I’ve met many writers so focused on their novels that they’ve never explored the world of literary magazines. Did you know that some literary magazines accept novel chapters? Maybe you could convert one of your chapters into a story. When you’re bogged down in a longer work, seeing your name in print will definitely give you a boost. You can improve your odds by following these insider tips.
Keep Your Cover Letter Brief
If you have no publishing credits, keep your cover letter brief. “I’m submitting my essay, ‘The Secret Lives of Goats,’ for your consideration.” If you raise goats and have inside knowledge about their behavior, then mention it. Otherwise, don’t include personal information. Editors don’t want to know how many children you have, how long you’ve been married, or that you’ve “always wanted to be a writer.”
Being Paranoid About Copyright
Don’t be. Literary magazines typically want first serial rights and sometimes the right to put your work on their website. Let them, but do ask for a letter from the editor acknowledging that you have the right to republish the work wherever and whenever you want. The words you want to hear are “nonexclusive reprint rights” and “nonexclusive electronic rights.”
If you eventually put your stories or essays into book form, your publisher will want proof that you have the rights to your material. Many literary magazines are “loosey-goosey” about administrative matters. You might not get a contract, per se, but you should get a response to your query. Save the response.
Literary Magazines Rarely Pay
Very few lit mags pay. Editors work for the glory of it, and they assume that contributors will be happy to see their names in print. If getting paid is your goal, then search for “paying markets” on Duotrope.
When to Submit
Your chances of getting an acceptance improve if you submit at the beginning of the submissions’ period. Because many lit mags operate on university calendars, they limit their reading periods to the fall. But not all do. With any lit mag, fatigue sets in. Eventually, editors “clean house.” They may not even read your story.
Interpreting the “Bong Letter”
Lit mags typically have two rejection letters. One is a letter that invites you to submit again. That’s sincere. Another is a letter that may sound encouraging or that may sound like a personal response. It’s not. It’s a bong letter. If they like your story well enough, they will accept it.
What you’re unlikely to get is a personal letter telling you how to “fix” what’s wrong.
Why Resubmitting Usually Doesn’t Work
Even if an editor likes a story, it’s often the case that they won’t tell you the story is “almost” there. That’s because asking an author to resubmit is actually taking a chance that the writer will do what’s asked and make the story worse. Editors hate to say, “Hey, what happened? I liked the first version better.”
If an editor likes your story, they will generally, but not always, send you an acceptance and an editorial letter with two or three things you ought to take a second look at. These generally have to do with the story’s length or with structural issues such as the story’s pace. Welcome that feedback and be open to it. Another pair of eyes on your story can only make it better.
If you get an acceptance and after you have made whatever changes the editor wants you to make, your story will go to a proofreader. Please, please, please go over the proofreader’s comments and make sure they haven’t introduced errors. In a story of mine, “Finding Peter,” winner of The American Literary Review Fiction Prize, the proofreader changed a single word that spoiled the meaning of an important image in the story. She changed “plane,” as in “plane tree,” to “plain tree.” In fact, this proofreader did not know that a “plane tree” is a type of tree that lines the roadways in Europe. I added a few words about the blotchy, peeling bark to make my meaning clear.
The literary world is like the art world. Tastes differ. Do not feel discouraged if you story gets turned down over and over again. Keep trying. Read this post about building your literary resume. Learn everything you can about writing. The competition is stiff. I had to send out stories twenty or thirty times before getting an acceptance. In the old days, meaning fifty years ago, the first place I sent a story accepted it. Times have changed.
Oddly, your chances improve when you submit through a contest. That’s because your work will only be judged against other contest entries. Eventually, the lit mag’s editors winnow down the submissions and send ten or twelve to the final judge. And, again, that judge’s opinion reflects what she or he is interested in reading.
I’m going to wrap up this article with a quote from The Masters Review contest issue. The judge was Roxane Gay, author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, the novel An Untamed State, the story collection Difficult Women and the memoir Hunger. She teaches at Purdue University.
“When I am judging a literary contest, I am often asked what I am looking for in a good short story or essay. I offer up the kinds of work I am not really interested in reading—stories about college students, stories about writers, stories about sad white people in sad marriages, stories about addiction, stories about cancer. This probably seems overly prescriptive, but when you read a certain kind of story too many times, you develop emotional calluses. The only thing that heals this emotional callus is great writing that offers up something refreshing and unexpected, whether it’s a writing style or a unique character or a rich sense of place or an unforgettable plot. I am looking for writing that I will continue thinking about long after I have finished reading, for writing I want to read over and over again, for writing that will always stay with me.”
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.