10 Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals

Submitting prose to literary journals is a long game for most of us. Success doesn’t come overnight or easily, and it’s easy to get discouraged. I speak from personal experience. But you don’t have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and leave things to chance. There are some things you can do to increase the odds of having your work published in literary journals and magazines.

1. Read them!

If you’re a writer, you should be reading literary journals and magazines, whether or not you are submitting to them. I encourage writers to be true to themselves–don’t “write to the market” because (a) the market is constantly shifting and you’ll never be able to keep up; and (b) your best work isn’t going to come from trying to gauge what’s trending in the moment. That isn’t the way to find your voice. But you should be aware, not only of what’s out there, but of where the tastes of specific literary markets lay. For example, you’re not going to get very far by submitting your mystery story to a sci-fi journal.

2. Choose Wisely.

Research the literary journals or magazines you’re thinking of submitting to, to make sure your work is a good fit for them, yes, but also to make sure they’re a good fit for you and for your work. Too often, we are so anxious to be published that we fail to consider whether a particular market is reputable, offers equitable publishing terms, or will help us achieve our writing goals.

3. Start at the Top.

Why not? Sure, it’s faster and easier to get published in a lesser quality journal, and if your only goal is to see your story in print, then that may be the way to go. But don’t sell yourself short. If you want your work to get noticed by potential agents, for example, taking your time and striving toward getting your work published in a well-respected literary journal is the way to go. So start at the top, and then work your way down your list. And never submit to a journal you wouldn’t be proud to have your work published in.

4. Consider Your Goals.

This goes back to the last point: Do you want to see your name and your work in print? Do you want to get make money? Do you want your work to be noticed by literary agents? Do you want to see your work in a print publication or online? Or does it matter? Take your goals into account when choosing where to submit your work. For example, if your goal is to snag a literary agent, then you may want a few publication credits to list in your query letter. Toward that goal, you’ll probably want to submit to fairly recognizable markets, but you probably won’t want to enter a contest that offers publication of your book as the grand prize, skipping over the agent step entirely.

5. Read Submission Guidelines Carefully and Follow Them.

This is one of the most important tips I can give you. I’ve volunteered as an editor for several literary journals, and I can tell you this counts. The guidelines are there for a reason–they make our jobs easier and help tailor the submissions we receive to our publication. When a writer clearly hasn’t read the guidelines, or worse, chooses to disregard them, the writer-editor relationship is off to a bad start.

6. Pay Special Attention to Contest Rules.

Rules and guidelines for contests are often different than regular submission guidelines. For example, it is common for contests to require that writers take their names off their submissions, so the journal’s readers can read the submissions “blind,” without knowing who wrote them. In fact, I’m a little wary of contests that don’t read submissions blind. Make sure your name is removed from all the places: remove it from underneath the title of your piece, take your last name out of the standard header, and delete the address block that normally goes in the upper left corner of the first page of your submission.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
–Octavia E. Butler

7. Watch Your Word Count.

Word count limits for literary journals are all over the place. Some journals are into flash fiction and have word count limits between 50 and 1,500 words. Many journals cap a short story submission at 3,500 words. Some journals accept fiction up to 7,500 words or even 10,000. But the most common word count limits for prose are 5,000 to 6,000 words. Oftentimes, stories and essays that are longer could be much tighter. Space is at a premium in literary journals, and if your pieces fall into that sweet spot of 6,000 words or less, your odds of finding someone to publish your work go up.

8. Send Your Best Work.

You’ll hear me say this again and again: Polish your work until it shines before you submit it to a literary journal or magazine. Markets get many more submissions than they are able to publish. It’s already a challenge for a piece to stand out amount hundreds or thousands of submissions. Readers are eagerly searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack–a sparkling gem that catches their eyes and stands out among the rest. At the same time, they’re overwhelmed with submissions, and they’re looking for a reason to reject yours. If the work is sloppy, or amateurish, or replete with misspellings or errors in punctuation and grammar, it makes it easy for a reader or editor to decline the piece and move on to the next. Besides, once your piece is published, it’s out there in print or online forever, for all practical purposes. Make sure you’re proud that’s the case.

