Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Literary Magazines

Someone in my vast readership suggested I write about literary magazines, so here are some lit mag letters I have received and written and some thoughts on who’s out there and who’s not.

Dear Lisa,

Thank you for submitting your story "Paradise" to
Night Train. Unfortunately, it was not right for us.

Some of your writing is exquisite. The first paragraph
is aggressive:

I inhabit a drywall miracle of rodent-like proportions
above St. Mark's Pizza in the East Village. The
stairwell smells like urine and the Korean peddlers
have slowly taken over my front stoop, so I have to
bat scarves and crystal necklaces in order to enter my
sad little plot of urban grandeur. I work for the
Antichrist. Her name is Cynthia and she is all about
the black Capezio flat, expensive moisturizers,
personal humidifiers, and a classic cut. Her bangs
present an unwitting contrast of youthful fringe
offset by aging skin.

And there are interesting characters and a lot of
strong characterization here. But there are too many
long stretches where you lose the storyline by
indulging in character description / backstory. Take,
for instance, this long stretch:

Danny is the anemic boyfriend with ravaged cuticles
and a frustrated death wish. She has found him
crumpled on the floor twice, once in the garage and
once in the kitchen. The stove was electric. I am
not sure what he was intending to do, or if he just
fainted from the heat. He drives a 1976 Oldsmobile
and the interior ceiling material hangs down, causing
their hair to stand up with static. Marlee has an
acute case of Boyfriend Pride. Not proud of the
boyfriend, proud to have one.

I had a boyfriend early on, so I got the magic out of
the way and moved on. The requisite
Svengali-college-professor-arrangement wherein the man
beguiled me with how beautiful and pre-Raphaelite I
was, and then dumped me for the 30-year-old wife of a
colleague. They drank Scotch together, laughed about
Hemingway; then he pulled me surreptitiously back into
his force field. He laid me down on a broken pink
electric blanket, leaned in for the kill, and planted
a soft one on my trusting lips. Those kinds of men
are hard to erase.

I met the professor in California, where I moved in a
misguided attempt to replicate the verdant landscape
of my lost Calcutta childhood. I can hardly look at
the Pacific without my heart surging forward and my
nose filling with salt air. It was hard to
distinguish the salt back then. Tears and the sea.

I dropped acid with the professor and his brother once
and we walked down to the ocean. The brother lured
me in, Svengali Junior, but with blond hair. He
explained to me how he liked to paint the images he
saw flashing on his eyelids when he closed his eyes in
the light. He bowed his head when he talked to me.
As the acid wore on and the colors began to bleed, I
saw air cathedrals and held the professor and made
him promise to never leave me. The brother put on
"Crimson and Clover" and we all sort of melted
together as we came down. The only thing I could see
were the LED lights on the professor's stereo, then I
had water images of bougainvillea behind my eyelids I
wanted the brother to paint.

Instead, I would have liked to have seen more elements
of the story pulling around the event that seems like
the potential pivot point: the news of Danny's
suicide. The last third of the story deals with the
aftermath of this death, but a good portion is
backstory as well and feels isolated from the rest of
the story.

I am sure another editor would completely disagree
with me. Thank you for giving us a chance to consider
the story. Good luck placing it elsewhere.

Best regards,

[name withheld—no pissing off editors of lit mags]
Associate Editor
Night Train

Dear Lisa,

I love your writing style: it is intoxicating, and "Sam
Flute" is full of wonderful example of your ability to
turn a phrase. The opening for instance:

"I work in the underworld of Georgetown University for
the Director of Landscaping. I am the invisible
woman. I didn’t know what to wear my first day, so I
wore a blue cowl neck blouse and a pink silk skirt. I
wasn’t invisible that day. My mother said, “Dress
professionally and the rest will follow!” There’s
nothing to do for the Director of Landscaping except
take calls from his friendly wife and write them
neatly on yellow message pads. I am a silk wearing
anomaly from the world of light that exists above this
John Deere cage.

