What We Look for in Fiction Submissions

27 February 2020 on Blog, Storystorm   Tags:

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the tale “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.” I was captivated by the question King Arthur must answer to save his own life when an armed knight surprises him in the dark woods: what is it that women most desire? Arthur has a year and a day to answer what is, to him, an impossible riddle. I spent the rest of storytime puzzling out the answer for myself. I was ten and would be a woman someday. What did I want most? The Knights of the Round Table pass the year guessing again and again. When a loathly lady promises Arthur the answer in exchange for marriage to Sir Gawain, Arthur accepts. At the story’s climax, Gawain asks his new wife what she most desires. She reveals the secret—and transforms.

I’ll let you discover the loathly lady’s answer for yourself. For now, I’ll reveal our responses to the great riddle of literary journals: what do editors and readers desire most?


Kaely Horton, fiction editor emeritus: I read stories looking for emotional depth and honesty. I want stories that treat characters with compassion and allow them to be complex and interesting (because no one is ever just one thing, and that tension between multiple identities/choices is often what makes for good fiction).

I also look for authentic, original stories that I haven't seen a thousand times. I often get the feeling writers are trying to emulate some abstract notion of what they think it means to be “literary” (which frankly makes for a lot of dull copycatting), and it's really refreshing to me when I can tell a writer is writing exactly what they want to write in exactly their own voice.

Jess Flarity: Why is this person being chased by crows? What happened to this character to land them in the hospital? It's the writer's job to keep giving me answers to these questions— but never the whole answer all at once. By the end of the story, I should be able to puzzle out enough of the narrative to be satisfied, or the piece goes back into the slushpile.

Danley Romero: When I’m reading, one thing I’m looking for is clarity on a sentence level. A story can have really beautiful images, super great characterization, whatever—if the clarity isn’t there, all that gets muddied. Beyond clarity I’m looking for something artistic about the phrasing, and this can (and should!) look different from piece to piece. If the story has clarity and I can tell the writer is aware, stylistically, of their phrasing and the way they present ideas, then the story has already earned a high ranking from me. If the writer can sustain this technical standard while also conveying something moving about what it means to be human, I practically drool over the submission!

Via D’Agostino: When I'm reading submissions, I look for a strong narrative arc. Writers often put all their effort into a snappy beginning, but story endings show the heart of the character and for me, that's what matters most.

Ash Kemker: Fiction, to me, is the attempt to capture the experience of human yearning, translated from the wild murmuring of the blood into language.

Charlotte Gross, fiction editor: When I read, I want to be taken out of myself. Let me inhabit the world you’ve created. Let me feel with your character, and follow her arc of transformation. Keep me close to that character, pulled in by the tension between her desires and the constraints she faces (or, between her own contradictory desires). I want to return to my world with new understanding.

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