Sunday, October 3, 2010

New Blog!

Alright, folks, my "brief" hiatus was a bit longer than expected, but I'm back, and my new blog is up and running. My new website . . . isn't . . . yet. But it will be. Soon. I swear.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Brief Hiatus: The End of an Era

I’m going to take a brief hiatus from blogging—just maybe two or three weeks. I’m finishing up revisions on my book, finishing up the quarter for my summer class, and formulating plans to really market the book. In the midst of it all, I’m looking into and getting started on the application process for grad school programs—that’s right, my thoughts have turned once again to going back to school, but this time, maybe, for something a little different—but surely I’ll talk about that later. In the meantime, I need to take a very short break from blogging while I put together a new, even better, blog . . . and a website to go with it.

See, I decided a few years ago that whenever I got my first book published, I would create an author’s website. I believe that authors should have websites—I hate it when I read something amazing by someone I’ve never heard of and then go to look the writer up and can’t find any information about him or her online. But I also figured it would probably be unnecessary to worry about it until I actually got a book out there.

Well, the time has come.

So I’m working on putting together my website, and I decided that I should, first of all, condense and combine my current two blogs (I mean, really, do I need two blogs if both of them are just me talking about writing?). I also decided that, rather than having a blog that is primarily me being a spokesperson for MFA/MFYou, I would just create a sort of multi-purpose blog. It’ll be my author’s blog as well as my MFA/MFYou blog (which is really what this blog has been for some time now . . . I’m basically just making it official). I’ll post about my goals and what projects I’m currently working on; I’ll talk about writing issues; I’ll talk about the journal.

I’ll make an update on the old blog when the new blog is up and running. In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing. We shall meet again very, very soon.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Submissions, Submissions

I’ve been wanting to talk about some interesting trends that I’ve noticed about the submissions we receive at MFA/MFYou. Like I’ve said before, from a purely quality perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the work submitted from writers who have some sort of formal training verses those who haven’t. I still stand firmly by my belief that a large percentage of writers who are actually revising and submitting are sending out stuff that is of publishable quality.

What I have noticed, though, is that we get far, far, far more submissions from non-MFA writers than from MFA’s. This was actually kind of surprising to me at first. As someone who has been through an MFA program, where you’re constantly being asked whether you’re submitting, I suppose I just assumed that writers who have gone through these programs are submitting more—or at least as much­­—as writers who haven’t.

But then I remembered that a lot of MFA’s have a negative view of online journals. Some even have a negative view of non-paying journals (which just seems ignorant to me, since many good journals are non-paying or only pay a small honorarium; your payment is that your work is getting out there). I suspect that the reason for this marked difference in submission numbers has something to do with many MFA writers not wanting to publish online. I’ve talked before about why I think online journals are an important component to any writer’s career, so I won’t get into that here.

What I will say is that the result of these off-balance submission amounts is that we do end up receiving more good stuff from MFYou’s than from MFA’s. What? But she just said . . . I know. I know. For every issue the “seriously considering” pile from MFYou’s is stacked higher than the one from MFA’s, but the ratio (good to not-so-good) is about the same for each group.

I’ve also noticed that we get significantly more poetry submissions than fiction submissions, and I’m not even talking about the fact that each individual poetry submission includes up to three poems. Again, I wonder if our status as a small, online journal affects these submission rates, but it’s interesting to think that perhaps there is way more poetry getting sent around than fiction. I heard, for example, about a poetry book contest that had roughly nine-hundred entrants; compare that with the average four or five-hundred manuscripts that get submitted to the typical fiction book contest.

If journals receive fewer fiction submissions than poetry, I wonder if this has anything to do with the possibility that a lot of fiction writers are more concerned with writing novels than short stories. Or is it perhaps because poems are so much shorter—does it take less time to revise a ten line poem than it does to revise a twenty page prose piece? Or could it be that there are simply more poets out there than fiction writers? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting and unexpected submission trend, and something that might help poets feel a little better about rejections, as it likely follows that it’s probably easier to get a prose piece published than a poem (though I should add that it’s hard to get prose published, too).

So, just some interesting things that I’ve noticed about our submission rates. It’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions since there are so many variables with these sorts of things, but I thought it would be interesting to pause and take a look at our submissions rates and what they might mean.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Always Room to Grow

Something that I’ve always guessed was true and now I can say from experience definitely is, is that the process of working with an editor to publish a book is extremely similar to the process of working with a thesis committee to get an MFA thesis ready to defend. When I was working on my thesis, I would have the head of my committee read a draft (or sometimes just an individual section) of my thesis; then we would meet and discuss her feedback; then I would go home again and bang out another draft, and the process would begin anew.

A basic unspoken rule at the heart of our meetings was that, as the writer of the piece, final say would always be up to me. Her suggestions were just suggestions and were meant to help me see things that I might not be able to see on my own. Her feedback was also meant to help me improve overall as a writer. The process was a lot of work, and I loved every second of it. And I definitely came out of it all a much better writer.

This is almost exactly what it’s like working with an actual editor to get a book ready for publication (with the exception, in my case, that my editor and I don’t live in the same state and so can’t meet in person to discuss feedback—instead, everything is done through email). To start with, my editor and I each read through the manuscript separately, paying attention to the fact that this would soon be a book, which we would be trying to market to an actual readership.

Then, we began an ongoing back and forth through email, during which she gives me feedback that I’m allowed to take or leave, and I ask her questions and bounce ideas off of her. Every day when I sit down to work on the book, I keep her feedback in mind as I work through new drafts of these stories. It’s been extremely fruitful so far, and I’m watching the book transform into something much tighter and more polished than it was when I entered it into the contest a couple of months ago.

But perhaps even more exciting than that: her feedback is helping me to become a better writer. I have this proclivity towards what she calls “prose hesitation,” (I love that term; it describes the problem perfectly), and she’s helping me to see that when I recognize and cut those hesitations, the prose shines through much stronger and brighter. This new knowledge will help me not only tighten the stories in this book, but it’s something that I can take with me to future writing projects.

Exactly like with my MFA thesis, I’m gaining more from this experience than just a ready to be published book. It’s a reassuring reminder that the learning process is not over when you start publishing books—that you continue learning and growing with every new piece that you write, every new editor that you work with. And whatever you’re working on right now always has the potential to be the best thing you’ve ever written.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


So I’ve been having a totally unexpected reaction to signing my first book contract: pure, unadulterated terror. For the first, oh I’d say, four or five days, I was riding a wave of absolute bliss, but once I got down to work with my editor, the fear began to set in. My deadline for having the final draft in the hands of the Editor-in-Chief is only two months away. I know I can do it—and, in fact, that I will—but I feel terrified that the stories won’t be as good as they could be and that any readers that I can actually convince to buy the book will read it and hate it and never want to read anything by me again.

I’ve spent more time in my life than I’d like to admit daydreaming about what it would feel like to get a book published, and the way it actually does feel never once entered into those fantasies. I think my fear comes, somewhat, from having read so many books in my life that I felt needed further revision, or that I felt had some strong elements and an equal number of weak ones. I don’t want readers to read my book and wonder, “How the hell did this win First Prize?”

Part of it, too, is that I’m addicted to revising. I’ve never looked at a story and felt absolutely, positively certain that the story is as good as it could be, that this is the final draft. It’s one of the main things I struggle with as a writer: how do you know when something is done? And yet in two months, I have to be sure about an entire book’s worth of stories. Even though about half of these stories have already been published in journals, I’ve revised most of them since their respective publications and probably would have continued to revise them forever, except that having them out there as a book feels very final to me. I could continue to revise them after the book comes out, I suppose, but there’d be no point. This is it. In two months, I’ll hand in the final draft of the manuscript, and, with the exception of proofreading, that draft will be the one that readers read for as long as the book is in print.

But now for the upside: I’ve decided to embrace the fear, to let it push me to really whip this book into shape. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from the press’s fiction editor, and I’ve enlisted the help of a few friends to give me more. And then there’s my husband, who is diligently going through the entire book with me line-by-line, in spite of having read and given feedback on most of these stories before. I’ve put all of my other writing projects on hold for now and am focusing as much energy and attention as I can on trying to polish this book until it shines. And maybe this will be good for me: to be forced to call something officially finished. Maybe this is a leap that all writers must eventually take.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


This post to the MFA/MFYou Newsletter, which is usually full of my own rants and reflections on all things writerly, will actually be a genuine newsletter. First of all, Issue Four of MFA/MFYou is up on the website, and it’s a good one. The MFA/MFYou website has officially been up and running for about two years now, and sometime soon I plan to talk here a little bit about some of the trends I’ve noticed in our MFA versus non-MFA submissions.

However, I’d like to put it out there right now that our MFA/MFYou experiment has pretty definitively proven, from my perspective anyway, that whether a writer has gone through formal MFA training or not doesn’t make any significant difference in his or her writing abilities. This is certainly not to say that I’m no longer an advocate of the value of the MFA. I still fully believe that going through an MFA course of study is extremely beneficial. My point here is that there are other ways to achieve that training, and what might work for one writer might not be right for another. As long as a writer is really working at it—is studying the craft, taking revision seriously, and seeking and openly receiving feedback from trusted readers—that writer will, I believe, continue to improve and eventually get published.

