In Stephen King’s On Writing—a work of creative nonfiction that blends memoir with advice on writing craft—the author talks about keeping track of rejection slips for some of his earliest short stories.
He hammered a nail into his wall and every time he got a rejection, he slipped it onto the nail and then tried again.
Soon he had racked up so many rejections that he had to abandon the nail, which was becoming too weighted down with paper, and replaced it with a large spike. He kept writing, kept submitting, and kept accumulating rejections.
Stephen King did, of course, eventually go on to sell a story; today, he’s one of the most popular American novelists in history. But he, like everyone, had to start somewhere.
And King got his start the same way many creative writers do: by submitting his work to literary magazines.
Also called literary journals, or sometimes shortened to “lit mags,” literary magazines are periodicals that publish creative writing instead of (or in addition to) features and other types of journalistic writing.
Although many people have never heard of the lit-mag market, it’s a powerhouse in the publishing world; thousands of lit mags are spread out all across the planet, and they attract a heck of a following. Lit mags have devoted subscribers that eagerly await the newest issue in their mailbox.
You certainly can do that. But if you want to attract the attention of a publishing house—or an agent—then it will be to your benefit to start racking up some publication credits.
Publishing in lit mags gets your name out there in the publishing world, and helps you attract buzz for your work before you’ve even got a book to sell. And lit mag editors often nominate their writers for various awards, like the prestigious Pushcart, Journey, and Best of the Net prizes.
So if you’re serious about publishing your work, you want to get to know what kinds of lit mags out there, start reading them, and—of course—start submitting!
Plus, if you’re serious about honing your craft as a writer, you’re missing a big resource if you don’t make a point to read lit mags; literary journals often feature some of the most innovative work that’s being published today.
Reading lit mags will keep you at the forefront of what kind of work is being written, which can only serve to strengthen your skill set.
And remember that submitting work to a lit mag doesn’t prohibit you from later including the same work in your own book! So long as the magazine lets the author retain copyright on their own piece (as all the reputable ones do; if they don’t, that’s a red flag!), any material you publish in a lit mag can then later be republished in your own collection or anthology.
Go ahead and grab a short story collection or full-length poetry book that you’ve got on your bookshelf—take a glimpse through the author’s “Acknowledgements” section. They’ll probably list some lit mags that first published certain stories or poems. Lit mags sometimes even publish excerpts from novels or memoirs.
Many lit mags publish material in all three major subcategories of creative writing: fiction, creative non-fiction (CNF), and poetry.
Some magazines only publish certain genres, like Clarkesworld, which focuses on science fiction and fantasy. Others prefer “literary” over genre definitions, meaning that they’re more concerned with the aesthetics and artistic merit of the piece than with its commercial appeal.
Still others only accept work by writers that meet certain eligibility criteria, such as identity markers (e.g. gender, race, sexuality, or ability) or states of career (Glass Mountain, for example, is open to writing by anyone who’s never done a creative writing MFA).
Certain literary magazines include things beyond basic prose and verse; a lot of them publish comic strips too, or short plays (or excerpts from longer ones). Some accept translations of works from other languages. And a lot of lit mags publish visual art to complement the writing!
Many bookstores, newsstands, and other shops that sell magazines include lit mags in their inventory! (If you are looking through a magazine stand and can’t find them, look for something that doesn’t “look” like a typical glossy consumer magazine—they’re often printed and bound more like regular books.)
But magazine stands usually only sell the biggest, most long-standing magazines, like The Paris Review , The Fiddlehead or Poetry Ireland Review; these mags are a great place to start, and feature some of the most exciting emerging writers working today, but they’re hardly the whole picture.
Plus, newsstands will be missing a ton of the growing number of exclusively online magazines that are often as prestigious and innovative as the print mags.
So get yourself to Googling! Check out writers’ unions and associations for their own recommendations, and search for terms like “literary magazines to submit to in [X country].”
Start putting together a list of magazines that you want to check out, and stay tuned here on this blog—I’ve got more information coming on literary magazine publishing. We’ll cover the main submission engines such as Submittable and Duotrope as well.
Over the next six months, I’ll be posting one blog each month that covers different aspects of lit mag publishing: I’ll touch on things like how to research lit mags, how to submit and how to maximize your chances of publication, and I’ll share my own list of some of the top lit mags for emerging writers in the English-language publishing world.
Many—probably most—creative writers who’ve got a book or two under their belt didn't start there. They started out by submitting poems or short stories to lit mags and, like Stephen King, racking up rejection after rejection until they finally got something published. You can do the same—don’t give up and stay tuned for my next post.