A well known editor, famous for his prolific publications and speedy responses, often delivered the line, “it just didn’t grab me,” as the coup-de-grace of his rejections. I’ve noticed he stopped doing that recently, perhaps because he thought it had become formulaic. Based on conversations with fellow writers, it may also have been because people began including pinching bugs, mechanical hands or live lobsters hidden in their submissions.
Nonetheless, “grabbing the editor” is a critical part of making a sale, whether of a short story or a novel. There is not, sadly, a magic formula that guarantees your work will grab every editor because ultimately it does come down to editorial choice. A story that is loved by one will be discarded by another.
When the guidelines suggest you read recent copies of the magazine before submitting, they aren’t simply trying to sell you a copy (since the on-line ones are frequently free), they are giving you an opportunity to see what “grabs” them – in terms of style, theme and, less frequently, genre and structure. Most editors have a range of tastes but there are clearly things they like and things they don’t. Getting a sense of that may save you time and psychic energy and improve your chances of a sale – but there are no guarantees. So reading magazines or, at least, a couple of best of collections every year will provide some insights into recent trends (though already 6 to 18 month out of date). In terms of novel length submissions, however, it is hardly practical or even possible to match a published novel to the editor or editors who were involved in buying it and seeing it through to publication.
Of course, every editor also likes to be surprised, likes to be grabbed and held and overwhelmed by a story – even if it is not what they usually like. Still, selling a story is hard. Most markets only buy 2-5% of the stories submitted to them; the better the market, the lower the acceptance rate. In many cases, to even get to the final round of decision-making, your story has to be in the top ten percent of submissions. It’s like writing an exam at school, scoring 90% and still getting a failing grade. So how do you get your story into the top percentile? How do you improve your chances of getting your story or novel sold?
At this point I should warn you – this is a long essay.
The first filter is, of course, the quality of the writing. If I groan out loud in the first few pages (and not from a bad pun), it’s pretty much over. If I get farther along, but find myself skimming through paragraphs or stopping to think what exactly a sentence means, I’m already imagining how to frame the rejection.
That may sound a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Bad writing will almost certainly get you a rejection – even if your story idea is brilliant and the central them topical and exciting. Why? Because bad writing hides all that cleverness under a pile of crap.
Most people think they can write. They graduated high school, went to University, got a job and they’ve composed a million e-mails or text messages. The truth? Most people can’t write; their teachers were lying to them. What most people can do is communicate – badly.
Thank heavens, most people don’t try to write fiction. Those who do, for the most part, can at least communicate an idea. Which doesn’t mean they can tell a story or produce gripping narrative. Their writing may not be execrable but it may still be bad.
I can’t teach you to write well. That takes some study (read books on writing and, more importantly, read well-written books and think about what makes them well-written), a lot of practice (Robertson Davies said it took ten years of steady work to become a writer; Stephen King said it more directly: “First, write a million words of shit.”), plenty of criticism (join a writing or critiquing group – one with ferocious honesty) and a certain amount of spine (it’s your story; have some faith in it and don’t let it be turned to mush).
However, I can list a few things that will stop me reading and, generally, keep you out of any editor’s top ten percent.
No-one will ever accuse me of being a member of the grammar police (my wife constantly corrects my use of ‘lay’ and ‘lie’), but bad grammar is still a game-stopper for me. Mixing tenses, failing to show agreement between adjectives and nouns, improper use of prepositions – I have seen all of these in submissions. This is not arbitrary – bad grammar almost always means bad communication. Exceptions can be made in dialogue (spoken and internal) but only if it is used deliberately and consistently to reveal character. Don’t rely on your word processing package to correct your grammar – it was, after all, written by software engineers.
Typos are less of a problem, if only because it is difficult to catch them all. However, if I find four or five per page, you are in big trouble. At the very least, try to make the twenty pages as clean as possible. If your story has engaged me that long, I tend to get a lot more forgiving. Plus, you’ve shown me you are ‘capable’ of clean writing.
Over use of the passive voice is another element of weak writing. I’m particularly sensitive to this since it so often shows up in my own first drafts (for goodness sake, you’re not sending me your first draft, are you?!) Almost anywhere you see “there was” a stronger sentence is possible. Most sentences are better when they are: actor-action-thing acted upon. Equally bad are run on sentences: He did this and then he did that and then he fell down. Or worse: He did this and then she did that and then the world blew up. If you use an ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘because’ to join clauses, you can almost always strengthen the flow by using two sentences.
