All You Need Is…Faith

Writing is an activity that, if one harbors aspirations of publishing, is fraught with rejection and disappointment. To be a writer is to cultivate and maintain a tough skin. Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home. So why do we keep trying? We keep writing, of course, because we love it or we are compelled to do it or both. But how do we maintain our enthusiasm about publishing anything, with the competition so stiff and the chances so low? The answer is simple: faith.

Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home.

Recently, I had three different faith-full experiences that I can draw on during my moments of self-doubt.

The first occurred at a friend’s house over the summer. One of my friends mentioned in passing that I was writing a novel, and her mother, who was visiting from out-of-state, looked at me wide-eyed. “You’re writing a novel?” she said in awe.

Before I could answer, my other friend chimed in. “It’s gonna be so good,” he said, nodding and smiling where he sat on the couch.

That was all I needed–a vote of confidence from friends, even just in passing. Just writing about the memory, the experience of which lasted maybe fifteen seconds, produces a lasting sense of optimism.

“It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.”

Several weeks before the incident at my friend’s house, I shared the first few chapters of my novel with my grandparents, both avid readers. When they called me with their critique, full of constructive criticism, my grandpa said he thought the book could inspire a cult following. Of course, grandparents should always have encouraging words for their grandchildren, but his praise was so specific, and his criticisms so insightful, that I believed in his belief in me–and my writing.

Finally, several instances that have occurred over the last year in my writing class at VisArts have also buoyed my spirits and summoned my muse.

One evening, as the instructor provided feedback on my week’s submission, I noticed he was using phrases like “When you get an agent”–“when,” not “if.” I tend to quantify my aspirations about publishing with “if,” implying I know it might never happen. But to hear someone else–someone who teaches creative writing at the university level–talk about “when” my novel gets published, was extremely reaffirming.

If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?

Another week, my instructor said, “If I’m an agent, this is the chapter that makes me want your book.” In an even more recent class, our instructor gave the entire class this advice about finishing the first draft of our novels: “It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.” He’s right. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you? Still, it helps when others believe in you, too. Their belief buoys yours, whenever you start to have your doubts.

About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story.

About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story. September 27 was Day One of that promise to myself. I wrote 940 words that night. I haven’t missed a day yet, and today will mark Day Twelve.

 

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Found Time: 5 Tips to Find Time for Writing (and Reading)

You might be familiar with the term “found time,” which refers to time that unexpectedly opens up in our schedules–when a flight is delayed, when an appointment is canceled, when we miraculously finish the to-do’s on our list before we thought we would. Because one of the greatest obstacles to writing (and for me, to reading) seems to be finding time for it, it’s imperative that we A) find time and B) use found time to its fullest potential. While we’re all always incredibly busy, we might have more found time in our schedules than we realize, and we can use this time to support our literary lives, even with the rest of life seems to be getting in the way.

Make the Most of Mealtimes

If you find yourself eating a meal unaccompanied, write or read while you eat. You have to sit down and be still anyway–you can’t clean the house or go for a run while you eat–so it’s a great time to get out your laptop, journal, diary, or book and write or read. Plus, it makes you eat more slowly, which I’ve read is good for your health.

Be Prepared

In order to use found time, you have to be prepared to use found time. If time opens up in your day, but you don’t have the tools you need to use it (your book, pen, notebook, laptop–whatever), you’re going to be hard-pressed to be productive. For this reason, bring a notebook and writing utensil or your latest read with you everywhere. Then, when unexpected time arises, you can use it to write or read.

Use the Bathroom

Read or write when you use the bathroom. It might sound crass and it’s probably not hygienic, but it works. No one is going to bother you while you’re in there and, as with eating, you’re sitting down and being still, anyway. Take advantage of the time! What else are you gonna do with it (I mean, besides a No. 1 or a No. 2)?

Go to Bed

Or at least say you’re going to bed. Then, spend 15 to 30 minutes writing or reading before you turn out the lights for the night.

Keep a List Handy

For writing, make a list of topics, experiences, ideas, or memories you know you want to write about. That way, when you end up with a little unexpected time, you won’t have to waste any of it wondering what to write about–you can just pull out your list and pick from it.

While our lives are inevitably busy and sometimes chaotic, little pockets of time unexpectedly open up in our schedules now and again. When they do, be ready to use them to nurture your love of writing and reading!

9 Tips for Writing Your College Essay or Personal Statement

If you’re a high school senior, you might be getting ready to start applying to colleges and universities this fall. Most, though not all, schools ask that you compose and turn in an admissions essay (sometimes called a personal statement) with the rest of your application materials. For many students, this essay proves to be the most difficult element of their application process. What follows are some tips to make it a little easier–and to make your essay that much stronger.

1. Hook ’em!

Many students fall into the trap of starting their essay by simply rewording the prompt the college provides. For example, if the prompt asks: “What is one thing you want us to know about you?”, many students are going to start their essay like this: “One thing I want INSERT COLLEGE NAME to know about me is….” While this promises to answer the question, it’s boring. It lacks personality, color, creativity, and voice. The admissions officer reading your college essay is going to read hundreds of essays–many of which start just like that. You don’t want to bore your reader from the beginning, and you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

But…what’s a hook?

