Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Deciding When a Draft is "Final"

One difficulty I have with writing and publishing is figuring out when I'm done, when after multiple drafts I've reached the "final" draft.

I typically work on something until I feel it's as good as I can make it (at least at the moment) and then start submitting. If it gets accepted, I must have been right that it was ready (I've had a couple of pieces get accepted on the very first try, which is an amazing feeling). If it gets rejected (which happens almost all the time), I want to reconsider whether it's "finished."

If I get nothing but form rejections, I have to consider carefully that the piece may not be as good as I thought. But if I get positive rejections, with comments about how my piece made the shortlist or was seriously considered or whatever, then I know that the piece is good, but I have to consider two possibilities: 1) the piece is ready and I haven't found the right journal, or 2) the piece is very close to being ready and I still need to revise more.

Looking back over something one more time is usually a good idea, but it's still really tough to figure out when it's done. I've had pieces I was sure were as good as I could get them only to revisit them a year later and see a bunch of changes I can make. Or I have other pieces that have been rejected over and over, but I look back over them only to still believe that they are good and ready to submit.

Eventually, if a piece is never accepted, I stop sending it out. Except, I have trouble retiring something if part of me still believes in it. Sometimes I'll go years without looking at it but then decide to go back to it one more time (my most recent publication was a situation like this where it had been rejected dozens of times over a period of close to a decade and then after yet one more revision, it got accepted).

So I'm curious if anyone else has thoughts on how do you know when you're done? When do you decide something is ready to send out? Or when do you decide to give up on something if it keeps getting rejected?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Author Website

I've been thinking about creating a website for myself. I have friends who have author websites, and it definitely seems like a good idea once you're at a certain level of success. I mean if you have a book or a ton of journal publications, absolutely. Someone reads a piece in a journal, wants to learn more about you and your other publications, and can find out you easily online. Or if an agent reads something and is interested, the agent could track you down (that happened recently to a friend of mine!).

But it seems aspirational to do it now. I'm sure I don't need a website yet. I don't have a book, and my publication rate of essays, stories, and poems is about one per year, so I'm hardly in a situation where tons of readers are trying to find out more about me and where they can read my work.

But maybe that is the exact right time to do it. If I set up a site now, then when the day comes that I have a book, or when I start publishing multiple pieces a year, I'll already be easy for readers to find.

I don't know. I'm curious if anyone out there has thoughts about this topic. If you'd care to comment, I'd love to know what other people have done or are considering doing. When does it make sense to do it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Fine Line Between Acceptance and Rejection

Years ago, I  read the view of an editor from a major journal who estimated that the vast majority of submissions are terrible. My experience leads me to a different conclusion.

Most journals are inundated with submissions and can only publish a fraction of what they receive, maybe 1/100. Many journals publish primarily work by established writers solicited by the editors, so the fraction of work coming in via the slush pile is even smaller, maybe 1/500. So does that mean the other 499 are terrible? Or even bad? Many of those are probably pretty good, but the editors did not rank them to be the best out of the stack of 500 they were considering.

When I began submitting, all my work earned form rejections. Then, as my writing got better, I slowly started getting some acceptances. Now I'm at a point where I still get more rejections than acceptances, but about as often as not I get personal rejections that say things like "this made our short list" or "our editors spent significant time discussing this essay, but . . ." or there's the old classic: "please consider us in the future." I take those personalized rejections as a very good sign that I'm on the right track with my writing. It means what I'm doing is good, very good even, but just not the 1/100 or 1/500 they want to publish in the next issue.

I recently served as a guest editor for Driftwood Press, a journal in its second year. They published a story of mine earlier this year and asked me to help with editorial duties this summer, going through the slush pile and picking a few submissions for consideration.

I was assigned fifty short stories, which broke down roughly like this:
1 was great. I voted yes, it should be highly considered for publication.
5 - 10 were in the maybe pile, good but not quite right for the journal's aesthetics or maybe matching another editor's tastes more than mine, so definitely worth having someone else offer a second opinion.
1 or 2 stories were withdrawn by their authors.
2 or 3 didn't meet submission guidelines.
20 - 30 featured some good writing but had some problem or other: they needed additional editing or relied on clich├ęd plot turns that experienced writers recognize and beginning writers don't. Basically, these stories were promising and with more work and experience, these writers will produce very good material, but these stories just aren't there yet.
Only 5 - 10 were bad, like full-of-typos-bad.

So here's my takeaway from this experience on the other side of the slush pile: there is a lot of good work out there. Being the one standout in the pile is hard. It means being absolutely polished with more interesting characters and plot elements and more resonant metaphors and sophisticated language use than all the surrounding pieces. You  have to hit every note just right to be that one standout.

