Wordy Wednesday: Write Yourself, But Different

I’m having a kind of bad day. It’s not even that bad, it’s just that things have been so good lately that anything at all negative happening feels like a punch to the gut. Primarily: I went in to donate blood for the first time today and they rejected me.

This might not seem like a big deal, except that I’ve never weighed enough to donate blood before, but due to my love of Christmas cookies this holiday season, I finally hit a hundred pounds, so after years and years of waiting, I signed up to donate at the university’s next blood battle. I spent the past few weeks trying to keep my weight up, taking iron supplements, staying hydrated, etc.

Today I went in, read over all the warnings and rules, waited a half hour, then finally got my interview to make sure I was eligible. And the lady rejected me. Because apparently, according to the American Red Cross, I HAVE CANCER.

Please note: I do not have cancer. Right now I don’t even have pre-cancer. But because I’ve had dysplastic moles removed in the past few months (the most recent surgery being a couple weeks ago), the lady interviewing me decided that I was so cancer-ridden I couldn’t donate. Try again in a few months. You know, as long as I haven’t died between now and then.

Nothing against the American Red Cross. I get it. You don’t want me sending Melanoma-laden blood to some poor, unsuspecting soul. But I don’t have Melanoma. I’ve never had Melanoma. THE ENTIRE POINT OF HAVING THOSE MOLES REMOVED WAS SO THAT I WOULD NOT GET MELANOMA.

I thanked the lady for her time (the full thirty seconds it took for her to reject me), walked outside, called my mom, and promptly burst into tears.

So yeah. That’s how my day’s been going.

Anyway, though, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I used to be really careful about making sure the protagonists of my stories were super different from me. They’d have different interests, personalities; they’d go through situations vaguely similar to ones I’d experienced, but still different enough that no one could claim they were at all autobiographical.

Then I started taking creative writing classes, and started needing to produce a billion and one short stories a semester, and I ran out of stuff that Wasn’t Me to write about. Pieces of me crept into my characters and plots more and more, until finally last semester I gave up and started writing basically literally about my life: A girl and her friends study abroad over a summer at Magdalen College, Oxford; a girl longs to move to Europe; a girl has to say goodbye to her high school theatre company. And this semester it’s gotten even worse: a girl deals with (of all things) the potential of getting Melanoma and dying; a girl is depressed and doesn’t know how to handle it or get better*.

What all this has taught me is that it’s much easier to write about yourself than people who are vastly different from you, and the stories that have significant elements of yourself in them (at least for me) generally turn out better, because they’re personal. Theatre was my life in high school, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it, so graduating was scary and difficult. I’m terrified of getting cancer, but that’s something I don’t like to focus on; writing that story gave me an outlet for my fears in the midst of several surgeries on my arm to remove moles that had become dysplastic out of nowhere.

But at the same time, where I started out writing these stories with the goal of writing pieces of myself, I realized as I went that these characters were also, still, vastly different from me. Their own people with their own problems and histories and futures. The girl in the theatre story has no idea what to do with the rest of her life, when her entire life up until this point has been theatre. (I did have a pretty solid idea of what I’d be doing after high school. Because while theatre defined so much of me, writing did just as much.) The girl in the cancer story is half-Mexican (I’m supes Caucasian) and dreams of going to Julliard for violin (I tried violin once; pretty sure half of Michigan is still recovering).

These stories are better for how they’re different from my life. They let me explore these other identities, helped me see the world beyond myself, and in turn led to a much more interesting portfolio.

All this to say: Write yourself, but different. You learn, and your stories benefit, from both the parts that reflect you and the parts that open a window into other people’s lives.

After all, we are defined by both the parts that are the same as everyone else and the parts that are different. And we–and our characters–deserve to have both.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

*For the record: I’m fine. I was in a pretty, you know, not-so-nice place this time last year. But I’m fine now.

Wordy Wednesday (“Writer’s Digest Conference 2013, Notes Part 2”)

As to be expected, the end of the semester (and school year, for me) is absolutely CRAZY. Lots of homework and studying and trying not to get distracted by the great outdoors. Plus, I’m currently sick with allergies, so that’s always fun. I’m really excited to (finally) be done with my eight credit hour Spanish classes next week, though, so I’ve just gotta push through this last little bit, then it’s summer vacation! Yay!

On a more somber note, prayers for all those affected by the tragedies in Boston this week (I can’t even imagine), and prayers, also, for my angry-old-man-cat, Willy, who hasn’t been eating much the past few days and has started having trouble breathing. He’s seventeen and a half, but a fighter. If you’ve been around since the beginning of this blog (or share my stalker tendencies), then you’ll remember that it was Willy having a massive seizure a year and a half ago that actually got me started on the blogging train (I needed something to do while keeping him company 24/7, and there wasn’t a TV in his room 😉 ).

