From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Build Urgency From the Beginning

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit it to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 2 of a multi-post series. For PART 1, click here.

Build Urgency From The Beginning

Lack of urgency is the number one reason why I turn down stories. The prose might be beautiful, but I can’t be sold on that alone. Your story needs to open with a bang and keep me hooked from sentence one.

If your story starts out with two characters discussing the weather, then I probably won’t read on (unless they’re talking about sharknados). Another pet peeve of mine: when a story starts off with a description of scenery. While this can sometimes work, it often doesn’t and leaves me yawning after the first couple of sentences. As a rule, start with some action, or an interesting scenario.

3D exploding bomb

No bomb required. Unless your story is actually about a bomb. Then I would highly suggest that you write about a bomb within the first two sentences. Image Credit: freepik.com

Two very important things you should cover within the first 1-2 pages:

  • Who is the main character, what do they want, and why should I care about them?
  • What are the stakes? In other words, what does the main character have to lose if they don’t get what they want?

If I don’t care about your character, or if I can’t get a sense of what’s at stake from the beginning, then I will not keep reading.

Once you build urgency, you have to maintain it throughout your entire story. How can you do this? Here are a couple ideas:

  • Keep raising the stakes. How much can your main character stand to lose?
  • Prevent your character from getting what they want.

For a more complete list, check out this post on the Terrible Minds blog. Chuck Wendig really knows what he’s talking about with this one.

I recently read an excellent story from Family of Fallen Leaves called “Thirteen Harbors.” It begins like this:

“I took a new wife for my husband. Maybe the strangest thing ever to happen at Yen Ha village, I chose my good friend to be the bride, a woman who had passed the age for marriage but for a long time had desired a child and wanted a husband.” — Suong Nguyet Minh, “Thirteen Harbors”

Talk about a bang, right? And from there, the story doesn’t let up in its urgency as main character Sao suffers from devastating miscarriage after miscarriage.

If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest you read the rest of it. Not only is “Thirteen Harbors” a haunting story about the effects of Agent Orange, but it is also expertly crafted, which is really beneficial for us writers.

So, how do you build urgency in your own work? Have you read any particularly well done short stories lately?

— Manuela Williams

 

From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Submit A Story That Stands Out

Let’s say you’re the editor of a literary magazine. You have ten submissions to review before lunch, a looming press deadline and, on top of everything else, a full time job. What kind of stories do you want to read? The ones with typos, poor formatting, and a nonexistent plot? Or the ones with a compelling beginning, memorable characters, and prose that shines?

Simply put, editors are busy people. From managing the business side of their magazines to reviewing submissions, they have a lot on their plates. As a writer, your job is to make the editor forget about everything but your story.

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 1 of a multi-post series.

Submit A Unique Story

Obvious, right? Maybe not so much.

I’ve read way too many “boy-meets-girl” stories. All had similar premises: guy meets mysterious girl, they have quirky conversations, they may or may not break up by the end of the story, etc. etc. etc. After a while, these stories get boring and predictable. The same goes for stories about breakups, cheating spouses, manic pixie dream girls, and the like.

Young woman sitting in a cafe with her laptop, Stressful for wor

When I have to read yet another breakup story. Image Credit: freepik.com

Sometimes, though, I stumble across a story that is truly unique.

What makes a story unique? That’s a harder question to answer.

We all have experiences that make us unique (if we didn’t, then we’d all be the same and that would be an awfully boring world to live in). Some of the best short stories I’ve read have dealt with situations that appear to be based off of deeply personal, life-changing events.

Check out this short story written by Carve Magazine contributor Eric Cipriani. It’s about a relationship, yes, but the relationship between father and son (and what happens when the child must become the parent). What makes this story unique? Perhaps it is the slightly humorous yet heartbreaking conversations between father and son. Perhaps it is the family dynamic within the story, which at times feels very familiar, yet also alien. What matters here is that each element combines to create an emotional, honest, and unique story.

Basing a story off a personal or life-changing experience doesn’t mean that you have to completely recreate an event from your life and write down every detail as you remember it. Instead, pick a specific emotion or moment and go from there. Did you work on a fishing boat during the summer of your senior year in high school? Set a story on that boat. Was your piano teacher a hoarder? Create a character based off of her. You’d be surprised at what kind of stories you can write based off of memories that are unique to you.

So, put a surprising twist on that classic breakup story you’re writing. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the person you were dating back in college wrote romance novels based off your relationship? Probably not the best idea but, hey, I would totally read that story.

— Manuela Williams

Finding Your Work A Home: Helpful Literary Websites

It’s Spring Break! That means I have more time to focus on my creative writing and put together a list of literary magazines I might want to send my work to.

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In addition to working on creative stuff, I will also be taking a road trip during my vacation.

Back in my earlier blogging days (like last year), I wrote a post talking about different websites writers can use when they are ready to start submitting their work. That particular post has long since vanished, however, I have recreated it here and included some new information.

Since there are hundreds of literary magazines out in the world, the process of finding a good home for your work can be tedious. Luckily, there are several websites that can make the search a lot easier.

It is important to note, while the websites listed below are extremely helpful, they should not be used in lieu of doing your own research.

What do I mean when I say “research?” As the writer, you are responsible for checking out a literary magazine’s website on your own. Websites can house a lot of information that might not be present in a database listing. This can include accurate submission deadlines and format specifications.

Another important thing you can learn from scouting out a magazine’s website is the type of work the editor/s tend to publish. If you notice that a magazine only publishes literary fiction, then don’t send them your mystery story. If a magazine states that they only publish flash fiction then, please, don’t send them a twenty page document.

List of Websites

Duotrope. A paid subscription. $5 a month grants you access to lots of advanced search functions. For example, there’s a search option that allows you to search only for lit mags that publish “feminist” fiction, or “creative non-fiction.” There’s also a function that allows you to search for lit mags that are print-only, or online-only. Duotrope tends to be a lot more accurate than some free options. A lot of the time, on other sites like “The Review Review,” a posting will say that a lit mag is accepting submissions, however, when you go to the website, you learn that submissions are actually closed for the year.

New Pages. This is one of my favorite free resources to use when searching for lit mags to submit to. There is a “Classified” section on the website that provides an extensive list of magazines that are currently accepting submissions. Although it can be time-consuming to find a magazine that is accepting the type of work you are submitting, it is definitely worth the time and effort, especially if you check back on a daily basis

Poets and Writers Database of Literary Magazines. A very large database which is also free to use. It lists hundreds of literary magazines for your browsing pleasure. This website is particularly useful if you want to get a feel for the types of magazines on the market. The search function is not as advanced as other sites.

Entropy Magazine’s “Where to Submit.” Entropy is a literary magazine that also publishes a bi-monthly “Where To Submit” blog post. The post provides an extensive list of presses, calls for chapbooks, journals, anthologies, as well as residencies, fellowships, conferences, and other writing opportunities. The best part of this list is its accuracy. For the most part, every listing is accepting submissions during the time period specified by the blog post. Additionally, the post specifies any reading fees involved with submitting to any given press, magazine, and/or contest.

What about you guys? Do have a specific website you like to use when searching for literary magazines? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Spring!

— Manuela Williams