Potomac Review Associate Editor and first reader, Mike Landweber, blogs about what he looks for in prose submissions.

The reading period for the Potomac Review is about to reopen. As an Associate Editor (and first reader), I’ve reviewed 387 stories for the journal. Of those, I’ve said no to 315, passed along 70 with a (usually weak) maybe suggesting an encouraging note may be in order, and only given two stories a flat out yes. My job is, quite simply, to cull the herd.

But I’m a writer and a reader. Being one informs the other. I know how much effort it took to write your story. I also know that writers tend to make excuses for their own work. I do it myself. In every early draft of every story I write, there are things that need to be fixed. I don’t want to fix them, and I find myself making an excuse for why I don’t need to fix it. Be honest. You do the same thing. As a writer, I empathize with your plight. As a reader, I do not. I will not make any excuses for your story. I will reject it.

That is a harsh truth it took me awhile to believe as a writer. I’ve racked up a lot of rejections with stories that weren’t ready. Many of those stories have found homes once they were fixed. But the second hard truth is even when you have no more excuses for a story, it is going to get rejected often. And you’re not going to know why.

It is the first reader’s job to pass along a variety of quality stories that give the editor choices for the upcoming issue. It is always a two (or more) stage process. The reader does not accept the story. The reader tells the editor that a story might be worth accepting. I don’t know what other readers are passing up the chain. I also don’t know if there has been a run of a certain type of stories, say coming-of-age or dealing with death, that might lead my editor to feel like she’s seen it before or go in the opposite direction and start thinking of putting them all together as a loosely bound theme. So, as long as the story can fit in the very broad category of “literary,” it is fair game for me to pass along.

So what am I looking for as a reader for Potomac Review? The main thing is that I need to read without thinking. I want a piece that makes me think later about your themes and imagery and language. But during that first read, I need to get completely lost in your story. If I think about what you are doing as a writer during a first read, I will reject.

Now, don’t fill up the comments section with rants about how I’m not paying attention to your art because I’m a self-centered so-and-so. I’m reading your work very closely. You’ll hear about lit mags where the reader makes decisions based on the first line. Not me. I read every word of every story. Here are a few of the things that slow me down.

  • Though I read the whole story, you can lose me at the beginning. Read the Hot Openers that are on the Potomac Review website. Those are good examples of hooking someone right away. A clarity of language in your opening paragraph and an immediate sense that the writer knows where the story is going are key.
  • Speaking of language, do not feel that you need to be showy to be well-written. Quite the opposite. Very few writers can get away with the paragraph that is a single sentence. You don’t want to force a reader to flip through the dictionary, except for the occasional perfect word. Simple words, when chosen well and ordered with care, make for beautifully constructed sentences and wonderful writing.
  • A single spelling or grammatical error can ruin the whole story. Sorry if that sounds cruel, but it’s true. Read your work carefully.
  • Every character in a story, no matter how minor, has to be real. If you have a character who has no purpose but to affect the main character or move the action along, I will know it. And I won’t like it. Secondary characters who are one-dimensional can make the whole story flat.
  • It has been said that in every short story the main character has to change. I personally don’t believe this is always true. However, I do feel that characters have to be consistent. If your character does change at the end of the story, I had better believe that it is a change that the character I met at the beginning of the story is capable of and not a convenience bestowed by the writer.
  • Tell me a real story. Sometimes writers excuse themselves from narrative momentum because the piece is short. Don’t.
  • Endings are important. Seriously. If your story has no sense of closure, I will assume it was because you had no idea how to end it and just stopped writing.

The difference between publishing a story and not is often the opinion of one person. That’s the reality. And it does work out. My first published story was in the Potomac Review long before I became a reader for the journal. Someone decided I was worth not rejecting, then the editor chose to accept my story. Yours could be next. I look forward to reading it.