Since last September, I have been a fiction reader at a literary magazine run by the Graduate English Program at Florida State University. We receive hundreds of submissions and those submissions are divvied up amongst different readers where each story receives several reads. I am grateful for the opportunity and I highly recommend that if you are able to read for a literary magazine, do so! It has taught me how to step out of my writing bubble and revise my work with a more critical eye.
Before working on the magazine, I had a basic understanding of magazine submissions guidelines (read the magazine you wish to submit to, submit to the magazine you love, etc.). However, it was only after I started reading that I learned there are other essentials that will help your work rise to the top of (and possible out of) the slush pile.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself
Is the Beginning Interesting?
Unlike a workshop or a writing group where it is the job of your classmates/friends to read your work in its entirety before giving critique, a literary magazine is not bonded to the same level of commitment. You do not need a hook, but you need to make sure you grab, and keep, your reader’s attention. If you feel your story really gets going on page 4… that should probably be your page 1. You have worked for weeks, perhaps months, on your story. You want your reader to want to keep reading, not to find a reason to put your story down.
Where’s the Tension?
A short story is a confined space and the tension needs to be established. I have read (and put aside) dozens of stories with great prose and no tension. Something needs to be happening in the story to keep the reader engaged.
Is the Dialogue Real?
Nothing makes me want to put a story down faster than bad dialogue. If the characters do not sound real, then they do not feel real. When the characters do not feel real, why should the reader continue reading?
Is the Story Grammatically Sound?
I am not a big grammar person – I actually have poor grammar and I must proofread about five times to make my work readable. However, those five times are essential. Poor grammar pulls the reader from the story and forces the reader to mentally correct the mistake. If the reader is pulled from the story enough times, chances are, the reader will not finish the story.
Is There a Theme?
Often, I have read stories that had an interesting beginning, a line of tension, great dialogue, and minor grammatical errors and I have still had to say no. The problem with all of those stories was that after I finished them I found myself asking: “Why did I just spend twenty minutes of my life reading that story?” The story needs to have some search or form of emotional truth at its core.
These are not questions I keep in mind when I read the story submissions. However, when I have to write my justification for saying no to a story, I have found these same reasons have persisted. I will repeat my earlier statement: you want your reader to keep reading. You have worked hard on your story and you want to see it published, either in print or online. Do not give them any reason to stop reading before the end.