Writing Advice from the Masters: Writing in Paradise

WIP Magnuson

I recently spent eight fabulous days at the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise, under the tutelage of some of America’s finest authors. Set on Eckerd’s idyllic waterfront campus (some of us took a boat ride into Boca Bay as the sun set late one afternoon), we attended readings, social events, lectures, panel discussions, and intensive workshops over the course of the program. I was privileged to be awarded the Sterling Watson MFA Fellowship to attend this exciting conference, and doubly privileged to have a chapter of my novel workshopped by eleven brilliant authors, including multi-award-winning author and conference co-director Les Standiford.

As you might imagine, in a conference of this lauded measure, one receives a plethora of great advice and inspiration. It’s a serious writer’s job, then, to apply that advice to her manuscript and to carry that inspiration into her work. (Check out my brief essay on how to do that here.)

If you have the opportunity to attend a conference of this high caliber, I strongly recommend it. Until then, here’s a tiny taste of some of the advice and inspiration shared by the masters at Writers in Paradise. I hope you’ll support these generous spirits by attending their readings, buying and sharing their books, and reviewing their outstanding work.

 

On the craft of writing:

“Every good story is personal.” –Les Standiford

“Let suspense hook the reader, but don’t show them the hook.” –Dennis Lehane

“We can’t know who you are, until we know what you’ve lost.” –Andre Dubus III

“Don’t shroud the opening in secrecy. Tell the whole story in the first sentence.” –Les Standiford

 

On the writing habit:

“The ones who make it are the ones who stick with it. They’re the grinders.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Sculpt your entire life around getting your writing done. Don’t waste time. Write. Write. Write.” –Ann Hood

“We need special language to commemorate our lives: weddings, love, death, inaugurations. We need poetry.” –Aimee Nezhukumatathil

“Writing is an act of humility, and it takes its own time.” –Ann Hood

 

On researching story details:

“Go where the story takes you.” –Gilbert King

“Writing is problem solving.” –Sterling Watson

“Start from ignorance. Admit you know nothing.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Always be particular. Writers will do anything to weasel out of being specific.” –Les Standiford

 

What success means to you as a writer:

“Success means being able to continue writing. I don’t want to be publishing, marketing, or finishing a book. I want to be writing. That’s where the reward is.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Writing a poem is devastatingly difficult; it’s also a privilege. Writing is a privilege.” –Aimee Nezhukumatathil

 

Do any of these words of wisdom speak to you or your process as a writer? What is the best writing advice you have to give?

 

Tiny Poetry at @Tiny_Text “Spirits Tasting”

It’s always a pleasure to have your work appreciated by and shared with others. It’s an honor when one of those others  is @Tiny_Text, who regularly Tweets some of the most powerful, concise, thoughtful poetry found on Twitter. If you aren’t following @Tiny_Text, you’re missing out! Go follow them now, and enjoy a little bite of literature in your day!

Thank you, Tiny Text,  for publishing my poem, “Spirits Tasting.” I appreciate your support!

 

@Tiny_Text is currently accepting submissions, so send in your best work! Here are their guidelines:

Teeny tiny Twitter fictions and memoirs. 140 characters or less. No other limits except quality. Submit to teeny.tiny.text@gmail.com.

Good luck!

 

How to Make Money as a Writer

Can you really make a living as a writer, without being one of the lucky few who make the New York Times Bestseller list? Can you quit your day job, or must writing always come last on your list of ways to earn a living?

Certainly you can make a living—and a good one—as a writer, without having a long list of novels under your belt. Here are some steps toward building your writing portfolio; landing paying jobs as a writer, editor, or proofreader; getting published; and yes, eventually quitting the daily grind of your current job.

