2016, Archives, February 2016, The MFA Years

Dealbreakers: Reasons I Vote Not to Accept a Story

Hello hello, Cady again. How are you? Want to hear something neat? My post from last month has garnered thirty-six comments (more actually, but some of those comments were unhelpful and got deleted) along with about 4700 views. Clearly y’all like to get the inside scoop on literary magazine submissions. That’s cool. Always happy to oblige. Especially because many of you, who started reading this blog for help with your MFA applications, are probably thinking about sending out those application stories.

So the important lesson with submissions is not to be wasting your time and effort (and Submittable fees) the way I did in undergrad, throwing stuff at whatever literary magazines you’ve maybe heard of and seeing what sticks. Don’t submit the same story forever and tell yourself it’s getting turned down because you’re too innovative, or because you don’t have an MFA, or because the process is just so random. Probably none of these things are true in your case. Really. And more importantly, believing any of these things is a way to hurt yourself, to stop growing, to make excuses for not revising the things that need revising.

Instead, let’s talk about concrete steps you can take to up the odds that your work will see the light of day. I want to discuss what sort of stories I, Typical Litmag Reader, will reject pretty much immediately, every time:

Wishful thinking and revenge Once in undergrad I wrote a story in which a character not unlike myself was inspired to ditch her English major for computer science, at which point she got super rich and all her problems disappeared. It was therapeutic and fun and totally not something I should ever have sent out, because nobody else cares about my therapy.

I was having a common response to a natural urge: in fact I often caught my classmates narrating their way into better lives. Put-upon women with families would write stories like mine, stories about suddenly coming into money, kids who suddenly started behaving themselves, partners who suddenly wanted to give them more foot rubs. Younger, single women wrote stories wherein the heroine was a little less pretty and more awkward than her peers—but also deeper, more genuine, smarter, inherently superior to all other women, which is why some perfectly sensitive hot guy would always choose this heroine as a girlfriend. Young men wrote revenge stories in which the women who had wronged them were shut away in mental institutions and/or died horribly. Everybody wrote fantasies in which they succeeded at tasks their parents or bosses or professors hadn’t thought them capable of, and then the parents/professors/bosses would have to apologize publicly.

I’m not saying these stories have no value, or that therapeutic writing is wrong. Therapeutic writing is great when it helps writers who feel disempowered by their situations to process their feelings in healthy ways. But it is not literary, and it’s not achieving a literary purpose. Literary fiction helps us to deal with the things that are ambiguous and unfair in the world, but wish-fulfillment and revenge fiction push in the opposite direction, toward absolute justice and easy answers. Literary fiction shows us characters who have positive attributes and serious negative ones. Every protagonist has a deeply human, deeply flawed core, and even evil people exist in a context that helps us understand their choices. Wish-fulfillment fiction presents protagonists so perfect they feel inhuman, and revenge fiction presents antagonists so flatly, predictably evil they’re actually boring.

I will add that most human beings have a good eye for writing as therapy. My feeling upon reading wish fulfillment or revenge stories in the slush pile is one of embarrassment on the authors’ behalf. These people have overshared. I am in some important ways protecting them by turning down the work, making sure it doesn’t circulate too widely.

Screed The screed can be personal, in which case it looks a lot like a revenge story. The screed can go on for ten pages and communicate nothing except that the author really hates his ex, or her middle school principal. This is not a good look. The written screed is no more appealing than having you march up to me in the street and deliver a rant about your ex or your middle school principal or whoever. Just don’t do it.

But the screed can also be political. I touched on this a bit in my last entry. Basically, I’m all for leftist political fiction, but it needs to feel nuanced, funny, accurate, not like propaganda. Tell me some jokes. Do not take yourself too seriously. Try to avoid writing unsympathetic caricatures of your political opponents. Try to avoid making your “side” into saints. Don’t make me aware that I’m being told what to think, because that’s going to make me feel condescended to.

Actually, here’s a really stellar example of political fiction I read lately: “Jeb Bush is Sinking,” by Jeff VanderMeer. Yes, this story is telling a political joke and making fun of a political figure, but it extends sympathy to Jeb at the same time. This Jeb is aware that his brother is a cokehead and an “evil omen.” This Jeb is so touchingly pathetic, he can’t see himself in the mirror. He believes he’s a viral cat video. Poor guy, please nobody vote for him.

Poor technical writing skills Yes, we’ve all heard that story about how Faulkner couldn’t spell. But Faulkner wasn’t writing in 2016. You should learn to spell. I’m not saying any story has to be perfect: mine rarely are, because the pressures of grad school and childrearing are not conducive to perfect copyediting of one’s own work. But try. Make it clear to me you know how this stuff is done, even if you occasionally falter. If you break “rules” for artistic reasons, which is a valid choice, do so with intention and consistency.

