By September 2020, after three months of first-page drafting and halfway-through abandoning, I had my first short story ready to submit to magazines. I applied promptly to the names that appeared at the top when I Googled for the best literary magazines to submit to – Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Granta Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, One Story, and the like. I would have send my draft off to the email address on The New Yorker website, as well, had my partner not intervened and told me – kindly – that most people published in The New Yorker had been invited by the fiction editor to share something first.
And so began the journey that every writer embarks upon with every story – that of refreshing my Submittable page and my Gmail inbox every half hour, waiting to be told by a top-tier journal that I was the next Flannery O’Connor and could they please publish me already. As you can imagine, most of those big magazines never got back, and the ones that did sent polite but definite rejections. It took me three months, several semi-breakdowns and an unreasonable amount of ice-cream to accept that (a) I was not going to be published in places like Ploughshares or Michigan Quarterly Review as an unknown beginner, and (b) there are in fact good magazines other than ones like Ploughshares or Michigan Quarterly Review that might be happy to publish my work. And as things worked out, by late December 2020 I had received an acceptance for that first story of mine from one of the oldest online literary magazines – and you can read it right here.
A year on, those big magazines have opened their reading periods again, some for a month, some for longer. I’m not much more of a “candidate” for them than I was last year – I’ve had a handful of short stories published, and I was selected for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference earlier this year – and I still have an objectively bigger chance in smaller magazines.
Nonetheless, I’m doing the same thing I did last year, which is to submit to them all. And in fact, this year I’m prioritising big magazines over smaller ones, to the extent that I’m willing to wait for longer periods to hear back from them.
Why, you may ask. Why am I bothering when I know I don’t have too much of a chance?
Here’s what I’ve realised over the last year. Most writers in the top-tier magazines come with big fat publication bios – an MFA at the very least, plus some major accomplishments like residencies and books published. And I see the point of it, really, I do. When a top-tier magazine gets literally thousands of submissions every year, they have to weed things out somehow, and a stellar bio is in many ways a guarantee of more reliable work than the bio of a relative unknown. It’s the same principle as job recruitment – you pick the ones with the best resumes. And for that reason, plenty of beginner writers just bypass the big places – the odds just aren’t in their favour.
But here’s another thing I’ve realised. Submission is a game of mostly rejections anyway. Why one story got chosen over another, or why one magazine rejected a story when another accepted it, are questions we can’t ever get true answers to. Regardless of the stature of the magazine, there is always a bigger chance of rejection than of acceptance.
Why not go ahead and submit to the big leagues, then?
There’s another reason beginners often skip the biggies – an impatience to be published. Extremely natural, and that impatience drove me all of this year, and I’ll still pay extra for an expedited response whenever I can. And of course, smaller publications will get back to you faster and accept more of your work – so there’s more of an instant gratification there. I got published, I have an actual link to my story, yay! But as someone who dreams of making it big – of having books out, of getting into residencies, of winning literary awards, the works – I can’t forget that where you were published matters too. Small local magazine versus national level magazine with thousands of readers? It’s obvious what anyone will pick on a prestige list. And say what you want about art for art’s sake, everyone’s gunning for prestige.
But isn’t it presumptuous to be thinking of prestige so early in one’s career, you ask. Thing is, when I submit to somewhere big, I’m not doing so out of presumption. I’m doing so out of respect for the hard work that I have put into a draft, and the creative talent that came up with the idea for it in the first place. I am giving that hard work and talent the gift of believing that it is good enough to shine on even the biggest of platforms. And no, this isn’t vanity or presumption. This is me being kind to the side of me that chose to follow her passion and is working extremely hard every day to fulfil it.
The day I tell myself I’m not good enough for a publication, is the day I’m disrespecting myself. Other people will tell me all my life that I’m not good enough, I’m sure as hell not going to do it to me.
So. Prestigious national journals – and journals of every ilk – here I come. And to all my fellow newbie writers out there, go ahead and apply too. You’ll get lots of rejections – of course you will. But you’ll get those anyway, so why not rack up some from places like Granta? And if you feel like there’s no point trying, remember that several new writers have had early success with big magazines even without fancy bios. You may or may not be one of them, but you’ll certainly never know unless you try.
Write hard. Write well. Aim big. Keep going. One way or another, it’ll pay off.