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.