Yes, that’s right. I said it. I don’t think natural talent counts for much. If you want to be a writer, it’s all about working at it and working some more and working yet more still. And then, when you think you’re finished, go back and work even more. I believe that most people—I suppose I should qualify that and say most people who are fairly intelligent, and who like to read and write, and who are actually willing to acknowledge that their first drafts aren’t golden—have the ability to become published writers. The real question is, which people are going to stick with it and put in all the work necessary to actually get there? Most of the people who fit into that first vast group will taper off somewhere on the road to the second, and those of us who are left are the ones who get to be “writers.”

And now some more news . . . I’M GETTING MY FIRST BOOK PUBLISHED!!!! My short story collection Peter Never Came was awarded first prize in the Autumn House Press Fiction Contest, and the book will be published by Autumn House next spring. This is a huge and important step in my career as a writer, and these next few months as I work with my editor ("my editor," how good it feels to write that!) to get the manuscript ready to print are going to be some of the most exciting of my life, I bet. I’m also already thinking ahead, trying to plan out how to get copies of this book in the hands of as many readers as possible. I’m well aware that getting a book published is really only the beginning of a huge marketing process—after all, it doesn’t really count for much if you publish a book that nobody buys.

In the coming months I’ll be able to bring some new experiences and perspectives to the table here in the old MFA/MFYou Newsletter, and I hope you’ll all stick around for the ride.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Self Publishing Part 2: A Calculated Risk

At the Columbus Writing Works Conference this year, one of the presenters was a novelist who had self published a handful of books and had finally landed a real publishing contract for her next book. She was doing a talk about marketing yourself, and she was urging writers to consider self publishing “a calculated risk.” She didn’t seem to have much faith in anyone’s chances of getting a real book deal for their first book, and felt that, as long as you’re willing to do all the legwork yourself, self publishing is a good way to get started as a writer.

Her lecture, for me, was the real low point of the conference, as I didn’t feel that she had a very firm grasp of the way the industry actually functions. Her history as a writer was strewn with what I would call mistakes (getting suckered in by a fake agent, for example, and publishing twice with Publish America). This would be fine if she was telling us about her own mistakes so that we might avoid making them for ourselves. The problem was that she didn’t seem to understand that these had been mistakes. In fact, she didn’t seem to understand that Publish America was a vanity press!

At any rate, she did successfully get me thinking about what benefits self publishing may offer the writer who doesn’t want to go the traditional route. Now first of all I think it’s important to make the distinction between the writer who can’t get his or her manuscript accepted by a real publisher and the writer who doesn’t want to publish with a traditional publishing house. If you can’t get a book accepted for publication, you should probably take that as a warning sign that there may be something wrong. The book might not be ready; it might not fit into the current market (which means, no matter how good it is, you’re going to have trouble selling it); or it might just not be any good. You need to realistically evaluate your manuscript and your goals as a writer before you even think about self publishing, in my opinion.

However, if you do decide that you’d like to take the “calculated risk” of self publishing, it is possible to make some money if you’re really able and willing to do some hard work. The lady at the conference, for example, did make a few hundred dollars a month from selling her self published books. In fact, Steve Almond’s account of the money he made from self publishing in the recent Poets and Writers article compared pretty closely with this random do-it-yourselfer’s financial gain from self publishing. The trick is that you have to get out there and really sell that book.

This lady did several readings, book store signings, etc per month. She actually retired from her full time job as an English professor to have more time to devote to really selling her books. She sets up tables at farmers markets. She does presentations at relevant museums (her books are historical in nature, but this might not work for everyone). She even does readings at cafes—she says that these places are usually willing to let you read if there is no cost to them and all you ask in return is that they let you sell your book. Her marketing savvy may well have contributed to her finally landing a book deal with a real publisher—publishers love writers who know how to get out there and market themselves. Many small presses these days even ask you to submit a marketing plan along with your query, so this sort of self publishing experience may look good to some publishers.

Some writers talk about self publishing as being more profitable than going the traditional route (unless you’re lucky enough to land a book deal with a major publisher, of course). As the writer, you see a very small percentage of the book sales if your book is published by someone else, but in self publishing the amount you take home for each individual sale is much higher. If you publish with a tiny publishing house, for example, and get say a $1000 advance, there’s a good chance that that’s all you’ll ever see. If you self publish that same book and really get out there and sell that thing, you could stand to make substantially more over time.

Now let’s not kid ourselves here. Self publishing is not considered reputable, it just isn’t. Virginia Woolf aside. However, if you’re willing to do all the work yourself and you don’t mind the stigma, self publishing may be right for you. It has opened doors for some writers (emphasis on the some) who really got out there and worked it and then turned the experience to their advantage, but please don’t forget that self publishing is not a free pass to a successful career. Proceed with caution, my friend. Make sure you calculate that risk.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Self Publishing Part 1: Think Before You Drink . . . er, I Mean, Self Publish

Let’s have a chat about self publishing, shall we? But first of all, a disclaimer: I am not considering, nor do I think I would ever consider, self publishing a book. However, my lack of interest in the self publishing game does not mean that I don’t believe that self publishing is a viable option for some writers—it just isn’t right for me (in large part because I make the majority of my money from teaching rather than writing and I want my writing credits to count for something on my CV).

This discussion will have to be a two parter, and I think I will begin with the downside of self publishing. I believe self publishing can be—I’m going to go ahead and say it—dangerous, for a number of reasons. I’m going to lay out my biggest problems with self publishing here, although there are probably many other potential risks that I’m not touching on.

First of all, to state the obvious, if a traditional publishing house—even a very small press—agrees to publish your book, that carries a certain amount of weigh to it. There are numerous presses out there willing to publish a wide variety of books, so it can look bad for you if you weren’t able to get your book accepted by one of the many options out there. It may mean that your book simply isn’t that good, and you need to try to be objective about your work and face that possibility. It may also mean that you yourself don’t have a complete understanding of how to really market your book to a prospective publisher, and if you don’t know how to do that, how do you expect to market your book to your readers without the help and credibility provided by a publishing house?

But let’s assume that your book is good and let’s assume, also, that you do know how to market your book, but you’ve chosen to go the self publishing route for other reasons. Usually, when a book is accepted for publication by a real press, an editor will then give you feedback so that you can revise and strengthen the manuscript, make it the best it can possibly be before it actually gets printed. While you can pay for editorial services on your own, it seems to me that the feedback coming from someone who you have paid to give you editorial suggestions would be different from the feedback coming from someone who actually has a financial stake in the outcome of the revision. I’m sure there are some professionals out there whom you can pay to give you solid feedback, but I still feel that this is a risk worth considering if you’re thinking about self publishing.

I think a lot of writers these days think that they can kick-start their careers by self publishing a first book. They assume that the public will immediately see what great writers they are and their careers will be set. The danger here is that without good editorial feedback and a definite stamp of approval from a publishing house, you may be attaching your name to something that is actually going to kill your career before it even gets off the ground. You may genuinely have a good book on your hands, but if you send it to press right now without revision it’s going to read like exactly what it is: a draft. Great books are not the product of the writer alone, but are the result of a collaboration between the writer, the editor, and often the agent or other trusted readers.

The reading public, of course, doesn’t really realize that, at least, not consciously. When they read a book that wasn’t ready to go to print, they just assume the writer isn’t a good writer, when in fact, the truth may be that the writer didn’t have the help that he or she needed to turn the book into what it had the potential to become.

This may all sound like I am absolutely against self publishing. I’m actually not. I think it’s a risk, but it has proved to be beneficial for some writers and should not be, I believe, entirely eschewed. I’ll talk next time about some of the pros to the self publishing game.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

False Starts

In his recent Poets and Writers article about his experiences self publishing a couple of books, Steve Almond (who, it should be noted for the sake of credibility, had published several books with actual publishing houses prior to his foray into the self publishing arena) points out that “for most of us mortals, the path to publication is littered with false starts” (68).

Let me just say that Almond is so right.

The climb upward as a writer is slow going and is full of small successes, which don’t end up meaning much in the big picture but which sometimes may feel much more significant than they are. Your first publication, for example. Can you remember the adrenaline rush that one gave you (or will give you, if that milestone is still hovering somewhere in your future)? The first story “acceptance” I received was from an online journal whose editor, I very quickly found out, accepts almost everything that gets submitted to her. I felt, for maybe a day or two, like I could finally say that I was a “real” writer, until I figured out that all getting published by that site proves is that I know how to attach a word document to an email.

But that’s just an extreme example of the very common false starts we all experience. My first real acceptance was equally exciting, although the issue of the journal came and went and for all I know, nobody ever even read the story once it was published. My first acceptance by a paying journal was another of those false starts. It felt huge to me to actually be getting paid for something I had written, although since then I’ve sold a handful of stories for actual money, and I’ve learned that the paying markets aren’t necessarily any more well regarded or widely read than the non-paying ones, and the money never really adds up to much.

First manuscript request from an agent, that one felt huge at the time. Prior to that I firmly believed that if I could just get an agent to read my book, he or she would see how good it was and it wouldn’t be long after that before the book was published. That first post-manuscript request rejection was a reality check, let me tell you. As was the first (and so far only) time I was contacted by a literary agency asking me to query them. The result? The assistant requested a partial and then sent a polite rejection, saying that the novel was very well written but the story didn’t suck her in enough.

