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                      W R I T I N G   W O R L D

A World of Writing Information - For Writers Around the World


Issue 10:15             12,515 subscribers         August 6, 2010
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THE EDITOR'S DESK, by Moira Allen
THE INQUIRING WRITER: Gerunds, by Dawn Copeman
FEATURE:  What Is Literary Fiction? Literary Editors Share 
Their Views, by Moira Allen
THE WRITE SITES -- Online Resources for Writers
The Author's Bookshelf
(Note: Due to the length of the Inquiring Writer column, Aline
Lechaye's "Free Stuff for Writers" column will appear next issue.)

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To Lit or Not to Lit
When I conducted the survey of literary magazine editors that led
to the article in this week's issue, my goal was to find out what
writers might need to know to target this particular market. 
Sadly, what also reared its ugly head was the age-old controversy
about the merits of "literary fiction" vs. everything else.

Now, I am sure that there are hundreds of literary editors, writers
and readers who harbor no ill-feelings toward mainstream and genre
fiction.  Unfortunately, there are also many who regard anything
outside the "literary" realm as, apparently, beneath contempt. 
Here are just a few of the comments about mainstream and genre
fiction that my survey elicited (and that I didn't feel necessary
to include in my article):

"[Mainstream fiction is]... easily and readily absorbed and
requires little thought, little work on the reader's part."

"There is little attempt to provide deeper insights into character,
setting, the plot, or societal issues."

"... there's no complication in terms of ideas or even our
emotions.  We aren't asked to question or even think about

"When I think of the word 'literary' I envision writing that is
entirely memorable, vivid and original... I guess a 'mainstream'
story, while enjoyable, would not have [these] qualities..."

OK, you may be wondering, so why even bring this up?  For one
simple reason: Because I've heard from too many writers who have
been told, in one venue or another, that they are "no good" because
their work is not "literary" enough.  I've heard from writers who
have gotten this message in writing groups, from instructors, from
reviewers, and even from friends.  And, quite often, the message
has been devastating, leading some writers to wonder if they should
just stop writing altogether.

It's a sad attitude to take in the world of writing, which is
filled with enough obstacles as it is.  It is an attitude that
arises out of an inability to view alternate forms of writing as
simply DIFFERING forms -- rather than "superior" and "inferior"
forms.  Tastes differ; if they did not, the world of literature
would be a dull place indeed.  

I tend to think of myself has having fairly eclectic reading
tastes.  My bookshelves are crammed with hundreds of volumes,
ranging from Victorian classics to favorite young adult novels to
genre fiction to... well, let's just say my husband has suggested
that we reinforce the floorboards upstairs.  However, varied as my
tastes might be, I shudder to imagine what Barnes and Noble, for
example, might look like if it provided ONLY the sorts of books
that I, personally, fancied.  The store would probably fit into my
garage!  But my imagination doesn't stop there; it also envisions
thousands of readers, wandering disconsolately through a vast,
echoing, empty store, trying to find something THEY would like to
read in a world that has suddenly shrunk to accommodate MY tastes.

Thank goodness, my vision does not reflect reality.  Instead, when
I visit B&N or any other bookstore, I revel in the shelves upon
shelves of books, books of every description -- including thousands
upon thousands of books that I will never read and never even WANT
to read.  When I stand in the middle of some huge bookstore, I feel
as if I am standing within the universe of possibility.  There is
so much thought, so much knowledge, so many ideas in this one place
-- thought and knowledge and ideas that are perpetually spreading
outward, every time someone picks up a new book and takes it home.  

What a pity it would be if that spread of ideas were limited by any
one group of writers, editors, readers -- or, as is the very real
situation in some countries, by the censorship of a government. 
When I step into a giant bookstore, it becomes abundantly clear
that there is a place for me, and for you, and for the writer down
the lane, whether those places are side by side on the shelf or on
opposite walls of the store.

Attempting to tell writers, or readers, that their tastes aren't
"good enough" for the literary universe is a sad attempt to fit a
giant bookstore into the garage of one's personal taste.  Taste is
a rainbow, not a hierarchy.  One writer's taste may be different
from another's; that does not make it better or worse.

More importantly, the very last thing we want to do, as writers, is
to attempt to constrain the taste of readers.  We keep hearing that
readers are becoming an increasingly endangered species -- so let's
not endanger them still further by suggesting to even a single
reader that there is something wrong with their literary tastes. 
My readers may never become your readers -- but readers inspire
other readers, and the person who picks up my book today may
inspire someone else to pick up yours tomorrow. 

