Submissions, Part 2

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Some literary publications never make it to paper. The Web world hosts untold numbers of what are sometimes called “zines.” It may not be any easier getting your writing published in an online lit mag. But there are more of them out there than the printed versions — and getting a look at the finished editions happens much faster. The lag between reading time and publication is shorter when there’s no printer or distribution in the process.

One of the pieces of paper from my 2006 AWP tour:

Just a simple business card, instead of a postcard printed in four colors.

Carve is named after the short story titan Raymond Carver. You can read their magazine online at They have a yearly contest, judged by a PEN Award winner, with a top prize of $1,000. Unlike paper lit mags that are run by college students, Carve and these online pubs don’t have a formal reading period.

The odd part of the story: Carve Magazine doesn’t accept online submissions yet. Yup, postage and paper to get you in the door. For now, as most of the lit mags say.

Just off the press: Austin’s own lit journal

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Just tonight I heard beautiful writing, a first chapter of Donna Johnson’s in-progress memoir about growing up under the largest revival tent in the world. The Utter Reading was at our biggest independent bookstore, Bookpeople. So I was really not that surprised that the creators and editors of Austin’s own literary journal, Farfelu, were in the appreciative, rapt audience.

I met Elisabeth McKetta and Kim Pyle afterward, and they have just put out Farfelu Issue 9, their latest in a quarterly publication of poems, short fiction and art. It’s all done in a cozy undersized format, to make it stand out. Best of all, it’s got color or monochrome art in each issue, so it’s not one of the literary journals that “look like a socialist manifesto,” to quote the creators of the lit mag Tin House.

Elisabeth and Kim have this to say about their latest:

Issue 9 features eight black and white photographs by Clayton Cusak. In his own words, Cusak photographs “the rich visual subject matter of dilapidated, obsolete, and otherwise transformed structures and the relics they contain from previous inhabitants.” This issue is heavy in poetry, featuring work from five poets: Marcelle Kasprowicz, John Grey, Brian Brown, Misti Rainwater-Lites, and Erin Feldman. The two short stories in this issue, written by Ann Hillesman and Liliana Blum, depict two conflicting archetypes of Father: father as hero, father as villain.

As they point out in a friendly e-mail — coincidentally, sent today — books and magazine subscriptions make great holiday gifts. Their Web site makes it easy to order, and yes writers, there are submission guidelines there, too.

If you write in the Austin area, or even if you write much father afield, you ought to send Farfelu an offering, either of your writing or of a subscription. And a tip of the hat to the small journal, birthplace of many a burgeoning career. Harrison Cheung, who wrote in a Workshop series with us, had a funny short story published in Farfelu. These are the places you can stretch the wings of your writing.

Life’s too short — submit simultaneous

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Don’t waste the lit-mag lifespan of your writing. Submit simultaneous. That is, let your short fiction or poems get read in several places at once. Don’t pay too much attention to how the editors feel about simultaneous submissions, either. Life is too short to wait three to six months to hear back from a lit mag that they didn’t find your story right for their readership.

This opinion is not held universally. In fact, a serious part of the most serious writing community would gasp at the above advice. The Poets & Writers magazine editors offer their take on simultaneous submissions at the magazine’s Web site. Their advice is to follow everyone’s rules and show respect for the resources that a small lit-mag might have already spent on your article.

Okay. If a lit mag has given your story a close read and is deciding on it in a shortlist of writing, I can understand that perspective. but you do have to decide for yourself if submitting to literary magazines — which is almost always a low-paying gig, often just in copies — means you’ll want your writing to linger on little magazines’ desks. If so, only submit to those who promise a six-week reading response.

This summer I took a course at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The professor teaches writing at Coe College just north of IU, and as part of the College’s Writers’ Workshop he advises his students who edit the Coe Review lit-mag. (It’s an annual, and has been published since 1971). In class we talked about submission practices, and he said life is too short to pay much heed to submitting any writing to one lit-mag at a time.

Coe’s Review reads simultaneous submissions. You gotta love their guidelines on their Web site:

Remember, all editors are 18-22 years old.
They like edgy, quirky, strange, and new.
Anything titled “untitled” gets tossed.
Simultaneous submissions are ok.
No inspirational poetry.
No genre fiction.
No porn.
Otherwise, anything goes.

The professor said if your story gets picked up elsewhere, just contact the Review. They’ve probably got another piece of writing that was waiting to get in — so your good luck at being published elsewhere just made an opportunity for another writer who submitted to the Review.