9. Pick a Dream Journal.

A “dream journal” is a shoot-for-the-moon literary journal or magazine you’d love to have your work published in, but that perhaps seems out of reach. Think the Paris ReviewPloughshares, Kenyon Review, or Zyzzyva. Having a dream journal (or a half dozen dream journals) is motivating. It gives a writer something to shoot for and to celebrate. But dream journals don’t have to be the most well-known or the most difficult-to-get-published-in journals. The journals I listed above are some of mine, but so was Kelp JournalKelp Journal is a relatively new literary journal, but I fell in love with it because of its aesthetic and its quality. My short story “The Jetty” was published in Kelp Journal‘s fifth issue. I will never forget the feeling of reading the email from one of my dream journals that began, “I’m delighted to inform you ….” After that, I took my love of Kelp Journal to the next level and applied to be a fiction editor. I’ve since edited fiction for two issues. We are currently accepting submissions for Issue No. 8, so send us something! And remember, no dream journal is out of reach if you follow Tip #10.

10. Persist.

This is the best tip I can give you: Don’t give up. The odds may be stacked against you, but that only means the odds get better each and every time you submit. And your writing is getting better and better too! It’s not uncommon for a piece to get upwards of 30 rejections before it finds its home. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the story or essay, but that it didn’t suit a particular market at a particular point in time. If you’re sure you’ve followed all the other tips and submitted your best work, it’s a matter of being tenacious until you find the literary journal or magazine that’s meant to publish your piece.

Bonus tips:

  • Don’t bombard your dream journal with submissions–guidelines often request that writers submit no more than once per submission period, and annoying them isn’t going to win you any points.
  • If a journal says they’d love to see more of your work, believe them. Send them something even better and/or more suitable than the piece they praised.
  • Once a piece is accepted, be sure to withdraw it from any other markets to which you’ve submitted it for the sake of the journal’s readers and editors, as well as your reputation as a writer.

5 Reasons Not to Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests are fun. I love them, and I enter them often, although I’ve yet to make it past the “finalist” level. But I don’t care! During those weeks or months of waiting for the winners to be announced, it’s exciting thinking that one of the winning stories might be mine. I recently read an article encouraging writers to enter contests and listing all the reasons they should do so, with the premise that, “you have nothing to lose.” Yes, there are many reasons writers should be entering writing contests. But depending on the contest, writers may have something to lose.

I was sadly reminded of this recently. I’m a fiction editor for a literary journal, and I was working with an emerging author on a short story that I’d fallen in love with. They’d submitted it to our journal, we’d accepted it for publication, and I’d worked with the author on developmental edits. We’d just received copyedits back from the copyeditor and were going over a couple of final details prior to publication of the story. I was trying to help the author resolve an issue with the story’s title, and during my research that last morning, I came across the story published on a business’s website.

The author had entered a writing prompt contest offering a prize of $250. The author didn’t win, but what they didn’t realize or understand was that the business had published their story on its website anyway, under the terms and conditions of its contest, and so the story had already been published.

We had to decline the story, for several reasons:

    1. The journal I edit for only accepts submissions of “previously unpublished” work. This is the case for most journals.
    2. The journal takes “first publication rights,” which means the journal publishes the story and pays the author in return for the right to be the first to publish the story. Again, this is common. The author’s story had already been published online, so the journal had lost the chance to be the first to publish it.
    3. Even if we’d wanted to go ahead with publishing the story (which we strongly considered because it was a beautiful story by a talented writer), there was another problem. The business’s contest rules required that, if we were to publish the story, we had to (a) give the business credit for the writing prompt that had prompted the author’s story (the idea); (b) credit the business for being the first to publish the story; and (3) link to the business’s writing contest. These are things we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

I was devastated, but the author was even more devastated. This would have been their first short story publication in a literary journal, and their polished story would have appeared online and in print. They would have been paid for the publication of their work. The story needed work on things like structure, tense, and point of view, and we’d worked really hard together on those things and to make the story shine. Now, instead of being published in a quality literary journal, it’s out there on a business website with its early-draft flaws intact, and it will be forever, for all practical purposes.

