Let me be clear that I do not think that writers need to be submitting to literary magazines. First of all, some of you are writing books and not the shorter fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry that most journals publish. However, I will say, when it’s time to find an agent for your book, some nice publishing credits will enhance your query. That third-party endorsement is valuable.
Secondly, publishing is not the end-all-be-all. Who cares if you ever publish your work? It’s worth writing for plenty of other reasons. And I’m 100 percent down with that.
However, after working at a literary journal for six years, I’ve heard some things. Often from people who would probably be thrilled to have their work published in a literary magazine but who have some misconceptions about the lit mag world. I’ll frame those objections as “myths”, and I’m here to debunk them. First up:
1-Your work isn’t good enough
Okay, if you’re a new writer, this is probably true. And if the piece is a first draft, it’s definitely true. Getting a piece of writing crafted to the point that it’s ready for publication can be a laborious slog. But the good news is that what is not good enough now can be made better.
Do you belong to a writing critique group? Are you working with a writing coach either individually or in a class? Have you incorporated writing craft books into your reading rotation? Do you study books you love to figure out how the author is doing what she’s doing? These are the things that skillful writers do.
It’s not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to pursue these activities in a formal MFA program. Many successful writers have honed their craft through self-study and seeking out writing mentors.
2-You can’t handle rejection
Many writers submit once or twice without success and then give up on literary magazines. This is too bad. And I really think it stems from a lack of understanding the basic math that is intrinsic to the lit mag acceptance/rejection game.
It’s common for journals to accept less than 2% of the work submitted to them, which means the overwhelming response to their submitters is rejection. Think of all that good work that a magazine has to say no to because they just don’t have room in their pages.
I recently heard a poet say that a poem of his that was published in The Best American Poetry series had been rejected from journals 40 times before it was picked up. It’s not all that unusual of a story.
Successful writers do the math, grow a thick skin, and submit liberally.
3-The submission process is time-consuming
Well, this is kind of true. But it’s an excuse, which is close enough to a myth.
There really are no shortcuts here. You’re going to have to do your homework. Besides following submissions guidelines exactly, when submitting to literary magazines you’ll need to put in the hours researching journals, reading online samples, and preparing your submission.
But once you get familiar with the literary journal landscape and the submission process, it gets a whole lot easier and faster to submit your work. I actually think it’s fun. Every submission gets me closer to overcoming that basic math problem I talked about in #2.
Want to up your odds of getting an acceptance? Submit, submit, submit.
4-You don’t want to be associated with things “literary”
The genre vs. literary distinction is a can of worms I will only crack the lid on here. The book publishing industry lives and dies by those distinctions, but literary magazines don’t necessarily.
Plenty of literary magazines are open to, actively seeking even, well-written stories that deal in magical realism, horror, fantasy, and suspense. I’m thinking of work by authors like Kelly Link, Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, Benjamin Percy…
If “literary” to you means elitist and boring, best not waste your time. But better yet, I encourage you to be willing to expand your idea of what you think of as literary.
5-You’re convinced that the lit mag world is an insider’s club
Are there magazines that rarely publish from the slush pile? Yes. Are there magazines that only publish writers with prestigious bios? Yes. Does it do you any good to spend time stressing over that and will it be a barrier to you publishing your work? No.
There are hundreds of literary magazines out there (a google search just informed me it’s thousands!) and most of them read every submission they get in a desperate attempt to find work they love. And despite any rumors to the contrary, editors do love discovering new writers.
6-It’s of no value to you to have your writing affirmed by anyone besides your best friend and your writing group
It’s no small thing to have a magazine not only like your work but to want to tie its own name and reputation to it. Publishing credits will not get you a book deal, but having first published in literary magazines gives publishers more confidence in the merit and marketability of your work.
Making it through the vetting process at a literary journal is an accomplishment, and even if you have no aspirations of writing a book, it sure is affirming and, frankly, a rush, to see your work in print.
7-You do not believe that submitting to literary MAGAZINES will make you a better writer
Literary journals are the performance venues for committed emerging writers. You do the work in your private writing gym, you work it out, and then you send it out.
This commitment to putting in work, finishing work, and sending out work is all part of the process that will elevate your writing to the level of “art”.
Skill is what you learn and earn during the hundreds and thousands of hours you put into reading and studying the work of others and crafting your own. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”