Salvatore Pane

Tag: The Collagist

An Online Panel on Literary Journals (Part 1 of 3): Huh? What? Stop.

I just returned home from Denver and AWP late last night. I’m still collecting my thoughts and trying to wrap my mind around the event, and I’m not sure if I’ll make a proper post. In case I do, I don’t want to spoil the good material now. In case I don’t, highlights include: drinking with Kirk Nessett and his dog, meeting Justin Taylor and Roxane Gay, meeting two separate people who actually referenced entries on this blog, an awesome poetry reading in honor of Black Warrior Review, and great readings and panels all around.

Aside from that, this post will have nothing to do with AWP. Instead, I’m going to do my own online panel. So if you missed the shenanigans in Denver, dear readers, worry not. For awhile now, I’ve wanted to say something about literary journals. Not THE STATE OF THE LITERARY JOURNAL (I’ve already done that), but how one goes about submitting, choosing where to submit, publishing, and all the other difficulties that come with lit mags. Obviously, with only three journal pubs under my belt, I am no expert. So I’ve enlisted the help of two University of Pittsburgh MFA alumnus, Robert Yune and Adam Reger. Between the three of us, we’ve  published in different enough places (and have different enough methods) to be of use to the general reader/aspiring writer. Robert will be guest blogging the next entry later in the week, and Adam will follow after that. But for now, you’re stuck with this guy (I promise, this won’t take long).

I used to be the Fiction Editor of Hot Metal Bridge, and it was always very apparent to me when a submitter had never read our journal in their life. Our publishing tastes were quite eclectic at HMB, and we had no problem running flash fiction from an emerging writer about an obscure Tick henchman alongside a novel excerpt from the wonderful Dan Chaon. That being said, we still wanted fiction. Sometimes I received poetry. Sometimes I received scripts. The point is to read the journal you’re submitting to. And that doesn’t just mean figuring out what genres are allowed. HMB always published a wide variety of genres but not all journals are like that. You wouldn’t send the same piece to Ploughshares that you’d send to Electric Literature. One specializes in realistic fiction, and one clearly does not. Get a taste for what the journal you’re submitting to publishes. Do that and you’re already a leg up.

Ok. Ok. I hear you. Everybody knows that. Fine, assholes. What about Duotrope? I’ve been using Duotrope for about four years (I began submitting to the Colorado Review when I should have been submitting to Nowhere), and it’s a fantastic resource for any writer serious about submitting. It tracks all your submissions so you never get confused about when or where you’ve sent stuff out. That’s the part most people know. But what it’s even better for is finding journals. It has entries for every journal you can think of along with acceptance/rejection rates from the Duotrope community. Also, there’s fantastic statistics for ever journal. For example, under Weave, it says that people who submitted there also sent to Caketrain and PANK among others. It also says that people who successfully published in Weave, also published in Night Train and The Collagist. This is invaluable for many reasons.

First off, this gives you a good idea of what other journals to look at. Let’s say you love Flatmancrooked but don’t know where else to submit. Cruise on over to their Duotrope listing and see where else people who’ve submitted there have sent to. Then pick up some of those magazines. Similarly, these listings give you an idea about your current foothold in the literary world. If you can’t get into One Story no matter how many times you’ve tried, why not pick a journal a successful writer published in before they landed One Story? This, my friends, is called coming down the totem pole.

Speaking of totem poles, I know Robert and Adam are going to discuss their methods, so let me get mine out of the way. When I complete a story, I sit on it for awhile, maybe a month, then submit to 8-10 journals. These are usually reaches, but I’ll send some to places I think I have a solid chance with (but to be brutally honest, in the world of lit journals, they’re all reaches).  If the story is rejected 10 times, I give it 10 more chances. After 20 rejections, it’s retired. I’m going to go full disclosure with my stats now, so brace yourself. Right this second, I have 30 submissions floating out there somewhere in the ether. The earliest was sent July 16, 2009; I sent the latest yesterday morning. You have to be a machine when it comes to submitting. You have to be relentless. And you cannot take rejection personally. Alongside those 30 “pending responses” are 3 acceptances and a staggering 147 rejections. That means my acceptance ratio is 2.5%.

2.5%!!!!

Is there anything more depressing than 2.5%? Yes. Yes there is. Every time I sign onto Duotrope I’m greeted with this message: “Congratulations! Your overall acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.”