Pushcart nomination—yeah, but I didn’t win. Semi-finalist for Leapfrog Press’s fiction contest—again, I didn’t win, and that book is still unpublished and collecting virtual dust on my jump drive.

Don’t get me wrong, these small milestones still get me excited every time. I have this image of a writing career as a nightmarishly long ladder. It takes such effort to get one rung higher that it’s impossible not to be excited when you do, but then you look up and realize that there are still so many rungs to go that you can’t even see the top yet (probably because, in fact, there isn’t one, but don’t let your mind linger too long on that truth). And then you look down and realize that while you have made it a few rungs up, you’re really not that high yet. You could easily jump back down to the ground and not hurt yourself.

False starts? Yes, sometimes it feels like there’s nothing but false starts. But maybe the best thing to do is to focus on the writing itself and not worry about where you’re headed. What’s that old saying? It takes thirty years to make an overnight success? The truth is, individual wins and losses don’t amount to much in the end. In the end all that matters is that you never gave up.

(In case you’re wondering: Almond, Steve. “Self Publishing Steve Part 2: Making the Dream a Reality.” Poets and Writers July/August 2010: 67-70.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Online Journals

A lot of writers are dubious of the value of publishing in online journals. Now, before I even go any further, let me just say as an editor of an online journal that online journals do get good submissions. They do. And as a reader I can honestly say that I’ve found just as much great stuff published online as I have in print journals. I don’t really know where that snooty print-only attitude comes from. It seems to me that online publishing is the wave of the future (in fact, one of the top literary journals in America, Tri-Quarterly, switched to an online only format a few years ago).

I realize, though, that since online journals aren’t as well regarded in the literary community as print journals, even writers who don’t frown on online publishing are still often wary about submitting to online publications. Will it even look good on my cover letter, you might ask, and might it actually look bad for me to have been published in these places?

Well in my opinion getting published is primarily about getting your work out there – trying to reach an audience. Of course, the best way to reach the largest possible readership would be to land a piece in one of the select few journals that have a huge circulation and an excellent reputation, but getting published by those places requires a heavy dose of luck. I’ve even heard that many agents don’t pay too much attention to those few major print journals because they assume that most of the writers being published in those venues already have agents.

A good alternative, I feel, is online publication. Think about it – when you’re dealing with the tiny little journals that don’t have a huge readership to begin with, which do you think is more likely to steadily build an audience: the journal that is free and easily accessible from any computer, or the one that you have to pay for and order and then wait four to six weeks for delivery? On top of that, online journals usually keep your work up in their archives forever (or until you ask them to take it down). For print pubs, once the journal moves on to the next issue, your chances of having that particular piece read in that particular outlet reduce dramatically.

The other thing about online journals is that they get your name out on the web – always a good idea for new writers. If I google your name, will it be obvious that you’re a writer? Will I be able to find samples of your work? My understanding is that many agents do look prospective clients up online. One agent interviewed recently in Poets and Writers, in fact, said that one of the main ways she finds prospective clients is by trolling the web.

I think online journals have been unjustly judged. Online journals offer great exposure. They get your work out there, and they help you to build a presence on the web. It probably is true that most online journals receive fewer submissions than print journals, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they aren’t receiving good submissions, and it definitely doesn’t mean that getting published online can’t be a very useful step in your career. It can!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Decoding Rejections

One thing that you gain from working on literary journals is an inside look at the acceptance/rejection process. This can be extremely useful because I think a lot of new writers – and I can remember a time when I was in this camp – don’t always know what to expect when they send their work out there or what to make of those half slip rejections they receive in return.

Especially when you first start sending work to journals, you might find yourself sort of surprised (and often quite discouraged) by the bulk of form rejections you receive in response to your hard work. You may have slaved over this piece for months and yet the editor couldn’t even be bothered to insert your name into the pre-typed “Thanks, but no thanks” response.

The problem is that form rejections are a necessity. Journals – even small ones, believe me – receive a huge number of submissions per issue, and there is simply too much else to do to spend time giving feedback or personal responses to every writer. But journals also have to reject a lot of work that is good – publishable, even – for a number of reasons (the issue is full, we just published something similar last issue, this doesn’t really fit with the other things we’ve accepted for this issue, and so on). So how do you know what to make of rejections, and does a form rejection always mean your piece isn’t there yet?

Many journals have different tiers of form rejections that they send. The base level rejection goes out to work that they weren’t engaged by at all (and this often means work that they didn’t read all the way through). These rejections are non-committal and offer no real encouragement to the writer: “Thank you for sending your work. Unfortunately . . .” Now, to the work that they did like but still have to reject, these journals will still often send a form rejection, they’ll just send a rejection from a higher tier: “Thank you for sending us your work. Although we enjoyed this piece . . .” or something to that effect.

Now all of these rejections are still form rejections, and yes, you’re right, there’s something inherently discouraging in the idea that the editor didn’t care enough to write you a personal response. Still, you can take it as a good sign if you receive a response that’s clearly a form but does say something positive, nonetheless. There’s a good chance that journal has a tiered rejection process, and you made the cut into the higher tier.

This doesn’t, however, mean that a base level form automatically means you’ve failed with the piece. It could mean the journal doesn’t have a tiered rejection process, or the editors just may not have given your piece a fair read, or there’s always the possibility that your writing style just isn’t the sort of thing the editors of that journal are into. Let’s not forget that writing is subjective. My advice is not to read too much into those basic form rejections, but the ones that seem to come from a higher tier you might as well take as a good sign.

And better still are the personal rejections. Now every journal is different, and there are a few (a very few) editors out there who make an effort to give personal feedback on every submission. However, in most cases, a personal rejection is a very good sign. Even in personal rejections, there is a huge range. Sometimes it’s a simple handwritten note telling you that the editor liked your piece and hopes you’ll submit again. Sometimes you get lucky enough to receive a personal critique of your piece: a concrete explanation of what they liked and why they had to reject it. Sometimes you even get a nice ego massage by having an editor tell you that they essentially loved the piece and are only rejecting it as a result of some variable completely outside of your or their control. But no matter what the personal rejection says (unless it’s coming from one of those places that send personal rejections to everybody) you should feel encouraged when you receive one.

I know, I know. But what we really want are acceptances. Well, of course. Of course it’s disappointing to get the answer when the answer is “no.” But “no” doesn’t always mean something bad about your work or your abilities as a writer, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind. If you educate yourself about those “no”s and understand what they really mean, you’ll hopefully have the strength to plow through them to get to those inevitable “yes”es around the bend.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Big Picture

I spent last weekend in a state of delighted excitement. That Friday I had gotten word that a short story collection I had submitted to a book publication contest had been chosen as a semi-finalist. Only the winning book will be published, but it was inexplicably exhilarating to have come so close. This semi-finalist ranking came fairly close on the heels of my finding out that I had been nominated for a Pushcart this year, and I spent the weekend feeling like I had broken through to some new plane as a writer. I still hadn’t published a book, but I felt like it wasn’t unrealistic to think that book publication might not be too far off in my future.

Somehow I managed to pull myself back down from the clouds and get my grading done for the weekend. At the start of the new week, during the drive to work, something very interesting hit me: it didn’t really matter in any significant way. Not the pushcart nomination nor the semi-finalist ranking nor even the feeling that I had moved up a bit in my career as a writer. Even if I had actually won the contest, if I had successfully landed my first book contract, I would still have been in the car at that moment, on my way to teach. The basic facts of my life would have remained the same.

In fact, one of the finalists in the contest is a full time professor at Ohio University, in my husband Damien’s creative writing graduate program. She’s had several books published already and won several awards and contests, but she teaches to make a living. Most writers do, or they do something else to make money. Not many writers can actually live off of writing alone.

It’s not like this was news to me. I’ve long known that writing will never be my full time career. I’ve known I will always have to have a day job. But as I sat in the car on my way to teach that day, it really registered with me how little success as a writer actually means in the big picture.

While some writers might find that idea depressing, I find it oddly reassuring. There’s something both humbling and comforting about the thought that acceptances – and that means rejections, also – aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. Writing can add meaning to your life, but I think it’s important to stay grounded, too, in the fact that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get something published, nor is it world changing if and when you do.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Other Options Are There?

I want to talk a little about writers’ conferences and non-graduate school writing programs this week. One thing that I kept thinking about as I was at the Writing Works Conference a few weeks ago was how a lot of the ideas that you’re made to explicitly think about at a writing conference are pretty much the same ideas that you study and discuss in formal graduate workshops. Many conferences also offer manuscript critiques with agents, editors, and successful writers.

And if these conference critiques aren’t quite enough for you, there are also a number of intensive workshop programs, which can span anywhere between a single weekend to a couple of months, during which time you participate in workshops and are also given ample time to write. You also are likely to become a part of a community of writers, as enrollment in these programs is usually kept quite small and you have nobody to interact with during the duration of the conference but the other writers.

In other words, these conferences and workshop programs offer many of the same benefits that MFA programs do, but for less of a time commitment (and for some people, less of a financial commitment, although most MFA programs offer teaching assistantships so that students do not have to pay tuition).

