Dispatches | October 21, 2013

Last week, The Review Review, an online source for writers with reviews and articles about literary magazines, hopped on their social media platforms and asked writers about their submission strategies, in particular about how they keep track of their submissions.

I wrote back and said that I had an Excel file (a Google spreadsheet now) with basic information: what piece I sent where and on what date. Pretty easy. A writer-friend tweeted at me, and pointed out that submitting poems is trickier because a poet sends several individual poems at a time rather than just one story. That’s a good point that as a fiction writer, I hadn’t considered. Nonetheless, I didn’t think that keeping track of submissions was all that hard, nor did I think choosing what journals to submit to was difficult either. I’ve known for a few years now which journals I want to send my work to and, loosely, if X amount of journals turn down my work, then it probably isn’t “ready” yet.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received several emails from writers who entered our Editors’ Prize contest. They contact me because they want to check on the status of their submission to the contest. This puzzled me a bit: often, the writer had sent work within just the last month, and we announce our selections in January 2014 all at once. What was the worry? What were they “checking on”? I send these writers a quick, polite, “don’t worry!” email explaining the Editors’ Prize deadline and leave it at that.

But these two things taken together, I remember what it was like to be anxious about sending out my stories, and how easy it is for magazine editors to forget what it’s like to wait. When I was a graduate student, and for several years after I completed my MFA, I perused Duotrope to find out the exact average response time a journal had, and got my hopes up way too high anytime my work was held even a day past the average. I looked at my Excel file of submissions daily, studying which journals reading period were almost over, and considered which work I had sent them before, which new story would fit best. Any rejection letter that had any ink on it—even a quickly scrawled “THX”—remained in a folder in my desk.

Now, of course, I know better. I don’t keep rejection notices; they get recycled like all the other paper products in my house. Why haven’t the editors responded? Most likely because they haven’t read it yet. Why do they have my story so long? Most likely because they haven’t read it yet. Why did I get rejected so fast? It just happened to get put at the type of the reading pile (or queue), and has nothing to do with whether or not it is good or bad.

Of course, I can only speak for what it was like at River Styx and here at Missouri Review. I’ve certainly heard stories of piles of unread manuscripts sitting around, ignored and unread, while the editors solicit friends. I’ve heard of offices where the submissions don’t get opened, let alone read. Or, the magazine hits a fiscal crisis and production, and consequently, reading, is indefinitely delayed. Whether any of these anecdotes are true, I don’t know.

Many editors forget what this process is like for their submitters. Editors of literary magazines have typically had publishing success, anywhere from poems placed in good journals to several books at large publishing houses. All writers feel some level of anxiety, stress, and pressure about publishing The Next Thing. But, like anything that we’ve learned and have years of experience with, we often forget how difficult those first steps were at the time, how frustrating the process can be, the “I’ll never publish there!” feeling and how the echo chamber of our insecure creative minds can be maddening. Reading submissions and making editorial decisions takes time. At TMR, part of our mission statement is a teaching component—we are at an university, after all—and that means we often need to slow down a little bit.

I wonder if reminding writers of this fact is sufficient.

But in a world with so much noise, maybe simply telling someone, “Hey, I hear you” is actually an important thing. If you’re human, you’ve had arguments with people. And, almost certainly, you and/or the other person has said “You aren’t listening!” or “That’s not what I said!” or “That’s not what I meant!” Simple, honest, reflective language makes conversations easier. Makes relationships stronger.

And that’s what we want. We want to deliver the best writing to you. You want to read the best writing. We publish what you send us; you want to publish in our pages. Same goals from different parts of the process. And, perhaps, those small things to make those goals mutual rather than combative do make a difference. We hope so.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye