Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Improving Your Odds of Acceptance in Literary Journals

I was hanging around the office the other day (Facebook), doing what writers do best (avoiding writing) when I stumbled upon one of the the 2,000 people I call friends, and whom I couldn't pick out of a lineup at the local Taco Bell. Her status update was something, like, "Worst Writing Advice Ever: Read literary magazines to see what editors like, and then write like that." Of course, the thread was then filled with the requisite, "Fuck that! Have to be yourself!" "Noooo! Don't give in, be you." Only it was probably spelled in text, y'know, "gots 2 b u" or some shit. And I didn't chime in because I hate confrontation, but I really wanted to. Not because I was geared up for some Internet arguing, but because that is actually the best writing advice I've ever gotten, and it's advice I continue to give. Reading literary magazines to see what editors want is how I have 60+ short stories published and four books out. It was a game changer.

I don't know where this iconoclast, stay-true-to-yourself bullshit began, as if any writer who considers audience and alters his or her original vision is a sellout. That is categorically untrue. And I speak from experience. Until I started reading literary magazines, I couldn't buy a publication. And I mean that literally. I remember paying an entry fee to some fabricated contest, one of these deals where you give them $15 and then they let you win first prize and publish your shit poem. I paid the $15. And got honorable mention.

Here's the thing. I want to help other writers. Like a lot. I want to save them the heartache I suffered. I was a homeless drug addict for ten years; I almost died in a motorcycle accident, shattering my pelvis and breaking my back. And I am telling you, as bad as that was, my spirits were still buoyed higher than when I first started submitting to literary magazines. I swear, the rejection played in to my second divorce (well, that and my ex-wife's whorish tendencies).

I was in grad school, working on a novel, and my work just wasn't getting taken. As months went by, and more and more rejections came pouring it, the dejection took its toll. How can you not start doubting yourself?

And here's where my fortune changed.

I really wanted into this crime zine Thuglit. Mostly because it was such a cool sounding name. And they gave you a free tee shirt. But also it was the new "it" crimezine. Kept sending stuff, kept getting a no. Then I recalled something Lynne Barrett, my thesis advisor, once said about literary magazines: "Everyone wants to be in literary magazines, but no one wants to read them." How nuts is that? I was also editor of the university's literary magazine, Gulf Stream. I received work all day, from guys and gals just like I, wanting to be published, and who clearly never read my magazine. Something clicked. I picked up (actually logged online to) Thuglit. I read three stories. Then I wrote one. That story was taken. Since that little experiment my acceptance rate has gone up from less than 5% to well over 50%. And those are just arbitrary stats because I honestly can't remember the last time I had a short story rejected.

And the really funny part? All those stories that got rejected originally? Literary magazines now ask me to publish them. The same goddamn ones. Part of that is having a few books out, and being a recognized member of the community, having a little bit of a name. A good chunk of it, however, is simply knowing how to play the game. Writing, like life, is a game. You have to know the rules.

When you read a particular literary magazine to see what a specific editor likes, you are not selling out. You're playing smart. And you are not going to change who you are. You simply enter into a dialogue, a give and take. Maybe you read a story where there's a serial killer clown and you're like, "Oh, man, how cheesy!" only to remember you have a story with a clown serial killer. In writing, you learn as much by learning what not to do. We do not write in a vacuum. Every editor has his or her own prejudices. That is human nature. Learning those preferences is just another tool in the arsenal. And it will only improve your chances.


Unknown said...

To smugly say that you write for yourself is still an attempt to please an editor. Might as well find one who pays better.

p.s. It really was a dark and stormy night.

Sue Coletta said...

I have tears in my eyes from those Snoopy cartoons. Seriously, though, great post. I'll be testing your advice. I let you know how I make out. Thank you!

Dr. Suzana E. Flores said...

Great advice! Thanks!