When I took the position of Fiction Co-Editor at Literary Mama, I figured it would be easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. After all, I’d read that out of the thousand submissions The Atlantic Monthly receives each month, about 90 percent are easily dismissed due to poor grammar and bad writing. Also, an editor I know at a children’s book publisher frequently complains about the many submissions written for adults that show up in her slush pile. Most writers, it seems, don’t bother to learn their craft or read guidelines before sending out a manuscript.
Here at Literary Mama, however, I haven’t read a single submission that was riddled with unintentional grammatical or spelling mistakes. The writing tends to be pretty good. And, in keeping with our guidelines, all of the submissions I’ve read have been written by mothers and at least have a mother somewhere in the story.
Although we look for two or three stories a year from a child’s point of view for the May issue, we get far more than we can use. We also say “no thanks” to stories that are too similar in subject matter to recently published or accepted works. But even after this elimination process, our “maybe” pile tends to get pretty big.
How then do we decide what to publish?
Frankly, after a certain point, it comes down to what we fall in love with, which is a little hard to define. In the same way that no one can predict whether a couple on their first date will fall for each other, there are no guarantees that we will fall for a story, however publishable it appears to be.
I tend to respond to stories that I can personally relate to — stories about expat moms, multicultural families, baseball, bullying, special needs, fertility issues, twins, and meddling mothers-in-law, among others. I also love humor and I love to be surprised.
I tend not to love stories about racist mothers or irresponsible mothers, including moms who do drugs and lie to parole officers. I don’t think I would love a story about a mother who batters her child, although I would be willing to consider such a story if the writer made me feel some compassion for her.
Susan Ito, my co-editor, brings another lifetime of experiences to the process. She has fallen in love with at least one story that I was neutral about, and I have been crazy about at least one story that she did not like. But sometimes we agree to disagree, and one person’s passion overrides the other’s ambivalence. A writer doesn’t necessarily have to please both of us.
Of course, it’s impossible for a writer to predict whether we’ll fall in love with their work. So before you send us that manuscript, ask yourself these questions: Is the story about the experience of mothering? Does it concern an aspect of motherhood that we haven’t addressed lately? Do you love it?
As a fiction writer myself, I have had the greatest success with stories that I felt passionate about writing, the ones that I was compelled to write. Those are the stories that I was willing to send out ten or twenty times if need be until they found a good home.
A final bit of advice: If you love your story and we don’t, send it to another publication — and another and another, if you have to. And please keep us in mind for the next story about motherhood that you write — and love.
To submit a work of fiction, send your story or novel excerpt in the body of an e-mail or as an MS Word file to LMfictionATliterarymamaDOTcom along with a short cover letter. Please indicate “fiction submission” in the subject line. We’ll do our best to get back to you within 3 or 4 weeks.