Turgid prose, wooden dialogue. Suppose your writing is perfectly grammatical and free of typos and you’ve avoided the obvious pitfalls of passive voice and run-on sentences. Are you writing well? Not necessarily. Clean, good writing needs to flow. Cramming too much description into a sentence (overuse of adjectives or, worse yet, adverbs) or too many details into a paragraph creates blockages for the reader. It can sometimes feel like wading through a swamp. Dialogue is even trickier. Dialogue is not how people speak – it is the distillation of speech. It is how people would want to speak, if only they could. Reading it aloud helps (generally true of all writing) but be careful; dialogue on the page is not precisely like dialogue on the stage – because if must contain the nuance, the sub-text, the emotion, the actor brings to the performance. (And adding an emotive adverb to the tag – ‘she said, wretchedly’ – doesn’t cut it.)
Let me summarize, no, that takes too long, let me sum up. Write well.
Suppose you’ve passed all these little barriers; your writing is grammatically correct and typo free. Your prose is clean, active and well structured. Your descriptions evoke dramatic images and your dialogue lilts.
Good for you! Now tell me a story.
“In media res” is a lovely Latin phrase that means: in the middle of things. That is where your story should start. Hardly anyone ever does start there in the first draft but hopefully by the time you submit, you will know where the story starts and will present it in the first chapter.
Does that mean every novel has to start with a battle scene, a fire alarm or a dead body in the library? Of course not. But it has to start with a person with a problem. That person should be your main character and the problem, if not the central problem of the story, should be related to or lead to that central problem. By the end of the first chapter, the reader – in this case, the editor – needs to want to know what happens next and to care about the outcome. The two are not the same – I can want to know intellectually the solution to a problem but not give a damn emotionally what happens to the characters. Game over. If your writing is brilliant or the setting or characters unusual, an editor might show some patience – but remember you only get three chapters to impress.
Nothing is more frustrating than to reach the end of 30 pages of well written prose with interesting characters and setting and to have no idea what the conflict – let alone the story – might be. No conflict – no emotional investment.
I’ve had people tell me – but you have to know all the details of the character’s background or the complexities of this fascinating world I’ve created to understand why this problem is important! My response: No, you have to know all that; I have to know someone is in trouble and the trouble is real and if they don’t do something, it’s going to get worse.
If you’ve done all this, you almost certainly have made it to the top ten percent, or at least close enough that I will ask to see the rest of the book.
When it arrives, things have to get worse – this is called rising action. Things the character does change the situation, usually for the bad. They try, they fail. Again. Until it can’t possible get more terrible. End of Act I.
Then things deteriorate. As fantasy writer, Dave Duncan says: “First, I drive my characters up a tree. Then I throw rocks at them.” They try and fail some more until they come to the Popeye moment: “I’se taken alls I can take and I cans’t take any more!” End of Act II
Now the rush to the solution – falling action, the resolution for good or ill (I prefer good; I’m not a horror fan), the denouement, the end.
The 3-act structure is not the only way to tell a story and can sometimes be pretty limiting. I’ve read great books that don’t use it (King Lear is the perfect example of a five-act structure – and not just because it is written in five acts – where the pinnacle of the action occurs almost in the middle of the story. All that follows is beautiful consequence) and some wretched stories that use it perfectly. But whatever structure you use, the same principle applies – we need to see a character faced with a challenge and we need to care if and how they deal with it.
Have you made a sale yet? Not necessarily. There is still the matter of editor taste. You may have written a good book but it is not to my taste. If it’s a GREAT book, I’m likely to make exceptions (the surprise brilliance all editors crave), but great books are rare (and likely haven’t been sent to small presses).
So I’ll end (finally) by reminding you to read the guidelines. And then follow the guidelines.
And I’ll give you a few hints as to my personal taste.
I prefer Hemingway to Faulkner. Journalistic prose with limited and often sparse description. Action preferred over introspection.
Faulkner: Hemingway has never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.
Hemingway: Poor Faulkner. Does he really thing big emotions come from big words?
I’m an optimist – even in dystopic novels, I’d like to think there is hope for better times ahead. I generally think science is a good thing; technology is neutral.
I’m a rationalist – reference to supernatural powers as an explanation for events give me the willies (So Star Trek, not Star Wars). I don’t mind characters who ‘think’ there are mysterious forces at work as long as it doesn’t stop them from acting. As soon as a character relinquishes himself to a higher power or believes that he can’t change things – I say, that’s nice, who cares?
I like mystery (whether of the criminal or scientific type) but not obscurity. I don’t mind working to discover a good story but I need some sense of what I’m working toward. Don’t drop inexplicable or vague sentences or scenes into the story just for effect.
To be absolutely honest – I’d rather publish a rollicking tale than a literary gem. The two are not exclusive in my mind but are seldom found together in one place. (See comments about GREAT novels above).
Thanks for sticking with me through to the end. Or, perhaps, “it just didn’t grab you.”