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Submitting to Literary Journals

There is so much I wish I knew when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Given, I was about eight years old, and probably wouldn't have listened to the advice I was being given, but still... One of the biggest things I wish I had been told, or given some insight into, was submitting my work to literary journals. When I was in high school, we had a literary journal called Omnibus. Only upper-classmen could be in the club, but anyone could submit work for consideration. I was so excited and submitted a handful of poems. To my surprise, two of them were selected. That was the last year the school had the club. There just wasn't enough interest to keep it going, so I never got to figure out what it looked like to be on the other side of this equation and be the person selecting work for publication.

When I got to Florida State, I learned about the Kudzu Review– the university's undergraduate literary journal. I submitted every semester and never had a bite. It was crushing. If I had been smarter, I would have joined the club and then at least I could put it on my resume, but I wasn't that smart. Plus, I didn't think I had time with being a full-time student and working 20 hours a week. In what would become an obvious pattern, I pushed down my writing ambitions for my more "practical" commitments.

During this time, I was so wrapped up in school and work that it didn't occur to me to look into the world and discover literary journals there. I was vaguely aware of other journals because of my time working at Barnes and Noble, but I thought those were for "professional" writers, not me. I didn't know what submittable was! All this to say, I had to figure this piece of being a writer out for myself and because of that, I've always felt like I'm a step behind everyone around me.

The first time I applied to graduate school, I was rejected from everywhere. My GRE scores weren't great (I was never a good tester) and I didn't have a single publication to my name. I spent a year submitting my handful of polished stories anywhere and everywhere, eventually getting enough publications to get into grad school.

It was a journey though. I didn't know what I was doing, and I had no one to ask for help. They all say that before submitting, you should read a copy of the journal to see if your story would be a good fit, but I honestly wonder how many people are able to do that? I try of course, but between the money it costs to submit and to buy a copy of each journal, then the time it takes to read each one (I'm a slow reader), it just seems a bit unrealistic to do that for every journal. I definitely didn't do it then, I flung my stories at the wall and just waited to see what stuck.

The thing I wish someone had told me (part B) is that you probably shouldn't just submit your work anywhere. One of my favorite short stories I've ever written was published by an online magazine that no longer exists. Like, it's just– poof– gone. The website is gone, and with it, one of the best things I've ever written. Now I'm stuck in the ethical dilemma of wondering if I can try submitting it somewhere else since it's technically been published... If only I had done a bit more research, had a bit more patience, and maybe had someone who could guide me through the process, I wouldn't have wasted that story on a journal that didn't have longevity.

I think that's one of the risks involved with being a writer though. There are so many journals out there, but finding one that has a good reputation, has exciting work inside, has been around for a while, and likes your work seems nearly impossible. I look at my mentors from grad school and how all of them continue to have work published in McSweeney's, Tin House, The Paris Review, etc. and I'm flabbergasted. How? How are they teaching full-time, and consistently putting out work so good, it's being accepted by these incredibly prestigious journals? How am I supposed to get there?

Of course, the work has to be good, but from the research I've done, there's also a lot to be said for the query letter. It's the end-all-be-all when looking for an agent, but it's still important when getting published in a lit journal. Trying to have the right amount of detail about the story, plus a smattering of praise for the journal, and then a little biography they can use in case they pick you. Of course, my biography is relatively bare without any recent publications to list. And the smattering of praise is sometimes false because I just don't have the time to buy and read every journal I submit to. It all feels so impossible to get right.

What most non-writer don't know is that it's recommended to only submit a story to maybe six journals at a time. Simultaneous submissions are generally okay, but you don't want to stretch it too far. Then, each journal can take up to about six months to read and accept or reject your story. Four to six months is pretty standard wait time for a reply. So, let's say you want a story to be published, you might be able to send it out to twelve places in a year. If you're desperate to get published quickly, those odds aren't great. So then you submit maybe three stories at the same time, to six journals each, and your odds increase, but at that point, is the quality of the journal still being held to the same standard? Does it still mean something if I get published in an online journal that's only been around for six months? No matter how good the story is, will anyone read it in that journal?

Any writer or journal manager will tell you there is an insane amount of luck too. You might catch a reader on a bad day where they aren't going to like anything. You might get someone who's just read the best story ever and even though yours is good, it's nothing compared to the one before it. These journals work so hard to find quality content but they're human, and their mood often dictates their taste. There is no standard rubric from journal to journal of what they're looking to publish. You need to hit the right reader, at the right journal, at the right time, and then maybe they'll pass it on to a second reader who agrees it should be published.

In late 2020 I decided to stop submitting to journals because I was beginning to feel so beaten down I couldn't stand it. Instead, I buckled down and finished the third full revision of my first novel, sent it to some beta readers, and then started my second novel. I focused on those, telling myself this was enough for my writing career. It would be enough to get an agent, to get published, to be a writer– and maybe that's all true, but it's starting to not feel like enough.

Since I started sending stories out in 2015, I have submitted nearly 80 times to nearly 60 magazines. This isn't even close to record-breaking, but in all of those, I have been accepted only a handful of times. Of those, some of them don't exist anymore. It's a heartbreaking game, trying to build my reputation as a writer. Despite the work, the rejection, and the heartbreak, submitting and publishing in literary journals is just a part of being a writer. At least the kind of writer I want to be. I have a backlog of short stories I really love that I want to find a home for. My goal for this year is to submit at least fifty times. It's already April, and I've only submitted to nine, but hey, it's a start.

My submittable page as on March 31st

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