Practical Advice for Aspiring Authors

Thank you to Danielle Travali for being our roving reporter at last Saturday’s writing program! Her article follows:

In this critic-laden society, many seasoned and aspiring writers fear the publishing process more than the act of writing. Thankfully, successful authors, teachers and mentors provide help—and hope.

In a 90-minute discussion followed by a 30-minute question-answer session, Karen Sirabian, director of the Manhattanville College Master of Arts in Writing program, and Dan Preniszni, Manhattanville’s director of Marketing and Publications (also a student in the program), offered realistic yet inspiring advice to adult writers. They also revealed the secrets to fearlessly pitching manuscripts, short fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry to publishers.

Sirabian, whose fiction and poetry have been printed in literary journals such as The Madison Review and RUNES: A Review of Poetry, stressed the importance of constantly “taking writing to the next level” by revising one’s work, practicing different genres of the craft (e.g. poetry, fiction, nonfiction), and finally, by “bringing writing out of the closet”—exposing it to the public.


She explained that while revision is necessary, writers should eventually submit their work. “When I send it out the door, I know it’s done. It’s an end to revision, marking the wholeness of the story,” said Sirabian.


Sirabian advised writers to keep two things on hand: A short, 50-word bio to send in once the piece is accepted, and a cover letter, which should include not a summary of the attached work, but the writer’s relevant credentials and contacts. Always include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), because most publishers cannot afford to mail a response.

What if I get rejected? Rejection is a part of almost every artist’s career. Sirabian, a successful published author, said she was rejected 200 times in her writing career. “Publishing is a numbers game—it’s highly subjective, based on the whim of an editor,” she explained.

Take hope, creative writers. If your work doesn’t get accepted at first, it’s not necessarily because it is not good enough; the writing may simply not fit in with the rest of the submissions or the topic was already explored in the publication to which you pitched.

Sirabian used Anne Sexton as an example, explaining that Sexton, too, faced rejection from many presses before her eventual acceptance. “Don’t get discouraged; persistence is 9/10 of acceptance,” added Sirabian. Translation: To persist is to submit.

Halfway through her discussion, Sirabian offered her tips for submitting shorter pieces of writing. She said, “Be familiar with your genre of choice. If you’re submitting short fiction, be sure to read Pushcart Prize winning stories and other ‘Special mention’ journals, consult magazines with [eloquent] prose, use the library computer, take advantage of library resources, do research in the journal you want to pitch to and make sure your style follows theirs.”

When submitting poetry, she adds, “Send out at least 3 poems, no more than six.”

For those who want to submit magazine pieces, Sirabian said not to disregard smaller presses, as they are not only a good starting point, but also a way to build credentials. “Agents look through them, so don’t count them out,” she said.

Aspiring magazine writers can buy or borrow a copy of Little Magazines and Small Presses from the library, as it provides small press acceptance rates and other valuable information about submission guidelines. Writers’ Market, which divulges pay rates and summaries about various magazines and presses, is another highly recommended publication; it is available for download as well as in hard copy.

A Novel Idea: To those writing a novel, Sirabian says, “The books we read hold the most important information.” She suggests that writers check what agent handled the publication of the books you like to read/books that fit your writing style. Other tips include:

-Make contacts at writers’ conferences

-Attend editors and agents panels

-Gather a list of five agents and send query letters to them

-Always be ready to discuss the subject of your story. Sirabian put it this way: “Think of manuscripts as a one-line synopsis. You need to be able to pull your story idea out and put it into a few words.”

 Furthering Your Education: The Difference between an M.A.W. and an M.F.A. Sirabian explained the difference between an M.A.W. and an M.F.A. An M.A.W., or Master of Arts in Writing program, she said, focuses on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—all elements of creative writing rather than one particular genre.

She says it also endows writers with real world skills, to help them make contacts and learn about the editing and publishing process—learning how to shape a publication. At Manhattanville College, students are able to work at Inkwell Journal, the award-winning, nationally acclaimed literary journal that receives over 4,000 submissions a year and rewards a $1000 prize to one poetry and one prose winner in their annual competition.

During the second half of Saturday’s seminar, Dan Preniszni, former editor of his undergraduate literary magazine, said he always loved to write fiction. Yet, he joked, with real world demands such as a wife, a son and a mortgage, a corporate job was his best bet. Years later, though, he felt the urge to return to the creative writing he practiced in college.

He lauds Manhattanville for helping him polish his skills. “[The writing program] got me writing and it keeps me writing,” he said. “The program offers a smorgasbord of writing. It’s like dating again—I get to date a different course every semester before deciding which [genre of writing] I’m going to marry.”

Preniszni and Sirabian agree that it’s necessary to study both poetry and prose—even if you only write prose. Sirabian emphasized that in order to succeed as a writer, one must read the works of great writers. “It is impossible to write well without reading as well,” she said. “It is essential for character development,” she added, advising writing group members to all read the same works and reconvene to discuss them.

The tongue-in-cheek moment of the afternoon was Preniszni’s original sentence of advice on how to know whether your writing has flopped or flourished: “If enough people think you’re drunk, sit down.”

The moral of the story? While honing your craft, hold onto your hope . . . and your sense of humor.

Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 5:41 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Danielle,

    A great job in reporting on the program. You definitely hit all the high spots – advice well worth taking and embracing.
    Thank you.

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