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.