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Submitting your fiction for publication in literary journals

For your fiction to find an audience, it has to find its way in front of the eyes of an editor first. Who puts it there? You!

Before I really understood the literary world, I thought that perhaps writing followed a (similarly untrue) narrative that we often hear about actors.

“She was ‘discovered’ while working as a waitress at a restaurant,” is an oft-told Hollywood origin story. It brings up an image: an actress is working as a waitress at a restaurant and happens to get the right table, which is occupied by a studio executive, or perhaps a talent agent. That person says, “My, you have the ‘it factor’ — I’ll make you a star!” And poof! The actress’s life is changed forever, all because of a chance encounter.

This may have happened once, or twice — who really knows — but most of the time, an actor or actress is “discovered” because they are relentlessly pursuing auditions, taking low-paying gigs to appear on stage and in short films, and sending query letters to agents and managers, who may take a meeting with them to gauge whether or not they’ve got that ‘it factor’ we hear so much about.

For me, before I knew much, I assumed a similar narrative about the literary world. I figured talented people were coming into contact with gatekeepers by happenstance, and those people believed in said talented people, and they published their writing. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. The way a writer is ‘discovered’ is by getting his or her writing out into the world. The way that writing gets out into the world is that the writer puts it there.

Do I mean all writers should go start a blog and start putting their writing on there for free? No, I do not. The path to finding an audience with one’s writing is indeed for it to be published by someone else — a publication that has a built-in audience. But how does that publication find your writing? Does someone from the publication somehow magically spy you at a café typing feverishly on your computer, and think, “That person looks like a fine writer — I’m going to see what they’re up to!” No. The way they find your writing is you put it in front of them. How do you do that? You submit your writing to them for consideration.

While some literary journals may still accept unsolicited submissions by mail, for the most part, these days submissions to literary journals are done online, either by directly submitting through a journal’s website or email or by using a submission manager, like Submittable.

Below are some tips for how to submit your polished fiction, and what to expect from the process. I should perhaps note I’m coming at this from two perspectives. I am a writer who submits fiction to journals. I am also a reader for a fairly notable journal. So I have seen it from both sides.

Only send your most polished work

When you have a draft of your story that you feel is what you want to submit to journals, make sure you have reviewed it, and then reviewed it again, and then perhaps asked a friend to review it, for typos, grammar issues, and other common writing mistakes. There is no shame in making mistakes — we all do it, especially when we’re particularly impassioned about what we’re writing. However, sending out a draft that has typos, spelling and grammar errors, or other distracting elements in it may well count against you with a literary journal. Send polished work.

You can look for opportunities online

Submittable is the most commonly used submission manager, and it also contains a search feature where you can sift through all of the journals, writing contests, and other opportunities that are currently accepting submissions through it. It can be a great place to discover new journals to submit to.

Duotrope is another online service that many fiction writers use to manage their literary journal submissions. Though you can’t submit directly through Duotrope, you can search through catalogs of literary journals and see statistics like what their acceptance rate is, how long they take to respond to submissions, and whether they pay contributors or not. Duotrope is a paid service ($5 a month).

Social media can also be a great resource for finding out about new opportunities to submit your work. Searching the hashtag #CallforSubmissions on Twitter can turn up new information frequently, and there are several Facebook groups dedicated to literary journal submissions, too.

Do your research

Most journals have a page of their website dedicated to explaining to writers what type of writing they’re looking for, what lengths are acceptable, what their publishing schedule is like, whether they pay contributors, and how you should go about submitting to them. Always read this page. It’s also a good idea to read some of the content the journal has published in the past so you can get a sense of whether your writing would mesh well with the journal.

Expect response times to vary

Most journals will indicate, either in a submission manager, on their webpage dedicated to submission guidelines, or both, how long they generally take to respond. These times can vary from a few days to a few months to up to a year. Be aware of the expectations the journal is setting so that you can manage your own expectations and decide whether a particular journal is worthwhile for you to submit to.

Know the rules on simultaneous submissions

Something I didn’t really realize when I started submitting to journals was that, as noted above, sometimes response times can really lag. If I were to only send a story to one journal at a time, it may take me years to get the story in front of enough editors that it eventually connects with one. For this reason, it’s fairly common practice among writers to simultaneously submit a piece to multiple publications at once. Most publications are well aware of this and are fine with it, but ask you to withdraw the piece as soon as it gets accepted elsewhere. Some ask you to note in your cover letter whether it’s a simultaneous submission or not.

A handful of publications don’t allow simultaneous submissions. It’s important you actually follow the guidelines on this. If a publication doesn’t allow simultaneous submissions, you submit it to multiple places anyway, and then another accepts it, you are going to be in the awkward position of withdrawing your piece from a publication that expressly said they don’t allow for simultaneous submissions — and that can mean burning a bridge with an editor who you haven’t even gotten a chance to work with yet.

Be prepared for rejection; and don’t take it to heart too much

Writers say this all the time and it didn’t make sense to me until I really got into the game: rejection is part of writing. The more you submit a story, the more you’ll see that it’s just not possible for your story to get accepted everywhere. Keep at it. It will eventually find an editor that it resonates with. I’ve had stories that I submitted 20+ times, only to eventually find the right editor who really got my vision and published it. Don’t let rejection get you down — use it as fuel to send the same story to a handful of new journals for consideration.

Most journals only accept unpublished material

And most specify that “published” includes on your own personal blog. So, if you’re wanting to get your work published in a literary journal, resist the urge to put it into the world yourself and let it stay without an audience while you’re submitting. Publishing it, even on your own blog, will jeopardize its chances for reaching the wider audience a literary journal has access to.

Hopefully these tips give you some inspiration to start sending your work out into the world. Remember: it can’t reach an audience until you put it in front of a publisher first. Don’t be afraid — go for it, and see what happens!

Lauren Harkawik
Author

Lauren Harkawik

Lauren Harkawik is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer based in Vermont. You can read her writing on her website.

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