Many different people will tell you many different things about what they believe to be the cardinal rule of small press submission (and for that matter literary submission in general). Some say it’s about having a snappy cover letter. Some will tell you that, above all else, you need to read the magazine ahead of time and get a feel for what kind of material it publishes. Some maintain that you need to be a “good” “writer,” whatever the hell that means. And some think that simply being a writer helps, which we certainly agree with. But above all else, we think the secret of publication comes down to four simple letters” DBAD. Don’t Be a Dick.
Don't be this guy.
To be fair, this is a somewhat difficult rule to follow because it’s much more long-term oriented than most of us would really like to bother with. And I guess that, in order to segue properly into the DBAD rule, we need to first explore TDOP–The Dream of Publication. (Also, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, this post will include an awful lot of acronyms.)
TDOP begins quite simply: the fledgling writer finishes off a story/poem/essay, and believes that, for all intents and purposes, it is flawless. Note here that the fledgling writer is clever enough not to say that her story is perfect “for all intensive purposes,” but is still green enough to believe in the strange fever that descends upon her for the 24 hours immediately after a story/poem/essay’s completion, in which its problems will be rendered invisible and its strong points will seem clearly indicative of genius. With trembling fingers and a rime of salt quickly drying on her upper lip, the fledgling writer sends her perfect story/poem/essay off to one literary magazine, the one whose pages she has dreamed of appearing within for months if not years.
The fledgling writer does not need to submit her perfect story/poem/essay–let’s call it “The Weight of the Moon, the White of Her Teeth,” or “WOMWOT” for short–to more than one place, because it is, after all, perfect. The perfect magazine will read it and call up the fledgling writer that very day, saying that it has called its fancy New York publishing friends and that the fledgling writer now has the option of accepting a $500,000 novel option, with the strong possibility of a film adaptation following soon after. The very words that the fledgling writer composed with clammy hands on a refurbished MacBook will fill the luscious mouth of Jeff Goldblum–not Jeff Goldblum now but delicious, halo-haired Fly-era Goldblum, because this is a fantasy and in the fantasies of fledgling writers Jeff Goldblum can be whatever fucking age you want, since none of the rest is plausible, either.
The Fledgling Writer, Reenacted
And, just as the hopeful young Jeff Goldblum of The Fly steps too soon into his not-yet-fully-tested Telepod and accidentally splices his genes with those of a housefly, leading to a painful period of confusion, aggressive behavior, despair, destroyed relationships, and bodily disintegration, so too the fledgling writer is about to see TDOP’s dark side: The Truth About Publication (TAP).
(The Portland Review would take this time to mention that David Cronenberg’s The Fly is not just a damn near flawless horror movie but is also a remarkably good tool for explaining nearly every phenomenon of adult life, from puberty to existential crises brought on by grad school to the experience of buying car insurance.)
The Fledgling Writer, 6 months after her glorious journey begins.
First of all, the hard truth is this: you will never write something that is perfect. Never, ever, ever, ever. We’re not saying this because we don’t believe in you, but because no one ever does. Any published author who says they came up with that story or poem or novel you love with insignificant to no editing is almost certainly lying. Writing is hard not just because you have to sit down in front of a computer/typewriter/legal pad/mud paddy and stick and somehow express the nebulous concepts floating around in your mind, but because, after your first crack at doing so, you have to go away for a while, drink a cup of coffee (or Tab, or Sanka, or Flavor Aid), do whatever it is that helps you relax (go to a whorehouse, a zoo, a lecture on geology, a movie theater), and then wander back to your writing and look at it objectively. Then you have to do that over and over and over again.
There is no quick answer. You will be perpetually flawed. You will grow old, and as the birthdays pass you by you will realize that you are speeding further and further away from prodigy territory, the time in your writing life when you are cute and cuddly and so preternaturally brilliant it just makes people’s teeth hurt. Here’s the thing: some people manage to get very famous very young and do impossibly good work before they are old enough to rent a car, but that probably won’t be you. And even for those people, the secret is hard work and an immunity to self-loathing even more profound than whatever raw talent they possess. Don’t waste your time envying them. Just get back to your goddamn work.
You will also never be able to afford this car.
But–and there is a but–all of this is good news. Sure, you want money. You all want money. We at the Portland Review, and I, Sarah Marshall–of 1871 Park Avenue, Portland, Oregon, in case you were wondering where you could send any correspondence and possibly checks–want money. That will continue to be a problem for most of us for all of our lives. But if you take a group of people united in their creative pursuits–in your case and our case, a group of writers–all of whom are constantly losing just a little bit of hair each month because of anxiety about how they will pay for rent/coffee/tuition/internet/Wonderbread, something wonderful happens: suddenly, you have a community.
A photo of the author of this post, Sarah Marshall (aka The Fledgling Writer, 6 years later), who luckily has a hell of a lot of hair. NOTE: the cup on display in this picture comes from Columbia River Coffee Roaster in Astoria, Oregon, an excellent place to hang out and work on your hundreds of revisions once you've put TDOP to bed. (Also note the look of terror in her eyes. She is looking at her future, and she sees a community college in Beeville, Texas.)
One of the primary joys of being a writer comes from the people you meet and the situations you get in because of your strange and unprofitable path through life. If you go to an MFA program–which the Portland Review highly recommends–then you have an even greater chance of meeting people who are perpetually stressed, inspired, inspiring, rapturous, suicidal, fascinating, and just a little bit (okay, sometimes a lot bit) pretentious. If you don’t go back to school–because of lack of time or money or convenience; just don’t go because you think “writing can’t be taught,” because that’s bullshit–you can still go to readings and festivals and house parties and fundraisers or just sit on the back of a city bus until an attractive person gets on and starts reading Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade, and you find a convenient time to strike up a conversation with them.
