Why The Forge declined your work.

I’ve been working with a few new writers, a couple of whom are now submitting pieces to competitions and journals. There’s such satisfaction in helping people shape their words so they shine, especially when you see their writing get stronger as they work at their craft. (My advice to everyone: Step one – READ. Step two – read more! Never imagine you can write well if you don’t read.)

I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on what makes an editor say no to your work. Of course, writing is subjective, what chimes with one person might not with another, but there is writing which transcends theme, subject etc – and demands to be read. That’s what all writers aim for but rarely achieve, I think. In the five years I’ve been the managing editor of The Forge I’ve read hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of submissions. Every time I read, I do so with hope. I want to love the piece. I want to be moved in some way – maybe to feel a connection, or have something illuminated, understood, expressed. Sometimes, it’s enough to recognise a feeling. I’m equally happy to be absorbed in a story and believe in wherever it takes me – go along for the ride. I don’t want to notice the writing. It needs to be smooth, immersive. I loathe over-writing. I’m not a fan of punchlines and twists. I read so many stories that are similar that anything unique always gets my attention. There is a kind myth that the majority of submissions are good and to be published is a bit of a numbers game. Luck is required. We publish one story a week and the vast majority of submissions we receive are rejected. Duotrope lists our acceptance rate as 1.6% and we are a “challenging market”. The harsh truth is the vast majority of subs we receive aren’t good. We think it’s vital to offer free submissions so all writers can send us their words, but the downside to this is it opens us up to writers who have nothing to lose by flinging whatever at us. We say our only criteria is literary excellence but it’s super rare to read a story and think yes, this is bloody brilliant and I must publish it. It does happen, but not often. If less than 2% of stories we get sent are superb and about 80% aren’t great, that leaves 18% which are fab but still don’t get published. To those writers, sorry, there’s nothing more you could have done. Each editor of the month only gets two picks and the rejection was sincere when we said we’d like to see more of your work. We don’t keep work at our editorial table for longer than three months – by that time your piece will have usually been read by at least eight editors. I hate those rejections so much because, damn, writer, you are doing it all and still we said no. This writing malarkey is hard and unfair and you deserve better.

I asked some of my fellow editors to tell me why they say no to a piece:

Sarah Starr Murphy

I have SO MANY THOUGHTS. I’m sure they’re not unique but:

-A common storyline (divorce, death, love, etc.) that isn’t treated in a new and exciting way. I love all of these topics but if it’s done a lot you’ve got to figure out a way to do it in your own unique fashion. It’s got to be better than the 10,000 other stories I’ve already read about a character losing a parent, right?

-That goes for characters too. A fully fleshed out character with really intriguing details is very hard to turn down. Ditto setting.

-A piece that doesn’t feel fully resolved, that lacks a complete arc. I love ambiguous endings and I’m happy to push the envelope towards less plot-heavy and more character-driven, also I love flash, but it’s gotta have SOMETHING going on. Even just a minor turn can make it feel complete. Chekov! That man often has practically zero plot, but his short work feels complete because he’s figured out that subtle turn at the end.

-If you can manage to surprise me without being hokey, that’s a win. All editors read a TON of stuff – subs, books, other journals, etc. It has to rise above the general din, and if it genuinely surprises me, it usually will. Not just plot, but voice, setting, theme, title, etc.

-Usually it’s the language that gets me to pick a piece. Really exquisite sentences, not a single extra word. And that’s really hard to tell newer writers because there’s no way to get there other than just working your butt off for years. But it’s true. Like, if I pulled out the stuff I wrote in college, I know that it has plot and arc and character development, etc, but it’s pretty much crap because I hadn’t put in the work yet. The language wasn’t there. It was, generously speaking, adequate.

Sommer Schaffer

For me, I tend to reject if:

1.) The plot and language are too stereotypical–they show me nothing new. I’d rather read someone’s unpolished own voice, than a more polished voice that is not their own or is too stereotypical.

2.) I have a sense of the writer writing, and thus I’m not able to fully visualize and get lost in the story. How can you make the story as immersive as possible? Are you utilizing all your senses when crafting the story?

3.) I don’t have a strong sense of place. As the reader, put me precisely where your story occurs, and show me.

4.) The ending isn’t there yet: it feels as if it was rushed because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story, or it feels out of character with the rest of the story (because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story!). Take your time. Let a story sit for a while if the ending isn’t coming yet. It will. Conversely, if you have the ending first, write it first and craft the story from there.

