Many people say they start at the top and work their way down, the top being famous journals with clout that sometimes pay pro rates, and sometimes don’t pay much or pay anything. That’s fine, and can make them more money, and is good for career and recognition, gain more readers. I’m not saying they are snobs. But they also say other people should do that too, and I’d like to give another viewpoint to consider. There are very few of these magazines that have the Ohhh! factor name recognition, and they are always the ones people list first in their bios. They’re fine, and I like some of them, but I don’t give them any more weight than obscure ones when I’m considering where to submit, or in judging a writer’s fiction quality.
Yes, they raise status and possibly reach a large readership. Who are those readers? I suspect just like the other magazines, their readers mostly consist of writers studying the magazines to prepare to submit. As far as I can tell, most people in the world don’t read literary magazines otherwise. They don’t wake up and think, what online short story can I read today? I guess many of the people who do read them go on social media sites, see their online friend’s posts of what they’ve had published, and if they’re intrigued, and have time and are in the right mood, go read them, and if they really like them, comment on them on social media, maybe once in a while even going so far as to do that in the publication itself, if it’s set up for that. Then, sometimes they think about submitting there too, to join the party with their friends, to participate in that creative project, to find a home for their work, to feel like they are writers. This can happen in any kind of journal, but the more homey, inviting ones offer more chances of gratification, because they might accept maybe 2 percent of what they’re sent, or even 10 percent, compared to .01 percent that the Oohhh factor ones do.
That gratification raises dopamine. Getting published in the top ones raises it more, but that can take people years of trying, and maybe they prefer lower doses of dopamine more regularly, by people actually reading their work instead of just editors rejecting them. Really, isn’t much of social media there to raise that neurotransmitter that gets us motivated to keep going with our day? And we can raise oxytocin by showing our support and appreciation for our friends’ publications. By “friends” I mean not only actual in person buddies, but the thousands of other writers we befriend, who befriend us, on Facebook, Twitter, etc..
How important is the whole complex of status-raising that is the current trend of the huge number of people out there who identify as writers? We do need some level of status within our community, to keep our dopamine levels high and feel secure. It’s a primal thing.
Being able to identify as a writer seems almost like a compulsion sometimes, a way of justifying one’s life, of being seen as a creative successful person for many people. And that’s one reason for so much posting about the writing life, about every acceptance, every detail about what they’re working on, want to work on, have stopped working on, how they were rejected, often with a lot of resentment in their posts.
Yet, almost no one at all even knows that online literary magazines exist, and have never looked at a print one, have no interest in short stories, don’t know the meaning of “Literary” or “Genre” or “Speculative.” So by surrounding ourselves with other writers, who are pretty much the only ones reading most of these things, we are justified in spending all this time giving so much meaning to our writing.
Some magazines function more than others to give that impression that writing literature is valuable. Those are the ones that sometimes people who aren’t writers might actually read, people who are simply into that particular genre. There are very few of those major publications, and I personally find many of those boring. I just don’t necessarily care about being part of them, because they are still publishing stories in the same conventions as a century ago, without explorations outside the boundaries, without innovation and unique voices, because they have to please a lot of people, not to mention their advertisers and funders. That’s great. Masses should be pleased, and the publications put out fine work. I just don’t generally “start at the top” by submitting there and work my way down to the humble ones, as writers are so often told to do. Some of the SFWA ones I love, and would be thrilled to be published in. But I rarely feel as enthused by them as I do by the quirkier ones.
I chose to submit to places sometimes because so many of the authors I know and admire have been published there. I know their taste, like being part of that community. One nice perk is that the magazines share them on Facebook, and then we see the names we recognize and read their work. I believe most people probably don’t read every piece published in every new issue of every magazine that comes across their feed. We look for names we recognize, and read those pieces, let the people know we have, often, if it’s easy to do that and we like the pieces. It’s a way of sharing love. Some people probably don’t even read them, but “like” that they have been published there, which is some level of support. The more “likes” the more a piece seems to be seen, and without those, the silence can be disappointing.
I never started writing thinking of Facebook, but of being like William Faulkner, contributing something great and lasting, profound, and innovative. But these days, it seems like social media is a major factor that drives short stories to be read. Does that seem accurate to you? Also, if someone is interested in submitting a collection to a publisher, he will buy books, see what they are like. Ideally, this happens, but not everyone can afford to do that. There are so many publications. So material that is available online is what gets read the most. And the ones that have the Oohh factor are usually not available for free, so really, I suspect they are generally not read as much. People often read what is shared on social media, or available to read for free on a publisher’s site much more readily than spending money to order it.
However, if the magazines are not very interesting looking, with poor quality art, design, description, etc. fewer people will take the time to look, and they might remember that that writer is maybe not that good, or discriminating, and won’t pay much attention later. I love my work being accompanied by great art. Appearance of the publication is very meaningful to me, and the tone of the publisher’s words are extremely important as far as submitting. If it’s generic “send us your best work” (and we won’t pay you) or “we publish the best in fiction and poetry,” it’s too bland for my tastes, and I’m not inspired to submit. If it’s too mainstream, and pushes the dominant paradigm agenda, I’m turned off, though those are the high tiered publications that get people tenure track jobs. They often seem stuffy and naive to me. If they are connected with universities, I don’t send my more controversial stuff because I assume they can’t take a stand on something like that, but have to keep opinions out of it. If they pay, that really does help.
