I got my first agent as a junior in high school. I wouldn’t say I was a particularly spectacular writer, or that my query letter was in any way perfect. But one thing I did have in my favor was a bio with previous publications in literary magazines.
This guest post is by Meg Eden. Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, RHINO and Gargoyle. She teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland. She has four poetry chapbooks, and her novel Post-High School Reality Quest is published with California Coldblood, an imprint of Rare Bird Books. Find her online or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.
Literary magazines are periodicals that focus on creative writing. They typically publish short stories and poetry, and occasionally craft essays and book reviews. They are a space for displaying both emerging and established writers’ work, with the hopes of exposing these writers to new readers. Literary magazines can have a local or global focus: some showcasing work from a specific community, and others opening submissions to out of state and international writers. Publishing with literary magazines not only allows writers to build up a portfolio of previous publications, but it can also provide opportunities to network with people in the writing community (particularly with local magazines), and even help you get your book published.*
Agents get inundated with query letters. If you want to get a taste of what it’s like to be an agent or editor, volunteer with a local literary magazine. Read submission after submission. Notice how pretty quickly they all start to look the same. It doesn’t take long for small errors to make you stop reading or lose interest. The pile never seems to shrink, and you want to find reasons to accept a submission, or reject it. You want something to stand out and make your decision as easy as possible.
As a writer submitting to an agent, there are a few things you can do to make an engaging query letter—besides just having a great pitch for your book. The first and perhaps most important thing is to follow the submission guidelines (so many submissions are rejected because they don’t follow the guidelines, or even spell the agent’s name wrong). The next is to be concise and engaging, making sure all the information about your book is clear for the agent, including the word count and genre(s). The icing on the cake is to have previous publications.
Previous publications are important for multiple reasons. For one, they help you as a writer start to know the publishing world. While every magazine’s submission guidelines vary, there are some consistent basics: cover letters, bios, a standard format of double spaced, Times New Roman twelve point font, and footer with page numbers. Like book publishing, literary magazine submissions are accompanied by rejections and readers who don’t connect with your work. The quicker you learn how to use rejection letters in your favor the better off you’ll be.
Submitting to literary magazines also helps you develop your craft as a writer. By writing small, succinct stories and poems, you are exercising muscles that help develop focus in your narrative and the ability to “kill your darlings.” Juggling both writing and submitting also helps develop a consistent writing habit. I find that I’m always making sure that I have a certain number of pieces out for publication, and as I wait for news, I continue to write. Once I hear back, I send out a new batch with my more recent work. This requires that I am constantly producing and sending out new work. Writing for magazines has also helped me set concrete writing goals and deadlines for myself in the midst of a chaotic schedule. It’s much easier to make the time to finish a short story or poem than it is a novel.
Finally, magazine publications help you stand out in the query submission pool to agents. Publications say you have already been vetted as a writer. It tells an agent that you have experience as a writer, and that people have already read your work and enjoyed it enough to present it to others. The ultimate goal of a query letter is to persuade someone that investing in your work will have a beneficial return for everyone involved. By pointing to people who have already invested in your work, you are making a case for your work being a good investment. You are also implicitly pointing to a potential future audience.
But there are multiple ways that publications present you as a good investment. My high school publications were anything but spectacular. I wasn’t in the New Yorker or McSweeney’s. Most of my publications were from small online contests and magazines that are all probably defunct at this point. But that’s not necessarily relevant. While having the New Yorker on my byline would’ve made a great case for me as someone to invest in, the very presence of my publications made a powerful statement, regardless of where they were from. My high school publications said that I was a writer who was willing to take initiative and put in work for my writing to find an audience. It said that I wasn’t going to be someone who expected my agent or editor to do everything, but that I’d bring my skills and connections to the table as well. In this digital age of publishing, authors are expected to promote their books and invest quite a bit of energy finding and connecting with their audience. Practicing these skills before seeking an agent will give you a step up on the playing field and help you set realistic expectations.
Literary magazines have not only taught me how to find new potential audiences and homes for my work, but have also created some valuable connections. Because of my involvement with literary magazines, I had a long list of people and magazines to contact when my first novel came out. I asked the magazines I worked with to share my book—which many did—and some even asked to review it or interview me. I’ve also made some fantastic friends through literary magazines, who were willing to blurb or review my book, or help promote it. One former editor I became friends with pointed me to a debut group for new authors, a resource that was (and is) absolutely vital to my novel writing journey. Write, send, persist despite rejection letters, and repeat—and see who you meet and what you find along the way.
*For more information on finding literary magazines, visit your local libraries, bookstores, writing centers, and writers conferences. Online databases on Duotrope, Poets & Writers, and Writer’s Market have some great ways to find magazines. Also check out my site for upcoming workshops on finding and submitting to literary magazines!
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