Calling it out

A love letter to calls for submissions

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I’M ON THE prowl, trawling the internet for the next call for submissions. My hunting grounds are writers’ centre websites, Twitter, Instagram and the ‘Discover’ button on Submittable. A new prompt that will set my mind whirring, conjuring ideas for a wacky new story or a meandering, confessional essay. 

These call-outs are posted by literary journals, DIY zinesters and librarians alike, each searching for original content for their latest comp or upcoming edition. I’m besotted with the unsung authors of these prompts. Who are the late-night wordsmiths who come up with endless prompts to such little acclaim? There should be a national prize for the best call-out that honours these generative invitations to think deeply about a topic we’d never previously considered, or to revisit an old obsession from a new direction. They’re such an important part of the literary ecosystem, but we barely acknowledge the craft that goes into them. My world would feel small and dull without these tantalising calls to action. 

But all literary call-outs are not created equal. Some offend with their bland, lazy, catch-all requests for stories about ‘energy’, ‘diversity’ or ‘connection’. An unthemed call-out is an abomination, a creative black hole, a padded cell without a hook to hang your hat on. My mind needs clear boundaries and a strict word limit in which to operate. 

I personally love the most weirdly specific call-outs, which set my brain off in new directions it had never thought to go in:

  • Mama Ovum seeks essays, poetry and fiction on Mother Figures from history, religion, pop culture, mythology, fairytales and ecology. 
  • Transient Planet invites non-fiction and audio work examining the politics of green spaces, from backyards, playgrounds, parks, wildlife preserves to community gardens. 
  • What is Nonstalgia? It’s the wistful imagining of what could have been. The affection for someone you nearly met. The bittersweet pang of an event half-remembered. Send us your most nonstalgic stories, works about real life – with fictional garnish. Nonstalgia Journal wants to know about the adventure you could have had, or the love story you should have pursued. 
  • For our next issue we are seeking archives of the queer sacred. Button-up shirts, trimmed nails, short hair. Bound chests, bare chests. Tenuous codes exchanged by strangers which translate as: I am. Are you?

Sometimes, just having come up with the idea is enough to satisfy me, micro moments for my eyes only:

  • A personal essay about lesbian break-ups and the pain of never getting to say goodbye to my former mother-in-law. 
  • A humorous tale about dog parks and the horror of making small talk while your dog is defecating.  
  • A short story about an Orwellian tech firm that combats complex post-traumatic stress disorder by implanting fake happy childhood memories. (Note to self: don’t just plagiarise Total Recall.)

But the best thing about an intriguing new call-out is that it’s near impossible to not write something new if you want to submit. You can’t jam your shitty old story no other journal wanted into a niche call-out about the pleasure of weekend garage sales. Whether that journal accepts your work or not, at least you’ve got a new piece to play around with at the end. 

Some call-outs have an explicit social-justice purpose, targeting specific kinds of people to promote under-represented voices. Others are for anyone, leading to an unexpected mixtape of off-the-wall interpretations of the same theme. Most don’t pay, even if your work is accepted, and if they do it’s more a symbolic token of appreciation. Some even charge you a reading fee to submit, but it’s a lot less than paying off a thirty-year FEE-HELP debt for a creative writing degree. Because the best thing about calls for submissions is, of course, the deadline. Did anyone ever get anything done without one? 

AFTER CAREFULLY TRAWLING call-outs for close to a decade, I’ve got way more ideas for short stories and essays than I’m ever going to have time to write. Sometimes they sit there in my notes app and percolate for years before I finally get it together and turn them into stories.

Perhaps I’m biased; the first writing accolade I ever received was for my response to an LGBTIQ 750-word themed short story competition. The rather prosaic prompt was ‘open’, which sparked a melancholy little piece about my experience with one-sided polyamory in my twenties. I came in second. Even though I only received a certificate and an ebook, this small moment of recognition meant the world to me. Perhaps this scene will open my debut novel one day. 

A good call-out is an optimistic call to action, an exhortation to keep dreaming, feeling and thinking – but most of all, to find the time to finally commit to the page. 

Have you seen a good one lately? 

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