Why Writing is Like Childbirth

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIf  you’ve ever given birth, you’ve probably heard the old saw that women forget the pain of childbirth. The concept is simple. A new mother forgets because, if she remembered the contractions and the pushing and the panting, she’d never do it again.

What I remember about childbirth is sitting on the edge of my bed chanting to myself, “Don’t forget. Don’t do this again.”

I listened to myself then. I had twins, so that worked out kind of on its own.

I don’t always listen to myself, however. A few years ago, I had the brilliant idea of writing a series of How To posts for this website. One short post per day, for a month, each written the same way – definition, explanation, demonstration – to address a very specific craft element. For 30 days. Did I have 30 craft tips to share? Sure. Could I follow a formula to explain each in a succinct way? Of course. I wrote a few How To posts in advance, as insurance, and announced my 30 Days of How To posts.

On day 20 or so, I sat on the edge of my bed chanting to myself, “Don’t forget. Don’t do this again.” Because writing a blog post 30 days in a row using the same formula is tedious. And I did not count on question and comments, so there was monitoring. I spent those 30 days chained to my desk.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was writing a novel for women, an adventure I had not planned on taking. It started as a short story and grew. I followed the story. During the writing, I immersed myself into novels for and by women, many of which were sitting on my bookcase.

As natural as it may be for a woman to forget the pain of childbirth is the desire for a reader to share what she reads. Hence, Brilliant Idea #2: I would review stories by female authors for this website. I would write mini-reviews, in the same pattern every day: a short synopsis followed by answering the question “Why is this book a good read for women?” I had no trouble finding books to review—all I had to do was turn around and look at my bookcase.

By happenstance, I had this idea on Mardi Gras (day before Ash Wednesday) so I got into gear and made the announcement for 40 Days of Book Praise. No advance planning. No pre-writing of reviews for insurance. I did give myself Sundays off, to regroup, and because I’d learned my lesson from the How To month about putting pressure on myself to perform.

On day 20 or so, I sat on the edge of my bed chanting to myself….

Which brings me today. On Mardi Gras of this year, I made a vow to submit work for the 40 days some people celebrate as Lent. I didn’t do this as penance or for any spiritual reason. I did this because I had fallen off the submission train and I wanted to get back on. With flair. Or a vengeance.

One of the mindset changes in writing a novel, as opposed to writing short works, is separating from submitting. When I wrote short all the time, I submitted all the time. I had a process. Raw draft, rough draft, review by critique group, revise, polish, submit. I could have a new piece ready to go in a month or two. But a novel took years to draft, review, polish. I could not submit it during those years of writing, and while I focused on the novel, I let the short pieces I’d written before linger. My bad. Totally my bad.

Now I am agent hunting for the novel, which is an entirely different type of query. I can’t approach an agent every single day for forty days, so Brilliant Idea #3 meant I could mix querying with submitting short pieces.

Monday was day 20. Guess what I sat on the edge of my bed and chanted to myself?

Submitting is like matchmaking—you have to find the right place for the right piece, and then you negotiate the terms with the yenta/editor (yenitor?) Each submission requires a bio, and because I write different things, I need a different bio for each submission. Selling is part of matchmaking too, so I write a cover letter explaining why this piece and this publication are destined to be together.

And then there are fees. The days of going to the post office with a stack of envelopes and SASEs are over, replaced with nominal (or not so nominal) reading fees. 2 bucks here, 3 bucks there, and now Submittable seems to own my dowry. (But it is far, far better—and cheaper—than the post office.)

The process is exhausting, especially if you do it every single day. Why did I do this to myself again? Didn’t I learn? Won’t I ever learn?

There’s another old saw about childbirth and motherhood: a new mother falls crazy in love with the squalling, smelly, squirmy little thing she pushed out of her body because, if she didn’t fall like a brick, taking care of such a needy creature would be unbearable. The payoff for the pain of childbirth is the baby you love with all your heart.

On Monday, Day 20 of the submission project, in my email came the payoff: a letter of acceptance and a contract.

It made me remember why I keep doing this to myself. I like to be published. I like to teach. I like to support women who happen to be writers. I’m crazy in love with the writing life. Or, maybe I’m just crazy.

So, here is it on the morning of Day 22. I haven’t zeroed in on today’s submission just yet. Will I contact an agent? Will I send out an essay? Will I enter a short story contest? I have until midnight to decide. Only 18 more midnights to go.

Have you ever set yourself up for a challenge that you regretted—or thought you regretted?

