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The Writing Life: How It’s Done 102

2014 April 15
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The Writing Life

We’ve polled the experts and they agree, there’s nothing easy about “being a writer.” Whether you struggle to discern the best publication for your work or to keep your chin up in the face of ubiquitous rejection, we feel your pain and we’re back again to discuss strategies for submission and how to guard your writerly heart.


Hazel & Wren: Beginning the submission process can be more than a little daunting, what’s the very first step?

Timothy Otte: The first step is in two parts, and it has nothing to do with actually sending work to any editor/publisher/literary magazine/whatever. It may sound like I’m dodging the question, but I promise I’m not. The first step of the submission process is to write A LOT and read even more (especially literary magazines, since that’s where you’ll do most of your submitting). Write a lot, revise it, write some more, revise that, ask someone you know and trust to give you feedback, and then revise it all based on their suggestions. Once you’ve built up a body of work that you’re proud of, and you’ve read all those literary magazines, then you can decide where to send it. And THEN the first step is to read a publication’s submission guidelines VERY CAREFULLY and FOLLOW THEM.

Ethan Rutherford: I think the best thing to do is to approach the submission process with some humor, some hope, and a lot of optimism.  You have to have faith in the quality of your own work.  There’s going to be a lot of rejection, that’s just part of the process.  So prepare to hear “no” but don’t get discouraged.  The very first thing I’d recommend, though, is going to your library, or bookstore, or buying a number of literary journals in order to familiarize yourself with the work they publish.  Support literary journals, become familiar with them, and soon you’ll develop favorites, the journals you’d most like your work to appear in.  Those are the journals you should submit to first.  Swing for the fences.  Even if they say no, you’ll discover new writers you’ve never heard of and are excited about.  Win-win.  If they say no, write another story, do it better, and send it to the journal again.  Be kind to the editors, only send them your best stuff, and don’t get discouraged.  Wash, rinse, repeat until the day they finally say yes.

G. Xavier Robillard: Research! Read the journals in which you would be published. I started submitting long enough ago that it was all done by post. There was a certain value lost when submissions transferred to email, because you don’t have to print out the manuscript, and then spend a few dollars on postage and the SASE. The value then was you really had to consider: am I wasting postage on a journal that I know in my heart isn’t right for me?

Andrew Watt: I’m terrible at submissions. I submit things on whims when they strike me. What a horrible career tactic. Honestly, most of my efforts are screenplays, which have a different sort of afterlife. However, if you’re serious about submitting fiction, I recommend making a list. Start with publications you read and like, and think would be a good fit for your writing. Then do some research, until you’ve got 50+ journals/magazines/websites/etc. that might conceivably accept your work. Submit aggressively. Be mindful of fees. Avoid them unless you really, REALLY like the publication. Don’t start with the New Yorker.

H&W: It’s not just how to submit, but where? Do you use an agent? What have you found to be the best way to seek out the right publishing opportunities for your writing?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Outside of translations, my poems haven’t been published since 2008. If you want my advice, don’t take my advice. Marshall said that.

G. Xavier Robillard: Most of the time you don’t need an agent to submit somewhere, unless you’re talking about a book-length project. The reason an agent is so helpful is she will have cultivated relationships with editors, and will know whom to submit what. Agents also pay attorneys, who read over your contract for free. Free meaning part of the agent’s 15%.For literary journals, this is where research helps you. You might go to a bookstore that stocks literary journals, the library, or to learn about specific publications. Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable database as well: You can stalk your favorite journals online. A while back, on the Facebook page for the Portland Review, they asked for submissions of book reviews. If you start off by submitting something the editor has asked for, you’re likely starting a relationship with that person, and will have an easier time submitting other prose later.

H&W: Contests. Are they worth it?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Know the judge and cater your work to her aesthetic. That said, I haven’t won a contest since 1988—the limerick competition at the Hardwick Fair.

Timothy Otte: Yes. I’ve never won any, but I’m sure they’re worth it. The editors who judge or are preliminary readers for contests are the same editors who accept regular, non-contest submissions.

Andrew Watt: Not really. Limit yourself to a couple of contests each year. Only submit if the contest-holder is a publication/organization that you really or appeals to you. Don’t get distracted by those cash prizes. If you’re a writer of cynical short fiction that embodies your atheist perspective, don’t torture yourself by trying to write a Christian-themed story for a contest that might win you $20,000. Don’t do it.

G. Xavier Rollibard: I’ve never seen the point of entering contests. On the other side of that coin, I’m a big fan of submitting to calls for anthology. Anthologies can be a great way to find an audience, and to get your work published in a book. For example, do a web search on “call for anthology [your personal favorite theme].”