If it’s a new magazine that I suspect is started in a flash of over-excitement but won’t last long, or the editor’s comments sound a mentally off-balance, I don’t submit. If it’s got stories I don’t like I don’t submit. If it takes 9 months before they reply, and Duotrope shows they often don’t reply at all, or if they say as much in their submissions but don’t give a date by which we are supposed to consider it a no, I don’t reply. If they want to keep it for 8 months exclusively, I’m wary. And obviously, if I don’t think they’d like my work, I don’t submit there. If females in the art are always young, white, thin, perfect, and dressed to seduce, I don’t submit. If there are elves, wizards, and other High Fantasy tropes predominating, it’s not really my style, so I move on. If it’s crass, ugly, and insulting, nah. If it’s mostly pretty, domesticated poetry, I get claustrophobic quick and run away. If the stories are focused on romance, I’m not really interested in participating. If it glorifies transhumanism, is religious, or has a theme that wouldn’t make me excited to read the issue when it came out, I don’t bother.
These days I write most of my stories not because I’m inspired to out of the blue but because I’m inspired by submissions calls. I adore magazines and and anthologies that have names, art, websites, descriptions, stories that appeal to my imagination in unique ways, that make me extra glad to be alive, that make me want that editor to be happy reading my stories. I want to connect with those places, even if it’s just to get a rejection, hopefully, a personal one telling me what they liked and didn’t feel worked. I’m glad to see the work they put out, and I want to show support, especially if they are new, without many readers, without big name authors. I love to see people with creativity I resonate with doing something great. I find these particularly focus on specific topics, moods, styles, or themes. I especially am interested in they publish Magical Realism and actually know what that term means, and honor its history. If they publish Fabulism, that’s me. If they publish New Wave Fabulism, I’m in Heaven. If they put out Slipstream, Weird, Neo-Noir, I’m already bouncing up and down in my skin. If it’s just the 3 major types of Speculative — Fantasy, SF, and Horror, I consider very carefully before even beginning to think of submitting, because in my experience those sometimes tend to be somewhat formulaic in approach if the editors don’t open them up to the Interstitial Genres too. Again, formula is fine, and I love it too, and sometimes I write it, but I just am more at home if they extend into more exploratory territory as well.
If I love the work of the publisher and/or editor I’m inclined to submit. I don’t send stuff out willy nilly, but read not only the issues, but bios, and the work of the publishers, and the editors. If the theme of an anthology or issue is a topic I’m passionate about or think is new and inventive, and sounds like fun to read, that’s a yes. If they ask for lush, surprising, glorious language, ahhh, yes. If they want subversive plots, absolutely. If they want cross-genre, hybrids, genre-busting, oh boy do I. If they want strong female protagonists, non-white, and middle aged or elderly or other-abled characters, I often am drawn in. If they say to blow up convention and not send work in tired tropes, I appreciate that greatly. If they’re SF and focus on aliens, no. I personally would much rather they focus on the CounterIntelligence’s hoax to make people believe aliens are interacting with us, instead of push that on people themselves. If they are beautiful Horror, yes, but if they are just ugly Horror, no. If their Horror includes Weird, I’m in. If the police and government are the good guys, bye. If it’s Neo-Noir instead and showing how we live in a corrupt system, yes, please. If it’s Conspiracy oriented but doesn’t require the default structural formula, yes yes yes.
Some periods I can only be in the teaching mode, when I’m creating new classes on deadline, or if I’m doing taxes or something. It’s a different frame of mind that when I have the luxury of delving into my subconscious and coming up with fiction. But when I’m in those phases, or can manage to at least go into it to write something short for one place, I will try writing something to fit a submission call. Then, if I don’t get in, considering only .01 percent, or even 5 percent do, I have stories to submit to the other places that interest me greatly. I don’t mind not getting in, as I have material on hand, then. Because I’m continually intrigued by unusual submission calls, and publications, and if I don’t have anything to try with them them, I’m sad.
How do I find these places? Other than social media sharing, I subscribe to Duotrope and New Pages, Poets and Writers, a Yahoo submissions group CRWROPPS-B, a Facebook Submissions group, and Write to Be, and other such things. I also search using key words in the places that allow that, check out Ralan, search using Google itself, see where writers I like publish. Sometimes I look for how long it takes to hear back on a submission, how much they pay, how impossible it would be to get in, if they pay in print copies. I don’t really like it that much if they sell books but don’t give contributor copies unless at least they apologize and explain and give e-books. If they send pieces to Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, etc. that’s a big plus. If they have been around a good while and don’t have many “likes” on Facebook, I might not send my very best work that I want a large readership for, or if they don’t make an effort to get social media attention.
I’d be curious to hear how you chose where to submit. I’m sorry if I’ve stepped on any toes with this little essay, as that’s not my intention. I’m hoping it’s useful to other writers in some way, partly to give a different take on the process than the usual Start at the top and work Down. Many of the ones at the top are getting more open to innovation all the time. But the thing is, I love Down. I start Down. Those publications are often the ones taking risks, with a more niche audience into breaking conventions, or completely loving the less popular genres like Weird, or taking on controversial topics, or into Literary language in their Speculative fiction, or with description in their quirky, individualistic submission calls that make me want to get to know them through the publication process, and feel glorious about life and writing and remind me why I do it in the first place.