things I’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions

Guest post by Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine managing editor Nathaniel Tower

An editor of a literary magazine has to put up with a fair amount. Among the struggles we must face on our daily quest for literary greatness is repetition. I’m not simply talking about the monotony of reading submissions. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that, at times, it feels like every submission is exactly the same.

When lit mag editors are asked what frustrates them the most about submissions, the responses are typically the same: submissions that don’t follow guidelines, submissions riddled with typos, submissions with a blatant disregard for the aesthetic (whatever the hell that means) of the lit mag in question.

As a lit mag editor, these aren’t the things that bother me the most. Writers who don’t follow guidelines are the easiest to reject. They waste the least amount of my time. What, you didn’t use the proper format? Okay, here’s your rejection slip. That took two seconds of my day. Submissions filled with typos don’t take much more effort. Okay, this isn’t ready for publication; here’s your rejection slip. Maybe a minute on that one. And those stories that show an obvious disregard for what our lit mag publishes? Yeah, we can usually reject those after a few sentences.

But that only makes up a tiny fraction of the submissions we receive. The vast majority of submissions take a lot more care and time. And I’d be lying if I said all these submissions were worth our time.

So what really grinds my gears (besides clichés, of course)? It’s the utter repetition that seems to plague the writing community, that seems to prevent 97% of writers from having their own original thoughts, ideas, styles, and whatever else makes up a piece of writing.

Our humble little lit mag has received close to 15,000 submissions since we opened our virtual doors 7 years ago. While that’s nothing compared to what The New Yorker gets in a month, that’s a lot of stories (especially given that we actually read everything that comes into our queue). With all those stories, it’s not surprising that we’d see a lack of originality from time to time. After all, there’s only about 12 different stories that can be told (and roughly 1.2 million different ways to tell those 12 stories*).

Among those 15,000 stories we’ve received over the years, there are a few things that stand out that make me never want to read another story for as long as I live. Before I share the things I’m absolutely sick of seeing from submitters, please know that any of these things can be done well. For example, we’ve probably received 500 stories that in some way involved the devil, God, or a re-interpretation of a Bible story. For the most part, all of these stories are exactly the same. However, we recently received a devil story that excited us so much that we accepted it (no small feat given our current acceptance rate of about 3.4%). Did this author sell his soul to the devil to get this acceptance? Perhaps, but we won’t hold that against him. We don’t care so much about how the story comes to be so much as we care about the content of the story.

Without further adieu (yes, clichés need to die a billion deaths), here are the things I’m absolutely sick of seeing in submissions.

  1. Death Endings – For the love of everything that is sacred about literature, stop killing off characters in violent or sentimental fashion in order to achieve an ending. Characters die in approximately 12% of the submissions we receive. 99% of these deaths are pointless and make the story worse. Character death is not a substitute for a satisfactory conclusion.
  1. Opening with sex or masturbation – Nothing turns me off faster than a story that opens with a masturbation or sex scene. I’m all about being thrown directly into a scene, but sometimes there needs to be some literary foreplay. If there’s an erect penis in the opening line of the story, I probably don’t want to read it. Interestingly enough, these stories are almost never sexy.
  1. Sentimental cancer stories – Yes, nearly everyone has been affected in some way by cancer. I’ve had family members die of cancer. It’s been at least five years since anyone said anything new with a cancer story.
  1. Stories that open with light streaming through the window – How many stories can begin with some type of light bursting forth through a hunk of glass? Apparently there is no limit. At least 15% of stories contain some type of light coming through something in the opening paragraph. There are often dust motes thrown in there for good measure. Please, no more dust motes.
  1. Stories that begin with someone coming out of a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.
  1. Alzheimer’s stories – Like cancer stories, only worse. These writers all pretend they understand exactly what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s. The worst offenders are those stories told in first person from the point of view of the Alzheimer’s patient. If I could forget one thing, it would be Alzheimer’s stories.
  1. Cheating significant other stories – Whether the cheater is a man or a woman, these stories generally pack as much punch as an empty bottle of sugar-free Hawaiian Punch. There’s almost always a scene where someone is packing a suitcase, as if we’re supposed to feel some sort of relief at this newfound freedom from the tormented relationship. The only relief is when the story ends.

