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I Don’t Like Crap Games

When I get a form rejection from a magazine, (unless it’s the New Yorker or Paris Review or something like that), I generally tend to cross them off my list and move on. I don’t send out that much work, and I research places really, really carefully–plus I read every single magazine I submit to and that’s the honest truth. I’m very thoughtful about whether my work would fit. I rarely do simultaneous submissions, and even more rarely send to more than three places.

This approach has worked pretty well for me–I still get rejected all the time, of course, but often they’re thoughtful, even encouraging personal rejections. And those magazines, I submit to again. Again. And again. And again. A lot of them I’ve cracked after several tries. Which feels great.

But when I get a form rejection saying my work isn’t a good fit, especially the ones that say, Maybe you should read our magazine, here is a subscription link–when I’m already a subscriber to that magazine–I tend to cross them right off the list. Partially because I’m annoyed with them for being so daft and assuming artists don’t need to be treated professionally or with courtesy (and please don’t tell me about the slush pile and all the terrible writers just ASKING to be treated like shit because I am from the Midwest and I BELIEVE in courtesy to EVERYONE, deep in my bones. Well, except tea-partiers.) But also partially because I understand that, clearly, this particular publication has seen a very good sample of what I do as a writer, and they have rejected it so thoroughly they didn’t feel the need to even slightly change a form email or letter. (And please don’t tell me, also, that MFA mags or mags with a certain number of submissions don’t have the time–because I have received some very nice rejection letters by very some of those very magazines’ editors or assistant editors or whoever and it is much appreciated.) Which tells me that either a) I have misjudged their aesthetic, or b)they have so many readers who just don’t care and are doing this for the credit or whatever that the magazine ends up inadvertently filtering out much of what would fit its aesthetic. So it’s really all chance. And I’m not doing a crap shoot submission. There are so many wonderful magazines and journals out there, on and offline, I just feel like it’s a waste of time not to move on.

What do you think? Is this stupid? Am I being an idealist? I think I do okay this way, though I do have to admit I’ve only been published by one MFA mag ever. So maybe I’m locking myself out of that corridor. But is that bad? I don’t know.

What do you all do? Do you submit to the crap game?

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

35 thoughts on “I Don’t Like Crap Games

  1. In theory I agree with you, Amber: lazy editors are a sign your work won’t get read properly, so why waste one’s time? There are plenty of magazines out there.

    In practice, I’m more…pragmatic? “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

  2. I think you’re crazy to not submit to somewhere again just because you get a form rejection. Especially the MFA magazines, where the staff is always changing, and where you never know who actually read your submission. (When I was at Mid-American Review, your submission got read by one of the permanent editors first, and then by a number of MFA student editors, so even if you got a form rejection it might still have been read and considered by a whole team of people, all of who were honestly looking for the best work they could find, and didn’t care who it was by or where they’d been published before.)

    Clearly, you’re welcome to do whatever you want, but I think you’re being a bit premature to shut doors, or even to feel slighted. E-mail submissions have made a higher number of personal rejections possible, and have made some feel more entitled to them, but I think that’s probably a mistake to feel. Even if you’re doing everything right–and I’m sure you are, because I know your work, and I know you as a submitter–even then rejection is part of publishing, and form letters part of rejection. I wouldn’t cross anyone off your list over one, if I were you, and if the magazine in question is one you really like.

    1. Matt, you’re a damn smart man. You make a good point about the changing staff. I suppose it’s true that you just never really know who might get their hands on your work. I thought I was being practical, but maybe it’s not so practical–or more short-sighted–to count out a mag because of one rejection.

        1. Yeah, that’s hugely important. I guess that’s what I meant when I said I read everything I submit to–I should have said I submit because I’m reading it.

          In the past, I sometimes submitted to places I didn’t like. It certainly seems no mystery now why they didn’t like me, either. :)

          Sent from my iPhone

    2. Matt, all,

      This is the part of Amber’s post I was most responding to:

      But when I get a form rejection saying my work isn’t a good fit, especially the ones that say, Maybe you should read our magazine, here is a subscription link–when I’m already a subscriber to that magazine–I tend to cross them right off the list.

