My Advice to Another Aspiring Fiction Writer on Submitting to Literary Journals

Darren Manley, a writer friend of mine, asked me for advice on submitting to literary journals since I've been killing trees for years now. By the time I'd finished, I thought my response might possibly be helpful to other aspiring writers who are braving the odds. Obviously, if you have a fucking agent, then you have different rules. And, I'd like to point out that my publication history is lean at best. But since I have had a few good publications to my name, I thought this might be helpful for someone out there looking for a few pointers on submitting to literary journals. Here it is:

yo darren,

what's going on, man? great hearing from you. you know, my take on submitting to journals is deeply subjective + may only be true for me. but i have a series of conflicting hierarchies in terms of what i think is the most important when submitting to literary journals: first off, whenever possible, send your stuff to journals where editors actually read it. it may take longer, but if an actual editor will be reading your stories, i actually think you have a better chance of getting published because fiction readers tend to be bottom feeders in an aquarium, they tend to be passionate, opinionated + idealistic but also insecure, self-righteous, impatient and unpublished, which is a fucking terrible skill set for reading unsolicited manuscripts, especially when they're MFA students because usually, they're working on their own shit, worrying about workshop, trying to balance their lives + generally, reading for the literary journals isn't their job. sometimes, readers are a 100 times more obnoxious than the editors themselves. the problem is trying to figure out which journals have a front line of readers + which do not. basically: it's unavoidable, since almost every university-affiliated journals uses its MFA foot soldiers to screen incoming manuscripts, but i actually think that journals that exist outside of academia or that let editors take a crack are better, though their acceptance percentages are even smaller: journals like Slice, Crab Orchard Review, ZYZZYVA, N+1, for example, the editors read everything.

also, look at Santa Monica Review, which has a slant towards West Coast writers. Mcsweeney's is always worth a try + i've gotten good feedback from editors many times, which makes me feel like they're generally looking for material from the slush pile, which isn't always the case with journals like the Paris Review, New Yorker, et al.. i'd normally suggest staying away from TLR, Fence + the hudson review, because they take over a year to send you form rejections, at least in my experience. also, journals like glimmertrain are just one big contest. it's kinda fucked up actually. and in terms of journals where students DO police journals, i'd say, look at journals that have PhD students in CW reading because those readers are generally more mature, better published, chill + much more serious than MFA students, though there are many exceptions. for example, the missouri review is a great journal, so is quarterly west + SE Review + witness + 3rd Coast (all read by PhD students in CW).

one other thing, always send your mss. to the best journals first + then come back to reality with less ambitious journals, otherwise you'll wonder after a piece is accepted at a mid-tier journal if an better journal would have accepted it. stranger things have happened. don't worry about simultaneous submissions either because journals are so bad at getting back to you that by that time you've already received a rejection from another journal. you can always email a journal + tell them to remove your mss. from the docket + they will. it's less work for them. also, there are a couple great online journals too that you should consider. one is faultbetter, which usually publishes great shit consistently. narrative is also slick, but they charge $25 per submission, which is total bullshit. wait for their open submission month before submitting.

another thing, journals always receive less nonfiction than fiction, so consider sending the former. always google the editor's name whenever possible so you can include it in your cover letter (+ always write a CV--cover letter, not curriculum vitae). if you have any pub.'s, list them in your CV. if not, don't worry about it. don't shy away from online submissions either because many of the best journals now accept (or only accept) online submissions. by the way, most online submissions managers don't even show readers your cover letter unless they specifically click to see it, so don't worry about it (but still write one). this is obvious, but: make sure the first page is virtually flawless. i didn't think about this for years but that simple difference in revision can keep you in consideration after many other manuscripts get rejected.

lastly, expect to get rejected all the fucking time, often for no goddamn reason, or for the most random, subjective, personal, nit-picking, bullshit, platitudinous, captious, dumbass reasons imaginable, like, because the reader hates 3rd person limited, or because he can't stand coming-of-age narratives, or because she
only likes coming-of-age narratives, or because they hate your politics, or your character's name or they believe stories shouldn't have adverbs, or because they've been brainwashed into believing that the only acceptable dialogue tags are he said/she said or because like me + you, they have way too many opinions on good writing, even though they haven't published shit, which they also resent. also consider that in a way, you are the readers's competition, so naturally, they're harsher on you. even the best readers aren't perfect, they have their own stylistic + technical biases. often they can't identify a great story unless it's so amazing it knocks them unconscious, but even that can be a problem because they'll resent you for bruising their pretty English major faces. when you have a sec., go to an indie bookstore, buy a copy of a few literary journals + skim through the rest + get a feel for the journal's aesthetic, it's layout, its politics + always read parallel pieces to see how/if your piece fits.

okay, i hope that helps. good luck man, fighting the good fight!

peace, blessings,