A hook is simply an attention-grabbing first sentence or two. It’s interesting and makes your reader want to keep reading (instead of making your reader want to yawn, roll her eyes, and say to herself, “Here we go again…”).

Here are a few tips for writing your hook:

  • Let your hook set the tone for the rest of your essay. If your essay will be funny, your hook should be funny. If your essay will be serious, your hook should be, too.
  • Your hook should relate directly to the rest of your essay. Don’t just write an interesting sentence or two and then follow it by either rewording the prompt, or writing an essay unrelated to your hook.
  • Write your hook in your own authentic voice, and continue in that voice for the entire essay.

2. It’s All About YOU

Remember, the main purpose of the personal statement is for the college to get to know you better. What kind of person are you? What are your skills and talents? What experiences have you had? Who are you? For this reason, make sure the focus of the essay is you, and use the first person (I, me, my, we, us, our). This advice may seem obvious, but there are two traps students fall into.

Trap No. 1: Writing about someone or something else

While you do have to answer the prompt, make sure you answer it in the context of your life and experience. For example, if your prompt asks about a famous figure from history you’d like to meet and why, your essay should focus more on why you want to meet that person than it should on that person himself or herself. Avoid writing a biography or an essay in praise of the person, and instead focus on why you admire them, how you aspire to embody their best traits, etc. This holds true for essays about your favorite place, your favorite word, etc. We refer to this as the 80:20 rule. Eight percent (or more!) of the essay should focus on you, while 20% (or less) can discuss the other person, place, word, etc.

Trap No. 2: Using the second person

Your college essay is about you–no one else, so use the pronouns that refer to you–“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” and “our.” Avoid writing something like this: “You know when your mom calls you by your full name, you’re in trouble.” Instead, make it true to your experience–so we know it happened to you, and not just anyone: “I know when my mom calls me by my full name, I’m in trouble.”

3. Be Honest and Authentic

Like I mentioned above, the college wants to know about you–the real you, not just who you think they want you to be (besides–you might be wrong!). Don’t write what you think they want to read (again–you might be wrong). Be honest with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, the dreams you dream. Be the real, authentic you. Write almost the same way you speak, for the most part–but use proper grammar, punctuation, etc. And while you might be tempted to use big words to make yourself sound smarter, don’t. Avoid using big words for the sake of using big words. They usually stick out like a sore thumb, and make your essay sound, well, weird. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

I once heard a college admissions officer give this advice: “The best essays make us laugh or make us cry. So, make ’em laugh or make ’em cry–but don’t try to be funny if you’re not.” Be true to yourself. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to write a funny essay. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

As a quick side note: You have to tell the truth in your college essay. It’s nonfiction. On the application, you will sign a statement that basically says everything in your application packet is true to the best of your knowledge. That holds true for your essay, too.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Lots of students make the mistake of writing an “essay” that is really just a long list. It reads something like this: “I am a very hard-working student. If I need to get a good grade on an assignment, I will do whatever it takes. I always try my hardest. I love to play football, and work very hard at practice. I work hard both in the classroom and on the field.” And so on and so on. While those sentences tell us a lot of things, they don’t show us anything–it’s not substantiated. Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about. For example, if you want the admissions office to understand you’re a hard worker, write about a time you were a hard worker–tell the story about the time that you came in for extra help after school for two weeks to understand chemical reactions, and still got your math and English homework done, and still took care of your little sister and puppy. If you want the college to know you love animals, don’t just tell them, “I love animals.” Use your essay to show the reader that love. Write a story about your time volunteering at a local animal shelter, or the time you rescued the injured turtle from the roadway, or the time you helped that little lost dog find his way home.

Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about.

5. Tell a (True) Story

Think of your essay as a slice of life and use it to tell a story. It’s a snapshot from the photo album of your life. You should pick a singular experience that helps express whatever it is you want to express, as explained above.

6. Follow the Rules

Make sure your essay actually answers and addresses the prompt. Stick to the word limit, but not obsessively so. If the word limit is 500 words, it’s okay to be a little over or a little under–as long as each word is absolutely necessary. If the college says to put your full name in the upper left corner, do that. If the college says to include your social security number (SSN) at the bottom, do that. Make sure whatever formatting requirements the college lists, you follow. Also, if you plan to use the same essay for various colleges (which is permissible), make sure you modify the essay accordingly. A big mistake people make is to reuse an essay and forget to change the name of the college. For example, they might write: “I just know Virginia Tech is the college for me.” Then, they proceed to send that to both Virginia Tech and UVA. Oops…

7. Use a Strong, Varied Vocabulary

This advice actually comes verbatim from another, longer post I wrote a while back about common writing errors, but it holds true for your personal statement, so here it is:

Avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs.

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

8. Proofread

Really, this should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: Proofread. Proofread more than once. And then, proofread again. Personal statements are typically a mere 250-500 words. That’s not very long. If your short essay includes careless mistakes, it says one of two things about you.

  1. You honestly didn’t even know you made the mistake. You truly think you used the correct form of “there,” “their,” “they’re,” but you were wrong. Now, you look uneducated, or maybe even ignorant.
  2. You were simply too careless or rushed to bother reading over your essay.

