Five ways to vary your writing and expand your field of literary markets
Let’s talk fishing. The idea is simple: The more fishing lines you cast in the pond, the more fish you’ll likely catch. Years ago, when I first started submitting my stories to literary journals, I’d work on one piece at a time. I’d write it, set it aside (I call this “putting it in the oven,” which works with my fish analogy, I think), take it out, edit some more, put it back in the oven, and repeat. Finally, when I was convinced the story was ready—which usually meant I stopped changing things—I’d start submitting. One story. One fishing line. One fish, if I was lucky.
When you consider that some journals—especially the big fish (excuse the pun)—take months and months to respond to your submission, the one-story-at-a-time approach will likely get you at most one or two acceptances in a year. And this assumes you get lucky and the fish are biting (top journals usually accept fewer than 1% of their submissions). No wonder so many writers often go years between publishing credits, or have trouble getting published in the first place.
So I recommend having multiple stories (or essays, poems, etc.) “in play” at once. But here’s the catch (excuse the pun): There are only so many journals appropriate for any one kind of story. Thus, we need to find ways to vary our writing. I think there are five ways to do this:
Vary your style Every writer strives for his or her own specific style. Most of us are writing the same basic stories—by some counts there are seven of them — so what distinguishes one writer’s work from another’s is, I think, mostly style. In a way, we’re all trying to be one trick ponies (sorry, not a fish analogy).
But I also think writers can—and arguably should—try varying their styles. I’m a Joyce fan. Forget about how spectacularly his writing evolved from Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake; consider Ulysses on its own. The novel abounds in different styles (18, if we’re counting). I’m not saying you should write 18 different stylistically unique stories. But maybe give 3 or 4 a shot. Write a story of lists. Write a story of fragments (read David Markson for inspiration). Write a story with a talking fish (!). Maybe something historical. Something topical. The point is to expand your writing so that you might hook (need I say, excuse the pun) a journal beyond your usual target list.
Vary your stories’ lengths You probably know Submitit uses a huge algorithmic database of over 400 literary journals. I have journals with max word limits ranging from 50 (Blink-Ink) to 500 (Cheap Pop, Vestal Review, Cloudbank, etc.) to 20,000 (New England Review, Fiction Desk, Ploughshares Solos) to no limit at all (Willow Springs, DIAGRAM, Salamander, Conjunctions, and many more).
I especially recommend experimenting with really short fiction, since this won’t take as much time away from your primary project. While most short story writers work in the 3,000- to 5,000-word range, consider dabbling in flash fiction (usually fewer than 1,000 words). (Hint: check out The Best Small Fictions anthologies—they are consistently very good, and they’ll give you a taste of flash fiction and an idea of what journals are looking for.)
There’s also something called “micro-fiction” (fewer than 500 words). I have one journal in my database called One Sentence, which publishes stories with lengths of, well, one sentence. And Narrative Magazine has a category for stories of exactly 6 words (à la Hemingway’s “Baby Shoes”). So experiment with length. This alone opens up a sea of new markets. You’ll no longer have to throw stories back just because they’re too small. Reel those suckers in! (E.t.ps.)
Try different genres I don’t want to suggest that we may all start writing fantasy or horror or sci-fi, as with the flip of a switch. Each genre has its literary history. Each has its own language, its own tropes, its own exemplars. But if you already have some interest in genres beyond your primary style (which is to say, you read them), you’re part way there. Once again, dabble outside your field of expertise. I think this will expand your writing in positive ways (read Cloud Atlas to see how wonderfully far you can take this). But more importantly (in terms of the topic of this essay), many journals that publish genre fiction have relatively high acceptance rates (there seems to be less competition).
Become an essayist or a poet I just finished Joseph O’Neil’s The Dog (funny, good). This is the same writer who regularly contributes genius political essays to The New York Review of Books. If you can write, you can write. Besides expanding your options, nonfiction tends to be considerably easier to get published than fiction. As they say: write what you know. What do you know? Write about it.
Poetry is another option. I myself am a fish out of water (I realize I have crossed a line) when it comes to poetry, but I’m trying to rectify this. I’m still only in the reading phase here—nowhere near ready to try submitting (give me a few decades)—but it’s on my mind. There are tons of poetry markets out there, so it’s not a bad form to consider.
Look for themes Keep an eye out for themed issues of literary journals. Duotrope publishes a list of journal themes in its weekly newsletter. I make a point to skim through. I’m looking for a few things: a theme that happens to work with something I’ve already written, a theme that works with something one of my clients has written, or a theme that just sounds particularly interesting. If, like me, you happen to be in the middle of writing a long (i.e. endless) novel, you might not necessarily want to spend too much time on themes (although I hope you’re submitting excerpts of your novel as you go). However, since acceptance rates tend to be higher, theme writing is still worth considering, and it’s certainly a good idea if you’re having any kind of writer’s block.
Importantly, I believe that all of these ideas will improve your writing in general. By experimenting with different styles, lengths, genres, and forms, you will—without necessarily even noticing—add depth and color to your writing. You’ll gain ideas and techniques that will enhance your primary style. And, of course, you’ll greatly increase your chances of getting published. It could be like shooting fish in a barrel!
(This essay was published in slightly different form at The Writing Cooperative.)
— Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals and has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.