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Literary magazines and the numbers game, Part II

Last week, I outlined the factors that have led to a literary publishing landscape in which publications are more inundated than ever with submissions. And while the readership for such magazines is what we might refer to as "evolved," it's still a fact that any writing we do as fictioneers, or essayists, or even poets, exists and lives in the context of endless distractions and competition for attention. Why read a good novel when there are great shows on Netflix and Showtime? Why not interrupt the flow of my reading to respond to that buzzing cell phone? But the fact is, writing has always been a game of locking a reader into the piece, and holding on tightly.

When I read submissions to this magazine, I'm always aware that I am starting by judging the beginning. Some of that comes from a journalism background in which "the lede" mattered, as did what you could build as a story "before the jump." Those principles aren't necessarily foreign to literary writing. And after years as a writer and editor, and as someone who listens carefully to writers whose work I admire, I've come to some perceptions. Maybe they'll help. And I'll make some points by using a single sentence. Daniel Gumbiner's fine 2018 novel The Boatbuilder begins this way:

Berg cracked the window open and squeezed his way into the farmhouse.

1) What does the protagonist want? To me, this is the most basic element of your story. The great novelist Richard Russo believes "conflict is the most important element of a story," and I don't disagree. But conflict only rises when you know what the protagonist wants, and therefore can recognize when something is getting in the way. Now, the idea of "want" has its elements as well. Some call it "motivation," which I see as mostly logic, a pro/con kind of equation ("He was motivated to work more hours, because he needed the money"). Others call it "desire," which I see as emotional but still somewhat logical ("He was so in love with Mary he wanted her to marry him"); The author Robert Olen Butler speaks in his guide to writing From Where You Dream as "yearning," meaning something that may defy logic and be impossible to achieve, but is no less powerful, and maybe more powerful. Butler believes a story really can't exist without yearning at its core. But yearning may come later. In the sentence above, we don't know what Berg wants yet, but we know he wants it badly enough to break into someone's house, which is an intermediary want that might suggest yearning, greed, revenge, fear, or a host of other wants.

2) Motivation often works best when it's proactive. A lot of stories I see from both student writers and newer writers submitting to the magazine is something along the order of a character, minding their own business, has something terrible beset their world. The character then is pushed on the task of repelling this incursion, which is a motivation, but maybe not the most effective kind. But we never knew what the character wants to start with. Bret Anthony Johnston at Harvard has alluded to the ubiquitous "alarm clock story" so many college instructors see, in which the story begins with the alarm clock failing to chime, setting our student character into a day in which everyone is angry and the student becomes a passive target in the drama, just wanting to be left alone. "I want this bad thing to stop happening" is never as good as "I want this to happen, and will risk a lot to get it," in my opinion. Revenge, the fuel of many a story, is a "positive" motivation, while "fending off an attack" is not. In such stories, the reader rarely gets to know what the character was ever about. There's an Everyman element, or universality, to defending from something awful and undeserved, but it's not proactive. In the sentence above, Berg is taking a very proactive, if misguided, action: Breaking into someone's home. We learn a lot right there, though we really know nothing specific about Berg yet.

3) Conflict needs to get right into play. Many of the stories I read, both from students and new writers, frequently begin with some sort of scene-setting: Describing a room, or the weather, or maybe someone's face. But these are all static, and as an author, I've come to believe readers will not always stay with you until page three to know what the problem turns out to be. The opening conflict isn't always the ultimate conflict, but a story without tension fails to pull the reader along. Remember those great stories you read in your English class, the ones by Edith Wharton and Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor? I wonder how well-read they'd be in our hectic world. "Big Two-Hearted River" was a masterpiece story published nearly one hundred years ago. The luxury of slow unfolding is harder and harder to pull off. Back to The Boatbuilder: Conflict, and therefore tension, is set in a dozen words. Berg is invading someone else's world, and we want to know why he would do that and what might happen to him for doing it.

If a writer can begin by at least thinking about these three elements, I suspect the work will have a better chance of being read by editors, and then by readers. A book I recommend is called The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile,

in which literary agent Noah Lukeman fairly accurately points out that your four-hundred-page novel manuscript may only be read for five pages before being thrown aside. For your twenty-five-page short story, nesting on Submittable among those hundreds or thousands of competing submissions, it may be less than a page.

I've more than once heard the phrase "Grab the reader," and there is truth to that with the right approach. But "Grab the reader" can lead to some less-useful tricks, such as shock value or provocation. Maybe I'd use the phrase "engage the reader as quickly as you can" instead.

In art, of course, creativity is about exceptions from the so-called rules as well. Here's the opening line of Anna Burns' recent Booker-Prize-winning novel Milkman: "The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot was the same day the milkman died." Hmmmm....

Of course, there are lots of factors that work for you as well, and one of them is the simple element of risk and surprise. I'll talk more about these in upcoming posts.

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