September 23, 2016 § 11 Comments
By Kristine Langley Mahler
I recently hit a milestone in my literary career: 100 rejections. 100 times my inbox buzzed on my phone and I saw those brackets around a journal’s name in the subject line and I excitedly opened my email, happy to get that response AT LAST, and stared at some iteration of “Not today, sucker!”
(Most were more polite than that; most were also those low-tier, generic-rejection-text messages, but NOT ALL)
I’ve been submitting my work to literary journals since April 2012, which, coincidentally, was immediately after I finished writing my first essay in almost a decade. I wasn’t enrolled in a writing program—hadn’t been for nine years—but I was working my way back towards the memoir-ish essays I loved to write and had abandoned in the post-undergrad years.
Without anyone to give me feedback on my writing other than my long-suffering husband, I figured: let the populace decide! Send those puppies out to lit journals!
I hadn’t had any formal training in publishing, but I remembered one rule imparted from my undergrad writing instructors, which was AIM HIGH. So (gulp) I aimed high, submitting that first essay to AGNI and Crazyhorse and the Cincinnati Review. Rejected. But I kept writing and revising, and I kept submitting. Some rejections hurt more than others; some made me wrinkle my eyebrows. What’s that, The Dying Goose, you don’t like my piece? YOU’RE NOT AROUND ANYMORE SO WHO WINS NOW? Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, did you literally reject my piece within 24 hours? (Yes they did and that is what they do)
I submitted to high-profile journals and I submitted to fledglings. I didn’t discriminate, because I trusted in the old adage that what one rejects, another may accept. And by the end of 2012, I had my first publication under my belt! Yes!
I spent the next two years continuing to write, getting feedback from a small handful of (non-writer) friends, revising, and submitting the pieces to journals. 2013 netted one more publication. 2014: three (!) By 2015, I had decided it was time to return to school so I could get feedback from people who were also studying/perfecting their craft, so I began a graduate program. I had one piece accepted for publication in 2015, but in 2016, I’ve had five pieces accepted (so far). That’s eleven pieces getting the THUMBS UP while a hundred times I was told NO THANKS.
Being a left-brained woman working in a right-brained field, I crunched some numbers, because analytics help me understand. I had an 8% acceptance rate before grad school; it’s jumped to 11.5% since. I submitted more times than ever in 2016 (35), and had more pieces accepted (5). Funny how that works.
Eleven out of 111. With four of those eleven acceptances, I hit the nose on the head, matching content and form to journal preferences/editor preferences, and the pieces never saw a single rejection. On the other hand, I’ve got one piece that’s been rejected sixteen times and I keep hauling it back out because GOSH DARNIT I BELIEVE IN IT. I’ve sent out twenty-three separate essays and had eleven of them accepted everywhere from basically-just-a-blog journals to (pardon me while I clear my throat) being awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction by Crab Orchard Review. Now there are some odds I can work with: 48% of my submitted work has been published. Almost half!
Of those twenty-three essays, I’ve dropped seven from my submissions roster because, well, they’re not publishable. It’s embarrassing to think I ever sent them out. (Y’all feel me?) Twenty-three pieces, eleven published, seven self-rejected. So that means I’ve only got five old pieces battered by rejection but still raising their heads in the ring. No TKOs.
Like most writers/artists/creative-types, I have a sensitive ego. Brashness does not befit me. I’ll talk trash on the screen but in person, I’m just another wallflower waiting for someone to approach me. I don’t try out for things where I haven’t pre-calculated the risk assessment and decided that the odds are more likely I will succeed than not. I cannot explain why I have accepted the life of rejection that partners with the life of a writer other than that I finally accept myself as a writer. This is what it takes? I will bear my yellowing bruises with pride.
I’ve got three new essays I’ve added to the roster, and I’ve been sending them out, awaiting their first rejection, or acceptance. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. I hope it doesn’t take 10,000 rejections, but if it does, I’m proud of the effort it took to stand back up 9,999 times.
September 21, 2016 § 6 Comments
Brevity‘s editorial intern, Hannah Koerner, reflects on her summer in Brooklyn working for an indie publisher and other ways that ‘reading for work’ influences how she reads:
A month ago I grabbed bagels with a friend somewhere just outside Central Park. He’d been working as a copy editor on a Buzzfeed-like website for about a year and writing on the side, rereading Moby Dick for something like the tenth time and finishing off the oeuvres of authors like Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante.
I assumed he was still trying to break into publishing, which was the initial vague goal he entered the city with and which I vaguely planned to follow.
