Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Minors and the Big Leagues

Okay, I’m stealing the baseball analogy from the current issue of Poets and Writers, but I’d like to think that I would have come up with it on my own, what with the start of the baseball season in the near future and my husband, a big-time baseball fanatic, getting increasingly excited as spring training games get closer. I’m talking, of course, about the minor and major leagues in the literary world: small journals with low circulations verses larger, more prestigious journals.

The question I’ve been pondering lately is this: how do you know when you’re ready for the big game?

I’ve heard many different writers offer a range of opinions on the subject of small journals. Some writers argue that an acceptance in a small journal is meaningless and that you shouldn’t even waste your time submitting to these places. This attitude, in my opinion, doesn’t really make sense. Of course getting published in the major journals is a bigger deal than the small ones, but that doesn’t mean that an acceptance from a small journal means nothing. Based on my experiences working on two very small journals, I can tell you that even the small guys get a ton of really great submissions, and most of the submissions have to get rejected. An acceptance still means that your work rose to the top of the slush pile, that someone, or more likely several someones, read and liked and wanted to publish what you wrote.

I’ve also heard the argument that, while of course writers have to begin in the minors, it looks bad for you to linger down there for too long. Once you have a few small scale publications under your belt, you need to move up and start playing for the big leagues. I haven’t quite been able to make up my mind on this one yet. In some ways it does make sense that if you just keep publishing for years and years and years in the small presses, agents and publishing houses might wonder why you’ve been in the game for so long but haven’t made it up to the next level. But then, what about the idea of exposure? I recently had a lit agency contact me about querying them, and the story of mine that they had read was published in an extremely tiny journal. I have a much larger journal in my publication past, but that wasn’t the one the agency noticed.

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this right now is because I’ve noticed lately that the stories that I feel are my better ones have been getting mostly form rejections, but the ones I don’t feel are as strong have been getting extremely enthusiastic personal rejections, and sometimes, acceptances. At first I wondered if this meant that I’m not gauging the quality of my work properly, but then it occurred to me that I’ve been sending my better stories to bigger journals, and I’ve been sending the less strong ones to really small journals.

I’m the sort of person who likes to closely examine and analyze everything that ever happens so that I might take something away from it for next time, but I have to admit that I’m stumped about where to go from here. The fact that the small journals have been extremely encouraging of my work might lead me to believe that I should be starting my submission runs with larger journals (another argument I’ve heard from writers is that you should have a sort of hierarchy worked out for which journals you’d most like to get published in, and you should submit your work first to the top journals and work your way down the list, only submitting to the smaller journals when your work has already been rejected by the bigger ones).

The problem with that, though, is that the stories that I believe are my best have been getting a great big yawn from the larger journals I’ve been submitting them to. I’ve been getting mostly form rejections from those places, sometimes with a handwritten, “Thanks, Ashley. Submit again,” or something to that effect, but rarely real responses: “We really enjoyed X and Y about this story but ultimately had to reject it for Z reason.” I worry that if I take my recent realization to mean that I should aim higher, the result will be that I will stop receiving acceptances altogether, and I will receive far fewer encouraging rejections, too. And let’s face it, encouraging rejections are what the new writer lives off of.

So how do you know when you’re ready for the big game? When is it time to start demanding something more of yourself and when is it smarter to stick with what’s been working? And should you be satisfied with the minor leagues? Should small scale publications continue to mean something or do you reach a point where you have to move up or accept that you never will?


Justus said...

I suspect you never really know for sure when your work is at that next level, and I don't think you should accept that you never will make the jump. My view is that you should just keep sending the stuff out there, keep trying for the big leagues and see what happens. If you accept that you won't make it and only submit to the comfortable journals where you know you'll get a good response, then you'll never know if you might have made it into the bigger places.

This is one of those areas in which I think analysis doesn't result in many lessons. I, too, tend to analyze things to death to try to figure out why things are as they are and how things work. But that doesn't work with things that have too many variables and are essentially random, and that's how I think the submission process works. Sometimes a journal holding a piece forever is a good thing since they've continued to pass it up to higher and higher editors, sometimes it means it fell behind a desk. Getting a form rejection without comments might mean they thought the piece was awful, or it might mean they were too busy to get a chance to jot down a note. A slew of form rejections might mean the piece isn't ready, it might mean those journals are still beyond your level, it could mean those journals pretty much never look at unknown writers, it might mean that those journals already have the next two years worth of submissions picked and they pretty much aren't seriously reading anything else, and it could mean that those journals aren't quite right for the piece but the next big journal will accept it.

Ashley Cowger said...

Those are some very good points and very well put. I agree wholeheartedly!