The Incidental: Notes from a Small Editor (Part 1)

Red Pen

Photo: Jenny Kaczorowski (CC BY-NC-SA)

‘For Your Consideration’ is scrawled in blood red lettering on the manila envelope in front of the editor. He feels dread as he pulls the sheets from it, but there is excitement too. A sip of coffee, a chunk of muffin, a glance around at the other coffee shop patrons – he can’t put it off any longer. He glances at the title… Oh Jesus.

 There are a couple of things that you should know about Structo. The first is something we perhaps don’t say enough but which I hope is now evident. We are just a bunch of guys and girls with day jobs and a dream. We make no profit (it’s a good day when we break even), we are not from the world of publishing, and most of us are struggling writers just like you.

When you send a piece to Structo, there is a group of eight people who will read your work, independent of your name and cover letter. We read blind. At the end of this process, the votes are tallied up, and some stuff makes it and some doesn’t. It’s achingly fair and democratic. You could be a fourteen-year-old from Scunthorpe and make it or a Booker Prize longlister and not. Most of us have no idea who you are, what you have done in the past or what you intend for the future. It all comes down to the quality of your submission.

I have come to realise over time that this is the main selling point for Structo. As the magazine has grown and we have had the opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the world of literature, both authors and readers have praised the high quality of the work we publish. Now of course, we only have our authors to thank for that, but the process of sifting this work is tricky. We’re on issue nine now, I have read more than 700 pieces of work, and I’d like to think that I’ve picked up a thing or two about how to make a good submission in the process. But I’m not going to bang on about the usual tips and rules. I personally couldn’t care less about font or line spacing or whether you put the word count in the top right-hand corner. If your story is good enough, we’ll probably want it anyway. (That said, your read-through would not be off to a good start if we see you’ve completely disregarded all the submission guidelines.)

There are plenty of articles out there already about the dos and don’ts of submitting, we don’t need another one. This column is slightly different. It’s about what might turn your story from something that’s just okay into a piece we can’t ignore.

As a disclaimer, I should point out that there are exceptions to these rules, but they are certainly good general guidelines to work to.

  • Ending, ending, ending – A good 30% of the submissions we receive start with a lot of promise and fail to deliver because of a rushed or poor ending. Writing a good ending for a short story is perhaps the most monumentally difficult task in all literature. The skill is so much different to that of the novel. It is easy to succumb to the pitfall of a sudden death or the it-was-all-a-dream twist, but the natural shortness of the form does not generally allow for the character development required to end on anything too dramatic. Some stories get around this by ending on a punch line, but this of course doesn’t work for every piece. In short stories, always write with the end in mind; the end is the pay-off. There is no sure-fire rule here, but if you are unsure how to end your piece, the likelihood is that it won’t be strong enough to satisfy the reader, no matter what you manage to bang out of the keyboard.
  • Take antidepressants – It’s a cliché, but dear God we writers are a depressive lot. I’m all for truth and hard-hitting fiction, and I like to see demons exorcised on the page, but sometimes I feel that I’m just reading sadness for sadness’s sake. Often, this is used to cover up weakness in the story. If you find yourself throwing your character into a concentration camp for no particular reason or murdering all their children just to get some emotion into your piece, please reconsider the story from first principles.
  • Pretend short stories – We know who you are, we know where you live, and you won’t get away with it. You think you’re really clever don’t you? You’ve got this novel which you can’t finish for whatever reason, but, damn, you got half-way, and it would be a shame to waste all those months of work. So let’s just take chapter one and the first half of chapter two and slap on an ending and voilà: a short story. Only no, it doesn’t work, because the ending never really fits properly. We can tell. If you want to turn that piece into a short story, then start again. Write with the end in mind; take the core idea, and start again. You never know, you might figure out how to finish the novel.
  • Structure – One of those first-principle things that we are taught in school and quickly forget. Everything should have a beginning, middle and an end (even if the beginning is the end or what have you). Structure is vital but it is often overlooked. It will help you communicate your ideas to your reader and help you to effectively achieve a solid ending.
  • Consistency – What I find really jarring as a reader is a sudden and inexplicable change in tone. I read one piece recently where the first few paragraphs seemed to be written by Salman Rushdie and the rest by 50 Cent, and it was all written in the first person. If you start a piece and then come back to it at a later date, remember that your writing style might have changed in the meantime. You might have to redraft what you’ve already written.
  • Do your research – We always get at least ten trashy horror or sci-fi stories. Now, as I have previously written in this column, I love a bit of trash now and again, but what you have to realise is that we are probably never going to publish your story about the Girl Scout camping trip being terrorised by a machete-wielding mutant vampire. Sorry, but it’s just not Structo.
  • Flat dialogue – Some people are good at description and others are good at dialogue. Those who are good at both are onto a good thing. But it’s easy to write good dialogue once you know how. Firstly, read some authors who are great at it: Douglas Adams, Chuck Palahniuk and Jean Rhys might be a good start. Secondly, read all your dialogue out-loud; if it sounds silly, then it probably is. Think about what people actually say. It seems simple, but so often I find myself reading stilted dialogue, especially in argument scenes.
  • Do you need to say that? – Linked to the flat dialogue point and often exemplified in the realm of the dream sequence, we often find paragraphs which have absolutely no relevance and distract from the core of the story. I know it’s difficult to self-edit — I still can’t do it well myself — but if in doubt, just remove it. You can always put it back later.

The editor is coming to the end. He puts down his pen, looking at the scribbled notes and corrections, the huge lines where entire swathes of words have fallen by the wayside. He picks up his phone. “Keir? How’re you doing, okay? Yeah, I’ve just been reading it … just a few changes,” he covers the sheets as if someone might see the obvious lie, “yeah it’s good. Some good points there. Especially about endings, you’re right about that … erm … it’s just that I’m just not sure the piece comes together at … well …. the ending doesn’t really work”.

— Keir

Keir Pratt (@keirpratt) is contributing editor at Structo magazine. This web-exclusive essay is part of his ongoing column The Incidental. The second part of ‘Notes from a Small Editor’ will hit the blog in the coming months


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s