Reading stories from the slush pile, is of course, an exercise in assessing not only a work’s literary value, but also its compatibility with TLR’s editorial vision. Reading so many submissions also steers the editor’s mind towards thoughts about the author—no matter how well crafted the story, there are always subtle clues that point to the writer’s experience and sometimes other traits. I admit it can be intriguing to wonder about the person at the other end of the submission.
For example, here’s how I guess your age: Since I read most writers’ actual Word files, the documents open at the screen view last saved. So for example, if the file opens at 100% or smaller, I assume the writer is a student or a relatively young person, whose eyes still function close to nature’s intent. Get up to 125% to 150%, and the writer has been hammering the keys for at least ten to fifteen years, and needs a little magnification to see the words on the screen. Above 150% and I picture a writer of considerable experience, peering through coke-bottle-bottom glasses, leaning over the keyboard, barely able to make out what she’s written.
I do admit, however, the fact that co-Publisher Kelly Davio’s Word docs open up at 200% doesn’t support this theory, since she’s still quite young. Me? I’m hanging in at 125%, but I fear those days are numbered.
The way a story reads is often a clue to the writer’s educational background, as in whether or not he’s gone through an MFA program. Although a sheepskin in no way influences my decision regarding publication, having accomplished the MFA, in my reading experience, tends to display certain traits, such as longer sentences, containing more clauses and thoughts that often digress into conditional (e.g. “as though”), negation (but, then), or tangential thinking, among other characteristics. Kind of like that last sentence.
Okay, let me be more serious and, hopefully, more helpful. Reading submissions I also begin to understand a writer’s experience and ability, as evidenced by such things as use of language and command of the story. Call this a writer’s confidence level, which usually translates into publication credentials. As I’ve taken to saving cover letters for after I’ve finished the story, I’ll often start imagining the length and status of the writer’s list of credits, and when I’m done I’ll check to see how accurate my guesses were. As with the MFA, a list of publications doesn’t make any difference in my decision—it’s just as exciting to an editor to “discover” a new talent as it is to read a story from an accomplished author, one whose work immediately engages a reader, rather than meanders through pages of explanation that smother readers with unnecessary backstory. This is the confidence level I mentioned—confidence to let the reader figure things out, to let the story happen rather than be told, and not worrying whether the reader will comprehend. As I tell students when I teach fiction, if the writer has done her job and the reader doesn’t “get it,” it’s the reader’s problem.
A lot of you already understand this. The evidence? For issue 3 of TLR, which just closed submissions, I have many more great stories than we can publish. Like many editors, I have to reject more than I would like. But that’s my problem.