Advice From My Publisher: Being a Better Writer by Amanda Wayne

Being a writer is easy. You just sit down and write. Being a good writer is much harder. For a time, I worked at The Indiana Review, and I was always eavesdropping on the editors, trying to find that one little nugget of truth that made a “yes” piece. Was it something about the language? The characters? The plot? What was missing from my work that would take it from mediocre to good? So, I asked one of the editors, Tessa Yang, what she sought. She replied, “Freshness and risk will capture my attention. I’m looking for something that dares in the first few pages. It needs to have difficult and new language, character, or concept. At the same time, what keeps me reading to the end—and what ultimately convinces me to vote for a piece—is earnestness and vulnerability. I’ve become less and less interested in emotional withholding. If you’re brave enough to reach for honesty and feeling, no matter concerns about sentimentality or mawkishness, I’ll want to take the plunge with you.”

Freshness? Risk? I tried to square this idea with “write what you know.” It’s that adage that every author knows. What I knew was everyone else’s work. I had decades of reading other people’s words. Everything I wrote read like my favorite authors. When I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wrote a short story about a man trying to find his son in a post-apocalyptic world. It wasn’t half bad, but there was nothing new in it. During my Stephen King phase, I wrote macabre pieces about the baser side of mankind. They were mediocre at best. My poems had bits of Frost and Dickinson, slapped together with a touch of Whitman and a dash of Poe. It was only later that I found a place where my work was my own. Somewhere along the way, I found a voice that was only mine. Sure, it echoes with reverberations of the millions of words I have read. It stands on the shoulders of the authors whose work I relished. That doesn’t make it less mine.  Writing what you know doesn’t have to be boring. It just starts emotionally, physically, or aesthetically in a place you are familiar.

The other half of the advice concerned emotional vulnerability. That process of letting your characters show your own emotion. This is even harder. Modern society doesn’t have much place for emotional vulnerability. We love it in our romantic comedies. We love that moment when the plucky but underappreciated woman convinces the emotionally absent male lead to open his heart to a chance at love. We like to see a hint of it in politicians because it makes them seem like real people. We wait for that moment when they swear, or slip up, or stumble. In everyday life, though, no one wants to see the innermost emotions of your local barista, the man walking his dog, or the neighbor you barely know. However, it is important to your character because without seeing their emotional vulnerability, the reader cannot grasp why they behave the way they do. A story needs this in order to engage the reader. Each piece of emotion lays bare a piece of the author’s soul. Not every character is like me or does what I would do, but each character is a part of me. To send those little pieces out into the world, to allow someone else to see them, is to put those vulnerable Horcruxes of my soul in danger of discovery and critique.  It was my own vulnerability that is needed, my own willingness to be open and available.

In short, what I learned was that the easiest way to get an answer is to ask the question. And being a better writer is hard. It takes writing more, reading more, and editing more. It requires that I be willing to part with pieces of my soul and be vulnerable. It is this last piece that I have struggled to overcome. I have the language, the vocabulary, even the imagination. Letting a stranger, let alone a multitude of them, into the private recesses of your being is what a writer does. Anything short of that isn’t worth my time or my reader’s time. Good writing begins with emotion and is propelled by prose and plot. Whether we like or dislike a character is immaterial; we must believe in their humanity in order to care what happens to them. A writer puts a piece of her own humanity into her characters, breathing life in where before there only existed form. Becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey, not a destination. At no point does the learning and editing stop. I can try every day to improve my craft and so, too, can you. It requires taking risks and creating emotional vulnerability. Both of those are tasks which even seasoned and published authors struggle to accomplish. By writing every day and actively seeking to better ourselves as artists, we become better each day.

They Said WHAT about My Piece?! Navigating the Critical World by Josh Smith

Criticism is inescapable in the Internet age. In addition to the myriad news outlets, magazines, blogs, and personal pages that feature reviews, the distance and anonymity afforded by the web has turned criticizing one another on social media into some kind of national pastime. This, combined with so many websites requesting reviews and ratings for everything we purchase, see, eat, and experience, “everyone’s a critic” has transitioned from an old adage to an element of modern life.

