This year, my short story “Demeter’s Easter” placed second in the Ten Stories High contest, sponsored by the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association, and is appearing in their anthology. How did a writer from Northwestern Ontario get a story recognized in that particular regional contest?
Here’s the short version: RESEARCH.
1. I wrote the story. This is where it all starts, right? I finished a short story. After that, I revised—as it happens, over the course of several years. My own craft skills improved with practice, so when I returned to it after a few years focused on creating new work, I could see and fix issues. I had also received useful feedback. (NOTE: NOWW is sponsoring a Critique Workshop March 14 on how to give and receive feedback on writing. You should attend! Check out the Events tab on the website.)
2. When I felt the story was ready to submit, I analyzed it. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative—a boy grows up, and the narrator is an adult woman (his mother). It’s set in a nonspecific “now,” in a nonspecific European-heritage culture in a vaguely North American city. It’s not experimental; there’s no magic, explicit sex, or gore. It was relatively short—2700 words or so—which is unusual for me (I blather on), so I had more options than for some of my longer stories. Many journals specify word limits—I’ve recently seen 1000 and 1200 for short fiction, with others at 2500, 3000, 3500, and 5000. A few still accept longer pieces, of 8000 to 10,000 words.
3. Based on research, I knew where this story would NOT fit—for example, any journal that looks for edgy work, historical fiction or science fiction, or dystopian narratives. I knew it was also a general story, which excluded journals with specific themes—stories of immigrants or belonging, spiritual awakening, true love, the apocalypse, rebellion, the environment, social justice, etc.
When I started creative writing, I looked to other people from this region. Where had they successfully placed short stories? I noticed that both Joan Baril and John Pringle had successfully entered this particular contest, so it was on my radar. “Demeter’s Easter” is my third short story to find success in this contest.
A side note: One of my early published short stories was set in the Grand Canyon. I tried it at three or four Canadian lit journals before investigating U.S. publications. Eventually, it was accepted by the South Dakota Review. I submitted it there because their guidelines said they looked for stories set in the North American West and Southwest.
Another side note: Years ago, I was contacted through Twitter by Suzannah Windsor, a Thunder Bay native living in Australia. She was in the throes of establishing Compose, an online literary journal, and was inviting submissions; they reprinted one of my short stories. Skip ahead several years, and the Spring 2017 issue will include my essay “Bypass Instructions”.
AND, note this: before submitting this essay, I researched recent back issues. Although I’d read the journal throughout the years, I couldn’t assume that my work still fit. Personnel changes; tastes change. Some literary journals are staffed by students, so three years can mean a complete change in staff and open the way to new aesthetics and focus. Plus, the zeitgeist in which we all create can change radically in a very short time.
So: RESEARCH is crucial to finding venues interested in publishing your work. Here are a few hints for finding those venues.
1. READ! Read literary journals, online publications, anthologies in which your colleagues’ work appears, NOWW’s magazine. Read in your genre, whether it’s YA novels, picture books, or steampunk.REMEMBER: Thanks to NOWW, the Thunder Bay Public Library carries issues of several literary magazines. PLEASE check them out, so that the library knows they’re used and they remain a resource for our writing community.
2. LOOK BEYOND. Where else are people finding publication? For example, someday I may write something short enough and striking enough to land in Brevity, an online journal of brief creative nonfiction. Meanwhile, the writers’ bios list other places where their work has been published. I look at those publications online and read issues or excerpts. If I can see my work appearing alongside what’s there, I make a note to submit something.
3. THERE’S HELP.The Review (http://www.thereviewreview.net/) asks readers to describe the contents of several literary journals. (Compose received a good write-up there within the past few years.) Places for Writers (http://www.placesforwriters.com/) lists links to calls for submissions, contests, and journal guidelines and specializes in Canadian venues. I follow Submittable on Twitter (@Submittable), and they highlight various publications that are looking for submissions.
5. CELEBRATE THE PROCESS. Publication is great, but it’s not the only reason to celebrate your creativity. Pat yourself on the back each time you finish something, each time you revise a story, and each session when you actually sit down and express yourself in your chosen medium. These moments make up a substantive, creative life.
Marion Agnew lives and writes in Shuniah, where she and her husband, Roy Blomstrom, spend a lot of time watching Lake Superior. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in literary journals in the Canada and the U.S. and in Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). More information about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.