So if you're one of those writers who has been told that you should
be writing more "serious" fiction, or that your writing isn't
"literary" enough, or that you're simply a "hack" for trying to
"appeal to the masses," simply look that person in the eye, smile,
and say, "I'm sorry you feel that way."  Then go on to write
whatever it is that YOU want to write.  The only writing that will
touch your readers' hearts is the writing that comes from your OWN
heart -- and if we all want to keep writing, we need to touch as
many readers' hearts, across the spectrum, as possible.

-- Moira Allen, Editor


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THE INQUIRING WRITER: Gerunds, by Dawn Copeman

Last month Janis wrote in with a question regarding the use of
gerunds.  She wanted to know if it was ever okay to begin a
sentence with an -ing word, as she had heard that editors didn't
like it.

But is Janis really talking about gerunds at all?  As someone who
only came across gerunds when studying for A-level German, I wasn't
that sure.  Luckily for us all, some of you out there DO know what
she's talking about -- people like Alaina Smith, for example. 
Alaina wrote: "It's important to clarify that a gerund is not just
an 'ing' word, it is an 'ing' word that is functioning as a noun
instead of a verb. For example:

"'I am reading this book'  - reading is a verb

"'Reading is the most important subject to learn' - reading is a

"In Janis's examples, she's using 'ing' words as verbs, not nouns,
so she shouldn't have to worry about using her chosen verbs."

But apparently, this isn't the full explanation, as Barbara Davies
points out. "What you're actually referring to is a 'participial
phrase'. IMO participial phrases at the start of sentences are fine
as long as you don't overuse them to the point where they become
irritating and you use them correctly.

"Take, for example: 'Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he
spread the map out on top of the hood.'

"The sentence construction means that these two actions (hurrying
spreading) are happening AT THE SAME TIME ... which would be
physically impossible. :)

"It would be better to say: 'After hurrying around to the front of
the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.'

"Or 'Having hurried around to the front of the truck, he spread the
map out on top of the hood.'

"Or 'He hurried around to the front of the truck and spread the map
out on top of the hood.'"

Barbara Florio Graham also made clear the difference between a
gerund and a participial phrase:

"Participles are used as adjectives, and they can end with either
'ing' or 'ed'." Examples:

"A GERUND used as the subject of a sentence: 'Running became his
passion.'  Running is a noun, used the same way as any other noun,
e.g., 'Dogs became his passion.'

"A PRESENT PARTICIPLE used as an adjective.  Note that it modifies
the subject of the sentence: "Running from the boys, she ducked
into a doorway."  (Barbara notes that she explains many fine points
of grammar in her book, "Five Fast Steps to Better Writing," at

Okay, so when we say gerunds, we really mean participial phrases. 
Now we've got that clear, let's see what everyone else has to say
on the matter. 

Most of you, it seems, are of the opinion that the occasional use
of a participial phrase is not a problem.  Scotti Cohn writes: "I
suppose you might encounter an editor who absolutely refuses to
allow a gerund or participial phrase at the beginning of a
sentence, but in my opinion, it's okay to do that to avoid
repeating the personal pronoun. When doing so, it's important to
pay attention so that you don't describe two actions taking place
simultaneously when that isn't possible. 

"For example, 'Taking the key out of his pocket, he opened the
door,' suggests that he took the key out of his pocket and opened
the door at the same time, which is not possible. They are two
separate actions."

Stuart Aken is of a similar opinion: "Like so many 'rules' of
writing, it is clearly spurious. Gerunds have been used as starters
almost since the beginning of literature. There's no logical reason
for this bar; it simply makes writing stilted and, in common with
most such rules, makes no sense. Continuing the theme, I shall be
writing such sentences when the structure and pace of the work
require them."

Sheldon Goldfarb's response made me smile. "Worrying about gerunds,
I raced to my keyboard...

"What an odd rule, forbidding gerunds at the beginning of
sentences, and I've read lots of odd rules in Fowler, Strunk and
White, etc. etc.

"I'm not surprised though that editors have come up with it; that's
their job: to come up with rules to hamstring writers.  When I
published my novel, I had to struggle with the editors to get what
I wanted to write published.  You have to be strong with these
people; that's the solution."

