Light in the Dark: Guidance through the literary journal maze 

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For writers, the joy of finishing a short story is often followed with the puzzlement of “now what?” You’ve just put all the hard work into crafting your tale, so how do you get it into the hands of others besides your friends and immediate family?

Literary journals are often the way to go. But navigating the many publications can be difficult. Which one is the right fit? It would be great if you could buy them all and discover this for yourself, but let’s be honest: writers, especially those in the beginning stages of a career, often don’t have the money to explore the vast maze of lit journals that await them. It would be great if there was a resource that helped writers explore and find journals that are best suited for their writing style.

Becky Tuch, Founder of The Review Review

Becky Tuch, Founder of The Review Review

Enter Becky Tuch and The Review Review. In 2008, Tuch hit a wall when it came to submitting to literary journals and gave up. But as time passed she asked herself why lit pubs would care about writers’ work if writers didn’t care about theirs. She created The Review Review to help writers learn about which publications are out there and the challenges of managing a literary magazine.

Becky Tuch was kind enough to take some time to talk to Mash Stories about The Review Review, submitting your work, and her own writing career.

Josh Flynn: To start, can you tell our readers a bit about your writing career and interests as a writer?

Becky Tuch: Sure. I am currently a fiction and nonfiction writer, living in Pittsburgh, PA. I started writing fiction when I was eight, when I would sit in the back of my father’s taxi cab and make up stories about everyone I knew. I’ve since published stories and essays in several literary magazines and won a handful of writing contests. Currently, I am working to complete a novel that takes place in Brooklyn in the early nineties.

My interests are varied and have evolved considerably over time. In a broad sense, I’m obsessed with ideas related to mass deception. I think a lot about political ideology and about how various ideologies play out in our culture, our movies, books, TV shows, etc.

“Advertising, propaganda, anything that has to do with the selling and normalizing of values and ideas is of great interest to me.”

On a smaller scale, I am and have always been interested in family life, relationships, love, desire, all that juicy stuff that makes life so rich and fulfilling and messy and complicated.

Josh: The Review Review grew out of your frustration with literary journals and the submission process. Can you tell our readers about that experience?

Becky: I wouldn’t say that I was frustrated with literary journals, per se. More that I was frustrated with the most common sorts of guidelines that said “We want your best work” or “We publish both new and established writers.” These guidelines really weren’t specific enough to help writers find the best magazines for their work. On the other hand, the suggestion that writers should read the magazine before submitting seemed like an enormous task, given how many magazines there are on the market (and how few are available for free in a library or perusal in a bookstore).

Mind you, my submitting days began in the early 2000s. Though this wasn’t that long ago, it was still a time when not every lit mag had a website, so you couldn’t just look up a magazine’s archive online. I was relying on The Writer’s Market for most of my information about literary magazines, and those guidelines were incredibly general. If you wanted to learn more about a magazine, you had to order back issues. But where was a writer even to begin to know which back issues of which magazines to order?

I thought there needed to be a place where writers could get more specific information about various magazines.

The Review Review was what I wanted, as a writer: a place where, if I was interested in a magazine, I could read what others thought about it, what kind of work that magazine tended to publish, and an interview with the editor. I could get a more detailed sense of the magazine and then decide if I wanted to order back issues or a subscription or submit.

Josh: How did starting The Review Review change your perception of lit journals?

Becky: I began to see editors as human beings, for one thing. So often, they’re just a name on a masthead. But being able to recognize that this editor is actually a grandfather or that editor just started an MFA program or she hates cats or he just had twins, etc., all has helped the process of submitting feel more meaningful. It’s no longer just a business transaction, Here’s my work, take a look, thanks. It’s much more personal and important.

I also appreciate how much these literary magazines matter. Seriously. There are so many projects out there in which people work night and day just to showcase the kind of poetry they love or the fiction they want to see more of, or to create a space for writers who have somehow been marginalized. People get so passionate about these projects, and that is hugely inspiring to see.

Josh: What are your personal favourite literary journals?

Becky: I don’t like to name favourites. I also think it’s very hard to compare. How can you hold a magazine like Threepenny Review, a stellar print magazine which has been around for aeons and has consistently gotten grants from the NEA, up against a young upstart that is scrounging for funds through crowdsourcing and is entirely online? They’re different creatures.

Of course, there are certain journals that I simply adore. But even the ones that I don’t love are still doing something cool, are still working hard to create audiences and celebrate the work of writers. Just about any magazine out there has something worthwhile going for it.

Josh: Ultimately, it will be up to each writer to know if a journal is right for them, but what advice do you have for writers that might help them navigate the journal world and find a potential home for their work?

