By: Jordan Fennell - Fiction Editor
February 13, 2014
So let's begin where we left off last week: Proofreading and why it's important.
As mentioned earlier, there are more programs than ever to train writers. Yet we continue to receive stories with blatant typographical errors and faulty grammar (this very blog isn't immune to errors. But this blog isn't being submitted to a literary magazine. It most definitely wouldn't be published at Clapboard House as fiction or, if we had the mind, non-fiction).
We take fiction seriously. You may not, and that's fine. But if you intend to publish your work with us, you need to realize that your story is not a blog entry. It's not an assignment you wrote for a class. It's not a text message or an email. It is a written document that we will read as if it were literary art.
Editors receiving submissions at literary magazines don't really "edit," in the true sense of the word, and we at Clapboard House are no exception. Granted, a few minor typos are no problem, but after a string of such mistakes or larger issues (such as no indentations for dialogue, not including a space break where you intended, or throwing in a space break for no discernible reason, not to mention egregious spelling errors that should be caught by even the laziest of eyes), the editor no longer feels that he or she is in the hands of a capable, competent writer worth reading. Point: the editor stops reading. And if the editor stops reading, the readers of Clapboard House (who care deeply about fiction) stop reading also. It is not the editor's job to hold your hand or to teach you how to write. If you would like advice on writing or would like to run ideas by us, we are happy to help on a case by case basis, but that is not the intent of Clapboard House. We are not a writing workshop or story "doctors" -- we expect your work to be as good as it can possibly by the time we read it.
If asked, everyone seems to respect the standards of grammar and formatting. Yet we still see submissions that have clearly not been proofread. Most of these mistakes are fairly obvious, and should have been taken care of during the revision process. Do these problems, then, stem from a lack of adequate revision?
The content of many of the stories we receive is quite good, but some of them seem to end for no reason. Yes, some writers do this, but they usually do so in order to make a particular statement at which the reader may arrive through examining the text. Some of our submissions, however, seem to end for no other reason than the writer didn't know how to end the story, or possibly decided to go the route of, "So-and-so does it in this story. Why can't I?" You're probably not a master of Postmodernism. Even if you are, you won't be around to explain the story to the editor, so either find an ending for the story or give adequate evidence in the text to explain this. Maybe we're just not smart enough to get it. We enjoy challenging literature, but if you intend to publish with us, you need to meet us halfway.
Aside from this, the stories that do find a way to conclude sometimes suffer from various forms of neglect. We receive half-formed stories, stories rife with typographical errors, stories with clunky but passable lines, mediocre attempts at characterization, and pieces that substitute unconventional structure in an attempt to make up for said mediocre characterization or overall emotional and/or thematic weight. These pieces read as if they are the third or fourth drafts of a story that could have been fantastic, had the writer followed through. As a rule of thumb, don't send us your work until you have gone through five to ten complete revisions of your work. Odds are, you don't know what the story is about after only a handful of drafts. And if you don't know, who does? The editor certainly doesn't. Instead of wrestling with an incomplete or half-baked story in order to derive some kind of meaning, the editor will reject it. We simply receive too many submissions, and this doesn't allow us the time for close, line-by-line analysis of your work. If you haven't taken the time to make your story the best it can be, then the editor won't take the time to read it, much less root for it to be published. Raymond Carver once said that he knew a story was done when he was down to putting commas in and taking them out, meaning that the sentences had been laid down and had found their particular "grooves," the characters had been examined, the plot had twisted and went off in different directions until it had been edited down to its best version, and all of the excess verbiage had been cut. What separates many of the "good" submissions from the "great" isn't a matter of talent -- it's simply a matter of work ethic. Anyone can dash off a story in an evening, but it takes discipline to sit down and go through a short story line by line, cutting and editing ruthlessly until the work is as flawless as it can be at that particular time in the writer's life.
Take your time, and make it as good as you can. Nobody gives out awards for the fastest time from first draft to publication. And besides, who wants a bunch of inferior stories out there? It's hard to live them down later.
We don't like stock characters. We like characters with some depth, whose motives are clear (or are made clear through the progression of the narrative), whose actions matter and, hopefully, affect others. We don't like characters who are completely good or completely bad (because that's boring. Even your Aunt Sally who sings in the church choir isn't perfect). We don't like to spend whole stories in a character's head, ruminating about this or that while soaking in a bathtub (variants of this kind of story are everywhere. I don't know why).
Everyone has a different way of handling character development. Flannery O' Connor (or Ol' Flannie, as I like to call her) tends to go deep into particular characters. Christine Schutt stays closer to the surface in her early work, but still manages to deepen her characters enough for the reader to notice a change (e.g. for the character to matter) through the events of the story. Some writers tend to imply a change in characters, without going deeply into those characters. This works beautifully when done right, but falls flat on its face when done wrong. Each story is different, and each writer is different. It's not necessary to include every significant event in a character's life that leads up to the present action, but don't send us stories with shallow characters that are manipulated like puppets. It makes us feel manipulated (e.g. that's a good way to not get published in Clapboard House). Point: make your characters matter to us.
And a word about plot: To us, character is plot. You can argue the point through an email, and we'll be glad to discuss it with you, but this is what we like. Basically, things happen and people deal with these things in significant, revealing ways. You can make it much more complicated than that, but we have seen great stories with strong, complex plots and great stories with very little plotting. The common factor is a keen sense of characterization that drives the plot.
We are thrilled when we receive stories with dialogue that lets us see who is speaking and where. The fastest (and easiest to fix) way to have Clapboard House reject your story is to send us something with stretches of dialogue that give the reader the effect of disembodied voices talking into oblivion. People's bodies don't disappear when they speak. There are ways to use this kind of thing artfully, but if it's not handled correctly, it comes across as clumsy or lazy. Again, you won't be there to explain your decisions to the editor. Your sentences will either say what you intended or they won't. To be on the safe side, save unconventional dialogue for experimental literary journals. You may be doing something fascinating and subversive, but we are not the market for experimental writing, and will probably think you just didn't take the time to fix it (since we make it very clear that we don't accept this kind of writing and won't enter into your work expecting such things). We will look at it this way: if you didn't care enough about your work to give the speakers physical attributions or animate them in some way, we don't care enough to read your story. Simple as that.
For an idea of how to handle repeated exchanges in a manner that will help your chances of being published with us, read basically any reputable short story. More specifically, Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." This story is also a fine example of restraint, as well as implication of emotion and subject matter. Also, Douglas Glover's website, Numero Cinq, contains an article on how to correctly punctuate dialogue while making that dialogue interesting and moving the narrative forward.
Check back next week for the final installment of this blog series where I talk about Theme and Philosophy, Art - and why I sometimes come across as pretentious, but all in good measure - and worthwhile techniques and structures in fiction.