Re-posted from my monthly column at FFC.
If you're new to the submissions game, trying to find markets that might fit your work can seem like an impossible task. How do you learn your way around an arena as vast and varied as the world of literary magazines? Mostly, it just takes a lot of time and research, but if you're looking for some tips on how to get started, I've compiled some of my advice below.
- Read the year-end anthologies. Of course it's important to support your favorite journals by subscribing, but if you're strapped for cash, reading the Pushcart Prize volumes or books from the Best American series is a great way to get to know a lot of magazines for one price of admission.
- Look for themed journals or special issues. Some magazines theme issues by geographical location or subject matter. Looking for a journal with a theme that fits your story can be a great way to learn about new magazines. If you're looking to find one, Duotrope has a handy theme calendar that's a good place to start.
- Don't just read the magazine, read the bio pages too. When you're first learning your way around, author bio pages are a great way to find comparable magazines. You already know you like the magazine you're reading, and other journals that have published the same writers are likely to have a similar vibe.
- Stalk your favorite writers. If you stumble upon a writer whose work you would liken to your own, see if they have a website or list of pubs somewhere. You can target the same magazines and guess that the editors who liked their stories are more likely to enjoy yours as well.
- Talk to your writer-friends. This may seem obvious, but sometimes we're coy about the submissions process. Don't be afraid to share information about where you're submitting and why. Everyone benefits from this kind of knowledge sharing.
- Finally, when deciding where to send your work, be clear about your goals. This is a really important step and one that's often overlooked. Where you send your stories should depend largely on what you want to achieve. If you're looking to get a fancy teaching job, you should sub to top print journals. But if your priority is readership, web-based venues are a better bet.
Those of you who have been submitting for a while, how did you learn your way around the literary landscape?
Reposted from my monthly column at FFC.
The other day on Facebook, my cousin posted a note about her first ever college writing class. The students were asked to bring in a piece of writing they admired and three of them brought in this poem by Charles Bukowski, called "so you want to be a writer." Here's how it begins:
if it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don't do it. if you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen or hunched over your typewriter searching for words, don't do it.
Thinking about the beginning writers in my cousin's class absorbing those unbelievably discouraging words from a celebrated literary figure sent me into a blind rage. Once I recovered my sight, I typed out a quick rebuttal to let my cousin know that it was okay (more than okay!) to work hard. I'd like to expand on it here, just in case anyone out there is still buying into the myth of the unedited genius.
This poem is very Bukowski. His work is free-flowing and unedited. His words and distinctive style resonate with a lot of writers and I can admire that. The content of the poem, however, is a load of crap.
For most of us, our work is hard work. I know this is true for me. Sometimes I'm incredibly frustrated with my own writing. Sometimes I'm bored. Sometimes I'm anxious and struggling. Sometimes it's easy, but even then, I'm suspicious. The hard work doesn't worry me, nor does it worry most of the writers I know. We want to work hard, push our own limits, earn it.
Nothing bothers me more than writers who want to play games like "Who can be the most inspired" or "Who can create a masterpiece in the least amount of drafts." This is all posturing around the fantasy of the solitary genius writer, to whom writing is like breathing, to whom the words just come. In my mind, these people are bragging about the wrong thing. In real life, the game is more about "Who can stay at the keyboard the longest," "Who will keep going back to work on the tough scenes," "Who wants it most even when it's hard."
I want to say that it's okay for it to be hard. Sometimes it's hard! So is waitressing, so is advanced mathematics, so is heart surgery, so is HVAC repair, so is sculpture. It's hard so that you'll know when you're growing, so that you'll know when you're doing something important, so you'll know where your limits are so you can destroy them. If it's too easy, it means you need to work harder. You think you're a genius? Fine. Show me.
But most importantly, in my humble opinion, anyone who tells you "don't do it" for any reason can go fuck himself. Writing is all about "doing it", no matter what. The people who "do it" become writers. The people who don't, don't. I want to tell you: Do it.
I often joke with my partner (who, in addition to being a fabulous writer, has worked in the web doing user experience and strategy work) about how I have absolutely no skills that are marketable in the real world. Of course I know this isn't really true; a quick Google search will recommend lots of jobs you can do with an MFA in creative writing. But I'm sure some of you will agree that it sometimes it feels like our lives "as writers" are completely separate from the rest of our lives "in the real world."
