(*…that have nothing to do with whether it’s actually good enough for publication)
I’ve been doing a few talks and workshops recently on ways into publication for writers, and one of the Frequently Asked Questions is why work is turned down.
Obviously, there are the usual reasons to do with quality of submissions, suitability for a particular magazine (the eternal mistake of not reading a magazine even once before submitting work to it shows few signs of taking early retirement), the vexing business of work that is wonderful until the last line fails to clinch the deal (or that stumbles its opening, before lifting off part-way in) and so on. There are the standard ‘include an SAE large enough to fit your work into’ (a surprising number of people forward their six poems or two short stories in envelopes that would struggle to house a postcard, making replying to certain submissions an exercise in advanced origami as much as editorial choice) and ‘do not send handwritten pages elaborately decorated with Celtic knot-work and pictures of dragons’. Then there are those who forward 75 pages of text, accompanied by a six-page CV and covering note typed and signed on the author’s behalf by a secretary (there’s a certain type of American ploughing alphabetically through the Poets’ Market directory who seems especially guilty of this). And of course, there are those who feel that real poetry means material that Robert Southey would have considered a bit outmoded back in the 1820s…all this we know.
But what about the perfectly good, professionally presented and perfectly publishable work that we, nonetheless, have to keep on returning? That’s where the following points come into play.
1: Whether it’s due to the increased availability of mentoring, writers’ workshops and courses, or the growth of MAs and undergraduate creative writing options, or the availability of more poetry and feedback online, or the activities of Book Doctors, library services and festivals in bringing good work to aspiring authors’ attention, it has to be noted that the average standard of submissions to publishers at all levels has been gradually creeping up. On the one hand, this is excellent news: the vast majority of the submissions to Staple are – as a minimum – competent, well-crafted, and often well on the way to being very fine writing. This also means, however, that we have to return far more perfectly good poems than might have been the case in the past, simply because we can only include so much in any given issue. Editing was no doubt easier when the general standard was lower, and a smaller number of good poems chose themselves: these days, more editorial choices are made between different kinds of good poem than between good and bad poems.
2: Certain subjects are eternally attractive to writers, and we receive many examples of these in any typical influx of submissions. This means that we are choosing among many versions of what are often essentially quite similar types of poem and short story when putting together any particular issue of Staple. For authors of short fiction, relationship break-up stories, stories where former friends meet and find they no longer have much in common, stories that centre on secrets coming to light, stories involving car accidents, stories about estranged children returning home after parents’ deaths, or to visit dying parents, stories about writers, and stories about people in their twenties just out of university, finding their ways in the world, have to be especially good to make it into our pages. For poets, observations on nature, reflections on children leaving home, feelings of spirituality triggered by views of the sea, recollections of childhood events, anecdotal poems about events witnessed in ordinary streets, poems that use standard workshop forms like the sonnet and villanelle, or take their cues from postcards and paintings, or poems about travel and foreign landscapes and cities; these too need to be especially powerful examples of their kind to rise above the general glut of material pursuing similar subjects and approaches. We have published examples of most of these types of story and poem since late 2007, when I first took over reading the submissions from my predecessor Ann Atkinson, but once we have even a small number of these in an issue, even the best examples will need to be returned.
3: Generally speaking, we try to maintain an overall balance between poetry and prose in our issues. Some lean a little more one way or another, but we hope to give roughly equal space to both. This can mean, for example, that certain issues may be more open to prose or poetry, depending on the balance of suitable submissions we’ve received. In the case of our forthcoming winter issue, on translation, for example, we have so far received more excellent and suitable poetry than prose: this means that anyone sending in good versions of short fiction cast into English from other languages currently has a higher than usual chance of winning a place in that issue’s contents. There is still room for more poems, too, and for essays and stories on themes more loosely related to the main thread of the issue’s theme, but there’s a bit more room for prose at this point in the evolution of that particular issue.
4: The themes we work to at Staple are not intended to exclude work that doesn’t deal with them directly, but as the idea is for each issue to have its own identity and some of the underlying coherence of a good anthology, the editor’s eye is always reading with a view to the connections and contrasts between the various things already due to be featured in a given issue. This can often mean a poem or story is accepted because it offers a link to another piece in the folder, or brings a distinct fresh angle to the subject we’re trying to build an issue around. Obviously, this is not something writers sending in work can really know ahead of making their submissions, and to a large extent editing each issue is akin to holding a jigsaw in the head, and trying to match the distinct shapes of the pieces as they arrive in the post to the gaps in the picture. Where poems or stories are returned simply because they won’t fit this picture, we do try to give that reason and invite future submissions, though pressures of time might mean we’re not as consistent in doing this as we’d like to be. It is, however, another reason why some perfectly good pieces, that might otherwise have been included, might be returned.
5: The final point turns the tables slightly, and notes that some of the work I’ve been most pleased to include in Staple has come from meeting people at events – not all of them our own events. Any halfway decent editor will be out attending readings, events, exhibitions and other places where writers and artists gather to support their colleagues, as well as giving talks, getting involved in those events, and generally on the lookout for two things: opportunities to dish out heaps of subscription flyers and promote the magazine to potential readers, and writers who might not be submitting their work to us who we may want to publish in future. When we put on Staple events, we also talk about our upcoming themes, and many a good piece has emerged from someone coming up after such an event with an idea, or from someone performing in an open mic spot at a reading being asked to send the poem they’d read in for consideration. It follows that being out at events, attending readings, festivals and workshops, is one of the ways by which editors find new work. Consider regular attendance at these things to be as much part of the submission process as putting A4 sheets into stamped envelopes with SAEs enclosed, and the chances are you’ll be remembered when your submissions arrive in the editor’s post later.
So there we are. Four reasons why perfectly good writing might not always make it into a magazine, and one suggestion as to how those scales might be tilted, just a little, in your favour despite them.