Becky: Read reviews! Read The Review Review. Read NewPages. Subscribe to The Review Review newsletter where we often link to information about lit mags and other people who review issues here and there.

Also, read the contributor bios in lit mags. Are these other writers in your league? Are they publishing in mags you respect? Do they all have Pulitzers?

This article, “The Submitter’s Dilemma: Choosing the Right Literary Magazine for Your Work,” should also be of help.

Josh: You’ve been interviewed about submitting to publications in the past. What advice do you have for writers after they’ve found a journal that fits their work and they prepare to submit?

Becky: Follow that magazine’s guidelines. Write a cover letter that’s professional. And don’t get your heart too set on that magazine. Just because you think that magazine is The One, the editors might not feel the same way. I’ve sent many pieces off, envisioning the love match between my story and the magazine. It’s like imagining the wedding before you’ve even had the first date. Be patient.

“Be cool. If they don’t accept your piece, don’t sweat it and move on.”

Josh: What should writers tell an editor about a work or themselves when they submit? What doesn’t need to be said?

Becky: Dare I say, as little as possible! Well, seriously, it is probably good to say where else you have published work. Also, if there is something about the magazine you admire, there is no reason not to tell the editor. And, of course, it’s important to mention that the piece is a simultaneous submission (if it is) and to thank them for their time, etc.

What does not need to be said is just about everything else. You don’t need to say why you wrote the piece, what inspires you, what your hobbies are, how much you love chocolate, or skiing, or badminton, how good your day is, how bad your childhood. Whatever. Don’t say it.

If you feel like having a conversation with someone, have that conversation in your writing, not in your cover letter.

Josh: The Review Review also offers tips for writers in the form of columns from professionals. What has been the most important piece of advice you’ve received?

Becky: This would probably be from Lynne Barrett’s piece, “What Editors Want; a Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines”. This piece is chock full of incredible insights. It went instantly viral and circulated the internet for several days, and for good reason.

One thing in here that always stuck with me is that one needs to be in a position to say Yes to a lit mag that accepts your work. For this reason, it’s probably best not to submit to The Paris Review in the same batch that you submit to, say, Bumblebee Gazette. The latter will probably reply first, since it’s smaller, and if they want your work you’re likely to still want to hold out for that more prestigious magazine. So, when you submit, do so wisely. Choose magazines that you’d be ready to jump for joy over if and when they do say Yes.

Josh: There is a very nice interview archive on the website featuring great writers. What are some of some the must-read interviews on your site?

Becky: If you want something hilarious and also informative, check out the former editor of Ploughshares, Don Lee’s “Editors Do Not Hate You, But They Have Every Reason To”. If you want to learn about a cool international online magazine, you might want to check out this interview with Chris Crawford of B O D Y. Really, I would just suggest visiting the site and poking around. My must-reads might not be your must-reads, so see for yourself!

What does the future hold for The Review Review?

Becky: Many things I’m excited about! Firstly, we are starting to feature monthly roundtable discussions among editors. The first of these was “The Future of Poetry” and was a discussion among Rob MacDonald, editor of Sixth Finch; Matt Hart, editor of Forklift, Ohio; and Gale Marie Thompson, editor of Jellyfish Magazine.

We are also bringing back our Lit Mag Trivia contest, which is a silly and fun contest where readers answer five questions about a lit mag and then have a chance to win a subscription to the lit mag. This ran awhile back, then we stopped it, and now we’re reviving it.

I also hope to reach out to more students and MFA programs. I love speaking to classes about the submitting and publication process. I’ve begun to do that more frequently and hope that can continue. We like to think of it as The Review Review making house calls.

Finally, the site is undergoing a bit of a redesign. We have such a tremendous amount of content on the site. We want to make it more user-friendly and easier to navigate.

Josh: What should readers be looking out for in the future when it comes to your own writing?

Becky: I’ve been working on a novel on and off for many years but in the past few years I’ve really stepped on the gas with it. I hope that novel makes it into the public sphere one of these days.

In the meantime, I also blog regularly at Beyond the Margins, a site dedicated to the discussion of all things literary. Lately my writing has taken a more political turn, so you can find me there opining about stuff. I also write frequently about lit mags, and plan to focus more on lit mag related articles this fall.

Josh: Thank you to Becky Tuch for taking the time to share her knowledge with us. Make sure to visit The Review Review for more info about literary journals and the submitting process.


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A writer and journalist, Josh Flynn is Mash Stories’s official journalist and one of the main blog writers. His essays, stories, and articles have appeared in The Indianapolis Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Slam Magazine, genesisNerdSpan, and Punchnel’s. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshflynn.