Lost submissions? Ask until you get an answer

Remember how we were talking a while back about following up on our submissions, how we should not be afraid to ask what’s going on with our stories or poems when we haven’t heard anything for a while? Well, sometimes you have to follow up on the followups.

I don’t want to scare you, but once in a while good news turns into less good news or silence. You told all your friends about your big acceptance and then . . . nothing.

Earlier this week, I wrote three followup emails on writing that had been accepted. One was for a piece that a big-publication editor asked me to write, which I did, in January. Nothing has happened. I had someone else who was interested, but I said no, I was waiting for the big-pub editor. I contacted her three times, was told each time that she was running behind but would get back to me soon. Nothing. My next email went unanswered. I tried again this week. Still nothing. Big-time publication and payment still in limbo.

One of my poems was accepted in March. No pay but a great outlet. I have heard nothing. Checked the website a couple times to see if the poem had been published without telling me. Nope. This week, I went to their website again and saw a notice that publication was suspended until March 2016. The staff is reorganizing and trying to catch up. But what about my poem? Message on the website: If you submitted something that has not been published and we haven’t contacted you, please email us. Which I did. No word yet.

A couple weeks ago, I received notice that I had won a prize for an essay, one of the most important essays I ever wrote. It will be published in an upcoming anthology. Fantastic. I sent them an email with my bio and picture and asked about rights, proofs, publicity, timing, etc. Nothing. I wrote again this week. The editor responded quickly, saying the information was in the contest guidelines and maybe her response to my previous email got caught in the spam filter. Nope. I check my spam regularly. Now I wish I had read those guidelines more closely. They’re taking only one-time rights, which is good, but there will be no proofs or editing; they assume the piece was ready to publish when I sent it in. They’ll sent me a press release to distribute when the book comes out. Okay. Not all the answers I wanted, but now I know more than I did before.

Lest you have decided by now to quit this crazy business, let me assure you that more often things work out well. Editors keep in touch, share information, send you proofs, and make sure you get paid. But sometimes you’ve got to be persistent. Don’t call or email them every day, but do keep in touch and let them know you refuse to be jerked around.

So follow up, and follow up again. If you never get an answer, take your business elsewhere. Their loss.

If you have been accepted by a publication, or if there’s one you really want to be in, check their website regularly, follow their blogs, and sign up for their email lists. Yes, you will get more emails than you like, but you will also know what’s going on with them. Then when you write your queries or cover letters, you can say, “I really liked that piece on X that you ran last month” or “That story you told about such and such inspired this” or “I heard you were looking for ____.” Showing that you know what they’re up to will help, I promise. And if they go silent on you, you might be able to find the answers for yourself.

Now let’s go write.

The way to great writing? Slow down

Last weekend, I attended the Northwest Poet’s Concord right here in beautiful Newport, Oregon, and I learned a few things. Don’t tune out if you’re not a poet because the most important lesson I learned applies to all kinds of writing—as well as to other things in life.

The workshops covered many different aspects of poetry, from line breaks to language to setting poems to music, but for me it all boiled down to one thing: slow down and pay attention. Don’t just whip it out and call it done.

Our keynote speaker David Biespiel, poet and poetry columnist for the Oregonian newspaper, showed how us how to read poetry in a way I had never tried. Don’t just dive in, he said. Prepare.He compared us to Olympic divers, who spend more time preparing than actually diving. When preparing to read a poem, look at the title and think about what it suggests the poem is about. Think about the poet. What do you know about him or her and the era in which they wrote this? Read the first line and stop. Consider that line as an entity on its own. Now go down to the bottom and read the last line. How does that relate to the title and the first line? Then look at the ends of the lines. What kinds of words do you see? Are they concrete, philosophical, erudite, slang? Do they rhyme? Finally, read the poem, slowly. Then read it again.

Now, try this with your own poems as if you have never seen them before, as if you were a reader approaching them for the first time. Look at the title, look at the first line, look at the last line, etc.

Another session focused on revision, particularly the use of line breaks and sentences. The instructor urged us to consider every choice we make. Why are we breaking the line here? Why are we putting a comma there? Can we justify every adverb or adjective or are they just lazy ways of saying something that could be said with one powerful word if we took the time to find it?

Finally, choose the strongest line in your poem and work to make every line meet the same standard. Stop and think about this. Find the strongest line and work to make every line meet the same standard.

For prose writers, instead of lines, we can think of paragraphs. Maybe you have a brilliant first paragraph, but some of the others are just . . . there. Can you make them better? Can you leave them out? What about characters? Are a few so clearly drawn you can see and hear them while others are clichéd or vague? Stop and make each one as strong as the best.

As a former newspaper reporter, I write in a hurry. What if I took more time? What if I sat with that poem, story, essay, or novel as if it were the only one I would ever write?

This, I think, is the key to greatness. Try it. Take one piece of writing and see what you can do. Maybe a few changes will make it stronger. Remember, if you don’t like the changes, you can always delete and start over, and Word has a wonderful feature called “undo.” Control Z.

I’m heading out to the backyard now with one of the poems I read at the Concord. I thought it was fine before, but now, I think I can make it better.

Northwest poets converge

I never heard so much poetry in one gulp as I heard last weekend at the third annual Northwest Poets’ Concord in beautiful Newport, Oregon. Approximately one hundred poets gathered to read their poems, write new ones, share techniques and sell books. I came home with drafts of several promising poems, some new books and some new ideas about this business of being a poet.

We all know, or should know, that you can’t make a living writing poetry. Only a few literary magazines and journals pay actual money for poems. Most pay in copies of the publication. You can make some money winning contests, but most charge entry fees, so if you don’t win, you’re actually losing money.

If we can’t make money writing poetry,  why write it? Because it communicates in ways that nothing else can.  It crystalizes experiences, ideas and events into word jewels that can be savored in one sitting and collected in book form like strings of precious beads. The average American probably doesn’t read much poetry, but it’s out there to be enjoyed.

There’s no reason you can’t write poetry while writing other things for money.

A world of resources exists for poets. Let me just give you a few today.

Poets and Writers magazine and website, http://www.pw.org. Poets and Writers offers tons of listings for contests and places to get published, along with lots of great information and an online forum to keep in touch with other writers.

The Poetic Asides blog, http://www.blog.writersdigest.com/poeticasides. Robert Lee Brewer, editor of Writer’s Market and its sister Poet’s Market, blogs here about poetry, offering interviews and information, weekly prompts and bi-annual poem-a-day contests.

Poetry.org, resources for poets, http://www.poetry.org

Poems.com, a new poem to read every day, http://www.poems.com

Happy poeming!