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 backgroundย 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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ™‚


 

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.

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! ๐Ÿ™‚


 

Writing Prompt:ย 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. ๐Ÿ™‚

 

 

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!

The Six-Minute Rejection

One of my all-time favorite rejection stories to tell isn’t mine. A friend of mine who is a well-published writer (in multiple genres), holder of a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, and professor, shared the most amazing rejection story on her blog a couple of years ago.

I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, she sent a story to an editor and six minutes later, she received a rejection email.

Fastest rejection in the East! Whoa, put the brakes on! Six minutes?!

That was my initial reaction. I told my Advanced Comp students about her experience and they were duly flabbergasted as well, but it allowed us to delve into why she (or anyone) would receive such a fast rejection response.

Knowing my friend and her writing, I know this piece was probably stellar and brilliant and creative and well-executed and polished, so it certainly isn’t that it was poorly written. Perhaps something was off in the story, or perhaps the editor just didn’t like it (and that’s okay!). Or perhaps it wasn’t a good fit, or didn’t fit that editor’s idea of the next issue at the moment.

The piece was short, so she rationalized that it probably only took the editor five minutes to read the entire thing.

But still.

Ouch.

That hurts just thinking about it.

And then I got my own version of the six-minute rejection. I sent a piece last year to an editor and about an hour later, it was rejected. However, I looked at that quick response as a blessing. My friend’s story and my essay were not wrangled up in an editorial limbo or stuck, unread, in someone’s inbox for two, three, six months. It was fast, yes, but it was also merciful.

I prefer editors who respond quickly when they know right away they don’t want my work. I’m fine with their judgment and confident decision-making and you should be, too. Consider yourself fortunate if you get rejected quickly. Because to wait three or more months only to be rejected is time wasted – time you could have been revising it or submitting that piece elsewhere.

The next time you get a speedy rejection, rejoice! And send that baby out again. ๐Ÿ™‚

Midweek Writing Prompt: Letter to an Inanimate Object (9/10/14)

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! ๐Ÿ™‚


 

Writing Prompt: Letter to an Inanimate Object

Time to have some fun and stretch those imaginations! My students and workshop participants always end up loving this prompt, but often give me the same look you’re shooting at the screen right now. Trust me and go with it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Think about all of the inanimate objects in your life. All of the things that you use on a daily basis. If I came to your house or place of work and told you that you can only keep ONE of those items for a whole week and everything else would be taken away, which item can you not live without?

Got it? Good.

Now, write a love letter to that inanimate object and make it sincere, convincing, and heartfelt with plenty of specific details and shared memories.

You will LOVE the result.

(And as a side note, one of my students developed her prompt response into a full-length creative nonfiction story that was accepted for publication. These prompts really do work! Now get to it.)

๐Ÿ™‚

 

 

The value of contemplation

When’s the last time you sat down somewhere and just thought? No distractions, no smart phone, no computer, no kids, no pets, no TV, no music, just you sitting in a space somewhere thinking?

There is great value in such moments and it is worth making an effort to claim that space and time for yourself.

Moments of contemplation allow your mind to calm, slow down, meander. And in that meandering, without you pushing it, your mind will start making connections, start creating images and ideas, and might even provide an answer for a question that’s been bugging you for awhile.

I hear the excuses flying at me: But I have no time! I’ve got kids! I work all the time! I’m too busy!

Bullshit,

You’re too busy to carve out a few moments of solitude and contemplation because you choose not to. Having a family is both a choice and an obligation, but you are not shackled to them or their every need. Having a demanding career is likewise a choice and you are not shackled to that either. If writing is really important to you, if it is the thing that you must do, then you will find a way to make the time.

Lots of my friends and colleagues have families, demanding jobs, and time-consuming responsibilities. And the ones who consider themselves writers? They find a way to make the time. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes a week. They pay themselves with time first and they find a way.

If you are truly serious about being a writer, you’ll find a way, too.

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