Gutted: How (not) to get published in Gutter…
Gutted – an occasional column by your devoted Gutter team
How (not) to get published in Gutter…
Colin Begg, Editor
So, it’s one of those two sad times each year where I take the Gutter submissions pile to the big blue paper-and-plastic recycling bin around the corner from the flat. For Issue 14, the pile is about 45cm high – approximately 4000 pages of A4, 90gsm semi-glossy paper. I’m not quite sure why the guys at Freight print out our submissions on such high quality stock, but I figure they must get it on discount. Anyway, at 5.63 grams a sheet, that’s 22.5kg of paper that I am currently lugging in a wrecked old blue IKEA bag. And as there are two of us reading for each issue, that’s 45kg of paper in total – but unlike me, lucky Henry lives on the ground floor… Yes dear contributor, I have lugged your submissions up 90 tenement steps and lugged them down again. Never mind the trees, people, think of my ageing vertebrae…
I get to the bin and find that the council factotum has locked the wee triangular peg thing that holds the main lid shut, so instead of just heaving your hard-wrought inky imaginings into it in a oner, I have to feed them through the slot like a demented postman, my fingers gingerly avoiding the freshly made pool of stale milk that gathers on the lip of the opening.
As I do this, over and over again, dipping in to my big blue sack of now-redundant prose and poetry that unfortunately just-wasn’t-quite-there; I am able to read once again your opening lines and my wee marks and comments that decided the fate of each piece. Like a semi-benevolent Santa, my hands pause several times and hover over the open sack as I re-read the beginnings of pieces about which I may just have been a little too harsh – before rain and the smell of sour milk cartons make me launch them into the dank abyss of the bin.
But re-reading those first pages and editorial judgements makes me think I should share with you a little about how we select work for the magazine. My overwhelming feeling when disposing of the reject pile (which we actually call the ‘No’ pile) is sadness and gratitude. Sadness at the amount of time those writers have put into their pieces for us just to read and reject them, but huge gratitude that people respect our wee mag enough to think it worthwhile to send us their work. Fundamentally: no submissions = no magazine, so let me state categorically that we are very grateful for each and every piece of writing that you the contributors and possible-contributors send to us.
For the first five issues after we started the magazine in February 2009, I kept everything that we were sent, regardless of whether we published or rejected the pieces. Partly this was archivism, partly a semi-scientific attempt to calibrate our editorial judgement. They are still there in my home office, the evolution of each issue fossilised inside a wee cardboard box. On our tenth issue, I went back over the archive to see how we’d done: mercifully, nobody we rejected had gone on and won the Booker two years later, but many of those we had published had gone on to write successful novels or collections of poetry. There were a few good writers who we had overlooked, but they had generally tried again and found success in a later issue of the mag.
Subsequently the sheer volume of submissions has risen to such an extent that archiving is no longer possible unless I get a bigger flat. The increased quantity has certainly upped the volume of quality submissions, but it has also increased the number of, er, “less competent” pieces too. For some reason, the submitted poetry we receive remains generally of a higher standard than the prose. I think this may be because technical aspects perhaps make poetry intimidating to less experienced writers. Or maybe poets are more self-critical? Another thing has remained consistent, and that is the overall ratio of ‘Yes':’Maybe':’No’ among submissions, which has stayed pretty constant at around 5%:25%:70%.
What you, the potential contributor, are doubtless asking yourself is “how do I get myself in that 5% ‘Yes’ pile?” The short answer is, it depends/I have no idea. The longer answer involves an explanation of how we put together the contents of the magazine.
It’s not rocket science, in fact it’s probably not even Standard Grade Home Eccy. There are two submission deadlines a year, and by about a week after each deadline one of our amazing volunteer Editorial Assistants will have collated all of these, printed and stapled them. Then Henry and I (it’s usually Henry and I, sometimes Adrian too, unless we have a Guest Editor – and from Issue 15 it will also involve Kate MacLeary as Prose Editor) drag the freshly killed paper animal back up to our lairs (see vertebral damage, above) and begin to devour it.
