How to succeed as a 21st century writer, part 2

For Alison McBain, searching digitally for a publication to which to submit your creative writing is like seeking a job. You have to do your homework, you have to be organized and you have to make the right impression. Here she talks about researching places to send her work, matching a piece’s style to a publication’s, keeping track of her stories’ progress, the specifics of getting paid and more.

HER MARKET RESEARCH

Learning what’s out there. “Pretty much when I started writing for publication, I didn’t know the markets very well,” McBain says, “so I just started reading. Almost every site that I submit to I read ahead of time. It’s sort of like doing research for a job interview. You have to research the company you’re applying to.”

McBain does not rely on the listings in the back pages of the writers’ magazines to find venues to submit her work. She uses the internet. For many writers, the go-to standard of online search sites for fiction and poetry (as well as nonfiction) is Duotrope. But Duotrope charges an annual subscription fee of $50. McBain opts for a free alternative, The Grinder, which is still in a beta format. “I love the Grinder for looking at markets but once every couple of months it goes down for a couple of days as they’re adjusting,” McBain says. The online directories identify such useful information as genres and lengths of stories, submission periods and deadlines, response times, payment scales and more. You can customize your search for publications according to many of those criteria. “I also like Flash Fiction Chronicles a lot,” McBain adds, “because, as I said, I like flash fiction. They do just sort of a list form, and it’s not everybody.”

Then there are the opportunities she learns about through her online writers group. And finally, “I also have a calendar for upcoming deadlines.” Many she picked up “through Grinder or through my writers’ group. Some markets I just keep track of, like Glimmer Train. Their Fiction Open call is two months of the year, June and December. [The most recent Open deadline was January 15, 2015.] So whenever that happens, I know.”

HER SUBMISSIONS

Be stylistically aware. When she finds a publication that matches her genre and payment goals, McBain scouts it further by reading previously published pieces. “The thing that I most look out for is, first of all, style,” she says. “That’s a big one, because you can write a story that’s maybe a little bit outside the genre, but if it doesn’t fit stylistically, they won’t accept it. One of my most recent publications, FLAPPERHOUSE, does experimental. The work has to be sort of a merging of almost a poetic voice with the storytelling, which wouldn’t fly at a place like On the Premises. Experimental is definitely not what they’re looking for. So even if I took the same subject matter, I would write it in a different style. A more straightforward story.”

HER TRACKING SYSTEMS

An onscreen demonstration. In addition to her writing, the main thing for McBain as a successful 21st century writer “is organization. It helps that I used to be an office manager for several different companies.”

Looking at a big, color-coded Excel spread sheet, McBain says, “This is my master [chart]. It shows where each story has been submitted, the date, rejected, the date, everything. Some of these I wrote and haven’t submitted yet, or I need to edit them, or perhaps I need to finish them. I have a second chart of story ideas; it’s just a list, basically. And there are the ones I was writing for deadlines that I didn’t make.”

She clicks to another color-highlighted screen: “For my book I keep track of all the places I submitted it to, which draft got queried or went out to which agent, the rejections, places to research afterward. This is all the places it’s out to right now.” She tracks her poems as well.

“This is a big thing, knowing where a story has gone.” You must be careful. “Occasionally—I think I’ve done this twice—I sent a piece to the same place more than once, because I changed the name of it. Of course, that’s bad.” Luckily, she was not called on it either time.

She tries to update her charts daily. “I have maybe 40 stories out right now. Every day I’m figuring out what I need to do. The organization can take more time than writing.”

McBain also uses a popular website: “A lot of this is also duplicated on QueryTracker. But I always keep my own backup system, because sometimes the system might go down and were all my updates saved?”

Moving up the ladder. Online magazines have slush readers who take the first cut at reviewing submissions. (In fact, one of McBain’s Library Writers’ Salon colleagues, Ed Ahern, is a slush reader for the online publication Bewildering Stories.) In the digital world, a writer often can track her story as it is assessed. “Some magazines have a specific tier system: editor, assistant editor, etc.,” McBain says. “In the information age they’re really great about telling you if you get bumped up. I submitted to Plasma Frequency magazine. They have three tiers: slush [including her Scribophile writers group leader Alexis A. Hunter], assistant editor, editor. My piece got all the way up to the editor, and got rejected. But each time I got a notification.”

