Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Author: Christopher T Garry


What’s the Pinch?

The vision for Bartleby Snopes is clear to its editors. For the weekly content, BS is looking for a narrow scope of work defined by length, form and quality. However, simply put, it’s hard to find. Worse, it’s getting harder to give constructive feedback without edging towards snark. If you’ve read my posts and rejection letters you know I hate ‘being formal’…

Several shifts in market forces and writer skill base has made that harder in the last ten years. BS responded by becoming one of the earliest and loudest writer advocates by giving constructive feedback with a factor of unprecedented timeliness. That “harder to find” thing… Yeah, right now, that’s a pinch that makes this editor wants to rant. What does that mean?

Let’s look at a parallel profession for a moment: news editorial. If it’s news then it’s not the Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite types who resonate for the public anymore. It’s the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert types, who argue that ridiculous public policy and behavior needs to be shown as ridiculous, regardless of being part of “establishment”.

stewartIt’s not about better news, but it is a realistic requirement that news editorial evolve in face of changing public consciousness: If snark is what resonates now in editorial then it’s because so much of what’s under scrutiny is ridiculous. In light of this, it’s hard to keep a straight face when reporting or editorializing. It’s the pinch that makes this editor want to go all “Daily Show.” Yeah, that’s a thing now. Going Jon Stewart.

Is responding really that hard for Literary Editors?

So much for news editorial. I would argue that lit magazines can’t say they’re not feeling the same pressure. In other words, if there is any analogy for us lit editors, it is that we don’t have to “accept the ridiculous”, simply based on an inborn desperation in American authors for validation as unique and special snow-flakes. It’s suicide for any editor to assume that “human beings are special” based solely on the fact that they hold public office or have access to a spell-checker and a submit button.

The large portion of newer writers flooding the market with submissions don’t workshop (in any of the loosest definitions of the word). They write fiction like they write email–especially flash fiction. And let’s focus on that specific form for a moment: Flash Fiction. Bartleby Snopes’ preference for Flash Fiction is quite possibly one of the most misunderstood calls we have out there for writers. It’s not for lack of trying–it’s clarified in almost all the feedback and advice we give.

BS is not publishing the literary equivalent of lolcats vignettes or 4chan jokes or email anecdotes. That would simply not be the quality or level of effort that BS is interested in. Yet, that level of effort characterizes most of what writers produce *and* submit. Notice that’s a two-part animal.

Yes, you should write
For the “produce” part of this claim, there’s a 90 percent rule for a writer–writers who are to fill notebooks with snippets, sketches, frameworks, quotes, outlines and false starts. As a writer, you’re supposed to produce miles of dribble and undeveloped crap before you get to the good stuff. The problem is that nowadays, submission procedures allows writers to pretty much submit it all–90% of which they shouldn’t.

By way of example, it’s said that Orson Scott Card writes around 500,000 words a year. Despite this, he never expects to publish more than about 10% of it. He knows better. He’s a professional. He’s one of those writers who, if he couldn’t write, would probably explode. Having said that, if his editors saw it all they would be quite right to respond to it and say, “I don’t care if you’re Orson Scott Card, this is not your best effort.”

…No, you shouldn’t submit all of it
Do you as a writer honestly expect to publish everything you write? Can you tell the difference in which bits of your work is which? There are no snarky analogies for this one. They are simple questions. I guarantee you’ll be a happier writefacepalmr if you have an honest answer.

Specifically, let me be clear: I find it harder and harder to respond to submissions on par with (and I resort to my news analogy) “Weiner sends crotch selfie” using high quality “Macneil-Lehrer” editorial. Quite simply, the snark in me is crying out for more hands to handle the facepalm I am experiencing in reading some of these submissions.

