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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Adventures in Editing
modern lit
catvalente
I've been fiction and poetry editor over at Apex Magazine for several weeks now. I've accepted a story, asked for rewrites on a couple of stories, and rejected a whole lot of stories, and not a few poems.

I took this job because I thought it would be interesting to work on the other side of the editor/author divide for awhile, to see first hand what the selection process is all about. I thought it would be educational--and it is. I'm not a mean person, I'm not rejecting for fun. I want to find awesome stories because frankly, it sucks to read bad ones all day. Finding the readable jewel is a rush, and fun. However harsh I may seem, I actually don't want to crush spirits under my pointy literary heel. That being said.

But holy shit guys, what the hell is going on with opening paragraphs?

I swear to god, in every workshop I've ever known, they've said: you have to make your opening paragraph awesome because editors will kick it if it doesn't grab them right away.

I swear I have heard this. Like, a lot.

Yet 90% of the stories that have crossed my desk have first paragraphs that tell me nothing about the story, have no interesting language use, and little bearing on the rest of the story. It's no coincidence that the other 10% are the ones that were accepted, asked for rewrites, or in my I can't decide yet file.

Dudes, a short story is not that long. You do not have 50 pages to hook a reader (you don't, really, in a novel either, but that's another post), you cannot lazily dick around for a page and a half before being all CHECK IT OUT GHOSTPIGS. Because no one ever made it to the GHOSTPIGS, who were buried under: "Robert walked down the street. The sky was cloudy. All the houses were brown. He thought about work."

OH MY GOD.

Don't bury the lede. There is no reason not to open with: GHOSTPIGS MOTHERFUCKERS. You know how Ezra Pound famously cut the first 200 lines of The Wasteland so that it began with April is the cruelest month, one of the most famous lines in poetry, which Eliot, not ever having met a ghostpig, stuffed under a pile of 200 other lines which were not the most famous lines in poetry? Yeah. Do that. For serious. Because I should never be scrolling up to see how long is this story, really after a single paragraph about Robert and the brown houses.

And why would you want to sideline the ghostpigs? (Incidentially, it's a little known fact that just because we accept horror stories doesn't mean we are a ghost story only publication. I KNOW. IT'S FUCKING CRAZY. But there are horror stories which are not ghost stories. Some aren't even slow meandering literary midwest/New York stories with a ghost thrown in at the end so that you can sell it to a genre magazine. I CANNOT BELIEVE IT EITHER.) Don't you want readers to be like HOLD UP I HAVE TO PUT EVERYTHING ELSE ASIDE TO READ THIS NOW? Don't you?

And if you want to hold back your awesome, then wouldn't it make more sense to start with something at least stylistically interesting, so that by the time the ghostpigs are shredding on diamond-crusted twelve-necked bone-guitars, at least people are like: I trust something supersweet is on its way because this author can clearly write. I cannot begin to understand the logic that says: BORING STUFF UP FRONT, AWESOME TO THE BACK.

Honestly, this goes double for poetry, only where it says paragraph? Insert line. Your first line had better be amazing, and the second one, too, because that's about all you have before I start to not trust that you know where you're going. And if the first couple of lines rhyme, they had better be interesting and, um, fresh rhymes, because your standard a-b-a-b malarkey doesn't really cut it unless the content is stellar. You have even less time in a poem than in a short story to prove to a reader that this is worth their time. And in all stories, poems, books, you really do have to prove that this thing right here is worth the reader's time--that it will give them something more than the equivalent amount of time spent watching movies or speed-cycling or knitting or watching paint dry. And while I'll give a novel about 50-100 pages to prove that (great example, Dan Simmons' The Terror, which I'm reading now, and am about 100 pages in. And if he pauses the story one more time to talk about how much tonnage the ships carry, I'm DONE. It's make or break at 100 pages, and I have no idea why he wants to show me his research over and over instead of telling a story.) I will give a short story 1-2 pages. And a short story that is in a mass of dozens I have to read in a few days less than that. It's not mean, it's not unfair, it's reality--if you can't write a good page, you probably can't write a good story, and after enough stories, it's pretty easy to tell the difference between a story where I can lop off the first two paragraphs and have something great, and a story WITH NO GHOSTPIGS AT ALL. I am telling you this not to be a big bad mommy editor, but to make it easier for you to sell me a story.

As a closing note, I'd like to say that if your story opens with rape or spousal murder, it's probably not for me. Not saying you can't have good stories with that content, but you're starting in the hole and it better be literally the greatest story ever written if you want me to read past multiple rapes in the first paragraph (yes, actual story I received).

The number one rule of submitting to Apex? Don't make me make this face:

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I really enjoyed The Terror - I felt it's worth putting up with the technical detail for the OMG-wow story. Make sure you have a blanket to hand - I read it in the middle of summer, and I felt cold as anything by the end.


I just...100 pages of technical specs is a little much. I'm trying, I'm really trying, but who thought this was the way to start a book?

I'm not sure what it is -- whether new writers* aren't certain enough of their idea to just leap into it, or whether they think it needs a lot of setup, or whether they've somehow gotten it into their heads that the idea needs to be "saved" for a big reveal later, or what. But yeah, way too much faffing around before they get to the cool bit. A decent portion of my own improvement as a writer has been learning to not faff.



*New writers are not the only kind of writers who make this mistake. But it seems to be especially common among them.

