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Thoughts on getting published; an occasional blog

I’ve been editing Mount Hope since the fall of 2011. As we are finishing up our 15th issue, and having reviewed thousands of submissions in the time I've done the magazine, I’ve learned a lot about how we put together a small literary journal such as this, and how we choose what and whom to publish.

I’ve been a writer of one sort or another for nearly forty years. I started out as a newspaper reporter, producing the most direct kind of prose: descriptions of the events and people in a community. In the early 1990s, after a decade in which I’d evolved to more artistic forms of nonfiction writing, I began writing and publishing fiction. My fifth book of fiction, a collection of stories and novellas, is forthcoming. I still am a committed writer, and see my role as editor as complementary to that.

But I still find so much of the “publishing process” a mystery, and puzzle at why some work finds a place, and other pieces do not, and how the decisions are made (or not, really). It’s led me to consider where these two pieces of my experience converge.

So I’ll be writing about this in occasional posts here on the Mount Hope website. And I’ll be writing to, and for, the kinds of authors we see submitting to magazines such as ours (as opposed, say, to the very prestigious journals in our field such as The Paris Review or Ploughshares).

I’ll start with some basics, things that emerging writers, particularly those who (like myself) never went to a graduate creative-writing program, might not realize. And for the most part, I’m speaking of the kind of magazine Mount Hope is: a small magazine in an academic setting.

Here are a few thoughts on what I see.

1) These kind of magazines serve a dual purpose. At Mount Hope, here in the Creative Writing program at Roger Williams University, the primary purpose of such a magazine is to provide so-called “experiential learning” opportunities for our students. There have been, over fifty years, a succession of literary magazines published on this campus: Aldebaran, Calliope, and roger were journals previously done here. These magazines wax and wane depending on funding, faculty interest and shifting leadership. But the purpose is always to give the students hands-on training in the process of publishing and editing. The effectiveness of that can also vary depending on enrollment, student interest, and available talent. I’ve been happy to see a succession of very talented young editors work on Mount Hope, many of whom now work professionally as editors. But it’s always a challenge. Conversely, magazines such as ours then provide a service to the literary community: affording an opportunity for writers to be published. My own first story publication was in The Carolina Quarterly, for which I will always be thankful. We hope we provide similar meaningful opportunities for writers. But as with most such journals, that can often create a particular disconnect, which I shall discuss in future posts.

2) Virtually all magazines have more coming at them than they can handle. In 2018, this magazine received more than 500 submissions. We typically publish, per year, four fiction pieces, four nonfiction, and about five or six poetry “packages,” ranging from one to four poems. I typically work with ten to fourteen students per semester, many of whom are getting their first experience in publishing. As you go up the pyramid to the more established and prestigious magazines, my observation is that while they have bigger staffs, and often more-experienced staffs, they also see far more submissions; the challenge of giving everyone a fair read is just as daunting. I’ve been told by an editor at Ploughshares that they get upwards of 10,000 submissions a year; in my years being fortunate enough to publish stories in The Atlantic, I learned they received around 15,000 short-story submissions a year, of which (as a monthly magazine at the time) they could publish twelve. Every time I got an acceptance, I felt like a lottery winner. I also knew of the commitment Atlantic fiction editor C. Michael Curtis had to giving every piece a fair shot. I’m committed to giving every submission to the magazine a fair read; I’ll write at length about that in the future.

3) Multiple submissions, and services such as Submittable, have markedly changed the process.The old “rule” of submitting work, which prevailed well into the 1990s, was “One at a time.” Most journals, large and small, warned against the scurrilous act of sending a piece to multiple magazines at the same time; most writers worked on typewriters then and typically only had one, typed manuscript to send anyway (with photocopies stored away as if in the vault should the "typescript" be lost or damaged). So stories would circulate at a slower pace; a writer would wait six months or more for a single response, making the process to publication sometimes go on for years, and that encouraged writers to “seek their level” to expedite the process. If you were a new writer, you might try your first effort with a smaller journal, as I did with The Carolina Quarterly. Into the late 1980s, home computers and laserjet printers made it easier to turn out multiple copies of a piece, and the multiple-submission era began. Suddenly magazines saw huge surges in the numbers of submissions they got, and usually with little or no added resources to process them. But even there, each submission had to be mailed, with a stamped return envelope enclosed, the cost still tamping down one's urge to do too many. Envelopes and stamps might make a submission cost four or five dollars per, and limited how much a writer might invest in submissions. Now came Submittable, email submissions, Submissions Manager and other such web platforms; in theory, I could take a story I wrote and do a hundred submissions in one day, at no cost. In theory, that’s a boon to the author, to have so much work in play at so many places, with a chance to succeed. In practice, I’m not so sure this approach is benefitting the authors the way they think it is. I’ll write more about that in the future.

4) Deciding what to publish is more than just what’s “good.” Putting together a magazine involves a series of decisions of which few can’t be judgmental. But an issue of a magazine is not just a periodic dissemination of work chosen only for its quality, it’s also a reflection of the organic nature of what it means to put out a publication, especially in an educational setting where staff turns over yearly. When your piece has been turned down, it can mean it’s just not ready (and I’ll write in the future about the many mistakes I see writers making that hurt their chances), but factors can also include whether we’ve just published a piece similar to your own, whether we see the piece fitting a general sense of what we’re trying to further, and how our own attitudes about not just quality of a story, but content as well, help shape the mix. As an author, I create individual works; as an editor, I see how a group of people shape a work that has its own artistic resonance.

5) We wish we could be a place for more work to appear. When you get into any artistic endeavor, you’re signing on to not just face rejection, but to face rejection frequently based on personal judgment. I once met a prominent American poet who, having worked on a literary magazine in graduate school, said that it was fun to get to turn other writers down. I’ll forgive that and assign it to a youthful urge to hold some power, or to feel that rejecting other authors' work means you know what’s truly “good’ and “bad,” but very few editors I’ve met get any pleasure from “rejection day.” Some pieces are easier to turn down than others, for reasons I’ll try to elaborate upon in the future, and the end process always leads to a few decisions that seem obvious, and many others that could go either way. We limit our pages because of budget and because of the staff's ability to do the work.

Getting good work, publishing that work, and seeing a newer author use that as a foothold to more and better publication, and maybe seeing a more-experienced author get a bit of a boost at an opportune time, is what makes it worthwhile to do this kind of work.

6) We try to further the interests of our writers. Publishing in Mount Hope is, clearly, a quiet event. But we feel it's our duty and pleasure, to forward work from the magazine for other honors and accolades. We have, in 2015 and again last year, had work first appearing in our magazine cited as "Distinguished Work" in the Best American Essays anthology. We forward work to many other such "best of" publications. We always hope we can be a first step in a bigger process.

So, a start. In future posts I’ll try to share what I’ve learned, and hope it might be useful.

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