Obviously, you don’t want your prospective colleges to think you’re stupid or  careless, as those aren’t particularly desirable traits in prospective students.

Also, realize that the spell checker feature doesn’t catch everything–and neither do you. You can read your essay 28 times and still miss glaringly obvious mistakes. For this reason, in addition to doing your own proofreading, you should also ask a trusted adult to read over your essay. Better yet, ask two or three trusted adults. English teachers and guidance counselors are good people to start with.

9. But What Should I Write About?

Sometimes, college essay prompts are pretty specific, making it easy to decide what to write. Other times, they are painfully vague. Some prompts may be as open as: “Write a 400-word personal statement.” That’s it. Go.

If you’re struggling with what to write about, try these exercises:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas by listing your favorite memories, funny stories, favorite vacation spots, future dreams, and goals
  • Read back through old diary or journal entries
  • Look up writing prompts online.

Keep in mind as well that it’s not what you write about, but how you write about it. Your voice, vocabulary, use of literary devices, and ideas make the essay, much more so than the topic does. I once had a student write an essay about a ball of yarn, and because she wrote it so creatively and imaginatively, it was much more interesting to read than her classmates’ essays about, well, anything. Hers is the only essay I remember from that year, because it was so unique.

It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.

 

 

 

 

11 Ways to Nurture Your Writing

As writers, we like to tell stories. Unfortunately, some of the most frequent stories we tell ourselves are probably about how we don’t have time to write. Or how we’re stuck in a rut, the dreaded writer’s block having taken hold. Or we’re no good at writing. Or we don’t have any ideas worth writing about. The list of stories about why we’re not writing–even though we love to write–is a long one. But these aren’t the stories we have to tell ourselves, and they’re certainly not very fun stories to write (or read). Even when you’re busier than busy, battling writer’s block (or letting it win), feeling insecure, or facing a seeming dearth of ideas, there are lots of things you can do to maintain your cherished identity as a writer, and flex your writing muscles.

Story No. 1: I Don’t Have Time

Once upon a time there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me!). She brought home hours of papers to grade almost every night, trained for half marathons, cared for her dogs, managed her household, volunteered once a week at a local no-kill animal shelter, and worked part-time at a local YMCA to supplement her income. You might imagine that Mrs. Creasey found little time for her writing, and you’d be right; it felt like a leisure activity for which she simply did not have the time–but she wished she did. Despite being so busy, Mrs. Creasey often missed writing, and lamented the months that would pass between even her diary entries. Truly, it was shameful. Fortunately, Mrs. Creasey eventually realized there were lots of ways she could carve out time to make writing a priority, and she still does–to this day.

Get your MFA or MALS

When I realized I was no longer making time for my writing, and how much I ached to do so, I decided the best way to make it a priority in my schedule was to get my graduate degree. If I had money wrapped up in it, and homework to do–I would make time. And I did. Earning my graduate degree in creative writing forced me to make time for writing in my busy life–and I was happy to do so. My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me. As an added bonus, my income slightly increased once I completed the degree.

My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me.

Take a Class or Workshop

If earning your degree seems too big a commitment, you might consider something a bit less demanding, like a single class or a workshop, which can yield some of the same benefits. Participating in a class or workshop provides you with a structure in which to write. If your daily schedule seems to make carving out writing time difficult, taking a class or workshop gives you the peace of mind of knowing that on Tuesday nights from 7:00-9:00 (or whenever your class/workshop takes place), you will be able to dedicate two (or however many) glorious hours to your craft.

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Last week, my friend Renee, who lives in Alaksa, spent some time in Richmond. On the final evening of her visit, we participated in a two-hour Life in 10 Minutes writing workshop.

Some of my favorite workshops in the Richmond area have been Life in 10 Minutes, the novel-writing class in which I am currently enrolled at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and James River Writers Master Classes and Writing Shows.

Get Some Freelance Gigs

It’s amazing what you can find time for if you’re getting paid to do it and you love to do it. One way to make yourself make time for writing is to find a way to get paid for it. Check out platforms like Contently, subscribe to (and read) the Freedom with Writing e-mails, contact your local newspapers, network with other writers, take a class on freelance writing… There are lots of ways to make a little (or a lot of) money with your writing.

Story No. 2: I have Writer’s Block

In a land far, far away, there was a writer who couldn’t write. She had ideas–lots of them, but putting them into words–turning them into stories or poems or books–was a task that seemed impossible. She begged her muse to help her, but her muse seemed to have been on vacation for a long time. A very, very long time. Eventually, she realized that she was going to have to write–muse or no muse. And she tried some of the tactics below.

Journal

One way to write even when your muse seems to have deserted you is to keep a diary or journal. Don’t burden your entries with purpose or expectation–just write about your thoughts, feelings, or day.

Attend a Conference

Attending a conference can have a way of summoning your muse right back from wherever she has been hiding. Some of the most inspiring events I have attended include those put on by the Poetry Society of Virginia, and the James River Writers Annual Conference.

Read

Reading can prove an extremely effective way to inspire ideas–so read your books (and write in them). One place to start is this blog post about books every writer should read.