There are, however, a few key differences between MFA programs and these other routes. One is that, while an MFA program might be quite a time commitment, spending a lot of time in a program might be precisely what you need to bring you from aspiring to full fledged writer. I know I’m glad for having had three full years to devote to writing, and I don’t think it would be the same to devote a month, say, or a couple of weeks.

On the other hand, while most MFA students do not have to pay tuition, the three (or sometimes two) years that you spend in an MFA program are usually spent well below the poverty line. You get a stipend as a teaching assistant, but it really isn’t much. It’s enough to live by, if you can learn to live frugally, but for many aspiring writers it might be unreasonable to even consider living in poverty for two or three years. What if you have children to take care of, or perhaps massive credit card debt that you will need enough income to pay down, school or no school?

Another consideration is whether the degree itself will open any doors for you, personally. One of the big things you get from an MFA program is experience teaching, and teaching is really the only thing that I can think of that an MFA degree definitively qualifies you to do. If you want to be a college English teacher, then you should go to a formal program. Writers’ conferences and workshops can be useful in a lot of ways, but they will not prepare you for a career in academia. If you’re not interested in teaching, however, then it’s possible that an MFA program isn’t the right path for you. Teaching can be stressful and it can distract you from writing, but if you want to go to school for free, most programs expect you to teach. You may end up finding (as so many creative writing grads do) that your writing ends up taking a backburner to the time and energy you must spend learning to become a decent teacher.

There’s also, of course, the question of life experience. If you devote yourself to writing for three years and are mostly surrounded by other writers, you may not come out of the program with as much interesting stuff to write about as you would have had you been working a regular job and hanging out with regular people during that time.

I guess what it all comes down to is that I think MFA programs can be great, and I also think these intensive workshops seem great, and I also think writers’ conferences are great. Simply put, there are many ways to study and hone your craft. The real question is what will be right for you?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Writer’s Block: Take Two

Last week I talked about the writer’s block lecture I attended at the Columbus Writing Works conference a few weeks ago. The lecture was extremely interesting and helpful, but I felt that, in general, the entire theme for the conference (or at least, pretty much all of the events that I attended) was how to handle writer’s block and the difficulty of forcing yourself to sit down and write.

Many of the writers talked about how difficult it can be, even for seasoned professionals with book deals and deadlines and no day jobs to distract them, to force the ideas to come. Julie Gregory, the author of the hugely successful memoir Sickened: The Story of a Lost Childhood, talked about going through a period of heightened productivity, during which she would wake up every morning with beautiful sentences in her head. This was the impetus for her writing career, but, she added, it didn’t last. After she actually landed an agent and a book deal for her first memoir, the muse essentially stopped visiting, perhaps having decided that she didn’t need it anymore, and she realized that writing this thing was actually going to be hard work.

This idea kept coming up again and again at the conference (as it often does when a group of established writers pass their wisdom on to newbies): most of the time, writing is not an ethereal experience. You don’t usually feel like there are angels whispering in your ear, and all you have to do is transcribe what they say. That happens sometimes (and when it does make sure you take advantage of the inspiration while you’ve got it!), but most of the time it’s not that easy. Most of the time it really is work.

I want to offer up a few choice quotes from the conference. These quotes say it better than I ever could:

“Writers hate to write, but they love what they’ve written.” (Julie Gregory, who said that most writers have to really force themselves to write, but that it’s worth it for the final product. This is not exactly the same, mind you, as the adage, “Some people want to write and some people want to have written,” which is more, I’ve always felt, about the difference between wanting to be a Writer, capital W, versus actually doing the work to put together a strong piece of writing.)

“Doing it’s hard, but not doing it’s harder.” (Julie Gregory. “It,” of course, being writing.)

“Writing never gets easier.” (David Rakoff, who pointed out that writing is not like some other endeavors, where you eventually reach a point at which it comes easily and you feel that you have mastered it. Writing, he said, continues to be difficult no matter how many books you’ve got under your belt. Your first drafts will, for the most part, never be very good. The quality of a final draft will almost always come down to how much work you were willing to put into it.)

And my personal favorite: “Writing is really, really, really hard.” (David Rakoff)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Writer’s Block

My favorite of the lectures that I attended at the Columbus Writing Works conference a couple of weeks ago was Ann Palazzo’s discussion on writer’s block. Palazzo started by having us each fill out a questionnaire intended to help us uncover the reasons for our writer’s block in the hopes of then helping us overcome our individual blocks. Just the questionnaire itself seemed to pry my personal block open a bit because it forced me to face my excuses head on and acknowledge that they didn’t really make sense.

The questionnaire also brought up the idea that maybe you shouldn’t force yourself to work on specific scenes/chapters/stories/etc. that you feel like you should be writing, but instead, let yourself write what you happen to feel like writing at the moment that you sit down at the computer. Writing anything is still writing, after all.

From there, Palazzo focused her discussion around six major myths about writing, myths like the idea that when you really get good at writing, you never get writer’s block again, or that writer’s block is inherently bad (she made a very good point that sometimes, writer’s block might just be your brain’s way of letting you know that it’s time to take a break and recuperate. When you’re strengthening your muscles, you have to take breaks between workouts to let your muscles rebuild. Why wouldn’t the same, she asked, be true of writing?).

Palazzo finished her lecture by giving us some concrete strategies to overcome writer’s block. Many of these were things we’ve all heard before, I’m sure (don’t be afraid to write a bad draft, for example, since you can revise it later, or put your story/poem/essay aside when you get stuck so that you can come back to it later with fresh eyes). She made two points, though, that I thought were particularly insightful.

One was that you should analyze your writer’s block and come up with a specific plan to beat it (which is essentially what she had us do at the beginning of the session). This involves, also, analyzing your own history as a writer. What has worked for you in the past? What was your environment like at the times when you felt really inspired and what seems to be the ideal writing context for you? Don’t worry, she said, about what famous writers say they do. You’ve got to figure out what gets your fingers flying across that keyboard.

The other point was to tell yourself that nobody will ever read whatever it is that you are writing. This might sometimes mean lying to yourself, if you’re already at the level of getting things published regularly, but I think it can make a huge difference in unblocking that creative flow of words. At the very end of the session, for example, she had us do a writing prompt (I’m a huge proponent, by the way, of the value of writing prompts, and while we’re on the topic you should check out our MFA/MFYou Facebook page, where we intend to post writing prompts often). Just knowing that it was a prompt, knowing that if it was lousy it didn’t matter because I was only writing it because some lady had told me to write it, opened my writing valve up all the way and I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

The main thing I took away from the lecture was that writer’s block happens. It just does. And you shouldn’t be afraid of it. If you just face it head on and plow through it, you can overcome it. Either way, it’s really not the end of the world (and it doesn’t mean anything about you as a writer) if you lose a little time to writer’s block now and again. The trick is to not allow it to paralyze you with fear. It seems to me that it’s the fear of writer’s block itself that really ends up shutting you down.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I’m going to get back to the Writing Works Conference next week because there are a few more topics that I would like to talk to you about. This week, though, we’re going to talk about something else. Last night I went to a reading by George Saunders and Robin Hemley at Ohio University’s annual Spring Literary Festival, and something very interesting struck me as I was listening to George Saunders read.

Both writers, first of all, were fabulously entertaining. Hemley’s new memoir, DO-OVER! – in which he relives painful moments from his childhood, only this time he does the things he wishes he had done at the time – is high on my list, now, of books I’d like to read. It’s George Saunders’s story, though, that brought up in my mind what I’d like to talk about this week: the importance of plot.

Now I didn’t have a chance to attend the lecture Saunders gave at the Lit. Fest. this year, but I’m told one of the things he talked about was his days as an MFA student and having decided that he needed to write in a more “literary” manner. He told a story (I hear tell) about writing a novel and trying to make it as literary and serious and MFA as possible. He realized after completing the novel that A) it wasn’t any good, and B) it just wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to write. And that realization, it sounds like, was part of the impetus for his hugely successful career.

The story Saunders read at the reading was brilliant on all three of what I consider the key levels of fiction writing: character, language, and plot. The story was divided into sections that were written in the first person perspective of the three main characters. Saunders captured the voice and personality of each character perfectly through each character’s respective narration, so he absolutely hit the character and language side of fiction right off the bat. Partway through the story, though, it became clear that this story was in fact extremely plot driven – I just hadn’t noticed it at first because I was so drawn in by the voice of these characters.

What I consider to be one of the major problems with the graduate level workshop experience is that there tends to be so much focus put on character and language that many of the stories end up having no plot. I’m not exaggerating. I can remember workshopping a story one time where all of the students in workshop agreed that it was extremely boring, but most everybody except for me decided to see that as a good thing because it was a reflection of how empty this character’s life is. Alright, but boring is boring. If a class full of people who have advanced English level educations – people who tend to read more deeply and stick with things longer than the average reader – thinks your story is boring, that sounds like a problem to me.

So often in the MFA world, any sign of a plot gets written off as being “contrived” – one of those workshop buzzwords, like “cliché,” that pretty much loses all meaning about midway through your first semester in grad school. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want your plot to be contrived (or cliché, for that matter), but good fiction should have a story arc. Good fiction should be about something.

