I would imagine that exceptionally bad cover letters are one the slush reader's greatest pleasures.
I wonder if anyone has ever done a cover letter in ransom-note cut-out lettering.
Hopefully on pink paper smelling of curry.
No, I don't think I can withdraw them. And even if it was possible, that would draw more attention to my stories, which I'd try to avoid at this point.
This is from Agni Magazine's newletter, and I thought it was a useful summary of what an editor's work might feel like. The part about the first line of a story containing the story's DNA was quite interesting...
Five Things the Submitting Writer Should Know
by Sven Birkerts
"Reading period closes on _______" is, for the submitting writer, what "last call" is for the late-night elbow-bender, a reminder of the finitude of all things -- but if not that, then at least it's certainly a pause in the process for both parties. It's an occasion for a journal to make some headway against its towering backlog, and for the submitting writer a chance to start creating and honing new work toward the moment -- September 1 for AGNI -- when the electronic gates once again swing open.
By the same, or maybe different, token, our June 1 closing of gates offers me a chance to reflect in more general terms on the whole submissions enterprise. And I will -- though first I need to find my copy of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, that little compendium of life-wisdoms, because I just remembered something . . . And, yes, here's the bit I wanted:
"Dry again?" said the Crab to the Rock-Pool. "So would you be," replied the Rock-Pool, "if you had to satisfy, twice a day, the insatiable sea."
Connolly's imagined exchange will not bear much logical parsing -- as in: what is the Rock-Pool and who is the Crab? No, I went to it just now for the phrase "the insatiable sea," because, while the submitter thinks of herself as a lone writer writing (at least this submitter has always thought of himself that way), the magazine editor hauling in the bin packed with envelopes -- or nowadays opening the "Submissions Manager" on the office computer -- cannot but react each time to the quantity, the oceanic volume. It might, therefore, be useful for the veteran as well as prospective submitter to know how an editor regards the whole business. And, as this is the age of the so-called "listicle," I'll assemble this in the form of Five Things the Submitting Writer Should Know.
1. I already invoked the "insatiable sea" -- but now I should give the prospective submitter a sense of what I mean by that. In the days of paper -- only, before electronic submissions carried the day at AGNI as elsewhere, I could expect to find, every day and five days a week, a postal bin about ¾ full with envelopes large and small. Work in all genres. It took hours to open those envelopes and sort the contents into categories: submissions that were clearly not right for the magazine and could be returned (more on this later); those that needed closer screening before a decision could be made; and those that had obvious appeal and would circulate to one or more readers. Though every day's mail was/is obviously different, the proportions here were roughly 5/8, 2/8, and 1/8, though that last figure is probably a bit high.
Those proportions have not changed very much with the advent of online submissions, though other things have. When I log on in the morning now, I am not surprised to find upward of a hundred new files in the bin. The genre distribution has not changed either, but the volume has gone up, most likely because of the ease of making multiple submissions electronically. And the same basic sorting happens, though now the categories -- not right for us, look more closely, and promising -- are separated with a finger-tap. Our in-house readers receive electronic forwards.
2. What happens next? This part has not changed so much. What happens next is the time-honored work of reading and evaluating -- looking for the work that excites in its excellence and that falls within the aesthetic profile of the magazine. What is that profile? Here I would say the prospective submitter has to do a bit of reading, at least the due diligence of sampling, in order to get the feel of our -- or any journal's -- tonal and thematic range. I believe that our range is quite ample, but it's for the writer to make her own call. I can say that of that 5/8 of submissions that do not make the first cut, this is in many cases less because the work is not accomplished in its way, but because its way is not ours. Straight-up gritty realism, for instance, or concrete poetry, are just not part of our aesthetic profile. Some time spent perusing AGNI would have preempted those pitches. It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work, but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.
3. Cover letters. We look at cover letters, we take in the gist of their contents. We do not read laborious summaries of what we are likely to find in the submitted work, nor do we harken that closely to long accounts of the process of their composition. Were there world enough and time . . . Similarly, we note -- but quickly -- the submitter's previous publications. Listing the best few will suffice. We are saving our most focused attention -- and this is vital -- for the first sentences or lines. Not because we expect them to hold some trick or special thrill, but because the language of the opening -- or the poem's first lines -- so often contains what we sometimes think of as the DNA of the whole. This is not to say that we will not direct the same attention to the rest of the work, but to get to the rest, we have to have encountered the unique promise of the beginning. I frame the business to myself as a vexing paradox. As an editor confronting the day's abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.
