About admin

Marian Blue has been a freelance writer & editor since 1972; during the past 20 years she has also taught creative writing, literature, and communication at Skagit Valley College (www.skagit.edu, retired 12/15). She is the founding editor of Soundings Review (www.nila.edu). Her own work has been published in the United States, in Europe, and in the Caribbean.

Publish Your Writing: 7 Steps to Success

Oh, No! Not Marketing!

Every writer–every artist in every field–whom I’ve met dislikes marketing, yet the modern world thrives on marketing. Of course, it thrives on creating art, too, and countless books, classes, and conferences have material telling you how to get words on the page and complete work.

Unfortunately, less is available on marketing. The problem, of course, is that without marketing, your work can wind up packed away on thumb drives and backup drives forever. You can avoid this with a few simple good marketing habits.

  1. Identify your goals. This is the big picture.

Not every artist has visions of The New York Review of Books in mind for his/her best-selling books. Some do. Some want to self-publish and some don’t want to publish at all. Your goal will determine where, when, and how you market your material and yourself.

For instance, you may want to write poems for friends or family or write a family biography or short blurbs to go with photos. You want to write well, and what you have to say is important, but marketing doesn’t play into the writing, the results, or the satisfaction. Your choice will be whether to do a photo book or maybe a small book with a limited number of copies. Many companies do this, such as Blurb, Shutterfly, and many others.

If your goal is to self-publish to a larger market–that is, you do want to get your work out there and read–don’t assume you can skip marketing. People who self-publish work hard (and daily) to put their work where readers can find it. Plan on building up a Web presence (everything from social media to an author Web page). Look up the Web presence of other authors for ideas.

You’ll be contacting bookstores, conferences, and workshops with ideas for classes or readings, talks, and classes. Have a professional business card. Make up posters to leave with bookstores. Have a blog and send out emails to subscribers. Write reviews and post material on other authors’ pages. In other words, daily get your name printed somewhere. This is also true if you go through a small press. Set this in motion as you write; don’t wait until you publish (that’s too late)!

If you publish through any traditional channels, you’ll find that publishers will expect you to build up your Web presence and promote yourself, too (you’ll hear the word platform, which is described in the previous paragraph). However, you’ll probably have some guidance and help along the way if you’re with a larger press.

The first step to having that large publisher, of course, will be to have your work accepted, and to do that, you have to continually submit.

  1. Schedule marketing daily.

Tomorrow is only a way to procrastinate.

While marketing isn’t something you need to obsess over as most of us do over our writing, it’s important to do daily for the simple reason that if you don’t, you’ll look at your marketing journal one day and discover that it’s been a month and you’ve done nothing; that you don’t have anything actively making the rounds of editors; that you just don’t have the energy to “start over again.”

In addition, the more material you have “out there,” the less you’ll be concerned about each submission.

As with writing, I recommend that you set both a minimum and a maximum time to spend marketing every day. The reason for both is simple: you need to trick yourself into avoiding procrastination techniques. If you don’t limit your time and you’re having a good day, you may spend the entire day working on marketing. Then you’ll use that as an excuse to not market the next day–or for the next week.

This time should be spent reading publications, prowling the Internet for publications (don’t forget libraries), and checking out various directories of publications (such as CLMP’s Literary Press & Magazine Directory, and Poets & Writers databases of magazines, presses, agents, etc.).

Each day send out at least one submission.

Rationalization and procrastination are best buds.

  1. Keep a list of likely publications, presses, agents for your work.

To avoid endlessly searching through lists of calls for submissions, create your personalized list. Include only publications that use material similar in nature to what you write. For instance, if you write mostly dramatic monologues on love, don’t bother to include publications that want only cyberpunk poems.

Part of this list creation requires that you research publications. Make sure they are places where you want your work to appear. Make sure that you’re not signing away all rights and know what your rights are. Decide whether you want to publish online only or if you want to focus on print publications.

Of course, in order to make this list, you have to know what editors are publishing. This means you have to read: publications, submission guidelines, and magazine listings.

Writers too often skip reading publications. Excuses abound: there are too many! they cost too much! I don’t have time!

Protestation is a cousin to procrastination and rationalization.

