Friday, September 23, 2011

“The Beginning: Why Most Stories Get Rejected” by J.F. Benedetto, MWA, from Calliope

I was drawn to this article because it is the only non-fiction piece in the current issue of Calliope (available online at After having read it, it seems that this would be more accurately labeled if it was under the heading of Advice Columns focusing on How to Get Published. In a sentence this piece says, “Make the start of your story interesting or don’t bother,” and while I don’t disagree with the fact that the beginning of a story should be interesting, it sounded in my head like Benedetto was asking his readers to sell out. He made it clear that if a story doesn’t start in medias res it will never be read by publishers.

One example Benedetto used was a story starting with five pages “detailing the ecosystem of uninhabited Planet Zervim III” which he would rather have start with “just five sentences explaining that our protagonist is a used-robot salesman taking passage on a commercial starship and that he’s just been marooned by aliens on an uninhabited plant for reasons he does not understand.” I could not help but think of Hollywood, car chases and explosions. I wondered why the ecosystem of Zervim III couldn’t be the most interesting start to a story. It could be that the differences between that ecosystem and our own make it interesting to read about. Maybe I’m a bit too much of a science nerd, but I’d love to read that.

This being said, it might be that five pages is too long, or that the story stands a better chance of being immediately engaging the way Benedetto wrote it , but I just don’t believe that the only way a story can be worth reading is if it starts in medias res.



Popped said...

I agree with you Averill. I don't think it's a fair argument for Benedetto to say that only stories that "capture the audience" immediately can end up being published. It reminds me of getting advice on how to grasp the reader's attention when I was in middle school - ask a question, use a quotation! If the piece is well-written and captivating, I would think the publisher would be able to look past the fact that the beginning didn't instantly make him love it.

Popped said...

Unfortunately, so many people will just flip open a book to read the first paragraph, and if they aren't hooked, they won't keep reading. While I agree with Averill that it seems unfair that the ecosystem is pretty much being sidlined, I do think it is important to hook the reader enough that they will want to keep reading when they hit that section. I'm thinking of Tolkien, who could wax poetic for pages about scenery. Only dedication to the story and the man got me through it. Ugh.

Also, unfortunately, publishing is selling out. It's not just about creating something that you want to read--you need to create something that others want to read, too, and publishers aren't going to take you if they don't think that there's enough of an audience for the work to make them money. I'm sitting on a 600 page manuscript full of what I think are interesting culture- and character-building details, but I know that if I ever seriously wanted to consider publication I would have to cut the story by at least half--and those details would probably be the first things to go so that I could maintain the plot.