value as dreams. That’s what my therapist said.”
That kind of narrative voice can help draw in a reader and propel them through the story. If their take on life is particularly skewed, the way that they handle a theoretically predictable situation is no longer predictable.
Repetition can also work in your favor. The opening lines of Rios de la Luz’s “Ear to the Ground” (which can also be found in her collection The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert) make excellent use of repetition, helping to establish the hypnotic tone of the story that follows.
Soledad handed you a knife for Navidad. Let me show you how to use it, she said. She placed an apple on your head and told you to stand against the kitchen wall. She held onto the knife and shut one eye as she looked above you at the manzana. She threw the knife and it made a woosh sound into the bag of beans next to you. She praised you for not showing fear. She dug the knife out of the beans. You don’t have to learn how to use the knife, but it could be beneficial. She patted your head and you smiled at her. When the knife was back in your hands, you hid it under your pillow and ran into the living room to sit next to Soledad.
Similarly, the opening sentences of Helen McClory’s “Pink Glitter” (also found in her collection On the Edges of Vision) nicely establish the perspective and milieu of the story. You’re left with an immediate sense of the main character and how they view the world.
Grace unscrews the white lid and pulls out the dripping tiplet and applies the polish to one nail after another, then holds the drying almond surfaces up to the light. Fleck and aura of colour, against the ceiling, the slow chop of the ceiling fan. Tonight’s the night, though it’s not tonight yet. There’s music on shuffle: a mix called MISANDRY+PINK GLITTER.
If you find the right voice for telling a story, even the most everyday moments can become utterly riveting. Lindsay Hunter’s short stories generally do a fantastic job of this. Her “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” (from Fifty-Two Stories, and the collection Don’t Kiss Me) is one example. In this story, there are awkward attempts at connection which occasionally erupt into violence. But the key here is the way that it’s told: the use of long sentences and repetition create a hypnotic, frantic effect. This story told in a more straightforward manner might not click as well; told this way, it’s hypnotic.
5. A Quick Note on Language and Sentences
As an editor, I love encountering beautiful prose. I’ve read Gary Lutz’s essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” and would highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already. Finding prose that reads beautifully is never going to make an editor turn away from a story. On the other hand, trying too hard to come up with stylized prose can backfire considerably. I’ve encountered fiction that was written so ecstatically that it bordered on the unreadable. (Admittedly, the line between the two is something that will vary from editor to editor–another reason to know the styles favored by the journals to which you’re submitting work.) I’d suggest reading your stories out loud before you start sending them out. If a phrase sounds strange coming out of your mouth, chances are good that it might trip up an editor as well.
A note: this version of this course was last taught in 2017; some links may no longer work properly.