SOME BASICS ABOUT HOW LITERARY MAGAZINES WORK:
The most important thing to remember about the people who read your submissions is that they do not have a lot of time on their hands. And not just in the (increasingly real) sense that none of us have a lot of time left. Most editors have second jobs, family lives, and their own creative projects. Also, many are busy preparing for the end-times by burying bags of rice in the fields, scavenging for copper, or selling their bodies for ammunition. Be respectful of their time.
Also, you should know that like the bunkers and secured compounds that will soon separate civilization from the violence of the desperate mob, most spots in a given issue are spoken for well in advance. Most of the pages will be filled with work that has been solicited, either from big name authors or warlords who are willing to accept mid-tier publications as tribute.
When a piece is accepted from the slush pile it is usually because something about the voice or language stands out. (Though sometimes it will be accepted because the content of the story shows enough knowledge of advanced survival tactics as to make the writer an attractive ally in the upcoming wars.) Conversely, a piece might be rejected because it doesn’t match the magazine’s aesthetic, or because the reader was cold in their unheated shack and needed to use the manuscript pages as a fire starter. (This is one reason I always encourage electronic submissions, assuming that the journal accepts them, and you know how to scramble IP addresses well enough to thwart secret-police monitoring). Regardless, it’s important to know that being rejected doesn’t mean your work is bad. (Though it probably is. If the world weren’t so devoid of meaningful art, perhaps the masses wouldn’t be so mindlessly capitulating to fascism.)
As you are preparing to submit your work, be willing to ask yourself: Do we need this story? Does it add something to the existing pool of artistic responses to tragedy? Is it imaginatively transporting (I mean, will it make me forget that we elected a fucking fascist sociopath for even like ten seconds)? Is it really entertaining? (For this question, consider using the litmus test WOULD READING IT ALOUD DISTRACT THE FOOT SOLDIERS COMING TO ARREST ME LONG ENOUGH TO COME UP WITH AN ESCAPE PLAN?) Remember that every editor is reading your submission thinking it might be the last one they ever get to read; they don’t want to be pulled kicking and screaming into a van thinking, “Not another quiet domestic story where nothing happens.”
Also, proofread, proofread, proofread. Not only will this demonstrate your seriousness about your craft, it will also prevent you from interfering with the magazine’s use of intentional punctuation errors as part of their code… I mean, there is no code. This journal exists to fight against the forces of evil and totalitarianism exclusively with poetry, short fiction, personal essay, and an occasional hybrid genre piece. We are not using it as a front to coordinate the armed resistance AT ALL.
It is also important to research magazines before you submit to them. In fact it’s best to read at least two back issues of a journal before sending anything to it. Please. I beg you. Read these journals. This will help you find a good aesthetic match for your work as well as ensure that — should I be abducted in the middle of the night by government-subsidized organ harvesters — my legacy will endure. As they say: a mid-tier print journal is never truly gone so long as there are still people out there who remember it and can distinguish its name and logo from those of townie bands and micro brews.
With cover letters, as with secret messages between outposts of the resistance, brevity is critical. But short doesn’t mean empty. Here are some dos and don’ts for what to include:
DO: research the editor’s name and address the letter to them. This shows that you are familiar with the magazine, and also helps the editor feel like an individual, if only for one last time before they are imprisoned and referred to by their government issued number, or occasionally by a dehumanizing nickname given to them by the guards. (Personally, I’m hoping for “maggot.”)
DON’T: give too much information about yourself. Not only do you want to avoid seeming like you are bragging, but the less you tell the editor, the less they can reveal about you during advanced interrogation sessions. Editors like to joke that reading slush is as bad as any torture, but this is just an expression. Keep compromising information to a minimum and stick to where you got your MFA (if applicable) and a small publication history.
DO: Follow guidelines. Use standard formatting and paper (if sending in hard copies). While editors will be sympathetic to your desire to resist monotony in the face of the impending identity purge, save it for the streets; trust me, the revolution will not be printed in “Comic Sans.” Also, anything in “Calibri” flags you as a possible government agent. And while you might think that printing your letter on heavy bond paper will help your submission stand out, the truth is that if the paper is too fibrous the starving intern who opens the envelope is just going to eat it for all of its precious nourishment.
DON’T: Try to be funny. This will only come off as tacky and unprofessional. Also, it won’t be funny. Trust me. LITERALLY nothing is funny right now.
Wait. Do not query the journal unless you haven’t heard from them for at least three months. (Though, if you haven’t heard back from the journal I work for in three months, it likely means our staff has been interned by the state and it is imperative that you alert our allies by drawing an X with red chalk on the sidewalk in front of our office).
When you do get a reply, respond well to feedback. If you receive an acceptance, be prepared to receive suggestions for revisions; respond to these notes with courtesy and an open mind. (Though if you receive an acceptance from us, make sure that the letter begins with the proper coded sequence, or else the entire acceptance is likely a government ruse to attract desperate writers, tempting them with the prestige of mid-tier publication in exchange for betraying their comrades.)
If you receive a rejection do not respond or demand feedback. Not only should you be playing the long game — don’t burn bridges; maybe they’ll publish you next time! — but cultivating an outward veneer of docile supplication is critical for short term survival. And frankly, the disappointment of not getting picked up by some journal is probably the absolute least of your fucking problems right now. Keep things in perspective.
Good luck and happy submitting!