On Being Wrong or Admit it, You Fucked Up by Josh Smith

Remember that time you wrote a perfect manuscript, proofread it, fixed a couple minor grammatical errors, then fired it off to your favorite publishing house and woke up a month later to find it on the Best Seller’s list? Yeah, me either.

Let’s be honest, if writing was such a magically painless act, there would be no editors and you wouldn’t be here right now. Writers of all levels are well aware that no first draft materializes fully-formed and ready for mass consumption, but what is truly difficult is not only recognizing areas in which you have failed to achieve what you envisioned, but accepting that failure. Not accepting it in the “well, this sucks, but I need it for the mechanics of this story to work, so I guess it stays” sense, but accepting that you have failed in order to understand why you failed, which in turn will lead you to the rectification of said failure.

While a great many issues can be dealt with during regular revisions, it is common to be so focused on a specific idea or approach that you overlook faults that negatively impact other areas of the work. Given the nature of these more insidious flaws, they usually require an external perspective, such as a beta reader, editor, or critique group to bring them to light. However, having someone else question your failings within these foundational elements can be challenging when you’ve already built an entire story or novel atop them. As I recommended in a previous post, take time to consider these suggestions before dismissing them outright. You aren’t beholden to the specific requests of any editor or reader, but their acknowledgement of the problem will help you internalize that it exists, and your wild writer brain will begin to redraw the map that will lead you to the optimal solution.

In high-concept pieces, each poor decision can construct a step in a Rube Goldberg machine triggered to derail your story. The first tripwire is the most important to root out, and once you see it, its entire architecture will become clear. Yes, you will have your work cut out for you. Yes, you may want to call for backup to help determine the success of your restorative efforts, but if you want to tell your story on your terms, I suspect you want to do it as effectively as possible. There is a delicate balance in non-traditional works that are more driven by tonal or visceral choices than plot, so be on the lookout for sections where style devours story.

Not all pieces require such in-depth scavenging, but that does not necessarily make them any easier to edit. All the best stories take us to previously unimaginable places and make us feel emotions we would never fathom otherwise, but these powerful elements can’t just be loaded up into the ol’ canon and blasted at our sensory receptors to achieve the desired effect. An intense or climactic scene might exist precisely as you envisioned, but if it doesn’t translate for your readers, it’s a wasted effort. Oftentimes, it isn’t even the writing of the scene itself, but the storytelling around it that leaves people grasping at your intent. Scenes featuring unrealistic or traumatic events are almost always divisive in early drafts, because they require the reader to conjure considerable imagination or empathy, and it is possible that you have not properly set the stage for such an undertaking. It can be particularly difficult to endure these criticisms if you are fictionalizing a lived experience, or are writing non-fiction, but no one said this would be easy. Again, recognizing that a problem exists, accepting that your approach is off, and working your way through will guide you to a more fulfilling story for you and your readers.

There is something to be said for a writer who will defend their vision to the death, but the mark of a true professional is identifying something that isn’t working, being open to changes, and dedicating themselves to improving the reading experience.

30 Days in the Trenches: Staying Motivated During NaNoWriMo by Josh Smith

Now that we’re a few days into NaNoWriMo, you may be starting to question whether or not you can actually pull this off. You may not have even started yet if you plan on word-sprinting through the weekends, but that fear might already linger. Make no mistake, this is a massive undertaking, but it is far from impossible. The first step is preparation. At this point, you should have a game plan, but if you still need some pointers, Melissa has you covered right here: Making the Most of NaNoWriMo.

Once you have yourself sequestered in your sacred writer’s cave with a head full of characters and a clear direction you’ll lead them in, nothing can stop you, right? Well … you’re going to experience some fatigue. It may not be today, tomorrow, or even next week, but your brain is going through the wringer this month and you need to stay limber if you’re going to reach the finish line. Here are some insights from previous NaNo participants to keep the words flowing!

Set Goals, stay on schedule
The 50,000 word finish line can easily be broken down into manageable chunks, such as 2,000 per day or 12,500 per weekend. These regular goals can be tailored to your schedule, and when you keep track of your word counts at https://nanowrimo.org, you will earn badges that act not only as trail markers but confidence boosters as well! There will likely be times that you fall behind, but as long as you don’t stray too far from your target, you’ll be able to catch up without exhausting yourself.

Remember why you’re participating
Those word count gaps can strike terror into the heart of even the most seasoned NaNo vet, so when that fear creeps into your periphery, when your text isn’t living up to your expectations, or if you’re just flat out tired and unable to focus, remember why you signed on in the first place. Whether you feel like this is an important step in growing as a writer, or you’ve always wanted to complete a novel, or maybe you just want to prove to yourself that you can do it. As long as you honestly care about your motivation, it will be an effective fuel!

