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 Afraid to Follow Up on Submissions

I’m seeing a lot of questions online these days from writers who are worried about their submissions. Either they have gotten no response at all, or their piece was accepted, but now nothing seems to be happening. Would it be okay to send them an email? Would they seem too pushy?Will they annoy the editor? Will giving the editor a nudge endanger their submission?

My friends, editors are just people doing a job. If you sent a jacket to the cleaners and it was taking forever to get cleaned, you’d have every right to know what happened to your jacket. But we put editors on a pedestal and are so afraid that if we say the wrong word, they’ll reject us. Having worked on both sides of the editor’s desk, I can tell you that’s crazy. They’re only judging the writing. Either they like it and plan to use it, or they don’t. Once you present your prose or poetry to them, nothing you say or do will change that.

That said, editors fall behind, overwhelmed with submissions. Things do get lost. Or sometimes they’re holding a piece in the hope of finding a place for it in a future issue. But we writers at home have no idea what’s going on unless we ask. Most publications list a response time in their guidelines. It’s usually two or three months. If that time has passed, then you have every right to shoot them an email asking for a status update. They won’t hate you for it. They might be glad for the reminder. Sometimes it gets things moving. One of my queries got lost. After I asked about it, the editor asked me to send it again, and she published the resulting article.

One caution: Some editors (and agents) now state in their guidelines that they will only contact you if the answer is yes. I think that’s rude, but so be it. If their response time has passed, assume it’s a no and move on.

If they have already accepted it, it’s only good business to keep in contact about what’s happening. If there’s a delay, you are entitled to know. If you have a contract, does it state when the piece will be published or give an expiration date, after which you can send it elsewhere? Your writing is your inventory, and if an editor is going to sit on it forever, neither publishing nor paying you, you might want to sell it somewhere else.

Many publications these days use the Submittable program. When you send something in through Submittable, you get a username and password, which allows you to log in and check the status of your submission. It doesn’t give you details, but it will tell you whether the piece is declined, accepted or in progress. Check there first.

Otherwise, write what I call a “que pasa” note. Be upbeat and polite. No accusations or anger. Say something like, “I sent X to you on (date), and I haven’t heard anything. I’m anxious to know what’s happening with it. Can you give me an update? Thank you.”

Sometimes they never got it. Sometimes it got lost in the avalanche of submissions. Sometimes they were just about to contact you because they love it and it’s going into the next issue.

Don’t be afraid to ask. Even if the answer is no, at least then you know and can move on.

You can’t submit what you don’t write, so  . . .

Let’s go write.