For me, the hardest part of being a writer comes well after the writing and the revising and the reading aloud and the staring blankly at my computer screen for hours on end. It’s that moment when I realize it’s time to send out my work.
One of my aunts likes to tell the story of putting her oldest child on the bus for his first day of kindergarten. He stood in the aisle and waved to her and she waved back and all was going great until the bus suddenly started moving and she watched as her son fell in the aisle and then the bus drove away with her kid sprawled out on the floor. That’s how I feel when I send out my work: I hope it’s okay, I hope it has a good day, but I also know I have no control over it once it’s been submitted. It’s hard to send out your work, to not be able to control something which you have had complete control over from inception. And literary magazines are flooded with submissions. Anyone with a computer and a Submittable account can send out work. So how can you make your work stand out? How can you find a home for your stories? Here are a few tips and cautionary tales.
Revise, Revise Revise. And then revise one last time. Do not send out work with glaring errors. I’ve been a general reader for two journals, and I am often taken aback by the lack of editing in some stories. Spell check is a must. Asking another person to read over the work and look for grammatical errors is highly recommended. If you send out a story with misspelled words and missing periods and improper capitalization, then you are sending the message that you don’t care about your work. And why should an editor who has 100 or 500 or 900 other submissions to read care either? Your work is your ambassador, and if it’s sloppy and riddled with errors, it reflects poorly on you.
Be a rule follower. If a journal asks for you to submit your manuscript in an rtf. file in Courier font but your manuscript is in Times New Roman and saved as a doc., you better make some changes before submitting. If a journal is only accepting e-mail queries but you prefer to send an SASE, or if a journal is only accepting CNF pieces but you really think your poem would be an excellent fit, or if they are only reading for a themed issue about circus animals but you really want to send them your touching story about a dysnfucnctional family – you get my point. Journals have rules for a reason. It doesn’t matter if your 4000 word story is fantastic if the journal only accepts pieces up to 2500 words. If you can’t be bothered to read and adhere to the submission guidelines, a journal will not bother with you.
Along the same lines, if you are submitting a cover letter, make sure you address it to the correct journal. Dear Journal X, I hope you enjoy this story about kitten vampires I wrote today! Except you sent it to Journal Y. Also, no one can write a good story in a day. And yet I’m always surprised by how many people will say that in their cover letter. Or something along the lines of “I hope you enjoy this – my mom loved it!” I hope your mom loved your story. That should be a given, along with, “This story contains words.” Keep your bio and cover letter short and sweet.
Keep track of your submissions. Everyone has their own system and there’s no right or wrong way, so find what works for you. There are several online submission trackers. Duotrope’s Digest and Writer’s Database are both free and purportedly user friendly. I use a word document on my computer to keep track of which journals I submitted to and on what date. I have one color to denote flat-out rejections (Dear Author), a different color to denote “positive” rejections, what one writer friend dubbed 2nd tier rejections, which are those rejections that are more personal in nature, where an editor lets you know they read your work and enjoyed it but it didn’t fit their current needs. I have a third color for acceptance, a fourth color for withdrawals. You can denote journals that are online only, journals that charge reading fees or that host contests, etc. It doesn’t matter if someone else were to stumble across your spreadsheet or submission tracker and mistake it for hieroglyphics. Just make sure you can decipher it.
Research where to submit. Again this is a rather personal choice. Some people don’t mind being published in an online only journal, others prefer the more traditional paper ones. Subscribing to a variety of journals is always a good idea, not only to support the journals themselves, but also to discover if your work would be a good fit. If you really like Journal X and they tend to print experimental fiction, yet you write traditional narratives, you should keep looking. There are hundreds of journals out there. And most journals understand that you are submitting your story to a variety of journals. Twitter is a good resource for finding which journals have open submissions or which ones are actively seeking work. There are tons of resources. I personally have used http://www.newpages.com which not only has links to a bunch of literary magazines but also has a link for contests and calls for submissions. Poets and Writers, found at http://www.pw.org, is another good resource as is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, http://www.awpwriter.com. The back of the The Best American Short Stories yearly anthology also has a list of journals.
And finally, good luck. Sending out your work can be discouraging. It can make you want to drink heavily and complain bitterly. I could say don’t take rejections personally, to take each rejection as a chance for personal growth, but honestly I don’t know if I believe that. Rejections are part of the process. But so are acceptances. And my cousin ended up having a great first day of kindergarten despite falling face first on the bus so maybe keep that in mind as you send out your literary babies into the wide world.