the writing life Category

Getting Motivated

Well, it’s February and if you’re anything like me, your New Year’s resolutions to write more, submit more, write on a schedule, finally finish that scene, that story, that book have all faded away like champagne bubbles. To help you get back to being productive, here are some websites dedicated to helping writers get motivated:

  • You’re probably already familiar with National Novel Writing Month, where optimistic writers set out to write 50,000 word novels during the month of November.
  • 750 words is similar, but you can use it 12 months out of the year. It encourages users to write 750 words (about 3 pages) a day. You can earn badges for your writing by being speedy and consistent.
  • Written? Kitten! Give you a fresh image of a super-cute kitten every 100 words (or 500, or 1000; it’s up to you). This is a surprisingly good motivator, but it is hard to resist the urge to cut and paste the same 100 words over and over again!
  • Write or Die utilizes the stick, rather than the carrot. If you stop typing for long enough, it will start to delete what you’ve already written. I imagine this would be especially useful for shutting up an over-active inner-editor who never lets you get out a sentence unless it’s perfect.

If you know of any others, leave them in the comments! How are you getting motivated this year?

Getting to Know the Market

Re-posted from my monthly column at FFC.

If you’re new to the submissions game, trying to find markets that might fit your work can seem like an impossible task. How do you learn your way around an arena as vast and varied as the world of literary magazines? Mostly, it just takes a lot of time and research, but if you’re looking for some tips on how to get started, I’ve compiled some of my advice below.

  • Read the year-end anthologies. Of course it’s important to support your favorite journals by subscribing, but if you’re strapped for cash, reading the Pushcart Prize volumes or books from the Best American series is a great way to get to know a lot of magazines for one price of admission.
  • Look for themed journals or special issues. Some magazines theme issues by geographical location or subject matter. Looking for a journal with a theme that fits your story can be a great way to learn about new magazines. If you’re looking to find one, Duotrope has a handy theme calendar that’s a good place to start.
  • Don’t just read the magazine, read the bio pages too. When you’re first learning your way around, author bio pages are a great way to find comparable magazines. You already know you like the magazine you’re reading, and other journals that have published the same writers are likely to have a similar vibe.
  • Stalk your favorite writers. If you stumble upon a writer whose work you would liken to your own, see if they have a website or list of pubs somewhere. You can target the same magazines and guess that the editors who liked their stories are more likely to enjoy yours as well.
  • Talk to your writer-friends. This may seem obvious, but sometimes we’re coy about the submissions process. Don’t be afraid to share information about where you’re submitting and why. Everyone benefits from this kind of knowledge sharing.
  • Finally, when deciding where to send your work, be clear about your goals. This is a really important step and one that’s often overlooked. Where you send your stories should depend largely on what you want to achieve. If you’re looking to get a fancy teaching job, you should sub to top print journals. But if your priority is readership, web-based venues are a better bet.

Those of you who have been submitting for a while, how did you learn your way around the literary landscape?

Do it.

Reposted from my monthly column at FFC.

The other day on Facebook, my cousin posted a note about her first ever college writing class. The students were asked to bring in a piece of writing they admired and three of them brought in this poem by Charles Bukowski, called “so you want to be a writer.” Here’s how it begins:

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.

Thinking about the beginning writers in my cousin’s class absorbing those unbelievably discouraging words from a celebrated literary figure sent me into a blind rage. Once I recovered my sight, I typed out a quick rebuttal to let my cousin know that it was okay (more than okay!) to work hard. I’d like to expand on it here, just in case anyone out there is still buying into the myth of the unedited genius.

This poem is very Bukowski. His work is free-flowing and unedited. His words and distinctive style resonate with a lot of writers and I can admire that. The content of the poem, however, is a load of crap.

For most of us, our work is hard work. I know this is true for me. Sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated with my own writing. Sometimes I’m bored. Sometimes I’m anxious and struggling. Sometimes it’s easy, but even then, I’m suspicious. The hard work doesn’t worry me, nor does it worry most of the writers I know. We want to work hard, push our own limits, earn it.

Nothing bothers me more than writers who want to play games like “Who can be the most inspired” or “Who can create a masterpiece in the least amount of drafts.” This is all posturing around the fantasy of the solitary genius writer, to whom writing is like breathing, to whom the words just come. In my mind, these people are bragging about the wrong thing. In real life, the game is more about “Who can stay at the keyboard the longest,” “Who will keep going back to work on the tough scenes,” “Who wants it most even when it’s hard.”

