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How to Get Out of the Slush Pile (Tips from an Editor)

I yawn and keep flicking through my virtual stack of submissions. I need one more piece that will not only fill a few pages in the next issue but also resonate with the writing I have already accepted for the magazine.

A short story pops up; a few lines in and I’m wondering: is anything going to happen? Flick to the next one, and words start to blur together. Is this the same story, or another one? Why does it sound like everything I’ve already read today? I click, click, click, until I land on one that startles me at the first line. I read on. And on. Now I’m alert, driven to read to the end. I scan the cover letter and see it’s submitted somewhere else at the same time; a competitive voice in my head says, Mine first! I hit the “accept” button.

Reading, accepting, and rejecting lit mag submissions has taught me so much about writing and publishing.

For one thing, I’m totally over the idea that if my writing doesn’t make it into an issue of a magazine, it means they think my work is no good. Editors get many, many submissions: far too many for us to print. The people reading these can be tired (see above) and overlook things. We try to give it our best attention, but at our drop-dead deadlines, we have to make quick and cold choices.

Writing that doesn’t begin at a critical moment upon which everything else hinges, or with an opening line that raises more questions than answers, is unlikely to hold my attention for long. You never quite appreciate in media res until you’ve read hundreds of submissions that languish in the beginning. If you’re writing narrative work, and you don’t open with an action or decision point, you’re going to lose me. Consider the opening line of Rebecca Fisseha’s story, “What Grows”[1]:

“Once, upon a day of politics trouble, I saw my mother burying her gold in the vegetable and herb garden at the back of our house.”

After just one sentence, I have so many questions. What is the politics trouble? Who calls it “politics trouble”? Why is the mother burying the gold? Where is this home? When is this trouble happening? When an opening line makes me ask at least three of the five W’s, I feel as if I have struck gold. No wonder I picked her piece for Room issue 38.1.

More often I read submissions that start by explaining things to me—where we are, when we are, who these people are, etc., etc., when the most compelling narratives make us curious and allow us to savour the discovery of these answers. There’s a simple explanation for why this happens. New writers just don’t have the experience to know how many drafts professional writers go through before publishing. (It’s more than most think, likely by a factor of ten.)

“You never quite appreciate in media res until you’ve read hundreds of submissions that languish in the beginning.”

Speaking of explaining, in cover letters I find writers are often tempted to tell me what their writing is about, and why it’s important for me to read it. But I’m going to read it anyway. You don’t need to convince me. And telling me why I should read something I’m already going to read puts me off a bit. Let your work show me what it’s about. Let the cover letter just deliver the facts we ask for.

Writers often ask me if simultaneous submissions are cast in a negative light. Quite the opposite. It’s more likely to compel me to accept something I like more quickly and it has never had the effect of turning me off of reading something.

Another thing I’ve learned is that the earlier you submit in a reading period, the likelier your piece will make the cut. Remember how I said earlier I was looking to fill not only a space but to find a piece that would join in a conversation started by the other pieces I’ve already accepted? We truly do sometimes turn down some of the best work because it a) either repeats themes, styles or settings in work we’ve already accepted for the issue, or b) is too long to fit into the space we have left. Because most magazines will read the work in order of receipt, if your piece is in an early stack and we like what you’re doing, there’s a better chance we’ll make other pieces fit around your writing than vice versa.

“New writers just don’t have the experience to know how many drafts professional writers go through before publishing. (It’s more than most think, likely by a factor of ten.)”

Start in the middle. Revise, revise again, revise better. Don’t explain in your story or in your cover letter. Tell us you sent it elsewhere. And submit early. My last bit of advice is to submit more often. You’re only going to increase the chance your work is published by sending it out to more places.

But make sure it’s the right place. If you’re sending to Room, a journal that publishes women and genderqueer writers, and you are in fact a man (this happens a lot)—then I can’t help you.

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