How I went from zero to twenty through sheer determination
When I first began searching for places to place my creative non-fiction essays I was a few degrees from clueless. As part of a group of emergent writers — all professionals, poets and teachers, readers and writers — none of us were MFA-trained, so we didn’t have the academic expertise or networks gained through those programs.
We aspired to seeing our work in print, but other than basic familiarity with some of the “biggies” (Granta, The Sun, Tin House, Paris Review) we didn’t know where to start. Our local library didn’t carry many (any?) literary journals or magazines, and we couldn’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars to buy an assortment of soft-copy editions.
To make matters worse, we had almost no experience working with literary editors, and we didn’t know how to respond to rejections.
A few of us had attended writing workshops — including some of the “rock star” locales (Bread Loaf, Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Fishtrap, Colrain)– but although we emerged from those experiences with a mixture of awe, trauma, and endless sets of notes, we didn’t pick up many applied publishing tips.
Amongst ourselves, we spent quite a bit of time talking about what we could do to overcome our ignorance: travel to a larger city or university library and spend hours tracking down and reviewing literary journals, or visit a major bookstore or a specialty magazine store in a university town two hours’ distant to page through their offerings.
Although I doggedly pursued all of the above, eventually my fellow groupies lost interest and went back to what they already knew how to do: one eventually become our city’s poet laureate, another refocused on her teaching.
I didn’t give up.
I spent countless hours reading print and online literary magazines and journals. I perused Tables of Contents, checking to see the number of proportion of nonfiction essays carried in each edition. I evaluated each essay’s tone and slant, its substance, and how it felt at the end of the essay.
And I wrote and revised and rewrote and revised endlessly, until every bit of work: my poems, micro-essays, hybrid and multi-media pieces, were as beautifully polished as they could be.
A decade after my first, confused attempts to figure out where I could submit, I now have publications in twenty different literary journals and magazines. Five of my essays have been nominated for Pushcart awards, and three have been anthologized. I’ve also been rejected from a slew of fine magazines, a number of which I would still like to get my work into, some day.
It’s been a long, bumbling, humbling, exhilarating journey. I’d like to make it easier for other writers. Here are my hard-earned secrets:
1. Build a Stable of Work
We all have a lifetime’s worth of stories. As writers, our job is to craft those stories into astonishing, inspiring pieces that linger in readers’ hearts and minds long after they finish reading our words.
When I first began looking for places to submit, I had already written a 110,000-word manuscript containing twenty-four chapters. Initially I was focused on querying editors and agents for my book-in-progress. Yet I hit a wall (actually, I hit many, many walls) trying to articulate my narrative arc. After months of banging my head against that particular wall, I took a step back. Instead of pushing a recalcitrant book into being, I focused on publishing chapter excerpts as stand-alone pieces.
This act of dissection proved to be one of the best ways to increase the caliber of my writing. In essence, I had to prove the worth — the compelling nature– of each chapter, on its own. And I had to do it over and over again, to a plethora of different editors, each with their own tastes, interests, and moods.
2. Only Submit Your Most Amazing Work
You may be familiar with the editors’ plea of “only submit your best work.” Out of respect to all literary editors who work for the love of excellent writing, laboring for free, or for below minimum wage, let us honor that plea.
Each time I choose an essay for revision and submission, I spend time sitting with the piece and asking myself: which sentences or sections are the most compelling, surprising, tender, funny, heart-breaking, raw, insightful, exciting, etc.? What parts most turn me on (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically) when I read them?
Because I also write poetry, I spend a great deal of time thinking about every single word choice, about the rhythm of each sentence, and about the flow of every paragraph. I consider the beginning and end of every section.
How do we know we’ve written something amazing? My clue is a tingly feeling in my gut and a new thrill: this tells me I’ve just written something that surpasses everything I’ve done before.
Aim for that. Nothing less.
3. Be the Emperor (or Empress) of Revisions
Because I’m a bit of a perfectionist (imagine my friends rolling their eyes at the phrase “a bit”), in the process of revising my larger manuscript, each time I made significant changes, I saved the document file with a new number. By the time I hit the pause button on my book-in-perpetual-progress and started extracting chapters, I had reached Version 38.
As I created new essays from old chapters, each excerpt needed additional work: large chunks needed to be discarded (or woven into a separate piece), and the remaining words required fine-tuning. Each chapter-turned-essay also needed a punchy beginning, a substantive middle, and a brilliant ending.
On average, my submissions are revised a minimum of forty times before they are sent out. No, I’m not saying this is for everyone! A baseline tip is this: even when you think you’re done editing, stay with the piece for another day or two, and go through at least one more nit-picky revision before considering your work completed. As a final step, read the entire document out loud before uploading the file or clicking on the “submit” button.
Once I began submitting, I had a rule for myself: any time a piece was rejected, I had to revise it again before resubmitting elsewhere. This brings me to the next important point.
4. Choose Carefully and Wisely When You Submit
It should go without saying that we writers, being terrifically literate and conscientious, should acquaint ourselves with the journal or magazine we choose to submit to, and we should follow their submission guidelines closely.
Yet how can we do this if we don’t have easy access to the latest editions?
As I discussed above, I sought out all the physical locations within my region that carried literary magazines and journals. I also searched for literary publications that were online only, or who had online archives of previous editions or links to previously published essays.
While reading through each edition (or essay), I jotted down notes about the style, the length, and the overall caliber and diversity of work contained in the magazine. I kept a running list of essays that blew my socks off, and I noted all the fascinating ways that essayists “wrote it slant” — by using innovative and clever formats to tell their stories.
I also did the wise and sensible thing every emergent writer should do: I subscribed to Poets & Writers magazine (their classified sections are the best!) and joined Submittable (a free service that lists who is accepting what, when, and where, and how much you have to pay to submit). Then I made a habit of combing through each of those resources whenever I had a pocketful of essays ready to go out into the world.
5. Embrace Rejection
Ever since I began submitting, I’ve kept a running tally of where I’ve submitted, what the parameters were (e.g., word count, file formats, deadlines, payment [if any], fees, if simultaneous submissions or hybrid works were accepted, etc.), and how long it took for the editors to make a decision.
At first I tallied things by essay title, using a table in Microsoft Word. Now I still record my submissions by title, but I use Excel. I have works that I submitted once and were accepted immediately, others that I submitted to 4–8 places before they were accepted, and still others that won awards and have yet to be published.
I read a terrific essay years ago entitled “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year,” by Kim Liao. Quoting from Anne Lammott, Steven King, and Samuel Beckett (among others), she builds an excellent case for boldly, determinedly, unapologetically, going for it. Write. Submit. Be rejected. Try again. Repeat.
I see rejection as one more tool in my toolbox. For me, it’s simply a trigger to look over the piece, see what can be improved/tightened/reworked, and do so to the best of my ability.
6. Attend Literary Conferences
This is my newest and possibly best secret, and one I didn’t figure out until I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP) in Portland, Oregon.
AWP Conferences are held annually, and you can get a fee waiver if you volunteer for a certain number of hours. These conferences are possibly the largest, most diverse conferences I’ve ever attended in my lifetime. And their exhibit hall is the best place to spend your time during the conference.
Why? Because that’s where you can meet the real, live editors of all those literary journals and magazines that you’ve been considering. At literary conferences you can ask questions — loads of them! In person! You can make friends. You can can peruse back copies of those ‘zines, and often get a discount on purchasing editions you’re interested in reading more deeply.
And afterwards, fully inspired, and much better versed in what editors and publishers are looking for, you can submit your best work.
Again, and again, and again.