Midweek Writing Prompt: A New POV (10/1/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: A New POV (Point of View)

If you are currently working on something – an essay, a story, a poem – rewrite one of the scenes or moments from the point of view of someone else in the story. Change the perspective of that scene and allow it to unfold afresh through another character’s (or creature’s) eyes.

If you want something new, write about your morning or evening routine from your pet’s (or child’s) point of view. Show your routine from your cat’s perspective, or your dog’s, or your hamster’s, or your child’s.

This is a fun one, so go play! :)

 

Pitching stories

When I was a freelance journalist, pitching story ideas was my business’s lifeblood. As an academic now, I also find that sometimes pitching an idea ahead of all the research and writing to gauge an editor’s interest can be a valuable option to save time and be more efficient.

First, have an idea. Coming up with ideas for articles and stories is essential, so if you don’t consider yourself “an idea person,” strive to become one. If you are unsure where ideas come from, here’s a starting point.

Now that you have an idea for an article, an essay, a story, you want to compose a clear, well-organized, and specific pitch letter (also known as a query letter) to the editor of the publication you wish to write for.

Strive to address a specific person by name. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but do search around the publication’s web site to discover a real person that you can email. If you get a name, start your pitch with a polite and professional greeting such as Dear Ms. Kent, or Dear Chris, or Good day, Doug.

The first paragraph of your pitch should identify why you are writing. Include a sentence about your idea. Keep it brief. In the case of pitching a scholarly article to a peer-reviewed journal, you might add that you understand that the editor’s interest in the idea has no bearing on the finished article’s review or acceptance.

Here is an example of a very brief pitch that I made to a journal in early 2014:

Good morning, (first name) –

Below please find an abstract outlining a possible article that I would like to compose for consideration in the inaugural issue of (journal title). Understanding that your interest in my idea has no bearing at all on its potential review or acceptance, I’m just trying to plan out my winter break writing and would just like to know if this is something that sounds like it might be a good fit for the tone you are trying to set with this first issue?

Many thanks for any feedback! Much appreciated.

You’ll notice that my pitch is incredibly brief. Brevity is your ally when pitching ideas. Get to the point and don’t ramble. Be honest and clear. Clarity is also your friend. In the sample letter above, I included the 300-word abstract summarizing the argument I intended to make. If you were pitching a journalistic feature to a newspaper editor, you would instead lay out your plan for the piece in the second paragraph. You might include the people you intend to interview, the anticipated length (750 – 1,000 words, for instance), your anticipated time line for completion, and whether you will include photos.

Remember that editors want to work with writers who are confident, professional, write clearly, and don’t waste their (or their readers’) time. You can achieve this impression in your pitch letter.

Sometimes, you’ll want to list your publishing credentials, especially for creative publications and those that pay. You would include a brief paragraph listing your publishing record – not all of it, just the most impressive bits, or the most recent – toward the end of your pitch. Establishing yourself as a proven commodity can convince an editor to give you and your idea a chance. But don’t despair if you don’t have that credential list yet. Let your idea and your smart and savvy presentation of it do the work of convincing the editor.

Consider this the business side of writing. Also, think of the old adage: Work smarter, not harder. No matter which publications you approach, there is great value in developing ideas and vetting them with editors ahead of doing the research and writing. Pitching ideas will allow your writing production to be more efficient and will save you time. And when you receive the editor’s positive feedback, you can then tackle the work knowing that you’ve laid the groundwork for possible acceptance.

 

 

Five journals said no. Now what?

Rejection is hard, especially after you worked on that piece for months and months. You spent all that time polishing and revising, seemingly to no avail. You dutifully submitted that piece to one journal at a time, waited for each to respond, received “thanks, but no thanks” emails, and repeated this process five (or more) times.

“Nobody wants my work,” you wail. “I don’t understand why! It’s as perfect as it can be! I worked out all the kinks! I tweaked until it hurt! Ahhhh!”

Breathe.

Now breathe again.

All is not hopeless.

When is the last time you critiqued your own work? Sat down with it and the red (or purple or green or blue) pen and treated it the way an editor would?

What’s that you say? Never?

Time to think like an editor.

I’m going to assume that you did everything you could to understand what each of those five journals wanted. You read a couple of issues, fully understood the submission guidelines, didn’t make any rookie mistakes. Perhaps these journals have very low acceptance rates. If so, good on you for striving for the top! But with that striving comes a high rate of failure. (oh. well. crap.)

