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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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First, I can't support prejudice against ghost pigs in any form. The didn't mean to die with unfinished wallowing tethering their souls to the mortal realm.

Second, I loved The Terror but I'm also a fan of the C.S Forester and Patrick O'Brian Victorian naval epics. His style matches those books, especially in the amount of detail they provide about life aboard ship. The very first Horatio Hornblower book described, in detail, the exact provisioning needed to keep the crew of a British naval vessel in fighting trim for a trans-Atlantic voyage.

It's not everyone's cup of tea, but for me it was like having my favorite cup spiked with supernatural terror and cannibalism.

OH LOL LOL LOVE you, this is awesome. I have made that face too many times while editing stories.

I apply roughly the same standards--a couple of pages for the average short story, 50-100 for the average novel. If it fails to grip me by that point, I'm probably not going further (though I'm a fairly intrepid reader who'll slog through just about anything if I must). When I'm writing a short story, I'm always trying to fill the first page with awesome.

Which reminds me I really need to finish and revise some short stories or, like, actually write again.

I've got a story in the works to be submitted. I hope I got it so that the ghostpigs upfront are followed by wraithswine and bogeyboars galore. But that decision I'll leave to you once it's in your lap in ... um, about a month or so.

If I do ever make you make that face with a submission, I want it filmed.

Also, now I have all these Thoughts about first lines/paragraphs, and I almost tried to regurgitate them here, but then I thought, "hey, maybe I should write a real blog post for once."

Maybe I will.

Edited at 2010-06-28 11:35 pm (UTC)

I haven't read The Terror but I feel like I should get credit for having read it, since I read all of Drood (I am still taking baby steps re: Putting Down Books I Am Not Enjoying) and it didn't get any better, ever. Dan Simmons has never met a factoid he didn't want to shoe-horn in somewhere. And I FEEL his PAIN, because I have written many a research paper where I've done ALL THIS RESEARCH and only, like, that little bit there makes it in. It is a moment of sadness. But that excess research is there so that you (the writer) understand your subject better and I (the reader) don't have to deal with it. I am finished preaching to you now, choir.

Also, Awesome should never be sent to the back of the bus.

I actually read a story about a ghost pig somewhere. It was I think the pig that all the demons had been driven into in that one Bible story. I wonder if the title had something to do with Legion. I remember that part of the story took place near railroad tracks.

Now it's going to drive me crazy that I can't remember where I read that story.

(Deleted comment)
I don't write, I read. I truly appreciate skillful writing. Thank you for setting high standards.

I have a story beginning handicap. I am excellent at pointing out to others how to fix their beginnings and where to start them, but it is occasionally a huge, huge roadblock for me. I have begun to think that I should deliberately start writing my stories the day before and put nothing important in there, just so I can cut ruthlessly to the actual beginning.

(I have one really mostly awesome "Tsarist Russian firebird fairytale curse with a transgender protagonist" [and yes, I think I side-step the concern aware people should immediately have when seeing that sentence] short story that suffers from a beginning that I cannot fix. I even tried flashing back to begin with the curse a few centuries earlier and that only made it worse. But there's crucial family history that *has* to be explained before she runs off through the autumn apple orchard in pursuit of the firebird. I think.)

Sorry--this is a story that I feel all venty about because so much of it is awesome, and I have edited the hell out of it, and I know what the problem is, but I do not know how to fix it.

I really loved reading this entry. It's very honest yet humorous. No bad feelings.

You have nailed it. I think every person who has not had a story published in a paying market (and many who have) should read this post. I'm the editor of Redstone Science Fiction and I consistently see the same thing you have. I'm so frustrated by the meandering openings that I said in an interview: "Punch me in the face and keep hitting me as hard as you can until I can't take it anymore, and I will publish your story." Have fun at Apex.
"You seem to be good at this non-fiction, you should try fiction some time."

Michael Ray
Redstone SF
http://redstonesciencefiction.com

Yeah, that first month or two of editing is kind of horrifying as you realize how much of the slushpile Really Does Suck.

I dealt with it by getting in touch with all the talented writers I knew and asking them to send me stuff. I also got terrific results from watching for "almost there" writers and coaching them -- often I would be able to buy the second or third thing they sent me.

Of course, there were also a bunch of people who didn't want to do the work, turn things in on time, follow the guidelines, etc. These included a lot of "pros" who should have known better. I shooed them all gently away.

When you find the really awesome stuff, which the slushpile also contains, that makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

I enjoyed reading this, just as I was feeling your pain. I think your point extends as far as the even the first sentence has to be great, and then lead into a great first paragraph. I think writers are afraid that jumping into the action with no preamble will make their books seem unrealistic.

I've worried about that very thing, but having a good hook is worth any trade off in realism. Besides, if your story has ghost pigs in it (and why wouldn't it?) realism is not the primary concern.

Ahhhh... this is encouraging me even more to write this story that's bumping around in my head. It's suspenseful and scary and doesn't involve ghosts. And it's not in the US of A at all. But it's all still just images in my head, and the young man in my head who is telling me the story keeps holding bits back. (no, I'm not suffering from multiple personality disorder... he's the main character.)