HOLY SHIT! That means I’m winning. That means getting rejected 97.5% of the time is seen as some type of victory to Duotrope. These are the odds we’re up against, and it’s crucial you’re absolutely honest with yourself before you begin this process. Is your work ready for publication? Does it meet the quality of your desired publications? But most importantly, can you handle the rejection? Because like death and taxes, that’s one thing certain for every writer: rejection, a shit ton of it, 97.5% to be exact.

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Success in the Digital Age

One of the many perennial essays that gets handed out to would-be writers is Ted Solotarff’s “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years”. It’s a harsh look at what even talented apprentice writers have to endure: toiling away in obscurity clinging to the desperate hope that their stories will get published (with no payment) in some small, yet respected, journal. That maybe one day if they work hard enough, and they’re lucky enough, that some agent will contact them, ready to take a risk. And above all, they have to hope that their writing is worth a damn, that when the call comes they’ll have something substantial to show even when a million voices (internal and external) tell the writer to give up, that they are of inferior stock, garbage, an abomination.

Writers have been rethinking this essay ever since Solotarff’s death back in 2008. In the LA Times, Dani Shapiro grappled with the essay and how the publishing industry has undergone a sea change since its original publication back in the early ’80’s. Shapiro writes:

The creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today’s young writers don’t peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller — and did. The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn’t reward persistence, that doesn’t see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn’t trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?” The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry — always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media — has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.(Shapiro)

There’s a lot of mine fields to be navigated here, the chief of which in my mind is Shapiro’s complete disregard of the literary brat pack of the 1980’s. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, these were writers who seemingly appeared overnight with novel publications in their early twenties. I still remember a mentor of mine, Tom Bailey, discussing in class how he read Less Than Zero when it came out and seethed with jealousy and rage for weeks on end. Writers getting published at a young age doesn’t seem like a particularly new aspect of the literary industry, and in fact, seems to happen less and less because the major publishers can no longer spend the time developing a writer. If Andre Dubus emerged today with The Lieutenant, you can almost be sure he wouldn’t have gone on to become the celebrated master he’s seen as now. He would’ve been dropped from the majors into the world of the University Presses or be permanently saddled as a mid list writer (as an aside, check out this great article in Kirkus Reviews about the plight of the mid lister).

What I do find to be of particular interest in Shapiro’s essay is her speculation that this latest generation of writers is fundamentally different from those who came before. I’ll leave that one to the historians, but it may be relevant to take a look at some of the premiere literary upstarts of the last few years. Many of these journals (I’m talking smaller places like The Collagist, New York Tyrant, Annalemma, Dogzplot, etc. etc.) seem to have become the new training grounds for young writers. These journals publish work from established writers, but their stable of contributors is mostly comprised of the up-and-comers. And with comments enabled on the online stories, these writers are building communities and networks that are bubbling over and just beginning to get notice from the New York majors. Perhaps this is the writing in the cold Shapiro thinks is missing from the current literary community. It’s just not being done in places like The New England Review, it’s happening in online upstarts independent from the university.

However, there’s one more element crucial to this issue. Has the  definition of what success means for a writer changed in the ensuing years between “Writing in the Cold” and today? Joe Coscarelli recently wrote this piece in Gawker. Coscarelli writes:

Aspiring novelists are archaic. I know this because in four years of higher education, no one ever offered to show me a manuscript, but I’ve seen more blogs than bongs. The bearded, bespectacled Pavement fans… are unemployed or out of touch. Or dead. No one in their early twenties wants to be a music journalist—that would be absurd. These English majors want to be some super genius bloggers. (Coscarelli)

He goes onto discuss how that in a world obsessed with fame, those souls who in any other time would be drawn to the method of cultural production that is the modern novel (or even the music journalism of the 1990’s) are now obsessed with becoming bloggers or nebulous media personalities. Coscarelli thinks that our priorities have shifted, and on that account, I don’t think many people can argue. What is success for writers in the digital age? Is it publishing a book of stories with a small Midwestern press that only a sliver of the public will actually read, or is it maintaining a popular blog with a loyal readership in the upper-thousands (or maybe success means being Maud Newton who has an awesome blog AND a forthcoming novel)? I can’t really say, but what I take comfort in is that for some of us, the definition of writerly success is the same as it’s always been: publishing a superior novel of critical acclaim. Just look at the aforementioned literary journals and the Rise of the MFA Program. There are more people writing than ever before, and this is cause for celebration (even if the reading public is dwindling by the day).