What We're Looking For Pt.1

By: Jordan Fennell - Fiction Editor
February 5, 2014

          What kind of short stories are we looking for? What do we mean by "artful" short stories and poems? I can't speak for our Poetry Editor, but I will attempt to clarify what we want from our fiction contributors.

            Most literary journals, trying to clarify exactly what they want, say they want work that "Moves us, delights us, isn't afraid to take chances," or, apparently unsure of what they want in the first place, ask writers to "Send us your best."

            Does this help you?

            It's never helped me when trying to decide where to send my work.

            Of course journals want work that moves, takes chances, blah blah blah. It's a given. We want literary art. The word "art" gets thrown around a lot, but I use it here as seriously as I can. So, what kind of literary art do we want?


            We don't want genre fiction, experimental literature, historical papers, religious manifestos, or other forms of nonfiction (Creative Nonfiction included). I mention these because, despite our guidelines, writers keep sending them. There is a place for all of these things, but that place is not here. While we enjoy most any kind of well-crafted work, we simply don't have enough people on staff to handle all of these different forms, nor do we deem our experience or training worthy to judge such various forms. What we do feel competent in judging and understanding is contemporary, realist fiction.

            Some feel that conventional fiction is a dinosaur that needs to be put to bed by the new guard, which is always popping up and ranting as much. Curiously, the writers who actually succeed in "progressive" or "experimental" fiction tend to keep their mouths shut and let the work speak for itself. Basically: you are probably not the genius that will obliterate the tired old conventions of realist fiction. Donald Barthelme has not put conventional fiction out to pasture, and it's doubtful that you will, either. Don't try to make a statement by sending us such work. Even if you are one such genius, the staff of Clapboard House will hear about it being published in another journal and cheer you on, you delightful maverick.

            Simply by existing, the established "conventional" brand of fiction creates a space for its antithesis. These kinds of "deformations" of convention are exactly that: work that calls into question or adapts traditional methods of fiction. This kind of story is necessary and fascinating, but we are not in the market for it.

            So, now that we have a better grasp of what Clapboard House isn't looking for, let's further define what it is we want.

            There are plenty of ways to write a contemporary realist story. MFA programs abound, undergraduate writing programs pull in students by the droves, blogs all over the Internet contain proclamations by The New York Times and other supposedly authoritative institutions about how so-and-so is the literary champion of a generation. There's a lot of good writing out there. And there's a lot of unreadable bull___. (Fill in the blank with whatever you want).

            Most of the bull___ is easy to spot, but some of it disguises itself as the good stuff. And some of the good stuff still doesn't satisfy. Point being, even when the work is good, it's still not guaranteed to be published, even though the readers or editors may think it's well-wrought fiction.

            What it boils down to is a matter of taste. People still argue over whether Jimi Hendrix is the best guitarist who ever lived, or whether John Coltrane could take Charlie Parker. Critics battle it out over which novel gets to be called the greatest of the past century -- yadda, yadda, yadda. For me, once you reach a certain level of  "greatness," it's hard to qualify one artist or creative work as hands-down better than another. So it is with short stories. We receive some truly terrible submissions. And we get some good, even great stories. But we pick only the best, as we (in our intrinsically fallible humanness) see it.

            What gets us going? Plenty.

             What does it take for us to consider a story the best out of any particular reading period? Plenty.


            On the surface, we look for surprising language. Before characters, before plot, before theme, before anything else, the language has to grab us. There are many ways to do this.

            Cormac McCarthy is much respected by our staff, and his rolling, neo-Biblical rhetoric in works such as Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is enough to stop us in our tracks by its sounds and by its use of sometimes unusual syntactic constructions. But we also love the fierce precision of writers like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel. Note that Carver or Hempel, much like Hemingway in their hard-boiled style, don't sacrifice story or submit to a bland, lifeless prose simply because their sentences aren't as lush as McCarthy's. Theirs is a different version of reality, and the prose adapts to render that reality (along with their particular artistic choices).  As stated earlier, the mere existence of one creates a space for the existence of its antithesis, and all points in between.

            Christine Schutt, whose earlier work could be classified as "minimalism," blurs the lines between prose and prose-poetry in her first collection "Nightwork." Although she strips the language down in comparison to McCarthy, she "loads" each sentence with poetry in a way that Carver or Hempel don't typically do.  At her best, Schutt's sentences, coiled with twisted, muscular, shape-shifting syntax, give the reader the best of poetry and prose.

