Since I’ve had (very, very) mild success submitting to Lit Mags, a friend asked how I did it. I didn’t think I had much to say, but stuff gushed forth in an email I wrote on Saturday…on mobile. So I guess I had a lot to say. Take it with whatever grains you think best: salt, sand, or hops.
She asked, specifically, “What does ‘we want meaningful works’ mean?” I’m going to lump all the Lit Mag phrases in together right now: send us your best work, send us stuff that wows/moves us, or makes us feel things. I’m sure there are tons more. What do they mean?
Well. Nothing. For the Lit Mags, they probably mean something, but for you, the author, no. Pretty meaningless. Maybe they’re meant as scare tactics, I don’t know. But you definitely can’t glean anything about whether or not you should submit from them.
So what’s important?
Pay attention to any adjectives they use and any genre words, those are important. Character vs. plot driven is a helpful distinction. My pieces focus on emotion and I aspire to be literary, so I pay attention whenever those words are used. Don’t be too picky here. You’re looking to rule mags out more than rule mags in.
Once you find a call that might fit your piece, open the website. Does it look like shit? If it does, don’t click away yet, but start looking for anything that validates them. Do they pay their writers? Have they nominated their stories for any awards? Have they won any awards? Are they promoting any of their current or past writers on their front page? If the answer to all of these things is no, I close the window and write them off. They only need to check one of those boxes to keep my attention. (Some really solid mags have shit websites.)
Most of them have stories available to read online. If you have the time, read them. If you don’t, skim them.* Pay attention to their writing aesthetics. Do their stories sound or feel like your own? If they do, this is probably a good place to submit. A lot of people ask if you like the stories, but I like a lot of styles that don’t mesh with my own, so I don’t really like this approach, personally.
Submission fees– I can accept small fees of $2 or $3. I’ve seen fees up to $23 (and even paid one once, but never again). Since the literary market is kind of flooded right now but doesn’t have money, I don’t mind the smaller fees at the starting gate, but I try to find mags that don’t charge. If I really like a mag or it has a good name for itself (like Ploughshares), I’ll pay.
If a mag charges and doesn’t do any of the things in the “shitty website” paragraph, I get out of there fast. That’s just lazy people being lazy.
I’ve had luck filtering searches at thereviewreview.net (and will frequently check for reviews or listings on there when I find a mag a like).
I think the whole process is easier if you’re looking to send out a minimum of 3 stories, but works best with at least 5 stories. This way, its math working in your favor. Sifting through calls to place your one perfect story is disheartening and hard, and the rejections sting more. Looking for 5 stories at once? You’re bound to find more mags that fit the bill, and since you have multiple pieces out, the rejections sting less (in my experience). I try to sit out and send out enough pieces to enough places that, by the end of it, I can’t quite remember where they all want.
On this note, keep track. I use excel. I have one spreadsheet per story, and track the name of the place I sent it, the date I sent it out, and whether it was accepted, withdrawn, or rejected. I also keep notes. Do they take a particularly long time to get back to you? Was the rejection nice? I like to remember this. Spreadsheets like this especially help if you have to withdraw a piece. You’ll know all the places you sent it without having to wrack your brain.
*I think it’s important to read and support literary mags. I’m not saying don’t do this. Really, find the magazines you like and read them. But I don’t think reading lit mags and submitting to lit mags are the same process. Read for fun. Submit like it’s a job.