When the editors at TSS Publishing called for volunteer readers a few weeks ago for their general submissions period, I jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be a good learning experience.
I took my job very seriously. After reading just a few stories, I could appreciate how difficult an editor’s job can be. I wanted to be able to send through every story I read. It wasn’t lost on me that a flesh and soul person invested a lot of time and care, putting their words on the page and then took a risk by sharing it with some stranger (me) to read and pass judgment on. That’s not a small thing. As a writer, I know what that means. But I now also have a better understanding from an editor’s point of view.
Here’s some of what I learned in just one week of reading submissions and how I will use it to improve my own writing.
Title and Opening Line
Titles are important. Are they everything? In a short story, perhaps not. Still, a good title will intrigue me from the start. Not all of the stories I received had the best title, something I especially tuned into after reading the story. I think they’re important enough to work on. If you struggle with titles, as I do, ask another writer to read your story and give you some suggestions.
After the title there is the very important opening line. I wanted to feel like I had to know what was going to happen next. A great opening line is essential for your story. It can be what sets it apart from another. Not all of the stories I read had that killer opening sentence. I realized if my story is one among dozens or hundreds, I need to make sure someone wants to keep reading. If it’s between choosing my story or someone else’s for publication, I want them to pick mine, so I need to give them every reason to.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect as a reader initially, but for the most part, was generally pleased at the quality of writing that was submitted. I was looking for stories to answer the three basic questions that all good short stories should answer:
1) Who/what is the story about?
2) Is there a conflict? What’s at stake?
3) Who/what has changed by the end?
Unfortunately, some of the stories I read didn’t answer all or one these questions. They may have been written well as far as grammar, sentence structure, imagery, etc., but they didn’t make me care and they didn’t make me want to know what was going to happen next (see ‘opening line’ above). This is unfortunate for the submitter, but it’s certainly helpful for me in improving my own writing.
Some of the stories failed to keep me interested because there really wasn’t much happening. There may have been too much exposition, or the pacing was off, or there was too much telling and not enough showing. I wasn’t being given credit as a reader to figure some things out for myself…what I call “leaving room for the reader.” I wanted to be excited or surprised. I wanted something to make one story stand apart from the others and I didn’t always get that.
Endings can be hard. I struggle with endings, but I know a good one when I read it. The ending was problematic for several of the stories I read. It either felt rushed, or just tacked on at the end because the writer didn’t otherwise know how to end it, or it was predictable, or it didn’t make sense, or it didn’t show any change, or it didn’t leave me wondering a bit so that I’d keep thinking about the story days or weeks later. Of course, I’ll be hyperaware of these “sins” with my own writing now, another benefit of having this experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stint as a TSS reader and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Sure, it meant I didn’t have as much time to devote to my own writing, but I came away with a different perspective. That’s important to me. Also, I look forward to the possibility of knowing I helped someone to get their story published, if the editors agree with one or more of my selections. That will be the most satisfying aspect of this experience.
Janice Leagra is a writer and mixed media artist who holds a BA in English from Rutgers University. Her work has featured on the Bridport Prize 2017 shortlist and in publications such as Spelk Fiction, EllipsisZine, and others. You can find her at www.janiceleagra.com or on Twitter: @janiceleagra