Let’s face it, guys, editors are idiots. They’re disgruntled wannabe writers who started life as grammar-nazi English teachers and are still so up-tight they correct their great-grandkids' grammar during bedtime prayers. Traffic cops, that’s what they are. These mavens of mediocrity equate depth and innovation with Key Largo's Aquarius.* That's ancient, man!
I just got a rejection slip from some broad who should be licking my boots. Who gives her the right to dis my creativity? Okay, sure. I started a sentence with a comma. But a comma means pause, doesn't it? How are you gonna read a seventy-eight word sentence if you don't take a breath first?
And why did she tell me to organize my pearls of wisdom? I'm only casting them before swine, anyway. Swine don't need organization, they need the exercise. She talks about The Elements of Style** and dismisses the writing genius I accumulated from studying back issues of The Modern Farmer as repetitious swill. Doesn't she know swill is nutritious? If it repeats, that's her digestive problem, not mine. I'm trying to feed starving potential writer-brains, here, so their bank accounts (and mine) won't be empty as their craniums.
I’m telling you, this rag's readership would double overnight if she would just print my story the way I wrote it. Even Aunt Sally promised to read it as long as I bring my laptop to the nursing home.
Can you believe she threw punctuation in my face - as if I didn’t know what a period is. Hell, I’ve had one every month for ... uh, years -- and I'm still sweet and reasonable as ever.
She says I’m boring and condescending. Really? The guy down at the convenience store says I’m charming. And he would know --- he must serve seven Slurpies a day. Now there’s a guy with taste!
I’ll show her a thing or two. I’ll just go to the competition. I’m published, for Chrissakes! I have my own blog! I write my garden club's quarterly newsletter! I have credentials!
Editor's note: Good Plan! - Jade
* Launched in November 1993, NOAA's last remaining underwater research habitat, located 9 miles south of Key Largo, Florida Keys at a depth of 63 feet.
** (1918) by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
The most underused word in a sentence is the verb. Adverbs are a poor substitute and clutter a story. – Jade
Developing writers tend to think of a short story as action and resolution. These elements are important, but acquiring editors have a more detailed expectation. Aside from the obvious—clean copy with good formatting and no spelling errors—they look for strong characters, an established setting, conflict or crises and resolution. Without these components, stories aren’t stories; they’re character sketches or scenes. If your work contains all these elements and you’re still unsuccessfully shopping it around, the problem may be another common problem: verbosity. Stories—even real stories—weighed down by unnecessary words don’t usually get fixed by a helpful editor. They get rejected.
So what is a writer to do? Well, we can pay for professional editing, but be forewarned—that costs between three and five cents a word, and we may not earn that kind of money if our work does get published. So how do we turn our writing into a paying proposition? The practical solution is self-editing. Oh yes, I know. It’s a brutal task appealing to no one but a masochist. It’s counterintuitive to prune away the leaves we coaxed from imagination’s stems while crafting our first draft. Yet, like suckers on a prized rosebush, unnecessary words have to go if the story is to blossom.
Practice makes us better at performing verbal surgery, but where do we begin? Do we cut out sentences, whole paragraphs, or what?
That may ultimately happen, but it’s best to start small. Begin by looking at the verbs. Are they strong? Do they paint a precise picture of the action? Or are they dependent upon a string of adverbs to fill in the blanks?
Let’s look at an all too typical first paragraph:
“He walked heavily towards the gate. Paul opened the red mailbox at the end of the path, and pulled out a handful of flyers and the usual bills he expected every month. He was surprised when he saw the letter with his name written in the handwriting he’d never forgotten.”
As written, this paragraph is fifty words long. The edited version below is a mere twenty-two, yet it depicts the same scene without exhausting the reader.
“Paul lumbered toward the mailbox. Expecting the usual monthly bills, his heart lurched as he recognized the familiar handwriting on the envelope.”
How does a writer learn to pare down his work to this extent? One way is not to overwrite. That takes practice, and a fun way to practice is to write very short stories or flash fiction.
Flash fiction is a writing format which demands that every word work. This genre has the same requirements of scene, character, conflict, crises and resolution, but it imposes a cap on the number of words the author can use. Though definitions vary and the length may be between one-hundred and one thousand words, most editors will agree that what separates a short story from flash fiction is an extreme economy of words and the twist, or surprise ending.
A flash fiction writer purposely misleads or obscures the surprise ending, but leaves clues that, when revisited by the reader, inevitably reveal they have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion finally corrected by the twist.
Next month, Page and Spine will launch a flash fiction contest. Watch for the announcement, but in the meantime, start butchering. Sharpen your pencils and carve away the waste and window dressing. Be brutal.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
About a month ago I wrote a short piece for The Writer’s Table about my introduction to writing prompts. I was in the eighth grade and ‘Dandruff’ Dan Hayden, my ogre of an English teacher, gave the class all of forty minutes to compose a piece of fiction that incorporated a . . . door knob. That’s all the instruction he gave us. A door knob. Can you imagine?
Now, I knew what a doorknob was all right, but as far as I was concerned ‘fiction’ only happened when something rubbed you the wrong way. I considered asking more questions, but the only thing Hayden hated more than eighth-graders, were eighth-graders who asked questions. So was born my first effort to write short fiction . . . about a door knob. Surprise of surprises, Hayden said I did pretty well. Ol’ Dandruff even refrained from calling me maggot for two whole days. Better than a Pulitzer—not that I knew a Pulitzer from a Wurlitzer at the time.
