A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experience meaning, the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.
~Flannery O’Connor, from “Writing Short Stories”
I’ve always been a fan of short stories. I subscribe to The New Yorker just to get a new one each week to read.
Short stories are magical. So compact and full of emotion. The good ones draw you in immediately without you realizing it. They’re a mystery, really. I’ve wondered what it takes to make a good short story work ever since the first time I tried writing one, over 20 years ago.
I can still remember the ancient-seeming Sabine Ulíbarri, one of my favorite Literature professors in college, raising a crooked forefinger into the air and saying that the short story began when something extraordinary happened in an otherwise ordinary life. Professor Ulíbarri’s seminar was held in a dim room—he didn’t like florescent lights—where a dozen or so students sat around a conference table and were so rapt by this physically small yet intellectually giant man’s charms that we endured his chain smoking.
He took his shaky hand and drew on the chalkboard an X in the straight-line trajectory of the life of a typical protagonist. Then he drew a bolt of lightening coming from the heavens above and hitting the X. “This,” he said in his booming voice, “is where the story begins.”
Loving to read short stories and figuring out how to write them are two different things. The short story is a masterful art form, one that Alice Sebold in her stint as editor of The Best American Short Stories 2009 said provides
…endless access into another world, brought forth by an infinite number of gifted minds. A story about grief can comfort; a story about arrogance can shock and yet confirm; a story populated largely by landscape, whether lush or industrial, can expand the realm that we as individuals inhabit.
The dilemma for someone like me, who would love to comfort, shock, confirm, or expand a reader’s realm, is how to make my stories do exactly that. I don’t have an answer. I haven’t succeeded yet, although, if the truth be known I haven’t tried to hard enough either. However, all that is about to change.
If at First You Don’t Succeed…
I just refused to die as a person who had 30 pages of a novel in her drawer.
~Elizabeth Gilbert, answering a question during an Albuquerque appearance
The rest of this post is targeted to people like me who write and write and write yet rarely venture to send our works out into the world where those who’ve succeeded in the literary arena might judge them. I can understand the resistance. Writing is hard enough. Getting our work published is a whole ‘nother matter. But if like me you want to accept yourself as a writer, you may want to consider seriously pursuing getting your writing published in literary magazines.
Right now I’m focused on the short story, but editors of literary magazines care about all kinds of writing. Literary magazines contain fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry, and some even publish haiku, photography, the graphic narrative, and other art.
Why should we try to get our writing published in literary magazines? According to Poets & Writers, “most writers get the attention of editors, agents, and other writers by publishing first in literary magazines.” Not to mention, many of these venues offer great motivation in the form of cash awards. In fact, this is one of the best times of year to compete in writing contests—the stakes can be anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to one or two or four thousand.
I just spent a large chunk of this past three-day weekend submitting a short story to several contests. I wrote the story a few years ago and even though I wasn’t happy with it then, I sent it out back then to a half dozen literary magazines for consideration. Not surprisingly, it didn’t get picked up, so I stuck it into a drawer where it sat for a few years.
Well, as often happens when you step back and stop thinking about a piece for a while (be it art or writing), I could see the weaknesses in the story when I looked at it anew. I spent several hours rewriting and editing until finally I had a piece I could be proud of. The next step was to send it out in to the world.
…Try, Try Again
I take writing and competition very seriously. I believe that all writers should compete—even if I now know this to be a quixotic quests—on a level playing field.
~Alice Sebold, Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2009
The Poets & Writers website is an amazing place, well laid out and chock full of excellent information for figuring out where to send your work. The site has a “Tools for Writers” tab that shows deadlines for Writing Contests, Grants & Awards in both a Submission Calendar format and in a searchable database where you can filter by genre, entry fee, and timing. There’s also the Contest Blog, with frequently posted gems, including interviews with authors who have won contests in the past.
NewPages.com—a website that touts the goodness of independent bookstores—also carries a list of Writing Contests categorized by monthly deadline. It has a list of hundreds of literary magazines—aptly named “Big List of Literary Magazines”—so that you can get a feel for those that fit your writing style and vice versa.
A source I didn’t find in either Poets & Writers nor NewPages.com is A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps women achieve their artistic goals by providing prize and grants, including a $50,000 biennial grant “to an American woman writer of merit working under financial hardship.”
It should be said, contests are not the be-all end-all of writing. Most important is getting your work published, which these sources provide just as much information about as they do contests and awards. But in the event you need that extra boost, now is an excellent time to vie for prizes.
Your Countrymen (and Women) Need You
It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ.
~Stephen King, “What Ails the Short Story,” in The New York Times, 9/30/2007
When he was editor of The Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King declared that short stories were alive but not well. Literary magazines have over time been relegated to the bottom shelves of magazine sections in most big bookstores, and even there only a few titles can be found.
So do your part. Read, write, edit, and submit. Then do it again and again.
Hints & Tips
Poets & Writers offers these common sense tips for submitting to literary journals and/or vying for writing contests:
- Do research to determine which publications are right for you. In other words, know your market.
- Each literary magazine has “a unique editorial voice, tone, viewpoint, mission.” Make sure that you read any literary magazine before you submit your work to it. (Many literary magazines have websites with archives where you can read past winning stories or other published pieces.)
- Read about the contributors to compare their backgrounds and interests to yours.
- Make sure to read the Submission Guidelines for each magazine. They differ. Some will accept only online; others only accept hard copies sent by mail. Some want 12pt. font with one-inch margins. One might have a word count, another a page count.
- Specifically look for guidance on simultaneous submissions, meaning submissions of a single work to more than one journal or contest at a time. Most of the literary journals that I submitted to allowed for simultaneous submissions but asked to be informed immediately if the submission gets picked up by or wins somewhere else.
- Some literary journals request cover letters and others do not. Some contests are done as a “blind review,” meaning that any identifying information about the author is stripped off during the actual reading/review. Poets & Writers suggested that where a cover letter is requested, try not to “discuss the merits or themes of the work you are submitting” but use the cover letter instead to provide a short bio and any past publication accomplishments.
Finally, beware of Writing Contest scams. My advice, and mind you this is only my advice, is to use a source that you trust (the way I trust, for example, Poets & Writers) to identify true literary journals and the contests they run. Others may be designed to simply get your dollars for a submission or reading fee.
Special Bonus: Sabine Ulíbarri