For Alison McBain, searching digitally for a publication to which to submit your creative writing is like seeking a job. You have to do your homework, you have to be organized and you have to make the right impression. Here she talks about researching places to send her work, matching a piece’s style to a publication’s, keeping track of her stories’ progress, the specifics of getting paid and more.
HER MARKET RESEARCH
Learning what’s out there. “Pretty much when I started writing for publication, I didn’t know the markets very well,” McBain says, “so I just started reading. Almost every site that I submit to I read ahead of time. It’s sort of like doing research for a job interview. You have to research the company you’re applying to.”
McBain does not rely on the listings in the back pages of the writers’ magazines to find venues to submit her work. She uses the internet. For many writers, the go-to standard of online search sites for fiction and poetry (as well as nonfiction) is Duotrope. But Duotrope charges an annual subscription fee of $50. McBain opts for a free alternative, The Grinder, which is still in a beta format. “I love the Grinder for looking at markets but once every couple of months it goes down for a couple of days as they’re adjusting,” McBain says. The online directories identify such useful information as genres and lengths of stories, submission periods and deadlines, response times, payment scales and more. You can customize your search for publications according to many of those criteria. “I also like Flash Fiction Chronicles a lot,” McBain adds, “because, as I said, I like flash fiction. They do just sort of a list form, and it’s not everybody.”
Then there are the opportunities she learns about through her online writers group. And finally, “I also have a calendar for upcoming deadlines.” Many she picked up “through Grinder or through my writers’ group. Some markets I just keep track of, like Glimmer Train. Their Fiction Open call is two months of the year, June and December. [The most recent Open deadline was January 15, 2015.] So whenever that happens, I know.”
Be stylistically aware. When she finds a publication that matches her genre and payment goals, McBain scouts it further by reading previously published pieces. “The thing that I most look out for is, first of all, style,” she says. “That’s a big one, because you can write a story that’s maybe a little bit outside the genre, but if it doesn’t fit stylistically, they won’t accept it. One of my most recent publications, FLAPPERHOUSE, does experimental. The work has to be sort of a merging of almost a poetic voice with the storytelling, which wouldn’t fly at a place like On the Premises. Experimental is definitely not what they’re looking for. So even if I took the same subject matter, I would write it in a different style. A more straightforward story.”
HER TRACKING SYSTEMS
An onscreen demonstration. In addition to her writing, the main thing for McBain as a successful 21st century writer “is organization. It helps that I used to be an office manager for several different companies.”
Looking at a big, color-coded Excel spread sheet, McBain says, “This is my master [chart]. It shows where each story has been submitted, the date, rejected, the date, everything. Some of these I wrote and haven’t submitted yet, or I need to edit them, or perhaps I need to finish them. I have a second chart of story ideas; it’s just a list, basically. And there are the ones I was writing for deadlines that I didn’t make.”
She clicks to another color-highlighted screen: “For my book I keep track of all the places I submitted it to, which draft got queried or went out to which agent, the rejections, places to research afterward. This is all the places it’s out to right now.” She tracks her poems as well.
“This is a big thing, knowing where a story has gone.” You must be careful. “Occasionally—I think I’ve done this twice—I sent a piece to the same place more than once, because I changed the name of it. Of course, that’s bad.” Luckily, she was not called on it either time.
She tries to update her charts daily. “I have maybe 40 stories out right now. Every day I’m figuring out what I need to do. The organization can take more time than writing.”
McBain also uses a popular website: “A lot of this is also duplicated on QueryTracker. But I always keep my own backup system, because sometimes the system might go down and were all my updates saved?”
Moving up the ladder. Online magazines have slush readers who take the first cut at reviewing submissions. (In fact, one of McBain’s Library Writers’ Salon colleagues, Ed Ahern, is a slush reader for the online publication Bewildering Stories.) In the digital world, a writer often can track her story as it is assessed. “Some magazines have a specific tier system: editor, assistant editor, etc.,” McBain says. “In the information age they’re really great about telling you if you get bumped up. I submitted to Plasma Frequency magazine. They have three tiers: slush [including her Scribophile writers group leader Alexis A. Hunter], assistant editor, editor. My piece got all the way up to the editor, and got rejected. But each time I got a notification.”
Two go-to places for book writers. “I did a ton of research before sending out my book,” McBain says. “[Agent and author] Noah Lukeman did a fantastic how-to,” How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent [available for free downloading as a .pdf at his website]. “He suggested sending out eight pieces or query letters at a time. Every time you get those eight things back, revise your query.
“I also entered some contests online where a professional agent would edit your query if yours was one of the ones chosen. And there’s Pitch Wars. It’s run by [author] Brenda Drake. You send in your query and your first chapter. All these different published writers choose a mentee. They help polish up your book and then they end up pitching it to 20 agents. They do all genres. Mystery, fantasy, literary, young adult, adult. It’s all free. It’s all online.” [The 2015 Pitch Wars submission window opens August 17.]
