Behind the Curtain
As revelations of the US government’s once-secretive spying continue to shake up the world, I’ve decided to stand on the side of transparency by pulling the flimsy curtain back on the Drunken Boat fiction selection process. Warning: literary conspiracy theorists will be disappointed.
A caveat: Every literary journal is different—in its taste, selection, and editing process. Our process is not better or worse than others, but is one that has worked for us over the years.
Soon after a story is submitted through the submissions manager, the Managing Editor puts the stories in my submissions manager inbox. I then pass on ten of those stories to the next reader in the queue.
What does it take to become a DB reader? We strive for a diverse set of readers who can respond to the international and eclectic sensibility of the journal. Gender equity can help you too, men—for a while there were very few (okay zero) male readers on staff, and I’ve worked the past few years to bring that ratio into more balance. Our readers reflect a geographic, cultural, ethnic, and aesthetic diversity, which we hope to continue to build. Almost all of our readers have advanced degrees, although this is not a requirement. They all take reading submissions seriously and give each story careful consideration as to whether it might be a good fit for our journal. When we need new readers, I generally put a call out to current readers and other people I know in the writing community. Interested readers send a biography, which should reflect that they are well read and critically engaged. All of our readers also happen to write as well.
Once the reader has her ten story submissions, she has one month to read and respond to them. The reader can either reject the story, or if she believes the story might be a good fit with our journal, she forwards the story to our Assistant Editor, Holly Wendt. Readers can “reject” a story on three levels: not for us; an interesting read but not for us; or this was great, but not quite for us, please send more. If a reader is in any way uncomfortable with or unsure about a piece (that may be experimental or contain controversial content) then she is instructed to forward the story to Holly. If the reader does not read and respond to their submissions within a month, I usually read the stories myself. I think as an editor it’s important to read the first batch of submissions from time to time to get a sense of what people are submitting. Currently we are seeing an uptick in international submissions, which has been encouraging.
Holly then has one month to read the stories forwarded to her and then decide to reject it (by using the three levels) or forward it to me. All DB reading staff can include notes about a piece they are forwarding, either explaining why they love the piece or are unsure of it. I then read these submissions and decide whether to accept them or reject them, based on what I believe is a good fit for our journal.
We then offer acceptance and if the piece is available, the writer sends us a photo, biography, and story in MS Word. Usually an accepted piece will be slated for a DB issue scheduled for publication three to nine months from the acceptance date. Based on the above schedule, if you submit a story you should hear from us within one to three months.
If some of your rejections are encouraging (asking you to resubmit) or if you receive a personal note, it’s important to keep in mind that submissions are a numbers game—the more often you submit to a variety of journals, the more likely you are to get published. What may not be a fit for us may be perfect for another journal. Up to a point. Be professional but don’t be too eager (for example, don’t send out the next story to the same journal as soon as the first one was rejected). Play the field. Take your time. Start a relationship with a journal, and be mindful of what you submit.
For those who are getting standard “form” rejections with no feedback or encouragement (not one or two, but twenty) on one story, I suspect that your story probably needs work. Find serious readers either where you live or online—there are so many opportunities to join writing groups and workshops. If you are still getting form rejections for your story, then you need to let it go and write a new story or get a better (more critical) writing group.
How much do we edit? Due to time constraints, our default response is to do little more than a basic copy edit and proofread a piece, with the author’s collaboration and approval. However, if I have on occasion worked on more extensive edits if I felt strongly about publishing a story. This has happened with writers where English was a second language, or where I felt a story benefited from condensing or structural revision. Much of my published work has benefited from close editorial attention, and I’m hoping we can do more of it, but for now, extensive editing is the exception rather than the rule—send your story in as polished and clean as it can be, ready for publication—most of the pieces we accept are.
Some final advice. We don’t have to be serious about ourselves, but we should be serious about our work. If you’re not serious about it, then why should the Drunken Boat fiction readers take your work seriously? That’s not to say that we don’t read every submission thoughtfully and thoroughly; we do. That said, there are things you can do to give us a strong first impression.
1. Respect the submission guidelines. This seems so obvious, yet I still get stories that are more than 5,000 words (even though you are supposed to query for stories longer than that amount), multiple submissions, or a submission from someone who has not waited three months between submissions (when asked to resubmit). If you do any of these things, I’m already annoyed with you and not likely to want to work with someone who can’t follow basic instructions.
2. Submit your story double-spaced in an easy-to-read type (Times New Roman is fine), twelve-point, with your name at the top and a header with last name, story name and page in the top right corner. This is a pretty standard submission format, yet we often receive single spaced stories, unpaginated pieces, or ones in funky type to look “artistic,” but are really just hard to read. Fancy typeface will not elevate your story. A good story will elevate your story. Don’t let the formatting get in the way.
3. DB accepts simultaneous (but not multiple) submissions. If your story is accepted elsewhere, please withdraw it immediately through the submissions manager. More than once we’ve accepted a story only to find out it has been accepted somewhere else and the author “forgot” to withdraw it from our submissions system. Will I remember that person if he submits in the future? Yes I will, and not favorably.
4. Keep your cover letter. I do not need a summary of the story. Just mention the name of it, any personal comments about DB (a story you liked in a previous issue for example), and a brief biography. It’s nice to have a cover letter with your submission just to provide context, but it has little or no bearing (unless you’ve been asked to resubmit or have personal correspondence with me) on your submission. While we do solicit submissions from time to time, most of what we publish comes straight from direct submissions.
5. If we say we like your work and would like you to resubmit in the future, wait three months please, but do submit another piece if you think it may be a good fit for DB Don’t be shy—the worst that can happen is another rejection, and what’s that really?
I hope you’ll enjoy the fiction in this issue, which reflects the end result of the submission process I've just described. Read the stories and you’ll get an idea of what a good “fit” for DB is—stories that reflect a diversity of language, narrative approaches, and experience. VIDA count: 4 female, 3 male.
Sybil Baker is the author of The Life Plan, Talismans, and Into This World. She spent twelve years teaching in South Korea before returning to the States in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she serves as the Assistant Director of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. A recent recipient of a MakeWork grant for Chattanooga, she teaches in the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong and at the Yale Writers’ Conference. She is Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.