Enjoy a guest blog post from Bluestem contributor Joe Benevento. Read his poetry in the March 2011 online issue of Bluestem here.
Your First Publication: Increasing the Odds
I’ve been sending my poems, stories and essays out for publication for over thirty years now, and, for about as long, I’ve been advising students on how best to do the same. A lot of my advice is pretty standard stuff: 1)Follow guidelines carefully (if the word limit on a short story is 1,500, from a place that doesn’t take “genre” fiction, what sense would it make to send them your 3,257 word urban fantasy piece?) 2) Wait until you have written and rewritten your work, perhaps received some very positive feedback on it from writing teachers or others whose opinion you respect, before submitting it at all; 3) Don’t be crushed by rejection; expect rejection as a norm and part of what makes you a working writer; 4) Send your work out to more than one journal at a time, unless the publication specifically prohibits it.
However, I’ve also developed other kinds of advice, which, if not earth-shatteringly original, is at least less obvious, and maybe even controversial.
1) Don’t sell yourself too short or too long: I’ve known writers who would only send to what they perceived as the very “top” places, with “top” often being determined by obvious reputation and payment rates (i.e. The New Yorker) or by some list of best markets they had unearthed (most commonly now via the internet). I have two problems with that approach. The most practical one is that a new, unknown writer has an extremely miniscule chance of breaking into a “top” market. The second, less obvious objection is that a young writer (and, really, any writer) should submit to places where he or she actually admires the writing being published. (Have you read some of the poems in The New Yorker lately?) It is far more important to find magazines and journals where the work resonates with you, the kind of writing you aspire to yourself or that you feel you are already within the ballpark of mastering. At the other extreme, why be so desperate to get published that you’d submit about anywhere? I’ve known people who have paid $39.95 to see a copy of their piece in some trumped up anthology that actually publishes about anyone, in the hopes that most of them will pay the $39.95 to see their work in print. While one might like being the very best writer in an anthology or journal, it’s a bad goal for a young writer; it usually means the other people’s work really stinks. Instead, an aspiring writer needs to seek respectable, legitimate places to publish which are fully open to the possibility of including them. Anyone can go to www.pw.org or www.newpages.com or similar sites to learn about the guidelines and websites of innumerable, legitimate literary journals.
2) Keep Your Money in Your Pocket Whenever Possible: I assume most new writers are working from a limited budget. I strongly discourage them from entering contests for the best poem or story, contests held by so many literary magazines, for cash prizes and publication, unless there is some cogent reason why they feel they have a better than the usual almost zero chance of winning such a contest. What are the odds that the first poems or stories a person has ever gotten up to possible publication speed will be better than hundreds or thousands of others submitted to the same contest, from people at different levels of accomplishment? Moreover, I encourage students and other new writers to seek out the hundreds of journals now using www.submittable.com or other, similar submission engines without fees. You can now submit via the internet for free, saving the paper and postage of the past. Some literary journals have tried to circumvent your free ride by charging a $2 or $3 “maintenance fee” and arguing it’s no more than you would have paid for postage and paper to some journals which still do prefer the more traditional methods of submission. But why pay $3 when you can submit to an equally viable journal for free? The only exception would be if the place you’re willing to pay the fee to is your absolute favorite, one at which you think you have an especially good chance of being read with interest and/or that you would be beyond hysterically happy to inhabit. Otherwise, always choose those journals, whether print or online, that allow you to have your work read without diminishing your bank account.
3) Not all Rejections are Created Equal- If you’re new to this, you might not understand how unusual it is to receive any feedback on a rejection slip or email. It IS unusual. One usually gets a “form rejection,” thanking you for submitting and expressing regret that your piece just didn’t make it. If instead you are told explicitly that your story made it to the final round, or that one poem came “close” or that if you would rework the ending they’d be happy to reconsider it, you should be happy. You made a “cut” or two, and you are being asked, explicitly or implicitly, to try that place again. You have broken past the rejection form norm and have taken a first step towards being published. I once had a writer at the AWP conference tell me that my rejection note to him (in my role as poetry editor of GHLL) was nicer than most any acceptance he had ever received; about a year down the road he had some poems published in our journal. Take any hint of approval from any journal you respect and keep working towards making that approbation turn towards an acceptance. Editors read as many as several thousand submissions a year. If they are writing back some actual words just meant for you, be sure to send more back to them. Good luck.
Joe Benevento, Professor of English at Truman State, and long-time co-editor of GHLL, is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, most recently, his debut mystery novel The Monsignor’s Wife. To find out more go to www.AuthorJoeBenevento.com