Monday, December 27, 2010

Themed outlets, and some interesting possibilities

In my last post I talked about so-called fledgling markets and why newer writers may be well served to check them out: namely, newer markets attract fewer submissions than more established ones, so, statistically, the odds for having a piece accepted are much improved. This same rationale could be applied to themed publications, or, especially, themed issues of publications. 

Most outlets, while they have some brackets around what they want to look at (see my post on writers' guidelines), are open to almost any topic, submitted by almost any sort of writer or poet. Some outlets, however, have an overarching theme that limits, often pretty narrowly, the kinds of work they want to consider. I'm probably using theme here in a broader way than some might, but from the perspective of up-and-coming writers who are looking for places to publish their work, any sort of qualifiers placed on submissions by a journal or publishing house constitute a theme. Some outlets, for instance, only want to see specific genres (sci-fi, or western, or romance). Others may be dedicated to specific topics (food, travel, zombies). Others limit their focus geographically, only wanting work written by people from a specific area (West Coast, Upper Peninsula, Canada), and/or pieces that are set or somehow about that area may qualify, even if the writer/poet doesn't hail from that place. And a lot of outlets are dedicated to highlighting the work of specific sorts of people, either by gender, age, ethnicity, orientation, occupation, or some combination thereof (like work by lesbian Latinas who live in Los Angeles -- all right, I made this example up because I like the alliteration, but it's certainly plausible).

Another sort of themed publication -- and here I'm using theme more conventionally -- is an outlet that usually is open to any topic by any sort of writer, but the editors decide they want to step out of that mode for a single issue and concentrate on a specific theme. Some publications have a regular schedule for doing themed issues; for example, they may do one open issue a year, and one themed issue. While others may only do a themed issue for a special occasion, like the publication's tenth anniversary or to note the passing of a literary figure.

In a few posts I've mentioned Duotrope's Digest as a very handy tool for helping writers find outlets for their work (see, for example, my post on my favorite resources). Duotrope's is handy for finding themed publishing opportunities as well in that their weekly email updates that they send to writers include a list of themed outlets. Just as a sampling, here are a few from the most recent update.

Here's a multi-themed possibility, Tales of Blood and Roses, which publishes "horror and thriller" fiction, poetry, art, and photography. Plus, for its debut issue, the editors have an even more specialized theme of "love gone wrong," according to their submissions page. This is also a fledgling market, which means it's not on a lot of people's radar just yet. So for a writer or poet who has something that seems to fit the editors' needs, this market is a great opportunity -- but you need to get in gear because their deadline is December 31!

Here's another multi-themed one, also with a tight deadline: May December Publications is wanting fiction about zombies (3,000 to 10,000 words), but only fiction written by women, for an anthology titled "Hell Hath No Fury ..." to be released, appropriately, in time for Mother's Day 2011. It'd be best to get your email submission to the editors by January 1, however. See their submissions page for further details.

This publication stood out for me, as well, because of its unique focus: you are here: the journal of creative geography, published out of the University of Arizona. Its 2011 issue is focused on the topic of "dislocation," and the editors are looking for a variety of creative projects that explore dislocation. See their submissions page. Another fast-approaching deadline, however: January 1.

These three possibilities are just the proverbial tip of the theme iceberg. It takes some time to peruse the options, and I suppose some industrious writers and poets (poets especially) may feel inspired to write something new to match an outlet's theme -- though more likely you have something available that happens to align with the theme. In either case, the competition for publication will likely not be as stiff as with an unthemed publication, whose editors may be sorting through tens or hundreds of thousands of unsolicited submissions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why 'fledgling markets' are worth looking out for

In previous posts I've talked about things like where to look for outlets for your prose and poetry, and writers' guidelines; today I want to talk about "fledgling markets," as Duotrope's Digest terms them specifically. These are new markets, often times these days, electronic journals, that tend to be more open to writers and poets who haven't been published, or published much, previously. In Duotrope's Digest, an outlet is "fledgling" if it's been around for fewer than six months.

The reason these markets may be your best bet if you haven't published much is largely a numbers game. While well-established journals will receive tens, even hundreds, of thousands of submissions in a year -- these newly established journals will receive only a tiny fraction of that number from hopeful writers and poets. You still need to read these new journals' guidelines carefully, and avoid sending them what they aren't interested in seeing. But there are enough of them cropping up regularly that you should be able to find a fledgling journal or two without too much bush beating.