A slew of errors is unappealing in part because someone at the magazine, a volunteer in all likelihood, will have to correct those errors for free. Few people are motivated to sink that much work into bringing a single story to print. Maybe your story is genius, but it will have to be especially genius to justify multiple rounds of proofreading and copyediting. And even then, editors at many magazines might decide they simply don’t have time, and make a conscious decision to go with a less genius story in order to save themselves the effort.

Cliches Usually when we think of cliches, we think on the level of the individual sentence, paragraph, and passage. If you tell me that the people on the sidewalks of Manhattan look like ants, for example, I won’t be impressed. Not just because no new information is being communicated—I was already aware that Manhattan sidewalks are crowded—but because I’ve heard that metaphor several hundred times already. And this is what cliched descriptions do: tell me things I already know in a way that feels totally uninspired, not new at all.

There are also character cliches. I’ve mentioned that literary fiction thrives on ambiguity and complex characters, and cliched characters undermine that complexity. The teenage girl who, like, loves to shop. The stupid jock. The stupid model. The soulless accountant. The reason these cliches don’t work is in part that they’re offensive—teenage girls only appear that useless if you’re sexist—and in part because there’s nothing in that sort of characterization for me to sink my teeth into.

But cliches don’t exist solely in characters or description; it is possible for the plot to take on elements of cliche, to feel like a hackneyed, worn trope. The cliches sneak in when we’re not working hard enough, when we’re not coming up with anything fresh, when we use a careworn blueprint for bringing our characters from point A to point B. For example, you could write a conventional love story set in a high school, between some popular boy who turns out to have a compelling inner life and an unpopular girl, a total social pariah who turns out to be kind of hot when she removes her glasses. At the end of the story, the boy has learned to be slightly less of a jerk and the girl has learned about contact lenses. But we’ve all seen this movie so many times it makes us roll our eyes, and I’m unlikely to find this plot compelling anymore.

Finally, there are cliches of moral. Some beginning authors, when they set out to write a story, come up with a sort of parable, imparting what they consider to be a life lesson of some sort. The problem is that many of these life lessons are themselves careworn truisms. Let’s say, for example, your story’s obvious moral is that it’s important to love yourself. Your protagonist has only to learn to love himself and all his problems would disappear. But what does it mean to love oneself? What if he’s done terrible things? Why should everybody love themselves? Is it not possible that unconditional self-love could keep a person from addressing his mistakes?

“Love yourself” is something people say when they aren’t delving, so it should not be the entire point of your piece.

The reason cliches are so bothersome, by the way, is that they’re lazy—an author who writes in cliches is one who hasn’t bothered doing the hard work of invention—and they encourage laziness in readers. Literary fiction exists to challenge, and literary readers like to be challenged at least a little, or else they get bored.

Genre confusion I really like the Tahoma Literary Review’s take on this point. Read it now.

Done? Okay. Let me give you some context for that article: Literary fiction ought to go to literary fiction markets, speculative fiction to speculative fiction markets. There is a surprisingly widespread problem of writers sending the wrong genre to literary magazines.

I’m not convinced the people sending me their swords-and-sandals fantasy are being deliberately obtuse. Perhaps they’re so inexperienced they don’t know most literary magazines aren’t open to this stuff. Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves they’ve written something other than swords-and-sandals fantasy. Or, an aspiring fantasy author might actually notice a literary fiction venue publishing the occasional fantasy-esque piece and figure they might as well give it a shot. Raleigh Review and Reservoir, for example, are both open to work that uses the tropes of genre fiction to write a literary/genre hybrid. Tahoma Literary Review, like most literary markets, is happy to look at your magical realism. The problem is that even if all of these magazines are happy to publish stories that have some genre elements, some genre moments, none of them trade in core genre, pure science fiction or fantasy writing with none of the trademarks of literary fiction.

I know, I know, we’re all a bunch of terrible elitists. But I’m not sending my dirty realism to tor.com, because I’m not trying to waste anybody’s time. Please don’t send me your centaurs.

Unnecessary introductions This is an easy one, but it’s also the most commonly ignored. In fact, if I had to guess, this is why I vote against or turn down most of the fiction that finds its way into my Submittable queue. Does your three-paragraph flash waste one of those paragraphs on setting alone? Why would you do that? Does your twenty-page story start with five pages of background information? Then I’m not accepting it. Three pages? Still no dice. One page? No. One paragraph? Maybe. But only if that paragraph also introduces your central conflict.

I’m not kidding here. Put me in media res, because I’m not at all interested in lengthy explanations, especially first thing. Incorporate the information in the action so that I pick it up as I move along. Readers do not want you to spend all that time introducing and explaining a world before you get around to the actual story. Readers want the actual story.