Jac Dowling also sees the lack of acceptance of gerunds by editors
as an editorial problem. Jac wrote: "It seems that editors are
becoming ever more pragmatic in their use of red and blue pencils!
In my opinion, and I have opened with gerunds on several occasions,
if the usage suits the mood and style -- go for it."

Vivian Ungar believes that participial phrases have their place in
writing, but must be used sparingly.  Vivian wrote: "When is it OK
to begin a sentence with a gerund? When the sentence makes logical
sense. Such a construction implies two events taking place

"Janis's example sentence is: 'Hurrying around to the front of the
truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.' This doesn't make
a lot of sense, as the character would not be able to spread out
the map on the hood while he was still hurrying. He would have to
stop first, then spread out the map.

"On the other hand, one could write: 'Slipping on her new dress, she
savored the feel of silk against her skin.' Not the greatest writing
in the world, perhaps, but it makes sense. The putting on of the
dress and the feeling of silk against skin occur simultaneously.

"While I don't think it's necessary to ban such sentences
completely, a writer should regard them with suspicion and weed out
as many as possible (just like adjectives). In Janis's case, a
better solution might be not to describe every action her character
makes. Experienced writers leave out certain details, knowing that
the reader is capable of filling in the blanks.

"So the original paragraph: 'He pulled the truck over onto the
shoulder, opened the door, and slid out of his seat. Hurrying
around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of
the hood.' could be rewritten this way: 'He pulled over onto the
shoulder, got out of the truck, and spread the map out on top of
the hood.'

"The reader is aware that the character must open the door before
getting out of the truck. There's no need to tell him so. My
knowledge on this subject comes from John Gardner's excellent book,
The Art of Fiction. He refers to such sentences as 'infinite-verb

Others amongst you, however, feel that gerunds or participial
phrases or infinite-verb phrases should be avoided at all costs. 
Elisa wrote: "I believe that beginning sentences with gerunds is
not technically incorrect, but we were always taught in school that
it was a no-no because it was often done wrong. When you start with
a gerund, you run the risk of writing an incomplete sentence. In
addition, you also have to be careful that you choose an
appropriate action pair. For example, in the example you used:

"'He pulled the truck over onto the shoulder, opened the door, and
slid out of his seat. Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he
spread the map out on top of the hood.' One might argue that you
cannot hurry around to the front of the truck at the same time as
spreading the map out on the top of the hood. This would be better
constructed if instead of spreading the map out on the top of the
hood, he unfolded the map.

"'He pulled the truck over onto the shoulder, opened the door, and
slid out of his seat. Skidding around to the front of the truck, he
spread the map out on top of the hood.' [Editor's grumpy note:
Sorry, Elisa, but you can't open the map while skidding any more
than you can while hurrying...]

"Hopefully this illustrates the need to pair the gerund with the
intended actions and the risk our teachers did not want us taking
as students."

Logan Judd is even more forthright in his views on gerunds.  Logan
writes: "It is true that gerunds should be avoided. The reason why
is because they often do not make practical sense. To use one of
the sentences from the article as an example, 'Hurrying around to
the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood,'
this sentence appears to be stating that he is hurrying around to
the front of the truck and spreading the map on top of the hood at
the same time.

"This is not to say that a gerund is a mortal sin. Whenever I come
across some 'never ever do' advice from a 'how-to-write' book, I
immediately pull a book off the shelves from some such-and-such
author and find tons of examples blatantly contradicting that
advice (for examples of gerunds aplenty, read The Eye of the World
by Robert Jordan).

"I admit that I'm not a grammar whiz (I honestly did not know it
was called a 'gerund' until I read this article, even though I knew
beforehand that it was a poor technique); however, I believe that
most, if not all gerunds, can be revised while still stating
essentially the same thing." Logan goes on to revise several of the
sentences to illustrate this, but for the sake of space I'm only
publishing one of them here.

"'He drove around to the front, and pulled up to the gate. Grabbing
his ID papers off the seat, he thrust them through the open
window.' Here is my revision: 'He drove around to the front and
pulled up to the gate, then grabbed his ID papers off the seat and
thrust them through the open window.'

In his revision, "the first and second sentence were combined using
the conjunction 'then'. I changed "grabbing" to "grabbed," making
this one smooth flow of action without gerunds or excessive 'he's.

