If you’re a student in the creative world, you have probably been asked to read for a literary magazine. A professor or graduate student approached you and said, “Do you know how much reading for a magazine will improve your writing?” and your eyes lit up and you agreed to spend a few hours per week reading the bushy-tailed submissions of fellow writers.
Reading for Bluestem improved my writing. By articulating what I did and didn’t enjoy in the submissions I read, I more closely defined my own aesthetic. I also figured out some of the short story subjects that felt tired. For example, I never need to read another story about a Creative Writing professor. Also, the plot line of “weird guy meets weird girl and they have weird sex” is about as exciting as a first-paragraph detailed description of the main character.
When I became the Associate Fiction Editor, I read more carefully because I had actual responsibility. I had to consider the magazine as a whole, as well as my own individual tastes.
Here’s the main thing I learned—everyone who wants to be a writer would benefit from working as an editor at a literary magazine. So go out and do it. There are 5,000 magazines out there, and I’m sure one of them could use your services. Beyond helping your own writing, you’ll also have the opportunity to provide other writers with the sheer joy of publication, of feeling that your work isn’t the absolute worst drivel to ever end up on a word processor.
Below are some practical tips on submitting to literary magazines that I’ve learned during my time at Bluestem and by collecting rejection letters. Keep in my mind these are my own personal opinions. There are several other great places to find tips on the submission process. There’s a Latin phrase that works well in this situation—tantum quantum. It directly translates as “tantamount” or “as much as,” but there is also a “if it works, use it” implication. If you find this advice helpful, great. If you don’t, forget about it.
You’re not submitting a story
It sounds weird because of course you’re submitting a story. You’re probably submitting lots of stories.
From my perspective as an editor, you’re not submitting an entire piece of fiction. You’re submitting two pages of writing at a time that add up to a story by the end. If I get to the end. I will read the first two pages very carefully. If those hold my attention, or have something that keeps me reading, I will read the next two pages very, very carefully. If I get bored, or if something stops making sense, there’s a good chance I’m going to move on to the next submission. Or get lazy with my reading.
This has some consequences. One, if your piece depends on the close parsing of irony and understanding layers upon layers of symbolism, if it’s a piece that would make T.S. Eliot and all the New Critics smile from the grave, it’s probably not going to do well, unless the writing is also interesting/humorous and has an intriguing plot. If I only understand the piece’s brilliance by reading it through to the end, there’s a good chance I’m not going to read it through to the end.
When I see a piece over 4500 words, my chest tightens and I go cross-eyed. I usually read submissions late at night, once I’ve finished my own writing and homework, and a longer piece is as appetizing as climbing K2 after running a marathon. There is more to a short story than its length, and I’ve read wonderful longer pieces in short story collections. But when we’re talking about submitting to literary journals, I would do whatever it takes to keep the story under 4000 words.
I’ve heard editors say they never read cover letters. I almost always read the cover letter before reading the piece itself.
In my experience, previous work for the Foreign Service is usually a bad sign. Some publications is a good sign. I appreciate the honesty of a writer who says up front that he is yet unpublished. Most importantly, the cover letter should be concise. Tell the reader the length of the piece and where else you have published work. If the magazine has any other requirements, for example, Midwestern Gothic only publishes Midwest writers, then put that information toward the end of the cover letter.
The most important thing is to avoid arrogance at all costs, or anything else that would give the reader a poor first impression.
A Brief Note to NYC Writers
I just returned from a trip to NYC over Spring Break, and I get it. New York is way cool.
But, here’s the thing. I read at least one submission per week from a Brooklyn-based writer that is entirely about the craziness of living in New York City. Brooklyn writers tend to also include the specific neighborhood in which they reside, like Greenpoint, in their addresses, which strikes me as almost royally arrogant.
As cool as Brooklyn is, there are a lot of other writers with creative hair styles writing about how cool Brooklyn is. Also, there have been a ton of other really, really talented writers who have written about NYC. Are you doing a better job than Colson Whitehead, Don Delillo, and Toni Morrison?
So, that’s what I’ve got. As always, keep writing, reading, and submitting to Bluestem.