Tales From the Inbox: Baker & Beaver Discuss First Reading

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Theryn: Let me start with this. It annoys me when people fail to put “submission” in their subject line and/or submit to the wrong address because these subs end up in my main inbox with all my other mail, rather than being filtered into my submissions folder. Sometimes I wonder if people do that intentionally (especially with the wrong email address) thinking they’ll somehow jump the queue, but really it just increases the chances of the submission being missed or mistaken for spam. So, follow the guidelines, please. (Oh, haha, literally as I’m writing this, a “submission”-less sub showed up in my inbox!).

Stephanie: I just got that one too. I use a flagging system (and have for years) so when something has “submission” in the title, it gets the big, bold “TC SUB” tag and gets my attention. I also have a filter so that anything with “submission” in the title never goes to spam. So all it really does when a writer doesn’t follow that guideline is increase the chance I won’t see it. It will either be deleted with the flotsam and jetsam or it’ll languish in the spam folder for a month and then die alone and unread.

T: Ditto. When you bypass the guidelines, you bypass my “never send to spam” rules.

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

T: Oh, yes. Part two to this. Sometimes when people re-submit / submit again they just hit reply on the response I sent them. Which sends their new sub to me only, and leaves my lovely colleague Stephanie out of the loop. If I don’t notice you sent it just to me, and she doesn’t see it, your chances of making it past the first round just went down (oops!). Also, not as important, but still annoying, with threaded conversations, the new sub gets tied to the previous sub and that gets kind of messy. Again, I’m not sure if this is a jumping the queue thing or if people just aren’t thinking, but it would behoove you to submit to the correct address.

S: I am lovely. Since I’m on there as “managing editor,” I also get subs sent directly to me. I have no problem—nor does anyone else, to my knowledge—with a cover letter that mentions me in its salutation. The problem is when it comes to my email address. I usually don’t notice until my ravishing colleague Theryn says, “What is this submission you want in?” Then it goes from shortlist to DQ.

T: Ravishing? lol, ok.

S: I have a thesaurus and I’m only slightly afraid to use it.

T: Your lack of fear makes me afraid 😉

T: I also shake my head when I glance at my submissions folder and see a bunch of attachment symbols. What about “NO ATTACHMENTS” is hard to understand? Ok, maybe people don’t get why attachments are problematic. The main thing for me is they really slow down the reading process. All the opening and closing is annoying, when you could just be moving smoothly from one sub to the next. I often read/shortlist subs on my phone where attachments are a pain. I just want to read your sub and move onto the next without impediments. So just paste it into your email, ok?

S: Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt that they may have an email program that sticks some kind of an attachment onto everything. Sometimes it’s a signature that’s technically an attachment. But it is a huge red flag. I read those submissions right away and usually the attachment is the submission. So it actually saves me time in that I can say, “Oh a sub with an attachment? Can I get this out of my inbox? Why yes I can.” Click.

T: Oh, for sure. Same.

T: What do these things have in common? Oh, yes. WASTING MY TIME.


T: So it makes me sad when I head into the subs folder to shortlist and I glance down the names and notice that 75% or more of the subs are from men. What’s up with this, seriously? I brought it up in the class I’m teaching because it’s just so striking to me. I mean, we’re a publication that was founded by women and has had a majority female staff since the beginning, and this info is not a secret! Also, if you look at our archives, we have a good balance of m/f writers. What I’m saying is it’s kind of obvious that we’re a female-friendly publication and yet, women still seem hesitant to submit to us. (And if they’re that hesitant to submit to us, how hesitant are they to submit to a publication with an all-male staff / that publishes mostly men?)

S: Are men more confident about submitting? That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t think there are more male writers. I don’t think it’s fear of rejection.

