From April 29th – May 5th I read submissions for TSS Publishing. It was an invaluable experience for me both as a reader and writer. Here’s some of the things I learned. NB: All examples are made up.
Good writing is hard to define. Improvable writing isn’t.
Notice I didn’t use the word bad. That’s because I don’t believe there is such a thing as bad writing. All stories are unique and interesting and I enjoyed reading every submission. Some had me glued to my screen from start to finish. Others kept bumping me out of the narrative and I’d look at the clock and wonder if it was time to start dinner.
What factors differentiated the two?
- Prose, particularly short-form, should always have movement. No meandering. No contemplating the meaning of life. Make the reader NEED to know what happens next. Impossible if you’ve gone off on a tangent which is neither relevant nor enlightening.
2. PICK YOUR DETAILS. You’ve a limited amount of words. Do not be ultra-specific about something irrelevant. Do I really need to know the ten shades of brown in the hair of someone a character passes on the street and never sees again? Does the character even need to be on that street? Continuously ask yourself: IS THIS NECESSARY? What does it ADD?
3. If you are in a character’s point of view, BE in that point of view.
|I thought about what I might have for dinner.||What will I have for dinner?|
|I felt that something drastic needed to be done otherwise she wouldn’t listen to me and really, she did need to listen to me. So, I was thinking about how to approach her when I stumbled across her on a walk.||Something drastic needed to be done. She needed to listen. But how when she wouldn’t see me? Then, there she was.|
- The more powerful the scene, the tighter the prose should be (exaggerated for effect)
|Don’t leave me, I begged on my hands and knees, gravel digging into my kneecaps. I wept with the pain of it all, all the pain, from when my father slapped me in the school yard and everyone laughed to Mark standing before me now, laughing just the same. What had I done to deserve this treatment? I love you. I love you so much. Please. You’re breaking my heart.||Don’t leave me.
He laughed and walked away.
(may be oversimplified but you get the drift)
- Proper punctuation is more important than you think.
- DON’T RUSH THE ENDING…
A few genuinely lost me at the very end.
- Narrative Flow
Lots of stories had issues with narrative flow. If I must stop and think about what you’ve written, you’ve lost me! Your story should be like a movie in my head – seamless, clear and engaging. Read your work aloud or ask others to read it for you and give feedback to ensure it flows.
- I could absolutely LOVE a story but had to pass if it needed another edit. (Many fell here).
9. Subjectiveness – I always rolled my eyes when people rejected me with this line: “It’s all subjective; someone else may love it”, but I get it now. A story can be well-written but the subject matter just doesn’t rock my world. There is the thought that ANY subject can rock ANYONE’S world if presented well but I’m not so sure.
- You can tell within the first couple of pages whether a story is polished enough.
11. Follow the submission guidelines!! If stories are being read blind, DON’T put your name anywhere on them. (3 were rejected this way)
- Trust the reader but not too much
You do not need to write step-by-step instructions and draw diagrams to get a reader from point A to point B.
|She walked up the winding, dusty stairs, passed a window with green-mildewy frames, then down the long, empty hallway, opened the old oak door and entered the room.||She entered the room.
UNLESS there’s something in that journey the reader needs to know or will revisit.
Don’t THINK for the reader.
Don’t overexplain. Your reader isn’t stupid if they know how to read. They can follow leaps in thought, time and logic.
At the same time, be clear. if you are writing a story that involves expertise: police procedural, scientific information, legalese, etc., give a draft to a lay person and ask them if it makes sense.
Don’t TELL the reader how to FEEL. Let your story do that.
|This is a really sad story. Everyone cried when the little bird with the broken wing hopped out the front door and got run over by a car. My son was so sad; it was the saddest thing that ever happened to him in his short life. It was worse than the time he dropped his ice cream, that was something, but nothing compared to this. Oh, how the tears streamed down his face and I mopped them up as best I could but the tears were the consistency of oil and smudged his glasses so all he could see was sadness.”||My son nursed the bird with the broken wing for two weeks. The day we were to remove the splint, the bird hopped out the front door and got run over by a car. It twitched in my son’s trembling hands, then stilled. He keeps it in a shoebox under his bed and won’t let us bury it.|
- Pages of Introspection and contemplative reflections on life are for memoirs.
14. Long blocks of dialogue without any exposition can be difficult to follow, especially if there are more than 2 people talking.
I had a total of 37 submissions during my reading week
3 were disqualified for submitting with author’s name
1 was submitted twice
8 I LOVED and they were polished but 2 of these were very similar so had to pick one
2 I loved enough to ask for a revise and resubmit
3 I was undecided about but put forward
A few I see-sawed on a fair bit but conscious of numbers, I didn’t put them forward
A few were well-written but the subject matter didn’t rock my world (see subjective above)
The rest had an issue or issues and as it was my job was to put forward the strongest pieces, they had to be rejected. Sometimes it was a real shame as I absolutely loved the story (and still think about it) but it needed another good edit.
I had 2 stories submitted in a row with the exact same word count.
I had 2 stories in a row with the same obscure character name.
I had 2 stories in a row with supernatural water characters.
Thank you to all the writers who submitted.
Barbara Lovric is an American expat living in County Kerry. A previous Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair winner, she was short-listed for the 2017 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award and long listed for the 2017 Bare Fiction Prize. She has short work in The Fiction Pool, The Incubator, and Cabinet of Heed. Her debut novel will be published in Spring 2019. You can find out more by checking out her website here. She Tweets @BALovric
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