Note: this post is part of a series from a class on submitting work to literary journals created for the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program.
In my last post I looked at some of the reasons writers don’t submit their work. Now let’s discuss some ways around (over, under, through) common road blocks writers face on the way to hitting send. Warning: there’s homework.
STRATEGY#1: Strengthen and reinforce aspects of the self in preparation for taking a creative risk.
How? By developing clearer links between the aesthetic and personal goals that define your creative practice and your professional goals as they relate to publication.
Why? Because being clear about said values and goals helps minimize the distractions presented by all the toothy demons we writers must face.
I came across a handy template by the writer James Scott, designed to help writers assess the content of literary journals, and have used some of his questions below.
Homework assignment #1: Take twenty minutes to consider your own writing and answer the following questions, noting that each reflects a continuum.
- Where does your (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) fall on a continuum of realism to surrealism?
- Classic or experimental structure?
- Is it serious or humorous, plain-spoken or style heavy?
- What kinds of conflicts do your (stories, essays, poems) address: everyday conflicts (family problems), darker conflicts (murder/violence), stranger conflicts— or are you a fan of the “story of ideas”?
- Is your emphasis on character, or setting, language, or plot? Etc.
Here are a couple of things I discovered when I stepped back a little and tried to articulate my aesthetic and personal values—I found I had a clear way to assess whether or not a literary journal would be a good fit for my writing. For example, I enjoy both plot-oriented and experimental writing, but plotted stories with unsexy sentences don’t interest me, and experimental writing that aims for the intellect rather than the heart causes my attention to drift. Also, while I am not a designer, how a publication (be it a print or an online journal) looks matters to me. In terms of personal values, I am interested in literature that addresses moral questions— I am totally averse to moralizing. This means that overtly political literary journals, “themed” issues that address various political, environmental, or social ills, don’t appeal—even if I share the politics or the views espoused.
You may be a writer who is unconcerned with appearances, in terms of design. You may be a political firebrand, and your creative work might express that fact. Awesome! There are literally hundreds of literary journals out there. Find the ones that reflect not just your desire to see your name in print, but that relate to your personal and aesthetic vision.
Now, onward to clarifying professional goals—another valuable tool for evaluating where you will send your work.
Homework assignment #2: take ten minutes to rank the items in the list below in terms of importance to your professional goals. What matters most to you in a literary journal?
- both print and online content
- current contributors
- opportunities to collaborate
- cross-disciplinary focus
- new media savvy
Once you’ve ranked your priorities, you’ve got an excellent way to rank literary journals when you begin the process of researching and reading them. In the meantime, let’s do a little info housekeeping.
STRATEGY #2: Dispense with misinformation, and learn about how the editorial process works.
This part is easy!
No journal worth its salt gives publishing preference to subscribers. Note, however, that some journals allow subscribers to submit outside the “regular” submissions period. This seems like a fair courtesy to extend to writers who support a publication by subscribing to it.
Don’t submit work to publications that charge more than a nominal fee ($3–$4) for submissions unless you are entering a contest. Charging more than the cost of processing and reading submissions (say, $20!) is unethical, no matter what the rationale.
You! You are special and unique, there is no one like you, but ya know what? I’ll bet there are people out there who share your concerns, your personal and aesthetic values, and your love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You just have to find them. More on this in a moment.
Holding out for a book means you are missing an opportunity to participate in the larger literary conversation right now. It also smacks of perfectionism, which is a hideous monster that will try to bite your ankles every time you sit down at your desk. From a practical standpoint, holding out for a book is also a terrible idea. Publishers want to know they are taking a gamble on a writer who is willing and able to do some legwork on their own behalf.
Nobody reads short stories, poems, essays. Nobody reads literary magazines. Not true! You do! Otherwise, why do you expect people to read or publish your work?
As for the editorial process, author Lynne Barrett has summarized it so thoroughly on The Review Review’s web site (an invaluable resource for writers) that I can’t think of anything to add. She does make a few points I’d like to reiterate here:
- The editor’s job is the stewardship of the journal. Your job is to send the editor work that meets the journal’s aesthetic standards. This includes formatting your work per their specifications, which you will no doubt find on the journal’s web site.
- Keep good records. (More on this in my next post).
- Don’t brood over rejections. Move on.
- When your work is accepted, write a thank you note, READ the entire issue, and if you like work by other contributors, let them know.
- A direct quote from Barret: “You can’t expect to be a professional if you don’t do your own homework.”
Your homework, part 3: take ten minutes to read Barrett’s article, “What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines.” Yes, the whole thing.
STRATEGY #3: Establish relationships; be a good egg.
Before we move on to the nitty gritty, organizational stuff, I want to suggest one more way to create more explicit and clear connections between your private, creative realm and the public arena, and that requires shifting the emphasis from the self to others. To put it another way, gatekeepers are people, too.
But how do you develop a relationship with the anonymous person or people on the receiving end of your anonymous submission?
Simple. See my next post.