Story No. 3: I’m not a Good Writer

Once upon a time there was a woman named Jane Doe (I know–not very original). She used to write, but over the years, the practice had simply slipped from her routine, and though she sometimes thought about picking it back up, she didn’t really think she was that good at it, anyway. She had taken some writing classes in college, but mostly, her classmates and instructors focused on how she could improve, and while that was helpful, it also made her feel like maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a writer after all.  Nowadays, her writing was confined to e-mails and memos at work. But a small part of her still missed writing–stories and poems and personal essays. If only she were good at it…

Make Creative Friends

Making creative friends is a great way to nurture your own creativity. Fellow creatives can support you, point out what’s good in your work, and give you feedback to inspire your progress. You can also share your work with each other. Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you is a surefire way to make yourself feel more valid in your craft.

There are lots of ways to find creative friends. Consider joining a writing group such as Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, Poetry Society of Virginia, James River Writers, or a critique group. Taking writing classes or workshops is another great way to meet fellow writers.

Take a Risk

Another way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a “good writer” is to submit your work to journals, contests, and publications. Admittedly, this practice also opens you up to significant risk, but it gets your name out there and helps you feel validated. Plus, the recognition you earn when a piece is published or wins an award is rewarding, to say the least. And even if you meet with rejection at first (or often), I find that having work out there gives me hope. The more pieces I send out to publications, the higher their chances of finding a publication home (in my mind, anyway). I like the feeling of my work floating around out there. I like the anticipation. The fact that I have writing to send out means, at least, I am writing.

Story No. 4: I don’t have any Good Ideas

Once upon a time, there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me again!), who had a sticker on her classroom door so she would see it every single morning when she unlocked the door to go to work. It read: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” (Sylvia Plath). Mrs. Creasey loved this quote–for her students and for herself. Another of her favorites? “It’s not what you write about, but how you write it.” Both of these quotes hold true for anyone who wants to write. You can write–you have the ideas. You just have to, ya know, do it.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

Observe

If you seem to be suffering from a dearth of ideas, take a notebook with you everywhere and write things down. Write anything and everything down. All your observations are fodder for future pieces.  Notate your observations in nature, things you hear or overhear, ideas you have, questions you have, names you like…

Story No. 5: No One Wants to Read What I Write, Anyway

Once upon a time, there was a writer who loved to write, and who wrote all the time–but who often felt discouraged because he was certain that despite his best efforts, no one actually wanted to read what he wrote–even if it was really, really good. It seemed no one cared. And besides–writing isn’t like a painting or a photograph or a sculpture, easy to display and share. It requires some effort on the reader’s part, some willingness to invest time, energy, and thought in the piece. Who was going to do that when they could simply watch TV, play games on their smart phone, go to the movies, or do any number of easier activities?

Start a Blog

One way to combat the sense that no one is interested in your writing is to start a blog. At least a few people will read it, and that’s nice. Plus, maintaining a blog can help hold you accountable to your writing. Knowing you have even a small audience who might be waiting for your next post can be motivation to write the next post. Besides, it feels empowering and validating to have an online presence, albeit a small one.

Use Social Media

Using social media outlets such as Facebook or Instagram can help grow your audience for your blog–or any other writing you do. Just be careful not to allow your social media accounts to steal time away from your actual writing.

And They Lived Happily Ever After…

While the above advice is nice, and can prove productive if you need a pick-me-up or a way back into writing after a hiatus or a blow to your confidence, the most important thing you can do for writing is actually write. It will be a struggle sometimes, but nothing worth doing is every easy (at least not all the time).

 

 

 

 

 

Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Writing Contests: Part 2, Best Practices

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This spring, I was privileged to attend a workshop led by Dana Isokawa of Poets & Writers Magazine in Richmond, Virginia, at St. John’s Church (pictured above). Edgar Allan Poe’s mother is buried in the churchyard.

Earlier this month, I posted a piece about what to consider when you prepare to submit your writing to literary magazines and/or writing contests. Now, let’s focus on considerations you should make depending on the type of writing you do.

Rules of Thumb

Before we break down what to do when submitting poetry versus prose, there are some general rules of thumb to follow for any genre. The following tips come to you from Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. In April, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop she led in Richmond. She provided some really helpful advice.

  • Research your opportunities. Figure out what publications or contests are out there, and which might be the best fit for your work. After you’ve done that, tier your top choices and start high! When you applied to college, you likely applied to a dream school or a reach school, as well as several backup schools. When you submit your writing, you can use the same principle. First, submit to your absolute top choice contest or publication, but have some second and third choices in your back pocket.
  • Keep track of your submissions. Some publications allow simultaneous submissions. Some don’t. Even those who do will likely request that you let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. For these reasons, and others, it’s important to keep records of where you’ve sent your work, and whether or not it was accepted.
  • Decide on a budget for each piece. What are you willing to spend on submissions in total, and on each individual piece?
  • Compose a cover letter. Keep it short, and be specific to each publication or contest. If you’re submitting to a journal or magazine, you will also want to devote one or two sentences to explaining why your work is a good fit for the magazine.