While this “review everything” landscape has mostly been curated as a customer service tool, people often get caught up in the rush of trashing something publicly, which is usually less a result of something actually being bad and more related to a particular perception, bias, or trend. Full disclosure: I dabbled in album reviews that were predominantly snarky and negative from the outset, but I eventually realized that cracking jokes at the expense of someone’s creations was a lazy approach that did nothing for an art form that I truly love. It turns out that it’s so much more rewarding to sit down with something, whether it’s initially appealing or not, and give it a chance to affect you on the artist’s terms. Unfortunately, there’s still an audience for those scathing “cheap thrill” reviews, and anything we create that winds up in a public space is a potential target for some hack with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a difficult task, but it’s important not to let this permeating negativity crush you, especially when it comes to your creative endeavors. That’s not to say that all unfavorable criticism of your work will be inherently wrong, but identifying the difference between trolling and actual critique will save you a lot of sleepless nights.

No matter the source, intent, or validity, nearly all criticism is accompanied by the sting of failure. That sting never disappears completely, but you can learn to temper it. It becomes a challenge in this age of constant commenting, and there is a real threat that you can become so callous that you are unable to find merit in insightful critiques when they do arrive. The opposite can also occur—when your work is so close to you, you may feel personally attacked by every bit of judgment coming your way, making it next to impossible to get anything positive out of even the most gentle and constructive criticism. Both of these responses develop over time if left unchecked, so be mindful of your emotional response to critiques, whether they come from friends, family, writing groups, or randos on Twitter.

For many writers, the worst form of criticism is also the most common: indifference. Indifference in a review can be devastating, but when your work doesn’t even reach a platform upon which it can be judged, you start asking dreaded questions like, “should I even be doing this?” and “what if no one ever cares?” These crossroads are the ones that define you, and when you approach them, you must do so with complete honesty. If you can see a way onward without requisite praise or even much acknowledgement, hang in there, put in the work and pave your own roads. If critical reception, fame, and wealth are your primary writing goals, maybe it’s time to take some time off and consider a career path with a more realistic pathway to grand success. If you can’t help but work through the debilitating indifference that most writers experience early on, then you will develop the fortitude to handle any criticism that comes your way, and the poise to  allow it to improve your work.

One of the most important lessons in receiving criticism is giving it time to sink in. Quick reactions to tough observations can increase anxiety, causing you to overlook any helpful elements populating the critique. In writing groups, editor’s reviews, or other professional situations, this can lead to overreactions or outbursts that won’t advance your writing or your career. When you feel that sting, slow down, take a step back and ask yourself why it hurt and what comment struck the hardest. Oftentimes, it is because something has hit close to home. Specific pieces of advice might suggest things about your work or even your personality that are tough to face, but hard truths are often the ones we need to hear the most. Do your best to not be dismissive in these situations, as difficult as that may be. Sometimes you’ll learn important life lessons, and other times you’ll discover that the reader merely missed the point. That said, if you find that people frequently misunderstand what you are trying to do, you may need to reconfigure your approach. Use the results of past critiques, reviews, and comments to zero in on where you’re losing people and find a way to clarify what you want them to see. The subjective nature of art and perception will ensure that someone, somewhere will certainly receive different signals than you intended to send, but if you have made yourself as clear as possible without insulting the intelligence of your core readers, then you can rest easy.

You may not think much of every opinion about your work, but you can learn something from almost any critique. Even a cheap jab can train you to shake off thin attacks and can show you how to more thoughtfully respond if you are asked to chime in on the works of your peers. Take your time, keep an open mind, and prepare to get a bit uncomfortable. Being under the microscope is a stressful endeavor, but the quality of your work is sure to improve if you can allow yourself to see it from new perspectives.

The Smallest Winner Contest

At the LetterWorks, we believe writing is a very personal and important matter, and sharing it with the world is the one of best ways to hone your craft.  Many of our customers are submitting their writings to publications and even contests.

Winning a contest isn’t always about having the best story, format or editing.  Sometimes your work just doesn’t mesh with the publisher’s theme.  It could also be that your competition is very strong.

We think you should be rewarded for your efforts, even if you don’t come in first place.  So the LetterWorks is holding our own contest!

In the spirit of being positive, we are calling it “The Smallest Winner!” contest.  We will have multiple prizes:

  • First place will be awarded to a contest winner with the smallest monetary amount won that wasn’t a first place win.  First prize will be a $25 Visa gift card!
  • Second place will be awarded to a contest winner for the largest monetary amount won that wasn’t a first place win.  Second prize will be a free edit from theletterworks.com, up to 2500 words!
  • We will have up to three honorable mentions.  These will win a 50% discount off any edit up to 2500 words.

