6 Tips for Submitting to Lit Mags

Image credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

In 2021, I’ve had the incredible luck of being published in 5 literary magazines, with one more publication forthcoming. I’m a bit flabbergasted by this. The online literary scene abounds with rejection, and I’ve become accustomed to receiving a lot of it. This year may turn out to be a fluke for me, but even if I don’t get published again until next year, or several years from now, I’ve discovered some strategies for making the submission process more meaningful and less painful that I want to share.

Just a quick disclaimer: This post assumes that you are already familiar with the submission process to lit mags. If you are not already familiar, there are already some amazing articles that break down that process, including this one.

1. Find journals that match your writing style, but also cast a wide net. The biggest determinant of acceptances to lit journals is the taste of the editors at the journals. If your writing doesn’t match the taste of the editors, no matter how good it is, it won’t be accepted. Most lit mags also receive far more excellent submissions than it is possible to publish, so you should never take it personally if your writing is not accepted. If you tend to only submit to the literary giants and aren’t having much success, it might mean that you need to discover some lit journals that are not The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

There are thousands of literary journals out there, both print journals and online lit mags, waiting for you to discover them. You may need to explore to find ones that fit the niche that your writing falls into or find places that would be open to your writing, even if they are not an exact fit. The best way to know if a lit mag is a good fit for your writing is to read their previous issues. Most lit mags have at least some free content on their website, so even if you can’t read all of an issue, you can still get a sense of what they publish. Plus, you don’t need to read the issues from back to front. Two or three pieces in the genre that you’re submitting to can be enough to get a sense of what the magazine likes. That way, you can use your time efficiently and be able to discover a lot of potential places to submit. If you need help finding new publications to read and submit to, I have a blog with reviews of lit mags: Litbloom.com and I also keep a Twitter list of lit journals that are free to read.

This is a time-consuming process, but it can also be enjoyable. After all, if you are a creative writer, you probably love literature, and reading what your contemporaries are writing can be entertaining and inspiring. This method also tends to pay off. It certainly saves you time because there’s no point in submitting a fantasy story to a journal that says it doesn’t publish genre fiction. Most of my own recent acceptances have been to journals whose content I was already excited about even before my writing was accepted to them.

2. Write a themed piece explicitly for a particular lit mag. Many journals, even if they publish “literary” writing, whether it’s fiction, or poetry, or nonfiction, have themes for some of their issues and encourage people to submit work that fits the theme. This doesn’t always work for me since I usually write stories well in advance of seeing these themed calls, but if you’re someone who gets inspired by writing prompts, this can be the motivation you need to produce something new with a publication venue in mind. Even if your piece gets rejected from the initial lit mag, you can still submit it to other publications later.

3. Keep track of encouraging rejections. One of my editor friends who runs a literary journal has reassured me several times that receiving an email that invites me to submit again, even if it is automated, is a sign that the editors liked what they saw, and really did mean that the piece just wasn’t a good fit for the magazine. If you receive an encouraging rejection, note down where you received it from. This can be a sign that the piece that you’re submitting is good enough to be accepted somewhere else, as long as you find the right place, and you should definitely submit other work to that lit mag again. Most of my acceptances have been pieces that received enough encouraging rejections to make me feel confident that they were worthy of publication. I also keep a list of magazines that I return to again and again with submissions, hoping that at some point the piece I send them will end up being a perfect fit.

4. Don’t submit until the piece is actually ready, and don’t be afraid to revise and resubmit somewhere else. Let’s face it. It’s really hard to know when a short story or a poem or an essay is really ready to be published. Sometimes we are so eager to send out our work into the world that we can’t view it an unbiased way. Other times, we get so discouraged by rejections that we are sure that something must be wrong with our work. Having a friend or community who you can turn to exchange writing is helpful for figuring out what you need to improve upon and when a piece feels “done.” But for some of us, writing never truly feels finished. At some point, you may have to just take a leap of faith. What I’ve noticed is that for some pieces, after I receive a rejection or two (or fifteen), I realize something fundamental about it needs to be revised, and I make that change. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. You just have to keep track of where you sent which version of the publication because most lit mags won’t accept resubmitted work, even if you’ve revised it.

5. Decide when it’s worth it to pay for submissions and when it’s not. In my personal experience, I have never received an acceptance for a journal that charged a submission fee. Not once. Maybe this is just a coincidence. However, it hasn’t stopped me from submitting to places that do charge for submissions, especially if those same places offer payment for publication. If you’re someone who objects to paying for submissions on principle or you simply can’t afford to submit to several lit mags a month, then just focus your attention on places with free submissions.

