The Long(er) View
My inaugural blog post! (from 2009....imported from my old site):
A little over a year ago, I was invited to guest edit prose submissions for an American literary journal that has been in existence for many years. It has a devoted subscriber base, and the poems and stories its editors select often appear in the annual "Best of" anthologies.
I was a contributor to a recent issue and one of several fiction writers and poets who were asked to guest edit for an upcoming issue. The editors assigned me 600 submissions which I downloaded from the journal's Submission Manager. (In case you're not familiar with this Web software, it was created by Devin Emke several years ago and has since been adopted by dozens of journals and presses because it reduces the waste and expense of paper submissions. It also allows many journals' far-flung screeners easy access to the hundreds, often thousands, of submissions that literary journals receive during their open reading periods.)
The journal I was guest editing for accepts submissions year-round, both paper and online. They do not charge a fee for online submissions, but many journals now do. In the download from the journal's Submission Manager that I did last March, there were 7,600 files. I was humbled, appalled, and a little bit dazzled. So many hopeful writers, so many poems, short stories and essays. These 7,600 submissions were only a portion of what the four main editors read through every year. I have no idea how many paper submissions they also receive. Probably at least several hundred a month. The editors are inundated, obviously, and it usually takes a full year to receive a response from them on unsolicited submissions. Not ideal, but writers do get a fair, patient reading of their work, and simultaneous submissions are allowed.
When I started opening and reading my 600 assigned files, of which approximately 350 were prose submissions, I felt, I have to admit, discouraged. For a few reasons:
1) Here was further proof of just how many people were hoping to publish their writing and become authors, not just unknown scribblers, i.e. FIERCE competition for a very small number of acceptances!
2) Most of these writers were submitting work that would a) never be good enough for publication but they didn't seem to have any sense of this - either because they were new writers and/or did not read enough to know what makes prose or poetry good, even great, and b) their work might only be ready for publication after much focused revision, something that requires both humility and a ruthless hand.
3) Here was disconcerting and maddening evidence that my stories would, more often than not, be lost in this heaping slush pile when I sent them to the many literary journals I have been submitting to for the past 16 years. It didn't seem to matter that my cover letter included credits such as Best American Short Stories, New England Review, Meridian, Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, AWP's Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and that I had published more than 25 short stories by that time and 30 poems in reputable literary journals.
I found myself asking the clutter on my desk: Why is it taking me so long to find homes for my stories if this is the competition? (Sounds ungracious, sure, but I was miffed and feeling more than a little desperate - more on this below). And, why am I even asking this question? Most editors are overwhelmed and probably so tired that many must look for any excuse, no matter how inconsequential, not to read beyond the first two paragraphs (or, in some cases, the first two sentences).
Which brings me to this post's main point - if you want your creative work to be accepted for publication at a reputable literary journal that will actually spend money to print your story, poem or essay, send you contributors' copies and possibly an honorarium check, you have to make sure of the following:
a) Your work is actually ready to be considered by an overworked, underpaid (or unpaid) editor, i.e. you have spent serious time writing, adoring, despising, rewriting, dreaming about and distancing yourself from your poem, story or essay. This means that you should not send out work that has only been in existence for a day or a week or a month. Your excitement and relief over having created something new, often against considerable odds, is certainly great as a motivator to keep writing, but it is mostly ego-driven and what you need to assess your work is, again, humility, and a little self-doubt. Time is the only reliable resource, along with experience. Experienced published writers know when something isn't ready for submission (but even then they sometimes ignore their internal censor.) But! Try not to give in - hold off on the story, poem, essay for a few more weeks, have a trusted friend or tolerant teacher (preferably a published writer) read your new work and weigh in. If you're going to be truly good and maybe great, you have to get used to hearing criticism, especially criticism from a well-meaning friend/critic who understands what you're trying to do with your work.
b) Your first sentence/line/paragraph/page must feature prose or poetry so fresh, imaginative and engaging that it will be all but impossible for a screener to stop reading. [How does such writing come into being? It's like alchemy - the secrets remain secret, which is frustrating (and fortunate for those who have discovered these secrets)].
c) Proofread very, very carefully - on the page, not just on the screen. A lot of the submissions I read for the journal last year were sloppy - not proofread or formatted correctly and some entries weren't even literate - grammar, spelling, punctuation errors abounded, and these elements matter because if you have a lot of trouble with the mechanics of writing, few will be able to understand what you're trying to convey on the page. No one wants to work even harder than s/he already is when reading submissions from the slush pile.
d) Avoid cliches and uninteresting or ill-fitting titles. One title was so crazy and bad that I still laugh today over it - the writer was using rapper slang and it came across in a comical way that didn't work anywhere close to the way I'm sure the author intended it to.
This must all sound very harsh, and maybe you think I long to be Simon Cowell, but honestly, I don't. It's just this: Writing is *hard*. And writing with inspiration, affection, and occasionally with genius, even harder. Much harder.
I've been submitting to journals for a lot of years, as I mentioned above, and even though I've published poems, and more than 30 stories now, it's only this year that I'll finally see my first book in print - a story collection titled Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry (out in November from the University of Massachusetts Press - which, by the way, is staffed by great, kind and tolerant book lovers).
The number of rejection letters I've defiantly or dejectedly pulled from my mailbox is well over a thousand, probably three or four thousand. I started writing seriously in college in the early '90s because I had so much nervous energy, a romantic, witless heart, and the usual sense that I was special and had something to say. I'm still hoping that's true, as I did back then. Rejection letters, like break-ups, are a hazard of being a romantic. You put up with them because the successes are often so memorable and sweet.
I'm also very stubborn, and you have to be if you're going to keep sending out work that has been rejected 45 times (as is the case with one of the stories in Portraits), or even 20, which is about where "Quality of Life" was, four years after I'd written it, when the lovely New England Review editors, Stephen Donadio and Carolyn Kuebler, picked it up. They published it in their Summer 2007 issue, and several months later, I got a call from Carolyn saying that Heidi Pitlor and Salman Rushdie had selected "Q of L" for Best American Short Stories 2008. "Q of L" was my twenty-first published story, and basically, I hadn't really believed that any of my stories would ever appear in this anthology, one I first noticed in high school, my heart beating maniacally as I read story after story, fiction that seemed so expert and true and meaningful that I couldn't imagine ever writing something one-quarter as good.
If you want to publish your work, you have to be stubborn and defiant when confronting rejection letters, but you must also be capable of assessing your strengths and weaknesses with a harsh and humble eye. You have to read all of the time. All Of The Time. (This is non-negotiable - when other writers say this, they're not kidding either.) And the books you read should be by writers with minds greater than your own. Their books should make you turn to your own work and think, "I will never be as good as they are." And then you have to sit down and try to be as good.