Monday, September 29, 2008

Rules of Submission

Submitting work to publications, for many writers is frightening. I think the biggest fear is rejection. You put something out there that is from deep in your soul and then a stranger judges it not worthy. It is difficult to get past that, but to be successful writers we must.

I have some basic thoughts about the submission process that have been reinforced lately by a rejection that I received. I had submitted one of my most successful stories to a literary magazine. This particular story won an international prize, was published in a prestigious literary magazine in South Africa, and was recently included in an ESL short story collection published by Oxford University Press. Despite all of this, it got a rejection and the editor was kind enough to include the four editors’ comments (who were unanimous in their decision). According to them the story was “written too abstractly, without names or continuity of time”. Another editor found the relationships between the characters confusing. A third felt that the story was not complete in and of itself but rather a slice from a longer story. And one just flatly didn’t like it.

What I got from this is that everyone has an opinion and they are entitled to it. Sometimes the opinions are useful, sometimes not. But editors are people who know their magazine, know what they and their readers like, and that is what guides their decisions. What I mean by this is, an editor’s decision is nothing more and nothing less than his or hers educated decision taking into consideration their readers’ views. That’s all. It is not an indictment on your writing. And sometimes they are wrong.

I have some rules about submitting.

1. At no time should only one story be out in circulation.

When you submit one story and then sit and wait for the decision on it, you are setting yourself up for guaranteed craziness. I always have my stories out in the world. As I write this, I have 23 stories out to magazines and three out to contests. This is a buffer. So if I get a rejection today- I have so many others out there that I still have hope. In this way, rejections are not harmful. Submission is rejection medicine.

2. Stories should be constantly out there.

Why should you leave stories sitting in your computer? They should be continually out there trying to earn for you. I continually look through my stories seeing which have been resting for too long. There are so many markets. Duotrope is a fantastic resource for finding markets for your work. Keep your stories in circulation. Pay attention to guidelines and rights that they are buying.

3. If you know that your story is good, leave it alone.

I recently got another rejection for a new story, and again the editor was kind enough to send the readers’ comments. In this case, they were very useful and pointed out important places where my story needed work. I immediately edited the story and then sent it out to a different market. Your story might need a slightly different type of magazine. The nuances in magazines are myriad.
When I get a rejection, I read through the story. Tweak it if it needs it, but if I think it’s good and how I wanted- I send it out again. I have many stories that have been rejected, but have gone on to find good markets. You alone know what you want from your story. I admit guidance is important and most writing can always do with some edits, but if you know that your story is honest and true, let it alone and send it on its way. Don’t throw it to the side after one rejection; even after 20. Publishing fables abound of manuscripts rejected savagely and then going on to great success. Love your work and it will love you back. Leaving your stories in your computer to rot is doing no one a favour.

4. Editors are people with opinions.

That’s just it. Editors are people with opinions. Those opinions are guided by many factors. I recently finished a quite dated collection of Jeffery Archer short stories. I bet you that any story in that book sent out to any big name mag i.e. The New Yorker, if the name was withheld, would get a rejection straight away. It is not the writing style that is currently the flavour of the day. Fads and famousness play a role in publishing like everywhere else. I’m thinking of a certain wildly famous African writer. She is a good writer, but not always to the extent that she is adulated. She, by name only, will be grabbed up by all editors. The point I am making is that editors are just people. They have no magic eye. They choose stories based on preference. Don’t give them god-like powers they do not have, and likely would not like to have bestowed upon them.

So that’s it. My last words- send those stories out! I am proof to the fact that rejections, actually, do not kill you. There is a wonderful quote I have near my computer- “You’re only willing to succeed to the same degree you’re willing to fail” Wendell Meyers.

Let’s fail spectacularly- shall we??


CMR said...

Very helpful. Just started writing, both a blog and sending the occasional 'story' to magazines. I surprised myself at how 'hurt' I was to be rejected.

I even stopped writing for a bit...

So much for being impervious...

Thx for the tips.

Anonymous said...

What excellent advice. I really need to start submitting a bit more than I have been. You are right when you say we are doing our stories no favours by leaving them to rot in our computers. I can't tell you how much I needed to hear this today. Thanks for the push!

Lauri said...

Glad I could be helpful. Christopher, though I talk a big game some rejections do cut a bit close to the bone. I had one that told me basically I should reconsider my vocation. That took a bit to get past.

Selma, anything I can do to get your lovely words out to the masses I am happy to be part of.

Kelly Luce said...

your advice is right on. one my most successful stories (won a lit mag contest, won an award for my story collection) was rejected 26 times before it "hit." another was rejected 34 times before it got taken by the gettysburg review. if you believe in a story, keep sending it out. and while it's out, work on the next one. rejection's never personal.