"The common theme here appears to be that gerunds can be solved by
throwing in a conjunction and combining the sentence before the
gerund with the gerund sentence to make one sentence. If this
cannot be done, it may be best to consider changing the flow of
events so that a gerund will no longer feel necessary."

Finally, Moira weighed in with her advice on this tricky matter. 
She wrote: "First of all, as Barbara Florio Graham points out,
these are not 'gerunds.'  They are present participles, and
specifically, the issue is about starting a sentence with a
'present participial phrase.'

"I haven't actually seen stern warnings about this, but then, I
don't browse grammar books that often, unless they are somehow
include vampires or pandas.  So I think a better question to ask
would be, 'what do you see in the books you read?'  It seems to me
that a participial phrase is a pretty common way to open a sentence.

"That being said, it also has a huge potential for misuse.  The
most common misuse of the opening participle is to lead with a
participle that is not actually attached to the subject of the
sentence.  I see this problem quite often.  For example:

"'Backing into the garage, my cat raced behind my car.' In this
case, the cat is not actually backing into the garage; I am.  This
incorrect association between the participle and the OBJECT of a
sentence rather than its SUBJECT is one of the most common mistakes
of the amateur writer.  A correct way to express this would be:

"'Backing into the garage, I nearly ran over my cat.' 
"Or, to make it a bit MORE grammatically correct...

"'AS I was backing into the garage, I nearly ran over my cat.'

"And there's the key to using participles correctly: Remembering
that the word 'as' (or 'while') is almost always IMPLIED whenever
you use one.  You can write the sentence above WITHOUT the 'as,'
but the 'as' is still implied.  And that leads to the second
problem with participles: Using them as an alternative to 'He did
this, then he did that,' and so forth.

"'Walking into the room, he flung his coat on the chair and grabbed
the phone.'

"Probably he didn't actually do all these things WHILE he was
walking into the room.  If you couldn't put a 'while' or an 'as'
into the sentence without changing the meaning, then a participle
is probably not a good choice.

"Here's another example: 'Glaring at the inadequate wardrobe, Sarah
wondered where she was going to put her clothes.'

"This is certainly possible: Sarah could be wondering this WHILE
glaring at the wardrobe.  However...

"'Glaring at the wardrobe, Sarah quickly unpacked her suitcases.'
Hard to do.  What the writer really means here is something more

"'Sarah glared at the inadequate wardrobe, then set about unpacking
her suitcases.'

"In short, a present participle USUALLY implies an action that is
occurring at the same time as the next action in the sentence.  If
the actions can't occur simultaneously, it's usually a good idea to
find another way to express the sequence of events.  Participial
phrases are fine if used correctly, but all too often are used as a
sloppy short-cut, and as such, such be avoided."

So that's that sorted then. Whew!  Here's this month's question
from Helen Aveling. She wrote: "I'm a relative new girl in terms of
fiction lengths and I was wondering the following queries:
1. In general how long is a Young Adult (11-15-ish) fiction book?
2. In general [again] how long are the chapters?

"I'm working on a realistic fantasy-with-a-twist which has run to
around 100,000 words at the end of the first draft and I know
that's a thick book for the target audience but the way the story
has landed on the page it is very possible to break it in 3 or
maybe 4 places to make separate shorter books. Now that sort of
does away with massive cuts (hopefully anyway), but as the story
flowed the later chapters got increasingly longer and longer and I
can't see where to break one existing chapter into 2 or maybe 3
shorter chapters. To give you an idea of current chapter lengths,
the longest is just a bit over 4,000 words! Hoping you can help."

Email your replies with the subject line Inquiring Writer to

Until next time, 

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dawn Copeman 


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Amazon Sells More ebooks than Hardcovers 
Amazon has reported that in the first quarter of 2010 it sold 143
ebooks for every 100 hardcover books.  In June the company sold 180
ebooks for every 100 hardcover books and believes that the number
of ebooks sold will only continue to rise. For more on this story
visit: http://tinyurl.com/35xd4kt

Norwegian Author Sued by One of Her Characters
Asne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller of Kabul, has been
successfully sued by one of the characters in her book for £26,000.
Her book was based on real people living in Kabul. For more on this
story visit: http://tinyurl.com/36ygpnw

Penguin Publishing is 75 Years Old 
Although the first Penguin color-coded paperbacks are now
collectors' items, when they were launched at sixpence each in July
1935, they were seen as disposable literature.  For more on the
history of Penguin, visit: http://tinyurl.com/39lyfpw


