Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Submit, all ye who enter

I started thinking about story (and poem) submissions to literary journals when a friend said she was going to start sending some out. I've been doing that for a few years now, and our conversation made me realize how much I've learned since then. I thought maybe I could help someone out a little with that learning curve, if in fact anyone in need of help is reading this.

1. Where to submit?

Journals you like--if you like what they do, the odds are higher that they'll like what you do. Don't know any journals well enough to make that assessment? Go read some. This needn't be all that expensive or time-consuming; you don't need to subscribe, but one issue from the newsstand or library, or a serious peruse of the mag's online archive (if it has one) would really help you decide if it's worth your time to submit--and worth the editors' time to read your work.

Ok, ok: If you are extremely talented and extremely patient, you can get published without reading the journals you submit to--you're just going to wind up sending a lot of inappropriate places and getting a lot of nos first. Some journals only take a certain genre, or style of writing... Also, every journal I can think of wants new, fresh voices (show me the journal that is after "staid and tired" writing) but exactly how edgy they want writing to be, how fractured, how weird or funny or linear is various. Those are style issues that could cause perfectly good writing to get rejected because it doesn't fit the journal's aesthetic.

A great list of litmags, as well as contests and calls for submissions, is available from the generous folks at [places for writers] (no, I don't know what what the brackets are about, but it's still a great site). The Canadian list there is a little weak on genre magazines; there's a few science fiction ones, but I don't see any for mystery or horror. I think those are perhaps more common in the states, but genre and American publications are two areas I know little about. Sorry.

2. Paid or unpaid?

Doesn't matter in the slightest. Many perfectly good journals don't pay, or pay in copies, or in beer, or in love. If you would like to do this writing thing long term, it would help to become comfortable with that. Here's why: If you should ever keep track of all the hours spent writing and rewriting a given piece of creative work, and then divide that into whatever you end up getting paid when it's published (and I would strongly discourage you from doing this), nothing any journal could ever offer you is likely to approach minimum wage. And since any amount of money isn't really going to be right, maybe $0 is only just as incorrect as any other amount.

The one thing writer payments guarantee is that the journal has the respect of subscribers, advertisers and/or granters to some substantial degree. Money doesn't promise that it's a good journal, but it does indicate someone thinks it is. So it can be harder, if doubt your own judgement, when you find a non-paying journal that you like the look of, to know what anyone else thinks of it. Ask around, maybe read a couple issues (so you know it's not a fly-by-night)--good work is usually known. Submit to journals you respect, that you'd be proud to appear in, and that oughta be that.

The one exception to the money-doesn't-matter rule is when you are working towards applying for grants. Both Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council require writers to have a certain number of publications paid in cash (no copies, beer, or love) in order to be eligible for grants. If you plan on seeking grants, this is something to be aware of.

3. What about this simultaneous submission thing?

I'd get more rejections if I could send the same stories to multiple journals at the same time (that's what a simultaneous submission is, der). But many journals don't allow that, which is I think a rather author-unfriendly policy, but it's not my ball; I can't play by my own rules. Several journals I admire and would love to be published in have that rule, so I suck it up and let them hold my story for 9 months before they reject it and I am free to send it elsewhere.

Not an ideal situation, but better than a) not submitting to journals I admire or b) lying. I have to admit, the tales of simultaneous-submission renegades getting blacklisted/scorned/never published again/shunned at parties are vague and apocryphal, but I still think honesty is the way to go, if only for it's own sake, and the sake of keeping your submission tracking chart (mine's in Excel) clean.

If you should screw up and, despite the Excel chart, send something to two places by accident (I've done this; Excel is confusing), just write and withdraw one; no need to admit the gaffe and say why, as long as you do it promptly.

4. Are you ready for rejection?

I was terrified to submit to professional publications--and didn't--for 10 years. There were several reasons for this, but basically it boiled down to the fact that I wasn't ready to have my work read by strangers, whether by hundreds of subscribers to a journal, or by a single editor flipping idly through her in-box. I didn't think my work was good enough to stand up to criticism, but also my own little ego wasn't tough enough to accept rejection and use criticism effectively.

Rejection stings. It makes you doubt your work, your ability to select the correct forum for your work, your ability to judge, and is also just sad and annoying. I used to lose a couple days' writing time every time I got a "no", but now it's down to only a couple hours. The time away from the story actually often gives some distance and insight, and by the time I get the no I might have already figured out what's wrong with it, and other times I haven't at all but the kindly feedback in the rejection helps me do so. And yet other times I've felt that it was the editor's loss and I immediately sent the story elsewhere. In all events, the story is exactly what it was before it got rejected, and if it's not good yet, I generally have faith in myself that I'm capable of making it that way.

Don't submit until you feel that way. I have been alarmed recently to get several form rejection letters that said, "This rejection does not mean you're not a good writer," and in one case (jokingly???) "...a good person." What kind of rejection responses are those journals getting if they feel they need to include this? Writing is very personal and very important if you do it right, but to keep doing it, one needs at least a little distance. If everyone who ever wrote anything dumb and/or was misunderstood by others let it crush them, there would be no writers left. I get more than 20 rejections a year (not counting grant applications, contest entries or dating)--I can't afford the time to be blown apart by them.

5. What if I hear nothing?

Most journals have an ETA on responses published in their submissions guidelines, and though it's hard, it's pretty much good manners to wait until that time has well and truly passed before emailing to ask what they've done with your beautiful story (ie., if they say they'll get back to you in 6 months, try to get more than a day past that before you email...if possible).

