Sunday, July 11, 2010

Short story rejections/acceptances from a litmag

Hi folks,
I thought perhaps you might find some "real-life" rejections and acceptances of short stories from a real litmag interesting. These are from when I was an associate editor with The Crescent Review over ten years ago. This was a very well-respected magazine--the NY Times dubbed it "the most democratic literary magazine" in the world. The reason was, almost all publications don't require their editors to read entire manuscript submissions. Tim Holland, the editor of CR did. In fact, each editor was required to submit a brief plot synopsis of each story along with our recommendations to "prove" we'd read the entire story. He felt (as did his editors) that if a person spent the time, effort and money to write and send us a short story, we owed it to that writer to read the entire thing. I can't think of any other publication that does this. At times, we held in our grubby little hands some really putrid stories and it seemed the really bad ones were always the longest ones(!), but we read 'em, every single word.

We were asked to provide one of three recommendations for each story. A "No" a "Yes" or, an even more democratic thing, a "Another reader" in the event that we happened on a story we didn't like for personal reasons but saw literary merit it in. The "Another reader" manuscripts went to another editor for their take on it.

I've taken off the names of the writers as well as the titles of their stories, as it isn't my aim to embarrass anyone. What's left is simply the story description and my recommendation. I thought this might give some writers an "inside look" at how editors look at submissions. It might be helpful to see what at least one editor (moi) looks for in a story and what gains a yes and what gains a no. If you ever get a chance to edit a magazine, I highly recommend the experience. You very quickly learn that what you thought were original ideas... aren't. At any moment, ten thousand other writers are probably writing the same story you thought you'd dreamed up by your lonesome...

If you folks like, I have about 50 pages of these and would be glad to print some more.

Beginning with...

Conflict in the English department between repulsive Ursula Krinsky and the narrator-professor over pedagogy. Comes across as a diatribe for the narrator’s pov and reads more like a polemic than a story. Well-written in parts, but too much “back-story” for my taste and too much use of the past perfect tense, which renders it tensionless./No

Begins with a ten-year-old boy witnessing the murder of his teacher by his (implied) homosexual lover Ambrose and keeping his silence about it and then goes into a flashback where his father emotionally abuses him. From that, we get a glimpse of some neighbors who are even more brutish and then see the father in an even more violent scene with the boy, at the end of which he has an opportunity to save his father’s life but doesn’t. Neighbor Ambrose witnesses this and doesn’t tell on him, which is why he returns the favor when Ambrose kills his teacher. Some good moments, but overall, too stereotypical. Also violates Crescent’s cachets against a first-person pov and a victim theme. What is good about it is that it’s actually a “story” and with some work could be fairly good.

Set in 1959 and from the pov of 16-year-old Butch whose Aunt Rose has just died. Butch tries to deal with death and his new awareness of life and is in the midst of working all that out. A coming-of-age story that's different from most. The writing style is lively and provides lots of nice little moments and insights. Really delightful./Yes

A story of nine-year-old Lydia during WWII right after she's just spent the last three years in a Japanese internment camp in East Java. A couple of stories going on here which dillutes the effect. Lots of back story and "history" that tend to stall the story. With some work, and focus on the real story here, this could be a good piece./No

Relationship story between son and his mother, written in stream-of-consciousness, lots of resentment, lots of "literary" language that seems to try too hard, but this "take" is probably only because it's not my cup of tea./Another reader

Another stream of consciousness piece, that I liked much better. (Second of two stories this writer sent.) This reads "cinematically" and is quite interesting as well as very effective poetical images. Kind of a take on death and AIDs and fragmentation of modern society-stuff. Style is engaging - fragmented and stacatto./Another reader

In debt, newly relocated from the Right to the Left Coast, the unnamed female narrator manages a long-distance romance while trying to make it as a musician and facing an early mid-life crisis. At odds over finances, each with a different value, a crisis point occurs when she becomes involved in a car-wreck insurance fraud and decides to keep illegally-gotten money and not tell her boyfriend. I really enjoyed the language in this one - great similes and metaphors - had a surprising twist at the end. Just a darn good yarn./Yes