As I recommended in my earlier post, you should sign up for Duotrope's Digest's weekly email update on markets, as it's your best resource for finding these newer outlets. Here are a few that I found via Duotrope's that sound intriguing -- and worth contacting, especially if you're an unpublished, or underpublished, writer/poet.

The Scarlet Sound -- According to its website, "Founded through Rutgers University, The Scarlet Sound builds upon the idea that through diversity and recognition of others, community arises." The journal's editors are looking for a variety of things, including flash fiction of fewer than 1,000 words and poetry of 25 lines or fewer. They're also interested in audio and video files, which is becoming increasingly common for online journals (or the online components of traditional print journals), as the technology is making it easier and easier to work creatively with sound and images.

Beecher's Magazine -- Established in conjunction with the MFA program at University of Kansas, Beecher's Magazine will have both a print and an online edition. Its editors are looking for poetry, fiction and nonfiction. I notice that they're willing to consider fiction up to 10,000 words -- which is a lot. So if you're a newish writer with a long manuscript, take a look at Beecher's Magazine's guidelines. Journals willing to read pieces beyond 5,000 words don't grow on trees, so take advantage of their editors' open-mindedness (and stamina).

Ad Hominem -- Its homepage says that Ad Hominem "publishes good art that can be enjoyed in minutes." The editors are looking for poetry, fiction, essays, and photographs. Founded by a group of artists in Hampton Roads, Virginia, their "about" page says they "spread the word about people we like." Unlike the previous two journals I mentioned, Ad Hominem has published some work already, so check it out to get a better sense of what they seem to like.

Let me stress: These three journals are just a sampling of the information available in one email update from Duotrope's Digest, and it took a modicum of effort to find some very interesting-sounding new journals. If you're serious about getting your work out there, you have to sign up with Duotrope's Digest.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The cover letter -- a sample and some personal preferences

When you snail mail a submission to a journal, it's standard practice to include a brief cover letter. Some journals claim they don't want one at all; others make it optional; but most at least expect it, or even encourage it. Even if you're submitting electronically -- via email or a site's submission portal -- you'll probably supply cover-letter-esque information, commonly in the body of the email, or in the comments window of the submission portal form. There's no definite right and wrong when it comes to what to include in these accompanying bits of information, but here are some suggestions, including my personal preferences.

First, though, I'm discovering that young folks are losing the hang of letter writing. They text and email and increasingly when they apply to a school or for a job or scholarship, there's an online form into which they simply input the requested information. In short, they aren't required to write letters on a regular basis. I recently invited my 18-year-old students to submit a letter expressing interest in a scholarship opportunity in order to be considered a candidate, and not one of the seven respondents actually wrote a letter; in fact, they seemed rather nonplussed as to what a letter should even look like. Therefore, briefly, here's a typical format for a business-style letter:

Ted Morrissey
1111 My Street
My City, IL 65555

11 January 2011

Samantha Jones, editor
Great Lit Journal
Great University
Great University Town, NY 11111

Dear Dr. Jones [I usually research the editor online to see if he/she holds a doctorate or not so that I can address the editor appropriately; if the information is unavailable, perhaps simply Editor Jones.]

Enclosed for your consideration is my short story "A Great Read" (2,000 words).

My fiction has appeared in a few journals, including The Cat Review, The Dog Review, and The Goldfish Review. I hold an MFA in fiction writing from East Coast University, and I teach English at Terrific Liberal Arts College.

Thank you for considering my story. This is a simultaneous submission.


Ted Morrissey [leaving space above the name for my signature]

If you're including information in an email or in the comments window of an online submission portal, you may not follow the formal style of the cover letter, but the basic information will be the same. Here are some points to consider:

Writers tend to believe their work will be more attractive to an editor if they can supply some sort of credentials. These credentials usually come in the form of previous publications, but alas you may not have any meaningful publications. In lieu of meaningful publication credits (I acknowledge that "meaningful" is a nebulous term), writers may be tempted to fill in that space with, what I consider, dubious information. For example, they may mention publication credits that are, well, less than impressive (like very small circulation newsletters, or good showings in contests that only attract a few participants). I would say, though, if all you can offer is a less-than-impressive credit, don't mention it at all.

Another thing I often see from writers who are still looking for their first legitimate credit is to mention fairly well known teachers or mentors who like their work. My sense, however, is that namedropping doesn't work very well. It tends to cast you in a secondary role, as student or groupie, and therefore doesn't carry much clout with an editor.