As a remedy, I'd like to offer an abbreviated list of ways our writerly skills can serve us in the real world.
- Getting out of trouble. "But, Officer, that person three cars back was swerving all over the road. I was just speeding up to get away from him. Did you not see that?" If you've ever gotten out of a speeding ticket by telling a yarn like this, you can thank (in equal parts) your acting skills and your narrative skills.
- Playing cards. Any hold 'em player worth her green vinyl visor will tell you that bluffing a hand has less to do with trying to buy the pot and more to do with telling a consistent story. As the cards fall, you've got to make your opponent believe you're hitting your hand. This involves constructing a convincing narrative about which cards are helping you and which are blanks and reacting appropriately. Apply your plotting skills here and you just might walk away a few dollars richer.
- Being compassionate. We've all played the character-building game where you watch a person on the street and imagine their story. Do this enough and you may find yourself doing it all the time. I'm able to stay zen when someone cuts me off in traffic or is rude to me in the grocery store because in my mind's eye I can see their chicken pox-afflicted children, or the unsigned divorce papers on their desks. Whether you're right or not, being able to imagine a person's whole life makes you a happier, more compassionate person.
- Maintaining a successful relationship. That's right. Ask any couple's counselor what's the most important part of a relationship and he'll tell you: Communication. If there's anything that writers excel at, it's finding the right word in a churning, chaotic sea of language.
- Letting someone down gently. On the other hand, if it's just not working out, your language skills can also help you through the oft-dreaded break-up talk. You know all about mood, tone and context. You know how to affect your audience with your words. Channel that expertise here. Save the poor guy some tears.
It's nice to feel my "writer" life and "real" life meld from time to time. How have you used your writing skills outside your writing?
This month's article at Flash Fiction Chronicles is about my first time being published. I've re-posted it here:
Everyone remembers their first time. Maybe you’re young and naive, like I was. Maybe you’ve been working up to it so long that you already feel like a pro. But when the moment arrives, it’s always the same: the excitement, the nervous butterflies, the need to share the news immediately with a trusted friend. For this column I thought I’d tell you about my first time–my first time being published, that is.
I don’t know when (if ever) I would have started sending work out on my own, but luckily my first writing teacher was adamant that we all engage with the world outside the workshop. At the end of my first writing class in my junior year of college, I was required to print out a manuscript, compose a cover letter, research a market and (gulp) send the whole bundle off to a real life magazine to be judged by the cold, cruel world.
I spent a lot of time deciding on a market for that first story. I didn’t know my way around the literary landscape at all, so there was no name recognition involved. Eventually, I flipped to the section marked “Special Interest.” Since my story dealt with illness, I was excited to find many magazines dedicated to that topic. I settled on a magazine called Kaleidoscope because it was from Ohio and so was I.
Since the instructor all but promised us we’d each be getting a rejection letter in our little white envelope in four to six months, I didn’t even entertain the possibility that Kaleidoscope would take my piece. But it didn’t matter; I was hooked. I spent long afternoons in the library reading through The Writer’s Market, making copies of my manuscripts and my disastrously generic cover letter. I spent my drinking money on postage.
Slowly but surely, the rejections started rolling in. You know them immediately: addressed in your own handwriting, no return address. I always opened them anyway, looking for any scrawl of pen on paper, evidence that someone took an extra second to reject me.
I could have gone on like this for a long time, forever maybe. But I didn’t have to. The big envelope came two weeks after Christmas. It was from Kaleidoscope and they wanted my story. They were even willing to pay me for it ($75, which went right into more envelopes, copies and postage, after a round of drinks for my my roommates). I’ve celebrated every acceptance since then, but there’s still something magical about that first one. You never forget it.
I also won’t forget how it felt when the journal finally came, and I got to see my words in print for the first time. It was a bit of a wait. Despite having sent the story out in May of 2002, and having it accepted in January of 2003, the issue containing my story didn’t come out until July 2005. It was a long wait, but it was worth it.
Now that I’m someone else’s writing teacher, I have adopted the same requirement. It’s a good skill to learn, I tell my students, and no one will offer teach you once you’ve left. Sometimes I have to talk a reluctant student into it, but I don’t back down. I’ve even had a few students excitedly email me about their acceptances. They feel almost as good as my own.