To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story

From editor and author Joe Ponepinto via Jane Friedman:

An admission: As I read my way through the submission queue for our literary journal, I often decide to decline a story well before its end.

It’s not that the stories are always bad. Many times the premise is interesting, and the characters as well. It may exhibit the opening tension and stakes that can pull a reader in. In fact, there may not be anything technically missing from the submission, and this proficiency is supported by the writers’ cover letters—many submitters have been published in other journals; some are contest winners or Pushcart nominees.

But for me, the stories they’ve submitted just don’t resonate.

So it’s a matter of taste, then?

Sometimes, but more often it’s something else. It’s a quality that can’t be measured or pinpointed, and I think that’s why it’s an aspect of good writing that is rarely taught in MFA programs, or writing classes, and almost never mentioned in blogs and articles on writing. Call it something ethereal. Call it alchemy. Or call it what it is, a story so advanced that it is no longer just a story, but something beyond a story—a virtual reality that transports a reader into a frame of mind vivid enough to replace actual reality. It’s a story so engrossing the reader forgets that he’s reading, a story in which the author’s voice seems not to exist. A silent story, as a writer friend once noted.

So many times stories give me the impression of a writer writing about something. It’s in the story’s tone and flow. It’s in the plot that’s been done a few thousand times before, or is based on something that’s in the news. It’s in characters filtered through the writer’s personal experience, which limits their diversity and individuality. In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.

As I read these submissions, I can visualize the writer thinking about aspects of writing as he writes. Does this scene have tension? Is it making my theme clear?

But a successful story exists independently from its author. It seems so real that readers don’t have to be schooled in the facts of the story’s world, but can, through the actions and dialogue of its characters, adapt and understand how it works. Kind of like the way we do it in real life.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

6 thoughts on “To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story”

  1. It would be easier to teach, as the OP wants, if it weren’t so individual. Which means it IS a matter of taste. But I’ve had too many examples of varying people of generally good taste in reading having wildly different takes on books to think it can be taught.

    Now, his example – yeah, that is just mediocre wordsmithing.

  2. That Barry and Madeline sample was dullllll. The stakes were so small. Madeline wants to make changes? Okay? So what? It will cause Barry trouble? Why?

    The OP blames a lack of subtext, and I think he’s right. Madeline’s statement about wanting to make changes could be interesting, maybe even a threat, if we knew that Barry had been gunning for her position, and after a bitter Matilda vs. Stephen fight, Madeline won.

    Or, if we knew she’s his ex live-in-girlfriend, and he “ghosted” her — going so far as to leave the country while she was on vacation — and now years later, she’s become his boss (I misremembered this letter as him faking his death. Also he wrote back with an update).

    But there’s no hint of any impending excitement in that that lifeless sample. It’s an excellent of example of a passage that’s just “words on a page,” rather than a story-in-progress.

  3. That’s Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and all of the Brontes out of the window then. Actually, I’m not a huge Eliot fan, but have many friends who are, so my struggle with her is down to my perception of her authorial character. I don’t like it much. Very little to do with the quality of the writing, which many people love. Dickens on the other hand has helped me to survive lockdown. And there he is, a writer with a powerful and powerfully enchanting authorial voice. Which is why I hate prescriptive ‘how to’ instructions with a passion – and the older I get, the more I loathe them.

  4. ps – all of these wretched people talk about ‘avoiding rejection’ as though that were the prime reason for writing. If we write only for ‘acceptance’ heaven help us. Signing off, grumpy of Scotland!

  5. There I was thinking this would be a piece about how writers can distance themselves from the emotions engendered by rejection. Instead, I seem to have read an editor justifying their opinion about whether or not to reject a story, which doesn’t speak to them.

    Fair enough.

    But not addressing that rejecting someones work also generates negative emotions, and having to justify doing so with the mantle of of it’s not just a matter of taste, which it so is, is just dissembling to justify their opinion.

    The best feedback a writer can get is people recommending their book to friends, which is an honest opinion. Not a justification

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