I want to say that it’s okay for it to be hard. Sometimes it’s hard! So is waitressing, so is advanced mathematics, so is heart surgery, so is HVAC repair, so is sculpture. It’s hard so that you’ll know when you’re growing, so that you’ll know when you’re doing something important, so you’ll know where your limits are so you can destroy them. If it’s too easy, it means you need to work harder. You think you’re a genius? Fine. Show me.

But most importantly, in my humble opinion, anyone who tells you “don’t do it” for any reason can go fuck himself. Writing is all about “doing it”, no matter what. The people who “do it” become writers. The people who don’t, don’t. I want to tell you: Do it.

Using Your Writing Skills IRL

Cross posted from my monthly column at FFC.

I often joke with my partner (who, in addition to being a fabulous writer, has worked in the web doing user experience and strategy work) about how I have absolutely no skills that are marketable in the real world. Of course I know this isn’t really true; a quick Google search will recommend lots of jobs you can do with an MFA in creative writing. But I’m sure some of you will agree that it sometimes it feels like our lives “as writers” are completely separate from the rest of our lives “in the real world.”

As a remedy, I’d like to offer an abbreviated list of ways our writerly skills can serve us in the real world.

  • Getting out of trouble. “But, Officer, that person three cars back was swerving all over the road. I was just speeding up to get away from him. Did you not see that?” If you’ve ever gotten out of a speeding ticket by telling a yarn like this, you can thank (in equal parts) your acting skills and your narrative skills.
  • Playing cards. Any hold ’em player worth her green vinyl visor will tell you that bluffing a hand has less to do with trying to buy the pot and more to do with telling a consistent story. As the cards fall, you’ve got to make your opponent believe you’re hitting your hand. This involves constructing a convincing narrative about which cards are helping you and which are blanks and reacting appropriately. Apply your plotting skills here and you just might walk away a few dollars richer.
  • Being compassionate. We’ve all played the character-building game where you watch a person on the street and imagine their story. Do this enough and you may find yourself doing it all the time. I’m able to stay zen when someone cuts me off in traffic or is rude to me in the grocery store because in my mind’s eye I can see their chicken pox-afflicted children, or the unsigned divorce papers on their desks. Whether you’re right or not, being able to imagine a person’s whole life makes you a happier, more compassionate person.
  • Maintaining a successful relationship. That’s right. Ask any couple’s counselor what’s the most important part of a relationship and he’ll tell you: Communication. If there’s anything that writers excel at, it’s finding the right word in a churning, chaotic sea of language.
  • Letting someone down gently. On the other hand, if it’s just not working out, your language skills can also help you through the oft-dreaded break-up talk. You know all about mood, tone and context. You know how to affect your audience with your words. Channel that expertise here. Save the poor guy some tears.

It’s nice to feel my “writer” life and “real” life meld from time to time. How have you used your writing skills outside your writing?



My First Time

This month’s article at Flash Fiction Chronicles is about my first time being published. I’ve re-posted it here:

Everyone remembers their first time. Maybe you’re young and naive, like I was. Maybe you’ve been working up to it so long that you already feel like a pro. But when the moment arrives, it’s always the same: the excitement, the nervous butterflies, the need to share the news immediately with a trusted friend. For this column I thought I’d tell you about my first time–my first time being published, that is.

I don’t know when (if ever) I would have started sending work out on my own, but luckily my first writing teacher was adamant that we all engage with the world outside the workshop. At the end of my first writing class in my junior year of college, I was required to print out a manuscript, compose a cover letter, research a market and (gulp) send the whole bundle off to a real life magazine to be judged by the cold, cruel world.

I spent a lot of time deciding on a market for that first story. I didn’t know my way around the literary landscape at all, so there was no name recognition involved. Eventually, I flipped to the section marked “Special Interest.” Since my story dealt with illness, I was excited to find many magazines dedicated to that topic. I settled on a magazine called Kaleidoscope because it was from Ohio and so was I.

Since the instructor all but promised us we’d each be getting a rejection letter in our little white envelope in four to six months, I didn’t even entertain the possibility that Kaleidoscope would take my piece. But it didn’t matter; I was hooked. I spent long afternoons in the library reading through The Writer’s Market, making copies of my manuscripts and my disastrously generic cover letter. I spent my drinking money on postage.

Slowly but surely, the rejections started rolling in. You know them immediately: addressed in your own handwriting, no return address. I always opened them anyway, looking for any scrawl of pen on paper, evidence that someone took an extra second to reject me.

I could have gone on like this for a long time, forever maybe. But I didn’t have to. The big envelope came two weeks after Christmas. It was from Kaleidoscope and they wanted my story. They were even willing to pay me for it ($75, which went right into more envelopes, copies and postage, after a round of drinks for my my roommates). I’ve celebrated every acceptance since then, but there’s still something magical about that first one. You never forget it.

