Selling Your Stories, Publishing Your Poems

Lit by Arlene L. Mandell, 05/15/07

No matter how graceful your prose, or unique your images, your work will never be published if it stays in your journal. No one will steal into your room at night, avidly read your cherished writing, and slip away to print l0,000 copies on exquisite paper.

Producing a moving poem or a poignant short story is satisfying in itself, but seeing it in print provides both affirmation of your vision and encouragement to persevere in your solitary work. I can speak from experience both about the giddy happiness of getting published and the discouragement of stuffing yet another rejection slip into an already overflowing folder.

After eighteen years of writing and sending out poetry, prose poems and short stories, more than 275 of my works have been published, including 10 in anthologies. Along the way, I've learned a few things about playing the odds.

Art Bounds, the editor of a charming journal, Pegasus Review, and one of the first to accept one of my poems, gave me three rules to follow. I display them on an index card pinned to the bulletin board next to my computer:
Write daily
Market your work

Though I can't always write every day, I probably put pen to journal or fingers to keyboard at least five days a week, and hope you can do the same.

Let's assume you're serious about your work, try to write most days, even if it's fifteen minutes revising some dialogue, and belong to a local writer's group which offers both support and constructive criticism. You have access to a word processor and know how to produce clean copy following the guidelines provided by standard writing texts. You have a ream of white paper (nothing fancy), mailing envelopes in several sizes, a small postage scale and a generous supply of stamps.

Now you need to establish a marketing system. Most pieces can find a suitable home, but you have to use determination, ingenuity and intuition to find it. There are three publications I have found useful in finding outlets for my work:Poet's Market, Novel and Short Story Market, Directory of Poetry Publishers, and Poets & Writers, Inc.. The first two are published annually and between them contain thousands of markets.

Poets & Writers is a bimonthly magazine crammed with articles by and about writers, information on upcoming workshops nationwide, contests, and calls for work for a wide range of journals and anthologies. Mark those listings which seem to match your work, noting such requirements as length, style preferences and special themes. Sometimes they will offer guidelines if you send a SASE (stamped, self-addressed envelope). Currently many publications have these guidelines available online.

The guidelines are useful in determining the editors' interests, prejudices, and quirks. I've encountered editors who don't like one-word titles, poems with roses or butterflies, or anything about a dead or dying parent. Some also advise sending for a sample issue, but this can become expensive. While I often paid for sample copies the first three years I sent out my work, I seldom do now. Call it confidence or cockiness, but I'm more assured my work is worthwhile, whether or not a particular editor concurs.

A cover letter is important and generally expected, but it should never try to "explain" the enclosed work. A simple paragraph thanking the editor for reading the works listed and another paragraph providing some information about yourself is sufficient. After wasting time composing a unique letter to each editor, I now have a standard format I modify as needed. I use an attractive letterhead design, tell them that I'm a retired English professor, and list a few of the better publications where my work has appeared. I always include a return envelope with sufficient postage, and fold the letter and the work together neatly. If a copy of an essay is creased or shopworn, I print out a new copy.

Keeping track of what you've sent can become confusing. My method is to print two copies of the cover letter, and save one in a "Submissions" file. Since each work has its own folder, I jot down the date and publication inside. I keep an alphabetical list of "Works Published" and another list of "Works to be Published." I do the same for electronic submission, which now comprise about 80% percent of my submissions. I'm proud to say the "Works Published" list is now eighteen pages long.

The more work you send, the more rejections you'll receive--and the more acceptances. I sometimes send a new poem to three journals simultaneously unless they expressly forbid it in their listings (but never three in the same state), thereby speeding up the likelihood that someone will publish it soon. This is necessary, especially for seasonal material, as I'll have to wait another whole year if, for example, I miss the deadlines for spring-themed issues.

Once I receive a published copy, I immediately write to the editor, praising what I liked best about the journal. Sometimes I enclose new work, or wait three to six months and submit again. Often I will also subscribe to the journal. At that point the correspondence goes into a "Publishing Relationships" folder.

If you make a commitment to writing daily and marketing your work, before long your bookshelves will fill with literary magazines from all over the country and you will have become part of an ever-expanding literary fellowship. But getting published is much more than merely keeping score. For me the best moments are when I see my words in print and think, "Not bad. In fact, this is pretty good!"

Arlene Mandell has more than 275 poetry, essay and short story publication credits to her name. She gives workshops on the art of getting into print, tutors gifted children in creative writing, and is an active member of the Sonoma County literary community.

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