I check my inbox outside my English classroom and see a new email from The Malahat Review. They’ve decided not to accept the short story I’d sent for their consideration. They say one of the characters was unrealized. I had cut a significant section building his character at the suggestion of one of my Creative Writing and Journalism (CREW) professors. Getting my writing published seems impossible.
There are currently eleven “Declined” submissions in my Submittable account, three “Received,” and two “In-Progress.”
I made it my goal to have my writing published this year. I methodically sent my work off to well-known Canadian literary magazines: PRISM International, Room, Contemporary Verse 2, Arc Poetry, filling Station, The Malahat Review, and CAROUSEL. It is still a work in progress.
It’s hard not to get disheartened as the politely worded rejection emails pile up, or when I see my classmates’ names on the back of Portal, VIU’s literary magazine. Is my writing not good enough? Or is it good, but not the kind of writing literary magazines are looking for?
Maybe I should switch my major. No, I should send out a new batch of submissions tonight. I should self-publish and become the next Rupi Kaur. I should give up.
This is a frustration likely familiar to a number of Creative Writing students. Fortunately, it is also a conundrum the faculty’s professors have experience with.
CREW professor Robert Hilles has some helpful tips for submissions. “Don’t exceed [stated word] limits as your work will be rejected without reading,” he said. “Keep all cover letters brief. In the first paragraph, simply list the names of the works you are submitting and word count if asked … In the second paragraph, state where you have been published before. If you haven’t been published yet, then say that. In the final paragraph, thank them for taking the time to read your work. That’s it. Nothing more. Say nothing about your work and do not explain it in any way. The general rule is to keep it short and no more than 3 paragraphs.”
Hilles has published hundreds of poems in literary magazines in North America and abroad since 1977. While the first magazines to showcase his writing are now “defunct,” he has been published in established magazines such as Event from his early career through to today, with two of his poems being featured in their upcoming fall issue.
“I always tell students when they connect with an editor at a magazine to keep submitting their work there,” he said.
Hilles doesn’t want students to be dejected by negative responses. “Expect to be rejected by 10 magazines for every one you get accepted by,” he said. “I also tell students to keep submitting. I recommend starting with magazines in your immediate community—so Portal and The Nav on campus—and then the ones on the West Coast first like Event, The Malahat Review, and PRISM International. With those last 3 you are competing with established writers, so that will make it more competitive.”
Sonnet L’Abbé, Chair of the Creative Writing and Journalism Department, first had their poems published when they were a student at York University, in the school’s magazine. After their undergraduate degree, they received many rejections until their work was accepted in Fireweed, a feminist magazine. But even then, L’Abbé worried they were being pigeon-holed as a woman writer, not just a writer.
Their mentor, an established writer at Guelph University, sent L’Abbé’s writing to The Malahat Review. L’Abbé was shocked when the magazine accepted it.
“Who you know [is] just as important,” they reflected. In 1999, L’Abbé won the Long Poem Prize at The Malahat Review. Without that, they think their first poetry book would not have been possible.
L’Abbé is now on the poetry editorial board of The Malahat Review. When reading submissions, they are looking for memorable, “compelling thinking” that stays with them. An immediate red flag would be writing that spreads hate.
L’Abbé encourages student writers to create work “that’s on par with [the writing] you love most.” Don’t change how you write to fit a particular magazine, L’Abbé advises, and find presses that publish writing similar to yours. Having the right person that will connect with your work is key.
CREW, English, and Film Studies professor Jay Ruzesky has been on The Malahat Review’s editorial board since 1989 and has seen the changeover from paper to electronic submissions. Before the switch, the magazine used to accept only about 3% of submissions. While it’s quicker and more efficient for everyone, Ruzesky guesstimated The Malahat Review receives two to three times more submissions since moving online, especially from writers outside of Canada. As a result, he said, “a lot of good material gets rejected.”
Ruzesky doesn’t want the numbers to dissuade hopeful writers. Rejections will happen, “not necessarily because [the writing’s] not good, just that there’s not room for it,” he said. “Someone will accept [your writing] eventually if you keep submitting.”
He recalls how he submitted some thirty poems to literary magazines before he got his first acceptance from Event. He says that those rejections made finally being accepted feel even better.
Ruzesky stresses that momentary recognition isn’t the most important thing. How a writer will look back on their writing—published or not—and how they feel about it is more important. At the same time, he believes it’s vital to keep sending in work. Submitting to literary magazines sustains the entire writing community. Presses need writers as much as writers need them.
Publishing professor and former editor at Room and Arc Poetry Joy Gugeler said that reading the magazines you submit to is “essential.” You shouldn’t submit at random. Identify the literary magazine that’s the best fit for your work.
Gugeler said Room, The Fiddlehead, and subTerrain receive more submissions, making them harder to get into. On the flip side, there is less competition in genre-specific magazines such as On Spec, which focuses on sci-fi, or the “untested territory” of up-and-coming magazines, and magazines that publish emerging writers, such as CAROUSEL and The Capilano Review.