Rachel Wild

I tend to say no if:

1. The writer is telling me what to think about the situation, rather than showing me something, some clues, from which I can then make a deduction for myself

2. The writer is using clichés to describe something, for example: ‘her eyes shone like diamonds’.

3. The characters are two dimensional, they have no emotional depth, or resonance.

4. The story ends, and nothing has changed, despite there being loads of action. What I mean by this is that there must be a difference, and it can be subtle, to how the protagonist feels. It doesn’t need to be spelled out, but I the reader will understand that something has been gained or lost, the world has moved and now this person’s reality has diverged from where it was before.

Damyanti Biswas

A story that I pick up usually has the following:

Layered, nuanced characters.
A setting that’s immersive, sensory.
A story with a great voice.
Something that grabs me, and won’t let me go, and stays with me after I’ve read it.
A story that is about something, and there’s a change in either the character or the circumstances, however minor.
That’s emotionally engaging, moving and with an ending that leaves me thinking.

I’ll reject a story if:

–reads pedestrian–no skill with language, this is an immediate no.
–flat characters.
–feels tired, as if rehashing something that has been said before.
–a story that doesn’t know what it is about.
–reads very artificial, or pretentious.
–the beginning is not compelling.
–the ending does not satisfy.

I’ll possibly pass to the editorial table stories that I subjectively do not like, but have been crafted well. If a story is poorly crafted, at the language, character, or plot level, I let it go.

Jacky Taylor

• If a piece reads like something out of someone’s diary (unless it’s meant to be part of the narrative!) Too often what’s meant to be a story is nothing more than just an account of something that happened and it makes me feel ‘so what?’.

• A piece can be simple, complicated, on pretty much any theme but as Sarah says the writer has to demonstrate their own take on it, they have to lift it above the mundane and what everyone has said in the same way before. There has to be a certain amount of uniqueness about it to make it stand out and grip me in some way.

• The writer has to invest something of themselves in their work, something that only they could say or write about in a particular way. Too often we see well-crafted pieces that are competently written but almost as if they’ve all come out of the same word factory and have nothing new to say.

• I applaud writers who take risks, they may not always succeed but if they’ve taken a piece somewhere different in the narrative, somewhere unexpected, as long as it has its own truth and isn’t just randomly plucked for sensation – it has to have emotional depth and honesty too.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

This isn’t a proper review, I just read the book and adored it. If you’ve read Olive Kitteridge (my review is here) you’ll have loved it and you’ll love this. I had to stop every now and then and cry – it’s a triumph and may also have smashed my heart a little. I really admire the way Strout reveals profound truths about the human experience so lightly. Buy it, borrow it, read it. (But be prepared to pause and think, oof, yes, that’s it, right there, the truth of love and death and loneliness and age and feel the fragility of our silly lives.)

Eat Better Forever by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

I was pleased to receive a review copy of this and it’s an excellent guide to eating better so very much does what it says on the tin. The difficulty I had was having just finished rereading Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book, The 4 Pillar Plan, which offers pretty similar advice, I didn’t learn much new. I do thoroughly recommend this for anyone keen to learn in a non-preachy way how to eat in a body-friendly way. Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall explains his 7 steps very clearly and it would be hard to argue with anything. None of this is startling; eat wholefoods, cut out sugar, move more, drink water not booze, etcetera. The first half of the book is given over to explaining the 7 steps and the second half has some nifty recipes. Despite there being a lot of kimchi, kefir, sprouts and seeds (like, of course, we should all eat healthily but it’s bloody hard to fancy kimchi and sprouts instead of pizza) I also found plenty of delicious recipes. I try and make my own soup for lunches each week but have been in a bit of a rut (carrot soup, carrot and spinach, leeks and onions and spinach etc.) so it was good to discover some combos that hadn’t occurred to me like Hugh’s Beans & Greens Summer Soup and his Store Cupboard Tomato & Bean Soup. For some reason, I’d also forgotten that there’s more to tinned fish than tuna and really fancy trying Sardine Mayo with Capers & Red Onion (maybe hold the capers) and will definitely open some of the tinned mackerel that’s been in my cupboard for years.

If you’d like to know more there’s a good description of the book written by the man himself here.

Smash Lits with Aaron Burch

I published Aaron Burch’s CNF The Idea of it All at this week at The Forge. I love how this tiny piece builds, how poignant it is. And I got to interview Aaron too.

1) What would your superhero power be?

So, I have this lesson plan built around this This American Life segment about flight vs. invisibility. I use it every semester, it’s one of my faves. I always start class that day by having my students do a 5 minute freewrite where they have to answer, If they could have one superpower—flight OR invisibility—which would it be? I’ve done it so many times, that my kneejerk response is to make your broad question an either/or one, in which case, I’d say flight.