What do writers want from editors?
Let me put it to the you, the writer. If an editor reads your story and wants to cry in pain, which class of response do you want:



The options

In no particular order:

  • Class 3 “It’s Bad”: If BS were more blunt or mocking (as a few accusations lately would indicate) we could go class 3. When I read a story about a clown who masturbates in a closet with a penlight while reading Chaucer, I tend to write back with a rejection that says, “It’s missing the dramatic arc and character development we usually go for.” …. When what I really want to write is, “OMG, is this autobiographical? Dude, use a booklight clip so you’re hands-free at least… BTW, why do you think we’d publish this?” All snark. Some meanness. Lots of honesty. Can the submitter take it?
  • Class 4 “You’re Bad”: I guarantee if we opened a bullpen for rejected submissions and allowed public comment, the unwashed masses on the internet would go class 4 with abandon. You can rely on the Internet to treat you with all the vicious sensitivity of a group of seventh-grade girls giggling over your mom’s maxi-pad that just fell out of your purse.
  • Class 1 “It’s Not for Us”: Old-school editors are “class 1” response all the way. They do nothing to service the writers as a whole who have forcibly changed the landscape of submissions. Sorry you class-one-type editors: You can continue reading 5000 stories a year and publish 12 of them, while giving no feedback at all, but you aren’t acknowledging that the way we tell each other stories has fundamentally changed. Writers are responding by creating their own venues, and your monolithic influence is diluted. There’s a little smudge there on your Monolith. I can see it. Might be a ding actually. Ouch. 
  • Class 2 “It’s Undeveloped”: Bartleby Snopes gives “class 2” feedback by mission and by design–specific to your piece, which may be something else besides ‘undeveloped’ but at least you get an idea. We really want to be kind. We really want to be constructive. We really want to send the kind of rejection letter that we (as writers) would find honest and encouraging. We’re considerate, consistent, patient, accessible. We’re the 90’s parent. We’re Andy Rooney. We’re writers.

Class 3 response (where snark is king) is tempting. We get some truly weird, awful submissions. Unless you say something, I’ll continue to resist the snark. Mostly. You want constructive, right? I can do that.

Which reminds me… Are you getting any other feedback? Maybe you don’t workshop, but who is your first reader? What are your methods for revision? Do you have a web forum you like? A favorite blog? What’s the best rejection you ever got? The rudest? The funniest? What are the most rejections you ever got for a story that was eventually published?

Sound off folks.

Over-used Phraseology Goes Over like a Lead Balloon.

You’ve received feedback: “The prose overall needs to be scrubbed for cliche and over-used wording.” The meaning here is obvious, but what to do about it? Are you really compelled to write a narrative that sounds different than you speak? Sure. You easily leave out the “umm” and “like” and “listen here, friend” in order to achieve a transparent decorum of formality. Why not leave out the trite phrases and images that everyone seems to know already? I would argue it’s fundamental to story-telling–at least the story-telling we are interested in.

Here’s a test: If you can google a quoted set of 2 or 3 words and find tens or hundreds of thousands of matches, you’re best to find something else. Another test: If you can say the first half of the phrase and most folks can guess the rest of the phrase without prompting, that is also a bad sign.

Let’s say you’re tempted to write in the narrative (not dialog) this phrase, “a woman’s work is never done.” Not only is this over-used (13 million hits!) but it is also derogatory, inasmuch as a progressive woman will not saddle herself with an unfair load simply based on gender “obligations” Additionally it is culturally-specific and maybe era-specific to mid-1950s American suburban middle-class WASPs. Is that really what you want to convey about your character? Can’t you find a more original way to say it?

Try this in the narrative (not dialog): “Tall, dark and handsome,” which taken literally applies to Darth Vader as well as Abraham Lincoln. Such ambiguous words lead to a lack of specificity. In that case why are you writing them? Furthermore, in this case, the cliche’s connotation is that the narrative speaker is female, possibly lonely and a bit longing, romantically.

Is there any lack of truth in a cliche? A stereotype? A common turn of a phrase? Of course not. The point is to distinguish your narrative utterly, while at the same time achieving thematic universality through resonance with the audience. The temptation is to resonate by using something familiar. Using old things in new ways is a real struggle.

By way of example, you film buffs out there will know that the use of Ligeti’s composition in the recent Godzilla soundtrack was largely panned as odd and unoriginal, if not regarded at least as some sort of misplaced, ill-conceived homage. Inexperienced movie-goers presumed that it was simply taken from Kubrick’s film soundtrack 2001 (The director himself admits stumbling on the piece in the 2001 soundtrack while developing the said action sequence for Godzilla.) However, the iconic choral piece does predate even Kubrick’s use of it by seven years. Is this chorale never to be used again in a film? Maybe not. It’s almost impossible to overcome the ingrained experience conveyed in Kubrick’s earlier film. The onus on the modern filmmaker to re-use it uniquely–even after 45 years–is huge.

