Note to myself (and other writers)I read something the other day in one of the Zoetrope "offices" that has taken a while to sink in, but now I'm feeling the full impact. It was a quote (or paraphrase) of something from former New Yorker editor* Bob Gottlieb (now an agent)* said, something like, "I can sell a poorly written piece with a good story, but not a poor story well written." THAT'S MY PROBLEM!
I suppose if I'd come into fiction writing through writing programs I would have learned that. All these years I've been puzzled and annoyed by rejection letters that told me how well the work was written, but that they couldn't take it. And I'd get annoyed reading published things that I thought were poorly written. And I couldn't understand or accept that some of my stories were accepted for publication and others that I thought were at least as good were not.
Now I see it. I was concentrating on writing stories better, instead of writing better stories.
A story has to have a beginning, middle and an end (not necessarily in that order, as somebody pointed out). I'd be great on the beginning and the middle, but then I would have accomplished my goals -- description, characterization, all those things that make an experience vivid -- and neglect the ending. What's a proper ending? Well, something has to happen, or be clearly about to happen (the way Hemingway sometimes left things, on the edge of a huge event), something that is or will be life-changing (or life-ending) to somebody.
Geez, what a jerk I've been! Sometimes I've got it right, but only sometimes -- because that's not what I was focusing on. The story about to appear in the next issue of Small Spiral Notebook does work as a story, I think (something does happen that changes at least one character's life). I hope it's also well-written, but that's obviously less important.
* NOTE: My error. Two different Gottliebs. Quote is from Bob G., the literary agent, not Robert G., the former New Yorker editor. See blog for 2004/7/5.
Small Spiral Notebook