We read everything, absolutely everything. All 4000-odd bloody pages of submissions have had at least two pairs of eyes on them. This sets us apart from a great many other mags. We both have day jobs, so it takes us at least a month to do the reading properly. We then have an Editorial meeting where, a bit like a game of Snap, we start by bringing out our definite ‘Yes’ pieces and seeing if we match. Usually we overlap by at least two thirds, and so those pieces are ‘in’. There then follows some horse-trading where we argue the case for our other ‘Yes’ pieces. We continue this process until we have enough pieces to fill all the slots in the issue.
If at any point we don’t have agreement, then we ask a third pair of eyes like Adrian, Katy, Laura or Robbie to have a read and make the casting vote. If, as sometimes particularly happens with the prose submissions, there aren’t enough ‘Yes’ pieces to fill the issue, we move onto the ‘Maybe’ pile.
Often that pile contains work that is excellent but for various reasons is just not quite ready for publication. Pieces that fit well thematically or stylistically with those pieces that are already ‘in’ have an advantage here. If a piece shows promise then we will include it, often only after having got back to the author and asked for some revisions.
In addition to the submitted-and-selected work, each issue usually contains 3 or 4 commissioned pieces from more well-known writers. They are there on artistic merit (we have previously rejected commissions that weren’t up to scratch) but also for nakedly commercial purposes to help sell the magazine and hopefully draw attention to the newer writers within. Then finally the remaining space is left for the Interview, the Book Reviews and Adrian’s Dear Gutter column (he’s the Dan Savage of the Southside). If you would like to review books for the magazine please contact Katy, Ryan and Sophie, the Review Editors. We also welcome suggestions for Interview subjects.
Given the volume of submissions and the limited time we have to read each one, it is much easier for us as Editors to decide what DOESN’T go into the magazine than what does go in. Over a forty-day period, I will have an average of 90 minutes a day to devoted to Gutter submission reading. That’s sixty hours of reading time – sounds a lot, but with over 400 submissions that’s less than 9 minutes per piece. Most of the writing we get is in fact technically adequate but tends to fail to make the cut due to inconsistencies or poor choices in the domains of content, theme, genre, style, voice, or register. Less commonly, pieces will fall down due to “sloppy copy”. For those pieces that we do choose, space and layout constraints factor highly in what makes the final cut. This means it is actually quite hard to give you specific pointers to what makes a ‘Yes’ submission, but there now follows a general list of what to BEWARE OF, after which comes a list of what to DO…
1) Below-par crime fiction: we love Raymond Chandler. Everybody loves Raymond Chandler. Get a stranger who likes Chandler to read your piece first and see how it compares.
2) Below-par small town ennui: we love Raymond Carver. Everybody loves Raymond Carver. See 1) above.
3) Below-par hardboiled poetry: we love Charles Bukowski. But you live in 21st Century Hyndland. See 1) & 2) above.
4) Below-par science fiction: if you are going to create a world, make it internally consistent and believable.
5) Below-par literary fiction: just because you are a highbrow sort, it doesn’t mean you need to be wilfully dull or obscure.
6) Sloppy copy, i.e., bad sense-checking: a “forty story” building? We know what you mean, but it tells us you are a bit sloppy. Particularly if you do it three times in five pages, it will damage your authenticity as a narrator.
7) Apostrophes. We are not too pedantic, but we do like reliable semantic yield. So we prefer writers who know the difference between “who’s” and “whose”, “your” and “you’re”, “their” and “they’re”, “its” and “it’s” – it’s not much to ask, is it?
8) Wayward formatting – relates to the above. Please use brackets, dashes and hyphens consistently, if you use speech marks then do so correctly: our house style is single quotes. Use italics like salt, sparingly. Read our submission guide. We are all volunteers, so the less copy-editing we have to do on your piece, the better.
9) Random use
AND text formatting:
not necessarily make
10) Bad Scots. If you were Norwegian, would you try and write in Danish because you once visited Copenhagen? Get a Scots dictionary, or better still go and live in Buckie or Sanquhar for a year and listen to how people actually speak.
11) Related to 9): amusing rendering of Glaswegian phonics á la Stanley Baxter/novelty car stickers & mugs. You may only be here for “the banter”, but we’re with Tom Leonard: Stanley Baxter was a patronising c*nt. (Actually – he’s still alive – Ed…)
12) Mixing dialect words from different parts of Scotland in the speech of the same character. Unless your character is actually half-Shetlandic, half-Glaswegian and now lives in Dundee, this tells us that you are either new here (welcome, but please take a trip outside the Central Belt) or you work for BBC Scotland Central Casting. Or both… Alternatively, do wander linguistically, but let there be a point, a purpose, a love of language, rather than an ignorance. Innit.
