How to Submit Your Work Without Completely Losing Hope

Christine Hennessey writes a weekly newsletter about creative projects, ambitious goals, tiny budgets, and her latest Trader Joe’s obsession. Sort of like personal blogging circa 2007, but in convenient email form! She lives in coastal North Carolina with her husband, their dog, and 11 bossy chickens. By day, she works in the marketing department of a software company. In the very early mornings, she works on a novel and a collection of short stories.

The act of writing, we’re told, is mystical, magical. It happens when we’re struck by inspiration, driven by a nearly animal need. In our imagination, the writer sits at at her desk, wild-eyed and disheveled, pure brilliance flowing from her fingers.

But there’s another part of the creative process that’s not quite so romantic, a part often hidden from the public. For example, we don’t see the writer sending out her stories to obscure literary magazines — stories she poured her heart into, stories she sacrificed sleep and a social life and countless other hobbies to write — only to receive ten bland rejections in a row. As it turns out, writing the thing is the artist’s first challenge; getting it published is the second. In my opinion, it’s also the hardest.  

I write fiction, mostly. I’ve been fairly successful at it — numerous publications at some very nice journals, a few fellowships, an MFA. I’ve been sending out my work since 2010, and over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing both sides of the creative process: writing and submitting. Today I’m going to share the strategy that has kept me consistent, productive, and — at least a few times a year — published.

When to submit your work

In the beginning, when it’s just you and the blank page, there are no consequences, no one to tell you your idea is silly or your sentences cliché. Everything you write is brilliant, or could be after a few dozen rounds of revision. Some of my best writing experiences have happened when I suddenly unearth a theme I didn’t notice the first six times, or find a faint connection that helps the plot click into place. The pleasure is akin to solving a puzzle or walking into your own surprise party.

There comes a point, however, when the work is done. You’ve taken it as far as you can, and it’s time to see what the rest of the world thinks. For me, this takes about two years. (I wish I was joking…) This is partly because I work full time in addition to living a fairly full life, and only really have time to write for an hour each morning before work. That time is precious, which is why I dread giving it up. Each hour I spend sending out work instead of writing it seems like a waste — especially because so often my reward is rejection.

Instead of fretting about wasted time, I remind myself that it’s good to give the creative side of my brain a break, let my ideas lay fallow. When a piece feels ready (notice I didn’t say “perfect”), I’ll take a week off from writing, or choose one morning a week to spend on submissions. It’s still writing, even if it looks more like spreadsheets and less like that wild-eyed artist at her desk.

Where to submit your work

Figuring out where to send your work can be a tedious process. For me, it involves looking up every literary journal I can think of, checking their guidelines, making sure they’re open for submissions, formatting my work to their unique specifications, and finally hitting send.

But maybe you’re new to submitting, and the only magazine on your radar is The New Yorker. Send your story there (I always do!) but make sure you find a few other journals as well. Google is a good friend, and there are some great round ups of well-regarded magazines and journals. (I like New Pages for up-to-date calls for submissions.) I’ll often spend my lunch break looking up magazines, stalking the publications page of writers I admire, or figuring out where my various nemeses have been published. It also helps to read each journal’s “about” page, where they give some insight into what they’re looking for. It’s also a good idea to read a few pages of their magazine, virtual or otherwise, to see if and how you might fit in. If a journal is specifically seeking western-inspired sci-fi, for example, your literary vampire saga probably won’t be their first choice, no matter how gripping it may be.

When I first started submitting, print journals were the end-all, be-all, but these days I prefer online publications. People are far more likely to click a link and read your work, and isn’t that the whole point? Before I submit to an online publication, however, I look at the design of their site, the quality of the work they publish, their social media platforms. How many followers do they have? Are they good at promoting what they publish? Is the site beautiful and accessible? I spend my days in a marketing department, and this part of the creative process is all about selling yourself. Make sure the home you find for your work is a place you actually want to be.

How to submit strategically

The average response time for a journal or magazine is three to six months, though there are outliers. (I currently have one pending submission from April 2017, which at this point I’m treating as an elaborate game of chicken.) I always aim to send the same piece to 10 journals at a time, and I always mention in my cover letter that it’s a simultaneous submission. Most journals are fine with this, because they know it’s the only possible way to get published in your lifetime.

Here’s the other thing a lot of people don’t realize about submitting your work — often, it’s not free. Many journals have moved to slick software like Submittable, which makes the process super-streamlined for both writer and reviewer. (In addition to sending out my own work, I read submissions for Raleigh Review, and this software is pretty much a dream.) However, it is expensive and that expense is often passed on to the submitter. $3 is the norm, which can quickly add up. If you’re entering a contest, get ready for some serious sticker shock — it’s more like $25.

Many debates have been waged on whether this is a fair system, or whether it takes advantage of hopeful writers. My advice is to save those fees for your dream journals, and the rest of the time keep a running list of magazines that don’t charge submission fees, or that offer free windows throughout the year. If you time it right, you can keep costs down and still get published in some pretty great places.

My super simple submission spreadsheet

Once you start sending out your work, you’re going to have to keep track of it. Not only will this keep you from sending a story to the same journal twice, it will also help you remember who sent you an encouraging rejection, what you need to withdraw in the event a piece is accepted elsewhere, and exactly how much money you’ve spent on submission fees.

Personally, I use a Google Sheets spreadsheet. (Here’s a scrubbed version, which you can download and edit to your heart’s content.) Each year, I start a fresh sheet to keep things from getting too unwieldy, and I find it motivating to see how many submissions I can send out over the course of twelve months. The most useful part, however, is my color-coding system.

  • Red type is a form rejection, the kind that contains no encouragement, nothing specific about my work, could have been written by a robot.
  • A red highlight is a personal rejection. The editors said something nice about my story, encouraged me to submit again, or told me it wasn’t a standard rejection. (Check out Rejection Wiki if you’re not sure whether your rejection was actually higher tier or just written by a particularly empathetic robot.) I like highlighting these because I want to see them at a glance. Not only does it make me feel better (nice rejections are almost as good as acceptances) but I want to make sure I re-submit to these places ASAP.
  • Purple type means I withdrew a piece after it was accepted elsewhere, which is extremely important — you don’t want to waste readers’ time if the piece is no longer available, plus it’s just good manners.
  • And finally, a yellow highlight with bold type means the piece was accepted. I make this as big and bright as possible because I want to celebrate, even in the confines of my spreadsheet.

Accept what you can’t control

The hardest lesson about creative work is that no matter how hard you try, how much you believe in a piece, you can’t control whether the person reading it will agree with you.

And maybe this is the real reason I don’t like submitting. The act of writing is something I can control, mysticism aside. I can make myself sit at my desk and move my fingers, diligently carve out the time to write sentences and scenes and stories. What I can’t control is whether anyone will want to read those words, or choose to publish my work in their pages. Deep down, however, I want someone to publish my work. I want all of you to read it. I want awards and money and admiration and cold, hard proof that all those mornings at my desk have not been a pointless waste of time.

Which is why I keep submitting, month after month, year after year, rejection after rejection. Because every now and then, I get a “yes,” right when I need it most. And when I return to the work, that yes ringing in my ears, it feels different. Not mystical or magical, but part of the same creative process that guides all wild-eyed writers, that elusive balance we try our hardest to strike.

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