by Brandon Dudley
As a writer, the submissions process feels a lot like feeding a picky toddler. You offer them the best meal you could possibly make, a meal that includes so much of what they love that there’s no way the child could turn down.
But they just spit it right back at you.
And you don’t know why.
You never know, because they barely speak to you. Once in a while, you might get a couple words of explanation, but usually it’s the equivalent of, “I like this some days but not today.”
So you throw up your hands and go back to the kitchen.
I joined the staff of the Sierra Nevada Review because I was hoping to figure out what goes on inside . And I’ve figured out a few things that might be helpful, or at least comforting, to other writers.
1. Luck helps.
Sometimes, when submitting your work, you just get unlucky. You wrote a beautiful story in second person that just happened to be too much like the second person story we accepted a month ago. You could never know that the reader who happened to get assigned your submission hates dark, twisted pieces, or that we’ve just read one too many depressing stories about dead cats, or we’re just not in the mood for another weird sexcapade again.
So don’t take it personally. Of the 1,300 people that submitted to us between September and February, only about 35 were accepted. That’s an acceptance rate of .027 percent. Even at a small lit mag like ours the odds are long, with or without luck. If you keep working at it, though, luck will eventually break your way. That said….
2. You can help yourself get lucky.
There are things you can do to help improve your luck. Some have been covered ad nauseam on other writing web sites: keep the cover letter short and sweet; format your work properly; follow all the submission guidelines; read the magazine before submitting; polish, polish, polish; etc.
Follow all that advice. You are not the exception to that advice.
This has been covered before, too, but it can’t bear repeating enough: you must grab the reader’s attention right from the start. Because lit mags face a constantly growing pile of submissions, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll get the chance to recover from a weak opening. If you’ll allow me another metaphor, it’s like going on a date. You need to be on top of your game from the time you sit down at the table. You don’t get to be boring and derivative all through dinner and then hope you can wow them with a toe-curling goodnight kiss.
You have to grab the reader right away. Impress us with your language, your plot, your characters, your dialogue. Because we’re looking, desperately, for something to hold on to. We want stumble across something beautiful and tell everyone: Look at this! We really do.
So start strong. That means don’t start with a character’s name, then ramble on for a page about their traits and backstory. That doesn’t make a reader care about the character or the story. Show us the character in some unique and interesting light, or throw us into a conflict from the first line. Impress us with a lyrical, short description of the setting and plants us in a place so deeply we feel like we’re there, then populate it with interesting characters and compelling situations.
Start the date out right, and maybe you. That said…
3. You do not need to shock us to get our attention.
It’s surprising how many submitters go for the gross or strange right off the bat. Usually, this just backfires.
You want to start your story with a graphic scene of violence? How about sending in that piece about the weird and probably illegal act with the dog? You want to start your submission with an anthropomorphic penis riding a camel? Guess what? So did the last submitter (except it was a burro). We’ve read all those stories.
If we can go back to the date metaphor, this strategy is sort of like sitting down at the restaurant, opening the menu, then asking your date if they want to have sex on the table.
All I’m saying is a little foreplay would be nice. Build up to it. Makes us care about the characters, the plot, the conflict, before you throw the truly crazy stuff at us. We’re not prudes. We like the weird. And to be honest, sometimes we like it right from the start. But the key thing is it has to be done well, it has to exist for a reason, and it has to be done for more than just shock value.
In the end, the only thing you can do is your best work (weird or not). Polish it until it shines, send it in, and while you wait, start it all over again on your next piece. More than anything, this gig has taught me patience is key. Great work gets turned down for so many reasons, many out of the writer’s control. But great work will get recognized in the end.