And even then, you never know. It could be the one story I selected will wind up rejected by the next editor who reads it. This journal gets hundreds of submissions but only publishes four to eight stories per issue (and again, some journals have worse odds than that). So it could happen that the next issue is published, and none of the fifty stories assigned to me are included. If that's the case, I hope the many good writers I read understand the rejection doesn't mean their stories were bad. A lot of them were good, but the odds are long. To them, I say, keep submitting. Keep writing. And please consider us again in the future!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Learning Where You Fall on the Continuum

When I first began submitting my writing for publication, I had no concept of how good I was (or wasn't). I figured I might as well send that short story to The New Yorker because, hey, maybe I'm brilliant and will be discovered at age twenty-three. Then on to a bestselling novel!

I'm sure you can imagine what happened. I did not publish those early stories in The New Yorker or The Paris Review or anywhere else. I did work to learn what could make me better, however. I went to grad school and wrote three novels and a handful of short stories over the next few years.

Most of the stories never got very good (I'm pretty sure at this point I'm just not much of a short story writer). The first novel was a great learning experience, but by the time I finished it as my MA thesis, I knew it was simply that: a learning experience rather than something worth publishing. The second novel I thought was better than the first, and I've gone back and forth on it over the past seven years. Sometimes I think it's worth publishing, sometimes not. I spend months revising it again and then abandon it for years. That's the novel I revisited this summer and have decided to finally submit to small press contests.

I know that novel is not going to take the publishing world by storm. I know it's not going to attract an agent and a six-figure book deal at a major New York press. But I still think it's pretty good. I think other people would enjoy reading it. I can imagine a small press putting it out into the world. So I've submitted it to one contest and intend to try a few others over the next year or so.

My third novel is a departure from what I did before. My first two were written in grad school and were "literary" in the sense that they are not high-stakes, plot-driven stories. They are small, focused on characters, and hopefully sensitive to language and artfully written (especially with my latest revision). The other one is a fantasy story for kids. It's the book I had in the back of my mind ever since I was a kid reading that kind of book. My goal with it is to create something that I would have loved when I was ten.

Like my second novel, I've gone back and forth with the third. After the first draft, I abandoned it for years, figuring I don't know enough about the market or whatever to break into the world of children's books. I continued to focus on literary journals (and shifted my focus to nonfiction), which felt safer and more familiar to me. During that time, I managed to get published. And that third novel has mostly sat on my computer, remaining a rough draft.

But last year, I revisited it in the summer. I revised about half before getting busy with my day job as a university instructor. But I want to finish that revision (and additional revisions after that). I want to try to get this book into the world.

Here's what I know about myself as a writer and where I fall on the continuum of writers: I am decent enough to get some work published in some respectable (if not absolute top tier) journals. I am not about to win the Pulitzer or have something in The New Yorker. But I'm a better writer today than I was fifteen years ago when just starting out. I'm a better writer today than eight years ago when completing my MFA. And while I have high hopes for my second novel and the small press route, I have higher hopes that my third novel (once it's revised and polished) could break into the mainstream world of publishing.

It's sometimes tough to be honest with yourself about how good you really are. We writers tend to have both inflated egos and low self esteem. We think we're brilliant and terrible at alternate moments. But honest assessment is important.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Contests

Last week, I saw a Tweet promoting the Brighthorse Books Prizes with a submission deadline of Sunday (yesterday). I was particularly interested in this contest for a few reasons:
  1. The deadline worked out.
  2. The small press is young.
  3. The press has three contests: one for poetry, one for short fiction, and one for novels. 
1. The deadline. As mentioned in my last post, I had failed to meet the earlier summer deadline I'd set for myself with this revision. That happens to me often. Summer after summer, I set large writing goals and wind up falling behind my schedule. But having this new goal worked to motivate me. I completed the revision on Friday, went back through for a final proofread, and submitted my manuscript to the contest Sunday afternoon

2. A young press. I imagine fewer people submit to a contest that is not well known with a long history. A famous press with a long-established contest surely gets hundreds or even thousands of entries each year. But with a press only in its second year, some writers will not have heard or it or will be hesitant. Of course, there is good reason to be hesitant. You don't want to fall for a scam and throw away money on entry fees or to think you're getting your book published by a reputable place only to discover it's a vanity press. From what I can tell from some very limited research, this place seems above board. So while it is small and young, I still feel like I would be happy having my book published with them. Bottom line: better odds with fewer submissions.

3. Multiple contests. Finally, the three separate contests also may increase my odds of winning. Many such contests have a a prize for short stories but not for novels. Or they have a single fiction prize for any book-length works of fiction, including combinations of short stories, novellas, and novels. When those categories are divided up, there are likely fewer submissions in each one.

Also, my impression is that there are fewer contests for novels than for short stories. I think this may be because novels are still seen as the realm of big presses. Short story collections are tough to sell, so small presses have taken up the charge of helping to get those out into the world. Novels can still fight for themselves. But what about smaller, literary novels? Those that won't find a home at a big New York publishing house? Those still need the world of small presses. Certainly there are many small presses publishing those novels, but this type of contest is a great entry into the small press world and from what I've seen, such novel contests are still rarer than short story contests.

