3 days in, the writers of One Story‘s summer workshop are continuing to gobble up the tricks of the trade and the helpful feedback from peers and professionals. After another fabulous morning workshop with editors Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison, the students enjoyed a craft lecture by One Story author Darin Strauss (Issue #15: Smoking Inside).
Darin came in to discuss how to begin a story and incorporate a formula into something creative. “The only rule,” he explained, “is that starting a story has to work.” While One Story editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti had earlier compared the first page of a story to a first date on Day 1, Darin’s approach was slightly more scientific. This wasn’t love; this was strategy. “Each decision needs to make tactical sense.” Through examples like “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, Darin showed the writers how bringing in an essence of drama at the very beginning brings a piece of work from just a curiosity to an actual story. To keep the story worth reading, one must follow (most of the time) the following formula: X + Y + Z = Structure. X=the goal or desire of the protagonist, Y=the conflict (“anything that thwarts desire”) and Z=the plot, or a series of events within the conflict that continually escalate. If applied correctly, this structure = story success. In simpler terms for the mathematically challenged (we are writers, after all), Darin believes that “you can write about anything as long as there is conflict and the character cares about it.”
After a break from scribbling notes in margins and pondering the role of scientific formula in fiction, our writers reconvened for yet another entertaining and informative panel. Editors from four exciting and unique literary magazines spent their night discussing with our attentive workshoppers the process of submitting, editing, and publishing their finished products. On the panel were Patrick Ryan (Issue #53: “So Much for Artemis”) from Granta, Anne McPeak from A Public Space, Scott Lindenbaum from Electric Literature, and James Yeh from Gigantic. In an effort to give you the best idea of what these bright minds had to say, I’ve created a list of advice and wisdom from their brains to your computer screen:
1. “Read the magazines you’re submitting to is the best answer,” said Anne McPeak, and this was strongly agreed upon by every panelist. Blindly throwing your work around isn’t the way to go. Every magazine has a taste, a direction, a feel. When you’re trying to get published, you’re attempting to join a community. James Yeh explained that the goal is to find the “community you make sense in or would like to make sense in.”
2. Be careful with your cover letters (or in Electric Literature‘s case, please don’t write one). No one wants to read a list of your credentials. It’s fun to hear if you’re a fan of the magazine, but simply stating accomplishments doesn’t make you a better contender.
3. Don’t be afraid to send a little nudge email in March if you haven’t heard back about your submission in December. Short and sweet, a small reminder can be a necessary push.
4. “If you start to develop a relationship with an editor, keep going.” This was said by Maribeth Batcha, Publisher of One Story (and mediator of the panel). If you’re submitting and you’re told by a magazine they want to see some more work, take 6 months to improve your writing and resubmit! Encouragement is honest; what they say is what they mean.
5. Don’t worry about drowning in the slush. Patrick admitted that there “isn’t a lot of difference of quality in what comes in from the slush pile and what comes in from the agents.” The truth is that all of these magazines are looking for solid writing and it’s as simple as that. While we were sitting among the workshop students and listening to the editors play off of each other, my fellow intern Abby looked at me and said, “What’s horrifying is that this actually comes down to talent.”
And this, ladies and gentleman, is the ultimate lesson. The terrifying but purely beautiful truth is that good writing is good writing and that’s what editors want to see. Whether you’ve published four novels or are twiddling your thumbs in a summer workshop, there’s an open playing field out there. With some dedication and pro-activity (and adhering to the aforementioned tips), X + Y + Z may = your name in print.