I recently received one of those “nicer rejections” — the kind where the editors make an effort to let you know that they liked your piece but it just wasn’t right for their issue, and tell you to please not take the news badly, but instead feel encouraged to send more work — from Copper Nickel. Copper Nickel is a literary journal published by the students and faculty at the University of Colorado Denver, and I felt an affinity for the journal because I lived in Boulder for about four years, worked as a reporter in Denver, and have a friend who teaches at UC Denver. I had read about the journal and looked carefully at their guidelines before sending a submission, but after receiving their nice letter I took things a step further (as I probably should have done in the first place) and bought an issue to read.
Journal editors always suggest that you read an issue before submitting so that you can get a feel for the type of work they publish, but I have found this to be a challenging process. Believe it or not (get ready fore an embarrassing admission) I didn’t know what a literary journal was when I started my MFA program two and a half years ago. As a student in college I concentrated on British literature (I spent my junior year in London) and most of the reading I have done over the years was in book form. Most of the publishing I did before the MFA was in newspapers and the occasional magazine. So I had no idea that this entire world of contemporary literature — poetry, short stories, and essays — was being published on a regular basis through universities and other literary journals. I cringe when I think about what my teachers must have thought when they suggested I send something to a journal and I had to ask what that meant and how to go about it.
Of course once I understood what literary journals are and that many writers submit to them on a regular basis, I jumped in and tried to learn all I could. I subscribed to several journals, ordered sample copies of a variety of others, and sent in a few essays to some of the sponsored contests that my teachers suggested I enter. I ended up spending a lot of money and watching the journals pile up in my kitchen, on the stairs and in my writing room (and I didn’t win any contests). When I started to read the journals I could get to, I found it difficult to get a sense of “the type of work they publish.” The fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction pieces seemed to be all over the place in terms of theme, subject, voice and format, even, I thought, within the same journal. I ended up with a lot of reading material that I could never finish, and with little direction in terms of where to send my work.
A couple of years has passed since then and I’ve learned some things and slowed down a bit (I’ve had to — I couldn’t afford to keep ordering all those journals!). I’ve tried to focus on just a couple of journals at a time and to really get to know how they read over several issues, or to order “best of” issues. And I received a great piece of advice from author Joy Castro, who suggested that I submit to a journal when I find that it really inspires, interests or excites me as a reader (one that comes to mind immediately is The Sun Magazine). I also follow the recommendations of people who know my work and know certain journals, and when I can I do some research on the editor or editors and try to determine what their own writing is like, and what their sensibilities are. The result has still been a lot of submissions and a lot of rejections, but more success at least than before.
But don’t be too impressed — I still do my fair share of submitting to journals that I don’t know a lot about simply because someone suggested it or I found the journal listed somewhere and thought it looked interesting. In the end, after all, you have to just send out your best writing and hope you’re going to hit the right editor(s) on the right day with the right piece, and be one of the tiny percentage of writers they publish. If you think about that too much you’ll just hang it up right now (and I should tell you that some people don’t recommend sending out so much work, because you don’t want to send out sub-par writing or get discouraged by all of those rejections).
Back to Copper Nickel, though. I do think I got a feel for this publication by reading several of the short stories in the issue they sent to me. To quote New Pages’ for review of Copper Nickel 12 which says it better than I could:
“Copper Nickel 12 isn’t a theme issue, but a theme of sorts emerges nonetheless, or at least an organizing principle that is highly appealing and largely successful – how do we relate to the things, the stuff, the variety and quantity of forms and objects around us, human and non-human.”
But what also impressed me about the publication was a letter from the editor printed on one of the pages. The letter was directed at whoever was holding and reading the journal in that moment, thanking that person for being interested and supporting the journal. The letter explained that the publication had been started by students and had fostered an important relationship between the students and faculty in their writing program while promoting quality work. It was a struggle budget-wise, though, and they all appreciated the readers’ support. These journals do a lot with very little budget, and many are struggling to survive, and that editor’s note of appreciation really hit me. With so much publishing going digital these days, a printed copy of a journal — or a book for that matter — with physical pages to turn and enjoy could become an endangered species. I felt glad that I had spent a little money on Copper Nickel, and I wished I was a little more flush right now and able to subscribe to more journals.
So, check out Copper Nickel. Throw a little support their way, or toward the journal of your choice. We’re all a part of this ball game, whether we’re pitching, up at bat or catching in the outfield.