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.

Back This Way at FRiGG Magazine

I’m delighted that FRiGG Magazine have published what is (at least for now) my favourite story – “Back This Way”.

Massive thanks to FRiGG’s editor, Ellen Parker, for just getting it. She made a few suggestions for edits which so improved the story that if I were given three wishes my first would be that Ellen Parker would read everything I ever write and perform the same magic. (My second and third would be, y’know, world peace and all that.)

The Fall issue looks ace. I’ve already checked out some really good words by Chris Garson and an intriguing story by Kevin Spaide, and am looking forward to reading more.

Why you can take your "You must write every day" advice and shove it…

I think some people are born story tellers whether they choose to write them down (type them up) or not. I told stories before I could read, and after I could read I would sit on my swing and tell my “Jackanory” stories to the pretend camera that filmed me. I was a great gossip at school, I always knew how to get maximum impact from relating anecdotes and so on. I told true life stories in chronological order, I ramped up the anticipation, I delivered the punch lines with flourish. I still get irritated when people can’t tell me the exact details of things. “Ooh, what did he say when she said that?” I will prompt. It matters. I will see an old woman with a shopping basket and create a sentence about her in my mind, sometimes the sentence expands, a possible story floats for a moment or two, I dismiss it or mentally file it. It’s how I see the world and try to make sense of it. It’s the way my brain works. I know other people who feel the same, and I know plenty of people who don’t. I can’t turn it off, it’s part of me, which is why when I don’t write stories still waft in and out of my consciousness.

Countless times I have read or been told that to be a writer one has to write, which is fair enough surely. If you’re not writing you’re not a writer are you? But what you could be is a story teller, soaking up those moments, absorbing the possibilities and waiting to see if you feel like writing. Yup, I said “feel like”. Gasp. Because the other thing I read/get told repeatedly is that a writer HAS TO write every day. No matter if you feel like it or not, if you want to earn the label writer then damn you, you’d better fucking write.

Really?

So if I am erratic, chaotic, slave to my own whims, ill health, duties and so on, then my words aren’t as valuable as they could be if I forced them out every day? I think that’s untrue. For quite some time I gritted teeth and wrote daily, determined to prove my worth as a writer and do whatever is necessary, and the words landed on my screen dry as dust. Day after day, nothingy words that I kidded myself I could “polish and shine.”

Now I know, they were worthless. They remain useless. Meaningless. I stopped writing. And I have heard more than once that if you can’t cope with the grind then maybe you’re not cut out to be a writer. That makes me want to tear down walls and bellow – “How dare you be so judgmental?” I think everyone should deviate from whatever feels wrong. I detest the prescriptive advice of “write everyday, at least X amount of words”. I want to challenge this wisdom. Or what? You have to write X amount of words per day or else you can’t be in my gang? If you don’t write daily you aren’t serious enough? Really? I am pretty damn serious about my words actually, that’s why the cheap, easy words that I spewed out felt so crappy.

On Sunday I wrote a flash, it bubbled up inside me on Saturday, insisted on being written. I like it, it has something that was lacking in all my daily words, some heart.

I’m not a big cheese author but I have had some successes, been published in some fabulous places, placed in competitions, had positive feedback and even, gasp, payment for my words. I’m a mother, a human, a writer, a bookseller. You telling me I don’t have the right to call myself a writer is as ridiculous as you saying I’m not a bookseller because I only work one day a week at the bookshop.

Mac is back!

Well thank goodness my Mac is back. It has been upgraded to Leopard too, so, every cloud etc. It is, however, entirely empty. I am choosing to regard this as fortuitous. I have had my desk cleared, my notebooks thrown away. All those scraps of paper, all the scribbles and jottings and half baked ideas, tossed away. All the rubbish is gone. If any of it had been that good I would have noticed I am sure.

I have to reinstall Word tomorrow, and then off we go!

Another post about my mac because I am soooo interesting

Not having my laptop is weird. I am online much less, and it makes me see how much time I usually do spend doing bobbins really. I am a scattergun writer, perhaps. I browse online, I visit facebook, blogs, FW, zoetrope, Lowculture, read emails, shop, and in-between I switch to word and write in short bursts. I don’t know if I am able to write more solidly, because whenever I attempt to, I distract myself, if not with online stuff, then with real life business; phone calls, cleaning, eating, lots of staring into nothing, anything really. Even just writing this I suddenly jumped up and changed my top. I need to work on staying focused I think.

I have to ring the mac repair peeps soon and get a verdict on its health. I think it’s gonna be bad news, as the guy shook his head and whistled at it. I think I have lost everything, which I didn’t think was too much of a problem until I remembered all those little pieces of work that i didn’t back up because they were to be worked on. And lots of photos that I had seen so often I was bored with, but now they are LOST I want them back.

