Monday, November 19, 2018

Beware of the Contests

Image result for winner

On the last day of my Advance Narrative Writing Class at UIUC back in 2016, our instructor John Rubins opened the discussion up to final questions. It was an opportunity to ask anything we wanted about writing for a living. Many students inquired about getting published of course, and about pay rates for certain pieces. Some asked about the editorial process and opportunities to work as agents or editors. Then, just as class ended, a student asked about contests. Should we enter them?

Rubins' response was cryptic. "Beware of the contests", he said.

At the time, I thought he was warning us about those less than honest competitions where you pay a very high entrance fee in exchange for guaranteed acceptance, sort of a Who's Who in Writing but without the leather hardcover. But now, after entering several poetry and a few short story competitions, I believe I know what it was he wanted us to avoid,  the reliance on contests to determine your value as a writer.

It's easy to do as contests winning  can provide both a soothing balm to the eager and often needy emerging writer, and a welcome boost to your resume and career, but they can also wound, leaving a decent amount of scar tissue if one enters them without adequate protection.

By "protection" I mean a thick skin, a well honed ability to critique ones own work, the fortitude to reach out to other writers for the elusive constructive criticism, and the strength to welcome a rejection as yet another opportunity for improvement.

Contests, like aspirin, are best consumed on a limited basis, else you risk a GI bleed.

Although I have entered several contests over the last three years, I am select about where I send out both my work and my limited cash. Each month, when I receive my issue of Poets and Writers, I go first to the section of upcoming competitions and circle those that match well with my work. Then I narrow it down by deadline date and submission fee. I like to choose those whose deadlines are far off, allowing me time to revise and sharpen up  any loose screws. From those I'll select the one with a moderate admission fee. Twenty dollars or less is my usual budget.

Then, I submit it and forget it.

Unless I don't. Last summer I submitted my first poetry chapbook to a contest in Ireland. I was so excited to have enough finished work to enter that I got carried away  found myself checking the organizations web site daily for results. I also blame the prize itself for this obsessive internet stalking as the chapbook winner not only received cash, several copies of their book and publication by a notable press, but  a three day stay in Cork (the home of Blarney Castle) as well !

You see, I fell into that jagged tooth trap so many do: I was focusing on the PRIZE rather than the work itself. The time spent checking for my name on the organizations website was time taken away from the other writing I needed, wanted, to do. And sure enough, I didn't win. No short list mention, no long list nod, no honorable mention. Nothing. Nada.

Funny thing though, I wasn't disappointed as much as I was relieved. With no need to check on contest results anymore, I had time to finish the other eighteen  poems I started but wasn't disciplined enough to finish. Being granted official loser status, freed me to do what writers are supposed to be doing.


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Unrequested Critique, Turning Pain into Pleasure.

                                                   "There is only one way
                                    to avoid criticism:
                                    do nothing
                                     say nothing
                                     be nothing."


I am one of those freaks who liked school.I liked in in the 20th century when I attended as a youngster. I liked it in the 21st century when I returned as a post modern fifty-five year old.

I especially enjoyed the workshop atmosphere in the Creative Writing department at The University of Illinois. We wrote, we made copies, we shared with the group.  Feedback was returned in writing or  through a verbal roundtable of advice, constructive criticism, and encouragement. Depending on the class, professors chimed in or they remained silent, grading the writers and the reviewers on effort given.

I always appreciated the feedback, and even though my classmates were decades younger, they had excellent insight and made valuable suggestions. Feedback is good, when you ask for it, when it is expected, but what happens when you receive a large amount of very specific feedback which is not anticipated?

You say Thank You Very Much.

This happened to me earlier in the spring. I submitted several poems to a well known organization in Ireland, Fish Publishing. Winners would be published in their annual anthology. At the time of entry, poets had the option of paying extra to have their poem critiqued by one of the staff. I didn't elect this option. I am not exactly a starving artist, we do have a substantial vegetable garden, but funds are limited for this homesteader/writer. Nine days after submitting my work, I received an email informing me a critique of one of my poems was done in error. Did I want to see it? There was no additional charge.

I jumped at the offer. Please refer to paragraph one of this blog, the part where I admit to loving school.

The feedback I received was detailed, insightful, beneficial, and painful. The painful part was the best part. The reviewer had spent good time with my poem, picking up on the inconsistencies in tense and punctuation, noting my tendency to say in ten words what could be said in three, and holding me accountable for my lack of control, focus and precision.  Wow. Color me chastised.

He also commended me for my strengths: "strong ideas with a nice central metaphor", "I can see a writer here with lots of talent and potential", "a writer with a fine eye and ear for detail",  and "you are obviously very capable."

