Ten Things I Look For When Selecting Submissions
In my pre-editor life, I used to think editors had a real chip on their shoulder. Many of the ones I knew from other schools or magazines were overworked, exhausted, picky and short on patience. I probably judged them a bit...that is, until I became one myself.
The truth is, reading and selecting creative work can be just as draining as it can be fun. Editors know what they're looking for in submissions, but they have to wade through lots of not-suitable work to find it. They often have to put up with writers objecting to minor changes or submissions that completely disregard the requirements. They also have to put on a pretty face for events, worry about fundraising and beg for submissions. Many do all of this work without pay, often on top of another job, having a family or going to school. And then there's the guilt from having to routinely reject people's work.
This is not to say that submitting is a cake walk. Writers put a lot of time in to revising and reworking a piece of writing that's important to them, just to send it out into the world without reply or recognition for an indefinite amount of time, facing the very real possibility that numerous publications will say no.
In most cases, though, it isn't a Devil Wears Prada situation - most editors do everything they can to make the process effective and fair. And, of course, it isn't all bad! We read creative work because we love it, and we probably write some of our own. Having a say in what constitutes "good writing" and controlling what makes it into the pool of published work is kind of an honor, no matter how big or small your publication. And one of the ways to make it easier on yourself and those submitting is to be clear and specific about what you're looking for. So, without further ado...
When reading submissions, I tend toward stories or poems that:
1...begin or end with images.
There are so many ways to begin and close a story or poem, but images often lead to intriguing openings and satisfying endings that don't "tell" too much. The image can frame the story in a circular way, or perhaps it carries the symbolic weight of the story. The Things They Carried begins with a description of the possessions soldiers carried with them in Vietnam, and ends with a chapter titled "The Lives of the Dead," as if to tell the reader that in war, this is the heaviest burden to bear. Chronicle of a Death Foretold starts with the sentence, "On the day they were going to kill him..." and ends with the scene of the character's death.
Images make for unique beginnings that draw the reader in because they want to know why the story chose to start with that image. Images as endings allow the reader to have their own reaction and interpretation of the meaning of the story, as opposed to telling the reader how he or she should feel.
Depending on your perspective, this piece of advice either sounds like a no-brainer or entirely, hilariously impossible. With the enormous pool of submissions that goes out to magazines every day, nearly everything has been done before. Here are some techniques to make your version stand out:
(A) Revamp your title. One of the poems accepted at our magazine was titled "Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Bullet Wound," a title I'd never heard before that completely captivated me. The poem contained short, numbered, metaphorical or literal phrases to do with the title, and the poem made no sense without it.
(B) Retell a well-known story or employ old symbolism in a new and unique way. This is why so many fairy tale retellings are still popular and why so much mythology finds its way into published poetry.
(C) Don't be afraid to experiment. Michael Martone is well-known for his fictive collection of biographies, written like real contributors notes for books except for that each is a different version with facts and lies. "The Minutes," a story accepted by our magazine, unfolds in the shape of English Department meeting minutes that slowly reveal an ominous, fictionalized story. I had no idea where it would take me, but the method of storytelling drew me in.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is common for editors to receive stories with grammatical errors, lapses in tense or unannounced shifts in point of view. (Hint: a lot of that editor anger comes from dedicating lots of time to reading, only to find pieces to which the writer themselves didn't dedicate enough time.)
I recommend three readers: one person for content, one person for style and one person for grammar. Having three separate people read for three separate purposes allows them to zero in on one aspect of the work and provide you with focused, specific feedback. If you want to be really balanced, also look for people who will encourage and believe in you, and others who are more critical. Both perspectives are important (for your writing and confidence) when submitting work.
4...meet the goals that are set out in the beginning.
This expression is used all the time in the writing world to evaluate the completeness of a work. Is an event or detail brought up in the beginning and then dropped from the story entirely, or did its importance become clear later? Does the story have a reason for beginning and ending where it does? Is the significance of each step in the story clear, and does the story end in a satisfying way? These questions are all key to the impact or success of the story.
I am of the opinion that the best stories sound like poetry, and that the best poems tell a story.
Synesthesia is a term to describe a phenomenon, intentional or not, of cross-associating the senses. In science, it is a neurological condition in which people may associate letters, numbers or musical notes with colors, either in their mind or manifested visually. In writing, one may describe a sense with adjectives, verbs or images commonly associated with a different sense, resulting in really interesting, eye-opening imagery and metaphors.
