If you choose to work as a freelance writer, most of your work will be commissioned and dictated by other people. It still beats the hell out of other jobs, believe me, but the job sets inherent boundaries. You have to write content relevant to a client’s blog. You have to turn the client’s words into a coherent post, article, or book. If you choose to take the entirely traditional route and only pitch stories to magazines, you have far more control over the subject of your writing, but you probably aren’t pitching fiction or poetry. If you are, please tell me in the comments where and how you’re doing that because I would love to know.
Essentially, as a freelancer, your bread and butter comes from nonfiction pieces driven by the needs of a client. But there’s a high likelihood that if you’re a writer by trade, you also dabble in more creative writing outlets like fiction or poetry. Well, believe it or not, there are still literary journals out there that pay for fiction and poetry. Just like with freelancing, though, you have to put a lot of effort on the back end to break through. In fact, breaking into fiction circles is even harder than breaking into the freelance world because fiction is entertainment. It’s like being chosen to play the small supporting role in a big blockbuster or a Broadway play as an unknown. Those are the odds you’re dealing with.
However, the steps to getting there are very much the same as landing a high-paying client as a freelancer. To build up your freelancing portfolio, you’ll have to write a few free guest blog posts or do a few ghostwriting jobs for beginner’s rates. To get noticed by a paying literary journal, you need to do the same. Land a few publications in non-paying journals. Now, there are some paying journals that do accept beginner pieces … or say they do. You’ll often find when you go through the guidelines with a fine-toothed comb that they only accept one unpublished author per issue. You can still try (by all means do, if the journal seems perfect), but just know your odds are way, way down in an already tight competition. Submitting takes time, and some journals don’t allow you to send simultaneous submissions (a simultaneous submission is when you send the same story to multiple journals and alert the others if one chooses to publish). Now, that’s a lame rule that you can ignore, but if that journal accepts your story right after another one does, and you’ve already agreed to give it to the first journal, that second journal isn’t going to like you very much and you probably won’t ever get published there. More and more journals are also starting to charge a small submission fee. You have to pay around three dollars just to be considered. This isn’t because the editors are mean; it’s because it takes a lot of money to keep a literary journal circulating, and most of the people running the journals aren’t millionaires, they’re writers who are doing it because they love it. But love don’t pay the bills. Literary journals are experiencing the same backslide as newspapers and publishing houses, with the internet and electronic age forcing them to downsize because the number of people signing up for hard-copy literary journal subscriptions is dropping. Do you own one? My guess is probably not, and if you do, it’s probably just one (You should rectify that! Hell, I should, too). The point is, try submitting to the smaller journals first, the ones that pay in a free copy of the journal or just in the joy of being published, because your odds are much better, and it’s more worth your time, effort, and even money. Then, when you have a few publications under your belt, you can “raise your rate,” so to speak, and go for the paying ones.
So how do you get any literary journal, much less a paying one, to give you the time of day?
Step One: Pick the Right Journal
Think of it like pitching a client. You aren’t going to pitch an accounting firm if your area of expertise is literary arts or animals … or if it takes you a solid five minutes to multiply 28 times 32 in your head like it does me. You would be wasting your time. Don’t waste time in fiction submissions by assuming that all fiction journals accept all fiction. It’s not true. Journals are businesses, and like successful businesses, they have a niche. However, unlike freelancing, you wrote your story or poem because of a spark of inspiration. You didn’t comb through the journal options first and then tailor your piece to fit a specific journal’s needs, like you would if you were pitching a nonfiction piece to a magazine. Now, you could do that for fiction, but to me that sort of sucks the creativity out of it. Instead, I suggest writing what you want, because that’s the key to writing good fiction that comes from that muse or creative core or whatever you want to call it. Then figure out what niche your piece fits in and start searching for a nice list of journals (5-10 at first) that might like it.
You can use Google, but I personally like to use my Writer’s Market book because everything is all in one place and categorized. Don’t know what a Writer’s Market book is or how to use it? Read this earlier post. Looking to upgrade your current copy to the 2017 version? Here’s my affiliate link.
Step Two: Read the Freaking Guidelines!
If you skip this step, you just screwed yourself … hard. Those guidelines on the journal’s website are there to weasel out the lazy bums and the dopes who can’t follow simple directions. Don’t be a lazy dope; read each journal’s guidelines with the reverence of a holy text and follow them to the letter. Some journals want you to print out the manuscript and send it old school, in the mail. If they don’t want that story stapled, and it shows up in the editor’s hand with a staple, that story takes an express trip to the trash. Most journals have online submission programs, but they still want the document submitted in a very specific format. Follow it! It’s really not that hard.
Step Three: Write a Killer Cover Letter
I don’t care if the online submission portal has “(optional)” by the cover letter section. It’s not actually optional. Just like a cover letter in a pitch isn’t optional. You can’t just send someone a resume, say nothing in the email, and expect to get hired.
A journal that wants a snail mail submission probably has specific guidelines about the cover letter because that’s where you will put all your contact information. In an online submission, the cover letter is usually separate but still just as vital. Trust me. I work as an Associate Editor for a literary journal called 4ink7.
