TAR Stop in Blogville: Tips from a litmag fiction editor

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I’m just home from a wonderful week in Toronto. (Will share the details – I met Michael Ondaatje, how’s that for a teaser? – soon.) In the meantime, I’m pleased as punch to let my wise, wonderful writing mentor and friend, Richard Cumyn, take the wheel at Incidental Pieces. Not only is he a kick-ass writer, but Rich is also the fiction editor at The Antigonish Review. (Canada’s Eclectic Review since 1970)
I asked him to pass along some helpful hints for writers looking to submit to literary journals. As always, he came up with wit, wisdom and more.

TAR Stop in Blogville: Tips from a litmag fiction editor

By Richard Cumyn

My friend Alec Ross paddled a canoe solo across Canada and wrote a fascinating book about the experience, Coke Stop in Emo. He’s a good writer and his arms still look like Popeye’s! This week Alec is giving a course to gifted high-school students on the basics of freelance writing. It’s through an exciting outreach program called E=MC2 at Queen’s University here in Kingston, Ontario. He asked me to sit in on the class and talk about writing fiction and about what I do as fiction editor of The Antigonish Review.

One of the first things I told them was that my acceptance rate at TAR is about 1%. We publish between 16 and 20 short stories a year. I could see them doing the math in their heads. Then I told them what we pay for a piece of short fiction: $50 Canadian. I heard one boy, bless him, say above the sounds of snickering and derisive laughter, “That’s $50 more than I make all year.” I imagine most of them burn through that much a week on entertainment alone. It’s pathetic to pay writers so little. I apologize in particular to our American and British contributors, who, after the exchange rate is applied, are left with a paltry sum. We’re working on the problem. We depend on government grants and our readership to stay afloat. With more subscribers we could pay our contributors that much more. If every writer who submitted stories to literary journals subscribed to just one of them…. Did I mention that litmag subscriptions make wonderful birthday gifts? In our case, except for Bonnie McIsaac, our tireless office manager, the other nineteen people involved in the production of the review are volunteers. Ami McKay is a recent and welcome addition to the TAR masthead.

I told Alec’s group that the first few sentences of their story are the most important. They should spend as much time agonizing over their opening paragraph as they do on the rest of the piece. My approach to reading submissions is pretty brutal. If the first couple of sentences don’t provoke, entice, seduce, dare me to read on, the story joins a growing pile, one I revisit reluctantly, given the encroaching walls of my paper bunker. Is it a reason to stop submitting? Heck, no. But do approach the process with open eyes. It’s a gamble. The odds are still better than those of a lottery ticket. I have to send back many—too many—competent, well-formed, intelligent, entertaining, hard working stories for the simple reason that we don’t have room to publish them. The story may be too much like one we recently published. It might have a weak point in the structure or a character who does or says something that makes the reader look up from the page. It might be too long. It might depend overly much on cliché or its dialogue might sound like something from a TV sitcom. It’s often a matter of taste. A look at the fiction we’ve published in the last four or five years reveals our literary interests. We tend not to publish genre fiction. There are fine markets elsewhere for stories of vampire immortals, sorcerers and witches, monsters and ghouls, decapitators and other dogged serial killers.

Here are the opening lines of the stories published in our latest issue, #139:

Heave ‘er up,” said Pippy, whose back was never right, and Jasper threw his own back into the lift, grunting with the effort….

—Valerie Compton, “Pippy’s Bitter”

I have been asked to offer this recollection of Artemus Alford, whose reputation, impossible though it seems to me, grows still greater even after his death.

—Reese Warner, “The Painting of Artemus Alford”

I see Stuart and transform into fate’s receiver.

—Kevin McPherson, “On Stilts”

No matter what anyone says, it’s the wives who run this town.

—Kerry Langan, “The Dean’s Wife”

On a Wednesday morning in April the sign appeared…WARNING DON’T HIRE YATES CONSTRUCTION COME SEE MY DOOR in black paint on a sheet of plywood propped up in the yard.

—Larry Brown, “Mister Job”

Laxton stood on the muddy bank and gazed down at the reedy shoreline of the lake. The water was low even for August with a bloom of green algae. He’d have green stuff plastered all over his legs and up inside his bathing suit by the time he’d waded out to his boat.

—Gillian Campbell, “The Man Who Couldn’t Swim”

Intrigued? I was. You can read the stories in their entirety online at the TAR site: www.antigonishreview.com. I think each fulfils the promise of its well-baited hook. Whether or not you agree with me, it’s still the best way to see whether or not your work and TAR are potentially a good fit.

Note from Ami:

Richard’s latest book is The View from Tamischeira

Submission Guidelines for The Antigonish Review can be found Here:
TAR Submissions

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