Before you enter a writing contest, ask yourself these questions:

1. What will you get out of it? If you’re considering entering writing contests, think first about what you want to get out of entering a contest, and then make sure the writing contest you’re considering will give you that. For example, the author I mentioned would have won $250 had they won the business’s contest.  If your goal is a cash prize, then this contest might be for you, but there are a lot of other contests out there that offer a cash prize and don’t take first publication rights to your story even if you don’t win. If your goal is to begin publishing stories and building your reputation as a short story writer, this contest is probably not a good stepping stone toward that goal.

I enter short story contests often. I’m looking for recognition for some of the stories in my book-length manuscript, which may help me find an agent. So I enter contests that are considered noteworthy by agents, or that will result in publication in a respected journal, or that may earn me a meeting with an agent. I consider contests that may result in my book being published by a respected indie press–for my book, which is a more difficult pitch to agents, this may be a good result. But I would not enter a contest that would result in an exploitative book contract, and there are many of those out there.

2. What will the contest organizers get out of it? As I mentioned above, the business running the writing prompt contest likely has other motives for running its weekly contests besides supporting emerging writers. The business is a service company–it matches writers with editors, copyeditors, book cover designers, etc., and earns a fee for doing so. Their weekly writing contest appears to me to be a brilliant piece of marketing. They get about 250 entries every week, all short stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words, and they publish all of the entries on their website. This means 250 new pages of content on their website every week, which is incredible for their website’s search-engine optimization. And they’re pulling writers into these contests–writers who may buy their services. In fact, if they choose any runners-up in their weekly contest, the runners-up receive coupons toward these services.

The best contests for emerging writers to enter are generally those contests that are organized for the purpose of discovering emerging writers and supporting writers. Their prizes and contest rules will reflect this.

3. Is the contest entry fee fair? Whether an entry fee is fair depends on the contest’s motivation, the prizes it offers, and the writer’s motivation for entering. The writing prompt contest charges a $5 entry fee, for example. It appears they get about 250 entries every week, so after paying one winner $250, they’re making about $4,500 a month from this contest, getting free content for their website, gathering the email addresses of aspiring writers, and likely adding them to an email list and marketing their services to them. In return, they’ll publish each entrant’s story, whether or not it’s ready for publication, will award one story $250, and may award gift certificates toward services. Normally, I’d say a $5 entry fee is fair, but in this case, I’d say it’s not. Naïve, hopeful writers are essentially paying $5 to have their stories published.

Another contest I’m aware of charges a high $25 entry fee and runs multiple contests year-round. The contests are organized by a nonprofit organization, and the publication is a quality one and well-known, which made the entry fee feel acceptable to me. Since the organization is a nonprofit, I assumed the money was going toward contest administration fees, marketing, prizes, etc. But after doing some research, I learned that the organization’s board members are paid exorbitant annual salaries. Although the organization isn’t technically making money from the contests, its board members are.

Some higher entry fees make sense. Literary journals will always be struggling. Most of them are staffed by volunteers and charge reasonable or no submission fees. When journals do charge entry fees for contests, the money goes toward prizes and costs and helps them meet their annual budgets. But something to keep in mind is that higher entry fees also contribute to keeping out marginalized writers. Look for contests that offer waivers of fees for writers who can’t afford the entry fee or that allow more privileged writers to pay extra so that others can enter, too.

4. What’s in the fine print? Before you enter a contest, read the rules, terms, and conditions carefully, word by word, and make sure you understand them. The young author I worked with didn’t understand that their story would be published on the business website and didn’t know anything about publication rights or what future publishers would be required to do in order to republish their story.

In a writing group I belong to, I’ve heard more than one writer complain that, after winning a certain organization’s contest and having their story published, they realized that the terms and conditions of the contest allowed the publisher the exclusive right to publish their story anytime, anywhere, forever, and also gave the publisher the  right to option the story for film and reap most of the benefits of that, while giving the author no say and paying the author relatively little.

