I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good submission. Specifically, what do we, the staff of Sink Hollow, look for in a piece to be published. I’ve worked as a poetry reader at the magazine for over a year, so I will focus largely on poetry in this post. One of the first things I learned about the publication process was the importance of continuity in a piece. Essentially, we typically prefer the ideas expressed in a poem to tie together. If a poem is comprised of multiple threads, it is often crucial they be woven together in a way that shows the relevance of each thread or idea. For example, we (the poetry team) once rejected a poem because a new idea was introduced in the last stanza of the poem that didn’t appear to tie in with the rest of the piece. It seemed to have nothing to do with the topics expressed in earlier stanzas. Personally, I loved the poem, but I couldn’t justify publishing it because the lack of continuity made the poem seem a little unpolished.
Since that day, I’ve approached my own writing with an eye towards coherently weaving ideas through my work. I’ve realized I tend to let ideas trail off in my poems. I also have a propensity to include imagery and figurative language in my poems that doesn’t adequately tie in. Sometimes I try to force an image to fit in a poem because I really like the image, and I don’t want to let it go. Luckily, I’ve been getting better at recognizing this in myself, and I don’t think this is affecting my work as much as it used to.
I believe that poems, like quilts, often need to follow a pattern. As a writer, I think a certain amount of structure is good for art. That doesn’t mean a poet can’t be flexible with their structure, and it doesn’t mean a poem without structure can never work, but in my experience, a poem with no rules or patterns will have a difficult time conveying its message. I think problems often generate creative solutions that wouldn’t otherwise exist. For example, the washing machine would have never been invented if people didn’t need to wash clothing on a constant basis. The existence of this problem catalyzed the creative development of the machine. I think structure can work similarly in a poem, by presenting obstacles that can push people to be more creative, and to think in ways they wouldn’t naturally.
This idea, that continuity and structure can push a story to new levels, applies to any type of writing. Take fiction for example. Fiction writer Ron Carlson advocates for a concept he calls inventory. Inventory is essentially the idea that a writer should keep track of the various elements he’s already established in his story so he can bring them back later in a way that keeps the story moving forward. Inventory can be anything from a concept to a color, to a piece of furniture. Careful use of inventory lends credibility to a story by showing readers that the writer takes nothing for granted, and each detail has a purpose in the story. In my opinion, the best works of fiction weave inventory, plot elements, imagery, ideas, and characters into a coherent whole without a thread out of place.
This brings me to the concept of juggling. Jerome Stern describes this idea in his book, Making Shapely Fiction, as a method used to balance the different components of storytelling. For example, a writer using the juggling technique might describe a character’s thoughts, then body language, then dialogue, and then tie in a detail from the setting before returning, once again, to the characters thoughts. Essentially, the writer would aim to give readers a comprehensive view of his story. This can be tricky, because too much time, or too little time spent on any of these elements can speed up, or slow down, a story in unintended ways.
In my opinion, the importance of coherently weaving ideas into writing cannot be understated, and I’m happy to say that here at Sink Hollow, we believe in publishing polished and layered pieces.