In this installment of Notes From The Slush, Sadye Teiser and Kim Winternheimer discuss their most recent round of submissions: what worked in the stories they accepted and the challenges they saw in stories that were declined.
K: I love doing these exchanges because it’s fun to discuss the stories as a group as opposed to individuals. In terms of groups of stories, one of the things that stood out to me most were pieces told with a formal distance. That is to say, stories that intentionally didn’t explore the emotional landscape of its characters closely, but rather had the events, dialogue, and actions of the narrative uncover what’s important. Here’s an example: I read a fantastic piece, and it was one of our honorable mentions, where a girl dies because her parents make a mistake during sleep-training. The parents are affected by the girl’s death, sure, but the story moves on from the event quite quickly. At first it seems they are unaffected by it. The reason it works in this story, however, is because over the course of the piece the reader begins to see, through subsequent events, how the death does affect the parents. In this way the inciting action of the death and its impact on the family is explored. The story earns its distant style.
In your opinion, what is an example of formal distance working in a story and one in which it isn’t. Also, did anything stand out to you in this group in terms of style, structure, or topic?
S: You’re right that we did see a lot of submissions with a formal distance while reading for our winter award, and many of those rose to the top of the pack. I have to say that I love it when a writer lets me right into a character’s mind, and gives me a pass into the inner workings a particular (fictional) individual’s thoughts and feelings. However, the more I considered it, I realized that some of my favorite stories use formal distance to their advantage. Kevin Brockmeier’s story “The Ceiling” includes very limited reflection from the protagonist throughout, considering that the world is — quite literally — ending, but it pays off with a beautiful burst of intimate interiority at the end. One of our Volume V stories, “Cough,” is also very formally distant, but this works well to convey the surreal sense of dissociation that the narrator feels shortly after 9/11, and also the insurmountable distance in his relationship.
In the most successful stories with formal distance, the author always knows why he or she has made that choice, and uses that to the advantage of the story. Interiority is often used to help tell the reader what the story is about, the forces of human psychology that drive it. Stories with formal distance fail, most often, because the writer doesn’t have the why of the story figured out. Stories with formal distance that succeed are so masterful because they manage to convey a character’s emotional life without describing it so overtly.
This has always been the case, to some extent, but in this round I noticed a lot of stories about nature. Recently, we’ve considered multiple stories about birds and multiple stories about rock climbing. The natural element is often an integral part of the story, but also works on a symbolic level. I think this is true of “Malheur Refuge,” our third-place Winter SSA winner. Do you want to talk about this particular story, and any others in which the natural world is an integral part of the story’s structure?
K: You’re right about seeing a lot of pieces that focus on, or have symbolic ties to the natural world. And forgive my pun, but I think it’s a natural for writers to include these elements in their stories because it is so fundamental to our daily lives.
I suppose I really enjoy stories that explore nature and our interaction with it on any level, whether it be deep or surface-level, though it isn’t a requisite in pieces we accept by any means. “Malheur Refuge” in particular is a piece about a foster father and his relationship with his foster daughter. They live near a bird sanctuary and connect over tying and marking birds. The story is successful for a lot of reasons, and the birds — the setting on the whole, really — anchors the piece. This allows readers to explore other variables in this uncommon father/daughter relationship within a physical context of the story. The natural world provides common ground.
“Malhuer Refuge,” along with some of the other pieces we’ve published (“Rattlesnake Valley” and “Ledgers” for example) have a sharp focus on the natural world, but they work because they are fully formed stories. Unfortunately, this round, we saw a lot of great work that suffered from structural issues. An ineffective middle or conclusions that weren’t fully earned. To me, the latter stands out the most. We’re pretty forgiving (to some degree) of stories that suffer growing pains, but we regularly reject stories where we feel the endings aren’t fully earned. I can best summarize this to mean, that for me, when I read a story where I feel the writer is working toward an end but the rest of the piece isn’t supporting that conclusion, whether it be emotionally, on a plot level, or thematically, that ending isn’t fully earned. Do you want to comment on this notion of “earning” an ending and what it means to you? It’s something that comes up a great deal in our editorial meetings.
S: Yes. One of the comments that our readers make most often on submissions is that they don’t understand what the ending is trying to accomplish, or simply that it wasn’t fully earned — an expression we use a whole lot, for good reason. A story’s ending is most powerful when it feels like the culmination of everything that has been bubbling throughout it — the character’s motivations and actions, the preoccupations of the prose. I know that, in the past, incredibly strong stories that end with a seemingly random disaster have been hotly debated. We get upset when we come to the end of a carefully crafted story and a character who we’re invested in suddenly dies, or is injured, or it turns out (please, no!) has been dreaming this whole time — with no clear reason, we’re often left wondering what the author’s intention was. For example, one of our honorable mentions (which, overall, we really enjoyed) for this last contest ends with a shot being fired (though it’s not clear that any harm is done by it), and neither one of us was sure why. Though this sort of violence is built to more thoroughly in this story than others, here it seemed to take the place of a deeper reflection or significance.
