Reading Submissions

So I’m reading subs for TC’s March issue. I’m at the point where I’m just wrestling with the borderline decisions. While it always seems like a daunting amount of reading, in reality, when you get down to it, most of the decisions are quite easy. If we get 100 subs, say, 60 of those will be culled during the short-listing process. Those don’t require much thought; they’re either not good enough or not appropriate for TC (or both).

Of the remaining 40, I can easily cut half of those on my first thorough read. We’re pretty generous on the first-round cuts; if we waffle at all on a piece, it stays in for reading by the full editorial board. But a lot of times those are things I know from the beginning that I’m not going to say yes to (although other editors might). So those go. And then there are always pieces that show potential, but when I actually sit down and give them my full attention, they don’t work.

So that leaves about 20. A few of those (generally less than 5 and usually closer to 1) I’ll have given definite yesses. Some things you read once and you just know. The rest will be split between maybes-leaning-to-yesses and maybes-leaning-to-nos. With the number of subs we get now, I aim for 8-10 yesses. When we combine votes that usually works out to ~10 regular acceptances, plus a few editor’s picks, depending on how divided we are.

On second read, I send a few more to the no pile and a few more to the yes pile. This is usually where any fluctuations due to the order of reading are smoothed out. For example, if the first 10 stories I read are nos, and the 11th is okay, I’ll probably give it a maybe for the time being, knowing in the back of my mind that it’ll probably end up a no. Similarly, I often give maybes to pieces I read early on, but on second read, I’ll give them firm yesses. Partly that’s a matter of comparison—waiting to see how a piece measures up to the other subs—but also, it’s a matter of confirming that it holds up to further scrutiny; as any reader knows, you pick up stuff on subsequent readings that you don’t on first read.

But inevitably, I’m left with 3-5 pieces that I consider borderline. Usually they’re stories (we get more fiction subs than anything else—usually the number of regular fiction subs is equivalent to the poetry, flash, and cnf subs combined). Generally I’m torn because the writing is strong, but the story leaves me flat. Often they’re things that I start out really enjoying, thinking “nice writing,” wondering where the writer is taking me, and then…

…the story just stops. As if the writer got tired of writing.
…the story doesn’t go anywhere. Good writing, no point. Note that this is different than having no plot. I’m fine with plotless stories, but there has to be a point.
…the story goes off the rails. Starts out well, but suddenly veers in a direction that doesn’t make sense.
…the story has a final paragraph/sentence that is so horrendous that it makes me question the rest of the story.

I read them again (am I missing anything? generally: no). If a story grows on me the more times I read it, it gets pushed into the yes pile. If it remains as murky as ever, it ends up in my no pile. I try to avoid leaving anything as a maybe. Maybes work given our format, but I guess it seems like a bit of a cop-out—it’s a better exercise for me as an editor and a writer to make a firm decision. Ultimately, I end up spending more time on these than any of the other subs, but writing-wise I probably learn the most from them.