If you are actively refining your work for submission into the literary world, praying each time you log-in to Submittable that this will be the time, then think about these things from the perspective of a lit mag submission reader (i.e. one of the people who says yay or nay to your work).
- Are you opening in scene or with a really strong image? No, then it had better be really well developed, fresh exposition or summary that hooks me so deeply I don’t care when the scene begins or if one ever does. However, scenes or deeply felt images are a great way to engage the reader into the action and get them to care about the characters and outcome.
- Does your piece have an ending? Dumb question, right? All pieces have an ending or else it’s the never ending story and that’s an automatic “nay” from this reader because that foo-dog thing still creeps me out. Does your story have an end or does it just have a final paragraph? I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve read this semester that have no catharsis, no climax, no resolution. It’s hard with short fiction, I know, but it has to feel more resolved than the protagonist just walking off the page. I’m not saying tie everything up with a neat ribbon but it needs to leave your readers with a feeling of rightness, closure, or finality for the character, the conflict, or the situation.
- Be careful of stale themes. If you’re submitting to lit mags you need to be reading lit mags if for no other reason than to pick up on themes and trends in tone, style, and subject matter. If you’re the first person to write a story from the perspective of an African lion, good on you but if you’re number seven it’s lost its freshness. Be aware of what’s circulating so you can stay fresh.
- Don’t be existential for the sake of trying to sound smart. You will fail and your piece will not be read very far. Well written, existential stories, essays, and poems still have a clear concept and narrative with well-developed characters and images and a strong setting. Often times, I’m reading something and it’s so muddied with poorly conceptualized theory and philosophy that I don’t even know if there is a main character or premise being explored, much less what their deal is. Philosophizing in general usually just reads like pith—something to scrape away from the flesh to get to the good bits—and if there’s not something super tasty for me underneath all that, I’m going to chuck it in the bin faster than you can spell Nietzsche.
- Did you cross your I’s and dot your t’s? (Did you catch what I did there? Inconsistent/jarring imagery is a distraction.) The details matter. When you’ve been reading from the slush pile for hours and you open something in sans serif your eyes roll back into your head and they only come half way out as you read the first paragraph and move on because you were judging before the end of the first sentence. Maybe it’s sad but true, or maybe you need to be more considerate of the details and the people taking the time (probably unpaid) to read your work. Think of it like a delicious meal you’re making for a dinner party to show off your culinary skills in hopes you’ll get crowd-funded to open a food truck: You’ve spent weeks planning, days shopping, countless hours prepping and then you throw it all in casserole dish and serve it up on a paper plate (wave bye-bye to that retro-fitted RV). Don’t ruin a great meal with poor presentation or in this case, wonky formatting, non-traditional fonts, and typos.
Here are my personal preferences as a reader (**You should always consult the submission guidelines for each publication to which you’re submitting):
- Spell and grammar check (including the cover letter). Read it out loud, you’ll hear more errors than you catch reading silently.
- Serif fonts in a normal size—TNR, 12 point is a safe bet. If your story is well written, you don’t need the formatting to stand out.
- Cover letters should be brief and to the point. “My name is So-and-So. I have a degree in such-and-such. I’ve been published in these places. Thanks for reading my work.”
I try not to read cover letters until after I’ve finished the piece to keep me from preliminary judgements but if the cover letter is super long or something bizarre catches my eye as I wait for the document to load, you better believe I’m on that distraction. The point of the cover letter is to tell us your writing bio, not to explain your piece or tell your life story. If you feel the need to tell your life story, write memoir and when you submit it include a brief cover letter using the above guidelines.
And here’s a free bit of advice from someone who loves being a literary magazine reader—keep submitting! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really loved something but it hasn’t been right for BMR or it’s too similar to something we’ve published in the past. The point is, you never know who will fall in love with your story and fight for its inclusion in their magazine; don’t give up or be discouraged. Someone (maybe me) is going to get hooked by that first paragraph and be late to a meeting for their day job because they were being transported into the narrative you wrote.
Faerl Marie is an MFA student at the University of New Mexico. Her work has been published in Centum Press and she was a finalist for the Charles Johnson Fiction Award (2016). She is a contributor to Albuquerque Mom’s Blog where she is the only childless contributor in the whole City Mom’s Blog network. Her fiction centers around the consideration of loyalty, fidelity, and being honest with one’s self. Sometimes she writes about writing on her website www.faerlmarie.com.