Monday, June 20, 2016

Making the Contest Rounds

Generally speaking, the odds of winning a contest are not in my favor, but I've always liked the long shot. Like Hellen Keller once said, "“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Who knew better than she about challenges? In comparison, certainly not me. (I?) Like I keep saying, creative writing major, not an English major. 

Comparing the entering of fiction/poetry/essay contests to the life of Helen Keller I'll admit, is cheeky. But, there all similarities. I am blind about these contest things,  suspicious of their authenticity, fearful of hidden agendas  and mostly concerned that I will be force fed a plate of cold eggs.  As there are thousands of journals to consider for submission of your work, there are also just as many contests which promise big bucks, instant fame, dream workshop and/or reading events, year long all-expense-paid residencies or at least, free copies of the journal that printed your entry.

How does an emerging writer sort through them? Which are valid and which are just a ruse for magazine subscription? Do I waste my time, their time, the worlds time or do I put all my money allocated into contest submission towards the lottery instead?

My primary source of contest availability is in each issue of Poets & Writers. They do all the hard work of vetting each contest and dedicate a portion of each issue to these competitions.When my issue arrives I pull out my black permanent marker, for drama, and mark off those that do not apply to me. Some limit entries to specific ages, geographical locations and specific themes. Some apply only to poetry collections or first novels. After a 30 minute read I've narrowed down my choices.

Entry fees vary. Usually the larger the prize the higher the entry fee, but not always. Most range between $10-$20 per submission. Some take Paypal, some credit cards and oddly enough, some will even take cash. Talk about a gamble! Most take online submissions but a few still want only hard copy. Some will notify you if you lose and others you will never ever hear from, unless of course you win. Because my first published poem was submitted to the IYEATS Poetry Contest, I also spend time checking out the contests overseas. If you are specifically interested in the contests offered in Ireland, England, Wales must check out the blog of Emerging Writer.  She does so much of the footwork for all of us other emerging writers and I am so grateful to her-whoever she is-for that!

  One last piece of advice I'll leave with you is a helpful article I found titled   How Not To Win a Poetry Contest. It was penned by Miriam Sagen who has read thousands of contest entries and won a few contests herself, over the years. Written as a guest post in 2011 for The Writers Digest Website, her article stresses the basics like FOLLOW DIRECTIONS when you are submitting, and READ THE WORK OF OTHER POETS, lots of them. Her advice is seriously lighthearted and so worth the few minutes it takes to read. 

Now, enter some contests. Let us all know how you do and as my Italian teacher would say before each exam, "In bocca al lupo!" which means literally, in the mouth of the wolf, and figuratively, Good Luck!


In May and June I entered fourteen contests and submitted seventeen regular submissions. I did not just send the same story out to all of them, but hand selected old stories and revised them or submitted new stories all together. Of those thirty one total submissions, I have recieved four rejections.Most state it takes two-three months before they will respond and about one forth of them said they don't respond at all if they cannot use your material. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Submit, Submit, Submit, and Repeat.

For the last month since graduation, I have been working my way through the submission maze, reading articles, checking other blogs, and learning more than my brain can retain. My goal? Submit one short story, poem or creative nonfiction piece every day for thirty days, then regroup and evaluate.

How am I doing so far? Not too shabby. I have submitted 23 items in 28 days. If I stay AIS* for at least four hours the next two days, I might make my goal. Which, by the way, is not a goal of multiple acceptances, but rather a learning goal. The more I submit, the more I will be rejected (this is not a sympathy ploy, this is writer reality) the more I am rejected, the more I will revise,the more I revise, the more I will write, The more I write, the more I will improve, the more I improve, the more I will submit and then, one day...I'll be published.

At this point I have enough material from my years at UIUC to reach this initial goal, but that may or may not prove beneficial. Much of my early material is pure crap as far as technique is concerned, but all had revision possibilities. The ideas were good, the execution, not so much. The work completed in my last semester however, is polished  and of higher quality, yet still has room for improvement. And in the midst of sorting through the older stuff and writing newer stories, I am also reading the work of many talented writers in multiple literary journals. This will give me a solid sense of what they in particular like to publish. It's not so much that I am molding my material to fit a particular journal but rather, finding the journal that fits my material's mold, which is in flux of course.

All of which begs the question, which came first? The chicken, the egg, or the literary journal editor who plans to scramble your eggs and  burn your chicken to a crisp? This is not a editorial slam.  All good chefs have to suffer a few burns.

Selecting the journals to receive my submissions has been a daunting task but, I found a great site by Clifford Garstang which decreased some of my newbie learning curve pain. He provides a detailed listing/ranking of hundreds of literary magazines (fiction, poetry and nonfiction)  complete with links for each. Be sure to read the section on how he does his rankings. I found his website so helpful that I donated to his efforts. He saved me weeks of internet searching.

 I also created a simple flow sheet, I am devoid of excel skills, where I can track the name of the journal, the type of submission, the title of the work sent, dates and other info I want in one place such as: editor names, addresses and specific journal "quirks." One for example, mentioned they never take simultaneous submissions, and if they even suspect you've mass mailed your piece to other journals, they will "destroy" your manuscript. Their small print probably reads, "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid."

Oddly enough, I'm working on a special short story for this journal alone. I appreciate quirkiness.

If you have a process for tracking submissions, selecting journals worthy of your work, and work worthy of particular journals, I'd love to hear from you.

* Ass in Seat

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Time is Not on Your Side

Mick Jagger is such a liar.

