The importance of reading; submitting more than one story to a journal
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: February 24, 2009
|I keep hearing the advice that writers should read. I still don't get it. Why is this so important? |
People in every trade learn from those who have gone before them. Teachers-in-training observe experienced educators in the classroom. Law students analyze and discuss past cases. Even experienced doctors read medical journals detailing studies and new research. It's difficult to make significant advancements when you're working in a vacuum. If you don't know how others have succeeded—and failed—at what you're doing, you start behind the pack.
Reading great writing is like learning directly from the masters of the craft. Reading lets you observe the tools and techniques at a writers' disposal and the unique ways in which an individual writer combines and manipulates them. The more possibilities you're aware of, the more options you have when you turn to your own writing. Reading widely also gives you a sense of what's fresh and what's stale. Don't cross off books from your "to do" list if you decide they're bad. Reading what doesn't work can be just as instructive as reading what does. Examine what's been done before; you'll be a stronger writer as a result.
When you read as a writer, approach the fiction, essay, or poem as a result of the same process you go through when you write. A published piece isn't an object of wonder that fell from the sky. It's a work of craftsmanship made with the same tools of the trade that are available to you. Be active in your reading. Ask yourself: what choices did the writer make and how do they contribute to (or detract from) the work's success? Some examples:
• Why is F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby told from the perspective of Nick Carraway? Considering why an author made a specific choice can help you better understand how the work was put together. You may find this kind of analysis is easier on a second read, after you've had an opportunity to read it for pleasure and discovery.
• In Sharon Olds' poem "Feared Drowned," what does the sea imagery contribute to the poem?
• In Raymond Carver's short story "Cathedral," what obstacles does the narrator face?
Reading can also be a rich source of inspiration for ideas in your own writing. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in Notes from Underground: "Only if I could become an insect!" Franz Kafka took in that line and wrote his fiction "The Metamorphosis," which begins with the sentence: "As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." After reading Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," Gabriel García Márquez said: "When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago." He went on to write many fictions with such unexpected elements, including the short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" about a town's reaction to finding a man, weak and injured, on a path after a long rainstorm. The odd thing about this man: he has wings.
(If you want to learn from various masters of fiction, I would suggest Fiction Gallery, an anthology of short stories by 25 masters of the craft.)
Can I submit two short stories to the same journal?
Generally, literary journals only consider one story from an author at a time. Once you receive notification about that story, you can send another story if you want to try again. If you do follow up, read the writers' guidelines to make sure the reading period is still open and to see if they have any additional guidelines regarding subsequent submissions. Some journals ask that you wait a certain amount of time before sending more work. Most accept your next submission as soon as they're finished with the one before it.
There are exceptions to this general practice. Some journals—although rare—will look at more than one short story from the same author at a time. These are called "multiple submissions." Another exception: many journals will consider more than one work of flash fiction (also called a "short short" or "micro fiction") at a time. Poetry submissions are handled a bit differently. It's common to send more than one poem—often up to five—in a single submission. Always check the writers' guidelines, which will stipulate what can be sent, in what quantity, and when.
--Posted Feb. 24, 2009
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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