In short, if you don’t read publications, you will find that you irritate editors who receive work inappropriate for their publication; also, you will be guaranteeing that you’ll receive more rejections than acceptances; finally, you will spend more on wasted submission cost (reading fees and entry fees, for instance) and wasted time. This is a lose/lose situation.

Not reading publications is akin to a nurse who administers medication without bothering to read the patient’s chart.

Even if you can’t afford to buy a copy of every magazine being published today (who can?), almost every magazine has a website offering story samples to read for free. If the stories that the publication editor has chosen for examples are histrionics laced with characters who can’t speak coherently and who are riddled with drugs, sex, and violence, then that is what the editors want. I’m not saying the stories aren’t good or that they don’t depict an aspect of our society, but an editor isn’t going to suddenly switch from dramatic, teen drug culture to a deep character study about a woman in her 40s who can’t find work.

A good way to gain access to more magazines is to form a group of friends to share efforts. Each person can subscribe to or buy one issue of a magazine; swap them among yourselves. More on group marketing below.

Don’t forget about anthologies. These often provide more diverse opportunities than you’ll find in literary/small press magazines.

Anthologies may be based on a theme or a region or a topic. You can find many of these simply by using your search engine to look up “anthology submissions” or, to be more specific “fiction anthology submissions.” Beware of anthologies that include all submissions if writers buy the book or pay a fee (do your research); such publication is almost like not publishing at all.

Another way to find markets is to read the Best of …; these are anthologies that include stories from a diverse range of literary magazines. Libraries usually include, for instance, The Best American Short Stories. You don’t need to spend a fortune on your reading regime and you’ll learn a lot about what different magazines like.

Ultimately this will save you time, effort, and frustration.

  1. Don’t cross anything off your list too quickly.

Don’t be too quick to skip a publication just because the description has a word or two that you think can’t possibly apply to you (i.e., your personal bias). For instance, the annual calls for submission to Orison Books uses the term “spiritual” often, but the publication is not limiting itself to organized religion or even religion at all. Read deeper to find out what the editors do mean and whether you might not be writing something that fits the editor’s interest (such as material that illustrates the mystery underlying characters’ actions and goals–their spiritual natures–or magical realism). Research is careful and detailed examination, not skimming.

Finally, don’t cross magazines off your list because their prestige intimidates you. For instance, your work may be right for The New Yorker; if so, submit there. Don’t decide not to do so just because you don’t have a “name.” On the other hand, don’t submit to prestigious magazines just because they are prestigious. Submit only if they fit your work.

  1. Pay attention to the editors and staff on publications that seem right for your list.

If the publication has material you enjoy reading and that is similar in message, tone, genre, etc. to what you’re writing, learn more about the editor and staff’s writing, particularly where it has been published. Those publications may also like your work. Then you look up those publications and get the names of that editor and staff, and so forth. If you keep following this trail, you’ll get some repetitions, but you’ll also add to your list of publications (magazines and anthologies) that are likely to accept your work.

  1. Form good social connections.

Writers usually need alone time for creation, but no writer can market today without creating social links. Create your author’s Web page, your Facebook page, your Linkedin profile, your Twitter account, and your Wiki page and update them frequently. This is related to platform building above.

Also, attend readings, conferences, and other events to support other writers. Find out how you can be included in future activities. Have a professional business card to hand out. If you have books, always have a few copies with you.

Do not carry around manuscripts to drop on agents or editors!

This is unprofessional and although you will be remembered (and discussed), the reasons for such discussions won’t be helpful to your career.

  1. Keep a meticulous journal.

Include the list of likely markets, your submissions (including the results and dates), your activities, and your writing credentials. Many people keep this online and many prefer a hard copy journal. For those of us who expect the worst, keep a hard copy even if you prefer online.

As part of this journal, keep your list of credentials (resume), publications, readings, and online links up to date. You may think that, as a writer, you won’t need a resume, but if you’re going to apply for workshops or grants, you’ll be glad to have the resume handy.

Interestingly, I’ve had to refer back to these journals often. Don’t erase or throw them away! See sample below.

***

Ultimately, if you write and market every day, you’ll find that your publication success increases steadily. Then when you hear other writers bemoaning the number of rejections they receive for every publication, you can advise them on the best way to market.

 

Marketing Journal

 

 

 

Experimental Nonfiction: Is It New?

Last week on Sunbreak Press Facebook page I posted a call for submissions to a publication wanting “experimental nonfiction.”