Know what you’re getting into.

5. Is your piece ready to publish? Writers want their work to be seen. We write for ourselves, but we write for our readers, too. It’s our way of connecting with other human beings. But our desire to have our work published can work against us–if we are too anxious and our work isn’t ready, then having it published can damage our reputations as writers early on in our careers. And in the modern era of internet technology, once something is published online, we have to assume it could be out there forever. So don’t enter a piece of writing in a contest that you may someday regret having published.

Fortunately, if your work isn’t ready, then your chances of winning a contest and having your story published in a quality literary journal are low. But your goal is to win, so make sure your story is polished, run it through spellcheck, and get notes from beta readers or a writing group. Don’t be in a rush–enter your very best work, so that whatever the results, you can be proud of your effort.

Good luck!

KISS Your Manuscript

KISS: Keep it simple, scribbler.

When I’m working with writers, I ask that manuscripts be submitted to me in Times New Roman typeface, 12-point font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins and a half-inch indentation at each new paragraph. Why? Well, yes, it makes my job easier–help me help you and all that. But most importantly, this is the standard manuscript format that most agents and publishers will ask you to use, and you may as well get used to it.

William Shunn has a great website full of resources for formatting every kind of manuscript: Proper Manuscript Format for Fiction Writers 

Writers often argue against simplicity when it comes to formatting manuscripts. I once had a writer tell me he had to use Lucida Handwriting 11-point font, and that he might be able to give me 1.15 spacing, but he could never give me double spacing. That’s fine. I’m your book coach and your editor–you don’t have to please me. I’ll take it in whatever form you send it to me, then I’ll change it into standard manuscript format before I begin my work. For both our sakes. But an agent or a publisher may not let you off the hook so easily.

I get it. You’re an artist, and you shouldn’t be constrained by standard manuscript format. It interferes with your creativity. I was once a promoter for rock and punk bands, so I know all about artists, and riders demanding multiple packs of Extra Polar Ice chewing gum, and aversions to abiding by the rules. And I’m a writer too, so I know about finding inspiration in places and routines that may seem strange or quirky or eccentric to others.

So listen, while you’re creating, I don’t care if you use Modern Love Grunge typeface in lime green bold and italicized 18-point font, single-spaced, with three-inch margins. I really don’t. I’m all for you doing whatever it takes to get those words on the page. And if you want me to change the formatting for you so you don’t have to witness the carnage, I can do that. We are in this together, and I want to help you and your book succeed.

But when it’s time to send your work out into the world, let’s keep it simple, scribbler. Use simple, standard formatting, and let your story be the thing that shines.

WRITER TIP: Don’t get too attached to the way your manuscript looks. Remember, the formatting of your manuscript is not story. Pretty typeface won’t make a bad story better, and it may obscure a good story and make it unreadable. When you’re ready to submit your work to an agent or a publisher, let go of the fancy formatting that can be distracting, detract from your story, and frustrate readers. Don’t give an agent a reason to put your manuscript down. You’ve put all that hard work into writing your novel. Now’s the time to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes.

Believe in Yourself

I want to talk to you today about a Flavorwire article I read eight years ago. It’s an old article, yes, but (1) it’s still relevant today, and (2) it made such an impact on me that I’m still thinking about it eight years later. I also want to point out that, while the 2014 article spoke to gender disparity in publishing, the lessons I took from the article apply not only to women writers, but to any marginalized writer whose confidence in submitting to literary journals or querying agents has taken a hit.

The 2014 article is called “A Tale of Two Literary Magazines: The Believer and Tin House Respond to the VIDA Count.” As its title suggests, the article is about two literary magazines included in the 2013 VIDA Count. But what I found shocking when I read the article eight years ago was not so much the VIDA Count itself, although that is fascinating too. What I found more surprising was something it unearthed about the ways marginalized writers internalize and respond to rejection.