  1. Tell everyone you know that you’re a professional writer who’s available for hire. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to become paid writers is keeping their mouths shut! Tell everyone you meet that you’re a writer and that you’re available for work. What kind of work? Any kind, as long as it includes some form of writing and a paycheck.
  1. Successful service industries and businesses get the word out about their services. You do have a business card or contact card, right? And what about word of mouth? It’s vital to becoming a paid writer. Social media? Make sure your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn connections know you’re available for work. Start local. Do you have references? Start a list of your publications and clients for whom you’ve written. Do it today.
  1. Hand out business cards and flyers to bridal shops, book clubs, churches, community groups, your child’s school, libraries, and small businesses in your community. Organizations like the Elks, Moose, Eagles, and Freemasons not only publish national magazines, but often need to have local newsletters and press releases professionally written. Businesses need blog articles, employee handbooks, technical manuals, and company newsletters prepared. If you have specialized training in your background (i.e., medical experience, IT experience, etc.) solicit work from companies in that field, marketing yourself as an expert.
  1. Don’t be afraid to start small. And yes, small can be a synonym for free when you’re getting started. If you don’t have a writer’s resume or list of professional writing references and publications, you must start somewhere. Write weekly bulletins for your church, a PTA press release, a groom’s tribute for a wedding program, or even short speeches for local banquets. Your current employer may need to have the office policy or benefits package updated and rewritten. Offer to do it free, after work hours, in exchange for a letter of reference, testimonial, or recommendation. Then, once you’ve written your company’s policy, you can solicit other similar businesses, charging a fee to update theirs.

The Beginner’s Bottom Line

Don’t look at any of your first writing jobs as “free,” even if they don’t pay with cash. You’re earning a byline, a professional business reference, and perhaps a long-term client who may hire you for higher-paying jobs in the future.

Now, About That Money . . .

You’ve got a bite. There’s a fish on the hook. All you gotta do is reel him in and serve him for dinner. But how much do you charge? Who sets the standards for what you can and should charge, once you’ve established yourself as a professional writer? The short answer: You do!

By the hour – What’s your time worth? How much would you make per hour at your day job? Does the fee you have in mind compete with other writers in your area? How much is too much? Even worse, how much is too little? Always consider your level of expertise. Beginners simply can’t charge the same hourly rate as someone with a long list of bylines attached to their name. Check the Web for information on going prices in your state, and base your price competitively. My recommendation? Consider $20-60 per hour, depending on the project and company, with a set minimum fee. Minimum fees (say, $45-$60) help weed out clients who “only want a short paragraph,” but who will take up three days of your time to get that paragraph “just right.”

 By the project – You might quote large, standardized, one-time projects with a set amount. Be careful not to under-quote yourself in these cases, because sometimes a small article can turn into a huge volume overnight. Consider whether research is involved. If so, can you apply that research to other similar jobs in the future? As an example, early in my freelance career, I wrote employee handbooks for various companies. When I wrote the first one, I spent a lot of time researching federal workplace laws, state employment laws, the employer’s benefit packages, and so forth. Once the first manual was written, subsequent clients only required minor changes specific to their company, because the state and federal laws remained the same. Your client doesn’t need to know that, however. For those jobs, in the early 2000s, I charged a flat rate of $450, which the clients were quite happy to pay. (Maybe I should have charged more!)

By the word – Charging a flat fee per word is an excellent way to receive a fair amount of pay for a fair amount of work, and it notifies your clients what you expect for the quantity of work they want delivered. Then, if they add extra pages to the job, you’ll earn extra pay!

Share the Wealth

If you follow these steps and you provide quality work, it won’t be long until you have more work than you can handle. As you build your portfolio, network with other writers, and read samples of their work. Offer to proofread each other’s project. Then, instead of turning away a job that seems too big, too involved, too rushed, or too time-consuming for you, offer it to another strong writer, with the understanding that they’ll return the favor. You might even retain a percentage of the company’s payment as a finder’s fee.

Remember, the best writers are only as strong as their network, so don’t hesitate to pay it forward. Uplift other writers, offering to pick up extra work when they’re overwhelmed, and sharing your overburden in return. As soon as the customers for whom you’re freelancing learn that you are available for any project, regardless of size or deadline, your business will grow–and so will your bank account.

