The Writing Process: From Idea to Publication (Part Two)
Last time, we discussed the first part of the writing process. This week, I want to look at a much neglected part of the process, when our work becomes no longer private, when we put it out into the world. In other words, now that you have a finished product, what do you do with it?
There is, of course, a number of options at your disposal, depending on the length, genre, and your goals for the piece. For our purposes, we’ll assume that you want to reach as many eyes as possible. (Or to put it bluntly, we aren’t considering self-publishing.) Furthermore, we’ll try to keep our approach rather broad, so whether you’ve written a poem, a short story, or a novel, you can begin to find the right home for your work.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is find somewhere to submit. Unfortunately, not all publishers are of equal value. Each one is uniquely useful. Some are widely known, with a readership and reach that extends into the thousands or even millions. Others, though small in readers, may be larger in influence. This all boils down to what you hope to achieve.
First, consider its length.
Some publishers won’t even look at a piece if it doesn’t fall within their word counts. If a magazine only publishes short short stories (typically under 1000 words) and you’ve written a 20,000 word novella, that’s probably not the best choice for you, since it will surely be rejected out of hand.
Second, what genre or style is it?
If you’ve written a formalist poem, you’re best off submitting it to publishers who prefer such things. Now there are some places who aren’t so specialized, but it’s all about knowing who puts out work like yours and who doesn’t.
Third, what kind of reputation does this publisher have?
There’s no point in sending your work to a magazine no one has ever heard of. At the same time, however, you have to recognize that the more access that publisher has, the less likely they will be to take you on. Remember: Publishers recieve more submissions than they can print. But that shouldn’t stop you, of course. You just have to be aware of reality. Having a story in The New Yorker is a serious achievement in anyone’s career: It will just be really, really hard. You don’t have any control over what happens once your work is in a reader’s hands. But you won’t get anywhere if you don’t submit in the first place.
(Note: You may be wondering how to find these publications and learn about their editiorial style and so on. Sadly, the most common answer is read them. While we should all strive to read more, especially in those magazines which we aspire to one day find ourselves, it is a bit unreasonable. There are literally thousands of journals in the world today. How, exactly, can one person get familiar with all these places? Better yet, how can he or she afford it? Things are a little more hopeful once you realize this. With websites like The Review Review and Duotrope, we have databases that catalog most of the information about such publishers, which makes this first step easier than any other time in history.)
This is probably the most frustrating, difficult, and lengthy part of the process. You have a polished piece. You know the places who want it. But how do you get them to say yes? You don’t, to put it bluntly. This is why you have as big a net as possible. You want to send out to as many magazines as you can. It’s a lot like playing the lottery. Even though your chances are absurdly high, it doesn’t hurt to buy a few more tickets.
(A Note on Queries/Submissions: This shit is often made far too complicated. The basic cover letter should be short and straightforward. Let the work speak for itself. Start by addressing the editor by name. Then describe your work in very simple terms. For example, “Please find attached my 2,000 word short story ‘Story Title.'” Finally, give a brief overview of your accomplishments: “I hold an MFA from such-and-such university. My fiction has appeared in this and that magazine.” Thank them for their time, and then peace out.)
I suggest that you organize your submissions into tiers. Start with the places who have the most clout, the ones you’d be most proud to appear in, your S-tier publications. Choose ten or twenty of them who are on the same footing. (These magazines tend to be the ones who pay a lot too.) Then choose another ten or twenty in your A-tier, then ten or twenty in B-tier, then ten or twenty in your C-tier, then another ten or twenty in your D-tier. Don’t submit to them all at the same time however: Send them out in batches. Attack one tier at a time, and once that tier is exhausted, move on to the next.
It should go with out saying, but make sure you query each magazine individually. Don’t send off some mass email. Make it as personalized as you can. Most magazines have a masthead section on their website. Address your query/submission to the person in charge or your genre (the fiction editor, the poetry editor, the non-fiction editor).
Lastly, expect to wait–a lot. Most editors won’t get back to you until three months have passed. Some, like The Threepenny Review, have an unbelievable turn around (three days), but most take their time. Why, exactly, it’s hard to say. Some just have a huge volume of submissions. Many are understaffed. Some are dicks. It’s like anything else, and there’s no one answer that fits all publications. How and why things take so long can only be examined if the magazine is unyieldingly transparent–so good luck ever finding that.
(A Note on Submission Fees (Actually, A Rant): As you send in your work, you’ll find a number of magazines who charge you to submit your work. They often rationalize this as being the same as when people mailed in hard copies. This is a stupid fucking argument. The money you paid in the past to send in a story didn’t go to the magazine: It went to the USPS. Now, three dollars, which is what most magazines charge, isn’t too much money, but it does add up, especially when you’re submitting dozens and dozens of times. The truth about submission fees is that most editors and publishers have no idea how to make their magazines profitable. They don’t even pay themselves the majority of the time. Why, then, should the writer be punished for trying to make them more successful? (There’s no magazine if there are no stories, after all.) It really is bullshit. Furthermore, most magazines that charge submission fees tend to be some of the biggest names in the business. These are often the prestigious university-run journals with storied histories. Why can’t they figure out a better way to support themselves than to exploit the very peole who want in? Shouldn’t they, of all people, know how to do this? But like most things American, it’s something people have accepted rather than do anything about. You’ll probably bite that bullet too. How you resist, how you revolt, is up to you.)
This will be what you can expect to find in your inbox the majority of the time. It’s just the reality of the competition. There’s a whole slew of reasons why you got rejected. Often, however, the note you’ll recieve won’t say it: You’ll get a brief, form letter thanking you for your submission and a notice that your work has not been selected.
You may have sent the wrong type of story to the wrong editor. You may need to rewrite your work. The editor may have not read your work very closely. The publication may have just published a story just like yours. The editor may have bad taste. You may have bad taste.
The answers vary widely, but again, you really don’t have control over these people. You can’t make them say yes.
Of course, there are, on occassion, times when you’ll recieve something that feels like it was written by a human being instead of a computer. It’s still a no, but it should boost your confidence. These rejections are typically written because the editor believes that you are not a complete fucking idiot. They actually liked something about your work. They might even encourage you to submit something else. Take heed of whatever you find therein. This is a publication you should consider in the future. You’ve managed to develop a relationship with someone. Take advantage of it.
(A Note on Taking Rejection Gracefully: It sucks getting rejected. It sucks more when you read an issue of the magazine you submitted to and find nothing but junk in their pages. And while you should be free to discuss why it sucks, you shouldn’t make a point to call out that magazine to their face. Don’t write the editor and tell them to fuck off–unless you don’t mind burning that bridge. Recognize the difference between criticism and being a dick. For the most part, talk shit about them behind their back.)
This is what you’ve worked towards. All those months have finally paid off. But your work isn’t done yet. Your publisher no doubt has some kind of plan in place to promote your work. (This is typically Facebook posts, tweets, and other forms of social media.) Don’t put that, admittedly small, burden on their shoulders alone. You have friends. You know people. Tell them about it. Support your publisher. They’ve supported you–why not return the favor? And by doing so, you also help out all the other writers who have been published alongside you. Support them too. Develop connections. Network. This is your chance to get noticed.
Just try not to be annoying about it, of course.