Eventually I would learn that Dandruff Dan’s door knob amounted to a writing aid called a ‘prompt’. Over the years, I’ve responded to thousands of writing prompts. Sometimes just for the fun of it, but other times because I needed the equivalent of a boot in the ass to get me writing again.
Now, prompts come with various degrees of instruction. Some are quite specific, while others—like Hayden’s door knob—are pretty open ended. I prefer the open-ended variety. After all, I’m looking for a simple boot in the ass, not a convoluted construction that requires an owner's manual to open the door.
Last month I challenged Page & Spine readers with a simple prompt of my own: Breakfast. Pretty simple, right? Open ended (or open-faced, if you will). I invited writers to submit their creations to me, care of P&S, and worked out a deal with our beloved N.K. Wagner to publish the winning submission right here (look for it in April).
Well, the entries came flooding in to Page & Spine International Headquarters and Gift Shop. Okay, flooding might be a little hyperbolic, but we did receive a gratifying number of qualifying entries. And they were good, too. And varied!—which is why I favor open-ended prompts.
Remember the prompt was simply: Breakfast.
My favorite entry was largely about no breakfast. Another raw and troubling tale hinged on cold ‘ah-beetz’ for breakfast. I was treated to an omelet cooking lesson in one entry. One funny writer featured a mix up at a local diner, while another described an early morning refridgerator raid gone terribly wrong. One author offered a compassionate coming-of-age story, while another cleverly solved a murder mystery while seated at the breakfast table.
The stories all had breakfast in common but, otherwise, they were as different as Lucky Charms are to Bangers and Mash.
I want to thank all the authors who provided me with such fine breakfast reading material over the past few weeks. Hell, I even want to thank ol’ Dandruff Dan Hayden for dropping the prompt of my life on me so many eons ago.
(What? Oh, yeah.) N.K. thinks this might be a good time to tell everyone who won. Actually, the stories were so good I didn't want to stop at just one, but the boss lady put her foot down when I tried to nominate everyone for a prize.
So here it is...
First Place, and winner of publication at P&S's standard rate and my five bucks, is:
I'm Here For You by Jeffrey Stone.
Runner up (I managed to sneak this one in), and winner of publication at P&S's standard rate, is:
Fred and June by Patricia Donovan.
If you enjoyed this prompt, or regret having missed it, stay tuned to The Writer’s Table. The rumors flying through the halls of Page & Spine International Headquarters and Gift Shop suggest another challenge prompt will be offered in in the April 11th edition. Just in time, too. I could use another good boot in the ass.
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
I'm not a poet, but when I was about twenty, I wrote a poem titled Peephole Person. It was about a man who spent his days watching his neighbors through the peephole. He was interested in their lives but never took the initiative to meet them. Looking back on the dozens of short stories I have written since, I could see that writing that poem was the catalyst for the obsession I had developed to write characters who were painfully introverted. However, discovering what drove me to write the poem in the first place was more difficult.
When I lived in my townhouse apartment, I had a neighbor; he was a walrus of a man with pasty skin, a bulging gut, fat, awkward limbs, and white, Wilford-Brimley-like mustache tusks. I lived beside him for years but only talked to him a half dozen times, and always briefly. He rarely left the house. He had an old beat-up pickup truck, an old car that he never seemed to drive, and nothing planted in the allotted plot of mulch in front of his apartment except a gigantic, sprawling, and unmaintained boxwood plant.
The longest interaction I ever had with him happened one day when he brought home a loveseat. When I got home, he was huffing and puffing outside, struggling to get it out of the back of his truck and through his front door. He asked for a hand and I obliged.
We hefted the couch though the door, straight into the living room, and I saw that he lived in the same apartment I did. The furnishings were sparse, but what was underneath was all the same—the same closet under the stairs hiding the water heater, the same carpeting installed before I was born, and the same kitchen with dark, dated kitchen cabinets and curled linoleum flooring. It was uncanny.
When I got back to my apartment, I couldn't help but picturing his. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that maybe I wasn't as pasty or quite as heavy or awkward, but my whiskers, though not quite as white, were still like little buds of walrus tusks. And I thought, maybe not entirely consciously, about how if my wife were not in this apartment, or if I had to go on disability, or if any one of a number of things had happened differently, I could be this man who was my neighbor.
I can't say this made me get to know him and I started writing an homage to Tuesdays with Morrie, but I think it definitely made me face the part of me that knew that, under different circumstances, I was not unlikely to find myself in the shoes of a person who stayed at home, watching an outdated rabbit-eared television with no one in my life to help me move a loveseat off the back of my pickup truck.
I think that is why writers write what we write. I think we like to imagine that we write about our ideals, our hope and dreams, or the things we love, but more often than not we find ourselves writing about what we question or what we fear, because, when it comes right down to it, those are the things that readers like you, like me, and like my neighbor with a pickup truck full of loveseat can most easily relate to and learn from.
Will Mayer has been previously published in Spark: A Creative Anthology, The Germ, The Stoneslide Corrective, 4’33”, Lamplight, The Cynic, and Central Virginia Bridal Guide.