In Canada, it takes on average about 6 months to hear back from a lit journal. Some are faster, some are slower, but 6 months is the usual expectation I have for a response. I don't know what the wait times for journals in other countries are like, but I know in the US, it's generally much faster.
I don't mind waiting, mostly. It's like planting a garden, you bury the seed now and get enjoyable results several seasons later later unless squirrels eat your bulbs. (I don't actually know if this is how it works. I'm from Toronto, and I have never planted anything, not even a bean in a styrofoam cup like television shows are so fond of suggesting is a universal part of grade school curriculum. And do squirrels eating your bulbs mean rejection in this metaphor? God this is sloppy.)
The only time the wait is frustrating is when you've submitted to a journal that doesn't allow simultaneous submissions.
Let's assume you are not a writer, or that you are perhaps my Grandma reading this (Thelma, Esther, good to see you,) and you don't know what simultaneous submissions are. Here's the gist: some literary journals will allow you to send the poems, stories, or essays you've sent to them to other publications at the same time that they are considering them. It's no problem for them, you just let them know if one/multiple of those pieces gets accepted else and they take it out of their roster of items to consider. This is simultaneous submission.
For other places, it's a huge problem. If they are considering your piece for the issue, it might be an important thematic piece for them, and to have it accepted elsewhere before they get back to you feels like a huge waste of their time. Understandable.
But here's the truth about writers: we only have so many A-Game pieces. Most of my repertoire is B-game, C-game, or do not resuscitate roadkill game that I send out very rarely in desperation and because I have no idea what editors are going to like. So if you've sent out your best things, and you can't send them anywhere else for 6 months because you've submitted them to a journal that doesn't allow simultaneous submissions, the process of sending out work becomes challenging until you hear back. You find out about cool contests and you're like "Oh man I have a piece that would be perfect for this but oh, right, I sent it out 4.5 months ago and I probably won't find out for awhile still." Then you have this deliberation where it's like do you break the rules and drop money on the entry fee for the contest you may have to withdraw your work from, or do you find another piece, something that you don't feel is as good, and hope for the best?
If you're wondering how serious lit journals are about not having simultaneous submissions, it ranges. Some will be like, "yeah we kind of expect it" and some will pull your name off of a shortlist of contest winners. So you're taking real chances here.
So this is the story of what happens when you've been waiting so long to hear back from a lit journal that you forget you have sent out a piece and simultaneously submit by accident.
Actually, it was fine. I submitted somewhere early this summer, and submitted the same story to a contest in the States with a reasonable entry fee in January. I don't know how I forgot, the original submission was sitting in my Submittable (a submission management tool most lit journals in Canada and the States use) the whole time. In Submittable, once you put forth your pieces, there are three stages your entry goes through. The first is Received, which means tha the journal has received your piece. The second is In Progress, which means that your piece has been assigned to an editor or is being worked on in some way. The final stage is when you hear back: you've been accepted or rejected.
So I totally forgot about this submission until suddenly, after 6+ months of sitting in Received (again, 6 months being the usual amount of time it takes to hear back on average), the original entry switched to In Progress. As soon as I saw it, I realized my classic blunder.
But it was fine, because US lit journals are so quick, the second submission of the piece was rejected in around a month. Crisis averted! Piece not accepted.
[WRITING REJECTION 6/100]
Thank you for entering the January 2017 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest.
I am sorry to report that your story was not selected as our winner.
Our judge, Wendy J. Fox, has selected “The Parable of the Yacht” by Lindsey Griffin of Denver, Colorado, as our winner.
Our February contest is open now and the winning story will appear in Issue 137 of Prime Number Magazine. Our judge has not yet been determined but we will be posting the name soon.
I'm sorry you story, "______" was not selected, but if you believe in the story, please consider entering it again. We have a new judge each month, and they all have their own personal likes and dislikes.
Prime Number Magazine
Dodged a bullet?
- E.B. Kirsh