Anonymous said...

I remember you telling me this a few years ago... and, of course, you're right.

My fear is not of rejection; it is of my manuscripts not even being read - not even glanced at - before they are turned around and sent back to me.

I could handle it if an editor had a (negative) opinion on my writing (gosh! my kingdom for honest feedback!) but being ignored is hard. It does make you wonder if it is worth the printing costs.

And it is hard to get 23 novels "out there" at any one time when they take more than 2 years each to write.

Lauri said...

Rejected 34 times- Now that IS resiliance!! Impressive. My worst is a story I love, Dandelion Wishers, that has been rejected about 7 times and finally got an acceptance and the lit mag went under before it got published.

Daoine-Yes, 23 novels is a mission unless you're Barbara Cartland- you're right. But those two or three novels should get their butts moving. As for editors not reading- their loss as far as I'm concerned. Why ask for submissions if you don't want to read??? Stupid -and who wants to be associated with stupid.

Emmanuel Sigauke said...


Can you recommend a database where I can access submission guidelines for Southern African journals and magazines? I'm actually grateful for the ones in your photo for this post because I sent a short story to one of them yesterday and received an acceptance today. You see, your post just added to my publishing prospects! Thank you.

Lauri said...

Emmanuel- You can try here

Some lit mags are linked on the home page but others have pages within the site so just use search.

Anonymous said...

Dandelion Wishers is one of my favourites of yours - what a pity about that lit mag going under!

Lauri said...

That lit mag may resurrect, it's done it before. Let's cross our fingers.

Tania Hershman said...

Lauri, I just found your blog, a great post about submissions, I wholeheartedly agree. However, on the flip side, I must add that a story that has won competitions etc... is not necessarily a story that might not benefit from being looked at with fresh eyes after a while. Editors have their opinions, as do competition judges, but I don't believe any of my stories are ever perfect and just as I don't necessarily take a story's rejection as proof that it is deeply flawed, I try also not to take its acceptance or a win to mean it should not be worked on more.

But, all in all, it is incredibly helpful to remember what a subjective business this is. I sent a story that won a comp to another comp, and it wasn't even shortlisted. That's the way it goes. Lovely to meet a fellow short story writer!

Lauri said...

Hi Tania- I absolutely agree with you. I've never written a perfect short story I doubt anyone has. I'm always teaking them.

You do find though, like you've alluded to, that many writers take the whole process as if it is written in concrete, and that is a bit sad.

omniovo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"I’m thinking of a certain wildly famous African writer. She is a good writer, but not always to the extent that she is adulated. She, by name only, will be grabbed up by all editors."

Hmm, Ms K, this is a tad unfair, don't you think, on this "good writer" who is "wildly famous" but not good to the "extent that she adulated"? She does her work, and sends it in; her reception, surely, is out of her control? I am not sure she sits there thinking, "This is not very good, but my wildly famous name will get me through".

And why pick on one wildly famous African writer, especially as African writers have barely made a dent in the high money world of commercial publishing? Your observation is equally true for Tom Wolfe, for Martina Amis, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Alice Walker etc? But I would also say that it is not their fault that they are perceived as super stars, rather it is the nature of the business; if you wrote one super excellent or super successful book, which sometimes means the same thing, the industry will look on your subsequent work with favour.

It all seems unfair, but let's not attack the writers for their success. This is not the problem of the writers, it is the problem of the industry. It is also rather unfair to target one African writer when many, many, white males, dead and alive, have benefitted from this.

To this wildly famous African writer, I say, more power to your elbow, sister, write on. May the wind be always at your back, and may some of your good fortune blow towards this wildly unfamous African writer, and towards you too, Ms K; as African writers, we should, in the spirit of ubuntu and the African rennaisance, celebrate each success that comes our way, Lord knows there are few of them!

Sorry for the long post:):)

Lauri said...

AO, P! You tend to read what you want to read not what is written. I never said that the writer should not have success, I was just saying the flavour of today may not be the flavour of tomorrow and that editors like all of us are swayed by trends.

Seems I've hit a tender spot but be clear- I think all writers should get the success they deserve, I begrudge no one their success. But you're naive to think that some writers don't cruise along on past success at a level of mediocrity that is not quite recognised by the bedazzled editor. Feel free to replace African with American with English- they can be found anywhere.

Anonymous said...

No tender spot at all, Lauri, it is just that I happen to think highly of the writer you talk of, and the point I was making was merely that she is not responsible for her reception. I will readily admit my bias, I both admire and like the writer in question, who is one of the hardest working and professional people I know, and it is maybe that which has led me to these "naive" views, for which I hope you will have understanding:):)