If, on the other hand, you have some spare change, it might be worth it to pay some submission fees. I am lucky to be able to afford to submit to places that charge for submissions, but I’m still intentional about how much I pay to submit. I set a budget for myself of $15 maximum each month in submission fees. Most places that do charge for submissions charge between $3-$5 per submission, so this means I can usually submit to 3-5 magazines per month that charge fees, as well as an unlimited number of journals with free submissions. Some contest fees can be even higher than $15, so submitting to a contest alone could wipe out my budget for a month or two.

To be cautious with your resources, only submit to venues or contests that charge fees if you feel confident that your work is worthy of publication and that it would be a good fit for the journal. I also recommend only paying for submissions if you think it’s worth giving money to that journal even if they don’t accept your work because at least that way you don’t feel like you’re throwing money down the drain.

6. Keep a lot of irons in the fire. This may be a personal preference, but I always work on several stories or personal essays at once. I like to have some stories out for submissions while I’m writing or revising others so I don’t feel as much disappointment when the inevitable rejections roll in. Instead of feeling frustrated that I have to once again revise the piece that was rejected, I can just shrug, send out new stories, and come back to revising that story eventually. This keeps my morale high because the greatest barrier to publication is becoming discouraged. If you lose hope that you will ever be published and give up on submitting, this will guarantee that you won’t be published! It’s better to pick yourself up, appreciate yourself for your hard work despite the rejections you received, and keep trying.

I hope you found these tips useful for your own writing and publication journey. If you liked my blog post, please subscribe to my blog and check out my other website, Litbloom.com, where I review online lit mags. You can also follow me on twitter at @mollywritesalot.

Applying Lessons in Writer Resilience to Teaching Online

Image Credit: Alan Levine

On the last day of the fall Zoom semester of 2020 (or should I say “doom semester?”), I burst into tears. Despite my best efforts to reach many of my students, I had to give out far more failing grades than I am used to doing. I knew it wasn’t my completely fault. After all, there is a pandemic going on, my students are struggling to learn online, and I don’t even know what their learning environment at home is like since most of them don’t feel comfortable turning their camera on. Still, I felt responsible, and with every F I entered into the grading system, I felt like more of a failure as a teacher.

After a few days of letting myself wallow in my feelings, and a week or so of resting over the holidays, I picked myself up, wiped the slate clean, and moved forward with my plans for the next semester. I came back to online teaching this past week with vigor and energy, trying to project the hope to my students that this Zoom semester will be better.

Throughout this pandemic, I have needed to find coping strategies to deal with the unprecedented challenges I’m facing as a teacher. I’ve realized that many of the strategies I use to remain resilient draw upon my years of a experience as an “emerging writer.” As someone who has been attempting to write and submit work for publication for almost a decade, I have experienced plenty of rejection and failure. The stakes are much lower that they are for teaching, because having one short story published here or there is not going to make or break my writing career (then again one student failing will not make or break my teaching career either- but it could be devastating for that student). But I think from these smaller failures, I’ve had plenty of time to practice the experience of being thwarted in my goals, which has helped me see the bigger picture when it comes to distance learning. So here are some of the ways being a writer has helped me remain positive at my high school teaching job even while trying to teach under the current undesirable circumstances.

  1. Celebrate the small successes, and don’t be discouraged by rejection. I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection as a writer since unless you already have connections in the writing world or are just a literary genius, the odds are against you. Whenever I do have a story accepted or an article published, I celebrate, no matter how “minor” of an accomplishment it might feel like. I was published in a local zine this past summer, and despite the fact that it’s not a well-known publication, I still felt proud to see my work in print. When it comes to teaching, I celebrate the moments where I can reach a student who I haven’t been able to make a connection with. Last semester, I had a student who responded to me with nothing but negativity. After I asked if she was OK for probably the hundredth time and pestered her about doing the work, she told me that she appreciated that I cared. Of course, that kind of breakthrough does not have the finality that publication has. I still have to cultivate a relationship with that student going forward. But it gave me something positive to cling to, which I really needed.

