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How to Get Rejected, Part II

June 7, 2008

Literary Journals

Despite hearing from every professor I had that we as college students should be submitting to literary journals, not one of them thought it was worth mentioning exactly how to do it.  Sending in a short story, after all, is a different beast than looking for a book agent, it stands to reason that the same approach won’t work.

The one piece of advice they did give is to read back issues of whatever journal you decide to submit to.  Unfortunately, my professors seemed to overlook the monetary issue.  Literary journals are ridiculously expensive, and because few to none offer compensation for publication, it’s not as if you’ll be recouping your losses.  It’s supposedly possible to find old issues in the library, but if your library is anything like mine, good luck.  I recommend either sitting in your local bookstore and reading the current issue while sipping a cup of coffee, or else treating yourself to one or two issues as an investment.  Just be careful which ones you choose: buy the journal you actually plan to submit to, not just whatever they happen to have on the shelf if you want to make the most of it.  I highly recommend the magazines like Poets & Writers or Writer’s Digest which not only publish fiction but also contain lists of writing contests, useful advice, and interviews with authors.  Lots of goodies in a relatively inexpensive package.

Now, short stories aren’t exactly my forte, and when I read I prefer plotty stories that I can really sink into, so a lot of my journal purchases have languished on my bookshelf.  It entirely depends on your literary appetite.  I do think it’s important to know your audience, just as in querying agents.  The journals have different looks, different tastes, and in some cases cater to particular genres.  You’ll only get laughed at if you send a twenty page short story about twin boys and their magical horse to Fourth Genre.

The internet is your best friend during this process.  Almost every journal has a website that will tell you exactly what they’re looking for, and in some cases, allow you to submit online.  Those are my favorite because they’re economical.  Unfortunately, most journals haven’t joined the new millennium.

The actual packet is pretty simple; it’s all the research beforehand that’s time-consuming.  Word count is a major factor for most journals, and if you’re like me, finding one that will take stories over 6,000 words can be a trial.  Pay close attention to the maximum page or word count for each particular journal.

If you’ve narrowed it down to a journal that will accept your genre and length, congratulations.  That was the hard part.  Now all you have to do is draft a brief cover letter and print a copy of the story – paginated with your name on the top of each page.

Here’s an interesting fact: most journal submission guidelines do not mention a cover letter.  Don’t let that fool you.  You’re still selling yourself as much as your work, and a story submission without a cover letter is like showing up to a job interview without pants.

But then what do I say in the cover letter? you ask.  So did I.  And fortunately an instructor of mine at UC Riverside was kind enough to give me pointers:  

Keep it short and sweet.  Unlike the query letter where you can use a full page, a cover letter for your story should be two paragraphs max.  Don’t forget to include word count.

Use a logline.  A logline for those of you not into screenwriting, is a one line summary of your work.  Imagine you were pitching this to a Hollywood producer as the next Brokeback Mountain.  What one line would you use to hook them in?

Address it to the fiction editor if your work is fiction.  Likewise, to the non-fiction editor if it’s non-fiction, and so on.  If you have an actual name for this person, so much the better.  Don’t address it to the editor in chief.

Mention publications, but keep it brief.  Pretty much, the editor will be interested if you’ve been published elsewhere; she’ll be less interested if you made the Dean’s Honor Roll three semesters in a row.

Stick that cover letter in a manila envelope with a SASE and repeat the process of mailing and waiting for a reply.  My journal rejections (the ones that came in the mail) were typically notes or cards.  The rejections online aren’t even that.  

Here’s the catch: While the big literary journals (Tinhouse, Glitter Train, Ploughshares, Zyzzyva, Zoetrope, etc.) claim to publish new authors, you have to pretty fan-freaking-tastic to get in.  There’s no harm in aiming high, but starting with the smaller presses increase your chances.  Once you have a publication in any journal, that makes you more appealing to the others.  Also be on the lookout for any journals that cater to your geographic location: Zyzzyva, Faultline, and Santa Monica Review, for example, promote work from West Coast writers, so I sent my work there.  I got rejected, of course, but it was still worth a shot as it meant the pool of applicants was slightly smaller.

Here’s a great way to see your name in print for college students: submit to your school’s literary journal – particularly the undergraduate one.  Even better, get on the staff. Last year I was a reader for the fiction submissions, and had one of my stories printed.  This year I was Fiction Editor, and the perk of that job was that my story got printed without even having to go through the reading process.  As an editor, I got a free pass to publication!  Now, not all school journals might operate this way, but having that extra something to put on the resume is never bad.


Quote of the Day: 

 Here’s why the system doesn’t work: What gets into the hands of a literary board has to be so darn spot-on-perfect to advance to the editor. If it’s less than perfect, if it misses the mark by a paragraph or there’s something that we don’t like, guess what? It’s gone. If the first three pages don’t hook the reader, guess what? It’s gone. If something is misspelled in the first paragraph, yup, it’s gone. The average literary board does not look for strengths in writing -they look for weaknesses- this is the only way to eliminate material that comes in. This is the only way to hack away at material that they receive. – Alexis E. Santi, editor Our Stories

Link of the Day: list of Literary Magazines – a very useful comprehensive directory.

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