A Beginner’s Guide to Publishing
If you’re just here for the publishing handout and would prefer not to read my rambling lamentations about leaving teaching, here ya go!
This summer will be the first summer since I turned 21 that I won’t be readying syllabi for my fall courses. The details are complex and, frankly, boring, but after a lot of thought, my partner and I decided to say no to another year at Oberlin and move across the country (yet again) so my partner can be closer to his company’s headquarters in San Francisco and our family can (finally) be settled.
To say I have mixed feelings about this would be the understatement of the century. In truth I try not to think too hard about it for fear I’ll cry through all my remaining classes for the rest of the term wondering, Will this be the last time I ever teach new writers?
When it comes to my writing, my imposter syndrome rivals the best. I am in constant self-doubt about my work, my talent, my self-discipline, my voice, my ideas, everything. But I have never doubted myself as a teacher. I’ve had bad classes and suffered the consequences of failed experiments, but (if I can be honest for a second) I am really good at it.
My students learn A LOT about writing in my classes, and I have 12 years of stunner course evaluations to back me up on that. I don’t dabble in the realm of abstraction, I don’t indulge the myths of “inspiration.” In the classroom, we get to fucking work. I am really good at analyzing a story for craft, breaking it down to its component parts and showing my students how they can apply those moves to their own work.
I know this isn’t anything new. This is what good writing teachers have always done. I’m just saying, I’m really fucking good at it.
I also think I’m really good at inspiring my students to see themselves as writers rather than “writing students.” And I do that by treating them like writers, by leveling with them, writer-to-writer. I talk about my own struggles, my own failures, what I’m learning, what I would borrow from a writer we’re discussing, how I would have ruined the story we’re reading by making a different choice.
And by trying, as best I can, to set up them up for a future in letters. Which brings me, finally, to the actual point of this blog post. I feel, frankly, pretty ripped up inside when I think about walking away from the great privilege and great joy of setting new writers on their paths. I’ll never EVER forget the person who did that for me–the fantastic sci-fi writer and fantastic human, Maureen McHugh, who, when I was just a sophomore in college, taught me how to look up a magazine in The Writer’s Market, write a cover letter, stamp my SASE and send my manuscript.
She required everyone in the class to submit a manuscript for publication at the end of the term. Mine got accepted. Because of that, I changed my major, I changed my goals. I am only living the life I’m living today because she not only taught me that publication could be a goal, but taught me how to try.
This is the gift I pass on to my students. Not the guarantee that they will find success, but the tools they need to try. And I’m hoping that maybe, just in case my fears play out and I won’t have any more students to pass this on to, I could pass it on to yours?
So here it is, My Beginner’s Guide to Publishing. It’s a lengthy handout I give to all my students, every semester, no matter what their level is. Even if they aren’t ready for it, I encourage them to keep it. They may feel ready one day and when that day comes, there might not be anyone offering it to them.
It covers cover letters, poetry and prose manuscript formats, notes on electronic submissions, information about how to find markets for their work, sample submissions guidelines, information on how to write a novel query, and a sample submissions-tracking spreadsheet. On “publishing day” I talk them through the process from the writer’s perspective and the editor’s perspective. We talk about rejections (OH MY GOD SO MANY REJECTIONS) and victories (meeting your writing goals! nice rejections! maybe even the occasional acceptance!). We talk about contracts and finances. We talk about agents and the MFA. We talk about whatever they want to talk about.
And one by one, through the years, emails and Facebook messages have trickled in to me from my former students celebrating their first publications in magazines and websites, small and large. They always start the same way, “Dear Aubrey, You probably don’t remember this, but I was in your fiction class and you talked to us about publishing and…”
I remember. I will always remember.
It would be an honor if you’d consider using a version of my handout in your classes, passing this on to your students. If you’d like an editable version, shoot me an email and I’m happy to send it along. Feel free to make changes. Feel free to take my name off it. It would do my heart good to feel like I was continuing to pay the debt I owe to my first writing teacher, the one who gifted me this great life, one I am grateful for every day.