The VIDA Count is a look at disparity in the makeup of contributors to magazines and literary journals. The Count is undertaken by the VIDA organization. In 2013, VIDA’s focus was on gender inequality, but today, VIDA’s mission is more inclusive and intersectional:

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (VIDA) is a non-profit intersectional feminist literary organization dedicated to creating transparency surrounding gender imbalances and the lack of diversity in the literary landscape. VIDA also aims to amplify historically-marginalized voices, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); writers with disabilities; and queer, trans, and gender nonconforming individuals.

The VIDA organization tallies the makeup of contributors to top literary magazines and journals. In 2013, it did so in terms of men and women, tallying their numbers in terms of bylines, reviewers of books, authors of books reviewed, interviewers of authors, and authors interviewed.

One of the journals featured in the 2013 Flavorwire article, Tin House, did well in the count. The other, The Believer, did not do so well. Tin House published its last issue in June 2019, and The Believer is set to publish its final issue early this year. Both of these journals are quality, well-respected literary journals. The contributions of these two journals have been life-altering to the literary world, and their presence will continue to be missed by readers and writers alike far into the future. The Believer‘s legitimacy and commitment to do good were never in question. Rather, the article points up how insidiously disparity can creep into the most well-intentioned of organizations.

In 2013, The Believer‘s overall count was more than 65% men, less than 35% women. A pretty even split between men and women in the interviews and interviewees category helped it out. Drilling down, 82% of its book reviews were written by men, 72% of the books it reviewed were written by men, and 72% of its bylines belonged to men. No one was more surprised by this than The Believer itself. Its editors said:

We were totally thrilled and honored to be included in the VIDA count because we read it every year, and every year we’ve wondered, ‘how would we fare?’ We always thought we’d fare pretty well. Our masthead is 40% women, and one of our driving editorial principles is to produce as diverse a magazine as we can every month. So we were surprised when we saw our VIDA numbers.

It’s important to note that, since 2013, The Believer has worked to steadily flip those numbers. In the latest VIDA Count (2019), The Believer‘s overall numbers were approximately 58% women, 40% men, and 2% non-binary. The Believer should be applauded for its efforts–it’s easy to talk the talk, but it takes dedication and unwavering commitment to undertake the real work of creating lasting change. The Believer will retire this year with an admirable and inspiring legacy.

But what I found most shocking about the 2014 Flavorwire article were the statements provided by Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House. While Tin House did very well in the VIDA Count, Spillman pointed out some interesting challenges the journal faced in achieving its good numbers:

At Tin House we take a conscious, systemic approach to gender balance. In the past we had relied on ‘we’re all feminists, so the numbers will work out.’ But the numbers were slightly skewed in favor of men. There were many factors contributing to this, including that males submit 100% of the time after being solicited, versus 50% of females, men are four times more likely to resubmit after an encouraging rejection, female agents send more male submissions than females (go figure), when given the option both men and women writers chose to write about male writers 80% of the time, etc.

To its credit, Tin House had done its homework and had then gone out of its way to achieve gender equality, which is absolutely necessary when disparity is so deeply ingrained.

Spillman explained the steps Tin House took to reverse the trend:

[W]e made some systemic changes–soliciting more women, re-affirming our desire to see work by women, assigning more interviews and reviews of female writers, and generally paying attention throughout our organization.

Reading that article in 2014, I realized that, yes, the changes in the publishing industry must come from within. Change doesn’t just happen. The steps Tin House took to solicit and encourage women writers and the steps The Believer took to turn its numbers around had to be taken in order to break the cycle. Those steps need to be taken with writers of color and other marginalized writers as well. It feels hopeful that, today, publishers are beginning to take them.

The thing is, extra effort must be made to encourage marginalized writers to continue to query agents in the face of rejection and to keep submitting to literary journals and magazines because, all too often, these writers rarely see themselves in such publications, so why would they submit to them? It can feel like an exercise in futility. It’s encouraging to now see literary journals offer free submission portals or free submission periods for writers of color or to offer submission periods during which they only accept submissions from writers of color. They are showing their commitment to publishing writers of color.