Anyway, back to what we’re here for. This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a continuation of my notes from the Writer’s Digest Conference East 2013 earlier this month, today on the topic of Publishing Short Stories.

If you haven’t read last Wednesday’s notes on Going from Aspiring Writer to Published Author, click here.

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Panel: How to Write for Big Name Publications [4-5-13]

Moderator: Jessica Strawser

Panelists: Susan Shapiro, Paula Derrow, Christian Hoard? (the panelist works at Rolling Stone; I missed his last name when they were doing the introductions), and A.J. Jacobs.

 

          A.J.: Start small, work up to the big publications. You need experience to pitch the larger magazines.

          Susan: However, sometimes you can break in with big pubs as a newbie, too. Don’t pitch a profile or a complicated news piece—pitch a deep personal essay, where you can send the editor the entire piece—it’s MUCH easier. Susan suggests using the method she calls the “Humiliation Essay,” in which you write about your most humiliating secret.

          Paula: It’s all in the execution—how is your story different? Look into writing for the front sections of mags—those are done by the junior editors, who are easier to pitch to.

          Susan: Magazine websites are easier to get into than the print ones—they’re a good stepping stone to getting into the print mags.

          A.J.: Creatively, right now is the greatest time to be a writer. Financially, not so much.

          A.J: Study what a publication has done, compliment them, and THEN pitch your own writing.

          A.J.: You write for two reasons. #1 is the prestige; #2 is the money. (Get that? Money es numero DOS!)

          Paula: It’s getting harder to break into the print magazine market—there are fewer long, narrative pieces. Think 700 words now, rather than 3 to 4,000. It used to be $3.00/word, now it’s more like $250.00/story. This is a downward trend.

          Paula: there’s less back and forth with the editor now.

          Susan: Best secret to writing: hire a good shrink.

          Susan: Go slow. Don’t send off your writing the moment you finish a piece.

          Susan: “Addicts depend on substance, not people.” – Don’t be an addict about writing.

          Susan: Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Hire a ghost editor.

          Christian: Rolling Stone website publishes 30 to 40 e-articles every day, but only for about $0.75/word.

          Jessica: Magazines—unlike novels, is better to ignore the submission guidelines—find the RIGHT editor, rather than just subbing to the magazine in general.

          Susan: THE OPINIONATOR pays $150.00/story—that’s a good deal.

          Susan: It’s about the online articles now, not the in print ones.

          Jessica: Shoot for the lower-level editors, rather than the high-up ones.

          Paula: Your writing needs a twist—the secret to a good personal essay is to have a twist in a traditional topic.

          Jessica/Paula: Read the mag before you submit

          Susan: On your byline, it’s good to be like “… and so-and-so is working on a novel/memoir/etc. on the same subject” – gets you attention from editors, producers, lit agents, etc.

          Susan: Check which articles are freelance—call and ask to speak with the editors of those articles

          Christian: Just because it’s obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to the editors (could be something they forgot to cover; there are lots of little holes)—put a new twist on an old topic, and you’re gold.

          A.J.: For your cover letter—a couple of punchy paragraphs about your idea and a short bio at the end.

          A.J.: “There’s a fine line between persistence and stalking” – don’t stalk an editor to try to get them to publish you

          A.J.: The profiles, the big topics—those are generally given to the staff writers.

          Susan: 95% of editors also write. Find their work. Read it. Tell them why you’re contacting them: “I’m a fan of your work, I just read your piece ___ in ____!”

          Jessica: Look at “front of the book” – shorter assignments are good for getting your feet wet.

          A.J.: Best way to get a book deal is through a magazine article, newspaper article, etc. “You can’t just write books.” BRANDING (per usual)—keep your brand out there or people will forget about you.

          Susan: write the piece at the same time as you write the book.

          Paula: having the pressure of real life—a “real job,” etc—can be great to let you have the pressure you need to write your book. Quitting your job can actually make you write less, because there’s less time pressure.

          Christian: If you’re unsure about something, try to start a dialogue with your editor.

          Christian: If you can, it’s always best to be an editor before you’re a writer; it makes you a better writer.

          Jessica: Don’t be afraid to ask your questions up front.

          A.J.: Up front, be like, “Here’s what I’m thinking, what are you thinking?”

          Jessica: Ask UP FRONT to clarify the assignment; get all the details right away.

          Paula: Phone calls allow for more creating—bouncing, developing ideas—than emails do.

          Susan: Ghost editors are good—share your work for critique before you show it to the editor.

          Susan: Write your essays around your book, not using the same, direct words from your book.