2) What is your default pub drink?

Either beer or whiskey. IF the pub has a cheap beer + whiskey combo, I’ll get that, although very rarely will if they don’t specifically offer it as a combo, preferably with a bar specific word for it, like a “happy meal” or “beer and a bump” or “the regular.”

3) What was the last text you sent?

😜🤗🥰🥰

4) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Some kind of doom or death metal that is sometimes slow and melodic and instrumental and sometimes gets heavy with riffs and accompanying screaming? Maybe (ideally?) it’s the Jack Black hidden track on Dave Grohl’s heavy metal side project, Probot, where it’s a pretty heavy rock song but also laughy?

5) What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

Probably one of my band shirts from high school?

6) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

No. Although I do believe that that makes me boring.

7) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Margaret Atwood?

PB&J

8) What’s your favourite swear?

I wanna be creative here but it’s probably just “fuck.” it’s such a great all-purpose word.

9) If there was a TV show called The Masked Writer, what would your costume be?

Probably a buffalo, although that might give me away.

10) Who is your favourite TV detective?

Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames on Bored to Death.

11) What is your favourite smell?

This last week it has been a freshly sharpened pencil.

12) What was your first concert?

MC Hammer.

13) What is your phone screensaver?

This skull I painted.

14) What is your favourite cheese?

All.

15) Who is your favourite Sesame Street character?

Oscar?

16) What colour is Tuesday? 

Yellow.

17) Have you ever had a nickname?

Not really? A couple of my friends call me Hobart. My invisible friend when I was little was “Leafy” and sometimes my best friend will break that out.

18) Do you have a favourite pen?

Pilot G-2s, and though I believe myself to be in the wrong in this, I go back and forth between preferring the 05 and 07. I actually like each for different purposes.

19) Have you chosen your funeral song?

No. I’ll be dead, I don’t care.

20) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

What two emoji smashed together best encapsulate you?

Smash Lits with Angela Readman

I was delighted to publish a wonderful flash by Angela Readman at The Forge – you can read A Quiet Like This here. And she kindly took part in an interview too.

1) What is your superpower?

I can make anything & anyone smell of loads and loads of garlic. Think about, I can make everyone fancy pizza, even the pizza disapprovers. I can stop people talking mid-sentence, suddenly aware of their breath. I can stop anyone standing too close and make all kisses a bit awkward.

2) What is your favourite cheese?

I had this swanky cheese that was wild garlic and mushroom. Just once. I have never been able to find it since. It is now the legend of dairy. Somewhere the stall holder who sold it is laughing at the curse he put on me for having too many cheese samples.

3) What was the last text you sent?

I haven’t sent a text in over 2 years. I think it was probably Help, I am lost in the Metrocentre.

4) Who is/was your unlikely crush?

Captain Birdseye. Harley Quinn. Gomez Addams.

5) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?

Bacon. I haven’t eaten meat in over 30 years, so I just hang around greasy spoons sniffing people. I arrived late to tofu, I didn’t try it until a few years ago. It’s OK, but whenever I have it I am filled with a sense of is this it? Am I doing it wrong?

6) Your writing is music, what style is it?

I’d like to say something cool like blues, but it is probably more like one of those strange mash-ups of Nine Inch Nails doing Shake it Off with Taylor Swift.

7) What makes the wind blow?

The whispers of all the things your old invisible friends are saying behind your back.

8) Have you ever had your fortune told?

I went to a psychic fair once when it was raining. A spiritual healer put his hands on the back of my head and told me the spirits were telling him to give me his phone number. I didn’t call.

9) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Joe Mangle.

10) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

Yes, but he said we should see other people. He went to Orkney and took my invisible cat with him.

11) What did you do last Saturday night?

Drank a beer, looked out the window, talked about owls.

12) Do you have any recurring dreams?

I dream I can fly, but it’s in an odd way. I sort of hover in doorways. I also sometimes dream Keanu Reeves is making me lemon tea, always lemon. He serves it in a china cup and is always wearing white trousers and flip flops.

13) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Curtis Sittenfeld?

I don’t think I know a sandwich good enough, the egg with salad cream I make won’t cut it. I might have to do something with aubergine. There’d be salad. I would apologise that I don’t know anything about pomegranates. I’d make a flask of Yorkshire Tea with sweet soya milk and we’d drink from Moomin mugs.

14) What is your favourite smell?

Hardware shops, freshly cut wood, that smell like an engine is being fixed.

15) What’s your favourite swear?

Fuckery.

16) What word or words make you cringe? 