T: These are the key differences I note between men/women writers (generalizing, of course). Men a) seem to be more willing to submit early drafts of pieces and b) almost always submit again after a rejection. Women a) seem to polish/edit work more before submitting and b) almost never submit again after a rejection. My guess as to why? Men are taught to take risks (submit anything! why not? what’s the worst that could happen?) and to pick themselves up and try again if they fail (rejection = challenge). Women are taught to be cautious, to not expose themselves unnecessarily (therefore: “I should work on this a bit more; it’s not ready yet; I don’t want to look stupid”) and that if they fail once, well, they’re really not good at that thing and maybe they should try something else, something “easier” (rejection = you suck at writing, maybe you should take up knitting, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

S: Sadly, this could be the case. I don’t think it’s a confidence problem. I think it’s more “Well I’ll just go elsewhere then.” We’re not rejecting the author. We’re rejecting this piece. It’s like holding out a bag of Hershey Miniatures and telling me I can only have a Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I want a Special Dark. But you don’t offer the bag again so I’ll just have this fun-sized Crunch from over here.

T: lol now I want Halloween candy.

S: Hey, I don’t pull my metaphors out of nowhere. I have a bag of Kit Kats here.

T: So I really do think women writers do need more encouragement to get their work out there than men do. With that in mind we have been putting out occasional calls for more submissions specifically from women writers.

S: We put out a call for minority voices and I think we’re enjoying a really great response. Hopefully asking for work from female writers will have the same result.

T: I’m not sure what else would be helpful. Women writers: you tell us, what would encourage you to submit more?

S: That’s the best way to figure it out: ask.

T: Ok, going to do some reading. Starting with the flash. I liked the first one I read; voice and setting were interesting/unusual. Putting on consider list. Next!

S: I usually start with the flash, then poetry, then CNF, then fiction. Not just because it’s longer but because I have a more black-and-white reaction to the other submissions. Fiction sometimes needs to sit with me for a while before I label it “no” or “consider.” I have rescued submissions from the “no” pile after I’ll be baking cupcakes or something and a character or setting I read creeps in there while I’m leveling flour or something.

T: I love subs that stick with you. And ones that grow on you the more times you read them.

S: So what do you think of the flash submissions, in general?

T: Hmm. A lot of the time, I think the flash is well-written, but insubstantial. Like, more of a beginning or an anecdote or a sketch. I think, so what? When I read flash I need to be able to picture the whole story even though there are only a few words. It’s the Hemingway/iceberg thing. What’s on the page is the one-eighth of the iceberg that’s above the water, but from that, as a reader I need to be able to extrapolate what’s underwater. If the piece doesn’t imply anything beyond what’s explicitly laid out then it’s a no for me.

S: I think there’s some weird idea that flash is about word count and nothing else. Recently—maybe this reading period?—we had a flash submission that was too long for our parameters and wasn’t flash anyway, which was doubly frustrating. Then we had a fiction submission that fell under the flash word count limit but was rightly submitted as fiction because it wasn’t flash. I wanted to kiss that writer.

T: I also think humor is really hard to pull off, and that’s something a lot of people try in flash pieces. I’m not saying don’t try it, just that it’s a lot harder to do well than being serious. I think it’s because humor is such a personal thing—what one person loves another will hate. Example: I hate punchline endings. If you want to write jokes, do stand-up. But at the same time I’m sure other editors love them.

S: I don’t like anything that sets up to a punchline. I’m in the Monty Python Club. We used to get more humor pieces and I think it’s because we have some levity on the site and we have a fun title. But we’re not a humor magazine. Maybe people are reading us and discovering we don’t have a satire section.

T: I love writers who read through the archives before they submit. Three cheers for you!

T: Then there are the (long) stories masquerading as flash. You know, a story that clearly needs to be longer, but the writer has tried to cram it into 500 words. Reminds me of when I was a kid and all my stories “had” to end when I reached the bottom of the page. This type of story is recognizable by an abundance of detail (e.g. all the characters are introduced by their full names) that’s unnecessary unless it’s actually meant to be a longer story.

S: As a sidenote, if I see a full name in line 1, the story is on notice. I’m looking for reason #2 to slush it by that point.

T: Oh, me too! I’m not saying characters shouldn’t have full names, but a line 1 mention is definitely a red flag for me.

T: I am never enthused by work submitted by a third party (i.e. someone a writer has hired to submit for them). Just saying.

S: I don’t get that. Half the rush is clicking “send” and then sitting there waiting for a response, having your nerves tingle every time you open your inbox. I only get it if it’s a case of “I think this is brilliant and he never submits his work so I’m trying to prove a point.”

