A Geezer's Guide to Lit Mag Maneuvers
Submission strategy from a long-time submitter to lit mags
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I got my first lit mag fiction publication in 1985. When the editors forwarded a letter they’d gotten from a New York literary agent looking to get in contact with me, I figured I was on my way. The fact you’ve never heard of me indicates how well that went.
I’ve had some starts and stops since then. One hiatus ended in the early 2000s, when online lit mags were becoming more prevalent; the wafting scent of increased opportunity roused me from my stupor. A few stories I published during those years are still out there, part of the archival heap floating in the dead-website sea. So thanks, Diddle-Dog, Verbsap, and Menda City Review. Maybe some places where I’ve more recently published will likewise survive.
Because I’ve been back at it again. I’m 66 years and some months old, giddy to see submissions open at places with names like Devastation Baby and Big Whoopie Deal. I’ve spent significant time parsing the nuances between Bull, Bull City, and Bullshit Lit. I’ve taken the measure of the Fiction Desk, Fiction Kitchen, Fiction Attic, Fiction Pool, Fiction Warehouse, and Fiction Yurt.
When I started, the primary resource was the annual Writer’s Market, a thick hardcover that cost as much as a week’s worth of groceries. It never listed many lit mags, and none that weren’t well-established and well-known. Now it’s a flood, and beyond looking at the sites like Chill Subs, The Short List, etc., I haunt Twitter, where in between dropping the occasional wise-ass remark on somebody else’s post, I see where short fiction writers are getting published these days.
When a lit mag looks promising and a good possible target, either for something newly written or something rejected up the ass and looking for a gentler outcome, I create a capsule description of it. I write up these capsules—by hand, on yellow legal pads (#Geezer). I have them to refer to when Future Me might have something that fits.
Call me wacky, but I’m drawn to a lit mag with a website easy to navigate, with an attractive and simple design. I prefer that each writer’s work has its own URL. I don’t like pdfs of issues, where you have to scroll to find individual pieces, and I really dislike the places that use ISSUU or other “flip-book” programs that are nearly impossible to zoom in to see.
I write different types of fiction, with word counts from 50 to 7,500 or more. Size matchups are easy, but as everyone knows, not everything. I skim stories from the most recent issue; if there’s an archive, I’ll dip into that. I’ll look for names of writers whose work I like, or have least heard of. I’ll move on to the “About” or “Mission” sections, and hope they’re not too pretentious or overbearing. Mastheads with pocket descriptions of the players involved are helpful. Sometimes one or more of the editors will have published in one of the same places as me.
Some other nice-to-haves: a Comments capability for readers, preferably one that doesn’t require a sign-in rigmarole, and a Counter for views that your piece gets. “Views” doesn’t necessarily equal “Read and Loved Its” but seeing how many clicks on a story you get is even more addictive than checking Submittable to see if anything’s moved from Received to In-Progress.
I rarely send anything to a publication attached to an academic writing program. My style, voice, and types of content aren’t a good match. Plus, I’ve always suspected that the student staff go through their unsolicited slush and savage it around the seminar table. I prefer the independent lit mags (I know, who probably do the same thing).
Cover letters used to be a big deal, but editors now want short and sweet. If I read something I like that they’ve published I’ll tell them, but I never compare my work to it or anything else. If it’s the first piece I’ve sent to them, I tell them that, and if it’s a place that’s been around almost as long as me, and I sent them something in 1992, I tell them that too. I give them a word count. I give them a bio. I get out.
I don’t usually sim-sub beyond five. Usually more like three. I spend a lot of time trying to find the most plausible targets for a story. If there’s some place the story seems exactly right for (or maybe you know, actually pays something), or where I’ve had a story in before, I just send it there. And wait.
Rejections suck now as much as they ever did, back when grandmothers didn’t drop the word “suck” in casual conversations. In the days when everything was done through the mail, you always knew when you saw that 9” x 12” yellow envelope with your handwriting on it in the box—your work coming back. Usually a form reject, sometimes with a personal note of encouragement. Sometimes they wouldn’t waste a fresh piece of paper on you. Your rejection was scrawled by some anonymous hand in the margin of your cover letter, returned with the submission (minus the paper clip, which they always kept), saying something like, “Oh, God No.”
I’ve got a submissions log that goes back to 2003 (although lots of gaps), a Word table (#Geezer), to record Name/Type of Piece, Publication Name, Date Sent, Submission Method, Expected Response Time, and Editor(s) Name(s). When the hammer falls, the rejection email received, read and trashed, I complete the table entry for the piece, adding Result, Date Notified, and Notes. Or sometimes they take it! I bump up the font on the relevant row and record the good news.
Anyway, that’s how I go about it. I’ve latched onto that new drama the Cool Kids are always talking about: The Hunt for 100 Rejections a Year, so I shoot for that, trying for ten submissions a month. When I’m feeling ambitious, I sometimes go ahead and add blank rows to the submissions table in advance.
Because while I may be a Geezer, I’ve still got Future Me out there waiting to pounce.