Two go-to places for book writers. “I did a ton of research before sending out my book,” McBain says. “[Agent and author] Noah Lukeman did a fantastic how-to,” How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent [available for free downloading as a .pdf at his website]. “He suggested sending out eight pieces or query letters at a time. Every time you get those eight things back, revise your query.

“I also entered some contests online where a professional agent would edit your query if yours was one of the ones chosen. And there’s Pitch Wars. It’s run by [author] Brenda Drake. You send in your query and your first chapter. All these different published writers choose a mentee. They help polish up your book and then they end up pitcBOTF_Lo-Rez-Coverhing it to 20 agents. They do all genres. Mystery, fantasy, literary, young adult, adult. It’s all free. It’s all online.” [The 2015 Pitch Wars submission window opens August 17.]

Don’t forget anthologies. At least two of McBain’s works are in recently published anthologies. “Someone in my writers group posted something about an anthology open to everyone,” she says. “The one thing the writing guidelines talked about was they were looking for humor. That was something I hadn’t done, written literary humor, and it would be a fun challenge.” The subject of the collection, in fact, was writers coping with rejection, and its title was to be Blood on the Floor. “I actually included the line in my poem, which is ‘Bloody Ink.’ I got the editors’ attention because I took it right out of their submission guidelines.”

For the anthology Abbreviated Epics, the call was for “something under, I think, 3,000 words. I rewrote the Minotaur myth as a short story, ‘The Lost Children.’ I have a classics background. In an early version of the myth, it wasAMcBBook not set in stone what the Minotaur looked like. Some versions said it had the body of a bull, the head of a man, instead of the opposite, which has now become very popular. So I just followed this idea, what if it was opposite? And they were siblings? I went from there.”

HER PAYMENTS & AWARDS

Why payment matters. “There are several reasons that I feel getting paid for writing is important,” McBain says.  “First of all, there are terms built into one’s status as a writer that depend on pay scale.  For example, ‘semi-professional’ payment is 1-4 cents a word.  ‘Professional’ payment is 5+ cents a word.  Membership to certain writers’ associations, such as the Science Fiction Writers of America, depends on having made a set number of ‘professional’ sales.  I could make a hundred ‘semi-professional’ sales, but never be able to join SFWA.  Someone else could make three ‘professional’ sales and become a member.  So in order to be seen as a serious writer on a certain level, you have to consistently get paid a certain amount.

“Other than that as a goal, I always hope that my writing brings something of value to the reader, and so I am thrilled to receive even a nominal payment for my work.  I know that journals don’t make money anymore, and few writers are able to quit their day jobs.  But receiving that $5— or $50 or $100—will always be a thrill.  An added value is placed on something that already I love to do.  And that is really very cool.”

Fast start. McBain uses contests as an incentive to submit, and has been rewarded for doing so: “I won second prize in On the Premises Contest # 22 for ‘Grandmother Winter.’ At the time, the prize was $140 (they have since increased the prize money to $160). It is highest payment I’ve received for a story. ‘The Maybe Baby’ won the Patricia McFarland Memorial Prize at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Both of these were early in 2014 after a 10-year hiatus in my writing career—so [it was] a good way to get started again!  No other prizes since then.”

Lesser amounts. “The lowest payment I’ve received for a story was $5 for flash fiction,” McBain says. “Poetry tends to pay less than fiction on average, so most of my published poems have paid $5-$10.” She is not completely averse, though, to submitting to a nonpaying journal. “Some places I go to are for exposure. A Public Space [an independent magazine of literature and culture based in Brooklyn] is one of the top 50 literary magazines. But they don’t pay. I’ll send stuff to that. But mostly I get some nominal fee.”