By then I’d spent two months wading through fiction manuscripts and nonfiction proposals, crafting rejection letters and entering author corrections; I was in the middle of a summer internship with an indie press in Brooklyn. Having moved to the city with my own formidable pile of to-be-read Ferrantes and Junot Diazs and Maggie Nelsons, I found myself instead balancing printed manuscripts on my morning commute, making progress through the press’s thicket of submissions and acquainting myself with its back catalogue.
A lot of times it’s a matter of tone, not just quality, one of the editors had told me. So I read that press’s books and figured out what I needed to look for: a political slant, a surrealist twist, nonfiction just the exact degree of unexpected enough.
“Nah, I’m staying out of publishing. I figure I only have time to read so many books. And I want them to be the best things the English language has done,” my friend said over bagels.
It seems like an obvious thing to say, that working with literature means choosing what you want to read. But that often gets overlooked. It also means choosing how and why you want to read.
Moving from a university press to a literary magazine to an indie publisher has meant playing something like a prolonged game of dress up with my reading. To give it a professorial jacket and glasses for fact-checking detail, then stripping it down and tossing over a pared-down dress for grabbing rhythm in poetry: both of these different from the deep sea diving required for writing papers on Joyce, or the cozy lounge attire of cracking open a new young adult title.
Working at a book publisher meant reading with an eye to contemporary trends and questions and needs. To read for a readership, which is not the same as reading for beauty. Which only rarely means reading to discover the next great canonical name of my time.
I like to relax into my reading. I like to take it out on a low commitment date and see what happens, to play with whatever catches my eye about it. I think this lends itself to publishing; I am, after all, a contemporary reader. Being interested in why books interest me is useful.
But this is something I never thought to think of when I began college as an English undergraduate looking towards the publishing industry as a vague monolith on which to pin twin hopes of working with books and being able to pay rent. In weighing an MFA, or buckling down into Woolf for a PhD, or publishing, I never quite realized until that conversation with my friend that if I chose one and stuck with it, the act of reading—the activity that shaped my imagination and my free time since I first walked out of a kindergarten classroom knowing this letter meant this sound—will take a more definite, less malleable, shape. And that might be the most important thing to consider if you think you might want to read for a living: to decide with intention why and how you would like to do that reading.
Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!
September 20, 2016 § 12 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Kautz:
Every copywriter has an unfinished manuscript tucked in a desk drawer, goes an old advertising cliche. The manuscript represents an identity crisis, a fraught relationship between commerce and art.
“You know the popular conception,” a 1960 New York Herald Tribune article summarized. “He’s writing about Frabjous Krispies for his pocketbook but here are tears in his beard.”
I, too, am a copywriter with a manuscript. And until a few months ago, I too had an identity crisis. But mine wasn’t a struggle between art and commerce. I just couldn’t find my voice.
The Story I Almost Couldn’t Tell
My book is rooted in family history: my great-grandmother might have belonged to a Satanic cult. I’d overheard bits and pieces of the story throughout childhood: She’d always been a bitter woman; then she fell in with a strange crowd. People began disappearing. And the dirt floor of her cellar, well, that was a perfect place to hide bodies.
No one had substantiated the family rumors. After I became a mother, I decided to try, and write a book about my investigation. I interviewed family members, and jotted down drafts. I spent my lunch hours at the ad agency searching digitized newspaper archives for clues. I envisioned the finished book to be a literary look at family secrets. But I couldn’t untangle the narrative threads: The fallibility of memory. The true crime angle. Genealogy. Satan.
How could I capitalize on the occult angle without sensationalizing it? Was I writing a history book, a memoir or—Satan forbid—a piece of pulp?
I struggled with these questions for nearly a year. I studied the Hero’s Journey and mapped out each chapter. This tightened up the book’s story arc, but left me no closer to understanding its nuances. Discouraged, I began spending my down time gossiping with coworkers and stalking the employee breakroom for snacks.
That’s how I found my solution. I’d wandered into the breakroom for a third cup of coffee one afternoon when I overheard a coworker explaining brand pyramids to an intern.
“All great brands are built upon something universal,” he said. “That’s what makes them relatable. The trick is to capture something universal and remain true to the things that make the brand unique. Those unique parts sit at the top. They’re what everyone sees. But that universal part provides the foundation.”
Universal yet unique, I thought. Huh.
That evening I sat down and listed my book’s narrative threads. Then I began organizing them into a pyramid of my own, from the most universal to the most unique. How did brain science fit in? Where did genealogy go? I crossed out threads and added new ones. Eventually a structure started to form.