Again, all is not hopeless.

We can’t all be published by the top of the top journals. Certainly not right away. Certainly not without a piece that is so striking and perfect for them that they fall over themselves to say yes. Certainly not if you don’t have a name. (What? Is she actually suggesting that because I’m not famous my work isn’t worthy of consideration?! I’m offended!)

Don’t be offended. It’s just true. At least partially.

Many of those top of the top of top journals really do want those named, well-known, established writers dominating their pages. Nothing wrong with that, really! And these pubs often give unknown writers a chance when the piece that writer has submitted is Just. That. Good. (And a good fit for that publication.)

So back to thinking like an editor.

It’s something that’s quite uncomfortable when you first begin to practice. It’s a little like stabbing yourself in the eye with a dull pencil. But it is worth it because you will learn more about the appeal, the marketability, and the attractiveness of your piece for a given audience. (Marketability! How crass! Yes, marketability. Do you want to be published or not?)

You might discover that your opener is actually, well, a bit boring or explanatory or the opposite of striking. Good! That’s a good discovery because you can fix that. Craft a stronger lede, as my journalist background¬†would say. A catchy, compelling, strong opening sentence (opening paragraph, opening scene) is essential to get the editor’s attention in the first place. Without that, the editor will stop reading and never see your brilliant turn of phrase on page two. She never got past sentence two.

Perhaps you’ll discover that you editorialize too much. Or that your ending doesn’t really tie into your introduction in a cohesive, complete manner. Or that you ramble on in the middle. Or your transitions between scenes are stultifying. (Did she just say stultifying?! Wtf is that? Look it up. Good word to know.)

Another place to look is your title. Does your title really reflect and reinforce your story? If you suck at titles, as I often do, writing one can be quite difficult. To capture the spirit and purpose of your piece in a few words is a daunting task, but worth the time and energy to craft a good one. Ask your writing group to weigh in and give you alternate title suggestions. If your group is anything like mine, they will come up with the perfect title and you’ll end up sitting back and scratching your head, wondering why you couldn’t think of such a perfect title for your own work! But the beauty of a writing group is the help – you don’t have to struggle with these details alone. Ask for help and be grateful when someone who cares about you and your writing sees what you don’t see.

Now go think like an editor and tear that five-time loser apart to discover where you need to revise. :)

Midweek Writing Prompt: The Power of Repetition Redux (9/24/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: The Power of Repetition Redux

If you did the first list (part one) prompt, then you already know what to do. If you haven’t done the first one, that’s okay! Read on.

Write a true narrative in the form of a list beginning with a series of identical phrases. Each section should be connected to the others and each statement should be a sentence. It can be a super short sentence, or a long and involved one, or something in between. But write the sentences in this order with each sentence on its own line:

I don’t want (3 separate sentences)
I don’t remember (3 separate sentences)
I shouldn’t (be) (3 separate sentences) – the phrase can be I should or I should be, but whichever you choose, be consistent
I am not (3 separate sentences)
I will not (3 separate sentences)

As before, the goal of this prompt is to reinforce the power of collage and repetition. You could think of this as a narrative poem, or a list poem. Very often, poetry and creative nonfiction can go hand in hand. This prompt should help you to see and feel that. You could have a current writing project or story in mind so that you are re-creating it in this form, or you could just start afresh with wherever these phrases lead you. One of my Independent Study students loved this prompt – it led him to a powerful spoken word performance piece!

 

 

Honor your process

Writers often look at other writers to compare themselves. She writes so much more than me! Writing seems to come so naturally to him! How does she do it? And then we look at ourselves and are our own worst critics. We should be faster, smarter, more clever, more productive.

What a crock!

If you do this to yourself, stop!

What you are noticing about your writing friends or mentors or idols is not that they are light years better than you. Instead, you are noticing their process. And guaranteed, their process is different from yours.

So what do I mean by process?

It begins before you write. Here’s a glimpse into my process, but please do not compare your own process to mine, especially negatively. Your process is yours, which means it works for you and that is enough.

Let me show you my process for a piece of academic writing. I’m thinking about a particular article I wrote for WSQ that appeared this summer in their Debt issue.

