Almost three weeks ago, I got an email from Women on Writing notifying me I was in their top ten for their Winter 2016 contest. I happy danced all the way from the women’s restroom in Flatbread back to my table. It was exciting and boosted my confidence.
The days between now and then were full of rejections. Sometimes, I would get three or four in one day. One morning, three came in a couple hours. I’ve developed pretty thick skin when it comes to rejections, but the onslaught was starting to wear it down and erode my confidence. It made me wonder what wasn’t working with my stories or process, wondering if my idea of what was “good” and what editors and slush readers thought of as “good” was just too different.
Yesterday, I spent the morning selling what is left of my seaglass jewelry at a yard sale in Maine. I was trying not to check my email to much because I was almost out of data on my phone. Around 9:30, I gave in to my curiosity and refreshed gmail on my phone. The first thing I saw was a rejection from Clarkesworld. The second was a newsletter from Women on Writing. I opened it, expecting to my story as the last runner up, only to find my face staring back at me as the second place winner.
Let’s just say that everyone at the yard sale was notified of my win. I was very excited to not only have another “published” story, but to actually get paid for it.
I don’t write for money. I write because I need to write. However, everything in contemporary America costs money, and in order to justify the amount of time I put into the writing, I need to get compensated for it. Knowing my story was selected over hundreds of other and getting money for it felt good. It proved writing was more than just a hobby. It made me feel like artist, and like a professional.
I did it once, I can do it again. I will not let rejections get me down. I’ll keep pushing against the tide until I reach the next island – the next acceptance letter.
If you are interested, you can see my story, and the other winners, by clicking this link: http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/69-FE1-Winter16Contest.html
I hate empty space. Fortunately, this helps my writing process more than it harms it.
When I see emptiness, I feel the need to fill it. If there is a room with too much empty floor, I want to get more furniture. If the table is empty, I get urges to clutter it up with books and papers. When I clean, I move the clutter, wash the dirt away, and put the clutter back.
My disdain for space is one reason why painting or drawing has never worked for me. Last summer, I went to a bachelorette party at a paint bar in Arlington, MA. We were painting a hill in Boston with the skyline in the background. I closely followed directions for the sky and hill, but replaced the buildings with mountains, because I hate cities. Even though they are lacking empty spaces, they are filled with the wrong things.
If I had just followed directions after that, put in the prescribed three trees and small clumps of flowers, I would have been fine. But I felt like the foreground was too empty. So I kept adding more trees and flowers until the whole front was just utterly cluttered with my doodles. What could have a been a clean painting of a park overlooking a mountain range morphed into a chaotic jumble of rotten broccoli-trees, dotty flowers and distorted, oversized lupines.
Most of the time, my compulsion to fill space is an asset to my writing process. It means I seldom get writers block because if I see the blank page in front of me, I need to fill it with whatever stories or ideas are wrecking havoc in my head. What I write isn’t always good, but I keep going through the crappy parts of my mind until get back to better writing and sometimes, some of the crap turns out to be salvageable with significant revision and editing.
What often worries me with this compulsion is that I may add too much to a story later when I should be cutting back. I’m not worried that I will write too much initially. I don’t think that is possible. The more I write, the more I know about the character. What worries me is revision. Will I make the story drag on too long? Add scenes and characters that weren’t needed? Somewhere along the line, I will come to a point where I need to stop revising a story. Period. But how do I know when I’ve reached that point?
Right now, my answer is when that particular piece gets published. However, for the ones that don’t, I occasionally find myself worrying if draft seven might have been better than draft eight.
Maybe as more of my work gets published, I’ll get a better sense of what “done” means to me. On the other hand, I may have to concede that the concept of “done” just doesn’t apply to writing.
One was a form rejection from the Drabblecast for a flash piece called “The Largest Looser.” I just shrugged it off and started thinking about where to send it next. The flash story is hardly a month old been only been submitted to four places. I have plenty of other paying markets left to send it to.
The second was a rather encouraging personal rejection from Fantasy and Science Fiction for a piece titled “Berserker.” In fact, when I saw the words “The opening scene of this grabbed me and it held my attention to the end, and I think it’s an interesting premise,” I actual thought it was going to be an acceptance. Then came the dreaded “but” followed by a pretty justified reason for turning the story down. Fortunately, I think this is something another revision can fix, so maybe, the next time I submit it somewhere, it will get accepted.