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Skylights Magazine Open to Submissions                             
Skylights Magazine is the in-flight magazine of Spirit Airlines.
Their stories offer quick and practical information on where
travellers are going, what's doing once they get there, where they
can eat, sleep, play, buy, relax. They present who and what they're
talking about - names, faces, music, movies, books, gadgets,
fashion - in chatty, culture-current language. Their voice reflects
a youthful, sassy edge that informs, amuses and delights their
wide-ranging readership. They invite freelance queries. View
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International Living Open to Submissions
International Living's general themes are retiring overseas, how to
get the best deals when travelling, real estate bargains outside of
the U.S., how to set up a business outside of the U.S., items that
you find overseas that may sell well in the U.S. market
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The countries that have our attention right now are Brazil,
Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Belize, Panama, Nicaragua,
Colombia, Costa Rica, Romania, France, and Italy. 

If we use your Postcard or information we will pay you $50. If you
are a photographer who has photos of these countries, we are also
interested in hearing from you. You can send Postcards
(approximately 250-500 words) to Len Galvin.   

If you are familiar with International Living magazine, you can
send full-length articles (1,000 words) to Managing Editor Laura
Sheridan. Please do not send photos with your first submission. For
more information:  

What Is Literary Fiction? Literary Editors Share Their Views

By Moira Allen

Many articles and books on the art of writing fiction tell you that
getting a few stories published in leading literary magazines can
do wonders for your writing career. Breaking into the literary
magazines can help you "get noticed."  And when it comes time to
submit that novel to a publisher, having a track record of literary
publications certainly won't hurt.

But what, exactly, IS literary fiction?  While there are hundreds
of literary magazines, ranging from top-name publications that have
been producing award-winning fiction for decades to tiny zines that
spring up (and quite often disappear) overnight, obtaining an
actual "definition" of literary fiction is not so easy.  Many
articles try to define it by stating what it is not: "genre" or
mainstream fiction, for example.  One book even defines literary
fiction as work that would be read "in college English classes" as
opposed to "the grocery checkout line."  [Source: "The Beginning
Writer's Answer Book," by Jane Friedman, 

Unfortunately, the writers' guidelines posted by many litmags
aren't terribly helpful either.  While we're always told to "check
the guidelines" to determine what a publication wants, many litmags
simply tell us that they're looking for "great writing" or ask
writers to send "their best stories."  Some don't even say that
much, but simply specify a maximum word count.  

To attempt to answer this question, therefore, I decided to go
directly to the editors themselves.  Over a dozen literary-magazine
editors weighed in on what they believe makes a story "literary,"
what they look for in a literary story, and what they recommend for
writers who seek to break into literary magazines.

It's About Style...
Two qualities emerged as being of paramount importance to literary
editors: style and innovation.  "Literary fiction for me is
primarily based in language," says Marc Fitten, editor of The
Chattahoochee Review.  "How is the writer using language?  A
strong, distinctive voice is the first thing I read for.  Whammo! 
Does the voice grab me as a reader and make me read the story?"  

According to Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters Quarterly,
literary fiction "uses language in fresh ways, and uses form in
fresh ways.  It does not rely on convention but... on process of
discovery.  Editors are looking for something that is
unprecedented."  Alyce Wilson, editor of Wild Violet Magazine,
feels that "literary fiction... often aims to do more than simply
tell a story: whether to explore a concept or to complicate
traditional narrative and character development.  Typically,
literary fiction offers the reader a deeper look at the human

Often, this means that the structure of a literary story may be
experimental or nontraditional.  "The writer does not set out to
tell a story from start to finish and follow the usual rules of
engaging the casual reader's attention," says John Reid of
WinningWriters.com.  "Instead, the writer's approach is
experimental, although it also helps to adhere to some of the
current academic precepts such as limiting dialogue (or dispensing
with it altogether), and abandoning formal structures of plotting
and characterization."

G.S. Evans, coeditor of Café Irreal, believes that "in its broadest
sense, literary fiction is fiction that attempts to communicate
ideas, concepts, or feelings that transcend the structural elements
of the story, e.g., the plot, the characters, the setting.  Thus,
there have been many exciting and entertaining stories about ships
at sea, but a work like Moby Dick is more than that in that it also
explores certain symbolic, psychological and metaphysical themes." 
Alan Davis, senior editor of New Rivers Press, says that "literary
fiction renders an experience that has not been rendered before
(originality) in language (style, voice, etc.) unique to that
experience."  He recommends that the writer "enter a
theater-of-the-mind, and make sure that you give your reader
sufficient sensory detail to experience the human drama unfolding
in that theater."