I also won’t forget how it felt when the journal finally came, and I got to see my words in print for the first time. It was a bit of a wait. Despite having sent the story out in May of 2002, and having it accepted in January of 2003, the issue containing my story didn’t come out until July 2005. It was a long wait, but it was worth it.

Now that I’m someone else’s writing teacher, I have adopted the same requirement. It’s a good skill to learn, I tell my students, and no one will offer teach you once you’ve left. Sometimes I have to talk a reluctant student into it, but I don’t back down. I’ve even had a few students excitedly email me about their acceptances. They feel almost as good as my own.

The Bravest Person You’ve Ever Met

I’m working on my first novel. It’s a tough process filled with self-doubt and fear. I’ve also made the mistake of learning everything there is to know about how impossible it is to sell a first novel.

Here’s a scary statistic, the average number of novels a writer produces before they sell one is four. That means that most published writers have three “practice” novels quietly taking up space on their hard drives. I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent on my book so far, but the fact that my husband and myself may be the only people who ever read it is weighing heavily on my mind.

When the despair sets in it reminds me of of being on airplane. I’ve always been a nervous flyer. I analyze every bump and whir. I hesitate to make plans when vacationing, as I never expect to make it to my destination alive. Every time I force myself down the jet-way, I am absolutely positive that I will die.

It’s a terrible feeling, and a powerful one, but I don’t let it stop me. I’ve been on sixteen airplanes in the last year and written about 50,000 words of my novel-in-progress. I get teased about my fear of flying a lot, called a coward or a scaredy-cat. But I don’t let any of it get to me. It’s true that when I get onto a plane I’m sure I’ll be killed in a fiery crash, but this does not make me a coward. The fact that I get on that airplane in the face of my fear makes me the bravest person you have ever met.

My hat’s off to every writer who has finished a book. Whether you ever showed it to anyone else, whether or not anyone else liked it, you’ve accomplished something amazing and I admire your bravery. Like those airplane rides, we persevere because we know the joy of reaching our destination will be worth the bumps along the way. And, if I can end on a hopeful note, I’d like to point out that I haven’t been killed in a plane crash yet. So who knows, maybe I’ll only need two practice novels, or one. Or maybe this book is my book and I just need to keep working.

Where to Send Your Experimental Writing

Last weekend, I facilitated a workshop all about experimental writing as part of Dzanc Books’ National Workshop Day. During the workshop, I talked a bit about publishing experimental writing and gave the participants a (very incomplete) list of venues that are particularly amenable to this kind of writing. Below is this list. Of course, what is categorized as “experimental” varies largely from person to person, but each of these places in interested is work somewhere along the spectrum. As always, check out some writing from the magazine itself to see what they’re into. Happy sending!

What did I miss? Leave other possible markets for experimental writing in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

What to Do With This Novella…

I’m currently writing a thousand things at once (it works for me; don’t judge) and, among them, I’m polishing up a novella-in-stories and getting ready to…what? It’s a tough sentence to finish for many reasons. First, I’m not even sure a novella-in-stories is a thing. (Anyone ever write one of these? What did you do with it?) Second, assuming it is, what do I do with it?

I’ve done a bit of research on the market for novellas, and I’ll share the results of that here. But I’m hoping others will chime in with other ideas. Please share them if you have them!

1. Apparently, you can send them to regular old literary magazines.

2. Or you can try a small boutique-y press. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few ideas.

  • Tiny Hardcore Press can get down with a novella-length manuscript. And they’ll make it look pretty.
  • Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint publishes (you guessed it) new novellas.
  • Mud Luscious Press can handle a novella up to 35,000 words. If you’ve got something really tiny (8,000 to 15,000 words), you can send it to their new imprint, Nephew.

3. You can send them to novella contests. I don’t love this idea because it costs money. $10 doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you send your novella to 10 contests, that’s $100 (for those of you who failed math class). Considering how many times a typical story gets rejected before I place it, those reading fees could really add up. But here’s a few in case you’re interested.

4. Finally (finally?), you can put your novella up against other genres in regular old chapbook contests, like these.

If you have some shorter pieces, you can package your novella together with short stories and try to place the collection with a small press, or send it to some contests. What did I miss? What is everyone else doing with their novellas?

P.S. Interesting little piece at The New York Times about why novellas are the real art form.

Dating Advice for Writers

Today I had a nice long chat with a friend and fellow writer. He was feeling a little down about this business of ours and I gave him a completely unsolicited pep talk. Halfway through my speech about sending work to editors, I realized it sounded like I was giving him dating advice. So I went looking for a little more.

