When I first started researching how to submit fiction to journals and magazines, one of the common pieces of advice was to read back issues in order to better understand what kind of work each market published. Although that advice was well-meaning, I think it also made me needlessly delay on submitting my work for a long time. "I haven't read all the back-issues!" I'd tell myself, "I'm not ready!"
Yes, understanding your audience is key to getting published, but no one who is balancing a full-time job, family, and their writing-habit could possibly read enough back issues for all the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. And if you have a literary bent, that's a whole extra genre of magazines to research. It's just too much to do.
Well, kids, I stumbled upon the solution the other day.
Did you know that many of these magazines have podcasts? Where they read their stories aloud? It's like having an endless book on tape of excellent short fiction, for free too. (Although I do think you should subscribe to your favorite magazines. They're generally inexpensive and it's a great way to support your peers.)
Here are the science fiction and fantasy magazines that I've been listening to lately (in no particular order):
I already listen to a variety of podcasts during my hour long commute. And now, I get to enjoy good science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously helping me to understand each market a little better. If you're of a literary mind (and even if you're pure genre), then you should listen to The New Yorker's Fiction podcast to learn from the greats of short fiction writing, like Cheever, Borges, and Gallant.
Frankly, it's been eye-opening. When you hear the kind of stories that are getting published in the magazines, well, let's just say I'm no longer surprised that mine have been getting rejected. What I have been writing and what gets through the slush readers (or what is invited) sounds completely different.
Based on this research, I've concluded that published authors write with more restraint than unpublished amateurs (like myself). They don't spend pages describing each setting in florid detail. The characters are usually more even-keeled, emotionally speaking. The stories tend to be neither excessively sad, nor do they try to be excessively funny. They sound more like an acquaintance telling you a story about something odd they saw the previous day.
So do yourself a favor, cheat a little, and just listen to the market of your choice via podcast if they have one. You'll hear the difference and it should help your writing and publishing chances. And hey, if nothing else, it's an entertaining way to get through a long drive.
Well kids, I did it. I submitted a short story to a science fiction magazine. My first submission! Now I see that the process wasn’t too awful, I’m wondering why I didn’t just go ahead and do it before. Why had I put that off for so long? The editing only took a few mornings of my writing time (though it did help that it was practically flash fiction and only ~1500 words). I learned how to use standard manuscript format. Again, not difficult, and now I have a template I can use. And the cover letter was quick and painless. Now that it’s written, I can adapt it for any subsequent submission (just as you do for real job applications). I’m really happy that I submitted, regardless of the rejection letter that is sure to follow.
Of course, now I’m totally obsessed with hitting refresh on the electronic submission form, watching my number in the slush pile queue slowly descend. It reminds me a lot of checking for fanfiction reviews, back in the day. Clicking again and again, getting so excited when the number of reviews shifted from 0 to 1, and then the disappointment that followed from getting responses like, “I didn’t understand this,” or “More please!”
Did you ever read or write fanfiction? I went through phases where I read a lot of fanfiction and eventually I would get so annoyed at the amount of time I spent looking for the story I wanted to read that I would just end up writing it myself. Really awful stuff. But then again, most fanfiction is pretty lousy. There were some rare exceptions, but as far as I can tell, they’re almost all lost now to the purge.
Eventually, I got to the point where I couldn’t read fanfiction anymore. I just got too old for it or I lost interest in the comic or show on which it was based. And then I stopped writing fanfiction altogether after I heard George R.R. Martin’s opinion on the matter:
"Write every day, even if it is only a page or two. The more you write, the better you’ll get. But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those “literary muscles,” you’ll never develop them."
I think that’s very true. Fanfiction is good when you’re young and haven’t learned all the skills you’ll need to write new stories; original from top to bottom. But eventually you have to learn how to develop your own characters and settings. You can’t piggy-back on someone else’s ideas forever.
I’ll never condemn fanfiction. I had too much fun with some of it to say that it was worthless reading and writing material. It’s a good place to practice. But it can’t replace the struggle of writing your own stories. (One caveat: fanfiction is fine...as long as you're not making money off other people's ideas.)
Did you write fanfiction? Or were you original from the start? It’s taken me literally fifteen years to begin submitting my own work. I’ve always been a bit on the slow slide.
Update: As expected, story rejected. On to the next journal.