We’re working our way through a series on writing short fiction. However, we’re not done—yet another short form of writing to explore is the essay. For Indy authors who wish to earn actual money from their writing, the narrative essay is often easier to sell to reputable magazines. This is because they appeal to a broader audience than genre fiction does.
Narrative essays are drawn directly from real life, but they aren’t necessarily factual or accurate representations of events. They often detail a fictionalized experience or event that affected the author on a personal level.
One of my favorite narrative essays is 1994’s Ticket to the Fair (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by David Foster Wallace and published in Harpers. Told in the first person, it is a humorous, eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair.
At the outset, Wallace states he was born several hours drive from the fair but had never attended it. A city boy, he has no knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals. After high school and college, he had left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back. When the essay opens, Wallace hasn’t really thought about the fair beyond the fact that he is getting his first official press pass for covering the fair for Harpers.
Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how the Illinois State Fair is representative of Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.
The primary purpose of an essay is thought-provoking content. The narrative essay conveys our ideas in a palatable form, so writing this sort of piece requires authors to think. You must consider both content and structure.
Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has
- an introduction,
- a plot,
- a setting,
- a climax,
- an ending
Choose your words for impact! Writing with intentional prose is critical. A good essay has been put into an entertaining form that expresses far more than mere opinion. Narrative essays sometimes present deep, uncomfortable concepts but offer them in a way that the reader feels connected to the story.
Good essays offer a personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way. Names should be changed, of course.
Literary magazines want well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics. Some will pay well for first publication rights.
If you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing. Never send out anything that is not your best work. After you have finished the piece, set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:
- Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are actual words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
- Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you, the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
- Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
- Digits/Numbers: Mis-keyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
- Dropped and missing words.
Don’t be afraid to write with a wide vocabulary. With that said, never use jargon or technical terms only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece geared for that segment of readers.
Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be a little bold. I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace and George Saunders because they are adventurous in their work. Saunders’ style is always approachable, but others may find Wallace wordy and difficult to wade through. He was often accused of being too “literary” in the arrogant sense of the word.
And on that note, we must be realistic. Not everything you write will resonate with everyone you submit it to. Put two people in a room, hand them the most exciting thing you’ve ever read, and you’ll get two different opinions. They probably won’t agree with you.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.
This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground—if an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.” If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.
And when you receive that email of acceptance—crack open the fancy cider and celebrate! There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=815132504 (accessed January 9, 2018).