The finest part of his review  was the line by line analysis, a close reading of my work that felt microscopic in intent but not malicious. The detail was insightful and intrusive in a decent way. He read my poem, he heard my poem, and he wanted my poem to be the best it could be, so he pinpointed areas most in need of revision.

Although I wanted to make changes, it took a few weeks for me to revisit this poem of mine. I had felt bruised, a bit bopped on the head like Little Bunny Foo-Foo, but ego must be set aside if one wants to write well. After reading my poem with a critical eye instead of the creators heart, its flaws were blatantly obvious and I tackled it's revision with a surprising appetite. Soon, I'll submit this new, and I believe. improved version and if published elsewhere, I will send a copy of it to the reviewer at Fish Publishing with a second note of thanks (I did thank him for the original "accidental" critique).

Thus, my advise is this. Grab fast to those opportunities to have your work reviewed, critiqued and yes, even criticized. You might take those suggestions, you might reject them, but the process can be enlightening. Besides, writing in a vacuum might be safe, but most of the time it just sucks.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Publication. The Payoff for Hard Work

I am please to report, I received more that just rejections in this first quarter of 2018. Specifically, two publications have accepted five of my poems. Happy, happy day.

Dodging the Rain, a literary and arts journal based in Galway, Ireland, will be publishing four of my poems in their June 2018 issue. My interest in this journal was based on the editor makeup, all past grads of NUIG's (National University Ireland Galway) MA programs. I so loved my time at NUIG as a student abroad in the summer of 2015 and I do hope to return and attend that MA program myself . Preferably before I turn eighty. This is the fourth time an Ireland based publication has accepted one or more of my poems in the last two years. Four. It's a tiny number but still, so much better than zero.

Months To Years, a fairly new journal, will be publishing one of my poems in May. I was drawn to submit to them because of the intent of the editor and the CFO. They are Renata and Tim Louwers respectively and both had experienced the loss of spouses. They felt there was opportunity to improve conversations and written work around terminal illness, end of life decisions, and mortality. They divide their time between Virginia's  Shenandoah Valley and San Francisco. My years in hospice nursing continue to mold the direction of much of my work, so this journal feels like an excellent fit.

After these poems are published I'll be able to share them here on my blog.

As thrilled as I am to have these acceptances come my way, it's important to understand how much effort it took, to make this happen. This is not a Praise me I worked so hard, statement but more of a Oh Dear God getting published takes so much effort one. Yes, there is the rare bird who writes one piece and submits it to one publication and receives one glorious acceptance, but for the rest of us common fowl, a ton of work must be completed and another ton of rejections must be read, absorbed, and filed before VOILA! our name appears in print. Here is the "formula" that worked for me.

Since January 1, 2018 I have submitted 153 poems to thirty-nine literary journals. Some journals were print only, some were on-line only and several did both. Some only wanted one poem while one accepted up to eight. Most wanted between three and five.

Of those thirty-nine journals, four so far have rejected my work and two (mentioned above) have accepted poems. The rest I have not yet heard from. This is not unusual as the competition is stiff and the number of submissions is great. Some publications receive thousands of poems every month and many will tell you may not hear from them for six months or longer.
Regarding the poems, 153 sent does not mean 153 different poems. For example, I may have sent poem A to ten journals, Poem B to twenty and Poems A, B and C to fifteen. Not all poems are appropriate for all journals.

Although it appears to be a large amount of work for little payoff, I don't see it that way. I write first for myself and then second, for an audience. The act of writing itself is a great payoff.  It's excellent practice in the basics of spelling, grammar and language use and it continues to hone my writing discipline skills. On average I write four hours a day, five days a week. Ass in seat, is the mantra I repeat in my head. I suppose some people can write standing up, not me. Although I can write on planes, trains and in automobiles.

Most importantly, writing gives me time alone. Not only, am I unable to write standing up, I am unable to write when I am around people I know. So, I don't write when my husband is home, when I am babysitting, or when traveling with my sisters. But, put me in the middle of Chicago on a park bench surrounded by 2.8 million strangers, and I can sit and write all day. 

Maybe even all night. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Jumping Through Literary Magazine Submission Hoops Without Breaking Your Neck.

Winter 2018 is going fantastically as far as submissions go. After a sloth-like Fall where I was writing but not submitting, it feels great to be filling up my submissions log again. Since Jan. 23 (my last submission prior to that was Aug. 2017)  I have submitted sixty-five poems to sixteen publications.

Some of this work is older, some of it is old but revised, but much of it is new, written last fall in my Anti-Submitting period. This method of writing for a few months then submitting for awhile is working well. I may continue it or I may not. Haven't been doing this long enough for any real pattern development.

