Sixth Sense Submissions, or Publishing Blind
January 7, 2016 § 35 Comments
by Lynette Benton
When three essays I submitted for publication over the past year were rejected, I sought to console myself with a new idea. Maybe David Sedaris or Zadie Smith had submitted work to the same issue of the same journal that I did. Unlike sports events or even a matchup among, say, concert pianists, writing to publish is blind effort. Writers haven’t a clue about the competition when we decide to enter the fray. Unknowingly, we might be up against the best in our field.
With that in mind, I decided that calls for submissions should be accompanied by a notice:
WARNING: We already have received work from some big names (hint: George Saunders, Joan Didion) so to save yourself time and trouble, don’t bother submitting to this issue/contest.
But my lame rationalization was short lived. When I checked, I discovered that the writers who beat me out weren’t big names at all. It was simply that their work was better than what I had submitted; theirs deserved to be chosen.
A third of the way through writing something new, a vague ache, smaller than a boulder, but larger than a pebble—let’s say the size (and hardness) of a baseball—lodged in my stomach. My confidence had begun to wane. Not lack of confidence in my piece—that would come later—but faith in my ability to fathom what any particular pub was looking for. Though several of my essays were accepted and duly published in the last year, the latest rejections made me question my submission strategy—and my work itself. What do these others want from me? I groaned.
Before this past year, nearly everything I submitted for publication was accepted. I seemed to have a nose for exactly what a publication wanted. Was my luck better in the past? Or had my writing, or perhaps my radar, drastically deteriorated? This past year’s rejected pieces represented my first foray into literary journals. On a higher plane perhaps, were these publications out of my reach? Or do I just need to understand the ins and outs of submitting to this kind of publication?
Besides a talent for writing (and stockpiles of persistence and resilience) writers need a sixth sense when it comes to choosing journals that might actually be interested in their work. Sure, publications provide guidelines, but these are thin representations, akin to silhouettes, of what the editors will accept, especially after they see the entire pool of submissions. It’s the writer’s job to tease out what editors really want.
Does the publication contend that it takes all genres, but really has no use for say, fiction? A prominent and well-regarded online magazine touts itself as publishing essays, fiction, and poetry. But I’ve needed a microscope to find any essays. (I personally admire the editors who openly admit they’ll know what they like when they see it, as if they’re aware that they’re sponsoring a sort of literary free-for-all.)
The best way to figure out what the editors of a particular journal actually like is to read past issues of their publications in the hopes that these are an accurate indication of what they like now. But this reminds me of the financial fine print: “Past investment success is no guarantee of future success.”
So it seems I’ve lost my sixth sense or, more rightly, I’ve lost the ability to find editors who appreciate my work. The rejections letters provide no clues; all they offer is an occasional vague line or two that leaves me with little useful information. But I have to keep looking, as Barbara Kingsolver remarked about submitting writing, “for the right address,” even if I consider that my future success is a devilish pact between talent and blind luck.
Lynette Benton’s work has appeared in More Magazine Online, Skirt! Magazine, the Arlington Advocate and Lexington Minuteman newspapers, Purpleclover.com, Grub Daily, Women Writers, Women’s Books, and numerous other online and paper publications. Her memoir, My Mother’s Money, was a finalist in the 2014 memoir-writing contest sponsored by Shewrites.com and Serendipity Literary Agency. Read more about writing at her website, Tools and Tactics for Writers.
I love this piece, Lynette. And thank you for not creating one of those “well golly, gee, gosh I’ve learned my lesson and now I’ll do it x, y, or z way.”
Because it really is a feel, isn’t it? Or, as you say, the “devilish pact between talent and blind luck.”
As someone who diligently reads and subscribes to more publications than I can actually afford, I was relieved you used that line “Past investment success is no guarantee of future success.” I often think I’m “spot on” with how I understand a journal, how my writing fits with others they’ve published, quality of work and originality of content, but it’s like it goes from inbox to slush to form rejection before I’ve even closed my laptop, and I’m left wondering wtf this whole career is about.
Then another day I’ll be rushed, hoping to still get a piece or a pitch in before the deadline, submitting something I know isn’t a high enough quality I would accept in a publication, and it gets accepted. I’m just left scratching my head thinking “Well, I might as well just spitball everything.”
