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I am wondering if you will ever take time to comment on the mechanics of getting the work out there--to magazines, literary journals, etc. Do you have any advice on that score? And what about asking for critiques from professionals who advertise in places like "Poets & Writers" or "The New York Review of Books"? Any tips at all for those of us just putting our toe in the water (or noose around the neck)? Thanks.
Ah, good question. And let me say that I expect the real wisdom here will show up in the Comments. But for what it’s worth:
On the first question…
The advice I give my students is, first: know the magazine you’re sending to. Read an issue or two. It is, of course, a courtesy to them, assuring, as it does, that your submission isn’t wildly off-base. It’s also smart from your side of the table, for the same reason. (Why send to a place that is a bad fit for your work and therefore more likely to reject you?)
There are so many magazines and journals these days and, as anyone who has ever published in a smaller place can tell you, getting published is sometimes indistinguishable from not having been published at all.
So, it makes sense to do some work in advance of sending your stories out. You want your story to find a good home, in a place that is simpatico and, to the extent that it matters to you, where it will find an actual audience. In my view, there’s a certain line beneath which “having a publication” may not be all that meaningful. This, of course, would depend on your path, your goals, and so on.
But I’ve always been a pretty straightforwardly ambitious writer. I wanted to be published and read as widely as possible so that I could try to make a life of it.
What I did, all those years ago, when I was first trying to break in, was make a spreadsheet. Well, actually, a table, in Word (or maybe, in those ancient days of yore, WordPerfect).
On the vertical axis was a list of ten or so magazines that I dearly wanted to be in. Along the horizontal axis was a list of the four or five stories I considered finished. There wasn’t a magazine on that list that I wouldn’t have been thrilled to have my work in.
I’d set aside Friday afternoons for sending out. I was still at the engineering company and “sending out” meant printing the story nicely and putting it into an envelope and putting some postage on it from the corporate machine, then paying that postage back to the receptionist, then marching my story down to a mailbox over near the neighboring TGIF restaurant, and (drum-roll, please) dropping it in. At which time I would instantly see everything that was wrong with the story. Then I’d consider reaching my arm down the mail-slot, decide against it, and trudge back to work with, oddly, a hopeful heart. (Maybe this time someone would take actually the story!)
And sometimes they did, but not often enough, it felt like.
This approach was useful. It helped me restrict my worrying somewhat. Friday afternoon was the only time, theoretically, that I needed to worry about publishing. (I worried about it all the time, of course, but, when I did, I could just think, “That’s a Friday worry.”)
When a story came back (in those days, some places actually sent the hardcopy back to you, even), I entered a code into the table: “A” for accepted (rare), “R” for rejected, “R*” if I’d gotten an actual letter back with the rejection.
Then I moved to the next magazine down the list. (If, in the rejection, an actual human being had replied, I’d make a point of sending that place the best story I had ready at the moment, with a note thanking them for the note, and so on. I was also mindful not to send something I knew to be “less than” whatever they’d just rejected, in a spirit of protecting that new connection.)
One good thing about the list: it meant that I’d never be published in a place that didn’t excite me. I’d built that into the system, by compiling that list of magazines. If I got accepted, I didn’t have to panic (“Is this magazine good enough?”) or feel that I’d settled, or anything like that. I could just be happy, even ecstatic, and carry that feeling around in my heart all day at work, while photocopying or editing a technical report or trying to explain why I’d forgotten to reimburse the receptionist for postage.
The whole game was: try to get into one of the magazines on my list.
This was before the internet and even before you could walk into a bookstore and find a wide range of literary journals. So, I can’t say that I fastidiously followed the advice I’ve just offered you above (“read every journal you’re sending to”) but I definitely did my research. If, for example, a writer I admired had published a story in a magazine, I’d send to that place. I’d also look at the “Best American” and “O. Henry Prize” collections every year, which had lists of the better literary magazines.
Then, there was the question of whether to submit simultaneously. Is this still a thing? I don’t know. I have, at this point, what’s called a “first-look” deal with The New Yorker and anything I finish goes to them first. (If they reject it, I revise it and try them again. So submitting simultaneously isn’t something I do.)
Back in the day, the conventional wisdom was that it was rude or unprofessional to submit simultaneously; it could get you “black-balled,” whatever that meant in this context (i.e., among literary magazines). I doubt this was ever true. (Although I used to imagine a sort of secret Bat-network among small journals. “Hello, Frank’s Quarterly Review? This is Southern Fictive Express. Blackball Saunders! Repeat: Blackball Saunders!”)
But I can understand the frustration of the magazine editor, working through hundreds of magazines, finding a story she loves, then being told by the author that it’s been sold elsewhere.
Consideration is an important part of this whole process, I think; understanding that the people doing the choosing and editing and writing the rejection letters are our people — they’re us, basically, with the same love of fiction, but in a different life.
Even if, sometimes, they hurt our feelings.
This process – the working-through-the-list aspect of it – meant that the magazines I preferred most would get approached first, and with a tad more, well, reverence.
I’d submit exclusively to the top few magazines on my list – that is, I’d send to them and only them, and happily wait as long as it took to hear back. The New Yorker was first on the list, then Harper’s, Paris Review, The Atlantic. These were the publications that could really change your life, back then, and now.
Below that level, I confess, mea culpa, I’d submit simultaneously. I’d done the math: Let’s say a certain story was destined to be accepted by the tenth place I’d eventually send to. It seemed to take about three months to a year for most places to reject me. This meant that, for that certain story, it could have taken as long as ten years to wade through those nine rejections, before the story was finally accepted.
Which seemed way too long, given my ambition and impatience, and the fact that these felt like vital years; if I was going to make the jump into anything like a full-time writing life, now was the time (I felt).
On only one occasion did I get two acceptances, and the magazine where I chose not to publish asked for another story to replace the first.
How are things now? With submissions now being done electronically, are multiple submissions still frowned upon?
Would be good to hear from a few editors on this issue too. What is it like, going through so many manuscripts? What’s the difference, for you, between a story you reject and one you publish?
There’s much more to be said on all of this, of course – about agents and working with editors and so on, but I think I’ll stop here for today and pick these topics up later.
But: how has it been for you? What are your views and practices on sending out, on publishing?
P.S. On the second question, about paid critiques, I really don’t have much knowledge of that. But I bet some of you out there do. Is it worth doing? Have any of you had good experiences with it? Bad experiences?
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Now journals will note if they don't accept simultaneous submissions, otherwise it's expected. Most accept simultaneous submissions. Everyone should submit simultaneously! Expect to be rejected a lot--and don't take that as a sign of the story's quality. I had a story that was eventually in the O. Henry anthology, and it was rejected 26 times before a (wonderful!) journal picked it up. It's a long game :)
Thank you for tackling this. We launched Esoterica, in part, to give a much needed venue to writers. Those A-list publications you mention are spectacular but frankly impossible to penetrate unless you have an in, or a very good agent. People shouldn't stop pitching them (I do for m own writing!) but it's akin to winning the lottery. Most of all, I recommend that writers send their work out widely (and simultaneously) and keep in mind that all their smaller publishing credits do help build up credibility and an audience, so that they can pitch agents/publishers with more authority.