I think I should set myself a time limit. Like, before the school run it’s ok to check emails quickly, but after, I should crack on and write the novel for a couple of hours. Then stop for lunch, after that scoot around online, and work on reviews, edits, flash etc. After school is boys time (but if they are on wii or ps it’s ok for me to play too!) Sounds workable. In theory. I always forget though that there’s so much other stuff to get on with, I think I find chunks of writing time and then realise that I am mummy too, and work part time, and need to do household stuff and paperwork and shopping and cleaning.

LitCamp = cool bananas! (Aka how many links can I fit in one post?)

LitCamp took place yesterday, and it was a really fun and buzzy day. I gave a tiny talk on the usefulness of blogging as a writer, so I figured I’d better update the blog!

It is always good to see Vanessa Gebbie, she was interesting as ever. It was the first time I have ever met Lane, who organised the whole thing, and hats off to her. It was an ambitious event, and she must have worked phenomenally hard to get it all to come together. I came home exhausted, I can’t imagine how wiped out she must be, but I’d like to offer public thanks for this fabulous unconference.

I was thrilled to meet Kellie in “real life” as we have been chatting away for years without having ever met face to face. She was even lovelier than I had imagined!

I had the pleasure of meeting Julia, Alison and Kerry who all work at The Fiction Workhouse., and were all delightful, and I hope we can get together again some time for a big old writerly natter.

I also bumped into Jacqueline Applebee. We first met a couple of years ago at the Chichester writing festival and I was pleased to hear that she is now enjoying success as an erotic fiction writer.

There were lots of different panels and talks going on: writers, agents, editors and teachers.

Stephen Moran was offering post-it note critiques of short stories, I handed one in, and he thought it was missing a story! Oops.

In the evening there were some really great readings. Jay Bernard is a poet that I was entirely unfamiliar with, but whooo, she was brilliant.

Gavin Ingliss read a very funny story that may or may not have been called “Mr Shoe.”

Farahad Zama read an extract from his debut novel “The marriage bureau for rich people” He was a cool guy with a very business like approach to his writing. He writes on his twenty minute train commute, and really makes a mockery of wafty, faffy types like me who protest that we don’t have enough time.

I was sorry that I had to leave before hearing all the readers, but travelling home took about 2 1/2 hours and I had to work today.

Apologies also for not mentioning all the people I got to meet, listen to, and see, but there were soooo many.

I came home thinking quite calmly “well, i’d better get on and write some good stuff then” which surely has to be a very positive outcome from an event like this! But before I do that…sleep!

The story that I can’t write

I had this idea for a story well over a year ago. I wrote it but something didn’t quite work. I posted it for critique in The Fiction Workhouse. They said it had many flaws and suggested I concentrate on one part and cut another. I left it to simmer. I have kept on thinking about it, wondering how it could be strengthened. I sat down recently and tried again. I thought I’d had some great inspirational idea. I cut parts ruthlessly, wrote some new bits. I left in the stuff that had positive feedback, expanded it. Then I asked a couple of writers whose opinions I respect to take a look. One said there was too much that was unrealistic and I should chop those parts. I did. I sent it to another 2 writers. They both said, hmmm, not your best work, and it could really do with some more magic. One even went on to describe exactly what I had cut.

Still, nobody actually thinks it “good’. And I have been left utterly baffled. I think I have lost what my original vision was, and in trying to please I may well have cut the heart out.
I’d love to know if any of the other writers who read this have been defeated by one particular story. Does it mean the story is doomed? Or perhaps I just haven’t found the right way to tell it yet.

Simultaneous submissions

There is a post at Literary Rejections On Display regarding the policy that many literary magazines have on not accepting simultaneous submissions. It is something I have been pondering now that I’m trying to be proactive and get my fiction out into the big wide world.

I am quite obedient, so when I see the rules of subs and they state that I have to agree to give them exclusivity on viewing, well, I abide by it. I send my precious piece in, and I wait to hear if they like it or not. If so, ace, if not, then I go to my next choice. Of course this means that if they respond quickly it’s fine, but not all magazines are so swift. Elimae  ♥ responded almost immediately with a rejection, and then with an acceptance, but they are the exception. I have been waiting a few months on responses for a couple of stories, and I may well wait a few more. In that time those stories are out of action, and in  all probability they aren’t sitting in a file having been read on receipt and now being considered, they are likely to be in a huge pile that one day someone will whizz through and send form rejections back on. 
So, let’s think this through, I have spent time and care writing something that I hope will be accepted by a magazine and published. Lots of these ‘zines do not pay me a penny for my work. I am meant to be grateful that they will display my words. I am grateful. But when they “sit” on my story for ages before tossing it back to me they are disrespecting me, and every other writer that they do that too. If I know from experience that a mag is likely to take its time, is it fair enough to send my work elsewhere too?
Apparently most writers do just that.

Writer’s Market UK 2009

Writer’s Market commissioned me to write an article for their 2009 edition. (It was one of those exciting things I didn’t want to talk about in case I somehow jinxed it!) It has now been published and is available in all good bookshops ( Waterstones)

It was quite weird to go to work and see a pile of these in our reference section and know that I’m in it!

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