 

 

The Hiatus: Taking a Break from Writing

 

“Write every day.” We writers have heard this mantra from nearly every teacher, writing coach, agent, and editor we’ve encountered. We’ve heard it from other authors who’ve had it drilled into their heads so often they have no choice but parrot it when asked about their writing habits.

I call bullshit.

First, I believe that all writers can—and should—have different processes for creating new work, and that a particular process can—and should—change to fit the creation. If forcing yourself to sit each morning in front of a blank screen until beads of words form on your brow is a technique that works for you, that’s great. Goody for you. And if waking from a deep sleep with a scene in your head rouses you from bed at 2:00 a.m. to pound on your keyboard, that’s equally as wonderful. Or, if staring out the window for an hour, or sitting on the beach for three days, or walking your neighborhood each morning for two weeks is what causes (or allows) a story to jell in your mind before you type the first word, then that’s fabulous, too.

If your particular way of writing works for you, then it’s the perfect way for you to write. One size does not fit all.

There’s nothing like a deadline to encourage your words to appear on a page. When you were in school, your teachers gave you a due date for every assignment, because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t do the research that resulted in ideas that formed the thoughts you typed onto the page. Now that you’re out of school, it may be up to you to set imaginary deadlines, if that’s what it takes to keep you focused. Or maybe you work with a writing group, and you set deadlines for each other to meet. If deadlines are what you need, then set them.

Whether your deadline is real or imaginary, sometimes life gets in the way, and you simply must take a break from writing. Recently, that’s happened to me.

I work multiple jobs (adjunct professor, Realtor, ghostwriter, editor) and have myriad “unpaid” responsibilities (mother, wife, homemaker, book reviewer, blogger). It’s no surprise that these tasks often come with their own deadlines, and sometimes those deadlines bottleneck into the same week or same day. My personal writing simply has to take a back seat for a while.

I’m not advocating putting your writing aside for other duties: no! Writing—if you take your writing seriously at all—must be a priority. However, if you’re sitting in front of your computer in an attempt to get into the mind of your main character while ignoring more pressing responsibilities, your brain often won’t let you slide into the creative mode required to write well. The muse—if you believe in muses—will tell you to get your butt up and do what must be done.

When, then, will you get back to writing?

Here’s what I believe: writers are always writing. Just because we’re not sitting in front of our computers or holding a pad and pen in hand doesn’t mean we’re not creating stories.

During my low-residency MFA days, we were tasked with keeping a writing log that detailed the hours we spent reading and writing. I always struggled with how to approach this log, because it seemed to me then—and now—that rare are the hours when I’m not reading or writing. When I’m driving, I’m plotting. When I’m drifting off to sleep at night, I place my characters in a scene (one that may or may not be appropriate for my story), and I see what they’ll do. When I’m doing housework, I imagine a setting and how I’d describe it from my main character’s point of view. When I’m in the shower, I consider what obstacles I can put in the way of my characters’ goals and dreams. When I’m walking, I figure out how in the world my character can get around those obstacles I’ve created. This is writing.

Sometimes I make notes when a great idea pops into my head. My desk, my purse, and the inside covers of books I’m reading are littered with scribbles; scrawled ideas, scenes, sentences, or even sparse phrases that I know I’ll use when I next sit down to write.

And when time has passed and that precious, quiet hour arrives when I finally sit down in front of my screen, the ideas are all there. The sticky notes and index cards are placed in front of me, the books are stacked within reach, their pages flagged with points of inspiration. My fingers fly over the keys.

It’s then I realize that my time away from the keyboard is not and never has been a hiatus from writing: it is my impetus to create.

 

 

Sharing Homemade Bread

Today is bread day.

A few weeks ago, I succumbed to an urge that had been rising within me for a few months, and that was to make bread. Not just any bread, not bread from a boxed mix, and nothing that could be whipped up in a few minutes’ time, dumped into a bread machine, and popped out in a squarish loaf resembling an Amazon.com cardboard package. I wanted to make homemade sourdough bread; the kind that takes at least a week to prepare, the kind that must be fed and nurtured and allowed to rest, the kind created from—and by—living, breathing beings.

I should tell you that I killed my first starter.

There are certain, unbreakable, scientific laws that come with making homemade sourdough bread, and as ominous as that sounds, they’re actually quite simple to follow. That is, as long as you remember one of the most important rules, that being that you must stir your starter with a wooden spoon. Any contact with metal spoons (nickel, silver, aluminum, etc.) can introduce molecules that will kill the living microorganisms of yeasty sourdough starter. When feeding my sourdough starter the first time, you guessed it; I grabbed a metal spoon. Two days later, instead of the sweetly sour fragrance given off by healthy sourdough starter, mine reeked of rotting garbage, and the bubbles that occasionally rose to the surface had ceased. My starter had stopped breathing and died.

Bread mixing 1

I’ve taken more care since then, and today as I stirred sugar, salt, oil, and flour into my starter and began kneading the dough, I thought of stories and of writing. Why is it that one creative act feeds another? I may never know the answer, but I’m always grateful for the inspirational nourishment.

As I worked the dough, I recalled scripture from the King James Version of the Holy Bible: “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). I then thought of even older writings, one from the ancient Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf, in which the bakers charge a share of grain to make and bake bread for the entire community in communal ovens. I was further inspired to look up a couple of quotes that I remembered from other poems and stories, wondering why these snippets have stuck with me for so long, choosing today to bubble to the surface:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” –The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 5th Ed.

And from more recent works:

“They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.” –Raymond Carver, from “A Small, Good Thing”

“The heat of the bread burned into my skin, but I clutched it tighter, clinging to life.” –Suzanne Collins, from The Hunger Games

You probably recall many other examples of bread used symbolically in literature. Why is it that writers often mention bread in their stories—aside from the obvious, that their characters must eat? Bread does more than simply feed the hungry protagonist; it serves as metaphor for deeper issues and hidden secrets in a story. Bread is sometimes used to represent life and health, or the lack thereof (as in stale bread, or moldy bread); it is used to represent plenty, as in the Biblical story of the loaves and fishes; it’s sometimes symbolic of comfort, family, and unity, as in To Kill a Mockingbird; and, in Hansel and Gretel, breadcrumbs are used to mark the way back home. It’s this last metaphor that I chose to use in my current novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Romie & Jasper’s Big Empty:

“I stand on the back deck of the house, overlooking the acres and acres of grapevines, and I feel small, as if I’ve shrunk. I wonder if it’s true, if I have become smaller each time I’ve moved, if I left behind a broken-off piece of myself, like a trail of breadcrumbs, so I can someday find my way back to whatever place might be home.”

As I kneaded my bread this morning, it occurred to me how much making homemade sourdough bread is akin to writing. We put in the basic ingredients—our nouns and verbs and punctuation—and we let them rest. Days later, we return to the mixture, feed it with fresh words, stir them around, and let them breathe. After more respite, we keep a carefully measured portion, toss out what isn’t needed, and we add something sweet, something salty, and we work out the lumps and bubbles, ensuring that when we are done, it will rise and nourish all who taste it.

My sourdough recipe makes three loaves: one for today, one for later in the week, and one to share with friends. Sharing homemade bread—and memories and stories—with friends is my favorite part of the artistic process: it is the giving of one’s creativity, of one’s effort, of oneself, however noble or humble that gift may be.

“And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19 (KJV)

Thinking about an MFA in Creative Writing? START HERE!

Converse

It’s no secret that graduates (like myself) of Converse College’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program like to brag about our experience in the program. Truly, it’s nothing short of life-changing.

What makes the Converse MFA program so special? It’s the award-winning, bestselling core faculty. It’s the I-can’t-believe-it’s-her/him visiting authors. It’s the one-on-one time with faculty mentors during the semester, and the ongoing relationships you have with them long after graduation. It’s the priceless opportunities to share your work with agents and editors and receive immediate feedback (and in some cases, a contract). It’s the breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and drinks you’ll share with faculty and classmates who quickly become your forever friends. It’s the chill bumps that race across your skin when you finally get that line just right. It’s knowing that, even after you’ve turned in your final thesis, celebrated your graduation, and hung that beautiful diploma on your wall, you still have a community of writers to turn to for advice, for inspiration, for celebration.

Sound like the perfect place for you? Then check it out in person. Below you’ll find an article about The Converse College Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing OPEN HOUSE. Trust me when I tell you it’s worth the trip to meet faculty, students, and alums who can answer your questions and show you just how incredibly special this program really is.

S.C.’s Only Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing to Hold Open House May 31

Spartanburg, S.C. — Discover why Publishers Weekly named the Converse College Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing “a program to watch” in 2015. Join us at our Open House information session on May 31, 2015 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the Barnet Room of the Montgomery Student Center on the Converse campus.

Meet current students, published alumni, and faculty, including Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, Marlin Barton, Leslie Pietrzyk, Susan Tekulve, Albert Goldbarth, C. Michael Curtis, Suzanne Cleary, and program director Rick Mulkey. Learn about the program’s new concentrations in Young Adult Fiction and Environmental Writing, plus scholarship and Teaching Assistantship opportunities, along with information on recent alumni successes in fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Then stay to mingle with current students who are on campus for their summer residency, enjoying live music with Nashville-based folk rock band The Hart Strings beginning at 8 p.m.

More information on the Converse College Low-Residency MFA is available at www.converse.edu/mfa.

About the Converse College Low-Residency MFA

As South Carolina’s only low residency MFA program in creative writing, the Converse College MFA offers students opportunities to focus in fiction, Y.A. fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and Environmental writing, plus opportunities to pursue internships in publishing and editing through our C. Michael Curtis Publishing Fellowship at Hub City Press. MFA students may also participate in editing opportunities with the program’s national online literary magazine, South 85 Journal, and pursue teaching opportunities with our Teaching Assistant program, a unique opportunity for low residency students.

“One of the strengths of a low-residency format is how it introduces students to the real writing life,” said program director Rick Mulkey. “Most writers have family and career obligations in addition to their writing. While students spend part of each academic year on the Converse campus during the residencies, they continue work on their writing and academic projects during the rest of the year without disruption from their family and career.  Plus they study in a true mentor/apprentice relationship with a gifted writer. It provides both an intensive learning environment and the flexibility that most of us need.”

Converse MFA faculty members include National Book Critic Circle Award winners, best-selling novelists, award winning short fiction writers and essayists, plus some of the top editors in the country. “In addition to being outstanding writers, our faculty are energetic and dedicated teachers who have been honored for their classroom instruction,” said Mulkey. “In some graduate programs, a student enrolls to discover that the writer she planned to work with only teaches one course a year, or is on leave while the student is in the program. Here you have the opportunity to work with a large number of writers, editors and agents in a very personal mentoring relationship.”

In the last few years, Converse MFA graduates and current students have distinguished themselves with honors and awards including the AWP Intro Award, a Melbourne Independent Film Festival Award, and the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Prize, among many others. In addition, they have published work in a range of literary venues from Colorado ReviewShenandoahPloughshares, and Southern Review to such noted publishers as William Morrow/Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Negative Capability Press, Finishing Line Press, and others.

WWRD? – What Would Rhonda Do?

enjoli1

From the time I was a pre-teen, I wanted to be an Enjoli woman; you know, bringing home the bacon and all that goes with it. I love bacon! (Ooops! Sorry. Got a little excited there.) Even now, I have a ridiculous number of personal goals—so many I’d have to live to beyond Methuselah’s age to reach them all. Because of this, I have many role models whom I call my everyday heroes; women whom I admire for the way they do this thing or that thing, who have accomplished goals at which I hope to succeed, who grab life by the horns each day, shouting, “Ride ’em, cowgirl!” I won’t attempt to model myself after Oprah, Martha Stewart, Suze Orman, or Bethenny Frankel, because the thought of having to do all that they do (with the aid of a team of assistants, of course) terrifies me. Instead, women whom I personally know are the sources of my inspiration, because if they can achieve success, there’s hope for me.

