Dos and Don’ts from the Poetry Editor

I have been reading poems as one of two poetry editors for the fledgling litmag Timberline Review. Over the last few weeks, I have read and reread at least a couple hundred poems, voting yes, no or maybe on the Submittable form that we use. Some of these decisions are easy. The poems are awful. Click on the thumbs-down marker. Others are brilliant. Click thumbs up, yes, yes, yes. Most fall somewhere in the middle. Click the question mark for “maybe.” They have what my friend Dorothy calls “lines to die for,” but there’s something not quite right. Maybe we can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. Maybe they’re mixing their metaphors. Maybe the last line falls flat.

The poetry editors and managing editors have been meeting to hash out which poems to use. It’s a grueling process. I want to share with you what I’m learning about how it works from the inside and what I’m learning about my own poetry. For example, today I realized a poem I thought was brilliant last week would never be accepted. So, here are a few lessons, most of which apply to any kind of writing you submit:

* If it says “blind submissions,” don’t put your name on the page with your poem or on the file name. We’re ignoring these mistakes this time, but most editors won’t.

* Write your poems in the heat of inspiration, but at some point, go back and figure out what you’re trying to say and make sure the poem says it.

* Weird is only okay if it works.

* Pick one great metaphor or simile and stick with it.

* Learn the difference between “its” and “it’s”.

* Spend extra time with your last lines. The thing we want to change most often is the last lines. Usually we want to take them out because they’re unnecessary. The poet has lingered too long.

* Consider whether your poem would rather be prose, whether the line breaks don’t really make it “poetic.” I think that’s the main problem with my poem from last week.

* Don’t preach in your poem unless you’re submitting to a religious publication.

* Give your submission a file name that says something more than “five poems for x review” so we can find them in the submissions queue. Try the title of one of your poems.

* Expect to wait a while for an answer about your submission. We each read these poems, have a meeting to talk about them, weigh the ones we like against the other ones we like, consider how they will fit together and how much space we have, meet again, and then we notify the writers yay or nay. Only the definite no’s get an early answer, so give us time to love your poems and figure out where to put them.

* Our deadline for submissions was March 31. About half our writers waited until the last minute. Send your stuff early if you can. The editors will be less rummy and will read with clearer minds.

There will be more lessons to share, I’m sure. Our magazine is Timberline Review. Visit the website for details. Our plan is to debut the first issue at the Willamette Writers conference in Portland, Oregon the first weekend of August. It is going to be full of great writing. You can reserve a copy now at the website.

Comments? Questions? I’m here.

Now go write.

Don’t leave your reader clueless and confused

So I’m reading a book or an essay or a story or a poem and I get to the end of the first page and I still don’t know what’s going on. Who are these people? Where are we? Is the narrator male or female? Is it modern times? Are we on earth? At that point, if I’m not required to keep reading for work purposes, I’m going to quit. If I’m wearing my editor hat, I’m going to mark it with a big fat “no.”

I’m all for catchy openings and a reasonable amount of suspense, but as writers we have a duty to orient the readers. Get as weird as you want in the opening line. Do whatever you have to do to draw readers in, but then, very soon, like by the third paragraph, you’ve got to tell us who, what, where, when and why. You don’t have to tell everything, but do tell enough so the reader won’t give up, saying, “I can’t figure out what’s going on.” It’s a mistake I’m seeing all the time, and I just want to say, “Stop it.” Give me some facts to hold on to. Maybe you know what it’s all about, but we the readers don’t unless you tell us.

You know how in some movies they flash words on a screen, such as “Bombay, 1915” or “Five years later”? You can do that too. It doesn’t take a lot of words, just a few key sentences to clue us in. Set the scene so we can be there with you as we transition from the catchy opening into the meat of the story.

In journalism, the paragraph orienting the reader is called a nut graf (“graf” being newspeak for paragraph). It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the “kernel,” or essential theme, of the story. Read this great article about the nut graf by Chip Scanlon. Jack Hart writes in his book A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, that “the nut graf answers questions such as ‘What’s it mean?’ ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ It tells readers why they should bother investing their time and effort in reading the story.”

