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Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life, Writings

The Labor Day Literary Submission Marathon

Some people watch The Twilight Zone. For others it’s I Love Lucy. At my house all last Labor Day weekend it was indeed a marathon of horror and comedy, only this epic was literary in scope—a three-day bender of journal submissions.

Time has no meaning in the submission twilight zone.

I’d been quite lax this year in my submission efforts. I’d probably sent out only 30 since January, which is nowhere near what it takes to get stories published amid the intense competition and just sheer odds in the journal world unless you’re Robert Olen Butler or Alice Munro or one of the other heavyweights.

Around September 1, most of the university publications and many of the independents come back from their summer breaks and open submissions for their upcoming issues. I imagine this is like the opening of duck season, with thousands of writers eyeing thousands of fat targets, dreaming of eventually coming home with a satchel full of booty.

So I decided to devote the entire three days to prepping and schlepping.

Any writer who submits regularly to literary journals knows what an intense process this can be. Journals are constantly changing submission guidelines and editorial staffs and styles, so I had to do some web research on each. Then I had to evaluate that information against the unpublished stories I have—and since I’ve been so bad about submitting this year, the number has grown to eleven, not counting the few stories I’ve temporarily given up on.

Add in the expense—not just time, but money. Many journals now charge two or three bucks to submit. Others—the literary dinosaurs—still insist you print copies of your stories and cover letter, add a SASE, package them neatly in a large envelope, and truck on down to your local PO, where you pay to mail them.

Morning until night I slaved away at my journal database. While others enjoyed a leisurely weekend of barbecues and baseball, I sat electromagnetically glued to my laptop screen. Would Phoebe like the story about the ex-con and the transsexual bar owner? Would Lumina go for the one about waiting in line to see Nixon’s dead body?

I came out of it Monday night, my shoulders and back aching, my head spinning. Near the end I dispensed with research and careful choices and went “shotgun,” spraying stories like pellets at unsuspecting journals. The final count: 75 submissions; 75 fervent hopes; 75 opportunities for literary glory or soul-crushing rejection.

Next year I’ll try to be better about submissions, so that if I want to become a Labor Day zombie, it will be from Twilight Zone reruns.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


36 thoughts on “The Labor Day Literary Submission Marathon

  1. Yes, I knew there was a reason I decided to publish on my own website on the Internet! Seriously, you are an already established literary figure because of your connection with the LA Review and your other connections. But I remember the days when I was first submitting things to agents and publishing houses, and I really don’t want to revisit them. I think you have a better chance, and good luck to you! I have decided to try to build up my readership more gradually, perhaps, hoping to attract the attention someday of someone who might make me an offer (it’s rare, but it does happen).

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 8, 2012, 1:17 PM
    • Thanks for the good wishes. Despite my role as book review editor at LAR, my first, and still my main goal was to publish fiction. It’s been a lot more difficult than I expected, but I ain’t giving up yet!

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:20 PM
  2. I wish you luck in getting your submissions published! 75 submissions means a lot of opportunity. I’m jealous of the time you had to devote to submitting. Usually I’m only able to submit 2 or 3 at a particular time. It looks like I need to carve out a whole weekend. Thanks for this post and for enlightening aspiring writers to the ongoing journey of “making it,” in the literary world. I always enjoy reading your blog!

    Posted by originaltitle | September 8, 2012, 1:57 PM
    • Yes, may you all learn from my many foibles. I submitted about 200 times in 2011, so I actually still have a long way to go to reach that number this year.

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:24 PM
      • Wow! That’s an amazing number of submissions, I have new goals now :) Thanks for your wisdom.

        Posted by originaltitle | September 9, 2012, 12:42 AM
      • Thanks. I don’t even want to think about what mistakes I might have made in my cover letters–referring to stories sent to other journals, misspelling editors’ names. The jury is still out on the “wisdom” aspect, but I appreciate the compliment.

        Posted by jpon | September 9, 2012, 1:52 AM
  3. Lock and load, Joe! Best of succes is wished your way!

    Posted by fpdorchak | September 8, 2012, 2:52 PM
  4. Woah. I don’t believe I’ve ever read someone describing this process. I really had no idea– I occasionally send out a submission, but then when it’s rejected, I retreat into my hole, licking wounds. Thank you for the insight.

    Posted by girl in the hat | September 8, 2012, 2:58 PM
    • Thanks. And truth be told, despite sage advice to let the rejections roll off you like water, I still get frustrated over every one. But they only make me try harder.

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:26 PM
    • Anna! Your work is phenomenal. Never never retreat from the process. Pick 20 or 30 or more magazines and submit submit submit.

      Posted by Teri | September 9, 2012, 5:52 PM
  5. Best of luck with everything. Lately I feel that if you send something out on Sept 1 or thereabouts, you should hear back by mid-July! Ugh! Again, best of luck and good work.

    Posted by jpbohannon | September 8, 2012, 2:58 PM
    • According to my submission spreadsheet, I have some stories I haven’t heard back about for nearly two years. In those cases I usually query the journal, and if they don’t respond I mark them as out. But I have one I sent to Fence in June 2011. I emailed them in July 2012 and they said they still had it and were still thinking about it. But I’m not holding my breath. Thanks for the encouragement.