Winners will also have the option to have their publication link posted on the LetterWorks homepage!

To enter you can choose one of the following options:

  • Like Us” on Facebook and make a quick post on your page including the hashtag #theletterworks and mention the amount you won and where you submitted your work.
  • Follow Us” on Twitter @theletterworks for the amount you won, where you submitted your work, and include the hashtag: #theletterworks.
  • Send an email to contest@theletterworks.com letting us know the amount you won and where you submitted your work.  Please include “The Smallest Winner” in the email subject.

Submissions should be received by November 10th, 2017.  We will have the results of the contest by November 17th, 2017.

We will tally up the results, and if you win we will contact you in the same way entered the contest.  You may enter as many times as you like, but your odds of winning depend upon the number of total entries and the value of those winnings.  If we contact you, we will ask you for evidence of your winning (a published link or forwarded email, for example).

That’s it!  Get writing and submitting.  Good Luck!

Making the Most of NaNoWriMo by Melissa Heiselt

Nothing gets a fire burning under you like a tight deadline. Ah, that alarming shock to your system that says you’ve got to move now or you will suffer humiliation at the hands of your friends, family, or coworkers! Which brings us to National Novel Writing Month, A.k.a. NaNoWriMo, where hundreds of writers dash in, determined to finish that novel! Or start that novel! Or crank out any novel! All in just those scant thirty days of November. Sound crazy? Well, yeah, it pretty much is, but it’s also a really fun way to make some serious headway on that one project that you love/fear the most, if you approach it the right way. Here are five steps to use this October to prepare for the greatest writer’s holiday ever this November:

        Get Your Head in the Game

Many authors decide to join the NaNoWriMo hype on a whim. I should do something amazing this month! I’m totally going to write a novel! There is nothing wrong with that if it’s just for kicks and you see no serious goals of publication in the future for your work, but it’s very hard to cross that finish line without a concrete goal. Get clear about your purpose here. Why are you doing it? Is this an intense writing exercise to get you over the mental hang-up of writing something as massive as a full novel? Is this to get your ideas fleshed out fully? Is this the major push to get your concept on the road to publication? Know where you want to go when you board the NaNoWriMo train, and you will reach your destination. At the same time, know this: thirty days isn’t enough time to complete a great novel. It can be enough time to complete a rough draft if you are committed. Don’t demand perfection in every word here. Revisions will be necessary, and that is okay. Even a draft that takes years to assemble will need many revisions and editing work. Just get it all on the page so you can see it take shape.

        Don’t Fly By the Seat of Your Pants.

I know, I know, I just quashed the creativity right out of you. Just hear me out. If you are using NaNoWriMo as a catalyst with a goal of publication, you will want to use this month wisely. If you want to actually write a novel instead of 50,000 random words, you will still need to plan. Before you write a novel you MUST KNOW your main characters. What drives them? What stands in their way? What scares them? You MUST KNOW the beginning, middle, and end of your plot. If you doubt this, just binge watch the TV series LOST. You guys, it could have been so good. Know your ending. That’s what enables you to foreshadow and create meaningful connections throughout that create that brilliant/ shocking/ satisfying ending. You MUST KNOW your landscape. Your readers will be as confused as you are about where things are happening. Make sure you aren’t disorganized. Strategies for outlining, storyboarding or however you like to organize your world are myriad, and I’m not going to delve into that here, but spend October planning for November. If you have a vague story idea you’ve never had time to really flesh out, this is a great time to give yourself a kick-start on bringing it to life!

         Create Space to Create.

Perhaps the greatest value of NanoWriMo for aspiring authors is that it forces you to commit deeply to your writing and to schedule fiercely guarded, uninterrupted writing time. After all, it’s only for a month! At least that’s what we tell our loved ones as we closet ourselves away for hours at a time writing hundreds or thousands of words each day. If you find your roommates cannot resist coming in during that sacred writing time, pick a different venue. The library. A coffee shop. Wherever will allow you to focus and stay on target. That act of carving out time and space for your creative work has the potential to become a deliciously self-perpetuating habit. Maybe you can’t keep that break-neck speed forever. Maybe you have bills to pay and actually like the people with whom you cohabitate. But that habit carries momentum that you just have to renegotiate to keep rolling at the pace that’s right for you. Begin now to set aside time each day to prepare for NaNoWriMo. Word count doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be hours. However, it needs to be consistent every day.  Use that time to get plot details hammered out. Get acquainted with your characters. Research relevant professions. Draw maps. It doesn’t even have to be writing, it just needs to be relevant to the project.

