NOTE: This response is from Rosebud editors, John Smelcer (poetry) and Rod Clark (fiction). Rosebud is one of America’s premier literary magazines, distributed on the shelves of over 1,300 Barnes & Nobles in the US, Canada, and the UK.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
RC: A voice that lifts me out of my chair and takes me somewhere unexpected. Why else do we read?
JS: Years ago, I would have said don’t rhyme, avoid overt use of older poetic forms, and stop writing about grandmothers watching children play in the rain or about your bad break-up. But over the decades, I’ve come to realize all that really matters is the affecting experience a reader has with a poem.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a submission is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
- A labored beginning is a biggie. We all want to see a painting, but who has the time to watch someone carpenter the frame and stretch the canvas? Start in the heart of the story.
- Too much generic prose in the middle! We are looking for voice, personality, style
- An ending that looks like an ending. A close that tells us we’ve been somewhere interesting and leaves the taste of it in our mind.
JS: I’ll be honest, I receive as many as 7,000 poems a year, and I can accept as few as twenty a year! Against such odds, I have to turn away some very good poems. If Rosebud was only a poetry journal, using, say 100 pages of poems per issue (300 or more a year), the story would be very different.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a submission?
RC: If you do not do dialect well, please, please, don’t attempt it. Titles should be interestingly indicative, not blandly descriptive. Don’t just tell us what you are going to say. Have the title point us toward something we don’t know yet. Short fiction is almost always better when it runs no more than 4000 words. Ask yourself: What is necessary? What is gratuitous? Overly biographical? Preachy? Unnecessarily tangential? Is there a paragraph that you love and doesn’t fit? Save it to insert in something else.
JS: Believe it or not, I often receive poems from brand new writers who insist on absurd terms in their cover letter, as if they are movie stars demanding chocolates and Pepsi without ice in the Green Room.
SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?
RC: Calling writers up to tell them we want them in ROSEBUD.
JS: Frequently, I work with a poet if I think her poem could be strong enough to publish. We’ll exchange a series of emails (used to be letters; ah the good old days) in which I offer suggestions until the poem is ready. 99% of the time, writers welcome such unaccustomed and useful feedback.
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?
RC: If an author is impolite, I am unlikely to be enthusiastic about working with them again. If they apologize—I clean the slate, and give authors new chances. Everyone makes mistakes, (even editors!) and when we acknowledge that we can grow as people and writers. Regrettably, we do not have much time to teach writing. Mostly, pieces are a fit for the magazine or they are not—and we cannot always comment on why. On the other hand, I don’t hold it against a writer for asking for feedback. Unfortunately we can’t always provide it.
JS: I have received letters and emails telling me to jump off a bridge after sending the usual rejection letter. I remember those names. I can tell you that your poems are going to be rejected most of the time (perhaps as high as 90% at first). I used to send out wheel barrow loads of submissions expecting that only a few might get accepted. Deal with it.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
RC: People often ask how long it takes to reject a piece, and are upset when I say it can take as little as 30 seconds to realize a piece is not for ROSEBUD. A much better question would be: How long does it take to ACCEPT a piece. That can take days or even weeks as we map out a given issue and assemble the editorial quilt.
JS: Once a poem (or story) is accepted by a magazine or journal, it can be a year before it comes out in print. I’ve had many poems accepted (and paid for) only to come out in print many years later. Don’t bother editors after only a couple months demanding that your work come out in print asap.
Thank you, John and Rod. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 5/21--Six Questions for Ryan Swofford, Editor, Dumb Butt Magazine