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I've been publishing in literary magazines since 2005 and, I admit, I'm addicted. I've had four novels accepted for publication to small presses, an offer of a young adult series and yet I always have at least a handful of submissions out there, far beyond what's considered the usual expiry date for writers. I can't seem to stop, though that's crazy given my day job, five kids, and I already mentioned, I'm supposed to be working on that series.
I still remember my first literary magazine acceptance. My story "Spider Places" was accepted by The Dalhousie Review on my twelfth try. It's coming out as part of my novel in stories White Zion and it's still my favorite story.
Yet so many articles written about literary magazines stress the negative side of submissions. Glance through a screenful of a dozen or so literary magazine-related posts on Google and words like "mistake," "worry," "tension," and "anxiety" litter the cyber landscape. Electric Literature advises us on how to deal with the "rejection & anxiety of publishing" in literary magazines. Standout Books describes the submission process as a potentially "incredibly tense" process "that frequently ends in rejection."
The Write Practice site offers tips on how to avoid rejection while simultaneously telling us to embrace it. I'm not denying any of this.
If you read enough of these posts, you would be right to conclude there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who can barely leave the house, so shaken are they by the idea that they might not get their submission accepted to a literary magazine.
It is only a jump away from there to recognizing that if we were a caring society, we'd get to work on a team of therapists to help these poor souls who seem to do nothing but wander to Submittable and back to their blank screens. Indeed, the Juggling Writer tells "impatient writers" the truth about the various Submittable statuses, so that we can all get back to writing and stop checking the site. When these pitiable people do receive a rejection (statistically 99 percent of stories are rejected), the luckiest space they can end up in after that is the one that allows them to see the whole harrowing experience as one of growth.
I'm here to say there's another perspective.
Don't get me wrong. I check Submittable, I have a permanent address on Rejection Street, and it can get me down, especially with rejections like the one I had recently, "I really liked your story but it's a question of space."
But I'm never down for long and that's because I see submissions to literary magazines as more than a process of either having a story rejected or accepted. That's the small picture view.
I prefer the big picture view as follows:
Fun. Submitting to a literary magazine is the closest I'll ever come to gambling (spinning a dreidel on Hanukkah doesn't count). Think of Submittable as a giant slot machine or blackjack table. Every person in a casino knows the stakes are stacked against them, yet casinos are often overflowing? Why is that? Because beating long odds is fun.
When you pull the lever and win after endless losses, let's be honest, you feel on top of the world, at least for a few minutes. If it's a prestigious magazine or one step up from your previous publications (which is all that counts), you'll be on a high for a lot longer. There's an adrenalin rush that's exhilarating and, unlike gambling, it normally only costs your time and occasionally a few dollars if you're the type who is okay with paying for submissions.
Feedback. There are still editors out there who will take the time to provide a couple of lines of feedback and that's invaluable. I have revised entire stories based on a few words of freely offered feedback and then had them accepted by another publication.
Connections. Literary magazine editors are actual people and writers should keep that in mind when they submit. This counts if your story is accepted and even if it's not. In other words, take the long view when you respond to editors: be polite, friendly, and try to stand out without overdoing it. This can be as subtle as "liking" their social media page or following them on Instagram or signing up to their newsletter. Many lit mag editors appreciate regular readers and your name might stand out on your next submission.
Submissions are a two-way street. The submission process is a give and take. Don't believe me? Convinced you are powerless? You're not.
I'll give you a real example. I wrote a young adult novel titled No Entry about a heroine who uncovers a poaching ring in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Not content with waiting around for publisher feedback, I submitted excerpts to environmental literary magazines. I found one.
When my novel was accepted for publication and I needed to find back cover blurbs, I was stuck. I don't know many young adult authors and I don't know any environmental or eco young adult authors. And I was supposed to come up with at least three. Then it hit me. What better back cover blurb than one from the editor of an environmental literary magazine? And what better environmental literary magazine than one that recently published my excerpt?
A few short, polite emails later and success! The editor agreed to give me a blurb. Remember, most magazine editors are writers themselves and they need publicity, too. A blurb means her novel title gets on the back cover of my book and in other editorial reviews I would post, such as Amazon. In addition, most people are happy to be nice and helpful if you ask.
You can also use your interaction with editors for recommendations for writer retreats and that old standby: encouragement. After riding on a packed highway of rejections for a while, there's nothing like that one editor who takes the time to tell you how much she identified with your story. Save those messages!
Not only will they cheer you up when you're down about your writing, but those editors just might be the ones you choose to email when you turn that story into a collection and need a pre-publication review or back cover blurb for your novel.
Thanks to The Review Review for publishing this blog on their site.
Thanks for your February Fiction Addiction. I so look forward to your emails. I have to comment on Viva Literary Magazines. What a great article. I love, love, love it. You take the mystery out of the submission process. I'm still reading Munro and writing. I miss your courses. They have empowered me. E.M.
Thanks so much, Ellen. I'm delighted to read your comment. It's really a pleasure to read. Thank you for taking the time. It's meaningful.