In continuation of my celebration of Latinidad's tenth anniversary, I am culling the best advice and advisors from back issues to help you get published. Previously, I've discussed managing money and time, writing classes, critique groups, and the revision process. This month's focus is on the submission process.
A wise woman once said, "If you want a job, you have to already have done that job." If you want to land an entry-level job as an editor, for example, it helps to have an editorial internship on your resume. Likewise, before you can be published you need to have been published. In other words, it can be easier to publish a book if you have previously published some poems/short stories/essays in literary journals or articles in mainstream magazines.
Use your writing classes and writing critique group to produce and polish your poems/short stories/essays or articles. (This month we'll discuss literary journals. Next month we'll discuss mainstream magazines.) Once you have several pieces that are submission-ready, find the right home for your work by watching the DVD "Submit: The Unofficial All-Genre Multimedia Guide to Submitting". To learn more, read this month's Q&A with Jotham Burrello, producer of the DVD "Submit".
Jotham Burrello is a creative writing instructor at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the Publishing Lab, a resource for emerging writers, and the Review Lab, an online forum dedicated to keeping the art of the book review alive and thriving. In 2010, he launched ERP's publishing imprint Elephant Rock Books. Jotham's writing has appeared in literary journals and the Christian Science Monitor. He is the former
editor of Sport Literate, a journal of creative nonfiction. He recently completed his novel, Fall River. For more information, visit http://www.erpmedia.net/
Q: Can you briefly comment on the current state of the short story market place?
A: It is a buyer's market, or rather, an editor's market. Thousands upon thousands of folks are writing and submitting short fiction and editors have the pick of the litter. Many literary journals have closed submissions because they have a backlog of
stories. Thankfully, there are hundreds of markets for short prose (and more pop up daily). In terms of a writer making a career from writing short fiction, those days are long gone. The decrease in glossy general interest magazines publishing short prose means the lion's share of work published is by small literary journals, online
magazines, and high circulation genre magazines like Ellery Queen and Cricket.
Given this publishing reality, one problem I see is that writers are not supporting magazines. One lit journal editor put it bluntly: "How can writers expect me to publish their stories if they don't buy my magazine?" Editors I speak with say submissions are
increasing but their sales don't budge. While you can't be expected to be familiar with every magazine out there, you should be familiar with a handful to which you might submit. By buying a magazine you are entering into a larger writing community and developing your understanding of the craft. And you might be able to write off the cost of the magazine at the end of the year. Support the magazines that might launch your career.
Q: There are numerous books on submitting work as well as directories of markets available--why are they not enough, and how does "Submit" complement them?
A: I've come to believe that the market listings out there complement the DVD and not the other way around. For years I watched my students waste valuable writing time fretting over cover letters, time they should have put into their stories. Plus, emerging writers have no sense of the hierarchy of magazines. Many believe, through no fault of their own, that the eight or nine magazine at Barnes & Noble are the only ones accepting short fiction. So they send stories off to Glimmer Train or The New Yorker and get rejected. In fact, there are hundreds of markets. The DVDs spell out markets and the steps necessary to increase every writer's chance of success. There's a lot of video on those two DVDs--over two hours plus a 191-page book of stories and the market listings.
Too much of what's out there presents the material at face value (most listings come verbatim from questionnaires). I only include directories and websites that I've used or my student brag about. We don't give you a phone book to sift through. (Have you
seen how many pages are in those books?) Plus, on our webpage writers are getting current data. The market sheets listed online were generated by students at Columbia College in Chicago and represent an emerging writer's perspective on potential markets.
They're reviewing the markets and rating them. The directories don't do that. We just redesigned the website to make the market data easier to find.
As for the books on the submission process, none give you an editor's perspective. On the DVD you can see and hear editors discussing how they read, what they look for, how to deal with rejection, etc. It's very personable. And around all the concrete
advice on cover letters, writers gain solid insight on good prose that they can apply to their stories.
Q: What are the three most common mistakes writers make when submitting their work?