I don’t revise every story after every rejection. Sometimes, a story gets rejected simply because it just doesn’t line up with what the editor wants to put in his or her issue. Sometimes it just isn’t the editors style. Writing is subjective. Different people like different kinds of stories. Editors are people. Just because one or two don’t like a story doesn’t mean its bad. However, when I get personal rejection from a well respected editor that compliments the story then makes a few suggestions, I certainly am going to revisit the story and give his suggestions some serious thoughts.
Fortunately, God, The Universe, and/or my own Hard Work softened the blow of waking up to a double rejection. My article, “Slow and Steady?” was published on Women On Writing’s The Muffin. The piece is a reflection on how an inpatient personality like mine can be both a gift and a curse when writing and publishing short fiction. Right now, the sprinter in me wants to resubmit both these stories without revising. While I might do that with the flash piece rejected by Drabblecast, My gut tells me its better to revise the longer piece rejected by Fantasy and Science Fiction. That piece has gotten a lot more rejections, and the number of pro-paying markets I can send it to is shrinking.
While Fantasy and Science Fiction is now another place I won’t be able to publish, I feel like I am starting to get a better sense of what they look for in a story. Sooner or later, there won’t be a dreaded “but” and “I’m going to pass on this one.” Until then, I’ll just keep swimming.
“I’ve spent like, a total of 12 hours on this essay and my instructor wants me to revise it again! This is the third draft! It has to be good!”
Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching
By Sara Codair
As a professional tutor working in a busy community college writing center, I often find myself repeating the same bits of advice to students over and over again. However, even as I am telling students “be specific” and “don’t procrastinate,” I am wondering if I follow my own advice when writing fiction.
After some careful, end of the semester reflection, I not only realized that the writing advice I doll is applicable to fiction writing, but also that many of those insights emerged from my experience working with students, not the workshops, MOOC’s and traditional classes I’ve been taking since middle school
1. You have to start somewhere
Many developing writers stare at blank screens for hours wondering how to begin. They type the first line, delete it, type it again, delete it, and repeat this process all night then show up to class the next day with nothing.
There is one student I worked with regularly throughout the fall semester. His process is something like this: Write a paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good. Write another paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good, repeat.
Others like to free write stream of consciousness style, make a few changes and turn their paper in, think it’s gold then turn it in.
The ones who get A’s are somewhere in the middle. The do the stream of conscious free write, then revise like crazy before letting someone else look at their essay. They get feedback from their peers and from a tutor, then turn the essay in.
Don’t let anxiety stop you from writing, but also make sure you revise before you let your friends and critique partners read it and revise more before you send anything out to publications.
2. Time is your friend. Procrastination is your enemy.
There are two common breeds of college student: the ones who wait until the night before (or morning before) the paper is due to start, and the ones who start it the minute it is assigned.While those who start early always write better than the procrastinators, starting early doesn’t guarantee an A, or in my case, publication.
My novel is on its 8th draft, and I’m still not happy with it.
I revised “Above the Influence” close ten times before submitting to Mash and getting shortlisted. Even then, my feedback report revealed the judges still found problems. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible, just that I may have needed 11th or 12th draft in order to have a winning story.
Revision takes time. You have to write the story. You have to let it rest. You have to revise. Let it rest again. Repeat. If you put off starting the story, or wait until a few minutes before a deadline, then you are not going to get a good draft.And even if you do all this, it still might not be good enough. Or maybe it might be good to you and your critique group, but not so good to the slush goddesses, because after all, writing is subjective. What works for one person may not work so well for someone else.
3. Your story is yours. Don’t write what you think people want you to say. Write what you want to say
One mistake I have seen students make over and over again is just writing what they think the teacher wants to hear. I get it – they want a good grade – but it doesn’t work.
Fiction writers do this too. They wonder if their story is marketable, and make the mistake of writing what they think their readers want. Let’s face it, we all want to get published and make money, but if we just write what we think other’s want and don’t stay true to ourselves, our craft will turn into our crap, almost literally, if you really think about it: consume suggestions, digest them, excrete them.
Your story should be your baby, not your shit.