4. "If I am a writer without a track record of previous publications . . ." Great! We would love to love what you send. And while I'm generating paradoxes, here is another. While we get a number of established and even well-known writers sending us their work, we very often have to reject it for the aforementioned reason: that it's just not right for AGNI. And writing a letter turning down the poetry or prose of a prize-winning writer is not high on the list of the day's pleasures. Whereas finding myself unable to stop reading the work of a new or unfamiliar writer is -- well, it's frankly one of the two or three things that make this job compelling to me. I love the sense of building pleasure that comes when the feat is pulled off -- when the spell is first created, and then, miraculously, sustained. I would say that in every issue half of the pieces are by writers who felt like discoveries in the reading.
5. Finally, most important -- and maybe the thing most rarely mentioned in discussions of literary magazines and what they look for -- is the fact of the art itself: the fiction, poetry, or essay that arrives, whether on paper or backlit by computer light. That it should never seem to the person receiving it like a submission. That it should not feel like another rung on some writer's ladder to some imagined success, a potential bit of cachet for the c.v. That it should feel like -- and be -- an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn't not be written. That it be part of the long sustaining continuum of literature. We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested.
For those thinking toward September 1 -- we'll be waiting.
A newsletter that doesn't try to sell you anything? AGNI sounds like a class act.
That part about the DNA has been nibbling at me, and I think I finally know why. One the one hand, it's understandable given his position and the demands thereof—and he openly admits he's prejudiced against reading past an unpromising first line (whatever that "promise" might possibly look like)—but, on the other hand, it's literally short-sighted. A publically-funded journal published only twice a year is concerned that its contents won't "grab" the reader? This sounds like the literary equivalent of the "radio-friendly" sound in music. If it's not at something close to peak loudness from the get-go, they probably won't play it on the radio.
They publish some good work, and I'm not attacking them; this nevertheless struck me as worth a thought. His inclination towards rapid reaction may just mean he's understaffed.
jyh, I think you might be misinterpreting his postulation on the "DNA" of the story being contained in the first line or first few lines (and the reason I find it an intersting wording), in that it's specifically NOT a "hook."
This might be worthy of its own thread (diving into the kind of pedantic, analytic, nerdery I'd always hoped for this place).
I think the notion of a hook is what you mean with the "grab" the reader/radio friendly notion, and what the author refers to as [perhaps undesired] "special trick or thrill."
This topic actually reminded me of Gordon Lish (speaking of pedantic), how he has writers read their first lines out loud, then shuts nine out of ten down (99 of 100?):
To choose some random openings from Lish writers off the book shelf:
"The old nun rose at dawn, feeling pain in every joint." -- DeLillo
"When it started, long before the woman, he lived in one room. He did not hope for improved circumstances." --DeLillo
"A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o'clock, I am not going to answer the door." -- Hempel
"For days there was nothing to say except, What a glorious day." -- Hempel
"Classic American story: I was out of money and people I could ask for money." -- Lipsyte
"Nobody wanted my woe. Nobody craved my disease." -- Lipsyte
I would argue that none of these contain what is classically called a "hook," which tends to mean an immediate introduction of conflict (blood on the walls) or some kind of fireworks. "Friday. Five o'clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through the city." -- Lee Child. This is a classic hook. A simple promise that we will soon be witness to a crime.
DeLillo's first quote--"The old nun rose as dawn"--seems utterly unremarkable from a conflict perspective, and reveals nothing of the story to come, but is a strangely powerful, atmospheric on a syllabic level.
Hempel's first quote is more a classic hook, but generally Hempel and Lipsyte's lines reveal a kind of unexpected thinking process that we will be pulled into.
I think what the editor means with the DNA comment, is just that there's a certain excitement when you read the first few lines and can sense that something special is happening, that you're encountering something--not necessarily that it contains a hook.
Just my speculation. Anyway, enough.
[I'm okay with the pedantry.]
