Though we can never say that a prose submission will be turned away every single time we find certain elements in it, writers may take an interest in the following, where we give some advice on pieces that are more and less likely to make it to our final selection process.
On average, we publish prose approximately four months from receipt of submission. We are a quarterly magazine based in New York and rarely will we select prose inconsistent with the season. So, for example, a piece submitted to us in late summer or fall, having the summer season heavily in its content, would not be published in the next issue, since it will be winter. We do not hold pieces over for future issues and feel it is our obligation to get back to the writer within three months, even though we encourage simultaneous submissions.
As we receive a great many submissions up to eight thousand words, review of all material is a daunting task and we make no claim to reading every word of every piece. Submissions more likely to find serious consideration are those that hook us in the first two hundred words or so, with innovative narrative style and/or content that is clearly engaging. Prose which turns absolutely wonderful in its last page may very well fall through our cracks, as we could have abandoned the read prior to that point.
Short-shorts under one thousand words are expected to have a narrative style that is not simple and straightforward unless content is believed to be unquestionably unique. Our guidelines simply state maximum word count is eight thousand, and a writer can interpret this literally and send in a number of short-shorts as one submission. If the set has some commonality to it, all the better.
We try very hard not to let information disclosed in optional cover notes influence our decisions. If the author has never had prose previously published in a national magazine, it is recommended this be made known. We do not specifically seek contributors who have never been published previously, but in the event we are choosing between two submissions fairly equal in merit, we may go with the new writer so that, selfishly, we can make a claim in future years that we were the first to publish his or her work.
We have found over the years that when a cover note cites specific information regarding work we have published in past issues, the submission is, on average, more compatible with what we are seeking. We say this not necessarily to suggest cover notes include such information, but to recommend that writers be familiar with what we are publishing and genuinely believe their writing is congruous.
Generally we have found that we do not take much interest in prose having a first sentence describing the weather, or of the format: "John sits back in the old Ford Galaxie and gazes at his watch." Casual words used in dialog such as "okay," "umm," and "gonna" do not excite us very much, nor exclamations such as "Thrrriiiiiippppppttttt!" and the exclamation point in general. We are also a bit cautious of prose beginning straightaway with dialogue.
Grammar and punctuation are not expected to be flawless, but if we find we have made more than a few corrections on any page, this discourages us. We often debate about whether we should work with an author whose piece we feel has high potential but requires much tightening and correction, or accept a good-but-not-absolutely-great, well-written piece requiring little correction. We want to publish products that are of highest caliber, even if it means working with the author to make notable changes, yet we often feel a submission requiring many obvious corrections, despite its potential, simply does not deserve the investment of attention and honor of acceptance.
Please watch for repeated words and phrases. And to contradict our very own advice, we'll say it again: Please watch for repeated words and phrases. Readers who deeply appreciate the literary art cherish the narrative flow and expect it to be smooth and varying, words playing off one another. To a finely tuned reader, repeated words can be like fingernails dragging across a chalkboard. This is one of the most common reasons the review of a submission is halted. We believe avoiding use of repeated words is a skill acquired over time. One technique which may help spot cases of this would be to try reading the piece aloud.
It is expected that, even in fiction, facts about the world and spelling of proper nouns be accurate. The credibility of both the writer and the magazine is at stake when facts are wrong or well-known proper nouns are not spelled correctly. The downed airliner in Long Island Sound in 1996 was TWA Flight 800, not Pan Am Flight 103. JCPenney is not spelled JC Penny. Froot Loops: need we say more? Interesting fact in fiction will greatly increase the chances of publication, but we ask that these facts be accurate. We do a reasonable amount of checking, but writers should not have the mindset that such things would be verified during the review process.
Contrary to what many writing How-To guidance sources state, we do not necessarily look for a narrative arc or obvious element of conflict in a story. We simply want to be taken away, learn something, or be consumed in identifying with a character, a place, a situation. We are not saying here that we prefer slice-of-life pieces, where the everyday is traversed in numbing detail. The everyday can be mundane or can be beautiful. We prefer beautiful, in all its wonderful and ugly forms.
We enjoy seeing a running metaphor, a concept that is continually and subtly revisited as the story progresses. Combined with fact, this can make for a very compelling tale. A woman in the midst of a break-up with a partner (the actual plot of the story), is a zookeeper, and talks of the habits of certain animal species and their ways of attracting (or avoiding) a mate. A scientist who is raising a child single-handedly writes lessons learned in parenting as a series of lab notes.
Surrealism can make for a very interesting read, and we feel our ability to suspend our disbelief is quite accommodating. We ask, though, that the use of surreal elements, which are in and of themselves not logical, ultimately convey some message that is, indeed, logical. We also can appreciate narrative styles that are difficult to navigate, but not ones that make us feel stupid. It is not uncommon for us to read pieces two or three times, but our hope is that with each read, more meaning and clarity are extracted.
Being voracious readers of literary magazines ourselves, we believe there is too much material already out there having death or serious illness as a notable element, and so we are not likely to run prose heavily carrying such themes. We also rarely publish voices with excessive anger or foul language, and pieces where a form of violence or significant hostility is present, regardless of whether or not it is within the story timeline.
Again, none of the above are absolute, hard-and-fast rules which will result in a submission acceptance or rejection. The review of literary material is and will always be subjective, varies from person to person, and will even change somewhat day-to-day for a given reader or editor, depending on the person's mood. There is no literary review "robot," although sometimes, to make our task a bit easier, we wish there were.