        Embrace the Cloud

Create a safe place to store your work. Nothing is worse than losing your nearly finished masterpiece-in-progress.  It’s sheer devastation. Plan ahead to find the place to save that’s right for you. Dropbox (unless you are incredibly prolific or use it for photos) and Googledocs both offer cloud services for free. Create some accountability for your writing with a word count widget, or commit to consistently updating your word count on the NaNoWriMo site once you begin. Find some way to see your progress visually. It will keep you motivated to keep driving this crazy train.

          Find a Writing Buddy

As antisocial as some of us may be, at our core we are social creatures. We perform better when there is accountability involved. Whether it’s your best friend you’ve roped into joining you on this ride or your local writer’s group or an online forum for NaNoWriMo inductees, find someone with whom you can commiserate. Writing fifty thousand words in thirty days is a huge undertaking; it’s the marathon of the writing world. Connecting with a writing buddy will give you a place to share strategies, encourage, and receive encouragement! Once you begin the race, you won’t want to waste your precious writing time trying to locate someone who really gets it and who understands your insatiable need for hot drinks and validation. Seek out connections beforehand and you will find yourself ahead of the game.

National Novel Writing Month is both a celebration of writing and a beastly challenge. Take some of the fire out of this dragon by preparing now, and you will be much more pleased with your completed novel on November 30th at 11:59pm.

 

An Author’s Guide to Dealing with Rejection by Amanda Wayne

You snap the mail box door closed and push up the red flag. There goes your baby. All those words you painstakingly wrote, rewrote, and revised are officially off to be judged by a complete stranger. As you turn away, you feel relief and anguish. Did you put on enough stamps? Did you fill out the address exactly right? What if they hate it and they talk about how awful it is over their morning coffee? What if they love it and you finally get that letter validating your hours, weeks, and years of hard work? What if you never hear anything at all? Days pass, then weeks, then a month. Finally, there it is waiting in your mailbox. A letter. THE letter. The one you have been waiting for. You tear it open. “Dear you, thank you for sending your story to us, however … blah blah blah.”

All authors experience rejection. The greatest and most prolific authors have all had stacks of rejections letters taunting them with their form words and empty reassurances to try again. Issac Asimov, who some call the father of science fiction, had this to say: “Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” He went on to write or edit 500 books. Stephen King wrote, By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” Later, he would send the same rejected work back to the same publisher who would jump at the chance to publish his work. J.K. Rowling has even submitted works for publication under a pseudonym and had them rejected. One publisher even told her to take a writing class. A writing class? For the woman who gave us Harry Potter? Really?!

So you see, rejection is as much a part of the writing process as the writing itself. Rejection hones your skills, motivates you and even inspires you.  Each rejection gives you the chance to stop writing or continue. You can allow a one page form letter to derail your dreams or you can use it to fuel the next story and the next submission. Someone sitting at a desk with a stack of manuscripts or stories in front of them decided that your work wasn’t right for their publication. They sent out hundreds or thousands of those letters to authors just like you. Somewhere, another author is opening their mailbox and reading the exact words that you just read. Tomorrow, they may delete their work in progress and decide that this writing thing just isn’t for them. Make sure that author isn’t you. As Chuck Wendig said, “Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?”

Use the rejections as a chance to edit your work and to learn from what worked or didn’t work. Move the dialogue around, delete a scene that wasn’t working or maybe add in a plane crash. You can set aside that work and begin again on another day with another work in progress. One day, after you’ve published a few stories, you might happen across that old document, change a few things, and submit it anew only to realize that suddenly it does find a home.

So what should you do with that rejection letter? Keep it for posterity? Burn it in revenge? Post it proudly as proof that you put yourself out there and allowed a piece of your soul to be vulnerable? That’s really up to you. All of these are valid options to the soul-crushing rejection letter. Whichever you choose, remember that it was just a piece of paper. Don’t allow yourself to permit a sheet of paper to have power over you. You control your destiny. A piece of paper can’t stand up to that, right? After all, you invented a whole world and populated it with characters. You made those characters dance on puppet strings while you dictated what they said and how they lived their lives. A little piece of paper can hardly compare to that.