          Susan: It’s easier to be foreign in the current publishing market. If you have anything unique about you, UTILIZE IT in your writing.

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Panel: How to Become a Regular Contributor to Any Publication [4-6-13]

Moderator: Jessica Strawser

Panelists: Zachary Petit, Susan Shapiro, Debbie Harmsen

          Jessica: Pitching a regular column to a magazine is like asking an editor to go out with you every Saturday for the next year without even meeting first.

          Jessica: Pitch one article. If they like it, then you pitch more.

          Susan: The biggest mistake people make is to launch into their own story in their pitch, rather than focusing on the story they’re actually pitching.

          Susan: 90% of editors also write—as do a lot of agents. Find what they’ve written, read, use that knowledge to your advantage.

          Susan: The biggest insult is to email pros with form letters rather than giving personal attention—better to be a kiss-up than a self-absorbed jerk.

          Susan: Start by focusing on the person you want something from, not yourself.

          Debbie: Try not to be irritating—use email, not phone calls.

          Zachary: Follow. Submission. Guidelines.

          Susan: Always have the name of the agent or editor in your letter—find their personal email.

          Zachary: If you google “[insert name of person you’re submitting to here]@” their email should pop up.

          Jessica: The first impression goes beyond your first email to them—it goes to your entire online persona. Don’t have inappropriate pictures on Facebook, etc. “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”

          Susan: If it’s on your blog, website, Twitter, etc—it’s already published. If you’re already giving it away for free, it’ll be very hard to sell.

          Zachary: Always make your inappropriate photos (if you feel the need to have some online) PRIVATE.

          Zachary: Always be polite and courteous—“don’t be the writer that lands herself in the blacklist folder.”

          Jessica: Editors want to have a big staple of writers to call upon; they want to have more regular contributors to work with; they WANT you to be on that list; they want your first assignment to go great—so NAIL that first assignment.

          Debbie: If you’re writing a book, it’s your brand. If you’re writing for a publication, it’s THEIR brand.

          Debbie: It’s easier for the editor to work with someone they already know.

          Debbie: The first impression isn’t just getting that first assignment, it’s how the assignment goes.

          Debbie: You don’t have to be Michael Jordan, but you need to be a solid player (rather than Dennis Rodman)

          Susan: Use ghost editors if you’re worried about grammar or spelling—if you’re not 100% sure your writing is perfect, GET. HELP.

          Susan: Always turn your work in early and clean.

          Susan: Be open to the editor changing anything they want.

          Susan: Write thank you letters, put the editors’ names in your acknowledgements, send little thank you gifts—treat them to lunch, etc. Ask them to be on panels, in events, etc; anywhere the editors can be honored.

          Susan: It isn’t about being the best; it’s about having a good attitude.

          Zachary/Susan: Fact-check before you turn in your assignment—show your fact checking; put fact-checking in your reference tab, track changes comments, at the end, put page numbers just to the right—whatever the publication prefers. Just make sure to fact-check.

          Susan: Make sure to thank the little people in your acknowledgements.

          Jessica: Try to strike a good balance with an editor FROM THE START.

          Jessica: Casual formality—no emoticons, “lol,” etc. in your language. Don’t be overly familiar. But also don’t be overly stiff.

          Debbie: Don’t stalk the editor. Let them invite you to follow them on Twitter, to friend you on Facebook, etc.

          Debbie: Try to group questions together rather than sending a new email with a new question in it every hour.

          Debbie: Most editors prefer email to phone—if you do call, make sure to ask if they have time to talk to you right then.

          Susan: Never finish something and then send it straight out—get a mentor to critique your work, not just be like, “I like it.”

          Susan: Writing groups are great. So are ghost editors. Use these resources.

          Susan: The people who are open for criticism, turning in work early, asking questions, taking notes, etc.—they are the ones who get deals.

          Zachary: When and how to pitch again—it’s not bad form to pitch again right away (if they liked your last article), but MAKE SURE IT’S READY.

          Jessica: Wait until your first assignment is edited—you’ve signed off on your pre-publication galleys—before pitching the next assignment.

          Jessica: Don’t send an open-ended message like, “Hey, let me know if you ever need anything!” If it doesn’t work for making plans with your friends, it isn’t going to work with an editor, either. Make sure to make definite plans.

          Jessica: Pitch the next project once the assignment is complete, but it’s still fresh in the editor’s mind.

          Susan: The best thing is to let the article publication completely play out before you submit again.

          Susan: Break the rules WHEN necessary, but ONLY when necessary. (She told a story here about how she pressured a publishing house into giving her a deal for her next book by publishing lots of short pieces on the book’s topic and thus creating immense interest in it—something you’re not generally supposed to do, pressuring the publishing house, but she knew it was the only way she’d get that deal.)

