Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Six Questions for Barbara Diehl, Founder and Senior Editor, The Baltimore Review

The Baltimore Review was founded by Barbara Westwood Diehl in 1996 as a literary journal publishing short stories and poems, with a mission to showcase the best writing from the Baltimore area and beyond. In addition, the editors accept creative nonfiction, videos, and visuals. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?

BD: I strongly encourage writers to read the staff quotes about what we’re looking for. Skip over our bios, and read the text in quotes—what we want writers to know. We did put some serious thought and effort into doing this. Yes, you can click on the Submit button and get the nuts and bolts, but we felt that it was important to give a little more guidance.

Much of it can be boiled down to excellent craftsmanship (if you don’t have a grip on the basics, you shouldn’t be sending your work out yet), having something fresh to convey to readers (an awareness of the world, writing that is not excessively self-absorbed), and an artful way of saying what you want to convey (a step up from competence). I love my language. I want to see that you do, too.

SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a submission?

BD: We see many submissions that appear to be drafts, work that has the potential to be amazing if the writer would take the time to revise one or two more times. I think people were more careful when they had to print copies, stuff them in envelopes, have them weighed at the post office, and shell out good chunks of change for postage. That said, we will sometimes work on edits when work shows great promise. But our time is limited, and writers should workshop their work, revise, have a trusted instructor or friend read it—whatever works for them—before sending it out.

All of the editors have preferences about what delights them and what makes them cringe. We don’t think with one mind (although sometimes I wish we did). Give me characters who leap off the page. Give me a setting so that I have a sense of where I am—but not in big chunks of exposition, please. Give me an unfamiliar premise. Surprise me. I don’t want to feel that I’ve read this story, poem, or creative nonfiction piece before.

Major turn off: Seeing no evidence that the writer takes the time to read literary journals, anthologies, or contemporary writers in their genre. We can tell if the last poem you read was a Shakespearean sonnet—back in high school ten or twenty years ago, that is (no offense to sonnets). Trust me.

Writers should keep in mind that we get—honest—thousands of submissions in a year. Grab us on page one. We figure if we’re not engaged by the end of page one, our readers won’t be either.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?

BD: Sometimes we encourage writers to try us again, and when we do, we mean it. Otherwise, we comment only rarely. There are simply too many of you, and only a few editors in each of our categories. All volunteer.

SQF: Will you publish a submission an author posted on a personal blog?

BD: We want to publish work that no one has read before (except for the aforementioned instructors and trusted friends). If it’s published on a personal blog that the world can view, it’s published. So no.

SQF: 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?

BD: All of us get rejections. You can’t take it personally. I take my lumps with the rest of them. I note the date of the rejection on my Word doc table of my submission history and forget about it. I’ve had work rejected that ended up in more prestigious journals; I’ve had a story rejected 15 times and accepted on the 16th try. The BR loses work regularly to other journals. That’s the nature of simultaneous submissions. Send your work to a number of publications you admire. If the story or poem is worth its salt, eventually it will find a home. As mentioned, editors don’t think with one mind. In Submittable, two editors may say a flat “No,” and another will gush about how great it is.  

I can’t respond to “Can you tell me why you didn’t accept my submission?” emails. Think of this like job interviews. What would the HR person do if she interviewed 5,000 individuals for 80 job slots, and the 4,920 who didn’t get the job emailed to ask why they weren’t hired? Exactly. Feedback should be provided in the classroom, in workshops, etc.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

BD: What can writers do to help literary journals stay alive and thrive?

Read them. Don’t skim. Read them. Attend conferences, readings, and other literary events. Many literary journals are still managing to put together print issues along with their online issues. Buy them. They’re not that expensive, and the print issue on your shelf will probably outlive the issue on your laptop. Be understanding. Editors and writers—we’re not the Hatfields and McCoys. Often, we’re happily married. The occasional “thanks for what you’re doing” is always appreciated. I’m very grateful, and honored, when writers send us their work.

Thank you, Barbara. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 1/11--Six Questions for John Raab, Publisher/CEO/Editor-in-Chief, Suspense Magazine

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