NOTE: Other editors contributed to these responses along with the names listed.
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"The Cortland Review publishes poetry and short fiction, both solicited and by open submission. Essays, interviews, and book reviews are solicited and/or queried and approved before submission." The Cortland Review now has a Facebook Fan Page! Learn more here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
Complex sound effects, evidence of deliberate attention to the relationship between the line and movement of a sentence or sentence fragment (that means punctuation, too), language that forces/encourages shifts in typical ways of understanding things (i.e. freshness of image, diction, and tone).
a. I look for narrative that offers fresh and original insight or angle on a situation. Sometimes that is achieved with energy of the writer's voice and writing style, sometimes that is achieved through the storyline itself, sometimes in combination. It does not take long for the reader to know what the story is about--this is especially important for online reading, where distractions abound. Flannery O'Connor advised that the first sentence should contain the conflict or plot of the story or novel. I concur.
b. I look for a story that has been revised not once or twice but five or more times, and has had the benefit of at least one outside reader's (a friend, teacher, etc.) critical scrutiny.
c. I look for a story that has no egregious grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors, and adheres to the submission guidelines.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
Sometimes a poem feels like an assignment rather than coming from a place that is authentic and belonging to the poet. It does not challenge us to look more deeply or to ask questions. Sometimes, too, a poem feels willed, directs us too much, rather than allowing us to move around in it, make our own way.
Some poems are more ambiguous than mysterious.
Poems strewn with typos.
a. The story is too long: if it is over 3000-3500 words, I don't believe most people will sit there and do more than skim it.
b. Some stories are good enough to be published, but just don't read well on the screen. If you write like William Faulkner or Vladimir Nabokov, consider more traditional publication outlets. This would probably change if TCR could be downloaded to an e-reader.
c. The story has been published elsewhere. Sometimes it takes a year for us to read your story submission. If you don't want to wait that long, then don't submit your story to us.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
Endings that tend to romanticize the poem and feel false--they do not recognize the poem has been going in the other direction or account for its two directions at once.
Glibness, gimmicks, overuse of the ironic, crass language that is unearned, overgazing at the tiny world of the self, banal subject matter not elevated by the crafted use of language.
Clichéd rhymes, mixed metaphors, inattention to grammatical conventions.
Spell the name of the magazine correctly; don’t admit that you have never read the magazine before. Send only your best work.
a. One common mistake I've encountered is from people who state in their cover letters that they "pick up the Cortland Review at the newsstand." Uh-huh.
b. You've recently submitted a story, been rejected, and almost immediately submitted another story to us. Wait a year, so I can forget I rejected you.
c. You submit more than one short story. Please choose your best, most polished story. Note the singular use of story.
d. Your story reads like a Harlequin Romance or a Nora Roberts-type novel.
e. You've submitted fantasy or science fiction or memoir or a literary analysis.
f. You're more interested in the story's form than content. Innovative writing techniques are welcome, but they should serve the story's meaning.
SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?
I don't think there is a single poetic device or "secret" exactly. Instead, the integrity of the piece itself works on the reader, holds our attention and will not let go. Tension and complexity.
Evidence of a manifested search for words and parts of speech that contain multiple layers of meaning.
An eye-catching opening line(s), attention to pacing, an intriguing title that feels connected to the poem not just a billboard.
I like characters who confront adversity and conflict with original thought and action. They are not hounded by white, middle-class, mopey American or British angst. They do not kill small animals, molest children, enjoy raping people, or bomb a place for the sake of an extreme idea. If a character uses drugs or heavily drinks, the story is not about the experience of a drug trip or a drinking binge. If a character has cancer (or some other terminal illness), the story not only is about the experience of having cancer. If the story is about a homosexual relationship, it will not be possible to change the sex of one of the characters and then end up with a bland story about two characters in a heterosexual relationship. If the characters are not doing these things, there is a good chance they will grab me.
SQF: I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I'm sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?
A rejection means the poem isn't a fit for us for any number of reasons. It's not an insult. I really don't expect a response, but If someone wants to respond, a "thank you for your consideration" is very nice. Almost any other response is rude and takes the editor's time.
If I had time to keep lists, I'd keep a list of those who don't read and follow the guidelines--when someone writes to say one of their poems has been accepted elsewhere, we have to delete the entire submission because we cannot make changes to a submission in the queue.
Just today I complimented someone's writing, but noted that "the online attention span is shorter than that for print, and we like to accept fiction within about 3,000 words. We'd rather readers get all the way to the end before they're distracted." My advice: Simply take the time used arguing to submit elsewhere.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
Why does it take 6 months or more to respond to submissions? We'd like the time to be shorter, but we publish 4 issues a year. That's roughly 100 poems, and we get nearly that many submissions a month. That means we're an e-zine people trust with their work. If our response time were shorter, we'd be accepting poems for issues two years out. Our staff are all volunteers, and all of our poetry editors read every poem and our fiction editors read every story. They have families and day jobs. We will return any submission the writer thinks we've had too long.
Do you think a list like this can help a poet write his or her true poem? NO…only a fierce and sensitive revision practice — the intense movement between subject and form — will result in the difference between light verse and literature.
A statement instead of a question: I especially like poems that help me to enter into a kind of unknowing, where I feel a kind of intimacy with the speaker who also does not know. These poems help me to ask difficult questions and not necessarily arrive at an "answer," but instead move me toward some kind of wisdom that admits uncertainty and allows for deeper, human questions of the heart.
Thank you, everyone. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 10/22--Six Questions for Oliver Lodge, Editor, Pirene’s Fountain