"When I think of the word 'literary,' I envision writing that is
entirely memorable, vivid and original," says Veronica Ross,
fiction editor of The Antigonish Review.  "The language is
wonderful.  The story can be quite simple, but it will impart a
certain feeling when you read it.  A feeling of joy, of surprise
perhaps.  There is nothing predictable about these 'literary'
stories.  The voice is big."

One word that came up more than once in reference to style was
"panache."  Kathryn Gray, editor of New Welsh Review, seeks
"originality, daring.  That indefinable thing: panache."  Chris
Busa, editor of Provincetown Arts Press, expands on the
"indefinable" bit by noting that literary fiction "describes
storytelling that possesses creative panache in metaphorical
thinking and uniquely individual phrasing, the voice of an
interesting mind speaking freshly and authentically.  Such voices
arrest our attention."  

It's About Character...
To many editors, character development was nearly as important as
style.  "It is usually about characters and 'what happens'... the
arc of the narrative -- if there is a narrative -- is driven by the
characters' conflicts or desires," says Beth Alvarado, fiction
editor of Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. "The best of literary
fiction gives us glimpses of the characters' particular worlds and
relationships and also opens a 'new' window on to our own worlds
and lives and relationships."  She looks for "characters that are
compelling.  They don't have to be sympathetic, but we have to be
engaged by them.  We want to believe them -- even if they're
'unreliable' -- we want to see the worlds they inhabit, we want to
be emotionally or psychologically grounded in their reality -- but
there also needs to be some kind of imaginative transformation of
'the real.'"

Ronna Wineburg, senior fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review,
defines literary fiction as "fiction that focuses on character
development, language, metaphor, and, to a lesser extent, on
plot... Characters are developed and dimensional."  To Wineburg,
"uniqueness of characters, description and situation" are
particularly important.  

"I believe literary fiction is character-driven, not plot-driven,"
says Regina Williams, editor and publisher of Storyteller Magazine.
 "Because of this, readers sometimes find the stories have
unsatisfactory endings.  Literary fiction deals more with the
characters themselves and their internal struggles."  Such stories,
she notes, may not have happy endings -- and may not even have
"likeable" characters so long as they have good characters, "even
good bad characters."  Robert Stewart notes that literary fiction
should "confront or have the character confront a moral dilemma."

To John Wang, editor of Juked, literary fiction may be "anything
that sheds some kind of insight on the human condition, escapism
that ultimately brings you back to the present world in a way,
teaches you something about it.  You can have literary genre
fiction... but that fiction has to do something to shed light on
our world, and not only take you away from it.  While doing so, it
should challenge our understanding of the world; make us question
our preconceived notions of it."

Alexis Enrico Santi, editor of Our Stories, explains how these two
elements of style and character can be woven together:  "Literary
fiction is writing that concentrates not on the climax but all the
foreplay before and after... It's not exactly that a story about
the last time you fell in love isn't interesting; it's that the
story is inside of the human element that makes up their actions
and the individuals which stand in their way... What bridges the
gap between the reader and writer is the essential senses of human
emotion: smell, sight, hearing, touch -- these are universal. 
Everyone who reads is looking to access their own emotions to
'live' inside your fiction.  Whenever you are communing with these
senses, you will be connecting with your reader."

But What About Plot?
Over and over, editors stated a belief that one of the primary
differences between literary fiction and mainstream fiction was
that mainstream (including genre) fiction tends to have a stronger
emphasis on story or plot than on character.  Ronna Wineberg, for
example, feels that "most 'mainstream' fiction is plot-driven
rather than character-driven."  Alyce Wilson believes that
"mainstream fiction focuses primarily on telling a story."  Beth
Alvarado says, "I don't think mainstream fiction... takes as many
risks with character, form, subject matter, or style as literary
fiction can because its primary concern is the market place."