            So we like to see writers who have a particular vision, and a linguistic application that renders that vision. But precision is key: McCarthy, even when his sentences seem hinged at the ends and fold back on themselves, doesn't lose focus. Carver, whose early prose is especially razor sharp, doesn't forget that he's telling a story. Contrary to the opinion of his detractors, Carver (along with many other so-called "minimalists") still manages to infuse his whittled-down stories with emotion, despite his objective, dead-pan tone.

            But let’s face it, most aren’t Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy; simply writing in a particular style (or aping someone else's style) isn't your ticket to publishing here. Even if Mr. McCarthy sent us a story, we wouldn't publish it if it didn't meet our standards. We aren't a large, prestigious journal, but we refuse to publish work that we aren't proud to be associated with.

            So you have a definitive style that fits the piece you're submitting. What else do we want?


            We like to see stories written from the level of the sentence, so that every line is focused and strong, as if you could walk across it or jump up and down on it without it giving. To paraphrase Gordon Lish, the story should come from a place of stone and steel, not sand and clay. That being said, these lines should work together to form a complete story -- not just a word game, slice of life anecdote, or a jumble of well-composed sentences. Interesting stylistic or structural methods are welcome, but these are not a must. No lines should be wasted; everything should be integral and necessary to the work. Some wiggle room is allowed if the prose is really good, but this should be an enjoyable addition to an already solid piece of fiction -- not clumsy, uncontrolled, or self-indulgent prose. We don't like a lot of "fat" in what we read. Odds are that if you don't think it belongs in the story, it doesn't.


Attack Sentences/Paragraphs

            The first sentence or paragraph of what we call a "great" story typically contains all of the conflict, energy, and artistry used throughout the work. This isn't always the case, but a strong, engaging opening is a good sign that the reader is in the hands of someone who has thoughtfully and meticulously crafted a story that will be worth the reader's time.

            By way of example: reading the first sentences of the stories included in Breece D'J Pancake's "Collected Stories," the reader can get an idea of what he or she is in for with that particular story. I find this is true for most of my favorite writers, as well as for those writers who have continually been praised by critics, anthologized, and admired by writers and readers alike. The following are the first two sentences from Pancake's story "In the Dry":


            "He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, "Ottie." It is what he has been called, and he says again, "Ottie."


            This opening raises questions: What is "the hurt" in the bridge? Why is he saying his name?

            Pancake has, in two sentences of deceptively simple language, presented us with his protagonist, the first of his significant objects (which is associated with the main conflict that will run throughout the story, "splintering-off" and coming back again and again) and his character's name (which will also figure into the story as a theme of shifting identity and displacement). This should not be confused with similar methods used in "shock" fiction or commercial fiction, in which the writer's main task seems to be the generation of suspense to maintain a high level of reader interest. Pancake's opening piques the reader's interest, of course, but serves to introduce the ingredients of character, conflict, plot, and psychological framework that will be thoroughly examined and woven into an interconnected, interdependent system of language. In short, "interest" or "suspense" is incidental, not the main goal. Furthermore, the story only gets better from there through engaging characterization and plot instead of stringing the reader along, asking simply, "What's going to happen next?"         

            Pancake's sentences illustrate a somewhat subtle attack. Others, such as Barry Hannah, may opt for a violent, humorous, or confusing attack. That being said, we don't care for "shock-fiction" beginnings. If someone is being shot, raped, mutilated, copulating with an animal, etc., it had better be integral to the story that follows. Many "shocking" beginnings fizz out after a few paragraphs, and many legitimate beginnings lose steam as the story progresses. But a tightly crafted, engaging "attack" sentence or paragraph not only gets the reader (or editor) reading, it gives the idea that the rest of the story will be just as good as the beginning by setting the tone.

            Basically, we want to feel that we are the hands of someone capable -- someone we can trust, right from the first sentence. A big part of appearing "capable" or "trustworthy" (aside from content and how that content is presented with language) is evidence of proofreading, one of the necessities of writing I'll be discussing in our next entry. 

So stayed tuned and come back, we've still got a bit more to talk about. 

Posted on February 5, 2014 .