      Again, in theory, I agree with Amber. If journals send out sloppy form rejections—and if they have sloppy submission guidelines, etc.—then those are clues that the rest of their editing, overall, might be sloppy. And of course that might not be true. But when I start sensing that the editing at a particular journal is not-so-careful, then I grow wary.

      (It always amuses me how many journals’ submission guidelines are basically copied from other journals’ submission guidelines. They’re like chain letters, sometimes… Who wrote the original set?)

      I of course have no problem with getting a form rejection; I get tons of them. I just ask that they be well-written! (Such a prima donna…)

      I once got into an argument with a journal editor because he kept rejecting my work with the line, “It’s not appropriate for our journal.” And the work I was sending him was in fact appropriate for his journal, and I got pissed off that he was rejecting it in so lazy (and unhelpful) a fashion. I’d purchased and read numerous issues of his journal, and I knew the kind of stuff he was publishing. Meanwhile, his submission guidelines were essentially, “Send us stuff and we’ll consider it.” Also meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice that he kept publishing his friends/known names issue after issue. So eventually my conclusion was that by, “your work isn’t appropriate for my journal,” what he really meant was, “I don’t know who you are.” (This was years ago, before I’d really published anything.) Perhaps that was overly cynical of me, but I decided to waste my time elsewhere, and haven’t sent him anything since. (I doubt he misses my submissions.)

      Writers should do their best to write well, and editors should do their best to edit well. Says I.


      1. This is exactly what I meant by that part. Glad you agree, Adam. I am very careful with even the form rejections for Emprise, and I expect others to be, as well.

        Sent from my iPhone

  3. I hear you, Amber.

    I like what you’re doing, and really, maybe that’s the way I should go about it. I know we’ve talked via email about places we love and places we’re avoiding. I used to say “If its’ good enough for Stephen Graham Jones (since he does lit and genre) then it’s good enough for me.” I think I’ve added you to that same mantra, as well as a handful of other authors as well.

    I’m more likely to avoid places that take a year to respond. I do hate getting form rejections though, as well. I got form rejections from The Missouri Review for a long time, then I started getting personal notes, saying things like “Keep submitting,” so I do.

    Crap shoot? I think places like TPR and TNY are probably never going to work out for about 99% of the slushies. I don’t know why I even submit. Dreams, I guess.

    So, I tend to have a harder time with places that are the 25 slowest to respond on Duotrope. And yet, I still submit to the 25 hardest to get into, and even some that NOBODY has ever broken into, at Duotrope. WHY? WHY do I do it. I guess, because I HAVE broken through to some markets that are 1% acceptance, or 3% or 5%. Which is pretty unreal if you think about it. Although, maybe I’m not being realistic.

    I have my white whales (TNY, TPR, TMR, and genre toughies like Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, F&SF, and the TTA Family (Interzone, Black Static, Crimewave). But I really like what you’re saying.

    I recently wrote a story that I did specifically for Hobart. It was quirky and still a bit dark, and I thought “Dammit, I think I’ve finally got something right for them.” Then I sent it to them and about six other places, thinking…well, just in case. And it got picked up by PANK (online) in 10 days.

    So…maybe you’re on to something. I do try to read all of the places I submit to, if not in print, online. But a large number of the lit journals (anything with the word “REVIEW” at the end) have similar aesthetics, so while I may pick up Black Warrior Review, if I haven’t read Cream City or Summerset or Bat City at great length, I try to go by what they say online or aim for something in the “literary with edge” range.

    With the odds of publication being in the 1-10% range for most places I submit to, I just can’t avoid the simultaneous submission (there’s some sort of S/M joke in there I think). With the Hobart/PANK thing, it just allows me to check PANK off the list, and then say to myself “Well, dammit, now you have to find another great idea that will work for Hobart.” It pushes me to write more.


    1. Richard, we are DEFinitely in agreement on the whole length thing. Good god, more than a year really is just a huge giant finger, I feel like. Even if it’s thoroughly unintentional. But I’m open to opinions like Matt’s and yours on the rejection thing–I guess you say it best here, “I got form rejections from The Missouri Review for a long time, then I started getting personal notes, saying things like “Keep submitting,” so I do.”

