December 05, 2003


Iíve tried to send my stories out before. I sent one, I think. To two places. A year ago, maybe two. And when I got the inevitable rejections, I stopped. I had excuses: I have to do research, figure out where to query, I have to write another story, I have to concentrate on my novel. Well, sure. But I also had to get over the paralyzing fear. Fear of what? Of rejection. Wholesale, complete, industry-wide ďyou canít write, bitchĒ rejection.

I went to a panel discussion on literary magazines a few months ago. The speakers were all editors. I thought I might get some tips: what are they looking for in query letters, how do you determine what magazine is a good fit? That sort of thing. I got some of that, but the biggest snippet of information was something unspoken but blindingly obvious once I sat down and listened to these people. Literary magazines are a labor of love. Small operations, scrambling to stay alive in a huge sea of indifference. Theyíve got one or two full time staff members and a handful of volunteers sifting through piles of manuscripts. They have to include some well known writers to pad their volumes, to get newsstand browsers to pick the journal up and maybe even buy a copy, maybe eventually subscribe.

This is not the film industry with its calculations of artistic worth as measured by logline marketability and attractiveness to the box office star of the moment. This is a much smaller, simpler equation. In the eyes of one or two people sitting in a dark hole of an office, does this story engage? Does it tickle their particular fancy at that moment? Thatís all there really is to it.

Cover letters sometimes help, yes. Not because the editors are necessarily impressed by prior publications, but because the words therein can make the writer three dimensional to the reader. But cover letters arenít necessary. Itís really just about the story. More, itís a matter of taste. Personal taste. That knowledge takes the sting out of rejection, at least for me.

I went to Duttonís Wednesday afternoon while Damian was in school. Sat down in their little cafť, pulled two dozen literary journals off the shelves, and started flipping through to see what lay within. Are all the stories bucolic farm scenes? Are they avant-garde non-linear head-games? Are they straight, unadorned narratives? Do they feel macho? Emotional? Stoic? Do they have a clear sense of style? If so, what?

I donít know that I got all my questions answered. I canít do that without spending hours Ė weeks Ė reading through back issues of each magazine. But I saw that Journal W is all about the twisty plots, Journal X focuses more on character (to the detriment of style, Iím afraid), Journal Y has stories that are like perfect jewels, each one piercing the heart, and Journal Z prefers stories with a political agenda. I took notes, remembered some magazines Iíd read and forgotten in the past, looked at authorís notes to see what other publications they listed in their brag sheets and took more notes, then I left the store to go fetch Damian.

I found myself thinking about the magazines in the car. So many stories. So many beautifully written stories. Who reads them? How many readers even know about these carefully crafted journals? I usually pick up a book if I want to read fiction. These journals are a whole new world to me. They say people donít read anymore. Whoís reading the literary magazines? Just wannabe writers, feeding on that which they desire, keeping it alive in an onanistic cycle? Iím glad they exist but I wonder who buys them. Maybe I will.

These volumes are fat, many of them, the size of a trade paperback and just as thick. But they usually come out just twice a year, and they include essays, book reviews, poetry and artwork along with a smattering of short stories. There isnít a whole lot of room for a new writer in there. In its way, this too is freeing. Because it means this is a game of odds. Rejection just means ďno room here right now, sorry, try again some other time.Ē Dan often says that a door to door salesman has to knock on a hundred doors to make a sale. If I send each story to a hundred literary journals, maybe I too will make a sale. Thatís ninety nine rejections. I better get started, huh?

Yesterday, I sent out five copies of my latest story, an excerpt from my novel. I could feel the thrill shooting through my spine as I slid the story-plus-cover-letter-plus-SASE into each envelope. Those letter-sized envelopes will probably come back in a few months, postmarked Oregon or Wisconsin, each with a nice little rejection note inside. Thatís fine, thatís part of the process. This is a beginning.

Posted by Tamar at December 5, 2003 09:50 AM

Hi Tamar!

I'm on the editorial board of a literary journal at American University, Folio. I'd absolutely lovelovelove it if you would send us something! When we return from break we'll be working on the Fall 2004 issue.

Our site is here:

(I'm working on getting us a forwarded domain)

I hope you consider it!

Posted by: lara at December 5, 2003 02:05 PM

What a lovely offer, Lara! I'll email you to talk it over a little more.

Posted by: Tamar at December 6, 2003 11:19 AM