How to Enter the Literary World (Without Publishing): Two Pieces of Advice

Girl holding typewriter photo by: Christian Gonzalez

I'm feeling verbose today, so for anyone who doesn't have time to read the full-on discourse, I'll make my main point right here:

Want to join in / participate in / feel legitimate by being a part of the literary scene? Not sure how to go about it because you're "just" a student / have never published / don't have enough publishing knowledge? No worries.

Volunteer at a literary magazine. Once there, learn to write better and start pitching quality creative ideas in a professional literary setting.

That's it. Send an email to a lit mag you love, and ask if they need help. The end!

Last week, I read a great article about how working for a lit mag can boost your writing career. Robin McCarthy knows what she's talking about, so go ahead and click that link. I can wait.

Back? Good stuff, right? From putting rejection into perspective to connecting with new and established writers, spending time working with a literary magazine is a great way to get started in the literary world. My own entry into the lit scene began with Hayden's Ferry Review—a publication I'd coveted over my senior year of college. I had the misfortune of accepting an internship at the publication (eee!) but finding out that I wasn't able to make rent when Starbucks was my only income. Hello, world. I took a job writing client "success stories" for a financial advising firm that specialized in helping dentists figure out what to do with their swimming pools full of money (no lie), and stalked HFR online and through their on-campus events.

Flash forward a few years, when I returned to Phoenix and made my move to get back in action with my lit-mag love. I emailed Beth Staples, the managing editor at the time, to ask about volunteer positions. She invited me in for a chat, and we got down to business. There were lots of things that needed to be done at the magazine (as is the case in nearly every literary publication, I'd wager). "What are you interested in?" she asked. I hadn't expected the options to be so wide open, so we talked about all the things Beth wanted done but didn't have time, the things staff never had enough time for, and the things they thought they could have time for if they had a few more hours in the week. Two of those things, it turned out, were reading and evaluating the submissions from writers all over the world and managing their social presence. The first was her suggestion; the second was mine. I said yes, and we began our happily ever after. It really was that easy, and that invaluable. In addition to the points McCarthy makes, volunteering at a lit mag is also priceless for many other reasons, and you can make the most of it in two pretty simple moves. Let's start with an obvious one:

Separate Personal Preference: Understand What Makes a Story Successful

As McCarthy notes, reading submissions for a lit mag hones your sense of what good writing is. The more you read, the sharper your sense of what makes a creative endeavor successful, and part of that is having to justify why you would or wouldn't publish a piece. It's not enough simply to say "I don't like this, so we shouldn't publish it." You've got to actually make the mental effort to work out why a story's working the way it does. As I've mentioned before, taste is very different from judgement, and as artistic contributors and participants, we have a responsibility to separate the two.

Your first reaction to a story is a gut feeling—make no mistake. But saying you wouldn't publish a story just because you don't like it isn't helpful, especially if your publication is the kind that wants to be useful to writers by sending constructive criticism with their rejection. Was the story too long? Did the writer use too many qualifiers? Was it told in shifting tenses, to the point where you felt like a pepper grinder in a wormhole? (No one knows what that means.) Even if your publication doesn't send out personalized rejections for every submission, make yourself fully articulate your thoughts on each story. This is the way you improve your own writing and—hey!—your editorial eye, should you ever want to be employed in the field.

Practice Pitching Ideas in a Professional Literary Setting

As a volunteer, you can bet that the person running the publication is just glad someone's pitching in that they don't have to pay. In many ways, the pressure is off for you, since you're not going to get fired. (By no means does that allow you to behave in any way other than this is your job. A job you volunteered to do.) The hard reality is that there are few paying spots in the literary world, yet many talented, ambitious writers. If you want to get started sooner rather than later, hop in! Using your volunteer status as a way to push your ideas and get some awesome, new things done is actually pretty easy, so long as you're pitching ideas that are actually good and good for the publication, and so long as you're pitching them in a nice, helpful manner—as opposed to an "I know best" approach.

After a week or two of getting a feel for what I'd be doing at HFR, I had another meeting with Beth, and this time, I came with a 6-page list of ideas that included things like article ideas for the blog, ways to position HFR as a leader, improving sales and attracting more high-quality submissions, and about 20 other ideas. I'm not sure she knew what hit her. The most successful of the ideas I pitched her that day was the international editors' roundtable, which took questions from our readers, writers, and fans over social media, presented them to 4–5 literary editors, who discussed and answered them, and later posted the full discussion to our blog. It was a great way for us to engage with our community, involve peer publications and position ourselves as a leader, and generate valuable content for our blog.

Get a taste of the discussions with Full Disclosure: What to Include in Your Cover Letter and What Merits a Personalized Rejection?

The bonus, of course, was that I was able to make meaningful connections with each publication's editor while leading a pretty cool project and putting my name on it—thereby leaving my stamp on that corner of the literary world. If you're already volunteering for a lit mag, good for you! Now is the time to take a close look at what's being done and how everyone (staff and volunteers included) is doing it. How could you improve it? What's something awesome that people would love but no publication is doing yet? Can you make that happen? Make a massive list of things you'd like to change, introduce, or improve, and start chipping away (with your editor's permission, of course).

It's not a secret that literary and financially viable career don't often go hand in hand. But by becoming a vibrant part of the literary community, you can help bring the light back to shine on the literary world. Hey, if the National Parks Service could do it by campaigning the heck out of their goods, lit mags can do it, too!

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