Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Just a short aside before hopping into the rest of the post – but this officially marks my 100th blog entry since I launched this site more than three years ago. It has been, and continues to be, an exercise in patience, but all that is to say that I’ve been enjoying myself. Thought I’d mark the occasion with a significant entry, so hopefully you find the following useful.
Sometimes I want to use this blog to provide more advice for other writers. However, impostor syndrome and a relative lack of publication credits makes me wonder who the hell am I to be giving advice to anyone? What about my writing career suggests that I can help anyone else in their own? I realize though that I’m having these doubts despite coming a place of some privilege where, sparse as they may be, I do have publication credits, whereas many writers don’t. So despite feeling like I still don’t know anything, obviously I know more than nothing, and quite clearly I know more now than I used to know before.
Perhaps what I should try to do is reframe my mind and consider the question as follows: what advice would I give to the me from fifteen or twenty years ago? See, now instead of presuming I know more than my fellow writers, I’m just presuming to know more than past me, which is not presumptuous but quite accurate. The fact that there are other writers out there who are currently in the stage of their careers where I was ten years ago is simply a fortuitous coincidence, and if they have something to learn from the lessons I learned myself, then all the better.
Back when I was a teenager and shamefully, also into my early twenties, I was an obnoxious submitter. Exciting to think that the world might be interested in my sub-standard scribbles most of which make me embarrassed to think about, I sent out my stories for publication without any sense of decorum. I wouldn’t be surprised if I landed on some blacklists that I still haven’t been taken off. I wouldn’t hold it against the editors if this was true. So from my very cringey past, I present to you a list of things to keep in mind when submitting their work. This will seem obvious to most readers, but for those just starting out and bursting with excitement, this might be a good way to avoid the mistakes I made.
For some added context, back when I first started sending out my short stories for submission, there was virtually no online submissions (few even accepted submissions through email, let alone a dedicated portal) and not a lot of journals had their own websites. For this reason, I went into the process mostly blind, learning everything I thought I needed to know by skimming The Canadian Writer’s Market, and putting my stories into big manila envelopes after organizing dozens of submissions on the living room floor and hoping no wrong cover letters were sent to the wrong publishers.
Things are far more civilized in the online world, particularly since every publication has a website now, and you basically have no excuse to not know any of the below.
One piece at a time
There are very few, if any, publications who want to consider more than one piece of short fiction from you at one time. Most accept multiple poems, though this number varies, and some might accept several pieces of flash fiction. This info will be available on a publication’s website, so make sure to double check this before submitting.
What you should expect is that nobody wants three identical manila envelopes showing up at their office and where you thought you’d be getting more of your writing out there for consideration, you just risk all of them going into the garbage.
Study the publication
This one I find is easier said than done. I have read many journals where the range of works that they publish escape any pigeonholing by my non-trained eye. Sure, I can pick up when a journal focuses on more experimental fiction, and therefore likely wouldn’t be for me in any case, but otherwise just when I think I understand what kind of story a publication prefers, they take a hard left. The number of times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a soft sci-fi story in an otherwise literary journal is heartening, though equally confusing when this story is an exception and unless I’ve read the entire back catalogue I wouldn’t have expected it to succeed. That is not say this is an impossible task or a task that can be ignored. You don’t want to be in a position where a publisher immediately picks up from your story’s style, tone or content that you have done zero homework. This is a huge waste of their time, and can be a waste of your time (and money) as well.
This is largely only relevant for those publications that still only do email or physical submissions since online submission managers will be turned off when the window is closed and will sometimes helpfully identify when the journal will be accepting submissions again. That said, not everyone has switched to using submission managers, so you need to make sure the journal that you’re sending your work to is actually prepared to read. Again, if you think you’re being clever by sending it to them when they’re closed and you want to be on the top of the pile, you might want to rethink your plans – the only place your work is heading is into the shredder.
Pretty much the only requirement I fully respected when I was teenager, so apparently I wasn’t entirely a lost cause. This one is pretty easy to find on any publication’s website and pretty easy to follow. Some journals don’t have posted word counts at all, so use your judgement there based on the max length of stories other journals you submit to have. And don’t mess around here either for no reason, thinking your 3005 words aren’t “a big deal” when the limit is 3,000. Don’t be surprised there is a hard screening process at the beginning, and those five superfluous words land your story in the trash before anyone’s even read the first sentence.
A publication’s stance on simultaneous submissions refers to whether the journal is willing to consider a piece that you’ve submitted for consideration elsewhere. This is how publishers and editors choose to protect their time; by deciding whether they’re willing to take a risk investing into reading and considering a piece that might be pulled from under them before they get a chance to accept. It is vitally important for authors to respect this, instead of how the teenage me simply sprayed his submissions everywhere hoping something sticks. Publications’ positions on simultaneous submissions generally fall into the following categories:
Silent on simultaneous submissions – I think it’s safe to assume that simultaneous submissions are accepted.
Accepts simultaneous submissions: This one is pretty simple – fire away to any other journals without restriction, but always always always inform them immediately if the story was accepted elsewhere. No one wants to go through the process of selecting a story and then finding out that it was already spoken for, and the author didn’t bother to inform them as much. For this reason, make sure whatever system you use to track your submissions is robust enough that you know exactly where to fire these off.
Accepts simultaneous submissions but they must be noted as such: Same as above, but your cover letter must identify that the submission has been, or will be, submitted to other publications
Does not accept simultaneous submissions: just don’t, I mean it. You’re not being cute or sneaky, but rather like that child in the experiment who wants to eat the marshmallow now instead of saving it for later. If you want to potentially turn your successes into disasters that make you lose credibility in the industry, go ahead.
These are once again posted on a publication’s website and an easy-peasy Ctrl+F search for “simultaneous” will ensure that you don’t miss it.
Check Their Website
If you still haven’t gotten the gist from the above, here it is again as its own piece of advice – always check the publication’s website. And do so before each submission, because all of these things can change since your last submission. Here you will also find other things a specific publication requires such as the type of information in your cover letter, submission formatting including where your cover letter goes (some ask for it to be included as the first page of your submissions while others have a separate field where you can copy and paste it). Again, do take this seriously, not only because editors are hard working folks and often do it gratis, but also because some of them use this as a way to weed out writers, like my teenage self, who just don’t take the process as seriously as they should.
There are of course, other things to consider – other tips and advice you can use to improve your odds of getting accepted (other than, you know, that minor factor of actually being able to write well), and I encourage you to seek out this information where you can, and from more seasoned writers than me. This was meant to be a very basic guide, and one I wish I had handy when I first set out on this journey almost twenty years ago. Good luck with everything!
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.