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Tips for New Writers

By Kim Jernigan 0 Tagged: Writing

Editor Kim Jernigan is often asked to speak to creative writing classes about literary magazines. Here's a bit of advice she's compiled, over the years, for new writers trying to get published in literary magazines.

Where to submit

Spend some time getting to know the literary magazines, their editorial focus and flavour. That way you can have at least some sense of whether or not they consider unsolicited manuscripts and will be responsive to the sort of thing you are writing. You can find a list of Canadian cultural magazines on the Magazines Canada website. Some magazines will have both print and digital versions; others are digital only. A few general interest publications (e.g. The Walrus, Geist) also publish fiction and poetry. And of course you can submit to English or French language publications in other countries if they have an international focus.

There is a kind of hierarchy in Canadian literary magazines. There are some pretty high-powered newcomers, but in general, the newer-on-the-scene magazines are easier to break into and the longer established less so (because they’ve developed a reputation, they’ll have a larger submissions base to choose from and can afford to be more selective). If you really need that first publication to establish in your own mind that you are a writer, look to the start-ups. But you should always also be submitting to the magazines that are publishing the work you admire, the company you want to keep. Most magazines are on the look-out for talented newcomers, but trying yourself in the company of writers you look up to will give you your own measure.

While it’s good to get to know the feel of a magazine and its editorial mandate, remember that magazines are always looking for something fresh. If what you send is too much like what they have recently published, they may not be interested. (I did have a writer tell me he had submitted his work to us because he was writing stories set in Africa and South America, where he’d spent time as a journalist, and he’d noticed that, unlike many of the more nationalist magazines at the time, we seemed willing to publish work that wasn’t set in Canada; this told him that our sense of “Canadian writing” wasn’t geographically bound, and we did end up publishing quite a few of his stories).

How to submit

Read the submission guidelines (generally found on a magazine’s website). Guidelines tell you how to submit and how often you can submit, and list any restrictions re length or previous publication. Some magazines ask for you to send a query letter first. TNQ asks to see a single story or 3 poems, and we recently limited submissions to once a year (except for contest entries or when we put out a call for a special issue) in order to keep response time down. You can keep the response time down yourself by paying attention to a magazine’s reading schedule. If they don’t start into the next round until, say, Sept. 1st, you'll have to wait longer if submitting in June (see tnq's handy reading/response schedule on our submissions page).

A magazine’s guidelines should give you a sense of how long you can expect to wait for a response and tell you whether a magazine is willing to consider a simultanious submission (sending the same piece to more than one magazine at the same time). Editors tend to discourage multiple submission since it may mean they invest a lot of time in a manuscript only to lose it in the end. However, they also understand the frustration, for writers, of the long wait that is typical, especially at small, volunteer-run literary magazines. The compromise is to submit multiply but stagger your submissions (i.e. wait a while before sending the same work somewhere else). If you haven’t heard back from magazine #1 after, say, two or three months, then submit the piece elsewhere. If you hear that it’s been accepted at magazine #1, do #2 the favour of letting them know right away. With luck, the manuscript will still be waiting to be read (we usually wait until we have a critical mass before starting in) and you won’t have wasted any of the editors’ time, nor they of yours.

Poetry, fiction, and non-fiction should be submitted under separate envelope, the reason being that at most magazines the section editors work separately and the manuscripts, if sent together, will get separated and you might not hear back because one or the other set of editors no longer has a SASE or covering letter attached.

Note what rights a magazine pays for. If, for instance, they pay for first Canadian rights only, they would have no objection to your sending the work to a magazine in the U.S. or U.K. and might be willing to consider something that has already appeared there. Keep meticulous records of what you’ve sent where and the response received. It doesn’t endear you if you send a magazine a story they’ve already read and rejected or a new story with a cover letter that still has the name of another magazine at the top.

A submission should include a stamped return envelope or SASE (include sufficient postage) if you want the manuscript returned, an e-mail address if you prefer to receive word electronically and are content to have the manuscript recycled (these days, most writers choose this option). Say in your cover letter how you want to be notified. Increasingly, magazines are willing to accept electronic submissions, but TNQ, and many other magazines, still insist on hard copy―the effort required to mail a submission reduces submissions by writers who haven’t given any thought to the appropriateness of the venue. Also most editors still prefer to read hard copy and they can’t afford to run off several hundred submissions themselves.