 

7 Tips to Avoiding Freelance Writing Scams by Melissa Heiselt

Whether you’re looking to earn some freelance writing cash on the side or just ready to switch gears from more creative endeavors, make the most of your opportunities by ensuring the jobs you take really will pay. Here are a few tips from the freelance writing pros who have been there and been scammed. Here is what we’ve learned:

Don’t pay to find work.

The more reputable freelance hub sites might take a percentage of your paycheck, charge the companies looking for reputable freelancers or both, but generally a monthly subscription fee to have access to the opportunity to find work is a red flag that you’re opening yourself up to a potential floodgate of scams. If you’re paying so your potential clients don’t have to, it generally means more of them will be, shall we say, underfunded. Many of these purported “databases” are actually pulling from other free sites you should be checking out yourself, including Craigslist. Upwork, Toptal, Freelancer, Fiverr, Guru, and Freelance Writing Gigs all have methods for attempting to screen out scammers, but some will still inevitably get through. Keep a wary eye out for potential clients who prefer to communicate through private email or Google Hangouts rather than the platform you’re using

Never agree to work for free.

NEVER complete the entire writing job before you have a contract. “Submit your best work and we might hire you” actually means, “Thank you for the free article, sucker!” NEVER accept “experience” or prestige points or whatever they’re selling as a substitute. NEVER accept terms that essentially say, “work now, we’ll pay when we get the money.” Be sure there is at least a solid contract in place you could use to take legal action before completing the work and expecting to be paid. And READ that contract. Some will substitute a far smaller amount in the contract for the one verbally agreed upon and hope you won’t notice.

Don’t undersell your talent.

Check the terms of your contract and ensure that you will wind up with a reasonable hourly wage. Don’t get caught up in the bidding war that is Fiverr by offering the most work for the least pay. You aren’t winning there, friend. Strategically offering a minimal bargain offer with the aim of enticing bigger job offers once they’ve had a taste of your phenomenal talent is one thing. Consistently underselling yourself undercuts not just yourself but the market as a whole. You have a skill many others lack. That is why they’re willing to pay someone else to write for them! Just because they’re hoping to pay the least amount for the best writing they can get does not obligate you to lower your standards to accommodate. You deserve to make a living with your skills. There is work out there for you. Name your price and stand firm.

Make sure the company is legit.

Can the representative clearly explain what the company is and does? Do they have a functioning email address? A working phone contact? Can you locate a physical address on Googlemaps? Is there some kind of web presence? Do they have reviews for their company online? Be aware: some companies are becoming more savvy and will put up a website to keep up appearances. Poke around and click through to be sure it’s functional and makes sense. If anything “feels” off, it probably is. There are so many real clients out there waiting for you to apply; don’t waste your time with anything sketchy.

 Poor grammar is a red flag.

If there are repeated, glaring errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, you are probably not dealing with a professional. There are certainly exceptions, such as when you’re being asked to edit or write for a non-native English speaker, and that is clear in the job description. But by and large, if you are being approached by a “hiring manager” who seems to have abysmally poor communication skills, think twice and take a closer look at the company they claim to represent.

 Be wary of the unsolicited job offer.

There may be the odd headhunter looking for a contractor or a freelance hit on LinkedIn that is linked to a very real potential client. For the most part, however, an email from XYZ Corporation looking for someone with your exact writing talents really is too good to be true. When something like this comes through your inbox, at least do your due diligence in checking out all the above before responding. Scammers like to hit newbies, so if you’ve recently signed up with a freelance job hub, you will likely be a target for the first few weeks.

Don’t cash an overpaid check.

One of the oldest scams out there is another of those “too good to be true” scenarios. All seems to go well with Joe Client, contract looks good, communication is clear, all seems to be in order. Work is completed and they send you a check for $2,000 more than agreed upon. Do NOT attempt to cash that check believing it’s some kind of bonus for your stellar prose. Typically you’ll get an email noting the error and asking you to go ahead and cash the check, then write them a new check for the overage amount. In reality, the check is no good and will bounce and you will have paid them the two grand for your work. Instead, offer to tear up the check and wait for them to send a new one for the correct amount. Then take it to the bank to verify. If you’ve connected with them through Upwork or a similar site, just stick with the program and have them pay electronically so this can’t happen. You should also report them to the higher ups so they can help you handle the situation if the payment is still no good. If you came by the client on your own, you can threaten legal action, contract in hand. Worst case scenario, you will have lost your work, not the money.