Instead, just be honest and make it clear that you haven't been published yet. Editors love to publish somebody for the first time -- it's like discovering the next supermodel carhopping at the local Sonic. So you're more attractive as a "virgin" writer or poet who can be discovered by an insightful editor, than you are as someone who's so desperate to appear worthy that you include unimpressive credentials with your submission.

Check the writers' guidelines to see if the editors have said anything about what they want in the cover letter or accompanying information. Some want only the basics. Others want you to provide a third-person biographical statement that they can use in their contributors' notes if your piece is published. Some encourage a sort of chatty letter in which you talk about your interests beyond writing.

As an editor receiving submissions, I always preferred a cover letter that was professionally presented but also casual in tone -- from someone who takes his or her work seriously, but not him- or herself; that is, someone who sounds like it'd be fun to talk to over a cup of coffee, about books or writing or fly-fishing.

Whatever you decide to include in your cover letter (or cover-letter-like material), be sure to proofread it carefully. Many editors purposely read the accompanying material after they read the story, essay, or poem itself, as they don't want their reaction to the submission to be colored, positively or negatively, by the cover letter. But others do read the cover letter first, and therefore are influenced by it -- so a poorly written cover letter, with typos or incorrect information, could put your story or poem in a bit of a hole before the editor ever starts reading it.

Be professional; be respectful; be appreciative.
Men of Winter

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Terminology II: writers' guidelines

In my last post I talked about the three resources I prefer when looking for a publisher of a story, poem, or creative essay -- specifically Duotrope's Digest,, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Press's member directory -- and when you start investigating the journals and so forth these sites will lead you to, what you'll want to look at in particular is the outlet's writers' guidelines, which are alternatively called any number of things, like submission guidelines, contributors' guidelines, or simply a link that says "submit" or more vaguely "contact."

Even if it doesn't immediately reveal itself, rest assured that somewhere on the website you can find out what the journal is looking for and how to go about sending the editors your work if it seems to fit their needs. This could be a lengthy post as writers' guidelines vary considerably, and if I tried to account for every nuance, much electronic ink could be spilled; however, there are certain key features that definitely deserve some attention. You're a smart cookie (you're reading this blog after all, aren't you?), so you'll figure out some of the unique ins-and-outs of each outlet.

So here are some of the key bits of information to look for when you peruse a publisher's guidelines:

Needs: Some journals have a very narrow range of things they're looking for -- like it only publishes haiku, or creative nonfiction, or material about food -- while most want to see a variety of forms. But no matter how narrow or how wide a journal's interests, they all have their idiosyncrasies, especially when it comes to the length of the piece. When it comes to prose pieces, word count is how length is usually expressed (e.g., a journal will want fiction no longer than 3,000 words), which sounds straight-forward enough, but there's some confusion/disagreement about how to arrive at word length. In the old days, that is, before electronic word processing, the rule of thumb was to count a standard, double-spaced typewritten page as 250 words, with the understanding that some pages will have more, some fewer; therefore, a four-page story would be considered 1,000 words. Nowadays, however, word-processing programs, like Word, generate a word count for you (e.g., under File-->Properties-->Statistics). But these sorts of word counters don't differentiate between "a" and "antidisestablishmentarianism" -- they're both just one word, which makes the count highly inaccurate, I think. As an editor of print journals who's been in charge of physical production, I've found the old rule of thumb to be more helpful when trying to guesstimate how much space a story or essay will take up in the journal.

One more thing about "needs": They tend to change, so just because Journal A isn't looking for your type of work at the present, don't forever cross Journal A off your list; editorial boards change with some frequency, hence, so might the boards' needs.

Bottom line: Pay attention to needs, and follow them. You're almost certainly wasting your time and the editors' if you send them things that aren't on their shopping list. (Because of the fuzziness of word-count method, once in a while I've fudged a bit and sent them something slightly longer than they say they want -- but I can't think of a single instance where this has worked to my favor.)

Simultaneous Submissions: This is another very important factor. It sounds a little like the term "multiple submissions," but they're very different, and I'll explain. When you simultaneously submit your poem, story, or essay, it means that you're sending the same work to other editors at the same time. Most editors allow simultaneous submissions (though some do so reluctantly). Many editors, generally those who are writers themselves, actually encourage simultaneous submissions. On the other hand, there are journals (often times, more established and prestigious ones) that won't allow simultaneous submissions; that is, when you submit to them, the understanding is that no one else is considering that work. From the editors' perspective the advantage of not allowing simultaneous submissions is that when they're considering a piece, if they decide they want it, it should be available, so they haven't wasted their time considering something that turns out not being available. Editing a journal that receives thousands (even tens of thousands and beyond) submissions a year is very time consuming, so it would be frustrating to spend an hour or two or three reading a piece carefully, discussing the decision with other editors, then contacting the writer/poet, only to discover it's been a waste because some other journal has beaten you to the punch. (I suspect, too, that not allowing simultaneous submissions also cuts down on submissions, so perhaps editors of this ilk aren't quite as barraged by contributions.)

