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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.