But here's an observation about patterns you might find useful. Literary magazines don't follow any. They all do their own thing when it comes to collecting submissions and that "thing" is as variable as Illinois weather has been the last eight weeks.

Snow, fog, bitter cold, sleet, ice, tropical waves, and that was just before noon today.

Back to literary magazines. Some have long pages of instructions while others have two sentences. I like those two sentence ones. They say Here's our email. Send us something. Don't forget your name. Some use the online program Submittable while others wish you to send an email, and still others will take only postal submissions. Not that common, the old fashioned postal route, but it happens.

Of those who prefer the Submittable program they may charge a minimal reading fee or not.
Of those who prefer email they may want your submission as an attachment or not.
Of those who prefer snail mail they may return your work or they may not.

Most of them want a cover letter, but a brief one.
Some of them want a bio, but a brief one. Like about 9-11 words. The more generous magazines might give you fifty words to brag about yourself. Have a blast.

Many will take simultaneous submissions, but there are a few that will not. My hope is that those magazines are getting less submissions and therefore increasing my chance of an acceptance, but it's only a theory.

In regards to your actual editor wants your name on every page at the bottom while another wants it in the top right with your email address. Some read "blind" and don't want your name anywhere near your work and don't think you can fool them by misting your signature cologne on a page or two either, as those editors will sniff you out for sure.

Some want you to number each page of your submission while others insist on hieroglyphics.  I made up that last bit but you get my gist.

Once you've made it through that landmine,  a writer must then understand the follow up process. Most publications tell you up front the expected time frame as in We usually get back to writers within three to six months. Or they will tell you that if you don't hear from them after six months, you may then-and only then-email them and ask. Some will only reject you via your Submittable account while a few will never call, never email, never write.

I only had two that did that to me last year. Brought back a few old boyfriend memories.

So why would a writer go through so much work for so little in return? It's the rare magazine that pays cash. Instead, most will award with a copy of two of the journal issue that features your work,  while others publish on-line only.

I do it because it's part of the process. It's the admission price to that organization I want to belong to: The Published Writer Club. It's the dues that must be paid, man. It's also good practice for future publications. If I can't follow a few-OK, several-instructions for submitting my short pieces, how will I ever be able to work with an editor or publisher in the event I am fortunate enough to publish a poetry collection or a novel? So a magazine wants me to  send them a poem in Times New Roman font size 12 with a 1 inch margin at top, a 1.5 inch margin on left and a 2.0 inch margin on the right? Yes, I can do that.

Even with all the variables I discussed, it doesn't have to be a stressful process. Pick out your best work then select one or two publications which will be a good fit.  Do it when you're alone in the house so you're not distracted or feeling rushed. Take the time to read some of the quality work already published by the publication you've chosen and remind yourself they've earned the right to be picky about how the material gets to them. Imagine all the other writers who rush through the process and number their pages in the bottom right instead of the upper left.  Dotting all the i's and crossing the t's in the correct font size, will widen that first gate you must get past before an editor grants you the privilege of a fair read.

I also like to sip a bit of Jameson when I am submitting. We do what we gotta do.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Neglect, by Any Other Name, Is Still Neglect.

                 “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
                                                                                                                              John Steinbeck

It is embarrassing to note my last blog post here was over 6 months ago. I was on sabbatical I shall claim. Not from writing but from writing about writing, and from submitting. I was writing in private I suppose. 

It was not intentional, but rather, practical. My non-writing life includes a small homestead where my husband and I live and work. If interested you can read all about it HERE. Last summer we started building a barn and a couple months after that, two wonderful new grandbabies arrived. Then winter stormed in. 

I kept up my writing routine and I was reading copious amounts of work by other writers, but all submissions stopped which consequently meant all acceptances stopped as well. Funny how that works. But last week a barrier of some sort broke and I got busy. In a matter of eight days, I wrote three new poems and submitted a total of twenty three poems to seven separate publications.

Seems I'm on a roll and it feels fantastic. 

To further wind me up I discovered the article Reconnecting After a Silence written by Jane Hirshfield in the latest edition of Poets and Writers. (Jan/Feb 2018) In it she discusses ways to rejuvenate your writing and suggests not only concrete activities like translating a poem from a foreign language you love, "To keep your relationship to word-shaping awake", but cerebral exercises such as reminding yourself why you wanted to write in the first place. She further suggests that a writer can write about not writing, as I did at the beginning of this post, as a way to check in on where you are right now. In all she lists seven ways a writer can rejuvenate and reconnect. 

