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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The Perks of Having a Writers’ Group

Today’s guest post is from Kimberly Lew, a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I first started working at a play publishing company, I was immediately taken by how creative my coworkers were. They were mostly in their late twenties, and they all wrote plays or directed or produced on the side.

I remember early on, when I was just an intern, one of the founders of the company — a very prolific playwright himself — hosted an informal reading of his latest comedic one-act, and I was invited to participate. I wasn’t an actor by any means, but no one seemed to care. Despite fumbled lines and lack of writing expertise by some of the participants, me included, we had a really productive discussion about the piece and all got a sense of what was really working and what wasn’t.

I had done writing workshops and classes my whole life. I knew the graces of a good compliment sandwich and the pained challenge of perfecting a piece in time to be shared with a classroom. But never before had I felt the vibe of room that was so constructive and so fun while simultaneously educational.

When the play company moved to bigger offices that included a small but well-kept conference room, a couple of my coworkers, who had been friends since college and were both playwrights published with the company, began using the conference room as a meetup space for their after-hours writers’ group. As the company grew and a few other young female 20-somethings joined the team, I helped organize us into our own writers’ group, which remained a consistent creative outlet for the next couple of years.

That informal one-act reading I attended with the company founder was deceiving, though — while good discussion and feedback doesn’t necessarily require professional writers and creatives, there is a delicate balance that separates a constructive creative meeting of the minds from the dry writers’ workshops that leave you wishing you’d stayed home.

Here are a few things I’ve since learned about having a successful writers’ group:

Everyone in the group needs skin in the game

Theoretically, everyone who joins a writers’ group shares a common love of writing, but everyone has different creative processes and produces differently. In a good writers’ group, everyone needs to be able to feel like they are learning and growing from the experience — or they’ll be less inclined to contribute.

Many writers’ groups operate workshop-style, where people take turns bringing in pieces to be critiqued by the group. In ours, it was especially nice that a lot of people had long-term projects that they could share in smaller chunks, instead of needing to bring in a finished piece every time. This gave everyone a forum to try new material still in development and bounce ideas off the group.

We also had members set goals from week to week, so even if we didn’t have a piece to discuss, we could discuss the progress we were making with our creative projects. As we became better friends, this became an opportunity to share goals related to both our careers and our lives. Writing wasn’t just about making a script for a play or typing out a short story — it was also about setting up a website for clips or submitting an application to a development program. We weren’t simply commenting on each other’s work; we were providing a support system for people’s creative endeavors.

A writers’ group needs structure

It wasn’t enough to simply open the floor to anyone who wanted to bring in a manuscript and have them share with the group. We needed to make sure that everyone had a fair chance to both receive and give feedback. We also wanted to make sure that everyone felt represented in decisions about how the group was run.

The ways in which we structured our meetings varied over the years. At one point, we had everyone take turns running the meetings, and usually the person who ran the group would have a piece to present. We also took notes every session, usually by having someone record any goals we discussed and circulating those goals to the group after the meeting to hold us accountable. When people were having a harder time consistently bringing new material to the writers’ group, we instated short writing prompts, sometimes for free-writing sessions during the meetings and sometimes for us to develop short pieces that would be shared in the meetings.

We also once tried to instate a “punishment” for people who didn’t meet deadlines. This involved creating alternate song lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as a shame song for not fulfilling writers’ group duties, and then singing our song out loud as a group. This was all in good fun until we realized that this actually just punished all of us who had to sing in front of everyone.

A writers’ group doesn’t need to be just about creative writing

While it was always incredibly helpful to use the writers’ group as a forum for getting feedback on creative writing projects like plays and stories, it was also a place to get feedback on anything. As one of our members began getting more and more interested in graphic design and printmaking, she would share some of her art with us. When I started blogging for an arts website, I shared my initial posts with the group.

I feel like everyone could benefit from a writers’ group, even if they don’t think of themselves as a writer. It could be a great forum to get feedback on a resume, or a letter to an editor, or a Yelp review. Sometimes it’s nice just to get another pair of eyes on your work — and sometimes, in our group, we would simply share ideas about what wanted to see happen with our writing and our lives. It was nice to have a built-in think tank to discuss ideas with, even if those ideas never evolved into anything.

