Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer


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.

Christopher T Garry

I... ate it. Fine. You happy? Yes, I ate the cookie.

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1 Comment

  1. I’m a newbie at this, but the best rejection so far was: “Not bad for a first effort. Don’t give up.”

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