A few people have since asked, “What is ‘experimental’ nonfiction?”

The answer lies in another question: What is traditional nonfiction? That is, what do you expect in a piece of nonfiction? A number of answers jump to mind, some focusing on the goal of the genre and some on the craft.

To start with the goal of nonfiction, one answer may be truth. Well, as we know, writers have been debating the differences between fact, memory, opinion and, therefore, truth for eons. Because that concept is abstract (elusive), some authors use the term essential truth, which means, most closely, truth as perceived by the author. Consequently, most nonfiction relies on personal memories–either those of the writer or other voices in the essay. This is a truth for the individual that may become a universal truth to which readers can relate.

With that answer in place, the idea of experimental nonfiction may be to use sources other than memories to come to an essential truth. That can be done through need (memories are missing) or choice; this gets into craft.

***

For instance, to take the first reason for using other sources–need: suppose you’re writing an essay that comes from the events of your sixth birthday party where, according to family stories, your discovery of your mother and the neighbor kissing created havoc, which led to the family home burning to the ground. That has been the simple version of a family truth for decades and maybe you’ve always felt a little guilty about being party to the disaster, so you’re going to write about the event. However, in the family library, you’ve recently found pictures of that kissing neighbor, who was a different race than your family; this happened when racial tensions were high in your town. Then you find a newspaper article about that neighbor’s murder, which took place two days after your birthday.

You have no memories of your own, and writing with “perhaps” and “if I connect the pieces” throughout the manuscript becomes tedious. Suppose you drop standard chronological details and instead use a collage of newspaper articles, song lyrics of the time period, and quotes; with these, you may juxtapose birthday cake candle images with various other fires: burning crosses, passion, hell. You’re dealing with an essential truth that has emerged through juxtaposition. The story morphs. This is still nonfiction, but it’s not within what we think of as traditional nonfiction today.

This technique can also be used for the latter reason (choice), which is based on choosing technique to help you discover your own message. You let an essential truth build in your reader’s mind and even in your own (with, of course, your guidance).

***

When this sort of genre mixing and chronological omission is practiced, first person often is abandoned for third person. We expect memoir, for instance, to be written from first person (with the author being the speaker). To shift person is another way to experiment with the genre. This sort of approach can change the voice, the tone, and the style of the work.

Another technique that often involves person switches or omission of first person is to use multiple story lines, weaving them together, to create an essential truth that none of them would have on their own. In a beautifully written essay on writing essay, “The Art of Memoir,” in Michael Steinberg The Fourth Generation, first edition, Mary Clearman Blew compares this sort of writing to that of creating quilts from scraps of material, each with its own story:

But any story depends upon its shape. In arranging the scraps that have been passed down to me, which are to be selected, which discarded? The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.

Although this was written in 1993 and deals with selection of details, the concept of experimental is at its heart; these writers were just not using the term experimental.

Whenever you’re using multiple genres to create your work, you are using experimentation. Although writers often wrote in boxes in the past, cross-genre work and genre bending have become increasingly popular. As mentioned above, you may well include articles, songs, and poetry in nonfiction to give it added depth and interest. Check out an interview with Margot Singer and Nicole Walker in TriQuarterly for some more thoughts along these lines.

Another aspect of essay that is usually expected is that it will be personal, focused on the self; after all, the word essai to Montaigne was his effort to provide thoughtful, personal honesty with his “little thoughts” (as a side note, the tradition for years was that only men could write essays, for only men could think).

Any essay that uses second or third person, of course is drifting from that idea of personal honesty, but that can drift even farther. In the 1990s, the term literary journalism was used to separate the personal essay from the rich essays that strove to avoid pitfalls of fiction (including telescoping time and creating composite characters) used by some creative nonfiction writing. According to John McPhee, artistry did not need to correlate with “made up” (Literary Journalism). McPhee and other literary journalists often objected to the term creative when correlated with nonfiction.

Literary journalism is often about situations, places or people other than the author or even anyone well known by the author (such as family).

Essays have, of course, been changing constantly over the decades. Perhaps these changes are all experimental, but over time we have fallen into thinking of essays in traditional ways (first person, chronological, memory-based reality). Perhaps thinking in terms of “experimental” is just one way of putting the creative freedom back into how we write nonfiction (or artistry if you prefer).