Cover Letters

The most important thing about cover letters is, as much as possible, to let the work speak for itself. When we get a cover letter that explains the work, or advocates for it, or calls up the names of all the illustrious writers with whom it has been work-shopped, we are immediately suspicious. Save chatty cover letters for after you’ve formed a relationship with a magazine. What a cover letter should provide: the writer’s contact information (street and e-mail address plus telephone number), the title(s) of the work submitted (for the magazine’s records and the writer’s own), and a brief publishing history. New writers should know that having no publishing history can actually work in their favour if the work is good. Literary editors want to get in on the ground floor, so if they’re debating two equally accomplished pieces of writing, and one is by a writer publishing for the first time, the scales are likely to be tipped in his or her favour.

Proof read your submission carefully. Multiple typos and inattention to details like spelling, grammar, and punctuation can ignite whole crises of confidence. Avoid fancy fonts or letterhead. Double space for prose, single space for poetry. Make sure all the pages are there and in the proper order. If a poem goes to a second page, indicate whether or not there’s a stanza break.

Be polite and be patient! Lit mags are like minor hockey to the NHL―they are where writers do their internship. Most book publishers won’t consider a manuscript from a writer who hasn’t already begun to make his or her way in the lit mags. These magazines, however, are generally labours of love, under-staffed and under-resourced. Keep in mind in all your dealings with literary magazines that for the most part their editors are unpaid. And they don’t just volunteer their time to the ostensibly glamorous business of sitting in judgment. That’s the least of it. They spend hours funding the magazine―applying for grants, putting on fundraisers, asking for donations, and often reaching into their own pockets―hours more producing the magazine, promoting and distributing it so that there will be an audience for your writing at the end of the day. You may be disappointed that a magazine turns you down or keeps your heels cooling, but before you write that angry letter, remember that there wouldn’t be a venue for you to submit to if some dedicated souls didn’t make it happen.

If a magazine has invested in you as a writer, consider investing in it in turn. That means carrying a subscription. Literary magazines are not just venues for published work: they’re a place to meet other writers of your generation and to receive important mentoring in the form of interviews and essays on writing. Most importantly, studying what makes the best of what these magazines publish so good (or so new) can sometimes help you resolve persistent problems in your own work or take it in new directions.

How to Read a Rejection Letter

Even if you don’t get published, submitting is a way of getting an outside perspective on your writing, of discerning what is good and what still needs work or should be abandoned altogether. But don’t make that decision based on a single rejection. Magazines turn back good work all the time―because they’re over accepted or because the particular story you’ve sent doesn’t fit with the mix for an upcoming issue (the rhythm of dark and light, short and long, experimental and more traditional work) or because it went to the wrong editor. But do pay attention to the form a rejection takes―has the editor troubled to provide comments (often a sign that they are interested in the writer if not in the work in hand)? Does he or she make suggestions for revision or ask to see other work? Think of what you are doing as building a relationship with an editor. Most magazines do not make their decisions blind. They are looking to see how a writer’s work matures over time. If your work is repeatedly rejected with no encouraging commentary, then it’s the wrong magazine for you or the work itself is not ready to publish. But if the editor enters into a dialogue with you, keep sending.

Learn how to read (and value) a rejection letter, but don’t be overly discouraged by rejection. TNQ publishes only about 3% of what it reviews. What we reject may well be picked up elsewhere. When a poem or story comes back, look at it again. If you still think it’s ready to go into the world, fire it off to another magazine. Many now-established writers can tell tales of a story being returned again and again until it finally found the right editor or the right time in the life of the magazine. Leon Rooke, one of Canada’s most prolific and inventive story writers, claims that the story of his which eventually won the prestigious O’Henry Prize was turned down forty times before it was finally published. Of course, we’re not all Leon Rooke, and if something’s come back 10 or 12 times, it may be time to revise or scrap.

On that note, magazines do pay attention to how often a writer has submitted without success. At some point they may say, “Here’s a writer with promise, someone we’ve short-listed repeatedly. We’re trying to decide between it and another poem or story of equal interest. Let’s go for it so as not to discourage the writer from submitting. They'll do even better as they gain maturity and experience, and we want to be there when it happens.”

So here’s how to know if a magazine is interested in you as a writer: if they say some version of “try us again” (that’s a no-brainer), but also if they send comments, even if you find them stinging. It takes time to provide feedback to writers and editors tend to do it
(a) when they think they have something helpful to say or
(b) when they want to encourage you by letting you know that your work has not only been read, it’s been seriously considered.
If nothing else, comments can tell you something about the editor’s biases or predilections as a reader and thus help guide future submissions.

Writer (and former editor) Steven Heighton has said, “I don’t respect a writer who takes all of my advice, and I don’t respect a writer who takes none of my advice.” In other words, you need to be open to comment but not slavish to it. You have to be your own best editor when it comes to deciding how much persistence a poem or story is worth. Remember, too, that it is easier for an editor/reader to point out where a story goes wrong than it is to tell the writer how to set it right. That, in the end, is the writer’s job.