There might come a time in your writing life when being published in a very elite literary magazine matters to your career. This tier of magazines can be a place to build prestige toward getting an agent to read a book manuscript, or getting an editor at a house to consider it. This elite group isn’t a very long list of publications, but many, many writers are trying to get into them. And so they gets tens of thousands of submissions. My advice: If you’ve had a story that’s been published elsewhere, it could be a candidate for these “solitary submission” magazines.

But think hard about how long you want to lock up your writing in solitary. I heard a story from one writer at the Iowa conference about how their submission fell behind a desk (being a paper manuscript, and all that) and it took two years for the lit-mag discover it, read it, and then — oh yes, wait for it — reject it.

Gordon’s right. Life’s too short. Get your work out there, in many places at once. Then keep writing while you wait to hear back.

Reflections on a dark Sun

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The literary magazine The Sun is just beyond 30 years old, but it hasn’t swerved a bit from its singular course through the dark side of human nature. Sy Safransky has been the editor throughout the mag’s lifespan, nurturing an editorial outlook that shines its spotlight on our deepest, darkest moments.

I spent an hour in bed after I woke up this morning reading the July issue. This is the work of the writer, too, I rationalized. We need to read where we hope to be published. Yes, even this celebration of life’s train wrecks stands on my list of hopes, because The Sun is uniformly well-written.

The centerpiece of the magazine, which constantly clocks in at 48 pages, is Readers Write. This deep well of human experience, related in first-person prose, recounts things that really have happened. Non-fiction only, explain the submission guidelines. The magazine’s staff reports these peeled off skins of truth are “edited, often quite heavily, but contributors often have the opportunity to approve or disapprove of editorial changes prior to publication.” Readers Write follows themes, simple as “Nothing to Lose.”

As I lay in bed reading this month’s 8-page collection of stories on “Waking Up,” I began to wonder if the staff was editing the pieces to darken them. After all, this 15 percent of the magazine included reports from a 10-by-10 prison cell; nightmares in the days leading to breast cancer surgery; a family pet tortured by young boys; an abusive alcoholic husband blaming his wife for their divorce; a suicide attempt survived without explanation; a shotgun-wielding parent who frightens his teenager into a fatal crash; Bosnian children returning to an occupied home where soldiers had left a live bomb; a sex offender failing to hold a job…

There are moments of joy and hope in The Sun — one reader wrote of wishing good things for his kids if he woke at 2:22 or 3:33 in the morning, and another recounted the joyous morning she woke up to JFK’s election. But for a magazine so named, The Sun howls in a dark tone much of the time. Its subjects, however, are the thing we are drawn to in stories: trouble, tragedy, conflict and complications. But like the short fiction of Annie Proulx, (stagger through her Heart Songs collection, if you dare) The Sun doesn’t feel compelled to lift its troubled people out of their woes. Maybe its prose, poetry and black and white photos aim to make the rest of us feel lucky.

Read wide to set your bar high

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During our Writer’s Workshop meetings I sometimes wear a t-shirt from The Gettysburg Review. On the shirt’s reverse is this Washington Post quote about the lit mag:

Carrying literary elitism to new, and annoying, heights

I picked up the shirt at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in March, a bonus for subscribing to the mag. It’s kind of a talisman, a way to hope some of my striving toward quality will rub off onto my notebook. But elitism, as I mentioned yesterday in my entry here, is something that makes me angry. Elitism can also deliver beauty and power, even if the walls of access are well up around elite creators.

This morning I enjoyed the lead short story in the Summer issue of the Review. Actually, enjoyed is a weak description of my response. Catherine Ryan Hyde wrote a masterful two-character short story, Chasing Elinor. It was direct and sensory and shifted points of view with elegance. Its language was not elite. Its emotions were accessible.

That Hyde should write such a gem was only a surprise to me. She’s the author of the novel Pay It Forward, which not only became a movie but launched a foundation, headed up by Hyde. Its grants “encourage and empower our youth to believe in themselves and their individual and collective abilities to shape the future.” (20 years ago Hyde was saved from a car fire by strangers. She never found out who they were, but determined to pay the service forward.)

How does this relate to the life of a writer? I used to think of lit mags like The Gettysburg Review as snobby, self-satisfied, full up. That’s not my view any more. They serve a purpose: to inspire with their elitism, so somebody who will muster and maintain the passion to keep working, improving, learning their craft might earn a place on those pages.

So read widely, in the little, less-elite lit mags, as well as places like the Review. (On its inside front cover they reprint the Post quote, headlined with “Still Committed to Our Mission.”) You can learn from the elite, even if you’re not ready to become one of them just yet.