A writers’ group isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to one space

While our writers’ group met regularly in the office conference room, we would often go out to support each other in the real world. We often attended each other’s readings and performances. It was nice to have a group of people at these events who understood the nature of a work in progress — and how far our work had progressed!

We also planned a writers’ retreat once, where we all went up to the Cloisters for a day writing around the property. We split off to sit in the little courtyards, working on whatever we wanted to. We even stopped by the park on our way home for a quick writing exercise where we all sat on a park bench and wrote as much as we could in a few minutes. It was a great opportunity to get ourselves out of an office setting and feel like our creativity could roam free.

A writers’ group doesn’t have to last forever

In a successful writers’ group, everyone feels like the group is helping them grow as a writer and a creator. Unfortunately, not everyone grows at the same speed. It’s important to communicate with your fellow members and check in with how everyone feels about their contributions to the group. If someone doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they need out of the group, or that their time is not being well spent with the group, it’s fine to re-evaluate whether or not the group is serving its purpose. It’s important to keep people accountable, but depending on where you are in your creative development, sometimes you need to reprioritize to be accountable to yourself first.

Our writers’ group ended quite unceremoniously. Our goals just weren’t as aligned as they were when we had started and we were finding that we were getting less and less value out of our meetings. When one of our members decided not to continue, we disbanded. I missed it a lot, but with time I’ve also come to see that sometimes a writers’ group is a support group for a moment (or luckily, in our case, years) in time.

Bringing other people into your writing is always a tricky thing, but when you find a group of people with similar goals who genuinely want to give feedback, it can feel like the most valuable thing in the world. A writers’ group doesn’t have to follow a blueprint — you don’t have to bookend your criticism with compliments or have regular in-person meetings. You can form a writers’ group over email or FaceTime. You can discuss your latest novel or your list of failed ideas for novels. All you need for a good writers’ group is the ability to share your work with creative people — and a clear structure and/or agenda that ensures everyone gets what they need. It may sound simple, but when done right, it can be the most magical thing in the world.

How to Look for Owls: On Writing, Ritual, and Intuition

Today’s guest post is from Tara K. Shepersky, a writer who holds conversations with inner and outer landscapes via essays, poems, photos, and feet. Read more of Tara’s work at pdxpersky.com or follow her on Twitter @pdxpersky.

I used to have what I thought was a writing ritual. With earnest intent — though perhaps without full possession of the truth — I could tell you that my setting aside of space and time to write had three ingredients: there was a QWERTY; there was an appointment; and, usually, there was an owl.

Some of this, perhaps, is still accurate. More of it may still be useful, as lessons learned. In the last few days — since I sat down to draft this post, in fact — I’ve felt an existential shift, an unmooring of what I thought my practice was.

I will explain, but be warned: you’re reading this almost in real time. You’ve got a front row seat to the dissolution of a writer’s successful creative practice ritual, and I don’t know what’s going to happen either.


The shift began at depth, impossible to ignore but still unnamed. The way I imagine the Santa Barbara Channel feels, when great masses of cold water from its deepest reaches begin to roil toward the surface. The comparison offers some comfort. In the Channel, upwelling is a regular(ish) phenomenon with useful results: a dense flourishing of microscopic life that in turn refreshes everybody else.

I don’t feel refreshed yet; I just feel cold. But maybe I can look at this as an opportunity to examine the elements of what I thought of as my ritual, and explore what works, what has shifted, and how to create what’s missing.

First, though: why do I need a ritual? What even is that? What use is one to an artist? And why have I never asked myself these questions before?

Religion has been a deep part of my life from birth, one way or another. Both religious traditions I’m connected to are ritual-heavy.* It’s the very thing about them that keeps them grounded, and has kept me coming back for their wisdom. Done well and with love and for a right purpose, rituals help us celebrate and live into what is most important, particularly in the everyday.

You know how sometimes you know you look a certain way — you have blond hair, for example, always have — and then one day you look in the mirror and realize your hair is brown? It’s been brown for months, maybe years, and you never noticed the shift. I wonder if I’ve been coasting in a similar way on my self-image as a “ritual person.” I “know” this is a part of me, and my writing is a crucial part of me, so perhaps I’ve only assumed that ritual plays a part in my writing.