Reader input. The two-way nature of the digital world raises the question of whether online magazine readers can influence which writers get published and who among them gets paid. McBain’s assessment: “There are some online magazines and journals that are interested in reader feedback, sometimes to the extent that it affects pay rate for the writers, although I don’t know of any magazine that directly equates page views with writer payment. One magazine that has a public submission queue for writers is Crowded Magazine, where all stories posted to the queue are visible to members and can garner comments. I don’t believe this affects the acceptance/rejection rate, though, but is used more as a critique tool to help writers improve their writing. Another magazine that encourages reader participation is Mash Stories.  Readers cast votes for their favorite stories, but there is also a jury of editors who moderate the choosing of a finalist for each quarter—so voting might help steer the judges toward a winner, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a most-voted story will win the cash prize. A third magazine that does directly rely on reader feedback to award cash prizes is SpeckLit. The editor chooses which stories to publish online, and each quarter readers vote for their favorites and the winner receives additional compensation.”

Is she a pro? McBain answers cautiously: “I guess I would define myself as a professional writer once I get my book published.” The FWB would beg to differ. McBain pursues her writing seriously, and she gets paid for it. Thus, she is a professional writer.

HER FUTURE

A nonfiction idea. McBain’s grandmother, who had Japanese ancestry, was in internment camps for parts of World War II. “I’m hoping to someday write a book based on my grandmother’s life,” McBain said. “My grandmother’s first husband died in the war fighting for the U.S. After his death, she returned to the internment camps to rejoin her family, which was where she met my grandfather, who was recovering from a wound he’d received in the war.  Originally, it was thought he’d die from his wound—he’d been shot through the kidney and received his Purple Heart in the hospital from a chaplain.  They were married for more than 50 years.” The love story, however, is only half the tale McBain plans to tell, the other being the negative effects of the treatment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during and after the war. One example: “As a result of the camps and racism after the war, my grandparents tended to turn their back on Japanese things—they didn’t teach their children the language although they could speak it, and they didn’t keep up Shinto/Buddhist traditions although they had been raised with them.”

HER FINAL ADVICE

Cultivate creativity. Even if you do not write every day—and McBain doesn’t—she recommends that you “be creative every day. Sometimes I work on rescuing stories from my rejection pile and I’ll send them out again. Or I’ll do art. Or I’ll do a handcraft. Encourage your creativity.”

Keep on believing. Don’t give up on placing work you are proud of. McBain recently sold a story after nine rejections, which may sound like a lot but is not by conventional standards. “If you love it, you’ll find a home for it,” she said.—Alex McNab

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Published in: on March 17, 2015 at 11:17 am  Comments (1)  
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How to succeed as a 21st century writer, part 1

Are you familiar with Devilfish Review, which bills itself as Quarterly Literature, Speculative and Otherwise? Or Specklit: A world of wonder in 100 words? How about On the Premises? FLAPPERHOUSE? The Literary Hatchet? Abyss & Apex? Flash Fiction Online?

Alison-McBain-150x150They all are publications in which Alison McBain’s short stories and poems have appeared in the past year. McBain (right), a regular attendee at our monthly writers’ salons at the Library, is a quintessential 21st century writer. Her writing and publishing world—including her writers group—is predominately a digital one. And unlike a lot of storytellers whose creative writing appears online, she gets paid, albeit modestly, for hers.

Now a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, McBain first published two pieces in a college literary journal in 2001. She didn’t submit them; her professor picked them out of class assignments and put them in the magazine. Three years later McBain published a single piece in an anthology. Then, after a nearly decade-long hiatus of work, marriage and motherhood, she wrote a young adult novel in 2013 and began querying agents, thus far without success. So at the start of 2014, she rebooted her creative writing approach, turning to short stories and poetry that she sent out into the world of digital publishing. Her writing covers a spectrum of categories: literary, flash fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy. Her goal that first year: 10 acceptances. By mid-October, she had met her target. She’s well into her second 10 acceptances two months into 2015. And, it bears repeating, she gets paid for her writing.

