At the minnesota review, we have space to publish roughly three stories per issue. As a result, we reject a lot of good stories. Our fiction staff consists of five people, and we go through somewhere between 50 and100 stories per week. It’s a fairly tedious amount of reading, but it’s also really exciting when we come across stellar writing.
We are, of course, human, and so your submissions are subject to our very human biases. As such, I’d like to take this opportunity to outline the way I read submissions so that you, future submitter, have some insight about what one editor at our journal is looking for.
I’ll start with what I don’t want to see:
- Affectation: too often we receive submissions that sound like a writer is assuming a voice he is unable to actually own, and it’s wincingly apparent. Write in language you know you can make yours.
- Truckloads of back story: if the story seems concerned with telling a whole history of its characters, it makes me wonder why the back story isn’t the front story.
- Lack of clarity (not to be confused with ambiguity): don’t hide thoughts that the character would obviously have for the sake of being mysterious. It suggests that you don’t actually know what the character would think or feel in a certain moment.
- Stories intended to shock: we read so many stories. You’re not going to shock us, no matter who gets beheaded or abandoned or whatever. If a shock or surprise is the crux of your story, the story is probably lacking depth. This is not to say surprises are not good. In fact they are. But your story shouldn’t rely entirely on a gasp moment.
- Heavy-handed endings: I might be projecting here—because I have a tendency to wax (painfully) eloquent at the end of my own drafts—but when we see a story where the language becomes oddly lofty at the conclusion, it’s hard not to reject.
What I want to see:
- A strong, consistent voice: when I believe your narrator from the first word to the last, you have my attention.
- Particularity: language and situations that I haven’t seen before.
- A choice: when the character has to make a decision I feel personally concerned about, I realize I’m reading an excellent story.
- Form and content alignment: we receive stories written backwards, sideways, upside down, in funny shapes, in mini-chapters, from the POV of a chicken, from the POV of a baby, in the form of emails, text messages, emojis, etc. We’ve seen a lot of forms, but what’s most exciting is when the form actually works with the content. For example, in our next issue we’re publishing a story that’s told backwards, and the author’s decision to tell the story this way goes hand-in-hand with the story’s actual content. In other words, the form doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It feels like a necessity.
- Levity: one of the rarest things I see in a submission pile is a truly funny sentence.
- Unpredictability: if I don’t know what an author is going to do next, but I really want to know, I feel like I might be reading a potentially publishable piece.
- Concision: the stories we tend to accept rarely waste words. Every sentence and every phrase ought to add something to the narrative.
That’s all I can think of right now. I submit stories, too. I get cold rejection letters, and I know how it feels to submit into the void. I often wonder who reads my submissions and what they think before they tag me for rejection, so I figured I’d let you have access to one of the very limited minds that interacts with your submissions here at tmr.
2 thoughts on “Fiction Submissions”
Thank you for this, Joe. Your preferences seem like good, classic fiction writing advice, plus a few new and interesting notes based on your reading experience (e.g. heightened rhetoric at the end of a story, and the unconvincing voice). I have long been amused when reading some journals’ submission guidelines that say both (a) we do not have any particular interests or tastes to alert you too, we just like good writing, and (b) always read a sample issue to see what we like. Say what? My reaction is always that if the editor cannot identify his or her own tastes after years of selecting their content, we writers are unlikely to suss them out based on one issue. In addition to structural and rhetorical preferences, would you agree that most editors (like everyone else) have a world view or a set of cultural/political values that influence story selection without the editor being necessarily aware of it?
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