From a writer's perspective, though, it may take several weeks to several months to hear from an editor, and it's not unusual for journals to have limited reading periods (which I'll write more about in a moment), so let's say it takes on average an editor to respond to your work in three months, and the typical reading period is the nine months of the academic year -- thus, if you only submit to one editor at a time, you might only have three editors in a year consider your piece. Throw into the equation the fact that it's often said that it takes around twenty contacts (attempts) to find an editor who will publish your work, that means ... it could easily take six to seven years to find an editor for a story or poem.

I know writers who willfully disregard the fact that a journal will not consider simultaneous submissions and they submit simultaneously anyway. I disagree with this practice, however. I agree with these willful writers that the practice of not allowing simultaneous submissions is ridiculously impractical, from the writer-poet's point of view, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea. (Not that I purchase a copy of every journal I submit to, though I do try to support as many as I can afford, I deliberately will not purchase a journal that doesn't accept simultaneous submissions -- in my mind, they're not supporting writers and writing as they should, so I don't support them either [I doubt they've noticed, however].)

Bottom line: As a new writer (or even an emerging writer), hedge your bet and submit simultaneously, but don't submit to journals that don't want them. This next point is extremely important: If you submit simultaneously and a piece is accepted, immediately send notices to journals to withdraw the piece that is no longer available -- you owe it to the editors who are considering your work, and if you can save them some time by not reading a piece that's no longer available, it's the right thing to do. I also think it's gauche to receive an acceptance notice and not respond for a day or two in hopes of getting an acceptance from a better-known, or larger-circulation journal. You should make the decision about whether you want your piece to be published in a journal before you submit; therefore, reply back agreeing to the publication offer as soon as you receive it.

Multiple Submissions: "Multiple submissions" simply means that you can submit more than piece at a time to a given journal. It varies from journal to journal of course, but generally speaking, editors will allow you to submit more than one piece if the pieces are short (poems, for example, or short short stories, or flash fiction), but longer pieces, like a full-blown short story or creative essay, can only be sent one at a time (that is, don't submit again until you've heard back regarding the pieces you've already submitted). Don't overwhelm editors. Send what you think is your best work; then exercise some patience (some editors say you can email them in x-amount of time if you haven't heard from them, but I trust I'll hear from them as soon as they're able).

Reading Period: Some journals read all year, but most have specific reading periods. Because the vast majority of journals that publish literary prose and poetry are affiliated with a college or university, they tend to read only during the academic year, roughly from September to June. However, there are a wide variety of reading periods, and you need to pay attention to these. If the editors have bothered to post a specific reading period, they're no doubt serious about it; so, again, you're wasting your time and the editors' to submit work outside that period (electronic submission portals, that I talked about in a previous post, are often set up so that they won't allow submissions outside the reading period).

Etc.: This post could go on and on (perhaps you think it has) because there's much more that could be said, but I'll end on this point: Read carefully and follow the guidelines. Yes, guidelines help editors to zero in on what they're interested in, but by doing that, they're truly helping writers and poets. It's in no one's best interest to submit indiscriminately.

If you haven't been, start nosing around for places to send your work, but above all: keep writing and reading.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My three favorite resources for finding outlets

With new print and (especially) online magazines launching weekly, finding a publisher for your story, creative essay, or poetry may not be as daunting as it at first seems. You can of course use search engines like Google or Bing to troll for places to send your work, but I've found three resources that are extraordinarily informative and, hence, helpful when looking for places to send a story, essay, poem, or excerpt from a longer work: Duotrope's Digest,, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses' member directory. I'm listing Duotrope first because I think it is the most useful, but only by a little bit as the other two are excellent also -- writers and poets would be well served by consulting all three whenever they're hunting for a publishing outlet.