A story I wrote called Costume Connection got six rejections before getting accepted by Centum Press. Two of those rejections came with feedback. The first feedback report had some rather helpful suggestions that helped the piece grow into the version that got accepted. The second had some comments that just didn’t make sense to me. I decided that the piece just didn’t work for those people, and I wasn’t going to change it because of them. I’m glad I trusted my gut, and am looking forward to seeing a story of mine published in a tangible print book
4. Let it rest, leave time to proof read, let it rest, cut clutter, let it rest.
Your draft is detailed and specific. You’ve revised several times. You are happy with the content and think you have caught most of the grammatical errors. Other people have read it, possibly more than once and most importantly, you are happy with the result.
You are note done.
You are note done.
Put it away.
Hide the file.
Just don’t look at for at least 24 hours. Try to leave it alone for a week if you can.
When you just can’t stay away from the thing any longer, that means it is time to edit and revise. Catch all those grammatical errors. Make sure you are showing, not telling. Restructure your sentences so you have minimal glue(words that don’t carry meaning). Replace as many adverb/verb pairs as you can with specific verbs . You don’t have to get rid of them all, but just remember a strong verb kicks ass.
Leave it alone for a few days. AGAIN.
Read it with a fresh eye. Make any changes you think of whether they are on the sentence level or the story level. Let it rest again. Revise again.
Whenever I talk to teachers who aren’t writers or English teachers, they seem to be under the impression that college students can’t write. This isn’t because the students can’t compose good essays. It’s because they don’t have time to let the draft rest. When they get a paper back they haven’t seen in a week, they could revise without seeing half of the instructor’s comments.
Even a night of rest would have made the difference between an B and A. There have been plenty of times when I have sat down in the writing center with a more who printed the paper out at night, and brought it to me in the morning, a couple hours before it is due. As we are reading through the paper, the student see’s all the sentence level errors she missed when she did her 2 a.m. proof read.
While different genres of writing follow different rules and styles, the process is more or less the same whether you are writing a college research paper, an article or a short story. Once you understand the style and structure of your genre(s), you can continue to improve your writing by studying and improving your process. Be mindful of what you do. Practice metacognition. Journal about your process. Read what other writers have written about heir process and compare it to what you have written about your own. Revise the process accordingly. Write on!
My mom is an antique dealer, and has been since I was about three years old. She choose that line of work so she could have a flexible work schedule that allowed her to earn money without taking too much time away from me. She was always able to pick me up from school and be the mom that drove my friends and me everywhere, and in the summer, I went to work with her.
We would spend our Saturday mornings trolling from one yard-sale to another, searching for treasures that she could make a profit on. During the week, we would antique all over the five New England states. When she started, she sold in a publication called the Antique Trader. That allowed her to sell things nationally for higher prices than someone could get in a store, and by the time I was in elementary school, Ebay made her work much more profitable. Now, she could take a piece that sold for $20 in a New Hampshire shop, and sell it to someone in California, Japan or Germany for $200.
I never fully embraced the business myself, but it left me with a keen eye for undervalued items.
I can usually tell when one person’s trash would be treasure to someone else, and I can spot connections between her success as an antique dealer and my journey as an emerging writer.
Persistence and faith pay off.
My mother has always been a devout catholic, and persistent when it comes to supporting her family. We were never rich, but I never went without. Whenever money got tight, my mom would keep searching through shops until she found something that she could sell to pay the bills. Even now, with me out of the house and my dad on the verge of retirement, she is still going strong. This week, she was getting overwhelmed with vet bills and expensive car repairs. Just when she thought she wasn’t going to be able to pay everything off, she found and purchased an Elvis Presley dress for $10. She put it on Ebay, expecting it to sell for a couple hundred. When the auction ended, the high bid was over $2,000, which was more than enough to cover the veterinary and mechanical bills.
When it comes to my writing, the rejections can be overwhelming. No matter how tough it gets, I have to keep swimming against the tide. I keep revising and submitting, believing that eventually, something will get accepted. Last week, I was starting to get down and doubt myself. I thought if I saw another “Thank you for submitting ___. Unfortunately…” I was going to chuck whatever device I was reading on across the room. While I was out to eat with my mom and a friend, I took a trip to the restroom. While I was waiting in line, I refreshed my email on my phone. There was a response from Women On Writing in my inbox, telling me my story had made the top ten in their contest. This means the story will definitely get published, and I will get paid for it. I still don’t know if I am a runner up who is getting a $25 amazon card, or one of the top three who gets a cash prize. Either way, it will be the most money I have gotten for a story so far.