Also, some people try to work around this by giving a hook-y first paragraph that introduces the conflict and places the reader in the action . . . then digressing for at least a page or two of exposition. This is only a tiny step up from hitting me with that exposition right at the get-go. I will notice a story that presents the same old problem dressed up with a single paragraph of action at the beginning, and I will reject.

Porn A guy spots a gal on the bus and she starts masturbating. A woman tells her sister about her relationship troubles and the sister starts masturbating. A teenage boy goes to model for his old lady neighbor, who is an artist of some kind, only she persuades him to pose nude and then starts masturbating.

I’m going to be extremely generous here and assume that the submitters of these stories did not deliberately inflict their weird sex stuff on me because they get off on my reading it. Why then?

Mostly I think folks are confused. There’s the obvious confusion between realistic sex and porn, of course. We live in a culture that’s saturated with these porn-y images, so it’s understandable that huge swaths of the writing population have no idea how to write any other kind of sex. There’s also a more upsetting (or at least I find it upsetting) confusion between the porny and the profound. The authors are submitting to literary magazines, presumably, because they believe they’ve written something that explores human emotional development, something that stirs our better selves to action, something “deep.” Only some people can think of nothing deeper, nothing more profound than whether or not they’re turned on. This is, in the end, more of a maturity issue than a writing one.

Some are also, I believe, trying to grab a reader’s attention, make the story interesting, by inserting some outrageous sexual content. These people are suffering confusion about what sort of boundary pushing is palatable for most readers. No, most people who read for literary magazines aren’t prudes, but we’re not really into reading pornographic stuff for the magazine. I’ll go pretty far with sexual content that operates as an integral part of story, revealing character and furthering plot, but I’m not here for plain old fucking.

All of which is to say that if your story has sex, ask yourself what the sex is doing in the story. Does the sex help develop a larger narrative? A deeper meaning? How so? Are you sure? Is the sex written like a Penthouse Letter or is it reaching for the awkward, gross, funny, weird possibilities of actual human sexual encounters?

Bigotry I am a woman, and as such I’m distinctly uninterested in stories that don’t respect women. I am a Jew, and as such I’m not going to react well to stories that don’t respect Jews. Are you picking up what I’m putting down? People of color are going to read anything that gets published in the Journal, so don’t be racist. A good number of readers are queer, and so you will want your queer characters to have dignity. We’re most of us living off teeny grad student stipends, so try to be sensitive to the plight of Americans with no money. Some of us are able-bodied and some aren’t. Some of us were born in the United States, and some were not. Be kind if you want to be published.

In fact, be kind regardless of whether you want to be published. Even if every last reader were a rich cishet able-bodied white male Southern Baptist, you would want your stories to respect the lives of people who are none of those things, because it’s the right thing to do and you are not an asshole. Right? Right.

This may seem like an obvious point to make, that literary magazines by and large don’t take bigoted material on purpose. But most of us, when we are first starting out, can unintentionally write offensive stuff, even or especially if we are concerned with issues of social justice. A good example of this might be stories about the Jewish Holocaust. The vast majority of these strike me as icky, because I sense that the authors are gawking at very real atrocities, fetishizing very real suffering, invoking a historical trauma over which they have no right in hopes of making me feel “moved.” I’m sure the people who write such stuff would be horrified to know that’s how I interpreted their work. I’m sure they meant no harm. But still.

I could make similar points about work that attempts to be feminist and falls short, especially work that clashes with my own experiences of abusive relationships and of being a single mother. The abusive relationship narrative that shows up reliably in workshops and slush piles can be particularly egregious, even though it’s usually written by a professed feminist, because it treats the battered woman as a perfect victim, an unflaggingly good person drawn inexplicably to an unflaggingly horrible man. But if the man is so unflaggingly horrible, then the story can’t help but point at the woman being a little bit stupid. After all, why dedicate yourself to a guy who’s always an irredeemable asshole? Nobody does that in real life, certainly not the many brilliant women who at one time or another have found their boyfriends shoving or threatening or throwing stuff. Not to mention, if the woman is so unflaggingly good, then I can’t help but wonder: Would this author extend the same sympathy to victims of abuse who aren’t quite that saintlike? Do only perfect victims deserve any acknowledgment at all?

And these are just my hobby horses, the things that relate directly to my life. There are also plenty of stories that, for example, start out as serious attempts to explore racial prejudice and fall flat halfway through when they turn into narratives about Nice White People Saving Everyone. This too is a form of bigotry. This too is well-intentioned, but gets off track. This too is the sort of thing I regularly vote against when I come across it in slush. 

So when I write that you should not be a bigot, I’m not necessarily warning against the obvious stuff. I think most of us know not to do the obvious stuff. But a lot of us spend years sorting out the less obvious stuff. A lot of us unintentionally depict people or situations in ways that play into prejudice, even as we’re purportedly fighting those prejudices. Just do your best to think the story through, to ask yourself if it might feel condescending to someone whose life resembled that of one of your characters.

