I received an email in response to last week’s post about a writer who accurately saw a personal rejection as good news. It was from Yi Shun Lai, the non-fiction editor at The Tahoma Literary Review – a brand new paying journal for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Yi Shun wanted readers to know what rejections look and feel like from the other side of the desk, and to offer some insight and tips to anyone out there submitting.
Note that Yi Shun's personal and proactive engagement with my post led to my reaching out to her, which led to our doing this cool feature together, which led to our now being virtual pals, all in a matter of a week. This is the way you broaden your network, become part of the conversation, and meet cool and interesting new people who are out there working in the same arena you are working in. I recently wrote about this process in my Tim Grahl post and wanted to call attention to the fact that I'm out here trying to practice what I preach!
JN: You’re the non-fiction editor of a brand new paying literary journal. What is the journal’s mission and philosophy? Where do you see yourselves fitting into the literary universe?
YSL: Our edict to publish great work is driven by transparency. On a monetary front, that means that we'll always let you know what our back end looks like: How much we took in from submission fees, journal sales, subscriptions, and so on; how much we are able to pay writers; how much we pay ourselves, if we exercise that option (we didn't, for the first issue, to allow more funds for the writers); how much it costs to print and e-publish each issue.
In terms of selecting work, it means that we will publish news of acceptances as they come in. It also means we will not solicit work, so that every writer has a fair chance of getting into our publication without vying for fewer pages or competing against big(ger) names.
We also think submission fees should come with something. (This is a key part of our second edict, which is to be a strong part of the literary community.) So when you submit to TLR, your submission fee gets you access to our EndNotes section, which is populated by interviews, craft articles, and more.
Note from JN: See the guidelines for submitting to The Tahoma Literary Review HERE. If you submit, you might want to mention where you learned about the journal, because that will show the editors that you're doing your homework. Yi Shun talks about this, below.
JN: How does your work evaluating author submissions play into that mission?
LYS: Here, transparency still plays a big part in our work, but we are above all democratic: All three of us on TLR's editorial staff (Kelly Davio is poetry editor and Joe Ponepinto is our fiction editor) are alumni of an MFA program [http://www.nila.edu/mfa] that respects all writerly voices, and makes a concerted effort to allow each writer to develop his or her own voice. That pedigree means that we have perhaps a wider view of work than you might expect in a literary magazine; we're all widely read and published in different avenues (Joe and I come from marketing and journalism backgrounds, for instance), so our appreciation of work reflects that diversity.
Also, we read every submission ourselves. That is, we don't use first readers or interns to vet the slush pile on our behalf.
JN: You want writers to know that each submission is considered by “a real live human being,” and that care is taken even when it is obvious that the answer is “no-go.” Would you like to say more about that? It’s such an important thing for writers to hear.
YSL: Thanks for the opportunity to say more about this. It's an important part of the process. Because we are writers ourselves, we know what it's like to send something out into the world with hopes that it will strike a nerve with an editor. (We're not unique in that regard; I'd venture that most editors of literary magazines also write and submit.)
Personally, I start reading every submission with great hope, pleasure, and gratitude, that someone has thought our publication a good match for something they have worked hard on.
None of us just willy-nilly presses "decline."
JN: Can you explain what the evaluation process looks like – how quickly, for instance, you come to the “no go” decision? I know, because it’s part of my work, too, that when it’s your job to evaluate writing, you get very, very fast at it. You can very quickly tell not only THAT something isn’t fully cooked but WHY. You also very quickly tell when someone is in full command of their topic, their voice, their structure and their language. Many writers who are just beginning to submit to publications or to agents don’t understand that – how someone can so quickly get to “no go.”
YSL: Quick story: Aeons ago, I was a fiction intern at the Atlantic Monthly, under the tutelage of the wonderful Lucy Prinz. We read a lot of slush-pile fiction. One day, I fielded three stories about foot fetishes. Stories about foot fetishes can be well written. And they can be Atlantic material. These were not those stories. These were stories that had been written by folks who had obviously never read The Atlantic. One was sloppily typed, with errors everywhere. They all three were no-gos within the first few sentences. Mostly because they were not even really about the people who had the foot fetishes.
By contrast, we had the first two lines of one short story taped to the intern-office door. It read: "In the elevator, he couldn't stop looking at her legs. She was a model, and he was a midget."
That one was an eventual no-go, too, but I remember wanting to read the whole thing.
So: 3 tips for keeping me reading:
1. Know the publication, or at least, Google the editor and know what s/he likes. (Kelly, Joe and I all have pretty good digital footprints.)
2. Write the story. Have it critiqued. Rewrite it. Put it away. Come back to it. Then submit. Time is perspective, and perspective is critical to having fully baked work.
3. Give yourself permission to NOT get to fully baked in the first few drafts. Often, I can be all the way through the first draft of an essay before I realize that this is not the essay or story I set out to write.
Bonus: Proofread. Nothing's worse than really wanting to like a piece and not being able to get through it for typos and grammar problems. Yes, really. That stuff gets in the way faster than anything.
Your question is: How quickly can we get to no-go? The answer: Very, very quickly.
JN: Can you talk a little about what it’s like to be the “rejector.”
YSL: Do we have to? It sucks to be the rejector. My fingers physically hesitate over the keyboard. Sometimes, though, we are rejectors with things to say. So we write a little extra something, make a few suggestions, ask to see the thing in a revised form. Then it sucks a little less, because we get to look forward to something.
JN: And what’s it like to be the acceptor? What is it like to be the one to give a writer a chance?
YSL: You're not just giving a writer a chance, you're amplifying a signal. You're giving a story wings; a place to be told.
That's what it feels like, anyway.
Note from JN: Doesn't this make you love her?? Think about this comment next time you submit somewhere. Agents and editors are out there hoping, wishing and praying that they can give your story wings. That's what they live for.
JN: Do you know when someone is submitting to your publication for the second or third or fourth time? Do you remember?
YSL: Editors remember a lot. Personally, I might think a name sounds familiar, but I'm just as likely to recall a certain style of writing. Feel free to tell me in your cover letter, though, if you've submitted before, especially if I've said I wanted to see more.
JN: You plead with writers to do their research on where to submit. What are some of the common mistakes you see being made?
YSL: Mistakes of this nature mostly have to do with things like word limits. (A cap of 6,000 words really does mean 6,000.) Misspelled names or wrong section editors can be excused, but they make for hiccups. My request mostly has to do with subject matter or tone. Even the most cursory of G-stalking or research will tell you who the editors are and what the magazine's like. Just pay attention. You'll be fine.
JN: What are your thoughts about using services that submit on the behalf of writers?
YSL: I have thoughts. None of them are printable. In PG form, they run like this: For Bojangles' sake, please at least care enough about your work to do the research and press "submit" yourself.
JN: Is there anything else you’d like to tell my readers? They are writers committed to getting published, writers who understand it’s a long process, and writers eager for the tough love they know they need to reach their goals.
YSL: Editors really do want to read your work. But we also have a sense of personal pride about our magazines: It's our names on the masthead. When we read your work, we are thinking about whether or not this is a story that will suit the magazine's aesthetic, sure, but we are also looking for a work that strikes a chord within us as readers. Your work should evoke something. Anything less is just window-dressing.