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A second spreadsheet
Organizing my writing life, part two
Going into this year, I knew I needed to refresh my submissions spreadsheet. It had grown over a period of six or seven years until I had about fifty magazines categorized as “tier 1,” which of course made it tough to prioritize and nearly impossible to keep track of submission windows. I knew I needed to focus, which led me to the creation of a second spreadsheet. (I love a spreadsheet.)
In this second spreadsheet, I documented the careers of seventeen living writers who are writing the kinds of books I love and doing the work I want to do. My goal was to determine which magazines they’d been published in earlier in their careers — on the way to where they are now — but I also cataloged other information: age, education, day job, nonfiction publications, book publishers, residencies, awards, etc.
This is a flawed study for many reasons — some of these writers have much more detailed websites and Wikipedia pages than others, many literary magazines have terrible SEO and don’t come up when you search a writer’s name, teaching positions change frequently (especially for the younger crowd), the industry has totally changed since the older crowd was starting out — and it’s super subjective to start out with because I chose only my favorite writers. But I did note some interesting trends:
Twelve of the seventeen have MFAs, and of the five who don’t, three have other advanced degrees. I wondered a few years back if I should try to get an MFA, not only for the industry connections but because it would be fun, but I have a ton of student debt already and now I have a kid — it’s just not the right choice for me. I went the MA route after college, and I don’t regret it for a second. I spent those post-college years writing academically instead of creatively, but mostly I spent them reading, and it was exactly what I needed at the time.
Thirteen of the seventeen currently teach in MFA programs. I don’t know why, but I was surprised by this high number!
Thirteen of the seventeen have published short fiction, short nonfiction, and novels. When I queried agents with my first novel manuscript back in 2017, a very kind literary agent’s assistant reached out to me with some advice. She said my manuscript was good but she couldn’t pass it on to her boss because I didn’t have enough story publications. She recommended that I aim for six published stories before querying again, which is probably an arbitrary number because every situation is different but I took it as a personal challenge and spent the next year writing and publishing stories — and it was one of those stories that led me to my now-agent. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ A few of the writers in my spreadsheet have avoided publishing one type of short form work or another, but only one seems to have been able to get a book deal without publishing anything shorter before or since (and she was a Stegner Fellow). At this point in my career, I want to work in all three forms, so I find it interesting to see how these writers have gone about it, especially when it comes to their nonfiction; some write personal essays while others have chosen journalism, and some solely do book reviews.
So many Guggenheims! Apparently I have a writer crush type, and that type is writers who get Guggenheims. In fact, looking at the last ten years of Guggs awarded for fiction, there are so many other writers I love that I could easily quadruple the writers in my spreadsheet — but that is not the project I’m looking for right now. Based on career trajectory trends I see with these seventeen, though, I would bet serious money on Marie-Helene Bertino to get a Gugg in the next few years.
This is all interesting, but back to the reason I started this spreadsheet — magazine goals and updating my submissions spreadsheet. Based on what I learned, I narrowed my “tier 1” magazines down to just eight.
My first tier now contains some real reaches — The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s — but that’s the point! My “tier 2” still has a bunch of magazines that didn’t show up in my research spreadsheet but that I love, and I’m most definitely still going after those. And I moved down to “tier 3” or removed completely any magazines that I like but aren’t the best fit for my work.
This spreadsheet is a living document and constant work in progress. Next I plan to organize my nonfiction tab, because I want to get more essays and reviews published this year. But for now, back to writing. 😉