Real World: Editors Season Finale - Episode 4, Part 2
August 3, 2018
We've reached the conclusion of Real World: Editors -- for this season, anyhow. But before we say goodbye, editors from a few great lit mags out there pick up where we left off and talk about rejection:
4. Why We Rejected Your Piece
Are there things that lead to an automatic rejection? What factors go into rejection that the average submitter might not consider?
From my experience as an editor at Blue Earth Review and Third Point Press, one really tough aspect of rejection is how similar a piece might be in form or content to another recently accepted piece. This is something the writer can't control at all. Say we accept a really cool epistolary story for the issue, and then another great epistolary story comes in, we might hold the two up beside each other and decide which stays and which goes. Same thing for like, "stories about the loss of virginity" or something. Nothing wrong with writing that story, but it might have to go head to head with three other great virginity-loss stories in the same submission period. I think the only lesson to take from this is to remember to let yourself be weird, fresh, and innovative when writing. And read a lot, so that you don't fall into writing the same stories others are writing better.
The usual suspects for an automatic rejection from me: submitting to the wrong genre (poetry to short fiction, a full-length book manuscript to a call for essays, etc.) or incredibly poor editing. Otherwise, I'm going to have to read a bit before I make a decision. For longer stories, I give myself 5 pages to get into it, and if I reach that point and want to keep reading I will, because there are many submissions to get through and there's no magical formula for what makes something pop. Honestly. And then there are stories that I will read and read again, but in the end decide to reject. Do know that in the case where I'm reading a story over and over, it will be shared with the other editors since I don't trust myself to let go entirely. In those cases it might not be that the story is "bad" or "poorly written." Sometimes it comes down to space—maybe there are 5 other stories we're super enthusiastic about and we don't have room for more. And, finally, sometimes it comes down to whether or not the story fits what we're going for with our publication. Aesthetic is sort of a bullshit word, but the question of are we the right publication for your story is just as a real and important as the question of is your story right for us.
Rejection sucks. Your mind immediately goes to a place of oh, this story must be awful. This is hardly ever the case. (But, trust me, I often think this way, too.)
There are tons of reasons why a piece might get rejected: it doesn’t fit the vibe of the journal, it’s not quite there yet, or we received a lot of submissions, and we only have a handful of publication slots to fill. No editor likes rejecting stories. That’s not why we started a literary journal. It’s just an unfortunate part of it.
We’ll always encourage you to submit again (unless you’re an asshole about the rejection). We love reading your work. We’re rooting for you.
That being said, if you are/your piece is racist/sexist/ableist/pornographic/gratuitously violent, it’ll get rejected right away. No, thank you. That’s not what we’re about.
Another beautiful thing about being part of a larger creative writing community at Florida State (shoutout to my lovely masthead) is the variety of perspectives and tastes that go into creating our magazine. I think it's beautiful that we all have different tastes, but we work together in combining all those tastes and preferences into a great product. In terms of an automatic rejection (this is obvious): anything that is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, disparaging comments, etc., of course. We don't need any of that.
Again, I think it's wonderful that our literary community works hard, and puts in the passion to innovate lit mags.
Any racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or xenophobic language or rhetoric will get you rejected so fast your head will spin.
It doesn’t happen too often anymore, but when we get submitted pieces from authors with no visible Midwest connections, and their work was clearly not Midwestern (e.g. set in England), we’ll generally reach out to see if there’s something that we missed. If not, and this was, in fact, an error on their part, submitting to us, then, yes, we’ll reject quickly to clean out our queue.
Beyond that, not following word count guidelines and submitting multiple times (while you can submit multiple poems, for example, we ask for single submissions) are things that may not get you automatically rejected, but they won’t help.
M: OH BOY. I admit that I'm picky. Certain things make me go NOPE and it's hard, if not impossible, to recover after that. First, there are easy ones: not following our guidelines (includes religious themes or explicit sex, over the word count, etc.), or includes gratuitous and/or graphic rape, racism, sexism, homophobia. Automatic nos. My personal pet peeves are cheating and break up stories, cheap plot twists ("he was dead the whole time!"), a story all about a man's fascination with women's genitalia (so maybe this falls into sexism), over-writing, and when someone tries to include diversity elements but it's clear they haven't done their homework and the story is insensitive. A lot of these personal pet peeves can be well done, but they really have to wow me. Also, it's a personal pet peeve, which means if I'm the one reading it, I'll be harder on it than say Lynsey, who LOVES stories with cheap surprises.
L: Haha - very funny! One of my recent automatic nos was a man writing from the POV of a woman about being a woman and he clearly had no idea what being a woman is like. There was a very long paragraph about how severely painful it is to put eyeliner on and I was very, very confused. But some of my others have been submitters who don't wait to hear back before they submit again - that one is SO easy to avoid and I'll never understand why people do it.
M: Again, I'm positive so here are things I love: subtlety, nature references, and tension.
L: Oh oh, me too! I love a really powerful opening line (Cathy Ulrich's story in our fall 2017 issue is the perfect example of this), anything slipstream, and pieces that are more about feeling than action.
I don't think we've ever automatically rejected somebody, but I can think of one time where we were mildly insulted in a cover letter. Needless to say, we didn't end up liking the piece!
With poems, we often know very quickly from gut-feel whether it's right for us or not, whereas prose (mostly stories over 1k) can take a bit more time to consider. Sometimes we're won over within a few sentences, sometimes it needs a few more tweaks to sparkle.
I think the main reason we reject stories is because, quite simply, they're not right for us. We are a literary magazine for the senses – we like to taste, squeeze, lick your words right off the page (or screen). So we're always craving something tasty. I will always go back to Alvin Park's two flashes in our EAT issue as an example of this (here and here). We have so many examples of what we love in our archive, and some submissions reek of "You're Just Another Literary Magazine To Submit To On My List". We all need exposure, sure. But it makes me sad when writers submit to a literary magazine that they don’t read or support. What is the point? Who is reading your work? Who are you writing for, if you – as part of the literary community – won't support right back?
Ultimately, I think it's important to take your time. Don't rush to submit. You will get there, in your own time and nobody else's. We always want to do our writers justice, but you never know what’s more important to writers. Is it design? Awards? Social media presence? A diverse masthead? What matters most to you, as a writer, is more important than anything. Don’t submit just to add to your publication bedpost; submit because you LOVE us. We’ll love you right back! And we'll make you breakfast in the morning.
And that's a wrap! Huge, huge, huge thanks to our fellow editors for participating in this conversation.