Before discussing each of these further, let me insert a couple of notes. I keep using the word "outlet" (in this and other posts, and in fact in the secondary title to this blog), and I mainly mean journals/magazines (interchangeable terms as I'm using them). But an outlet could be an independent or small-press publisher; though these are primarily of interest to someone who's shopping a book-length, or chapbook-length, manuscript. Yet there are other kinds of outlets. I've heard of publishers who use the sides of city buses, buildings, and billboards to publish poems and microfiction, and on a smaller scale, bookmarks, postcards, and posters. The resources for finding outlets I'm discussing include these sorts of opportunities as well.

One other note: I'm speaking as if you can only look online for potential outlets, and that's not true. There are printed sources, too. For years writers and poets relied on books published by Writers Digest -- specifically Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and Poet's Market -- and they're still available (I just checked Amazon to make sure). I used to buy the new NSSWM every year, as both are updated annually. As I discussed in an earlier post, I took a hiatus from creative writing and publishing for a few years while I worked on my Ph.D., and I returned to actively shopping my work in 2008. One of the first things I did was buy the 2008 NSSWM, and it still worked -- in fact, I used it to place a story with The Chariton Review -- but in general I found it to be a bit untrustworthy. The process it takes to produce books like NSSWM and Poet's Market (including getting information from editors/publishers, verifying that information, correcting that information, verifying it again, etc.) is lengthy, and meanwhile the markets change quickly (to put it mildly), so the books tend to be printed with inaccuracies, through no fault of their editors. New journals launch, others disband, many change their contact information or reading period -- it's just hard to keep up when the process takes several months to produce a reference book.

Websites, on the other hand, tend to be much more accurate. You'll run into journal websites that haven't been updated for years, but the vast majority of journals and publishers see their websites as vital points of contact with their readers and contributors, so they do a good job of keeping them up to date. Here then are the resources I like to use when looking for potential outlets:

Duotrope's Digest: This site provides a plethora of information, and its staff works diligently to keep the information up-to-the-minute accurate. The site offers all sorts of services that are worth looking into, but my favorite aspect is that once you register with Duotrope, they send you weekly email updates to let you know of new outlets, ones that have opened to submissions, ones that have closed, ones that have stopped publishing altogether, and so forth. In addition to the email updates, you can of course use Duotrope's database to search for specific sorts of publishers (ones that publish only poetry or only fiction, for examples). The service is free, but they strongly encourage donations in order to keep the service free. Again, check out Duotrope's Digest; it has a lot to offer any writer or poet, not just those who are beginning to publish their work. NewPages is also excellent, as it too offers an abundance of up-to-date information. One of my favorite features is their literary magazine reviews, where staff writers take an in-depth look at a small-circulation or online journal, and discuss things like its design, style, and editorial leanings. When you're actively hunting for an outlet, their Calls for Submissions link is very handy. Again, there's a lot at NewPages, and you should spend some quality time getting to know the site and all that it has to offer.

Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP): CLMP's searchable member directory is a tremendous resource as well. Literary magazines and small presses purchase membership with CLMP, then their websites (in nearly all cases) are linked in its member directory. It's up to you to go through the links, which take you to the websites of each magazine or press, and see what they're looking for and their deadlines, etc., but CLMP brings them all together in one alphabetical list. Also, because they're a paying member of CLMP, it suggests that the magazine or press is serious about its mission and will treat contributors professionally. Like with Duotrope and NewPages, you should spend some time figuring out how the CLMP directory operates and how it could be of use to your search.

As I stated earlier, I use all three when I'm actively searching for an outlet for my writing. You'll find some overlap of course, but there are journals, for example, that may be listed in only one of the three resources; and it pays to be thorough.

That's plenty to digest (ha) for now. In the meantime, keep loving those words.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Three basic ways to submit your work to editors

The methods one uses to actually get one's prose and poetry into the hands (or at least eyes) of a potential publisher are evolving constantly, but it's safe to say there are three basic ways to send off your work: old-fashioned mail (a.k.a. "snail mail"), email, and (increasingly) a publisher's internal electronic portal -- and each journal has its preference(s). There are myriad variations within each of these three basic methods (and over time I'll talk about many of these varied points), but for now I'll stick to the essential or most common features of each.