      I mean, obviously, the fact that you kept submitting impressed them and they knew who you were and liked your stuff. So maybe even behind the form letter, there’s someone cheering you on a little, and you’ll just never know unless you try. Hmm.

      1. I tell a story about Roy Kesey that I heard from him at an AWP conference (NYC). Great guy, love his work, we’ve become friendly over the years.

        He sent in stories for YEARS to The Kenyon Review and got nothing but rejections. Not even a personal note. Well, one day he said, “This is it, the last time I’m sending them a story,” and sent a story in. Well that story got accepted. And it went on to get nominated, and make it in the 2007 Best American Short Stories (ed., Stephen King). When he was talking to the people at TKR he mentioned that he was surprised to finally get in, that he’d been trying for years. They said, yes, they knew that, they’d absolutely loved his work over the years, and were happy that they could finally place something.

        So, you never know. Often we get rejected for a wide range of reasons, the least of which is the quality of the writing.

  4. In a way, Amber, it’s interesting to consider that, though this may possibly limit your publishing frequency, you might be rewarding the friendlier publishers. Thus you may actually be concentrating your work within a certain sort of community. And if such journal associations are not yet prominent, you are helping reinforce them, possibly establishing them. As Richard alluded, people often learn about new writing receptacles by examining the list of where an admired author has been published.

    1. That’s an interesting point. And no matter what I do, I will always submit to and continue to talk up the journals I feel deserve it most and don’t get much press. Thanks–I hadn’t thought about it that way, and I kind of like to!

  5. i dont like thinking of journals’s aesthetics as studyable, breakable codes. to an extent maybe, but to rely on that is to rely on a false objectification of an innately subjective process. its also an impossible thing to assess, because there is a negative factor in all journal’s aesthetic that the editors themselves arent aware of. authors are only aware of what journals publish, not what they dont publish and the myriad reasons why pieces dont get published. It would be more useful to a potential submitter to read through like a years worth of rejected slush from a journal, and then compare that with what was published that year.

    its healthier i think for an author to not get caught up on breaking the aesthetic codes of journals, and just say, do I like what they publish, and do I like what I write in the same way.

    1. “its healthier i think for an author to not get caught up on breaking the aesthetic codes of journals, and just say, do I like what they publish, and do I like what I write in the same way.”

      i think in some ways that’s what we’re trying to do – get a sense of what they like (lit with edge) and what they don’t like (romance, hard SF, graphic horror) and then consider what your own voice is – can it be a fit? are they looking for something new that doesn’t fit, will they be thrilled to get a story that is nothing but seven responses to a situation (as referenced recently at HTML)?

      there is always a certain aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t break that mold, strive for something that is a great read, solid writing, but maybe slightly off center (or even way out in right field)

      i recently read a post up at Avery Anthology (i love what they do) and they had a list of sorts of the kinds of things they’d love to have people submit (Matt Bell, brother, they want you! must be nice to get called out like that, i meant to email you about that)


      so it prompted me to write a couple of stories from the POV of a boy, which i probably wouldn’t have done on my own – one turned into a bit of magical realism, again, something i don’t do a lot of, but really came out pretty solid i think

    2. Hells yes to this:

      “It would be more useful to a potential submitter to read through like a years worth of rejected slush from a journal, and then compare that with what was published that year.”

      I pretty much agree with all this. For me it’s not just much a code to crack as a certain level of quality and commitment and a certain style that a lit mag reaches for me to want to be published there. I guess you could call it aesthetic. But it’s a very twisty, squirmy thing, whatever it is, certainly not a mathematical formula. I definitely don’t mean to imply that it is.

  6. ‘i think in some ways that’s what we’re trying to do – get a sense of what they like (lit with edge) and what they don’t like (romance, hard SF, graphic horror) and then consider what your own voice is – can it be a fit?’

    no, im saying dont think/worry about what editors want. dont worry about “what they like.” read what you like and write what you like. dont study a journal just to try to get published by them. first, you should love what you write. then you should love what you read. then think about maybe this fits here maybe.

    you’re doing it backwards. you’re saying look at this journal, lets figure it out, then lets write something specifically toward it. it should be the other way around. write something that is you and that you care so much about that you dont care if its ever published, then the burden of fittedness is on editors.

