Letter from the Editor, Summer of 2006 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
There’s something wrong with the system. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It shouldn’t make any sense to you, really, it shouldn’t. Here's the first thing you should know: there's no such thing as a slush pile, at least not with us.
I’ve sat on the boards of literary magazines. I did this as an undergraduate. I did this as a graduate student and I do it now. Here’s why the system doesn’t work: What gets into the hands of a literary board has to be so darn spot-on-perfect to advance to the editor. If it’s less than perfect, if it misses the mark by a paragraph or there’s something that we don’t like, guess what? It’s gone. If the first three pages don’t hook the reader, guess what? It’s gone. If something is misspelled in the first paragraph, yup, it’s gone. The average literary board does not look for strengths in writing -they look for weaknesses- this is the only way to eliminate material that comes in. This is the only way to hack away at material that they receive.
Most of us don’t get any feedback on how to improve our stories, yet, if you asked any reader for a literary magazine they’d be able to verbalize 100% of the time why they sent that rejection letter. You don’t get another chance though and there's no incentive for them to let you know. Brutal. So the SASE comes back with a “no thank you” and you go back to square one.
I send stuff out too. Don’t get me wrong. I don't sit on a high horse sending out rejections -trust me- I get rejected. Yet, a number of golden times in my life -the stars aligned- and I was published. But, the other 90% of the time, well, you guessed it, I get rejected. Sometimes I get nice notes. Sometimes I get nada. Just a slip of paper. I want to know -you should want to know- whether you’re missing the mark completely or whether you are getting close.
I’ve done online writing workshops. Some of them make you pay 50 dollars a year. These things work like this: you put your story online and some people who you don't know critique it. Maybe they've never read something in English before, maybe they're an MFA at the top school in the country. Sometimes it’s been good, sometimes it’s a waste of time. I’ve actually had people say they didn’t like the font my story was written in. Yup, the font. I’ve been thrashed because of curly quotes versus straight quotes, seriously this has happened. It’s a hit or miss thing.
I’ve paid money to have my work reviewed by magazines. I paid twenty dollars. The only thing I ever received was an email rejecting me. No thoughts. Nada. Still didn’t know whether I was at the bottom or near the top.
All the same time I was sending things out I was reading work coming into literary journals I was working on. I read material that was getting close, work that I wanted to accept but it wasn't perfect, it needed another draft but there wasn’t the way for me to communicate back with those authors and just say, “take out this last page!” or “your dialogue went on too long” and “take out the drug dealer on page three with the poodle, it doesn’t fit!” How can you, as a writer, not want to communicate where you think
writing can be improved? Currently there is no mechanism to provide valuable feedback to young writers who are submitting to journals.
Writers, professional writers like me, eat, drink and sleep writing. Not everyone is like us. Our staff likes to read stories. We like reading any story that comes our way. We like giving advice to people, to other writers. Problem is we don’t have time to do it for free all the time. Writers are broke enough as it is.
So I figured I could found my own journal, let's see how it works.
Our philosophy is simple. We have and open period of submission. You send, we comment. We have an annual contest where you can win some money, and we give you an even longer review. If it gets into our journal we refund your money. If it doesn’t, well, we give you advice.
What do we have to lose? I mean, this is what we dedicated our lives to do and we have the training to let you know what's going on with your story. We're not just going to toss your story back with no comments. We don't care about what font your story is written, really, we don't. Why wouldn't you try us out? I
t’s either this or let your stuff sit in the slush pile.