Old-fashioned mail: This approach, relying on a postal service, has been the way writers and editors have connected for hundreds of years, and for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries anyway the approach has involved three components: 1) the manuscript itself (i.e., the prose or poetry piece), including a brief cover letter, 2) the envelope addressed to the journal editor that will carry your submitted piece(s), and 3) a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) that will carry the editor's response back to you. A few years ago it was customary to send the manuscript back and forth, thus the SASE had to be large enough and have enough postage to facilitate the postal return (this tradition stemmed from the fact that it used to be difficult to copy a manuscript so each one tended to be an originally typed draft, which may have represented many painstaking hours of careful typing, so a rejecting editor would return the manuscript so that it could be sent out to someone else). In more recent years, the SASE is generally just a standard business envelope because photocopying and printing have become so inexpensive it doesn't make sense to return manuscripts -- although I still see references to the practice in some journals' instructions to contributors.

While this time-honored method of using the postal service seems quaint today, some journal editors still prefer it, or at least they allow it for contributors who are not computer savvy (in other words, the writers and poets who are not reading this blog). I daresay this method is quickly dying out, but it hasn't breathed its last breath yet.

Email: Many journals, especially online journals, prefer contributors to send their work via email -- either as an attachment or pasted into the body of the email itself (some want both). It cuts down on the exchange of paper, so it's a greener approach than using snail mail. While all journals have their idiosyncrasies when it comes to submissions, I've found that journals who want email submissions have a wider variety of preferences, so you have to be extra careful that you're following their specific guidelines. For example, they often want the subject line of the email to be phrased in a particular way in order to help them keep track of submissions. Some have separate email addresses for various kinds of submissions, so poetry goes to one address, fiction to another, creative nonfiction to another, art to yet another, etc. Some journals who want the submission attached to the email will instruct you to include a short autobiographical statement in the body of the email, while others want a separate document attached. Still others will request a photo with the submission, so if they accept your piece they won't have to request the photo later. And on and on....

Bottom line when it comes to email submissions: You're helping the environment (or harming it less quickly), but be sure to read and follow instructions carefully.

Internal electronic portal: This method is becoming increasingly popular. Journals who use this approach have a link at their website that takes you to a portal page which allows you to type in relevant information regarding your submission (its title, for example, your pen-name if you use one, an autobiographical note, etc.), and it asks you to upload your story or poem or creative essay. There are several variations of this portal that you'll encounter, but they all work about the same way. A service called Submishmash is becoming very popular, and for good reason. Many journals use this portal service, while the writer or poet only registers once with Submishmash, which then allows you to log in and see all of your submitted pieces and where you've submitted them at once. It's very handy. Some journals using Submishmash (and other portals) require a nominal reading fee (commonly $2 or $3) when submitting, and you pay via PayPal, for example. The rationale here is that by providing an online portal, the journal is saving you even more money (not to mention, time) on paper, envelopes and postage, so it's a win-win for you and the journal.

Online portals have a lot of advantages for writers and poets: you can see, more or less, where your work is in the process, whether it's just sitting in the journal's inbox or if it's being read (or if it's been declined); also, if the piece is accepted elsewhere, you can easily log in and check the "withdraw" box -- otherwise you have to email (or, in some rare cases still, snail mail) a journal to let the editor know your piece is no longer available, which can be very time consuming. A downside to all-electronic-submission approaches, especially ones using a portal system, is that the number of submissions increases exponentially compared to the old-fashioned postal service method. (Of course, the other side of that coin is that you can submit to many journals easily and quickly, thus offsetting -- while simultaneously causing -- the lengthened odds.)

In future posts we'll look at issues like where to find journals to submit your work to, and variations in so-called "writers' guidelines." In the meantime, keep writing!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's an ugly subject but let's talk about rejection

If you're just starting to send out your work, or just starting to think about it, you'll want to steel yourself for rejection. It's going to happen, and it almost certainly is going to happen a lot (I've heard rumors about writers who find immediate acceptance, but I've never met one and tend to believe it's an urban myth, only slightly more believable than Bigfoot or that whole Roswell, New Mexico, fiasco). And no matter how successful and grounded you are in the rest of your life, having your stories, essays, and poems -- which have sprung from your soul and from your enigmatic need to write them -- rejected (and generally with the tact and sterility of a surgeon's scalpel) is going to hurt.

This hurt is often amplified by the fact that most writers, I'd say, were probably pretty good students and have grown up with adults, from their preschool teacher to the chair of their thesis committee, praising their creativity and their ability to use language -- to the point where thinking of themselves as gifted writers is a loadbearing wall in the psychological framework of their self-concept. Then some anonymous stranger, on whom they've pinned (or penned) their hopes of publication and validation, says with neither fanfare nor apology "no thanks." The rejection notice, whether delivered in an old-fashioned envelope or via email, can cast a shadow over what had been a pretty good day, or it can be the crushing proverbial last straw in a day that was forged in hell and delivered to you personally by the devil himself.

