Beginning writers who send out their very first stories to magazines or anthologies don't usually have much trouble keeping track of where they sent them. Why? They can't stop thinking about them!
A new writer often spends her free time anxiously second-guessing herself and her submission decisions: "Ack! A typo! I should have done more proofreading! I should have cut that second fight scene! I should have sent it to Alternate Magazine instead!"
And when the mail carrier comes, she pounces on the pile of mail, hoping for a response, day after day, month after month, but when the ominously thin SASE finally arrives, she can hardly bring herself to open it.
Once a writer has been through the wringer of the painfully long submission-rejection-resubmission cycle a few times, she forces herself to stop thinking about the darned submissions, and focuses on the work at hand: writing new stories.
And that's when the submissions can get muddled in a writer's mind. It's easy to lose track of a rejected submission, thinking that it's still being considered someplace, while it languishes on the writer's desk or hard drive. A worse case happens when a writer inadvertently starts sending the same story to multiple markets at the same time, only to end up with two different acceptances for the same story. And while this might seem an embarrassment of riches to an unpublished writer, at best it's an embarrassment. At worst, the writer is faced with the painful decision of which bridge to burn, since most editors are cranky and overworked and don't look kindly on authors pulling accepted stories out from under them.
So, writers need to have some kind of a method to keep track of their submissions. What kind should you use?
Some writers prefer the simplicity of keeping track of their submissions on paper.
"I used to be a teacher," says writer Kevin Killiany. "I have several old grade books with lots of columns and rows. Each manuscript has its own page. The titles of the stories tracked are written on the cover of the book, with stars next to the ones that sell."
Despite my abiding gadget lust, when it comes to submission tracking I'm also pretty low-tech. I use note cards in a little plastic index card box. Each story/poem/article gets its own card, and each submission is recorded on a line. When I've filled one side of the card with rejections, I know it's time to reconsider my tactics.
The editor at Albedo One approves of my card box tracker: "I would suggest your library card approach is as good as it gets. You do not need to wait for your computer to boot up. You are not snookered when there is a power cut. You have the whole story (if you forgive the pun) in one simple piece of card. In addition, you can be flexible in what you note on the card.
"The only problem with the card system is that you would find it a bit difficult to produce listings of the work you have out in the market," he says. "But then again, how often do you really need to do that?"
Others have used the box tracking method, but became disenchanted with it.
"I used to use notecards in a little plastic box, but a few years ago I switched to a very simple one-page spreadsheet, which I put in a folder with the manuscript itself," says writer/editor Lori Selke. "Same data, slightly different format, no more annoying little plastic box kicking around and getting in the way."
Horror author Yvonne Navarro combines paper tracking with computer software. "Every short story that I finish has its own manila folder," she says. "On the inside left side I write the date and name of the magazine/anthology and the date on which I should receive some kind of a reply based on their guidelines (or my estimate). If the manuscript is rejected, I write that and the date, then start all over.
"To keep track I have a little 'sticky note' program on my computer that pops up a note with the story name when the response should be here. Before that I used a big, full-year write-on/wipe-off calendar, but I never wrote on it -- I used Post-It Notes with the name of the story that I moved from date to date."
As far as computer-based tracking methods go, many writers use spreadsheets.
Writer Daniel R. Robichaud turned to spreadsheets after finding paper records unmanageable. "Once upon a time, I assembled lists on loose sheets of copy paper with the story name and market, written in the order of submission. After a while that became a complete nightmare to manage, particularly after moving a couple of times when loose sheets of paper could and did get lost."
He now keeps separate worksheets in a single Microsoft Excel file for his fiction and nonfiction. "It's easy for me to set up a reminder in the Office Mail program to send queries for submissions sitting in slush piles long after the market's posted response time expires."
Brenta Blevins prefers to use the freeware spreadsheet program found in found in the OpenOffice.org suite. "I like the nice linear quick view of the spreadsheet and being able to sort within my spreadsheet."
Other writers prefer to use online trackers offered by sites such as WritersMarket.com, Duotrope and Writers' Planner.
"The Duotrope submissions tracker is excellent because it also ties into their market listings and reports on response times," says writer E.C. Meyers. "It's online and free, but Duotrope does accept donations towards their operating costs."
"Another advantage of Duotrope is its web accessibility," says Brenta Blevins. "I don't have to have the computer with my spreadsheet -- I can update the submission record anywhere (even on vacation)."
There's a freeware program that many writers such as Bev Vincent use: Sonar 2, which was created by author Simon Haynes.
"I wrote it because I was going nuts keeping track of short story submissions," Haynes writes on his site. "This program tells me which market has each story, whether a story has been sold or rejected and which stories are gathering dust instead of earning their keep."
Of Sonar 2, writer Adam Nakama says, "It's not as powerful as high-end database software, and has a couple of quirks to it, but I don't need the full power of database tracking. (Sonar 2) has a few things built in that are nice for writerly types who don't know how or don't want to program it into their friendly database record.
"It also makes it easy for you to data mine your submissions," says Nakama. "You can see, for example, that you've been sending stories like clockwork to Magazine X for years, but that damn editor just won't accept your stuff, despite you getting frequent acceptances from other magazines on par with it. You may want to consider that your work just doesn't mesh with that editor and move on."
So, as you can see, there are lots of ways to track your manuscript submissions.
Someday, we writers may have access to neural interfaces that can update your entries just by thinking about them. In the meantime, your notebook, spreadsheet, or software is only as good as your own updates. So take the most basic step in good tracking: make sure you write down your submissions when you send them out.