Submitting Poetry

For most journals or contests, select three to five poems of various tones, lengths, and topics. Some journals and contests require a specific number of submissions, or cap the number of submission you may send, so be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully.

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My workspace as we workshopped a poem for submission to a contest or publication

When you submit a batch of poetry, think of it as a whole, and organize your submission wisely, with your best work at the beginning. Think of your first poem as the hook that will get the reader’s attention, and entice her to read more.

Submitting Prose

Short Stories

Before submitting a short story to a contest or publication, make sure it features a strong beginning, or hook. A strong start is absolutely critical, as you’ll need to get and keep your reader’s attention. After all, she likely has a stack of other stories waiting for her time and focus.  Ms. Isokawa suggests two effective ways to craft a strong start: Begin with action, or write with really strong voice.

Novel Excerpts

When you submit a novel excerpt, your chosen piece should be able to stand alone. A flashback or decision scene might work well. You can also consider adapting an excerpt of your larger work by taking out references to parts the reader won’t get to read.

Upon Acceptance

Should you be fortunate enough to find a publication home for your work or for your work to be honored with an award, be sure to thank the editors, and share the journal, publication, or contest on social media. They’re helping promote you; help promote them.

Upon Rejection

If your work is not accepted, you might still be lucky enough to get a rejection with feedback. If an editor is kind enough to provide any feedback at all, say thank you–don’t ask for more feedback.

If you ever resubmit to a publication that has previously rejected but offered feedback on your work, be sure to mention their note with your new or revised submission.

Don’t allow rejection to discourage you. Try again. Even the most celebrated writers have dealt with rejection, and many still do. To help combat the temptation to give up, always have a piece of writing “in waiting” or “on deck,” one you can send out to contests and publications as soon as its predecessor gets rejected.

 

 

 

Submitting Your Writing to Literary Magazines and Contests: Part 1, Getting Started

IMG-3562Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.

Why Submit

Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:

  • Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
  • Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
  • Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
  • One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
  • Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
  • Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.

Knowing When a Piece is Ready

Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:

  • It has successfully undergone an editorial review
  • Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
  • You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
  • Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
  • You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.

Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing

You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
  • Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
  • Think categorically:
    • Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
    • Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
  • Consider your subject matter.
  • Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
  • Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
  • Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).

Vetting Journals and Contests

While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:

  • The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
  • A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
  • The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
  • The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.

If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.

While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:

  • Your read the publication and like it.
  • You admire the work it offers.
  • It promotes its writers.
  • Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
  • There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
  • If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.

Next Steps

If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.

Time to share a Summer-themed poem

 Please read the guidelines before submitting

 Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.

  Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.

 Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.

Please send your submission to angeldec24@hotmail.com

Please put (early or late) Summer/your last name in the subject line.

Please do not just send a poem, please write a few lines of hello.

Please do not have all caps in the title of your poem.

Please no more than 45 lines per poem.

Please use single spaced lines.

Please remember, we welcome previously published poems.

Please put your name, City/State, and email address under your poem.  If you do not, only your name will appear.  No Zip codes.

Please send your poem in the body of an email.  Please do not send in an attachment.

 We look forward to reading your Summer submissions…

 Let’s all take this Garden Challenge.

 Send us your 3 best poems of your love of gardening…

 Please no more than three, following the same guidelines as above.

 Please put Garden Challenge/your last name in the subject line of your email and send to angeldec24@hotmail.com 

 Please send Summer haiku

 

 

 

The High Goal

Writing of her spiritual journey, Mary Baker Eddy explains that she “finds the path less difficult when she has the high goal always before her thoughts, than when she counts her footsteps in endeavoring to reach it. When the destination is desirable, expectation speeds our progress.” Her wise words can be applied not only to a spiritual search for salvation, but also to our writing goals. The guidance supplied in this quote can help us battle writer’s block, discouragement, rejection, and the temptation to quit, born of these ills.

My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur.

I find Mrs. Eddy’s words helpful whenever I feel myself succombing to the sense that my project isn’t worthwhile–no agent will want to represent it, no publisher will find it marketable, no reader will want to read it. We all face these insecurities. For me, they are as frequent as their opposites: I am writing the next Great Novel. It will become a best seller and a major motion picture. I have something valuable and worthwhile and unique to say. My confidence is a pendulum constantly swinging between two extremes: doubt and delusions of grandeur. While it’s easy to keep writing when the latter thoughts fill my mind, perseverance in the face of such negative self-talk as the former thoughts proves a bit of a struggle.

But keeping Mrs. Eddy’s words in mind helps. For my writing, the “high goal” right now is seeing my novel published. The “high goal” is the satisfaction of knowing something I wrote is making people think and rethink, question and wonder, read and reread. The “high goal” is inspiring new ideas, even long after I’m gone. One current obstacle to this goal: My novel isn’t even finished. But step one is there: I have set the goal (and started writing the novel).

Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be.

Of course, setting a goal alone is no guarantee you’ll achieve it. We do have to take “footsteps in endeavoring to reach it.” I like to ask myself periodically what I have done for my writing recently–what have I done to support my high goal? Here are some possible answers:

  • written a chapter outline
  • enrolled in a novel-writing class
  • attended a conference
  • participated in a workshop
  • submitted poetry, stories, or essays to publications
  • written in my diary or journal
  • composed a blog post
  • read a book
  • asked someone to read something I’ve written and provide feedback
  • actually written a chapter of my manuscript
  • people watched
  • eavesdropped
  • taken inspiration from nature
  • listened to Podcasts or read articles relevant to my topic.

