Saturday, November 13, 2010

Getting your work published 101

Working with young writers, I've come to understand that the mechanics of getting one's work published is not something that people know instinctively; nor, from my experience, is it something that is talked about much even in university writing programs. In MFA programs and the like, the focus tends to be on the craft (and theory) of writing creatively, but there isn't much time spent talking about the practical side of finding outlets for one's work.

Hence, I've decided that a good use for my Punkin House blog would be to try to provide some information and battlefield tips for folks who are writing fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry -- but who don't know a lot about how to get their finished work into the hands of editors who might be interested in publishing it.

A bit about me as a journeyman writer. I began trying to get my work published when I was in college (the first time around) in the mid 1980s (yes, don't bother doing the math, I'm pushing 50). My efforts were sporadic and the results ... uneventful. A decade later I returned to academic halls as a part-time master's student in English with a specialization in fiction writing. The process I went through to find outlets for my stories wasn't much different than in my undergrad days, but I had a little more luck and managed to get one story published in an obscure literary journal before leaving with my degree.

I kept writing and unsystematically sending my work out, and over the years I garnered a couple more publication credits. At age 39 I returned to academia for the third time, this time in pursuit of my Ph.D. in English studies (the only university within driving distance didn't offer a Ph.D. in creative writing). Soldiering on for seven years, my creative writing (and publishing) was put on a back burner -- heck, it was all but taken off the stove and poured into a ziplock bag for cold storage. However, in 2008, with the completion of my degree in sight and only a handful of publishing credits to my name, I decided I'd better start a more serious approach to getting my work published. Since then, I've managed to publish a novel with Punkin House and place nine short stories with various journals.

I should also mention that I've been on the other side of the in-box, too, meaning that I've spent a total of about ten years editing and producing two different literary journals, so I've seen a lot of submissions and have some sense of what is likely to excite an editor and what is likely an immediate turn-off.

A moment ago I used the word "unsystematically," and it's worth noting that my success in finding outlets for my work over the past two years (success, certainly, compared to the other twenty years I'd been writing) has as much to do with developing a system for getting my work into the hands of editors/publishers as with the quality of the work itself.

Since I threw the phrase out there, let me take a minute to speak to "the quality of the work." My purpose here, in this blog, is not to offer advice on writing itself -- there are plenty of bloggers, not to mention more traditional sources, who focus on writing tips, etc. -- so I'm targeting that audience of writers and poets who feel like they're ready to see their work in print (actual or virtual) but aren't completely sure how to go about it. Unfortunately there's no formula that can be applied to one's piece to see if it's ready (a little red pop-up button like they put in turkeys would be really handy). Traditionally, writers are not exuding self-confidence in the earliest phases of their careers, so if writers are waiting until they know for certain that a piece is wonderful before sending it out, they're likely to wait forever (perhaps a dutiful child or grandchild will get it published posthumously).

So, to steal from the fine folks at Nike, if a writer/poet thinks the work may be ready: Just do it. My purpose here, then, is to help you figure out just how to do it. It's crucial, from my perspective, that a piece be as polished and error-free as possible before beginning to send it out. Step one, therefore, is to edit and proofread very, very carefully -- get some assistance with this step if editing/proofreading aren't your forte (though you may want to work on these skills, as what we're talking about here is the careful attention to language and paralanguage [in my usage, commas, semicolins, dashes, etc.], and the work of writers/poets could only benefit from an improved sense of grammar and mechanics).

Until the next entry: write, polish, and figure out what you may want to begin sharing with an editor, and hence the world.

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