This is a story that requires several readings, mostly for the density of a complicated plot and many, many images. Laurie, young female American, living in Germany and studying baroque violin, meets Christoph, an old man along the Rhine and they become friends. He takes her home to meet his wife Bethy and they break bread together, Bethy quizzing Laurie about America and telling her own life story. Over several months, Laurie and Christoph develop a grandfather-granddaughter relationship, which renews his youth and Christoph arranges for Laurie to meet his divorced son Richi and the grandson has the same qualities as Christoph. Ends with the promise of love between the two. Well-written and complex, much like baroque music with its pacing and lushness./Another reader.

Plot was a bit unclear to me. Narrator is (staying/working?) at a hotel named "Angels Flight" and is offered a job operating the dune lift. I just couldn't get into the read - didn't seem to make much sense. Sorry./No

Two girls work in a mall, one as a clerk at Men's Casuals, and the other as a floorwalker, trying to snag shoplifters...only she's a shoplifter herself. They go through adventures in a club, score some weed, get stoned, score some to sell, the floorwalker gives away or uses most of it and has to leave the state before they find her./No

Cooper has a meeting with his ex-wife Darcy (her request. Cooper has just had angioplasty, and is on vacation with his new wife Lorna. They have his two kids with him. His ex, Darcy is going to A.A. On the way, Cooper reminisces about their marriage and his recent heart problems and anticipates a blame-throwing meeting from Darcy. It turns out she's concerned about their son, Henry, about his bed-wetting. Back at the motel, with his new wife and the kids, he doesn't get anticipated grief from Lorna and they prepare to go to the airport. They go to a mall, first, and Henry and Cooper talk and Henry blames him for the divorce. Taking the kids - Henry and Cheryl - back to Darcy. They think they leave both kids, but on the way to the airport discover Henry has hidden in the trunk. His head is as wet as the morning when his father delivered him and he can think of nothing to say. I really like this story and even though it's long at 19 pages would advocate strong consideration./Yes

Kind of a metafiction, where the author talks to his wife about writing a story and in the process tells her the story he wants to write, about a girl he picked up a long time ago, who had a mole. He told the girl he was a doctor and the mole looks bad; she should have her own doctor look at it. The wife accuses him of lying to the girl - that he isn't a doctor - and that maybe he lies all the time. The author's wife is the reason he can't write - she won't let him lie. Cute story - reminds somewhat of Carver./Another reader

Milt Charwell is a mover and is over at his helper George's house, talking about moving a Mrs. Dawson in on the military base yesterday. George was home ill. Milt remembers his helper left his shirt there, so the next day he returns. She's looking at a letter he knows is from her husband who's away on duty. He recognizes it from the day before and has already made up his mind (negative) from the handwriting he'd glimpsed. He gets the shirt and leaves. He knows George is playing around with some of the moving clients and knows he has to fire him, especially when the same yearnings for Mrs. Dawson emerge in himself. Not one of those stories you can explain easily, but one that reverberates after you're done./Another reader

A short while back the narrator lived in his parents' house in a neighborhood that has deteriorated. Dreamboat, a young black man from a halfway house across the street, with an electronic monitoring device attached to his ankle, approaches him and offers to paint his house. He can't go more than 150 feet in any direction, so the narrator marks the distances for him. Dreamboat recruits another resident, Ingram, who agrees to do the work while Dreamboat supervises from the house. In conversation, Ingram tells the narrator that Rufus, the parole officer owns the halfway house and collects the government checks that are supposed to go to the inmates. The narrator agrees to rent his house to Ingram, and the next day Dreamboat appears in the front yard and takes off his clothes, all except the tether, which he's trying to remove with a paint scraper. The narrator decides to help him remove it. They get it off and he aids Dreamboat's escape. Nobody comes./Yes

Clyde Harrow, his mind affected by his stint in Vietnam, is known as "Old Man Rags". When his daughter dies, his mind finally goes and he quits his job as postmaster of a small southern town. Sam, the new postmaster, a man Harrow had befriended as a boy is nice to him. Harrow goes to his home and dreams of his dead daughter and his shack burns down. Sam finds him dead, dressed in a wig and dress and gets him out of it so he won't be ridiculed in memory. Sees a picture of Harrow's daughter - has feelings of arousal. Hasn't settled on a pov. Some good writing in parts./No