In essence then, experimental nonfiction is neither new nor particularly experimental; it remains, however, writing that seeks truth.

How to Get Rejected Without Getting Read

Writers’ Fatal Flaws

Computers spread out temptation to lure writers away from the task of writing rather like a bakery’s street front window lures people away from their diets.

The greatest temptation of all rises from the variety of font sizes, types, and colors–as well as styles, templates, and layout options–that technology offers. The worst possible outcome is, of course, that writers will begin to replace careful revision and editing (not to mention creative sweat) with making words look good on the page. I’m reminded of my students who like to make words lively with punctuation!!!?**

The second worst outcome is that editors and agents will reject–without reading–manuscripts that display the writer’s creativity with page/font manipulation rather than simply providing clean, crisp text that lets excellent writing shine.

Why?

Most editors and publishers are very clear about their submission guidelines. In fact, the most common request is that authors “follow standard manuscript formatting,” a three-word request that assumes writers understand. Some understand but don’t care. Some don’t understand what that means. However, this is a vital directive to use and to understand to avoid getting rejected without getting read.

This old-fashioned approach has a serious purpose: editors/publishers read a lot in a hurry.

  • Consequently, their eyes are tired.
  • They’ve had too much coffee.
  • They have deadlines, and they want to find the information they need in a hurry.
  • They’ve had to send out more rejections than they’d like.

If such an editor/publisher looks at your manuscript and has to hunt for page numbers or your contact information or is faced with a font that is challenging to read on the page, then your work is apt to be dismissed before the content is assessed.

This isn’t editorial arrogance (editors want to find good material); however, such random or creative formatting and disregard of submission guidelines is most common among amateurs, which is an indication that the writing and marketing platform might not be strong. Because editors/publishers have a lot to read, they must have priorities in trying to find the best material as quickly as possible.

Also, following the directions in the submission guidelines indicates that you’re a writer who respects what others need, that you’re easy to work with, that you understand professional protocol, that you’ve overcome that fatal flaw.

Another issue is that if you’ve inserted creative formatting–word art or text boxes or font that shimmers, is shadowed, or is otherwise “creatively” designed–this causes problems when the material is set up for publication. If, for instance, InDesign is used, then when the document is uploaded, a lot of the special formatting will be turned into tedious corrections for someone to make. If you have a standard Word document with standard formatting, the conversion is much simpler. If the manuscript is being exported for ePub, then standard formatting is even more important.

In this era of self-publishing, the need for standard formatting even applies to yourself. The more creative you are with presentation, the more likely you are to have correction nightmares in setting the document up for POD or ePub.

What/How?

You’ll find lots of information out there about how to write well and how to research markets, but the vital advice on how to follow guidelines and how to understand what directions/terms mean can be more difficult to find. That material is out there, and taking the time to find it is part of a writer’s job.

However, common sense is the best resource. The most common guideline requirement is for “readable” font (some even specify font, such as boring old Times New Roman). A clearly readable font is serif although debate continues about whether it’s clearest on a computer screen (and most manuscripts are submitted online). Recently, Times New Roman has been criticized as old-fashioned, but it’s still popular among editors, as are Arial and Courier, because it’s easy to read. Writers Digest offers clear guidelines at Formatting a Manuscript as do many other sites.

When?

When computers became as common as telephones, writers became increasingly responsible for their own editing and layout. Many writers began hiring copyeditors, layout designers, and book doctors (see Critiques & Editing for Writers on this site) to help with manuscript final drafts. Some have chosen to do it all themselves, which can be as difficult as it is for lawyers to represent themselves. Manuscript presentation is not something one should allow the ego to protect; if you’re going to fight for something, make it your prose, your characters, your plot, and even your grammar/punctuation, not your font.

Some Added Don’ts to avoid Getting Rejected Without Getting Read

  1. Don’t bind your material. That includes spiral, hole-punched folders, and burlap twine.
  2. Don’t print double-sided.
  3. Don’t send cookies, candy, or cute cartoons about rejections.
  4. Don’t complicate the mail system by requiring a signature at the post office, etc.
  5. Don’t write a cover letter that explains away reasons for not following standard guidelines or other submission guidelines. Examples are many:
    • I know you don’t usually like romance, but …
    • Although you don’t want Westerns anymore, this one is different because…
    • I’m submitting my entire manuscript, not just the first 25 pages, because…
    • To understand why my book has no punctuation, you have to understand that…
  1. Many publishers are using online submissions in part to avoid some of the above issues. Don’t circumnavigate a publisher’s submission routines. For instance, if a publisher or agent wants email submissions only, you’re wasting your time sending something via USPS. Likewise, if no email submissions are wanted, you’re wasting your time writing an email to request an exception.

