Lena Valencia is the managing editor of One Story. She has held positions at A Public Space and BOMB Magazine, and also served as a bookseller and events coordinator at The PowerHouse Arena. Her writing has appeared in Storychord, BOMB, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. This Saturday, November 12th, Lena will lead Catapult's four-hour bootcamp class, Demystifying the Lit Mag Submission Process , where students will learn how to find and submit to journals, edit their own work and their peers', and meet visiting editors Kyle Lucia Wu (co-publisher, Joyland ) and Cory Johnston (books editor, The Literary Review ). Here, Lena talks about some of her favorite journals, offers a few cover letter tips, and explains why literary magazines are such vital spaces for writers.
What was the first lit mag you read and loved, Lena?
My parents gave me a copy of McSweeney’s for Christmas when I was a teenager. I’d never seen anything like it before—part magazine, part art-object. Each new issue was a surprise.
Please name some of your current never-miss-an-issue favorite literary magazines, and why you admire them.
This is hard, because there are so many wonderful magazines out there. Lately I’ve been really into American Short Fiction , which I admire for the stylistic range and emotional resonance of the stories in each issue. I also really love Stonecutter for its international scope and the innovative work they publish.
What are the biggest benefits of both reading and publishing in a wide variety of literary magazines? What do they provide that other publications and editors might not?
If you are submitting to magazines, you should be reading those magazines. By reading and subscribing to literary magazines you’re giving back to the literary community.
So much of our culture values commercial success over quality, and I feel like most literary magazines are a respite from that mentality. That’s not to say magazines that publish well-known writers are doing a disservice in any way—commercial success and quality of work are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It does, however, make magazines an ideal platform for emerging or under-appreciated writers. It’s important that we preserve those spaces by supporting literary magazines. (Plus, you get literary cool-kid cred if you read a writer in a literary magazine who goes on to become famous.)
There are many benefits to publishing in literary magazines that go beyond the obvious one of getting your work out there and, maybe, getting a few bucks for your poem. One of the most important, I think, is that you become a part of that magazine’s circle of contributors. I know that at One Story , and this goes for the magazines I’ve worked with in the past as well, we love to keep track of and support our contributors in whatever way we can. Also, depending on the magazine, once your piece has been accepted for publication, you get the experience of working with an editor, which can teach you a lot about your own writing.
How important is the cover letter when submitting to a lit mag? Three tips for writing one that's strong and sets your work up well?
I think that the cover letter is more about setting your self up than your work, because the work should speak for itself. Cover letters are important, but not as important as your submission. That said, I know that there is some confusion as to what information belongs in a cover letter, so here are some tips:
1. Be professional. Do your research and find the name of the editor who will most likely be reading your submission (the fiction editor, for example, if you’re submitting fiction). If it’s unclear, don’t stress, just address it to the editor-in-chief. Your tone should be formal and businesslike. Be sure to thank them for reading your work.
2. Be brief. A cover letter is not a pitch letter. It’s not a query letter. It’s not a grant application. It’s just a way to give the reader some context as to who you are. For most magazines, a salutation, followed by a brief sentence stating the title of the piece you’re submitting, followed by a short bio, will do—but read the submission guidelines and make sure that you’re giving them everything they ask for.
3. Mention important information in the first short paragraph of your cover letter. For example, if you received an encouraging rejection on a piece you submitted to that magazine previously, say that. If you have any connection to anyone at the magazine, mention that. And don’t worry if neither of these apply—while they will likely get your piece read faster, they don’t guarantee publication.