Family was the foundation of my story; the most universal of all the angles. Next came motherhood, which had sparked my investigation—also universal, though a little more focused. Mental illness was a third theme—not quite universal, though all-too common. I’ve struggled with OCD my entire life, and suspected this or some other mental illness played a role in my great-grandmother’s behavior.
And finally, that weird little detail about the occult. The part that everyone noticed, and everyone remembered.
Calling this a brand pyramid isn’t quite accurate. It’s just an organized list of narrative themes. But once I’d created it, writing my book became easier. Talking about it seemed more natural. I felt like I’d finally found my voice.
Finding Your Own Voice
I’ve always been interested in a long list of strange and disparate things. Perhaps that’s why I like advertising: I get paid to write about candy bars and extrusion machines, all in the same afternoon.
Rather than confining me to a narrow set of topics, this pyramid has empowered me. I no longer feel obligated to insert an occult angle into every blog post I write. I’ve opened up about my personal experiences with motherhood and mental illness, because I finally understand their relevance.
Most importantly, I get excited when I look at my brand pyramid, because I’m reminded of what drew me to this story in the first place. I notice connections between themes that I hadn’t seen before. But it took me a long time to get to this point. I spent many afternoons frowning at my computer, with too much to say and no way to say it.
If you find that it’s taking you a long time to find your voice, too, don’t panic. Explore everything that feels relevant, and a few things that don’t. Keep evaluating and re-evaluating which angles feel right, and which topics draw your interest. Ask yourself: which parts of my story are universal, and which are specific to me alone?
Your direction might take the form of pyramid like mine, or a mission statement, or a mind map. Maybe it will look like something else altogether. In the end, the form doesn’t matter; only that it leads you down the path to your best work. Even if your best work turns out to be about Frabjous Krispies.
September 19, 2016 § 5 Comments
By Peter Selgin
Not writing has many advantages. You can walk with both hands in your pockets. You can peel and eat an orange. Other fruits, too, become accessible to the non-writer.
When not writing it is possible to participate in all kinds of physical activities unavailable to writers. Swimming comes to mind, as well as other water sports such as water skiing and scuba diving. Operating any kind of watercraft, even a small rowboat or sailboat, is inadvisable while writing.
Although thinking is still possible when writing, it is not nearly as pleasurable. Among other things one is constantly interrupted if not entirely waylaid by concerns of grammar, spelling, usage, not to mention syntax, structure, and style. Writing takes most if not all the fun out of thinking.
One should never drive or operate heavy machinery while writing. Conversely, those who do not write are far better disposed to enjoy operating (for instance) a bulldozer.
Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that sexual performance is enhanced by not writing.
John Updike, a famous author, observed that “the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” This is just as true in reverse. The pleasures of writing are so few one would be wise never to start in the first place.
Similarly, though Walter Benjamin tells us “Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas,” I say, “Never start writing just because you have ideas.”
Not writing isn’t for everyone. Some are so predisposed to the condition that, however hard they try, they can’t break the habit. Our hearts go out to them. Still, such people are best avoided. However genetic, their lack of self-control may be contagious.
- Though some prefer the evening hours, and even the hours after midnight, for most the best time to not write is in the morning.
- Though sometimes I don’t write in notebooks and yellow legal pads, generally I prefer not to write on the computer.
- When not writing it’s best to let your thoughts flow freely. Try not to censor yourself.
- Choose a comfortable location, preferably out of direct sunlight. If you must not write outdoors, then be sure to wear sunscreen. Just because you’re not writing doesn’t mean you won’t burn!
- Remember, too, that like all good things not writing should be enjoyed in moderation. Don’t overdo it. Every so often, just to remind yourself of what you’re “missing,” you may want to pick up a pen or sit down at the computer and stare at a blank document. But don’t write anything. Just sit there calmly for a few moments appreciating the fact that, while you are perfectly free not to write, many others are not so lucky. Close your eyes and think about the poor devils for a moment or two. Say a little prayer for them if you’re so inclined. Or simply acknowledge their existence.
- Then put your pen down, turn off your computer, and go back to not writing.
Peter Selgin’s essays have earned a dozen Best Notable Essay citations as well as two inclusions in the Best American series (Best American Essay 2006; Best American Travel Writing 2014). He is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His work has been published in Colorado Review, Missouri Review, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and other reviews, and has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, and many Pushcart Prize nominations. An essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was published by University of Iowa press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Selgin’s second novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize. Of his first memoir, The Inventors, published in April, 2016, the Library Journal said, “It is book destined to become a modern classic.” He teaches at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
September 16, 2016 § 20 Comments
by Liz Blocker
The writing advice guides all agree on one point: it’s essential to find your own style. This is all well and good, except that in its natural, unchecked state, my style is a catastrophic landslide of prose.