          Zachary: Be honest if you’ve already written a really similar piece, when pitching.

          Susan: There are two people you should never lie to about your writing: your editor and your shrink.

          Zachary: Be willing and open for everything you write to be critiqued and torn to pieces.

          Susan: Go to as many conferences, panels, and seminars as you can—try to stay as up to date as possible.

          Susan: Start high—try the best places you can—and if none of those places want your piece, then head lower.

*****

Marketing Short Fiction: The Science of Publishing [4-7-13]

Speaker: Jacob Appel

          There are only about 3,000 slots for short story publications a year. A lot of those go to people like Jacob Appel (who sold 30 stories last year).

          There’s a systematic way of doing the short-story-publishing-thing. The quality of your story MATTERS.

          There are more great stories being written than there are spaces to publish them.

          There are 2 ways you can approach short story publishing:

o   Process-based approach: work on only one story at a time. If it sells, then you work on the next one.

o   Career-approach (which in the long run is better for you): Work on multiple projects at once, not putting a particular focus on any of them.

          Check out Best American Short Stories. There’s a list of about 150-200 good magazines.

          Hit journals at their “weak points”:

o   Contests—you have a chance of about 750 to 1 of winning, whereas when just trying to publish, the magazine gets about 5,000 submissions a month and only buys 3 or 4. YOUR ODDS ARE MUCH BETTER WITH CONTESTS.

§  Why contests rock:

·         Someone has to win (make sure the rules say someone has to win, or it’s pointless).

·         They’re being judged blind (it doesn’t matter what the author has done before this story)

·         Prominent authors like Joyce Carol Oates don’t do contests.

o   Theme issues are also good—submit to these. WRITE FOR THE OPPORTUNITY.

o   Find out details of the mag—act like you know someone who works there—it’s easy to intimidate an intern into sending your story on to the editor.

§  Gateway approach—tiers—get past the intern who doesn’t know any better, and you’ll have a much higher chance of the editor taking your work seriously.

§  Goal: Convince the first gatekeeper (the intern) that you are a famous author presenting your work fraudulently (under a “fake name,” you know). Don’t think like you’re a pro, but act like one. Trick the intern into thinking you’re important.

·         Basically: Act like a subsidy publisher.

          Be a repeat-set player—don’t be a one-time player.

          As a writer, you aren’t a hospital patient—you’re a doctor. You aren’t focused on getting that one person home, you’re focused on getting ALL that patients in your wing home (the “patients” being “stories” and yeah).

          Always make the editors think you want their feedback—submit a beautiful letter telling them how you appreciate their opinion, and then send a thank you note afterward.

          “If a journal rejects you three times, you should never submit again.” —Stephen Dixon; BAD ADVICE. Don’t take rejection personally; don’t let it discourage you. Be relentless.

          Writers are writers, and editors are editors—LISTEN TO THEM. They know what they’re doing.

          Just because something enters the world one way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Revising is not a bad thing. Rewriting is not a bad thing.

          You should submit a story EVERY DAY. If you get a rejection, you submit two stories the next day. If you get a rejection that hurts, send out 10 to 20 the next day, just to get it out of your system. You need to get used to rejection.

          Being kind, courteous, level-headed—that is what gets you your network more than anything else. BE LOYAL. Be a good person.

          You have to think of the publishing industry as a process, not a project.

          Internet journals are more likely to accept previously-published work than print journals are.

          Cover-letter—make it very standard and plain—don’t attract with format and style, but with content.

o   First paragraph: Short and simple. Make it personal (“I am an avid reader of your journal”; “I am subscribed to your magazine”; etc.).

o   Second paragraph: Credentials—say someone suggested you submit there, even if it was your crazy, unpublished uncle. (The intern won’t know any better.)

o   With short stories, agents are helpful, but not necessary the way they are with novels.

          Short story collections are not profitable—the reason agents will represent a short story writer is because they think there will be a novel eventually down the line.

          Find an agent who reps VERY similar projects to yours.

          Agents only have about 20 publishers it makes sense to submit to, with short story collections; for writers, there are more like 80.

o   Submit to the lower-level publishers, publish with them, and then the larger players will be interested in your next collection.

          Go to the back of Best American Short Stories to find the list of journals.

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       As always, while these notes might be helpful (despite how extremely scattered and incomplete they are; sorry ’bout that), actually attending a conference is a LOT better. I highly suggest getting to a Writer’s Digest Conference if you ever have the chance, and if you don’t have the money or time to go to a conference in person, the annual online (and FREE!) Write On Con event is great also.

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~Julia