At a recent seminar I attended, an older, white, male writer bemoaned the fact he’d received a rejection from a well-known journal with a note indicating the journal was currently focusing on amplifying the voices of writers of color. He felt it was unfair. Shouldn’t my piece be judged on its own merit? he wondered. Not by the color of my skin? Ironic questions, really, considering the state of the world. But the fact is, white writers, like me, have had the advantage for a long, long time. So yes, as we work to level the playing field, we are going to (hopefully) lose that advantage. Tomorrow, as the publishing industry makes room for others, it will be a little more difficult for a white author to get something published than it is today, and the day after tomorrow, it will be a little harder still, until someday, it’s equally as difficult for all of us, and we can all bemoan our rejections together. We have to be so much more than okay with that because it’s so much more than fair and so long overdue.

But I digress, and here’s the biggest point I want to make for any marginalized writer out there who is struggling with rejection: Spillman’s comments reminded me that no one needs to break free of systemic constraints more than we do ourselves. Generations of conditioning have taught marginalized groups not to enter the race. I can easily imagine the paralyzing doubt or fear that may play into, for example, a woman’s failure to resubmit to a journal after receiving an encouraging rejection. I’ve felt it. Did they really mean it when they asked me to try again? Are they just being nice? Can I write anything better or more suitable than the piece they already rejected? Can I rise to the occasion?

I have no doubt that centuries of being collectively told we are less than is deeply ingrained in our psyches and plays no small part in our reactions to rejection or our inability to fully believe or accept any encouragement that accompanies that rejection. I am reminded that, while we absolutely can’t do this without the commitment of publications like Tin House and The Believer, we have to continue to step up in the face of fear and self-doubt and rejection because all of us belong. We must enter the race.

WRITER TIP: Make a commitment to yourself to believe all the good things people say about you, to accept praise and encouragement, and to say yes to opportunities. If an agent declines to represent your novel or memoir, send it out to another. Just like in any true love story, your perfect agent is out there waiting for you and your book. If a journal sends you an encouraging rejection, send them something else during the journal’s next submission period, and keep writing and sending them something each submission period until you get that yes. Don’t bombard them, but don’t convince yourself you’re not worthy and ghost them either.
Table to with a notebook that says 2022 goals surrounded by an envelope on the left, a small holiday gift and sparkly ornament at the top, and a pen on the right.

The Power of Words

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago, but every December since the year 2000, I’ve made a list of goals for the coming year. I used to type them, but beginning in 2009, I started writing the lists down by hand in my “dream journal,” a separate journal that houses my dreams. In addition to my annual lists of goals, I keep other lists in my dream journal, like a list of places I want to visit and an extensive list of all the places I’ve lived since I was three years old. I also jot down little notes in my dream journal: observations, quotes, and things that move me, inspire me, or motivate me.

I’ve written down a list of anywhere from 10 to 25 goals each year for the past 20+ years. I’ve never once accomplished every goal on the list, but I’m okay with that. If I accomplish even half of them, I’ve still gotten somewhere. And over time, I’ve accomplished quite a lot. Some goals make the list for several years before I actually accomplish them. I first wrote “Earn Bachelor’s Degree” on my 2012 list. I didn’t go back to college until 2016, and I didn’t earn my bachelor’s degree until 2018. But I set that intention, and I kept writing it down and putting it into words until it came true. In 2016, I set a goal of submitting 12 short stories to literary journals. I didn’t accomplish that goal until this year. I’m still working on my goals to beat my best 5K time and to watch all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. I’ll get there someday. But the thing is, I’ve steadily made progress, and my life is considerably better than it was before I started writing my goals down.

As I begin to consider my goals for 2022, I find myself thinking about the power words have had in my life. The power of writing my goals down and setting my intentions for the future, yes. But also the power of the words others use to define me, and the power of the words I use to define myself. Like when I was in seventh grade, and I had to stand up in front of my English class and give an oral report on Virginia Dare. I was terrified. I wore a chocolate brown dress my mother made for me. My teacher wrote each of us a handwritten letter giving her feedback on our reports. At the end of mine, she wrote, “Brown is definitely your color!” As I write this nearly 50 years later, I still have that piece of paper tucked away somewhere, and I just realized I’m wearing my favorite chocolate brown sweater. The power of words.

