Friday, February 20, 2009

The Size 2 Dress

In the previous post I promised to talk about fit.  

Editors are artists too.  This is something really important to get into a writer's head.  They're not just a faceless entity whose lot in life is to invisibly and tirelessly serve an author's prose.  This is true in all fiction, but I think one of the places this impacts the most is with the short story form.  Whether it's an anthology, themed or not, or a magazine, themed or not, or a collection or what have you, the editor looks not just at the words in the story but the fit and flow with other stories.  Think about it.  Do you think that the stories that appear in magazines are lined up in alphabetical order?  Most prominent writer first?  You think so?  Take a look sometime.  There's real skill in arranging short stories so that they enhance each other, complement each other, or contrast with each other to take the reader on a wild ride.

Think like an editor for a moment.  Would you put two clown stories together if the rest of the stories are about other aspects of a circus in a circus-themed anthology?  How about length?  Would you put the shortest first and the longest last?  Could it be more effective the other way around?  How about alternating length?  What if the artificial (let's say alphabetical by author) structure you originally had in mind ended up with one story ending on everyone having cake, and the next story began with a bunch of characters eating pie?  Maybe it would work, or maybe you would want to read the whole arrangement from beginning to end and then sleep on it.

Just like an author does, or a graphic artist, or any other artist, editors put careful consideration into how things look, sound, and feel together on the page.  They do this to a certain extent on the word by word level, but also as a meta.  Some are brilliant at this, while others struggle.  This is why there are awards that focus on editors.

Which brings me to the hapless author blindly submitting to various magazines and anthologies.  Even assuming the author has done his or her homework and is in the right genre and even fits in the theme, what the author can't predict is how his or her work will fit with the other stories.  It could be a really strong story.  It could be the best story.  But it might not fit.  It might be the only really long story.  It might be the only flash.  It might have a jaunty voice while the others are more formal.  

As much as us rational folks might predict that the stories that come in will be random, that's not how it works.  Consciously or subconsciously, we write similar things at similar times.  You may have heard that stories about summer frequently come in during late summer or fall, about the time that editors are looking for stories that have a winter or spring theme.  But it goes deeper, and it's easy to get superstitious about this stuff.  When I was coordinating the writer's workshop, I never failed to be amazed at the similarity of the stories that came in.  One year I had two stories about Sasquatch--out of less than a dozen submissions.  What are the odds?  Very good, actually.  Partly that's due to the fact that novice writers tend to write about the same things; invading aliens, sasquatch/yeti (who are often time travelers or aliens or have an advanced civilization underground,) kids finding stuff in a field, the unstoppable hero who has retired but is being dragged on one more adventure, Chosen One stories where a 'special snowflake' young adult is put upon until a Being of Importance comes to take him or her away, and so forth.  These can be excellent stories in the right hands.  There's nothing wrong with writing them.  But there are other reasons, seemingly mystical, that have two authors from vastly different cultures and different parts of the world writing on the same thing at the same time.  Bummer if they're writing novels and submitting to the same markets--they'll get a lot of "I just saw this" reactions from editors.  But for anthologies and magazines it can be a boon.  Maybe the plot isn't similar, but the feeling of the story is.  It might be wintry, or bloody but beautiful, or have that historical tone without going into thees and thous that the editor really likes.  The stories start to fit together for a particular issue, and along comes your story--the odd duck.  If it's so shiny and wonderful the editor can't stand rejecting it, s/he may hang onto it for a while hoping other stories collect around it, but if that doesn't happen, the unfortunate thing is that you may get the classic rejection that makes us all crazy:  "I really liked this story, but it doesn't fit the magazine's needs at this time.  Please consider something else in the future."  Wah.

Sometimes you can't get your size 12 story into that size 2 dress, or your newborn-sized story can wear that size 2 as a blanket and not much else.  Or the color is wrong, or the cut, or ... you get the idea.

So if you're getting personal or at least personable rejections, don't despair.  Eventually your story will find a place where it'll fit in.  There's no planning or predicting it.  It just takes patience and persistence, the mantra of us newbie or neopro writers.  Good luck to us all!

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