2. Have patience. This goes with my first point because you have to wait to see the results of all of your efforts, whether it is the hard work you put into revising a manuscript or the continual nurturing of connections with students. I am a slow writer, and I also usually have to rewrite or revise stories and essays at least a dozen times before I feel satisfied with them. It has taken me years to write a story, and years after that to place it in a journal. Still, as long as I have all the gears in motion, with some stories in the works, some out for submission, and some brewing in my head, I know that I will eventually see some success with publication. I know that it is twice as hard for students to learn right now, so if I see that they make progress over the course of the year, even if it is progress that I expected to only take one semester, I will still count it as a success. Since I teach 9th and 10th grade at a small school, I will probably see most of my current 9th grade students next year in the classroom (hopefully in person), and perhaps at that point, I may start to see the results of my efforts from all this past year come to fruition. I have heard from more experienced teachers that it can takes years sometimes to reap the results of the work you put in, that teaching really becomes the most rewarding once you see how your students are doing in five to ten years. As a second year teacher, I just have to be patient enough to get to that point in my profession.

3. Find a community with others who are pursuing the same goals. I’ve found some of the best encouragement in my writing from my friends who have taken workshops with me and from strangers I met on the internet who are friendly and want to help others succeed. I’ve also received some of the best teaching tips and advice from my teaching colleagues from my credential program or from educational leaders I follow on Twitter. During this pandemic, I’ve had both teaching buddies and writing buddies who I text and share ideas with on a regular basis. They have helped me feel less alone in the ventures of writing and teaching, which are both very isolating even in normal times.

4. Look for models in mentors. See what they are doing, and try it out yourself. Writing allows you to have mentors who you have never met or even corresponded with. I view my favorite authors who inspire me to keep writing as mentors, while I also keep in touch with professors who have helped me personally improve my writing. In graduate school, my professor Yiyun Li told me that one of the best ways to work on your writing is to emulate the style of another writer– not with the goal of having that work published, but just as practice, since trying on other writer’s styles can help you develop your own style. I think this also applies to teaching. By imitating the style of a mentor teacher you may admire, even if it is just for a day, you may be able to experiment with your own teaching style and decide whether the way a mentor or a colleague teaches feels natural to you. You may decide it is not how you want to teach and switch directions, even mid-lesson, but it can help clarify what is working in your teaching and what is not working. I used this technique during my student teaching, and now that I am teaching online, one actual advantage is that I can experiment a bit more than I was comfortable doing in-person. I hope this experimentation allows me to return to the physical classroom as a more dynamic teacher who is more assured in my own teaching style.

5. It’s OK to take breaks and come back to things later. Well, of course, you can’t leave your class during the middle of a zoom meeting or a class period, but if you need to take your prep time to meditate or take a walk instead of grading, you can. With writing, I’m the type of person who needs a long time to mull over a draft before returning to it. I usually work on one thing for a couple weeks, put it down for a couple months while I’m working on something else, and then return to it. Teaching can’t replicate this same fluctuating rhythm, but you can break up grading with planning, if one makes you happier than the other. One way humans learn well is through spaced repetition, where you practice a skill or memorize information in a systematic way in which you focus mostly on the newest ideas or skills and occasionally on the older ideas and skills to reinforce them in your mind. With teaching, I don’t always have time to fit in vocabulary every week, but I know that if I come back to the same words with my students after a week, and then revisit the same words after a month, it might feel inconsistent but it might actually stick in their minds better that way. I give myself permission to not get to everything done in every lesson every week knowing that my students will benefit more if we go deeper into fewer concepts while circling back to the same ideas a few weeks later.

Being an English teacher and a writer means that I’m constantly thinking about how to help my students become better at writing while also keeping my own writing on the backburner in my head. I was worried that the pandemic would make balancing these two identities even more challenging, but I’ve been lucky that they’ve been able to reinforce one another. For both writing and teaching, resilience is essential to keep going, especially when we’re in a global pandemic. So, if you are a teacher or a writer, or both, I hope you are able to take some time to take care of yourself so that you can bounce back from whatever challenges you are currently facing, or even just muddle through them.

By the way, here’s an essay I wrote that was published in McSweeney’s recently, in case you need a good laugh.

Reflection on a decade of writing (and about 4 months of teaching)

As the decade comes to an end, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on my personal journey as a writer and a teacher. I haven’t posted a blog post in many, many months, partially because I simply haven’t had time to write and partially because when I’ve had time to write I’ve prioritized other types of writing, such as creative writing or journal writing, that are not visible to people. It’s hard to write about struggle on a public platform, so I haven’t been documenting every anguished feeling I’ve had about the challenges of teaching for everyone to see.

