What does an editorial board member look for in a submission?
There is no easy answer to this question. There are some motherhood statements that spring to mind—like well written, original, an arresting voice, an engaging narrative—and so on. But to unpick these generalities is a challenge, although recognition of any of these qualities in practice is not a problem.
Truth number one: For me, the heart of the matter is usually ‘voice’
This is not easily defined— at least not beyond a number of abstract descriptors. One way of thinking about it is to imagine a piece of writing being read aloud to you, as audience. It doesn’t matter whether it’s first person or third person (these are the most commonly used points of view), there is still the voice of the story teller. Most readers are quick to decide whether they find this voice engaging, or not. It may be due to the tone (which includes tone of voice), the choice of vocabulary, the rhythm of the writing, the subject matter, the imagery. All come into play in establishing the voice of the writing and how the reader responds to it. Tone may be further broken down into more specific terms—such as humorous, serious, playful, ironic and so on. I think for may writers the tone of a piece is not formally, consciously, decided. It comes with the territory of the story— character, place, purpose. If the voice doesn’t resonate with the reader it is hard to feel enthusiastic about a piece, no matter what else is going for it. While acknowledging that some writing is better on the page, I think it’s a useful exercise to read your work aloud. This way you can more easily pick up errors in tone and rhythm.
Truth number two: The importance of originality
This is, I think, even harder to define. What is experienced as new depends so much on the experiences, real and virtual, of the reader. Other terms that editorial board members might use are ‘fresh’,‘exciting’, ‘different’. These are clearly subjective terms and may apply to plot, characters, language (in the sense of vocabulary), imagery, setting and so on. Some writers and critics believe there are no new stories, just new ways of expressing what is already written somewhere at some time. In a deep sense this is probably true, but it’s in the ‘new ways’ that as readers we might experience that excitement of narrative that doesn’t feel tired and predictable. This is not achieved by self consciously piling on ‘interesting words’ like adjectives and adverbs (and so drawing the criticism of being overwritten). I think it comes with those big words like ‘authenticity’, ‘integrity’, ‘insight’, ‘imagination’, ‘empathy’. As soon as readers become conscious of technique, of being manipulated in some way, they are lost.
Truth number three: In the end, however, you will probably be driven to write the story that is, for you, demanding to be written
What I’m suggesting is that voice and originality come with the territory of the story—and sometimes, at least, that is not something you’re fully in control of. You can’t (credibly) begin by saying, ‘I’m now going to be highly original.’
Truth number four: This doesn’t mean you can’t engage strategically with the process
You can check what particular publishers are looking for—on their sites and in their lists. You can be aware that collections of short stories face very fierce competition. That narrative non-fiction has a strong following. That it’s probably best to submit the first three chapters of your work, rather than random non sequential ones. That you can’t have too much feedback from experienced, critical readers (usually not your best friend!). That you submit the best possible manuscript, error free. Ask your readers, ‘Did you want to keep reading after the first five pages?’
Truth number five: What I don’t like in being an editorial board member
Is the fact that the number of submissions means it is impossible to provide feedback to writers. Very often promising manuscripts are discussed in detail, but then for a variety of reasons may not be taken up. One reason that often emerges is the need for significant editing and this takes both time and money and so the manuscript is rejected in spite of its strengths. No one feels good about that, but it also means that you shouldn’t give up too quickly. Look again, submit again. After all, there is a multitude of stories out there about rejected manuscripts going on to be best sellers!
Richard Rossiter lives in Perth, Western Australia, and from time to time in a bush dwelling in the south-west of the state. He is a writer, editor, mentor and occasional judge of writing competitions, including the Tom Hungerford Award. He has been the fiction editor for Indigo and Westerly. Richard has taught literature and supervised numerous postgraduate creative writing students. He is is an Honorary Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University.
He has published a range of literary critical works. His creative publications include ‘Arryhthmia: Stories of Desire’ (UWA Publishing, 2009) and ‘Thicker than Water’ (UWA Publishing, 2014). He has edited the short story collections: ‘The Trouble with Flying and other stories’ (2014); ‘Knitting and other stories’ (2013) and ‘Things That Are Found in Trees and other stories’ (2012) – all with Margaret River Press.