Close up of notebook or journal with heading 2022 goals. A woman in a bulky oatmeal colored sweater and jeans is writing in the notebook.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sent me to the library to help with a kindergarten class. I sat cross-legged on the carpet with some of the children and read to them, then I helped them pick out library books. It wasn’t anything super memorable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t remember that afternoon at all except for two things: (1) It was the day I checked Island of the Blue Dolphins out of the library–I can still picture it displayed on a book easel on top of a shelf; and (2) when I left, the kindergarten teacher thanked me for my help and told me I showed a lot of “initiative.” I didn’t know what the word “initiative” meant. I had to go look it up in the dictionary. When I did, I felt a sense of pride. The kindergarten teacher had seen this awesome personality trait in me that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I possessed.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really showed any initiative in the library that day. I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I don’t remember doing anything other than what I was sent there to do. But between my own teacher choosing me for the job and the kindergarten teacher complimenting me, that day was a boost to my self-esteem and helped to develop my character. If I didn’t have initiative when I left the library that day, I sure do have it now, many years later. I believed I had initiative, and so I displayed it at every opportunity. Today, this is a quality I really do have. That kindergarten teacher gave me a word that changed my life.

As an adult, I worked as a music promoter for a few years. One night, after I insisted a sleazy venue manager give my band the slot he’d promised, a famous rock musician told me I was tenacious. To be honest, up until that night, I hadn’t seen my unwillingness to give up or give in as a positive trait. I often saw it as obstinacy, a dogged and sometimes reckless refusal to get it through my thick skull that something wasn’t meant to be. But that night, when the musician told me I was tenacious and said it in an admiring way, I began to see myself differently. Sure, that kind of stubbornness meant I eventually failed at a lot of things. But it sometimes meant I persisted long enough to succeed, too.

Persistence and thick skins are things writers need. To keep writing and rewriting, trying to spill the things in your head out onto paper in such a way that others can see you, in such a way that other human beings know that you see them, is hard on the soul. To continue submitting your stories, little pieces of you, to literary journals day after day, and to be told they’re not wanted the overwhelming majority of the time, is hard on the heart. Out of the 49 submissions I’ve received responses to so far this year, 47 of those responses were rejections. It would be so easy to get discouraged and give up. I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be a relief to give up and do something else. Just about anything else.

But in those moments, I remember that scene in The Notebook when Noah tells Allie she’s a pain in the ass, and I know I’m made of stronger stuff than that. “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings,” he says. “You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.” This is me. I am tenacious. Or stubborn. Either way, literary journals aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings, and sure, it hurts to be rejected—for like two seconds. Then I get over it. I roll up the sleeves of my chocolate brown sweater, and I send them another story. Surely they’ll love this one.

As I put my goals into words this month and set my intentions for 2022, I’m going to keep in mind the power that words have, not only to help me set my course for the coming year, but to encourage me and keep me pushing forward. When it comes to pursuing a writing career, being stubborn is a good thing.

WRITER TIP: Start a dream journal. There is power in setting your intentions for the future, putting your goals into words, and writing your dreams for yourself down in ink. Each year, write your goals for that year in your dream journal. Write down specific, measurable goals, and cross them off as you achieve them. If you don’t reach a goal one year, move it to the next year, and keep setting that intention until you reach the goal. As the years go by and you look back at your lists, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished.

Game Theory and Writing

During a recent workshop, some friends were discussing “gamifying” or counting submissions—keeping track of the number of times a writer has submitted something for publication or has had a piece accepted or rejected. The consensus among my friends was that it isn’t truly being a creative person or a writer to keep track of the numbers like that. I think I understand where they are coming from, and I’ll clarify that in a moment. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But keeping track works for me, and so I wanted to write about why it works for me.

What is Gamifying?