So much for film. In literature this re-use problem applies to choices in story elements, as well as narrative itself. Does your mother character lay guilt-trips? Is your detective hard-boiled? Is your dark night also stormy? Is it raining out when your character mopes at the window sill? Is there an animal in the distance making a noise? It had better be darn original.

We are modernists you say? Maybe. T.S. Eliot did say, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” It means to take ideas, take unique words, take startling imagery and make it your own. So you can write about familiar story elements, but you are really going to have to struggle to make them fresh. Eliot was a modernist and arguably subscribed to the “make it new” mantra, though maybe not quite in the way that says, “it’s never been said that way before.” But perhaps you get the idea.

Should a writer re-submit based on feedback?

Q: You give feedback, but why don’t you accept re-submissions?

A: Changing your piece might not be the way to go. However, our feedback might help you find the right venue, and help you ensure future submissions here are a good fit.

Let’s suppose you have a flash fiction submission that has been rejected for something specific, like “anecdote” or “vignette.” You don’t have to change your submission. Consider that your submission (as it is) might be a perfect fit for another venue.

In other words, for our venue we tend to go for a specific range of flash fiction. Roughly said, “in under 1200 words, go nuts on dramatic arc, plot and characterization.” So, painstakingly pack in everything needed, then take out only the words that make the story’s soul cry. In reality, a stunning number of submissions under 1200 words do not take advantage of that space allowed. Remember, “vignette” is a four-letter word, here. So is “anecdote.” And “saturated fats,” but that’s another post.

How does BS come up with feedback?
Did you know that, for every polite feedback response we give, it’s been distilled from a string of multiple editors’ comments probably five to ten times as long? For example, it’s possible that I might argue internally (on the submitter’s behalf) that the piece is perfect in every word, the way it is. Perhaps the submission poetic, multi-layered and sufficient to cast a stunning light on a moment. This is a moment in which the narrator accomplishes “something awesome”. How often do you see that? I might ask. Yes, the response comes, but it’s just a vignette. These characters could be anyone

And that gets back to our preference on Flash Fiction. In the example, the response to you might be,

It’s possible to relate the entire sequence of events–even the layering and the unique coolness and voice–in a much larger story expanded to the format mentioned earlier, under the word limit. 

But wait–oh-oh–would that mean it was undeveloped? Preposterous. However, if you do a re-write and tackle our feedback, perhaps you might discover something along the way.

Wait…No amount of work will get an acceptance?
Let’s be careful here. The original question was, why don’t we want re-submissions? Don’t mess up what you already have on our account. You know the guidelines, you know the tone of our content. If you submit a square peg for us to put in a round hole, then we will give you feedback, saying, “we’ve concluded that this is indeed square…why would you submit such silliness? Good luck somewhere else.” If we do this, you should find a home for your beautiful square peg. Not re-submit to us after “some tweaks.”

Given a specific piece and a specific venue, there may never be a way to change the piece. The process of changing a piece to meet specific feedback from one venue is a serious consideration. There are thousands of venues out there. Piece shows you are done learning your craft? Maybe. Piece too hard to re-visit? Possibly. So you conclude: feedback noted, move on. That is an acceptable outcome!

On the other hand, if you have exhausted the possibility that there are no skill issues at stake, then at the end of the day, you are your piece’s only advocate. Are you willing to perform surgery on a piece and re-craft it to the tone and requirements of a particular venue? It’s an unusual creative writer that is willing to do that. It’s a good skill to have in the commercial world for example, but certainly not required here.

Moving on with that piece is ok
So, yes, we give feedback, if you ask. No, we don’t want that piece resubmitted, because it’s painful all around and possibly the wrong path for that piece anyway. Yes, we want you to submit again, if you have a developed piece you think is a good match.

What does ‘undeveloped’ mean?

You writers may sniff at the rejection letter and say, “What does ‘undeveloped’ mean?” Glad you asked, since it was the biggest word in the graph Nate mentioned.

Many of the editor comments here at Bartleby Snopes roll up into the ‘undeveloped’ tag because the author did not submit a work that reflected a finished concept. This is really not a question of, “is it good technically” or “stylistically” … It’s more “is the core finished?”

