If each submission to a literary magazine is like a football game (with the new season getting underway, football is on my mind), then looking at an issue or two of the target magazine is like watching game film. Your story is your offense and you need to understand how their defense (reasons to say “no”) works before taking the first snap.
Or something like that. The point is that research can be helpful, which we all know, and I’ve been trying to get more systematic with my reading and more targeted with my submissions. Why send a funny story to a magazine that never publishes them? Magazines tell us all the time that the best way to know what they like is to read them. It just isn’t always possible. Most of the time it is an impenetrable maze. So why isn’t there some kind of map, or better yet a GPS, to help us find our way?
A few years ago at Bread Loaf I heard Amy Holman talk about her system for analyzing magazines, and it was one that had enormous appeal to me. She analyzes magazines along several different dimensions and looks for a dominant aesthetic, and then matches submissions with magazines that might fit.(Amy offers publishing consultation services, in which she will “read your writing, match up your style to the interests at literary journals, independent and university presses, or of literary agents, and provide a list of twelve to fifteen publishers and/or agents.” Be sure and contact her via her website if those services might of use to you.)
I haven’t been very consistent in doing this, but I try to do something similar, using my SELFE Analysis. SELFE stands for Style-Environment-Lens-Focus-Ending, the five factors that I currently look at.
Style. Most stories are told in plain language (P) but some use a more literary style (L).
Environment. Similarly, most stories are set in a domestic environment (D), not in the geographical sense, but more on the plane of realism. Some domestic stories are actually international (Di), an environment that has been getting a lot of attention lately. But the opposite end of the spectrum is an exotic environment (E) which, for me, encompasses stories set in alternate realities.
Lens. Subjectivity (S), including both first person and close third, is far more common than objectivity (O) these days.
Focus. This is something of a wildcard, but ask yourself whether a story has its focus on character (C), plot (P), language (L), setting (S), humor (H), or innovation (I), or some combination. A humorous story with its prime focus on character might be Ch; a language-focus story told as a list, which is an innovative technique, might be Li.
Ending. My sense is that stories have either closed endings (R, for resolved), or open endings (U, for unresolved). Most of my stories tend to be unresolved, open endings that seek to resonate beyond the point where the story stops. Not every editor cares for that approach, and I think it’s important to know that.
Person/Tense. I haven’t yet decided if these additional dimensions are worth charting, but if in reading a magazine I can spot a preference (for example, a magazine might always stay away from first person present tense stories) that would be something good to be aware of.
So, putting that all into practice, I recently read the most recent issue of Post Road, which has five short stories. There is some variation among them in focus and in their endings, and there is no clear preference for person or tense, so in my analysis the magazine is
Which means: Plain language, Domestic environment, Subjective, focus on Humor with a secondary focus on innovation, and Resolved endings, with 0 preference for person and 0 preference for tense (person and tense were all over the map).
In contrast, a traditional story would probably be
where the focus is on character and the story is told in third person past tense.
Football would be easier, I think. But I believe a system of this kind, if I can stick with it, may be useful.