Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.
OUT OF THE FOREST OF NOISE:
ON PUBLISHING THE LITERARY SHORT STORY
(OR POEM OR ESSAY OF CREATIVE NONFICTION OR LITERARY TRANSLATION OF SAME)
From The Part Times, a newsletter of the M.A. in Writing Program, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Fall 2001 (with some minor edits and updates)
Last updated: February 2018
SO YOU'D LIKE to try getting your short story published. Take heart: you can do it. And, if your work is worthy a question only you can answer it merits the effort. Like a boat, send it out where it belongs, over the great wide sea. Let it find readers, whoever they may be, on whatever strange shores. Some of your readers may not be born yet. It helps to keep that in mind.
Beginning writers often imagine
publishing their short story to be a glamorous event, Hemingwayesque
in a wear-your-sunglasses-and-knock-back-the-grappa-as-
So why try? Because when your story is published it is no longer one copy printed out from your printer, but 1,000 or more. Perhaps one is lying on someone's coffee table in Peterborough, New Hampshire, or on a poet's broad oak desk overlooking the beach at La Jolla, California. Maybe one sits on the shelves at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library, or on a side table in the lobby at Yaddo. Perhaps a dentist will read your story, or a retired school teacher from Winnetka. Perhaps one day, a hundred years from now, a bizarrely tattooed highschool student will find it on a shelf in the basement of the Reno, Nevada public library, and she will sit down Indian-style on the cold linoleum floor and read it, her eyes wide with wonder. Your story, once published, lives its own life, sinking some deep, strange roots. Potentially forever.
And of course it is validating (i.e., gives one's ego the warm & fuzzies) to have your work published. It also helps to mention it in your cover letters when you try to get other work published, or apply for grants and fellowships, or to attract the attention of an agent, and so on. Indeed, publishing one's stories in literary journals is (with a very few notable exceptions) y a prerequisite to securing a publisher for a collection.
If you can keep your focus on
the story, however, and what the story merits rather than
the warm & fuzzies for your ego the process will be
easier. Expect your ego to take some punches.
It may appear that we live in a nation of [strike: "Leno"watchers, throngs of Gladiator"-goers, Stallone fans, Brad Pitt groupies and the like] smombies. From a breezy foray through [strike: the local mall's bookstore] amazon.com, one might guess that America reads nothing but brand-name bodice-rippers, shiny red foil paperbacks with nuclear warheads on their covers, or those teensy gifty "books" with angels and cats on them [strike: displayed at the cash register alongside the chotchkes and chocolates], or whatever gets coughed up by your algorithm du jour.
Mais non! Secretly, millions of Americans are scribbling, and bravely (if often furtively) thousands and thousands are sending their work to literary magazines. Yes, thousands and thousands (and say that again, out loud, à la Carl Sagan). The Paris Review receives over 10,000 submissions a year. Most litmags publish only 2-3% of the manuscripts they receive. As for the "slicks" GQ, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, The New Yorker getting published in one of these, even for the most outstanding and recognized writers, even National Book Award winners, is like winning the lottery.
In short, you've got some competition. So when you receive the [strike: unsigned xeroxed form rejection note that says "Sorry"] submittable.com response "declined" it could mean your story sucks and you should do yourself a favor and burn it, but it could mean that it's a fine story and they simply didn't have room for it. Or they already had a story about a dying alcoholic gradmother, the heartbreak of losing the family dairy farm, or for that matter, a flying monkey in a business suit. (You'd be amazed.) Equally, it could mean it's one of the best short stories ever written better than Chekov's "The Lady with the Pet Dog," better than Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," better than A. Manette Ansay's "Read This and Tell Me What It Says" and the editor, or more likely some flunkey/ wannabe / slush pile-squeegeer, is an aethetically blind/ dispeptic / Philistine / pinhead. Who was probably hung over. Or jealous. Who knows? The point is, the little unsigned xeroxed rejection note means nothing except that this particular magazine's editor at this particular time has chosen not to publish this particular story.
Sometimes editors write personal notes explaining why they didn't take your story. Indeed, anything handwritten and/ or signed by an editor can mean that a distinguished literary personage has taken an interest in your work, and you should, gratefully, with a zing in your heart and Jell-O in your knees, interpret this as both validation and an invitation to send more. It can also mean that an inexperienced graduate student/ assistant/ whomever as yet unacquainted with the toughening rigors of plowing down towering slush piles felt guilty saying no and was merely attempting in a flakey and time-consuming way to be nice.