We use Submittable, which is the program used by most journals nowadays, and when I click on a submission in there, the first thing to pop up is the cover letter. The story is just a titled document at the bottom of the page that I have to click on. The cover letter is staring me in the face, and I do read them. And whether it’s fair or not, I begin to make assumptions about the submission based on the cover letter. It’s human nature; it just happens. The cover letter can shape how I feel about the submitter.
If someone just puts, “Thanks for reading!” well, that’s nice (and a good start), but I just skim that and move on. You’ve made no impression. If your entire cover letter is just a long list of previous publications, I just skim that, too. And, in all honesty, I think, “Good for you, hot shot. Let’s see if you can actually impress me.” A long list like that is boring, and if that’s all that you put, you come across as sort of pompous. Some people include a summary of their story. That can be good or bad. If you do it in a way that’s clever, humorous, or intriguing, you get me excited for the story. However, some people ruin their story in their summary. Don’t do that. I don’t want to know how it ends, or even the twist in the middle. Then there’s the guy who tries to be “artsy” and lays out an existential argument in his cover letter that makes about zero sense. I roll my eyes and then grit my teeth when I click on the story because I just know I’m in for a thrilling ride of large, pompous words used half-correctly and metaphors that are a stretch to say the least.
Enough with the bad. What makes a great cover letter?
Make the address as personal as possible. Don’t say, Dear sirs. I’m not a sir. If you can, find the name of the editor most likely to read the submission. My name isn’t on 4ink7’s site, but the editor in chief’s is, and if I see his name in a submission, I’m impressed, even though it’s not addressed to me. I know that that person took the time to learn about the journal. If you can’t find an editor’s name, at least address it to the journal. Something like, “To the 4ink7 editing staff” or “Dear 4ink7,” at least shows that you know who you’re submitting to.
Thank the editors for taking the time to consider your piece. I don’t get paid for my work with 4ink7. I volunteer because I like doing it, but it is time consuming, and it’s nice to be thanked for the effort. Want to take it a step further? You should. Compliment the journal. If you want a gold star, mention a story from the previous issue that you liked. Attention and appreciation go a long way. Just one or two simple lines is enough.
Next, briefly say something about yourself. And for the love of God, don’t put, “I love to read,” or “I’ve been writing since I was .” Yeah, me too. Same goes for every writer I’ve ever met. Boring. I know nothing about you that I couldn’t have guessed. Tell me something that makes you, you. If it brings a smile to my face or makes me think I might like to hang out with you, you’ve got me in a positive frame of mind before I open your story. If you can relate your little tidbit to your story, even cooler. For instance, I wrote a piece about the hell of being an introvert in the service industry, and the middle line of my cover letter when submitting that story currently reads, “Hannah Sandoval is her own boss at her freelance ghostwriting and editing business, PurpleInkPen, and she has vowed to never work at a restaurant ever again.” If I received that at 4ink7, I would be most intrigued by that last phrase. It would catch my attention because it would seem just slightly out of place, but when I started to read the story, I’d immediately put it together. Not all my stories fit into my life so nicely, but I still avoid the “Hannah loves to spend her days reading a good book with a cup of coffee and writing fiction in her spare time,” cliche. Barf. Make the editor smile before opening your piece, not roll her eyes.
If you have previous publications, please mention them, but don’t ramble. Lastly, end with another quick thanks to the editors and a “I look forward to hearing from you,” call to action.
Step Four: Be Persistent
Like I said, the competition to break into fiction publishing is stiff. Even with a killer cover letter, an awesome piece (that’s the real step one, but, duh!), and a flawless submission format, you will still get rejected. There isn’t enough room in a journal to put all the good pieces, and the selection process is ultimately subjective. An editor can concede that you have talent and your story is good, but he or she may like another equally good story better just based on personal preference. Guess which one goes in the journal.
Submit in chunks. Send the story to a group of journals that accept simultaneous submissions all at once. Wait for the responses. If you get all nos, send it out to another batch or to a single journal that doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions but that you think has a high chance of choosing it. If you get feedback with your rejections, you’re very lucky. Take it into serious consideration. Keep submitting, and if your story is good, you will eventually get a bite. And remember, that first break is the absolute hardest to get. Once you get one or two non-paid publications under your belt, you’re more eligible for the paid journals. Start the process all over again, even enter some writer’s contests, and start making a side income with your fiction.
P.S. If you like to write in the horror, science fiction, or fantasy genre’s, or your literary fiction is just a little off the wall by nature, I suggest submitting to the online journal, Bewildering Stories. They recently published a story of mine (“Hi, I’m Corpse Bride Barbie,” my first journal publication!), and their editorial staff is exceptional. You will actually get feedback from two review readers and the managing editor, which is way beyond what most journals do. If the consensus is split on your story (One reviewer absolutely loved my story, the other hated it, and the managing editor just liked it. See what I mean about subjective?), but the managing editor is interested, he will give you concrete advice on how to improve your story. I found his input to be extremely helpful, and I’m very happy with the end product.
P.P.S If you’re looking to publish something larger, like a novel or a book of poetry, Channillo is a great place to gauge reader interest in your book as you go along and get paid a little in the process. I’m currently editing a very old novel of mine, Arcamira, and publishing it on Channillo as I go. You can read my review of the site, here.