13) Inappropriate Americanisms when your story is set in Scotland and does not involve American characters or an American point-of-view. This is forgivable if you are an American writer new to this country, less so if you were born and bred in Kirkcaldy but learned to write by imitating the dialogue in CSI. It pays to know your fringe from your bangs and your fanny from your fannypack…
14) Poor poetic parody. Burns was way better than you at parodying Burns. Subvert your parody. Or better still, write like Fergusson.
15) Badly-argued polemic. Yes, we dislike David Cameron and Nigel Farage too. But it pains us to say that you can be duller than they are.
16) Your use of prolific, redundant swearing – it does not cover up a bad ear for dialogue. But that’s how working class people speak, right?
17) Thinly-disguised author proxy wish-fulfilment: nobody wants to read about how your student boy/girlfriend behaves and why your relationship is so charged with drama and sexual tension. Yes, we have all written those stories, but keep them in a box under the bed where they belong and read them again when you are 28.
18) Alternative page formatting: please read the submission guidelines. We are constrained by the print resolution and page layout of magazine. It’s way smaller than A4 with a different aspect ratio, so if your piece is going to look bad we won’t use it if it will be hard to reformat. We often consider factors like this when we are trying to decide between two pieces of similar merit. If your piece uses a non-standard format, submit a high-resolution PDF as that will make it easier for us to reproduce your work exactly as intended.
1) Surprise us, make us respond. Sorry to say it, but reading the submissions pile can be quite dull, and we love to be enthralled as much as the next reader. Stories about a Polar Bear terrorising the crew of Arctic icebreakers, or poems about an existential-agnostic Guinea Pig have come out of nowhere to appear in the mag. We should point out here that there are other ways that you can surprise us without resorting to anthropomorphism…
2) Be acutely topical. For example, Harry Giles’s drone poems were of the moment and a perfect fit for the magazine issue that they appeared in. Since then public consciousness of US drone policy has widened and we’ve had more poems about drones but none of them were as fresh or surprising as those first.
3) Be original. If you think of a good idea that is based around something common (pubs, or a road trip or dogs or cats, for example. We get lots of stories with pubs or road trips or dogs or cats in them), chances are five or six other writers will have submitted something along the same lines, so write from as original a perspective as you can imagine.
4) This relates to 2), above. Get hold of old issues of the magazine (order here) and read them to get a flavour of the type of work we publish. You are unlikely to get your work into ANY magazine if you are not familiar with its style and editorial policy. And there’s a karmic aspect there if you think about it.
5) Practise and revise. Get trusted others to critique your work. Don’t send us a first draft, it shows.
6) Print out and manually sense-check your work before you send it to us. Don’t depend on the spellchecker function. Its knot too bee relied up on…
7) Develop an ear for dialogue. Listen to people on the bus and hear the ebb and flow of their speech. Read your dialogue aloud.
8) Work on your craft. If you are a new prose writer, learn about technical aspects like narrative point-of-view, narrative voice and tense. A bit like learning the guitar, you can’t play with them unless you know them.
9) Share your work. If you are a new poet who isn’t already in a poetry group, join one. Or start one. Very few great poets have appeared in isolation. And even those great ones who have done so can still be a little fousty…
10) Don’t be in a rush to get published. Ask yourself why you want to be published. Think about whether others will respond to your work. You may have nothing to declare but your own genius, but ultimately good writing is about communication with other humans. If you are just seeking publication for the purposes of unconditional personal validation then you probably need a dog, not a literary magazine.
11) Bear in mind that we may not be the magazine that you are looking for. All editors have their tastes and preferences and we are no different. But if we knock you back more than five times, drop us a line and ask for feedback on a piece.
12) Remember that a rejection might often mean that your story was in the ‘Yes’ pile until the 11th hour, when a typesetting issue necessitated a cut, or that maybe it was in the ‘No’ pile from the very start because your editors just didn’t get it. We’re subject to constraints both subjective and practical, and just because we don’t run with your work doesn’t mean we’re always right! Don’t take it personally, keep submitting and thanks for your support.