I’ll admit that I stretch myself thin. I am a wife and a mother. I work as an editor and ghostwriter. I am an adjunct English professor and a Realtor. I write for this blog and occasionally for two others. I review books, and I am currently writing two novels and revising a short story collection of my own. Rarely does a day pass when I don’t think of at least one of the talented, inspiring, women in my life, and in some small way, I try to imitate the thing they do or have done so well. They are, each one of them, an inspiration to me, and when I’m faced with a challenge, I ask myself, “What would she do?”

Christians sometimes utilize the catch phrase, “What would Jesus do?”, and while it’s admirable to apply that kind of wisdom to the big decisions in your life, I find it difficult aspire to those heights, especially when dealing with life’s minutia. Jesus is a godhead, after all, and since I’m just a regular ol’ human being, I won’t begin to pretend that I can achieve the miracle of feeding thousands with a loaf of Wonder Bread and a can of tuna, when I do well not to burn the casserole. No, I’ll stick with imitating feet-on-the-ground women I admire, whom I can lock into a bear hug of thanks when I successfully mirror one of their achievements.

For example, when I’m faced with a classroom full of bored English comp students, I think, What would Rachel Bragg do? Rachel made literature so incredibly interesting for me that it became my concentration of study. She even coaxed me to study a course on fantasy literature, a subject I thought I hated until I took her excellent course. By mirroring her entertaining, yet no-nonsense approach to engaging and motivating students, my first semester of teaching college was a success.

When I think I can’t find the time to face yet another blank page in one of my works in progress, I ask, “What would Leslie Pietrzyk do?” Leslie teaches in two graduate writing programs, is active in two writing groups, is the editor of a literary magazine, authors a wonderful blog I follow, publishes new essays and short stories seemingly every other week, has authored two novels and is soon to release a third. If she can make time to write with all that’s on her literary plate, so can I.

When friends pop by unexpectedly for an evening (or even a long weekend), I ask myself, “What would Momma do?” I’ve watched my mother joyfully entertain and prepare a spread for a dozen unexpected guests more times than I can count. And, while tiptoeing along the poverty line most of her life, my mother still donates an extraordinary amount of time and energy to charity functions, from hand-stitching quilts for international missionaries, to heading up “The Master’s Basket”, a women’s group that makes and delivers food to sick individuals and bereaved families weekly. She frequently volunteers in her church and community for dozens of different projects as needed. She’ll forever inspire me to give selflessly and generously.

When my writing gets too dark and serious, or my prose falls flat, I think, What would Karin Gillespie do? Karin’s novels, essays, articles, and blog posts never fail to make me laugh, and she finds humor—and writes it so well!—in all of life’s foils and foibles. If you’ve ever chuckled when reading one of my blog posts, it’s because I’ve learned from Karin’s fine example.

So many strong and smart women have inspired and continue to inspire me: my late mom-in-law Georgia White, who was an excellent to-the-penny home-finances manager; many mother/wife/professor/writer friends including Cheryl Russell, Gabrielle Brant Freeman, Kathleen Nalley Moore, and Pam Andrews Hanson (who also writes as Jennifer Drew); my uber-organized editing boss Sandy Tritt; my go-getter real estate broker Enis Qosja and brokerage owner Crystal Anderson . . . I could easily continue naming names and singing praises. You can bet there’s also something about you that I probably admire, prompting me to ask, “What would [insert your name here] do?”

Admittedly, it’s easy for me to get in over my head when I think this way. I often bite off more cud than a four-stomached cow can digest, and I occasionally feel bad when I fall short of the successes my role models have accomplished. Nonetheless, I realize that, while each of these women are phenomenal at one or three things I greatly admire, they may intermittently fail at something I do well. None of us is perfect, yet each of us strives to be successful at whatever it is that we do.