Fiction writer Anne is afraid of intimacy, preferring the anonymity of New York to the intimacy of L.A. Married to a bond salesman, Anne came to L.A. to pitch her screenplay, staying at the Four Seasons, and met Nelson, a famous script writer and they now meet every year at the hotel for a rendezvous - this is the fourth year. Emails Nelson that she's in town and he says he has something to tell her. Meets next with her agent, Guy, who's lined up pitch meetings for her. During lunch, he gets a phone call from his lover (Guy's) telling him he's positive for AIDs. As the day goes on, Anne starts to lose her bad opinion of L.A., especially when offers for her script come in. During all this, she gets loving emails from her loving husband John who doesn't have a clue. Then, Nelson emails that he's left his wife and she takes it as a sign that he wants her, so she calls her husband and tells him about her affair. He loves her, is willing to forgive her, but she tells him it's over. What she doesn't know is that Nelson hasn't left his wife for Anne...but for another woman. Somewhat offbeat and quirky. Like it./Yes

Kafkaesque in effect, the unreliable narrator of this piece proceeds from point to point to point in an escalating paranoia and misinterpretation of his environment, triggered by a disastrous "date" to the point of self-mutilation. Eventually, he bangs his own head on a regular basis with a hammer. I really like this one a lot./Yes

Two old (Scottish) maids, Mary and Martha, live in a neighborhood that has become Hispanic. They play and sing old Scottish songs to each other. One night, two house burglars break in and steal their TV. One of the men strikes Mary when she won't tell him where the money is. His accomplish chastizes him and they leave. The two women go to the police station and when they come home, Mary realizes what they've become… two spinsters. She never sings again./No

Woman has a love affair with a man (Archie) and gradually falls out of love. She breaks it off by lying about another man. Good voice to the piece, but like lots of others./No

Constantly being compared (unfavorably) to the boy next door, Pauly comes to grips with his Jewishness and his family. This is terrific writing, brilliant in places. Highly recommend./Yes

(One of three stories submitted)/Owen lives in an efficiency, is attracted to Gloria, a waitress, and takes care of his mother's finances (Mrs. Williams). Mrs. Williams is slipping into senility. His brother Robert is openly homosexual, which publically he finds okay, but privately is bothered by. Robert has AIDs. He dies before Owen can have a heart-to-heart talk with him and then his mother is hospitalized as she is dying./No

(2nd story submitted)/Uncle Koji is a typewriter repairman in Tokyo who cannot find a job because of the emergence of computers and who loves to ride trains. As his unemployment lengthens, he begins riding trains and sitting near young girls, and progressively becomes bolder with them. He gets a job as a crowd control officer in a train station whose job is to push people into crowded cars. He loses his job when he doesn't honor the request of an attractive young girl to push her into the train, since he's realized his perversion. He ends up wearing the white gloves of his former office and frequenting train stations to help protect young girls against perverts such as he'd been./Another reader

(3rd story)/le/Narrator comments on the plays of Gerald Hutch./No

Narrator's wife Laurel lies near death in a hospital bed. Receives various visitors, ponders his wife's life of alcoholism and as she dies he reconciles himself with her./No

Kelly relates his life to a bartender who seems more interested in it than most readers would be./No

Black man who commutes daily into New York considers his marriage, his life, his race. One day he discovers his train pass is missing, which becomes a metaphor for something missing in his own life. Well-written, but just not there yet./No

Clark recounts his sexual progression from a boy to manhood, culminating in screwing his brother's wife. Good writing - should be encouraged./No

A race of miniature people live invisibly amongst us and who mirror our own behavior. Swiftian in nature./Another reader.

Philosophical fable about a man who searches for knowledge and finds that things are not at all what they seem to be./Another reader.

