The Good, the Bad, and the Believable

From the time I learned I could string sentences together and create a story, I wanted to write.  I started with fairy tales with princesses and evil witches, and then moved on to barely more realistic stories peopled with righteous children and evil adults.  The characters were cardboard stereotypes – mean teachers, unhappy orphans, and on and on.  People were either good or bad – there was no in-between.  It’s the way the world seemed to me as a child.  Everything was right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair.

Of course as we grow up we realize that the world is full of ambiguity, that most people straddle the fence between good and bad at some times in their lives.  Things are complicated.  I want the books I read to be complicated. I want the characters to be fully realized, complicated beings.  I want to feel empathy for even the most unlikable character.

As I’ve said many times, I don’t care a thing about liking the characters in a story or book.  Some of the greatest characters in literature are basically unlikable people (the first that comes to mind is the protagonist in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace).  But there is always some humanity there, something that makes me want to stick with them long enough to find out what happens.  That humanity is what makes a good character.  Not good in the way I thought back when I wrote about those princesses, but good in a way that makes you say, yeah, I believe in this person.

I just finished reading Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, and while I didn’t love the book as much as many critics did, I admire the way he made even the most unlikable characters sympathetic in some way.  In the author’s interview at the end of the book, Rachman addresses this. “Several (characters) are tricky types, the sorts who, had I met them in a newsroom, might have prompted me to run.  But on the page, I had fondness for them.  It’s the writing that did this.  To form these characters, I tried to conceive of their motives, resentments, disappointments … Writing (and reading) is a sort of exercise in empathy… (it) stirs compassion that, in real life, is so often obscured by our own motives.”

I love that.  “Stirs compassion that in real life is so often obscured by our own motives.”  I believe that the best fiction does this, for the reader and the writer.  That’s what I want in my own stories.


The Magic of Revision

I have a story that I love that hasn’t found a home yet.   I really believe in this story.  That said, I know it could be better.  I sent it out to a few places, against my better judgment but antsy to get it into the world, and sure enough, it was rejected.  So when an astute reader I know offered to take a look (thanks Gary) I sent it off to him and he replied with a wonderfully insightful email about where it needs work.  Lots of great stuff about thinking of the story as a play and keeping the action all on stage.  Just what I needed to remember for this particular piece.

Now it’s time to dig back into it and make it the story I know it can be.  Revision time.  Unlike lots of writers, I love the revision process, especially when I’ve been away from the story for a while and can look at it with fresh eyes.  As my friend Kristen-Paige Madonia says, “Revision is where the magic happens.”  And I believe that.  It’s where things begin to bubble to the surface, things that you never knew were down there under all that pretty prose.  Deeper meanings.  Themes.  I’m often surprised when I’m heavy into revision by the things I find.  It’s like discovering a story by someone else.

Supposedly, Hemingway rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times.  I know it sounds like a lot, but I totally get it.  Sometimes you just can’t get the words quite right, and you have to keep trying and trying.  As Truman Capote said, “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”  Or in my case, the delete key.

Now I’m not talking line editing. I’m talking serious revision, as in re-visioning.  Really looking at the story in a different way, from a different angle.  It may mean that I slice and dice some of the stuff I like the best, but if that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.  Because in the long run it’s not about those (in my mind) brilliant sentences. It’s about the story.  About making the story as a whole brilliant, or at least as close to brilliant as I can make it.

I’m excited to revisit this story.  There are some stories I get sick of before I can get them right, but I don’t think that will happen with this one.  It’s my favorite kind of story, full of normal people behaving badly. The beginning and the ending work for me – it’s just the middle (or muddle) that needs the work.  At least, I think.  But I can’t be sure until I get in there and dig.  Who knows?  I might find something I never knew was there.

Submission 101

Talented, would-be-published writers tell me all the time that they have finished articles and don’t know where to send them, or that they have short stories collecting dust, or that they don’t think they are good enough to get published.  So, this is for all the writers out there who need some encouragement to send work out, or just need a kick in the ass.  Whichever way you want to look at it, here are some tips to increase your odds of success once you screw up the courage to submit your work.

1. Before you send it out, make sure it’s ready.  Don’t assume an editor will recognize the masterpiece buried under typos and grammatical errors.  There’s too much competition for you to think anyone will take work that’s not the best it can be.

2. Do your research. While you can’t read every magazine and literary journal out there, if you’re serious about being published, you’ll read the ones you’re submitting to.  Every editorial board has preferences for style and material, and the only way to get a feel for what they like is to read them.  You can pick up some from book stores, or you can order back copies from the journal’s website.  You might also check out Cliff Garstang’s blog, Perpetual Folly.  He’s reviewing some of the top journals in his “Year of the Lit Mag” series.

3. Study the submission guidelines for each journal. These guidelines are in addition to the manuscript standards you should already be familiar with – double-spacing, 10 – 12 point font, 1 inch margins, etc.  The guidelines will tell you things like maximum word count, whether or not they accept genres, whether they want snail mail or electronic submissions, and any other particular preferences they might have.  Take these seriously.  Why bother to send a journal a 10,000 word story when they don’t publish anything over 7500 words?  Geek that I am, I have a spreadsheet that lists journals I think might like my work (based on reading dozens), their submission periods, max words counts, how long they take to respond, and tons of other information.

4. Track your submissions. I use my handy-dandy spreadsheet to track when I send a story out, and when I get a response.  Because I also have a column with an expected response date, I can easily track when I need to follow up.  If you’re not as nuts as I am and don’t want to bother making a spreadsheet, check out duotrope. It’s a free and easy-to-use submission tracking website.  Whatever you use, make sure to track submissions.  There’s nothing more embarrassing than sending a story to a journal and realizing later that they’ve already rejected it once.

8. Don’t give up.  Few writers have their stories accepted by the first journal they submit to. If you get a rejection, send the story right out again.  I have a rule to get it back in the mail within 48 hours unless I decide it’s time for a major revision.

All of this takes effort, and lots of writers hate the submission process.  I happen to love it. I love research, and I love spreadsheets.  But more importantly, I love the challenge of finding the right home for my work.  If I really believe in a story, I owe it to that story to do everything I can to get it out into the world and off my desk.

So stop whining and start putting the effort into submissions that you’ve put into your writing.  You’ll increase your odds of getting that “We’d love to publish your story” email we all obsessively watch for.