There Is No Magic Formula

An editor with a New York publishing firm—I'll call him John Samuels—once told me about an experience he had when he was speaking at a writers conference. His topic was, "What Editors Look for in a Manuscript." The room was packed with aspiring writers eager to achieve publication. They were bright-eyed and excited. Their notebooks were open and ready. Yet as he spoke, addressing some of the same subjects we'll be talking about in this book—creating strong characters, devising a compelling plot—John realized he was losing his audience. Their minds were wandering, their heads nodding. From the back of the room, he thought he heard someone snore.

Then, about halfway through the hour, a woman raised her hand. "Mr. Samuels," she said, "you're not sticking to the topic. You're supposed to tell us what editors want. So let's talk about that. Now, when I send in my manuscript, how wide should I make the margins?"

John wasn't surprised at the question. He hears at least one off-the-wall question every time he gives a talk. What surprised and dismayed him was that suddenly the whole audience became alert, sat up straight in their chairs, and poised their pens over their notebooks, ready to take down John's magic formula for writing success. Make the margins precisely this wide, and you will be published.

If only it were that easy. Of course margins count, because a properly prepared manuscript demonstrates to an editor that you have a professional attitude, that you know what you're doing. If you present your story in its correct business attire, the editor will read it with a higher expectation that it will be pub-lishable; if your manuscript looks sloppy or careless, the editor may not read your story at all. But plenty of neatly typed manuscripts with one-inch margins all around are rejected. What matters to both editors and readers are the art and the craft you bring to the writing of the story itself.

Achieving art and craft in short story writing requires hard work and dedication. In the process, you will become frustrated and dejected, you will wad up pages of leaden prose and false starts and dead ends and fling them across the room. You will be tempted to smash your computer screen or heave your typewriter out the window.

But what is far more important, you will also experience great joy. You will have moments when you become so absorbed in the fictional world you are creating that time will seem to stop; days when you sit down at your desk after breakfast and look up just minutes later to realize that it's dinnertime. You will experience the high that comes after one of those rare days when when prose flows, the characters don't balk, and the story takes on a life of its own. You will know the exhilaration of hearing someone who has no vested interest in saying so tell you, "Hey, I read your story. It's really good."

Some writers maintain that writing can't be taught. Perhaps this is true, especially when it comes to the art of the writing, because the art is born of the individual vision and insights and passions that the writer brings to the work.

But the craft of writing, if it can't be taught, can certainly be learned. Learning is a process of trial and error. Take classes, listen to writers speak, read this book and others, do the exercises that they suggest. Try the suggested tips and techniques in your own writing, and see which ones work for you.

What you will discover is that there is no foolproof recipe for writing a short story. There is no definitive set of instructions. There is no secret that, if only you can persuade someone to whisper it in your ear, will guarantee success.

For every writer, the creative process works differently. Every writer uses different techniques for tapping into her creativity, keeping track of her ideas, and managing her writing activities. There are writers who work best in the early morning, and others who can't get juiced up until the late news signs off. In this age of technological sophistication, I know one author who, after eighteen published books, still pecks out her stories with two fingers on an old typewriter. I know another who writes all his first drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads. All of these writers are doing it right—for them.

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