Masters Review editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser discuss craft elements in submissions they’ve recently accepted and declined.
K: After our editorial meetings when we discuss the stories we want to accept, there are always a few craft issues that come up as a result of submissions that seem worth discussing. But before we get started, the stories that make it to final consideration are well written, nicely composed, and overall extremely strong. Outside of these strengths, what three things, in your mind, make a story stand out? Essentially: what does a good story do well in the pieces we consider?
S: Three things that I think make a story stand out as a strong submission are: readability, a clear sense of the author’s intention, and a distinct voice. Now, by readability, I don’t mean simplicity. I think that it is apparent when an author is in clear command of his or her prose. Even if a piece has intentionally complex and detailed sentences, I am willing to go along with it if it is thoughtfully and deliberately constructed. When it comes to understanding the author’s intention, what I mean is that I want to know what the story hopes to achieve — so that I can judge it on that basis. The strongest stories, to me, have the clearest sense of self. By a distinct voice, I mean just that: I want the story to have a unique sensibility, for it to stand out from what I have read before. This could mean a story about a widow who feels misunderstood by her children that is infused with the observations of a particular consciousness, or it could mean a story about a woman who literally splits in two that speaks in a whole new way to our ever-shifting notions of self. The story’s events don’t necessarily have to be entirely new to me, as long as its sensibility is unique.
While a variety of strengths can make a story stand out from the pile: what are some things that can lead us to decline an otherwise strong submission?
K: You and I always lament declining a story that shows promise, but it happens. A piece stands out because of strong prose, intriguing characters, or an exciting premise, but ultimately falls short. And for me, these stories are forgettable. If a story isn’t memorable — if it doesn’t stick with me or I have to say, which one was that? — I’ll pass on it. Of course it’s difficult to qualify what makes a story memorable because it can happen for so many reasons, but if it isn’t special, if it loses occupancy in my mind, that’s a real indicator the piece has flaws. It’s a visceral reaction, but a reliable compass.
Specifically, in the most recent batch of stories I saw issues with endings. An ending should be surprising yet inevitable, and recently I’ve been reading pieces with great potential that lose steam at critical junctures. By the end I’m left asking: what happened here? It is disappointing to be really into a piece, and to be left unsatisfied. Often a poor ending is the result of bad structuring early in the story, but an ending can be flawed for many reasons. We often see ineffective endings because the writer doesn’t understand the characters, which results in a trajectory that feels emotionally dishonest and unsatisfying. Also, the endings I like the least are those that rely on tropes or clichés to guide conclusions. I suppose this speaks to your comment about reading work that is too familiar. An ending we’ve seen before will feel flat because the reader hasn’t learned anything new. And it’s sad for an otherwise good story.
You and I have seen a lot of magical realism lately, but not always to a strong result. In what ways does magical realism, when executed ineffectively, hold a story back?
S: Even compared to last year, I’ve noticed many more emerging authors experimenting with magical realism in their fiction. This is wonderful! I’ve always been a big fan of the genre, though of course I appreciate a good realist story as well. But magical elements alone aren’t enough to make a piece strong. In fact, if executed poorly they can bring a story down.
Often we will see magical elements enter a story at key moments, in lieu of a deeper exploration of core issues. Too often taking the place of character development, emotional exploration, even plot. Ideally, you want magical realism to help you develop these elements. We interviewed Aimee Bender, who said that the magical realism in her stories is a way into talking about real-world, emotional issues. The best magical realist stories we see do this.
We recently accepted a story in which a woman literally cleaves in two during a move; she leaves half of herself in the home she grew up in, and the other half travels to a new state with her partner. This cleaving is directly related to the woman’s shifting sense of self as her life changes, and the way that a part of herself will always belong to her past.
What is also interesting about this story is that it is from an author who submitted to us many times before. We had read and considered her work carefully, and sent her several personalized rejections asking to see more. It’s wonderful when we get to follow a writer’s work and see it develop. Would you like to speak to this case, and others in which we have seen an author’s writing evolve?
K: For me, it’s a best-case scenario. I love seeing new work from writers we’ve personally rejected because these writers are showing a commitment to our journal and, most importantly, to being writers. It’s terrible to think a story showing promise was the last piece we’d see from that author. I think the opacity of the publishing industry prevents submitters from knowing just how close their work is to acceptance, but if you’re getting a personalized rejection from us it’s because we want to see more. Stories are rejected for a number of reasons but you and I always remember writers we’ve seriously considered in the past and when one of those stories comes through it stands out. Ultimately, I do think writers who are committed to the process of submitting are the ones who will get published, and of course it’s wonderful to see talent evolve.
One area where I think new writers could put more effort into characterization is interiority. We talk about this all the time, but recently we considered a story that was very nicely written but also very distant — it didn’t offer much exploration or provide an understanding of the character’s interior. It is a specific choice made by the writer about how much of their character they want to reveal, but I find the result often gives the illusion of depth or understanding when really the writer doesn’t know their character at all. I like complicated protagonists, but a character’s actions need to be justified by the reader’s understanding of him.
Do you agree? Should readers just accept a character that is sad, angry, aggressive, or naive without deeper explorations? How does one balance characterization with the right amount of interiority? Or is it possible I just don’t like distant narrators?
S: I think you articulated the easy pitfalls of a distant narrator very well. I would never say that it absolutely does not work, because of course there are cases in which that formal distance can be effective. But when you give up the ability to explore a character’s interiority, you are sacrificing a tool that often helps the author reveal what the story is about, on a deeper level than plot. Take, again, the example of that surreal story in which the woman cleaves in two: that premise is effective because we also have access to the protagonist’s thoughts. We learn that she misses the home she grew up in, that she feels torn between her past and her present — because she straight up tells us these things. This gives meaning to all the events of the story, surreal and otherwise. One of my writing professors used to say that you can never be too obvious, and I certainly see where he was coming from, especially in this matter.
To me, taking the interiority out of the story sets up a formal challenge. The author has to find another way of conveying what the story hopes to achieve. Even if the author does not explore the thoughts of his characters directly, he should know what those thoughts and feelings are, and (as you mentioned) in many formally distant stories it seems like the author just isn’t sure.
Are there any other patterns we see in submissions that you think it might be useful for writers to know about: POV, ambiguity, pacing, etc.?
K: Of course. And humorously enough it seems these things always come up at the same time. We’ll see a batch of great stories that aren’t paced well, or points of view that just aren’t working, and I love the discussion it sparks. To speak to your point about being obvious in a story, it’s always a balance, isn’t it? You need to be clear to your reader without hitting them over the head with it. Without doing too much “telling” or producing a story full of exposition. To me this relates to ambiguity. Productive ambiguity vs. ambiguity that is frustrating for the reader because it’s fussy or takes the place of necessary information. We see a lot of inefficient ambiguity and it takes the pleasure right out of a story.
On the whole, though, I’m so impressed with our submitters and the quality of writing we see. As a publication that aims to showcase emerging writers it’s wonderful discovering new voices and giving those stories a home. Thanks for the chat, Sadye. I look forward to our next one, which will likely be about our anthology shortlist. That’s always an exciting meeting because we work with these stories and authors throughout year as we put together, market, and publish the book. I love the process of selecting those stories and then seeing what our judge (Amy Hempel!) will choose. There are always surprises. For anyone who is interested, you can submit to Volume V here. We hope you will!