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Twenty Things to Do before Submitting Your Story to a Lit Mag: Part 1
Founder of Submitit offers story editing suggestions
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I know what you’re thinking: Another article on writing and editing? Do we really need another article on writing and editing? Please not another article on writing and editing!
Well, yes, with apologies, I hate to say it, but here’s another article on writing and editing.
But before you click away, know that I probably read more short stories—pre-submission—than any person alive (actually, probably not an exaggeration), and the topics below are simply the things that writers—even the best—seem to frequently struggle with. I believe most writers will find these tasks helpful. Each task, I hope, will help improve a writer’s work and get it ready for submitting.
I’m going to break this into two parts. The first (below) covers what I might call “the basics.” The second list (coming soon) will be more focused on craft and style.
I should say, quickly, before moving on, that I’m not a big fan of “rules” in literary writing (fiction and creative nonfiction). Break the rules, my fellow writers. That’s part of the joy of literature. But I still think the following tasks (I shall not call them rules!) will help improve your writing, whether you’re a rule breaker (as I try to be with my own writing) or not.
(Note: In the examples below, I will occasionally refer to stories in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (hereon: BASSC) (ed. John Updike). While this anthology stops over twenty years ago, and while there are many other fine anthologies out there (American and otherwise), I think BASSC is an excellent one. I recommend it.)
Search for commonly overused words.
For example, one of the most overused words I come across in my editing is “smile” (or “smiling”). Depending on length, I usually recommend no more than a couple per story (it’s kind of a lazy word). Other words like “then,” “just,” and “that” are also often overused and may be easy to cut.
Also, watch out for the overuse of what I’ll call interesting words. For example, I’d love to read about a “nacreous, iridescent sky,” but I wouldn’t want to see those first two words again (unless the writer is overtly going for a repetitive effect).
Every writer has their own overused words. When you think you’ve found one, do a search, and cut away. (As with many of these topics, hiring a good editor can help. It’s hard to read your own work and identify these writing tics.)
2. Read aloud (and listen for awkward word echoing).
Reading aloud is a great way to hear potential infelicities or awkwardnesses in your writing (such as using the word awkwardnesses, which, according to my dictionary, isn’t a word). Listen especially for what I call word echoing (not the same as commonly overused words, as described above). Word echoing occurs when a word has been used twice (or more) in close proximity (the sound of the word echoes in the reader’s mind). Typically, this occurs when the repetition is apparently unwitting. (There is no problem, generally, when the repetition is clearly intended—but this intent should be very clear.)
Here’s a quick example from a story of mine that I’ve been working on:
I looked up at the hotel and felt a pulling, this came very suddenly, a pulling to rise, to leave my towel and go, I can’t really explain it, to go up to the very top of the hotel and see what there was to see.
Clearly, I should cut the second mention of the hotel. It’s a long sentence, with two embedded clauses (I’m not trying to write grammatically here), and it was easy to forget by the sentence’s end that I had already mentioned the hotel. Reading aloud helped me hear the echo. The improved version:
I looked up at the hotel and felt a pulling, this came very suddenly, a pulling to rise, to leave my towel and go, I can’t really explain it, to go up to the very top and see what there was to see.
Important note: Not all repetition is bad, in fact much of it is wonderful. It’s a very useful stylistic tool. But if there’s any question about the intention of the repetition, the safe move is to cut. In my example, I hope it’s clear that my repetitions of “a pulling,” “go,” and “see” were intentional. (For a masterclass in the art of repetition, see Jean Toomer’s “Blood-Burning Moon” (BASSC).)
3. Check your point(s) of view.
Most writers write in one of three points of view (POVs): (1) first person, (2) third person limited omniscient (sometimes called “close third”), or (3) third person omniscient. No one ever botches the first of these, but the third person options can create difficulties, especially close third, which is more common these days than omniscient third.
