Taking the Helm as Fiction Editor

When I first started reading for BMR, I was blown away by the vast quantity of submissions. The second mind-blowing realization was the vast quality. Then astonishment transformed into disappointment when I realized how few we could actually publish in a year. We’re working on publishing more.

No one likes rejection. No one likes to give it or receive it, especially when you know, with all your heart, that the story, poem or essay submitted is as good as anything published in the big houses. When deciding between several outstanding works it often comes down to opinion, mood, or juxtaposing each against what else has been selected. That said, here are some tips that will help your submission rise to the top and hopefully save us both some time:

  • Cover letters: don’t worry about them. I don’t care if you are the Pulitzer-prize-winning Queen of Slam writing calligraphy on onion-skin or a baggage-handler at American Airlines carving haikus on the bar-coded tags of lost souls. Just make sure we can contact you. I read blind, and only read the cover letter after falling profoundly in love with the story.
  • First Paragraph: Make it rock and roll, smoke and sizzle, give us a reason to get up in the morning. No typos or fluffy punctuation. I want an image to hold, a compass to anchor and guide the story.
  • Titles: Short or long doesn’t matter, but memorable does. If the far recesses of my mind are whispering your title all day and deep into the night, when decision time comes, well… the odds rise.
  • Layout: 12pt Times New Roman. Page numbers. Double spacing. I’m not a petty stickler, but keep it professional. If the reader is thinking about the bells and whistles, you’re losing points.
  • Genre: I’m open to any, but if I predict what is going to happen and then it happens, expect a polite thank-you email. Think of that bank teller yelling “NEXT.”
  • Theme: If you’ve read it before, then we all probably have too. Although the old bait and switch can work, as can sending us up the garden path and pulling the rug out. Unexpected is good. Cliché is bad. Fresh is the open-sesame of reader-happiness.
  • Characters: 2D and plot devices won’t cut the mustard, won’t get sugar from the cane. Like titles, make the characters memorable, make them fully rounded, detonate stereotypes, take risks, unleash them.
  • Length: Between 1000 and 5000 words. If it’s over 5000 words, every single one of them better be in exactly the right place.
  • Dialogue: If your characters are saying exactly what they mean, then they’d better be poets. If they all sound the same, then they are robots. If there is no subtext, the text is hollow. If I can only hear the heavy grunting of plot pushing without developing personality, illuminating idiosyncrasies, or inducing a laugh, then put it in the narration. 
  • Heart and Soul: If it is there, you’re halfway home. If it’s not there yet, go back to the keyboard. If you believe heart and soul should be relegated to church or the bedroom, then write an essay proving it.

Being an editor can be frustrating, depressing and lonely. It takes a lot of time and drains the same muscle that should be writing. But I promise to chant my little mantra—open-mind-open-heart—before dipping into the daily slush pile. I also promise to invest in each story, because at the end of the day, the editor and the writer both want the same thing: to illuminate the universal magic that rises from the routine of daily life, if even for a moment.



David OConnor