Living in the Active Voice

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgLast night, after several months of absences, I attended the Open Mic offered by my town’s arts alliance. I did not read. I don’t always have short pieces to share, but that’s okay, because listeners are as welcomed as participants. Readers shared poetry and spoken word, short prose pieces, some novel excerpts, a music duo, and a haiku plus bongos performance. You never know what will happen at an Open Mic, and that’s the fun of it.

In my day job as an editor/instructor, I advise writers all the time to use the active voice. This is not a rule. The passive voice is often appropriate, but for the crime writers I work with, active works better than passive. This applies to character as well as writing style. An active protagonist drives a plot. A character who is pro-active is more engaging that one who is reactive.

Active characters make things happen. The active voice is more direct and lively. These are standards about writing and not really news.

So why am I writing about what’s not news?

Because of the Open Mic. And the vow I made last week to submit one piece of work every day, for 40 days. (This is Day 8. I’m 7 for 7, and have until midnight to be 8 for 8.)

Since my announcement last week about my submissions vow, three other writers have contacted me to say they have been submitting regularly, too. One received an immediate acceptance! This reinforces my vow to keep up the daily work of putting my writing out there for review.

And it is work. My goal was to get myself in gear again, but I also wanted to resurrect some pretty good pieces of writing that have been languishing in the virtual drawer. Some were never quite finished to my liking. Some were rejected a couple of times and needed review. Making a public vow to submit meant making the private promise to polish. After the polish, there’s the hunt for the proper market, and once that is defined, the cover letter and bio. I seem to write a new bio every day. It is, to be honest, a drag. But, it’s part of the gig. No one ever said the gig was 100% fun, or easy.

There’s also the rejection factor. 40 days of submissions means the possibility of 40 rejections. Just because I’ve been published and received fellowships and awards, does this mean I am no longer bummed by a rejection? No. Every rejection is a blow, but the counteraction to the blow is to hit back with another submission. The other option, to put the work back into the drawer, to be passive, means there is NO chance at all to be accepted.

Action.  Reaction. Counteraction. Submitting is a lot like living in a thriller novel. If you stop moving, the bad guys will surely get you. If you keep moving, your chances of survival grow stronger.

Even if every single submission of my 40 days is rejected, well, there are 325 other days this year, too.

It’s easy to become lazy or complacent. It’s easy to put aside a story when it becomes frustrating. Passive is easier than active. But passive also means missing out. It was raining last night, and I was tempted to skip the Open Mic, but I didn’t. I was tired yesterday and I was tempted not to submit, but I did. Today, I could have blown off writing this blog post, but I was charged up by the Open Mic and the news that a friend had taken my challenge and had a piece of writing accepted for publication.

That is life in the active voice. Getting your work out there. Making things happen.

But, as I noted above, there are times when the passive voice is appropriate, both in writing and in life. From time to time, it’s good to kick back and listen to the words and music from other artists who are brave enough to stand up before a crowd and share what’s in their hearts. It’s helpful to absorb the energy, to participate without being the one on stage. Every artist needs an audience, after all.

i-am-an-artist

 

 

 

A Submission a Day x 40

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI am writing this on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the day in my childhood that meant spending all day wearing a princess costume and scrapping like a prize fighter for cheap throws at a parade.

Good times, those were.

The next day began Lent, the 40 days of reflection and sacrifice that, for me as a child, meant no chocolate until the Easter Bunny came. After six weeks of deprivation, I was so desperate for a hit, I chomped the ears off an innocent rabbit while it was still warm from my Easter basket.

I’ve moved away from places that have carnival though I still wear three strings of beads (purple, green, gold) on Mardi Gras day. And while I no longer observe Lent in the traditional give-up-something way, old habits are hard to break. I still do some kind of reflection, and sometimes I do a project, like 40 Days of Book Praise. That was fun

I’ve decided I’m not crazy about deprivation but I can get behind action. So, for the next 40 days, I am going to act on an area of my writing life I have neglected: submitting.

My vow for the next 40 days is to submit one piece of writing, or send a query, or fill out a writing-related app, per day. I have a backlog of pieces waiting for a home, and I need to supercharge my efforts so my little writing orphans can make it out into the world.

One submissiony thing a day. For 40 days. I’ll be so busy submitting, I won’t even worry about the chances of rejection.

What is your take? Is sacrifice or action your kind of thing? Or a combination?  And who wants to join me in doing 1 writing thing – your choice – per day, for the next 40 days?

 

 

 

10 Things to Check Before You Hit Send

RamonaGravitarThe wrong place, the wrong name, the wrong page count….Much of what influences a submission’s acceptance or rejection is subjective. You can’t control the market or a particular editor’s taste, but you can make sure your manuscript gets to the right person at the right address in the right format. Double check the following before you lick the stamp or hit the Send button.