T: *ponders stealing Steph’s novels and subbing them for her*

S: *leaves them to be stolen*

T: Let’s look at some poetry. A common reason for saying no is poems that are strings of pretty words with no substance behind them (why are you telling me this? what’s the point? where’s the meaning?). A poem is more than than just description. Also a poem is not just a chunk of prose chopped up with (random) line breaks. Speaking of line breaks, sometimes I really like the content of a poem but the line breaks baffle me. If you’re not sure where to end a line, the best advice I’ve heard is to end on a strong word (not “of” or some other meaningless word).

S: Yes: end on a strong word. That’s one of the criteria I use on first read. Line breaks that end with “of” or “the” don’t say much to me. Rhyming poetry turns me off too. Sometimes a rhyme will slip by if it’s well done but usually the lines are forced to fit a rhyme and/or meter. That said, when we get a great poetry submission, it’s usually my favorite submission. Of all the things we’ve published, the poetry is what stays with me over years.

T: Like humor, I think rhyming poems are a genre that’s really hard to do well. More often they end up being cheesy.

S: Or sentimental to the point of saccharine.

T: The number one piece of writing advice I give students (with respect to essays) is to start by writing about concrete things not abstractions. Anchor your ideas to an object and your writing will immediately be better than if your ideas are just floating around unattached to anything. I feel like the same advice could be applied to many poems. Writing is interesting in its specificity. A poem that consists entirely of vagueness isn’t.

S: Specificity is the key across the board. A moment. An object. A character. Most of the submissions I put through to second read have elements of softness or vulnerability but they all have a hard edge.

T: Oh, crap. I just read a story I really liked and then noticed it’s a simsub. Blargh.

S: You had to go and like it, didn’t you?

T: 😛

T: Too much telling.

S: That’s still a huge problem in the writing world. I see it a lot in stories published elsewhere and I wonder if those editors aren’t getting good submissions or what’s going on that that’s what they choose to publish. Maybe I’m old school.

T: And then… there are the stories that almost have me until they abruptly careen into the ridiculous. I think this is a variation on “I’ve reached the end of the page; must end this story.” It’s like the writer gets scared of where the story could go, so they back off and go for melodrama instead. Disappointing.

S: I have a specific groan for when I read a story that falls apart at the end.

T: It’s the worst. Seriously, I hate it when that happens.

T: Some things are just not a good fit.

S: That’s especially frustrating. I want to include a note that says, “This is good. I can’t wait to see it published elsewhere.”

T: All dialogue. This is almost always going to be a no. A story is not a script.

S: I admit, not only have I done an all-dialogue stories but many moons ago, I submitted one. I was the “wtf?” of that month’s slush pile, I’m sure. But it wasn’t doing me any good sitting in my “finished” folder.

T: Ahhh, it’s a dead person story. At least he seems to know he’s dead (twist!). I hate stories with dead protagonists, to be honest. We get so many of these, so it’s a cliche, and it’s just not an interesting premise to me in the first place.

S: I had to specifically put it into Dead of Winter’s rules. We still get them. And The Sixth Sense is, what, 15 years old now?

T: I know, right?

S: Tell me/us something that will get a story marked “consider” on first read.

T: I like stories where I can’t immediately tell where they’re going.

S: I have a specific gasp for stories that surprise me in a good way.

T: The best.

T: So, I’ve reached the end of this month’s subs, and I literally have more subs in my DQ folder (mostly for attachments) than I do on my consider list. Just saying.

S: And the frustrating thing, if I may presume to speak for both of us and probably most lit journal editors out there, we want a huge consider list. We don’t like DQs and we don’t like to say “no” on first read. Very often, I start to say to myself, “Self, let’s reconsider this submission” and then a new submission comes in that’s exactly what I wanted and it reminds me not to change where I’ve set the bar.

T: Ideal number of DQs: 0. I mean, I’d much rather spend our time arguing about how to cut down a long shortlist than grumbling about people not following the guidelines. Ya know?

S: Too much of a good thing would be wonderful.

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