Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A very special WIHPTS

This is now the fourth round of Would I Have Published This Story? (WIHPTS), and it's by far the weirdest. A little while ago, I thought I was going crazy. I picked up the summer edition of Prairie Schooner and went to the first story in it, which is a breezy little story called "Sometimes I'm Suzanne" by the Australian writer Merran Jones. Congratulations, Merran.

It's a quirky story of a boy named Matthew who has a second person rattling inside his brain, in this case, a middle-aged woman named Suzanne. She's there like some people might be born with an extra finger, not really malignant, just one of those things that happens from time to time and makes Matthew a little different. She sometimes takes over Matthew and does things an older woman would do. She and Matthew have some dialogue between them. But she's not always there, which is why Matthew says "sometimes" he's Suzanne. But sometimes, he's just himself. On his own, he's not particularly effeminate. His father, who had daddy issues of his own, eventually hates the girly behavior of Suzanne so much he leaves.

The thing is, I knew I'd read this story before. I just couldn't think of where.

Finally, it struck me. She submitted it to our journal, the one where I'm a volunteer editor. I remember it because we, the editors, talked about it a lot. We very nearly said yes to it. Two editors said yes, two said no, one said maybe. While we were kibitzing over it, the story got accepted by Prairie Schooner.

How did I vote? I voted no, with a great deal of hand-wringing. It was one of the first stories with a split vote I'd weighed in on. Might have been the very first. Here's my note in Submittable:

I see why there's division on this. It's witty and quick and ultimately kind of sweet, but it hits a few wrong notes. Beyond "fell into a sar-chasm" (wah-wah) there's the tell-not-show of "Kev could never escape his dad's Stockholm Syndrome-clutch." I'm voting down, although it feels like in doing so, I'm voting against moms. 
 A few days later, the story was withdrawn when it was accepted elsewhere. 

The "sar-chasm" joke, by the way, is still there in Prairie Schooner, so I guess they liked the joke that I didn't. The line about Stockholm Syndrome is there, too.  I feel some parts are edited somewhat from what we read, but I'm not sure. One of our other editors mentioned that Kevin, the father, seemed like something of a cut-out, just a one-dimensional boorish lout. I feel like the version that's in P.S. draws him a little fuller, but I might be totally mistaken about that. Maybe we just thought one thing about him and the editors at P.S. thought something different.

In any event, this story really proves what the WIHPTS series is supposed to prove: that fiction editing by literary journals is far from a science. I guess it's not a total crapshoot: the story did get our attention, so we treated it with more care than most of the stories we get. Both we and P.S. realized we had something worth taking a closer look at. But we still ultimately differed on whether it was "good enough."  

Three other things to think about: 1) This story ended up getting accepted by a top 50 journal, so just because an "easy" publication turns you down doesn't mean a "hard" one will, too. There's a good deal of luck involved no matter where you send it. 2) The first two votes on this story were yes for us. The third was maybe, which led to more editors taking a look. If voter #3 had just said yes instead of maybe, our chief editor very likely would have accepted the story then, and we might have gotten it before P.S. The difference for one editor between maybe and yes ended up leading to two more no votes, which, had P.S. not accepted it, might mean Jones would still be trying to get it published because of that one near-vote. 3) I think I'd maybe vote differently on this story now than I did then, after more than six months on the job. You can't control as a writer how experienced or smart your fiction reviewer will be. So just keep submitting.

It's also possible to draw this conclusion: what the fuck do I know?


  1. It's interesting you raise this (the tell-not-show) as a negative quality. I tend to do a lot more showing than telling, which I suppose is deemed a no-no according to modern aesthetics, and I was conscious of this matter, pondering it today, in fact, because I felt that mere character sketch shouldn't replace plot (although it did occur to me that one could do a spoof of the Kharakteres by Theophrastus). At any rate, one thing that modern aesthetes seem to lose sight of is the fact that telling can save a lot of time just as adjectives can.

    1. If you recall, I blogged about this a while ago, citing Nguyen's article ( I do believe good writing should show AND tell. I like plot. I just don't think you ought to use shortcuts, like "he was traumatized by having an abusive father." That's the kind of showing one should avoid. I don't feel anything after reading that. I'm forced to believe something I don't see.

      I don't often cite the "show don't tell" mantra. It probably wasn't really enough in this case I should have voted down on the story. I think I was partly influenced by having voted up on a lot of stories right before it, and I didn't want the other editors to think I was too easy. It's hard to remember now.

    2. Surely if the function of "he was traumatized by having an abusive father" is to provide enough background to understand what unfolds, there ought not to be an objection. One need not recount an entire history in order to explain everything never mind the fact that all relevant facts cannot be recounted. One sentence paints a picture, serves as relevant information to contextualize what unfolds. If what unfolds doesn't pay off, or, worse yet, bears no obvious relation to the detail, then it's otiose or gratuitous.

    3. The father is in the story enough that he needs to be drawn fully. He actually is fully drawn in some spots, which was why that one passage stuck out a bit.

      I'm not at all doctrinaire about rules. I usually hate the rules of so-called "craft." But the rules usually do point to something that makes sense. Of course you can break any rule, but you need a good reason to. I didn't feel like that one instance was a good place to do it.

      I didn't post what I'd written about it in order to say I was right; it was more to point out that I made a really snap judgment one day, and that had everything to do with what we did with the story. I may have made a mistake. I'm open to that. That's the point of posting my own vote.

      I told Merran in an email (she was really kind--I see where the sweetness in her story comes from) that she may have me to thank for landing a story in Prairie Schooner, which is a major accomplishment. If I'd said yes instead of no, she might have taken our offer to publish it and pulled it from P.S. So things worked out for her. They probably don't work out like that for all the stories we editors get wrong.


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