Claire King


A Belly Full of Fiction

Posted on: March 4th, 2012 by Claire - 26 Comments

At the end of last year I stopped accepting submissions of short fiction to The View From Here. I’d become quite overwhelmed, every day several more stories to read, and something strange was happening…

Of course some of the submissions only took a quick look to see that they weren’t for us – wrong style, not the right level of writing, wrong genre (novels, children’s stories). And the odd one would still stand out immediately. But many of them, many more than usual it seemed, blurred together, indistinct from one another. The writing was good but I have to admit I’d lost interest.

I think I had run into fiction fatigue.

After a two-month break I’ve re-opened to submissions and the new stories are flooding back in. The quality is good, and I’m enjoying reading them again.

I’ve decide that I get a diminishing return when reading short fiction. Like drinking a cold beer – the first one is wonderfully refreshing, the second is good too. The third is simply because you like the taste and the fourth is pure gluttony. It’s the same with tapas. Even if the whole menu looks delicious, you can’t taste everything. Even if you had the budget, after the first few different tastes you’ve already had a belly-full.

I’m talking about food as an analogy, but it works in other areas too:

Have you ever been into a perfume counter, shopping for a gift? After the first three or four scents, everything seems to smell the same. And when I go to an art gallery I only ever want to see one or two rooms. There’s just too much to take in otherwise and I find myself glancing over paintings which deserve more consideration. Sensorial saturation.

But if this is all true, how does one get through an ever expanding inbox of short-fiction submissions – or for that matter, if you are an agent, a slush pile of novel queries –  giving each one the time and consideration it deserves?

Answers on a postcard please.

26 Responses

  1. Diane Becker says:

    Interesting post Claire, not surprised you had fiction fatigue! With regard to TVFH, you could have a fixed submission period, say 2 periods of 2 months out of 12. Or bring in some trusted volunteers to read slush pile. Re: agents, sure they delegate MSs too…

    • claire says:

      Yes, it could be that when the submissions pile becomes larger than I can manage in small sittings, I could close again until it’s back down. Trusted volunteers also an excellent idea! I’ll think about that!

  2. Pete says:

    I’m exactly the same when it comes to this kind of fatigue. Short stories demand a lot of their reader as you have to fill in the background and use your imagination to a much greater extent than a novel. I’ll read one or two a night max or else I start skimming.
    Sadly, I don’t think you can give every story the time and consideration it deserves. If it was me trying to do this, I’d set some basic criteria for a quick read through without trying to take it all in and come back to those which appeal for a ‘proper’ read. That way, I would feel I’m being ‘fair’ to the process and the writer. I’d also try and devise some kind of workflow so I could split up the reading into smaller chunks which I can spread out. However you need to find something that suits you.
    There’s no point having open submissions if you’re just building up an increasing pile so I’d introduce some period for submissions such that you’re not just ‘one on the list’ to submit to and people need to do some work to know when you take submissions and therefore do a bit more thinking.
    Life’s just too short, is’t it?

    • claire says:

      I’ve tried going back for re-reads, but I’ve found for me personally it adds more time to the process and allows me to be indecisive! I do like discrete submissions windows – it’s true that last year we were clearly just ‘on the list’ for many writers, with the same writers clearly banging out submission after submission from their files.

  3. Marcus Speh says:

    yup, i’m not surprised either. i regularly have to take breaks from fictionaut or red lemonade or from reading the many online mags around. i think the answer to your question regarding professional ie paid readers is the usual one: they can’t really afford fatigue but since they’re human, they must take breaks — hence they may overlook good stuff (here the author needs a stroke of luck) or rather, they’re likely to. having said that: in practice i’m not aware of an overwhelming presence of agents or publishers online (small indie presses and new agents — like the LitPub — excepted). i think they mostly still rely on the fact that they’re part of a well-oiled machine. that this machine and all its benefactors are currently drifting towards an abyss … may not worry them, or perhaps they’re not aware.

    • claire says:

      I think something really brilliant will shine out every time. But there is a lot of really good stuff too, that requires a lot of reader engagement, and my guess is these are the stories that get passed over when an editor or agent has already read too many that day.

  4. Rob Macdonald says:

    If an accountant becomes fatigued after doing just a couple tax returns, it would be a clear indication that being an accountant no longer inspires that person. He or she should give it up and spend time on work that evokes joy and vitality every time.

  5. martha says:

    Why not pull in a second editor if you can’t manage the pile? I’m sure you’d have plenty of volunteers.