Ethan Rutherford: If you are willing to part with the entry fee, then yes, sure, why not? Contests are how a lot of these small, wonderful journals—journals that are taking interesting chances on emerging writers, publishing stories that take aesthetic risks, etc.—make the money required to simply meet the cost of printing and mailing their issues (and paying their contributors, which is always a good and appreciated thing). One of the things that used to happen to me, though, is that when I paid an entry fee, and didn’t win, I would feel like I’d been cheated. Of course I hadn’t been cheated, but that’s the way it felt. Many journals, though, have entry fees that not only buy you into the contest, but include a subscription—so even if you don’t win, you support a literary journal, and get to read that journal for a year.  Contests certainly aren’t the only way to get published, but there’s nothing wrong with paying an entry fee for a specific contest (usually judged by a guest editor).  What you want to look out for, and avoid, are the journals that charge an upfront “reading” fee—if you want them to read it at all, you have to pay them to consider it for publication.  That’s a terrible practice, don’t fall for that.  So if you are paying entry fees, just make sure it’s attached to a specific contest, and you’ll be fine.

H&W: Do you have any advice on how to protect your ego in the quest for publication?

Ethan Rutherford: Haha. No. Just understand that people will say no, and the earlier you can get used to the idea that not everyone is going to respond to what you are trying to do, the happier you’ll be, and the less it will sting as the rejections come in. Rejection is just part of putting yourself out there, and taking that risk. Just make sure you don’t internalize the rejection. Think about it like fishing. All you’re looking for is one bite—that one reader at a journal or a magazine or at a publishing house who really understands and responds to the work you are doing in a way that makes sense. Lots of fish swim by without a nibble, you can see them, they’re right there, why won’t they bite?  Well, that’s a question that has no real answer. Just be patient, get used to hearing no, and hold out for that yes.

Timothy Otte: I find it helpful to remember that editors aren’t callous people who take pleasure in rejecting writers. They want every submission to be exactly what they’re looking for, but they can’t accept everything. Rejection isn’t personal. Rejections blow and editors know that (they’re usually writers too, so they see the other side of things). It’s ok to feel kind of shitty when you get rejected, but the best course of action is to take another look at the poems you submitted, revise them again, and try submitting them elsewhere. My “favorite” rejection story is that of David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. It was rejected over 50 times before it finally got accepted. Frreal—50 damn times. Look it up! Also, read this beautiful post by Jeff Shotts, editor at Graywolf Press: It makes me feel better every time I get rejected.

Andrew Watt: Be proud of yourself for having taken a piece of writing as far as you could. Then flush your ego and prepare for a tidal wave of rejection and drastic revision suggestions. Be okay with this. Most of it will be to your benefit.

G. Xavier Robillard: In a way you need to develop separate personalities. You need to move from the frail, introspective writer, who has created and shaped a lovely thing, to the circus barker looking to get this .PDF off your hands.The business persona understands that submission is the tedious, enervating part of the thing, like doing laundry, and that you’re another part of the publishing ecosystem. Submissions are a yardstick you can use to judge how you are creatively progressing: if I submit ten pieces a year, that’s ten pieces about which I am am satisfied, ten pieces that acknowledge that I’ve grown as a writer, whether or not they are accepted.In my other life, I work at a small technology startup. We have 5 salespeople, and they’re doing the same thing as any writer: pitching a product, over and over. Even if they’re great, they fail 95% of the time. That’s not a real number, I just made that up. Point is, sales is overwhelmingly about failing to sell. It’s served as a good reminder that you need to be able to see your own work, once it’s been edited and revised, that the selling part is simply moving product.And I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching some precious literary journal, who’s rejected me in the past, close up shop. It’s petty and evil but we have to get our pleasure somewhere.

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Have faith in the work and not the process. Don’t stop working. Don’t get sad. There’s a lot of horrible poetry being published. Know that and proceed as scheduled.


Thank you so much to Andrew Watt, Timothy Otte, Dennis Arlo Voorhees, G. Xavier Robillard, and Ethan Rutherford for your time and badass responses. 


The Writing Life: How It’s Done 101

2014 April 9
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The Writing Life

It’s spring! It’s National Poetry Month! It’s… just another day in the life of a writer. And how do we do this, day in and day out? Whether it’s how to keep up a daily regimen, how to pursue further education, how to proofread, or publish, or persevere—we’re here to talk about these challenges.

This entry is the first in a two-part post about some of the basic steps for moving forward with your writing. Read on for advice from emerging and seasoned writers about: strategic organization, finding your best reader, and poignant tips for self-improvement. In part two, we’ll hear more about the submission process and protecting your artistic ego. To shed light on these pertinent questions, I’ve taken a straw poll from writers with varying experiences, and here they are!

Puppet-sympathizer, Andrew Watt, is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is a member of the Loft, volunteer with the Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota, and he recently created a puppet show for Open Eye Figure Theatre’s quarterly cabaret, the Full Moon Puppet Show. Check out Andrew’s newest short film, Sharky.

