A super long (but hopefully helpful) post about writing today. For my non-writer readers, I’ll have my usual kind of post next week.
Let’s start with this salient fact: I’m no expert about writing.
But, I’ve been doing it with intention now for five years come this spring. Hard to believe it’s already been that long since I left my life as an attorney for this change. In that time, I’ve learned a few things about the writing process, what works for me and what definitely doesn’t. In honor of those five years, I’d like to share what I know. This has nothing to do with blog writing—just straight up writing, submitting, and promoting kind of nuggets for essays and short stories.
◊ Paying vs. non paying venues. I am of two minds on this and have waffled for the past few years for various reasons. But, right now? I submit to both. Here’s why: I am working on a collection of short stories. Other than one short story in a contest, none of my fiction has been published yet (only my essays have been published, which is telling I suppose). And so, with an eye toward the future, I submit fiction to nonpaying but very credible places with the hope that some day I can gather up a nice little portfolio of published fiction to show an agent. It has nothing to do with just getting my name out there (indeed many of the sites for fiction are not as widely read as say, HuffPo or Salon), but me just wanting to get some street cred and reach some goals.
◊ Print vs. online only. I personally feel more satisfaction when something is in print. I like that it is tangible, and wonder whether that has to do more with my age than anything else. But I submit to both kinds of places primarily because while it’s nice that I might have some stuff published in print, if it is not also available online, it is harder to showcase that work. Many lit mags/periodicals cross-publish, but many don’t (or have a paywall/subscriber fee). I do like some pieces being accessible in the ether because it allows for sharing via social media, linking from my site, etc.
◊ Nitty gritty I. I’m increasingly less inclined to submit to places that do not either respond with a canned “we got it” email response or indicate in their writer guidelines how long one might expect to hear back or assume it’s a pass. Nothing is more infuriating to me than a site that is not at least willing to give that kind of information out on its website. It leaves room for a lot of second guessing that I do not have time for: Did they get it? Should I email the editor and check? What if I’m bothering the editor? It also complicates the process of whether I need to let them know I’m withdrawing a piece so many weeks/months out. There is a major site (where I’ve been published) that no longer seems to extend this courtesy. Yes, it pays, but if I can’t even get an auto reply back when my piece has been received (let alone rejected), I don’t feel supported as a writer. That doesn’t feel right to me anymore in venues where more than 75% of articles are by freelance/guest contributors.
◊ Nitty gritty II. That said, I will submit at least once to a place to test it out if it has some kind of cache that I want in my portfolio. That has had some positive effects too. One major site said no to a piece because it was so much like others recently published, but I got a compliment on my essay and an invite to resubmit something else. Another big site was silent for a while, so I asked how long before I could assume they were taking a pass. I did it via their contact form, so it was some person other than the editor whom I don’t mind bothering; they replied with a super nice note saying they were backlogged and I’d be hearing soon either way (I did, and it was a no).
◊ Tracking submissions. First, the WHY. In the five years I’ve been submitting essays (and more recently, short stories) I’ve seen there are many ways that journals/lit mags/websites (let’s just call them collectively “sites” for now) receive/review/accept or decline submissions. Many now (thankfully) use Submittable. But not all of them…and that is where things can go off the rails. Some sites still use email. Some sites have their own particular submission manager where you create an account/password and submit your piece via their distinct portal. While it’s nice to rely on Submittable for tracking submissions, I would miss out on all of them if I did that. This becomes a particularly dicey problem if I ever have to withdraw a piece from one or more sites (say, if I get a piece accepted at Site A and now need to withdraw from all the other sites to which I simultaneously submitted); I might forget one (almost happened).
Now, the HOW of tracking submissions. For me, I have a multi-part system that works so I don’t lose track of anything.
ONE. Once I’ve submitted an essay or short story, I immediately print it out and put it in a three-ring binder called PENDING. I put the most recently submitted piece on top. On that printed out version I hand write the word count (see below why) under the title, and in the margin the sites where I’ve submitted the piece along with the date of submission for each site (I simultaneously submit but not always on the same day), and I leave a space for a date and note of when it was accepted or declined. I am so glad I do this—my hard drive failed this fall and I would have been missing six months of essays and important information without these paper copies. WHEW!
TWO. I also have a spreadsheet that I keep at the front of the binder where I log in the following: essay/short story title, word count, lit mag/online site name, date submitted, and status. I further color code the lines (green = published, red = pending, black = declined, and blue = available to resubmit or edit further). It makes for a quick glance at pieces that are still “out there”. Seeing some green also reminds me that I am not a total hack and have been published—a lifesaver during those dry spells. In the status column, I enter PENDING, DECLINED, WITHDRAWN, or ACCEPTED (w/whatever terms, i.e. payment, author copies, etc., date of publication, copyright info). Any time I enter info in the table, I update the date at the top. I leave at least ten blank lines at the end so I can write in with pencil additional submissions as they happen and so I don’t have to open my laptop to update the table each time I submit.
THREE. For all pending and work in progress (WIP) pieces, I use a small dry erase board for a super quick glance. It helps remind me when I might need to resubmit (or edit) pieces if I’m getting lots of rejections on a particular piece. This tiny board also has the inspirational effect of showing me that I am actively writing and submitting and not idle.
FOUR. I have a separate folder in my email for submissions. In that goes anything received from a site/editor, and a bcc copy of anything I submit or correspond with an editor (i.e. edits).
◊ Another binder. Remember my PENDING binder? Well, when I get a piece published, I move that sucker to a PUBLISHED binder. I put both the final draft as submitted (pulling it from my PENDING binder) AND the final published piece (either printed from the web, copied from print). There are reasons to do that which I won’t get into here, but mainly it’s in case I want to publish it again elsewhere; I want to properly credit the original source for copyright purposes.
◊ Word counts. I keep track of my word count for pieces in various places. It easily allows me to be efficient when finding places to submit my work, especially if I have multiple stories/essays out there at once (or, in the rare instance, different versions of the same piece). Most sites have word min/max for submissions, and following that is probably one of the most important things. I don’t want to waste editors’ (or my) time with a piece that is too long/short.
◊ A journal. I have a journal to jot down random words/ideas/phrases that come to mind for essay or story ideas. I have had countless “great ideas” in the shower, on walks, etc. that inevitably slip away when I try to remember them later. So, if something comes to mind, I make a quick note in my journal (or on my phone if I’m out of the house) so I can come back to it later. Much of what I’ve written in the past year is because I started doing this. Inspiration seems to strike more for me when I don’t have time to write it all out rather than sitting before a blank screen with endless time, so I rely on those moments and just come back to them when I do have time to be thoughtful and write something cohesive.
◊ Duotrope. I highly recommend it. It’s $5/month (you can do a trial for free). Here’s how I use it. First, I can look up sites where there might be a good fit for my work. It has a searchable database with many fields—so, if I want to submit nature writing or a piece about family, I can use those search terms, or if I only want sites that pay, pieces < 1,000 words, etc. The database is divided by whether the sites accept fiction or nonfiction, which is very helpful. I have found (and been accepted by) sites that I would not have otherwise heard about were it not for Duotrope. I use Duotrope as a supplement to places that offer calls for submissions like Literary Mama and The Review Review; there is a lot of overlap but it’s presented in a different way so sometimes I see things I would have otherwise missed. The second way I use Duotrope is this: I can quell the neurotic writer in me by looking up average response times and acceptance rates. If I see that Site A only accepts 0.08% of the work they receive and respond in six months, I am going to be less invested in that outcome, AND it will allow me to consider whether simultaneous submissions make sense. There are other ways you can use Duotrope (like tracking your own submissions), so check it out.
◊ Simultaneous submissions. I used to submit serially (i.e. submit a piece to one place at a time, wait for response, resubmit, lather rinse repeat). WHAT A WASTE OF TIME! (with one caveat). Seriously. Some places take 6 months (or more) to respond. A piece might be almost 2+ years old by the time it gets published if one goes about it that way. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme and for some pieces that is totally fine, but I’ve noticed for me, I seem to care less about a piece as time marches on. And, if it’s about something that seems so “quaint” now (like when my daughter was a toddler) I seem to tucker out and stop submitting it after a long while. So, DOUBLE waste of time. Now, on average I submit a piece to 4-5 sites at a time. If I get all rejections, I take a second look at the piece and either edit or resubmit to 4-5 more. Here’s my one caveat: if I have a piece that I’m totally in love with and want to have it published at some place in particular (i.e. my dream pub), I decide whether it’s worth a shot to submit there first and wait before submitting elsewhere. In my mind, nothing could be worse than having it picked up at a lower tier place that I am not as jazzed about because they said yes before my dream pub responded. It’s not something I do for every piece, just a very special few. [*NOTE* Pay attention to whether each site allows for simultaneous subs because not all of them do.]
◊ Writerly friends I. Get some. I don’t run everything I write by someone, but maybe around 75% of my stuff has had a second set of eyes at some stage of drafting. I have a few sources who I trust. First, I’m part of an online critique group—I know only one of the women personally and closely. I actually like the arm’s length part about this group. Second, I have asked (very rarely and only when I think it’s totally necessary) a few more experienced writer friends to give a once over to a piece that is getting rejected over and over. For those folks, I either do quid pro quo review on a piece of theirs, or I offer to pay them. Last, I have a few non-writer friends whom I ask once in a while if I am unsure about the “tone” of a piece. Remember, a lot of people who read are not also writers. Their take matters too (in my opinion) and so I want to know if I sound like an asshole to the regular Joe who might not be as impressed with my metaphors and such. Those kind of readers have limits though; you need to choose people who will give you an honest opinion and not be afraid to make suggestions. There’s nothing worse (to me) than hearing simply “It’s good. I liked it.” Totally not helpful and, more to the point, totally not true. EVERYTHING can be improved, even if it is just a comma. No one is that good, sorry.