I’ve only been teaching for 4 months as a full-time high school English teacher, and it’s been the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I don’t always love it, but I can see the value in sticking with it, and I hope that over time I will grow as a teacher so that I become more skilled at it. Right now, it’s mostly a struggle to survive each week, each day, each month, while trying to do the best job I can for my current students. I also have realized that as a first-year teacher it’s nearly impossible to strike a work-life balance. I tend to stay at work later than I should because I know if I don’t continue to plan, grade, or finish other responsibilities, I will regret it the next day. However, this eats into my personal time to relax, work out, and, most of all, write, so I’m trying to limit how much I work since I know that I need to have down time in order to stay healthy, mentally and physically.

Of course, by the time I do stop working, I hardly feel like writing. An idea might strike me, but I just don’t have the mental energy to explore it. I might jot down ideas here or there, but in order to really get into writing, I need to spend time easing into it by journaling or freewriting until I get into actually creating something that I feel has potential. I find that I lack the time for the full process, so in the past year I’ve written bits here and bits there, but nothing that has coalesced together. This is probably not a problem limited to people who work in education. I imagine that it’s a challenge for anyone working a full-time job who is also pursuing writing as their passion on the side.

I haven’t yet figured out how to set aside time for writing on a regular basis. I am absolutely NOT a morning person, and I don’t think I would be able to get myself up earlier than I already do for my job in order to write or exercise, despite people’s unhelpful suggestions that I make this a routine. It seems like my only opportunities to write are weekends or breaks, though I spend a lot of my “days off” working on grading and lesson planning. I know that I just have to squeeze in writing where I can for now and hope that as I improve as a teacher, I will become more efficient, which will allow me to carve out more time for writing, which for me is a definitively sprawling, disorganized process that I don’t want to restrict.

Despite the fact that I’ve barely written creatively this year, I am grateful that some of the seeds of my writing that I have planted over the years are coming to fruition. This year, I was published for the first time in two books, one a textbook on writing for college students, and the other an anthology of writing published by my alma mater, UCLA. My writing career may be progressing slowly, especially since my writing production has slowed to a crawl, but I’ve still come a long way since I was a senior in high school, ten years ago.

One of my first forays into the world of creative writing occurred when I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) at CalArts in Valencia, the summer before my senior year. That summer, my teachers gave me tools to work on my writing that I continue to use to this day, and gave me the inspiration to keep writing through thick and thin. Since then, I wrote a play, helped produce it, attended creative writing workshops in college where I was fully converted into a short story writer, attended graduate school for creative writing, where I wrote a short story collection as my thesis but then also discovered creative nonfiction essays, and accumulated a handful of publications.

Along the way, I’ve been buoyed by privilege. I have had many opportunities others have not due to growing up in a upper middle class family, and I know that my path in life has been paved much more smoothly than others. Still the advantages I’ve had are only one part of the equation. I’ve also had to work hard on my writing to improve it and send it out places. I know that not everyone has the time, connections, or know how to do the same. One of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place is that I wasn’t satisfied with just letting my privilege lead me to an “easy” career. I wanted to use my privilege to break down educational barriers for others. How much I am actually able to impact my students for the better, at this point, is up for debate. But I’m trying at least.

So, here I am, ten years later, back in a high school classroom, but this time as a teacher. I don’t get the opportunity to teach creative writing that often in my current position, but I may have more chances to do so in the future. When I showed my students my first two book publications, I felt really proud. However, I didn’t just show them my published essays to have bragging rights. I did it because it was a way of connecting with them on a human level. They understood from what I showed them and discussed with them that writing is my passion, something that I do whether I get paid for it or not because I find it meaningful. While not all of them consider themselves writers or even enjoy writing, all my students are passionate about something. I want to be a role model for them, to demonstrate that you don’t have to be swallowed up by your day job, no matter how valuable that job is to society. I love teaching, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of my personal values. Maybe I’m asking for too much, especially under our ruthless capitalist system, but I’m hoping to prove in the next decade that it’s possible to have a career as a public school teacher while also writing for my own sake.

Is it possible to be a writer and a public school teacher?

Is it possible to be a writer and a public school teacher?

This was the question I asked a number of people while I was deciding what to do with my life while finishing my master’s in creative writing program last spring. Unfortunately, no one could give me a straight answer. My creative writing professors, wonderful as they are, had no experience or interest in teaching in the K-12 world, and most of the English teachers I know like to write as a hobby but aren’t committed to creative writing. I even looked for role models online, people who have published books while also teaching through talking with people on Facebook groups and doing google searches. I didn’t come up with a whole lot. I’ve seen some isolated examples of teachers who also have published novels, like Roxanne Elden (whose blog I adore), but no one was talking about the challenges of trying to write while also teaching. Most people who have taught secondary English told me that as a teacher I would not have time to pursue my own creative projects and that I would be buried under the enormous workload of lessons to write and papers to grade. Still, I knew I had a calling to teach in public schools because I’m drawn to the idea of helping to shape the minds and hearts of young people.

