I received the following question from a reader:
There are tons and tons of literary journals out there and most of them aren’t cheap. I imagine that your MFA program may have made many of these accessible to you. Even so, how did you sort through them and figure out which ones you might submit to and which not? And for those of us who lack that kind of access: Any suggestions on how to do so on a budget?
Thanks so much for this question. Do you live near a bookstore with a good literary magazine section, by any chance? There were some literary magazines available in the office of my MFA program, but I honestly spent more time looking through the magazines at Prairie Lights, the great indie bookstore in Iowa City. They kept the latest issues of many literary journals, and sometimes I would just take a couple hours during a free afternoon or evening to look through some of them.
I also wrote this post earlier on the blog about how to find names of journals to submit work to:
As far as how to sort through the journals, I find their websites really helpful in giving me an idea of what they’re looking for. But the other thing I’d say is that I honestly don’t worry too much about it. Often it takes a lot of submissions to place a story, and I think it can be very worthwhile to submit a story widely. Magazines can surprise you, in my experience. I might have an idea of the “type” of story they accept, and then an editor with a different vision can see a story and publish something completely uncharacteristic of the magazine.
My thought, for whatever it’s worth, is that the most important thing is to focus on the story itself, and making it as great as you’d like it to be. After that, I’d submit widely to journals that you’d be happy to publish in and see what they say. Sometimes they might simply tell you they’d be interested in seeing future work, and then you can put them at the top of the list for the next story you send out. With online submissions, you can often submit for free, so it’s really just a matter of having the time to do it, which I know can be tough. I just tried to build this time into my writing routine — maybe a couple hours a week to work on submissions.
I also keep a very detailed file of everywhere that I submit stories, when I submit, when I hear back, and what the response is. It seems time-consuming at first, but once I was in the routine, it actually saved me a lot of time and was a good reference for later stories.
Is this helpful? Please send follow-ups if there’s more I can offer.