A Writer’s Task: The Maze of Publication

15 Mar

I’m not even sure how interesting this will be to most casual readers, but a couple weeks ago I wrote about how it feels to call yourself a writer and making writing a habit. Today I wanted to take that a small step further and share what my process looks like. And let me warn you, it looks a lot like this:

Really? Yes.

Firstly, I have to tell you I have no ambition whatsoever to write anything book-length right now. I have a terrible time reading conventional books so I really don’t believe myself capable of holding someone’s interest for that long. Instead, I write short stories and creative essays/memoir pieces. Most of you probably never, ever read these types of pieces except in English classes and that’s not unusual. In fact, you would be part of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population if you don’t read them just for fun. I don’t blame you but it does make my explanation tricky.

In the past, short story collections were somewhat popular in the publishing industry. You used to be able to go to the bookstore and find a whole section of anthologies ranging from top notch literature to romances and mysteries. Today, it’s a running joke that the writer of short stories and memoir pieces shouldn’t even dare hope for a collection of their work to be published. At least not anywhere you would see in a major bookstore. For most of us, we’re content to submit to literary journals and (literary) magazines.

What the devil is that?

A literary journal is a publication run by a private organization of writing enthusiasts, mostly university presses. They’re charitable souls who love the lost art of short writing so much that they’re willing to forgo free time and a healthy income to wade through submissions from thousands of writers like me. They come in two forms: the printed journal/magazine and the online journal/magazine.

Usually there is no difference between a journal and a magazine, it’s just an aesthetic choice of words on the editor’s part. Printed journals enjoy the most prestige and editorial clout but online journals are much more accessible.

Even your most popular printed journal is probably something no non-writer has ever heard of because you don’t see them in bookstores or even most public libraries. They’re usually only carried by academic libraries and can be ordered directly or through a subscription. However, I did see a volume of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern pop-up in Books-A-Million one day and I did a little victory dance while I read it on my breaks.

Online journals are equally elusive to non-writers because…how do I put this…if it’s not something you can look for in a bookstore or a library or somehow hold in your hands, most people don’t even think about it. If Stephen King published a book page by page on his blog, I bet it would enjoy significantly less popularity. Of course, I would read it then because, as I mentioned, I don’t have a lot of patience for books, but that’s not true for most people. However, for writers online journals are a wonderful relief and I’ll tell you why.

If I wanted to be published in a print journal:

I’d have to understand that journal’s aesthetic taste first. Each journal, print or online, prides itself in having a unique criteria for the kinds of things they publish. For example, one may like quirky, character-driven and experimental fiction while another may have an editorial tendency toward traditional sonnets. Most print journals will not tell you what they like to publish upfront and this is frustrating but understandable.

When you apply for a job, the company expects you to do the research on what they do and the people who run it. The same applies to being published BUT for writers, especially new writers, this is tough to do. Like I said, you don’t see printed literary journals just everywhere. You have to actively seek them out in a library that may be entirely out of your way or spend money to order a copy or two and see for yourself what they like. This is how printed journals make their money, really. It’s great for them and even though ultimately this research process benefits other writers, it’s not so fun for me.

Online journals are easier:

They have everything you need. For free. Just a click away. If I want to know what they publish, I can look at previous issues from the comfort of my very squishy couch. On top of this, if I were to be published in one, everyone I know could look at it easily and, again, for free. However, there’s very little financial support for this publishing niche. Other writers don’t benefit from this and usually, neither does the journal or the editor. So while there’s a definite upside, in the long run online journals aren’t quite as sustainable.

Also, online journals are sometimes ambiguous in quality. You have to look carefully at an editor’s credentials and read carefully the kind of work they publish because while it takes a significant investment to start a print journal, anyone can start one online. I like to be sure that the work being published is riveting and written by authors with degrees.

So you’ve find the right journal for a certain piece. Now what?

Easily enough, you just send them your work with a brief cover letter that includes a little about you, your educational and writing background, and any previous writing achievements. You may have to re-format or edit down a piece to fit within that publication’s guidelines but that’s easy enough. Many journals have begun accepting submissions online, too. Just a year ago, hardly anyone did this and you had to snail mail your work along with a self-addressed stamped envelope for your reply. Those big print journals we discussed? Most of them still require mailed submissions but online forms are certainly a welcome advance.

There are contests occasionally that can reward up to $5000 and they usually have entry fees of $5-$35. What you have to realize about contests, though, is everyone submits to them. People who have no business submitting anything as well as very popular and skilled writers. Even people who may have been your instructors at some point could be your competition. Your chances of being published through a contest are more than narrow; they’re razor thin. Another downside is they can take up to six months to judge and announce a winner which brings me to another issue: simultaneous submissions.

Simultaneous submission refers to a piece that you’ve sent to and is being considered by multiple publications. In short, every journal has different rules for this and some are more understanding than others. What they’re trying to avoid is publishing the same piece in two places and also wasting their time if it’s been accepted elsewhere and they’re already considering it. Oh, did I mention you only have a piece published once? (Unless you’re having it printed in an anthology but that’s a different story.) Anyway, you just have to follow their rules…or don’t and risk never being considered by that publication again. Sometimes that risk is actually worth it considering how unthinkable it is to have the same piece accepted in two places and also how long it takes to hear back from one publication at a time. Some can keep you waiting for a year. No bueno.

How cool is it to be published?

Well, once you untangle the mess and successfully find a home for something you’ve written…it’s the best feeling in the world. I can only compare the significance of it to a doctor being published in a medical journal. You have to be absolutely wonderful at what you do to be published as an example of great craft and skill. Even if people you run into every day will never understand that feeling or read what you’ve done, you’ll be read by your peers and placed beside writers with more education or time in the field…and that’s always exciting. “Oh? You have an MFA? I have a BFA and I’m just as good as you. Oh? You’ve been doing this for a decade? Three years, right here.”

There’s really no better reward for what is, undeniably, an extreme act of diligence.

So with that, I have to announce that I finally got a piece accepted for publication in an online journal which usually publishes authors who have their MFA’s. (And this is true of pretty much all journals. It’s very hard to get published coming from a BFA level.) So naturally, I’ve been bubbling over with this news for weeks but unfortunately, my story hasn’t been posted yet. I know that’s not fair, but for now just celebrate with me that I’ve accomplished something really big and I will show you as soon as I can. 🙂

Also, this same piece was rejected by eleven other publications. See what I mean by diligence?

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One Response to “A Writer’s Task: The Maze of Publication”

  1. vwsweetie2003 March 16, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    That is AMAZING!!! I just can’t wait to see what you do finally! I can tell you are good, but I want to see the real work!!!

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