In this new series, The Art of Landing will be talking to literary magazine editors from around the world, picking their brains to see what they like and don’t like in submissions, how/if they work with authors, and their advice for publishing in literary journals. If you edit a lit mag, and would like to be a part of this series, please be in touch!
What makes a submission pop out for you?
In general, I love stories with a strong voice that announce themselves clearly from the first lines, letting us know what’s at stake and what matters. After this, it’s all about if the story can hold onto my interest, which usually happens by keeping things moving, stuff happening, as well as some element of mystery at play. I tend to prefer stories with a confident sense of plot. And I have a weakness for quirky, speculative, or slightly strange stories. Humor and playfulness can also make a piece stand out , as can a well-developed sense of urgency. But I’d say the most important aspect that I’m hoping to see in a story is its sense of commitment to its own goals, whatever those are, and if it succeeds at what it’s attempting to do.
Do you work with writers to edit pieces you love or do you generally take pieces “as is”?
We do work with writers! If a piece is close, we’ll often work with that author or see what other stories they have available. There’s also a fair amount of encouragement we send out to authors whose work we feel is almost there, and we definitely notice when those writers submit to us again. We’ve also encouraged the authors we’ve published in the past to submit again.
What factors do you take into consideration when choosing to accept or reject a piece?
I generally read the first ten pages very thoroughly, and if at that point the story is doing at least a few things moderately well, I’ll keep going at that pace. If it’s been a difficult read and there’s either not much happening or so much work needed that I’m not very hopeful for the piece, I’ll pick up the pace and skim or read more quickly to the end. I’d say the factor I think about most when deciding to accept or reject is a kind of hybrid “wow” / quirk factor: It’s hard to vouch for a story with fellow editors if I don’t feel pretty strongly about it, and it’s hard to feel strongly about something that isn’t taking some kind of risk, doing something a little bit its own. You’d be amazed at how many competent, decent, completely safe stories there are that get rejected because they’re missing that little edge, that element that sets them slightly apart.
What are your pet peeves when it comes to submissions?
It’s surprising how many submissions I read that end up losing me over basic issues of clarity and comprehension, sometimes on the sentence level, sometimes on the level of scene, narrative arc, and overall story shape and cohesiveness. If I have to struggle to understand what’s happening, who’s doing what, the meaning of ambiguous phrases , etc., I often lose interest in any loftier goals the story might have.
Beyond this, it’s annoying when authors kill off characters when the story hasn’t earned or set this up in any way. I’ve read a number of submissions recently that I was enjoying up until they took a completely unexpected, deadly turn for apparently no reason other than to shake things up and shock the reader. That kind of out-of-the-blue twist is NOT the way to surprise your reader, as every surprise—if it’s going to really function well—must be set up earlier in the story, however subtly. Though I’d say my biggest pet peeve is the overly slow-moving narrative where we see every bit of dialogue, every movement of a character’s hand or head, every sigh, etc. no matter how unimportant. This kind of story almost always doesn’t know what it’s about or what it’s trying to do, except to pull back the curtain on the characters, though it does this at the expense of all the reasons we read in the first place: wanting to know what happens next, a sense of urgency, a sense of mystery, etc. This is essentially “verisimilitude for its own sake,” as Richard Bausch has called it, and I think it’s always less interesting than when a story makes clear through its authority and urgency why it matters and what it wants us to pay attention to.
What advice do you have for writers just beginning the process of getting their work out there?
Don’t rush to submit your work! There is nothing more time consuming and ultimately discouraging than flinging unready stories out into the world, fingers crossed that you’ll get lucky and someone will somehow think they are worthy when you, deep down, know they just need a little more time and a few more revisions. Put your story aside for at least a month, then revise again, then put it aside for another month, then revise again. This kind of space from the work allows you to approach the revision process much more objectively, and you’ll really see what’s working and what’s not. Your stories will improve the more you do this. The hardest part should be the writing process itself: writing a complete story, revising draft after draft, editing, polishing, etc. If you take your time with the revision process, submitting and publishing will NOT be the hardest hurdle you face as a writer.
This work—writing and publishing stories—requires a balance between being persistent and thick-skinned and being deeply honest with yourself about your work. Strong work will get noticed. If you’ve been submitting for years with no results, take space from the pieces, then return to them after a few months and ask yourself the difficult questions: Is it clear what the story is about? Are your characters interesting and multi-dimensional? Is the reader pulled in from the first lines? Are the stakes clear from the start? Is there a sense of urgency to the story? Why this particular story, why now?
Beyond all this, write and read as much as you can with an eye toward HOW stories are constructed. Notice what you’re drawn to. Read what’s being published right now in literary magazines. Anthologies like Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology are all great. The more you write, read, think about what makes stories work and try to put into practice what you’ve been learning, the sharper, more honed, and more interesting your writing will become.
When you know you’re ready to begin submitting to journals, start by doing a little research on the world of literary magazines. There are a lot of different kinds of magazines out there with varying readerships, styles, and ways of working with their authors, and where you submit and ultimately publish can have a significant effect on your overall writing career. Start reading literary magazines, especially the ones you’re most interested in. It can also be helpful to consult different lists of journals (such as Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Prize rankings), decide what your goals are for your stories (where would you like to see your work?), and determine a set of tiers which will govern where you submit your stories first. Then, send your best story out to 5-10 of your top tier journals. This will ensure if you get an acceptance, you can immediately say yes without regret. If you don’t get accepted to your top tier, send the story out to 5-10 of your mid-tier journals, and so on. As you continue submitting, keep track of your rejections and personalized rejections and you’ll start to learn what journals seem to resonate with your writing.
Above all, be persistent! All writers, regardless of career stage, face rejection in some form or another. Often what one journal dismisses without second thought will be what another journal will snatch up. So keep yourself balanced between honest assessment of what needs more revision, and bull-headed persistence when continuing to send work out into the world. Stick with it, and it will happen!
Bio: Joy Baglio serves as Associate Fiction Editor at West Branch, a Grub Sreet writing instructor, and Founder/Director of Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop in Western MA, where she lives and teaches. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Tin House, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, New Ohio Review, PANK, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The New School and is the recipient of grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The Speculative Literature Foundation. She is at work on both a collection of short stories and a novel. Find her online at www.joybaglio.com and www.pioneervalleywriters.com.