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Standing Out From the Crowd: Tips from a Literary Magazine Editor


A guest post by Ashley Moore

A round of fiction submissions really is a beautiful beast: dense, overwhelming, intoxicating, and at its very best, delightful. At SAND journal, Fiction Editor Florian Duijsens and I make our way through at least 600 unsolicited stories each submissions period and are only able to publish around 8–12 of those. That means passionate pleas for our favorites and tough decisions once we’ve narrowed our selection down. But how does a writer get their work into the final rounds of editing? And how can a piece stand out among hundreds – or even thousands – of other stories?

Use a Fresh Angle and Voice

Many writers would be surprised how often editors read different versions of the seemingly same stories about f(l)ailing romances, being a child of divorce, the banality of the suburbs, and “magical women.” It’s not that the writing’s bad. In fact, it’s often impressive. And it’s not that writers shouldn’t be exploring these topics—except for magical women, who use their beauty, elegance, intelligence, or even alcohol tolerance to somehow save the lives of troubled men. Both men and women can save themselves, without white horses or ego-stroking love interests. It would be much more refreshing to read the other insightful ways that women and men can be portrayed.

If writers want to tackle more conventional “truths,” they need to show us editors the beauty, the pain, the boredom, or the conflict in ways we’re not used to seeing. Take some stories we’ve published at SAND. Laura Tansley’s “Treat Ourselves” is about two middle-class women in Britain who both suffer from anxiety, so that even saunas, seatbelts, and roundabouts present insurmountably stressful obstacles. Or E.G. Willy’s “Black Friday,” whose teenaged narrator – already jaded and just learning to cuss – is unwittingly transformed into a con artist and thief by his father, all in the name of love. Mitchell Gauvin’s “The Constellation of James” centers around a small-town drug dealer who can’t find a way out of town or out from under the thumb of his domineering, astrology-obsessed grandmother, except on a horse.

These stories all approach fairly conventional topics like middle-class life, divorce, and the small-town experience with unique voices that force readers to see the world they thought they knew with fresh eyes. This held our attention and made the stories stand out.


Wander Far: Break Through Borders and Boundaries

Many writers would also be surprised at how often editors at English-language magazines read stories set in one of two places: the US and the UK. Here at SAND, we are proud of all the great American and British stories we have published. But we’re also salivating to see more stories written from less frequently portrayed places – or even from less explored times or realities.

Some stories have an impact on us at SAND because they take us into unexpected realms. Sophie Atkinson’s “Wonderland” pulls us through a computer screen when a woman develops a same-sex crush on her online fitness instructor. And Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s “Wolves” takes us into the wild as a man joins a wolfpack only to be confronted with how easily his animal instincts emerge. Other stories take us outside of Western experience into that of the larger world, like Scott Platt-Salcedo’s “Leaving Cabatuan.” Set in the Philippines, the story addresses political persecution and the price of rebellion alongside the issues of family and home. By breaking norms, these stories question the boundaries between the digital and the “real,” love and obsession, animals and humans, collaboration and competition. These stories cross borders to show that human experience can be both universal and very specific, to expose us to situations we might not have encountered ourselves, and to tell stories that need to be heard.

These are just a few examples of ways that writers can stand out by breaking through boundaries. How about also submitting more high-quality speculative, experimental, hybrid, or genre-bending fiction? Or more stories that deal with wider issues facing the world, as Geraldine Brooks put it when encouraging writers to go beyond “the overwhelming gravitational pull toward small-canvas realism” in the stories she read and selected for The Best American Short Stories 2011. Brooks reminds us that there is plenty to inspire our writing: “Foreign countries exist. There’s a war on. Consider the following: Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul, Händel’s Messiah, Martin Luther King. Female genital mutilation, military-funeral picketers, abortion-doctor assassins… Not that I want to discourage humor.” And we agree: we would love to see writing inspired by these types of boundary-breaking topics.

Keep the Short in Short Fiction

All literary magazines have limited space, and fiction is often one of three or more genres competing for that space. At SAND, we attempt to feature a diversity of voices and perspectives in every issue, which means even more competition for space. So it’s an unfortunate reality that no matter how good a story is, if it has a very large word count, publishing it means not being able to publish at least one or two other stories which might be equally as good. This means that to “justify” their place in the issue, longer pieces have to be even better than shorter stories of two or three thousand words. There’s a reason why killing your darlings is a writing cliché: it results in tighter, more vivid stories, and many editors will be so wrapped up in those stories that reading them – and sending them on to the next round of editing – will be a breeze.

Keep the Fiction in Short Fiction

A partner and I once had this hysterically disastrous stay at a charming castle in the Chianti region of Italy, and every time I tell that story, people say it sounds like a romantic comedy. Which it does.

But I’ve never written that story because really good fiction has more in common with gonzo journalism than with autobiography: the truth comes out in the lie. When asked about the fact/fiction ratio in his genre-breaking Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson said, “I didn’t really make up anything – but I did, at times, bring situations and feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.” Because it is based on bits of reality reorganized, exaggerated, enhanced, and mixed up with lots of imagination, every great piece of fiction tells its own truth.

My Italian castle story wouldn’t stand out in a submissions pile because it would be bad autobiographical travel writing, at best. The stories that stand out find a balance between “fact” and fiction, expose a deeper truth, and engross us so deeply in their worlds that we will suspend our disbelief, whether those stories are presented as realist or speculative fiction.


Ashley Moore is a Fiction Editor at SAND, an international English-language literary journal based in Berlin. SAND publishes twice a year and welcomes contributors from all over the world, including established and emerging writers, poets, artists, and translators.

UPDATE: Submissions to SAND Journal reopen on 1 May and close on 6 July 2019.