Friday, March 18, 2016

Yes, submitting can be fun

            What is the difference between nineteenth-century coal mining and submitting work to literary journals?
            None, apparently, at least to hear writers tell it. And there is definitely some overlap. Both can keep you in the dark for a long period of time. And both have the potential to kill canaries—to silence their songs.
            But there’s nothing inherently deadly about submitting work to journals. It just feels that way sometimes, when we’re waiting for tardy responses or anteing up another $3 submission fee. And it feels even worse when the answers we get are no after no after no.
            But nearly from the start, I decided to have fun with submitting, and I remain convinced that publishing activities can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.
            First, we’re sending out submissions because we want an audience. Poets like me—unattached to programs, distant from any poetry community—operate in a bit of a vacuum, and often there is no one around us, save for a spouse, to read our work.
            But editors are audience members. When they read our work, even to reject it, we’ve closed the circuit—finished the poem. Until someone reads it, it’s not done; work requires an audience to half-create it. When I send out submissions, it’s always a little exciting to consider that someone is going to read some poems of mine, maybe for the very first time.
            The downer view is reasonable to consider here, too. There are actually some magazines where our submission won’t get read, or won’t get read well. Some are full up and aren’t considering new work, so they reject outright without any indication that this is what’s happening. Some probably eyeball the cover letter and reject unpublished or bookless writers. Some take a glance at the first poem in a batch and reject based upon that—no more than a sniff.
            But I like to think of that real reader—an editor because she cares deeply about writing and wants to participate meaningfully in a conversation about art. And even a rejection from that reader is forward progress. I found an audience; I just didn’t find a big one yet.
            I also like to remind myself that submitting, even unsuccessfully, is a kind of forward progress. If I tie my work up with ribbons and store them in my hope chest, I can avoid all kinds of judgment and maybe some hurt feelings. But when I send work out, it’s that much closer to finding a readership—and I’m that much closer to connecting to real people. I’d rather be a person who gets rejected than a person who is afraid to try.
            I don’t miss a lot about the days of postal submissions—the stamps (and the insufficient postage returns), the SASE, the lines at the post office, the paper cuts. I do, though, miss those colorful slips of paper that rejections used to come on—sometimes a three-by-five card size, sometimes a half sheet. It was always kind of fun to keep them and look through them from time to time—to see the real handwriting of the person who send me the verdict. I gathered up those rejections like a collector pulling in wheat pennies or baseball cards. There was a kind of pleasure in it, and more—there was clear evidence of forward progress, in my record of trying and failing, in the editors’ occasional expressions of appreciation or pleasure, in the growing stack.
            One of my mentors, George Looney, wallpapered his bathroom with rejections. There must have been great strangeness in that—in standing naked in front of the critics, in that moment when he was most human. George may be the source of my sanguine attitude about publishing. I’m grateful to have cultivated it, and I feel a kinship with others who are in the struggle, in the game.
            When I hear writers talk about submitting, it’s not rejection that causes most of their anguish. Worse than rejection are those times when we get no word from a publishers for months after one is anticipated—or sometimes no word at all, ever.
            Writers track response times on reporting websites like Duotrope, and they often query at their earliest opportunity—perhaps not realizing that some editors feel pushed by queries that they may regard as premature, and that this can turn a maybe into a no. Editors have a lot of work on their desks, and not a whole lot of perks, apart from being God. And an overworked, overwhelmed god can easily become a vengeful one. It’s best to wait until well after the advertised reading period to query—and I don’t mean days; I mean it’s best to wait a couple of months, maybe a bit more. (Average response times are not the same as advertised response times; most journals will let us know how long they take to make a decision, and if they promise to be done in five months, I suggest waiting seven to query.)
            A submission that is with a journal is in reasonably good hands. Particularly when we submit via a submission management program, like Submittable, we can trust that an editor is aware of our work and wants to clear her decks as much as we want to clear ours. The editor will get to each submission. My suggestion? Ride it out; think of other things. Write something. There is no need to worry through the process.
            I should note, too, that preparing submissions is a really great activity when the writing isn’t happening. When the writer’s mind is turned off, sometimes the administrative mind is ready to go. It’s nice to have a way to be a real writer when I can’t make anything happen on the page. Sometimes the act of preparing submissions is downright inspiring.

            I honestly believe it’s possible to enjoy the submission process, but to do so requires a certain mindset—a hopeful, patient mindset. I find that I’m at my happiest when I act consistently with my idea of myself—when I am who I think and say I am. A “no” doesn’t have much power against that reality.


  1. I really enjoyed this piece. Occasionally, I find myself over-thinking the submission process, obsessing over the wording of a rejection letter. Most days, I just say "oh, look, there's that rejection letter I sent away for!" Thank you for your remarks about not querying too soon. You reinforced my theory that sending a query may just force a rejection--as long as I don't ask, there's still hope.

    1. I think queries are after the advertised reading period (not the typical response time) -- but, like, a month or two after, and even then, gently offered. It's true, though -- I submit (and log/track) and forget. Much easier that way! :)

      Thanks for your kind words!

  2. I absolutely love your articles. They are so well written and right on (as the "old" saying goes). Great topics. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for saying that, Cathy! I've found a topic I love to write about. Glad to know you're reading these! :)

    2. Wonderful attitude. I'm just getting ready to submit some things.

  3. I agree! Nicely stated. I also miss those paper rejection forms. I do save the email ones as well and sometimes review them just for kicks. The ones with a few kinds words really help keep me going.