These are just some of the methods to help avoid being scammed. There are always more, so be on the lookout for anything that doesn’t seem right. Remember to trust your instincts. Not everyone out there is a bad guy, and once you get a few true and honest jobs under your belt, the incidences of dealing with these scam artists will minimize. As you gain confidence in your reputation, you will flourish. If you do happen to fall prey to a scam, don’t feel bad; it happens to the best of us. Try to learn from it and move forward. Better days are ahead if you just keep trying. Good luck and happy writing!

 

 

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!

What Published Authors Never Tell You About Writing A Cover Letter by Catherine Foster

As a short story author, I am proud to tell people that I have over seventy published titles to my credit. This is one of the first things that I list about myself when I am crafting a blurb about my accomplishments or when I need to write up a paragraph detailing my successes. As authors, we can craft what truth to write on the page to suit our needs. For instance, it is an equal truth but far less flattering to mention that for every story on the list that met with an approval letter, I first met with at least four rejections. Sometimes I had ten or fifteen dismissals before I saw that coveted acceptance finally come my way. In fact, it might be fairer to write next to my name: suffered 703 kicks in the teeth, but who wants to trumpet their failures? It’s far better to tell about the ones that people liked than the ones they didn’t, wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s be honest: you’re going to get some rejections along the way. It’s to be expected, but you’re strong and you can handle it. You can mitigate your risk of receiving that dreaded rejection letter by following a few simple rules:

–When you are ready, having your piece thoroughly edited and proofread.

No submissions editor wants to read a story by an author that couldn’t be bothered to properly punctuate or spell correctly. If you don’t care, why should they?

–Reading and respecting ALL submission guidelines.

This can be difficult, since each place has varying, possibly circuitous, rules that sometimes seemed designed to test your patience and understanding of your computer’s advanced formatting tools. But a word to the wary: many places will not even read your submission if you don’t follow their rules very closely. It is wise to spend time reading the fine print, and I especially recommend becoming familiar with William Shunn’s excellent guide to formatting, which is considered by most to be the gold standard when there is any doubt about the rules.

Choosing wisely about where to submit.

You may not have time to read the back issues of every literary magazine between The Albuquerque Revue and Zephyrhills Weekly, but it is your responsibility to be at least a little familiar with where you are submitting. It doesn’t make sense to submit a horror story to a romance-based magazine or a conservative political editorial to a nonbinary review. These types of mistakes are sure to get you a rejection, and not a nice one. A little bit of research beforehand can save you a lot of headache in the long run. Or it can make your day!

–Having a great submission letter.

This is your introduction and your chance to stand out from the pack.

We’re going to focus on the last item. The key to having your first story accepted instead of brushed off can be as simple as your submission letter. If I had known that when I was beginning my career, I may be more able to write now suffered only 201 kicks in the teeth and saved myself a few heartaches, but perhaps you can learn easier than I did. A well-written submission letter is important because it gives a lot of information about you in an organized manner. Many contributors skip this step, especially if they are submitting through an online management software system such as Submittable that has its own place for the questions that would normally be included in a cover letter. This is a mistake for several reasons, this first and most important is that your information will be stored with that system, but you want to be known as professional. Your submission and that spot in the magazine or with the publishing house is similar to a job to which you are applying. If you take yourself seriously and with respect, the editors will see that and take notice. Filling out an online form is the minimum effort required, and it shows. Having a well-crafted submission letter speaks volumes about you, and you want to leave people with the best impression of yourself and your work that you possibly can.

It is all right to create your letter beforehand and tweak it to fit the different places you are submitting to. This is known as a form letter. The danger in this is that you must be very careful to look over your letter before you send it out. You don’t want any embarrassing mistakes because you sent the wrong date or the wrong salutation at the top. So be aware of the pitfalls of the form letter.

The submission letter should start with your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address at the top left corner, left-justified. Must you give this information? Sometimes not, but it is easier to remove it in subsequent drafts than to keep adding it every time you want to send the letter. Traditional cover letters usually include that information, and any reputable establishment will not sell or use personal information from submissions. If you choose not to include this information, you can always delete it later.

