Submitting into Orbit and Staying Down to Earth
Submitting always seemed like a specter, a ghost that hovered over writers to ruin them. The more fragile writers of my cohort devoted much time to talking about it, either lamenting over the lack of acceptances or bragging about the rejections they tracked. At the time, I put this away. My writing wasn’t good enough for publication yet—that’s why I had decided to pursue an MFA instead of stopping at a bachelor’s.
My fellow writers from my bachelor’s program at UCF were better than me, I admit. I might have been worst among them. There was something about writing, instead of just reading, that made you forget all about the structure of a story and what it required, even if you had studied it before. You workshop your piece and everyone points out that your story really didn’t have an end to it, no conflict, no character development—and you know all these things, but they seemed to elude you between character sheets and imagined dialogue and trying “to write what you know.”
"There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." — Flannery O' Connor, Mystery and Manners
While my more serious friends began submitting, I was reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. One, because I wanted to impress a cute girl from my college who had read all these things, but two, because I felt as though I could not write if I was not well-read. If I didn’t read, then how would I know if I was writing something that was already written—and better! And besides all those arguments back and forth of what “well-read” means, I knew there was a lot of well-known literature that I had not yet been exposed to. I wanted so much to allude to other works like some of my cohorts did. I read much before my MFA. I read a lot on writing to the point that I felt a bit ahead when I got into the program at Tampa, and felt rather self-important in my first peer-group, quoting O’ Connor on writing.
Lost in the Cosmos
You probably know where this is going already. I had shrugged off any difficulty with submitting—my time had not yet come. But come my third term, one of our professors mentioned that her friend was editing the recent issue of SmokeLong Quarterly and asked us to submit pieces to it. I submitted one of my pieces from my undergrad, a flash piece from an exercise, that my professor had offered no suggestions on—instead comparing it to a piece we had just read by James Salter—so I thought it was in the clear for publishing. I chose the piece in part because I knew it was good, and because I wasn’t that attached to it, or at least that’s what I told myself. Seventeen days passed, and the rejection rolled in.
Having interned at The Florida Review, I knew how poor the stories could be—how people would lie about their credentials, where they had published, on their cover page. And each submission I had read, I compared to my own work, thinking about what each piece lacked. In this way I was confident. Even in my rejection, I thought that I might have deserved a better response than the standard template. I pulled up RejectionWiki, as one of my friends had mentioned, and even with as good as it sounded, it was the standard rejection offered to me.
"Why are you training to be a doctor? You could be a novelist!"
It didn’t ruin me, but it did make me speculate. Was it as our director had said? Somebody could have simply been hungry while they were reading the piece. He could have been tired from a long day of reading similar short pieces, glossing over them. I think we’d like to believe our piece will shine out of the pile, and we’ll get a personal note—send us another, we’ll accept the next one—we don’t have room in this issue, but maybe we can put yours in the next?
And there’s so much tied up on the validation of submitting that it serves as the praise we no longer receive from our professors or fellow students. Art for the sake of art sounds like a nice idea, but most of us stop doing a thing when we get the idea that we’re not all that good at it. Unrecognized genius is one thing, but odds are, we aren’t all the Vincent van Gogh’s we imagine ourselves to be. In her essay, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," when asked about whether the university system was stifling young authors O’ Connor said, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher” (84-85). There are more competent writers than genius ones, and the amount of them is great. In my first writing class, I so desperately wanted to be told that I was good enough to persist in doing this—all of it—that I had some unique vision to provide. My professor told us on the first day, “There is no clamoring for writers. Nobody at home chastises you, “why are you training to be a doctor, when you could be a novelist?” Instead of asking for the encouragement to persist, I asked, “Did you understand what I was going for?” He said that he did, and I thought that was enough to continue, at least in the classes.
Submissions are the only way forward for a writer. For those that wish to teach in Academia, you must have publications. For your short stories to be published as a collection, you must have them published first by magazines. It builds a sort of credibility on itself, having your work vetted by literary magazines. It says that it will do well with another audience because there is already a market for it. There’s self-publishing, yes, and there is always going with small presses instead of larger ones, or lesser known magazines instead of the well-known ones. But if you are sitting on your magnum opus, do you really do it justice by tossing it to your friend’s start-up magazine as your first choice? So, what is it then? Why do so many of us take this route? Are we afraid to discover our work only fits in niche markets? Or do we simply lack the patience to go a long time without validation? My program’s director once answered a student, “why would we talk about self-publishing, when you are getting an MFA? You get an MFA so you don’t have to self-publish.”
Coming Down to Earth
As you might imagine, I opted for the slow-route. I wanted to participate in the larger, more visible literary world. How one of my professors explained it to me is this: you want to submit your work to the best magazines first, so that they have a chance to see it and pass on it. Then you trickle your work down to the next tier and continue. After a few rejections, or going down a tier, take a look again at your work and see if there’s anything that you would like to change. I knew some of these magazines at first, as everyone does, though I had read little of them at: The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the Atlantic. The magazines say that you ought to read them regularly before submitting to them, an expensive endeavor for a would-be writer. A single subscription wouldn’t break your bank, but if you took out every magazine that was worth submitting to, you could easily be spending over 1000$ a year. I recently took the liberty of making such a list for myself, drawing lines this way and that, based on number of O' Henry Prizes and Best American appearances.
Below is what I came up with:
The New Yorker – Library/Online
Harper’s Magazine – Library/Online
The Atlantic – Library/Online
Ploughshares – 35$/year
Esquire - Library/Online
Epoch – 11$/year
The Kenyon Review – 35$/year
The Yale Review – 39$/year
The Virginia Quarterly Review - 32$/year
The Paris Review - Library/Online
The Southern Review – 35$/year
Zoetrope: All Story – 50$/year
Granta – 42$/year print or 16$/year digital
New England Review – 35$/year
McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – 95$/year
American Short Fiction – 30$/year
Zyzzyva – 42$/year
The Sewanee Review – 35$/year
The Antioch Review – 46$/year
The Iowa Review – 20$/year
The Missouri Review - 30$/year print or 24$/year digital
Narrative Magazine – Free (but submissions are kind of high?)
Agni – 23$/year
Conjunctions – 30$/year
"Try again. Keep it moving. Maybe this next one."
So between all the magazines that I have listed here, if I were to subscribe to each one to get a sense of what the magazine was accepting, I would spend $633.00 a year (I’m glad I haven’t developed any delusions about making money off of this yet). With simultaneous submissions—submissions that go to multiple magazines—you would pick a tier and submit a story to several in it. As you get your rejections, you move the story down the tier-list and submit to several more. That way, if you persist in writing and submitting (and reading), you will always have a story in the highest and lowest tier of magazines. Instead of submitting and waiting for 5 months for an answer, you would be receiving answers far more frequently. Even if other magazines interest you, it makes sense to give them a hierarchy and submit away.
What have I been doing since graduation then? When it comes to submissions, I’ve taken the slow approach. I’ve been reading magazines from my local library and writing down a few of the stories I’ve liked out of each for my cover letter. I’ve grabbed a few of the more notable magazines on the shelf at the Barnes & Noble to read and submit to. I’m not yet ready to carpet-bomb magazines with my stories without reading first. While I haven’t had much success yet, there’s always an inkling pointing me towards the next yellow envelope, saying, “Try again. Keep it moving. Maybe this next one.”
About the Author:
I'm a short fiction writer currently working on publishing all the short fiction from grad school that I still very much like. In addition to reading and writing, I love playing games, cooking with my wife, and hanging out with our two cats—D'mitri and Ophelia. If you got something out of my article, or if you just flat-out disagree with it, feel free to leave me a comment below.