Friday, September 12, 2014

From Me to You: How to Be Punctilious When Submitting

Last time on From Me to You, we started talking about submitting your work. The only thing I managed to cover was how to research a market, and how to determine, through largely circumstantial evidence, whether it's the right market for your work. I feel the urge to repeat one of the things I said in a slightly different way: finding the right market for your story is more important than finding the market that will accept your story. After half a dozen rejections that offer no clues as to why your story "didn't work for us," you might start to look for markets that seem to take any old thing, just to feel redeemed. Avoid this urge. A market that's not discriminating, or that doesn't have a coherent policy about what it publishes, is not a desirable one.

If no markets seem right for your story, write something else and look again. That doesn't seem like very good advice, but it's the advice I've been getting for a long time and the more I write and submit, the more I think it actually is good. It could be that your work is just that radical, and that's why you can't find a market that seems right,'s unlikely. The more likely answer is that you need to write better, which means you need to write more. (I've had to accept this myself, so I know it's not easy.)

As before, the rest of the pictures in this post are going to be irrelevant.
This one is so relevant to me that it hurts to look at it. 

Anyway. This time, as the title of this post indicates, let's talk about some nitty-gritty details of submitting.

After you decide that Western Humanities Review is the right market for "Carlotta Made Flesh," you get the story in submitting shape. Now, you should have put the story in proper manuscript format once you were finished revising it. That Shunn page is the standard I always go by, except that I generally use TNR, Times New Roman, rather than (blech) Courier. However, if you come across a market that specifically refers to the Shunn page when they talk about MS formatting in their submissions guidelines, use Courier, and otherwise follow the Shunn guidelines to the letter, including changing all your italics to underlines, etc.

That brings us to a crucial rule of submissions: the submissions guidelines are always right. Always, always, always follow the submissions guidelines 100%, to the ultimate crossed t and dotted i. If you cannot do this because of the nature of your story, my advice (and it might not be everyone's advice) is to note it in your cover letter.

As an example, I submitted a story, "C-a-l-l-a-s", to a sci-fi market that referred to Shunn in its guidelines. That story has a ton of italics, because a lot of the dialogue is in sign language. When I changed the italics to underlines, I found the format insanely distracting. So I put a little note in my cover letter that I was submitting the story with italics rather than underlines because it made the story easier to read, and I apologized if that was the wrong thing to do. This showed the market that I acknowledged even the smallest details of their wishes and desires, even if I couldn't follow them. It's possible I should've just used underlines instead, or I should've barged in with the italics without noting them, but I feel that courtesy rarely harms and often helps.

So, unless something is weird with your story that makes it impossible to do so, follow the submissions guidelines. A lot of editors aren't so picky, but submissions guidelines are not unlike riders for rock stars, and you do not want to miss the brown M&Ms clause. It means you weren't paying attention, and that's disrespectful, and that means your story's going to have points subtracted from it from the get-go, and that means you're less likely to get in.

90% of the time, the guidelines don't vary really at all from magazine to magazine, but 10% of the time they are bee-zarre, and you should be ready in those moments to do what they ask. Check to see what they want you to put in the subject heading if you're sending by e-mail. Check to see if they want you to include your contact information on the first page of your story or on your cover letter. Check to see if they want you to submit an RTF instead of a DOC, or a DOC instead of a DOCX, or no WPS files ever ever. Check to be completely sure that your story is within the word count they specify and that you're not submitting during a time when they're closed to unsolicited submissions and that they don't want 1.5 spacing or something. Check, double-check, triple-check. You should be tired of looking at the damn guidelines by the time you submit.

Okay! You're within established parameters for the submissions guidelines. Next thing to do is figure out whether you're submitting electronically or via the USPS. Some markets only take e-subs, some markets only take paper subs, and some take both. I find it a lot more satisfying to send out a paper submission, but it's a smaller letdown to get an e-rejection. Mostly, today, e-subs are the hip thing, but here's a quick rundown of what you need to know about paper submissions.
  • Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope, or SASE. This is so they can send you a rejection without having to write your address on one of their own envelopes and pay for postage. If you're submitting overseas, a SASE is not feasible, so include a note in your cover letter with your e-mail address and an apology. (Once upon a time there were these things called international reply coupons, or IRCs, but they're not around anymore in the US.) Write your address legibly on the SASE; don't use a teeny label you got for free from Habitat for Humanity. Stamp the envelope. Also, I recommend buying easy-strip envelopes, size 10 security envelopes with peel-off backings, so the poor editorial assistant doesn't have to lick your envelope to reply to you. Such little things don't hurt and could be points in your favor. 
  • Don't do anything fancy, like pretty stationery for your cover letter or colored envelopes. I used to do this and I regret it. You never know how fancy stuff will be received, and some editors could use it as an immediate excuse for rejection. Let your writing be the thing that stands out. 
  • Mostly, use a paperclip to bind your story. I submitted a couple of weeks ago to a market that requested a stapled story, and in hundreds of submissions that was the first time I'd ever seen that request. Check the guidelines, but mostly they'll want a paperclip, not a staple. 
Don't assume it'll be faster to do one type of submission or the other, or that the editors will be more favorably disposed to one type or the other. I don't think it works that way, and we all know what assuming does to u and me. It's possible that your story's formatting will demand one type or the other, but other than checking the guidelines to see what they prefer, I'd guess it's up to whether you want to expend the raw materials and the post office time to submit via mail or not.

Back to WHR. They take e-submissions, but there's a reading fee of $2. This is acceptable. Reading fees used to mark scam publications, but in recent years they've become de rigueur. Some magazines note that their reading fee costs less than sending your story through the mail when you consider paper and postage, so really it works out for you, the writer. This reasoning seems a little weird to me, because that money was never going to the publication before, and now it is. But print is dying, readers don't want to read, the planet is doomed, etc., so I'm not going to begrudge small reading fees to markets that probably really need that money for their operating budgets. I've paid fees as high as $6, but $10+ is a little hinky. (Unless it's a contest. Contests almost always have fees, and they can charge up to $30 per submission, but their prizes are often $1,000 or more.)

You also find that you need a Submittable account to e-submit. Submittable, which used to be called Submishmash, is a kind of portal for writing submissions (and grant applications and stuff, too). It's free for submitters and I'd estimate that a majority of markets use it to organize their online submissions. Although it has a tracking function, it is NOT a replacement for Duotrope. Some markets use their own databases rather than Submittable, which is sort of annoying because it means you have to create separate logins for half the gol-durn magazines in the country, but so it goes.

Everything seems to be in order. Your formatting conforms to the submission guidelines (as does your story), you're ready to pay your $2 fee via Paypal or credit card, and you're all signed up and logged in with Submittable.

But...the cover letter. You need a cover letter. Aw, crap.

Next time, Gadget. Next time.

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