Mon 26 Mar 2012
When you’re immersed in a slush pile and a story fails within three paragraphs, there’s no need to sit on the fence and consider its rank and file on the subjective scale used for rejections and acceptances.
Unfortunately, most of the slush isn’t that easy.
The majority of stories fall on the fence and sit there, waiting for a fiction editor to nudge it one direction or the other. Where to nudge isn’t always an easy task, considering acceptance rates are typically around 2 percent and there isn’t room for everybody—nor should there be.
When I’m dredging through the slush piles, the stories that defeat the no-nudge and get pushed in the direction of YES are those that succeed where the vast majority of fence pieces fail: Originality.
There’s a school of thought that there is no such thing as original fiction anymore. People argue that fiction—specifically, genre fiction—has fallen victim to its own formulas and has sucked the life force out of any new thoughts or ideas. Experimental writers who believe they have come up with something new blame the market’s taste for conformity when their work fails and to some extent, especially for novelists, that may be true. But short fiction and flash fiction are other beasts entirely. It is in the shorter masterpieces that writers are truly able to stretch their creative wings and find publication.
Why, then, do so many writers fail to be original?
- They see originality as the technique of a piece, rather than a quality of it. Being original doesn’t mean utilizing strange or quirky punctuation, printing on all sides of the paper a la House of Leaves, or using unusual fonts. In some cases that approach may work, but in many cases it fails because the writer doesn’t understand that originality has to live deeper within the manuscript—in its depths, as a quality of the work, not as a gimmick.
- On the surface, life stories lend themselves to conformity. You can pick up most any traditional slush pile and find a story about cancer. Death. Love. These things have touched the lives of just about every person on Earth in one way or another, so it’s no surprise that more than one person wants to write about it. Unfortunately, many writers fail to see that the power in the story isn’t the cancer. The power of the story is in the characters. I’ve read dozens of well-written cancer stories where husband and wife are in the living room or the dining room, moving through fairly solid but uninspiring dialogue about the future. Nice and touching, okay. But the story that will truly resonate is the one that happens outside of the house or the doctor’s office. It’s the story that sneaks up on you because you are in a new setting, with new and interesting characters and you don’t know what to expect, even though cancer has been written about in thousands of stories before this one.
- The characters aren’t original enough. Human beings have everything and nothing in common all at once. The reason we resonate with characters in life and fiction is because we can relate to them, but at the same rate, we are all eccentric individuals—even the most “normal” of us all. You can write about John Everyman, but we need to know what makes this John Everyman different from the others living in the slush pile.
It’s hard enough to get published. It’s even harder when you’re one of five stories that week that have the same setting and the same concept. Reading slush piles makes me a better writer because it teaches me a very important lesson: No matter how clever I think I am, there are other writers just as clever, and more so.
To stand out, you can’t blend in.
Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. She currently has two novels under representation with the Jenks Agency and works as a freelance fiction editor, as well as assistant editor of Thrive Magazine. Read more at www.erinentradakelly.com.