Writing in close third means you’re telling the story with third-person pronouns (usually he, she, or they) but through the eyes and consciousness of a single character. The mistake is to suddenly—and usually momentarily—leave this character’s mind and enter the mind of another character. A careful reader or editor will typically consider this a mistake. So if you’re writing in close third, make sure you stay in the mind of your main character. Here are some great examples of close third in BASSC: Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf,” Richard Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star” (we are always in the protagonist’s mind, but note how Wright changes style as the protagonist thinks her thoughts), Thom Jones’s “I Want to Live,” and Alice Elliot Dark’s “In the Gloaming.”
Of course, you could write in the more open (omniscient) third person POV, in which you can jump into anyone’s mind (this takes a bit of skill, to be sure). Following are some great examples of third person omniscient narratives from BASSC: Paul Hogan’s “The Peach Stone,” Jean Stafford’s “The Interior Castle,” Martha Gelhorn’s “Miami–New York,” and Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl.” Note how the authors find ways to clarify whose POV the reader is experiencing, especially at the places where these views shift.
There are other options, including third person objective, where you’re a fly on the wall (no jumping into any characters’ minds), or second person (you), or first person plural (we), or a mix of all of the above. But it’s the two third-person POVs above that seem to cause the most problems. And especially, if close third is your POV of choice—and there’s a good chance that it is—make sure you don’t leave your chosen character’s mind and sensorium.
4. Have a cutting session.
Deleting your beautiful words—killing your darlings, à la Faulkner—is hard, but it’s probably one of the best things you can do for your writing. Concision often creates more muscular, more luminous prose. Try deleting anything that (1) doesn’t “sound” wonderful or (2) isn’t driving the narrative in an essential way. (Everything should do at least one of these things, but preferably both.)
Another advantage of cutting: you’ll often be left with a work that is both more subtle and more sophisticated. Leaving things out forces readers to work a little harder. To speak metaphorically, leave us breadcrumbs, not loaves. Give us dots, unconnected. Write revelations, not announcements. I believe part of the joy of reading—at least for those of us who read what I will so haughtily call “literature”—is the work we must put in to bring the writer’s world to life.
As with many of these tips, try giving your work a “cut-only edit.” Don’t let yourself get distracted. If it makes you feel better (i.e., braver), save the story under a different file name before you start. This will give you a little more courage to really bloody things up. I suspect you won’t go back to the intact version.
To speak metaphorically, leave us breadcrumbs, not loaves. Give us dots, unconnected. Write revelations, not announcements.
5. Turn your story or essay into a movie.
Movies typically have clear and vivid scenes. Acts have times and places. It’d be hard to make a movie otherwise. With writing, however, it’s easy to get lazy and forget about scenes.
Ask yourself these questions while you read: Are the scenes clearly set? Is it apparent where action and dialogue are taking place? Have you considered your characters movements and gestures within the scene? Do scenes change with clear transitions?
Scenes are also usually important for plain old narrative exposition. Where is the narrator thinking his thoughts? What is the narrator doing (and sensing) while their inner voice tells their tale?
Unless there’s clear intent (and advantage) to keeping the setting murky—and, indeed, sometimes this is the case (see Kafka, see Beckett)—I advise you to bring your scenes to life. You may do this all at once at the beginning of a scene, or slowly and deliberately as the scene progresses. (Much of this ties into details, something I’ll talk about in part two).
Here are a couple of stories with great scene development: Richard Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star” (scenes so carefully set, it’s like reading/watching a play), Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” and Alice Adams’s “Roses, Rhododendron” (Alice Adams was an absolutely amazing short story writer and should be read by all).
6. Make sure you’re not over-telling.
Telling is writing that someone is “happy.” Showing is having someone dance a samba in a flowering meadow. If I’ve edited your before, you probably know that I frequently counsel against telling. I push writers to, instead, show. All things being equal, showing is almost always preferable to telling. All writers tell occasionally, but the best, I’ve found, do so sparingly. And typically when a great writer tells, the telling is surrounded by (or followed by) showing.