Does this mean that plot is unimportant in literary fiction?  Not
at all, according to Wang.  "You need to provide a compelling plot.
A vivid setting.  Everything, really, is rather important."  Alan
Davis says that "plot is the crucible that reveals character." 
Francine Ringold, editor of Nimrod, looks for "plots that are
intriguing, that are not predictable.  A strong sense of place is
good, and a novel use of timing is inviting." Regina Williams
points out that stories must have "a believable storyline.  You
have to make the reader believe it's possible."

According to Ronna Winegold, "If literary fiction doesn't have a
plot or narrative movement (even just in the inner life of the
character), it won't hold the attention of the reader, won't be
effective.  Beautiful writing needs some glue to hold it together. 
As an editor, I read stories that are elegantly written, but
nothing happens in these stories.  One could say these stories are
examples of literary fiction, in terms of the descriptive style,
but they don't work.  The details are authentic, but there is no
narrative movement, so we reject these stories, no matter how
beautiful the writing is."

Winegold also points out that "suspension of disbelief," so often a
requirement in mainstream fiction, is just as important for
literary fiction.  "The reader has to 'suspend disbelief' in any
kind of fiction... Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term, 'willing
suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic
faith.'  I've always thought in any kind of fiction, the writer has
to convince the reader that the narrative is what actually happened
or what could have happened (John Gardner says this in his The Art
of Fiction)."

This ability to suspend disbelief often enables literary fiction to
cross the line into the realm of the fantastic and "surreal," if
not directly into speculative fiction.  Beth Alvarado notes that
"for instance, in magical realism, a very old man with wings may
fall from the sky -- this happens in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's
famous story, 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings' -- and the
reader suspends disbelief that this could actually happen and is
interested, instead, in how this event affects the villagers, how
they treat the old man, and what that reveals about them and, by
extension, perhaps us... In George Saunders' story 'Sea Oak,' the
protagonist's aunt literally comes back from the dead, but the
issue is... what her 'resurrection' means to him, what it reveals
about their lives.  In literary fiction, I think we're more
interested in the characters' psychology, how they react to these
fantastic situations and what the stories mean or what they reveal
about human nature or about our society."

Despite editors' emphasis on the "experimental" structure of
literary fiction, the necessity of having a "plot" brings the
writer back to the necessity of being able to construct a story
with, well, most of the elements we commonly associate with
stories.  Regina Williams, for example, sees too many stories where
writers "cannot keep the story together from start to finish.  So
many manuscripts I read fail in that respect.  The first paragraph
doesn't catch my attention, or they stray off course in the middle
or the ending doesn't bring it all together.  If any of the three
fail, the entire story fails."  Her most common reason for
rejection is "endings that fall flat."  Alyce Wilson also has a
problem with poor endings.  "One of my pet peeves is unjustified
endings.  If the ending is weak and/or unjustified, I usually end
up rejecting it."  

Alexis Enrico Santi, on the other hand, looks for "a winning
opening page.  It has to move, it has to matter.  If it is dry and
makes us wait it isn't working.  I am looking for a good, beautiful
story that makes me learn something new about life.  I reject at
least forty or fifty stories a month that just don't go anywhere. 
The pacing and tension are slow... they assume that the reader is
interested in continuous tags of dialogue, riddled with unimportant
gestures and gesticulations -- they're not important.  At the root
of every story is what matters.  This root can be death, love,
friendship, whatever... so the writer has to keep building around
that, slowly and methodically, and do so in a way that is going to
entertain us.  As long as everything points back to your core
message, your root, then you'll be fine."

So How Do You Get There?
Not surprisingly, editors had a variety of tips for writers seeking
to develop their "literary" voice, but one emerged above all the
rest: "Read, read, read!"  Joseph Levens, editor of the Summerset
Review, adds, "of all that you read, highlight that which you
really liked.  Read those stories again, critically.  You learn
more than you think by reading work you enjoyed."  Alan Davis
advises, "Read, read, read, and read some more, not as a critic but
as a writer -- that is, read the way a musician listens to music."

"Read short story anthologies and all those 'Best of...'
anthologies," advises Beth Alvarado.  "Read literary magazines and
journals. Find a writer you like and read everything he or she has
written. Borrow some of their techniques; experiment seriously and
with intent.  Take a class. Keep a writer's journal.  Be curious."
Christopher Busa adds, "Push your imagination. Develop it like a
muscle kept supple through daily use."