Don’t forget anthologies. At least two of McBain’s works are in recently published anthologies. “Someone in my writers group posted something about an anthology open to everyone,” she says. “The one thing the writing guidelines talked about was they were looking for humor. That was something I hadn’t done, written literary humor, and it would be a fun challenge.” The subject of the collection, in fact, was writers coping with rejection, and its title was to be Blood on the Floor. “I actually included the line in my poem, which is ‘Bloody Ink.’ I got the editors’ attention because I took it right out of their submission guidelines.”
For the anthology Abbreviated Epics, the call was for “something under, I think, 3,000 words. I rewrote the Minotaur myth as a short story, ‘The Lost Children.’ I have a classics background. In an early version of the myth, it was not set in stone what the Minotaur looked like. Some versions said it had the body of a bull, the head of a man, instead of the opposite, which has now become very popular. So I just followed this idea, what if it was opposite? And they were siblings? I went from there.”
HER PAYMENTS & AWARDS
Why payment matters. “There are several reasons that I feel getting paid for writing is important,” McBain says. “First of all, there are terms built into one’s status as a writer that depend on pay scale. For example, ‘semi-professional’ payment is 1-4 cents a word. ‘Professional’ payment is 5+ cents a word. Membership to certain writers’ associations, such as the Science Fiction Writers of America, depends on having made a set number of ‘professional’ sales. I could make a hundred ‘semi-professional’ sales, but never be able to join SFWA. Someone else could make three ‘professional’ sales and become a member. So in order to be seen as a serious writer on a certain level, you have to consistently get paid a certain amount.
“Other than that as a goal, I always hope that my writing brings something of value to the reader, and so I am thrilled to receive even a nominal payment for my work. I know that journals don’t make money anymore, and few writers are able to quit their day jobs. But receiving that $5— or $50 or $100—will always be a thrill. An added value is placed on something that already I love to do. And that is really very cool.”
Fast start. McBain uses contests as an incentive to submit, and has been rewarded for doing so: “I won second prize in On the Premises Contest # 22 for ‘Grandmother Winter.’ At the time, the prize was $140 (they have since increased the prize money to $160). It is highest payment I’ve received for a story. ‘The Maybe Baby’ won the Patricia McFarland Memorial Prize at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Both of these were early in 2014 after a 10-year hiatus in my writing career—so [it was] a good way to get started again! No other prizes since then.”
Lesser amounts. “The lowest payment I’ve received for a story was $5 for flash fiction,” McBain says. “Poetry tends to pay less than fiction on average, so most of my published poems have paid $5-$10.” She is not completely averse, though, to submitting to a nonpaying journal. “Some places I go to are for exposure. A Public Space [an independent magazine of literature and culture based in Brooklyn] is one of the top 50 literary magazines. But they don’t pay. I’ll send stuff to that. But mostly I get some nominal fee.”
Reader input. The two-way nature of the digital world raises the question of whether online magazine readers can influence which writers get published and who among them gets paid. McBain’s assessment: “There are some online magazines and journals that are interested in reader feedback, sometimes to the extent that it affects pay rate for the writers, although I don’t know of any magazine that directly equates page views with writer payment. One magazine that has a public submission queue for writers is Crowded Magazine, where all stories posted to the queue are visible to members and can garner comments. I don’t believe this affects the acceptance/rejection rate, though, but is used more as a critique tool to help writers improve their writing. Another magazine that encourages reader participation is Mash Stories. Readers cast votes for their favorite stories, but there is also a jury of editors who moderate the choosing of a finalist for each quarter—so voting might help steer the judges toward a winner, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a most-voted story will win the cash prize. A third magazine that does directly rely on reader feedback to award cash prizes is SpeckLit. The editor chooses which stories to publish online, and each quarter readers vote for their favorites and the winner receives additional compensation.”
Is she a pro? McBain answers cautiously: “I guess I would define myself as a professional writer once I get my book published.” The FWB would beg to differ. McBain pursues her writing seriously, and she gets paid for it. Thus, she is a professional writer.
A nonfiction idea. McBain’s grandmother, who had Japanese ancestry, was in internment camps for parts of World War II. “I’m hoping to someday write a book based on my grandmother’s life,” McBain said. “My grandmother’s first husband died in the war fighting for the U.S. After his death, she returned to the internment camps to rejoin her family, which was where she met my grandfather, who was recovering from a wound he’d received in the war. Originally, it was thought he’d die from his wound—he’d been shot through the kidney and received his Purple Heart in the hospital from a chaplain. They were married for more than 50 years.” The love story, however, is only half the tale McBain plans to tell, the other being the negative effects of the treatment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during and after the war. One example: “As a result of the camps and racism after the war, my grandparents tended to turn their back on Japanese things—they didn’t teach their children the language although they could speak it, and they didn’t keep up Shinto/Buddhist traditions although they had been raised with them.”
HER FINAL ADVICE
Cultivate creativity. Even if you do not write every day—and McBain doesn’t—she recommends that you “be creative every day. Sometimes I work on rescuing stories from my rejection pile and I’ll send them out again. Or I’ll do art. Or I’ll do a handcraft. Encourage your creativity.”
Keep on believing. Don’t give up on placing work you are proud of. McBain recently sold a story after nine rejections, which may sound like a lot but is not by conventional standards. “If you love it, you’ll find a home for it,” she said.—Alex McNab