Sunday, July 8, 2012

The world doesn't need another story (or poem)

The world doesn't need another story -- it's a point that my mentor and thesis director Kent Haruf used to make to me and my fellow fledgling fiction writers on a regular basis when I was studying at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (gulp) getting close to twenty years ago.  Kent didn't say it to be mean (he's one of the kindest, gentlest people I know), but he wanted to emphasize that if we wanted to be writers, the drive would have to come from inside of us.  No one would care, no one would even notice if we stopped writing -- and certainly no one was going to beg us to get back to it.

Kent was a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop; he went through it at the same time as novelist John Irving, and he used to claim that besides him and Irving, none of his classmates ever published anything after earning their MFA from Iowa.  They apparently needed the incentive of producing for an instructor and to get a grade and finish the degree, but once those fairly concrete incentives were removed, they didn't appear to produce anything.

Just this morning I was indulging myself in reading the Master, William H. Gass, and I rediscovered his take on this very issue in the preface he wrote more than thirty years ago for the republication of his classic collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (originally published in 1968).  Gass wrote,
The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene.  He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose.  Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need.  The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. [...] Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. (Nonpareil edition #21, xviii)
 He must proceed from a reckless inner need.  Indeed.

One of the reasons I've been thinking about this fact is because of the writing workshop that my writing friends -- Lisa Higgs, Tracy Zeman, Meagan Cass -- and I have been leading this summer in Springfield, Illinois.  It began back in May and will run through the beginning of August, with us meeting about every two weeks to discuss issues related to writing prose or writing poetry.  More than forty people registered to participate, but the numbers have dwindled steadily and I suppose we'll end up with about half that original number who will actually stay with it all summer.

Frankly, it was to be expected.  What prevents most people from writing who feel that they want to write is the lack of reckless inner need, as Gass called it.  I have no research to back me up, but I'm going to say that most writers live in households (or maybe situations is a better word) that don't understand their desire to write and don't support it, and perhaps even discourage it, maybe deliberately or maybe accidentally out of ignorance.

For nearly all of my adult life, I lived in a house that didn't get it and spent a great deal of energy discouraging it.  Had I simply stopped writing, things may have been easier at home in some ways, and certainly no editor would've called wondering why I hadn't submitted anything for a while.  But that was simply never an option for me.  I have to write, regardless of whether anyone is reading it or publishing it.

So if you think you want to write, you have to foster that reckless inner need.  For me, being a responsible person, I had to find time to write when no one would care that I was doing that instead of something else, which meant early in the morning.

Perhaps you're fortunate enough to live in a situation where people support your writing, or at least they're not working against it; if so, then it's a matter of developing a routine whereby you find yourself notebook in hand or laptop open every day.  Some writers give themselves page or word goals (they're going to write two pages a day, or 2,000 words, something like that), while others (like me) set a time.  I write for thirty to forty minutes each morning during the academic year, longer in the summer but rarely much beyond sixty minutes.  For folks starting out, it can be as little as a half page or five minutes.

The important thing, if you're serious about writing, is to stop being your own largest obstacle.  Make the time and the psychic space to write ... do it for yourself, do it, as the Master said, for the sake of the art.
Weeping with an Ancient God
Men of Winter

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Finding a home for a long story

For the most part, the length of stories that journal editors will consider has shrunk over time, in keeping with cultural attention spans, so if you write a story in excess of 6,000 words, it can be tricky to find a place to publish it.  This past spring I wrote a story that weighs in at just over 11,000 words, and it does take some digging, but you can find editors who are willing to consider the longer short story or novella.

In a moment I'll share some of my discoveries regarding editors who are open to lengthier submissions, but since I brought up the word novella, let me say a few words about that somewhat misunderstood form.  The terms short story, novelette, novella, and novel are often distinguished by their word count.  There are no strict rules (in fact, there are virtually no rules at all), but short stories are perhaps in the 10,000 word range as their limit, the rarely mentioned novelette 10,000 to 20,000 words, the novella maybe 20,000 to 50,000 words, and the novel, of course, any length beyond that.  I readily acknowledge that it would take you no time at all searching online (or, heavens, in some sort of reference book) to find definitions disagreeing with the number limits I've offered here.

It should be noted that length is a distinguishing factor, but other factors should be considered, too, like the number of major characters and the sleekness of the plot (elements that are even more open to interpretation than word count).

Nevertheless, if you do find yourself in need of placing a story that runs in excess of 6,000 words, here are some possibilities.  When I was searching for my own purposes, incidentally, I made use of a site that I've referenced several times in this blog:  Duotrope.  Duotrope has a search function that allows you to plug in all sorts of criteria, like genre and form, but also length.  So I searched for venues taking stories more than 10,000 words long, and while I didn't find a lot, I did find more than I'd expected.

One such venue is the aptly named Big Fiction magazine, which is interested in "long shorts and novellas of 7,000 words and up."  The editors, however, stress in their guidelines that they want more than length; they want "substance, texture [and] urgency."  Their reading period for the current issue closed at the end of May, but if you have a longer story, keep Big Fiction in mind for when it reopens to submissions.

Another option -- and one that is currently accepting submissions -- is Caketrain and its editors' chapbook competition in fiction, which allows for the entry of novellas and longer stories within the context of a collection of stories.  The editors are looking for manuscripts between 40 and 80 pages.  As with virtually all contests,  there is an entry fee and specific guidelines for formatting your entry, so read the competition page carefully.

A brand-new and exciting option is Pshares Singles, a digital-only extension of distinguished Ploughshares journal.  The editors are looking for fiction between 6,000 and 25,000 words that will be available for download in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as in digital text from the Ploughshares main site.

These are just a few options.  So don't be afraid to write that longer story or novelette or novella:  there are editors with stamina who are interested in these more substantial forms.
Men of Winter

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Beware posting to a blog or Facebook

This summer my writer buddies Lisa Higgs, Tracy Zeman, Meagan Cass and I will be leading a series of workshops at The Pharmacy in Springfield, Illinois, and in the process of setting up the online components of the workshops it was underscored for me just how careful one must be about where and how one's writing appears online. As a writer, I've just taken for granted that everyone is aware of the need for caution, but it's occurred to me that maybe doing a post on the subject wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Here's the thing: Journal editors almost always want what's termed "First Rights" for your work, meaning that they want to be the ones to publish your story or poem or essay, etc., for the first time; then after it appears in their journal, the rights revert to you, the author, who can then do whatever you want with it -- see if an editor who does "reprints" will take it, or offer it to an anthology, or include it in a collection, or post it to your own blog or website. (Book publishing, by the way, is far more complicated, and contract language varies widely as to what authors can do with their own work after it's been taken by a publisher.)

Just using myself as an example (because it is, after all, all about me), later this year my publisher Punkin House will be releasing my book Weeping with an Ancient God, which is a novella and story collection. The novella will constitute about half the book, and it hasn't been published previously, except for the first chapter, which appeared under the title "Melvill in the Marquesas" in the online journal The Final Draft (now listed by Duotrope's Digest as deceased), in the fall of 2010. In truth, I mainly sought a journal publication for the opening chapter in hopes of sowing some interest in the novella, which was originally slated for publication in 2011.  The Final Draft, however, only left "Melvill in the Marquesas" up for about three weeks before replacing it with another fiction piece (by someone else); and -- now, frankly, this is strange -- its editor didn't archive previous editions. So the stand-alone chapter disappeared off the Internet within a few weeks of its publication; and since The Final Draft was only online, that means my piece was in essence gone for good, leaving next to no opportunity for sowing interest in the forthcoming novella and story collection.

Luckily, since The Final Draft only had First Rights, I could do what I wanted with "Melvill in the Marquesas," so I "reprinted" it at another blog that I write, called 12 Winters Blog, thus archiving the piece online myself. As far as the stories collected in Weeping with an Ancient God, they're a dozen short stories that have appeared in various literary journals, all of which only took First Rights, leaving me free to include them in this book, with the usual understanding of my acknowledging where they appeared originally.

It's typical to try to publish individual chapters of books before the book itself is published (for example, with my novel Men of Winter I'd published three of the chapters as stand-alone pieces before the book found a home at Punkin House).