    1. I get you, I mean, my voice is my voice. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t write horror, fantasy, SF, magical realism, surreal, bizarre, mystery, crime, noir, neo-noir and literary. I mean, William Gay is literary but he’s also horrific. Cormac writes some things that could be post-apocalyptic (horror/SF) but also gets labeled at lit. Brian Evenson, Mary Gaitskill, so many voices.

      Also, for ME, I’m experimenting with a lot of things – my genre work (horror, neo-noir, surreal, magic) as well as straight lit, trying to find a place in between. So I’m always looking for prompts and ways to stretch myself.

      So, sure, I may start out thinking HOBART with this one, and then it gets into PANK or Barrelhouse or Bat City. It’s just a place to start. If a literary journal says “no genre” or “no SF” it’s just a way to shape what I’m doing. Bradbury, Vonnegut, Saunders – they all play in the speculative, but also find a way to elevate it.

      I can only write what I write. I don’t dumb it down or alter anything to fit a press or journal, just tilt it a direction. Like with Avery, looking to write from the POV of a child, from that wish list.

      I have a hot list of maybe 20 places I want to publish, but I don’t change who I am or what I write. I couldn’t more than maybe 10% one way or the other, if I tried.

    2. Yeah, I pretty much agree with Darby’s thinking on this. When editors ask me to figure out what they like I don’t think very much of them. That’s their job. My job is to make what I like. Sure, it’s possible to take that attitude too far, but editors who want fewer submissions can limit their window for slush or etc. I want everyone to submit to Uncanny Valley who wants to so I can choose the best possible, coolest work. I don’t want them worrying in particular about what I want. And I never worry too much about what they want.

      The other side of this philosophy of course is you have to not care about form rejections, which I don’t.

      1. I agree with you, too, Mike, again in theory. But in practice… I have on occasion written pieces specifically for journals. And have on occasion had those pieces accepted by those journals. I consider it a creative challenge—constraint-based writing.

        But I also don’t have one particular style or voice; I am the man without qualities. I like writing all kinds of different things. Usually, each new project I embark on is the opposite of the last thing I did—or, at least, I conceive of it that way. My second story collection is very different from my first. And my second novel is nothing like my first. And the things I’m working on now are nothing like those things.

  7. This is a fascinating discussion that raises questions no only of how authors select markets and how markets respond, or not, but it also suggests the larger question of who reads these magazines.

    I am intrigued by the method of sending out work to a place that has published a writer you/i/we might admire, for that suggests either A) that writer has an audience which you/i/we desire to reach, or B) you/i/we care not so much about who might read the piece, but instead, are entranced, so to speak, by the possible metonymy of your/my/our name sitting in the same sandbox as the other.

    In this way, you/i/we might accrete a certain sense of our writer-ness: our feeling of producing at a “level” that seems commensurate with our aspirations, which are of course generated by our points of exposure to the markets to begin with (lit blog, MFA program, etc).

    The circumstances are perhaps modified slightly for those who reap indirect economic reward from where they publish-academic writers on the tenure track, for instance. A person’s first six years of publication as a prof may lead to tenure, and thus, an income that over the career will be in the millions of dollars. Good reason to choose one pub over another?

    All of this is a very tangential way of asking this question: do you/i/we actually read magazines/lit journals for reasons separate from our own publication motivations.

    Will you/i/we read a journal we do not aspire to submit it, or, when our work appears in a journal, how carefully do the you/i/we read the other contributions? Do you/i/we read those others outside of the matrix of our own “authorship” (better than, worse than, equal to, pleasure to sit with you, young writer to keep an eye on for other publication venue ideas, etc.)

    When a publication suggests you read it before submitting, what do they mean by “read”–maybe decipher the codes embedded in the network of the above…?

    Regardless, I look forward to reading more on this subject.

