Tuesday, July 13, 2010

submitting to literary journals: a beginner's guide

 A selection of rejection letters.

You may have noticed that I'm been straying from my Tuesday/Thursday recipe posts. This is because it is summer in East Texas, and the thought of turning on my oven has me paralyzed. Until I get out of my cooking slump or until November, whichever comes first, recipes will be sporadic at best. In the meantime, I thought I'd write some "how to" type posts for those of you who have asked me questions in the comments, and we're going to start with one of my favorites: Submitting Your Work to Literary Journals. Whether you're an aspiring writer who doesn't know where to start, an old hand who can add your own wisdom to the steps outlined below, or someone who's muse is stuck in a rut: this is for you.

Now, I'm not a best selling author and I'd hardly call myself an expert at the publishing biz, but I am an accomplished Submitter, having amassed an impressive number of rejections and even snagged a few well placed publications. I like to think I've learned a few things over the last two years of consistently submitting my work, and if my lessons can help someone else, all the better!

1. Write. This might seem obvious, but you have to have something worthy of submitting before you even start looking at journals. So write your heart out and then, share your work with a trusted friend, preferably someone who enjoys reading and doesn't mind being honest. (If you have no friends, there is a great online workshop community called Zoetrope - check it out!) Never submit your first draft - make sure you revise and edit until you feel your work is as polished as possible, and then edit again. Typos are nobody's friend, and competition will be fierce. Don't let sloppy work ruin your chances.

2. Research what's out there
. Next to writing, this is the most time consuming part of trying to get published. There are a lot of literary journals, and finding the one that is perfect for your work can be tricky. One useful tool is the website Duotrope, which can search it's database of journals according to your specifications (genre, print vs. online, paid vs. free copies, etc.). There are also many lists out there that rank journals, which can help you figure out which ones are top tier, second tier, etc. Don't be afraid to start by shooting for the top - you never know, and you can always move down to smaller journals when/if you get rejected. Another good trick is to think of authors you love, authors who write how you (long to) write, and see where they've been published.

 Rejection by sticker, which was nice!

3. Read the guidelines. Seriously - read them! If you write poetry, do not submit to a journal that specializes in nonfiction. If your story is about love and marriage, you shouldn't bother sending it to a magazine who's focus is terminal disease. Read the submission guidelines carefully and make sure you follow them all - word count, formatting, deadlines, reading periods, whether you should submit via snail mail or online, if simultaneous submissions are allowed. Check the masthead for the current editor's names, and address your cover letter accordingly. (I like to address my cover letter to the prose editor when available rather than the editor-in-chief, as the genre editors are more likely to read your work first.)

One thing almost ever journal recommends is to read their current or past issues before submitting, in order to get a feel for what they publish. While this is a great idea in theory, it's not really feasible. Ideally, you will be submitting each story to at least 5 journals at once. If you buy and read all those journals first, you will be broke and have no time to actually write and revise your own work. A good compromise is to see if the journal publishes any of their shorter pieces online and read those instead, thus saving you time and money. And when you can, do support all the literary magazines you can. Not only to become familiar with their styles, but because if writers don't support them, who will?

4. The cover letter
. Most journals require a cover letter with your submission. Keep it simple and professional. Editors read thousands of cover letters each reading period, and the last thing they want is to read about your dog, your childhood, every class you took as an undergrad, and what your favorite color is. Mine usually goes something like this:
"Dead Editor,
Enclosed is my short story, "How to be Famous," which I hope you will consider for publication in Very Fine Journal. I am a graduate of the creative writing program at SUNY Purchase and have been published in the summer 2010 issues of LIT Magazine and the online journal, Forge. Currently, I live and work in a small town in the middle of nowhere called Nacogdoches, where I spend my spare time training for marathons and applying to MFA programs.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Christine Hennessey"
Short, professional, and a little bit of personality. For the most part, you want your submission to the bulk of the talking.

5. SASE, SS, ETC. If you're submitting by mail, send a self addressed stamped envelope (SASE) to make responding easier on the journal. And whenever possible, only submit to journals that accept simultaneous submissions. There is nothing worse than having a story tied up for 4 to 6 months with a journal, when you could have it out at 5 journals, increasing your chances of an acceptance. I had a professor who advised us to submit our stories to five journals at once, and then, once it was rejected by all five, to revise and submit again to another five journals. Some of his stories had been rejected over 30 times before they finally got published!

A personal note from the editor. Almost as good as an acceptance.

6. Submit and keep track. Once you've found the right journals, read the submission guidelines, and submitted your work according to all the criteria of the journals, keep track of where your work is. I use an excel spreadsheet, which I update whenever I hear back about a submission. I have columns for story title, journal, submission date, estimated time of response, submission method, the journal's response, and notes (like if the editor included a personal PS at the end of a rejection, which is a rare treat). When you really get going, you'll have seven stories out to 35-40 journals at any given moment, and keeping track is vital if you want to look professional.

7. Write. Waiting back to hear from journals is not an excuse to take a break and rest your weary mind. Ignore your submissions. When you get a response, update your spreadsheet, file it away, and forget about it. Writing and publishing is not for the faint of heart. You will be rejected and, if you're doing it right, you'll be rejected often. Don't take this personally, and instead look at is evidence that you are actively writing, revising, sending out work, and then revising it again. Publishing is 90% perseverence - if you try hard enough, for long enough, eventually you'll find a home for your work. But in the meantime, don't quit your day job.

I hope that helps anyone who's thinking about publishing their work. If you have any questions, anything to add, or think something I've suggested is a totally bad idea, please let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!

See those names on the back cover of LIT? One of them is mine. :)