Before the advent of web publishing, journal editors tended to discount publishing in a really, really small outlet as publishing at all.  In other words, if you had a poem or story that appeared in a newsletter or tiny in-house magazine of some sort (like a college-campus lit journal or student newspaper), then you could still submit it to larger circulation journals as an "unpublished" piece, thus legitimately offering their editors First Rights. I suppose this may still be true, but only if those tiny outlets are traditional paper publications.

However, the web and specifically blogging have cast First Rights into a whole new light. Because even the most obscure of blogs (like mine) could be read by thousands (millions, billions?), journal editors now consider posting to a blog as publishing and thus eliminating the piece from further publication consideration, other than in those rare journals that are willing to do reprints.

Moreover, I've recently seen in submission guidelines the specific reference to blogs and Facebook as examples of publishing that prohibit a piece from being considered by a journal. The mention of Facebook caught my attention in particular because the site and co-sponsor of this summer's workshop series, The Pharmacy (with the Vachel Lindsay Association being the other co-sponsor) has a Facebook group called The Pharmacy Literati whose members routinely share work on Facebook to get feedback from other members of the Literati -- and, really I suppose, anyone who happens upon it.

I've been mindful of all this while setting up the online components for our workshop. We want participants to be able to post their work electronically in order to get feedback from the workshop leaders and from each other, but I didn't want to use the public-access blog that I've set up to broadcast information about the workshop, just for the reasons I've outlined here. I didn't want a workshop participant to share a poem or short story, only to discover later that he or she couldn't then submit that piece for journal publication because it had appeared on the workshop blog.

I considered closing down public access to the blog once the workshop participants were set, but that didn't seem like a good idea for all sorts of reasons. So what I've decided to do is to establish a private chat site via Google Groups which will allow workshop participants to share their work for critique without its being simultaneously published on the blog. Of course, the terrain of online publishing shifts underfoot minute by minute, but I think this Groups site will accomplish what we want for the workshop without risking coincidental publication of participants' work.

Obviously, this post has mainly been focused on our workshop to take place here in Springfield, Illinois, but the issue of posting to a blog or Facebook as a type of publication, and thus eliminating the opportunity for granting First Rights elsewhere, is one that all writers should consider.
Men of Winter

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Some online publishing opportunities with the arrival of spring

I've been remiss in keeping up this blog the last few months as the winter was exceedingly busy, but I think I've emerged on the other side of all those projects and I'd like to ease back into it by highlighting some interesting online outlets. Many literary journals and publishers go into summer dormancy (some starting as early as May 1 in anticipation of the academic year's conclusion), so there's no time like the present to get some prose and poetry into editors' inboxes while they're still in reading mode.

Using recent notices from one of my favorite market reporters, Duotrope's Digest (of which I've written repeatedly), here are some venues that piqued my curiosity:

The mission of Brink Magazine is "to bring good literature and art to light." Established in 2007, the editors of this uncluttered and eye-pleasing online journal are interested in the usual literary fare in addition to criticism, interviews and translations. They are taking submissions through June 30, for this reading period, via a form within their own site.

Another interesting online possibility is Conte, a journal of narrative writing, which "aims to celebrate, explore, and expand the boundaries of both narrative writing and digital publishing." The journal's web designers definitely work at bringing digital artistry to each issue. The editors are currently reading for their summer 2012 issue and only accepting work through Submittable (formerly Submishmash). See their submissions page for links to helpful tips.

Another online journal worth checking out is milk magazine, which features a simple, straightforward and easy-to-read design. Submissions are being accepted now through August via email to milk's editor, Larry Sawyer.

Orion Magazine is an online outlet with a specialized focus which "lies at the nexus of ecology and the human experience." Its editors are looking for short fiction, essays, narrative nonfiction, and interviews, but no unsolicited poetry. See the magazine's guidelines page for a thorough description of what the editors are interested in -- but the current reading period closes March 16.

These are just a few interesting places to submit your work with the coming of spring. Check out Duotrope's Digest plus for a wealth of information on outlets that are currently reading.
Men of Winter