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Out of the Forest of Noise:
On Publishing the Literary Short Story
by C.M. Mayo
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 (c) C.M.
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-
agents-ring-your-phone-off kind of way. But for most writers
it's an experience on par with, say, folding laundry. Unless
you make one of the slicks The New Yorker, Esquire,
Atlantic Monthly, Harper's most likely your payment
will be two copies of the magazine. These will arrive in your
mailbox in a plain brown envelope. Some editors jot a thankyou
note, but most don't bother. Chances are, your friends and family
will not have heard of the magazine. Even the best literary journals
often manage only a modest circulation 500 to 5,000
and may not be available for sale except in a very few widely
scattered off-beat independents. In short, if you want money,
you'd do better to flip burgers, and if you want attention, go
fight bulls. Knock back that grappa, heck, wear a spangled pink
tutu and splash in the Dupont Circle fountain during lunch hour.
Scream obscenities in Swahili. Whatever.
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 "Leno"watchers, throngs of Gladiator"-goers,
Stallone fans, Brad Pitt groupies and the like. From a breezy
foray through the local mall's bookstore, 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 displayed
at the cash register alongside the chotchkes and chocolates.
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. My own Tameme, a bilingual literary magazine
with a mere two issues out, has received over 200 submissions.
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
In short, you've got some competition.
So when you receive the unsigned xeroxed form rejection note
that says "Sorry" 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- squeegee, 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
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
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.
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 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
Then have a look at the web for
guidelines. 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
seeing - and reading - a magazine and its guidelines before you
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.
Update: an increasing number of litmags accept on-line (e-mailed)
submissions. Nonetheless, many editors refuse to read e-mailed
submissions. Be sure to check the submissions guidelines before
zapping out that attachment.
Calls for submissions are often
listed in the classifieds in Poets & Writers, a
publication I strongly recommend that you subscribe to. (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.
The Mechanics of
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're 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
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 39 c stamped envelope, expect them
to (ahem) recycle it.
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. 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." 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
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.
Keep Learning, Keep Writing
I doubt there are many serious
short story writers who don't have a thick file of rejections.
It's part of the game, and so don't let them fluster you. Some
of the best short stories have five, eight, even fifteen rejections
behind them. One prize-winning story by a major contemporary
writer racked up 48 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. 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 your story is accepted for
publication, let your ego, for a few private minutes, tingle
and shine. When, some months later, your two contributors copies
arrive in their plain brown envelope, sit down and read one.
Get to know the company your story is in. Write the editors a
thank you note. Be generous if you honestly can with
kind comments about the other contributors' work. Update your
resume and bio. Smile wistfully as you wish your story a bon
voyage. And then, at last, you can plunk the thing on a
shelf and get back to the fun stuff: writing.
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