Take another look at the beginnings of your pieces. Does the lead grab one’s attention? Great. Does what follows tell us what’s going on? If not, fix it.

End of sermon. Now let’s go write.

Once upon a time—Yeah, but can you Google it?

Once upon a time—

No, wait, you can’t start with that. It’s too vague. What about the five W’s, who, what, where, when, and why? What is the URL? Can I look it up on Google? Has it got a Facebook page? What do you mean it’s just a story and that’s the point? Show me where I can find it on my phone.

Those five-year-olds are getting much too sophisticated.

Okay, I’m making this up. I don’t have a five-year-old in my life. The only person I tell stories to is my dog, and she’s fine with whatever I say as long I keep petting her belly.

My mother used to make up stories. I can’t remember a single one now, but they were good. They were tailored to the audience, so they probably all featured a little girl like me. They weren’t too long because Mom was tired and I needed to go to sleep. They had action and suspense and a happy ending. If I looked restless, she added a new plot twist. There was no editing or revising, no marketing, no platform-building, and no, you couldn’t look them up on Google or Facebook.

I think sometimes we writers have lost the freedom of just telling a story. We worry so much about making it perfect that we get tongue-tied. We worry about what it’s going to be, where it’s going to go, and how people will receive it. If we could just forget all that and tell stories because it’s fun or because we need to get this story out of our heads, we could all write more and probably write better.

Many writers hate the sound of their own voices and worry about getting stuck, so they are reluctant to just tell stories to other people or, God forbid,” record them. But I think we need to get over that. Try telling a story, something you make up or something that really happened. Tell it to yourself in the mirror. Tell it to the dog. Tell it to your children or grandchildren. Tell it to your voice recorder. Just let it flow. Follow the rivulets of thought wherever they go. You never have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to.

If it’s good, tell it again. You’ll remember the important parts. Maybe write it down. Eventually, if the story is worthwhile, it will get edited, revised, marketed and hooked up on social media. But meanwhile, the story has value just for itself, just for the fun of telling a story.

Try it. See if it works for you. Start with “once upon a time.”

Here’s a link to a TED talk on storytelling. Check it out when you have time.

Now go write.

Can Your Writing Make Your Rich? How Do You Pay the Rent Until It Does?

Let’s be honest. We writers all cherish the dream, fueled by movies, TV shows and books, that all we need to do is publish a book and we’ll be rich. We can pay off our debts, buy whatever we always wanted, and never have to worry about money again.

Well, it does happen. Ask Stephen King or E.L. James, the Fifty Shades of Grey lady. Ask Oregon writer Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild, now a movie with Academy Award nominations. But none of them hit the big-time overnight. They had to work to pay the rent, and they’re still working hard to keep the magic going. Most writers, even those with many publications, don’t make a fortune; they just hope to make more than they spend.

Writing is a little like gold mining. A few strike it rich, but they have to dig for a long time before they find the gold. Most of us aren’t that lucky. We need another source of income. That’s why so many writers are teachers. That’s one of the reasons I keep my job as a church musician. We can cite many famous writers who had full-time jobs doing something else.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion online about the advantages of having a working spouse to support your writing. It is a huge advantage. Shortly after my husband proposed, I threw my arms around him and said, “Now I can freelance!” He kind of said, “Well, uh, wait a minute here, you still need to work.” But eventually I did quit my newspaper job and become a full-time writer. In later years, I dabbled in teaching and told my students I was lucky to have a “sugar daddy” to pay the bills. Since he died, I have continued to be lucky to receive part of his pension and social security. It’s not enough to live on, but it allows me to spend my mornings writing.

It would also be helpful to have a trust fund, come from a wealthy family, or find someone who wants to sponsor you and let you write whatever you want. (If you have that, what are you doing here? Go write.)

It’s hard to find time and energy to write when you have a job and maybe a family, too. But it’s not all bad. I find I get more writing done when my time is limited. It forces me to get to work. Jobs give you contacts in the outside world, experiences to write about, steady pay, and benefits. The ideal job will not use up your writing energy. I often think house painting would be a good gig for a creative writer. While you’re putting the paint on the walls, your mind could be working on stories.

New writers often think they’ll be able to quit their jobs in a month or two. I hate to tell them it’s not likely. But it is possible. And just like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play. So write that bestseller. But meanwhile, don’t quit your day job. And if you have a rich uncle or the chance to marry someone who can support your writing, consider yourself blessed.

Following are links to some articles on the subject that you might find interesting.

“The Struggle Is Real; Or, False Author Narratives”

“Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from

 “A Word From My Sponsor”

Now go write.

Are you blogging away your best material?

Are you blogging away your best material? It’s a question raised by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann in Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir, a book I highly recommend. If you put all your best stories (and photos) on your blog—or on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr or any other social media–what do you have left for your book? Likewise, if you spend all your time writing online posts, when will you get around to writing your book?

Life was a lot less complicated when we writers didn’t have all these instant outlets for our words, when we had to type a perfect manuscript, mail it to editors, and wait. As a longtime journalist used to writing articles every day, I am very comfortable with pouring out a quick blog post, peeling the Post-It note off my calendar and going on to something else. Took care of that story. But did I? Or did I do the Cliff Notes version, as Freymann and Peterson suggest, when I could have saved my story for an essay that might have been well-published and moved my career forward? Did I go shallow when I could have gone deep? I love blogging. I love being able to express myself and communicate with my readers, but when I look back on last year’s income and publications, could I have spent my time more productively? Did I give away my best material?

Another thing to consider is that once you publish something online, you have used up your first publication rights. Most editors prefer material that has never been published before, which means if it has been on your blog, they don’t want it.

Freymann and Peterson advise, “If you’re already blogging your life story, don’t give yourself away. Think of blogging as singing scales in preparation for the real concert to come.” As a musician, I like that. When I sing, I rarely start right into a song. I warm up my voice with scales and exercises. Otherwise, my high notes are flat, and about three songs in, I start getting hoarse. Warming up is critical. But if that’s all I do, when do I actually sing?

Sometimes I’m better off warming up by writing a couple pages in my journal. Occasionally, my words become poems or rough drafts for other writing, but most days they just let me clear my head in preparation for the day’s writing. Then I get to work. Blogging is good. Blogging is fun. Blogging keeps you connected with your readers. But there are millions of blogs, and very few of them attract large numbers of readers. The right blog post might be seen by a publishing power who can make your career, but probably we’d be better off just going ahead and writing that poem, story or book and submitting it.

What do you think about all this? I’d love to know.

Blog done. Moving on. 🙂

 Now let’s go write.

Early Christmas present: Good reading for writers

It’s the holidays, time for giving, so this week I’m offering some links to articles and books full of helpful information. Next week, get ready for a Christmas stocking full of prompts, ideas to get you writing.

1) “How to Sell Loads of Books” by Russell Blake

This one is aimed at people publishing their own books, but it includes great career advice for all of us. Highlights include: finding time to write, investing in writing as a business and being successful while staying true to yourself. Among Blake’s recommendations: don’t genre-hop. Pick one and stay with it. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

2) Compass Points – Photography for Writers: Using Photos to Sell More of Your Words by Simon Whaley.

I looked to this slim volume to answer some questions I had about digital photography, and it answered them. I’m going to have to reread the bit about pixels, etc., a few more times, but it’s there to be read. Just remember 300, the magic number for print-publishable pix. Now I know more about digital cameras and how they work. A couple things seem dated. Who sends their work out on “CD-ROMs” anymore? I also wish this book said more about online publications. The book is very, very British, both in language and content. Chapters cover cameras, photo techniques, the legalities of commercial photography, photo software, and marketing. It’s a little basic for me but perfect for someone just starting out.

