April 28, 2015

Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good

Every Tuesday, the Missouri Review holds its weekly production meeting. This meeting keeps everyone up to date on all facets of the magazine’s production so that all, from editor-in-chief to the interns, know where we stand with the current and forthcoming issues of the magazine. After this production meeting, we break into genre groups – cleverly labeled “poetry” and “prose” – and discuss the manuscripts that will ultimately be passed for a second or third read.

Last week, a story was pitched that sparked a brief discussion on perseverance.

The author in question had sent us many stories over the years, dating back to before my time with TMR and, if I’m remembering the author’s biography correctly, dating back decades. The author has been sending work so frequently that our current intern staff, who only work for us for two semesters, recognized the author’s name. The stories are always good but have never been accepted for publication, and one of the interns wondered aloud about this writer’s constant effort to get into TMR. How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?

Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.

But I’m familiar with this from the writer’s side, too. Since 2003, I have sent my fiction to One Story. According to their Submission Manager, way back on September 5, 2003, I sent them “The Third Child,” a story that they declined and which was never published anywhere (for, I assure you, good reason). Recently they turned down attempt number sixteen. That’s right: sixteen. I keep track of my stories on my laptop by number – I’m at story #83 now – and the majority of those stories are not good, or feel incomplete, or read like fragments of a fully realized story. Of those eighty three, sixteen of my stories have been sent to One Story. Every single one has been turned down. Sometimes, the editors say something encouraging. Other times, it’s a standard form rejection.

One Story is not alone: there are several fine journals that have been receiving my work since 2003, when I started graduate school, when I immediately decided that my fiction would be published everywhere, when I decided to send work out pretty much nonstop. Most of the stories I sent during graduate school were never published, but a few of them were. Of the stories I have sent One Story over the years, two were never published, and two are so new that they have yet to be picked up elsewhere. If publication is a measurement of the quality of your writing (arguable, to be sure), then I’ve only sent One Story my best (at that time) work. They always said, Thanks but we’re good.

I’m not picking on One Story: I could insert Tin House or New England Review in its place and the story would be exactly the same. No, no, no, no, nice try, thanks but no thanks, etc. I would love to tell you that back in 2003, I understood how the editorial decisions of a literary magazine were made, but, of course, I didn’t. I was just stubborn. And while being stubborn and egotistical and confident and (insert your own synonym here) may not be the best thing for a young writer unless those qualities are mixed with humility and a willingness to learn, I’m sure that being persistent with my story submissions has helped me to get my work published.

I submit my stories less often now; I write them slower, I’m more selective about where I send my work, and I’m not nearly as impatient to published as I used to be. But the persistent writer, the one who keeps trying us again and again, is a good thing. A new story to us once every six months, or year, or two years, whatever the pace might be that suits you, is good. Not just for us, but for other literary magazines as well. And, good for the writer.

You can quit anytime. Why quit now?

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

3 Responses to Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good

  1. Lauren Owens says:

    I really appreciate this. Although I’ve been writing for years, and received an MFA 9 years ago, I’ve only just started submitting in earnest. Why the silence? In the beginning I took ‘no’ for an answer. I’d submit, enough magazines (sometimes only 3…) would say ‘no’ and I, assuming it must have had something to do with the quality of the work, said ‘OK.’ I put my head down and continued working in the kind of silent production Danielle Lazarin describes in her recent ReviewReview piece. I wish I had allowed myself to try and fail and try, try, try again. Or, better, not to view “rejection” as failure. Like you did, Michael. Otherwise, you’re just sitting in a room talking to yourself, which is fine, if that’s your thing, but you can’t make a career of it.

  2. Ian Bage says:

    I find the underlying assumption of this article to be horrifying. That it does not matter whether a story is published or not, meaning it does not matter if it is read or not, surely points to a view of literature as an academic exercise in form and lifestyle… rather than the recording of desperate messages from the heart. If it doesn’t matter whether your story is read now, immediately, as soon as possible, forthwith, by as many people as possible, then what is the point of it? If you are just interested in the appearance of being a writer then I suppose by all means scrawl away, submit humbly and often for many years to the almighty god’s of the tinpot realms of literary magazines where dutiful and obedient interns gather at weekly editorial meetings to receive the bountiful wisdom of paid literary functionaries like the high priestess, sorry I mean assistant literary editor. I can only imagine the frissons and shivers such experiences engender as tales of MFA writing and the pain of spouses who are becoming worn down with chosen poverty are traded over bad coffee in ugly cups. I write for a reason, with purpose and volatility, to say into the ears of the lost what they need to hear, and it is clear to me that the priesthood of the literary magazine templedom is not interested in such activity, only in the catechism, the hymn numbers, the verse and voice of worshipping the form of their god, safety and the giving of no offense. The stories and poems they select all seem to be Oprah worthy pabulum, carefully crafted not to rock the boat of a church of words that will sell at the mall of the small and frightened mind. I don’t think that a reading intern would know a good story if it was force fed to them as they were strapped to a chair after being kidnapped from their seventeen year old Honda in the parking lot outside the sorry little offices of their chosen penance station literary magazine. I suppose I’ll keep writing and submitting my stories though, not because I think that maybe someday I’ll get lucky and my name will come up for the gatekeepers enough times that they will utter some magic word and I will be finally included in the pantheon of temporary martyrs and become a published story writer. No. I’ll keep writing and submitting because my heart has messages for the world and maybe some day someone with a heart of their own will read one of them.

    • trish says:

      I was astonished at the arrogance of this article, the assumption that writers should just keep plugging away because writing is its own reward, and MAYBE after a decade of trying, if you’re really, really good, MSR will publish you. Here’s a radical idea: If a literary journal won’t publish you (especially those that require a submission fee, fie, fie) write them off YOUR list, dear reader. Send ’em elsewhere, to a pub. that appreciates your style. Or, publish it yourself.