Jim Hicks is the Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review, and director of the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His book, Lessons from Sarajevo: A War Stories Primer, was published in 2013. Prior to becoming Managing Editor of the Massachusetts Review, Emily Wojcik was the Assistant Editor at Paris Press, a small nonprofit press in western MA. For this segment of our Ask an Editor Series, we asked Jim and Emily what they typically look for when they consider stories for publication (as well as what tips they could provide for writers interested in publishing their work). Here's what they said:
WHAT SPECIFIC CRITERIA DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A STORY FOR PUBLICATION?
We're looking for a range of styles and genres. In fiction, for example, we seek work that pays close attention to language and structure–stories that have interesting plots or characters, of course, but which also demonstrate an interest in the way that language and narrative work together to create an aesthetic experience.
That sounds abstract, and deliberately so–we publish experimental writers and those who write more traditional stories, and we don't have a specific kind of story that we particularly avoid or seek out. That said, we do believe that storytelling was best described by Walter Benjamin: whether the tales of a traveller come from afar or the performance of local culture, good fiction is rooted in collective experience.
In terms of specific criteria, we appreciate when authors read our magazine and our submission guidelines. Recent back issues give a very good idea of our tastes and preferences, and when it's clear someone has taken the time to read our guidelines (word count limits, submission period deadlines)–which we worked hard to develop–we are all the more inclined to read their work with the same attention.
COVER LETTER OR NO COVER LETTER?
A cover letter can be helpful, particularly if an author has been encouraged to submit by an editor, or if they have work forthcoming that might be useful for us to know. Cover letters don't make or break a submission, however–unlike a job application cover letter, it won’t decide whether we consider your work. Every submission is read carefully, whether or not we are "hooked" by the letter, and we make our decisions solely on the quality of the piece in front of us.
To that end, we encourage those who write cover letters to keep them short and focused on the information we might need (is this a part of a series? Is this a translation? Have you been published by us in the past?), rather than trying to be very clever or original.
Finally, because we have a very small staff, and it can take us awhile to respond, we do allow authors to submit their work elsewhere simultaneously. A cover letter is the perfect place to give us the heads up that this is happening.
AS AN EDITOR, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE STORIES THAT AREN'T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
If we are really taken with a piece, or if we have specifically solicited a writer, we will often work with them to edit, "clean up," or finish it. That said, we receive so many submissions, and have such a small staff, that we can't edit unfinished work in major ways, even if we see real potential. For those, we'll send back an encouraging rejection, with some suggestions for further work, and hope that having done that work, the author will resubmit.
When we do edit, we find that the piece of advice we most often give is some variation on cutting the last two paragraphs of a story. It's actually become something of a joke around the office. We will receive great work, with a powerful final idea, but too often that writer will keep going, overstating or restating the moment to the story's detriment. We've published many pieces wherein the only editing the author has done is to go back and cut those (usually two) final paragraphs.
We see similar issues with beginnings–authors who spend a few paragraphs setting up and introducing characters explicitly, rather than simply starting the story and trusting that their narrative will be strong enough to bring the reader along. (When you have at most 8,000 words to work with, you need to get the story moving quickly.)
WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN EDITOR WHEN YOU'RE EVALUATING A STORY FOR PUBLICATION?
Irritation really only comes in when it's clear someone is not familiar with what we do: they haven't followed our submission guidelines, or they've submitted something so wildly out of line with our tone and general style that we wonder whether they even know who we are. There's nothing so irritating as being asked to spend time and effort reading the work of someone who hasn't bothered to extend you the same courtesy.
Other than that, it's hard to say. The weaknesses we see in style or story development aren't annoying, per se–they're just weaknesses. We see a lot of the same kinds of mistakes, as I mentioned above: too much exposition, flat language, redundancy or repetition in the ending, cliché characterization. Those flaws, though, tend to be hallmarks of less certain, or less skilled, writers, rather than irritations in themselves.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH SHORT FICTION?
Read everything you can, and read often. Read beyond your comfort zone and beyond American writers: international voices offer new and unfamiliar ways of seeing and interpreting the world, which is one reason Massachusetts Review is dedicated to bringing more into English translation. We have found that, without exception, the best writers we publish are also the most widely read. Reading other people's work shows you what works and what doesn't, and gives a sense of what we as editors do every day. Most importantly, read the magazines you want to be published in, and see if your work actually fits what they do. It's nice to think your work could appear in this or that prestigious publication, but if what you write isn't what they publish, you're just wasting their time–and yours.
On that note, and not to sound crass, we encourage people to actually support the kinds of publications that they want to be published in: buy issues or a subscription, send a donation, attend the readings or events they may sponsor near you. One of the easiest ways to ensure that you will get published is to help ensure the future existence of magazines that publish fiction.