Thoughts from the Casting Chair
by Jake Weber
Things I’ve learned in a month of reading for a literary journal, written the day after watching La-La Land.
If you submit to a lot of literary journals, you’re probably familiar with the advice to regularly read the journals to which you’re submitting work. You probably also realize that you have neither the time nor money to subscribe to and read every journal to which you submit. I resolved a few years ago to settle the issue in this manner: I would support the journals that have supported me.
So I’ve subscribed or donated to the few journals who’ve published my work so far. The Baltimore Review, the journal that published my first story a few years back, made a request via their Facebook page in December asking for another kind of support—they were seeking readers. They promised that it would open my eyes to what life looks like from the other side of Submittable.
I was always curious about how journals worked from the inside, and that alone seemed a good enough reason to volunteer, if altruism and loyalty weren’t. A month and a hundred stories I’ve read and voted on later, I’ve learned a lot more than I thought I would: about the business, about writing, and just existentially.
What I’ve Learned about the Business
First, the guts of how it works. Hundreds of stories come in, and we have to pick a maximum of ten for a quarterly journal. Our journal isn’t scientific about how we get the work done. Readers go in, find work to read, and then vote “up,” “down,” or “maybe”—easy on the maybe’s, the editor tells us. From there, we just kind of talk amongst ourselves, and it’s up to Barbara Diehl, the head editor, to make the final calls. She has a laissez-faire attitude rather like that of Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love: It will all work out in the end. Mysteriously, the journal will have enough poems, stories, and creative nonfiction for each issue.
The quality of writing that comes into The Baltimore Review is far higher than I thought it would be. The nation’s over 300 graduate writing programs, joined with the thousands of people who have led interesting lives they now want to share as amateur writers, leads to an absolute deluge of good writing. I had assumed half the stories submitted would be drivel better suited for fan fiction sites. Turns out, I see a story like that maybe one in 15.
The rest of the writing is at least passable. Even a “bad” story isn’t bad. If you were a professor in a Creative Writing 101 class, these “bad” stories would stand out as the good ones you got. I can at least see the kernel of a good story in these. Maybe 20% of the stories have the framework of a good plot or compelling characters, but the writing just isn’t tight enough to make it sing.
Then there’s the small percentage of works that are obvious home runs. I’ve seen one of these so far. Well, actually, I thought I’d seen two, but one story that was my favorite so far—one I liked so much I called my wife in so I could read it out loud to her—was voted down by nearly all the other readers. Like dozens of form rejection letters I’ve received from journals say, this is a subjective business.
Roughly 50-70% of all the writing we get is fairly similar in terms of quality, and it’s very, very hard to pick from these which to vote up and which to vote down on. There are hundreds and hundreds of these, and at most, we can pick ten. And that leads me to the next section.
What I’ve learned as a writer
Lesson one for me, and one every writer should embrace, although we’ve all heard it a million time: Rejection is nothing to get upset about. Rejecting three or four stories a day has given me a whole new perspective on the three to four rejections I get a month. I “down” vote a lot of stories I like. I “up” vote some, knowing they probably have a slim chance against the other stories that made it to the second round. And I’m beginning to do it in a rather matter-of-fact way, even though I realize there’s a human being at the other end of that story who worked her ass off on it and has a lot of emotional capital invested in it. There are some good stories I don’t even read to the end, because I can just see they have enough flaws to not make it. Why? Because there are still another 200 stories to read by deadline. I don’t have a choice.
The second thing I’ve learned is the need to leave no dead spots in my own writing. The story can’t take two paragraphs to get moving. Once it’s got momentum going, it can’t lose that momentum with a tedious bit of exposition. I’d say more stories are guilty of slowing down than not getting going in the first place. They have a great first line that blends into a great paragraph, laying out the framework of the conflict that will give the story tension. Then, two pages in, they break away from the action with a line like, “Zebedee’s family took vacations to a lake house in southern Utah when he was a boy.” This is interrupting the action, in which Zebedee was about to go rush out to fight a fire. If you’re going to fill in the character with some exposition, you have two options: 1) keep it short, or 2) give it a momentum of its own. Dominica Phetteplace chose the first in her short story “The Story of a True Artist,” which is the first selection in this year’s Pushcart Anthology:
And we got $5,000 for it. My half was enough to put off foreclosure for another couple of months while my dad continued to look for a job. If we continued to get more deals like that and grow our audience, my parents might not have to work at all, and we could move into a Beverly Hills mansion with a swimming pool. That was the plan.
Even when breaking away to fill in background about the main character’s family, it’s interlaced with the present, a story about two YouTube artists breaking up their partnership. We get all we need to know from this little digression, and the momentum doesn’t slow down.
With option two, you simply have to start the passage with another line that has all the force of the first line of your story, so we springboard into the trajectory of the side-story. It’s like the Triple Lindy: Every time it starts to come down, it needs to find a way to go back up, until we reach the final resolution.
Heather Dewar did this in her short story “Spring” from the current edition of Baltimore Review. She needs to introduce another character, Samantha, about 2/3 of the way into the story. The compact introduction could be the first lines of another story:
Samantha lives down the block. She is a sixty-something woman who used to help with the plants. She is round and ruddy and lives in a house that reminds Ginny of an old, abandoned cabin on a lake. An orange kite hangs year-round from a hook on her screened-in front porch. Three seasons of the year, her yard seems to shine.
I’m not saying be flashy. Flashy or gimmicky writing is easy to spot. I’m just saying you have to realize that every word is going to readers dealing with a lot of words from a lot of good stories. Show the reader you are grateful they’re reading your work by never presenting anything that isn’t headed somewhere.
What I’ve Learned Existentially
I just saw La-La Land last night. Its strength lies in how—prior to the standard Hollywood ending, in which staying true to your dreams is always the right course of action—it rather honestly interrogates the risks involved in putting all the eggs of one’s life in the art-above-all basket. The female lead, played with such aggressive, earnest cuteness by Emma Stone that I felt I was being hit by a whole basket of buttons, has a low moment. After one too many casting calls where she’s been interrupted or immediately cast aside for one of the dozens of prettier, more talented girls waiting outside, she tells her love interest that maybe she should have gone to law school. “Like the world needs more lawyers,” her boyfriend tells her. She replies with, “Well, it sure doesn’t need more actresses.”
That’s what it feels like to me as an author being on the other side of a literary journal. Writers are typically spared the indignity of casting calls, where we size up our competition face-to-face. But here I am, in a sort of virtual casting call, and I’m overwhelmed by just the sheer volume of people who write and write well. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Even though I’m in my forties, and I clearly write as what people would call a “hobby,” couldn’t I pick a more tangibly useful pastime? Shouldn’t I spend more time volunteering, where I can at least point to the form I helped someone fill out, the social service I helped connect them to, the I.D. card I helped them secure?
Does the world need more writers?
I’m not going to end this blog entry with the feel-good “Here’s to the ones who dream” song-and-dance offered by La-La Land. Maybe the world doesn’t need me to write. Yet, I keep on writing. So do most of you reading this.
I leave you to your own devices to answer the question why, in the face of these odds, you keep on writing. (My answer is something like “compulsion.”) Faith offers happy answers. Art offers the possibility that the endeavor you devote your entire self to may provide only rare moments of joy but will often seem to be in vain. Artists understand this possibility going in. It’s what gives the whole proposition value.