Letter from the Editor, Spring 2007 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
SOMEWHERE IN THE BACK OF MY HEAD THERE IS a naïve, kind and simple writer who, when preparing a story to go out to journals, believes the act is a gentle communion between myself and a smiling gregarious editor (insert image of cigar-smoking, belly-slapping, bear-hugging good-natured, and thirsty-for-a-beer) guy who is ever-ready and hungry to read my short story. We'll call him "Unkie Editor." You've seen him. This is the "Unkie Editor" complex. We all do this at the start of our careers when we send our stories. We believe our story is the only story that the editor will read when you send it. The only story that is important. The only story that they're going to care about. Don't catch my drift? Let me paint you a little scene of it:
Silence. A desk with Unkie Editor sitting at it. He's watching a fly buzz around the ceiling. Looks to the rotary phone and feels happy with the big, white, circular markings and numbers. He loves the clickclickclick when he releases his index finger from the dial cavity. He's thrilled to be doing this because, well, he's got nothing else to do today. Nada. He's just waiting, for what he's not sure. He drums his fingers on the desk and starts to whistle when the phone explodes. At first he doesn't even know what to do, he's almost afraid of the phone's obscenities. Then, on a second ring he lunges for the phone, knowing thisis what I've been waiting for.
"This is the editor speaking," he says sweetly into the receiver.
"Hello sir?" the secretary says, after pulling a pencil out of her hair and chewing on the eraser.
He lets go of a heavy sigh into the phone, "Yes Margie?"
"Well sir, it's that Santi character, the one with the female name, but he's a guy."
"Yes, of course! Alexis, heck of a writer, and it's a non-gendered name Margie, make a note."
"I'll do that, sir. Got it. non-gendered."
"He sent us us a wonderful story about a suicide bomber two years ago. Of course! What does he have for us now?"
"Well, sir, you know, it's the oddest thing, the mail just came in and well, gosh wouldn't you know it, he sent us something else!"
"Wow, REALLY? That's great news. Outstanding. It's a good day for the Quietude of Souls Quarterly . Excellent. You believe this is a sign, don't you Margie?!"
"Oh yes. Yes it's a sign. He did send us something, alrighty really. It's really outstanding. Has the proper postage and everything, I happen to love the envelope, the type face, everything. . . you know my sister. . . "
"Margie, calm down now--get me that story right away. Right away. Send it down woman! No time to waste. NO TIME. I have to read it now."
The scene usually ends with the editor leaping to his feet as the runner comes downstairs with the story. He rips open the package and sits poring over it. He shouts things to the fly buzzing around his head; he gesticulates and sweats, breathing heavy at every sentence. Finally, when the last sentence has been eaten, unkie editor sets the story down. Breaks out his handkerchief. Weeps silently into it. Honkers his honker. And then slams his fist down shouting:
"Damnit, we want this story!" Then he picks up the phone again, clutching the story in an affectionate, gentle way as if he's holding a gift from his late aunt Juniper who used to buy him chocolates as a boy. "Margie, get Santi on the phone. We have to have it. We do. " He turns to us, his plump, caring face with a smile formed by tears and hope, "Yes. We will publish it."
Unfortunately, this is all just a beautiful dream in my mind. It doesn't happen that way. Not at all. Instead of Unkie Editor, is more like a Cousin Jimmy Bob who is a real ornery bastard. Sits on his front porch with a pack of Camels in his shirt pocket. Alabama heat beating. Had his leg shot up in Nam. Wife left him in '82 for the Maytag repairman who wooed her with poems. Hates poets. Got a shotgun right next to his little creaky chair for the first poet to walk up to his door. Only happiness he gets is the obituary section of the newspaper.
Here's how Cousin Jimmy Bob looks at your stuff. He's overwhelmed by the stories he has to read. They get dropped off every day and he doesn't know when they will ever stop. He sits down with thirty or so stories at a time and begins to read, even though his leg is bothering him, and he'd rather be drinking Genny Cream Ale and shooting rabbits in the yard. Remember, he has a stack. He has very little patience. He's not always in the best mood. He knows for him, in order to do something else with his day, he's locked into doing this reading until he's done. He's got to get through it, there are rabbits to pump full of lead. He doesn't get paid--for the reading--he wishes he did because those disability checks, they ain't shit he says. He slept badly last night. He's mildly distracted by a hunger pain in his stomach; sure, he's hungry for some good writing, but he'd rather a nice bloody steak. He thinks your smart-ass degree kept you out of the war, and safe with your nice femur intact, as opposed to the four pins he's got in his. He could care less of what you did yesterday, and will shout at your story: "You tell me what's like in a Soo Gang prison doing pushups while you got dysentery, then we gonna git somewhere!" When he's done with your story. He stuffs a rejection slip into your SASE and moves to the next story. Yes, Cousin Jimmy Bob is not Unkie Editor. He's just doing his job though. You can't blame him.
My point clear? And, in truth it ain't really either, but I got to say it's much more like Cousin Jimmy Bob than Unkie Editor.
I think it's important to take a moment to go over the basics of what your story looks like when you're getting ready to send it out:
1. It should be typed in a standard font. Times New Roman, Arial, Verdana or something else that doesn't have cursive squigglies in it. What's cute to you may not be cute to the reader. In fact, it makes you seem silly, and yes, that includes the title.
2. It should be double-spaced. Learn the following, in Word, select the entire text your story, go to "format" and hit double-spaced under "line spacing." It's a very simple way to make your reader feel comfortable.
3. It should be paginated. Go to the header or footer of your story and insert the page numbers. Learn how to do that too. It's under "insert" in your top menu bar.
Those are three simple steps that will drastically improve your reception to a tired reader, you commune with them with your writing, make them feel easy.
Now, with that said, you must assume the following: unless your use of language is like a God, chances are the bomb you drop on page 7 is not going to be read by your reader. Richard Bausch has this mantra, "The short story is a war," he'd shout that at us as we went through workshops. That simply means the story has to move. We need tension, something, to keep us reading. Quirky, interesting. Something. Now, I don't mean I need a dead body in the first sentence to keep reading, but you do need to give the reader a reason to keep reading besides, you saying through four five pages "I think the world is neat!" The reader doesn't know you; they are ready to give you a chance, but if you take too much time, well it's going to become one of those one-sided conversations with a friend from high school who just wanted to unload all his junk on you and not let you get a word in. Of all the stories I read, I'd say more than half have this problem. There is a notion that because the story was typed on the page that it is, by default, a story worth reading. Not true. Don't believe that.
When we do get to a story we dig, we do some variance of the following, "Ehh, that's not bad. I can't think of a reason to reject it so I'll put it to the side." Cousin Jimmy Bob does this. He doesn't feel too ornery anymore about the day. In fact, he starts reading the next story with a half smile.
At Our Stories we do read all the stories from beginning to end, but when you're working through the pile it's easy to spot out that the major problem is that it doesn't move, got no tension and right there--we got it--we have the reason to move on. Of course, we give feedback on all sorts of things in addition: dialogue, plot structures, grammar (which I can't stand to give feedback on, Josh is much better at this than I am) beginnings, endings, scene making and tons of other goodies that we hope to unlock for you.
So maybe we're not Unkie Editor, but we're certainly not Cousin Jimmy Bob either. If you tackle these basics--and you can properly see how to revise and shape your own work--your material will be better off when you send it out next time.