It can be easy to get bogged down in counting these steps, as Mrs. Eddy warns against. But when we find ourselves feeling buried by little things, it truly can be helpful to take a step back and remember the bigger picture, the higher goal. Instead of viewing revision as a chore, or dreading working on your project because you’re in the tight-fisted grip of writer’s block, remember that your “destination is desirable,” and the “expectation of good speeds our progress.” Instead of letting disheartening thoughts of doubt cloud our thinking, instead of wondering why we even bother, instead of letting the footsteps we must take feel arduous and grueling, rejoice in the fact that you are taking the necessary steps towards reaching that glittering goal, whatever it may be. Remember that each revision, each belabored chapter rewrite, each late night writing and rewriting–they are all part of the process. Instead of dwelling on each difficulty, take pride in your progress. As long as you don’t lose sight of where you’re going–as long as you keep the high goal always before your thoughts–each footstep takes you a little closer to where you want to be.

The Effect of Recent Success: More Drive

If you’re a writer and you submit your work for publication with any sort of regularity, you’re probably pretty familiar with rejection. In fact, sometimes it feels like being a writer is synonymous with being really, really good at handling rejection. Our resiliency may make us seem like gluttons for punishment, constantly risking our art and our hearts only to be told it’s just not good enough–if not in kinder, more professional words. Fending off discouragement can be daunting, but if we’re lucky, our well-practiced resiliency allows us to persevere with a kind of cultivated optimism–that shoot- for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-among-the-stars hope we read on inspirational posters in our high school classrooms.

This spring, my perseverance paid off (as it does, every now and again–though not as often as I’d like). Typically, really exciting successes spread themselves out over rather vast expanses of time, but this spring, I experienced two back-to-back successes, one in March and one in April.

IMG-2199
I accept my award at the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association’s Annual Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In March, I was thrilled when the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA), a professional writing group I recently joined, recognized my piece, “Rescued bird teaches lesson on where to find home,” originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, with second place in the Outstanding Column category of the Excellence in Craft Contest. My parents and husband were able to celebrate with me on March 24, joining me at a lovely awards ceremony held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we were treated to a delicious lunch and several writing and photography presentations.

On April 28, two of my close friends, my parents, and I (my husband had to work) made the trip to Somerset, Virginia, to savor the beautiful scenery at The Market at Grenlen, the perfect setting for the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Contest Award Ceremony and Poetry Reading. I was so excited for my poem, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” to receive second place in the Nancy Byrd category of the contest. I was honored to be given the opportunity to share my poem with fellow poets, winners, and their families and friends, as well as breathtakingly impressed by the other winners’ poems. It was truly an inspirational, enlightening event, and I will be thrilled if I am ever invited back again, not only because it will mean another of my poems will have been recognized, but also because it will expose me to the stellar work of some of the most talented poets in the state.

Salem’s Indifferent Ox

I’ve stood in my pasture watching for days

as the townsmen with hammers, they pounded,

until from the ground a wooden platform was raised

and the drumroll, through the village sounded.

Then they fetched me—how could I be involved

in this mysterious venture of theirs?

But I plod through the town, no question resolved,

Wondering at their strange mumbled prayers.

The wagon is heavy, my cargo, it weeps

with the people standing by in the crowd.

I watch as they climb the handcrafted steps,

clinging to dignity, proud.

Then they clutch at the ropes—tighter and tighter—

and on my way home, my cargo is lighter.

To view the reading of my poem on April 28, 2018, click here.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ll admit it’s in part because I’m proud and excited and I wanted to brag. I mean share. But it’s more so because these two consecutive successes with mere weeks between them had an unexpected effect on me. Instead of

WOW Logo
I read my second-place poem at the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Award Luncheon.

stopping at pride and ecstasy and validation, these two experiences made me feel like I can’t just sit back and rest on my laurels;  I have to keep going. Instead of just basking in the warm sunshine of success, I feel the need to pursue more opportunities to achieve it. I think the only achievement that might satiate my hunger for further writing success would be holding my two manuscripts after they have been reborn as books.  Yes, the pressure is on to continue to perform at this level–even though I know what I am really asking for is more rejection with a few successes sprinkled in between.

 

Where to Write: The Best Writing Locations for Every Project

If you enter the front door of my house, mount the stairs, and make a left, you will find yourself in the room my husband and I call “the office.” Despite its mundane name, the office serves a myriad of functions: It’s my husband’s video game room, our catch-all room, and my writing room. It even served a short stint as a guest room at one point.

Opposite a massive television that dominates an entire wall of the office, sits my heavy, wooden desk, its broad surface all but covered with magazines, books, candles, a few photographs and business cards, a mug full of pens, and my laptop. I was pretty proud of this little space–this tiny portion of the room that was mine–when we first set it up. For a while, I even started referring to the office solely as “my writing room.” Truth be told, though, my husband plays far more video games in there than I write articles, poems, essays, or stories. And so, gradually, the room has returned to its original name: the office (though maybe “gaming room” would be more appropriate).