1. Names: Misspelling your own name on your own submission would be embarrassing. Misspelling the agent or editor’s name hints that you are careless. Showing your name on a blind submission can get you disqualified. Review names for spelling, but also be certain a journal or contest wants to see your name on the submission at all. Check the guidelines.

2. Formatting: Pulling out a chunk of pages for a partial submission may monkey with spacing, headers, footers, indent, and margins. Don’t assume your settings will transfer to a new document or to a submission box. Also, remember to remove the extra space Word likes to add between paragraphs, and beware of those off again, on again Widows & Orphans.

3. Contact info: Yours, that is. Do you have multiple email addresses? Does your Submittable account remember what you typed into it last year? Treat every submission as new information, or carefully check what has been stored. Don’t assume what is remembered is remembered correctly or is up to date.

4. Records: Unless it is a revision or resubmission, sending a formerly rejected piece to the same editor, agent, or publication is a faux pas. Who needs duplicate rejections? Submittable keeps tracks of each submission and its status. For other submissions, you can use a spreadsheet or a notebook or a white board and marker—the format doesn’t matter. What matters is to record where, when, and to whom your work has been sent. Don’t trust your memory. Put the piece, the date, the place, and the person in writing, and double check for repetition before you send. Every time.

5. Deadline: Meet it. That means, send off the submission before the deadline. If it’s an online submission, that means the Send button must be whacked one minute before midnight, the day of deadline, at the very latest, and only if you like to live dangerously. (Give yourself 5 minutes or a half hour. Your blood pressure will thank you if you hit a glitch.) If you are sending snail mail, a deadline may mean a postmark or a received by date. Check the guidelines. NOTE: A deadline is equal to a “firm” price at an antique shop. No wiggle room or bargaining. An extra day (hour, month) does indeed matter

6. Payment: If you are entering a contest or there is a reading fee, you do need to pay it. A paper submission will need a check (signed, made out to the right entity and in the correct amount) and attached to the submission. An online submission usually means PayPal. Most of the time, an online submission requiring a fee won’t go through until you pony up with the cash.

7. SASE: In the olden days, writers had stacks of stamped, self-addressed envelopes at the ready for the weekly/monthly/occasional trip to the post office. You may no longer descend upon the P.O. bearing multiple manuscripts, but some venues still work with paper. Check the guidelines. If an SASE is requested, send one. If you don’t, you may never hear back.

8. Cover letter: Who are you, what are you sending, why are you sending it—these three questions get answered in a cover letter. If you’ve met the contact recently, mention it. If you have a personal recommendation from a client, name drop it. If your story has been workshopped by Alice Munro or Stephen King, go for broke. Just make sure you include the genre, title, word count, and other pertinent facts so the recipient can know immediately what is being pitched.

9. TMI: Too much information in submitting means you cc (electronically carbon copy) multiple contacts, and you allow all contacts to see all other contacts. This is TMI because what agent or editor wants to be included in a mass mailing? None. If you are doing a multiple mailing, have the courtesy (and the smarts) to keep that to yourself. Use bcc (blind carbon copy) or, better, send individual emails to individual editors or agents.  Treat people in the industry with courtesy, and as individuals.

10. Guidelines: You’ve probably noticed that guidelines are important. Despite this, every time I attend a conference or a workshop and hear a discussion about submissions, someone (or many someones) beg writers to check the guidelines. Sending the wrong piece to the wrong person is a waste of everyone’s time. Don’t waste everyone’s time. CHECK THE GUIDELINES.

You may note that none of the suggestions above address the actual content or quality of the manuscript. Sending clean copy is another blog post. This one is to make sure it gets to where you want it to go, free of errors, oversights, or shots to your foot.

Fear of Submittment

RamonaGravitarIs this you?

You have a great idea for a story or article. You write it. You tweak it. You run it through a critique group. You send it to your beta reader. You revise it. You polish it. You get it all spit-shined and ready for publication.

And then, you do…nothing.

Are you a “do nothing” when it comes to submitting your work? Do your great ideas loll on a flash drive or stagnate as a Word doc because you can’t work up the courage to hit send on Submittable? Are you depriving your stories of their right to be published because you have a fear of submittment?

Failure to submit hobbles many writers for a variety of reasons. Some writers love the creative process, the joy of transforming a nebulous concept to a completed story, but despise writing a businessy cover letter. Some writers are overwhelmed by the needle-in-the-haystack search for markets. Some writers don’t have fear, exactly, but never quite get around to submitting. Some writers—well, all writers, really—hate rejection.

It’s easy to find an excuse not to submit. If you are writing for yourself and don’t feel the need to share your work with the work, that is fine. You don’t have a problem.