For example, "her hair smelled like a sunset" creates a metaphor between the sense of smell and a sunset, something commonly perceived and processed through sight. A more common example is to describe someone's outfit or clothing as "loud." Unless the person is referring to one of those really tacky Christmas sweaters that sings to you, the visual experience of the clothing is being described through sound in order to characterize said clothing as visually attention-grabbing. Synesthesia works in writing because it makes the reader think and describes things in a new way.
6...read like stories and sound like poems.
Continuing along the same vein as #5, I am of the opinion that the best stories sound like poetry, and that the best poems tell a story. Powerful novels, short stories and creative nonfiction employ imagery, metaphors, language and sounds in the same way that a poem would, as opposed to completely forgetting about these tools to focus solely on plot and character. On the other hand, the best poetry takes the reader through a story, however tightly or loosely bound it may be to that narrative.
The beauty of poetry is that the story doesn't have to end as neatly as fiction; maybe it's open to interpretation or serves only to consider an unanswerable question. But the storytelling element is still there. Other editors may disagree, but my least favorite kind of poetry is that which is told merely through abstractions, completely lacking a human or storytelling aspect. (For more on this, read Mary Karr's "Against Decoration.")
7...contain multilayered characters.
This point is pretty self-explanatory - the least interesting characters in the world are straight heroes or villains. Let's be honest: would Hitler really be all that interesting as a character in a story?
The reason behind this is that 99.9% of people are neither purely good nor evil. The most interesting, authentic characters are vulnerable, insecure and ever-changing. The strongest protagonists have flirted with the idea of being bad, and the best antagonists show their softer side at one time or another. After all, being good or bad comes down to choice, and watching the character struggle with that choice makes them all the more interesting and relatable. Virtue is a sliding scale, and the best stories feature characters that move up and down that scale.
8...force characters against their fears.
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice I return to again and again is from Steve Almond's This Won't Take But A Minute Honey. Almond defines plot as "the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires."
When reading over your story, ask yourself what's at stake. What does the character have to gain or lose from the decisions they make? Does everything that happens contribute to those stakes, or does anything happen purely for the sake of moving the plot along? (Hold this thought for point #10.)
9...are both surprising and logical.
The best writing defies expectation. The recent bestseller Gone Girl completely flips the story on its head, but (spoiler alert!) ends in a way that is true to real life: unhappy couples stay together all the time for all the wrong reasons.
Find a way to employ this in your own writing. If the story is lining up for something truly terrible to happen, find a way to circumvent it. If things seem to be going well for a character, throw them a curveball (just make sure it's not ludicrous or overdramatized.) I once wrote a poem about a cow giving birth in a war zone. It was weird, imperfect, and ended up being one of my all-time favorites for the way it portrayed life amid death.
Surprising stories are the best stories, but like everything else, there's a limit. Deus ex machina resolutions or nonsensical plot twists are to be avoided at all costs; they detract from the story, and readers end up feeling cheated. Think of it as Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs: readers should be surprised that the kids wind up in a candy house with an evil witch, but the breadcrumbs foreshadowed trouble from the start.
10...make me care.
When a professor once asked our class, "Why should I care about your work?" my gut reaction was, "Well, that was rude!" But he was completely right. Of all the questions, it is simultaneously the most direct, difficult, and important one to answer.
Before submitting, read over your work and ask yourself what the heart of the story is. What does the story say about real life (or, as in #6, what do the fears of the characters say about real-life fears?) Does your poem's imagery provide a perspective we wouldn't have had without it? Will your work speak to other people, even if those people have no idea who wrote it or why?
In the case of #10 --- and all of these questions, really - you may not have the answer. Your feedback may be vague, or you may have been looking at your poem or prose for so long that you have lost perspective. These questions are difficult, but aren't they also kind of the joy of writing? They're why we try like hell to make our stuff perfect, why we get a rush when hitting the "submit" button. They're at the heart of why people submit in the first place - to put their words into the real world and maybe get some answers.
Kara Cochran is an MFA candidate at Rosemont College in Rosemont, PA. She received her BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University in Granville, Ohio. At Rosemont, she is the Managing Editor at Rathalla Review and writes poetry and fiction. Her poetry can be found in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, and her craft articles can be found on Fiction Southeast and FlashFiction.Net. She also volunteers with Philadelphia Stories and Schuylkill Valley Journal, judges debates with After School Activities Partnerships, and mentors at Mighty Writers. She is in the midst of her poetry thesis, and hopes to graduate this Spring.