Acknowledging this fact leaves me with one important, pressing question: What would Rhonda do?

I know the answer to this one by heart: she would try very hard.

Extremely hard.

And sometimes she fails, but she cleans up the mess (even if it means sweeping it under the rug until her guests leave), and tomorrow she will try again.

The Enjoli woman should be so fortunate.

SUBMIT!

I suppose that, in this post-Fifty-Shades-of-Gray era, I should tell you up front that I’m not writing about that kind of submission, though a rough spanking might seem preferable to the pain of formatting, reformatting, searching this-week’s-editor’s name, copying and pasting cover letters, adding your name, removing your name, and paying fees from one dollar to thirty of them simply to have your work read—and likely rejected—by the magazine/agent/publisher/editor you’ve long had your eye on. But if you’re a writer, submit you must!

Is there any way to make the submission process easier?

After several years of occasionally (and sometimes rarely) submitting my work, followed by a year of submitting more frequently, I’ve learned a couple of things. If there are painless ways, I haven’t found them, though here are a few facts you can accept and steps you can take to streamline the process and perhaps even soften the pain of rejection.

It’s not you; it’s them. The best literary magazines, most coveted agents, and biggest publishing companies receive—quite literally—hundreds of submissions each day. Imagine this: you drive to work in the pouring rain, get stuck in traffic, break the heel on your favorite pumps while running for the office door, spill coffee on your desk, and then your kid calls to tell you he forgot his homework, so you have to run home to retrieve the homework, deliver it to the school, and restart the process. You’re behind before you even begin. Then you open your email to find your inbox filled with new submissions. You have phone calls to return and meetings to attend, yet those submissions need your attention. How do you begin to sift through them? Like any smart editor, you sift the chaff from the wheat. You immediately reject any submissions that don’t fit your formatting guidelines, that open with a sluggish first page/paragraph/sentence, and those that are pocked with typos. Out of the dozen that are left, you save the few that fit a theme you’ve noticed coming in this month—they’ll make a nice collection when published together—and you reject the rest. After all, you’ll have a hundred more to scour tomorrow.

It’s not them; it’s you. You know you’ve done it. The Muse sat on your shoulder, whispered in your ear, and you pounded out a 5,000-word story in two hours flat, and the story blew your mind. You read through it a second time, and you only found one misspelled word. A. Maze. Ing. This is the story that will get you noticed. You send it to the top fifteen lit mags you’ve been drooling over since your fingers first fit a keyboard, and later that night, you drift off to sleep imagining the acceptance letters you’ll get, the Pushcart nominations, Best American Short Stories calling to ask for your bio, the movie they’ll make of your story, and what you’ll wear on the red carpet when you accept your Oscar.

And then the rejections start pouring in. Not even personalized rejections; they’re form letters! You take a second look, and you realize you called one of the editors by the wrong name—instant rejection. On the next, you submitted a .docx file, when they specifically requested rich-text files only. Then you notice that on page one your main character was named Kathy with a K, and on page six she’s Cathy with a C. And you accidentally wrote affect instead of effect. Ah, the pain. Self-inflicted pain, at that.

Slow down. Proofread. Wait a week. Proofread again. Send your story to a trusted writerly friend. Proofread again. Reformat. Check submission guidelines. Proofread again. Submit.

Do your research. There are some wonderful web sites that make the process of determining which agent is seeking what kind of story, which lit mags are open to submissions and when, and what the word count and submission guidelines are for your genre. I am huge fan of New Pages, which also offers the free service of weekly emails notifying you of calls for submissions, contests, and even conference and retreat notices, as well as book and lit-mag reviews. There’s also a great list that’s updated quarterly at Entropy Magazine, and author C. Hope Clark runs a website called Funds for Writers that has won awards for its regular market updates. Let these amazing services do the initial searches for you.

