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.

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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!

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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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How to Select and Apply to an MFA Program

The first condition of education is being able to put someone to wholesome and meaningful work. –John Ruskin

 

You’ve reached the point in your writing career where you’ve become quite serious about it. You can think of little else besides reading or writing. You yearn for the day when someone creates showers with built-in, waterproof laptops, because you always seem to have a shampoo-lathered head when the ultimate phrase arrives. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) You’ve heard the phrase “my MFA program” repeated among people you admire so often that it cycles through your head like a Bee Gees earworm. Could it be that it’s time to seriously consider applying to an MFA program?

It’s not necessary to hold a post-graduate degree in order to become a successful, full-time writer; however, immersing yourself into a community of writers for two to three years has great benefits. In addition to showing publishers you are serious about your craft, you’ll network with successful authors, develop a cohort of like-minded writers who will support you through years to come, plus build a firm foundation from which to teach, lead workshops and conferences, promote yourself and your work, and—best of all—write with passion.

Now, how do you journey from the decision to apply to arrive at the acceptance letter? Here’s what I recommend:

  • Begin today. Researching to discover the right program for you cannot begin too soon. While still an undergrad, I began compiling lists of post-graduate writing programs, and I kept a notebook with information of what I learned about each. Some schools I could quickly cross off my personal wish list, because they required a semester abroad, were exorbitantly priced, or focused more on literary theory than creative writing (things that didn’t interest me). Others required classroom participation four days a week, which was out of the question for a working mother like me. Of course, these things may be the factors you’re seeking, so make sure the programs to which you apply fit your needs. Cost is often a concern for many, so if you are counting on student loans, scholarships, or financial aid, know that you’ll need to complete a Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form well in advance. In addition to tuition, don’t forget to factor in travel expenses to/from the program’s location, lodging, food, and textbooks. You will want to research the core faculty of each of the programs where you plan to apply, as well. Aim to read (or at least skim) one book or novel written by each of the full-time faculty members in the program.

 While I’ll quickly admit that I spent over three years doing intermittent research, I’ve since discovered an incredible source of much of this information. Lori A. May’s The Low-Residency MFA Handbook asks and answers many of the questions I had about low-res writing programs, both in the US and abroad. This text addresses the program, teaching philosophy, residency, study format and—especially encouraging—life after the MFA.  Ms. May has done much of the hard work for you, but you’ll still need to handle the application process on your own. Not seeking a low-residency program? Check out Tom Kealey’s The Creative Writing MFA Handbook for great information on traditional-study programs.