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:30 PM
  6. It’s the worst part of writing; the submission process.
    It’s totally divorced from the creative part, the research part, the story building part and even the editing part. It’s clerical. And you’re alone. Your characters have been put to bed, the house is quiet with maybe only Rod Serling intoning mysteries in the background.
    So let’s do this: next time we find ourselves with backlogs of unsubmitted stories, let’s get together. We can bounce ideas off each other. Compare cover letters. Commiserate. Encourage. Eat pizza. What’s the worst that could happen?

    Posted by Jon Zech | September 8, 2012, 3:10 PM
    • Excellent idea–I’ll plan on it. Yes, it certainly was a wasted weekend in terms of creativity. There are services that will handle submissions for you, but I’ll bet they’re pricey. And there’s certainly no computer program that can handle the job, although I’m giving it some thought.

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:34 PM
  7. This is the best way to handle submissions. Get it all over with at once and give yourself a fair shot at publication, and afterward with you can go back to writing without this nagging sense of, I should be sending out my work.

    Good luck, Joe!

    Posted by Averil Dean | September 8, 2012, 4:33 PM
    • Thanks Averil. This batch should keep me from worrying about submissions for a few months.

      And good to connect on Twitter. I finally learned the name of your novel!

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:36 PM
  8. Best of luck! What do you do about the journals that don’t accept simultaneous subs?

    Posted by akhoffman | September 8, 2012, 6:33 PM
    • In most cases I ignore them. Occasionally, such as with top shelf journals like Conjunctions, I debate whether it’s worth waiting a couple of months to get a rejection. I know some writers simsub all journals, regardless of their guidelines. I imagine they can always say “I decided to edit my story” rather than admit they’ve flouted the rules. Thanks for the good wishes.

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2012, 8:39 PM
  9. Good luck with your submissions. Like everything else in the porcess of being a writer, it’s a lot of work, but worth it..

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | September 9, 2012, 12:27 AM
  10. duck season is it… quack. are we the hunters or the prey? both, i guess. thanks for the humorous, poignant post, and hoping to see alot of publications by Joe Ponepinto in the near future!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 9, 2012, 5:42 PM
  11. I’m so glad you said this. The blast of submissions is the only way to make your stories/essays part of the landscape. A friend recently told me he was submitting to 4 or 5 magazines (what?!?!) and another said she’d been accepted by a little-known journal and withdrew her submission, thinking she will do better.

    As luck (or persistence) might have it, I’ve just had an essay accepted at Post Road. I’m so very proud of that. Thrilled. The essay was declined by The Missouri Review with kind compliments, and god knows I love TMR, but kind words only go so far…. How many did I submit to: 24. And 24 is low for me. 40 is usually a good number for one piece.

    Submit submit submit. This is a subjective system. Give yourself the best chance, everyone! And good luck. Here’s to your hard work finding the right home.

    Posted by Teri | September 9, 2012, 5:49 PM
    • Post Road… excellent! It’s a great journal. Please let me know when it comes out so I can get a copy. And I know what you mean about the “encouraging rejection”–they just don’t mean too much after you’ve received a few of them.

      Posted by jpon | September 10, 2012, 1:36 AM
      • And in this morning’s email? A generic rejection from the Indiana Review. (I’m out of town and haven’t had the chance to do all of the withdrawals…)

        You’re right, Joe. No ends up meaning no, regardless of the niceties, and it’s really all the same for us, which is back to work.

        Posted by Teri | September 10, 2012, 7:33 AM
      • I admit I’ve received a fair share of those “we enjoyed your story, but…, please try us again” rejections. The advice I’ve received from mentors has always been to send them something else as soon as possible, direct it to the editor who wrote the note and reference said note. As many times as I’ve followed that plan, it has never resulted in an acceptance. Sometimes I get an encouraging rejection from a journal, submit again and get the same or a similar note–makes me wonder if they are just doing it to get the number of submissions, and maybe subscriptions, up.

        Posted by jpon | September 10, 2012, 10:05 AM
      • A friend of mine once told me that each rejection means we’re just that much closer to success. Sure, I wanted to ring her neck at the time…but itsn’t that so true? Chin up, people! It’s all about the JOURNEY (and if it isn’t shouldn’t it be?)!

        Posted by fpdorchak | September 10, 2012, 10:41 AM
      • Considering my acceptance rate, it had BETTER be about the journey.

        Posted by jpon | September 11, 2012, 12:20 PM
  12. I think that’s a clever idea and one I may co-opt into my writing life. I never considered taking a day and sending out a lot of submissions. I just send them whenever I have some spare time instead of creating that spare time Good luck with the submissions and I hope to soon read about your stories that have been accepted.

    Posted by FeLicia | September 10, 2012, 2:57 AM
    • Actually it wasn’t something I planned in advance. More like an ominous task that won’t take care of itself, like waiting until the fall leaves get about a foot deep in the yard and seeing the neighbors point. Finally you just realize you can’t get out of it anymore.

      Posted by jpon | September 10, 2012, 10:09 AM
  13. I agree, the whole process is a pain. I’m sorry you lost a weekend. On the other hand, it’s a little hard to feel sorry for you, considering how many acceptances you had last year!

    Posted by michellemorouse | September 10, 2012, 4:53 PM
  14. The horror. But thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Claire Gebben | September 11, 2012, 9:11 PM

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