Good fiction should also have well established characters and beautiful language, yes. All three of these important elements are there, I think you’ll find, in any really good story. But if all you’re doing is writing beautiful language or developing a really well rounded character, well, you don’t really have a story to tell, do you?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Writing Schedules

I just got back from a conference in Columbus: the Seventh Annual Writing Works Conference, sponsored by Columbus State Community College (which, by the way, has an extremely impressive creative writing program for a community college). The keynote speaker at this truly magnificent conference was David Rakoff (who I was fairly ambivalent to prior to this weekend but who I am definitely a fan of now. He read us some really excellent stuff from his new book forthcoming in a few months). In addition to Rakoff’s keynote address and humor writing workshop, there were a range of extremely interesting lectures and workshops run by a variety of writers. I feel genuinely surprised by how useful this conference was (which is not to say that these sorts of things are rarely useful, but I’ve been to so many panel discussions, lectures, and workshops that I supposed there wasn’t much that I hadn’t heard before), and in the next few weeks I will definitely be addressing a few of the key topics the conference brought up in my mind.

One point in particular that kept coming up in the various lectures and workshops as well as during Rakoff’s Q&A was the idea that many successful writers don’t adhere to any kind of strict writing schedule. Many of the writers at the conference talked about how they don’t worry about scheduling time in their lives to write or habitually writing for X amount of hours at X o’clock every day. Some of them even pointed out that you absolutely cannot expect yourself to write every day; sometimes there are simply other things that you need to do.

One writer said that if she tries to set aside time to write, then she never feels like writing during that time, but she often feels like writing at other times, when she should be doing something else. So she writes at those times. Screw it, right? Another writer said she writes whenever she feels like writing, and she doesn’t when she doesn’t. Sometimes she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write and then go back to sleep. Rakoff said that he doubts he’s ever spent more than ten straight minutes writing (surely an exaggeration but you get the point).

Almost all the writers who I saw speak seemed to agree that, while the idea of writing at seven o’clock every morning sounds lovely, that just isn’t the way it works for any of them (and they seem to be doing just fine regardless, thank you very much). It was an intriguing variation from the advice successful writers so often give amateurs: you should create a schedule, develop a habit, set aside an hour or two that will be your time to write every day. It seems successful writers often give that advice – perhaps to help the otherwise helpless because perhaps, they figure, if you have to ask you aren’t going to be able to work it out organically – but many of them don’t need to follow it themselves.

Now in fairness, this might partially be due to the fact that most of them make a living off of their writing and so have an unlimited amount of time in which to write every day. If you have no other pressing needs, it might be easier to write when you feel like it and not when you don’t, while it can be a bit more difficult for those of us who have to work full time and must write in the few spare hours that are left.

Even so, it’s useful to keep in mind that many of the writers who do make a living off of writing do not force their brains into submission according to a set writing schedule. Take that for what you will: an interesting tidbit, or perhaps encouragement that it’s okay to keep on doing whatever works for you. Write by a schedule or write when you want. Write every day or in frenzied bursts when you have a few days in a row off. Don’t, though, get down on yourself because you think the “real” writers are clocking in for eight hour shifts, are writing until their fingers bleed. Because they aren’t, and you don’t have to, either.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Divvying up those Character Points

David Sedaris published an essay in the New Yorker a few months ago that really stuck with me. He talked about the idea that success really comes down to whether you’re willing to shift your priorities in life. You spend more time and effort on whatever it is that you want to be successful at and less on things like hobbies or family and friends. Sedaris, of course, in his lovably self-deprecating way, used this topic as a springboard to talk about his relationship with his family, but this idea of shifting priorities, of allowing yourself to be a failure at parts of your life so that you can be a success at others, really resonated with me.

This is something Malcolm Gladwell talks about, too, something that many people would agree with: success involves sacrifice. This idea has been on my mind a lot recently because I’ve been so busy at work (I have – no joke – seventy five to a hundred papers to grade every week) and have also been working under deadline to address editorial comments on a couple of scholarly essays (essays which, by the way, I spent a lot of time last summer on, too). I also would like to keep my marriage a happy one, and I’ve been trying to be a more social person (which takes a lot of effort for someone with social anxiety, let me tell you).

And, of course, there is my creative writing.

I write, but I don’t write as much as I’d like to. Realistically, I don’t know that it’s possible to write as much as I want. I don’t write genre fiction and so will surely never make a living off of writing, which means I have to devote time to developing myself as a career gal. I also would like to have a baby some day (and yes, my husband and I are both aware that the clock is ticking on that one) and know that being a mother will take a lot of time.

The question I have is am I spreading myself too thin? You have to be a multifaceted person, I believe, to be a good writer, but you also have to be willing to spend a lot of time actually writing. This might mean sacrificing other things that you might also have wanted to spend a lot of time on. We all know that our writing should come before things like video games or TV, but what about things like publishing critical essays or furthering the great academic discussion on X book or Y field? These things would generally be considered a productive use of your time, but if it takes away from your creative writing time, is it really worth it?

I think real life is more similar than you might think to one of those games where you have a certain number of points to divvy up however you see fit. Do you want your character to be stronger or smarter? Do you want him to have better magic or battle skills? You might ask yourself similar questions when it comes to your own priorities. Do I want to be a writer or do I want to be fluent in French? Do I want to publish scholarly essays or short stories and novels? Maybe we all really do have a finite number of effort points, and we have to choose carefully what we want to use them on. We can’t pour them all into writing, but we can decide which parts of our lives we really care enough about to spend the points on. Do you want to be the sort of person who dabbles in a lot of things but isn’t very good at any of them, or the sort of person who can only do a few things but can do those few things very, very well?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Learning from Other People’s Mistakes

I’ve talked before about how I believe that the competition is fierce and that most of the work getting submitted to journals – even the tiny ones – is fantastically good. Yes, I know you’ve heard otherwise. I know you’ve read interviews with editors or agents who claim that most of the work submitted to them is terrible, but that is such a load. If that were true than every halfway decent, remotely publishable piece would get snatched up immediately because it would stand out so much from all the rest of the crap, and we all know that doesn’t happen.

A piece of writing can get rejected from a hundred places before it finds a home, and once it does find that home it can then go on to win a Pushcart or get reprinted in a Best American Anthology. I once got a really nasty rejection letter, in which the editor essentially told me my story was terrible and poorly written, and then it later got published (the exact same draft that had been rejected) and was read by an assistant at a literary agency who contacted me and asked me to query the agency. The reason why things can get rejected so many times first is because most of the stuff getting submitted is very, very good, and on top of that, there simply are no objective rules for writing that every single editor, agent, writer, and reader can agree on.

Which means if you want to be competitive you really need to find ways to set yourself apart from the competition. Working at a literary journal gives you a chance to see what other writers are doing and can give you a competitive edge with your own work. Once you get over the shock of seeing how much of the slush pile is great and how often pieces that you would have loved to accept still have to get rejected because there just isn’t room, you start to notice small, let’s go ahead and call them mistakes, for lack of a better word, that are causing other writers to get rejected quickly.

These sorts of mistakes can range from not following professional formatting (using a tiny or strange looking font, say, or stapling the pages together), to coming across like an a-hole in your cover letter (I pretty much immediately want to reject people who seem arrogant in their cover letter and act like they already know their work is going to get accepted), to writing a really great story that gets off to a slow start (these stories, sadly, rarely even get read all the way through because you put them down before you get to the good part), to filling up thirty pages when the story easily could have been told in fifteen. And don’t even get me started on typos and grammatical errors. If you don’t care about your work enough to proofread it, what makes you think anybody else is going to care?

These are sometimes things that writers who don’t understand how the selection process really works will assume won’t end up mattering. I think we sometimes look at the work that’s getting published in books and see things that those writers are getting away with, and we assume that we will be allowed to do that, too. But the difference is that a writer with a book published has probably already won the trust of an agent and/or editor. You probably haven’t. The editors reading your submissions probably don’t have a clue who you are, and they aren’t going to have faith that if they just keep reading, your work will end up coming together in a satisfying way. You’ve got to win them over right away and hang on to them until the very end, and you cannot give them any reason to doubt you.

Seeing what good writers who are submitting good work are doing that’s earning them rejections is more useful, I think, than only reading the stuff that’s getting accepted and published. Reading what’s been published might just teach you that you need to write something good. Reading the stuff that’s getting rejected will teach you to write something good, too, but it will also teach you to avoid any number of pitfalls that writers who are just reading the stuff that’s getting published might fall into.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Time Management: What Grad School Won’t Teach You

When I was an MFA student, I used to complain like a little baby that I didn’t have enough time to write. “I swear I had more time to write when I was just working full time,” I could often be heard saying. “Isn’t the point of grad school to give you time to write?”

The older, ever-so-slightly wiser me now looks back at that whiny me and shakes her head. “Please,” I would tell that younger Ashley if I could. “You have plenty of time to write. You’re just spending it complaining about not having enough time. On top of that, the point of grad school is not to give you time to write. The point of grad school, if we lived in such a simplistic world where there could possibly be one universal point to grad school, is to help you become a better writer. Nobody ever really promised you time.”

