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.

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!