In other words, I am incapable of being brief.
When I write, sentences pour out in long unraveling skeins, or in a flood of white-capped, roiling snow-melt. Why use one metaphor when you can use two, or three? My word counts rise in a predictable pattern: first I worry about keeping to my target, then I wonder how flexible that target is, and then I realize I’ve written enough for five pieces, not one.
This problem has financial implications, too. It was one of these occasions that made me first wonder if this issue of mine was more than just a cute idiosyncrasy. My wife and I were working with a lawyer to draw up our estate plans: wills, healthcare proxies, power of attorney, and all the rest of the uplifting documents that tie the loose ends of your early and tragic death into a neat little bow. The lawyer sent us a draft, and I wrote an email in response. My wife peered over my shoulder as I was writing.
“Do you really need to explain why we don’t like that sentence?” Jen asked.
“Well, I want her to cut it,” I said.
“Can’t you just tell her to cut it?”
I was horrified. “Without explaining it to her first?”
Jen sighed, and plucked the lawyer’s last invoice from a pile of papers. “She charges $300 an hour,” she said. “That explanation is going to cost us $20.”
I deleted the sentence without a further word of protest.
Soon after, a fiction editor I’d hired recommended I turn up the volume on my inner critic. Probably she was tired of reminding me that I didn’t need to use three adjectives in every sentence, just because three is such a magical, intriguing, enticing number in storytelling. So, for a while, I tried to stem the rising flood. I edited as I wrote, cutting semi-colons in great swaths, reaping the harvest of repetitive synonyms. This strategy resulted in an electronic barn full of dead words, and a few very naked, rather dull pieces.
Inner critics are for losers, I thought, and silenced my own with a sledgehammer.
The result was more mountainous heaps of superfluous words. One night, I realized it had taken me five times longer to cut a piece than it had to write it. Two hours of my “natural” style, and ten of painstaking and painful work to slice the narrow, winding, lovely sentences into bare expressways. This was not a small problem; the piece was only supposed to be 800 words. Imagine how long a 3,000 word essay might take.
Shudder-worthy, isn’t it? I knew I had to do something drastic. Wasting my precious writing time on cutting was stupid, not to mention deadly boring.
Resigned, I went back to where I’d left my inner critic, lying in a puddle of her own red ink.
“Wake up,” I whispered, nudging her shoulder with my toe.
“No,” she said, keeping her eyes resolutely closed.
She opened her eyes long enough to give me a withering glare. Typical, I thought.
“Fine,” she said, “But I’m taking the sledgehammer.”
It wasn’t an easy truce. Although I wanted to change, the desire wasn’t as strong as the need to make sure I had explained everything in excruciating detail. My inner critic shrieked that I was obsessive and anxious, and bashed words into smithereens with the sledgehammer; I retaliated by stealing the sledgehammer back. More ink spilled. Violence was threatened.
And yet we’ve made progress. This piece only took me three times as long to cut as it did to write, which, as I’ve reminded my critic, is a three-hundred percent improvement! I would say more about that, but I’m out of space.
So I’ll just say, it’s an ongoing process. And that I –
– have to stop. Never mind.
Liz Blocker‘s essays have been published in a number of magazines and journals, including The Toast, Brain, Child, and The Dallas Review. She lives in Boston, MA. When she’s not wrangling her infant twins, she’s writing, reading, running, or working as a massage therapist – or some combination thereof.
September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
We are pleased to announce that two recent Brevity contributors, Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas and Danielle Geller, have been awarded 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Awards, given annually to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers.
Celebrating its 22nd year, the Rona Jaffe Awards have helped many women build successful writing careers by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time. The awards are $30,000 each and will be presented to the six recipients on September 15th in New York City.
The other recipients this year are Jamey Hatley (fiction), Ladee Hubbard (fiction), Airea D. Matthews (poetry), and Asako Serizawa (fiction).
Celebrated novelist Rona Jaffe (1931-2005) established The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program in 1995. It is the only national literary awards program of its kind dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively. Since the program began, the Foundation has awarded more than $2 million to emergent women writers, including several who have gone on to critical acclaim, such as Elif Batuman, Eula Biss, Lan Samantha Chang, Rivka Galchen, Rebecca Lee, ZZ Packer, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Tracy K. Smith, Mary Szybist, and Tiphanie Yanique.
September 15, 2016 § 6 Comments
Allison Williams, Brevity‘s globe-trotting social media editor, writes often for this blog on issues of dedication, endurance, and inspiration for writers. Some of those blog posts, along with plenty of new material, have been assembled into Williams’ first book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better. Brevity Editor Dinty W. Moore recently asked Allison a few questions:
Dinty: There is so much advice for new writers out there. What are you hoping your book will accomplish?