Thus it behooves you to do your research about the litmags and editors you are sending your work to. A personally signed rejection letter from the Editor-in-Chief of The Kenyon Review, for example, would make my day. On the other hand,even lengthy letters from an assistant of a minor new litmag would no more impress me than the comments of a commuter randomly collared at the bus stop. (Who might be a very perceptive fellow, but who knows? He could be coke-addled lunkhead.) Keep in mind that anyone yes anyone, including the flying monkey can found a litmag. Compared to, say, making a feature film, or casting bronze sculpture, publishing a litmag is dirt cheap. All of which is to say, unless they are from the likes of the editor-in-chief of The Kenyon Review, don't take letters from editors too seriously. For that matter, don't take editors themselves too seriously.
So you send again, and again. And again. She who spends for the most postage wins. As does she who does her research.
Research, Research, Research
The most basic level of research is to get an overall feel for the "market" for literary short fiction. You can usually find a reasonably interesting selection at your local library. If you can afford it, however, I recommend you go to a bookstore and buy a bunch at the [alas, now long defunct] Georgetown Barnes & Noble I've spotted Chelsea, Calyx, Witness, The Paris Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, Potomac Review, all of which would be worth your while to read. Read all you can, and read the contributors notes. If you read a story by, say, Bob Doe, that you admire, and you read in Bob Doe's bio that he's also published in Seattle Review, High Plains Review, and DoubleTake check 'em out! Another good way to spot worthy litmags is to pick up prize-winning short story collections - anything that wins the AWP, Iowa Prize, Flannery O'Connor, Bakeless, National Book Award, etc and look on the acknowledgments page to see where stories have been previously published.
See also Clifford Garstang's Perpetual Folly litmag rankings for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction an excellent resource.
Then have a look at their websites for guidelines. [strike: Litmags without a website will usually send guidelines in exchange for a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope).] A great place to look for links is on the website of the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses, www.clmp.org
Reference books like Writers Market can be helpful, but in my experience they are often too quickly out of date. There is no substitute for actually seeingand readinga magazine and its guidelines before you submit.
Guidelines not only give an idea
of the types of writing the editors are looking for, but reading
periods. Many litmags read only during the fall, or during the
winter. Some read Sept - May, others Oct - June. Oftentimes litmags
have special issues, e.g., "The Body", "Mothers
and Daughters", "Love in America", "Overcoming
Loss", "Borderlands." Your manuscript will have
a better chance if you can aim it at a special issue.
Calls for submissions are often listed in the classifieds in Poets & Writers. (For more information go http://www.pw.org) For those of you in the Washington DC metropolitan area, consider joining The Writers Center. Their publication, Writer's Carousel, also inlcudes numerous calls for submission.
Contests can be tricky. These
invite you to send a story with an entry fee of anywhere from
$5 to $20. The fees are often used to fund the litmag, and/or
to pay a judge for her time reading manuscripts. For book contests
especially for poetry, but also for literary short story collection
awards such as the AWP, Bakeless, Iowa, Flannery O'Connor, and
others reading fees cover the honoria for the judge, and
as such I think they are fair and fine. For individual stories,
however, I would not enter a contest that requires a fee unless
it includes a subscription or anthology that I would have bought
anyway. There are too many litmags that don't request a fee to
consider your work, and given your chances, you might as well
lay down your bucks on a lottery ticket. In short, be sure you
know where and why you are sending before you start writing checks.
First, your cover letter. This should have your name, address, tel, and e-mail.
Address the letter to a specific person if you can "To the Fiction Editor" is a red flag that you don't know the magazine.
Tell them what you're submitting, e.g., "Please find enclosed for your consideration a short story, "Down the Well"). Do not explain the story, e.g., "this is a story about a young girl who falls down a well," etc. You are not selling a nonfiction article - the literary short story is art, and you must let it speak for itself. Explaining and introducing is blather, it annoys the editor and it makes you look silly.
Editors are human however, so it helps if you can do it honestly to say something about their litmag, e.g., "I bought a copy of ABC at the Bethesda Book Festival and I really admired the story by Bob Doe." If you can't say anything, don't. Brief and business-like is fine.