When it comes to writing, gamifying is basically applying “game theory” to your writing or submission goals by making a game out of achieving those goals.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a perfect example of gamifying writing goals. Participants set a goal to write 50,000 words during the month of November. They receive support, encouragement, and colorful badges along the way. If they finish, they end up with a 50,000-word novel or start to a novel, are awarded a certificate, and get some cool little prizes–win, win!

Many of us gamify writing without realizing it, e.g., by setting daily wordcount, page number, or timed writing goals. I don’t gamify my writing, but I gamify my submission process. My game is a simple one: reach 100 submissions in 2021 and I win.

There are a number of different writing and submitting “games” out there, as well as Facebook groups dedicated to racking up as many submissions or rejections as one can in a year’s time. I’ll link to a few articles that address specific games at the end of the post.

For now, here’s a great TED Talk by Jane McGonigal on applying game theory to improving mental health:

 

Why Gamifying Submissions Works For Me

Gamifying submissions works for me because I have a goal-oriented (and perhaps rather obsessive) personality. Without a goal in mind, it’s easy for me to push submitting my stories—something that is just for me and something that is, frankly, a lot of hard work—to the backburner, in favor of the things I should be doing or would rather be doing.

On the other hand, if I set a goal, I’m probably going to reach it because it will frustrate me not to. In 2020, I set a goal of reaching 100 rejections. That goal did not work for me because “rejections” has a negative versus a positive connotation. Also, I like to have some control over things, and rejections aren’t something I can control. (Nor do I want to—if I had my druthers, I’d prefer zero rejections, thank you very much.) What I can control is how many things I send out. So for 2021, I set a goal of reaching 100 submissions. That works better for me, but reaching for 100 rejections might work better for someone else.

How to Make Gamifying Submissions Work for You

If you think game theory might help you reach your submission goals, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Only submit work that is ready.

I gave this a lot of thought, and I think I get what my friends meant when they said submitting and keeping score is not writing. What I think this assumes is that a writer is cranking out work in order to try to reach those numbers. That is definitely not the way to go. Setting a submission goal only works if we submit work that is ready to submit. People are out there reading our writing (most of them volunteers), and we don’t want to get a reputation for wasting their time by sending them stuff that isn’t our best work. Most of the stories and essays I’m submitting in 2021 are stories and essays I spent one or two years or more writing and rewriting.

2. Submit with care and consideration.

Take the time to read and research the markets to which you’re submitting your work, and do your best to submit to the places you think are best suited to the particular story or essay. Don’t submit work willy nilly just to reach numbers.

I’ve submitted my work 97 times so far this year. I was able to reach 97 submissions because, after writing and not submitting work for many years, I had enough finished, ready work to send out to 97 journals. And it’s not 97 separate pieces, mind you. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. It’s maybe a dozen pieces that I’ve submitted to a few places at a time. If they’re rejected, I submit them somewhere else.

In fact, in planning for this blog post, I thought I’d go ahead and submit three more times and get to 100 submissions so I could share with you that I’d reached my goal. But to do so, I would have had to send stories out to journals that weren’t a good fit or that I am not ready to submit to. Don’t do that to reach a number.

3. Keep your writing time separate and sacred.

Live a writing life and make writing and creating a priority, even if that sometimes means not writing and taking a walk on the beach to clear your head and think about your story. I write many hours each week. But I set aside time each week to submit work, too. I consider this a part of the business side of being a writer. I have a short list of pieces that are ready to submit, and I’m working on getting those published. Getting stories and essays published will help me reach my longer-term writing goals. But I have a much longer list of work that is not ready, and that creative work gets the lion’s share of my time. I am not rushing that work in order to reach 100 submissions.

Here are some articles you might find interesting as you set your own writing and submission goals:

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Career Bingo (Christie Yant, linked to by David Steffen in his Game Theory articles)

The Race (Dean Wesley Smith)

WRITER TIP: If your writing or publishing goals keep getting pushed aside in favor of dumb things like feeding the kids or doing the dishes, consider whether setting specific, reachable goals for 2022 might help you to keep your eyes on the prize.