Maybe you’re a new student to the Creative Writing program, armed with an arsenal of sonnets but nowhere to send them. Or perhaps you’re a budding new writer with an idea for the perfect short story about ukulele-playing felines as they forage their way on gondolas across the Mississippi River.
Regardless of your individual writing goals, it is likely that getting published is one of them. After all, there is something innately satisfying about having a piece of your writing exist in the world that will be read by thousands of people.
But how do you bridge the gap between private word document and publicly-viewed literary magazine article?
Michael V. Smith is an award-winning writer, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Cristalle Smith is an MFA candidate with several publication credits. I spoke with each of them to dig up their best advice on how to best become a successfully published young writer.
It’s important to know your audience (and send out work accordingly).
What kind of magazines do you want to be published in? Do you write sci-fi micro-fiction? Are you a queer writer specializing in poetry? According to Michael V. Smith, “the worst thing you can do is to send out work randomly without a little bit of research, because every magazine has its own flavour of things they like.”
You wouldn’t send a sentimental poem about your grandmother to Playboy. Or an ‘Everything You Need to Know about Ford Mustangs’ review to Chatelaine. So make sure the work you’re sending out is catering to the right audience. If you aren’t well-read or don’t know where to begin, the starting line of your journey is to engage in research.
“Read a bunch of your favourite books and look in the back of those books to see where those writers got published,” said Michael Smith. “If you like a poet, you look at the publication history in the back of the poet’s book and you send poems you think are like that poet to those magazines.”
So if you want to get published, your first stop should be at the local library. Or online, scouring digital journals. Whatever method you choose, it’s important to get a solid sense of the content being published in the magazines where you want to send your work. Since many magazines will take up to six months to give you a decision on the work you send them, the last thing you want to do is waste your time, and the publisher’s time, by sending something out that totally misses the mark on their preferred content. According to Michael Smith, “the more you understand the publication landscape, the faster and easier it is to get things in print.”
Okay, you’ve written some stories and have gathered a list of publications. Now what?
“Send lots of work out to lots of places, without worrying too much about quality,” advised Michael Smith. Too many times, young writers are shy or insecure, and don’t succeed in having their work published simply because they never try. They are being stopped by their own mental roadblock, deciding that their work isn’t good enough for publication before ever making an effort. But this is one of the worst impediments for young writers, according to Smith.
He added, “your job as a young writer is to make the work and send it somewhere, and it’s the editor’s job to decide whether they want to take it or not.”
Rejection letters are inevitable bumps in the road. But there are certain strategies that work well while deciding how to approach them.
“I like the three-reject rule. You don’t take any advice from anybody until it’s been rejected three times. Then after the third rejection, you look at it,” explained Michael Smith.
Sometimes, a rejection could simply be the result of the subjective opinion of the editor. Other times, the piece you submitted might not work with the magazine’s current theme. Whatever the reason, the best practice is to have the piece rejected a few times before you start to critically examine it. But after a while, it’s smart to take another look at the writing and try another time.
Michael Smith said, “as time passes, you get smarter, and you see your work with greater clarity, and you see its faults. So then you do an edit and send it out again.”
Perhaps even more importantly is the narrative you use to look at, and talk about, rejection. Michael Smith advises to “make sure the quality of you as a writer is distanced from the quality of the work you’re sending out, so that if your work is rejected, you’re not rejected”.
This can be a little trickier, since writing is often so intimate and personal that it’s hard not to feel hurt when it gets rejected. If you get caught up in a long string of rejections, this can feel even worse. You might wonder what’s wrong with you, or why you’re even trying. But as Smith contends, this is a dangerous mindset to be in.
“If you equate [yourself with your writing], then you start losing perspective. You start thinking, ‘Oh, if I’ve been rejected then I’m not worthy, and so the things I make aren’t worthy.’ And then you don’t think you can make them better,” explained Michael Smith.
Seeing the advice in action.
The publication process may seem intimidating. It’s a long and bumpy road, that requires effort and determination. To some young writers, it may even feel like a hopeless endeavour. But if you put in the time, it’s far more likely to pay off.
Michael Smith shared: “I got rejected for years...I started sending work out in high school, and I didn’t get my first legitimate poem published until I was twenty-five. And that was a gay poem that got published in a gay publication. And I remember being completely over the moon. I was insane with joy. I had been sending things out for easily five years without a single thing published. I had things… that my friends published in magazines, but not very legitimate.”
And where is Michael V. Smith now? He’s a multi-award-winning writer with multiple novels and books of poetry.
Cristalle Smith, second-year MFA candidate at UBCO, also has some wisdom to share when it comes to handling rejection.
“There are a lot of magazines that don’t have a cap on the number of times that you can send stuff in, so I’ll keep submitting to them, even after they’ve rejected me. And sometimes I’ll reach out and talk to them or ask questions, ” said Cristalle Smith.
This is a useful strategy when trying to get your work published, since it makes your name stand out to publishers. They know that you’re serious about your writing, and that you’re willing to put in the effort to create work that’s desirable to their publication.
Cristalle Smith continued: “Some people are really pressed for time, but some people will reply and be very kind and attentive. So in some magazines, after several rejections, I was able to get in. I didn’t take no for an answer. I didn’t think that just because they rejected one of my pieces, they’d be totally shut off to reading anything else that I had. ”
Keeping that in mind, she cautioned: “I only did that with places where I really loved what they were publishing – places where I felt a certain kind of kinship with the writing. It wasn’t an arbitrary selection.”
There’s no use pestering Lady’s Home Journal with your short story about a wizard’s quest to turn every rubber duck it finds purple. But this just goes to show that if you research the literary magazines you want to be published in, and devout proper time to sending them your work, your chances of getting published increase enormously. It worked for Cristalle Smith, whose poetry appears in respected literary journals both in Canada and internationally.
The bottom line?
Both Michael V. Smith and Cristalle Smith agree that the most important quality for a young writer to have is an attitude of determination.
Michael Smith said, “When I was younger, a writer friend told me that the difference between the people who get published and the people who don’t was perseverance.”
There will be times when you’re elated after getting your first acceptance letter. And there will be other times where your work gets rejected so many times that you won’t know what to do with it anymore. But like any journey, you have to keep driving past the potholes to get to the destination. If you stop because the path gets too bumpy, you’ll never reach where you want to go.