  •  Contact the programs. Chat via email or telephone with a faculty member, program director or advisor, a current student, or alumnus of the program. Jot down a list of school-specific questions, concerns about funding, or questions about the residency. The best programs will be happy to talk with you, and many will refer you to alumni or current students for candid conversations with those who have experienced the program first-hand. Face the fact that, if they won’t talk to you now, they won’t be available to help you later, either. Also, consider a site visit. Many programs will allow you to sit in on a lecture, and a few will assign a student tour guide to give the lay of the land. My alma mater, The Converse Low-Residency MFA Program, holds an on-campus information session, where you can meet face-to-face with the program director, some faculty members, current students, and alums. The next information session will be held on Thursday, January 29 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. on the Converse campus in Spartanburg, SC.  If you can’t attend, you can participate through Google Talk (GChat). Contact program director Dr. Rick Mulkey at rick.mulkey@converse.edu for more details.
  •  Acquire transcripts and letters of reference. This may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure to follow up with the programs to which you are applying to ensure your transcripts actually arrived. One of mine didn’t, and I had to re-request that the transcript be sent. Letters of reference should be written by someone who knows you and is familiar with your writing skill—other than your mother. Consider former professors and deans who read your work, but don’t limit reference letters to academia, unless required. Consider also the boss for whom you wrote a fifty-five page technical manual or employee handbook. Be sure to carefully read each program’s application instructions, as some will request that references be mailed and postmarked at the source, while others will want the letters included in the application packet.
  • The personal essay. Your personal essay should be honest and heartfelt, but not folksy or humorous. Attending an MFA program is one of the most serious decisions you’ll make in your life, so treat it as such in this essay. Describe why you want to be involved in a writing community as intense as an MFA program. What is it that led you to the decision, and what is your motivation to engage in three years of study? How will you make time for the rigorous schedule (typically 20-25 hours a week) of coursework? What obstacles might you encounter, and how do you plan to overcome them? Why does this particular program appeal to you, over others that are available? Are you able to accept critique and apply it to your work? Again, read the application instructions for clues as to what the program director and faculty are seeking in this essay.
  • The writing sample. This is, without a doubt, the most important piece of your application packet. Programs will typically require between ten and twenty-five pages of your best work. Having said that, if your story ends on page eleven or twenty-eight, be sure to send it all—don’t leave them wondering about your ability to end a story. The sample should be appropriate for the program to which you’re applying. Don’t send a children’s picture book to a literary fiction program, and don’t send a short story to a poetry concentration program. Send your very best work. Let me say that again: Send your very best work. Don’t send anything that you haven’t had someone else proofread for typos. Better still; send something that you’ve shared with your writing critique group. Make sure your manuscript is properly formatted. For stories, use one-inch margins with 12-point font and double-spaced lines. It’s important not to take the writing sample lightly. If you don’t feel you have a current writing sample that’s up to par, begin a new piece, and wait to apply until you’re sure you have a high-quality manuscript to send.
  • Other important information. Most applications will ask you to include a list of prior publications and writing awards (if you have them), of professional writing organization memberships, or of writing workshops, conferences, or non-credit writing courses you have taken. Some may also ask for any writing-community involvement, so be certain to mention if you’ve led a writing workshop at your local library or youth camp. In short, if you have a writing accomplishment of any kind, or have worked or volunteered within a writing community, be sure to mention it.
  • Final details. How many copies of the application, essay, and writing sample must you include in your packet? Did you sign the check for the application fee? Did you include both your home and cell number on the application form? Did you write a cover letter for your packet (a brief note listing your enclosures and thanking the director for reviewing your application)? Now is not the time to recycle an old manila envelope, and by all means, if you have a coffee cup stain on your title page, reprint it! It’s not necessary to overnight your application (unless you’re approaching a deadline), but consider sending it in a sturdy cardboard, U.S. Priority Mail envelope. 

Now that you’ve completed and mailed your stellar application packets, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to post in the comments section below any feedback you receive from writing programs to which you’ve applied. Good luck!

My last day of residency at the Converse MFA Program.
My bittersweet last day of residency at the Converse MFA Program. Tired, but elated!

Writing Time: How Much Do You Want It?

juggling books

You know those writers. Yes, those writers. The ones who teach five English courses each semester, post witty blogs three times a week, and Tweet at nine, noon, and five. They check their bank accounts daily, mail thank-you cards, and submit short stories and articles to the best mags each week. They prepare scrumptious family dinners each evening, and on the rare nights they order take-out, they have to look up the number. They’ve published two novels this year . . . and it’s only January.

The rest of us? Well, we struggle.

It’s sometimes difficult to carve out time to write. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. If it were impossible, the libraries would be empty, and Kindle would bite the dust. I believe that, first, we have to stop thinking about finding time to write, and begin making time to write. There is something, however minor, that you can cut from your daily to-do list and replace it with writing time. You can delegate dog-walking one afternoon a week to a relative or the kid next door. You can forgo Seinfeld or Friends reruns every evening to spend thirty minutes putting pen to paper. You can close your Facebook page, and open a Word document, instead. You can toss vegetables, chicken or beef, and a can of soup or broth in the CrockPot before work, so you can write for an hour, instead of preparing dinner tonight.

In other words, time is available. You have the same twenty-four hours as every other successful writer. And rare is the bestselling author who quit their day job, hired a nanny, a chauffeur, and a housekeeper in order to start a writing career. Sure, a few may relish those luxuries now, but they started at a humbler place, and chances are good that at least one started where you are right now.

Stop. Making. Excuses.

Even good excuses. If you want this, you will make it happen. You will make time to read great novels and study books on writing craft, even if that time comes while you’re sitting in the bank drive-thru or on the sidelines during little-league practice. You will make time to write. You won’t wait for an angel to sing, for the sky to open up and beam down a ray of sunshine onto your laptop. You will make time.

Now is good. Right now.

Write now.

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