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Exploring the art of fiction

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What We Talk About When We Read Submissions

 

by David K. Slay •

Since the beginning of this year, I have been on a team of first readers for CRAFT, a literary journal with a mission to “explore the art of fiction with a focus on the elements of craft.” After a decade of writing and submitting short stories to scores of literary journals and magazines, I’ve found it very interesting, and educational, to be on the other side of the Submittable interface. Having completed a writing program and no longer being part of a critique group, I applied for this volunteer position primarily to help my own writing. I expected to learn more about the craft of short story writing while reviewing a steady stream of submissions, written by people at different levels of experience, and diverse backgrounds and cultures. Also, I was very interested in learning more about a question I’ve been thinking about since I began writing: What makes a “good” short story?

First a quick look behind the curtain at how the CRAFT reading process works. Like many journals that receive large numbers of submissions per month, CRAFT uses a group of dedicated, experienced readers to initially review each submission. This is not unusual, as I learned while poring over the websites and submission guidelines of many literary journals, looking for a good potential match for my writing. Independent journals may recruit volunteer readers or editorial assistants, while journals based in undergraduate or graduate school programs typically use current students. For as many submissions as possible, the first read of each story at CRAFT is completed by small groups of readers, each including an editor. Readers share their votes and rationales within the group, making recommendations regarding the potential for publication. CRAFT provides some guidance to help orient new readers, and each reader pulls from their own experiences and uses a number of internalized criteria upon which to make their judgments.

Writing fiction is an artistic endeavor, and critiquing can be seen as using a mix of relatively objective criteria, colored by a degree of subjectivity. I believe either extreme should be avoided: It’s not possible nor would it be desirable to try and make critiquing a science, but it wouldn’t be helpful to the journal, nor fair to the writers submitting stories, if the judgments made were completely subjective. Indeed, for CRAFT in particular, focusing on the craft elements in writing fiction is a main priority of the publication. But what are the “relatively objective criteria” being used by first readers? Knowing more might help answer the question of what makes a good short story, or the reciprocal, what faults or shortcomings typically prevent a story from getting accepted.

Perhaps because of my past life as a psychologist, it’s easy for me to see things from a research perspective. Having the benefit of my teammates’ thoughts and ideas about the strengths and weaknesses of stories we were reading, I saw an opportunity to learn more about what makes a story “work,” and what doesn’t. I first began keeping track of the concepts and terms used by both myself and the other readers. Next I wanted to see if they could be sorted into categories, in effect doing an informal factor analysis. The idea was to identify clusters of terms that have some commonality, and then come up with a label to represent the cluster. Bringing this problem-specific information more into focus, and organizing and describing it could be useful for aspiring writers submitting stories to CRAFT, and elsewhere. The results could provide a more objective way by which to evaluate the quality of their own work.

The following table shows the results of categorizing the terms or concepts into problem groups. These results are based on written comments made while reviewing 154 short story submissions, sixty-six by me, and eighty-eight by a team of readers that included me, two or three other readers, and an editor. The percentages in the table refer to how often perceived flaws or shortcomings were cited in each problem area. For example, flaws regarding “Language / Prose” were mentioned thirty-five percent of the time. The categories are rank-ordered according to the number or percentage of flaws per category.

 

CRITICAL FEEDBACK AREAS FOUND WHILE REVIEWING SUBMISSIONS

DEPTH (56 percent)

  • Superficial (surface-level information or feelings); underdeveloped character(s); weak character agency or motivation; lack of “interiority;” uses stereotypes

STRUCTURE (54 percent)

  • Narration
    • Unclear, inconsistent, lacking form (arc, pyramid, or otherwise); or structure too apparent, too visible; internal inconsistencies, illogical
  • Pace
    • Narration moves too slowly, too quickly, or is irregular
  • Beginning / Ending
    • Starts too soon; ending weak, contrived, or telegraphed
  • Orientation
    • Confusing time or tenses; reader not grounded in time and place
  • Point of View (POV)
    • POV choice doesn’t facilitate the narration

IMPACT (39 percent)

  • First line, paragraph, or page confusing or missed opportunity (see discussion below); story unengaging, unremarkable, little at stake, lacks tension; or impact is “unearned,” using “surprise” endings, melodrama, gratuitous violence, sex, profanity, etc.

