From the Slush Pile: Speak to Me

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In his introduction to the most recent issue of Ploughshares, guest editor Peter Ho Davies says that the thrill he found in each selected story was the sense that it spoke to him alone.  But how do you make that happen? We’ve talked about a lot of different strategies to make your stories rise to the top and have editors take notice, but strong beginnings and endings will do nothing for you if your characters are forgettable.

The stories that I pass on are the ones that stick with me. Those are the ones with fully fleshed out characters and settings. You must know your characters inside and out; what they want, where they live and work, what’s inside their junk drawer. All of that information need not make it to the page, but the more intimate you are with the character, the more you will be able to pick the right details.

I’d suggest looking at the story you are about to submit and first seeing if you know the answers to the following questions:

Name: Email Address: Flaws:
Nickname: Strengths: Relatives:


Sex: Passwords: Pets:
Age: Hobbies: Taste in books/music:
Marital Status: Addictions: Favorite Food:
Right or Left Handed: Scars: Prejudices:
Education: Attitudes: Astrological Sign:
Employment: Superstitions: Friends:
Allergies: Fears: Religion:
Salary: Sexual History: Tattoos/Piercings:

You get the idea. If more details percolate, keep going. In this exercise, more is better.

256px-Ringling_Circus_clown_Lou_Jacobs_with_Carla_Wallenda_Sarasota,_FloridaIf you don’t know the answers, maybe your character is not fleshed out enough and could use some more depth. A good place to start is occupation.  Faulkner said, “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours a day is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”

A great resource for character development is Studs Terkel’s WorkingYou can get a feel for how people really speak and think about vocation, and that in turn will lead you to their inner workings.  When a writer understands those truths they are able to impart memorable characters with haunting realities.  I’m not talking about anything sensational here. I often find the mundane more disturbing, when done right, because it rings true—and, as Peter Ho Davies puts it, because it feels like it speaks to me alone.

Anne Tyler describes this kind of deep character development as spendthrift.  In the Introduction to the Best American Short Stories, 1983 she says, “A spendthrift story has a strange way of seeming bigger than the sum of its parts; it is stuffed full; it gives a sense of possessing further information that could be divulged if called for. Even the sparest in style implies a torrent of additional details barely suppressed, bursting through the seams.”

Make your sentences have feeling. Pick the right details. If your prose tells new emotional truths, I guarantee readers will take notice.