[Editor's note: Numbers in parentheses--ex: (1)--are footnotes]
by QUINN RENNERFELDT
**disclaimer: This piece is written with the amateur submitter in mind. If you’ve been sending your work out for years and have seen acceptance letters (or emails, who am I kidding) along the way, I can’t guarantee that you’ll read anything here you didn’t already know. But if you’re new to the game, or have been submitting for a while but are seeing no success, there might be something here for you.**
It can’t be that hard, right? You just send out your blog or short story or packet of poems and watch as the letters of acceptance roll in. You start with The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine because that’s where you’d ultimately like to see your words exist, on a page nestled between high-brow comics, challenging crosswords and scathing political exposes. And this effort is all well and good if you’re some savant like Joyce Carol Oates or Helen Oyeyemi who manage to catch an editor’s eye before they’re even brushing up against their thirtieth birthday. But for the rest of us admittedly still talented (but possibly less genius) creatives, it may better serve our egos and experience if we start with a humbler route: the hard-working, underappreciated realm of small presses.
The fact that I’m writing this piece does not mean that my work has seen the pages of any instantly recognizable journals. My first published poem was a haiku about snow clouds, written when I was ten years old and accepted by a local magazine focusing on children’s writing. I made $5.00, approximately $1.66 per line, which is a decent rate, these days. Since then, some of my pieces have had a longer reach, but I may never make it to The Paris Review or Ploughshares. I may never receive a nomination for the Pushcart Prize (1). Honestly, if I could just make it into Rattle some day, I would be clam-happy (2).
I have been actively at it (it being the act of submitting my work for publication) for nearly thirteen years, ever since my depressive teen self discovered both Sylvia Plath’s stunning poetic works and, more importantly, her dogged devotion to submitting her work for publication. The discipline with which she approached this task, day in and day out, and the age at which she began to do so (3), were incredibly motivating to me. Thankfully, my writing from those days did not see the light of day, but the habits I picked up during that time remain. As does the end goal: putting words to a page made of paper or pixels. But to reach said goal, where does one start?
This is what should happen first: read!
This is an important assignment that is often overlooked. When I was a slush pile reader at a small online literary journal, I cannot tell you how obvious it was to me when a hopeful contributor was unfamiliar with our work. Spiritual long form pieces or Shakespearian sonnets, while not automatically excluded, did not often find a home on the site. That simply wasn’t our aesthetic. One can never predict what an editor might choose, but the lack of familiarity with the journal felt dismissive of our hard work in its creation-- highlighting a dissonance between a writer who felt s/he was deserving of publication yet unwilling to read the work of their peers. It became apparent to me how many writers didn’t understand that this--knowing the audience-- was a part of their craft. A good writer is one who reads. A good submitter is one who reads other journals. It truly is that simple. So keep in mind: while your neo-New-School-hybrid-haiku (4) or blog post on why mayo is the next superfood may be good, it won’t find a home in a journal that seeks to embody the spirit and form of John Keats.
But say you’ve read around, found some appealing journals that might house your work, and have a list of polished pieces at the ready. You may be thinking Great, but how do I keep this process clean and organized when I’m frantically submitting stuff at 2:00 in the morning?? Well, the nice thing is, rather than having a crazed maniac’s corkboard crammed full of editor’s letters, newspaper clippings and some yarn strings (for illustrative effect), technology can be your friend! What I mean to say is spreadsheets. Excel is the best (5). Yes, I realize I’ve probably already dated this piece by citing specific software but many writers are slow to trust technology. Excel is a far bit more advanced than the pen and paper flowcharts I kept in the earlier years.
Here is an example of a spreadsheet I’ve created for myself. Go ahead, steal it! It’s been pieced together from many other examples I’ve seen over the years. Have fun with it. Your spreadsheet needs are not the same as mine, so do with it what you will. There are a few key categories I would recommend keeping, though: where you submitted your work, when you did so, what you submitted, and what the journal’s response was. That’s the bare minimum you’ll need to stay on top of where your work is at any given moment, but there are many other important factors at play, and every place you submit to, a little different.