Don’t let you physical or mental health slip
There’s a good chance you’ll notice a boost in your caffeine intake and a decrease in your physical activity and non-workplace human interactions. The quality of your meals might deteriorate as you hijack every possible minute to reach your goals. These situations may be unavoidable for most, but try to strike a balance. Your health is very important to both creativity and productivity, so it’s worth sacrificing a little time to go outside and enjoy the brisk autumn air, play a game with friends or family, or get a little exercise. Sometimes these short breaks can even clear your mind of clutter and help you work through troublesome patches in the novel. However, hunkering down over the leftover Halloween candy and seeing how much sugar you can pack into your body in one sitting is not an ideal break. You’re going to need snacks, and while a little candy here and there can be a nice treat, you should stock up on trail mix, fruits, or even energy bars. I’m not saying you need to go to Whole Foods and go wild on chia seeds and dried kale (unless that’s what you like), but be mindful of your snacking and try to take it easy on the caffeine. If you need a break from coffee, try brewed cocoa or new flavors of tea and always have water nearby!

Remember: 50,000 raw words
Don’t stop to edit yourself or second guess a decision. If you start questioning what’s hitting the page, make a note and write through it. There will be plenty of time to edit later. When your writing begins to feel sluggish, go wild! Use these moments as opportunities to explore situations you wouldn’t typically consider. Use your instincts and let the characters guide you. If you need to catapult someone into the sun or reveal that someone’s been an agent of the antagonist the whole time to get the pace of the story back on track, so be it. You have plenty of time to edit once NaNo ends, so don’t let any second-guessing throw you off track. You are a warrior, this is your battle, so get in there and slay that word count!

Special thanks to NaNo vets Nancy Moran, Judy Hopkins, and our own Melissa Heiselt for all the excellent info that went into this post. Be sure to check out next week’s NaNo blog as Melissa squares off with THE WALL!

What Kind of Writer Are You, Anyway? by Josh Smith

What kind of writer are you? Are you the type who can kick out a book a year, pad it a few short stories, and still manage to keep up on your emails? Maybe you’re a writer who labors meticulously on a single project for the better part of a decade. Do you drift somewhere in the median? There is no wrong answer, but understanding your natural tendencies, methods, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses will help you approach your writing from a more tactful place and help you direct your career into one that not only best suits you, but one that is more rewarding.

The first thing to consider is the rate at which you work. Everyone’s situations, routines, motivations, and abilities are different, but it’s good to understand where you fall on the spectrum of prolificacy. Some writers can dedicate long daily stretches to writing while others wait until their families are tucked into bed before hunkering down and toiling late into quiet nights to pursue their passion projects. Even considering wide schedule disparities, both types of writers could very well end up with a comparable heap of words. No matter the circumstances surrounding your writing, you know better than anyone if you are constantly firing on all cylinders and churning out waves of exceptional prose or whether you meticulously select each word, craft each phrase, and chart the rhythm of each passage to the pace of an unhurried muse.  Perhaps you fall somewhere in between. It is even possible that you fluctuate wildly between these poles. None of these approaches is wrong in any way, but it is important to recognize which one is YOU.

If you are feeling insecure about your word count, whether you feel you create too little over long periods, or you find that you overproduce and worry about slipping quality, consider ways in which you might leverage these factors to your advantage. For the slow writer, perhaps you have embarked on your project prematurely. This is more likely the case if you notice a decrease in your regular output. In this situation, it’s best to take a step back, make detailed notes and a thorough outline. If you lean toward visual thinking, draw some diagrams, or perhaps a map, but be careful not to let a tool become a distraction. Let the story you are telling guide you, but always be aware whether it is pulling or you have begun to push. If you’ve got every detail together but can’t seem to find the words to bring them to life, the problem could lie with your routine or your state of mind. Try setting aside a dedicated, uninterrupted block of time at least three days a week depending on the scale of your venture. Take care of all lingering chores and responsibilities and work out an agreement with your family or roommate(s) that will allow you to dig in without distraction. It may help to begin each session with a brief meditation. Still distracted? Many writers turn off their Wi-Fi or surrender their phones so as not to succumb to the pull of constant connectivity. If your work is deeply complex and multi-tiered, make sure you stay organized and keep any notes easily accessible during writing sessions and keep in mind a loose plan of attack when you begin. Avoid falling into research while you are writing, but jot down anything you need to look into and take care of it in advance of your next scheduled production period. Perhaps none of these instances apply to you—fear not! You may just require more time to properly translate your concepts from thought to text. If that is the case, stick with it and be mindful of moments of clarity. Remember how you reached them and use that information to curate an environment conducive to your particular mode of creativity.