I feel good about having submitted my novel. I have no idea what the odds are of winning. What I do know, however, is that people do win such contests. I have friends in my age group who have won contests like this before. It really is a great way to get a book out into the world when it would be hard to find a match with a publisher through the slush pile or when the literary size and scope of the book would likely not be big enough to attract an agent. I still assume the odds are against me. Even if this contest has fewer submissions than some of the big ones, that may mean that they get a hundred submissions instead of a thousand, which would mean only one percent win.

But whatever happens next with this particular contest, I feel good about my book as it currently stands. And the next time I read about a contest or a small press looking for submissions, I'm ready to submit.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Deadlines and Goals

I'm a teacher at a university. I get paid (modestly) year round, but my actual job only requires me to be present in a classroom about eight months out of the year. I have so much "time off" that it seems like a perfect job for a writer. Right?

Of course it's not quite so simple. I don't really have four glorious months with nothing to do each year, but I still have significant time off when I can afford not to teach summer school. I often have a big project in mind, like writing a draft of a complete book or revising an entire book. Typically, August arrives, and I haven't done close to what I set out to do in May.

This summer, I knew I was going to have a tight schedule. I got married in June and then went on my honeymoon. I knew most of that month would be useless to get writing done, but I still set some large goals for myself. I wanted to return to the novel I wrote as my MFA thesis and do a final revision / polish and submit it to some contests and small presses. In particular, Autumn House Press has an annual contest with a June 30th deadline. So I thought, maybe I can take the end of May into June before the wedding craziness begins, and bang out a revision to submit.

I knew that goal was optimistic, but I thought it would motivate me. That's the thing with goals. It's easy to say, "I want to accomplish _____." But it's much harder to do it if there's no pressure to get it done. If I have the whole summer, I work a little here and a little there, and then it's August again, and I have to work on my fall syllabi. But if I say, "I want to accomplish _____ by June 30th, and after that, it's too late," I stand a better chance.

Surprise, surprise! I failed. The wedding stress took more out of me than I expected (though it was worth it!). Then came the honeymoon. And jet lag. I managed to revise half my novel by the end of June, which still felt good. Then July rolled around. I wasn't teaching, but I took a summer class for fun, and other factors of life occupied my time. By early August, I still had about a quarter of the book to revise. The problem was, it didn't feel urgent. The same doubts from when I worked on this book years ago resurfaced again and again: Why bother? Where am I going to send it if I finish this revision? Who will want to publish this? Am I wasting my time on something nobody else will ever read?

Then I found a new book contest from a small press. The deadline is Sunday. With less than a week to revise several more chapters, that goal is a tough one. But it's doable. So I'm back in gear. By Monday, I really need to focus on finishing prepping for fall classes, but for the next few days, I can focus on this book. And I think I'll have it ready by midnight on Sunday.

I wish I were the type of person who could more easily set a personal deadline and just stick to it. But it's nice to realize that there are so many presses and contests and journals out there, that I will be able to find external deadlines to keep me motivated.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Literary Citizenship and Building a Platform

I attended a nonfiction conference this weekend, HippoCamp 2015. There were several interesting sessions and panels. I had some good discussions with other writers and enjoyed listening to presenters share their ideas.

Some of the major topics that stick with me are about building a platform, building and being a part of a literary community, and the future of writing and publishing. I'll be honest: these ideas scare me a bit and depress me a little, too. Back in my younger days, my dreams of being a writer were hazy romantic notions of living off in a cabin in the woods and producing my grand masterpieces. I would send them off to a publisher who would be grateful to present my work to an equally grateful public. Of course, that is far from reality. Instead, I'm living in a city and struggling to find the time to write while balancing my responsibilities (such as work, paying bills, and planning to buy a house) with other interests (such as hanging out with my wife, friends, and family). So the idea of building a platform of Twitter followers or people who would line up to buy a book if I ever publish one seems impossible.

But it doesn't have to be as intimidating as it seems at first. One of the panel discussions hit the idea of literary citizenship hard, reminding us all that when using social media, the point isn't to keep saying "Read my book! Read my book!" Instead it can be a place to pass along thoughts and share ideas. It can be a place to promote other people's work. It can be a place to say, "Here's an interesting article I just found and would like to pass along." I know these are not revolutionary ideas, but as someone who feels anxious in social situations in general, this seems like a good way to dip my toes further into the literary world in a way that will be productive but still safe, if that makes sense.

 Over the years, I've been reluctant to use Twitter. I set up my account years ago but have gone months at a time without even looking at it. It has seemed overwhelming. It still is, but I also see that it's essential to connecting in our modern world. So here's where I'm going with this: my new goal is to try to use social media to make new connections, to promote writing I like, and through doing that to also "build my platform."

It's been less than forty-eight hours since HippoCamp ended. In that time, I began following several more people and literary magazines. I've tweeted a few times, including to promote someone else's upcoming book that I'm excited about. And I now have a few new followers to boot. If I can keep this up, then maybe by the time I have a book, I will have actually built a platform, not by yelling into the ether, "Look at me! I'm great! Read my stuff!" But by simply being part of ongoing conversations and a contributing member of the literary community.