Machinegun bonus – Here’s a quick list of other things I’ve seen way too much of:

  • Devil/God stories
  • Bar/diner stories
  • References to Nietzsche
  • Abuse stories
  • Stories of thwarted creative genius
  • Bad things happening to trust fund kids

You might be reading this and thinking there’s nothing left to write about. Well, if that’s what you think, then you’re right. If these are the only ideas you can come up with, then please stop writing forever. Or try to write a story that combines all of them. A husband with Alzheimer’s awakens from a dream that tells him his cancerous wife is cheating on him with a trust fund kid who loves Nietzsche; she is masturbating next to the husband in bed as light bursts through the window and dust motes settle on her convulsing body; in the end, she brutally murders her lover for no reason whatsoever. That story might actually be worth reading. Oh, and make sure someone gets drunk and the devil talks to God at least once.

 

*These estimates do not reflect any actual calculations. The actual number of stories and ways those stories can be told may vary slightly.


Nathaniel Tower is the managing editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine. Over 200 of his short stories have been published, including several that violate the aforementioned guidelines. He currently lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and two daughters. Visit him at http://nathanieltower.com.

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59 thoughts on “things I’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions

  1. I read the entire post and found the part I liked best in your bio: “Over 200 of his short stories have been published, including several that violate the aforementioned guidelines.” I chuckled.

    The advice is solid. I’ll remember it the next time I think of starting with a dream or ending with a cheating spouse packing a suitcase. Some of these overdone plot devices are new to me. Mental note: Avoid like the plague. Oops. A cliché.

    1. Kathy, thanks for reading and commenting. There seem to be certain stories that nearly every writer (including me) has attempted. I never would’ve thought dust motes were overdone; then I read the thousandth submission with dust motes and began to think maybe they had run their course!

  2. Interesting (and helpful!) read. I try my best to submit fiction or poems that have a different “story” to them, but it is easy to fall into the cliche as a younger writer such as myself. But I am definitely going to keep note of this post. Thank you!

  3. Great article! But I do think you’re confusing “adieu” (meaning “goodbye”) with “ado” (meaning “fuss”). The phrase is “without further ado”.

      1. Not a good sneak out. Not a good get to. I don’t know about Cynthia but I’m editing.

  4. Oh heck. I submitted a story with death and dust motes. I’m guessing the novelist judge got it wildly wrong by letting me win. I can only apologise.

  5. Great article but I’m guilty your honour…my cancer story was published in a literary journal here (you can read it here: https://junecaldwell.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/berry-nide/) and my dementia/Alzheimer’s story won an international short story prize: https://junecaldwell.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/upcycle-an-account-of-some-strange-disturbances-in-botanic-road/ I’m now thinking of going through the list above and writing on each of the ‘don’t do’ topics!

  6. I enjoyed reading this. One of the things I love about fiction is when a writer is able turn the overdone into something artful and new. Isn’t it interesting that so many of us write about the same things? The challenge, I think, is to make it unforgettable in the reader’s (and editor’s) mind. That said, I get your point about clichés. But I wonder if the fact that I anticipated your compilation of all the ideas at the end makes that idea cliché too. (I’m thinking of those spoof movies that combine all the over dumb movies into one big dumb movie).

  7. Yes, I completely agree: please, no more stories that end with an unnecessary death. This is no way to wrap up a plot. In fact, it usually raises more questions that the writer then can’t be arsed to write about (because they think they’ve finished the book now someone’s copped it).

  8. Really enjoyed this! Can’t tell you how many light through the window, waking from unconsciousness openings I have suffered from. My biggest tip to story writers would be, begin smack dab in the middle of some kind of unexpected action or conversation.

