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Rules for Anchorites

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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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?

"Hook" might have too much baggage. A sense that a reader is in sure hands, something that tantalizes the reader, these are what's important in the first grafs. That can involve the sort of concept-laden charge of a "hook" (GHOSTPIGS) or it can involve something subtler, like the language, etc.

I never used the word hook. But I brought up GHOSTPIGS because the last several stories I read buried their genre element on like the 7th page.

The word is up there, actually, in the termm "hook the reader", which does tend to lead people to think about putting it all out there from the very beginning. It is easy to think of stories that do only bring in the fantastic toward the end, like Flying Over Water by Ellen Klages, but she gave us a reason to keep reading other than the genre element. Tantalizing as opposed to hooking.

Ah, I didn't even notice I used it. I didn't mean it in the way we're discussing now? I'm just as happy with a beautifully written story that holds back the big thing til the end. But there has to be something, something to get me there.

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I agree with Nick--what I'm saying isn't hook, it's give me some reason to keep on reading. I mean, obviously I write a lot of short stories, and what I tend to do is just try to make the opening paragraph beautiful, if not frontload whatever action I have to offer, which is usually not much.

But advice like this is aimed at people who don't already have Nebula nominations, and can't intuit what makes a story good. It's not about instant gratification--it's about why should I care about this story? You have to keep making it interesting, too. Obviously. What does interesting mean? Different post altogether.

Hilariously, I instantly disliked the opening you quoted and was all: well, I'll never read that book.

How is that possible? How does that paragraph not pluck at your soul?

Yeah, Mike, because you and I have anything like similar souls/tastes.

I am bemused to see the paragraph in your post held up as an example of, um, anything.

Well thank you. *) I have been editing reviews all day, which is to say that I'm being opinionated about the best ways to be opinionated, so it's very nice to be loved when I'm in that mode!

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