Although I was not blocked in regards to putting words on paper, I had definitely blocked myself from the next steps needed: revising, fine-tooth combing, and submitting. When I took time last week to review my work over the last few months I was both pleased and appalled at the number of poems I had started but never completed. I had neglected to take my words, thoughts and feelings, the entire distance. I had plopped them down on a piece of paper and abandoned them, leaving them to flip flop around without direction like the fan tail fish who leaps out of his bowl and lands on a cold kitchen floor. A skittering mess of confusion. 

So thanks Jane for the kick in the arse I needed to finish up, to follow up, to write a poem about nothing, from beginning to end. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Our Father Who Art In Clifton

So thrilled that ROPES Literary Journal of Galway, Ireland has published my poem Our Father Who Art in Clifton, in their recent issue. I was invited to the launch and so would've loved another trip to Galway, I do consider it my other home, but it wasn't possible.

This 25th edition of ROPES is titled Silence and proceeds will aide Pieta House, an organization that focuses on prevention of suicide and self harm.

It is also a huge kick knowing that this issue is on sale at various stores throughout Galway that I have at one time or another shopped in, such as the oh so very wonderful bookstore, Charlie Byrne's. Charlies is a great place crammed full of books on various levels with comfy chairs scattered about where one can plop down and read away an afternoon. Something I did often while I studied at NUIG (National University Ireland Galway) in the summer of 2015.

Our Father Who Art in Clifton

Our father is dead, in yonder hospital bed

                Pale skinned Irishman, cooling while

the pizza warms in the oven

We ordered a thick crust just after he left us

(Watching parents die is exhausting)

thinking we’d have more time

Before the funeral home staff arrived

                Banging at the door

                Hello? Is anyone there?

I hear the extra cheese bubbling so please

                Could we have a moment to eat

to drink, to think

It’s not like he’s going anywhere

Quiet and no longer alert he, basically a dirty

                Footed man who worked menial jobs for menial

 Pay yet kept the bellies of six pumpkins full

Go away hearse, we’ve changed our minds

                Our Father’s first limo ride can wait

                There is one more meal to share

Let us break apart the triangular pieces of heart

                An offering to the man who baked bread

For our suppers, remained faithful to our mother

Who God knows, was no Clara Bernhardt

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Crime Might Pay But Writing (Usually) Doesn't

From Muzzle Magazine: "Artists should be paid for their labor. We wish we could pay you. We cannot pay you."

I ran across that-what would you call it? A regret? An admission?-when I was submitting yet another group of poems last month. I loved it. The verbal recognition of a writer's worth. It made me want to be published by this magazine and so I submitted five of my best poems. I have yet to hear back from them, but it's only been two months. Not long for most literary journals.

Truth is, few writers, especially poets, are recognized in terms of cash. In the year since I graduated from UIUC and focused seriously on my craft, I have submitted to 123 publications and been paid real money-once. My other acceptances were "paid" via journal copies, or web page shout outs, or just a nice email.

Gemini Magazine sent me such an email regarding their 2017 Poetry Contest.  In a nutshell it said, Thanks for entering. You weren't choosen as a winner but your poem was kinda good. Not good enough to be published but good enough to be listed as "notable."

I liked that email. I'll take notable. It's better than being outright rejected. Better than never hearing back at all. Better than being told Good Lord in Heaven your poetry reeks worse than that piece of salmon you forgot in the back of the fridge.  Stick to feeding pigs already.

At this point in my writing career, two whole years in, I will take whatever reward I might get. A coin tossed my way, a cyber nod, a minor mention at a family event-Hey sister, I read your story in After Hours, it was ok. This does not mean I don't value my work. I do. What it does mean, is that I am a realist. My work is still raw. My work is still new. My work needs work. My work must please me for the sake of writing it-first and foremost.

Besides, most literary magazines operate on donations and subscription fees. Little is left for writer payment. Like many restaurants, lit mags tend to come and go. Which is why so many writers also teach or manufacture fidget spinners or run small farms: because mortgages must be paid, computers run best with electricity, and wee mouths must be filled with food.

When thinking about my future as a writer, and the possibilities of bringing in a bit of income doing what I love sometime before I turn eighty,  I remember what Stephen King said in his book On Writing: A memoir of the Craft. He and his wife Tabitha were under great financial stress in the 1970's and dealing with an ill child with an earache, when he received his first substantial book advance for his novel Carrie. His most immediate thought at the time was, and I paraphrase, "Great! Now we can afford to buy the Pink Stuff."

Me too, Stephen. One day, I hope that my work brings in enough extra cash to buy a bit of The Pink Stuff.