Q & A: On Submissions

Question: I've been sending my writing out to agents and publishers for a while now, and haven't gotten any interest in my work. I've been doing some revisions, but I've never had anyone else look at my work before sending it out. Do you think that's why I'm not getting any interest?

Hmmm. There is a lot in this question, so let me take it one piece at a time.

Sending Work For Consideration: When you are looking at sending out your work, there are various ways to do this. One is to submit to magazines and literary journals during their open submission periods. One is to submit to contests, often judged by a well-known or well-respected author. And one is to submit your work to agents accepting queries, or to publishers who are open for manuscripts.

Submitting to magazines and journals that are accepting work is both exciting and scary. You might discover that you have a piece already written that perfectly fits their style and selections. Or, you may find a magazine that you resonate with, and choose to write something specifically for them. Either way, the first step is to read their submission guidelines. This is the place to learn exactly what they are looking for, and will help you avoid basic mistakes that get your piece pitched in the trash instead of to the editor. Some magazines will ask for a query first. This is usually a pitch about the story you want to write, and it's a chance to show off exactly what and why you want to write for them. If they are only accepting submissions by query or proposal, be sure to put as much care into your letter as you would any piece of writing you might submit. Maybe even more.

Entering contests can be a great way to get your work published. Many contests (including those hosted by literary journals and publishers) may have a reading fee associated with them. Now, I was taught as a writing student to never submit to a contest with a reading fee, and for years I followed this advice. But these days, many contests have some sort of a kickback for your reading fee: a subscription to the journal or magazine, the issue featuring the winners, or some other bonus that you will receive, making the reading fee less about padding the prize and more about supporting the work (and the contest itself). And while the chances of winning are not always great (some contests receive over 5000 submissions), the experience can be very rewarding.

If you are pitching your work to agents, editors, or publishers who are actively soliciting manuscripts, good for you! These can be some of the hardest ways to get your work published, but can also lead to greater rewards and future success. Be mindful of the time and energy of the person reading your submission: be sure to follow the guidelines, take care to format your submission as requested, and be patient when waiting for a response.

The most important thing I can say, about submitting your work to ANY place (a magazine, a contest, or an agent) is DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Learn about the organization, what they publish, what they are interested in, and determine how your work fits into that spectrum. You can submit to a magazine or an agent 100 times, but if it doesn't fit with the work they are doing, it will never be accepted.

The Importance of Readers: Writing is inherently a solitary act. We sit at our computers, our notebooks, our typewriters, and spill the words from our own minds onto the page. But writing is not done in a vacuum. When we write, it is so that someone might read our words. That someone might know our hearts and our thoughts. So one might wonder, then, why a writer would not have the eyes and thoughts of potential readers made available to them before submitting their work to a greater audience.

It's okay. I actually understand this. For years, I wrote and submitted work without anyone else seeing it. I was afraid of the potential criticism. I was also afraid of the potential that someone might actually have an idea for my writing that was better than my own. There is a lot of ego involved in this, and it takes great strength and courage to access vulnerability.

But there is so much power in finding an editor you trust, and creating the space for beta readers. When you open your writing to the eyes, ears, and mind of another -- before it is printed -- you are giving yourself permission to continue improving your work. It is well-known that work which has been seen by an editor before it is submitted for publication has a greater chance of being accepted and printed. Not just any editor, though.

When you sit down to work with an editor, you need to make sure you work well together. That your ideas and intentions for the work align with their proficiencies and their goals for you. An editor is not necessarily someone to be kept on retainer, like an attorney. Rather, an editor sits down with you and discusses honestly the work that you are doing, where you hope to go in the future, and how you might reach those goals together.

When I sit down with a potential client, I'm not interested in them as a source of income. Ever. In fact, I've turned down high-value projects because I could not stand beside them ethically, or because I just wasn't a good fit for the author. Rather, when I sit down with someone, I am showing up as an editor who is invested in guiding and supporting this author to success: be it getting a book contract, securing an agent, or simply having their first piece accepted by a literary magazine.

But part of your work, when showing up to an editor, or asking for beta readers, is opening yourself to suggestions. I'm not saying that every single idea or comment will be helpful, and some may be downright challenging to you and your work, but each voice and opinion may hold a kernel of truth that allows you to progress in your writing in new and exciting ways. Showing up and being vulnerable creates space for expansion and growth, and while it might be scary (because I know it is), it is so worth it.

And this isn't just about writing, you know. It's also about life.

Showing Up Matters: Whether you are writing a novel or a haiku, showing up to your work matters. Showing up to your revisions matters. Showing up and doing the research on potential publishers matters.

Being genuinely open to suggestions, weeding out the constructive criticism from the negative feedback, and allowing your work to continue to evolve and flourish -- this is how we improve ourselves and writers and as human beings. So when things get scary, and all those old stories about worth and value and criticism and judgment and how we might never be good enough rear their ugly little heads, remember to be kind with yourself. Let the self-doubt and the fear float past you like a cloud. And then stand up, brush yourself off, and get right back in the ring. Your words are made to be shared with the world. You can do this.