Anyone embarking on a career or avocation in writing has learned the well-worn admonishment that "Great writers are great readers." Prolific novelist Stephen King expresses it in the converse: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
Well, I've discovered an addendum to that. Reading manuscripts for So It Goes, The Literary Magazine of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library definitely has been improving my writing. Last month, the editors completed reviews of unsolicited manuscripts to the third edition, which is currently working its way through layout and proofreading. I've been lucky to do this for all three editions.
Now, there's an art to submitting to reviewers who have their own predilections about what they think will proudly represent the tone and style of the magazine they're publishing. Yes, it's all subjective. But in serving on the other side of the gate rather than trying to storm it, I've definitely noticed a few common traits that will not pass muster and qualify more as major transgressions than minor peccadilloes.
This seems obvious, right? Well, it's funny how some writers will completely ignore the simplest instruction. "1,500 words? Bah, I'm going to submit that tome I wrote about a Brussels sprouts farmer in Bardstown, Kentucky, that I've blindly submitted to 12 other literary journals this morning."
If the issue has a theme (volume 3 of So it Goes is The Creative Process), don't ignore the theme, thinking your prose poem about bards in Brussels will squeak in even though it had nothing to do with creativity.
As a reviewer, I don't care how much of an iconoclast Vonnegut was. I won't even read a manuscript that doesn't abide by the word limit. Failing to follow directions doesn't show reviewers how much of a maverick you are; it just pisses them off.
Some writers do a good job of keeping to the word limit. But from reading through their prose, it's evident that they took too long to get to the heart of the narrative. They'll start with a long exposition and generous descriptions of the Belgian countryside and exhaustive details about the bard's getup and plumed hat. Then, sensing the dwindling supply of space, they'll whisk through all the action of the bard's travails. Vonnegut himself said it best, "Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action." And also "Start as close to the end as possible."
Revise, revise, revise
Which brings up some crucial points. Craft your narrative. Refine each sentence. Make sure each word should be there. Yes, catch the reader's attention, but don't waste his or her time.
Write in your own voice
Unless it's a fanzine, don't submit fan fiction. For the Vonnegut Library's magazine, the purpose is to showcase those unique voices that show the same spirit as its namesake. The chronicles of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout have already been written. Create your own characters and do what Vonnegut prescribed: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
I can tell you that when reviewing dozens of manuscripts, you can easily get catty about an especially poorly chosen comparison, a clever premise that's not well executed or the misfortune of writing on the same theme as two other submissions. I share great empathy with writers whom I've had a hand in rejecting, especially those that are oh, so close. But if you're expecting a glowing acceptance on your first submission, prepare for disappointment. And if you want to see what rejection looks like, the Vonnegut Library has boxes of rejection letters the author received when he was starting out.
Learn from the masters
When Elmore Leonard dispensed his 10 simple rules for writing, he started with "Never open a book with weather." I can tell you that from reading too many opening paragraphs that begin this way, when writing from this point forward I have absolutely no desire to describe the sky or how it looked that day or concoct some clever metaphor or fish through a big box of Crayola crayons for the perfect color name to randomly depict how the clouds looked that particular day in that season and that climate.
Maybe I should revise that last sentence before I submit it.