Are you sure your writing is really done?

You know how sometimes fried chicken is all brown and crispy on the outside, but then when you cut it open, it’s pink and bloody inside? That’s how I’m feeling about some of the work I have been reading in my role as one of the editors of the Timberline Review, for which submissions closed yesterday.

It happens mostly in poems, but also in prose. I start reading and think, wow, this is going to be great. What a fresh topic, what wonderful imagery. The rhythm, the emotion, the substance. And then . . . rats. The piece fizzles out. Suddenly I’m at the end, and the writer didn’t carry through with the promise he or she made at the beginning. The piece ends in a stream of vague generalities or clichés, goes on too long, or stops suddenly, leaving me wanting more. We grade the poems on a 1 to 4 scale, 1 being yes and 4 being forget about it. In my weariness last night, I gave one poem a 5. I hate, hate, hate starting out reading a 1 poem and having to give it a 4 because the writer didn’t finish it.

I worked in the newspaper business for a long time. We were lucky if we had time for two drafts, but if you’re writing on your own, you do have time for two or 20 or however many drafts it takes to make sure your work is the best it can be. Right now, take out a piece of paper and write down these words. Write them big. WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY? Hang it up where you can see it and ask yourself that with everything you write.

Write your first drafts as loose and wild as you want. Don’t worry about things hanging together or even making sense. But when you revise and before you ever send your work out for publication, ask yourself that question. What am I trying to say? Write down what you’re trying to say in one sentence. And follow it up with: Does this piece of writing say it? Does it say it all the way from the first line to the last? Can I tie the opening and closing together? Are there sections that just don’t support that main idea? Did I run out of steam halfway through or quit too soon? Finish your thought. Then stop. The most common editing suggestion we’ve been making to our poets is to cut the final stanza. So take another look. Is your work really ready?

Two other editor quibbles I have to share today:

1) If the guidelines say not to put your name on the submission, don’t put your name on it. Don’t put it in the file name or in your headers or footers, don’t put it anywhere except in your cover letter or the online form you use to submit. When editors say blind submissions, that’s what we want.

2) Learn the difference between lay and lie and how to conjugate them:

I lie down now, I lay down last night, I had lain down last Tuesday, I am lying down now.

I lay down the book now, I laid it down last night, I had laid it down last Tuesday, I am laying it down now.

See the nifty chart and examples at The Grammarist.

Now let’s go write.

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Don’t Be Dejected Over Rejections—It’s Not You, It’s Us

Rejections happen. The more writing you send out, the more rejections you get. I got one while I was working on this post. The wording usually follows a pattern: Thank you for letting us see your work. Unfortunately we will not be able to use it. We received hundreds of wonderful submissions and wish we had room for all of them. Sorry for this impersonal response. We wish you the best of luck.

For some reason, this makes me think of those dating breakups where the man or woman says they have to end the relationship, but “It’s not you. It’s me.” Right? You’re never sure whether it really is their problem or they’re trying to let you down easy. Either way, it’s over.

As one of the poetry editors of a new literary magazine called Timberline Review, I have been involved this month in the process of accepting and rejecting poems. It’s a discouraging process. We have only so much space, and we have two poetry editors and two managing editors who need to agree on the final selection. That means that some poems I love are not getting in and others that I was less thrilled about are getting acceptance notices today. It also means that while poets are allowed to send up to five poems—and most send five—we are probably only going to use one or two, even if the others are fantastic. We’re only using one from Oregon’s poet laureate, for Pete’s sake.

In addition, we are trying to create a good mix of styles and subjects, so if we have too many similar works, some will not get in. Ditto if it just does not fit. The process is flexible. When we thought we had our final list, a couple of us had second thoughts about some poems we wanted in and kicked out a couple of others that had been in the definite-yes group.

I’m sure the same process is happening with the prose submissions.

All this explains why a) sometimes it takes a long time to get an answer and b) good work gets rejected.

Discouraged? I don’t blame you. This whole experience has affected how I think about my own submissions. But what I’m saying is that rejection does not mean your work is bad. It could be great and still not make it. When you go shopping, don’t you pass up a lot of products because you just can’t use them right now? It’s the same with selling your writing. Most of the time, it’s not you. It’s us. Brush it off and send it out again. Rejections happen, but so do acceptances. Don’t give up. Next time they might say yes.

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about how authors don’t make any money off used books. In the latest edition of Writing-world.com, Moira Allen offers another view of the subject. We authors might not get royalties, she says, but there is great value in having our books being shared and sold second-hand because it lets new readers find our work and become fans who will pay full price for the rest of our books. Click here to read her piece, “Books: Read and Delete, or Read and Share?”

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Now let’s go write.


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.


The view from the editor’s side of Submittable

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Submittable, the service many literary magazines are using to accept submissions. At that point, I only knew the view from the writer’s side. You fill in the blanks, click on “submit” and wait. Eventually you get an email saying yea or nay.

I recently joined the staff of a new literary magazine that will publish its first issue this summer. As one of the poetry editors, I now have access to the editors’ side of Submittable. Each day, I get a list of submissions that need to be read, click into my Submittable account and call them up on the screen. On the left side are the poems, usually submitted in batches of five, all in one file. On the right is a list of staffers with access to this submission and any comments that have already been made, along with how the others voted. At the top of the screen are three boxes. One shows a thumbs up, one a question mark, and one a thumbs down. Yes, maybe, no. With one click, you are rejected.

I have so many poems to read that I read them quickly, and if I don’t like the beginning I don’t read the rest. Our policy, so far, is not to rewrite anyone’s poems, so if they don’t work, they don’t work. What I’m finding so far is that many start out well but wander off toward the end. I want to lop off the last few lines, to scream, “Stop! You’ve said it. Don’t say anymore.” Some are clichéd or try too hard to be “poetic.” Some just don’t make any sense at all. Others are very good and I’m delighted to click thumbs up. To be honest, I’m clicking more “maybe’s” than anything because there’s only so much space and I don’t know what else will come in before the March 31 deadline.

Some lessons I’d like to share from the editor’s side:

  • Proofread!
  • Take time to make your poem as good as it can be and make sure every line supports every other line.
  • Less is more.
  • Kill your clichés.
  • When the guidelines call for “blind” submissions, don’t put your name on the manuscript.
  • Give your submission a file name that sets it apart, such as the title of the first poem. Not “five poems” or your name.

Just as Submittable keeps a running list of your submissions and their status–declined, accepted or in progress–it keeps a running list for me of the submissions I’m assigned to read with thumbs up, thumbs down, or a question mark in the margin and blank spaces next to the ones I haven’t read yet.

It’s daunting having this kind of power over other poets. It also makes me reconsider all of my own poems, wondering whether they would get thumbs up, thumbs down or maybe.

The publication is the Timberline Review. We’re accepting poetry (no line limit), fiction and creative nonfiction (max 5,000 words) until March 31. Visit the website for details.

Now let’s go write.