Include something about yourself a few sentences, a paragraph at the most, that could be used as your contributor's note if your story is taken. I find them easier to both write and read in the third person. (I put mine at the bottom of the page, under the title "Brief Bio..") This is your opportunity to signal that you are serious e.g., "Bob Doe's stories have been published in ABC, PDQ etc" or "Bob Doe was recently awarded a scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and is now in his second year at the Johns Hopkins MFA Program." If you don't have literary "credentials," not to worry, a simple note will do, e.g., "Bob Doe is a statistician who lives in Grand Forks, North Dakota with his wife, four children and pack of seven Alpo-guzzling Huskies. He is at work on a novel." Anything more your five page resume, a previously published poem, a newspaper article about your amazing recovery after being simultaneously hit by a cement truck and an estimated 397 volts of lightning is clutter. The editor has limited time and attention, so don't take it up with the nonessential. End the cover letter with a "thank you for considering my work" and sign it.
The manuscript itself should have your name, address, tel and e-mail in the upper left hand corner. If you can, include a word count, preferably in the upper right hand corner. Double space the text (or else!). Fasten the whole thing manuscript, and cover letter with a paper clip. (Don't staple, because if they do seriously consider your story they may need to make xerox copies for other editorial readers.)
Finally crucially if you are not using submittable.com or otherwise submitting online enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for the reply because without it you may not get one. Unless your manuscript is short enough to fit in the SASE, expect them to (ahem) recycle it.
The Question of Multiple Submissions
A dismaying number of litmag editors say that they either do not accept multiple submissions, or that they insist on being informed. My view is, they're shouting into the wind because so many writers do it anyway. According to my own informal poll, 90% of serious already well published short story writers multiple submit, and without compunction. With the odds so stacked against even the best writers, to expect a one-at-a-time submissions is not only unrealistic but grossly unfair. If you submit your story to one litmag at one at a time, it may take years, toe curling, shoulder sagging years, to find it a home. Even the most distinguished litmags can sometimes take as long as a year to reply. That's right, a year. Rather than get steamed about that, keep in mind that litmag publishing is not a profit generating business, but a labor of love. Most editors are not paid for their time, and if they are, only poorly paid. They're only human, they have to take the kids to the dentist and grade papers and water the lawn and walk the dog and write their own short stories/ poems/ novel, and in any case the slush pile is very tall, and growing ever taller what with all these multiple submissions...
If you do have a story accepted, you should immediately inform all of the other editors that you are withdrawing it unless that is, you're fine with piggy badness. A simple postcard will do: "Dear Editor: This is to let you know that I am withdrawing my story "Down the Well." I hope this has not caused any inconvenience. Sincerely, Bob Doe." If you've submitted online, update your submittable.com page or just email the editor. To do otherwise to wait in hopes of a bigger bite from, say, The New Yorker is both dishonorable and unfair to the editor who has taken your story. The literary world is small, and it seems to me that in a somewhat random but inexorable way, what goes around comes around.
I think submitting to three or four litmags or slicks is a good number to start with. With each rejection, send out another. If after three months you haven't received a reply from a given journal, this may mean your story is under serious consideration, although, it may mean your story is sitting behind some junior assistant's couch who still hasn't read it and by the way the cat pissed on it. Who knows? So it's a tough call whether to withdraw the manuscript or not. All I can say is, go with your gut.
Aside from the secretarial hassle and expense of postage, another reason not to send out more than three or four submissions of a given story at a time is that most likely, with a fresh look a few months later, you will want to revise it. You may even want to take it out of circulation. Again, go with your gut. Unless you want to learn to read goat entrails. I really do not know what else to tell you.
I doubt there are many well-published short story writers who have not accumulated a big fat stack of rejections. Some writers, such as Yours Truly, have not because we just toss them, la de da, in the trash. Rejections are part of the game, and so don't let them fluster you. Some of the best short stories have five, eight, even thirty-five rejections behind them. One prize-winning story by a major contemporary writer racked up forty-eight that's right, 48 rejections before it was taken. Some genuinely amazing stories are never published until they show up in a collection.
As writers we must continually work to balance on the razor's edge of arrogance and humility and we do that with a dose of both: arrogance to continue sending out work when it has been rejected and rejected and rejected; humility to recognize when we need to rewrite, or re-envision, or even (ah well) to discard. Trying to publish can be a discouraging and disorienting experience, like entering a dark forest full of noise. In my experience, the trick is, keep your chin up but your ego in check, and stay focused on maintaining that balance, and making your writing the best you can.
When my story is accepted for publication, I let my ego, for a few private minutes, tingle and shine. When, some months later, my two contributors copies arrive in their plain brown envelope, I sit down and read one. I get to know the company my story is in. I write the editors a thank you note. I am generous if I honestly can be with kind comments about the other contributors' work. I update my [strike: resume and bio] website and blog. I smile wistfully as I wish my story a bon voyage.