The Ongoing Struggle to Publish
So you want to be a writer? Better yet, you want to be a published writer right? Sounds nice and it is, but “published writer” doesn’t automatically mean a “writer doing the backstroke through an Olympic sized pool filled with money” let me tell you.
I got serious about writing short stories in college around 1997 after I realized my dumb brain couldn’t do the math necessary to be a computer science major. But I’ve been a legitimately published writer since 1998. The first short story I ever published was in a tiny and now defunct online literary journal called Voiding the Void. It was basically one of those old online message boards that posted short stories and poems. But I it gave me a lot of confidence in my writing. Too much actually. I quickly published another short essay in my community college’s literary journal and decided I was going to only submit to paying literary journals from then on.
Very quickly I had myself a fine collection of some very high caliber form rejection letters from some of the most famous literary journals in America. This plan led to a year and a half long publishing drought for me. I did get a few encouraging notes scrawled on some of the rejection letters, but no one seemed interested in publishing any of the fifteen short stories I produced during that time.
Photo by Scott Osborn on Unsplash
Finally, in 2000 I published a twelve page monster of a short story in a respectable and known international literary journal. The story was set in Hiroshima a few days after the atomic bomb was dropped. At the time I had never been to Japan and the internet was still fairly primitive compared with today, so I did most of my research in my college library. It took me about a month. I got a lot of things wrong, but it was good enough to get me published so I didn’t complain. I think I made $5 for a month of research, writing, and then another three months of submitting it to literary journals by mail. This was a few years before literary journals started accepting submissions via e-mail and at least a decade before Submittable (more on that later).
Since then I’ve probably earned a few hundred dollars total from all my published work which, as of May 2017, also includes a traditionally published novel.
If you haven’t flung your laptop out the window and burned all your virgin notebooks screaming “This is way too hard and that it is all rigged,” then let me pass along to you a couple of tips and some online tools that will help make the submission and publishing process as little easier and hopefully help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made over the years.
You might assume that I received all those rejection letters between 1998 and 2000 simply because my writing sucked. There might be some truth to that, but the decision process for picking stories to publish in literary journals isn’t as objectively based on the quality and merit of the writing as you would think. The truth is a relatively unknown writer could send in the greatest short story in history and if the editors had to chose between it and say Sherman Alexie’s grocery list guess which one they are going to publish?
Yep, more than likely the readers of the Paris Review will learn what Alexie buys for dinner long before they read your poem, short story, or personal essay more than likely.
So what’s a new or unknown writer to do? Well, there’s a couple of things that will help improve your odds. Before you start slinging you work all over the internet though you should also take a little bit of time to read some of the published writing on the literary journals themselves. If you write like Hemingway and submit your stuff to say a literary journal called “Male Destroyers: A Journal for Angry Feminists” you probably won’t meet with much success. A little bit of research can make all the difference.
And always read the submission guidelines for the literary journals very closely and follow them to the letter. Editors will dump submissions that failed to follow their guidelines in the trash without a second thought.
As I mentioned, I initially had some success with smaller and lesser known literary journals. Most of them are a labor of love published by editors that are usually writers themselves. They understand how hard it is for a new writer to catch a break. Submitting to smaller literary journals won’t make you rich,(not sure what will actually), but it will help you to start building some publishing credits which you can add to your author’s bio.
Here is my current author’s bio.
Steve Howard has a BA in creative writing from Western Washington University and has published flash fiction, short stories, haibun, and creative non-fiction in numerous literary journals. His novella The Adamantine River Passage was released in 2017. His self-published collection of short stories Satori in the Slip Stream, Something Gaijin This Way Comes, and Fly Fishing Out of a Dead End Life were released in 2018. His poetry collection Diet of a Piss Poor Poet was released in 2019. He currently teaches English in Japan and is a semi-professional standup comedian.
Notice the bolded section of my author’s bio. Those are a few of my best writing credits to date. The reason why developing a list of publishing credits and adding them to your author’s bio is very important, even if they are from fairly small literary journals, is because when editors are choosing stories to publish seeing that a writer has published in another literary journals increases their confidence in that writer’s ability. This makes them much more likely to pick your stuff. Again, more literary politics and gatekeeper crap, but that is the name of the game and the quicker you learn the rules the faster you will get published.
Okay Steve, publishing is hard, we get it, but we’re still in. We’ve written our work, so where? Where do we submit it? Good question, one that I see a lot from new writers all the time. Often the answer they get from trolls is “Google it!” You can do this, but you will probably be overwhelmed by the thousands of pages your search returns. But fear not, I have another way in store for you listing many of the most useful sites I have found and often use to help narrow the search.
Where to submit your work?
I started submitting my work around 1998. This was a few years before literary journals started accepting e-mail…
And if you interested in reading some more of my whining and complaining about the trials and tribulations concerning the hard road to publish check these out. Good luck and may you be one of the lucky 2% of writers out there that makes a living at it soon!
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