A: Writer Bill Roorbach wrote an article for Poets & Writers titled, "The Secret to Getting Published, Long Withheld, is Revealed." You know what it was? Write something good. After revealing the secret, Roorbach proceeds to discuss manageable topics like cover letters and choosing markets. Like Roorbach, I won't take on the issue of craft or taste directly. (Though we do on the DVD. Atlantic Monthly editor C. Michael Curtis says he likes dynamic vs. static stories.) That said, my list of common mistakes will focus on
how you can get yourself serious consideration, or as I tell my students, "a fair read."
1. Be familiar with the magazine you are submitting to, and be familiar with contemporary short fiction. This is the editor's mantra. You can save editors and yourself time by matching your sensibility to a magazine's. Read a few stories in a magazine and ask yourself: what are the themes addressed? Is the work plainspoken, or poetic, or experimental? Do they publish genre work? You're not trying to match plots but discover an editor's taste as much as that is possible.
2. Cover letters is a broad topic we address on the DVD but one pet peeve of editors is plot summary. Assume the editor will figure out what your story is about by reading it. You can argue that petty cover letter infractions don't change the strength of your story but what they do is tip off the editor that the submitter is not practiced in the craft, and this may bias their reading, or simply get the story returned unread. And you want nothing to get between your story and the editor.
3. Be patient. Don't rush stories into the mail too fast. Allow stories to germinate. Ask writers and readers who care about you as a writer to read drafts. A fresh perspective on that scene with the prom queen and her date parked beneath the neon sign of the cheap motel may open creative doors. Editor Dinty Moore of Brevity magazine says on the DVD, "Even if you're sure the piece is wonderful, wait a few days to make sure you're really sure. If it's really, really good polish it even more because this could be the
piece that makes a career."
Q: In a nutshell, what do editors want?
A: I asked editors the same question on the DVD; as I listened to their general answers I did glean some insight into good writing: A good hook. This is rather obvious. At an editor's panel at my college a novice editor at a nascent magazine commented if she's not hooked by page one, she puts the manuscript aside. I've heard this before (though perhaps not from such a young editor). Think about how high you set the bar for the entertainment you view/read; if it's not gripping you turn the channel or shut the book. Many contemporary short stories start in the middle of the action. The prose is tight and vivid. The other day I read the opening of Peter Carey's new novel, Theft: A Love Story in the bookstore. In the first two paragraphs of the book he summarizes his hero's hectic
life history and establishes his conflict. I wanted to keep reading. What I took away is that sometimes you need to spell it out for a reader. Exposition as well as scene is necessary in good stories. Ask yourself, where does my story really start? What does the reader really have to know? What is implied?
Well-plotted stories. Works that explore the minutia of place or contain five characters but no dialogue, or take three pages explaining the Vietnam conflict rarely get published. Short stories usually involve one to three characters that change or come to some sort of realization. Ask yourself, who is my protagonist? What is the change?
Don't write quirk for quirk's sake. Editors have read every theme known to man. They want a fresh perspective, an engaging voice, and concrete specific detail. For example, the cancer story is a tired theme. You won't catch an editor's attention just because
your cancer story involved a circus elephant and acrobats. Ask yourself tough questions about the subtext, pathos, etc. of your story. I once heard a writer say, "plot is character". This angle took a while to sink in but once it did I wrote with more confidence. Everything is seen though characters, interpreted though
characters and spoken through characters.
Lastly, for those creative nonfiction writers out there: editors tell me they want more researched nonfiction. They read too much personal memoir that relies too heavily on the writer's memory, and only the writer's memory. Writers need to be inquisitive in
narrative nonfiction and see where the truth leads them. It can make for a more compelling telling.
Q: Rejection is as second nature to artists as breathing. But how can emerging writers learn from rejection?
A: Understand that an editor is critiquing just one piece of literature and not you as a writer. Once you receive a rejection you should get the story out to another magazine ASAP. I don't like to second-guess stories early in a submission period but after, say,
five to seven rejections from magazines that match the writer's experience, the writer needs to revisit the work. Endings are my Achilles Heel. Of course double check that the magazines accept the type of work you are sending. But most likely there is a weakness in the writing. And to help with that buy our other DVD "So, Is It Done? Navigating the Revision Process".
Excerpted from Latinidad?« ?® 2003 by Marcela Landres
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster. Author's website Email the author