Plot holes and extraordinary coincidence People leave plot holes in their own stories for the same reason we have trouble proofreading our own typos: the brain fills in missing information. If you know what a word should look like, you’re more likely to skip over errors that sort of resemble that word. If you know how a story should go, you’re more likely to assume you got your point across.

There are a couple ways to handle this. Workshopping and showing the story around is effective—there’s no better indication that you’ve failed to communicate some key plot point than a dozen people telling you, “Yeah, I didn’t get that at all.” Or you could just ignore the story for a month or two until your brain forgets how it even went, then read it again as if you are the friend or workshopper looking for missing information.

Similarly, we sometimes put incredible coincidences into our work in order to get the plot someplace important. You might have two characters who meet by chance share some highly unlikely experience because you really want to get to the place where they hash out that experience, talk it over for the reader’s benefit. One character might show up at exactly the right time or have exactly the right (highly unlikely) skill so that a conflict can be resolved.

This may feel entirely believable to you in the moment, because our brains tend to gloss over that sort of thing. As with plot holes, you can really solve the problem by pulling back and analyzing the events in your story as if you didn’t write it, or by inviting someone else to do so.

Yielding no answers Sometimes people leave holes in the plot intentionally, which is a fine thing to do. Sometimes the end result is to force readers to make an educated guess, to leave things open to several interpretations, to allow readers to puzzle out the world of the story as they go, so they start out disoriented but have a firm grasp on setting and situation by the time the story’s done.

And sometimes this is the goal, but too much information is missing. Readers cannot make an educated guess, or come up with a small number of interpretations for a given event, or puzzle out the world of a story. Sometimes the readers begin disoriented and stay that way. Sometimes re-reading does not cause the story to make any more sense than it did the first time around.

If you’re shooting for that pleasant feeling of open-endedness, of initial confusion followed by a journey to understanding, you want to be careful you haven’t accidentally written something totally inscrutable.

Lack of research Let’s say you’ve written something that seems impossible to me, that your story hinges on a detail that just couldn’t happen. I’m going to turn it down. Similarly, if your story purports to be about a topic you clearly don’t understand too well, that’s not going to fly. This happens to me a lot as a reader with stories about the art world. People love to write about painters, but look, I went to art school. I was a painter. I married a painter. I’ve hung out with a lot of painters, and I can tell if you know absolutely nothing about painting.

Nota bene: Sometimes I have pointed out in workshops that a story seems unrealistic or unresearched to me, and, triumphant, the writers of these stories have responded, “It was real. It happened exactly this way.” That response might strike you as the ultimate defense, but such is just not the case. If you are writing a fictionalized account of real events, it’s easy to forget what made that situation unusual. It’s easy to present as normal stuff that isn’t. Part of making your reader believe a strange story is accounting for how things could have, should have, usually would have happened, and why this particular course of events was different.

No conflict/action/conclusion I’m haunted by the memory of this one story with an incredible voice. Man, I wish Raleigh Review could have accepted that story. Things were bolting along at a gorgeous clip, and then the conclusion hit . . . and I was underwhelmed. The last page was all about how the protagonist would have to suffer blackmail for his work affair, but that issue had already been presented within the first two pages. The conclusion to the story was a thing I knew all along, and the action brought us from point A back to point A with nothing in particular getting resolved at points B and C.

These sorts of plot issues crop up all the time for all sorts of writers, me included, and they can escape our notice if a story’s voice is especially good, if the sentences are especially awesome. So before you fall in love with your own stellar prose and start submitting that piece to journals, ask yourself important questions about story structure. What changes in your story? What’s the arc for each character? Do the characters learn something? How does your initial conflict get worked through? Does it?

Addendum After I wrote my last entry, I got a lot of emails about race and gender bias in literary magazines. You guys are right, of course. Good work has been treated contemptuously because readers and editors have conscious or unconscious bias against names that appear female or non-white. Good stories that attempt to confront the oppression experienced by women, people of color, queer people, disabled people, and the poor have been met with bafflement on the part of readers who don’t belong to these groups and just don’t get it. An author can do everything right and still face that hurdle of reader disbelief.

Addressing the concerns of a marginalized group shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. It is important that every reader for every literary magazine, including myself, make sure we aren’t turning down work that upsets our privileged assumptions about the world. We must all strive not to be that douchebag, to advocate for the stories of people who don’t look or live like us, and to call out any dismissive or derisive comments about an author’s lived experience when other readers and editors make them in front of us.

And with that, I’m going to leave you. Happy revising, and happy submitting. Good luck with the last of these MFA notifications, with choosing the right school for you or gearing up to apply again, or neither. Just keep writing.

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