    1. Definitely all interesting point, Davis. I think the idea of the publication as “community” is sort of an attractive one–as in, I am part of the WE that make up Wigleaf, or Necessary Fiction, or PANK, or whatever magazine you choose.

      I have to admit, I never read a literary magazine in my life until, in college, I took creative writing classes and aspired to publish in them. However, I think that might be less due to my aspirations to publish than to just a lack of awareness that such magazines exist in the general public. After all, when I gave up writing years ago, (at the time I thought for good) I continued to read tons of literary magazines. I do think most people read mags because they want to publish in them–which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–but I think more people would read them if they were widely available (and featured) at, say, Barnes and Noble or Borders or wherever.

    2. Hi Davis, Amber, all,

      In case it interests anyone:

      I read literary journals all the time, hoping to find good work, and also hoping to find places I might submit to. I can’t separate those two motivations; if I see work I like, I’ll probably submit. If I don’t like anything, I probably won’t read that journal again (or at least for a while), or submit anything.

      I usually read lit journals at Quimby’s in Chicago, standing in front of the racks, or when they’re sent to me for free. I only buy them when a) I really like something, b) I’m at a reading and I like something that someone read (more people should sell lit journals at readings!!!!!), or c) when I subscribe. And I only subscribe when I really, really like the journal in question, because they’re very expensive, and I am poor.

      (This is concerning print journals, not online journals, obviously.)


      1. Expense is definitely a concern. I used to read lit mags mostly at the library, when I was poor. Which meant the selection was not very good, older issues etc.

  8. Adam and Amber;

    You both hit a key point here: distribution/availability/etc. The same issue with regards to indie lit vs big houses, ah well.

    I am always interested in readership numbers for journals–many people no doubt support journals that those people thumb through casually, if at all.

    Hard to track this, I imagine, but it’s one of the reasons that online pubs have assumed a pride of place they did not have even 10 years ago. One has the perpetual opportunity to read something one does not have time or inclination to read now. The web defers non-reading into possible-reading, and thus, we are all redeemed.

    Let the light shine upon us all.

    Adam and Amber: I suspect that writers, and writers who blog, as we do, are atypical in many ways in terms of our readership habits. Writers, of course, and writers who read the types of journals we discuss at bigother et al, no doubt read more and read different-ly than non-writers.

    I’d be curious to know the non-writer readership of journals. Do those people even exist? Are the simply good humanists?

    Just rambling now.

    1. It’s very chicken and the egg, certainly. Writers tend to be readers tend to be writers tend to be readers…

      But I guess that’s not so bad. Of the people who attend Off-Off Broadway shows, I bet 90 percent are actors, directors, techies, etc–or aspiring. Once you get out of the mainstream of any of the arts, I suspect the primary audience is those who practice that same art.

  9. Really all I want is for them to address my by the correct name and maybe the name of my story.

    Getting this, sucks:

    Dear [Author],

    Thanks for submitting [your story] to Journal Review. It’s not a good fit for us, so we’re going to pass. Best of luck.

    The Editors

    HATE THAT. It’s Richard, and the story, with SUCH a brilliant title was called “Underground Wonderbound” you ass.

    Sigh. Oh well.

    1. :) THAT is one of the best things about Submishmash. It fills in that info for you automatically, even on form submissions, so everyone feels a little better.

      1. True. And it’s SO nice and convenient to have it all in one place. Having to track down 6-12 different Submission Managers to withdraw a story is a pain in the butt. I love SMM.

  10. Amber, I don’t think you should feel discouraged by a form rejection. I think writers should feel more encouraged by personal rejections. Personal rejections aren’t something to be taken lightly, for many editors. When I wrote someone a note at Redivider, it wasn’t because I thought they had potential or got our aesthetic–that’s not enough when you’re reading fifty or more stories a day and many of them have potential and/or get the aesthetic–it was because those stories were very close, and we were sad to let them go. Or because I wanted to take them, but ultimately could not–yes, that happens, for various reasons. A form rejection is not in any way an insult. It’s the norm. A personal rejection should mean that much more.

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