A recent graduate of high school looks for a summer job, ignoring her father's suggestion to try Norman's Ladies Apparel in favor of a health food restaurant. Marci also refuses to work in her father's diner. During the summer, she comes to achieve an empathy with her father's generation she didn't have before. Couple of small problems, but I like this one./Recommend

"Skippy" is obsessed with his mother's obesity and he wavers between hetero- and homosexuality and finally seems to decide on homosexuality. Some really good writing here, but overall I kept feeling as if there was something missing./No

After an extramarital affair with Donna ends, the narrator has a bad experience with his wife Paula and her camcorder (this was fuzzy, as to what actually happened - too cryptic) and then Donna lets him know she's still available. Turns out there's a twist; Donna is actually in love with Vinnie who works in the same electronics store as they do. Paula gets obsessed with the camcorder, using it on every possible occasion. The narrator tries to sort out his relationships and finds out his wife has been videotaping him and Donna, but nothing seems to change. The writer doesn't seem to know what his story is here - too unfocused - although there are several good moments./No

A common fault and the reason most were rejected is that it was clear the submission was a first draft. With a good polish, more would have been publishable. 

Hope you find these somewhat interesting!

Blue skies,

Getting wired before my talk at the Writer's Institute at the University of Wisconsin last year... Had a great time!


ssas said...

That is remarkable, indeed. I'm an editor and most stories get at best 3 pages from me. But in my genre, speculative commercial fiction, I like to see the story problem exposed in the first 250 words. That's my most oftenest reason for rejection. (Sometimes if it doesn't appear in the first 250 words it NEVER appears.)

Les Edgerton said...

I agree, Betsy. I've been an editor at other litmags and other magazines, and it's more usual to let the editor read as much or as little as he or she wanted to before making a recommendation. Tim was a really decent guy who wanted to give writers every possible chance.

But... at other places, I did what is more the norm. I'd read a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph or two of most stories.

One thing I hardly ever did was read cover letters. In talking to other small magazine editors, I've found that many of them don't either. The only time I read the letters was if I was going to recommend the story.

One time, I read a cover letter for an entirely different reason. The mss was sent on a carbon copy in onionskin(!), and even the copy had significant wear on it, indicating it had been recycled. I rejected it because it was really a poor story, but something about it "felt" familiar. It had one of those "voices" that I recognized from somewhere but couldn't place. I pulled the cover letter and almost had a heart attack. It was from a very... and I mean, VERY well-known writer. And, it matched the story. It was arrogant and presumed I was going to take the story as she had "deigned" to send it to us. I took great pleasure in rejecting it with a form letter.

Her name wouldn't have influenced me either way and if her story had been good I would have accepted it even after her kind of snarly cover letter, but I was really glad it was so bad. I suspect I'm probably the only person who had ever rejected her at that stage of her career. Wish I could tell you who it was, but just can't. I guarantee you'd know the name instantly as would every single person reading this. I still remember that particular rejection with fondness... Most of the time I hated turning almost every story down, but not hers...

Tiffany said...

This is really interesting. In my little stint of doing this in a certain class at a certain college, it was hard for me to accept just anything. Each submission needed three votes of Yes, but some looked awful and it was hard to get past the appearance. Most times the fonts were insane. One guy did one ransom note style. Another sent a submission in that looked like he spent more time coloring the cover with markers than he did the actual writing...O_o I never saw that one. I think it got pitched before anyone could see it.

As for the writing itself...I was always on the fence for a lot of them. So I was always writing the equivalent of Another Reader on there. I guess my thing with the litmag stuff is that I just didn't know enough about the genre I encountered the most. I knew what I liked, but that didn't mean it was good.

How do you get past your personal likes and dislikes to be objective?

ssas said...

I glance over the cover letters afterward, rarely look at them beforehand. I'm a quick reader, so I can skim them pretty quick as I'm pasting in our standard rejection. Hate to put it that way, but it's how it is.

I don't think the question is aimed at me, but I don't worry too much about my personal dislikes and likes. I'm there as a subjective bouncer for our readers. Working for myself helps in that regard. :)

Hannah said...

thanks for the write ups! I was very intrigued by some of those.