Time has never been on my side, more like a three-pronged thorn in my throat. Several years ago when I complained to my sister how overwhelmed I was, (nurse management job, elderly aunt, babysitting tiny grand kids, my two youngest children still at home) she coolly replied, "Sister, you've been overwhelmed since kindergarten."

Analysis of that statement revealed not an uncaring sibling, but one that knew me well. I had a tendency to pile portions enough for six people on a plate and then complain about its fullness. My plate is still well rounded, but I am no longer dropping portions all over the floor. In other words, time is not the enemy, we are our own worst diversion.

While in school, I often heard fellow students gripe about not having enough time to study, to sleep, to party. In my own family I am witness to the same belief system. Someone wants to remodel their home but they have no time, or they wish they could visit an elderly relative more often, but sadly, no time. No time to clean, or cook. No time to call or write.

Here's the thing. Time is not viable.

It has no brain, no heart, no legs. Therefore, Time cannot walk, as in The Time Got Away From Me, nor can it escape, as in I Lost Track of the Time. It cannot be measured in a cup as in I Ran Out of Time and it certainly cannot be executed as in What Can we Do to Kill Some Time?  One expression, by the way, I have never uttered.

So, all you writers out there who complain you do not have the time to write a story, to read a book, to start your novel, to submit your poetry, to finish an essay. Please, shut up.  

We have, all of us, been awarded the same amount of time as the next guy. Twenty-four hours in each and every day. Unless you are imprisoned or enslaved, how you spend your time every day is your choice. Be aware, this post is as much a reminder to myself as it is to you. Three weeks ago, after my school schedule ended, I made a pact with myself. Minimum of four hours every day will be spent AIS.

That's Ass in Seat for those of you unfamiliar with one of Frank Barones idioms. Unless you are able to balance a laptop on your gut while standing, most writers require a seated position to write longhand or word process.  If you do not make your writing a priority, no one else will. Yes, other things may have to take a back seat but again, it's your choice (can I stress that enough?) to decide which tasks must go.

Personally, I've given up scuba diving, hang gliding, my exotic dancing career and any future therapy appointments. The last thing I need is a psychobabblist asking me how it feels to have my AIS four or more hours a day.

It feels productive and a bit numb.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Educated Eejit

  1. Thoor Ballylee, W.B. Yeats home just outside Gort, Ireland
    Inspiration in Stone
    When I started this writers blog, I had just returned to the University of Illinois for a degree in Creative Writing after a long career in nursing. You can read about that decision here. I was hyped about this change in direction and certain I'd have time to blog about school activities. Then reality hit and soon this eejit recognized a key difficulty in her plan; a full time college schedule and a daily three hour commute, does not lend itself well to regular blogging. Regular anything.

Reluctantly I admitted, I could not do both, so I focused on school and slogged my way through the essay assignments, the Shakespeare Production Analyses, the Western Civilization History chapters,  the required novel readings ( fourteen in my last semester) and finally, I graduated on May 14, more convinced than ever I am still a newbie writer eejit.

  All of this reminds me of a nurses first couple of weeks  out of nursing school. You've been tested on all the procedures, (no one can catheterize a rubber dummy like you) the drugs, the plans of care, the patient education, physician communication, and on paper; you look good. Then you get your first job in a real health care facility, not a skills lab . On your first day after your mentor says you are ready to solo, you get a complicated admission.  The intake paperwork is nothing like that you used in nursing school, the patient goes sour on you an hour after you get him settled, and suddenly you're doing your first code, your first coroner call, your first conversation with a shocked and grieving family all while trying to care for five other patients at the same time.  You go home after working that twelve hour shift which became fourteen hours and you think, What the Hell have I gotten myself into?

Graduating from a well -respected creative writing program feels oddly similar. I worked hard, completed my assignments on time, received good grades, even managed somehow, I really have no idea how, to be the recipient of UIUC's Senior Quinn Award for Fiction, which involved two of my professors recommending me and three more reading my submitted manuscript of short stories. Star pupil me. 

But I ask you, now what?

I turned 57 last week, just three days post graduation, and after decades of working in hospitals with multiple layers of administration beneath, alongside and above me, I know one thing for certain, I will work at this new "calling" from home, or I should say, from farm. 

And the question remains, now what? Do I rewrite old stories and start submitting? Do I write new stories, essays and poems (I enjoy all three) or should I focus my efforts in one area? Do I enter only contests? Which contests, the ones with tiny prize money as one would hope less competition, or do I shoot for the moon and enter the Win a Trip to New York and $10,000 cash contests? But contests cost money to enter and our income is limited. So, maybe I switch gears and submit for publication only?  Get a couple  free issues if they select my work kind of literary magazines or only those that pay?  Should I start locally, say with Chicago based literary magazines or expand globally? Perhaps a tiny publication in Ravello, Italy seeks some flash fiction about women jugglers in Citta` del Vaticano. But, will they expect a story in translation? 

What should my cover letter look like?  Do they still want cover letters? If a magazine takes online and hard copy submissions, which is better? Is it a trap to test my computer/internet/personal communication skills? How do I know which journals are not going to take my contest money and buy drinks for the editorial staff because they spent all day reading crappy fiction submissions? Do I use Times New Roman 11 or 12 font when the magazine lists no preference? And the most important question of all, do I write before, or after I've done my pig chores?

It is mind boggling.

If you have any ideas, want to share your own strategy for getting your name and your work out there in literary land, please leave a comment. Leave lots of comments.