A strategy for being your own best submissions manager
Submitting your work to agents and literary magazines can be overwhelming. Early in their careers, many writers go through frenzied submission periods followed by long stretches of writing during which they don't even try to get published. This is seldom a productive approach, and it usually results in an enormous amount of energy being poured into every high-pressure period of submitting. But writing is a practice of endurance in all ways: How long can you sit in your space, how many minutes, how many years, and try to write? How closely can you examine each sentence? How cohesively can you envision the whole? Racking up publishing credits is no different.
Establishing consistent, sustainable submission habits will allow you to launch more work into the world with far less effort, and, eventually, you’ll start to see some pay-off. What do those submission habits look like? Of course it varies from writer to writer, but what follows are some ideas you can try. Looking for an agent? Entering writing contests? This approach will work for that, too.
Count on rejection.
Plan to accrue plenty of rejection letters. You will be rejected and it will sting, but by the time the rejection from your favorite journal rolls in, you should be hard at work on other things. Decide right now that rejection notices are going to give you information that will allow you to move forward with finding a home for your writing, and they are not going to slow you down.
Set aside a day or two a month—for me, it’s the first and third Monday of each month—to identify publications (or agents) that might be appropriate for your work. Start a spreadsheet to keep track of the publication and its submission guidelines. Join Writer’s Market for quick and inexpensive access to submission criteria, but also try to actually read at least one copy of every publication you submit to. I like to spend my market research days at the library, where I can thumb through publications before deciding to put them on my list. If you live near a university with a literary journal, ask the editors if they have a journal exchange program with other publications, and if you might be able to look through some recent issues. Journals are always pointing out that more of them would thrive if everyone who submitted subscribed. It’s not worth subscribing for your research efforts, but if you find there are particular journals that resonate with you or are particularly appropriate for your work, then, yes, you should subscribe.
Leap before you look.
Your ultimate goal might be publication, but in the short term your goal should be to develop a submission strategy that you won’t give up on. With that in mind, I urge you to submit your best writing but not to get bogged down in perfecting a recently finished story before launching it into the publishing world. Do the best you can, and then stick your self-doubt in a drawer and start submitting.
Pick one day a month. I like the first, because it’s easy to remember. This is the only day of the month you will send out submissions. The rest of the month, your writing time is for writing. Think of your submissions in terms of work you are hoping to place, not about journals you are hoping to get published in. Instead of sitting down to your list of favorite journals and then mining your files for something to send to The Kenyon Review, for example, begin with a piece of writing, a recently finished story, or one that’s been sitting in the drawer a while. Once you have reviewed your manuscript and decided it’s really ready to venture out into the world with your name on it, you can consult the list of publications or agents you’ve been developing on your research days. Start with one. Write the cover letter, double check the submission guidelines, and send it off.
Now go write something new. It will be great.
Create a table. Use it to list the work you currently have out and when it was submitted to where. Anytime you get a response from a publisher or agent, mark it on your list. At any given time, you should know just how much work you have out in the world. This will keep you from sending the same work to the same journals, and over time it will help you see what a great job you’re doing developing a regular habit.
When month two rolls around, you probably won’t have heard from back on your first submission yet. Okay. Send it to two more publications on your list. Next month, do three, and so on, for the rest of your foreseeable career.
Maybe you’ve finished something else fantastic in the last month. You’ve given it to a few trusted readers, and they have had helpful responses. You’ve revised and refined. You’ve found an excellent proofreader. Start another row on your spreadsheet for the new work, and send it out to one publication or contest, just as you did with the last entry.
Unless a publication specifically asks that you not send them simultaneous submissions, feel free to send your work to multiple publications at once. In fact, the plan outlined here demands it. A few responsibilities accompany simultaneous submissions, however. Make sure you note that you have sent the piece elsewhere in your cover letter. When you work is accepted (Congratulations!), consult your handy chart and withdraw your submission from the other publications as soon as possible to avoid having someone spend their time reading your work only to discover it’s no longer available.
The trick to publishing your work is the secret to all things in your writing: Keep at it. Work hard. Keep going. It’s how we approach new novels and tired old essays: by continuing to chip away at possibility until, eventually, something cracks.