No matter what happens, I need to keep going and believe that things will fall into place, sooner or later. Faith is important whether it is in a higher power, numbers, or both.
Just because several people reject something, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there who wants it.
This morning, I met my parents at a local flea market called Todd Farm. We filled our shared table with items that had languished on internet markets like Etsy and Ebay without selling, no matter how low we dropped the price. It was refreshing to see the items fly off the table, especially when the customers didn’t even try to haggle. By the time the unseasonable cold winds drove me from the field, my boxes were nearly empty and my wallet was full of cash.
It reminded me of how my favorite authors got dozens of rejections, in some cases, more than 100 rejections, before having their books become bestsellers, and how some short stories get accepted to pro markets after being rejected by dozens of other publications. I have some stories nearing ten rejections, but my experiences with the flea market renew my hope that sooner or later, they will sell.
Writing and antiquing aren’t all that different. They both deal in stories. They both deal with rejections. They both offer rewards for those who are persistent enough to withstand the rejections and just keep searching for the next Kodak moment.
Today I had a piece of flash fiction published by Foliate Oak Magazine:
“You open the closet on Monday morning, trying to decide what to wear. His side: everything is ironed, organized by color and meticulously hung. Your side: wrinkled shirts cling to hangers and sleeves dangle dangerously close to the floor.”
As the semester comes to an end, it can be hard to remember to eat at all, let alone eat healthy. This was true for me when I was a student, and still is true now that I am a teacher. Since women cannot survive on chocolate alone (though we often want to), I believe it is critical to make sure that I do not let the stress get to me.
No matter how chaotic it gets, I need to eat and I need to take time to make sure I don’t burn out. Writing, cooking and taking pictures are often therapeutic for me, so before I dive into the grading this morning, I am taking some time to make food and a blog post.
Friday night, I was too tired to do much cooking, so my husband picked up a rotisserie chicken from a local grocery story, and I boiled some Jasmin rice. We barely ate half the chicken, so I decided to save to rest for soup.
I started with vegetables: Half a large onion, a quarter of a bell pepper, one large carrot and one stick of celery. I cut them up and sautéed them with olive oil, thyme and parsley.
Next, I added the left over Rotisserie Chicken.
More dedicated and experienced cooks would use the whole thing to make stock, but I have a very limited amount of time allowed for writing and cooking this morning, so I just ripped off some white meat and threw it in the pan. I didn’t use all the leftover meat, so I put it back in the fridge in case my husband (who is a much better cook than me) wants to use it for something.
We did have some jasmine rice left over from Friday, maybe a 1/3 cup, so I added that to the pan next.
I stirred it, letting it all simmer for a few a minutes, then added a box of organic chicken stock.
I’ll let it all simmer while I grade. At noon, when I need a break, I’ll have a bowl of soup, giving my body some veggies, protein and grain to help it power through the next round of papers. I’ll put the left overs in the fridge and take them to work for lunch on Monday and Tuesday, guaranteeing that I will have something healthier than cookies to eat between my classes.
Tuesdays are the best and worst day of my week. I leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and don’t get home until 9:30 p.m. I tutor all day and teach at night, ending the day with my favorite group of students. By the time I get home, I’m exhausted, hungry, and off-the-wall hyper.
This Tuesday, I got home, made myself a cup of chamomile tea and curled up on the couch to watch This Old House. After watching a foundation poured and inspected, my husband and I found ourselves in a classic millennial situation: sitting out the couch with Mac Books on our laps, focused more on screens than each other. I would have rather had the cat on my lap than my computer, but he was unwilling to grace me with his presence.
I looked up from my screen, watching the cat bat his noisy ball around the living room. Glancing over at my husband, I said, “You know, for the past two Tuesdays, I’ve gotten good writing news.”
“Thats good,” he said lifting his eyes away from Facebook Messenger.