A good way to check for over-telling is to look for tonal adjectives describing characters. If a character is “happy” or “scared” or “angry” or “confused,” you might try revising your work to better show these things. Here’s an example of showing:
When they walk side by side, she can smell his shaving soap, the barber’s oil, his pipe tobacco, the wool and linen and leather smell of his manly clothes. The correct, orderly, heavy clothes are like those she used to brush and starch and iron for her father. She misses that job—her father’s appreciation, his dark, kind authority. Jarvis Poulter’s garments, his smell, his movements all cause the skin on the side of her body next to him to tingle hopefully, and a meek shiver raises the hairs on her arms. Is this to be taken as a sign of love? She thinks of him coming into her—their—bedroom in his long underwear and his hat….
— Alice Munro, “Meneseteung” (BASSC, 641)
Much showing here, needless to say.
You should note that tonal adjectives are not wrong (there are several in the example above). I just think they need to be embellished with showing. Many great writers describe their characters with ample tonal adjectives. But few leave it there.
Finally, some apparent showing is actually, in my opinion, telling. If your character has a heart beating fast, or is breathless or flushed (etc.), you may have ventured into cliché. These cardiovascular/respiratory/dermatological descriptions are basically tells, because of their overuse.
For especially good examples of stories that show, check out Joyce Carol Oates’s brilliant and haunting “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung,” and Allice Elliott Dark’s “In the Gloaming” in BASSC. This last one is about as moving a story as you’ll ever read, and it’s 99.9 percent showing (I’d argue it’s so moving because of the lack of telling).
7. Check your tenses.
Somewhat surprisingly, when I edit I frequently come across issues with verb tense. A writer might be working in present tense, and then suddenly (and apparently accidentally) switch to past tense, sometimes for just a sentence or two, sometimes for the rest of the story.
So consider reading your work, focusing only on verb tense. Many writers never have this problem, but if you notice that you have a tendency to make tense mistakes, even only occasionally, focus on this during a separate edit.
Another issue I come across is overuse of the past perfect tense (“had”). I understand, of course, that sometimes we need to indicate the completion of something before something else in the past. But usually you shouldn’t have to write long paragraphs or sections in the past perfect. Just set the time at first, and stay in (or switch to) standard past tense. Consider a “had” search, and cut away.
8. Change your editing place and time.
I write and edit my own work first thing each day. One night, years ago, I decided to give a short piece of mine an evening read on my phone while sitting in my reading chair (not in my office). Something surprising happened: I experienced the piece in a completely new way. I found mistakes, or (worse) ineloquence, that I had missed during my regular editing time. Things that I thought were clear turned out to be (unintentionally) confusing. It was like reading the piece as a different person.
I now never sign off on one of my stories until I’ve given it my night edit. I suggest you do something similar. If you write at night, give your piece a daytime edit. If you work on your laptop, try reading on your phone. If you write in a coffee shop, try reading in a library. My point: change your usual routine for your final edit. I think you’ll be surprised how well this works.
If you write at night, give your piece a daytime edit. If you work on your laptop, try reading on your phone. If you write in a coffee shop, try reading in a library.
9. Put your work in the oven.
I talk about this one in more detail on my blog here. The idea is to bake your stories. As I wrote in the post, stepping away from your writing—for a week? a year? nine years?—will allow you to eventually read it with fresh eyes. This will improve your chances of catching grammar and usage errors (always difficult with your own writing) and will help you better hear the sound and quality of your prose. Both of these (grammar/usage and sound quality) are important, although I’d say the second is more so. (You can always find a good copy editor, but the chiseling and shaping of your sentences should come mostly from you.)
So get your story out of your mind for a while before final editing (and submitting). Let it bake.
10. Read guidelines, and check formatting.
This one is obvious, but if you’ve done everything above, you don’t want to violate a journal’s guidelines when you submit your story. Most journals ask for fairly standard formatting (Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-spacing, page numbers, etc.). But some oddballs have relatively unusual guidelines, such as insisting on block paragraphs (as opposed to standard indented paragraphs) or removing page numbers (which is just weird and annoying), and so on.
Needless to say, it’s worth taking the time to get this stuff right.
Next time, I’ll get more into craft and style. Until then, happy editing!
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