If you are writing so much that it feels the story is going off the rails or meandering into too many unnecessary details, you might just need a side project to sate your creative impulse. An ideal option is getting into a freelance writing gig. Whether it is with a local paper or magazine or an online venue, there are paying jobs out there for the productive, timely writer! Start with areas of interest, such as book, album, or film reviews, or perhaps you have journalistic leanings and would like to write about events in your community. This path is not for all writers, but if output is your specialty, it can help you with focus and teach an economy of language that is best learned through experience. If this holds no appeal for you, start a blog! If you’re feeling a little insecure, you can always keep it anonymous, and it doesn’t need to be something you share with everyone, or anyone, for that matter. You have free reign on topics, no deadlines, no, length, style, or format restrictions. This is your chance to exercise all those excess ideas. When the time comes to sit down with the next short story or that novel that’s been wobbling around in your head, your focus will be in the right place. Not interested in blogging? You can also start mapping out your next project. If your writing stays on topic but you’re producing bloated, opaque slabs of text, get comfortable with killing your darlings. The prolific writer must also become the astute editor, or at least know an astute editor who can be trusted to amplify essentials and eradicate excess.

However you write, regardless of genre or format, intimately understanding your approach will provide critical insight on how to decide which ideas to pursue and how to present your completed works. It’s important not to pander to markets just because they are hot, but don’t pass up an opportunity to take advantage when they bend into your sphere. It may be tempting for fast writers to set their sights on churning out the next Game of Thrones, but adding to the noise leads to over-saturation and substandard work, not huge sales and global acclaim. If you’re looking for a mega-hit, remember that Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t riding the coattails of other works, they were exploring ideas that had not fully permeated popular culture. Instead of bandwagon-hopping, take a step back and consider the format and whether your productivity level would be an asset or a hindrance. A long book series is a smart goal for prolific writers, but write what you love, not what you think other people might love based on the popularity of another franchise. Slower writers should note that novellas and short novels have become increasingly popular in recent years and can be an ideal gateway for new readers. This is an exciting development because a novella can be anything you want it to be. Any genre or topic, standalone or series is an opportunity to make a big leap into the literary world without the daunting length of a traditional novel.

This path is yours and yours alone, so be mindful of its many twists, turns, and detours as you embark. Work to understand yourself and your potential; think about what you hope to achieve. Our literary dreams don’t always shake out as envisioned, but having a general direction will help guide you away from the many distractions and pitfalls you’ll encounter in your pursuit!

THE AXE: How Do I Make the Cut With Literary Journal Submissions? by Josh Smith

One of the best ways for writers to establish themselves in the literary world is to have their work appear in journals, but where to begin? Catherine’s post on cover letters is packed with insight, so you’ll definitely want to give that a read! I’ll be expanding on a few of the other points she made and discussing additional elements that journal editors focus on when it comes down to making the big decision to accept or reject.

While there are thousands upon thousands of literary magazines out there, I am specifically addressing how we swing the axe at the journal I edit for, Loud Zoo. I know, I know, it’s not the New Yorker, and of course a feature in our little magazine isn’t a springboard onto the Best Sellers list, but it’s the venue I can speak for with regards to its inner workings, and much of this information can be recontextualized and applied to other publications.

Edit! Edit! Edit!!! While this seems obvious, we see a lot of work that is simply not ready for a public forum. Even experimental works that subvert the rules and are meant to read looser and more conversationally need to be edited as much as any other story or they will feel half-cooked, and the experiment will surely fail. In addition to working out the grammatical, punctuational, and other technical problems, editing also helps you fully develop the characters involved and the story you are trying to tell. Do you have someone whom you can trust to give honest feedback on your works in progress? Those people are invaluable. We used to go all in and give complete content edits to submissions we felt were lacking but were worth the effort, but these days we don’t have the time.

Read the guidelines. No, really. So many pieces we reject simply don’t fit the requirements of the submission call or the scope of the magazine. As Catherine noted in her post, we know most people don’t have the time to read every issue of every magazine, but we try to make our intentions with this journal as clear as possible on the website. Loud Zoo strives for social change, and while every piece we accept isn’t necessarily a cobblestone on the road to revolution, we don’t have much interest in purely escapist works. Nothing against escapism, but there are plenty of other outlets for it.

