I’ve slowly been working my way through some of the literary journals that I picked up last month at the AWP Conference. In the Fall 2007 issue of Short Story (a snappy journal edited by Caroline Lord), I found an interview Lord conducted with Atlantic Monthly Fiction Editor C. Michael Curtis, and I thought this excerpt of what he looks for as he evaluates submissions for the annual fiction issue was interesting:
Lord: I send my stuff out and get rejected all the time. Maybe you could give me a few pointers.
Curtis: (chuckles) I doubt you need this sort of advice. [In my class about writing] I talk about mechanical problems, bad grammar, bad spelling and punctuation. I make the point that most editors spot such mistakes very quickly, and, in my experience, when you find stories that are damaged in that way, they tend to be damaged in a great many other ways.
Lord: What other advice can you give?
Curtis: I talk about second person and present tense and other mannerisms that are often a signal of a kind of pretense. What Raymond Carver called “tricks.” I’m very sympathetic to his objection to any kind of tricks. I point out that dialogue is one of the things an editor can spot very quickly. Bad dialogue is fairly easy to recognize: it’s mechanical, and unlike the way people talk, or not very distinguished or distinctive. If you see a story with bad dialogue, you can be fairly safe in assuming the rest of the story isn’t going to be a whole lot better, and since most stories include dialogue for a number of persuasive reasons, a story that has no dialogue at all is also likely to be far too egocentric, too involved with the writer, and very likely to represent something the writer is very eager to say rather than a story about believable people struggling with plausible problems.
Note: I once heard Curtis speak at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference where he told us that he often read fiction manuscripts while watching football games. I stopped submitting during football season! We’re safe now (though maybe he’s a March Madness maniac?), so if you’re feeling lucky, here are the submission guidelines for The Atlantic Monthly.