Text from a speech given at the 9th Annual Indie Lit Festival in Frostburg, Maryland

Hello, my name is Whit Arnold and I’m one of the fiction editors at Cheat River Review. Cheat River Review is the literary magazine that is published from West Virginia University. Although we publish, nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, I’m going to talk mostly about fiction.

I have a nonfiction background, so I come to fiction a little jaded. And I think my jadedness is actually pretty representative of many writers. Writers, sometimes, as we all know, are a little jaded, and this is important to think about because, essentially, they are your audience.

First, I want to discuss audience.

So essentially, when submitting to a magazine, you have to know your audience. Duh. You’ve heard that before. You’ve been told to check out the website, to look at past issues, to see if you can notice anything similar themes that appear across the magazine.

In our upcoming issue, of the five fiction pieces that we accepted—2 short stories and 3 flash pieces—3 of them contain some type of natural element, especially animals. I don’t think Cheat River Review is alone. I think these little threads reveal themselves at each magazine; certain editors like certain things. We, apparently, like animals.

My point is that many times when we send out, often it’s already rejected before we’ve even hit submit. It’s already a bad fit for the magazine because we did not do our research to find out what magazine was actually about.

I can use several examples from Cheat River. We get a lot of great writing. However, often, that great writing is something that we don’t want to touch; it doesn’t fit with our past issues, it doesn’t fit what we’re looking for at all. With that said, we have loyal submitters, ones who once they’ve been rejected, will then, within a day or two, resubmit something else. We’re honored by this, of course, but if we didn’t take the last chapter of your espionage thriller, what makes you think we’ll take the next one?

*

Okay, so you’ve done your research. You know that this magazine is a perfect fit. They like cats, and you’ve just written a story with Fluffy as the lead. This could not be a better fit, you think.

My next piece of advice is don’t do anything. Don’t click submit. Don’t attach the Fluffy story. Don’t send us it while your laptop is still hot, while it’s still burning in your mind. Let it cool. Take a week. Take a month. Relax. Often, I think, we need time away from our work to see it clearly.

Now, of course, I’m not the first idiot to come to this conclusion. Many others have said this before me. In fact, I’m sure that many others at this conference are discussing revision right now.

*

Okay, so you’ve revised. You’ve waited a month. You’ve waited six months. You reread Fluffy story, revise it, and now, you know, its ready. You’re ready to click submit.

Wait. Don’t do it yet. Call an acquaintance. Maybe someone from work. Tell her, “I just finished a story about my cat. Can I read you the first line?”

Your acquaintance will be so bewildered, she’ll say, “Okay…?”

Then take a breath, inhale, and begin: “Although Ben thought Nancy was angry at him because she fed him lamb and beef gravy twice—and she knows he hates beef gravy—but he knew she wasn’t angry because after she came home from work at the Chocolate factory, smelling of dark chocolate and mints, he realized she’s missing a finger.”

This sentence was submitted to us. Now, I know, like me, some of you are a little intrigued: What happened to Nancy’s finger? How long has she worked at the chocolate factory? Why is Ben so sensitive, and why does he not like beef gravy?

But I think this sentence illustrates how we place too much of an importance on the
first sentence. Yes, the first sentence must grab our attention. Yes, it must give us
some tone and give us a little info, and yes it must be great. But let’s cool down. Let’s
not show all of our cards at once. Because you might be setting yourself up for failure. How can a second sentence follow? How could one top that?

Truth be told, I made up that sentence. I didn’t think it would be ethical to share sentences that we did not accept. But, I think as many of you know, we get some doozies.

So then, if I’m not suppose to show all of my potatoes at once, how am I supposed to write an opening sentence? Am I not supposed to “Wow” my reader? Am I not supposed to hook him? I think each one of us has to figure out how we begin to tell our stories, and luckily, we have so many brilliant writers to look to.

Raymond Carver, for instance, wows me each time I reread his stories. “Feathers” begins: “This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper.”

In 14 words, 3 characters have been introduced. We know their relationships: co-worker (he’s not just a “friend.” He’s a friend “from work”); implied wife or girlfriend; and this sentence hints at tone, and even socioeconomic status i.e. “supper.”

Then, again, in Carver’s “Cathedral,” he begins: “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he’s on his way to spend the night.” Blind man, wife, he’s spending the night, and the narrator is not stoked about it.

How can we say so much by using so little? How can we pack a punch in only a few words?

I want to connect this idea of a good opening sentence to your audience at the literary magazine. When you’re thinking of your audience, you’re just not examining the journal itself. You need to consider who the editors are. At Cheat River Review, we’re graduate students. We teach writing, we study writing, and we do other stuff, like edit the campus’ literary magazine.

Simply put, we don’t have a lot of time. If you send us a 20-page story, if we’re not hooked in the first few pages, we’re not going to keep reading. In fact, we should be hooked way before the first few pages. We should be hooked in the first paragraph, and if you can, hook us in the first sentence.

Thank you.

Whit Arnold
Assistant Fiction Editor

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