Don’t be a bigot. While I didn’t intend to discuss morality when I sat down to write this, bias tends to show up on the page whether we realize it or not, and a piece with potential can make us want to catapult our computers into the abyss at the turn of a phrase. This is not about censoring people with opposing views (what kind of ideology is ignorance, anyway?), it’s recognizing that as a writer, your words have meaning, and in this day and age that comes with the responsibility to have a basic understanding of and respect for your fellow humans. We are open to sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, Islamophobic, bigoted, etc… characters and situations, with the caveat that you utilize them as opportunities to enlighten, rather than simply glorify or stereotype. There are always writers who think that shock is their key to the kingdom, but it is a transparent device unless it brings to light information that profoundly affects both your characters and your readers.

Dear male writers, women are people! Women are not just scenery or props for your male characters to do things for/at/with/to. It’s asinine that there is even cause to mention this and the previous point in 2017, but here we are. We reject so much work with hollow female characters that are described in immaculate physical detail, but have absolutely no depth or agency. Can you write fictional women who are not realistic? Of course! But unless you are working a complex or satirical angle that allows readers to gain something from the situation, you’re simply perpetuating inaccurate and harmful representations that our magazine will not partake in.

Satire isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to write, and even more difficult to write properly. We love well-done satirical works, but we don’t see many of them at all. If you are heading down this road, make sure you have a clear intention from the start, and that the final effect of the piece reflects that goal.

We see your clichés, and we’re not interested. So many stories rely on overused themes, arcs, and tropes, and while it is possible, it’s not likely to work something fantastic out of those molds. Nine times out of ten, the work comes off as contrived. If you’re only writing a certain genre or subject because you think it’s more likely to sell, truth is, it’s more likely to suck. That said, tropes are fun to subvert, and you can get fantastic results by taking something familiar and jettisoning it off into the unexpected. Whatever path you choose, be true to yourself and have faith in your readers. Seriously, readers are THE BEST. Take them by the hand, and they’ll follow you through the wilds!

Send notifications if your work is accepted elsewhere. Like most journals, we don’t publish reprints (again, read the guidelines!), and Googling every piece that comes through wastes time we could be giving to other submissions. We have sent an astronomical number of rejections based simply on the fact that the writer did not send a notification that their piece was accepted elsewhere. Confused about what constitutes a previous publication? It varies from journal to journal, but any time a work is made available to the public, that is a publication. See, it’s right there in the word! That means blogs, message boards, and even Facebook posts count as publications by our standards. If you shared something on a blog or on social media and want to try getting it published elsewhere, I highly recommend deleting it before you submit. We recently rejected a piece because it had already been published in four—YES, FOUR—other magazines! Next time you wonder why it takes so long for an editor to respond to your submission, remember these folks. Also, sometimes when you send us one of these wonderful acceptance notes, in addition to our eternal gratitude, we’ll be so bummed that we missed out on your piece that we’ll ask you for another!
Additionally, don’t revise a previously published work, change the title, and try to pass it off as new. This makes us think you should have spent more time editing in the first place, and it isn’t a loophole to bypass the previous publication guideline. There are several journals that actively publish reprints, so all is not lost if you have a story out there that didn’t get a fair shake.

I’ve given plenty of examples of how NOT to get published, but by now you’re probably wondering if there are more proactive ways to improve your odds. Honestly, this is the hardest part about trying to explain our magazine: what we are looking for and what we hope to achieve. We didn’t start this thing so we could run with the pack, so if there’s a piece you don’t think would fly in a more traditional litmag, it might fit with us. We are not interested in sequestering genre fiction from literary fiction. For us, it doesn’t matter if your work has space ships, dragons, and ghosts, as long as the result is a moving tale that gives us insight on something we didn’t realize we were missing out on. This is not the case with many other journals, so always be aware of each market’s specific restrictions. We’re primarily reaching for that spark that makes readers really connect with your words. Start with a concept that stirs you, keeps you up at night, and write it from the heart. If there are social or political connotations, explore them. Give us a tangible emotional impact, package it with deep truths, new ideas, and uncommon perspectives, edit it, then edit it again, and then maybe a couple more times, and you’re likely to wind up with something many editors can enjoy.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I’m sure there are outlets who are seeking the exact things we want nothing to do with, so again—choose your submission destinations wisely. Like so much in life, advice like this is not absolute. Find what works for you and build from there, but never stop improving your craft, never stop growing (both as a writer and as a person), and always persist!