|I had the hardest time ever finding pictures that worked for this post, so this will be the only one that's relevant. The rest of them are just some favorite pictures from my download folder.|
The number-one question I get asked is how I know where to submit. The answer to this question ran so long that it's the whole post. I'll do more of these posts if this one is popular.
So, how do you know where to submit? Research. If you're serious about getting into print (or...pixels), go to duotrope.com and sign up for an account. I believe it's $50 a year, and that is cheap for what you get. Duotrope is a database of about 5,000 markets for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but it's also a personal submissions tracker that puts anyone's homemade Excel spreadsheets to shame. (Note: If you haven't written very many stories and money is tight for you, don't sign up yet. Wait till you have a decent handful of stories ready to submit and in the meantime use the library's Writer's Market instead.)
Let's say you have a story called "Carlotta Made Flesh" with which you want to try your luck. It's about 7,000 words. Now, that will curtail your efforts a bit to start with, because it's a little long for a lot of markets for writers who are trying to break in. I find that 5,000 words is the most desirable length. Of course The New Yorker will publish an Annie Proulx story that's over 10,000 words, but The New Yorker is not a market for writers who are trying to break in, and you are not Annie Proulx. You can't cut any of your story, so you go to Duotrope's search function and you click on the story's attributes - what genre it's in, its length, toward what its content tends, etc. You can also decide what kind of market you want, excluding markets that don't pay or are online-only, although I don't recommend that if you're just starting out, because most print markets that pay are hard to get into.
Anyway, your search comes up with a whole bunch of markets, and you pick one - let's say, Western Humanities Review. Many if not most literary magazines that are desirable credits are affiliated with universities, and this one is no exception. You look at the website to see if you can read some recently published stories, or to see if you recognize any of the writers that they've printed. This is the most important step of your whole journey. Take the time to browse the market's content. You're looking for a good fit - to see if your story and the market align.
Most magazines put in their submissions guidelines that they want you to read a sample issue before submitting, and I find this pretty unrealistic, because it means ordering and reading an issue of every magazine that you want to get into. I sent 70 submissions in the past year, and if I'd read an issue of every one of those magazines, that's easily over $100 and a great deal of time that I simply don't have. There are a handful of markets on which I've set my sights particularly as goals, and for those I've bought sample issues. I've found (grudgingly) that you do get a far better idea of what the magazine tends to publish if you read a full issue or two than if you browse the sample stories that they make available online. But I've also found that you can do okay at figuring out whether your story and the market make a good fit by knowing other writers' names, reading the sample stories, and studying the "about" page, which usually contains an editorial policy.
Back to Western Humanities Review. You find that they've published work by Lidia Yuknavitch, one of your two favorite writers, and that they're affiliated with the University of Utah, from which a professor you admire got her Ph.D. These are good signs. Bad signs would be if you recognized not a single one of the writers they've published (they usually put the famous ones somewhere prominent on the website), if the editorial board is one person, or if there are spelling/grammar mistakes on the website. If a market's website looks like it was created in 1999, that's not necessarily a bad sign, because these are literary magazines, and "out of touch" is sort of part of the job description. But you can usually tell the difference between a market that's out of touch and a market that's cheap and crappy. Also, you scroll down on the handy-dandy Duotrope page and find that WHR's acceptance rate is below 3%, and that's a good sign, too. Over 10% is, ironically, a bad sign.
You (probably) don't want to submit to markets that have open arms. Those aren't credits of which you'll be proud. Different editors have different stances on whether some credits, even if they're crummy, are better than no credits. But think of your credits the way actors think of theirs. It's hard to put Sharknado on your resume and be taken seriously. Submitting to markets where you're bound to get in has a lower anxiety quotient, but you don't need to do this for the experience (as an actor might). The experience of writing takes place in your desk chair. You need publishing credits for the sake of impressing future editors/agents and for money. If that's what they're for, why would you bother with credits that are less than impressive?
This might be a snobby way to look at it, but it's my view and I'm sticking with it.
You can take this attitude too far, of course. I heard tell of a writer who only sent her stories to The New Yorker, and of course hadn't published anything, and that's just stupid, if you ask me. But, again, you're looking for a good fit: a harmony between the quality of your story and the quality of the market. Reach, don't stoop. Find your acceptability line and stick to it, no matter how desperate you get.
So, anyway, you've looked at all these criteria about Western Humanities Review - other writers who've published there (if you recognize any of the writers in their recently published issues, from having read them in other magazines, that's helpful, too; if it seems like those writers aren't your kin, then maybe this market isn't for you), quality of the material on the website, editorial policy and philosophy, acceptance rate, reading fee. There might be some other criteria that matter to you, too - if the market takes simultaneous submissions,* if they pay, if you accidentally slept with the fiction editor's spouse one time. If you look at all these and you feel that your story doesn't fit, move on. It's okay. There are a zillion markets out there.
At the risk of reader nausea, look for the good fit. If you submit to a market that's not a good fit, you're wasting your time and money as well as theirs. It's like applying for a job for which you're not qualified, or at which you know you won't like the work. Just walk away and look for something else.
But in this hypothetical example everything looks good. So you submit to Western Humanities Review.
Wait...what about the cover letter? What about reading fees and formatting? What do I do after I submit? What if I get rejected? Does it mean anything if I find out I'm on their mailing list before I hear from them?
Ah, grasshopper. You'll have to wait for next time.
*Simultaneous submissions are when the market allows you to submit the same story to it and to other markets at the same time. Some magazines have been burned by writers withdrawing promising stories at the last minute, because they were accepted elsewhere, so many times that they don't allow simult subs. This is my opinion, and it's probably not a popular one among editors: I think it betrays an unsympathetic attitude to writers not to allow simult subs. It means you can spend six months waiting for one answer on one story only to get rejected. That sucks. So I'm less inclined to markets that don't allow them. Editors who like writers are editors you want working with you, right?