Pieces That Excel in Some Areas But Not Others
By Daniel Boyko, Sally Park, and Nishka Dalmia
So, a submission magically appears on your Submission Manager, and you’re prepared for the absolute best that Polyphony Lit has to offer—a moving piece that is beautifully written, well-composed, and has the kind of emotion-stirring message that can warrant discussion. You click the link to the piece, read it over, maybe even read it over twice, and realize that you got about 50% of what you were expecting. On the one hand, it might have that impactful message that you’re looking for and be written with a careful hand, but it also lacks character development and substance, often leaving you to wonder why it ended so abruptly. What do you then? Do you focus on the positives and how it has a theme that could theoretically resonate with other readers? Or do the negatives with its lack of character development ultimately cause the piece to fall just shy of expectations?
The answer seems like it would be a morally-complex question, the kind you’d hear in a philosophy class or read in an astrology textbook. Or maybe this is one of those trick questions on a test where the multiple choice option is “e) none of the above.” But the only real answer to this challenging scenario comes down to personal judgement, carefully reviewing the piece, considering if the positives outweigh the negatives, and potentially checking what previous editors had to say…
A good but not great piece. A story with potential but not overwhelming dazzle. These are the types of submissions that often serve as the bane of Polyphony Lit editors and are about as frustrating as the Rationale for Accept or Reject can ever become. In many ways similar to (it actually hurts to write this after coming out of the cliché blog post) the idea of a glass half full or half empty, it seems like the final decision regarding a piece similar to this comes down to if you’re an optimistic believer or a pessimistic realist. But there’s still a lot more to it.
If we think about each and every submission as a hand of poker cards (because this analogy doesn’t burn my eyes as much), this means that almost no submissions can be a Royal Flush. Some pieces are just fine and just meh, and much like in a game of poker, it’s important to recognize when this occurs. If your group of five cards isn’t going to allow you to beat the dealer or win the pool, then folding your cards and rejecting a piece is really the only smart option. There might have been a King or an Ace or two, but nothing spectacular. This might be most similar to a piece that excels in a single area, but lacks in nearly all other areas; it has a great premise and revolves around clever subject matter, but it also falls short nearly everywhere else. It’s not going to win you the hand, and it’s not going to gather much support for being accepted.
As for a piece that excels in multiple areas… that starts to cloud the line more. Let’s give a broad example to help visual this:
Thoroughly edited, well-written, solid character development, reasonable ending, but doesn’t contain a strong message or theme.
Relatively edited (at least one look through by the author, but there are still grammatical errors and places where being more concise would be greatly beneficial), okay character development, slightly confusing plot, but excellent ending and clearly resonates with the reader.
Poorly edited, but one of the most original and creative pieces you have ever seen.
In both Options A and B, the pieces excel in certain areas (for A, that means it’s carefully edited, thought through, and a very satisfactory piece, and for B, that means it has a brilliant conclusion and an impactful theme that could resonate with Polyphony Lit’s audience), but as you have probably guessed already, they’re also lackluster in other areas (namely not having a sense of great purpose for Option A and a need to be more cohesive for Option B).
For Option A, which is a very possible category of submission you might find on your docket, it’s important to look at what was effective, especially in your General Commentary. When writing to the author, be sure to focus on the stronger details of the piece and how the character interactions with one another add a level of depth. Now, when it comes to considering your Rationale for Accept or Reject, you have to carefully consider if those strengths carry more value than the weaknesses. A good rule of thumb is to think about if you would want to read the piece again and/or if it was all that memorable. If the answer is a resounding “no” to both, especially for a piece that simply seems to slip into the rest of the pack, like Option A, then you have an easier answer right there: rejection is the best option.
If that test doesn’t completely narrow it down, think about how the piece could be made better. If you had the power to completely alter the creative work, how much “change” would actually be required? For instance, if everything about a piece was good except for its purpose, then chances are that the areas it succeeded in don’t completely rationalize acceptance. Think about it: changing the entire piece’s goal means that something about the piece drastically needed to be “tweaked,” so much so that it practically isn’t even the author’s own work anymore. This should be a relatively obvious rejection.
However, if only some minor/non substance-based edits are required, like Option B for instance, then forwarding to get another perspective is probably ideal. It’s not perfect, but it has loads of potential, and is the kind of piece you’ll remember long after it has vanished from your Submission Manager. This is the type of craft that Polyphony Lit so desperately wants to share with the world and more than warrants receiving another set of eyes and ears, even if it isn’t an absolute guarantee to be accepted.
For Option C, I think this is the easiest of the group. It might need a fair amount of fine-tweaking and a thorough editing process, but it has the ability to wow, as in really wow. It can be the eye-catching, oh-my-gosh piece of an editor’s dream and a piece that is genuinely fun to delve into. It might be a slightly rough draft that was sent, and maybe the writer just wanted to receive more perspective on how to improve, but the final draft can be the top-tier Royal Flush. Remember that minor edits are more than acceptable—they are like adjusting a haircut when the bartender forgot to snip a few hairs. With a few quick twitches, those fine hairs can be removed, and sure enough, you’ll get the flowing, fresh hair that you went in expecting. As long as relatively minimal work is needed, it doesn’t matter how out-of-place those few hair strands look on a piece, as long as the end product is what you want.
If all of that doesn’t help, consider checking the Rationales of previous editors if applicable. Perhaps they fell in love with a component of the poem or story that you hadn’t even thought of. Or maybe they have such a pure hatred for the submission that after hearing their convincing words of why the piece is so awful in their Rationale for Reject, you decide that you feel similarly. This doesn't necessarily mean to only agree with what other editors have to say, but there is a chance that what they took away from the piece is different from what you did, and that additional perspective might be the extra card you need to see how good the piece really is.
To review (and if my poker and haircut comparisons didn’t quite do it for you, don’t worry, I have one last trick), I like to view each submission as a Jenga tower. Is it a solid, sound structure that you can be proud of looking at from afar? Or is it a wobbly mess, a disaster waiting to unfold? If a submission only needs to move around a few pieces to become the initial wooden-block building, then sending the Option Cs of your docket forward is a smart choice. If it needs to switch around a lot of pieces but even then comes across as boring, stale and a building that everyone has seen before, then rejection might make sense. If a few floors of the building are absolutely stunning but others look like something from a haunted house, then consider the in-house ability of it—how much work needs to be done, how radical would it be, and how long would it take—consider if the piece resonated with you, and consider how other editors approached the piece.
Discovering a piece that excels in some areas but not others is never easy or as cut-and-dry as you might hope. However, by using personal judgement, reviewing a piece carefully and meticulously, precisely examining the positives and negatives, and even going to the Rationales of other editors, the process can definitely become more manageable.
What about you? How do you approach a piece that excels in some areas but not others? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Managing Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Blog Contributor Liaison of Voices.
Sally Park is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Nishka Dalmia is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.