Anyway, thanks for your post, because I love unresolved writing, and because I love knowing others go through the same frustration and just keep on keeping on as well. 🙂
It’s a crap shoot, if that’s the term I mean. Maybe I’ll try your tactic: just send the piece out, even if I’m not all that thrilled with its quality. It just could get accepted!
Thanks for commenting. And for your idea!
Thank you, Lynette, for capturing this so well. This piece rings so true! In addition to choosing “the right address”, and dealing with the potential Smith/Saunders phenomenon, one doesn’t know how one’s work may fit (or not fit) into a particular issue. Maybe it is rejected because too many essays and not enough fiction have been submitted that cycle, or a theme has developed that excludes your particular work. Continued good luck to you. I will reread your piece with each rejection letter I receive.
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Thank you for your comment. It means a lot to me to know I’m not alone in this unfathomable submissions world—and to know there are reasons I might not have thought of (like too many essays and not enough fiction, for example) why my submission was rejected.
Although I’ve written professionally all my adult life, it’s always been non-fiction, for business purposes. The few times I’ve ventured into fiction – marketing pieces – I’ve HATED that feeling of trying to understand what someone else wants. I have never submitted anything for publication, and I probably never will, and you have pinpointed the reason: I do not want to play games with an editor – someone I’ve never met, and know very little about. Thank you for this elegant expression of the problem.
It does sometimes feel as if one is a playing game in which one doesn’t really know the rules, Lesley. But I suspect (and hope) a time comes when we do understand the rules (and subtleties!) of the game and actually make it into a pub we thought was out of our reach.
Some really good advice here. I am a strong believer in reaching out for higher and better markets when we’ve had success in smaller ones. But it’s scary! And full of rejections. Even so, we need to try. As you said, we just might get accepted.
Well said Nancy. An editor’s transparency varies by tier. I’ve learned so much from editors looking to build their platform. Those lessons sharpen how I address next draft and next projects. They help to build determination with more established outlets.
I never looked at my efforts as trying for better markets, but that’s just what I’m doing. We need to be proud of our courage in reaching out to these more exclusive publications—despite the inevitable rejections.
Nicely stated. I suppose it’s like the advice we get when we’re ready to query agents: try to find ones who are selling the work you like, the ones you think will be a good fit. But it really does all come down to your piece coming across the right desk as the right time. There’s no formula, so I like to submit widely and hope for the best.
I need to remember that, Rachel: “Submit widely and hope for the best.” Thanks for reminding me.
Thanks for sharing a state of being for those of us who wish to publish. Another daunting factor for me is not knowing how much of a quarterly has already been filled by solicited work, leaving how many, if any, spots for those of us who must swim up through the slush pile. I know the quality of the writing should speak for itself and I know that editors are dying to find a new talent that blows their socks off, but will they be tuned to my brilliant writing and will their socks be blowable after the hundredth manuscript when dinner is burning?
I’ve seen your work, Joyce, and fully believe that there’s an editor out there who’s wiggling his or her toes, just waiting to have you blow their socks off!
A little advice for an aspiring writer. Do you choose a publication and then write your piece, or do you write a piece and then look for a journal that you think would like it? As a writer I’ve always just written what I felt like writing at that moment. However, I think that I am capable of writing based on a certain topic given to me as well, although it is not what I’d prefer.
Like you, I write what I want, then look for a home for it—which explains why I have 4 or 5 essays I’m very fond of and no place to send them. Yet.
Sometimes a certain topic (or journal’s theme) will appeal to me and I write a piece on that particular topic. But that’s rare.
Good luck with your writing and submissions. May they all be accepted!
thanks for the advice!
Instead of literary agents, I’m imagining literary mediums–who can “see” what editors want. I love this piece and the community of responses. We are nothing if not persistent.
Let’s get hold of those “mediums,” pronto!
Yes, some years have been sweeter than others and I can never quite figure it out. I had rather given up for now, but after reading your essay, I may begin again. It takes so much time and research to locate the right markets and I admit I would much rather be writing. Perhaps i should set aside one day for research and submissions, or a certain amount of time per day, and remind myself this is strictly business, this is part of writing if I want to be more often read.
