Sunday, May 21, 2017

You can't win if you don't play. Also, you probably can't win.

Way back when I first started sending in stories to see if I could get them published, I saw an off-handed comment somewhere on the Internet that went something like this: "Famous Author X thinks it's weak to always submit to places with a high chance of publication. You should go for the big game." That probably slowed me down to getting my first publication considerably. I really wasted a lot of time only sending in to magazines like The Atlantic. Eventually, I adjusted, and soon my fourth story will be published, followed soon after by the promised book of short stories from Washington Writers' Publishing House.

Still, I can't get over the lure of the big boys. How great would it be to get published by Glimmer Train or New England Review or Prairie Schooner? Wouldn't it bring instant gravitas when I submit further work in the future? Wouldn't it give me a leg up searching for agents for my novel?

I wrote a couple of stories earlier this year that I regard as the best I've done yet. I decided to try to shoot the moon and go for some of the big boys I've been avoiding. The rejections are just starting to come in now. You'd think it would be easier to take a rejection from a top-tier journal, but it's not. I can't help but getting excited when there's a response from a publisher that could really bring a breakthrough. That means the let-down hits me a little bit harder. If you get a rejection from a smaller press, there's always the chance your story was actually good but they're just too overworked to notice. With the top presses, a rejection feels more authoritative.

Also, one journal has a mean form rejection letter. Instead of the many formulas for "we're not saying it's bad, only that we're not publishing it," this one said "Unfortunately, it's not for us." That sounds like something I'd say about jello with pineapple in it.

I've read a lot of writers use the strategy of going big then going small. Try a story out with the big guys, then go for something more approachable. If that fails, maybe rework the story or put it away for a while. That makes sense, but it's a frustratingly slow way to do business. Getting published is like playing a really tough boss level of a video game, only there is a three-to-six month lag between trying something and seeing whether it worked or you have to hit re-start.

I'm happy getting published by smaller presses. It's really enough that anyone reads something I've written and likes it. But 2017 was supposed to be a year that gave me some clarity on how much effort to keep putting into writing, and for how much longer. It started off with a bang, a quick acceptance and then the big news of the book. I really wanted a second big breakthrough with a major journal, but now that very effort has got me back to feeling like I'm grinding in vain. With odds this big, it really feels like I'm waiting for that unreliable girl to show up for our date, and she's an hour and half late, and everyone in the restaurant is starting to feel sorry for me.


  1. Here's your song:

    1. I was so inspired after watching that, I submitted stories to both Boys' Life and the King Arthur Flour Company's vignette competition.

  2. I'm the fellow who just posted a comment about the poem that won the Pushcart prize. I decided to take a closer look at your blog, and it's very interesting.

    Coincidentally, I am just at the point where I am having to decide where to submit my poetry. After a lifetime of writing, I finally decided to start making submissions. When I was very young, I submitted poems to Poetry magazine, which is the premier poetry publisher in the country. They actually sent me a rejection notice telling me that my writing was not good enough. I'm still offended after 35 years. However, they were right: Whatever I sent them back then could not have been very good. Now, however, I have poems which I think are excellent -- but that doesn't mean that anyone will like them. One consideration for me is time. If I submit to Poetry magazine now, there is a 7-month wait to find out if they want the poems. Other publications have more reasonable wait times (three or four months). Seven months from now is January! Do I really want my poems to be tied up for more than half a year?

    One of the complications with Poetry magazine is that they publish a lot of trendy poetry which I think is junk. There's actually a double-standard: Trendy poetry which is obscure (like that poem by Shelley Wong) has a better chance of being published because there is no standard by which to judge it. On the other hand, poetry written in traditional forms can immediately be compared to the entire canon of great poems stretching back centuries, so poets who write in traditional forms have a higher bar to jump. Poets who write in traditional forms are expected to be as good as Frost.

    What I've decided to do is to send poems to both: Premier publications that pay, and smaller publications that don't pay.

    I wouldn't worry about the rejection that said "Not for us". They may just mean that it isn't suitable for their publication (have you actually read their publication?). As for the Atlantic, that was the publication that Frost made his first submission to after returning from Europe, and the editor sent him a condesceding rejection letter. Once Frost established his name with other publications, the same editor told Frost he would accept any poems that Frost sent him, sight unseen.

    Sorry to be blabbing so much on your blog.

    1. There's a reason I switched from poetry to fiction while in my graduate writing program. It was just really hard to tell what was good in poetry.

      I don't try to publish poetry anymore these days. But I think the same strategy is probably valid for both: diversify. Your odds of getting into Poetry are pretty slim, even if you're an established poet. So spread it around, just like you described.