“Two weeks ago, I found out I was a finalist for that contest. Last week, I got a story accepted for an anthology. I didn’t get any rejections today, but there wasn’t any good news either.”
He shrugged. “No rejections is still pretty good.”
Our attention shifted back to our screens. An email notification popped up on mine, informing me I had a new message from Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
“Crap,” I muttered as I opened the message, expecting a rejection.
Then I jumped out of my seat. “Wait, I just got an acceptance!”
“You spoke to soon,” he said closing his lap top.
After a doing a proper happy dance and playing the the cat, I took my laptop to the kitchen table to withdraw the story from the other places I had sent it, update my bio and find a decent photo of myself. I only accomplished two of those three things before I went to bed, but I was happy and confident that there was a point to my obsession with submissions. It was worth all the hard work. I had found a home for another one of my stray stories.
“Write what you know” is a saying I have heard from many different people. I don’t usually agree with it, and find I prefer to use writing as a tool for exploring what I don’t know. The internet and library data bases can tell me almost anything I want to know about any subject. Writing about the unknown is the best way to motivate myself to do research and come to understand the research by writing about it, whether I am incorporating it into a novel, blogging, or writing academic prose.
As much as I like to think of writing as a tool for inquiry, I will not deny that it is easier to write about things I am familiar with. This month, I was reminded of just how big an impact knowledge and confidence can have on a person’s ability to write coherent prose.
There is one student who has been coming into the writing center on and off for a couple years. Lately, I have been tutoring him at least once a week. I’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this post.
Bob is a very good writer, lacking more in confidence than skill. Last week, I was working with him on a beautifully organized essay about business etiquette in his home country. Since English isn’t his first language, he needed help with the grammar, but little else. The essay had a strong voice, specific purpose and clear organization.
Today, he brought me an essay his instructor asked him to revise. To be honest, this essay seemed like a different student wrote it. The ideas were all over the place and some sentences were very difficult to decipher. If I hadn’t been working with him for so long, I might have suspected that the previous essay had been plagiarized.
As our session went on, I came to understand that he knew almost nothing about the topic prior to starting his research. He had been thorough with his research, but his lack of knowledge was having a major impact on his writing. He was disorganized, jumping from one topic to the next before he was done explaining it. There were missing sentences, missing words, and errors with tense and punctuation that I knew he had mastered last year. He was so focused on making sure he got his facts straight in both the writing and revising process, that he failed to organize the paper in a coherent manner and missed dozens of grammatical errors. His level of knowledge really effected what he was capable of.
While its fine for an experience writer to throw rules like “Write what you know” out the window and use writing as a tool for research and discovery, beginning or developing writers do much better when they are familiar with their subject.
It is good to let students write about things they are familiar with and gradually move them into using writing for inquiry.
When writers are taking their first adventures into fiction, they might want to start out by writing stories set in places they’ve been with characters doing things they know a lot about. Once they get a good handle on the craft (organization, detail, plot, structure, character, dialogue and grammatical control), then they can branch out to the unfamiliar.
I love to use writing to explore “what if” scenarios. If I am curious about what it is like to be exist as a hispanic teenager, an overweight man or a trans woman, I read, I watch, and then I write. When I get bored with my world and cease to appreciate it, I make up a new world that is far less comfortable than my own. Through writing, I experience thing that make me appreciate the privileges and comfort of my own life.
I used to just write what I understood. Now, I go out of my way to write what I don’t.
Instead of a traditional post, today I have a question that I hope will propt a discussion in the comments section:
When you come across publications whose guidelines say things like “Send up to three flashes in one document” or send “For flash fiction, please send three pieces, all pasted into one document,” do you usually wait until you have three? or just send one? If you send two or three, do you select pieces that are drastically different from one another? or pieces that are thematically similar? Why?
Have you eve had something accepted from this kind of submissions? If so, so they accept everything or just one story?
For a while I avoided publications that ask this because I didn’t to handle it. However, this week, I got brave and submitted a few documents containing three very different flashes and one with some thematically similar stories. Anyways, I would love to hear about your experiences!
p.s. If you are wondering why there is a picture of zucchini on here, it is because there are multiple fruits growing on the same plant, just like multiple submissions hanging out in one document. Will they motivate the owner to care for the plant and encourage them all to grow? or will they kill each other with competition?