I sit in a room with an accountant and a tall pimply
work-study kid with a lurking smile. He looks as
though he has a stash of explosives in his parents’
basement. He and the accountant snicker about me as I
sit at the computer and type non-sequitors and take
messages. When the accountant speaks, I try to
decipher his subtext. I am good at that. It is not
like gutting a fish, it is more like filleting it.
You have to peel back the flesh of the statement and
leave the spindly bones in tact so you can remove
them. The bones are paranoia. It is better to remove
them whole so the fillet lies pure before you."

Great stuff. However, I would have liked to have had a
firmer narrative (or thematic) center than "Sam Flute"
currently has. Sam's seduction of Alice currently vies
for that honor, but the introductory flashback (as
well written as it is) does not (specifically) elevate
the scene to a pivot point. Additionally, the backend
of the story (and the ending, which is supposed to
give final meaning) does not flow from it either. (Or
is there another scene / moment that might serve as
the center?)

Good luck placing this story elsewhere. Our reading
period reopens on August 31. Hope to see your fiction
again then.

Best regards,
Associate Editor
Night Train Magazine
[name withheld—again, no pissing off editors of lit mags]

These are super nice letters that were very helpful. The good news is “Sam Flute” is scheduled to be published next year in a different venue. “Sam Flute” was the subject of another of my all time favorite rejections from Zoetrope: All Story. Indeedy. The editor wrote me and said she was sorry for the delay in replying to me, but the story had passed through “so many appreciative hands.” Sniff. That broke my heart. You know? To know my story was being passed around and people liked it. It so very took the sting out of the ultimate rejection.

After several handwritten but short replies, I finally got a payload from Other Voices on “Paradise,” my favorite damn story that I can’t get anyone to take. She (I believe it was Gina Frangello) said that the story wanted to “spin out into a novel.” But that she was “sure” I would place it elsewhere. I like the “place it elsewhere” consolation prize. Hey, it was an honor just to be nominated. In addition, I got two SUPER nice notes from the editor of Archipelago on two stories.

My least favorite reject was from Pangolin Papers, who published one of my stories AND nominated it for a Pushcart Prize, in case I haven’t mentioned that enough lately, but they sent me this horrendous reject for “Sam Flute” that reminded me they didn’t do “genre fiction.” GROSS! Like they were saying it was “romance” fiction. I could have died on the spot. One of those times where you compose the letter of death, dig deep and find writing BY the editors to slam them directly and all that tommyrot.

I get canned rejects from Antioch, Cimarron, Bellingham, Ascent Literary Journal, McSweeney’s, Crab Orchard Review, Literal Latte, The Carolina Quarterly, The Georgia Review, Third Coast, Iowa Review, Tin House, Harper’s (duh), Fence, Kenyon, Ploughshares, New England Review, Meridian, Alaska Quarterly, Clackamas, Black Warrior and Crazyhorse. Then I get reponses from places I didn't think I would have a prayer of getting a handwritten note. I treasure the INK on those pups. Two from The Missouri Review, which in hindsight I should frame or something. The Florida Review—excellent note and follow up. StoryQuarterly was right snippy and that hurt my feelings. Sniff.

And sometimes there is the “close but no cigar factor:”

Senior Fiction Editor
Thin Air Magazine
P.O. Box 23549
Flagstaff, AZ 86002

Dear Ms. M:

Thank you so much for your letter dated May 15, 2002 explaining that my story “Sam Flute” had been considered for publication in your magazine but due to budget constraints the issues did not get published. As you suggested, I am resubmitting the story for your review now that you have resumed a normal schedule. I really appreciate your taking the time to explain to me what happened.

In short, or long, there’s a camel. There’s a needle. There’s an eye in the needle. There’s your story. Good luck.


Cynicism is another word for reality

Email me, you derelict wastrel

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