CREATIVITY (37 percent)

  • Too familiar theme, plot, or story; uninspired figurative language; overreliance on adverbs or adjectives, clichés, or stereotypes

LANGUAGE / PROSE (35 percent)

  • Irregular or unnecessarily complicated syntax; limited vocabulary; distracting rhythm, comma misuse; run-on sentences; excessive amount of grammar or spelling errors

EXPOSITION (16 percent)

  • Too explanatory, telling more than showing, or too cryptic—suggesting rather than showing; sacrifices clarity for style; imbalance of scene/dialogue and exposition

VOICE (15 percent)

  • Distracts from the narration, is affected, inauthentic; doesn’t fit the character(s) or narrator; or indistinct from that of other characters

ECONOMY (14 percent)

  • Overly long, needs to be pruned; repetitive or superfluous words; lacks clarity and concision

INTENTION (7 percent)

  • Signs of author contamination (see discussion below); case-making or promotes an agenda; conscious or unconscious display of bigotry, prejudice, sexism, racism, etc.

DIALOGUE (6 percent)

  • Flat, transcription-like, or unnatural-sounding; contains unnecessary or incidental details; confusing tags or unclear attribution; excessive “blocking” (including action in most tags); conveys information the speaker or characters would already know

POLISH (6 percent)

  • Shows signs of being rushed, insufficient proofing, careless presentation; unrefined

GUIDELINES (3 percent)

  • Formatting that is distracting or difficult to read; not in English; departs too much from stated submission guidelines

*Percentages don’t add to one hundred because each review mentioned more than one flaw.

 

Shortcomings in stories most often occurred with respect to Depth (fifty-six percent) and Structure (fifty-four percent). Next most common were the three categories Impact (thirty-nine percent), Creativity (thirty-seven percent), and Language / Prose (thirty-five percent). Most of the category titles and examples in the table probably are self-explanatory, but a few deserve additional comment:

Impact — This component has several aspects, but one in particular deserves special attention. As a submissions reader, the impression made on me by the first sentence and paragraph is very important, and occurs on several levels. Subjectively, I want to be immediately engaged—if not intrigued a little—and feel I’m being effectively introduced to the story; but more is being revealed than the writer might fully appreciate. Concentrated here, in only a few words, lines, or sentences, is information about other components to follow—voice, point of view, creativity, and elements of prose (syntax, word choice, polish). Ideally it’s a smooth transition, not hampered by distractions or lack of clarity, and it’s an opportunity wasted if it doesn’t serve its purpose.

Language / Prose — Often submissions come from writers for whom English may not be their primary language. The prose may include to varying degrees words, expressions, or inflections from their primary language(s). Even though these effects may depart from “proper” English, frequently they are salutary; for example, they can lend authenticity to a character’s voice. But they are subject to the same evaluative criteria applied to the story in general, such as creativity, concision, and clarity. The key here seems to be the degree to which the author is aware and in control of the effect.

Intention — This category includes “author contamination” problems that, although they occurred relatively infrequently, are somewhat difficult to recognize and describe. In my experience, rather than appearing as a noticeable flaw, a little alarm bell—more like a feeling of discomfort—goes off internally when I encounter this issue. On a small scale, author contamination becomes apparent when the narrator or a character says or does something clearly at odds with what has been established (albeit by the author) as the character’s persona, so the reader “hears” it as coming from the author. On a larger scale sometimes a story appears to be written primarily to express the author’s perspective or feelings through the narrator, whether or not the author is aware of this intention. It’s particularly noticeable when the perspective reveals some form of bigotry, prejudice, or hostility.

In overview, for a story to stand out, and to significantly increase the likelihood of it getting selected for publication, most if not all of the elements in the table need to be present and working together at the same time. Moreover, many of the individual components complement or support others, which can create a kind of synergy. When a story is not recommended for further consideration, it’s almost always because at least one important element is missing, underdeveloped, or dominates to the detriment of others.


People write stories for a number of different reasons, but if one reason is to be read by others, and to have work published, it’s necessary (but not sufficient) for that writer to learn about the craft, to learn what makes a “good” short story. But it’s not a question for which there are many straightforward answers or much agreement. The ideas and opinions I found, in writing workshops, by reading books and articles about writing, and from studying submission guidelines and reading interviews with editors, were mostly anecdotal, piecemeal, and sometimes contradictory. It turns out, for instructional purposes, it’s easier to come to some agreement about what does not make a good short story, rather than what does. This study tried to present a more comprehensive and incisive look at those elements.

 


After retiring from a career as a psychologist and an agency administrator, DAVID K. SLAY completed two years of short story writing workshops, primarily in the University of California, Los Angeles, Writers’ Program. His work can be found in a wide range of literary journals, including Gold Man Review, Calliope, ImageOutWrite, Wards, The Magnolia Review, and others. He currently is a fiction submissions reader for CRAFT, and lives in Seal Beach, California.