By Jacob M. Appel
In 1998, I won the Boston Review’s
annual short fiction contest for my story, “Shell Game with Organs”—a breakthrough event in my career that led me to obtain my first agent. At the public reading sponsored by the Review
, I informed the audience that more than seventy-five other journals, both large and small, had previously rejected the piece.
My goal was to impart the value of perseverance. What I did not tell my audience was that the Boston Review itself was among those seventy-five journals that had rejected the story in its identical form only a year earlier.
I share this now because I wish to emphasize that editorial taste and sheer luck play as much of a role as talent in placing a short story in a literary magazine. Presumably, the intern who read my story over the transom was unimpressed, while the intern who read my story in the preliminary round of contest judging was impressed enough to forward the piece along to the final judge. That is certainly not a shortcoming of the Boston Review or its interns. Rather, this episode serves as a lesson in how pigheaded determination can overcome the statistically-challenging odds of publishing a story, no matter how strong its artistic merits.
Fifteen years ago, an editor at a prominent literary journal (which I will not name) asked me not to submit any more work to his publication. He found my writing “tendentious” and not to his tastes. Last year, after learning of that editor’s death, I submitted a piece to the new editor—who immediately accepted it. Obviously, I do not suggest killing off editors who reject your fiction. However, there are a number of tricks any short story writer can use to break out of the slush pile.
Submit early and often. Many literary journals, especially those publications based at universities, begin reading in September or October. If a journal’s reading period begins September 1, have your first submission for the year postmarked September 1. Early in the season, editors are fresh; page space is available. By June, the editors are often burned out and page space is at a premium. Since most journals prefer only one submission at a time, you should have your second submission ready to mail as soon as your first submission is rejected. In that way, you maximize your total number of submission opportunities per reading period.
Carefully observe word and page limits—both official and unofficial. Many publications post broad ranges in their guidelines, such as 2,000-10,000 words. Yet actually looking at the journal’s archives online may reveal that the editors have never published a story greater than 2,500 words. That suggests the odds of their buying your 10,000 word story—no matter how brilliant it is—are minimal. Length, far more than style or subject, is the feature that usually defines a journal’s preferences.
Always submit simultaneously unless you have a personal relationship with a journal or editor. It is both impracticable and unreasonable (and somewhat narcissistic) for any literary journal to ask for an exclusive look at your short story in the slush pile, when journals often hold such pieces for months and then reject them with form letters. Unlike in academia, where the benefit of exclusive submission is detailed peer-review from experts in the field, literary magazines do nothing to earn exclusivity. If you honor such requests, the odds are that you will never publish. However, once you have a relationship with an editor or a journal (ie. you have published a story in its pages or have entered into a dialogue with the staff), then you do owe the publication an exclusive look, if an editor requests one.
Use high quality writing supplies: bond paper, full ink cartridges, appropriately-sized paperclips. Writing is not for cheapskates. And never send out pages that have been returned by another journal: there is no greater turn-off for an editor than the stain of another editor’s coffee cup.
When submitting electronically, always request feedback—even if a journal’s guidelines inform writers that its editors never provide it. Often, they do. Not only can such feedback be helpful in revising your story, but it also creates a personal relationship with an editor that may pay off on a future submission.
When submitting by postal mail, always include a 9 x 11 inch manila envelope for return of your manuscript. This tells the editor that you are interested in any line edits she may have to offer; whether this is true or not, the gesture increases both the likelihood of feedback and of impressing that editor for future interactions. In contrast, a business-size SASE says: “Take it or leave it I don’t care what you think.” That is not a message any writer wants to be sending to an editor.
Include a brief cover letter listing prior publications. Be honest, not modest. The goal of the cover letter is to introduce yourself, but it also serves to scare the college intern reading submissions into fearing that your piece is worth further consideration by a senior editor. If your cover letter contains the phrase, “previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review,” few twenty year olds are going to have the courage or self-confidence to reject you on their own.
None of these tips will guarantee that you place all of your stories all of the time. But the trick to publishing short stories is that there are many worthwhile markets and numerous opportunities for publication. As a writer, all you have to do is to persuade one editor at one journal to print your story in order for it to acquire the readership it deserves.
This article originally appeared in Writer’s Digest