I think I get what you mean in differentiating between "grab" and "hook". I'd say his grab is simply one form a hook may take; or (and I think I prefer this one) that a classic hook is but one sort of opener which might grab a reader. Maybe it's just the analogy (DNA) which doesn't connect with me so well.
to get to the rest, we have to have encountered the unique promise of the beginning.
to get to the rest, we have to have encountered the unique promise of the beginning.
In any case, he does admit he wants a reason to stop reading, due to volume of work, even though he hopes to find he cannot stop.
He also says the language of the opening "so often" represents the rest. And how often is that? That can mean "very often", or it can mean "as often as it does". Therefore I'm not certain just how common is the sort of occasion he's describing.
And, of course, If I were in his position, I might end up doing things quite similarly.
Trying to push Border Blues which I worked shopped here.
Rjections so far
east of the web
out of the gutter
One rejection specifically, they said they'd except on a rewrite. I'd like to submit something else, but that one story was absorbed into my meta narrative of my larger arc.
I was also rejected from Cricket, though I suspect partly because my middle grade tends to be darker than what they generally accept. (Totally understandable they'd reject.:D)
Yea nothing else to brag about.
A lot of my submissions days are over though, as I'm gradually kicking things back into gear with digital choose your own adventure storytelling anyway.
I had applied for a writer's school. Only 15 students a year are allowed. Yesterday I got the news I didn't get in. It was a close call, they said in their mail. I phoned them up, to ask for an explanation. They said I was very polarizing. Theyeither loved what I did or hated it. Some saw the irony, the technique behind my writing, others didn't. My cover letter was a bit too much, for some (I used a golfing metaphore) and my project not clear enough.
I'm first on the waiting list. So if someone drops off, I'm in. But I have little hope.
Hey good luck anyway, I've always been to nervous to signup for that kind of stuff.
I just received my first rejection from Geist magazine in Vancouver. I didn't think I'd get down about it because in my opinion a failed/ rejected writer is a step up from aspiring but I did. Anyway going to hike up my panties and try again soon.
And now Blue Monday Review
I've been rejected from a fair many places, some of which later accepted pieces from me, so I try not to take it to heart. But here is my list of rejections, all the same:
I'm also sure that I'm forgetting a fair few. . .
430 day rejection from Fugue... second longest wait for me
Was it at least a...good rejection?
430 days! Holy shit! What was the longest?
And they say, "please have only one story under consideration at a time," so you've got to wait a year and a half to send another story. I haven't heard back from Thunderdome in six months and I'm itching to send them something else, but the guidelines say to wait. So, I wait. I suppose six months isn't really that long.
Note to any editors out there: Sir or Madame, I understand the depth of your slush pile and appreciate your time and consideration very much. Thank you, I know you work very hard. Please don't take my words the wrong way. I love your magazine/journal/small press/publishing house/website and would be proud and honored to be a part of it.
I guess I should give a little list of rejections, just off the top of my head: Nightmare magazine, Glimmer Train, Black Static, Word Riot, Ghost Story, Neon.
Nick, I'm surprised to see you still reading Towlie's memoir. It must have had a profound effect on you.
I've been rejected by all the top literary and speculative fiction markets.
I probably get 10-15+ rejections for every acceptance.
The thing that I don't understand is that stories that I think are the best have yet to be accepted, but some things I think are lesser quality have gotten published.
McSweeney's has had one of my stories for 16 months. I queried them a couple months ago, asking if it was still under consideration, and they said to stay patient.
McSweeney's, fingers crossed for you on that one.
It was a form rejection. 430 days. My longest was over 500 days, but that one was an "elite" publication and they sent me a personalized rejection I kept on my corkboard for a while.
I got a really nice personal rejection from Carve---they'd had the piece for a LONG time. It was also the most helpful rejection because it was feedback from three different readers. Left me with a good impression of that journal.
@Humboltd, Thunderdome Magazine? I thought that had closed. Or is this a different Thunderdome? Or maybe they are starting a new project?
Oh a few here and there, I don't think I submitted anywhere more than six times in total. A lot of those were for a "magazine" that calls itself a writer's group that apparently specializes in science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
That one short later evolved into Meadow Of Gold: Uploaded Fairy Saga you see today. So yea, screw you Mr. Magazine.
When someone sends a rejection letter after a ridiculous wait I like to write them back and tell them Sorry, the piece has been accepted elsewhere; pardon the inconvenience.