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“What can you do for me?”

Writing a submissions policy is like considering force majeure as an Insurance company. You need a bloody big imagination and a quick chat with other companies to see what you can avoid paying out on; because you can bet your bottom that when the world is coming to an end, there will be a man above a fish and chip shop in Widnes calling Elephant to claim against a sixty-foot rampaging Jesus writing off his car and eating his dog.

So what would bring joy to a submissions editor, would it be discovering a piece of writing that lilts your boat a little away from shore, arriving with a covering letter that simply states the name and address, the titles of the poem and a ‘best wishes’ at the bottom? That the submission is not a poem called ‘My Naughty Cat’ or ‘Reflections on my First Marriage’ or a short story entitled, “The Haunting of Sizewell B”? To paraphrase David Berman, you want something that isn’t a statue of the fastest man alive or a watercolour of a fire engine, you want something that pops and sizzles in the pan, something that brings goose-bumps up on your skin. A joyful submission is one where the writing is clear, well written and presented, and the submission, taken as a whole, is professional.

There is a lot of talk of calling your work ‘darlings’, that each story or poem is somehow a child being packed off to school and there is a pain of letting go, resisting the urge to clamber over the school gate and answer all the questions the teacher (and then the Police, at a guess) might ask. No, those little darlings are out in the big wide world trying to make it on their own. Nowhere was safer than the womb, suggested Sophie Hannah, so get over it.

But, but, but, for some it’s still hard to let go. You stalk the teacher: “Just wondered how they were getting on?” Parents evening is a long way off, mostly because it’s just before break time on the first day of term. The stalking grows more intense, you follow the teacher to the supermarket, accidentally bump into her near the Reggae, Reggae Sauce: “I wanted to know how you were getting on, because there are plenty of other schools only too eager to take ‘Musings on a Sea Eagle’ and make her the star pupil.”

A school, I guess, would be polite, though firm; editors come up against this on a daily basis and I know, from talking to them, that the measure of their reply is bit testier. Let’s have a look at some examples: “My poems have been compared to TS Eliot’s, and I say I rather agree, but felt that you should share in my brilliance”. Which too often means: “I did a creative writing course and the tutor said a line in my poem about my cat reminded me of Eliot; because it’s doggerel about a cat, and if you want to see good doggerel about a cat, read Eliot and despair, but I just thought, yes, I am a really good writer like Eliot, who, like Paul McCartney, wrote his best stuff towards the end of his career.” Or how about the classic: “I don’t read other writers, I don’t need to. My writing would be polluted by other people’s sub-standard prose. My book, “Charlie and the Warehouse of Sweets” is both original and intellectually challenging, questioning the dream machine of capitalism through the eyes of a small boy.” Translation: “I really do believe that no other fiction on earth is worth my time and no-one has thought the ideas I have thought. In fact, originality comes easily to me, and to be quite honest, you’re lucky to have me. The question is: What can you do for me?” To which the reply is perhaps short and sweet.

Cautionary tales abound from other editors we have spoken to. Some have received death threats, which points towards the sanity of using PO Boxes for written submissions. Other poor rejected geniuses troll the web pages of the journals, leaving witty remarks like “well you got in I see! I wonder how?” or just resorting to abstract, wishing  rains of cancer and aids on the houses of the editors, who simply decided, in their own free time, through a labour of love for literature to reject a piece of writing that didn’t fit with the journal. Rejection does hurt, all writers feel a pang of disappointment when their work doesn’t fit with a particular journal. But they wait a bit, reflect on the editing and drafting, and try somewhere else which is a much better use of energy. We have been warned.

Posted 9 years ago

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