I do write there occasionally. It’s a cozy, quiet spot–and it’s nice to have all my writing materials handy (if not 100% organized). I’ve found, though, that despite my loving the idea of a writing room, I’m a fairly migratory writer. I write at the kitchen table. I write at the table outside on our back deck (a lot). I write on the couch. I write perched on the edge of the brick hearth in front of our fireplace. I write sitting in a gravity-free chair beside the fire pit in our backyard. I write on rocks in the middle of the Jame River. I’ve even been known to write during a float session and in an inflatable, backyard pool. Each of these locations offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Each environment contributes to–or, in some cases, detracts from–the creative process in some way.

Writing Outside

One of my favorite places to write is outside–anywhere outside. My back deck, my front porch, my hammock, the river, the beach… I find writing outside in the natural world offers a plethora of benefits. My mind is free to wander through the open space of fresh air, tangled tree branches, birds on the wing. Nature seems to help open up my creative pathways and free my imagination.

The advantages I find to writing outside are many. The natural world offers stimulation for all five senses, and often, unexpected inspiration. My essay, “Out Of Touch,” was inspired in large part by an experience just lounging on my hammock in the backyard. “The moon was late to the party” came of an experience I enjoyed on two consecutive nights of evening walks. I wrote a large portion of Goodbye for Now on my back deck.

The outdoors also offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination. Being at one with nature puts me in a meditative state that is more open to ideas than my usual, task-oriented mind.

Writing outside offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination.

In addition, if you’re falling victim to writer’s block, one way to overcome it is to step outside and observe nature. Focus on each sense individually, and describe, in detail, what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

Some of my most original and pertinent lines, phrases, ideas, metaphors, and similes find me when I’m outside.

There are, however, a few drawbacks (none of which outweigh the benefits, if you ask me). Kris Spisak, author of Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confusedsays she writes “outside a lot, but I can’t edit there if I’m in fine-tuning mode. The glare on my screen lets imperfections slip through undetected.” Sun glare on a laptop screen can indeed be pretty brutal sometimes, and outdoor situations are not always the most ergonomic. Plus, writing outside is obviously weather-dependent, so it’s not always a feasible option. Finally, sometimes I myself tend to get caught up in my surroundings, and end up doing more observing and appreciating than writing.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

Somehow, writing in a coffee shop has the effect of just magically making me feel like a bona-fide writer. I’m not sure why, exactly–but I feel legitimate when I write in a coffee shop. (Or itwould, I imagine, if I ever wrote in a coffee shop…) Another plus is the people watching you can manage in a bustling coffee shop can help inspire character ideas, and the conversations you can overhear can help inspire dialog.

A coffee shop sometimes offers fewer distractions than writing at home–or at least fewer opportunities for procrastination. You can’t get up and load your dishwasher, fold your laundry, take a nap, or mop your floors when you’re at the coffee shop. But you can write. And you might as well–because there’s not much else to do. Spisak admits that when she writes at home, “sometimes laundry calls; dishes need to be done; or family voices want to disturb my productivity. Those are the occasions I like to support local small businesses by buying their coffee. (Being a writer is a different type of entrepreneurship, after all. We need to support each other where we can.).”

“If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

All that said, I myself rarely, if ever, write at a coffee shop, though a Starbucks sits at the main intersection just two miles from my front door. I once took a conference call there, and nearly a decade ago, I graded a stack of research papers there–but I can’t recall having ever actually written anything there.

The drawbacks to the coffee shop writing scene include the fact that, while you can’t get up and start doing chores or paying bills, other distractions exist–like chatting up the barista, talking with other customers, getting up to purchase another snack or drink, people watching more than writing, and the necessity to spend at least a little money. Spisak, however, sees the latter as something of a motivating benefit. “If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

Writing in a Comfy Couch or Chair

Who doesn’t like curling up with a good book (whether you’re reading it or writing it is beside the point) on a comfortable couch or chair? I mean, it’s comfy! So comfy, in fact, that you’re not likely to want to get up soon–so you’re likely to stay there a while and keep writing. Charlene Jimenez, a writing instructor and freelance writer, says she likes writing in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch because “it’s nice to physically relax when you’re working your creative writing muscles.

The main drawback for me? I sometimes get a little too comfortable and end up giving in to the urge to nap.

Writing in a Home Office

According to Jimenez, “The solitude of a home office is the best. I’m surrounded by all my novel notes. It feels like my own space, so I feel comfortable and productive there.” Spisak agrees that there’s something helpful about being surrounded by all your materials and ideas. “At my own desk, I’m surrounded by inspiration and all of the resources I usually need,” she says. “My desk at home is my usual writing habitat. When I have my own desk at home, there’s no excuse for not getting my writing down. It’s there. It’s waiting. I just need to enter my writing space to make it happen.”

Setting up a certain space designed just to help you write can help condition your mind and writing muscles. You know that when you enter that space, you write. Similarly, people know not to disturb you; you’re working.

