Covering The Business of Being a Writer
TDR Regular Contributor /October 1, 2021
So you want to be a writer, and the starting point seems obvious, write something! Therein lies the problem. Writing, creating, storytelling, that is the beginning of the journey, not the destination. The next step is getting published, and as hard as producing good work can be, getting it in front of readers (other than friends and family) can be the most difficult step to take.
Let’s say you’ve done the work, you’ve refined your novel, you’ve even got objective feedback and some editorial guidance. Now what? Find an agent or a publisher or go the self-publish route? There’s a lot to unpack related to those decisions and processes, so I will save that for my next essay.
In this essay, I’m going to focus on the business of getting your short work published digitally, in print, or both. Because you can go big and swing for the fences with your first novel if that works for you, but there are rewards to be reaped when you go small and submit your short stories, creative non-fiction, and essays for publication.
A quick search of the internet will turn up thousands of places to submit your work, including literary journals (online and print), writing contests, publishers (particularly anthologies), and several blogging/self-publishing platforms (e.g., Medium). The latter offers an opportunity to build and monetize an audience in ways that didn’t exist before the internet.
Before I dive into the more traditional offerings from this shortlist, I want to caution new writers. If you choose to post your work on a blog (even your own) or sites like Medium or Wattpad, be aware that the overwhelming majority of literary journals, writing contests, and publishers consider anything published to any digital platform to be previously published work. This means either they will not consider the work for their platform/publication or it will be treated as a reprint, which at a minimum means any pay rate for the work will be lower than that for previously unpublished work.
I have a WordPress site and I publish almost nothing there. I post links to my published work, which helps both my site and the publishing website. Right now, my site generates about 2000 page views per day, which means several hundred people every day have the potential to discover new platforms where my work exists. Is it breaking any records? No, but if a literary journal publishes your work, it’s in everyone’s best interest if you direct readers to that journal. The goal, as a new writer, is to get published and connect with readers. I recommend that you consider yourself in a symbiotic relationship with any publisher that gives your work a platform.
With all that said, let’s talk about my three favorite places to submit work and why.
First and foremost, I love literary journals. I said there were thousands, but this is an understatement. There are online and print journals to match any and every taste and genre. Some are run by large, well-funded teams affiliated with a university, others are side projects by young writers, some still in high school, and still others are the result of dedicated writers and editors who are passionate about the written word and give their heart and soul (as well as time and money) to an effort that might never generate revenue.
One of the great things about submitting your work to a journal, whether online, print, or both, is that you will often receive editorial feedback on your submission. You may pay a reading fee to get that feedback, but as I said in my previous essay, this is a legitimate and valuable tradeoff, a win-win situation.
Keep in mind that most literary journals have limited resources, and it takes time for submissions to go through the review process. Patience when submitting your work isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. If you’re not comfortable waiting, perhaps months, to find out if your work has been accepted, then you’re a good candidate for additional fees. In other words, if you want an expedited response, there are quite a few journals that will give you one for a price. To me, this is fair, but keep in mind you are likely one of many writers who have submitted and paid a fee for a fast turnaround. The fee guarantees nothing beyond the response time – your odds of acceptance don’t go up and might even go down due to the speed of the reply. Spend your money wisely.
It’s a good idea to have multiple active submissions at any given moment, even if you’ve only produced one piece of work you feel is ready for submission. I do not like simultaneous submissions (submission of the same work to multiple journals). Yes, it is a numbers game to some extent, and you need to write, submit, repeat. But as good as it feels to get a “yes” from one journal, if you’ve submitted to multiple journals, you’ll have to withdraw your work from consideration from all of them. This is not fun, and while most journals accept work that has been submitted elsewhere, having a piece of work withdrawn is no fun for them either.
My strategy: write, write, and write some more. When I’m not writing, I’m editing. When I think a piece is ready, I find a match (if I haven’t already) and submit it. Then move on. Once you submit, it’s out of your hands, so you might as well start something new.
Because you never know when an opportunity will pop up, a call for submissions or a contest, that is a good match for your work.
Writing contests are second on my list of favorite places to submit my work. Second because they tend to have a long run-up before even a shortlist is announced. I submitted two stories to a competition. By the time the winners were announced, I had revised both stories several times, and they were accepted for publication in two different journals. This is where my simultaneous submission rule breaks down. I’d rather withdraw from a competition if my work is accepted for publication than miss out on a chance to get published. To each their own on this point.
Whether you win a competition, make the shortlist, or are rejected outright, there’s a lot of value in the process for new writers. At the least, you’ll see where you stand against other writers by reading the work of those who place in the competition. In some cases, your submission will garner critical feedback. Such a competition may have a higher entry fee, but in many cases, it’s worth it. Just be clear on the vetting and feedback process before you pay your entry fees. As with anything, not every competition is worth the price. Of course, there’s always the chance your work will win the top prize. If this happens, make sure you shout it from the highest mountain top because you deserve the recognition, as does the competition. For lists of sites that can guide you to excellent writing competitions, check out the links in my first essay in this series.
Finally, let’s talk about publishers. In this case, I’m referring to book publishers who also publish anthologies of short work. An example of this would be Ab Terra, the sci-fi imprint of Brain Mill Press. While Ab Terra’s focus is on publishing novels, they also produce an annual sci-fi anthology. As with most publishers, submissions for these publications are usually open for a brief time once per year (more often for more frequently published anthologies). This is where preparation and patience are critical. Make sure your work is ready because there are no do-overs, and be certain you are a good fit for the publication because it could be months before you learn whether or not your work is accepted.
The beauty of submitting your work to a publisher for an anthology like this is that the publication will be available in print, and if your piece is accepted, there’s nothing quite like holding a book and opening it to the page where your short story or essay lives. I just ordered two copies of the “Queer as Hell” anthology from Haunted MTL to give away because I honestly can’t wait to crack open the cover and see my story in print. This may not be special to everyone, but to me it’s the first time one of my short stories will appear in print, and in the end, getting published is, for me, the point. Getting published in a print anthology? That’s icing on the cake, and who doesn’t love a little icing now and again?
Just remember, like I said, it is a numbers game. If your work is solid and you know it’s ready, submit it and get back to writing. The more your write, the more you can submit, and in so doing, shift the odds a little more in your favor. Yes, you’ll have to deal with more rejection, but if you’re not ready for rejection, you’re not ready to submit.
But if you’re truly ready, rejection will only make you stronger. Keep writing, keep reading, forge on. You got this.
TIP: If you’re submitting your work, you need a third-person bio. If you don’t know what that is, or how to write one, check out this great set of tips from the folks at Coverfly. Note that these tips are geared toward screenwriters, but they are still useful in helping any writer hone their “pitch.”