Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New Writers: Where to Submit

Recently, in the P&W Speakeasy Forum a poster who had taken a top down approach to submitting was now asking about publications open to "new writers." I immediately weighed in with online pubs, and, in particular, the two zines I know best––Rose & Thorn and Sotto Voce. Said poster replied, "Thanks, but I wasn't looking at online." Which is fine. Once upon a time I'd go all preachy about that, but with the conversation shifting from "is online a real credit" to "can print survive," that boat sailed some time ago, and this fellow missed it.

This post is for the other new writer posting on that thread who hopefully pointed out journals like The Paris Review, Zoetrope , and Glimmer Train as claiming in their guidelines, to be looking for "fresh new voices." Yep, and I'm looking for the winning ticket in the Pennsylvania Lottery.

My point isn't to be cynical. I favor the top down approach to submitting, because you never know unless you try, and the submission police won't revoke your poetic license for being rejected too many times by The Paris Review. At the same time, I fear these publications unfairly raise expectations, so that those who are rejected time and again may give up writing all together, assuming they aren't good enough. This is always a possibility, or course, but new writers also should know what is behind those claims of publishing "several new writers a year" or often publishing "first time" submitters.

Some skip the slush
I doubt it comes as a surprise that names like Michael Chabon or Jeffery Eugenides regularly skip the slush and land right on the Managing Editor's desk. In fact, often these writers are solicited by the publication. But what if Ms. Well-Known is teaching a workshop and wants Mr. Top-Tier Editor to consider her student's piece. She will send that submission directly to the editor's desk as well where you can bet it will receive careful consideration. When the journal touts how many "new" writers it publishes or how many "first submitters" they count that writer into the mix, even though she didn't slug it out in the slush with everyone else.

Some get picked out of the slush
The slush is usually handled by anywhere from one or two to a large group of first readers. They may be students, interns, low-paid hires, or whatever. Their job is to weed out the immediate rejections and send the more promising pieces to the next level or even directly to the top. Beyond being promising, most top-tiers have other criteria that automatically move a piece along. They vary, but often include:
  • prior publication in another top-tier journal
  • an award in a prestigious competition
  • candidacy for, or an MFA degree from, a prestigious program (MFA alone doesn't mean as much anymore)
  • Acceptance to a prestigious workshop like Breadloaf
Depending on the definition, many writers meeting these criteria can still qualify as "new," but it isn't the same as the administrative assistant who pounds her first story out on her laptop in the wee hours of the morning and sends it out with high hopes.

Out of the slush doesn't mean on a level field
Let's say your piece is considered good enough to make it beyond the slush. Does the playing field suddenly level out? Not really. First off remember that there's only so much room, particularly in print publications. While your story plodded toward the top of the pile, other stories that skipped the pile or were automatically moved along were filling that precious space. Second, many of the top-tier publications are connected to colleges or universities with writing programs. In that case, if you don't have an MFA and aren't working toward one, it's likely to work against you. Not many editors will admit that, of course, and maybe it isn't even a conscious decision, but it would be like a back surgeon referring you to a chiropractor. It happens, just not very often. Third, if your story is spectacular and the one by Ms. Well-Known's student whom she personally recommended is very, very good, psychology, even aside from good business, would cause the editor to lean toward the latter. And I shouldn't have to mention what will happen if it comes down to your story or one by Ms. Well-Known herself. Which name is likely to sell more journals?

All this makes it sound like new writers without any particular advantage don't have a chance of making it into the top-tiers. I'd never say that. There is always a chance, and you won't know if you don't try. But if you start to falter under the weight of all those rejections, keep in mind there are many publications––most of them online––that still publish only a small percentage of the hundreds of submissions they receive, but pay no attention to prior credits, education, or recommendations in making their selections. Often these online publications reach more people in more places than many of the top-tier journals do.

Knowing this can make rejection less painful and acceptance below that top-tier all the more rewarding.


Kimberly Davis said...

This is a great post for anyone approaching the literary journals for the first time. Definitely take a stab at the top journals. It's worth a try. But also keep in mind that there are many hungry journals springing up online, and they are likely to be where you get your first publications. I'll be updating my journal list soon on Kim's Craft Blog, http://kimscraftblog.blogspot.com/

Nannette Croce said...

Looking forward to that Kim. I'm sure it will be very helpful because, while we all want our work read, we shouldn't submit just "anywhere."


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