Melissa Wan on submitting your work to literary magazines and websites

Posted by Melissa Wan

It won’t make you any money and you’ll be slapped in the face more times than you’ll care to remember. A fairly masochistic essay on why you should submit your work to literary magazines and websites.


The gift of constraint

When I was just starting out as a writer, competition deadlines (and writing group or open mic deadlines) were crucial in prompting me to write. Now, I use them to motivate revisions of stories I already have. The key: I take the deadline seriously.

Like a good Oulipian, I’m advocating here for a kind of literary bondage. Whatever stage you’re at in your writing life, competitions and open calls can offer handy constraints and inspiration in the form of deadlines, word counts, sometimes even themes.

The main caveat: you need to follow the rules and stick to them, almost on pain of death. And as you’re the one holding the gun to your own head, it depends on how well you can trick yourself into thinking the gun is real.

A good news story

My first published story was selected via an open submission call by Bluemoose Books, who were looking for new writers to be published in an anthology of short fiction set on the North West Coast of England. Seeing the open call, I relocated a story I’d been working on to Arnside, doubled its word count, and completed it within the deadline. I know this story wouldn’t have existed in its final form without the open call and its requirements.

I was very lucky that my piece ended up being published in the anthology ‘Seaside Special: Postcards from the Edge’. This was one submission among many others that didn’t make it (and still haven’t), but one success is often enough to make up for many more rejections.

When is my work ready to send?

The revision process is endless and a piece can always be made better (whether you’re the one who can improve it is another question). But to avoid writing only for myself, I tend to submit a piece as soon as I think ‘this is as good as I can get it right now.’

It’s a good idea to run your work past some readers too. Joining writing groups and submitting my work has always gone hand in hand. I think having trusted readers, wherever you find them, is invaluable.

And if your story doesn’t get selected, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good story – it just wasn’t for that particular publication or reading panel. All you can do is work on it then send it out somewhere else. Again, and then again.

OK, I’m ready to be slapped in the face. Where should I send my work?

It’s good practice to read your target publications before submitting to become familiar with the sorts of things they prefer. If you like what you see and think your work might provide good company, this is a good sign.

There are numerous online platforms which compile lists of magazines and journals that publish short fiction and nonfiction. Try a website like Writers’ HQ, who only accept listings from organisations offering accessible submission opportunities.

It’s no secret that submitting your work is unlikely to make you money and there’s an important debate about writers paying entry fees to have their work read. At the very least places ought to offer provision for low-income writers (usually via free or subsidised entries).

It’s true that when sending out your work you may not be rewarded by publication for a long time – but you will always be rewarded by having a new or better story. And in some ways that has to be enough.

But I just keep being rejected

Welcome to the club! Failure is part of the creative process and being rejected many, many more times than you are accepted unfortunately comes with the territory. If you accept it as simply part of the deal, it may help you keep going.

You might know the Stephen King anecdote from his book On Writing where he says he pinned every?single rejection letter?he received to his wall with a nail. “By the time I was fourteen,” he writes, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

The key to this story being the final phrase: he went on writing.

Submission is not easy but when mastered it can pay dividends. As writers we must learn to favour discipline and constraint whilst preparing to be slapped in the face. After every slap, brush off and ask for more.