Keeping in touch with the market ...

As Linda commented, it can be tough to keep in touch with an ever-growing and very expensive literary world, and time-consuming to read through all the 'zines that spring up (and sink down) over the course of a year.

How does a writer keep one finger on the literary pulse without spending a fortune on magazines and half his or her life reading them?

Most writers attempt the wrong part of the process - they try and do the editor's job. And they don't apply enough system to their reading.

Doing the editor's job is agonising about whether or not your work is a good fit for a particular journal. Don't bother! If you really want to attempt matching your work to a journal, the two things you need to establish are:

1 - is my work of the kind (that is of the themes and style) that gets published here? If the journal publishes gritty, realistic prose, nobody is going to swoon over your mythological kingdom. If they publish impressionistic, challenging, language-led writing, your story about two drunks getting lost is probably not going to make the cut.

2 - what were the big themes or notable characters in the stories published in the last issue? If they've run a cockroach parliament story or a piece in which a train crash led to a hospital being inundated with emergency cases, they probably won't want to publish insect, train or medical emergency stories for a while.

The big problem with this approach is that you second-guess the editor, and from my experience, most editors are flexible - more so than their readership might appreciate. I've found most of them willing to push their mission statement to the limit to fit in a really good story - and often they love that part of the process most of all. When an editor's job is to say no, why do you deprive them of the privilege of saying no to you by doing their job yourself?

So how do you keep in touch?

First, you need access to journals. Subscribe to three or four and then see if your local library (as Bunny suggested) will get more for you. Or set up a circulating library with your writing group or swap magazines with a friend. If you can't afford subscriptions, ask for them for birthday and Christmas gifts. University libraries often have many such subscriptions and you can get to them for nothing, or a very low charge indeed.

Second, be ruthless. Pick one journal you read for love, the others you're reading purely for data. Take as long as you like with your loved one, but aim to get through the others in two hours each! Speed-read the stories, picking up on themes and key factors; you can always go back and read again for pleasure. Spend a little more time on editorial comments and mastheads; there's a lot of information there - like deadlines, upcoming themed issues, new editors etc.

Third, take notes. This is where most people aren't systematic enough. I use an index card system and jot down for each issue - the date I read it, who is the editor (amazing how often that information changes), what the themes of that issue's stories were, any calls for themed issues or other editorial comments, and finally (and most importantly) which of my stories I think is the best match. Then I file it. When I come to send work out, I just pull out the card (it'll be the one at the back of a stack for that journal, but just in case I drop the box, I can always check the date) and everything I need to know is in front of me.

After a year or so, you generally have such a good sense of a journal you don't need to take notes any more, you can simply read your favourites for pleasure, and pick up information from the others from their websites.

But by far the easiest way to find out where to place your work is to talk to editors!

Yes, really. I talk to editors all the time. If they publish a piece of mine, I thank them, then ask what they're up to ... very often they'll tell me about some project where I could place another story. Sometimes, once I've established a good relationship they'll come to me! Often they come in a panic, asking if I can undertake some slush-pile reading because somebody's let them down or they've got an impossible backlog (you bet I can!) but sometimes they ask if I've got a tennis story, or an African story, or if I ever wrote about my time as a baby-sitter ... and that's almost a shoo-in. Editors are people too. As long as you're not rude or pushy, they will welcome a brief email, thanking them for past help and asking politely how they are and what they are up to. And even if it doesn't lead to publication, it improves your karma to be nice to an editor ...