So you have a stockpile of edited work. You have a spreadsheet that you could filter five ways to Sunday. Now what?
Submission guidelines: all journals will post some version of their guidelines. READ THESE. ALWAYS. Abide by them, or else your work may not even be seen by a human being (6) before being rejected. If a journal wants one attachment with no identifying information, plop your work into a word doc and don’t put your name in the header. They want it in the body of an email? Do that, and specify whether you have special formatting issues that won’t translate in email when you write your cover letter (more on cover letters later). Many sites now use online forms via tools such as Submittable. The nice thing about these types of platforms is they keep many of your submissions in one place, much like your spreadsheet does, but until all journals use the same submission device (which will likely never happen), having your spreadsheet as back-up will be necessary. Not all Submittable submissions will look the same, so you still want to look to guidelines for all specifications before hitting “submit.”
As you read those submission guidelines, you may see some familiar keywords come up repeatedly. Let’s start with simultaneous submissions. The attitude towards simultaneous submissions has changed with the advent and adoption of email as a form of communication. Simultaneous submissions (submitting one or more pieces of work to multiple journals or contests at the same time) used to be generally frowned upon due to the timing issues involved in alerting other journals by post when your piece had been accepted elsewhere. Nowadays, they are generally allowed with the expectation that you alert a journal immediately if one of your works has been accepted elsewhere. This is due to the fact that most journals want first serial rights when publishing a story or poem, meaning they want to be the very first journal to put your piece in print. Some may also ask for internet rights, which allows them to publish your work in an email, electronic newsletter, on a website, etc. Not all online journals will mention this, though, as the right to publish your work online is implied in the fact that you submitted to a web-only publication. You can find more handy information on publishing rights at Poets & Writers (7).
Speaking of first publication rights, many guidelines will also speak to previously published work. I am sorry to report that, generally, most journals aren’t interested in it. McSweeney’s doesn’t want to appear behind the times by publishing a story that AGNI had in their last issue. These journals have such a huge slush pile to choose from that they are rarely at a loss for quality work to publish, so to include something that has already reached a wider audience can feel redundant and unfair to the writing community that is chock-a-block with writers waiting for their spotlight moment. All is not lost, though. You can still throw those previously published works into a manuscript and see them grace a page again, provided you find a press to publish you.
Though quickly becoming antiquated, another common acronym you’ll see in the submission guidelines is SASE, or self-addressed stamped envelope. Basically, if you want to see a response, give the editors a way to get back to you with a “yay” or a “nay” that doesn’t cost them money out of their limited budget. Most often, they will return your work as well, which is a good cost-saving measure if you are rejected and plan to re-submit your work elsewhere. But just because you’ve provided an SASE doesn’t mean you’ll receive a detailed response in romantic, handwritten form; these editors are just as busy as those working in the online sphere, and they have the added duty of stuffing envelopes. On the plus side, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you’ll have a finely printed form rejection sent you in the mail, primed and ready to be tacked to your refrigerator (8).
Depending on the publication, other various specifications and recommendations will apply, and all will be slightly different depending on the publication so again, I can’t harp on this enough: read the submission guidelines thoroughly! You may receive instructions on formatting, type font, length, restrictions on genre or theme, potential reading fees, and whether to include a bio. The guidelines can also include more interesting tidbits such as when you might expect a response, what the reading period for the journal is and, most importantly, whether they pay in publication alone or include a monetary reward as well. Better yet, you might even see the name of an editor hidden somewhere in these lines, which you can use to personalize your submission’s corresponding cover letter.
Yes, we all hate doing them. They feel formal, impersonal, and redundant, but no one in power seems willing to concede this so we keep having to include them. The only thing I can suggest: keep it brief! You may want to make yourself stand out by starting with a lengthy preamble on your writing accomplishments, or every single place your name has ever been seen in print (9). DON’T. The editors do not care and will breeze past this. If they want more information from you, they will request a bio (again, be brief: bios should typically be under 100 words.)
