I recently became a poetry editor for a new literary journal. One hour as an editor gave me a deeper understanding of several writing pitfalls than the classes I’ve taught, classes I’ve taken and books I’ve read on the subject. We had hundreds of poems submitted, but only 30 slots to fill, and we saw a pattern in the poems we rejected. The fiction and nonfiction editors saw patterns in their rejected pieces, too. I've compiled handy guide, based on our pet peeves.
How Not to Get Published: a Literary Magazine Editor’s Guide
1- Address your submission “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs” regardless of the editors’ genders.
The call for submissions listed our names. Two of us are female, and one is male. Our names aren’t misleading like “Sam” or “Chris.” Either the offending submitters chose to ignore the female editors in favor of the male editor, missed seeing our names entirely and just guessed our gender, or simply could not process the thought of women in charge. Either way, writing “Dear Sirs” was a bad call. Perhaps they should go find some “sirs” to publish their work.
2- Ignore the instructions on the call for submission.
Follow submission instructions, or your work will be rejected. While you’re at it, proofread carefully. I’d think that goes without saying, but apparently it doesn’t.
3- Try to prove your cleverness.
We read a few poems spoiled by one weird element. Actual dialogue between us at one point (with identifying details removed):
“This poem is beautiful, but why did the author do X? Was it a mistake?”
“It can’t be. Look: he/she does X in every stanza.”
“But why? To suggest some kind of theme?”
“I think she/he wants to suggest ‘I am very clever.’”
The stunts distracted us from the poem’s meaning and music. Offenses included needlessly obscure word-choice or imagery and bizarre use of numbers, symbols, or capitalization. Clever stunts occur in fiction and nonfiction, too, but in different ways (See 4 -6).
4- Build your poem/story very slowly. Withhold information.
We found that several poems with excellent endings had inferior first stanzas. In poetry workshops, we call that “throat-clearing.” It’s okay in a first draft, but not in the final poem. Choosing weak first lines is like showing up for a hot date in baggy sweats. Make a tantalizing first impression!
In fiction and nonfiction, by the end of the first few paragraphs, the reader should have a general understanding of the character, setting and situation. If the character or the narrator knows what’s going on but refuses to tell the reader, the result isn’t mystery: it’s annoyance.
Withholding sometimes works in a movie (e.g. The Sixth Sense*), but in written media the strategy isn’t as effective. In written fiction and nonfiction, the message of such a revelation is: “Congratulations, reader! I’ve now told you what I refused to tell you before!” Wouldn’t you rather have the character and reader make some kind of discovery together?
*I think withholding worked in The Sixth Sense because of the visual medium, but also because the movie didn’t taunt the audience. We made the discovery as Willis’s character did. We weren’t tricked. The narrative wasn’t thumbing its nose at us, singing, “I know something you don’t know.”
5- Buy into the imitative fallacy.
In The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, a nonfiction novel by Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and The Merry Tricksters are frustrated. They want to use footage of their lives to create a psychedelic movie that will open audiences’ minds, but it never works. Why? I’ve seen some of the raw footage— weird but boring because it lacks plot, character or structure. Nothing happens! It’s just a bunch of “heads” tripping. Wolfe’s book, on the other hand, works because he uses an experimental writing style to capture the psychedelic mindset of his protagonists, but gives us a narrative thread to follow.*
The text itself needn’t be insane to explore insanity. The story doesn’t have to be boring to explore boredom. You don’t have to distance your reader from the narrative in order to explore the protagonist’s difficulty connecting in life. You shouldn’t torture your reader in order for him or her to understand a protagonist’s trauma (See 7).
Employing imitative fallacy in the situations above will likely end up annoying, boring, losing, or traumatizing the reader, respectively. Wouldn’t you rather make readers care about a character’s struggles and/or triumphs and subsequently gain new understanding of the world, being human, etc.?
*Some of my friends argue that The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test doesn’t work—that his experimental style is meandering, distracting and annoying. In other words, even Woolf’s skillful negotiation of the imitative fallacy loses many readers.
Some poems seem to proclaim, “LO, I CALLED OUT TO THE MUSE, AND SHE BESTOWED UPON ME THE SOUL OF A POET!” Sigh. My colleague dubbed these “Poetry Poems.” In any case, we don’t need a speaker proclaiming, “This will be my X poem!” Don’t force it. Just get out of the way and let the poem do its work.
In fiction and nonfiction, I’m told the preaching problem often manifests either in didactic dialogue or moments when the narrator stops the action to pontificate on a concept. The cliché is “show, don’t tell.” Of course a writer occasionally have to break that rule, but only occasionally…and skillfully. Lecturing the reader is not the way to go.
7- Get sexually graphic.
When dealing with sex—whether romantic, erotic or traumatic— please avoid being gross, clichéd, or gratuitous.
When writing about rape or incest, don’t imitate a police report. Giving a detailed play-by-play of the crime isn’t the most effective way to help the audience understand the emotional/mental experience of the character. There is a difference between therapeutic writing done for oneself and writing done for an audience. Ask yourself which details are necessary to advance character development or the plot.
As an actor, I learned from the Aquila Shakespeare Company not to make stage combat too realistic. If the violence looks too real, the audience is ripped out of the story, because they fear for the actors’ safety. The same occurs with intensely graphic depictions of sex crimes. Give the reader enough space so that he or she can stay in the story.
For erotica, check out Steve Almond’s amazing advice*. For example, he declares clinical terms like “penis” and “vagina” unsexy, but warns that “genital euphemisms” should also be avoided, “unless you are trying to be funny.” Then what are you supposed to do? “As a rule, in fact, there is often no reason at all to name the genitals.” He then gives examples proving his point. For more sex scene advice, try the link above.
*I was going to warn about the naked picture at the top of the page, but I realized that’s ridiculous, as it’s an article on erotic writing. Ha!
I’m not trying to discourage anyone. I want make you aware of these problems so you can avoid them and get published! Keep writing, keep submitting, and keep believing. But stop calling me "sir."