Allison: I want to reposition the submissions process as a matter of great diligence and skill with a dash of luck and timing, rather than the other way around.
Even for writers with a publication record, submitting is scary—we’re all terrified we’re sending to a magazine that’s actually way out of our league, and we all worry that our ego is telling us our work is better than it really is. So I made a point of including a chapter on figuring out how good your own work is, and how a writer can analyze a literary journal and see if their own work is at that level. If it isn’t, they have the option to seek a magazine closer to their level (which might be higher!) or to use what they discover about the magazine’s content to improve their own work. I’m hoping that even for writers who don’t feel ready to send out work, they can still use the book to write better, and start reading widely in the places they want to publish, so they’ll feel more on top of the submissions process when the time comes.
I’m also demystifying the actual, physical process of submitting. It’s not a lottery and it’s not a dartboard. Writers can be reasonably methodical about assembling a list of magazines and building a pattern of submitting—whether that’s daily, weekly, once a month, whether they’re focusing on one piece and submitting simultaneously or firing out ten pieces at once—that works for them.
Dinty: In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception writers have about publishing in literary magazines?
Allison: It’s a double-barreled shot of inadequacy: We think editors are eager to reject us, and that rejection means we suck.
In fact, most editors are almost comically eager to discover and promote writers new to them. Their dream is to open up Submittable one morning and find a pile of amazing submissions they can nurture into publication, so their next issue is practically done. Editors love finding brand-new writers, they love helping people debut, and every single one of them wishes they had time to give feedback and advice on the submissions that are “almost there.”
Feeling bad about rejections is normal, but rejections are normal, expected and necessary. Think about going out for dinner—you pick the thing you want most off the menu, based on what looks good, maybe what the waiter recommends, and your mood at the time. You’re not looking at every other dish and thinking it’s garbage, right? Choosing the fish doesn’t make the pasta terrible. And maybe when you pick the fish for your entree, you don’t want to also have smoked salmon for the appetizer. Putting a literary magazine together works the same way. Out of a pile of good, better and best things, the editor selects pieces that strike their personal taste, that fit well together, and that suit the overall tone of the magazine. Your essay about childbirth may be phenomenal—but they just did a special issue on mothering. Or they only have one essay slot this month, and they feel like the essay on the Deaf community complements the poem about meaning in silence. Maybe they have six “best” poems, but they’re all sonnets, so they pull two of them and pick two more poems from “better” and one from “good.”
There is no writing life that doesn’t include rejection. Even if I self-publish my own literary magazine, filled with my favorite of my own work, not everyone’s going to buy it. So as tough as it is, and as much as it stings and feels personal, rejections are proof a writer is doing their job and sending their work into the world. If writing is your desired profession, treat rejection like a meeting at a corporate job—you don’t love it, and it’s always a pain, but it’s part of the job you do in order to keep doing the other parts you like. If writing is your beloved hobby, remember that you don’t hit a home run every time, and those doubles, singles and strikeouts are helping you become a better hitter.
Easier said than done, of course, but I will say that since I started submitting more often and more widely, each individual rejection stings less.
Dinty: I know the landscape changes quickly, especially now that so much literary publishing is happening online, but here in September 2016, Can you name five or so solid magazines you’d recommend that talented but not-yet-widely-published authors investigate and consider?
Boulevard mentions they are “very interested in publishing less experienced or unpublished writers with exceptional promise.” And they pay!
Smokelong Quarterly publishes flash fiction and chooses a new editor to curate each issue, so there’s a variety of taste in the pieces they select.
Linden Avenue Literary Journal is an up-and-comer with a great editor, Athena Dixon, at the helm. They publish “poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction that highlights the intersection between art and everyday life.” http://www.lindenavelit.com/
Drunken Boat does a series of themed “folios” and is a great place to submit work that’s grounded in a specific culture or community.
And Sixfold is unique—they produce an online literary magazine, but the content is determined by voting among all the submitters (it’s fair, and thoroughly explained at their site). Each piece goes through at least one round of six readers/fellow writers who provide feedback on your work, and I found the brief critiques useful and totally worth the $6 submission fee. If you’ve got a piece you’re hemming and hawing on, it’s also a place to find out if it’s really “ready,” because if it doesn’t make the magazine, the comments help you figure out what needs improvement without feeling like you’re establishing a reputation with a particular editor.
Dinty W. Moore founded Brevity magazine in 1997.