How can you make your short story stand out to an editor? What keeps them reading? What makes them lose interest? How can you revise and hone your submission when you only receive form rejections without any feedback?
Last month, I attended Electric Literature’s Submission Roulette and it was an insightful peek behind the curtain of a literary magazine. Attendees can submit opening pages of their stories ahead of time and the Recommended Reading editors will read and discuss them live on screen during the event. It was a great way to see how they evaluate stories and hear their thought processes. Here are a few of my takeaways from the editors’ feedback.
Establish a strong opening
A writer who knows what to show and what to tell in the first few paragraphs is key. You can telescope a lot of information about setting, characters, and voice. As one editor described it, your opening is your “establishing shot.”
Premises vs. stories
One submission prompted an interesting discussion around premises vs. stories. A premise might be, “there is a world where people’s noses develop over time” but it doesn’t move beyond developing the rules of the world. A story might be, “in a world where people’s noses develop over time, two friends resolve a dispute.” A story takes the premise further with a narrative.
Specifics are important to short stories because they can indicate more than you think, so you want to include them where possible. A revision tactic I’m excited to try out is asking, “where can I smuggle in details?”
Organic vs. manufactured tension
Distinguish between suspenseful and confusing ambiguity. In many of the submissions, the editors spotted instances when it felt like information was withheld purely for the sake of mystery. Rather than feeling pulled forward into the story, they found it confusing. You want urgency and tension to come from the organic material of the story rather than having it feel manufactured.
You want the story to change before the reader wants you to change it. That's when people lose interest or get impatient. This can look like rolling into a scene, changing up language, adding dialogue, or introducing a character. The editors also mentioned that this can happen at the sentence level. You can have a poetic sentence or an unusual description, but follow it with a very direct sentence. Modulating structure and syntax can also provide variation in your story.
I appreciated that the editors were very candid with their feedback, like “I feel this story was fed into a thesaurus.” It was useful to see how language can be frustrating and delightful, where it advanced the story and when it just introduced confusion. It’s interesting to be experimental with language and see what emerges from that. But as seen in some of the stories in Submission Roulette, experiments can throw a reader off.
One editor emphasized that “writing things clearly can still be artful. You don’t want to make the reader a detective in every sentence.” The key is striking the balance of trying something fresh while also keeping readers grounded.
One editor said that they really craved understanding how characters are in space, that when starting a story it’s important to orient your reader to where they are physically. Another editor said they loved intense, rich prose and was willing to let it hit them in the same way over and over even if the narrative didn’t advance.
Each person has taste and subjectivity. (Obviously what editors and lit mags look for will vary by publication.) In Electric Literature’s case, they have a team of readers and editors, and each story is read by two readers. Folks don’t always agree or like the same things, but that’s what allows for variation in what they publish. It’s helpful to remember that rejections may not be wholly about your writing, but also about the fit for the lit mag or taste of the reader/editor.
Please consider joining me in donating to an abortion fund, particularly one in a state where access is restricted. I donated to the North Dakota Women in Need Abortion Access Fund.
- I’ve been racking up writing rejections recently and have found it helpful to revisit Elisa Gabbert’s advice column on dealing with rejection and the anxiety of publishing.
- #1000wordsofsummer is June 4-17! Sign up for the newsletter to receive daily letters from Jami Attenberg. Here are some ways you can prep.
- J.T. Bushnell on transitioning from writing short stories to novels: “I never had any idea what would happen next until I got through the section I was writing and asked, Now what? I found an answer every time, and I wrote toward it as efficiently as possible so that I could ask the question again.”
- “24 Hours in the Creative Life” in T Magazine’s Culture issue
- In my last newsletter, I talked about embracing writing constraints. I appreciated Jill Witty’s take on the same topic, particularly when it comes to using the Pomodoro technique.
Recent reads & other media
Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke is a novel set entirely in Slack but goes beyond the gimmick of Slack messages. It gets surreal, hilarious, and surprisingly emotional, and I thought it was a really interesting way to discuss modern work culture, alienation, and the digital sublime. For my regularly scheduled rom-com fix, I read First Comes Like by Alisha Rai and rewatched How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days with a friend. (We don’t need to question why Matthew McConaughey has a Southern accent but is somehow from Staten Island.)
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~ meme myself and i ~
My brain when I read a made-up name in a book. I feel attacked. Putting a new release on hold at the library. Chowder is an incredible skateboarder. What I assume working at Microsoft is like. Happy AAPI Heritage and Mental Health Awareness Month!