But if you do want your work to be published but find the submission process a hurdle, read ahead for how to get over it:

  1. Be realistic. Your work will be rejected, perhaps multiple times. It will happen. It will hurt. Consider it character building, or a challenge, or a notch on the belt of paying your dues. Most of all, understand that no matter how personal the subject matter of your story may be, the rejection of it is not personal. While much of the acceptance process is subjective, editors and agents are making business decisions based on the particular piece of writing you submit, not on your value as a human being. A rejection may come for the simple reason that, while your story fits the guidelines and is well crafted, it is not what the publication needs now.

  2. Have a plan. Continuing the business theme above, for each piece you write, research more than one possible market. Keep a Plan B. Plan B choices create a built-in defense against lolling and stagnating, because if your piece is returned, you can turn it right around. If a rejection arrives from your first choice, go to your Plan B choice—and choose your next backup, so Plan B is always active. Additionally, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by sending to the wrong market or think your story is so special, a publication will bend its guidelines just for you. You are not special. A word count limit of 3,000 does not mean 3,985. A journal that publishes fantasy does not want to consider a short mystery.  Don’t waste your time, and the publishing world’s, with laziness or ego.

  3. Keep records. Some writers use spreadsheets. Some use a notebook with columns. Keep track of submissions in at least one physical place, online or on paper. Check that place regularly. Is Monday your business day? If so, every Monday, open the file or spreadsheet or notebook and check the status of your submissions. Just as writing every day keeps a story fresh in your head, regular checking up on your submissions helps you to keep track of what is where, but it’s also a reminder that submitting is an ongoing process.

  4. Use resources. If the plethora of publishers and publications is overwhelming, there are beaucoup places and ways to narrow down the available markets for a piece. Choose a day—once a month, perhaps—for market research. Write a list of pieces you feel are ready for submission, and then hunker down online with NewPages, Duotrope, AgentQuery, Poets & Writers, or any other resource with publication listings. Market research can be tedious, so if you hate it, consider it a necessary chore and do it anyway.

  5. Set goals. One submission a week? A month? A year? Depending on what you write, your goals will reflect how often you produce work to be submitted, but you can’t meet a goal if you don’t set a goal. So, set a goal. Here’s something to help you with that:

 Goal Setting Statement

I, ___(your name)____, promise to submit a __ (short story, poem, article, query)___ once a __(day, week, month, year)____because I am proud of my work, and I want it to be published and read.

The above advice comes down to one final statement: Do it. No one can submit for you. When your work is published, it will be worth it, I promise.

Don’t be a do nothing. Go forth and submit. Good luck!

How To Cite Writing Credentials (when you have none)

What are writing credentials?

Writing credentials are a paragraph or blurb that accompany a submission and include education, professional memberships, writing community activities, and what you’ve had published.

This is contest season, and grant application season, and it’s always submission season, so what do you do if you get to the “where I’ve been published” part of a query and your answer is zilch?

You be honest–and say nothing.

There is no shame in being unpublished. It means you are a new writer, or new to submitting, or you have not yet matched the right story to the right publication. Yes, it may help move your submission to the top of the heap if you have some impressive credentials, but if you don’t, you don’t, and trying to write around that will not be helpful.

So tell the truth. Say nothing about prior publications. You can, if you need a segue, use a line like, “This is my first submission to Printer’s Ink Quarterly.” If I’m an editor or first reader, this tells me you’ve never submitted to us before, and nothing more.

What not to do? Try to mask or cover the publication hole with a cringe-worthy credential. Such as,

~ My grandson really loved this story. (Is your grandson an editor/agent? If not, who cares if he likes it your story. He’s your grandson; you probably gave him cookies while reading the story, so of course he loved it!)

~ I’ve been writing stories since I was five years old. (Okay. That’s nice. Except this is not the Welcome page of your blog.)

~ This is my first submission ever, and an acceptance from you will set me on the path of a  successful writing career. (Wait a minute. Your career path is based on this one submission that I hold in my hand? So if I reject it and you feel like a failure, it’s my fault?)

~ I have a stack of rejections so I hope this is the one to break my unlucky streak! (Please don’t tell this to anyone. You do not want to be Sad Sack, the Writer.)

A query or application is a business proposition. Consider it like a job application. Do you include on your job application “I’ve never held a job before”? No. You leave that part of it blank. The person reading it will figure it out.

This is what a paragraph with no writing credentials may look like:

~ I became interested in beekeeping while working on a honey farm. This story grew out of those experiences.

~ I am a member of Sisters in Crime and a monthly critique group.

~ This is my first submission to Printer’s Ink Quarterly. I appreciate your consideration.

Some things are simple. If you keep it so, you can’t mess it up.

Ramona