Disregard any of the above IF the submission guidelines request, for instance, candy bribes.

After saying all that, don’t feel you should never take advantage of your control over text. Adding emphasis, such as the capitalized IF two paragraphs up, or examples, such as the colored text in the second paragraph, can be useful.

Preparing your work for submission is the same as preparing yourself for an interview. You dress appropriately so that you won’t have barriers between you and your skills and the interviewer. You prepare (dress) your manuscript in the best way possible to make sure that something such as font doesn’t create a barrier between the reader and your important message.

Workships — critique options

Workshops and critiques come in a variety of sizes, specialties, and purposes. They range from formal (such as classes) to very informal (dropping off a manuscript on a friend’s coffee table).

Formal workshops at schools are some of the most common, but these, too, range in level and even genre. Beginning writing classes, such as community colleges or early undergraduate classes offer at a university, usually include multiple genres and basic concepts, including the process of learning how to critique other writers’ work. As I always pointed out in my Creative Writing Course (ENGL 236) at Skagit Valley College (https://www.skagit.edu), the best way to learn to edit and critique your own writing is to practice on that of others; you’ll pick up on techniques to apply to your own work. If you have limited critique experience, one of these classes can be better than trying to learn in a more casual workshop, one in which, perhaps, the other participants’ skills may be lacking.

These formal college workshops range up through the graduate level; most offer the opportunity to audit or to participate on a pass/fail basis. As the classes advance from the 100/200 level to the 500 level, some of the classes may tend to specialize in genre (poetry/fiction/nonfiction is common but some specialize even more, such as Nature Writing). Of course, college classes tend to be the most expensive of the options. Some colleges, however, offer other types of opportunities, such as conferences or short non-credit courses.

Various organizations offer opportunities to take formal workshop classes, including writing groups. As an example, Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, offers a six-week long summer workshop that is specialized as to genre but the craft and technique that is taught is excellent for any writing. Most places have local organizations for writers, such as The Loft Literary Center (https://www.loft.org) in Minneapolis.

Sometimes published writers offer workshops independently, and local organizations may include some opportunities in a listing on their Web site or in a newsletter.

Often looked down on by people in academic positions or in the literary genres are the online (previously correspondence) schools, such as Writers Digest online classes , an organization for which I taught for several years in the 1990s. Because of my own experiences with them, I believe that many writers can find these rewarding and educational experiences, and many of my students published excellent work. Again, all such schools — and even the courses in those schools — are not created equal, and you should do your research. The same is true for the traditional university experience.

Generally speaking, these formal workshops will have a fee, one instructor (published) who will provide guidance and comments as well as critiques of participants’ work, a regular schedule, and specific duration of time. Of course, they are not all equal in quality or structure, nor in applicability to your style and need (make sure you’re getting a workshop and not just a class). Sometimes one has to attend quite a few workshops at conferences, for instance, to find an instructor with whom you mesh (Poets & Writers (http://www.pw.org) can be a good place to find a variety of opportunities). As with any good relationship, looking for a good workshop is worthwhile.

Commercial Critiques and Editing

Commercial/Professional Critiques & Editing

On a more commercial and semi-formal critique level, hiring a professional to give a critique (or to do copy editing or proofreading) is very common these days. At one time, when it came to books, this was the type of relationship one often had with publishers and editors where the books were published, and the writers didn’t pay. After the advent of computers and a proliferation of self-publishing options, many of which include no editing services or are very expensive, book doctors and other editorial services became available. Today, a writer is often expected to submit a manuscript that is ready for printing, especially if the writer is new.

As with formal workshops (and schools), not all available critique services are equal. Services and fees vary, as do personalities (compatibility is very important between a work and an editor; it’s not as important between the author and editor). It’s often best to try out a short work with someone before leaping into a major expense for a full critique and/or edit on a book.

Perhaps it’s best to describe first, from my perspective, what the services are that you might expect from a professional service. A number of different definitions for these terms appear on the Web and in books.

1. Critique
Issues of writing technique are of primary consideration. These include but are not limited to plot, characterization and character development, voice consistency, point of view, story, and even aspects of genre. When I do critiques, I read carefully (sometimes twice), making notes both on the pages of the manuscript and on separate pages. When finished, I compile the notes into a detailed written analysis in which I try to note how all the elements of literary technique are working (or not). Major and/or consistent errors in grammar and punctuation are noted while reading, but they are not all caught nor are they sought. This analysis is usually several pages long. This is not the only approach. Some professionals use forms and fill out basic information about technique; some make no notes on the manuscript; some make only notes on the manuscript (provide no written analysis). As I say, no one approach works for either authors or those who do professional critiques. This is less formal than the personal relationship between a teacher or mentor and a student in a classroom situation. Your fee buys a critique but rarely personal access to the person doing the critique.

2. Copy editing
Copy editing, as I practice it, is the examination of the overall consistency and flow of the manuscript, from formatting to writing style. This can be as simple as noting that in one place, a person’s name is spelled Alice and in another it’s spelled Alyse. On the other hand, it can involve rewriting passages to improve syntax or create voice consistency. This can be done poorly (I once had a young editor revise all my images in an essay on the 1960s practice of “dragging” in automobiles to military metaphors, such as “search and destroy” – a perfect example of bad copy editing because the tone of the essay shifted). It’s a good idea to make sure you have a clear understanding with a copy editor about what you intend and what the copy editor intends. Another item a copy editor watches for involves issues of libel, accuracy, and correct use of registered trademark names, etc. Although copy editing can, and should, include some proof reading for basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, that is not the primary focus, and some may be missed. For any errors or consistency issues, a style sheet should be returned to you with the manuscript (something my bad editor example did not do). A style sheet generally lists, alphabetically, issues (such as Alice/Alyse above) and the page numbers on which the problem appears. Major issues of technique are usually not addressed.

3. Proofing
This is the last step before publication. Do not hire a proofreader before doing a final revision because the proofing will have to be done all over again. Sometimes proofing is done on a Proofreader’s Copy; this means that more than two or three changes per page can result in an additional charge from the printer. It’s best to do careful proofing before this stage. Unfortunately, judging by the published work I’ve been reading, no one does this on a regular basis. The problem is that most publishers fired proofreaders when computers came on the scene; writers are expected to submit manuscripts that have been proofread. Writers often attempt to do this themselves; consequently, many published works have many tiny errors (if I read myriad of … one more time, I’ll be in danger of injuring myself by banging my head against the wall). Warning: Spell checkers will cause as many, if not more problems than they resolve. Although I don’t like redundancy, again, be aware that not all proofreading is equal; choose carefully. Do your research. Also, buy a good manual of style, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, and begin learning consistent grammar and punctuation use.

4. Revision
In my opinion, no writer should hire someone to revise a manuscript. This is part of the creative process, not the nuts-and-bolts process. You might want to get a critique of a manuscript before revising to help you formulate your ideas. If you want someone to professionally write/rewrite the book you have in mind, then perhaps you should hire a ghostwriter in the first place. Many are available for everything from writing the book from interviews to writing a book from an event in someone’s life. Again, techniques and results vary considerably, as do fees. Also, the issues of credit for the work also vary: who is listed as author? who gets royalties? Good contracts can prevent controversies.

Again, most of these services do not include one-on-one meetings or discussions. That comes under the heading of mentor more than editorial service. Many authors want to “have coffee” with me after we’ve worked together. They usually want to argue with me over comments or explain what their work or ideas really mean; remember, any editor looking at your book will not have you along to provide voice over explanations – it must be on the page.

Where can you find these services? Of course, people usually turn to online sources first. This can be risky, of course. By doing one quick search for “book doctors,” unfiltered, I received 211,000,000 responses immediately. When I first started Blue & Ude Writers’ Services with my partner, Wayne Ude, in the late 1990s, the need for book doctors was new and few were available. At the time, the editorial service was an outgrowth of my individual work as editor for various publications and individuals, mostly in an academic setting, and through Writers Digest University, which offers critiques and classes. Because both Wayne and I were writing teachers in various academic settings, as well as published writers, we offer everything from critiques to proofreading.