What a cover letter contains is simple. First, a header: name, address, phone number, email, date. Second, a greeting: if you can’t find an editor’s name, using dear fiction editor(s) or something similar will suffice. Then you can start your paragraph. Note, I did not make that word plural. You get only one. I typically open with one sentence thanking them for considering my work. Follow this with a sentence highlighting something I enjoy about the work they publish, or why my work would be a good fit. This provides proof that I’ve done my homework, and have read what they publish. Finally, list the piece or pieces that you have included in your submission. Sum it up with a “thank you for your time” and consider it good. See below for my example.
Okay, so you’ve sent your stuff out to multiple journals, recorded it in a spreadsheet or some other handy tracking mechanism, and now you’re playing the waiting game.
So what happens when the responses start rolling in? Well, a lot of rejections, most likely. This can suck, but it’s NOT all bad. There is an art to distinguishing a “good” rejection from a “bad” one. I know: in the moment, they all feel pretty terrible. But that does not mean there isn’t something to be gleaned from them.
A form rejection is going to be pretty obvious from the get-go. It will be brief, formal, and impersonal. Something along the lines of “Thank you for submitting to The Apiary. While we enjoyed reading your work, it is not a good fit at this time. We wish you the best in placing your work elsewhere.” (10) Because they clearly send this to at least 95% of those they reject, you just have to assume the best of intentions and move on.
But some rejections offer hope. An editor may come right out and say that, while they aren’t publishing you this time around, they would like to in the future and encourage you to submit for their next issue. Solicitation is always a good thing; if they ask for more stuff, they want to see it! Some “good” rejection letters are a little less clear, sounding a lot like a form rejection except that they may add a note such as “we especially enjoyed Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “while we are not taking any work at this time, we’d like you to know that your piece Howl made it all the way to the editor’s table.” These are good signs! If the editor (or the slush pile reader, as may be the case) is going off script with their rejection, it meant your work did something right. Submit again. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll get picked the second time around, but the odds may be in your favor.
We’re in the internet age, and I realize that not everyone in my audience will read this in its entirety, so here are some bulleted takeaway points for those who are skimming (11):
SUPER IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY #1: Read. First, foremost, always. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort, and maybe some rejections. You may also find some lovely new writers out there that you would never have stumbled upon otherwise. Also, the editors will thank you.
SUPER IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY #2: Keep track of this shit somehow. Be an adult about it.
SUPER IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY #3: Know the submission guidelines like the back of your hand? Good. Now following them.
Pretty simple, which is why I’m not charging money for this. I mean, the submission guidelines for this blog were pretty clear about what payment for this post is: hard-earned, well-appreciated publication.**
**disclaimer #2: this is not ass-kissing and did not lend itself, favorably or unfavorably, to the acceptance of this piece.
(1) See? There’s a prize for those humble enough to submit to these small presses.
(2) You hear that, Timothy Green?!
(3) Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor at age 18, and was published in regional publications at an even earlier age.
(4) No offense to this subgenre, I’m sure it’s awesome.
(5) This is not a paid endorsement. I am not some corporate schill!
(6) Or a mainframe processor, which I can only assume will be the case in ten years when robots are doing all our menial tasks. Creepy, but at least we’ll have more time for writing?
(8) Presumably next to the oil change coupons and the outdated save-the-date magnet from your cousin’s wedding. Yeah, I’m on to you.
(9) Or maybe the story of when you discovered your first pubic hair. Or how fast you ran the mile in high school.
(10) This is not a direct quote, please don’t sue me.
(11) Though really, if you haven’t bothered to read this, where will you find the time to prep for submitting?
Quinn Rennerfeldt is many things: poet, amateur environmentalist, desk jockey, family woman. You might find her sorting recycling, running the streets, or patronizing a local brewery in Denver, Colorado. You will not find her at a shopping mall or in an airplane (willingly). She has been previously published in Cider Press Review, Slipstream, and was recently awarded the Peseroff Prize by Breakwater Review for her poem "In which, an apocalypse."