Imagine the Statue of David finished to glorious perfection as we see it today, except…

… oh gosh. The bone structure is there. The finished texture… The color, the repose, the eyes…those gorgeous eyes. The definition, texture, the fat-davidperch and the hair. So much of this rendition’s detail can be evaluated and said to be perfect on a point by point basis. The sculptor spent hundreds of hours crafting this, probably using the absolute best of 99 percent of his skills. (Yes, a man made this).

Looking at this prankster’s picture of what David would look like if he were an “artistic miss,” you and I know that what is shown in this picture to the right is not the best version of what the artist intended or could achieve. Because we’ve seen the real thing.

Despite this, when it comes to writers, they don’t always see something so obvious about their own work as what is in that photograph. Essentially, they’re spending so much time carving the hair on the nipple just right, that they don’t see that what they have framed needed to be trimmed, revised, vetted, discussed, tested, etc before being polished.

So, undeveloped does not mean unpolished. It means that the writer needs to take a good hard look at every angle to see whether the broad strokes they are making are well-thought out and the best of all possibilities.

Let me illustrate. I’ll give you an insider glimpse. Nate might not like one of his minions showing the magic behind the curtain, but here it is. This is my inner dialog while reading a recent story: “Tim, the Boy Who Thought About the Army,” which is not a real story submitted to Bartleby Snopes, but you should get the idea.

  • The facts are all here. But when does this take place? Had the Army recruiter ever been around Tim before? Was the sergeant really gay? What’s the difference between hueys and choppers? I should google that later.
  • Maybe this should take place in a circus instead. Like a metaphor. What did it all smell like? Wouldn’t Tim get dust in his eye doing that? Would he want to join the circus or the army? If it were the circus, would he have any empathy for the poor animals or maybe the carnies? Did they really have small hands (the carnies)? Would it be better if one escapes (the animals)? Maybe leaves a scar? Maybe a carny leaves a scar? Is it ‘carny’ or ‘carney’…?
  • The circus animals are like the oppressed nations that bad armies beat up. Maybe circus is not such a good metaphor for army. This story might be better if it weren’t so literal though… blah, blah, blah.

You’ll note that, while it may sound like I missed my meds today, in fact editors really can get this distracted reading your story.

You wrote the story. You know what’s coming next. I don’t.

It’s like typing into Google. You (the author) type the letter ‘C‘ and Google (the editor) has 75 ideas of what might come next, based on past experience. You’re actually going to type, “Carpenter” but silly Google guesses, “Is it Colon? Columbus? Capillary? I bet it’s Cancer! Cancer is really popular today – especially since you accidentally clicked on an advert for Home Cancer Care last Christmas. Hope everything is okay there. Oooo! Maybe it’s Christmas! Is it Christmas? Is it?”

“No, Google. It’s not ‘Christmas’… Ok, now it is Christmas, because that would make my Carpenter story about Jesus more ironic.” Friggin’ Ben Bailey was right about Google.

I digress. Editors who may have mild autism spectrum disorders aside, I do have a point.

As an author, you get one shot with any given editor. Don’t waste it. If you haven’t worked out the editor’s reading experience – anticipated their questions (and answered the ones that are worth answering) in the body of your work – then by the time you submit it, your story is probably a miss.

We are not your workshop. I would love to share this crazed inner monologue with each and every writer who submits. If you as a writer are the type to get anything out of that kind of response to your own personal works, then you know it’s invigorating, refreshing to have a dialog. But there is no time for that kind of sharing when writing rejection letters. You get a few sentences and maybe some encouragement.

Stunningly, some writers don’t want to hear even that. They are just like the sculptor looking at that fat statue, unwilling or unable to see that, at some point, they committed to something in their writing that closed the door to a better possibility.

And if any of you want to argue with me that a fat David is good enough, I will personally email you a painful flick of the ear. You are worse than I am with your side-tracked thoughts. Just develop your work. Workshop it or have a friend read it or whatever it takes. Early on too, before you realize too late that (heaven, forbid) there is no polishing your turd.

Get it rock solid and bullet-proof by the time you submit. Believe me, it’s more fun for us to write accept letters.

Christopher T Garry is a Senior Assistant Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine.