So say you’re one of the amazing writers I’ve run across out there in blogland. You’re insightful, you’re witty, you’re good with language and imagery. Every once in a while, you write a really kickin’ post and think to yourself (secretly, because it’s too scary to say it out loud to anyone) “I think I might be a writer.” And even more secretly you think to yourself, “I wonder if I could ever get published?”
I had those very thoughts myself, just a few years ago. I kinda sorta thought I could possibly write one or two things (perhaps) that somebody besides my husband might read. Maybe. If they wanted to. So I took some classes. Learned some stuff. Wrote some things. Sent them to some magazines. Got rejected. Revised them. Sent a few more things out. Won a contest! Holy crap! Sent a few more things out. Got rejected. Then a few more. Got accepted! And so on. Then, before I knew it, lo and behold, I was a writer. Huh! Whoda thunk it!?!?
So I decided to write this post about getting published for two reasons. One is because I’m impressed with the talent displayed on so many of your blogs. I know some folks are content with blogging and don’t want to do anything else–and blogging is a perfectly legitimate genre in its own right–but there are others who would like to branch out and try fiction or creative nonfiction and see if they could (maybe, perhaps) get published in an actual magazine someday. Or even write a book. I want to encourage those of you who fall into this category because–trust me!!!–if you have some talent (and you know it if you do), perhaps all you need is a little advice and encouragement. A benevolent kick in the pants. My pants were kicked repeatedly before I had the guts to submit anything I’d written, and maybe some of you are a little like me.
The other reason I wrote this post is because I’ve recently become one of the co-editors for Irreantum, the literary magazine of the Association for Mormon Letters. I’ve worked on Irreantum in a variety of capacities, from creative nonfiction editor to fiction editor to assistant editor, over the last few years. Now, as a co-editor with Scott Hatch, I will be overseeing one of the two issues put out annually and I want to encourage some of our promising new LDS writers to submit to the magazine. Irreantum has two contests coming up, a creative nonfiction contest and a fiction contest (see rules and info here). Both are great opportunities for new writers to get their work published.
Of course, I also want to encourage you to submit to Segullah‘s print magazine (see submission guidelines here). If you haven’t had an opportunity to see one of Segullah‘s beautiful print journals, subscribe and take a look. It’s a fantastic place to be published as well.
So, all that said, I’m finally getting to the point, which is: how in the world does a person’s manuscript get noticed among the pile of submissions a magazine receives? What should a writer do, or avoid doing, if she wants to get published?
I’ve been involved with a number of contests and taken a look at quite a few manuscripts-in-progress over the years. There are some common errors that beginning writers often make–errors that can get your manuscript tossed within the first couple of pages–and some important things more experienced writers do well that get their manuscripts noticed right off the bat. Most of you are probably aware of these things already. Even if you can’t name them, you read enough good writing to have an intrinsic sense of what works and what doesn’t in a piece of fiction. (And my experience is primarily in fiction, but a lot of this advice applies to creative nonfiction as well.) But sometimes it helps to have a nice little list, especially if you’re a list-lover like me. So here’s my list, for you:
(Oh, and a caveat: As with almost any artistic endeavor, rules are broken ALL THE TIME. That’s the great thing about art–you’re allowed to fiddle around. The only thing I ask is that you know you’re breaking a rule, and you know why you’re breaking it. If that’s the case, then by all means.)
1. Use interesting, visual, precise language. Too many beginning writers think that in order to get published they must “impress,” and in order to impress, they must use flowery language or complicated syntax. Bah, I say to that. And humbug! Your first and most important job as a writer is to serve your reader, but if you’re all caught up in dazzling people with your erudition, the only thing you’ll accomplish is coming off like a bloviating bore. Promise.
Verbosity is a problem for lots of beginning writers, though. I think it’s a phase almost every writer must pass through. In Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work, he uses an example from one of his own early novels (one that never got published, and you’ll see why):
“So he stood torpidly on the pebbled border of the lifeless highway with his arm outstretched across the corroded asphalt and his thumb sought some sort of concession to his distress, and once again he found himself making nugatory conjectures.”
Great example of what not to do, no? And props to Gary Provost for outing himself for our own enlightenment.
2. Verbs are your true friends, the ones who stick with you and help you and make you feel good about yourself. Pay attention to them. Give them lots of loving care.
Take a simple verb like walk. Oh, the things you can do with such a verb! You can saunter, you can shuffle. You can stalk and scamper and skulk. And these are just synonyms starting with s! Take care that you don’t get overexcited and fall into the land of verbosity, though, and start using verbs like ambulate. “Walk” is boring. “Ambulate” is pompous and overdone. But “skulk” is interesting and visual and precise.
Adjectives and adverbs, on the other hand, are like those creepy evil girls from high school who pretended to be your friends—acting all easy to get along with and like the answer to your prayers—but the minute you turn your back, they stab you in it. Adverbs ending in ”“ly are the worst. Although every once in a while an ”“ly adverb might prove useful, be wary. We watchful. They’ll getcha.
Example: What’s better, “pulled angrily” or “yanked”? “Moved quickly” or “dashed”? See? Told you.
3. Master the use of significant detail. A book engages us on a sensory level by creating a world we recognize. Descriptive, sensory language that reproduces the sights or smells or sounds of a scene is what draws a reader in.
But here’s where things get tricky: a writer has got to know when to use those sensory details.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “No amount of concrete detail will move us unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value.” You can’t simply tick off a list of your character’s physical characteristics and think you’re doing your job. Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
“She looked over at the man, who was handsome and blond and tall, maybe 6’2”. He wore a bright blue windbreaker, and his sunglasses hung on a string around his neck. She noticed that his fingernails were neatly trimmed and he looked like he worked out.”
Although some of those details are mildly interesting, they are not all necessary. First of all, what your character is doing and saying is usually much more revelatory than an exhaustive detailing of his physical characteristics. This isn’t to say that all physical description is bad—it’s not—but it’s best to give a few key bits of sensory information that convey the overall essence of the character and then let your reader’s imagination do the rest.
4. The above bad example also illuminates a “rule” I didn’t know existed until I read about it in a book—but once I learned it, I felt like I’d received a mini-revelation. It’s what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “The failure to run straight at the image.” Amateur writers, he says, often engage in
“needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: ‘Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.’ Compare: ‘She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.’ . . . Generally speaking, vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘she saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.”
See how in the example for #3, the writer uses phrases like “She looked over at the man” and “She noticed”? This is the “observing consciousness” Garnder speaks of. You don’t need to do it. And if you rid your prose of it, it will be more direct and vivid and all around punchy.
5. Listen to your prose. Good writing has a musicality to it, and sometimes the only way you can “hear” your work is to read it aloud. I’m a big fan of reading work out loud, even if your kids wander by and think you’ve lost your marbles.
But be careful that in an effort to vary your word order, you don’t create convoluted or confusing sentence structure. And watch the tendency to rely on introductory phrases containing infinite verbs as a way to mix things up. (And don’t worry, most of us don’t know what an “infinite verb” is—I stole the terminology from John Garnder, myself, and I’m a certified English teacher—but I’ll give you an example).
“Wondering what became of their mother, Angela’s children proposed they search for her in the office.”
The first phrase in the sentence—“Wondering what became of their mother”—is the one containing the infinite verb. And while there’s nothing horrifyingly wrong with this sentence on its own, constructing sentences this way over and over can be a hallmark of a writer who isn’t quite certain how to spice up her sentence structure. I see it a lot in beginning fiction. And it bugs the heck out of me. I admit it might be a more personal pet peeve of mine, but I was gladdened to see that John Gardner doesn’t like it, either.
There are so many other important points to cover. Like “show, don’t tell.” And for heaven’s sake, pick a tense and stay in it! And don’t, under any circumstances, start a story with a person waking up in the morning and proceed to regale us with a scintillating account of what she had for breakfast. Figure out when your story starts and start there! Oh, and then there’s point of view. So tricky. If you start out in 3rd person limited, you can NOT decide to pop into the head of some random person on the bus and tell us what he’s thinking. Sorry. And dialogue must reveal character or move the plot forward somehow: readers don’t have the patience to sit and listen to your characters’ meaningless chatter. And if something’s important to your story, don’t summarize the action. Write a scene and put your reader in the middle of things.
And don’t preach. And find the humanity in your characters, even the baddies. And what’s your story about, anyway? Understand your own vision–the point of it all–and cut whatever doesn’t fit.
And the biggest biggie of all: only conflict is interesting. Something must be at stake. Your character must want something intensely and encounter obstacles.
I could go on and on, which is why, I guess, people write books about such things. But I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a blog post that’s way too long as it is. But I hope you’ve gotten something out of it, at least, and that I succeeded in kicking you in the pants instead of scaring you away.
I hope some of you decide to sit down and face that blinking cursor and write. And after you write, revise. And after your revise, submit. And after you get a rejection, revise again. And resubmit. And keep doing it until someday, you get that wonderful little email in your inbox that says, “Hey, you, we like you’re stuff. We want to publish it. You’re a writer.”
You know you want to. You know you can.