Letter from the Editor, Winter 2009 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
OFTEN IN THESE LETTERS FROM THE EDITOR I SHY AWAY FROM TALKING ABOUT MY OWN WRITING. I am, however, a writer, much the same as everyone else who submits to OS. I have been rejected far more often than accepted. I have believed, as you all have believed, that the story I was sending out to journals was so perfect, so sublime in beauty and precise in craft that there was no way it would be rejected but, my friends, despite my elevated position as Editor-in-Chief, find my work rejected just as I reject away.
In 2006, I graduated from George Mason and completed my thesis collection of 10 short stories. The collection, of over 200 pages, has not been a roaring success in the publishing world. To date, only one short story has been picked up for publication (from the kind souls at Dark Sky Magazine). Since graduating, “Leonard Twitty, Savior of Lost Children,” had gone through at least 13 revisions when it was finally accepted for publication and, to be honest, I could still revise it a few more times. As Leonardo Da Vinici said, “Nothing is ever completed, simply abandoned.” During my process of revision I concentrated on the opening. I knew what I wanted the story to be about— a sketchy guy who tries to lure a kid to his house—but the opening was more or less a disaster, which brings me to the topic of this quarter’s essay: The short story opening.
As I’ve mentioned in other essays, the process of crafting a short story begins with the rush of inspiration, the single “inspired idea” which moves the story and motivates you to write it. Story ideas come like comets in the night: suicide bomber kills an innocent stranger, widower flies a kite with his nephew or drunkard finds out his son was killed in Vietnam. And the original idea of what the story is about is what we refer to as “the beat”. George Saunders goes into depth about this subject in our Winter of 2007 interview (if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out). Having trouble with your story opening is a universal experience. You know what you want to write about but you’re not positive how to get to it, got me? Therefore, as you are working your way to the central idea, the inspiration for the story, we must logically assume that it is the story’s beginning where you’re going to make your largest blunders. The opening of the story itself, while appearing not to matter because it is only the path you took to get to “the idea” of your story is, in fact, for the literary journal editor, the only thing that matters.
The very best writers keep their beat, give us the beautiful imagery, give us their iconic style and stay away from assigning values or judgments and the very best writers do that all in the first page—some even the first sentence.
After the first draft of your story, you must revise the beginning. It’s where you have most likely failed “the idea” of your story, where the inspiration falls flat. You were simply rushing to push to the great comet of your story. I can hear you though, you’re probably saying things like this because I said things just like this:
I was in a rush to get to the beat. I mean, don’t you like the idea?!?
It doesn’t matter, Bub, you bummed me out when it started.
But what about pages 6-18!?!
Who cares if no one wants to read the first 6 pages?
But my ending is sooo cool! It’ll be worth it.
Oh yeah, I think I saw that movie—you know what I did? I walked out in the first 10 minutes.
There are no excuses in this field. Revise that opening and make it as pitch perfect as you can.
I’ll close, with how I began. Take a look at the two different versions of “Leonard Twitty.” Download the following PDF, ** which compares the two different openings. * You tell me what you think. The proof is in the pudding. The original version of Twitty was rejected nine times before I sat down to revise.
**The PDF is missing online. I will look for it or email if you're curious.