Every short story writer wants to know how to get a story published. So, we’re going to tell you. Well, at least we’re going to tell you how to get someone to take a closer look at your story at The Antioch Review. On average, nine readers cull through the approximately 3,000 per year fiction submissions looking for the thirty or so that will ultimately end up on the pages of The Antioch Review. These readers do a close reading of the submitted stories, find the ones they like, and send them on to editor, Robert Fogarty, who makes the final decision. The Antioch Review is grateful for all its first readers and thought you might like an inside look at how just one of them, Katy Bowman, approaches this important task.
Antioch Review: How long have you been reading for The Antioch Review and what is that process like for you?
Katy Bowman: I have been reading for The Antioch Review for about three years. I pick up twenty-five stories each month. I have two small children, so between caring for them, and working on my own writing, twenty-five per month is plenty. I begin by triaging the stories right away based on an initial quick read. If the story is not working at all, I set it aside. If the story seems to be working and is engaging, I set it in another pile. After I finish triaging, I sit down and give the engaging stories a more in-depth read.
When I first started reading for The Antioch Review, I was hesitant about rejecting something that was well written but was just not working for me. There are stories where the writing might be clean and precise with a clearly developed plot line, but they just don’t grab me as a reader. It’s difficult to reject stories, especially being a writer myself. I know how much time and care goes into each story, and I have a lot of respect for the writers who submit to us. It is no easy feat to get a story to the point where you are ready to send it out to perfect strangers.
Over time, however, I have formulated a clearer picture of what it takes for a story to stand out. That’s what I’m looking for: stories that stand out. Those are the stories I recommend to the editor.
AR: So, what are the qualities of the stories that stand out to you?
KB: I’d start by saying that sometimes, when a story is good, you just know it. You feel it, but specifically, pieces that stand out to me are ones where the conflict is at least hinted at up front, usually in the first paragraph. That is not to say you, as a reader, have to know exactly what the conflict will be, but you have to feel that it’s there, and be intrigued enough to read on. This is probably the first thing I want to see.
AR: Can you give us example of a good opening?
KB: Sure, I can give you one from one of the stories I sent to the editor that was printed in the Summer 2012 issue––”The American Dream is a Combination Lock” by Gina Lujan Boubion.
We got together in an art appreciation class at Cal State. Next thing you know she’s jumping out of the car at a stop light and threatening to run into traffic unless I marry her. I said are you crazy? get back in the car, we got our whole lives ahead of us, and she said, I’m pregnant. That was on 9/11. You don’t forget a date like that. Julian was born a few months later.
In just that one paragraph we get a clear, distinct voice from the narrator and a sense that his life is about to change drastically. As a reader, I don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but it’s a good bet that it will have something to do with this young man coming to terms with his life and the turn things took for him that day. When I read a first paragraph like that, my first reaction is “tell me more…”
AR: Aside from a good opening paragraph, what else are you looking for?
KB: Another thing I look for is whether or not the writer knows the main character. In other words, I want to know that the writer understands the character even if the character doesn’t understand himself. I want to know that the writer knows what the character would say, how he would react, what he would notice, what he would see. What does the character smell when he smells an apple pie? I want to know that the writer knows much more about the character than is even contained within the story. This kind of intimacy gives a story believability that is powerful. It’s authenticating, and it is often what is missing from the stories I don’t recommend to the editor.
Something else that is important to me is truth. Some bit of essential truth, whether it’s a universal truth or just the writer’s truth, needs to be expressed in the story. And I’m not talking about non-fiction, the events of the story don’t matter so much. It’s really just the expression of something the writer feels to be true. Earlier I talked about knowing when a piece is right and how you can just feel it. I think this is what you feel: that the piece, whether it be a poem or a story or an essay or whatever, expresses something either universally or personally true. And I don’t know what it is about that and why you can just feel it when you read or write something that accomplishes that, but you can.
AR: Do you have an example of this kind of truth in the story?
KB: A lot of times it comes in the epiphany moment in a story, when the character realizes something true about themselves, something that maybe they’ve been mistaken about. In another story I recommended that was published, “Maseru, Casaba, 9” by S. P. Tenhoff in the Spring 2013 issue, I think the epiphany moment really captures what I’m talking about when I talk about truth. In fact, I was so blown away by this story that I asked the editor read it immediately.
The department store’s magic counter appeared before him. And he suddenly remembered what he’d felt that first time, years before, when the lid was lifted and the ball was gone. It wasn’t wonder. It was horror, horror at how wrong this impossibility was, horror followed by some species of despair, followed by fury: he’d wanted to take the box and smash it into the glass counter. What he bought that day, and the next time, and the next, what kept him coming back, was the desire to demolish that feeling by learning all of the secrets the world had to offer. He had told the false story of his first magical experience so many times he’d fooled himself, misremembering what he’d really felt when he looked into the box. In his life, he had never experienced wonder at all. Unless wonder meant that loathsome queasy feeling when, for an instant, common sense ceases to operate and nothing is what it’s supposed to be …
There’s nothing showy or clever about that paragraph. It’s just truth. There’s no fancy language, no dancing around, just a kind of brutal honesty about that moment when the character realizes he’s been fooling himself all along. Not all truths have to be expressed exactly like the one here, and it is a very difficult thing to capture, but when a story really gets my attention, that’s what it has. It has that truth, something you can tell the author has realized through their own experience.
AR: Not all the readers for The Antioch Review are writers. Many are avid readers who have clear ideas about what makes a story good. But, since you are a writer, can you talk about that? Do you write short stories yourself?
KB: I am a novelist. I have finished one novel-length story about a woman who disguises herself as a man and fights in the Civil War and am now looking for an agent. I have some pretty well developed ideas about my next project, but I am really focused on getting my first novel, an historical fiction piece, published. I recently wrote a very short story, “Manassas” that will be published this spring in Circa, a journal of historical fiction. It concerns an event I happened upon in my research for my novel. I was intrigued by it, but it didn’t fit into the storyline, so I wrote it up as a separate short story.
AR: Do you think being a first reader helps you with your own writing?
KB: It does help. I get ideas about what works and what doesn’t work for me individually. Reading for a journal is a useful experience. What works is very subjective, and it’s perhaps most valuable to consider what doesn’t work and to think about why it doesn’t, at least at first.
AR: What advice do you have for individuals who submit stories to The Antioch Review?
KB: In addition to the things I’ve mentioned–a good opening in which conflict is revealed, a strong sense of who the character is, and an element of truth—I like to see that attention has been paid to plot and character development. I want to know where the story is going, that there is a destination in mind. I want to see good writing. I like to see that a writer knows certain rules about writing, but that he or she also knows how and when to break the rules.
AR: Do you look at cover letters?
KB: I know the editors likes the cover letters for background and record keeping but I don’t pay a lot of attention to letters. I keep my focus on the writing itself.
AR: Thank you for sharing with readers your approach. It’s evident that you enjoy being a reader. Can you talk about that a bit?
KB: I do enjoy it. For one thing, it keeps me engaged in a writing community. It’s exciting to open each new submission. I love the variety of what we receive and I feel like I am constantly learning something new about writing. It’s both challenging and rewarding.
Katy Bowman is a writer living near Dayton, Ohio. She has had writing published at The Rumpus, Flash Me Magazine, regularly write blog posts and book reviews for Dayton Mom-Spot, and Circa, an online journal of historical fiction, has just agreed to publish one of her short stories in their Spring 2014 issue. She has also volunteered as an Assistant Fiction Editor for the Antioch Review for the last three years. She has a Bachelor’s of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University and a Master’s of Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati.
© 2013 The Antioch Review