One drawback, however, is that while a home office may help you focus, it may not be particularly stimulating or inspirational (or it may make writing feel like, well, work).

Writing on a Porch or Balcony

Jimenez wrote most of her NaNoWriMo novel on her back porch, where her husband had just hung some beautiful lights, making the space peaceful and inspirational. Spisak, too, has a balcony she calls her “warm-weather office,” explaining she enjoys “the fresh air during my work time. Something about a nice breeze and birdsong can be inspirational.” I’m with you there, ladies! I love the different perspective offered by an elevated porch or balcony. I can see more, and see it all differently, lending me new ideas, stimulation, and inspiration.

Potential drawbacks include possible distractions, such as people stopping by to chat, traffic sounds, and my own tendency to eavesdrop on the conversations of neighbors or passersby…

Wherever you do most of your writing, I hope it offers the inspiration and motivation for your best work.

 

Social Media and the Write Life

“Comparison is the death of joy,” according to Mark Twain, and there’s something to that. You might be familiar with a more contemporary term for the truth Twain describes: FOMO. The acronym stands for “Fear Of Missing Out,” and refers to the phenomenon caused in part by social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, which occurs when a social media user is exposed to, for example, the seemingly stellar Saturday night plans of his Fill-in-the-Social-Media-Platform friends, and compares those to his own evening plans–which inevitably seem lackluster by–you guessed it–comparison.

Today, more and more people experience FOMO–our own summer vacation at the beach paling in comparison to our colleague’s two-week trip to the Galapagos Islands, the long-stem rose our husband gave us for our birthday seeming somehow inadequate beside the two-dozen roses our neighbor’s husband gave her “just because,” our own career achievements seeming suddenly insignificant compared to our former college roommate’s successful medical practice or quick promotion.

“Comparison is the death of joy.”

–Mark Twain

I agree that comparing our own lives to the lives we see posted on social media–which are only the slices of life people want to display, usually the highlights–is both socially and societally problematic. I also agree that a pervasive use of social media is causing social degradation, as it decreases face-to-face communication and replaces precise, specific language capable of communicating complex emotions with (albeit cute and clever) emojis.

Recently, however, despite my tendency to see the downside of social media, I have come to believe that, if used deliberately, social media can produce positive effects, too, and in fact has yielded immediate positive impacts on my actual life–and this has been particularly true of my writing life.

Social media, used deliberately, has yielded positive impacts on my writing life.

This summer, I was invited to join the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, and, shortly after I accepted, was asked to chair the VOWA Collegiate Undergraduate Writing and Photography Competition. One of my responsibilities within this role is to secure a new sponsor for the photography portion of the contest, a task on which I have been working since July or August. Recently, it occurred to me to put a call for a sponsor out on Instagram and Facebook–and within an hour, a fledgling photography company responded, interested in pursuing the sponsorship. Whether this pans out remains to be seen, but things are looking up.

 

In addition, several of the authors whose interviews have appeared on this blog, such as Luke P. Narlee, Brandi Kennedy, and Jill Breugem, I met via Instagram. I know that at least in the case of Narlee, the use of social media benefitted him, as well: One reader of this blog purchased and read his book as a direct result of having read our interview.

Some of my writing has even been published as a direct result of social media. My articles in writeHackr Magazine (unfortunately now defunct) were a direct result of social media. I found the magazine and its call for pitches and submissions on Instagram.

The good folks at My Trending Stories also found and contacted me through Instagram, having noticed my account. The same holds true for American Wordsmiths (though in that case, I found them).

My essays on sweatpantsandcoffee.com are also an excellent example. One of my colleagues follows the sweatpantsandcoffee Instagram account, and noticed a post advertising a call for submissions. She immediately shared the post with my account, and I pounced on the opportunity.

 

And, as strongly as I feel social media does anything but foster actual social interaction, my experience with Sweatpants and Coffee led to a real-life meeting with the website’s Operations Director, who happens to live less than hour away from me. We met up at a Starbucks (naturally–Sweatpants and Coffee) in downtown Richmond and spent a lovely couple of hours in the shade on the patio–having a real, face-to-face chat.

I had a similar experience with social media leading to actual socializing last fall at the James River Writers Annual Conference. A few fellow writers I had never met in person recognized me simply because we follow each other on Instagram. I got a little thrill of meeting the people behind the profiles, and our social media accounts gave us a sort of jumping off point as we got acquainted. In one case, I already knew she liked plants and painting; she already knew I was obsessed with my dogs.

It was thrilling to meet the people behind the profiles.

Finally, this blog, in its own right a form of social media, has provided a platform for people who read my work elsewhere, and want to reach out. On several occasions, people who have read my work in the Richmond Times-Dispatch have commented on this blog in response to what they’ve read–and each time, their personal, thoughtful comments have warmed my heart, and encouraged me to keep on keepin’ on. If I did not maintain this blog, these kind readers would have had no means of contacting me.

So, as I celebrate the fact that this weekend, my Instagram account reached over 500 followers (which, compared to the 5k followers some others might have could seem–oh, never mind…), and this post marks the 101st post on this blog, I acknowledge that social media, while it does pose its problems, can also prove a powerful and effective tool.