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What One Issue’s Accepted Work Can Tell You

As Creative Nonfiction Editor for the online journal Compose since its beginning in 2013, I’m often asked what makes a submission stand out, or why I chose X piece.

For this reason I’d like to share some thoughts about accepted pieces that appear in Compose’s Spring 2016 issue. I’ve included behind the scenes info also, to help submitters better understand the editorial process.

Brock Kingsley’s “How to Remember Your Dead Father,” jumped off the screen the moment I opened it. The topic is powerful, the language insistent, the rhythm and cadence compelling. The repeating structure works, there are strong images, and a smart flash length. [Behind-the-scenes (BTS): We initially wanted this for the Fall 2015 issue, but already had accepted two short works; in Spring, it ran closer to Father’s Day.]

“Did I mention I love writers who welcome editorial feedback…?” (Illustration by Josh Quick)

Paul Pekin’s “Cars” transports the reader to a time when a family’s first automobile changed their lives; it achieves this without sentimentality or saccharine nostalgia. These realistic characters are part of a well-rendered family. The author avoids predictable notes that could have marred such a piece: he doesn’t bemoan modern day cars or pay homage to better-back-then technology. [BTS: The original submission was longer, and we worked with the writer to pare it down, to make it even more Chicago-centric.]

“Tilted,” by Abigail Hickman fulfills that great tenet of creative nonfiction: it seems to be (and is) about one thing—the challenge of getting back to work while suffering from vertigo—but it’s really (also) about something else. I admired the writer’s soft hand, extracting meaning from the events, creating a window into a couple’s unstated expectations. [BTS: Since I’ve had vertigo, was I predisposed to like this? In fact, a piece about something I’ve experienced personally earns heightened skepticism. This is where having submission readers/assistant editors helps, people with different lives and backgrounds.]

The essay “Mermaid for Hire,” by Meaghan Hackinen, felt fresh and engaging, with a younger-than-average voice. It’s part travel, part coming-of-age, as well as a study of work and social cultures. Plus: mermaids! [BTS: We worked with the writer to more finely tune the ending. Did I mention I love writers who welcome editorial feedback and are willing to try something new?]

Melissa Ballard, in “Perfect Child,” delivered a lovely narrative about her dedication to helping speech and language impaired children. The reader feels privileged to glimpse into the narrator’s life over decades and shifting emotional states, at work, at home, and during moments when home, work, family, and professional commitments collide. [BTS: I had so few edits, all minor. A dream submission, the second from a writer I’d invited, in the first rejection, to “send something else”. Yes, editors mean it!]

“Super Summer Spectacular,” by Anthony Mohr was the quintessential piece for our issue that will stay live throughout summer. Reading it for the first time felt like watching a moody VH1 documentary about a lost era, a disappeared place, a fleeting feeling from almost anyone’s youth. The interplay between the narrator, the disc jockey on the airwaves, and the tension between contest drivers, is intelligently paced; tragedy held at bay until the right moment. [BTS: This came to us in a longer form, and we asked Anthony to revise, focusing on the unfolding drama in the middle section. This piece required fact-checking and documentation (occasionally a deal-breaker), but the writer, a retired judge, was armed with the material.]

As I’m making selections, although the writing and story are absolutely paramount, I’m also considering other intangibles. How will the final half-dozen pieces mesh? Have we achieved an interesting mix of writers? What’s the ratio of long to short pieces? Serious to light? Have we balanced memoir, essay, and narrative nonfiction? Is there at least one interesting, edgy, or different form or style? Will any pieces require fact-checking, special permissions, substantial editing/revision, etc.? Are the voices distinct and different, yet all equally strong? Enough variety in subject matter/topic/style?

These six pieces were whittled from a few hundred submissions over six to eight months (we don’t close submissions, so issue reading times overlap). As I recall, just prior to final selections, eight or so other pieces came close to a “yes.” I always try to mention this in a personal rejection note, though as a submitting writer myself, I’m aware it may not be convincing – some journals issue form rejections with what sounds like almost-made-the-cut language too. But when I say, “This came close. I know this piece will find a good home elsewhere,” I mean it. And when, months later, I find one of those pieces published in another journal, I’m genuinely happy for that writer. Have I ever thought, “Why on earth did I let that one go?” Sure. We are all of us, still, always, learning.

Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable. 

Lisa RomeoLisa Romeo’s nonfiction has been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize, and her manuscript was a finalist in the 2015 Rose Metal Press Chapbook contest (CNF category). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Under the Sun, Hippocampus, Word Riot, Sweet, Sport Literate, Gravel, Front Porch, anthologies such as Feed Me! and Why We Ride, and many other places. She is a founding faculty member of Bay Path University’s MFA program, and serves as creative nonfiction editor of Compose Journal. A former equestrian journalist and PR specialist, Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Connect on Twitter @LisaRomeo or at her blog, LisaRomeoWrites.


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Lisa Romeo