I hope you’ll resume submitting, Cynthia, knowing that you’re not alone in this strange quest for the right outlet for your work. I like your idea of setting aside specific times to do the necessary researching and submitting. It might keep that part of the work from seeming so intrusive. Thanks for the suggestion!
Thank you for your thoughts, Lynette–we can all benefit from supporting each other in spirit and on WordPress, at least!
Happy New Year Lynette. Thanks for sharing this. we just have to keep trying, don’t we? And get better doing so.
I hope both our writing and our ability to discern what editors want improve. Thanks for your comment!
Hi Lynette. For some reason I no longer get notifications when you’re posting. This time I did. Go figure.
I have found this whole process not just discouraging, but I really wonder if it’s worth the time. Over the past several years, I’ve submitted to hundreds of journals.
“Read the journal” sounds like great advice, but now there are literally thousands to choose among–and the only way to read them is to buy them; Libraries don’t carry most of these literary journals. Congrats to those who have several hours a day just to read (hope you don’t have any other life) and thousands of dollars to invest, while writers’ income has decreased by a whopping 30% in the past few years (NPR report).
I’ve been accepted by several journals, sometimes early on in the quest; other times after submitting to dozens and up to 100 — for one essay. At least most can be done online now (for a $3 fee usually) instead of the tedium of mailing.
When I read some of the best journals for nonfiction (like Creative Nonfiction or The Sun ), as you noted, the published authors are super professionals and have TONS of writing credits to their names already and are very often professors of fiction or nonfiction at respected universities/colleges. Good luck with that!
My best luck for essays or newsworthy pieces (I don’t write fiction) has been with newspapers! I find a timely piece to write about and send in a query. Then I find out quickly if there’s interest or not. Many magazines offer outlets for essays too, and the editor usually tells you what he/she is looking for.
I think this whole process is bizarre. I feel for the editors of these journals, most of which are run on a shoestring and they and their (often un-or underpaid) interns have to read hundreds of entries for one publication, But one has to communicate always as if walking on eggshells because we’re supposed to understand how overworked they all are (of course, the writer isn’t overworked or frustrated after sending out to hundreds of journals.)
I had an experience with one arrogant editor who never responded to a “spec” piece he requested After several gentle inquiries on my part for two months, asking if he had received it, I finally asked, “Can’t you just tell me ‘Got it?” He become irate! I should have known his father had died and he was busy. So… he just rejected the very piece he’d requested — and on which I’d spent hours — for gratis!
Lesson learned: never write anything on spec!
My best suggestion for sorting through many of these journals is Duotrope. Very helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this fraught topic and giving all a chance to share (or vent!) 😉
So glad you shared your valuable experience, insights, and advice, Linda. I thoroughly admire how active you have been in submitting your work; I can’t hold a candle to it.
One thing I find particularly difficult is working on book-length manuscripts at the same time I’m writing shorter pieces and doing the research submitting them requires. (Do you find that challenging?) But with experience, the ability to split my attention and time is noticeably improving.
Thanks so much for commenting here. As always, your perspective enriches mine.
Thanks Lynette! Great advice for a novice writer like me. I will do my best, keep my fingers crossed and hope that I sent it to the “right address” 🙂
Keep trying, Kathy; don’t get discouraged, and it’ll happen for you. Good luck!
Great post, Lynette. As I read, I was stumped, internally trying to provide some explanation or reasoning. Then when I got to the end and read your list of pub credits I marveled at how well published you are! I think the gist of my comment is when you are looking at figuring out why the rejections now and finding pub that appreciate your work, look at what hasn’t been rejected – your impressive publication credits. Thanks for sharing common struggles all writers experience.
What wise and soothing advice, Nancy. Thank you. I need to remember it as I continue my forays out into the publishing world!
Some of my pieces I’ve looked at & said, “Meh.” But they’ve been published. And some of my pieces which I think are really good? Then the publishers are the ones saying, “Meh.” 😦
I’ve had that experience, too, Roslyn. It’s all so baffling.
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