Recently, I had six out of seven pieces I sent out last spring accepted at literary magazines. If you know that prior to this I’d only published around six essays over a span of twelve years, then you can guess how thrilled I am. I’ve had my reasons for publishing so little-- namely taking a long hiatus from sending stuff out. But I’ve also heard it said that for every acceptance you garner, you will receive about 20 rejections-- and my track record up until now definitely supports this ratio. In fact, I submitted one of my recently published pieces, “Awareness,” 21 times before it finally found its home!
About ten years ago, I first started submitting to literary journals in earnest while in grad school. I’d send out a piece to about five different places, then wait, and wait… for mostly rejection. Some of my pieces might make it to the final round of consideration, meaning the journal might have it for almost a year before I finally received an encouraging yet discouraging note, this came close, but sorry.
These near-acceptances taught me that my work couldn’t be terrible, and so I kept trying. But eventually, I got tired of all the striving and rejection. I’d been calling myself a writer for years, yet hardly anyone had ever read my work! It was time to change gears-- not give up, but just try a different approach. This post is my attempt to retrace the path I’ve taken, and to share what I’ve learned along the way. If you, like me, are tired of rejection or don’t know where to begin submitting, here are a few ideas to consider:
- Start a Blog (or contribute guest posts to friends’ blogs):
During my first years of motherhood I stopped submitting to journals, and instead started blogging, which in turn revitalized me as a writer. Blogging was a way to put myself out there-- my voice, my thoughts, my identity as a writer-- and to garner immediate responses from friends and acquaintances, mostly through Facebook. My readership was small, but it was nevertheless exciting to see it grow.
Blogging also helped me to let go of my perfectionist tendencies. The “hey, I just wrote this off the top of my head” format helped me to let go of the idea that everything I wrote needed to be perfect or profound before sharing it. And I didn’t worry much about long lapses between posts or how my blog could reach more people, because blogging wasn’t a social networking strategy for me; it was a lifeline, a much needed outlet to connect my private world to the world outside my home. Blogging was how I ultimately “came out” to the world as a writer, despite my many previous years of toiling on essays and a manuscript, with only a few trusted readers along the way.
- Make More Connections in the Literary World
Many writers are introverts. Before I moved to Seattle in 2008, I lived in a cabin on 50 acres and plenty of days went by where I didn’t talk to anyone besides my husband and our cat. We had dial-up, but still no cell phone. I signed up for Facebook before I really understood what it was, then ignored it until people started ‘friending’ me and before long I became intrigued and addicted.
Now, it is easy to criticize the shortcomings of online communities and addictions, so putting that conversation aside for now, I will say that, for me, Facebook has connected me to so many writers in the Pacific Northwest that I seriously doubt I otherwise would’ve managed to connect with in person. And what I’ve found is that most writers want to be supportive of each other and are hungry for connection to other literary souls, whether they are emerging or established writers.
Of course, it’s even better to cultivate live, in-person relationships. But as a busy person who typically does not go out much to readings, parties, or bars, I’ll take an online friendship to nothing. From a publishing perspective, these connections have given me access to more posts about journals, contests, and calls for submissions. And ultimately, these online connections also just give me a livelier, more intelligent newsfeed and a sense of belonging to a greater literary community that I’ve long craved. Plus, I am much more likely to approach someone in person if we’ve already connected online.
- Do Your Research-- and Use the Internet!
People have long given me the advice: read and know the aesthetic of the journals you are submitting to. But I confess, I have not always followed it. I’ve been impatient. I didn’t want to go through the long (and expensive, to me) process of ordering, then waiting, then reading all those journals. And frankly, I didn’t even like much of the writing in “those” journals. But I also wasn’t that keen on publishing in online journals because they weren’t as highly regarded back then. And, naturally, I wanted to publish in respected places-- not the “highest tier”; I knew better than to submit to the New Yorker right off the bat (well, actually, I considered it at first, silly novice). But I figured my work at least deserved to be in the “middle tier” journals.
Here’s what I know now: do not hoard your work. Of course, don’t give it away willy nilly to the first taker; still be selective and look for journals that are pleasing to your eye and full of other work that you are drawn to read! Yet at the same time, be brutally honest to yourself about the quality of your work, the level of competition, and where your work might realistically find a home. (And trust that you will continue to write more stuff that is even better!)
The good news is, there are SO many more high quality online journals out there now, which makes is so much easier to do your research. It doesn’t take long to scan through a few pieces online and get a sense of whether you resonate with a journal’s aesthetic; you could scan through ten in an hour, which is very different than mailing in $10 to ten different journals and waiting several weeks for each to arrive. Plus, there is no longer the same stigma against publishing online as there used to be. Actually, I prefer to publish oline now because then I can share my work with more people. And since most journals have been shifting to an online submission process as well, it is that much easier now to submit.
- Know Your Audience and Target Online or Smaller Niches
How do you find your ideal audience, much less any audience at all?
- It might mean seizing upon opportunities to submit to anthologies or themed issues of journals that are focused on a specific topic that you already have a perfect piece for (or that inspires you to write one anew), for your competition will be greatly narrowed. Look in the back of Poets and Writers magazine for their “calls for submissions,” or go to http://www.newpages.com/classifieds/calls-for-submissions to start perusing possibilities.
- It might also mean writing shorter, web-friendly pieces in the 500-1000 word range (as opposed to the twenty-page double-spaced, MFA low-residency friendly pieces I gravitated towards for years). For online publishing, about 4,000-5,000 words is the maximum that most sites take, although there are exceptions.
- And finally, for me, it meant targeting journals that were actively publishing women and/or people of color. Is it a coincidence that almost all of the pieces I’ve recently had accepted were through journals who are committed to publishing women or “diverse voices”? I think not. While this will not stop me from submitting my work to other “higher tiered journals” (which ultimately publish far fewer women and people of color, as documented by the Vida count, but which might count more on one’s book deal-seeking resume), I also realize know that I want to keep seeking out journals who are committed to women’s voices and cultural diversity. After all, these are the kinds of voices and stories I am most drawn to read as well. Here is a great round-up of journals that actively seek out diverse voices.
Who might your ideal audience be? Are you hoping to reach other queer readers, other spiritually-minded readers, other mothers, other animal lovers, other world travelers, other naturalists? There are magazines and journals out there for just about everyone.
Most of all, remember that when it comes to publishing and succeeding as a writer, persistence and patience are everything!!! And lots of rejection does not equal failure. What it may mean is:
· You need to keep getting feedback and editing your work
· You’re not submitting to the right places
· You’re not submitting to enough places or enough times; for example, if an editor says, no thank you but please submit to us again, Do it! Don’t delay; they mean what they say.
· Or, in some cases, it might not yet be your time yet. Maybe you are not ready to go so public, or maybe your writing is not ready. Maybe you just don’t have the time to commit. In any case, if you know that writing is a path that you love and cannot live without: keep writing. Maybe forget about submitting for a while-- yes, maybe even for years. Be patient. True, it’s satisfying to publish, especially after toiling for so long, but ultimately, for me the greatest satisfaction comes in doing the work itself, not in proving to the world that I am indeed a “real” writer because I’ve published. (Don’t you hate that insinuation?)
Trust that when your work is ready, and when you are ready, you will find your audience, however large or small.