You know, producing an arts magazine is mostly great. There are so many things I like about it that I really can't name them all. But there is one part of the job that is rather unfortunate but completely necessary: the declining of submissions. Sometimes, after we decline a submission, having expressed to the submitter that the piece just wasn't right for us, we will get an email response saying something along the lines of "If this isn't what you're looking for, then what are you looking for?" This is a very difficult question to answer, as submissions are chosen based on the way they make us feel more than anything else. Though I cannot really explain what we want in a submission, I will attempt to describe what we don't want in hopes of shedding some light on this elusive subject.
1. Typically, we don't like stories, poems, essays, or art that is sentimental. That being said, what is sentimental to one person may be dark and disturbing to another; however, among our staff, if one editor thinks a piece is too sentimental, chances are that when the other editors weigh in they too will think the same thing. That's largely because WAQ's editors have similar tastes and tend to pick up on the same issues (as we see them) in submissions. That's not to say we don't ever disagree about a submission. We do. But an editorial team is typically assembled with like-minded people to create a synergy (if I may be so bold as to use that new-agey term) among the ranks. If your submission is declined by us, you may send it to another journal that scoops it up right away. Every journal is loyal to its own particular point of view, which is necessary in order to create a cohesive product with a vibe that speaks of those who created it. When we put out an issue, we are, in effect, saying, "This is what we like. We hope you like it too." While pieces that are sentimental may knock the socks off another journal, we, at WAQ, prefer work in which writers or artists have built a framework for real, earned emotion. What I mean by this is that we want to have a natural emotional response to a piece of work, without the author having to include a sad cancer death bed scene or show a kitten being run over by car. Those are both extreme examples, but what I'm trying to say is that if you lay the proper framework in, say, a short story by painstakingly developing characters and plots that feel real and relatable, you will get us to feel something without having to pull sentimentality out of your bag of tricks.
2. Beware of writing about overly familiar topics. Death, divorce, disease--these things happen in real life and are very sad when they do, but on the page they often come off as boring or even stereotypical. If you are going to write about an experience that is familiar to many, you have to tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson said. Find a way to shed new light on an old topic. But also beware of creating work that is off the wall in an effort to avoid writing something familiar. It will likely come off as a contrived. So, what does one do, then? What we like at WAQ typically falls somewhere between the overly familiar storyline and the off the wall storyline. We love when writers or poets take us into a world we don't necessarily know very much about, then make that world relatable by examining the complexity of life through well-developed characters. When a story or essay or poem articulates a truth about life in a way that makes us think, I couldn't have said it better myself, then we know we have something special on our hands.
3. Endings. They are so difficult to write, and unfortunately, we writers don't always end our works in the best place or with the right words. It takes time and revision to figure out how to execute the best ending for a piece. There have been many instances when we've enjoyed a submission until we got to the end and were suddenly left feeling dissatisfied. Sometimes a piece may end too soon; sometimes it may go on for too long. Sometimes a writer has yet to find the right words that will leave us haunted by a piece long after we've read it. Often, if a submission fails to deliver, there is a turn of events near the end that doesn't feel authentic to the world of the story. Even more often, a piece will fail to shake anything up; there won't be enough that happens or changes in the world of the story. To gage if your story has one of the aforementioned issues, try having different friends read it and ask them to describe how the ending made them feel.
I hope this helps anyone who is interested in better understanding what WAQ is looking for with its submissions. We are just one journal of many, trying to be faithful to our point of view. If one piece you send us doesn't float our boat, send us more. You never know what might pique our interests. And as always, the best way to get an idea of what we like is to read the journal.
WomenArts Quarterly Journal