  9. I’m writing a story about a dying cancer patient, whose only worry is that it’s so f****** boring! Would that interest you? 🙂

  10. Lists like these terrify me as I know I’ve been guilty of most of them — or variations of such. Interesting seeing it from the other side of things. Thanks for the insight!

  11. Great piece, well-written as always. Funny to read something like this and cringe internally from the countless times I’ve written clichéd garbage. Luckily, you have a hardy constitution, as do your slushies, and we’ll keep bombarding you guys with our darlings!

  12. I’m tired of seeing the phrase ‘without further adieu’ when it should be ‘without further ado’. Otherwise, this is an entertaining and helpful post, full of sound advice.

  13. Thanks for this post. I found it very educational and on point. I guess I may have violated a couple of these points here. Hah! At least now, I have a fair idea how the editor must have felt. I’m reblogging this. Someone else must read it.

  14. I’m surprised to see the dream scenario still cropping up. I thought season 9 of Dallas killed that stone dead. Thanks for confirming my suspicions about sex in the opening scene. I’ve just written the first 1000 words of a new story. Let’s just say I got a bit carried away. Reading it back I decided to cut a big, sexy chunk out. Even though there was no erect penis, it just felt way too soon to be springing the hot and heavies on the reader.

  15. i only do non-fic writing (and a lot of that is pimping out aspects of my own cancer story) but by god cancer fiction almost always shits me. Seriously, the big C is pretty goddamn dull. A fictionalised account of my ‘cancer journey’ would be ‘drank milkshakes. Went on Twitter a lot. Dinner parties. Day in hospital. Feel a bit sick. Sit on couch.’

  16. The cliche is “Without further ado” as in Much Ado About Nothing. Adieu is French for “good-bye”. (My pet peeve, people who get cliches wrong like “She took him for granite” not “she took him for granted”.

  17. Great job Nate. I love the humor in this piece, and we all can relate to the line, “Before I share the things I’m absolutely sick of seeing from submitters, please know that any of these things can be done well.” That death story was such a fine surprise.

  18. I thought this essay had a lot of good advice, and I appreciated that Mr. Tower acknowledged that these rules, like all others, were made to be broken. I wrote about this piece for my writing craft site, as I was inspired to take the analysis a step further. What if these cliche stories (crimes of which we’re all guilty) are practice? A kind of shadowboxing?

    http://www.greatwriterssteal.com/2015/04/16/nathaniel-tower-bartleby-snopes-and-avoiding-cliche-the-bill-watterson-way/

  19. somebody should make a collection out of all those types/tropes! like a whole book for cheating stories, a whole book for bible stories, a whole book for cheating cancer stories. just as a compare / contrast exercise. and then also, so we know what we’re up against, in terms of thinking we’re super original writers and then realizing how many people are actually writing the same thing. you could send these books instead of rejection letters!

    1. That would be a fun project. At Bartleby Snopes, we are thinking of launching a special “pet peeves” edition with stories that violate at least one of these rules (but are excellent otherwise).

  20. Top notch advice, I will now have to dismantle my Devil with cancer and Alzheimer’s story who’s only way of remembering cheating on God is through his dreams, dammit

  21. Thanks for writing this post. I like to see editors encouraging writers to think outside the box. Stories that RELY on dreams or sex, or that end with the death of a protagonist, simply violate the rules of good storytelling. Solid stories that involve the rest of the themes listed are rarely “About” that theme itself. A good story about a man with cancer is not “about” cancer, just as a good story about war is not “about” war–they’re about our fear of death/loss, recovery from trauma, the things we question when faced with death, etc., and those stories will never be tired. The problem with the bad stories you’re receiving is not the items you list above but rather the fact that the authors of those stories don’t say anything meaningful and true about the human condition within those stories.

  22. Thanks for this fantastic article, Nathaniel. What’s your opinion on a story ending with a minor character’s death (but it’s still consequential)?

  23. Reblogged this on Writing Reconsidered and commented:
    As a reader for two different magazines and an indie book publisher…I couldn’t agree with Bartleby Snopes editor Nathaniel Tower more. If you’re a writer and/or editor, definitely give this a read.

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