The next step is to choose a greeting. Because it is a form letter, it is advisable to choose something that does not specify gender or is inclusive to both. “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” etc.

The opening paragraph is where you introduce yourself. Say hello and state the the name of your story. This is where you need to establish a connection, no matter how tenuous: “I found your listing for calls in New Pages.” “I read Glimmer Train.” “I read a story by your editor.” Here is where you mention how know about them or how you heard about their company and why you think your story is a good fit. This paragraph should not be more than three or four sentences. This is not the time to discuss plot details or to explain anything. This is a quick, easy, paragraph establishing introductions and connections and should not be overly dense.

The next paragraph is your biography. It should be about seventy-five to a hundred words, or no more than four sentences. This is where you state some accomplishments germane to the industry. You may list a single website and no more than three published titles. If you list everything you have ever written, you risk boring the editor and they will skip over your whole letter. If you are new and just getting started, don’t fret. You can use general terms when talking about your accomplishments: “I’ve been writing for 5 years.” “I have always loved reading and have decided to pursue writing as my dream.” Many, many publishers passionately support new and emerging writers, so don’t be intimidated  when you’re just starting out!

The last section is where you close it out and tie everything together. Thank the editors for taking the time to read your work. Say something gracious about the process or something personal but genuine. If nothing seems to fit, that’s okay. This section should be short, but not more than three sentences at most.

For your closing, pick something that suits you but is not too trendy. “Sincerely,” “Respectfully,” “Best wishes,” are all good choices and something in that vein would serve you well. You want to write your name, and underneath that you may also put your pen name in parentheses, if you are using one.

This will be a good, solid submissions letter that will serve you all the years that you will be working with the publishing industry. It can be modified easily: you can add to your growing list of accomplishments in your biographical section, add in word count if the site specifies it, give a little blurb about the plot if they require it, and so on and so forth. The most important thing is that you remember to read all of the requirements for each site so that you can make the changes to your letter that you need to.

Rejection doesn’t come easy to anyone, but being prepared will help you avoid a majority of those nasty stings. This guide to submissions letters is your first step in great preparation. Good luck out there, and happy submitting!

 

 

 

 

Meet Our Editors!

Catherine Foster is a twelve year editing veteran and an accomplished author of over 70 published works. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her own work. This, combined with her experience as the submissions editor for Bedlam Publishing, gives her a unique perspective on keeping manuscripts from the dreaded circular file. In fact, she boasts a remarkable 86% rate of her edited works being published. She is also a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association.

When asked about the most memorable work she has edited, she said, “The thing I am most proud to have worked on is an upcoming volume of poetry by Ramez Qureshi (publication date 12/2017). He was a student who died just prior to 9/11. The Estate put all of his things in storage for years, and when they went through them a few years ago, they found a treasure trove of amazing poetry, but a lot of it was unintelligible. They contacted two companies to transcribe it before they came to us, but no one was able to do it. I took the job, and after hundreds of painstaking hours of pouring over letters, I was able to decode Ramez’s entire collected works. One of the poems was written on the last day he died. It was touching and heartfelt beyond belief, and I was forever changed by the experience. I wrote about the experience in my own memoir. I later was part of the team who selected and edited a first round of the poems for publication, and this is an incredibly personal endeavor for me. I am so honored to help bring Ramez’s words to light after so long.”

When she isn’t working with the written word, Catherine spends her days raising her children and chasing her six cats and three dogs. She also enjoys playing classical piano, practicing her German, and baking fancy cakes and breads.

Melissa Heiselt is an experienced editor and writer. She has worked as a research writer, copywriter, and blog writer for about ten years. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in English, and minored in Linguistics. She specializes in higher-level edits; helping with structure and cohesiveness, suggesting alternative words, pointing out discrepancies between the style/tone. A former homeschool teacher, she enjoys the teaching aspect of editing and seeks to always make her clients stronger authors. She taught English in China and spent a number of years doing ESL tutoring.
A self-professed word nerd, she lists the Classics and Fantasy among her favorite genres. Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Shakespeare all top her list of favorite authors. She particularly admires Ms. LeGuin for her precise and beautiful prose.  Melissa loves poetry with a heartbeat and enjoys compulsively critiquing any stray banner, flyer, or fast food sign she sees.

