The joy of editing a literary magazine is, and should always be, finding something great. But there’s no point in pretending that pouring through submissions is always a joy in itself.
The problem with writing is that we’re told: write about what we know. But that becomes a problem, at least for me, the editor, when writers take it far too literally. It means that writers write about themselves, writing, and being writers. Please don’t write about being a writer. Write about why you hate clowns. I don’t care if your protagonist is a struggling writer; I’ve heard that story. So have you. I said recently in an interview that I’d much rather read about the nicotine-dependent laid-off Christmas reindeer than another story about the Orwellian author down on his luck. If you really need to write that story, if it burns within you and you feel you’ve got something new to say, something relevant to add; an earthy truth as of yet uncovered then sure, go for it. Some have, and will continue to create works of genius in a field done to death. It’s not like love and tragedy was laid to rest when Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. I accept that much. But if you want to make an impact with the submissions team, if you want to stand out from the crowd, hit them with originality. You know you’ve got it in you. You’ve had that idea that was as interesting as it was vague to you, and you didn’t write it because you didn’t see yourself as that sort of writer, or more to the point, didn’t want to.
Taking this step, writing about the bizarre, the illogical, needn’t be a departure from writing what you know. Place yourself in the reality of your story. Let’s revisit the reindeer idea. Whilst I can’t relate to being a reindeer, I can relate to nicotine addiction, right? I can relate to life as a disgruntled employee, we were all young once. I can put myself into any scenario and write about what I know, within it.
That’s what the creative process calls for a lot of the time. You have to be daring with your writing, at least as an aspiring writer. Experiment with your writing whilst you still can.
Running a literary magazine has been a better learning experience for me in my own fiction writing than actually writing. I thought I would learn so much about what to do in writing, but actually, I’ve learnt most in seeing what not to do. I can see why that would appear quite cynical, but honestly, the moment that you understand that your writing is no good (OK, not no good, but flawed) is the moment you can improve as a writer of fiction. All the best writers have learnt what not to write. They’ve scorched the excess fat of their writing and allowed a unique voice to break through the narrative without having to write, “Mr. Shakespeare was a fed up writer one day…”
Sean Preston is the editor of Open Pen Magazine, an ‘open literature’ magazine that has been called “unpretentious, edgy, and utterly readable,” by author and broadcaster N Quentin Woolf.
Sean lives by the river in London, England, where he battles bravely against doing things, and now and again writes.