A few days ago, there was an excellent AMA on Reddit:
The former literary magazine editor is really great – s/he answers many of the questions honestly, clearly, and smartly. Any person who has not worked on the editing end of literary magazines but submits fiction or nonfiction to them (or wants to submit to them, one day) should give the whole thread a read.
Something I find really interesting about this thread, though, is how many of the question askers fall prey to something nearly identical to many submitters to literary magazines.
The OP is really clear on a few points: former editor at a literary magazine, a reader of slush, can talk about submissions and acceptance/rejection from magazines. The OP also states that s/he will try to get to all of the questions, but will avoid repeated questions – in other words, read the existing questions/answers before asking your own.
And yet, despite this, there are dozens of questions in the thread (most of them tellingly unanswered) that:
- Repeat a question that’s already been asked.
- Reveal that the asker didn’t read the original post very carefully/at all. (Asking about book publication, newspaper publication, etc.)
- Reveal that the asker has an axe to grind against literary magazines/editors/”the establishment” (one commenter takes on this idea beautifully)
- Tries to promote their own work without really asking much of a question.
I think this is weirdly telling about people’s relationship with literary magazines (of all stripes*). There’s a lot of grumbling about the literary establishment**, but for all of that grumbling, people are incredibly cavalier about how they treat their submissions to these magazines. They don’t read instructions (anything from submission periods to word limits). They don’t know the magazine and have no interest in doing so***. They don’t send their very best work, or even bother editing it. They don’t bother looking up how to write (or not write) a cover letter. They get nasty and defensive when their work is rejected, instead of realizing that rejection is the way of the life of EVERY writer, even established ones.
Most editors are minimally paid or not paid at all, and they’re human like everyone else. They want to find the next new, exciting writer. They want to pluck an amazing story out of slush. They don’t enjoy rejecting thousands of people (and they have to, because they get thousands of submissions for a limited number of slots). Sometimes they have to reject work they like, for one reason or another.
There’s only one way into this field. Read a ton – lit magazines and books. Keep writing. Keep editing. Real edits, not just proofreading. Keep editing. Edit some more. Read more. Edit again. Make sure your story is right for the magazine(s) you submit to, and then: submit. Keep writing while you’re waiting to hear back. Keep reading while you’re waiting to hear back. Edit at least three times. Get feedback from other writers. Keep writing. Get rejected. Evaluate your story, make edits if you need to, submit again. Read some more. Keep writing. Keep editing. Keep going. It’s the only way.
* The OP also makes a really smart point about the idea of “genre” vs. “literary” with which I agree 110% but haven’t ever quite put to words: that “genre” is about content and “literary” is about stylistic intent, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. (How the terms “literary” and “genre” are misused is a topic for an entirely different post.)
** I’m not going to tell you that there’s no elitism in the literary world, but it’s way less of a conspiracy theory than most people believe.
*** You don’t have to subscribe to every magazine you submit to, but you should absolutely learn through some means (the magazine’s website! Social media! Friends who read it! Strangers on the internet who read it! Reviews of those magazines! Something) what sort of work the magazine publishes. If they only publish novellas, they’re not gonna take your microfiction. If they publish experimental/genre-bending/sci-fi/fantasy, they’re not gonna take your quiet domestic realism. And so on.