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB)—whose late-middle-aged comfort zone tends to gravitate toward authors, publications and the protocol of traditional legacy publishing—spoke at length with McBain recently about how to succeed as a 21st century writer. One point rang loud and clear: The digital domain has substantially increased the opportunities for writers to publish their work. Which is not necessarily the same thing as publishing it successfully, as McBain does. Her website features links to several of her published pieces, as well as a monthly blog (often about writing topics) and, debuting most recently, a section of thoughtful book reviews. Here is the first of a two-part post about what McBain had to say about writing, critiquing, submitting, persisting and more in today’s digital world.

HER BACKGROUND

Tech tools. “I grew up near the Silicon Valley, so all my friends my age were working for Google and Yahoo,” McBain says. “I was like the tech dummy, honestly. I would always get them to fix my computer. I guess I sort of grew up with digital technology. I’m used to it, even if I wasn’t very knowledgeable about it. I don’t have a tablet. I don’t have a smart phone. I always carry a notebook with me so if I get ideas, I write them down. I am a little bit old fashioned that way. Most of my work is done on my desktop computer at home. I need my space. I’m not really great at working on the laptop.”

The ease of online. Two simple benefits of being a digital writer/submitter, in McBain’s view: “You don’t have to print out your submissions. You don’t have to wait for the mail.”

A wakeup call. “I’ve always loved writing,” McBain says, but she admits that “I wasn’t really pursuing it very strongly. My grandmother had worked on a book, for 20 years, about her father, who had immigrated from Holland. She had translated all his letters, which were in Dutch. On her 90th birthday, she self-published her book and she had a big publishing party in Canada, where she lived. We all went up. She and I would always talk about writing. I said, ‘I guess I have 60 more years to get my first book out.’ She was like, ‘Don’t wait that long.’ Then a couple of years later she had a fall and she passed away. So that motivated me. At that moment, I said, I’m not going to wait anymore. I’m not going to put it off to ‘someday.’ I’m going to do it now.”

Longform to short. After finishing her YA novel in 2013, McBain spent six months editing it as she researched submitting it to agents. “In my query letter I had the couple of publication credits from years ago but I didn’t have anything recent to show,” she says. Agents “want to see recent experience, that you’re still relevant, I guess. So I started updating my resume, so to speak, with short stories and poems, because they’re so fun to write. They’re short. And you don’t have to spend a year or more.” Originally, her novel topped 100,000 words. The manuscript that is out there now “is shorter. I cut a lot. . . . I’ve had some agents request pages, chapters, the whole book. There still are a couple agents looking at it but at this point I don’t feel. . .I started submitting my novel at the end of 2013 and I’m still at it in 2015. I’m going to start my next one. You’ve got to be a rolling stone.” Translation: Don’t let any moss gather on your keyboard.

HER WRITING

Seeing a story. McBain’s productivity can make another writer envious. She says, “For stories, unlike poetry, I can pretty much sit down and write. It’s almost like reading a story. You have the story in your head and you just have to put it down. I feel like the strongest stories I’ve written are the ones where I can just see it happen. I’m a very visual type person. So I can see the characters.” While she begins a story knowing its full arc, she concedes that can preclude the fun of finding out what’s going to happen. But not always. “That’s the nerve-wracking part. It’ll go off in a direction you don’t think it’s going to.” One common element of good story, though, is “it’s about the internal journey, some growth in the character.”

If it isn’t obvious already, suffice it to say that McBain writes fast. “I think the most I did was 8,000 words in one night,” she says. “A couple of stories.” In fact, “Sometimes I’ll write something and submit it the same day. It usually gets rejected, but. . . .”

Meanwhile, her list of ideas is always growing: “I’ll picture some background and I’ll build a story around that. Or I’ll read an article and say, ‘There’s a story there somewhere.’ Eventually I’ll get the time and the mood to write it.”

Moving among genres works to her advantage. “I feel like it keeps my writing fresh,” McBain says. “I do write a lot, and sometimes subconsciously I’ll fall into these motifs where things will reappear. I’m trying not to do that, obviously. So in order to keep it fresh, you try to find something different.”

What makes a story “literary.” McBain believes “it’s where there’s something deeper going on besides the surface story. Mainstream is, you simply read the story and enjoy it. Literary is, something that shows something more about the human condition. You can have literary elements in genre fiction. That’s actually the way it’s going for a lot of science fiction and fantasy. They want deeper stories than just, I got shot with the ray gun.”

