What the Editor Sees (That the Writer Does Not)
by Savannah Thorne
When you submit to a literary magazine, do you ever wonder what is happening to your work on the other end? Has it disappeared into an editorial netherworld? What exactly is taking so darn long for them to get back to you? And is it true that the longer the editors take with your work, the better they like it?
I was delighted to be published in Conclave: A Journal of Character's inaugural issue, and when I heard the magazine was at risk of not continuing, I took over as managing editor and have kept it going for years, incorporating e-books into the equation. When I stepped in, I found myself with a huge, year-long backlog of submissions to wade through, and as I learned the ropes, I realized I was in the unique position of being an editor and a writer at the same time. It gave me insight into both sides of the desk. What I’ve collected here is the behind-the-scenes truth about what happens to your work after it’s been submitted and some dos and don’ts to get your work noticed.
So, what happens to your work after you’ve hit “submit?”
At Conclave, like many literary magazines, your work appears in our online submission manager and sits there with a status of “received.” It will stay “received” even after a real human being opens it and glances at it. If they know it’s way off for the magazine’s needs, it may be quickly rejected. If it has a hook, is well-written, and seems to draw the reader in (and, in our specific case, if it’s based around a strong character), then the first reader forwards the file to another reader. The status switches to “forwards.” Editors can vote on it, and if they choose to they can also write notes about it
The longer an editor takes with my work, the better….right?
I’m sorry to have to answer that with: Not necessarily. In actuality, submissions come in, and although they are arranged by date, then author’s name, title, and genre, I can assure you that these things get little attention. It is the quality of the work alone that determines whether a writer is accepted—whether it’s their first time being published, or their thirtieth. The very first thing we do is open the file itself, and read it. It doesn’t matter who you are—it matters what your story says.
But let’s say one editor reads quickly, and forwards the work along. But the next editor is sick this week. And the one after that might not be available for another week. And the next one is a slow reader. And someone is on vacation. And so on.
So, you can’t always judge how well your work is doing by how long it takes in the system. But you can figure that it’s probably made its way past those opening hurdles, and that in itself is a good sign. To give yourself the best chance at success, follow these tips:
Read the Submissions Guidelines (at least briefly)
No one has tons of time in today’s fast-paced world. We don’t expect you to spend a lot of time gazing at every detail of the submissions guidelines. However, Conclave, for instance, hasn’t accepted play scripts for publication since 2009, yet I still receive an occasional playwright’s submission to this day. Those are quickly rejected.
On the other hand, we also have a word-count limit listed on the submissions guidelines, but for a truly excellent story, we’ll allow it to go longer. It all depends on the submission. Which brings us to:
Hook, Line and Sinker
You’ve probably heard it before. “Hook them in the first line, or certainly on the first page.” Why? Are editors some species of baby that has no attention span?
Well, remember that year-long backlog I mentioned? When I started editing, I had over a thousand people sitting clogged in the system. They had been waiting for a response from the magazine’s founding editor—who was no longer working for the magazine. Imagine being new at the job and having to go through a thousand submissions, during the time when you’re only just learning how to use the system. A grabbing first line made certain submissions stand out, and those submissions became more certain to be passed along to further editors.
Even today, when operations are (thankfully) smooth and easy, I still quickly scan the first page before forwarding—or rejecting—a submission. A grabbing first line gives an immediate impression: this writer knows how to write. They don’t dither around. They aren’t vague or off-putting. They jump right into a story that I can’t help wondering about: what’s going to happen? This doesn’t necessarily mean a fight between characters, a murder, mentioning something trendy, or a lot of high-sounding fancy words full of description. It means one thing only: that the story is uniquely you.
That backlog of people I mentioned, who had waited all that time for any response, were, understandably, often frustrated and angry. But:
Be Polite (No Matter What)
No matter what.
Even if they reject you.
No, most magazine editors don’t have a “black list,” nor do they go out to lunch in a cluster and swap author’s names—it’s not that idea that should deter you from spewing forth a flaming piece of your mind, no matter how annoyed you might feel. Being polite is a matter of simple civil courtesy. Editors aren’t doing what they do for a big, fat paycheck. They do it because they love good writing. They do it to bring that writing out into the world. And they are very, very busy.
I won’t go into details, but with my very first attempt at putting out an issue ofConclave, boy, did some writers go into snits. Some even questioned my qualities as a human being and mother. Those writers were memorable—but not in a good way. As I learned the ropes and our response time shortened, I am happy to say that overall I have found almost all writers to be professionals who understand the complexities of the business. So the chances are that this section isn’t directed at you. But just in case there’s anyone out there imagining firing out a really snarky letter telling off an editor for ignoring your genius: just don’t.
There are LOTS of reasons that work gets rejected, including:
1. It may be as simple as your work didn’t go with the theme of the current issue. Usually, in that case, you will receive what’s called a “second-tier” rejection: not a standard note the machine cranks out, but a real, hand-typed response letting you know that your work was good, but it’s not quite on-point for the issue at hand.
2. It requires more editing than the magazine’s editor is willing to put in for free. This can be anything from repeated ineffectual use of words that fizzle out the story’s true meaning, or a theme that doesn’t quite come through.
3. It may contain more offensive material than someone is comfortable with. Often, many literary magazines are afraid of offending readers. They will pick a safe, but not great, story and reject an excellent but edgy tale. At Conclave, we’re about taking risks. We don’t mind pushing edgier works, and we’ve printed offensive topics and swear words without a blink. But go too far over the edge, and yes, even we don’t want to off-put our audience. Keep in mind that what you write may be read by hundreds of people.
Familiarize Yourself with the Market
Today, it can be easy to fall in with lots of fly-by-night publications. Many online publications are excellent, while others may disappear the next day. Try to know, as best as you can, which markets are open to writers, which accept your type of work, and which titles you’d love to appear in. There are a number of ways to do that online, and through reference books available at your local bookstore and library.
Try, try again
In terms of writing. No talent gets better without practice. Read about what makes for good stories. Learn what you can about writing as an art and a practice. Keep going. The more you get second-tier rejections, and acceptances, the more you know you’re honing your skill. Build up your publications credits until you have a magnificent resume. It can be your portal to bigger works being accepted. You never know where a good publication credit can take you. Good luck!
Savannah Thorne received her B.A. from the University of Iowa where she studied in the Writers' Workshop under several of poetry's great voices. She also holds two cum laude Master's degrees. Her poetry has appeared in over thirty literary journals, including Potpourri, The Wisconsin Review, The Potomac Review, Border Crossing, Rhino, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Lyric, Parabola, Little Patuxent Review, The Atlanta Review, and Yemassee. She placed as runner-up for the Missouri Review's Editor's Prize and the Casey Shay Poet's Prize. She was delighted to be published in Conclave: A Journal of Character's inaugural issue, and is excited for the opportunities of being Conclave's editor-in-chief.