By Josh Penzone
As a new writer, your first inclination may be to submit your work to well-known publications. While no literary journal wants to state outright that it prefers established authors, if you read Tin House’s guidelines, the editors “offer” a chance to submit an unsolicited manuscript as if it were altruism on their part. They don’t appear to read blind (that is, without a byline) and they have less than a 1% acceptance rate. The one story I did submit to Tin House was rejected after one year and twelve days. That’s right. I waited 377 days for a polite, “Unfortunately, we have decided to pass on this submission” letter.
Since no actuarial expert has figured out the probability of an esteemed literary magazine accepting a piece of fiction, I decided to create my own strategy, something other than sending submissions out the way Oprah gives away Pontiacs: “You get a submission and you get a submission and you get a submission! Everybody gets submissions!” My first sobering truth in a racket fueled by hopeful delusions was this: publications like Tin House are never going to accept one of my stories. So why would I waste my time or theirs by submitting more work? I won’t. Not anymore.
Here are the guidelines I now use, which have boosted my acceptance rate.
Decode the Journal’s Subtext
ELJ Publications published my first story. I was drawn to them by their honesty. They read blind and said if the story ever says “In Progress” in Submittable, it’s under serious consideration. The first story I sent them was rejected, but it made the “In Progress” blue light special. Finally! A tacit understanding between writer and editor. When I told the editor-in-chief that the story they ultimately accepted was my first publication, she responded with, “You’re kidding me.” Their sincerity in wanting a good story, and not pedigree, spoke truth.
When I read the editorial description of a journal, I focus on its subtext. I look for the passion with which they write their literary requests, bios, and mission statement—purpose that extends beyond a business model. This also helps me get a sense of their personality. Do they crack jokes? Do they overwrite? Is their writing simple or complex? This sense of the journal’s own style hints at what its editors like to read. It’s a tell, helping me decide if I should submit to them, and if I do, which story I should choose.
Five Signs You Should Revise Your Story
I only have a story “live” with, at most, five publications at a time. If I don’t receive a note of encouragement after five rejections, then I know it’s time to stop submitting it and revise. One editor can be wrong, but if I receive many rejections with the standard “doesn’t fit our needs at this time,” I assume my story could use some tweaking. It’s hard to get a story published, if it isn’t ready to be published.
Five Signs You Should Submit It Elsewhere
Thanks to the Internet, there are hundreds and hundreds of journals out there. If I submit more than five stories to the same journal and don’t receive an acceptance, it’s time to find another journal. I once received a note from The Flexible Persona that stated, “We thoroughly enjoyed reading your story. This is not our usual rejection; please submit more in the future.” So I did. And I was rejected. So I did again. And I was rejected again. So I did again. And I was rejected again. And, no more notes. I like their publication, and I feel I submit work in the genre and style in which they publish—yet no acceptance. Time to move on.
Always Select the Feedback Option
I go into the submission process with the mindset that editors are as passionate about their work as I am about mine. I hope this passion translates to their editorial feedback. To me, the feedback option is just another way to get into the mind of an editor.
The Tishman Review has rejected four of my stories, but their feedback helped me craft rewrites that led to publication in other journals. From Tishman, I got a different perspective of my story, which helped me to objectively review my work. Is all feedback good? Nope. I once got this semi-positive note from a different publication: “I usually quit reading after a few pages, but I made it halfway through your story.” He went on to say nice things and then predicted where the story was going. He was wrong. So now I know. This guy gives up on stories. Next journal.
Submit to New Publications
It occurred to me that a new writer should submit to new publications. It takes a lot of passion to start a publication. There’s no money in it, just devoted time. This encourages me. I too am writing all the time and not really expecting a monetary kickback, so let’s discover this kinship of ambition together. Instead of choosing five stories from 1,000 submissions, new publications most likely choose five stories from 100 submissions. They may not be Tin House or Ploughshares or The Atlantic, and to this I say, So what! Magazines like Chantwood and Sediments care just as much about craft and story, and they are eager to be a part of the literary world, which makes me already like them. Online publications can nominate work for a Pushcart Prize, which I just was—thank you very much, Five on the Fifth! These start-up publications want to be proud of your work and support you. This genuine support—to me—goes beyond a big name.
These are the strategies I’ve stuck to for 2016. Have I been rejected this year? Yep. Sixty times. But I’ve also had six stories accepted for publication and I’m optimistic I’ll get a few more by the end of the year.
It’s really all a crapshoot. But if we can marry optimism with pragmatism, we can make real progress as writers.
Josh Penzone earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in 2013. His work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Critical Pass Review, Chantwood Magazine, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, and FICTION Silicon Valley. His short story “The Whitings” was published as a solo title by ELJ Publications; it’s available on Amazon. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.
Photo Credit: Desert Broom Library, Phoenix, Az. Photo by Ellen Forsyth via Creative Commons/Flickr