Power Through the Slush

In recent book news, the New Yorker unknowingly rejected a story it had previously published. In fact, so did lots of other well-regarded literary journals. What submitter David Cameron learned from this experiment:

“Slush sucks. It’s as simple, and as unhelpful, as that…A part of me really wanted to be outed, to have some vigilant editor write back and say, “Nice try. Consider yourself blacklisted.” Or even to put me in the horribly awkward position of an acceptance!* That would mean there’s hope, that open submissions weren’t just, in so many cases, empty gestures.”

Okay, the slush pile does suck. It’s way easier for editors to overlook a slush gem than it is for them to pass on solicited story #54 by Famous Writer. Otherwise, my reaction to the experiment:

Submissions are all kind of a crap shoot, no matter how you look at it. Maybe the submitted story originally hit the New Yorker on a day when the exact right editor was reading and had the right amount of coffee and was really thinking about the story, not about her next meeting. Maybe when it was resubmitted, it was a really bad morning for that editor and she didn’t get captured quickly enough to counterbalance the lack of coffee. Or maybe it was read by an intern who is quick to hit reject on pretty much everything. Maybe it’s a story about dogs, and it was read by an editor who’s more of a cat person.

Basically, the submissions process is totally subjective. It depends entirely on one particular reading by one particular person at one particular moment. It doesn’t matter if this story is perfect or not. It could be the ideal story for that journal or publishing house or agency, and it could still get rejected. I’ve been on the reading side of the slush pile, and I’m sure I bypassed a lot of great stuff.

That said, it doesn’t mean that there’s no hope. You just have to wait for that moment the right editor at the right place will read your story at the right time. Does that suck? Kind of. But it’s the writing business. Literary journals and publishing houses aren’t putting together a puzzle and need one particular piece to fill their spaces. Anything can be rejected at any time. But that can also mean that this could be the moment that the right person reads your story.

The New Yorker experiment didn’t change any of my views about writing or publishing or submissions. Maybe it means I was cynical to begin with, or that I’m ridiculously optimistic. Either way, I’m powering on.

How Do You Define Yourself as a Writer?

Over at Swagger, Melissa has put together a great list of questions to get writers thinking about themselves as writers. I thought it would be fun to post my own answers here.

1. How do you define “writer”? Do you consider yourself to be one?
Part of me wants to say that a writer is someone who puts forth time and effort into literary projects, regardless of their publishing status. But when people ask me what I do, I hesitate to say “I’m a writer.” Instead I tell them about my 9-5 job. Shouldn’t I own it more, if I’m putting in all that time and effort?

2. What is your passion when it comes to writing? (novels, non-fiction, poetry, short-stories, children’s books, journaling, etc.)
YA novels are my passion. I’ve been writing for fun since I can remember being able to form letters. When I took creative writing classes in high school and college, my characters were usually teenagers, but I didn’t think I’d write YA. When I was in grad school I took a class on Shakespeare and, for my final project, wrote a series of YA short stories dealing with tropes/images from Shakespeare’s plays. I realized that I spent way more time and effort on those stories than I did with more “literary” ones. My thesis ended up being a YA novel and I haven’t looked back since.

3. What do you read as a writer? What types of books have you read in the past six months?
I read a lot of YA, branching out into literary fiction and occasionally nonfiction. I say I don’t read a lot of fantasy or sci-fi, but that’s becoming increasingly less true. In the last six months I’ve read a fair amount of YA novels and a few classics.

4. Do you write what you read or would you consider it?
Definitely. (See answers to #2 and #3.) I’d like to try writing more nonfiction–either creative nonfiction essays or columns.

5. What two genres stand out in your mind the most?
YA and fiction in general.

6. Do you write for others, or is your writing strictly private?
I submit my work, but I’m still fairly private with my work. I don’t show it to most people outside of the literary circle. When I’m working on something, I don’t tend to talk about it a lot; otherwise I feel like I won’t be able to change things if people expect it to come out a certain way.