Of course, there are degrees to this. I think that story endings can often be strengthened. One of the most common edits I make to pieces we do accept is to change the ending. Take, for example, “Family, Family,” our second-place Fall Fiction Contest winner. (Read it now to prevent any spoilers.) Though the original ending felt natural enough, all of our editors thought that it was lacking power and that it could have had a clearer “takeaway,” so I flat-out asked the author what she meant by it. Her answer was clear: she wanted to convey the desire of a first-grader who has been ridiculed by his peers to return to the safety of his nursery school classroom, to go backwards in time rather than face the challenges of growing up. We ended up changing the ending image entirely, so that the little boy literally climbs into a pine doll cradle, for which he is (of course) too big. This resonates instantly.
Even when editing pieces with quite a bit of narrative distance (to return to your earlier question), I’ll often push the author to give a little more (even a sentence!) at the end. I never want the ending of a story to be too “neat,” but at the same time I want to finish it feeling satiated.
I am going to ask you the reverse question: what makes an effective beginning to a story, for you?
K: Beginnings are important on so many levels, and that includes the actual beginning of the story — the first sentence — and the beginning of the arc of the piece as well: what our entry point is to the characters and conflict of the piece. So there’s a lot to think about. Of course entire essays and craft books have been written on beginnings, but for me there are a few things that stand out. I am a huge proponent for clarity on the sentence level. If the writing on the first two pages is rough or overwritten or simply lacking polish, it’s impossible to have confidence in the rest of the piece. Then there’s the issue of the very first sentence. I think this issue is sometimes made more complicated than is necessary because while there are stories with incredible first sentences, (Claire Beams picked some of her favorites recently for Ploughshares) as long as the start of a story drops us into the piece in effective way, I’m sold. I think all successful beginnings clue readers into the world of the piece, who or what we’re going to care about at the right moment for us to start listening. I get cranky about beginnings that explain too much, but I also find it difficult when things are overstated, so really it’s an issue of balance.
Beginnings are particularly difficult for alternate or magical worlds, or stories where there is a lot of world building to achieve because it needs to include facts about the world while moving the narrative along. I think the best pieces in this genre expose us to exactly what we need to know about the world in the right proportion to what we’re learning about the character and the story. Overall though, I would tell writers to make sure their writing is polished, and to think about why we are entering the world of the story at that specific moment. I know many writers go back and re-frame the beginning of a story after they’ve written the first draft and this is a good practice, but of course it varies from writer to writer and story to story.
What else stood out to you in this particular submission round?
S: What really stood out to me this round, in particular, was how many writers managed to infuse so-called “familiar” or even tired-sounding plots with distinction, forming truly unique characters with particular emotions and making these old tropes and plot elements feel new. Strange as this is going to sound: bear with me. If I were to summarize some of the stories that rose to the top, on purely a plot level, they would not sound that appealing (at least not to me). There were stories about the trials of growing older, about a nanny to the rich and famous, about a woman whose father is dying of cancer. All of these pieces stood out for what was unique in them, not what we recognized.
Our Short Story Award winner is written from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl whose sister has chronic kidney problems. The protagonist feels guilty about this because she chose not to give a kidney to her sister (even though she was a match) when they were very young. This is a plot we’ve all seen before, in some variation. But the singular consciousness of the first-person narrator, the relationship between the sisters, and the distinct preoccupations of the family make it a unique tale. It takes up a place in my mind no other story does.
Of course, some stories with familiar elements, though good, didn’t feel as original. For example, we see a lot of stories about past loves that are ultimately a little too stock in their sentimentality. (Though, someday, I’m sure we’ll see a piece on this subject that feels wholly original.)
We often discuss (and see) a lot of magical realism, science fiction, apocalyptic literature, etc. (And our second-place winner does take place in an eerily familiar speculative world.) You know that we always love a well-crafted and unreal tale. But the bulk of really spectacular pieces this round were grounded in our world, and often in very familiar parts of it.
Is there anything else that stood out to you about this group of stories?
K: You put that so well and I’m glad you touched on it. I think writers often feel they need entirely new ideas and plots, but there are so many elements that can make a story feel original, fresh, and new, even if the backbone of that story is something we’ve read before. It’s the writer and her imagination and attention to craft that gives a story that something special.
The only other thing I want to touch on isn’t so much a craft topic, and it’s something I’ve written about before and we’ve discussed often, but I do want to give it attention. I really love seeing work from writers we’ve read before. The nature of submitting means a great deal of wonderful stories are rejected, but I want to emphasize how much staying power a strong story has in the mind of an editor, even if we don’t accept it. There is a lot to say about fit and timing, but good writing and by default good writers will get published. So I suppose I’m just so pleased when we see a name or a story from a writer we know and you can see the work getting better. In this way, I guess I’m ending on a thank you to our submitters and hopefully an inspiring one: keep submitting! We remember you and we appreciate reading your work.
Thank you, Sadye. These are some of my favorite chats.
— Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser