Take advantage of office hours
Professors, when they’re not working furiously to complete some paperwork, love to have students come visit. Most of them that I’ve encountered at least. Even if they’re not YOUR professors.
If you’re getting a creative writing degree and you haven’t met with every single creative writing instructor there, you’re wasting your opportunity. You can likely bring in your work to them and they will talk about it with you. Or you can ask them questions about craft and industry.
One of the most valuable things you learn from writers, and they don’t have time to teach in the classrooms at schools, is their life stories. How they made it in writing. Or how they didn’t make it (but they must have done something to get hired).
And how often are you going to get a chance to talk to a successful writer about his or her own work. Yes, read h/her publications and try to learn from it. I’m sure the writer will be touched.
Try the school library. There may be a faculty section. Or you could ask the instructor for a copy of their book. Read it like a writer, and ask h/her things about the techniques and the reasons for making certain choices.
*A genuine interest in your instructor’s work and the craft of writing will likely get you better grades as well*
I know, I know. You’re completely loaded with work. You couldn’t possibly do more. Well, you’re going to have to if you want to be the best damn writer you can be.
When you’re assigned reading for a creative writing class, seek out more of the same. If you have a section from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, go out and get the whole book.
And be sure to ask your professor for recommendations for further reading. That way you don’t waste any time searching or reading inferior stuff.
If you’re really strapped for time, remember, there are short forms in 3 of the 4 major genres of writing. Short poems, flash fiction, and lyric essays are designed to do a lot in a little time/space. You can learn economy of language.
For a while, I set my homepage to Brevity.
Or instead of waking up with coffee and TV, or even while you’re eating breakfast, listen to The Writer’s Almanac podcast. Or read a poem.
If you read one poem a day, or one essay, that’s 365 a year. Imagine how brilliant you’ll be.
Attend any special events with visiting writers
A lot of schools occasionally bring in guest writers to teach a class for the day, do a reading, a Q&A session. Things like that. Go to these special events. Every one. It might really fire you up, as well as educate you.
And if the visiting author is teaching a class, see if you can drop in on that class that day.
Find out when he or she will be there in advance, so you have time to familiarize yourself with h/her body of work.
Check with the English department or your professors to find out who’s coming. You can even request they try to get your favorite writer to visit.
More to come in the future. Until then, pens at the ready!
It’s hard being a writer while in school. I labored tirelessly in all my classes to get great grades and learn everything I could, reading a lot of analysis and criticism that wasn’t required, so I never had much time to think about writing as a career. I just knew that I wanted to be a writer.
Whether you have more or less time than I did, there are plenty of efficient ways to blitz the world of professional writing.
Most universities have some sort of magazine or other publication that features student work. At Michigan State, we had The Red Cedar Review and The Offbeat. I really wish that I had been more involved with that.
University presses typically doesn’t expect as much formation preparation from you as they would from a professional writer, and they might even help you learn how things should be done. And they generally have considerable readership. They will build up your CV quite nicely.
If you have more time, it is worth it to get on the staff of these publications. Working as an editor or publisher will start building your knowledge of what people are looking for and how best to exploit the market to get your own work out there. You’ll have to read a great deal of slush, but you’ll have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. And your own writing will improve, guaranteed.
Writers’ Groups and Organizations
It stands to reason that most universities would have various groups for writers. They might be workshops where writers critique their cohorts’ work, organizations where guest speakers come in and talk to writers, networking organizations, or reading groups. Basically, anything associated with writing is something you should be interested in.
If you can find a group that includes people with more experience than students, those older members will be invaluable to you. Students are great for critiquing usually, but often lack life-experience and insider knowledge that would be more helpful to you.
If there are none in your community, start one. Create a website, contact the university to see if they will put up a bulletin or a link on the university website, make flyers and post them in coffee shops and in the English department, and please talk to your professors. They would most likely love to help you spread the word about this. They love to see their students do well, for the most part.
Want to reach more people than most small-press magazines do? Get on the radio.
My school had a program that highlighted the local community, and a segment that exposed creative students.
The numbers vary, but you could be reading your story, poem, or essay to hundreds if not a thousand or more people. They might even put the recording on their website.
If your radio station doesn’t have a segment like this, email the people at the station and give them your idea. Get together some other students and request that they start a segment like this. If it fills time and delivers a listenership, they will at least entertain the idea.
And once you’re on the radio, put this on your CV. Editors love to know that your name is out there and might draw people. I consider radio to be publication.
Open Mics and Public Readings
There are plenty of places that host open mic nights where you can just walk up stage and read your work. I know for me, when I was growing up and dreaming about being a writer, I always imaged holding a completed and published book in my hands and feeling the satisfaction and joy of that.
But now, I just want to reach people.
Open mics are a great way to do that. Some of these people might just enjoy your reading that night, but others might want to network you, and others might be interested in following your career.
There is a lot of satisfaction in it.
Another great way to reach an audience is to get other writers together and organize a public reading.
If you really want to draw in people, you want to find a venue that regularly gets and audience. I know that some people have had luck performing in bars that host bands, others in local theatres and art halls, and many in smaller venues from coffee shops to the student union building.
Getting a university venue is something your professors might help you with, and even use department resources to create flyers and advertisements.
To really convince these venues to host you, you are going to have to show them that you’ll bring people in so they can make money. Bars will love to hear that each reader can bring in 10 students, family, and friends to hear them. Bring in this information when you talk to them either at their business, or if you email them make sure to explain this right away as your propose the idea.
Writing doesn’t mean all that much unless someone is reading or listening.
To be continued….
The first step to seeing your story in that magazine or journal or newspaper or wherever you want to be is figuring out where that is. That is, once you have a finished story, you run into the problem of where to send it.
Recently at a workshop in Florida, a beginning author asked me, “Where do I send my work? How do I know what’s good for me?”
The only real response to that is, “Read.” If your library has a nice selection of magazines and journals, from the New Yorker and Poetry to the Paris Review to the Smalltown Quarterly, you’ve got to start reading around to discover what your contemporaries are writing, what works, how to improve your writing, and to research what editors like.
As you read, keep tabs on who the editor is, what he or she seems to like, and imagine your piece fitting in amongst those other pieces. Note the most popular topics, the ones that seem worn out (leave those alone), and the more innovative things that you can appropriate to keep your writing new and interesting.
It might not be enough to write like Anton Chekov anymore.
If you have a really youthful voice in your pieces, certain publications might detest that, and others might embrace it.
Great ways to research publications:
- Library stocks
- Online Magazines – Most of these are free to read, and a bit easier to get into, as long as you write quality material that fits. And it’s good to get into these as well because they are most likely the future of literary magazines.
- Barnes & Noble, Borders, and any other bookstores carry herculean proportions of magazines and quarterlies; many of them local as well.
- Online sources like ProQuest have immense catalogs of magazines to view, including decades of back-issues. If you are still at your university or have access through your library to e-resources like this, make us of them. It will save you lots of money and–more importantly perhaps–time.
Once you’ve got your publications in mind, it saves you time in the long run to create a method or formula for submitting. To organize your would-be publications, I recommended the method poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking, uses to send out his work:
First, he created 4 columns of magazines, the first being the most selective or desirable and the last being the least. So the first column has The New Yorker on top, then the next The Paris Review on top, since I can’t remember the third let’s say it was The Gettysburg Review, and I’ll make up that the last column was headed by The Michigan Quarterly.
Once you have the four columns, you make five rows. So beneath The New Yorker, put down Poetry magazine, Prairie Schooner, Granta, etc. Do that for all the columns.
Since he’s a big famous best-selling author he’s going to have a more impressive list. Don’t worry about those big magazines at this point. The Paris Review is one of the only magazines left that still bothers with the slush pile–all the unsolicited manuscripts–and even then you only have a .006% chance of getting selected, so I recommend making your lists from magazines that draw heavily on unsolicited submission until you have made a bit of a name for yourself.
When it’s time to send out a piece, he sends it out one row at a time. So that way, if The New Yorker doesn’t take it, hopefully The Paris Review will. But if not, maybe Gettysburg or Michigan Q will. If not, he sends it out to the next row.
Note that, in his words, “The worst outcome from sending it out is you get rejected. So what?”
Now, another reason that he does it this way is because he ignores the “no simultaneous submissions” rules that many magazines have. Why? Because it’s hard enough to be a writer sending your work out to everyone at once, if you have to wait for 6 months before you can put a piece back on the market, you’re not going to be financially successful and it would take DECADES to get your career anywhere. It’s likely that if you send it to The New Yorker and Poetry at the same time, there is a chance you will be found out and develop a bad reputation (at least that’s what one editor warned me), so do as he does at your own risk. For Lynch, the worst possibility in his method is that he has to turn someone down and say they can’t have it after all.
“Oh boo hoo!” He says.
He was speaking as a poet, so I imagine he has a whole different set of lists for other genres.
In fact, create lists for each genre and sub-genre you write in. If you’re a sci-fi writer, yours might look like this:
|The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction||Interzone||Locus||any|
|Analog Science Fiction and Fact||770||Neo-opsis||Small-print|
|Asimov’s Science Fiction||Not One of Us||scifidimensions.com||and local|
|Another Realm||Clarkesworld Magazine||On Spex Magazine||you know|
So get busy reading and researching.
Even if you want to play it safe and lawful by obeying whatever rules editors have about simultaneous submissions (and you can always tell them that you have submitted it elsewhere right in your letter or email), you can still use this method with just the publications that do accept simultaneous submissions. And those are many.
Pens at the ready!
The speculative fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein had five rules for writing. Really, they’re more like the four things you must do to honestly call yourself a writer.
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
If you’re like me, you’ve wanted to be a writer for far longer than you’ve actually been writing. And if you’re like me, you started thinking like a writer before you started writing seriously. The point being:
it can take a long time just to get to step one.
So don’t regress and stop writing. You must constantly be writing, whether in your head, on your computer, in your notebook, or even on a typewriter. Even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, exercise the muscles and keep them sharp.
And don’t get sidetracked. A lot of times when you’re trying to finish a piece, and I’ve heard this from a lot of writers, you get all sorts of “great ideas” that you have got to get started on immediately.
You don’t. Really.
Just jot them down our dictate them into a voice recorder and get on with what you were writing. When you come back to those ideas later, you might find they weren’t so good. We tend to get excited about anything else while we’re trying to write and our mind convinces us that everything else is better, even really crappy ideas.
The more complicated part of that 3rd rule is knowing when a piece is done. I’ve had instructors say that a piece is done when you can’t think of a single way to make it better without ruining everything. I’ve heard from other writers that a piece is done when it’s not worth the time that you’re putting into it. Some writers say that they finish a sentence and involuntarily take a deep breath, and then they just realize it.
It probably depends on the piece really. Those murderously difficult ones that just hate being written never feel done, and at some point we have to cut ties. And those ones that seem to write themselves in a flurry might need just a single revision before they’re done. But at some point you’ve got to let go and say it’s done.
And then send it in immediately. Email it out. Print a copy onto some high quality paper and stick it in a manila envelope and send it out so you can start on something new. There’s a lot more involved of course–letters of inquiry, scouting editors, agents (oh god)–but we’re going to leave it at that for now.
Now, while you’re doing those first two rules over and over again, there’s a few modern updates you need to work on.
1. Get web wise.
One of the best ways to get visibility and market yourself as a writer is to have a website. Editors of magazines have told me that when they are introduced to a writer or their interest is piqued by something they have pitched, the first thing they do is check them out on the web. Having a nice website makes you look more established and professional. You can include a bio so that they can get to know you quickly, a nice picture of yourself, and even some samples of your work so they can get a quick idea of how you write.
And maybe the editor doesn’t think you’re a good fit at the moment, but knows somewhere that might be good for you. It is a lot easier for them to spread the word about you or pass you on to another person in the industry if they can just give their associate a link.
Just make sure that you make yourself look professional. If you include a blog and are posting about your weekend and a party you went to or anything along those lines, well, I wouldn’t be as interested. Reputations are involved.
2. Twitter and Social Networking
Social networking can be a great way to create a buzz or make yourself visible. Create a page on facebook so people can become fans. Even if it’s just your friends and family at first, someone else might get there and go to your site and next thing you know they have read your work. You’re going to have to prove you can deliver a readership if you’re going to try to sell a book in the future, so start building a base now.
Twitter works really well if you want to just keep reminding people about your name.
The first editor I met visited my site and saw my twitter. She started following me, and whenever I updated she saw my name. Well, maybe some editor doesn’t have a spot for your piece just then, but a few months down the line there’s a space in the magazine and because you just tweeted an update about your new story idea, he or she knows it’s really a you-shaped hole and gets in touch.
Even if nothing amazing happens, it’s always good to have as many lines in the water as possible.
Starting a writing career alone is hard, never mind if you’re a poor college student. George R.R. Martin, New York Times bestselling author of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, used to typewrite a story and send out the manuscript with return postage to magazine, and the day he got it back he sent it right out to another magazine and so forth until someone bought it or told him to change something.
Fortunately, today we have email, so there is less expense involved, and you can send your work out to as many places as you want, provided they don’t have a “No Simultaneous Submissions” clause. Always check. (Some writers choose to ignore that, and it wouldn’t be a problem unless you got accepted to two or more places, but it can give you a bad reputation if you have to pull out of one place or if word gets around.)
And lastly, I just want to chuck a few more general rules at you. These are things that I will post in depth more on later.
1. Be organized. Save everything. You might need work as records, or because you want to go back and look at a previous draft to see how something changed, or just to see how you made progress and how you can do things better in the future. This means keeping all your paper copies, detailed notes, and backing up electronic drafts.
2. Be efficient. If you want to do your best work and be at your most productive as soon as possible, you’ve got to take your writing seriously and find out how you do your most efficient writing. For some of us, it’s the second you wake up in the morning when your mind is clear. For others, it’s right before a deadline. If you know you have motivation and slacking problems, you might have to figure out some tricks to get you going; simulated stress.
3. Mine your resources. Whether you’re at college, attending workshops, or just know someone at the local coffeeshop, everyone knows some people with expertise. They don’t have to be Pulitzer winners, but almost everyone can teach you something, from bookstore owners to professors to the folks at your local newspaper. Talk to them and try to learn from their experience how to do things right so you don’t have to make the mistakes for yourself. Write to all your favorite writers and anyone you look up to. Chances are they like to procrastinate as much as you and would be completely willing to send you a detailed email answering all your questions. And interactions with fans are a good way for them to show they have a readship to sell books to. Yes, they will mine the business angle, so mine them as a resource in exchange.
Until next time, keep your pen at the ready.