So. A ritual is a set of physical actions performed in a particular order, using (maybe) one or more tools. It functions as a signal, defining, in this case, a mental space which the writer commits to her practice. It helps push aside distractions, settle the mind, and offer reassurance to your imposter syndrome that you, and your art, are worth regular energy and time.

In my experience, rituals work best when you do them regularly. Like anything else, they get stronger with practice. And those times life gets in the way, pleasantly or otherwise, so that you don’t write for a few days? That’s when they really come in handy. They bring you back.

My own supposed ritual has those three components I mentioned earlier. I haven’t asked myself how they function. I’m asking now.

The QWERTY represents the only attention I manage consistently to pay to my father’s maxim of “having the right tool for the job.” I can use a keyboard — specifically this common, adorably named configuration — with the same unconscious ease that shapes a thought in my native tongue. I also use it quickly; it lets my fingers keep so nearly up with my thoughts that I’m rarely frustrated by the lag time. And I can use it by touch, allowing to me look out the window, rest my eyes, sometimes even daydream while still in the flow of composing. So it’s my exact right tool for translating prose to page. And it does just fine for revising — though not composing — poetry.**

The Appointment is critical. It comes from the best piece of writing advice I have yet to receive: show up for the same kind of work at the same time every day. Mary Oliver said it, Nicole wrote it; a little less than a year ago, I finally got the memo.

To really nail this one, you need to know what time of day and under what physical circumstances your mind is most interested and agile, and also most willing to be solitary. Clock-time doesn’t mean much to me, though your mileage may vary. I tune instead to light levels and body rhythms, so my writing appointments begin in the liminal space between night and day, outdoors and indoors, walking and settling. Which brings us to The Owls.

Walking, several miles at a time for pleasure, is so much a part of my life that it’s also part of my identity. So there’s a physical circumstance that meets the above criteria. Walking in the very early mornings, before the dawn and sometimes accompanying its unfolding, is a practice I began as a way to access exercise and fresher air in the over-heated, smoke-choked summers that have become the new normal here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s pure serendipity that I began to do this immediately before my high tide of solitary mental engagement: the first few hours of daylight.

The place I came to favor for these early walks mixes forest and field, wetland and hedge, and it’s less fragmented than most of what passes for “the outdoors” where I live. It’s perfect habitat for barn and great horned owls. Realizing this, and keeping my eyes and ears alert, is all it took for the owls to find me first.

Great horneds are not too talkative in the summer, and their flight is silent, but catch half-sight of one crossing a waxing moon, and you’ll look for them ever after. Barn owls get described as “ghostly,” and indeed they seem this way, in pre-dawn not-quite-light, as you stop in your tracks and try to follow the dipping, fluttering hunt, low to the grass. Your eyesight will fail you; this is not a human hour. From the vagueness comes a sound like a waterlogged zipper, then pale maybe-wings tilting sharply to dodge your confused and clod-bound presence. Then a long cry, soft and terrifying — scraaaaiiil! — and if you didn’t know yet the presence of Mystery, now you are beyond invited — you’re impelled.

After the first encounters, I had to do the work. Owl-listening became something between a habit and a passion. Besides how to find owls (in my particular place), it reminded me how to walk in my surroundings, not merely on them; how to be, as Thoreau said, entirely present “in the woods,” thinking of the woods and not of things outside them. How to meditate, in fact.

And meditation is very good for writing. The regular practice of emptying your mind, then allowing just your immediate experience to fill it, singly and slowly, like dropping pebbles in a pool, both stokes and soothes that restlessness from which you shape the writing you know for truth.

There are about a hundred ways to meditate; mine is to dress in quiet colors and go out to meet the darkness. Before I can completely see the earth and sky, I have to reach for them, feel for them, listen. I enter a state that is set apart, reserved out of regular time for something Other.

So this is a pretty solid ritual, right? Five days a week, rise in darkness to walk a couple of miles with full attention on the natural world and your own internal state. Come home around dawn, at the beginning of peak creative hours, and settle to your practiced partnership with the tool best suited to help you spin experience, emotion, and thought into words on a page.