I know this is easy to write and much, much harder to do -- but you just have to shake it off. It's perfectly all right to tell that anonymous editor, who probably is friendless in this world anyway, you suspect at the moment, "___________________" (fill in the blank with whatever makes you feel better) -- as long as you don't actually tell him, because, even though he rejected you, the fact remains he (or she of course) is doing something that I believe (and you must too) is vitally important, and almost certainly for very little, if any, pay and even less, if any, appreciation.

Besides, writers who burn their bridges, no matter how gratifying it may feel at the time, are ones who are doing precisely the opposite of what they need to be doing, which is developing a network of contacts in the writing/editing/publishing community. And besides further, a more productive response is to become even more determined to place that piece of writing (in hopes that the rejecting editor happens upon it someday and regrets his decision -- though, given the volume of work editors have to deal with, the odds of his remembering it ... the next day, leave be months or years later, is, let's say, slim).

So when the rejections come, tell yourself that all those people who've praised your ability to write (those parents and teachers and best friends and siblings and boyfriends who were trying to get past first-base) were dead-on right about you and your work: it is darn good. So, then, why was it rejected (again and again and again, in many cases)? There are a plethora of possible reasons, and once in a very great while, an editor may let you know the reason; otherwise, you just have to accept that it's one or more of the following:

Limited space and an overwhelming volume of submissions: Even the most obscure journals or magazines get thousands of submitted pieces for every issue; and even journals that have managed to establish only a minimal presence in the publishing world will receive tens of thousands; while better known outlets can easily receive in excess of 100,000 stories, poems, and creative essays from which to select only a few dozen at most. Statistically, journals tend to publish less than one percent of the submissions they receive.

Specific needs: Often times editors will be looking for some highly specialized sort of work, due to a theme for an issue, for example, and your piece -- though well liked by the editor -- has to be declined because it doesn't fit the magazine's current agenda. In this case, you may get a note telling you as much and encouraging you to try them again -- this kind of rejection is disappointing but doesn't hurt nearly as much. Alas, however, this scenario may match your submission's rejection exactly, and you'll never know.

Plain old subjectivity: There's no getting around the fact that selecting pieces for publication is a highly subjective process. Let me repeat and italicize that phrase: highly subjective. What one editor loves and would retrieve from the lip of a roiling volcano, another editor might joyfully kick into the teeth of that seething lava if given the opportunity. Moreover, the next day, with the same story or poem, these two hypothetical editors could exchange roles -- why do we want sushi for dinner one day, and a juicy cheeseburger for dinner the next? We humans are fickle, and for editors that fickleness definitely comes into play when deciding what to publish and what to reject. (I have a good story that illustrates this fickleness, but I'll save it for another time -- that's what we call "a teaser.")

Well, I've already written more than I intended to on the subject of rejection. So let's leave it at this: rejection is the yin to the yang of publication success. It's absolutely necessary and inseparable, hence unavoidable. And given what I've said about the odds against publication, you might be feeling discouraged and wondering "Why bother trying?" Here's why: Good writing will find publication -- it may (in fact, probably will) require patience and persistence, but it will find publication. As a writer who wants to publish, you must have faith in this statement, and at this point you'll just have to trust me that it's true.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Terminology I: literary versus genre writing

I'm cleverly titling this post "Terminology I" because I know it's not going to be exhaustive. I want to talk about some of the more common terms associated with shopping your work to potential publishers, but I know (gods willing) there will be future posts that deal with other terms. The first terms I should deal with are "literary" and "genre." For lack of a more useful definition, literary writing (either fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry) is, well, serious; while "genre" writing describes work that fits into various categories like science fiction, western, romance, horror, and so forth.

The problem with these definitions is immediately obvious: they imply that genre writing isn't serious writing, but that's clearly not true. Science fiction writing, for example, is very often serious (leaving be the fact that serious itself is a slippery term). And, for that matter, literary fiction can involve science, it can be set in the West, it can involve romantic relationships, it can describe events that are horrific, and so forth.

Nevertheless, this blog will discuss placing literary writing -- just because that's the sort of writing I do, so that's what I'm familiar with in terms of trying to find outlets for it. But even if you're writing what you feel is genre material, I hope this blog can be helpful to you too. For one thing, there are issues that are universal when it comes to seeking places to publish your work. Also, there are many journals that embrace all kinds of writing, and they expressly state that they are wanting to read genre work as well as literary.