In fact, now that I’m teaching what most colleges consider a full-timer’s load of classes (though at my school I’m still technically considered part-time, ah semantics!), I’m realizing that the best way to prepare a budding writer for the harsh realities of the non-grad student writing life is to force you to scrounge writing time whenever you can. When you’re working full time and trying to be a good spouse and raising children and whatever else you do, you’ll be much better off if you’re used to never having time to write. You’ll come at it with the experience and tools necessary to find that time, wherever it might be hiding.

But in spite of my old, young self’s complaints, I do think you have a lot more time to write as a grad student than you do working full time, and so time management is actually something I don’t feel that grad school really teaches you. At least my program didn’t. When I was a grad student the only thing standing between me and my writing was my own invented excuses.

As a grad student I came up with the goal of writing an average of three hours a day for the rest of my life, but once I graduated the plan quickly became to just try to find time to write at all every day. I seem to have found a way to write for an average of about an hour a day, and that’s after something like nine months of shifting things around and experimenting with new ideas, desperately trying to figure out how to make it work.

I don’t mean to suggest that the fact that grad school gives you time to write should count as a strike against MFA programs. Time to write is always a good thing, as far as I’m concerned, and I think we should try harder to recognize it when we have it and value it for what it’s worth. But maybe we should reconsider the way we look at those times in our lives when we have very little time, or those times when we feel like we have very little time. Learning how to manage your time and squeeze those minutes or hours out of each day is just as important as studying your craft and reading until your eyes feel like they’ve been peeled and cooked. Time management is, let’s face it, an essential skill if you really want to make it as a writer.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Revision Beast

Here’s a question for you: Is there such a thing as too much revision? I’ve been thinking lately that there is definitely such a thing as too much writing – where you spend so much time in front of the computer that you forget to go out there and have experiences worth writing about, and I’m sure the same can be said of too much reading. What about revision? Is it possible to over-revise?

I’ve seen sometimes in workshops people turn in revised drafts of stories where the earlier draft was, in my opinion, better than the revision, and I’ve had that same criticism given to me about one of my own past workshop revisions. I’ve even seen, sometimes, in journals or collections, stories that feel sort of bland, lifeless, and I’ve wondered if this might be the result of too much revision, where the initial spark for the story, whatever it was that had made the writer want to write it to begin with, has been revised out.

I’m a huge proponent for extensive revision. I tend to believe that many writers, especially those just starting out, don’t revise anywhere near enough. Revision is, in fact, what I consider the biggest difference between writers and would-be-writers: serious writers take revision seriously.

But is there a line that you eventually cross where the piece is as good as it’s going to be and any further revision will damage it, or perhaps just turn it into something completely different? Or maybe what I should be asking is how do you know when a piece has crossed that line? I’ve heard that old rule that if you get to a point where you’re only changing minor things with each revision, you should take it to mean that you’re done. But what if you’re like me: a perpetual reviser, someone who might work on a single story or novel for years and years and years, someone who continues to revise stories long after they’ve been published?

I’ve heard interviews with professional writers – that rare breed that actually makes a living off of writing – who say that part of being a writer is finishing. Yes, you need to revise, but you also need to stop revising. You need to send your work out there. You need to move on to the next project.

I wonder if it’s possible that revision is actually holding me back. I revise so much that sometimes new projects will sit on the backburner for ages because I never have time to work on them, I’m too busy reworking this or that older project. Right now I have several new stories I’d like to write, for example, and a new novel I want to work on, but I keep not doing it because when I sit down to write, I always end up rewriting. And the thing about endless revision is that sometimes a new draft won’t necessarily be any better than an older draft, just different.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should ever stop revising altogether, but maybe it is possible to spend too much time revising. Maybe equally important to taking revision seriously is being able to face the empty page without fear, being able to open a blank document and create something new over and over and over again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

And Don’t Forget to Live Your Life

I’ve talked a bit before about the importance of writing and writing a lot, and I’ve talked, too, about the importance of not writing sometimes, of actually living your life to make sure you have something worth writing about. I hope you won’t mind if, this week, I touch on the latter idea again.

Something very emotionally painful happened to me a few days ago. I won’t get into it here, but I will say that this occurrence was totally unexpected and knocked me over with the force of a hurricane. I spent the past few days with family, which was a much needed reminder of the good things in life, and I ended up spending the second half of my Spring Break not writing.

But here’s the thing: I think this is exactly as it should be. I think sometimes some of us get so caught up in the writing life – in the importance of setting goals and writing regularly and submitting and on and on and on – that we forget that it’s also important to be a human being: to live and love and feel pain and feel regret, to not just live through our word processing programs but to open ourselves up and taste life, savor the bitter moments along with the sweet.

Writing is an essential part of being a writer, but it is not the only part, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be enough to comprise a full life. In order to be a good writer you have to practice your craft, yes, but you also have to read (a lot!), and you have to be alive. You have to really experience life, to get to know and understand a wide range of people, to appreciate and explore the strangeness of this vast universe we live in. Writers don’t lock themselves in their basements and write all the time. Writers live, and if sometimes that living gets in the way of your computer time, well I say so be it, no excuses required, because this is what it is to be alive.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Some More Benefits of the MFA Life

I have to be honest, I’ve really been missing the grad student life lately. Part of it, I know, is that I’m surrounded by grad students from my husband’s program, and I get to see – but only from the fringes – these grad students doing the things that grad students do. I only get to take part in the non-school related parts of their lives, which is still enjoyable, of course, but it’s not the same.

One of the things I miss the most is the conversations. Talk about writing. Analyzing craft. Reading the same books and discussing them with each other. These sorts of conversations are the heart of any English graduate program and they tend to take place both in and outside of classroom. The problem – for me – is that they don’t tend to take place with outsiders. This isn’t an intentional slight; it’s not like grad students have a clique sort of mentality. But I’m not taking the same classes; I’m not reading the same books and having one-on-one workshop sessions with the same writers-in-residence.

This sort of unified writing experience is very difficult, I feel, to create outside of an academic setting. While it’s possible to perhaps find a small group of writers willing to read the same books and meet regularly to discuss them from a craft perspective, and it’s certainly possible to create the workshop environment – only far more productive, in my opinion – outside of academia, there are still many other things that don’t seem possible (for example, somehow managing to get a string of established writers to travel to your area, read the work of everybody in your writers’ group, and meet with each of you one-on-one to give feedback, after which the members of the group can discuss the experience and compare what you’ve gained).

And there’s the question of money, too. Grad students not only have ample time to write because they are being paid extremely well, compared to what college adjuncts make, to teach only one or two classes at a time, but they also, as a result, have ample time to exchange work with each other and do extended feedback sessions. (This statement, I can already tell, is going to have some readers shaking their heads in disagreement. I’m not saying you make as much as a TA as you would, say, in a full time office job. But you make way more per credit hour – WAY more – than the average adjunct instructor makes. Trust me. I’m an adjunct. I can barely make ends meet off of my salary.)

Grad students also get funding to travel to conferences. Many of the students here, for example, are taking a trip to Denver next month to go to AWP, on their graduate program’s dime. I desperately wanted to go to AWP this year. I almost had an excuse because I was invited to read with a journal that I was published in, but the reading ended up falling through, and I couldn’t justify the $1000 it would have cost between airfare and hotel stay and food.

Which is all, really, to say that I think there are some things that you can gain from a creative writing graduate program that you simply cannot reproduce in the real world. Of course it’s possible to get on the path to success on your own, but creative writing graduate programs give you a pretty forceful shove in the right direction, and they’re pretty enjoyable, too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

There’s a Time for Us

Ah, those timeless, fabulous, Stephen Sondheim lyrics. You all know the song, what the Dire Straits referred to as “the Movie Song.” The reason why the West Side Story song “Somewhere” is such a powerful piece of music is because we all know the story of Romeo and Juliet; we all know that Maria and Tony will never find that place, that time. There is no time for “us.”

The same could be said, if you really want to be realistic with yourself, of writing. We all probably have at one point in time entertained fantasies of landing a five book deal that ensures us six figures a year, plus obscene royalties since naturally our books will each land on the bestseller list. Right. But even as we all have allowed, at times, our minds to wander to these totally unrealistic dreams, we all (I hope) are well aware that such dreams will never come true. There will never come a day when we will make a cushy income off of writing and writing alone, when we wake up each morning with nothing else on the schedule but to write. There is not, as it were, a time for us.

What this means is that when we look at our busy lives, when we quantify our busy schedules and try to calculate out how much time we could reasonably spend writing, when we do all this and we see that the answer is very little, the solution to the problem is not to look forward to some indeterminate future in which we will have the time. You’ll write tomorrow, or when things slow down at work, or when your kids start school. You’ll write when you have time.

The truth is that you will never have time. What you’re really doing when you tell yourself you will write “someday” is lulling yourself into a sense of false security. Justifying the fact that you’re not willing to work it out. Denying the fact that you are not a writer, at least, you are not behaving like one right now.

Once you accept that there will never be time, you’re left with only two real options. You can give up and decide that you’re just not going to make it as a writer, or you can realize that most successful writers don’t really have time to write, yet they’ve all found a way to make it work; why can’t you?