3) “You can try to be the next Hemingway—for $6,000” by Suzanne McGee, the Guardian, Aug. 28, 2014.

How much does it really cost to self-publish a book and do a good job of it? This article lays it out step by step, including how much it costs. Read the comments, too, and see if you agree.

4) Nina Amir, guru for the November nonfiction marathon, NaNonFiWrimo, has an extensive list of books for nonfiction writers on her website. You might want to peruse them—and request a few for Christmas. She has also written a couple of books for writers herself, including The Write Nonfiction NOW! Guide to Writing a Book in 30 Days, Authorpreneur: How to Build a Business around Your Book, and The Nonfiction Book Proposal Demystified: An Easy-Schmeasy Guide to Writing a Business Plan for Your Book.

I’m sure there are more. Feel free to share. And also, if you have prompt suggestions, include them in the comments.

Now let’s go write.

Pre-Research: Finding Facts to Back Up Your Brilliant Idea

You get an idea, whether for an article, story, poem or play and think, wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever thought of. I can’t wait to start writing. You grab your paper, your laptop or iPad and start spewing out words. Oh yeah, this is good. Your dinner gets cold, your dog is whining at the door, and your phone is ringing, but none of it matters because you are inspired. Isn’t this one of the greatest parts of being a writer?

My house is loaded with pieces of paper on which I wrote these brainstorms. But most of them haven’t gone anywhere because once the heat of inspiration cooled, I lost interest, or more likely, I realized I’d have to do a lot of research to make them fly.

Those of you who do only “creative” writing might be tempted to tune out here, but don’t. You need information, too. I’m still troubled by the poem which required me to search hard to find out whether that earth-moving tree-smashing thing I wrote about was a bulldozer, backhoe, tractor or what. In my not-yet-published novel, I did extensive research on earthquakes and tsunamis so I could make my fictional disaster as realistic as possible. I couldn’t just make it up.

When you’re pitching a nonfiction book or article, you need information for your query. That’s something I didn’t used to do. I would propose to find out all kinds of things if I got the assignment, but I didn’t realize no editor would go for the story unless I already had some information to share. For example, if I wanted to write a travel article about things to do in Newport, Oregon, I needed to know what they were and name them in my query. Because I live here, I already know, but what if I was writing about how to buy a timeshare in Newport. I don’t know anything about that except that lots of people do it? I cannot offer the editor a bunch of guesses and questions. I need facts.

Back in the olden days, I’d start with the phone book and make a list of people to interview. Now I’d probably do a Google search. When I search for “Timeshares Newport, OR,” most of what comes up is companies trying to sell timeshares. You can read what they have to offer, but know that they’re biased. They are not going to talk about problems, scams or hidden costs. Where do you get an unbiased view? Time to brainstorm again.

You can talk to somebody who owns one. Search for organizations or associations that focus on your topic. There are a lot of them for both users and sellers of timeshares. “Articles about timeshares” will bring you a list of articles that have already been written on the subject. Also look for books about timeshares. Amazon offers Timeshare Vacations For Dummies, among others. Don’t overlook the library, where they have actual books you can read for free. Many libraries even rent e-books now.

There’s more to the Internet than Google, of course. Click here for a list of search engines you might want to try. You’ll notice the list does not include Wikipedia, which can be a great source or a terrible one. The information is provided by readers who may or may not know what they’re talking about. Whatever you read, make sure it’s not just advertising or content spewed out by writers who haven’t done much research themselves.

I could write about research all day, but this post is getting too long. The important thing is to get your facts from a source that is as close to the beginning of the information chain as you can get. You can toss out a question on Facebook–I have–and read everything you can find online, but the best source is still a live human being. Your online search may give you enough information to take your original burst of inspiration to the next step, getting an assignment. Even if your research leads you to decide you don’t want to write this piece, look at the bright side. Now you know a lot about timeshares. Maybe someday, you’ll write a novel that takes place in one.

Happy hunting. Now go write.