The two sisters who edit Glimmer Train, a well-respected literary journal that’s done quite well, gave me a gift once when they rejected my story. They sent me a document (and everyone else they rejected) that talked about what they look for. I think this is valuable because as editors, they read a lot, and they see a lot of bad writing (mine included). So when they talk about what makes a good story, I think it’s worth listening to. Here’s some of what they wrote:
How to Look at Your Story’s Strengths
Are the characters complex, believable as humans? If the characters are shallow, simple stereotypes and it is not possible for me to think that person had a grandmother who loved him or her, then I can’t care about that character and her or his story in a significant way. They don’t have to be developed to such depth—especially in a short story—that you actually know what the person’s beliefs are, heck, you can’t know that fully about someone you love or even yourself, but you must not make them into nothing by reducing them to a cliché. The literary writer’s job is to deliver their characters’ stories truthfully, skillfully, and originally. Know and love your characters—they will be generous in return.
In terms of character development, think of this: Say someone that doesn’t know you imagines you’ve never experienced deep personal loss or put in a hard day’s work, thinks you take cabs cause you’ve got money to burn. They dismiss you as shallow, lazy, self-centered. If you could keep from responding with anger, you might tell them about how it was when you lost your mother, what it was like to have to revise that story again, how your eye doctor reported to the DMV that you really shouldn’t be driving, and how, yeah, I do struggle with balancing my needs with my family’s, but we work it out, and I love my partner/parent/child more than I would ever dare let on, even to myself. And on and on.
Don’t make your characters into victims or fools, but don’t let them be dismissed—discover the nature of their substance and show your readers—people who read literary fiction want to become involved. Let them do it.
Are there evocative images? What would you suggest an illustrator represent for this story?
Reading a story aloud will tell you if the story has a flow, a rhythm. Poets often make magnificent story writers. When you hear the words, you’ll feel if there’s a flow, a rhythm. There should be.
Although plot is lower on the literary totem pole than in, say, a mystery, what goes on in a story must follow some logic. A reader can get hung up on contradictions or serious inconsistencies. We recently accepted a story—a very fine story, in the end—which had some strong, ominous language scattered throughout that was never backed up by the story or even explained by the story: “they made him”, “he was not allowed”, a fearful sounding, “are you leaving me here?” all things that suggested the person was—literally—a hostage. In the end, what we discovered was that the person was held hostage by his own fears, but the language distracted from that important truth.
Does something important change in the story? This is literary fiction’s version of plot. It can be subtle, but it must be felt by the characters and by the reader. (Navel gazing was an interesting idea for about 8 weeks in 1971.) If this story caused me to dream about it, would there be something to try to remember to tell someone?
Is the story meaningful? Antonya Nelson said this: “[Literary] fiction ought to have the potential to change your life. It ought to make you a better human in the world. It ought to help you understand other people.” Not that you and I will come to the same conclusions, necessarily, because we each bring our own lives to the story.
When I look at a story we’re considering for publication, I go through it and circle excerpts that grab me either because are beautifully worded or because they capture something I think I’ve always known, but never thought, or expresses something new in a way that highlights a larger meaning, or touches on a personal experience of my own. Excerpting a story tells me, often, if a story will stick with me, if it matters to me.
Something else we do when considering a story is to jot down the story line. I’ll do it myself and ask Susan for her version of the story line. We’ll tell each other what we notice about the story. (If you do this in ten words or less, there’s no pressure, but plenty to discover. I might write, for instance, Heavy drinker sees Virgin Mary on roof, crazy scary guy breaks in, drinker comes unhinged.) If you do this with a friend or two, you’ll determine whether your readers are getting clear ideas from the story or if perhaps it’s not tight enough. You’ll also determine if the story is only single layered. If every reader gets the exact same thing, there may not be enough depth or complexity and they may not be getting the opportunity to find their own value in the story. In the case above, for instance, another reader might say this: Man devastated by death of big brother tries to make contact with lonely anxious neighbor. An overly simple story wouldn’t allow more than one understanding of it.
It is my belief that people who have the capacity to write good fiction are those to whom life is a big deal: It’s complicated, often moving, occasionally unnerving. It’s stuffed with contradiction, fear, love, challenge, possibility, pain, and grace. Great fiction writers want to look straight at life and they want to write down what they see. They want to write it down so precisely that you can see it, too, from inside your own skin. If that’s you, please keep at it! You have no shortage of original material and your writing is important.