Flange, actually, necessarily, anyhoo, feisty.

17) Who is your favourite TV detective?

Agent Cooper.

18) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

If there was a TV show called The Masked Writer, what would your costume be?

19) What is the last thing you Googled?

Epicurious 4 levels Mac & Cheese. I also like watching videos of robot lawn mowers for no reason. They are incredibly calming.

20) What question should I have asked you?

What’s the last song lyric that got stuck in your head? Fool’s Garden, Lemon Tree, ‘And nothing ever happens, and I wonder…’

The House On the Corner by Alison Woodhouse

It’s astonishing how The House On the Corner takes us through eight years of the King family in just forty-five pages. How can a novella in flash have the feel of a saga? Each chapter adds layers to our understanding of the Kings. Woodhouse is skilled at taking her deftly drawn characters and revealing the quiet sadness inside them. There’s magic here in what’s unspoken. We recognise these people trying to make life work despite the disappointments. This is a tender look at a family; subtle, achy and memorable.

Signed copies are available from Alison’s website.

Nine Endings at Hobart

Thank you, Aaron Burch, for publishing Nine Endings at Hobart. (My first piece of nonfiction – which turns out to feel pretty exposing. Who knew, right?) Hobart has long been a journal I hoped I’d one day find a way into and I’m pretty damn chuffed. If you’d like to, you can read Nine Endings here.

Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020

I work in a prison library and alongside all usual library duties, I also run a creative writing group. I began it a couple of years ago when some of the prisoners said they’d really enjoyed a one-day poetry workshop and would appreciate the opportunity for a more regular creative outlet. As a writer and editor, I figured it was something I could offer to add value to our library. And so it began…

When I can, I run the group weekly. Each session begins with the men reading out the previous week’s homework – if they want to and if they have done it, neither homework nor sharing is compulsory. Then I set a writing exercise using prompts and the guys write for about 10 minutes and again share that work. I finish up by reading a story, usually flash, that highlights something we’re working on, or is simply good, and set the following weeks homework.

The trickiest thing is trying to make sure the exercises are enjoyable for everyone as there is such a wide variety of men who join. I like to think I create a safe space. Once you start writing and sharing work you reveal something of yourself and I have consistently been impressed by the respect and support these guys offer each other. I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent people take part. I’ve been moved to tears by some of the stories and moved to laughter by others.

I was invited to give a presentation on running a creative writing group last year at the Prison Libraries Training Day held by CILIP which was well received. This month I was delighted to discover I have won the Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 and one of the reasons given was because after my presentation several other prison libraries began creative writing groups. I’m so unbelievably chuffed. I truly believe creative writing is a powerful thing to do in a prison – or anywhere! Writing can be cathartic. It can be healing. It can be a release for all sorts of emotion. It can also be daft, shallow, and just for fun.

Anyway, I’m showing off and popping this here:

Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 winner

The CILIP Prison Libraries Group is delighted to announce that the 2020 Excellence in Prison Libraries Award has been won by HMP Ford for its “Well-being Through Creative Writing” project. The project was devised and is run by Sara Crowley, Senior Library Assistant at HMP Ford. Sara is also a writer and Managing Editor of Forge literary magazine.

The project began as a six-week trial but became so successful that the group now runs weekly. They meet in the library and, as well as exploring creative writing, they also discuss reading. Sara is keen to point out that it’s not all serious – “we play word games, enjoy puns, tell jokes and laugh a lot. The men learn to express themselves better which is a useful transferable skill.”

The reaction from the men involved has been overwhelmingly positive:

“It’s been a great release for my stress. I’m so grateful.”

“It’s very calming and helps my mental health.”

“It gives me a means to reflect creatively; managing my emotions.”

“It’s a nice break from prison each week with the ability to unload in a safe space.”

Participants are encouraged to share their work if they wish to and some have entered national writing competitions – one member of the group won the East Riding Poetry competition.

The group has also been visited by some high-profile poets and writers, including Simon Brett, who have shared their knowledge and expertise.

The judges were particularly impressed with the way that this project works in a variety of situations. Sara has done sessions with literacy classes in the prison and with groups of library users “outside.”

Sara was invited to give a presentation on running creative writing groups at the Prison Libraries Group training day in 2019. She outlined the activities of her group and then engaged the delegates in various word play activities to show how easy it is to create stories. As a result of this presentation, several prison libraries have started groups based on this model.

This is an excellent example of how a project can inspire not just those taking part in it but can also reach out to a wider audience.

Contacts:

CILIP Prison Libraries Group – info.prlg@cilip.org.uk

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