“Always [keep] things in rotation,” she advised. The long reading period is one reason for that. On top of that, the acceptance stats can be scary; sometimes only 20–50 are accepted out of 1,000 submissions.
“Be aware of the odds,” Gugeler said. “Be a gentle audience to yourself. Don’t count yourself out of the game when initially rejected.”
The key may be simply “[outlasting] your competition … Lots of people give up,” she said. If you believe in yourself and continue to put your work out there, you should eventually find your niche.
“I don’t think there’s a magical formula,” Gugeler said. “Just sweat equity. … If all else fails, start your own magazine.”
That’s exactly what CREW graduate Shaleeta Harrison did along with fellow graduate Phillip Gordon in the form of text magazine.
text was founded in 2014 and published six issues. Although Harrison and Gordon were getting published as students, they heard their friends were having trouble finding a home for “young, vulnerable poetry.” In response, they created a space that published more experimental writing, and attempted to turn poetry haters into poetry lovers with text.
Harrison said text was really “ramping up” when the magazine went on hiatus after she and Gordon graduated from VIU. Local businesses were eager to do ad swaps and they were producing 1,000–1,500 copies an issue. Technically it’s still on hiatus, she said, so stay tuned.
Now a publications editor for the BC Institute of Technology’s APEX and Link newspapers, Harrison’s advice to student writers is to get involved in their local literary community. Going to readings, volunteering, or finding a job in the literary sphere are all great beginnings. Build “honest, genuine relationships” with people in the industry, she said. “Get in the realm you want to be in… [and] success will follow.”
Harrison credits Portal for helping her realize she wanted to continue to work in the literary magazine world. “The enthusiasm and passion [at Portal was] incredible.”
Portal is VIU’s annual student-run literary magazine that publishes short fiction (including genre fiction), poetry, creative nonfiction, scripts, interviews, photography, art, comics, and anything in-between. If it’s under 2,000 words, send it in by Friday, November 26, 2021. Submissions are open to all departments across all VIU campuses. There is a limit of three entries per person, and there is no submission fee. All the CREW professors agree: Portal is a great place to start for writers hoping to be published.
CREW graduate Délani Valin’s first publishing experience was also with Portal. She says it was a good introduction to the world of publishing. Her poem “No Buffalos” would go on to win The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize in 2017. She’d written the poem in Ruzesky’s long poem class, and when he mentioned submitting it, she figured—why not?
Today, Valin is on the editorial board for both Room and The Malahat Review. When she reviews submitted short stories, she looks for an opening hook and something new that adds to the conversation. She keeps an eye out for writers who have done their research on the magazine and keeps space for experimental work. She tries not to read the author’s bio until after reading their submission, to avoid bias.
“Taking the risk is the biggest thing,” Valin said. “[It’s] really vulnerable.”
Valin’s first book, a collection of poems called Shapeshifters, is slated to be published in the fall of 2022 with Nightwood Editions. She said some of the poems in the collection were written during her time in CREW classes, but there’s new writing in there, too.
Current English and CREW student Chris Beaton hasn’t submitted to any literary magazines yet. He says he isn’t overwhelmed by the prospect, although the submission fees can be intimidating.
He isn’t interested in global recognition for his writing. He’d much prefer to share his writing with his family or friends and enjoys sitting in a group of people reading their work. He stresses the importance of a local writing community.
Beaton has looked at Indigenous literary magazines and is currently working on manuscripts for the Indigenous-owned publishing house Strong Nations. If he does submit, he is open to receiving his first rejection, which he recognizes as a necessary rite of passage.
Here are general guidelines to keep in mind for students looking to submit their work; read widely and do your research on the magazines you submit to. Send a variety of writing: 1–2 short stories, or up to five poems, depending on individual magazines’ submission guidelines. Double-space for short stories, single-space for poems. Use 12pt Times New Roman font for both. Simultaneous submissions (sending the same piece to multiple magazines) are okay; just remember to alert the other presses you’ve submitted to if it gets accepted elsewhere.
Stay organized: remember what you sent, where, and when. Submittable, the platform the majority of literary magazines use, does this work for you automatically. A writing group of fellow students also helps to stay on top of things.
Responses can take up to, or sometimes over, six months. Be patient: submissions are usually read by a volunteer team with their own jobs and responsibilities. If a rejection email is accompanied by feedback, take it seriously, but consideration doesn’t necessitate another round of edits. There isn’t an expectation to reply to rejection emails.
Even though it was still a “no,” there was something new about my latest rejection email from The Malahat Review. It was the first time I had received personalized feedback from any of the presses. Seeing the editor use my characters’ names reignited something within me.
I’ve received another rejection email in the time since I started writing this article, but I’ve also sent out five more submissions. In other words, one more rejection and five more submissions closer to being accepted.
Isabella Ranallo is a third-year Creative Writing student at VIU. She's loved storytelling ever since she stole a sheet of her mother's office paper at age four to write the first page of a story about ten kids stranded on a desert island. Her short story, "The Journal," was published in VIRL and Rebel Mountain Press' In Our Own Teen Voice 2019. These days, she spends her free time scribbling away in Moleskine notebooks or searching for cat-inspired stationery.View all articles