Another reason why this blog may be useful to you even if you're writing what seems to be "genre" pieces is that, while I say I write literary fiction, it doesn't always fit neatly into that category. Much of my work is historically based. My novel Men of Winter, for example, is set (maybe) in early twentieth-century Russia. My novella Weeping with an Ancient God, which I plan to bring out next year, is fictionalized biography based on the life of author Herman Melville and set in 1842 (I published an excerpt of the novella under the title "Melvill in the Marquesas" in The Final Draft). Another example is my short story "A Wintering Place", which is a sequel to Mary Shelley's gothic horror/science fiction novel Frankenstein, and the story appeared in the lit journal Eleven Eleven.

So, in short, I have experience placing pieces that blur the line between literary and genre.

That seems enough for now. Shortly we need to talk about where to search for outlets and how to determine fairly quickly if that outlet may be well suited to your style of writing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Getting your work published 101

Working with young writers, I've come to understand that the mechanics of getting one's work published is not something that people know instinctively; nor, from my experience, is it something that is talked about much even in university writing programs. In MFA programs and the like, the focus tends to be on the craft (and theory) of writing creatively, but there isn't much time spent talking about the practical side of finding outlets for one's work.

Hence, I've decided that a good use for my Punkin House blog would be to try to provide some information and battlefield tips for folks who are writing fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry -- but who don't know a lot about how to get their finished work into the hands of editors who might be interested in publishing it.

A bit about me as a journeyman writer. I began trying to get my work published when I was in college (the first time around) in the mid 1980s (yes, don't bother doing the math, I'm pushing 50). My efforts were sporadic and the results ... uneventful. A decade later I returned to academic halls as a part-time master's student in English with a specialization in fiction writing. The process I went through to find outlets for my stories wasn't much different than in my undergrad days, but I had a little more luck and managed to get one story published in an obscure literary journal before leaving with my degree.

I kept writing and unsystematically sending my work out, and over the years I garnered a couple more publication credits. At age 39 I returned to academia for the third time, this time in pursuit of my Ph.D. in English studies (the only university within driving distance didn't offer a Ph.D. in creative writing). Soldiering on for seven years, my creative writing (and publishing) was put on a back burner -- heck, it was all but taken off the stove and poured into a ziplock bag for cold storage. However, in 2008, with the completion of my degree in sight and only a handful of publishing credits to my name, I decided I'd better start a more serious approach to getting my work published. Since then, I've managed to publish a novel with Punkin House and place nine short stories with various journals.

I should also mention that I've been on the other side of the in-box, too, meaning that I've spent a total of about ten years editing and producing two different literary journals, so I've seen a lot of submissions and have some sense of what is likely to excite an editor and what is likely an immediate turn-off.

A moment ago I used the word "unsystematically," and it's worth noting that my success in finding outlets for my work over the past two years (success, certainly, compared to the other twenty years I'd been writing) has as much to do with developing a system for getting my work into the hands of editors/publishers as with the quality of the work itself.

Since I threw the phrase out there, let me take a minute to speak to "the quality of the work." My purpose here, in this blog, is not to offer advice on writing itself -- there are plenty of bloggers, not to mention more traditional sources, who focus on writing tips, etc. -- so I'm targeting that audience of writers and poets who feel like they're ready to see their work in print (actual or virtual) but aren't completely sure how to go about it. Unfortunately there's no formula that can be applied to one's piece to see if it's ready (a little red pop-up button like they put in turkeys would be really handy). Traditionally, writers are not exuding self-confidence in the earliest phases of their careers, so if writers are waiting until they know for certain that a piece is wonderful before sending it out, they're likely to wait forever (perhaps a dutiful child or grandchild will get it published posthumously).

So, to steal from the fine folks at Nike, if a writer/poet thinks the work may be ready: Just do it. My purpose here, then, is to help you figure out just how to do it. It's crucial, from my perspective, that a piece be as polished and error-free as possible before beginning to send it out. Step one, therefore, is to edit and proofread very, very carefully -- get some assistance with this step if editing/proofreading aren't your forte (though you may want to work on these skills, as what we're talking about here is the careful attention to language and paralanguage [in my usage, commas, semicolins, dashes, etc.], and the work of writers/poets could only benefit from an improved sense of grammar and mechanics).

Until the next entry: write, polish, and figure out what you may want to begin sharing with an editor, and hence the world.