Before You Submit

A Scripted Freelance Writer Writing Sample

I am in my third year of working for a busy literary magazine. We received hundreds of stories per readying cycle, and I read every one. Last year I was promoted to assistant fiction editor, and I still read each story that came through our submissions manager. This year I am the fiction editor, and though I delegate some duties, I will never reject a story that I haven't personally read. I just don't roll like that. I read them all. Now, I've only been doing this for a few years, but I can estimate that, with the two magazines I work for, I have read in the range of two thousand stories. This is not counting the other magazine I work for, the published story collections I read for fun, and the stories I have read for John Dufresne's Friday Night Writers, and for my many graduate workshops. When you read so many stories, and reject all but, say, twenty per fifteen hundred, patterns begin to emerge. These are patterns that annoy me, or at the very least, illustrate that I am not likely to want to publish a piece. You want to show yourself in the best possible light when you submit your work. Here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself before you click submit, or drop the envelope into the dark maw of the mailbox. 1. Have I read sample issues of the journal I am submitting to? We reject many stories that do not fit our aesthetic, stories that were likely submitted by writers who have never laid eyes on a sample of the magazines I edit. No excuses here, for both magazines have switched to online-only format and our back issues are free and just a click away. Submissions I have seen: ladies' magazine-style short love stories. Spy thrillers. Erotica. Stories that are downright vulgar, sexist, racist, or brutal in a non-literary way. Fifteen minutes on either site and you would know we don't publish work like this. Try hard to read at least one issue of the magazine you would like to see your work in. Make sure you really want to put your work there. 2. Have I read the submission guidelines of the magazine? Truly—do this. If it says double spaced, twelve-point font, do that. If it says no identifying information on the body of work, please, don't put your name on it. Editors read hundreds of stories, and after the first three days a submission cycle opens, I don't think there is an editor on the planet that will take kindly to a writer who ignores submission guidelines. It might work against you, in fact. I have rejected work simply because it is single spaced. Single spacing on a fifteen page story. I can't even, and in fact, I won't. As fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine this year, I included submission guidelines that request "no stories about writers, or worse, writers who are writing about writing." Now, I'm not talking about writing process essays. I'm talking about fiction. I have an ugly, persistent pet peeve about reading stories about writers who write. That is never a plot for me. I hate it. I exercised my prerogative to request to NOT see that this year. Already, I have gotten twenty stories about MCs who are writers, many of them are stories about writers who are writing. Those people are not reading the submission guidelines. 3. Is my story formatted properly? Are there indentations in paragraphs? Did you indent dialogue and use proper dialogue punctuation and formatting. We see a lot of submission where writers omit these things, thinking, I am sure, something like, "Well, Cormac McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks and bloggers don't indent paragraphs, so I don't need to." Keep in mind that Cormac McCarthy is an extraordinary writer who writes so very clearly that there is no confusion as to who is saying or doing what. He is one of the most careful, deliberate writers I have ever read. In fact he says, "You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks, and write in such a way as to guide people as to who's speaking." Most of us are not that good. Also, you are trying to make it easy for editors to read your work. You don't want them to work when they are reading your work. So make it eye-friendly. Indent, use more traditional formatting when there is no need to turn from it. 4. Did I copy edit it eight hundred times before you send it? A missing word here and there is no biggie. A misspelling….we can deal with it. Four misspellings on one page, then three on the next, and some typos, and chronic abuse of the semicolon, or radical embracing of italics are all likely to erode your ethos to where editors are going to turn to someone else's submission without a moment of regret. 5. Is my story strong enough to stand out in a very big crowd? Is there a sense of place at least on the first page? Is the story primarily about one person? Is there a plot arc? Is there a recognizable problem? Does it end with a recognizable resolution? Take a look at these questions to ask yourself about your fiction. Remember that editors are reading hundreds of stories. Yours needs to be special. You need to know the elements of fiction and nail them in your story. I will be writing more about this in a future post. I hope these tips help. No one likes the sting of rejection, so set yourself up for success, to the best of your ability, before you submit.

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