I’ve been telling myself for the past few months that one day I’ll land a full time job as a college English instructor – hopefully even as a Creative Writing instructor – and when that day comes I’ll have summers and winters off and plenty of time to write. Oh, it gets me through the bad days, this is true, but there are a couple of problems with this line of thought.

For one thing, in order to really be competitive for such a job I first need to get a book or two published, and in order to do that I need to keep writing as much as I can. I can’t tell myself that it’s okay if I can’t find the time to write right now; if I don’t find the time now then that dream job will always remain out of reach. And then of course there’s the fact that even though I might tell myself now that if/when I get a full time instructor job, time to write will naturally follow, the truth is that I will probably always have other things I could and should be doing with my time. There will always be reasons not to write.

So step one: Accept that there will never be time. Step two: Figure out a way to make the time, already! I’ve been getting up a half hour early every day this month so that I can write a little bit before work. A half hour isn’t enough to get a lot of quality work done, but it’s enough to get me pumped about whatever project I’m working on, and then I’m more likely to figure out a way to squeeze time out later in the day, or to get up even earlier the next day to have more time. (It’s also, by the way, a nice antidepressant. I feel much happier when I’m writing every day, and it really sets the tone for the day if I get some writing done first thing.)

So no, there is no time for us, Tony and Maria, not unless we make the time, but we have to make it right now. Today. This minute. Now.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Spoonful of Sugar

There are a few ways I’ve found to take the sting off of rejections that I wanted to share. The thing about rejections (as I know I’ve said before) is that they are an important part of being a writer. If you’re not receiving rejections, then you’re probably not really even in the game. It’s important, then, that we try to look at rejections in a sort of positive light, that we try to be happy about receiving rejections because they’re a good sign, really. They mean you’re sending things out there. They mean you’re doing the things a writer has to do. I’ve talked before about using rejections as a motivational tool, but I think it’s also important that we see the rejections themselves as a positive thing. After all, if you were not receiving rejections that would mean you were not submitting.

Recently, my husband Damien and I started using a rewards system, which we put together from a composite of other writers systems that we had heard about and liked. Our system goes like this: for every one hundred points that you earn, you get a $25 Amazon gift card. Every response you ever receive to your work earns at least one point. A journal acceptance is worth ten points, a manuscript or partial manuscript request is worth five, a personal rejection is worth two points, and a form rejection – those puny little half-slips of paper that so effortlessly make our hearts sink – are worth one point. No matter what response you just received, you’re still that much closer to your reward.

I like this system because it reminds us that even the most basic form rejection is still worth something in the grand scheme of the writing life. Yes, I’d rather get a personal rejection (two points) and of course I’d rather get an acceptance (ten points!), but notice that the divide between points is not that astronomical. An acceptance is worth ten times more than a rejection, but you’d still need to get ten acceptances before you made it to your reward. Really, the way to get to that reward is to have a steady stream of responses coming in– it doesn’t really matter that much what the responses are, as long as you’re sending your work out there and getting something back.

There are two other things that I’ve found make rejections not feel so bad. One is to be perpetually engaged in other writing projects. If you’re anything like me, you tend to feel like whatever current new piece you’re writing is the best thing you’ve ever written. This is a good feeling, and it makes rejections for the older stuff, the stuff you had already finished and started sending around, feel less significant. No big deal, you think. Just wait until I finish this story/poem/book and start sending it out!

The other thing that helps is to send out sim subs to multiple different venues. When I first started submitting, I was kind of nervous about sim subs. More and more places these days accept (even encourage!) simultaneous submissions, but I was worried that if I did get an acceptance, it might be time consuming to track down the contact info for the other journals I had sent that story to. The truth is that yes, it’s kind of time consuming (and sometimes a journal or two will apparently not receive the withdrawal when you send it in), but when you get an acceptance you don’t really care. You’re so excited that X journal will be publishing X piece, you’re more than willing to slog through the withdrawal process.

And the thing is, if you get a rejection for a piece that, let’s say, you’d sent out to twenty different journals, that one rejection doesn’t really bother you because one of those other nineteen might still accept it. In my experience, the same exact piece can receive a “Dear Author” form rejection from one journal and an enthusiastic acceptance from another. If you only send out to one place at a time, if/when that place rejects it, that rejection is going to feel much heavier than if there were several places who were still considering that piece.

So there you have it. Not only are rejections not such a bad thing, really they’re a good thing, in my opinion. Send your work out there, and be happy when you get those little half-slips back. A half-slip, “Dear Author, Thanks but no thanks,” response is still something. Everything you ever do as a writer is always worth something.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Minors and the Big Leagues

Okay, I’m stealing the baseball analogy from the current issue of Poets and Writers, but I’d like to think that I would have come up with it on my own, what with the start of the baseball season in the near future and my husband, a big-time baseball fanatic, getting increasingly excited as spring training games get closer. I’m talking, of course, about the minor and major leagues in the literary world: small journals with low circulations verses larger, more prestigious journals.

The question I’ve been pondering lately is this: how do you know when you’re ready for the big game?

I’ve heard many different writers offer a range of opinions on the subject of small journals. Some writers argue that an acceptance in a small journal is meaningless and that you shouldn’t even waste your time submitting to these places. This attitude, in my opinion, doesn’t really make sense. Of course getting published in the major journals is a bigger deal than the small ones, but that doesn’t mean that an acceptance from a small journal means nothing. Based on my experiences working on two very small journals, I can tell you that even the small guys get a ton of really great submissions, and most of the submissions have to get rejected. An acceptance still means that your work rose to the top of the slush pile, that someone, or more likely several someones, read and liked and wanted to publish what you wrote.

I’ve also heard the argument that, while of course writers have to begin in the minors, it looks bad for you to linger down there for too long. Once you have a few small scale publications under your belt, you need to move up and start playing for the big leagues. I haven’t quite been able to make up my mind on this one yet. In some ways it does make sense that if you just keep publishing for years and years and years in the small presses, agents and publishing houses might wonder why you’ve been in the game for so long but haven’t made it up to the next level. But then, what about the idea of exposure? I recently had a lit agency contact me about querying them, and the story of mine that they had read was published in an extremely tiny journal. I have a much larger journal in my publication past, but that wasn’t the one the agency noticed.

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this right now is because I’ve noticed lately that the stories that I feel are my better ones have been getting mostly form rejections, but the ones I don’t feel are as strong have been getting extremely enthusiastic personal rejections, and sometimes, acceptances. At first I wondered if this meant that I’m not gauging the quality of my work properly, but then it occurred to me that I’ve been sending my better stories to bigger journals, and I’ve been sending the less strong ones to really small journals.

I’m the sort of person who likes to closely examine and analyze everything that ever happens so that I might take something away from it for next time, but I have to admit that I’m stumped about where to go from here. The fact that the small journals have been extremely encouraging of my work might lead me to believe that I should be starting my submission runs with larger journals (another argument I’ve heard from writers is that you should have a sort of hierarchy worked out for which journals you’d most like to get published in, and you should submit your work first to the top journals and work your way down the list, only submitting to the smaller journals when your work has already been rejected by the bigger ones).

The problem with that, though, is that the stories that I believe are my best have been getting a great big yawn from the larger journals I’ve been submitting them to. I’ve been getting mostly form rejections from those places, sometimes with a handwritten, “Thanks, Ashley. Submit again,” or something to that effect, but rarely real responses: “We really enjoyed X and Y about this story but ultimately had to reject it for Z reason.” I worry that if I take my recent realization to mean that I should aim higher, the result will be that I will stop receiving acceptances altogether, and I will receive far fewer encouraging rejections, too. And let’s face it, encouraging rejections are what the new writer lives off of.

So how do you know when you’re ready for the big game? When is it time to start demanding something more of yourself and when is it smarter to stick with what’s been working? And should you be satisfied with the minor leagues? Should small scale publications continue to mean something or do you reach a point where you have to move up or accept that you never will?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why We Write

Think back – far, far back and farther still. Think back to the time before the time you knew you wanted to be a writer. Yes, I realize this may feel like asking you to think back to life inside the womb, but humor me for a second, will you?, and try.

Do you remember where this desire came from? Do you remember where it all began? Do you remember that feeling of excitement, that thrill, that would overcome your senses when you would sit down and scribble your stories or poems or plays? Do you remember, specifically, the difference between that time – the time when you wrote with no expectation for reward, no thought that this thing might some day get published or that you might some day be recognized for the exceptional talent that you are – and this time – a time when everything seems to hinge on acceptances and rejections?

I’ve often said that I believe if you’re writing solely for the purpose of publication or because you hope that one day you might make a living off of this, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. This, of course, is unfair. Everybody has the right to their own secret purposes in life. My point, however, when I make a broad statement like that, is that you’re probably setting yourself up for failure if this is why you write. It seems like a waste, to me, to spend so much time and energy and effort, if you’re only doing it because you think it will bring you things that may never come. Publication, whether small scale or large, seems like an achievable goal for anybody who keeps at it, but the chances that you will one day make a living off of writing are extremely slim, no matter how good you are, and they seem to be getting slimmer with the changing technologies and DIY trends in today’s publication industry.

