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Rules for Anchorites

Letters from Proxima Thule

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Adventures in Editing
modern lit
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."


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:


I was first reader for a friend and had the nervewracking experience, after reading a couple of pretty good chapters of having to say 'This section you just sent me? This is where your story starts. The preceeding stuff is good but I'm not sure it's the best way into your story.'

She took it in very good grace, but yeah.

I adore the Bert Face of DOOOOM!

You're going to get a whole slew of stories about ghostpigs now, you know. I'm having an urge to write one myself.

Oh, good; I thought I was alone in my perversion.

"There is no reason not to open with: GHOSTPIGS MOTHERFUCKERS"

Best. Writing advice. Ever. :) Also, it made me laugh out loud.

Cat, that Bert face, you're fucking brilliant.

In the case of poetry, my first love, it is even worse. I've been a member of deviantART for a few months. Reading through the submissions could be both mind numbing and soul crushing. I told someone it was like being in a room with people, suffering from various degrees of color blindness, trying to analyze rainbows.

We are on the cusp of the e-publishing revolution, and it's hard for me to see a future with ipoems.

I will light candle for you. And for myself.

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I will study this advice carefully before I submit that one thing, even though you have already seen it. *nods*

Please excuse me if this is the wrong place to ask, but since we're talking about submissions: do you accept submissions from not-my-first-language foreigners, or is that an automatic disqualifier? Of course the story would be proofread for grammar and spelling by at least one native speaker, and I would not expect any leeway about language.

Also, incidentally, I get what you're saying that rapes are awful to read about, but Mary Gentle's "Ash: a secret history" has two rapes on the first page, but is nonetheless an awesome alternate history book of great scope and imagination. So it's not totally impossible.

I didn't say it was impossible--and note Ash is a novel that can bear more ugliness as opposed to a brief story which will almost certainly be all ugliness if it starts off with something awful and vile and isn't going to critique it at all.

You can certainly submit if English isn't your first language--obviously subject to the same scrutiny and standards as anyone else. How would I know if it's not your first language if you can write well in it? Ekaterina Sedia is a great example of this.

As a writer, there's always the want to get into the story, and the need to give the reader enough so they won't feel abandoned. Needless to say, you've given me a lot to think about in terms of pacing.

It is my new goal in life to submit something that will not only make you make that face, but freeze it forever to the front of your head.

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I think it is fear. One reads so many indifferent beginnings what do managed to get published and get out there that it seems altogether too risky to start with anything other than some slip of setting, or an observation about the weather.

This is a kick in the head for me, which I appreciate.

You should submit to me--you know I'm a friendly audience.

I know this is a really useful post and it has tons of great info, so I'm saving it for that reason.

I'm also saving it because it's REALLY EFFING FUNNY, and when I saw Burt-face at the end I guffawed. Yes, no one wants to make someone reading your work do that face. Thank you for the chuckle.

(I'm also a little sad like a 100 people beat me to the literary mullet joke, but hey, it's still funny :) ).