Our very own, Timothy Otte, is a poet, playwright, and critic. He is currently working on a manuscript of poems. Timothy will be performing in the inaugural event of a monthly night of new works in Minneapolis called The New Shit Show at Fox Egg Gallery. The event is on Friday, April 18th, doors at 7pm.

University of Minnesota alum, Ethan Rutherford, is currently working on a novel. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was published in May 2013 by HarperCollins Publishers, and was just awarded the Minnesota Book Award!

Hungarian poetry specialist, Dennis Arlo Voorhees, is the poet of the chapbook Milk Replacer. As a Fulbright scholar, Dennis translated Hungarian poetry into English. He is currently training for the Boston marathon.

Comic relief, G. Xavier Robillard, is the author of Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves. His (free!) essay for McSweeney’s can be found here.

And without further ado, the Q&A!


Hazel & Wren: If you’re working in prose, do you believe that the first thirty pages need to be irresistible? If so, do you have tips on how to write and organize the first few sections?

G. Xavier Robillard: The first 30 pages of longer prose should be compelling, fresh, and intriguing. Absolutely. As a further yardstick, I’d extend that to the first 50pp. If the work isn’t intriguing to me when I hit page 50, I start to question whether I want to have a long term relationship with this work. I’ve abandoned plenty of would-be novels when I realized that I was no longer motivated at that point.

Some beginning novelists, especially in genre, will tell me they plan to “save x plot point for book 2.” This is a huge mistake: if something is vital or compelling, don’t save it for later. Submit your best work. Your creative well will not evaporate overnight.

Consider the initiating impulse of the work. In memoir, it might be delving into how your life was shaped by A Series Of Unfortunate Events. You might organize your beginning around that bolt of lightning: don’t take 30 years or pages to get us there.

H&W: When you’re working with short stories, vignettes, or poems, how do you organize them? Do you have a particular strategy? Can you speak to the aesthetic sensibility you enact? 

Timothy Otte: I usually try to group poems that feel, to me, in a similar “mode” together. I write in what are, to me, two very distinct ways and when submitting I try not to mix the two, though others might argue it’s good to present a range of voice. Right now I’m working on a manuscript that has a lot of poems that play off of one another (though I hope they work on their own!) so I try to group them as a small version of that larger manuscript. There’s not a “narrative” per se (by which I mean a story with a plot, etc.), but I want the reader or editor to have an experience when they read them. An emotional narrative, I suppose.

H&W: Who do you ask to review your work before you submit it? What are some of the most important qualities of a reader/proof-reader, in your opinion?

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: I ask Marshall; he’s a drunk philosopher with a high school diploma. A poem needs readers outside of academia. If Marshall doesn’t get it (or a semblance of it), nobody gets it.

Timothy Otte: I have a few fellow writers who I ask to read my work. Some are in the same city as me so we can meet in person and mark up the pages in front of us, and some are farther away. We write letters or emails. That’s the revision process for me, and, if I can, I avoid thinking about submitting at all during that process. I like people who ask questions of the poems in front of them, people who are willing to point out the obvious, because I’ve usually missed the obvious thing.

Once I’ve decided I’m submitting somewhere and put together my submission, I usually don’t ask someone to take a look. I comb through the submission for spelling and grammatical errors myself, though I really should get someone to look them over one last time…

Andrew Watt: My dad, who provides reliable no-bullshit feedback. If I want to feel good about my writing I ask my mom. You need a proof-reader upon whom you can rely to provide tough, constructive feedback. Friends and family are usually a bad idea. Writing workshops will provide that constructive feedback and help you understand what kind of person you want reading your work.

H&W: Any other tips for yearling writers? 

Andrew Watt: Get to know yourself as a writer. Write what you enjoy writing, not what other people tell you you’re good at or should write. If you’re struggling to write “respectable” poetry and are a romance novelist at heart, you might want to tap into that. You’ve gotta enjoy what you do.

Ethan Rutherford: Read read read.  Widely and deeply.  Take a chance on a literary journal or five.  Go to readings.  Subscribe to small, independent journals.  Buy your books at independent bookstores.  If you read something you love, something that blows the top of your head off, take the time to find that writer, and let her know.

Timothy Otte: Though I’m a yearling writer myself and I’m as eager as anyone to have more publications to my name, I would still say waiting to submit is wise. I’ve only had a few poems published, and I’m very, very proud of them, but I think I got started submitting too early. If I could go back and tell myself to wait a few more years before starting to submit, I would.

Dennis Arlo Voorhees: Read “Ode to a Nightingale” every night before you go to sleep. This is the fastest way to becoming a better poet.

G. Xavier Robillard: For me writing has to be a discipline: and to enforce your discipline, it’s worthwhile to promote other disciplines. Running is that for me. And here’s a brief plug about creating space for yourself.


Share your advice in a comment!

And tune in soon for How It’s Done 102 where you’ll find even MORE insight from these five wonderful writers!