Josh Smith is not a pseudonym. He is, however, an editor with fourteen years of experience. Eleven of the fifteen pieces he has edited for The LetterWorks thus far have either been published, or are forthcoming as of this writing. He co-founded Bedlam Publishing in 2003, and was named Editor-in-Chief in 2010. Bedlam has produced three different magazine titles over the years, as well as various online publication. Their current art/lit digital magazine, Loud Zoo, is in its fourth year, and their first book is scheduled for publication in September.
When he isn’t busy editing, childhood dreams of being a mad scientist and a musician take hold, and he tinkers with found objects and simple circuits with noisy, percussive results. He has a floofy dog named Tractor, who some say is the brains of the operation. His favorite writers include Jeff VanderMeer and Jorge Luis Borges, and as such, loves to edit fiction that exists beyond the boundaries of expectation and familiarity.

Eleven Steps to Becoming a Published Author by Amanda Wayne

Step one: Write something. Pretty simple, right? You just sit down in front of your computer and pour out a few thousand words. There should be a beginning, middle, and an end. You might want a plot and a few characters. Perhaps you could throw in some action and dialogue.

Step Two: Okay, you nailed the writing part. Go you! Now comes the less exciting part. Set your manuscript aside. Figuratively and literally. Move on. Get coffee. See a movie. Write a new story. Wait at least a month. No peeking.

Step Three: Read your story all the way through. Don’t stop to change tenses or adjust the dialogue. No editing whatsoever. Read it as if you weren’t the one to write it. Ask yourself, “Does my story make sense?” Do not ask yourself if the story is any good. First drafts rarely are.

Step Four: Read it again. Make notes about changes that need to be made. Don’t worry about proofreading right now. There is no point in adding a comma to a sentence that may not even exist tomorrow. Think about the scenes; are they necessary to the plot or just taking up space? Make those changes, change your mind and undo your changes and then change them again.

Step Five: Now that the story is officially a second draft, you can have someone else read it. Give away your precious baby to someone brutal. Pick someone who can tell you the truth. Friends, while well-meaning, do not usually make good Alpha readers. If all anyone tells you is that it’s really good, they aren’t helping. You need them to be blunt and honest. Take their feedback and decide whether to implement their advice. Make those changes or find a new reader. You can also pay a professional editor to read your work and give you substantive or developmental advice. These people are there to tell you that the knife on page seven isn’t in the same place on page thirteen, that Annalisa used to have blonde hair, and that you don’t really need all of page seventeen.

Step Six: Okay, now your story is in pretty good shape. It’s looking more and more like a Pulitzer Prize winner. Now is the time for some real editing. If grammar and dangling modifiers aren’t your forte, hire or bribe a good editor to do it for you. There are thousands of people who claim to be editors. A good editor is probably going to cost you at least a penny per word. That’s industry standard. Be wary of anyone giving you a lower quote. You get what you pay for.

Step Seven: Your copy is back from the editor and it is just chock full of red pen! Oh no! Don’t sweat it. Even great writers need an editor. Go through your story again. Make adjustments to tense, punctuation, grammar, style, and voice. Read through the story from back to front. This will feel weird. The sentences don’t go in this order. You aren’t looking for order, you already did that. You’re looking for misplaced commas, incorrect tenses, and missing quotations.

Step Eight: Another round of readers. Find another reader who is equally as unforgiving. Have them read your mostly polished manuscript and give you feedback. Give it to a few more people. Take their praise and criticism and change what needs to be changed or leave it all the same.

Step Nine: Write or hire someone to write a really great cover letter for your submission. There are many templates available online to give you ideas. A submission cover letter introduces you to the publishing house or literary magazine. You can list any previous publications you might have or just try to make it sound as if you have some idea what you are doing. A cover letter the resume of the writing world. Your work can and will stand on its own merit; but the cover letter will operate as an opening act.

Step Ten: Slap a stamp on that manuscript and send it off to Judgment Day. You will probably get rejected. A nice little form letter will arrive in the mail long after you stopped impulsively checking your mailbox. If you get lucky, some thoughtful submissions editor will scrawl one line about how you should keep trying.  It will crush your soul. All of your hard work! All those hours!

Step Eleven: Repeat Step Ten. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again.

Keep writing, even when those rejection letters start to pile up. They aren’t proof of anything other than your specific piece wasn’t the right fit for that particular publisher at this exact moment. With an eye for careful editing and thoughtful submissions process, you are sure to succeed and become a published author!

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