Tomato Ready: Publishing, Patience and Pleasant Surprises

June 29, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

My goal for this summer: to get published more. My husband’s summer goal: to grow heirloom tomatoes. In the writing world, we’d call that a metaphor.

We love heirloom tomatoes, the funny shapes, the rainbow of colors, the earthy smells, the taste—sweet and smoky, complex like wine. We buy them at our local farmers’ market, but my husband dreams of having his own tomato plants, ready to pick, and I’m game to help. After watching a YouTube how-to last fall, I harvested seeds from five heirloom varieties, let them dry and stored the tiny seeds in envelopes labelled red, yellow, orange, green, and cherry. In mid-May, he recycled some cardboard packing as planting pots, added soil and a sprinkle of seeds. He was tomato ready.

How does this connect with my publishing goal? All journals want to publish your best work, carefully edited, polished to a shine—like those perfect tomato seeds. With the writing done, the next step is to get tomato ready:

Be Prepared—the first step is READING. You need to read literary journals. I write nonfiction, but the same applies to fiction writers and poets. You read to find a good fit. What kind of writing does the journal publish? Consider genre, style, length, content, structure, form and tone. Does the writing in the journal sound like your writing? Consider published writers who you can follow and model. Where they have been published? When you read an essay, story, or poem that you admire, look at the author’s bio for where she has published. Go read those journals. Make a list of journals that fit.

Read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Fifty percent of the submissions editors receive do not fit the journal or don’t follow the guidelines. These submissions are rejected outright, not because the writing isn’t good, but because it’s a bad fit. Read before you submit—be tomato ready.

Back to the seedlings. Early summer temperatures in northern California can drop into the 50’s, so we’ve been hauling the trays of tomato plants inside at night and out each day. As we moved the tomatoes once again, I asked my husband. “Do you really think this is worth it?”

He smiled and handed me a tray.

Growing tomatoes from seeds takes up to 80 days, almost the entire summer. My husband has always been patient, a quality essential to getting published.

Be Patient—submissions are a long, slow process. Journals take 2, 4, 6 months or more to respond. Most journals allow simultaneous submissions. Up your odds. Submit each piece to 3-5 outlets at a time. Keep writing. Once you have another polished piece, submit to 3-5 more journals. Keep the cycle going. Submitting is doing a writer’s work.

Four weeks in, the best of the tomato plants was only 3 inches tall. My husband called the master gardener, who suggested: change the plant containers (maybe the cardboard contained chemicals); more shade (maybe the seedlings got scorched in the recent heat wave); and give them time. My husband got off the phone and said, “Smart gardener.”

Be Smart—Rejection is part of the process. Learn from it. If you get a personalized rejection, like we are quite interested in seeing more of your writing and hope you’ll send other work—jump on it. Busy editors don’t often send personalized rejections. Submit a new piece (that fits) straight away. Note the editor’s words in your cover letter: I appreciate your positive feedback on my story “The Struggling Tomato.” If you don’t have a new piece that fits, write one. And submit your original piece to a couple new journals.

If you get several standard rejections, take a fresh look. Ask a writer friend whose instincts you trust (your master gardener), to read your piece. Consider the feedback. Make some tweaks. Send it out again.

As we hauled the seedlings inside last night, I said, “You know, we could buy some established tomato plants.”

My husband shook his head. “I’m going to stick with it.” Patient, determined—and stubborn.

Be Stubborn—My graduate-school mentor, Marilyn Abildskov, has been published in The Best American Essays and long list of elite journals. Marilyn once told me that she submitted an essay 40 times before it was published.

40!

“I believed in the piece,” she said, “I knew it would find a good home.” Stubborn.

I’m patiently waiting until August to see how many tomatoes we will harvest this summer. I look forward to biting into that first homegrown heirloom. I think I will be pleasantly surprised.

Be Pleasantly Surprised—Recently I had an essay published, the story of my father’s protracted death braided with the story of a rangy coyote. Another metaphor. I believed this was one of my strongest essays; it was rejected seven times. After the first three rejections, I re-edited and took a closer look at the journals I was targeting. I got personalized rejections from the next four journals. Encouragement. I submitted again, and the essay found a fine home in The Coachella Review, the literary arts journal of the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. If you are trying to navigate the literary journal publishing process, there is a lot more you can learn and do. Join Andrea on Thursday, July 15th for How to Get Published in Literary Journals (and more). 5 PM PST, recording available if you can’t make it. Details and register here.

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