Last year, with open arms, I was invited to join the team of Shock Totem Magazine as a contributing editor. It's a general title, because basically I'm there to help in anyway I can: Reading slush, sending out acceptance and rejection letters, soliciting authors for stories and interviews, to contribute my own piece and to offer creative input. While there, I've cultivated some relationships I really value. That alone makes the whole experience worthwhile. But it's the task of reading through the enormous slush pile that has taught me a lesson on what to do and what not to do as a writer.
During the open call, we received over 800 submissions. I've read slush before for an anthology, but never to this extent. Thankfully, I wasn't alone. ST is filled with a small team of readers and writers who, for the most part, are looking for the same thing in a story. There were the occasional stories that put hearts in one person's eyes, and rolled the other's. That's bound to happen. We're different people with different life experiences which give us different tastes, even different guilty pleasures. But a lot of what we unanimously rejected were often stories that just lacked simple storytelling.
Prose is one thing. There are many different styles. Some dense, some lean. But prose can only carry you so far. if your idea of being a good storyteller is using an impressive vocabulary and having an exceptional understanding of grammar, you're really going to want to reevaluate that.
I liken this to being a guitarist. Bear with me on this.
You've got your virtuoso in one corner. Your Yngwie Malmsteens. Their dexterity is mind-boggling. Their understanding of the fretboard and music theory comes from countless hours of practice and dedication, and in a technical matter of playing, not many can hold a candle to them. But can they write a catchy song? Something soulful? Something that gets stuck in your head all day? Not really. Aesthetically, as good as their playing is, their ability to write a great song is subpar when standing next to others who have a fraction of the talent.
In the other corner you've got your guitarist who has just enough understanding of their instrument to actually write a good song. Something memorable, something anthemic, something with a hook. In that corner you've got your Kurt Cobains and Glenn Danzigs (and before you wave your finger at me, yes Glenn plays guitar and wrote all those Misfits songs you can't get out of your head using one). Neither players are anywhere near the top of the chain in their field, and whether you like Nirvana or the Misfits, you can't deny the fact that those songs are straight up catchy and memorable. I understand that music is subjective, so I'm really hoping you're setting personal taste aside and catching the illustration here, which is creating something flashy versus creating something with substance.
Okay, enough with the music lesson and back to writing.
When there is an open call for stories to any anthology or magazine, particularly to those with a large fan base (I believe Cemetery Dance had close to 2,000 stories submitted for their last open call), it's impossible to read every story that comes in from beginning to end, and it shouldn't be expected. If an editor/publisher can tell right away the story is just not good, then there's no reason to keep going. The discontinuation of a story can happen for two reasons: The person just can't write, period. There are errors, horrible prose, awful storytelling. The other reason is there is just no story there. There's fancy dancing. There's Yngwie Malmsteen and his 20-minute solo in your face.
We've all heard some writing "rules" from authors. Some we all agree with, some we don't. Some should be written in stone, some shouldn't. One that I don't necessarily agree with is "Never start a story with someone waking up." I've broken this rule twice. Once in OF FOSTER HOMES & FLIES and once in STIRRING THE SHEETS. I think that rule is BS.
Which of these would have the tendency to pull you in and keep reading?:
"On the first day of summer, I woke with blood on my pillow."
"The bruised clouds gave way to an azure sky while the New York wind carried rust-colored leaves across the lush lawn, tiny whispers of winter approaching."
One is more impressive than the other, from a technical standpoint. But one already has you asking a question right away, with a desire to know the answer. Blood? Why is there blood there? What happened?
By the way, the above sentences were not from any story read in the slush pile. I wrote them for the purpose of this article.
Raymond Carver is great with opening lines. His stories are sometimes senseless and really go nowhere, but you keep reading and you're not sure why. Here are a few examples of some of his opening lines:
"I am sitting over coffee and cigarettes at my friend Rita's and I am telling her about it." (about what?)
"That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window." (Why? What happened?)
"I was out of work. But any day I expected to hear from up north. I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain. Now and then I'd lift up and look through the curtain for the mailman."
Simple aren't they? But they force you to ask questions and instill a desire to know what's going on. That's Kurt Cobain in the corner strumming the same 4 notes on his beat-up Fender, but now you're humming along.
The last example above could have started with a description of the rain but it didn't. We know what rain sounds, smells, and looks like. We've experienced it. And those past experiences allow us to help personalize the story. There's a time and a place for description, but don't do it on your first page.
If there is a rule on how NOT to start a story it should be with talking about the weather, or ANY type of description. That first paragraph is absolutely essential to keeping the reader's attention. Especially that first reader: The editor. The publisher.
If the first thing you're offering your reader is a page full of description or info dump of any kind, you've already lost them. Save the description for organic moments, later on. In the meantime, give them a reason to keep going, because weather, hairstyle, clothing style, house style isn't gonna do it. That editor, that publisher, they're more than likely moving onto the next story regardless of how well your story may have paid off in the end. It's too late.
A story without description (and I'm speaking of description that isn't absolutely essential to the story) is filled in by the reader by default, something they don't have to try and do. It's effortless and freeing. If it's important later on, then share that info. But organically is the keyword here.
I've seen too many writers waste too much space focusing on how beautiful they can bring to life the vision in their head rather than throw the reader in the car, hit the gas and speed down the road for a wild ride. Let the reader look out the window on the way there. They'll get it. Don't sit behind the wheel and tell them every single thing they're seeing.
In a nutshell, make that first page come alive with story. Not description. And keep clear of info dumps. Allow things to unfold naturally. Hook the reader at the beginning.
Best wishes on future submissions, wherever you may send them.