Monday, 12 February 2018

Submission Carpet Bombing

I recently read an article about the advice a writer would give to herself after she finished her MFA in writing. It was pretty unconnected to my own circumstances because I have never done a creative writing degree. I did some creative writing courses in college as electives for my English BA. I've considered going back and getting a PhD or Master's in creative writing, but that's for another post. Mainly I've been self-taught and motivated.

Back to the article the phrase that caught me was 'carpet bomb lit mags for years'. The article's author was saying it wasn't a good idea - though I'm not sure if she considered it a bad idea overall or just right after you've graduated with your MFA. Her alternative suggestion was take your time, do lots of writing lots of research to find what magazines you love and then submit to them, rather than just sending your work to anybody and everybody in the hope that you'll get published more often.

It made me re-examine my 100 rejections experiment I've been trying over the past year. The idea of 100 rejections is to submit to as many magazines as possible in order to get as many publications as possible. It is essentially carpet bombing the literary scene with your submissions.

I agree with the author to a point. There is a time to start submitting your work and the early days is not it. Build up a stable of well-written, well-worked, ready to be published poems, essays, stories or at least one totally finished and edited novel. Put in the time learning the techniques, hone your writing and then be brave and face the slush pile of literary magazines, the harsh gaze of the readers and editors.

Am I devaluing my work by sending it to as many journals as I can? As much as I would love to spend time reading tons of the best literary magazines, picking my favourites and then submitting only to them, it would achieve limited results and have a lot of problems en route.

First of all, I live in Finland, I can't pop down to the local bookstore or library and spend time researching literary magazines, there just aren't many available here. I can't show up at lots of English language literary events and get known that way, at least not outside Finland which is where I have to focus my visibility because of my lack of Finnish. I also can't afford to subscribe or even buy sample copies of every magazine I'm interested in or even a select few.

Instead, I do as much online research as I can about the magazine. Sometimes they have a sample from a recent issues, online magazines usually have everything archived, but often print magazines don't offer any suggestions of what they publish besides a few contributors' names. Do check those out though, are there names you recognise and like, aspire to write like? Often I'm left reading the information the editors put on the submission guidelines, the About page, the Masthead, etc for an inkling of what they like. I also go from suggestions from other writers I like and know, where have they been published, what magazines would they recommend.

I have a lot of poems I'd like to see published and most magazines only accept between 1-5 poems from each contributor. When the magazines I'm most interested in reject me, which they most likely will as the demand of prospective writers is always larger than the space they have in the magazine, what am I to do then, sit on my poems? Submission windows can be short and often only once a year and many magazines have rules about how often writers can submit. I remember writers who used to pester the magazine I worked at with constant submissions, not great technique to win over an editor, so best avoided.

I think it's most beneficial to cover a wide range of magazines, from online to print, from the more middle of the road to the prestige. Aim high but be realistic. I could submit to Granta until I'm blue in the face, but chances are I'm never going to get published there, so why shouldn't I try magazines that aren't my favourites or the best, but are good magazines in their own right?

And while it is important to put the majority of your focus into the writing and building up your talent there, you do need to get your name out into the public eye, especially in poetry, in order to get a book or collection published. Novelists can come out of the shadows with their first novel and make a big name for themselves, but this is almost impossible for a poet. Before an editor would really consider a first collection, they want to see some sort of publication record for these poems. Poetry is such a big risk, low gain occupation that publishers want to see that other editors have seen the talent in this author before taking a chance on their work.

I don't write to please a particular magazine or editor. I write what I want to write, how I want to write it and hope that I find a magazine that likes my style and subject. It's hard, I've been sending my poems about being an immigrant to magazines that have calls for such and I'm not being accepted, most likely because I am not the kind of immigrant that is in the news just now, that needs increased awareness. I realise this and accept it, but I'm not going to change what I'm writing about, I'll just continue to look for different venues for my work. Write for yourself, but don't give up with the first rejections. Re-examine the piece and move on. 

I took such a long time out away from trying to get published while I was still writing poems that I ended up with a backlog of unpublished work. Even with the flurry of the past year or two (30 poems published), I still have over 80 unpublished poems. I'm not expecting that they'll all find a magazine to call their first home, but the more I get my poetry out there, the better chance I have of finding a publisher for my collection.

So I'm going to keep carpet bombing magazines with my poems with no guilt. I still put as much time and effort into writing my poems than I did before starting my 100 rejections project, if not more. It has helped motivate me to write more and to strive harder to bring my poems up to 'publication ready' status.

Find what works for you in terms of motivation, time, effort and readiness. Don't spend more time researching and submitting to magazines that you do writing. Don't send out articles or stories that are not ready. If you find you're taking rejection too hard, take a step back and focus on improving your work rather than publication. Writing a piece you can be proud of is always the first goal.

Good luck.

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