There’s a paradox to writing time: as a writer you are often advised to give a story, essay or poem sufficient time to develop—a month, six months, a year…sometimes more. Within this frame you draft, revise, and then let it sit for as long as it takes to create the perspective needed to evaluate it with less-biased eyes. Then more revision, and maybe more quiet time before you finally submit. All this so an editor can make a decision about your piece after two sentences.
I feel your pain. I suspect I’ve had hundreds of stories and queries rejected because the reader didn’t “connect” after a paragraph or so. But whether these instant decisions are a symptom of our cultural ills or a coping strategy for overworked editors, the practice is standard in the lit journal business.* Even famous writers are judged on their first pages.
In a recent interview at Jennie Nash’s site, TLR’s Nonfiction Editor, Yi Shun Lai, mentioned that a good editor can get to “no-go” very quickly. Because we read so many submissions, we learn to immediately identify writer fails. I too can spot a dud as quickly as the next editor (sometimes as soon as the title).
But in some ways, I’m an old-fashioned editor. I’ve read many stories and books that took some time before they became the kind of can’t-put-it-down writing I crave. I also believe the more sophisticated the writing, and the deeper the impact of the story, the less chance my reaction hinges exclusively on those first few sentences. Like Yi Shun and Poetry Editor Kelly Davio, I approach each new submission with a hope that maybe this is the next one we will publish, so why not give it the opportunity?
As a writer who wishes more editors would go further into my stories, I believe it’s fair to offer the same treatment I’d like to receive. So when reading for TLR, I’ll give you at least three pages, often more. Unless the grammar or craft is so bad the piece is clearly unpublishable, you deserve at least that much space to engage me. It’s a compromise, of course, but better, I hope, than instant, I’m-too-busy-to-read-anyway rejection.
In fact, three of the five short stories in our first issue (coming August 31) might not have passed the first paragraph test. They were more subtle in their approaches. But over the course of those three pages they each began to intrigue me, to urge me to keep reading until I was hooked.
If you gave your story the time to make it as perfect as possible, then I’ll take the time to keep reading. Don’t worry about blowing me away in the first sentence.
*Of course if journal editors didn’t have to have other jobs to make money, they might have more time to dwell on slush pile evaluations, but that’s another blog.