Demystifying Literary Magazines

Part of one’s growth as a writer is the whole submission/rejection/ submission/rejection cycle you undergo. If you’ve got thick skin and confidence in your craft and work, those rejections roll off your back. If you’ve got thin skin, a boatload of insecurity baggage, and confidence in your craft and work, every rejection slashes a rip in that skin, from which your ego flows.

I think it’s obvious which category I fall in. I have gone years between submissions because rejections of good stories without explanation is too depressing. Trust me, I understand the role of an editor. I was one. I know a lot of subjectivity is involved in making a decision about what to accept or reject. And I didn’t have the time either to give every aspiring aviation writer a detailed critique about why an article wasn’t appropriate for my mag. It’s just different when you’re on the receiving end of a rejection.

I also understand that a lit mag’s submission guidelines are deliberately vague and excruciatingly specific. They have to be specific about genre, word count, etc., because it’s no good to send a 10,000+ word paranormal romance story to a straight literary magazine whose guidelines specify 4,000 words or fewer. The vague part comes in when the guidelines describe the type of story the mag is looking for. Then, obscure words like “edgy,” “fresh,” or “distinctive” hold sway. I sometimes think that lit mag editors should say what they don’t want because, let’s face it, we all think our work is edgy, fresh, or distinctive. In some ways, I would almost rather hear, “Your story sucks,” than “I enjoyed reading your story, but it’s not for us.” The question that brings to mind is, “Okay, why?”–especially when you’ve hit the word count, you’ve followed the guidelines, and you know it’s a good story; otherwise, you wouldn’t submit it in the first place.

So, when I saw a Sunday afternoon seminar entitled “Demystifying Literary Magazines” offered by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA, I decided to exercise my new WriterHouse membership and attend. (Another great thing about being retired–you can join all those writer groups you didn’t have free time for when you slaved away in an office.) Another deciding factor was that Cliff Garstang, a writer friend from Staunton, was one of the panelists. He was representing his on-line literary magazine, Prime Number. Representing Meridian, the literary magazine of the University of Virginia’s MFA program, were Hannah Holtzman (Editor) and Lee Johnson (Fiction Editor). The panel’s moderator was Sarah Collins Honenberger, WriterHouse member and author of Catcher, Caught.

Honenberger asked the panelists to describe their magazines’ mission and vision, how they handled submissions, and the “brass tacks” of running a literary magazine. The Meridian editors explained that its mission/vision shifted with the editorial staff, which changes regularly as MFA students move through the program, but they were in agreement that the overarching vision was to print fiction and poetry that “takes a risk.” Unfortunately, what they meant by “takes a risk” wasn’t articulated. Garstang was more helpful in that he indicated what he wouldn’t take–work with bad grammar, work that’s been “done before.”

The discussion branched off into whether literary magazines were for other writers only or for the general reading populace. Meridian Fiction Editor Lee Johnson parried with, “Being by and for writers isn’t a bad thing.” But both magazine editors indicated the hope is that writers, of course, read their magazines and submit but that non-writers enjoy the content as well.

Did the seminar demystify literary magazines? Yes, in that the panelists described the underlying process for their individual magazines, something not so apparent when you read the submission guidelines on-line. I’d also have to say no to an extent, in that no one would admit that process concludes with a subjective judgement. It was, however, a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and even tidbits of knowledge go a long way on the writing journey.
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For National Poetry Month, here’s a little poem a friend sent me to show that my disliked first name has a place, perhaps dubious, in literary history:

Phyllis by Thomas Randolph

Poor credulous and simple maid!
By what strange wiles art thou betrayed!
A treasure thou hast lost today
For which thou can’st no ransom pay.

Well, I’m no “simple maid,” so I figured out what he was talking about. Did you?

3 thoughts on “Demystifying Literary Magazines

  1. So pretty much, you just have to make your story as good as possible, then just keep sending it out with your fingers crossed, and drowning your sorrows with each rejection in chocolate? Sounds rough, but I imagine that when you do get a story published in a magazine, the happiness factor pays off immensely.

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