And all the while, you keep on writing. You entertain even the most ridiculous-sounding ideas, because you won’t know what works until you try it on for size–stories are like jumpsuits that way. (See what I just did? I tried on that metaphor. It may or may not have been awful. I don’t really care.) You become a slut for genres–poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, novellas, novels, science fiction, romance novels, belles-lettres, journalism, humor, whatever. You try things you’re convinced you’ll be bad at, just to prove to yourself you won’t be. You submit to every goddamn scum-sucking black hole of a literary magazine you can find (including this one!), and then branch out even further. You learn to love the act of writing, and not your ideas of the spoils it will bring you. You learn the gift of seeing the world through a writer’s eyes: inquisitively, appreciatively, and tirelessly. You learn the secret of oatmeal, which can fill you up for six hours at a cost of thirty cents. You slowly build a resume, build a career. And if your dreamed-of success finally comes to you–that novel, that prestigious prize, that film adaptation starring the doughy Jeff Goldblum of 2012–you welcome it with open arms and know that the last few years or decades have taught you more and brought you faster friends and better stories than success ever could.
Actually, Jeff Goldblum is looking pretty good these days.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the fledgling writer, upon submitting her fledgling “perfect” piece to one perfect magazine, will probably be rejected. And that this may send her into a tailspin, but that it shouldn’t. Self-doubt is useful to an extent, but self-loathing is a waste of time, and it’s not the kind of emotion that a rejection should engender. One of your duties as a writer is to not just get used to rejections but to thrive on them. For the most part, you will receive rejections because your piece isn’t quite right for the publication you submitted it to, or because, though it is very good, the competition is so goddamn stiff that acceptance was well-nigh impossible. Sometimes a story will be rejected because it’s pretty good or even great but whoever read it can tell that it’s not quite ready to make its foray out into the world, and often you’ll be told this in your rejection letter. Often the subjective tastes of the editor–or reader–will impact your submission as well, and this may seem unfair, but–in the immortal words of the Dread Pirate Roberts–life isn’t fair, and anyone who says differently is selling something.
We really have no reason for including this picture, but aren't you glad it's here?
So get used to rejection, because it will be your most constant companion in your life as writer. It’s not personal. If you maintain a healthy attitude about it–and really, you don’t have a choice–it can make you a stronger writer and a stronger person. Conversely, if you act immaturely about it, you will merely violate the cardinal rule of publishing. That’s right: DBAD.
This morning, Portland Review Editor Sarah Marshall (i.e. me) woke, yawned, stretched, poured herself a cup of subpar coffee and put the kettle on to boil water for her oatmeal, and went to check her email. She–I, whatever–should note here that the standard rejection letter that the Portland Review uses goes as follows:
“Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in sight, only the wind and your breaking heart. Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating.”
— Kate Braverman
Dear [WRITER’S NAME]
Thank you for sending us “Title “. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us.
[STAFF MEMBER’S NAME]
The Portland Review
In case you haven’t racked up literally hundreds of rejection letters so far (and, trust me, I have, and I’ve had my share of hurt feelings about it besides), you should know that this is pretty standard both in length and sentiment. We’d like to send out a personal rejection to every writer whose work isn’t right for the magazine, but we have a full-time staff of three people and have to send out about thirty or forty rejections a day. If we were to write personal notes to everyone, we would pretty much sacrifice the time we need for our writing, our school, and our other jobs. Also, unless you’re submitting to a few very high-profile magazines, you should know that this kind of arrangement re: staff and the time they have is pretty much standard. We are, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, butter spread over too much toast. We love our jobs at the Review, we love that we get to read your work and sometimes publish it, and we love that we get to play a small role in the fabulous literary community that’s flourishing in this particular moment of the digital age. And this is another deviation from TDOP: the people who read your submissions are only human. We wish we weren’t, but we are. And so we send out form letters, just like nearly every other magazine of our size and resources. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way things are.
Here is a picture of the inside of my brain.
Which brings us to what I found in my inbox this morning, which was sent as a response to our standard rejection letter, and which read:
Wonderfully generic response. Perhaps the copy and paste quote aspect to your refusals might strict some as pathetic. Thanks for your words.
I’m not going to reveal the name of this author–because that WOULD violate the DBAD rule, which also applies to small press publishers–so I’m just going to tell you: don’t do this. Ever. EVER. Even if you feel you’ve been wronged, even if the rejection seems to come out of left field, even if, for whatever reason, you had put all your creative eggs in this particular basket. I can tell you right now that we will never publish anything by this submitter, unless it’s of utterly unimpeachable brilliance (a possibility that “stricts” me as somewhat impossible). The person who wrote this missive is not just rude, but hostile to the small press community in general, and apparently sees it only as a delivery system for their own career advancement. This kind of attitude leads to dickishness, but it is also self-defeating and limiting. Don’t allow yourself to go down this path. It will only lead to unpleasantness for everyone involved, and it will only allow you to continue to be a baby when you should take every possible opportunity to grow.
This is hardly the first response of this kind that we’ve received, and it certainly won’t be the last. But I’ll be leaving my post as editor soon, and it seems imperative that I give you some parting words, and above all the other things I’ve learned about writing and being a human being, this lesson seems the most important: Don’t Be a Dick. It’s the one piece of conventional wisdom that will never fail you.