Instructor and novelist Karen Kao shares her own experiences and advice on publishing in literary magazines.
Last year, I took a Level III workshop as part of my training to become a teacher with the International Writers’ Collective. Thanks to the keen eye of Collective director Sarah Carriger and my fellow students, two of the pieces I workshopped that winter have since been accepted for publication. “La Vida Loca” started as an exercise based on Maile Meloy’s “Ranch Girl”. It will be published by the US literary journal december later this year. The second piece “Frogs” was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Nunum, a Canadian flash fiction site. Nunum has since nominated “Frogs” for both the Pushcart Prize and a VERA.
None of this would have happened without the help of that Level III workshop and, of course, a lot of elbow grease of my own. You write, you cut, you polish. Maybe you workshop your piece one more time. But there’s one last step that must be taken if you want to be published. You’ve got to push that send button.
I know there are students at the International Writers’ Collective who write strictly for themselves and that’s awesome. But I also know that some of you secretly (or not so secretly) long to see your name in print. If that’s the case, what’s stopping you?
Maybe you think your work isn’t good enough. It’s not as tight or lyrical or funny as the pieces we study. Well, duh! We pick the best of the best to teach craft. But that’s not to say that everyone who gets published in a literary journal writes at the level of a Margaret Atwood or Rachel Cusk. In fact, most of them don’t. Loads of journals focus on “emerging” (aka never-before-published) writers. They want your work!
I see students send their work out to one or two journals and then give up. But to no small extent, getting published is a numbers game. The more often you submit, the greater your chances that someone someday will say yes. I’m not telling you to go out and spam journals. Send out your best work. Do your homework to find the journals you admire and whose work aligns with your own.
What do I mean by align? If you’ve just written a zombie story, it’s probably not going to go down well at a post-modernist poetry litmag. Read a few pieces in your target journal to see whether you have similar aesthetics. Check the submission guidelines to see whether your 10,000 word novella will fly. Do not ignore the formatting requirements like font, double spacing, and margins.
Let’s suppose you’ve done all that and you still can’t push that send button? I get it. Rejection hurts. Even now, after submitting work for 5 years, I still hate seeing that form rejection letter in my inbox. Here’s one I recently received from Gay Magazine, a new venture between Roxane Gay and Medium.
Thank you for sending us “I See You”. We appreciate the chance to read your work and know that putting yourself out there as a writer is a hell of a thing. Unfortunately, this piece won’t work for GAY but we wish you the best in placing your work elsewhere.
As rejections go, this one’s pretty cordial but it remains a form rejection. Contrast that with a rejection I got years ago from Tin House.
Thank you for submitting “Laogai” to Tin House. Thank you, also, for your patience in waiting to hear from us. While we were unable to select your piece for publication at this time, we want you to know we were impressed by the quality of your writing. We hope to see more of your work in the future.
I didn’t understand that this rejection was actually an invitation to submit again. And by the time I did, Tin House the magazine was no more.
This year, I received three invitations to rewrite disguised as rejections. In all three cases, the editors gave me detailed reasons for their rejection and offered suggestions on how I might improve the piece. This is manna from heaven for any writer and while not all journals will take the time to respond, there are some who will.
In her recent master class with us, Kristen Roupenian, the author of “Cat Person” (which, with close to 5 million views, may be the most popular story ever on The New Yorker website), counselled writers to be persistent and not to take rejections as a reflection on the quality of their work:
You get one [story] back and you send it out and you get one back and you send it out. Maybe at some point if you sent out a story to every single place that could possibly take it and you’ve gotten rejected by all of them, maybe that’s the point to give it to another trusted reader and say “maybe something’s going wrong” but until that’s happened…you just don’t know.
My goal this year is to collect 100 rejections. Because now I know that, somewhere in that hateful haystack, I’ll find one or two needles to point me in the right direction.
So now you know. Hiding your work in a folder on your laptop is not going to get it published. Read our post with 5 tips to increase your chances of an acceptance. Choose your best shots and start submitting. Push that damn send button.