One of the most common questions I’m asked is if I can make any suggestions for a person just getting started with sending their work out for publication. This essay contains a compendium of all the general advice I’ve given out over the past two decades. More specific suggestions require more specific questions, and those more specific questions are probably best put to people you will personally meet along the way. This is just to get you on the way.
The first thing I would do if I were looking to begin the process of seeking publication would be to get active in the local literary scene—go to open mic events and participate. Get up there and read (if it seems like everyone is reading poetry, and you have prose, don’t sweat it, they’re open to prose, just stick to the time limits and you’ll be fine). At every reading I’ve been to there are people in the audience who run other events (readings and/or writing workshops) and those people will make announcements about those events at some point during the reading. I think most everyone would make a suggestion like this one, at the start, but my reasons are a little different, and so I want to explain further.
One thing you don’t want to do is blindly take the advice of others about your writing. It’s yours; only you know what you really want to say, and how you want to say it. But there is huge value in hearing the opinions of others, even if you disregard each and every one of them. Listen, and be open to the fact that maybe they’ve noticed something you have already begun to suspect, but, never ever ever change a word of anything you’ve written just because someone else suggested it unless you agree completely.
I suggest open mic events because there is nothing better to hone your writing than reading it out loud in front of others. If anything clangs or clunks you will feel it thok you on the forehead when it happens during a performance. It’s a great tool for getting your phrasing and diction and pacing perfect.
Attending readings also connects you to what others are doing—the only way you’ll ever have the confidence that what you have to say is unique and worth saying is to listen to the work of others. I can tell you a thousand times that you’re unlike anyone else, but until you hear a wide range of others you won’t believe me.
If you live in an area where there are no open mic readings happening, this is not a problem, this is a golden chance for you to organize one. A community without an open mic reading series is a community in dire and immediate need for one. You can make it happen, and the rewards and benefits will be worth overcoming any initial trepidation you might feel. Tell someone in charge at your local library, your local bookstore, or your local coffee shop that you’re interested in starting an open mic for writers and see where it goes.
The second thing I would suggest is that you read. Read everything, read widely, read work you think you won’t like, read things that make you angry, read things as like and as unlike your own work as you can locate. Ask other people what they’re reading. Then, when you find work that resonates in some way with your own, look at the press that published that work. Do some research on them, buy some other books they publish, see what their submission guidelines are like, and consider submitting your work there. If you find a writer you really like, look to see which presses are publishing them, and look into that press’s submission guidelines.
You won’t likely find many (perhaps any) editors who will offer detailed critique of work. It goes over very badly with most people, creates unnecessary ill will, and consumes a tremendous amount of time in both effort and argument that benefits no one. Just consider the logistics: an editor reads something like 100-300 pieces for every one that is accepted. If they took the time to provide detailed feedback on every submission they’d be doing little else. The best way to know what an editor likes and dislikes is to familiarize yourself with the kinds of writing they’ve previously published. Many editors are writers themselves, so you should also consider reading the work of that editor to get an even better glimpse of what kind of work they might welcome.
Many publications will suggest that you buy books or journals from them to get a real sense of what they’re about. I have heard writers complain that they couldn’t possibly afford to buy from every place they want to submit work to. Think about this for a moment. If you, a writer interested enough in that press or publication to want your own work placed there, lack sufficient interest to support that publisher by purchasing one of their publications, the system is well and truly broken. If not even writers seeking publication will buy that same publication you can pretty much count on that publication folding.
A couple of the most important things I’ve learned in the time I’ve been writing:
You will never find true joy in the pursuit of external validation. What others think (no matter how many others) about your work will never mean as much as what you yourself think of it. Good and bad. The way to find joy in what you do is to be as fully aware as possible where your work fits in the ongoing dialog through time and space and relationships that is Literature. Know that what you’re doing is unique and valuable because of how widely-ranged the reach of your reading is.
The thing that no one will ever tell you: above a certain level of writing ability, whether any given piece is accepted for publication or not has more to do with chance than anything else. If you really work at highly targeting your submissions you should still plan on a success rate of around 1 in 50 or even 1 in 100, depending on how competitive the market for your type of writing may be.
Never let the truth get in the way of making a better poem/play/story. If you have to, you can always write both (or several) versions—one that’s “true” and one that’s the better piece of art.
Always have more than one thing out in the mail at any given time so that you can shake your fist at anything that’s returned and say, “You’ll be sorry!” backed by the optimism of your other prospects.
An actor friend of mine says that to go out on auditions you need to have the hide of a rhinoceros and the fragility of an egg. This is true of sending your work out to publishers, as well.
I would also add that you should look at a complete and total lack of success in finding a home for the kind of work that you do as an opportunity not as a failure. If you believe in the kind of writing you’re doing, and you believe you have exhausted all available places that might publish it, then it’s time to start a small press of your own to publish that kind of work. bpNichol believed that publishing was a kind of advocacy. You published the kind of work you wanted to support, the kind of work you think would make the world better if there were more of it around.
There are thousands of presses out there, and they are all looking for something a little different. Writer’s Market (which comes out annually) is a good place to start if you have no idea where to start.
Never feel like you are a passive spectator in the events of your publishing efforts. One of the best ways to get opportunities is to create opportunities.
Nobody publishes poems like yours? Go find as many of them as you can and put together an anthology of them.
Can’t find a theater that wants to put on your play? Put it on yourself. The process of working through the entire production will make you a much better writer, and you will have connected with a ton of people involved in the theater who will think of you when they’re creating opportunities.
The #1 most important thing I’ve learned in my life is this: askin’s free.
It doesn’t cost anything to try, to ask people for help or for participation or for really anything.
But it really optimizes your chances of success to make sure you’re asking something that hasn’t already been answered a thousand times. And the best way to do that is research, be involved, have familiarity, and where you can’t find familiarity, ask someone like me who you know to be a positive person who’ll be happy to help you no matter what.
Some people in this world, even very successful people, are jerks. Never think you need to work with a jerk. It may sometimes seem like everyone who can publish you is a jerk. This isn’t true. There are tons of genuinely wonderful people out there, the best ones sometimes take a little more work to find. What people call luck is really the intersection of preparation and opportunity.
The #2 most important thing I can tell you about sending your work out for publication is this: follow the submission guidelines as exactly as you can. It’s a lottery, and editors receive hundreds of submissions for every spot they want to fill so they will look for any reason, no matter how small, to not take the time to read the whole submission. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t follow the guidelines (and they will be different for every place you submit) your work will be rejected unread. Don’t let that happen. Make them at least take the time to read it.
Write. Revise. Repeat.
Dan Waber is a poet, playwright, publisher, and multimedia artist whose work is almost always language-based. A web search on his name (in quotes) will produce a veritable cornucopia of literary oddments, amusements and geegaws. Things he’s made have landed themselves in The Art of English, The Poet’s Craft, Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 1, Drunken Boat, Iowa Review (web), in books, broadsides, anthologies and ephemeral publications, in mailboxes, on stage, in a puppet theater, online, on buses, on gallery walls, and have been exhibited at the Library of Congress. He has also written more sestinas than there are particles in the known universe. The hub of his online activities is logolalia.com.
*This essay was originally published as a printed chapbook through www.chapbookpublisher.com.