Last year, I knew I needed another scholarly peer-reviewed article for my CV as I would be going up for tenure and promotion this year. So I checked UPenn’s CFP (Call for Papers) while thinking that I’d like to write about the First Nations movement, Idle No More. Within a couple of screen scrolls, the submission call for WSQ’s Debt issue appeared, I read through it, and quickly decided that I could create a piece that connected the idea of debt with this incredible movement for indigenous people’s sovereignty and environmental rights. I opened a new submission folder on my desktop, labeled it WSQ, and saved the call, noting the deadline was only three months away.

On my writing day that week, I brainstormed about debt and did some research about Idle No More. That brainstorming session stayed in my brain, rolling around for another week, and by the next writing day, I had the wisp of the idea that became the argument for my article. With the central idea mostly a skeleton, I made a list of possible sections in the article and what research I might need for each piece.

Over the next three months, I dedicated almost every hour of my single writing day each week to reading, researching, writing sections, and crafting this article. I worked steadily, pausing to revise sections that didn’t seem cohesive enough, returning to the introduction to improve my central claim and make the prose smoother. After three months of steady work, I had a workable draft that felt cohesive, polished, and worthy of submission to this call. I hit send and sat back to wait.

I think I heard back fairly fast that the editors were interested and would send it to peer reviewers. A couple of months went by and I received a “revise and resubmit” request from the editors. The peer reviewers had questions, required clarifications, made suggestions, and wanted me to eliminate certain things and add others. I had a month to make these revisions and resubmit.

As with the first part of my process on this article, I worked steadily on these revisions for the four writing days I had that month. I worked in sections, read additional documents, ordered two books to read and include, changed out the problematic elements, strengthened the argument. I resubmitted and sat back to wait again.

Happily, the editors accepted my revised submission. Then we went through a round of signing contracts, copy editing, and I even located a photographer with original shots of some Idle No More events who was willing to contribute one of his shots to liven up my piece.

At every stage of this process, my mind wandered and mulled and considered the idea and its construct – while driving, while planting in my garden, while watching mindless TV. Sometimes, I would have an insight that I would write down either in a journal, or I would open up the article and type directly into the file.

My process is surprisingly similar with my creative nonfiction pieces, although there is a lot more imagining in the latter, and reliance on my writing group for that essential feedback before I submit my work somewhere. But I’ve noticed that my process is a balanced combination of imagining, thinking, planning, writing, and revising. And all of these actions are constantly interchangeable. They do not occur in a linear fashion, but often occur almost simultaneously. Especially the imagining and thinking components.

Writing process. We all have one. Honor your own.

Special Post: So you’re going on the academic job market

This post is just for those of you in grad school or who are going on the academic job market this year. (If you are a fellow academic or a grad student, please share this widely. This advice is important.)

(For the rest of you, academia has a “job season” and it’s right now through May of 2015. For academic professionals in English Studies, Writing, Rhetoric, Literacy Studies and the like, job ads went out in early September, application deadlines loom around November, and in-person interviews will be held at the MLA Conference in Vancouver in January. Oh and by the way, if you are lucky enough to score one of these interviews, you’ll have to get yourself to Vancouver on your own dime – no reimbursement from any source. Assuming you make it through the MLA interview gauntlet, then you wait to find out if you’ve made the top three list – those get on-campus interviews between Feb and April. And then you wait to find out if you got a job offer. You might not know this until mid-May. No stress in this process at all. Nope. None. *sarcasm*)

So…you’re going on the academic job market. You seek a tenure-track position at either a research university or a teaching university. Great.

You’ve likely got some killer teaching experience and great student evaluations and solid faculty observations.

I bet you’ve also got some kick-ass administrative and committee service, too.

And, of course, you’ve either written and defended your dissertation or you will have this done by next fall in time to begin a job.

Great.

What’s missing from this picture?

Any guesses?

I’ll wait.

Give up?

Here’s the answer to the missing piece of this applicant picture: Publications.

How many encyclopedia entries and book reviews have you written and published in scholarly outlets? You should probably have at least one of each by now.

Do you have an article under review at a scholarly peer-reviewed journal? No?

If you are like some of my friends, you are scared. You are afraid of pulling the trigger on your own publication path because you feel like a student and not a professor.

But you’re at the jumping off point. It’s time to put that fear aside. That fear of looking foolish, not being accepted, being laughed at, being rejected – it’s time to ignore it. Fear is the ultimate enemy of success and if your objective is to land a tenure-track job at ANY university or college in this job climate? You damn well better have an academic article in the publishing pipeline somewhere. Under review is good. Getting a “revise and resubmit” request is better. Actually revising and resubmitting that piece is better still. And accepted for publication is the best yet.