Today, the only requirement for starting an editorial business is a Web address; it’s a little difficult to vet such services.

Some trade publications offer access to businesses that have been vetted. One source for such services is Literary Marketplace, which lists agents, publishers, printers, and literary services; other such vetted sources are available, and doing your research can be beneficial (check with your research librarian, in person or online). Such sources tend to be a little more reliable (vetted) than what you find by the millions online. Word-of-mouth also can be very effective (even if old-fashioned).

Cost varies, of course, considerably. Consider how you expect to publish your book. If you’re shipping it to an agent or traditional publisher, you need to have it in as excellent condition as possible. If, on the other hand, you expect to work with one of the organizations that offer self-publication opportunities, you’ll find that many offer these services. Their previously published books provide a good look at their work. You could even try contacting authors who have books through them and find out about their experiences. Some of these offer marketing as well as editing and publishing; some are co-published (author and publisher cooperatives).

Whatever route you choose, take your time, consider all your options, and research the various businesses carefully; when it comes to contract time, read carefully and, if you don’t understand everything, ask for help.

The Informal Workshop

One of the best writing workshops I ever had was one that met once a month on a Saturday. It was always at our house, perhaps because it was central. Early afternoon, people would start showing up with manuscripts to be read, which they put out on a table. People would grab a coffee or whatever, a manuscript and then start reading.

No particular arrival time or pre-reading order was set up. No regular attendance was required, and those present varied between eight and ten usually. The only regular event was that in the late afternoon, about five or five-thirty, one of us would go to the store and pick up sandwich goodies. Afterward, people would make sandwiches, sit and eat and chat (or read). When people were ready, we’d start workshopping, in whatever order things came up. Genres included poetry, fiction, and essay. We kept at it until we finished everyone’s manuscript to everyone’s satisfaction, frequently continuing as late as midnight or even two a.m. Members didn’t often socialize between workshops, but the general atmosphere and conversations were delightful, and people trusted and respected one another.

That is the most informal workshop I’ve ever experienced, but every piece of work I ever put through that group was quickly published. All the members were publishing regularly, and many of the names would be recognized by most readers (although I haven’t sought the writers’ permission to list them here). That group is what I most miss about the time we lived in Virginia.

Every workshop has a personality that is composed of how the members interact, and that personality shifts a little every time a new member joins or a long-term member leaves. That is one reason why such groups are often very careful about accepting new members. That is also why it sometimes takes time to find just the right group.

One of the most important concerns is that members share common goals. Some writers intend to publish. Others write to please themselves and have no plans beyond sharing the work with a few friends or family. Other “workshops” are more interested in sharing a sense of community and members may be more interested in writing exercises and discussions about books even though they consider themselves a writing workshop. These different goals rarely meld well with one another.

Because of this, it’s a good idea for a new member to be as careful about joining as it is for a group to approve a new member. Ask questions (not just, “Can I come?”). Also, listen carefully to the answers and think about what you really want from a group. Do not join a group with the idea that you can change its approach. Considering a few details will cut down on the number of groups you have to “try.”

Questions to ask are varied: Find out how formal the group is. Does it have a leader? How many members are there? Do they collect dues or fees? Do they have events (such as readings – one of our local Whidbey Island groups – Whidbey Writers Group — has published several anthologies by their members over the years)? Do they have a regular schedule for meeting or for submitting material? How dependable are the members, both in submitting material and in responding to material? Do they have limits on length or genre? What are the backgrounds and goals of the members? Do members publish their work and, if so, where? Where do they meet?

Some “workshops” are so informal that they never meet. Publishing authors may have a few writer friends with whom they share completed (edited and polished) work before submitting it to editors or agents. Reading, editing and commenting may all be written or discussed over coffee when the manuscript is returned. The key to this sort of relationship is that no one takes advantage. In other words, the exchanges are equal and the responses are balanced. This sort of relationship usually develops gradually, “just happening” between authors who are, first, friends.

Probably the only serious mistake one can make in setting up an informal workshop is to merely ask friends and family who are not connected to writing (such as editors or teachers or writers) “what they think.” This sets up a situation in which people feel compelled to be positive. Even if these readers want to provide concrete suggestions, the comments can be so vague that they aren’t useful for revision. For instance, people will say they “like” or “dislike” the material or a character. Reasons can vary from “Well, it’s just not the type of thing I usually read” to “It’s kind of depressing” to “The character’s name bothers me.” Both writing and giving critiques involve delving into the creative craft of writing, and like any craft or art, terms and techniques are important.