7. Would you like to share your writing with others someday?
Yes! I’ve been published in a few journals and it’s a thrill.

8. What is the biggest gift that writing has given to you?
It’s a place for all the stories in my mind to go. Even if I didn’t have any aspirations about writing as a career, I’d still want to write.

9. What keeps you motivated to write?
Reading great books and thinking “What if I could do this, too?” Or reading bad books and thinking “I could do better.” Being part of a writerly community (in real life and online) that encourages great work.

10. What writing goals have you set for yourself in 2012?
Revise my current novel, finish a draft of the new one. Blog regularly.

Now it’s your turn! How do you see yourself as a writer? Feel free to share your thoughts at Swagger, here, or in your own blog.

The Artist’s Resume: Just as Annoying as Other Resumes

Creative writing is hard. You’re developing a whole world, populated with engaging, fully developed characters and maybe trying to weave together an exciting narrative. But you know what’s worse?


Last night I spent at least an hour crafting an artist’s resume, which is different than the usual “hey, please give me a job with health benefits” resume. It highlights experience and work produced, such as short stories published or editorial work. All good stuff but, as with all resumes, there’s a lot of thought required as to proper formatting. Where should things be listed? How much detail? What if one item in a list doesn’t exactly match the others? Dear lord, what about the margins?!

Fortunately, I live with another writer who showed me his resume as an example (and then answered my questions very patiently when I asked “But what about this? And this?!”). I also found a few websites that offered great suggestions for formatting and information to included.

Even though working on your writer’s resume can be tedious and frustrating, it is good to put one together now as opposed to five minutes before a deadline. (Not that I’d ever do that. *Cough*)

Any resume tips you’d like to share?

Get Your Manuscripts Ready

Attention hopeful children’s/YA writers in New England! PEN New England is now accepting submissions for this year’s Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. I was one of the winners last year and it was a life-changing experience. Although the award doesn’t come with any money, the committee does give the winning manuscripts to editors at publishing houses. (Usually, you’d at least need an agent for that kind of access.) It can mean making wonderful connections in the publishing world, getting thoughtful feedback on your book, and maybe even an offer for publication.

I cannot say enough good things about the PEN New England Children’s Book Committee. They really want to help unpublished writers get ahead and deeply care about literature for children and teens.

You can find the guidelines here. They don’t require letters of recommendation or a statement of purpose, just your work, so there’s no excuse not to get your submission in.

The deadline is Wednesday, February 1, 2012. So start putting together your submission now! Seriously, guys, why are you still reading this? Go!

The “Something”

From an interview with publishing powerhouse Jean Feiwel:

As you and your fellow editors look to acquire books, is there one element that grabs you each time, that one essential element?

I say this in my rejections letter, if I don’t emotionally connect with something I’m not going to respond to it. There’s something about the story that has to pull on my emotions in some way. It has to make me laugh. It has to be very dramatic. It has to surprise me. Something has to happen for me to respond to a story. Even it’s something I’ve heard a lot , even if it’s yet another vampire story, if there’s something in it that feels fresh or emerges in some surprising way I’ll will respond and go after it. There has to be something emotionally alive in it for me.

I think this is the hardest part of querying. You can have a fantastic pitch and a wonderful book, but if it doesn’t connect with that particular agent/editor it’s not going to work. And that’s good, in a way. You want your agent or editor to be passionate about your book. If they’re not, they won’t really want to put in the time and effort required to make it a wonderful, successful work of art that readers will love. And it’s so hard to tell what exactly will strike an agent/editor. As Feiwel says, it can be an old story (back again, vampires?) but something about it has to stand out. While you can revise a novel to tighten the plot or enhance the character development, it’s really hard to pinpoint what that “something” that will catch an editor’s attention.

Jean Feiwel will be part of the “Children’s Books, Today and Tomorrow: Four Expert Impressions” panel at the 2012 SCBWI conference in January. So excited to hear more of her thoughts on the industry, and for the conference in general! (For more conference news and previews, check out the SCBWI conference blog)