Hmm... as a new writer myself (well, newly disciplined -- I've been writing since childhood), I wonder if the problem is that they didn't cut out all of the stuff they wrote in the beginning of the process, when they were trying to figure out what sort of story they are telling and how? Because, yeah, my current novel, which I began for NaNoWriMo, starts out with plenty of unnecessary stuff, WHICH WILL NOT BE THE BEGINNING IN THE FINAL DRAFT. It is me getting a good ken of the characters and setting and how everyone lives before the actual GHOSTPIGS (or library vampires, whatever) show up and begin the real story. (Or, you know, me trying to figure out how the damn thing starts in the first place.) It's for me: the audience isn't going to need or want it up front.

But I guess they think, hey, I wrote all this stuff! And there's great setting-up stuff in there! It should stay! Well, yeah, but there isn't a lot of setting-up that couldn't be worked in elsewhere. Which is one reason I like to collect Great Opening Lines, for inspiration, and to remind me to start with something awesome. Writing needn't be entirely linear.

Multiple rapes in the first paragraph? Holy shit!

N.

I don't know about you, but if I have a cool premise for a story, the struggle is not to spring it too early, before its proper place in the story's pacing. If I had a story with something as awesome as GHOSTPIGS in it? My God, I don't know how I'd be able to contain myself. I wouldn't be able to stand it until I'd jumped right into talking about those ghostpigs. The poor reader wouldn't even get as far as learning the main character's name before I would be all "GHOSTPIGS! LOOK AT THEM! THEY'RE EVERYWHERE!"

Right?

The thing is, the shocker ending almost never really works, so why not start with a bang, and then get into the unexpected subtleties of ghostpigs?

I think many writers start slow because all the advice these days is just go go go, get the word count, go! The need to edit is so harsh after all that freedom that it gets missed. Remember, if you are following your heart, it should be easy.


Also, I really want to write about ghostpigs now. I am not sure if I will, but if I do, you will hear the ringing of their silver blue trotters in the first sentence.

See, I feel like many people who are submitting aren't following their hearts. They just want the publication credit. There's no passion in the stories, no urgency, no life. It's upsetting. And yes, some people can write from their heart and it's still no good, but some of these are ok stories, just flaccid and blah because it's about dicking around with short fiction til they get a book deal, not writing awesome short fiction.

Don't bury the lede.

I love you so hard right now. You have no idea how often I scream this to my writers. I have one guy that I regularly just slash the first two grafs of his work...

I cannot begin to understand the logic that says: BORING STUFF UP FRONT, AWESOME TO THE BACK.

I refer to these as "mullet stories." I hate them almost as much as I hate the hairdo. Almost.

That all said, a hearty ME TOO to this whole thing. I don't want to crush your literary spirit under my stylishly jackbooted heel! I want to read and enjoy your story! I want to publish your book! But when I can't EVEN *wibblyhands* the first opening paragraph, let alone the first 50 pages, it's roundfiled, dude.


There is one worse thing for the reader, and that is the reverse mullet. Then I waste important hours of my life before I get my exasperated book-wall moment.

Put the rotten apples on top of the barrel, says I, if there must needs be rotten apples at all.

Better yet, present me with no rotten apples until you have learned to ferment them into wicked raw scrumpy, so that I will quaff it down with a free good will, however hard and obnoxiously my head may bang from it afterwards.

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Obviously, there are other ways to write a good story. But you don't agree that the first graph has to be at least well-written and interesting?

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Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
Ghostpigs. I'm going to have to remember that one. ^^

And we must see if we can create something MORE AWESOME than "ghostpigs...shredding on diamond-crusted twelve-necked bone-guitars."

(Just a way to say I love that image. Ms. Valente.)

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This is all true, but often the advice to have a hook to start with is just as deadly. The second-order error often leads writers to start with some great explosion, or cursing, or wild attack...and then the protagonist wakes up, or looks up from his or her television, or the VR simulation shuts down, and then we're back to two pages of bad weather and brown houses.

Ugh. That is all.

It's not even a hook--but the smallest reason to keep reading.

The first novel I wrote opened with the line, "I killed and ate the paperboy this morning."

The new novel about to come out opens with a line about a Ghost Pirate.

First line takes you first paragraph takes you to first page takes you to the rest of the story.

I mean, I'm crossing mediums with this example, but why do you think they start of James Bond films with wicked cool action sequences?

I would read the hell out of a novel with that opening line.

The image of you making the Bert Face is priceless.

You have Bert's Unibrow of Disapproval. You could mount shelf brackets with that sucker.

I'm not an editor, because omg, but I've always assumed that the first page has to be really interesting. Insanely interesting. Then, once it is, every other page has to be just as good.

It's a goal.

My current facebook staus:

Wisdom Of The Day, courtesy of Cat Valente, regarding writing short stories, but applicable to EVERYTHING:

"Don't hold back the Awesome."

I used to always find that the beginning of the story was the hardest part to write, and so to avoid staring at a blank word processor page until it burned into my retinas I ended up skipping a head a bit. To a part that was more interesting or exciting or meaningful, that was really firm in my head and that I couldn't wait to write down.

And over time, I realized that almost always the story worked just fine from a "what you need to know to understand it" point of view without any opening and whatever I'd thought of as the opening but hadn't been able to write was unnecessary. Depending on exactly what I'd started with I might need to write backwards a little bit more to find something that really makes a good start, but as they say dans la belle internet: short story is short. There's no reason to make people wait for "the good part".