Strengths & weaknesses. “As a writer you are always trying to improve everything,” McBain says. “People in my writers group have mentioned that I do dialogue very well. And pacing. I guess the way I define pacing is when you are reading through the story there is no point where you have to stop and go back and re-read it. Your eye just naturally keeps on reading the story. You’re drawn in. There’s no point where something pulls you out. I feel a lot of writers struggle with that. I struggle with it, too. Sometimes I rush toward the ending because it’s like, ‘I know where this is going.’

“My weakness may be description.” As in, there’s not always enough. “There are two types of writers, ones who write too much and have to cut and ones who write too little and have to add. I’m the second type. I usually have to add more to my stories.” Her 100,000-word novel notwithstanding.

Cutting & saving. For McBain, the chore is “easy because I am doing short stories. You often feel like, ‘Oh this is such a great part.’ But it doesn’t really fit into the main narrative so I have to take it out. I never throw anything away. It’s all saved in a file. No, I have never rescued something that got cut from one piece and turned it into a successful story. But I’m optimistic. It’s not wasted time.”

Flash fiction & poetry. While there is no definitive word count for the former, the maximum is no more than 1,000 words. “I’m sort of in love with flash fiction,” McBain says, “because I feel like it’s so much harder to write a complete story in such a short space. It’s like poetry. You edit so much out that you’re just giving a glimpse into a story and allowing the reader to draw the rest of the story for themselves. I think that’s a lot of fun.” Such is not always the case with poetry for even as facile a writer as McBain: “Sometimes it’s hard. I have to be in the mindset to write poetry. Because it’s almost like another language.”

An inspiration. “In short stories, I think the only person who does the same breadth of writing [that I aspire to] is Margaret Atwood,” McBain says. “I’ve always read her. She does literary. She also does poetry. She is active, she judges contests, she’s doing tons of stuff. She’s Canadian, too. I’ve always really admired her.”

Forget fan fiction. While megasellers-turned-blockbuster movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey have been birthed online, the temptation to write material derived from someone else’s original characters and settings holds no appeal for McBain: “I know people are doing it but I feel there are enough stories out there. I don’t need to borrow.”

HER WRITERS GROUP

First reader. “Always my husband,” McBain says. “Often he puts his finger on exactly what’s wrong with a story, which is great. He helps pinpoint any problems, and I’ll rewrite another draft.” Interestingly, he’s not an editor or writer “He’s a chef. One day he said, ‘Why don’t you write about chefs?’ So I did.” The result: “On the Fly,” published at Flash Fiction Online.

Online options. McBain has found an online writers group home at Scribophile. “I tried out three other online writers groups before,” she said. “Some of them were great, but they just weren’t for me. Critters Workshop is great. The writers are really professional, really great writers, good critiquers. But it was too slow for what I was looking to do. You had to put your writing in a queue, so you might not get a critique for a month. I write a lot, so that didn’t work for me. WritersCafe.org I didn’t stay at for very long. It didn’t seem to have a lot of professional writers. They weren’t aiming to get published. They were just writing for fun, which is great, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Then Critical Writing Group, the Yahoo group, had a great moderator, but they weren’t very active; they were very active like maybe five years ago.”

At Scribophile, she joined a worldwide group of thousands of writers before finding a sub-group focusing on specific themes that has about 290 members. It is under the direction of Alexis A. Hunter, who is a slush reader [aka. Assistant Editor, First Reads] at Plasma Frequency magazine [a Magazine of Speculative Fiction] and has had more than 50 stories published at various sites. McBain says that between 30 and 50 of the sub-group’s writers “are actively writing and submitting their work every week. They submit to a lot of places. Not everyone critiques everything. You have your people who you exchange critiques with.” In a forum area, she also exchanges information about “other things like acceptances, submissions and target markets. If there are special calls [for material for a specific magazine or anthology], we’ll start a thread so people will know. I’d say about a quarter to a third of the submission deadlines or calls I find out about are through my writers group. And people can post their rejections and have a good sigh.”

