Monday, June 18, 2012

The Death of Editors' Patience

For the last couple months, I've been writing short stories and trying to go longer with them. I've been working on a couple story series, and for one, I set myself the goal of each story being at least 5000-6000 words. For the other series, I've just been generally trying to write longer stories, maybe 3000 words average. It's amazing to me to type that -- the idea that I would consider 3000 or even 5000 words a "long" story. And really, I don't consider that long. Because it's not. Telling a rich, well-developed story in which things actually happen takes some time. You can't do it in 500 words. No, you can't. Sorry. I have my doubts you can do it in 1000. You can write a really nice scene, or you can write a nice character study, but you can't flesh out your characters AND have something meaningful happen (here's a hint: if you haven't fleshed out the characters, whatever happens to them won't be very meaningful, no matter how apocalyptic. It might be funny, or strange, or even interesting, but it won't be lastingly meaningful). I'm not trashing flash fiction, I'm just saying it is what it is, which is basically a sketch. I write sketches. Google me; you'll find tons of them. But I recognize what they are. And yeah, maybe you can find one or two or even ten examples of supurb flash fiction (by that I mean really strong scenes or character studies) out there, but think about how many pieces of flash fiction are published every week. And I bet you'll be going back 20, 30 years or more to get your 10.

So now that I have a little bit of a backlog of work, I've been sending it out. And what I've noticed is that it's hard to find new journals that want work longer than, sometimes, even 1000 words. Ten years ago, it was hard to place a 5000 word story. Now, 3000 words is considered long. What happened?

The thing is, I read these flash pieces popping up in all these journals (and winning awards and being published in collections by very trendy presses) and a lot of them aren't that good. They're thin. They're full of pop culture references and not much else. They're just tricks. I'm not seeing a golden age of flash. I'm seeing a lot of mediocre writing -- with the odd standout piece here and there, sure. There are a handful of writers who are making names for themselves as flash writers, and a few of them are really good. There are some who've been around -- Amy Hempel, Molly Giles -- and they're phenominal, but there is also a lot of bad writing. Or rather, boring writing. Writing with no heart. I can't help but think of the old joke about overpriced food in New York being not very good, and they don't give you enough of it. Maybe these editors see so much flash and don't read anything else, so they think that's what good writing is.

When I see a journal whose guidelines state that they only want prose less than 1000 words, I tend to move on down the road. I'll read a few pieces, and if they're standout -- if there really seems to be a reason for the brevity -- I'll give them a shot. Right Hand Pointing, the wonderful journal Dale Wisely edits, would be an example. His purpose is brevity. Okay. Cool. I get it. But with most of these journals -- which tend to be brand-spanking-new -- I get the feeling they might be a little fickle. Good writing is good writing. When I used to edit a journal, we set a length limit (pretty arbitrarily, to be honest -- though it was fairly large) and almost immediately broke it -- either in the first or second issue (I forget). Doubled it. And were glad to. Because our main concern was publishing good writing. We didn't give two shits what was trendy. And I would've stacked our journal up against any other one out there. So would a lot of folks.

Think about it like this: we are in the middle of a publishing phenomenon. It's easier than it has ever been to get your work out there for others to see. It's easier than ever to start a journal and help -- really help -- other writers get their work out there. How cool is that? It's amazing! So why are we bottlenecking that work by limiting it? Why are we saying only sketches can ride? If I read ten online journals, I'm going to see the same kinds of confessional poems and flash fiction in each one. I can search -- really look hard -- and find some that are different. A couple years ago, there was a journal called the King's English that published novellas, but they called it quits. Story South -- and we could name a handful of others -- likes long stories. But really, I have a hard time coming up with very many solid online journals that publish longer stories.

The argument people make is attention spans -- readers won't read long stuff on computer screens. That's the argument we listened to when we set our arbitrary length limit. But it's bullshit. How many novels have you read on your Kindle/Ipad/etc?

I'm not planning on starting a journal back up any time soon -- though I do love publishing nonfiction pieces by other writers on my blog -- but if I did, I would publish exclusively long stories and narrative poetry. I would fill each issue so easily because writers just like me have some really good work nobody wants for journals, and the journal would be recognized as phenominal, partly because it would be different (but mostly because I'd publish good writing...). The two people who actually read online journals would be blown away by actually experiencing story telling, strong writing, heart, etc. Then somebody would send me some great flash fiction. And I'd publish it.

No comments: