Questions for Mary Akers From Julie Wakeman-Linn, editor in chief.
With over 200 submissions in September alone, it is a rare luxury for me to take a story more slowly, to read it and discuss it with several colleagues. I just got back a stack of “maybes”. Here is one of them and why it doesn’t work for this issue of the Potomac Review. So join in the fun, read along and then post a comment. Oh yes, please tell all your writer friends to check out the blog.
First, let me identify some strengths: The historical voice of an 1886 experience is interesting and uniform, The language of the writing (“…it should not be assumed that a captain’s wife sets sail with gladness”) is lyrical and engaging, and the subject matter is fresh.
As I see it there are three problems, format, focus, and the ending.
Format: Length is a problem. For a short story of 7,000 words to be published in our 150-page or less literary journal, we would have to love every scene, every page (as we do love every one of our past, present, and future stories). Julie asks: Could it be trimmed?
Mary Answers: I wrote this as part of a linked collection with an ocean theme. So it’s a complete story, yes, but intended to be part of a larger whole as well. Length is a tough issue all the way around because many (most?) literary magazines prefer work around 4,000 words—understandable, given their space considerations, but book publishers prefer stories in collections that are closer to the 7,000-10,000-word range. So, what’s a poor writer to do? Write for the mags? Or write for the book? I was hoping, I guess, that the historical tone would afford me a little more story space with readers.
Julie asks: The opening italics deflected me. Italics can be off -putting and the story isn’t about the shipwreck.
Mary answers: I’m not wedded to the italics. They’re simply a device intended to set off the logbook entry as separate from the first-person narrative. Indenting the logbook entry could easily accomplish the same thing. Would a few lines of indented text be similarly off-putting?
Julie asks: There is a crew of six, the captain’s wife, the Keeper and his wife. It is a lot of characters to keep clear and to render realistically to the page. Would you combine characters?
Mary answers: As for characters, I used the historical records of a real shipwreck from a particular House of Refuge logbook, then added in the captain’s wife because I wanted to tell the story from an outsider’s perspective. It seemed like I needed the full cast of characters to be believable—a ship that size making a long journey needs a full crew. To compensate, I attempted to draw all but August with broad brushstrokes so as not to overwhelm.
Julie Asks: Mary, have you considered stretching this story into a novella-sized story? Would you cut or lengthen?
Mary answers: I’ve considered lengthening. I think the story would support that. Other readers have commented that it felt to them like it was part of something larger. I’m open to shortening, too. I find cutting a very easy task. I probably wouldn’t combine characters, though, because a big ship needs a certain number of crewmembers. I could kill more of them off in the initial shipwreck, though. That seems like it would accomplish the same thing, story-wise.