If you are going on the job market and don’t have any of these essentials, take a breath.

Breathe. I can see you hyperventilating. Breathe.

Find a journal in your field. Now go to Amazon and find a book in your field that was JUST published (filter by publication date – most recent). Now email the journal editor and ask to write a review of that book. Tell the editor that you will submit that review by November 1. Chances are good the editor will agree. Once she does, you add that line to your CV – book review in process, due Nov. 1. You’ll have to buy the book because it takes too long to get the review copy from the publisher (but keep this in mind for next time). When you get the book, read the intro, the first two chapters, the final chapter, and one more chapter that is most interesting to you. Write the book review and submit it on time. Now you can change the CV line to “under review” at that specific journal. That counts.

At the same time you are doing the above, pick a chapter from your diss that can easily be re-worked into a shorter article. Find a journal in your field. Revise that chapter into article form and length according to that journal’s guidelines. Compose a cover email and submit your chapter-turned-article ASAP. You will get a confirmation email that the editor received it and will get back to you. Now you can add a line on your CV with the title of the article and the journal with that lovely parenthetical (under review).

(I can hear the complaints. But I have classes! But I have to teach! But I have to finish my diss! Yes. And you want a job, correct? Well then. Get on it.)

If you’re still feeling saucy and ambitious, find a web site, blog, or zine – write and submit a guest post on a subject related to your field but also applicable for the audience of said online outlet. Once it is published (and this will happen quickly), add that as a publication credit on your CV. It’s not as impressive as the scholarly stuff, but it shows you are writing and contributing to the broader conversation and are committed to such conversations. That counts.

Without at least one significant scholarly publication (in progress), you are not competitive in this job market. I would give you a hug of consolation if I could. I’ve seen too many good, smart, and talented people lose out on jobs and interviews because they didn’t have any publishing agenda or record. Please believe me, I speak the truth. If your committee did not push you to publish, shame on them. You need to show you are an active new scholar committed to your field and the only way to do that is through publications.

Best of luck in this journey and feel free to share your stories in the comments. You will find me a very sympathetic audience.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Frozen Moment (9/17/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Frozen Moment

Think about a photo in your cell phone. Maybe it’s something you snapped today or last week or last year. But it is one image that comes immediately to mind when you read these directions. Now close your eyes and think about that shot. Who or what is in the photo? What are the colors? Is it night or daytime? Where was it taken? What action was taking place just before the shot? Just after the shot? Now open your eyes.

Photographs freeze a moment in time, but are always subjective because the moment is seen through the photographer’s eye and bias. Step back and see the moment as an observer and write the scene in third person.

See what thaws out. :)

 

 

How to find a publishing home for your writing

Now that you have imagined, written, revised, polished, and crafted a piece to the point of being ready to send it out into the world, some writers pause here and hesitate, unsure about how to find a place for their work.

Depending on what it is that you’ve written, you have plenty of options and most of them unpaid. I used to be a freelance journalist and although I did make money for a decade, it never came close to a comfortable salary, which is why I’m now a professor. At least I have steady, livable pay and benefits. However, even if you have a day job and write on the side, don’t expect anyone to pay you for your labor. It is a sad state of affairs that we writers must labor for “love,” and not electric bill money, but if you want to be published outside of your own blog, you must accept this reality as the norm.

Having accepted this fact, you can now search for consumer magazines, local and regional publications in your geographic location, newspapers, blogs, and literary journals that will gladly review your stuff and either reject or accept it. Most pay in exposure, some provide contributor copies, and even fewer pay cash (and the cash is usually under $50 regardless of the length of your work).

A terrific starting point is the Poets & Writer’s Literary Journal Database. You can simply search by keyword or your genre, or click over to the advanced search to limit your results by such categories as circulation numbers and acceptance rates. This area of the P&W site also includes sections on writing conferences, contests, small presses, agents, and jobs. It is my go-to place for my students as well. When I assign them to write for publication, we spend a class period analyzing the journal listings, journal web sites, and submission guidelines of a few publications so they understand what to look for and how to evaluate the publication for compatibility with their work.

If you seek a publishing home for a creative nonfiction, fiction, or poetic piece, I recommend starting at the P&W database. Happy hunting!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 115 other followers