In addition, I believe that your chances of reaching any measurable level of success as a writer are greatly diminished if success alone is your driving force. Here’s why: rejections will always be more plentiful than acceptances. Period. You may have to live through years of rejections before you even get an acceptance at all, and that first acceptance will probably be for a very small journal that is mostly (or perhaps even only) read by other contributors. (I don’t mean to suggest that such an acceptance should be taken lightly. I’m a firm advocate for small journals, as an editor of an online journal myself, and I believe that getting anything accepted anywhere is a big deal. However, a small journal acceptance certainly is a smaller triumph than, say, if you were to get something published in the Paris Review or Granta.)

If success alone is what’s driving you, it seems unlikely that you will be able to bear through the years and years of scratching your way up to finally reach a level of success that someone other than you might be impressed by. That is to say, I believe that writers who write to get published will, most of them, eventually give up. It just isn’t worth it.

But if you write because you love to write – if you write because it gives you pleasure, because it adds meaning to your life, because it helps you to understand and interpret the world around you – if, in other words, you write now for the same reasons you wrote back then, in that forgotten time so long ago, then none of the rest of it matters at all: not the acceptances or the rejections, not the money or the recognition (neither of which are ever likely to amount to much, anyway). The only thing that matters is the feeling you get when you write. The only thing that matters is the writing, itself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Just Keep Swimming, Er, I Mean, Writing

I talked a little bit last time about accepting the likelihood that my graduate thesis, which I’ve been shopping around to agents for the past few months, will probably not get published, or at least, not as my first book. This is something that I think most writers have to accept when they are in the middle of the early stages of their careers.

There’s a common story: the writer who can’t get his or her first novel published, writes a second (or third one, or fourth), finally gets something accepted and then goes back and dusts off that earlier manuscript, now that he or she’s broken into the publishing world. We’ve also all heard the stories of people who write a first book, a second, a third, and finally on their fourth or fifth they get a book published, but they don’t try to publish those earlier manuscripts because they know now that those early ones weren’t good enough.

Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that real writers – the ones who actually write and publish and slowly but surely make progress in their writing careers – just keep writing, no matter what. What distinguishes the ones who make it from the ones who don’t, as far as I can tell, is the ability to accept the inevitable rejections and the fact that you’re not perfect (and neither is your work), without getting discouraged and without ever, ever, EVER giving up.

Yes, this seems to involve a certain contradiction at the very core of your being. You’re willing to take criticism and you haven’t deluded yourself into thinking that you’re a genius (maybe once upon a time you had those delusions, but you’ve grown out of them by now, I hope, and now you know that you weren’t born to become the next Hemingway, that, in fact, Hemingway wasn’t, either; he just worked hard and got lucky, both). And yet at the same time, you believe in yourself, in your skills as a writer and your ability to keep getting better, and perhaps most incongruous of all, you truly believe that other people will want to read these things that you write.

It’s that balance you always hear about: hubris checked by modesty. Believing in yourself and your work just far enough, but not too far. Not so far that you become one of those a-holes who argue with anyone willing to give them feedback and who believe that every editor and agent who has ever rejected their work is an idiot.

But I believe that anybody can reach that balance. It just takes emotional maturity and perhaps being around other writers long enough that you realize that you’re not special but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still have something worthwhile to say. So the real deciding factor, then, is whether you’re willing to keep at it indefinitely. To receive rejection after rejection but still continue sending stuff out. To write every day, even when you’re positive that nobody will ever publish what you’re working on, even when you’re afraid that nobody will ever publish anything that you write, ever. To write a second novel, even if your first one never got published. And to revel in the small triumphs: journal acceptances, encouraging rejections, and those flashes of inspiration that send you breathlessly rushing to your computer, carried away by your own excitement to get this written down.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rejections: The Greatest All Time Motivational Tool?

I asked a couple of people recently what I should write my next blog about and they said rejections as a motivational tool. OK, and in what way are rejections motivating? They make you want to get out there and try again. They make you feel like a real writer because a “No” response is still better than no response. Yeah, these things are true . . . but rejections are still kind of discouraging, aren’t they?

The topic has been stewing in my mind since then, and I’ve been trying to decide what rejections are better at: encouraging you to try, try again, or making you feel like you’ve been fooling yourself all along. All writers, if they’re going to stick with it long enough to actually reach any kind of steady stream of acceptances, have to develop a thick skin about rejections. We all get rejected. All of us. A lot. Your favorite writer has been rejected. Your favorite writer, come to think of it, probably still has people who don’t like his or her work. This is a subjective business.

My current agent search has shed a bit of light on the topic of rejections for me. So far I’ve sent out about twenty five queries. I’ve gotten a few form rejections, about an equal number of personal rejections, about an equal number of no response (yet?)s, and two requests for partials, which eventually ended in rejections. Of the personal rejections and the rejections from the agents who requested partials, the response has remained pretty similar across the board: This is interesting. This is well written. This sort of book is very hard to sell (or sometimes, “But I’m just not the right agent for this book”).

While I would be lying if I said these rejections haven’t been discouraging, there has been a very motivating element to them. For one thing, I’ve been encouraged by the fact that I’ve gotten a fair amount of personal responses, and those responses have been very positive about my writing. The writing itself.

The topic of this particular novel, on the other hand . . . well I knew this book might be hard to market. It’s literary fiction, which is difficult to sell to begin with, and it’s about a somewhat controversial issue. It’s frustrating to have worked on a book for three years and finally realize that it might be inherently unmarketable, but these responses really have pushed me to get back to work, serious work, on my next novel.

I wrote the first draft of my next novel in a feverish writing spree when I was inbetween drafts of my thesis (the novel I’m currently shopping around). I got back to work on it after I decided that my thesis was ready to start sending to agents, but I wasn’t able to quite get back into the groove of it. I rewrote the first twenty five pages or so, then spent a bunch of time mapping out the events that would follow them, then decided that this first twenty five pages that I had just rewritten wouldn’t work and so went back to page one and started over . . .

But these recent agent rejections have made me realize two linked things. One is that my first novel (this was actually not the first novel I ever wrote, by the way, but it’s the first one I actually thought might be publishable) will probably not get published, at least, not as my first novel. That is to say that I think it’s a good book and I still believe that it’s publishable, but I don’t think that anybody’s going to take a chance on it when I don’t have any other book credits to my name. This sort of book, as some of these agents have told me, is, by its very nature, simply hard to sell. If I had a stronger track record I think I’d stand a better chance, but as of right now, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

The other realization that came quickly on that one’s heels was that I needed to get back to work on that next novel. I needed to take it seriously and actually get that next draft written. My thesis probably won’t be “the one,” which means if I want to make it, I need to get another one finished, and perhaps another after that. I need to keep trudging onward and writing new and better books if I ever expect one of them to make it past the slushpile, past the partial request, past the full manuscript request, and finally – finally! – sold to a publishing house.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Business Side of Writing

Many of us tend to think of writing as this purely creative field, this artsy endeavor that we’re drawn to, at least in part, because we’re not drawn to the things you have to do in an office job. But the truth is that a big part of being a writer involves a lot of the same stuff that you do at a desk job.

Consider submissions. You have to keep track of what pieces you’ve submitted to which journals, and preferably on which dates. I keep a spreadsheet where I log all this information (in addition to what particular projects I have going, what my goals are, and whether or not I’ve met my goals). In what sometimes feels like a past life, I used to work in the billing department of a healthcare clinic. This job epitomized the classic image of a desk job, in my opinion. I spent most of my day moving paper from one stack on my desk to the other, and a large part of my job was logging information into spreadsheets, not unlike what I have to do now as a writer.

But the submissions process is like an office job in more ways than that. Correspondence was another big part of my job: sending out correspondence to various labs, hospitals, and neighboring clinics, not to mention patients and insurance companies. I remember thinking how tedious it was when we would have to send out a run of patient bills, for example. Printing all the invoices, stuffing the envelopes, and then mailing them. Preparing a batch of submissions is sometimes even more tedious. It involves all those same components but you also have to research each journal to find out what, exactly, they are looking for. Then you have to find out how they accept submissions; do they want you to format it in standard manuscript format or following their own quirky specific rules? Do they want you to mail it to them, or e-mail it, or use their online submission form? The whole process is so dull that many starting out writers can’t even seem to bring themselves to do it.

And other parts of writing feel like work sometimes, too. What about when you’ve reached a point as a writer where you’ve made a commitment to it – you’ve decided that you’re going to write every day, or X number of hours every week, or X number of words every month – but you’re just not feeling it that day? You still sit yourself down in front of that computer and do the best you can to be engaged. On good days you’re able to trick yourself into getting sucked into the work, on bad days you force it until your time or word limit is reached and then feel relieved when quitting time rolls around.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that being a creative writer isn’t the romantic, artistic dream we may have once assumed it to be. It isn’t a pure escape from the office/desk job/business world. Not if you actually want to get published, anyway. The truth is there’s the artistic side of writing and the business side of it, and you have to be willing to do both if you want to really make it. But the truth is, also, that this is part of what separates the ones who will make it from the ones who won’t. Those people who don’t submit, the people who don’t buckle down and write even when they’re not “feeling it,” those people are not going to be much competition for those of us who do. And for those of us who really, really love writing, the way we all say that we do, we don’t really mind the business side of it so much. It’s worth it to us. Somewhere along the line we realize that it’s worth it.