There she is, your willowy story. You’ve put her through her paces and now her muscles are well-defined. She’s sleek, shiny and beautiful and she’s looking for someone wise and understanding to give her a home.
No, it’s not internet dating. It’s marketing.
I hate marketing.
It’s not quite on a par with blind dating, but it’s not too far behind.
You spend weeks, months on a story. You’re proud of it and you want others to read and like it. So you send it off somewhere you think will understand what you’re going for. You’re sure they’ll appreciate your word-smithery and insight into the human condition. And what happens? It comes back. Ricochets back, sometimes, as if the editors couldn’t bear to sully their desks a moment longer with your prose.
Since I hate marketing so much, I’ve come up with a few tools and techniques to kill the pain as much as possible. Here are my magnificent seven suggestions.
You’re on your own with the dating stuff.
1. DON’T GO LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES. If you’re shy, dress like Laura Ingalls Wilder, and can’t dance, you probably won’t have much luck finding a date in a very trendy nightclub. I’m sure you know this. Yet it’s amazing how many writers, talented and dedicated people, have no clue how to find love for their fiction. They’ll send a literary tale to a science fiction journal or a violent thriller to a woman’s magazine. Can the miraculous happen and the wrong market love the right story? Sure. And your 60-year old maiden aunt might be just right for your 25-year old tattooed, heavy metal fan neighbour. But it’s a very long shot. Why make it hard for yourself? With just a little forethought and planning, you can find true love. Well, for your story, anyway.
2. BE TRUE TO YOURSELF. Understand what you’re writing. If you write genre stories, you should—duh!—know what your genre is. There’s a difference between traditional fantasy and urban fantasy, for instance, and some journals will take one but not the other. Likewise, there are sub-categories for literary fiction. Some markets will accept a bildungsroman tale but reject an allegory. If you don’t know what you’ve got how can you know where it will fit?
- ANALYSIS ISN’T JUST FOR NEUROTICS. Once you’ve figured out the type of stories you’re writing, you can start to think about the markets that might work for them. Start with the journals you read regularly. (No, you didn’t really just say you never read journals… How else can you know where to send your work? It would be like trying to paint a portrait when you’ve been blind since birth. You have to know the market. You have to know what your peers are doing. Go. Get thee to a bookshop and pick up The Stinging Fly, or The Moth, or The Paris Review. We’ll wait.)
Back? Right, here’s how you analyse a publication:
Read at least three issues of the journal you think your work might fit into. At the least, read as many short stories from that journal as you can. Now try to identify some patterns. How many of the stories are in the first person? How many in the present tense? Do the stories tend to be plot- or character-drive? Who are the characters? Are they generally male? Under forty? Or more diverse? How many characters are there on average in each story? What is the tone of the stories? Are they generally optimistic or gloomy? Is there much humour? Is the language rich or straight forward? What are the endings like? Upbeat? Containing a eureka moment?
Now you’ve answered all these questions, you can move on to more mundane matters, most of which can be gleaned from the journal’s web page. For instance, what is the journal’s preferred word count? How do they accept submissions (post, e-mail, via an e-submission form)? Do they have a particular format they prefer in terms of fonts, paragraphing, etc.? Is there a fee for submissions? Do they only read manuscripts during certain periods of the year? What’s the name of the editor? How do they spell it?
I should add, if you don’t even know what journals to submit to, you should look for a copy of the current Writers and Artists Yearbook. Or you can do a google search for ‘short story journals accepting submissions’ with your genre and see if something seems possible. Or you could try one of these websites that I use:
From the Irish Writers Centre: http://www.writerscentre.ie/html/resources/literaryjournals.html
http://www.newpages.com/literary-magazines/ (See the far left column for markets and resources)
- SET A SCHEDULE. As you can see, analysing a market can take a lot time. I have a couple of hours allotted on my calendar once a week but, to be honest, I tend to put it off and just spend one or two days a month doing it. (I may have mentioned I hate marketing.) But I have to put it on my calendar otherwise I would just avoid doing it. I’d prefer to write actual words in an actual story. I know marketing is important, though, so I make myself keep up to date. Don’t forget, too, that even journals you’ve analysed thoroughly in the past can change. Editors are replaced. Philosophies evolve. That’s one of the reasons why reading current issues of your favourite journals is so important.
- MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR SPREADSHEETS. I keep track of all my research, submissions and calendar in Excel. I have one page for Irish markets, one for literary journals, and so forth. On the far left column I name the journal, then I have a series of columns with headers to breakdown all the elements I’ve researched: PoV, tense, number of characters, and so forth. When I finish a story it’s so much easier to just open a spreadsheet and review the options available. You can use a notebook just for this purpose too, if you prefer. Or I bet someone’s invented an app…
- CREATE A WISH-LIST. One of the other things I do in my spreadsheet is keep a list of my top fifty favourite markets. These are the ones that I’ve either already been published in, or that I consider the most prestigious. The New Yorker is on this list. So is Granta. It’s great to have something to aim for and I usually have one of these publications in mind when I’m crafting a new story. Which brings me to lucky number seven:
- MAKE THE STORY FIT THE MARKET. This is a bit of a reverse-engineering approach. Rather than write the story and then select the market, you choose your ideal journal first and then write the story with them in mind. As ideas go, this one has a lot of merit, but be careful. If you aim for a huge publication, one that gets thousands of submissions a month, and your story is rejected even though you’ve written with them in mind, your old self-confidence may take a beating. So, start with a smaller market. Something local, perhaps, or at least regional. Aim your story for them, but only loosely: make sure the word count matches; that the point of view and the tense fit. All of these things are easily altered if the story fails to hit the target. But the story has to be true to itself. You may be different, but I’ve never found a ‘painting by numbers’ approach to work for my fiction. Besides, while you want your story to fit, you also don’t want it to be generic.
Best of luck with hooking up your fabulous story with the right market. And, remember, even if it takes time for you to find Mr Right-Publication, at least you didn’t have to go on a bad date to find him.