Here’s the wrench I didn’t know I’d left in the gears, though. I didn’t start meditating by happy accident, and I didn’t start doing it as a way to shape space for my writing. I did it specifically to control my anxiety. There was a synchronicity involved: I discovered that walking with attention was just as good as say, sitting in your bathtub for 20 minutes with the lights off, thinking of nothing in particular. And then I happily combined meditating into my pre-writing walks and thought no more about it.

When I subsequently went back to therapy and (yes, I know this is a big claim, and it’s true) got rid of my general anxiety, the first component of what I had imagined to be my writing ritual sort of… shook itself loose.

I used to return from my pre-dawn forays absolutely itching to meet up with my keyboard. I didn’t always know what I wanted to say until my fingers touched down, but I was that perfect combination of emotionally settled and creatively provoked.

Lately I leave the fields feeling unsettled and unfinished. I still want to write, but I don’t settle to it. The currents that used to push me straight there are shifting, and I’m occupied trying to watch and understand.

My owl-time itself is almost speaking to me about this, insisting it is actually a different sort of ritual, about identity and inner quiet and connection. It used to be a tool, and it wants to be, instead, a deep well and a refuge. I think the direction it’s ultimately pulling me is toward a spiritual practice.

My religious identity is complicated, and I’m so confused about praying I’ve been known to conflate it with my writing practice. So what kind of spiritual practice my owl-walks or their successors want to be is an open question I will take my time and invite all my patience to live into. Meanwhile, there’s this other opportunity: I need a new writing ritual. How do I find that?


Here’s what I know: there is a compass inside me. It pointed toward owl-walking, it pointed toward therapy, and as of the morning I sat down, fresh from the fields, to write this piece, it spun around and pointed clear off the established map.

I’m not sure what’s over there yet. Ever play one of those role-playing video games where the map is covered in fog that dissipates only as you walk right into it? I’m well-practiced at walking into literal fog and darkness; I am totally up for this metaphorical challenge.

So. Watching for the path forward, what else do I know?

I know the QWERTY and the appointment and the timing of that appointment are elements I want in my creative practice. In the not-quite-one-year I’ve set my intention to partner with them, they’ve powered seven drafts of two manuscripts, uncountable new compositions, and 155 single essay and poem submissions. Even when I was too sick to owl-walk, or I couldn’t meditate, or my mind refused me the right words, they helped me deliver.

I also know how to look for owls. It’s a knowing I was graced with at first, and then had to learn in order to continue to succeed. So I know I can learn to follow my compass when it points somewhere I don’t yet understand.

Intuition: that’s probably what this is. I used to believe I didn’t have any. Great at introspection, I never knew where to take what I had learned. My compass has constructed itself over the years through wildly varied efforts to figure that out: psychological study, prayer, meditation, acquiring a contemplative practice, reading tarot. And also just experience. I might be figuring out that the secret isn’t actually knowing. It’s trust.

So I don’t know how my writing ritual will re-shape.*** Nor, since this shift is so much larger than one area of my life, how my spiritual practice will coalesce. Nor how to reckon with whatever else I am without the anxiety I carried for so long.

But I am learning to trust myself to ride the upwelling currents. My compass has let me know when the course is changing; my job is to keep my eye on its dance, and follow. In itself, this trust is more valuable than any specific rituals that result. It is their source, and maybe my access to much that is deep and worthwhile within me. I am so grateful, finally, to have found it.

*I was born, baptized into, and participate today in the Lutheran Church. Some other important connections I discovered in early adulthood, via a moderately traditional version of Wicca. I suppose they do seem quite disparate, on the face of things.

**Poetry, in my experience, happens everywhere except at the neat-and-tidy keyboard, and often inconveniently. It’s the unruly friend you love being around — if she would only stop inviting herself over without notice. (At least she brings wine.) If I specifically want to be the one doing the inviting, I go for a walk and I pay attention. That’s it. Poetry is about rhythm, and so is walking; it’s basic sympathetic magic.

***I do certainly keep trying new ideas. But so far when I reach for one, my compass just wobbles. It’s an encouraging wobble, if that makes sense, but it’s not a Heck Yes. The closest we’ve come is lighting the fire and just staring at the flames until it feels right to pull away. My otherwise well-behaved tuxedo cat, d’Artagnan, takes this as an invitation to shout about how much he has missed me on my walk, and how I should settle in our chair now so he can snuggle. So this may not, in fact, be the best way forward.