The help she gets. “The group basically does a critique [on the copy] going line by line. They’ll go, ‘This section is awkward’ or ‘This needs better pacing.’ So when I print it out I can see for myself what I did wrong and then rewrite it.’ ” If that sounds similar to Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature, McBain concedes that in many ways it is, indeed, “just like that.”

But the comments also address big-picture issues: “The stories I usually run by my critique group are the ones that I’m not happy with in some way. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s something missing. Usually they’re really great at saying things like, ‘This character doesn’t go on a long enough journey.’ Or, ‘The ending comes too fast.’ ”

Color-coded critiquing. McBain called up a story of hers on Scribophile that a critique colleague had annotated by highlighting different passages in colors. Green signified comments he’d made, yellow flagged repetitions and other loose places, and red indicated writing he would cut. “It’s a great system,” she said. “It’s all online. Some people, every time they get a critique, they edit their piece [right there on Scribophile]. I don’t. I let people go nuts, and then at the end [I revise]. You also do feedback on the critiques, so people can get better at it, too. I think that’s the main point of critique groups, to learn how to self-edit. I used to run every single one of my pieces through critiquing. But now I can self-edit enough after being on here almost two years. I’ve never learned so much as I have being on here, because you’re seeing all types of writing.”

Giving and receiving. To make sure each writer gets equitable time in the online critique group, McBain says, “Scribophile uses a system called karma points, [which you earn] every time you do a critique of another writer’s work.” You spend your karma points to keep your own work active for others’ critiques.  After a certain period of time or a certain number of critiques, your piece is moved out of the critique spotlight and you must spend more points to reactivate it. “The system. . .keeps writers constantly critiquing others’ work in order to receive critiques of their own,” McBain says.

“Scribophile really is one of the most efficient and organized writers group sites I’ve run across on-line. I’d definitely recommend it for any writers who, like me, don’t necessarily have the ability to get to an in-person writing group on a regular basis.”—Alex McNab

Next: Researching and executing online submissions.

A rejection story

An old country song lyric came to mind the other day when I read the email from the editor-in-chief of a planned tribute anthology to which I had submitted a short story.

The message read, in part, “After reviewing all of the submissions, I regret to inform you that we have decided to cancel the anthology due to a lack of quality. I could publish a book with three or four great stories and fill the rest with mediocre stories, but I feel it is best to just cancel the project. . . .Thank you for submitting. Yours was definitely one I would have accepted.”

Here’s where that leaves me, I think. I finally have written a work of fiction that is acceptable for publication. But the publication is still-born.

As the song says, I don’t know whether to kill myself or go bowling.

In fact, I’m becoming something of a black widow for the publications to which I’m sending material. The previous week, the editors of a different publication emailed me about a different story I had sent it. There was no indication of acceptance, but the message said, in part, that “we are marking all current submissions as ‘withdrawn’ ” because the journal “will be on hiatus till next year due to unforeseen circumstances. . . .”

Of course, every writer has his or her rejection stories. Here’s one:

“I wrote stories from March to June. There were nineteen altogether; the quickest in an hour and a half, the slowest in three days. No one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room.”

The rejectee is F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing in an essay titled “Who’s Who—and Why” that ran in the September 18, 1920 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. He is referring to the first time he lived in New York—in a rented room at 200 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University, in 1919. When he failed to make a dent in the Big Apple’s literary landscape, he retreated to the top floor of his parents’ house, at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he wrote his hugely successful first novel, This Side of Paradise.GatsbyBook-1

I know all this, and was led to the full citation of Fitzgerald’s quote above, because I just finished reading Maureen Corrigan’s terrific new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. Corrigan, a literature professor at Georgetown University and the familiar-voiced book reviewer on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” quotes only the final 14 words of the last sentence. But she sets it up beautifully:

“Generations of fledgling writers have taken heart from Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted recollection. . . .”

So should we all. The best way to get over having our writing rejected is to submit again, and again, and again.

We should not feel sorry for ourselves. Direct your sorrow toward those unfortunate publishers and editors who have had to pull the plug on their publications.
—Alex McNab

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:55 am  Comments (2)  
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