Most editors or assistants or interns will actually go figure it out and tell you if your work has passed to some higher level of editorial deliberation, or if the rejection is in the mail, or what. Occasionally the work is lost, and they have no record of receiving it, which makes that 6-month wait really sting. Even more occasionally, I get no response at all to my query. In that case, I wait a week and then send another note withdrawing the submission, which usually goes unacknowledged, too. Strangely, when this happens, I have twice gotten a rejection letter for the story about two months later. Quel bizarre.

Sidenote: do as I say, not as I do: write down how long you are supposed to wait (three months, six months, whatevs) before querying, and then query after that long. Don't be like me who carefully logs story submissions, then forgets about them for months and feels like a giant loser writing to a journal to admit I lost track of a story I love for an entire year. Yes, this happens to me.

6. How should I format my work?

I'm not touching this; almost every journal has a very similar set of formating guidelines with one little wonky thing, often to do with headers/footers. Do whatever they say; seriously, it's respectful and proves you're not outsmarted by MS Word. If there's actually nothing given, ok, fine: use the default settings and font on your computer, double-space for prose and single for poetry, your name and the page number on the tope right of every page. Use white paper and envelopes; resist the lure of stickers.

Oh, and be really respectful about maximum word counts. You don't get far in the editorial community without being able to eyeball a wordcount in 15 seconds, no matter what spacing is used.

I hope that helps...I actually have no idea if it does or not. If I've left out something crucial, or am actually doing everything all wrong, please let me know!! It's fun and exciting and crushing and thrilling to have work in the world and although this post somehow got monsterously long, it's really not that stressful. Highly recommended, really!

Then begin again


Laura said...

Great advice! The only point I quibble with is the simultaneous submission one...

Yes, an extremely author-unfriendly policy, and one I'm not inclined to follow. It has been my (unfortunate) experience that the likelihood of being accepted by two or more journals at one time is very, very low. I have only had a "problem" once, and it wasn't even a problem -- after being accepted by Journal A, I withdrew the recently-sent story from Journal B, no explanation given, as you suggest. It was all fine, as far as I know.

The onus SHOULD be on the journal to read and accept/reject your work in a timely manner. Having worked at such a journal and seeing the sheer strength of volunteerism that gets this work done, I know that "should" is not really the point... However, I also don't want to wait around for 9 (plus) months to get rejected/paid $100 (or nothing at all).

I think the best journals are the ones that respect the writing they receive -- they do their best to respond quickly, knowing that they are not the only game in town.

As a side note, I also use an Excel spreadsheet to track! I also find Excel confusing!

August said...

Great post. The part I always struggle with when I get rejection letters is trying to balance my opinion with the opinion of the editor who rejected it (I've been lucky and gotten some excellent feedback, especially lately). Sometimes I feel like they've missed the point of the piece, and I need to send it back out as is, and sometimes I feel like the piece needs to be stronger before sending it out again, but what most often happens is that I can't tell if it's really weak and I'm just being stubborn, or if it does exactly what I think it does and just hasn't found the right editor. I'm very much a 'theory' writer, so a lot of the choices I make have to do with things other than character or narrative or even sentence flow (because to me, the 'point' of the story is about something else entirely), but it's not how most people read new work, so I find I'm often hitting a wall in that regard. It makes finding places to submit really difficult as well; I find most of the journals I really like to read don't publish what I like to write. I probably make this issue a bigger source of anxiety than I should, but I don't get the typical writerly anger/depression from rejection letters, so I've had to transfer my emotional damage to *something* writerly. :p

AMT said...

great post indeed! ... it's fun and illuminating to read about another world's land of journal submissions -- very similar to mine, and yet rather different.

for what it's worth -- in my field (linguistics) the 'no simultaneous submission' point is taken VERY seriously. people will ALL hate you as soon as they find out you have done such a thing.

... however. i guess the difference between your field and mine (among many others) is the issue of peer review -- when i submit something to a journal, they will (eventually) send it to two to four other linguists, anonymously, whose job is NOT just to write reviews but also do all the things that every other professional linguist does (like research and teaching and advising and attempting to write their own damn papers) and then ask THEM to read it and think about it and comment on it and everything.

so -- if i submit to two places, i may well be asking two sets of reviewers to do so, and one set redundantly so. which i guess makes it a lot worse than your field. i know that if i found out i had spent ages writing a review and then it was moot, i would feel much rage against the author. ... i do know one case of it. and really, nobody is talking to that author now. certainly not publishing their papers. ... they already have tenure, so they are not really screwed, but they ARE shunned.

anyway. go team us. i wish i could tell everyone to publish everything you write... but then, i wish you could do the same for me.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

All interesting responses--thanks, guys! The argument against simultaneous submissions in lit mags is the same as linguistic ones, I guess: that editors are spending time reading and discussing the stories, and it's a bugger to find it's for nothing.

And the argument *for* is that the consideration process is hardly as formal as with academic journals. If a journal keeps a story for 6-8 months, that's approaching a similar amount of time to how long I worked on the story. But while I likely did a bit on that story every day for much of that period, most writers firmly believe that for most of 6 months, editors are *not* reading and considering their work but keeping it in a carefully ordered pile. Though they do work hard to choose the best work, the time and effort and love investment in a single piece is simply not equal between the writer and the journal.

Says me. My brief experiences volunteering at journals seems to back this up--editorial committees read each story once and wrote a brief paragraph response--but those weren't hardly the best journals, nor was I the best volunteer. Maybe I simply wasn't working hard enough.

Which is why, in the end, I grudgingly respect journals' right to refuse simultaneous submissions. They take their work seriously, and since I want them to do the same for mine, I have to do the same for them.