◊ Writerly friends II. I ask other writer-friends/acquaintances questions. I try not to waste or infringe upon their time, but if I have a very particular quick question I need answered, I reach out (like, “Hey, I saw you were published at Site A, did that take a long time to hear back because for me it’s been over 6 months…”). Most seem to be willing to answer (“Hmm, I heard sooner than that but I know the editor just went on sabbatical so…”) and it’s incredibly helpful to not flounder alone. In the same vein, I also reciprocate and answer questions (if I know the answer) when asked if I have a moment to do so. We’re all in this together and favors like that are best returned to the universe somehow. People remember that stuff.
◊ Fun fact. I do not have my husband read my work. Ever. At least not before it’s published. Even if the piece is indirectly related to him I don’t run it by him first (like the one I have coming up on Manifest-Station next week, he hasn’t read it yet…so maybe I need to rethink that!). I’d never divulge something personal about him (and then I would show him beforehand) and I don’t want his opinion to taint my work/resolve/confidence, so I don’t find it necessary to ask him (not to mention he’s a member of the “It’s good. I like it.” club). I chalk this one up to keeping marital harmony.
◊ Feedback/interest from friends and family. I no longer expect it. It was a sad revelation to discover this would be the outcome, and so I had to let that one go a while ago. Honestly, the most interested (non-writer) people in my life who ask or talk about my writing on a very regular basis? My eight year old daughter, two college friends, and my father-in-law. This is not an exaggeration. A few others think to ask occasionally, but on balance this has been a very solitary endeavor. Yes, I have folks in my life who practically know what bra size I wear but who never ask about my writing…not what I’m working on, what they thought about a piece…nada. It’s fine. I’ve made peace with it. I had to.
◊ Be kind to editors. Full stop. There is no good reason not to.
◊ Editors are human. If something comes up (edits I’m not totally in love with, they spell my name wrong on a piece, they lose my submission, they forget to publish it and it is a month beyond what they told me—all true stories), I am gentle and courteous in my approach. I ask nicely if I need to make a request that something be changed or they follow through on something, and almost every time they oblige. If I feel strongly about a particular edit, I say so (nicely) and discuss a possible alternative. That too has proven to be successful.
◊ Editors vary widely. If I’ve learned nothing else—other than how to embrace rejection—it has been that editors are so very different from each other. The following has happened to me, and everything in the middle: not a single solitary word or comma changed in a piece … an entire piece reworked (not the text itself, but the order). It really has run the gamut, and honestly I don’t know what to make of it. It has the dual effect of me telling myself I must be a great writer and me telling myself I am a fraud. It’s a strange beast.
◊ Reading. I try to read the sites and journals where I intend to submit, both before and after submitting a piece. I’ve learned how to better target my writing by doing that, yes, but more than that: I am continually astounded by the excellent work out there, usually by folks I’ve never heard of before. I try to share particularly excellent work on social media for those lesser known writers/journals. Again, we are all in this together.
◊ Sharing. When it comes to sharing the work of writerly acquaintances, you know what I’ve learned in five years? It’s sticky. Plain and simple. I don’t know another way to put it. Writing + social media = curious results. When I share something I see published by a writer friend/acquaintance, I do it because I know how hard it is to even get published by some of these sites and because it’s something that moved or intrigued me in some way. But mostly it’s that first one. And so I rally for them. There are pieces by others that I’ve shared on social media which are completely different from my own personal views, but because the writing is so good or the platform is top tier and hard to get on, I share it anyway. That said, I’ve learned that it does not mean that the favor will be returned. I’m ok with that (mostly), except when I sense some sour grapes and/or clique-eshness, like when I see it “across the way” between and among other people. I’ve observed that with some, there is often not even close to similar reciprocity and it kinda stinks when you see it happening to dear friends of yours. If someone is always the giver or the taker, it will catch up with them some how, some day and I soothe myself with that lozenge of karma. What “friends” means on social media is still sometimes a very grey area, and often I feel around in the dark there when it comes to expectations and obligations. No, we cannot share every piece for each other, but once in a while is not too much to ask. And so now I actively consider this: I ask myself the reason why I feel compelled to share someone else’s work. I’ll be honest: the reason has changed for me over the years. It’s no longer about trying to become closer friends. That was a rookie mistake and a silly way to grow a friendship. By changing my mindset in the why/when of sharing others’ work, I’ve set more reasonable expectations and lessened disappointment when it’s crickets for my work down the road. At the end of the day I can only control my own behavior and reaction, right? Right. The golden flip side to all of this is that I’ve also been completely and utterly tickled when I see sharing of work (including my own) that was unexpected or by someone I never even knew was reading. That trumps all else in my book.
◊ Success through failure. Perhaps most of all I’ve learned that my own personal success (in the myriad ways I define that) really has come as a result of several failures and dust-offs. There is no other way around it. Success out of the gate is incredibly rare, I see that now. I’m humbled by it actually. I respect other successful writers so much more than I ever did before because now I know. Luck certainly comes into play a lot of the time, but so does effort. And because I try, I often fail. That’s OK. The adage of one learning from one’s mistakes has never hit home more for me than through my efforts in writing. It all makes the successes taste that much sweeter.
What have you learned as a writer? Do you strongly agree or disagree with what I’ve shared here? Do tell!
Copyright (c) Kristen M. Ploetz 2016