    On reading, I would personally not read a few stories a day — that’s how I read for pleasure, but for professional reviewing, I’d save them up and work through batches of say twenty at a time, pulling out the best 2 or 3 each time. The good ones still shine through, and I find assessing a group of submissions at once makes for a more consistent bar, above which a story can at least rate as “maybe”.

    Note, my experience is in sorting nonfiction refs or fiction comps, but I’m guessing the process is very similar. Good luck!

    • claire says:

      Do you think there’d be people up for it? It would be good to keep publishing regularly, even when my own time doesn’t allow. I will have to have a word with the boss, but anyone who’s interested, drop me a line!

  6. martha says:

    p.s. …and very well done, of course, for attracting all the subs!

  7. Sara Crowley says:

    I’m a first reader for PANK and they get a ton of submissions. I’m always hoping to be dazzled, it’s so cool to read good words. There are the immediate rubbish subs, and the oh so rare standout ones – but there are a lot of not bad ones. I sometimes read when I’m tired and fret a little that it may not be fair to the writer – but the safety catch is that my comments go to the editor who also reads. Good to share the load a little, I reckon. Also, competent and not so bad aren’t what anyone is looking for really.

    • claire says:

      “competent and not so bad aren’t what anyone is looking for really”

      Yes, absolutely. And the magazine’s reputation is built on it. PANK is a great example. You absolutely expect to read dazzling work there.
      Every time I reject a piece I feel bad. And often I want to write chatty explanations of what I liked and why the piece didn’t make it. Of course there’s no time to do that.

      • I wonder, if you are reading for an online mag – whether you are, in the end, looking for something slightly different – something not quite the same as fiction intended for the page? Don’t we have less patience with screen reading? I know I do.

        • claire says:

          I do too. It’s definitely a ‘sitting up’ to read rather than a ‘sitting back’ to read experience for me. I’ve noticed that I usually accept work in the 2000 words or less category. However, this week I accepted a 4000 word story to publish, because on first opening the writer had my attention from start to finish. For longer stories that has to be a criteria.

  8. Catherine says:

    I greatly admire writers who also work as fiction editors. It must be rewarding – yes – but also very draining. And I agree the short story is demanding – and should be – from the start. Interesting point of Vanessa’s about screen-reading being different from book-reading. I’m not sure I want to admit this but I do feel a difference.

    • claire says:

      Thanks Catherine,
      I think as those of us who edit also submit, we want to give writers as well as readers the best possible treatment. It’s a great experience, I do recommend it even though yes, it takes energy!

  9. I find it helps to take necessary breaks, so your two month hiatus makes sense to me. I read for several outfits, and in each one we’re looking for something different. Knowing what you are looking for is very important, of course, but also you have to be able to identify the very good ones and the very bad ones quickly, because the ones in between are the ones you spend your time on, as an editor. The trick (for me) is not to overlook any sleepers (and there are always sleepers). I make YES, NO and MAYBE piles. The Maybe pile gets the most attention, and this is as it should be. Sometimes those MAYBE stories are the ones that really shine. Sometimes it takes a little editorial encouragement, too. So it’s not just about reading, but about imagining the process of writing, too. Which is just as time-consuming but so worthwhile.

    Having said all that, I should also say that I benefit enormously by working with other amazing editors. So I second this idea (yay, Martha!): get help! It opens up the discussion, and two sets of eyes are almost always better than one. Especially because it is all such a subjective process anyway, isn’t it?

    Glad I came here. Interesting discussion. Good luck!

    • claire says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Michelle! I have so little time to offer to those on the ‘Maybe’ pile. Every now and then I do make suggestions, and it works out, but I usually have to stick with the ‘Yes’s. It’s a pity because whenever I’ve had editorial help I’ve really appreciated it.

      Am on the lookout for helpers!

  10. By the way, I wanted to add: At A Baker’s Dozen, which is a quarterly, we started out with rolling submissions but have discovered that this does not work. From an editor’s point of view, there are simply too many emails in the inbox, all the time. And creating rolling submissions means people also feel free to send endless submissions as well: we’ve received way too many submissions from some writers, one after another, before we can even read the first set. It’s too cumbersome, and it also is unfair to the submitters, because we can’t keep up the pace and read them as quickly as they come in. So we are shifting our policy there (one of my tasks this week) to create a submissions period for each quarterly issue. It will help focus the submissions for a particular issue, and it will help keep things flowing smoothly, and well organized.

    I can’t tell you how frenetic I feel with this rolling submissions policy… 🙂

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