Impossible Hope

Posted on 29 April 2014

“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”

That’s the opening line of Roxane Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State, which will officially be released May 9. I managed to pick up a copy early at the Columbus Community College Writers Conference on Saturday, where Roxane was the keynote speaker. When discussing her novel, which surrounds the kidnapping of a Haitian woman and the sexual and psychological violence she endures, Roxane said, “There were times I definitely made myself sick. I made myself cry — that’s when I knew I was on the right track.” While she may have suffered for her art, she also stressed that it was important to have a way out of that troubling mindset. She’d step back from the writing, take a walk, or otherwise find a way to remind herself that there’s more good in the world than bad.

Roxane also read her piece How to Be a Contemporary Writer to offer the aspiring writers in the room a little advice and encouragement. If you haven’t read this yet, check it out. Much of what she’s written here resonates with me, including “Accept that there is no one way to make it as a writer and that the definition of making it is fluid and tiered” and “Accept that sometimes cream actually does rise to the top and hard, consistent work will eventually get noticed, maybe not in the way you envisioned, but some way, some how,” but this next item applies to the panel I organized at this same event: “Know that more often than not, editors have your best interests at heart.”

Just after Roxane’s keynote, I presented a panel with other Mid-American Review editors (Jason Marc Harris, Jenelle Clausen, Lauren Boulton, and Sasha Khalifeh) to give attendees a behind-the-scenes look at our editorial selection process. We displayed the opening pages or lines of stories and poems we recently accepted for publication and offered suggestions on how to get — and keep — a literary magazine editor’s attention.

Our audience was lively and so curious about our process that we had to redesign the session on the fly to accommodate all their questions. (That’s a wonderful thing, if you ask me.) I thought I’d share a few of their questions and our answers. Some of the most common questions were addressed in my earlier post on this blog, “Submit to Me: Inside Mid-American Review.”

What does it mean when a journal has held my submission for a long time? This question came right after we explained that we might keep a promising piece around for a while as we mull it over. This means that sometimes, when your piece is held for what seems like forever, it’s a good thing. But unfortunately, writers can’t predict what is happening just based on the response time. We might be behind in our reading or haven’t gotten to a particular batch of submissions for some reason or another. I think it’s best to submit and then try to avoid playing guessing games about what the response time means. (Easier said than done, I know.)

How much do cover letters matter? What if I don’t have any prior publications? The short answer is that cover letters matter very little to us — or to many literary magazines. We are interested in your writing, not your past accomplishments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received cover letters with long lists of publications and awards, but then that particular submission falls flat (for me, anyway). In our online submissions manager, writers can even leave the cover letter section blank if they want. No problem.

Do all your rejections always say “please send again”? For Mid-American Review, the short answer is no. We use a few different form rejections. There’s the simple, basic one, and then there’s the “please send again” form. These are the two most common rejections we send out, but sometimes we send even higher level rejections or personal notes. If you get the first type of form rejection, it’s not a slight or an indication that we hated your work. As difficult as it can be, it’s best to try not to read too much into a rejection of any sort. But if you do receive the “please send again” rejection, take that to heart and submit again when you have a piece that you think is perfect for our magazine.

If a piece is well written and starts out strong, what most commonly ends up turning editors off and resulting in rejection? This happens a fair amount, unfortunately, and in fiction, the answer is generally that the pace is too slow, not much happens, and the story doesn’t have enough tension to hold our interest. My additional advice about this problem is not very cheery, but it’s realistic: When you submit a story or poem to a literary journal, picture that submission sitting in the editor’s inbox with 100 other submissions. What about your piece sets it apart? What makes it special or different or compelling enough to grab that editor’s attention? Writers — all of us, and that includes me — need to take a cold look at their work before hitting “send” to make sure they are submitting the strongest piece that has the best chance at publication. I know that in the past, I’ve been guilty of submitting stories that should never have seen the light of day (at least not yet). It’s a hard lesson to learn.

How do you handle the reading process and editorial discussions? In general, every submission is read at least twice at Mid-American Review. Say I receive a submission that is competent but that I don’t love; I’ll forward this submission with a note to another editor for her opinion. Because this process is so subjective, it’s good to know that at least one more person (in some cases, more than one) will take a look and see if the story or poem has a spark. And anytime we find a strong piece that stands out from the pack, we forward it to all editors in that genre. The editorial staff meets weekly to discuss the submissions in this pile. We don’t always agree, and sometimes one of us will fight for a piece, or we’ll decide to hold off and see if the work continues to stand out even after some time has passed. If we decide we want to accept it, we ask our editor in chief to read it so she can offer her opinion or make the final call.

For more on this topic, read What Editors Want: A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines, which offers a comprehensive and honest view of the lit mag editorial/submission process.

What’s your impossible hope?

1 Response to Impossible Hope

  • Teri says:

    I am soooo looking forward to reading Roxane’s new book!

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