Keep notes. The best thing I have done to streamline my submission process is to start a submission file. You can use a notebook, a manila folder, a calendar—or simply do as I’ve done—use a Word document. My submission file is simply a table tracking my submission information (date submitted, publication, story submitted, result), followed by an ongoing list of magazines, web sites, agents, and publishers to which I want to submit, each with very brief notes listing maximum word count, passwords (many require you to set up an account), and web address. Don’t bother listing a magazine’s editor, because that may change before you actually submit your work. Always check the publication’s web site for submission guidelines before sending in your work. Always.

circus master

Submit often! You can’t get published if you don’t submit your work. Editors and agents won’t knock on your door and ask to browse your computer files to find a story they can’t wait to print. You have to send your story out, and typically, you have to send it to multiple places before it’s accepted for publication.

Submit a lot! I’m talking quantity, here. At any given time, I have around four to six stories and essays floating among ten to fifteen lit mags and publishers. I know other well-respected authors who can claim four times those numbers. If you always have submissions out there, you always have hope, so the sting of rejection is softened. Just when I’d almost given up (much too easily) on one of my stories finding a home, I received a publication agreement from a magazine I’d long admired. I’d sent the story so long ago that I’d assumed they’d lost it in the slush pile, yet it had been making the rounds from the slush reader, to the fiction editor, to the senior editor.

Following these simple guidelines won’t guarantee your work will be published—if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there are no publication guarantees for writers. But if you’ve worked hard, written the very best story you can write, and followed these guidelines, you’ll stand a much better chance of seeing your name in print.

Write well, and keep submitting!

submit

In the Beginning . . . The Emerging Writer Contest

Well over a decade ago (let’s not discuss just how “well over”), I saw an advertisement for a writing contest, and pretty much on a whim, I entered it. That contest was the West Virginia Writers, Inc. Spring Competition, and I entered the Emerging Poets category with a poem that I wrote about my friend Diana “Hootie” Kirby, who’d recently passed from breast cancer. Hootie must have been whispering in the contest judge’s ear, because I won that year, receiving a nice-looking certificate, a blue ribbon, and a healthy check. More than those material things, however, the prize I cherish most from that contest was the boost to my self-esteem as a bourgeoning writer.

You can imagine my happiness now that I have been asked to judge the Emerging Prose Writer category in the 2015 West Virginia Writers, Inc. Spring Competition. It’s a surreal, full-circle sort of feeling to know that the packet of manuscripts I soon will receive will contain stories written by beginning writers—people at the same starting place and similar skill level at which I entered those many years ago. I will have the amazing privilege of encouraging a soon-to-be-author, just like so many encouraged me in my first creative years as a new writer. It will be a privilege to serve as contest judge, just as it was a privilege to win the prize that year.

Now, let me be clear: after winning, I did not receive calls from New York publishers who were dying to see my work, nor was I swamped with fans asking for my autograph. I wasn’t able to retire from my day job on my prize winnings, and in fact, it was a few more years before I won another contest and had my first story—in retrospect, a pretty bad one—published. Still, winning that first-place award set me on a path that has been nothing short of joyous. I went back to college to study English and literature. I earned an MFA in Creative Writing. I work as a ghostwriter and editor, and my work is now published in literary magazines I long thought of as inaccessible to and unattainable by me.

Yes, I have received plenty of rejections (I got another one just yesterday), and yes, I still work hard to improve at my craft. I humbly recognize that I have so much more to learn, and I look forward every day to acquiring new writing skills. But I will forever be grateful to West Virginia Writers, Inc. for holding their annual contest, and to the judge who blindly selected my poem as the winner. I can hardly wait to return the favor.

I encourage you to submit your stories and poems to the 2015 West Virginia Writers, Inc. Spring Competition. You don’t have to live in or hail from West Virginia to enter and win (see FAQ #37). All submissions are judged blindly (no identifying names or addresses on the work), so all work is reviewed fairly. Click here for more information and a contest form, and click here to check out the judges’ bios—including mine! Yay!

First Place Prize $250        Second Place Prize $125         Third Place Prize $75

I WISH YOU GOOD LUCK!

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