I know I love teaching since it’s the only job I’ve had that fires me up in the same way that writing does. In the second year of my M.A. program in Creative Writing at UC Davis, I designed and taught my own introduction to writing fiction course. It was an incredible experience to see my students’ writing transform in just a few weeks. I enjoyed teaching college, but I was worried it wouldn’t be a sustainable career. I would have to work as an adjunct and perhaps go back to more school since I would need an MFA or a PhD to qualify for most full-time positions. Plus, I haven’t written a book, published any academic articles, or won any prestigious awards, so I would not be competitive on the academic market. Instead of going into academia, I chose to pursue a different career, teaching at the secondary level. I entered a teaching credential program to obtain a single subject credential in English for grades 6-12. I still am not sure if I chose the right path, and I don’t know if I’ll stay in this field forever, but I am learning so much from teaching younger folks.

Hot air balloons in the distance at my student teaching placement added a sprinkling of whimsy to the school

It’s been 6 months since I started my teaching program, and I’ve barely had any time to write. I’m hoping that this is just temporary, since I have so many things on my plate. Once I get my own classroom and teach for a few years, I will have more time to carve out for my own personal writing. In the past few months, I have met at least one teaching mentor who keeps up writing. She told me she does it by writing on her phone while she’s on the treadmill, jotting down any ideas that strike her at any time, and setting aside time to work deeply on projects during the summer. I am glad I found one person who told me that it is possible to continue writing while teaching, although her whatever-it-takes methods did not do much reassure me that a work-life-writing balance is possible in the future. It’s very discouraging to go from writing every day in grad school and receiving regular feedback from professors to only having time to write if I sacrifice time that I should use to sleep or go to the gym or prepare my lessons. I’m still in the process of figuring out if it’s really possible to pursue my dueling passions— writing and teaching— without tearing myself apart. I decided to start adding posts to my blog to document this experience.

Along the way, I hope to investigate how my writing can help fuel my teaching— and vice versa. As an English teacher, I think it’s important to model the writing process for students. If I’m telling students that they need to write to keep learning, improve their skills, expand their creativity, and grow connections in their brain, shouldn’t I be doing the same?

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. I’m a perfectionist, so there is always a ticker tape running in my head of things I should be doing better— working out more, eating healthier food, getting more sleep, and WRITING MORE (it shows up in all caps in my head too.) But I do want to renew my commitment to writing this year, even as I venture further into the rip tide that is the public school system. I’m not afraid I’ll every give up on writing, but I hope to not go so long without it that when I do write it feels like I’m gasping for air after nearly drowning.

After writing a whole collection of short stories for my master’s thesis, most which will never see the light of day, I wrote a total of one new short story that I’m even close to satisfied with during the second half of 2018. I’m proud I wrote as much as that. Right now, I’m struggling to find the mental space to write when I come home exhausted beyond belief, frustrated with my ineptitude at teaching. It’s hard to remember how to be a novice at something, but teaching reminds me over and over again of how much you can learn from failing repeatedly until you get it right. Writing is like that too most of the time. I’m trying to learn how to recover from a stressful day of teaching by writing, and how to dive into teaching while letting my writing brain still whir in the background. In the long term, I don’t know if I’ll succeed at becoming both a good teacher and a better writer. But I’m willing to bet that it’s possible, as long as I don’t give up.

If you’re interested at all in following my journey, subscribe to my blog, and I will post more about my dual identity as a writer-teacher in the upcoming months.

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The view from one of my favorite cafes in Sacramento during one of the few opportunities I had to write these past few months

The Best Way to Procrastinate

Welcome to my personal website. My name is Molly Montgomery, and I am a writer, teacher, and blogger, currently completing my M.A. in English- Creative Writing at UC Davis. You can find out more information about me on the about page. Please also feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to get in touch.

My thesis for my M.A. is due in two weeks. Naturally, this seemed like a great time to make a personal website and start a new blog. Once I finish my thesis, I will start posting on this blog with reflections on writing and teaching. In the meantime, check out my publications page to see my portfolio of published work. Thanks for stopping by, and stay tuned.