Here it is, my dating advice for writers (with translations):

  • Put yourself out there. Translation: Don’t be afraid of rejection. Maybe your piece isn’t the best fit for a particular editor, but let them tell you that. Don’t reject them before they can reject you.
  • Always look great, even if you don’t expect to meet anyone. Translation: Proofread your work. Revise it until it’s perfect. Send your best copy regardless of what you think your chances are of getting published in that particular market.
  • Don’t play hard to get. Translation: Send your work out as soon as it’s ready and keep sending (revising as necessary) until somebody takes it. If you think editors are going to knock on your door looking for new work, you’ve got another thing coming.
  • Keep dates brief, but your men interested. Less is always more. Translation: Always think about efficiency in your writing. Cut ruthlessly in service of the story. And keep your cover letters brief and to the point.
  • Never ever talk about previous boyfriends. Translation: Don’t mention other rejections when sending out your work. No one wants to feel like they’re your fallback plan.
  • Start listening and stop talking. Translation: Read the magazines you want to submit to. Learn what they like. Extrapolate what they don’t like.
  • Don’t be afraid of internet dating. Translation: Don’t be afraid of online journals. Many of them have excellent editors and high quality content. Most of them have exponentially more readers than their print counterparts.
  • Be patient. Translation: Be patient. Even if you’ve got talent and know-how, it takes time.

Now get out there and get going! The perfect market is out there, just waiting to take your story in its arms and never let it go. So go find it! You don’t want your story to be single forever, do you?

Writing Awards Make Me Crazy.

Much has been written about writing awards: if they matter, why they matter, why they’re helping writers, why they’re hurting writers, who wins them, who doesn’t deserve them, and why no one should give a crap about any of it. This is not one of these articles. I’ve read all the arguments, all the careful disassemblings, and, you know what? I still give a crap.

Yesterday marked the official opening for nominations for the 2011 Million Writers Award. This year, I actually have a story that fits their somewhat stringent criteria (appeared on-line in 2010, over 1,000 words, never published in print), and all I can do when I sit in front of my computer is open the nominations page and refresh, refresh, refresh. I read every nomination as it rolls in, obsessing about who’s nominating who, who’s nominating themselves (totally allowed), who has clearly asked their buddies to nominate them so they don’t have to nominate themselves, and, of course, when the hell someone is going to nominate me. If it doesn’t happen, will I bravely self-nominate, sending the message that I believe in my story and the editorial vision of the magazine that published it? Or will I chicken out and ask someone else to do it so I can feel more like it’s a “real” nomination? Or (gasp) will I do nothing and let a shot at this award just float quietly away?

So, yeah, it’s only been a few hours and I’ve already obsessed myself into an infinite mind loop of writing award madness. Why? I fancy myself kind of a veteran of this writing game. I take my rejections with grains of salt. I’m brilliant with disappointment. I don’t even get excited about rewrite requests anymore. Editors, if you want to dampen my spirits, you have to try really really hard. So why do writing awards still make me go all pins and needles?

As far as I can tell, it’s some combination of the following thoughts:

  1. Awards are good for my (writing) career. The more impressive the “bio” section of my cover letter gets, the easier it is to place a story. Now, it could be that my writing is improving at the same rate as my cover letter, but it could also be that a strong bio gets you a more generous read. I don’t feel bad about that; I earned that. And I’d like to keep it going.
  2. Awards are good for my (teaching) career. It’s not the most important thing to me, but I really like teaching. I want to keep doing it. Like it or not, writing awards look good on the CV.
  3. It’s fun to just be in the game. I’ve been nominated for a couple of Pushcarts, the Micro Award, and while I never delude myself into thinking I’ll win any of these prizes, it is fun to have the possibility out there for a little while. I like googling previous winners and counting down to announcement day, when I valiantly shrug off any disappointments and get psyched for next year. It’s much more fun than not playing at all.
  4. I hate being left out! My Facebook community has reached a critical mass of writers so that now, when something writerly is going on, my Facebook feed buzzes about it for days. And when it does, I want to feel like I’m part of it, sitting at the big kids’ table with other writers I admire. A big part of that is having my name in the hat.
  5. I need this kind of reinforcement to feel valued as a writer? I put a question mark here because I’m not sure this is true. In fact, I hope it’s not. I do think I’m a good writer and that what I have to say is worth something. But would I still feel like that if magazines and awards constantly overlooked me? If I were producing the exact same work, but was never published or rewarded, would I have just given up by now? Shudder.

Probably all of this makes me seem hopelessly codependent on external reinforcements. I think maybe I am. The good news is that I am a freaking good-news camel. One bit of positive news—an acceptance, a particularly kind rejection, a rave review from my brilliant partner—can last me for months. Maybe even years (but I hope not to find out).