"The most important thing is to be well read," says Kathryn Gray. 
"That means strongly, knowledgeably connected with contemporary
literature, as well as respectful and aware of the tradition.  Any
writer of merit is a passionate, engaged and discriminating reader.
 I [also] think most writers suffer from over-enthusiasm: running
before they can walk.  Writing is a long-haul journey.  Take your
time, develop and hone your craft, make those important mistakes in
private before you start sending out.  There's no hurry."

"Never give up," says Regina Williams.  "Even the most well known
authors have gotten rejection letters.  Rejection letters should
just make you more determined.  Read a lot of literary fiction. 
Learn the craft before submitting.  Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite

Alexis Enrico Santi takes us to the bottom line: "Read, read, read
everything you can get your hands on. However, don't be afraid. 
Take some damn chances and be audacious.  It won't get written
until you decide to cast fear aside and pull that damn trigger. 
Let your imagination explode all over the page and cry over it,
sweat over it, and pour everything you have into that first draft
getting your story out and then, when it is all done--go back to it
and revise."

And that's good advice, no matter what kind of fiction you're

Ten Reasons for Literary Rejection
* Stories that are unsuitable for the magazine. (Regina Williams,
Storyteller Magazine)

* Stories that are well written but predictable.  Spelling errors
can be fixed, but "a prosaic story remains boring."  (Antigonish

* Stereotypical plots. (Francine Ringold, Nimrod)

* Stories that have not been thought out.  (Marc Fitten, The
Chattahoochee Review)

* A weak opening.  "If a manuscript does not open with a strong
lead, I often only skim the rest of the story.  If it does not grab
me right away, it will not grab our readership." (Alyce Wilson,
Wild Violet Magazine). 
* Too much cleverness.  "[Writers] get carried away with their own
cleverness and exhaust the reader's patience," says John Reid. 
"People try too hard to be clever," agrees John Wang of Juked. 
"Many stories immediately come off as being the work of an amateur
because the writer is going out of his/her way to sound smart and

* Stories in which the voice sounds false.  (Chris Busa,
Provincetown Arts Press)

* "Sluggish prose, overwriting, lack of originality (i.e.,
derivative), lack of texture, weak tone, rambling submissions that
evidence no knowledge of the magazine or the type of standard and
style we favour." (Kathryn Gray, New Welsh Review)

* Repeated or careless use of the same word (Joseph Levens, The
Summerset Review); overuse of pet names (Francine Ringold, Nimrod).

* Stories that are otherwise excellent but just don't fit the
editorial mix of a particular issue.  "For example, we can't
publish four stories on breast cancer in one issue or include four
stories told by a child narrator.  We need a balance of subject
matter, style, voice, and point of view in each issue of journal,"
says Ronna Wineberg of The Bellevue Literary Review.  Beth Alvarado
of Cutthroat agrees:  "We don't want all of the stories in one
issue to be about relationships or grief or fishing.  We also want
some variety in craft: we don't want all of the stories to be from
a first-person point of view or to be heavy on narration.  Usually
one or two stories really stand out, and then we arrange the rest
of the 'bouquet' of stories around them, so that the issue has some
texture and depth." 

The Literary Magazines and Presses:
The Antigonish Review - http://www.antigonishreview.com/
Bellevue Literary Review - http://blr.med.nyu.edu/
Café Irreal - http://www.cafeirreal.com
The Chattahoochee Review - http://www.gpc.edu/~gpccr/
Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts - http://www.cutthroatmag.com/
Juked - http://www.juked.com
New Letters Quarterly - http://www.newletters.org
New Rivers Press - http://www.newriverspress.com/
New Welsh Review - http://www. newwelshreview.com
Nimrod - http://www.utulsa.edu/nimrod/
Our Stories - http://www.ourstories.us/
Provincetown Arts Press - http://www.provincetownarts.org
Storyteller Magazine - 
The Summerset Review - http://www.summersetreview.org
Wild Violet Magazine - http://www.wildviolet.net
WinningWriters.com - http://www.winningwriters.com

Moira Allen, editor of Writing-World.com, has published more than
350 articles and columns and eight books, including How to Write
for Magazines, Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (second
edition forthcoming January 2011), The Writer's Guide to Queries,
Pitches and Proposals (second edition forthcoming in September
2010), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. 
Allen has served as a columnist and contributing editor for The
Writer and has written for Byline, Writer's Digest, and various
other writing publications.  She can be contacted at

Copyright (c) 2010 by Moira Allen.  This article originally
appeared in The Writer magazine.

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