Informal workshops are usually more demanding of members than more formal workshops because the interdependency is strong. The group is only as good as the written material and the responses of each member, so you should make sure your commitment to the group is as strong as you want the group’s commitment to be to you.

Critique & Etiquette

Writing Workshops at Their Best

This was written by Bill Patrick for Southeast Writers’ Handbook (see our books page). Marian Blue was editor for this book that included not only a listing of writing resources for the Southeast, but also a number of outstanding writers giving advice about a wide range of subjects.

 Bill Patrick says that his current workshop format doesn’t utilize quite the same techniques as it did in the early 1990s (see Bill’s Web page address below), but this advice is still wise today.

We all have to understand that criticism is an integral part of every writing workshop. Criticism does not necessarily mean finding faults in the work, though doing merely that would clearly help us all as writers when we revise. Criticism in this context means a highly-tuned and thoughtful response to the work that is being discussed, as if it were published poems or stories, or produced screenplays, or as if we were editors at good literary journals, or as if all our lives depended on it. Critical comments should identify the strengths of the work, so the writer feels encouraged and so that those strengths are not abandoned during revision. Criticism also points to the work’s weaknesses, so the writer can avoid those problems in the next piece, and so those weaknesses are turned into strengths during revision.

There is no substitute for this kind of criticism, and if we are going to improve our writing, we all need it. As writers in a workshop progress, they have to learn to give and receive intelligent and sensitive criticism. Someone unwilling to participate in this process, on the giving and on the receiving ends of it, should question their role in the workshop. Our goal is to help fellow writers improve.

  1. A positive attitude toward criticism is essential. Laughter and/or tears are often natural and appropriate as part of a response.
  2. Criticism always refers to the written piece and never to the writer.
  3. All comments should be intended to help the writer revise and improve the piece under discussion.
  4. Positive and negative statements should be honest and straightforward. Don’t pull your punches.
  5. Criticism should not rest upon subjectivity: “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” as responses, help little. As critic, you need to identify objective details and responses to help the writer understand why you like or don’t like the piece under discussion. You should also try to identify which comments are major and which are minor.
  6. The writer whose piece is under discussion listens attentively and silently to the criticism, and takes notes from each speaker.
  7. Critics should remember that tone of voice and word selection may lead the writer to infer more or less than what is intended. Try to remember Rule #2.
  8. When all the criticism is finished, the writer can ask questions, or respond. As a terrific author once said, though: never explain; never apologize.

William B. Patrick

 

 

Reading Poetry: Questions & Directions

by William Patrick

 

  1. Read the poem at least three times. Each time through will show you something new about the poem. Look for something you like about the poem. If we are readers and writers in a workshop, the information we provide to another writer should be encouraging and helpful.
  1. Ask yourself what voice (point of view) the poem uses. Is the poet speaking directly, or using a persona?  To whom is the poet speaking?  When you know who is speaking, identify what tone they are using, and see how the language used in the poem contributes to or detracts from that tone.
  1. Check to see if the poem uses a rhyme scheme and/or an identifiable, consistent form or meter. Does it create its own new form? Try to determine how the poem’s construction expresses or opposes its content.
  1. Locate the poem’s images. Is the poet creating interesting, concrete word pictures?Does the poet make you see, taste, feel, smell and hear what he or she is talking about, or does the poem rely on abstract language?
  1. Is there a central idea, story, image, or emotion that runs through the poem? What emotions does the poem awaken in you?
  1. Find the figurative language (similes, metaphors, personifications, symbols) in the poem. Do they seem original and unexpected? Do the comparisons and connections deepen, expand, and energize the poem?
  1. Check for distracting cliches. Examine whatever hackneyed language, ideas, and archaic diction you find in the poem, and ask yourself if the poet intended to use them, and why. Is the poem recycling experience or making something new?
  1. Think about how the poet uses consonant and vowel sounds in the poem (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme), and ask yourself if these sounds help the poem come alive for you. Do the sounds mirror the content of the poem?
  1. Look at the poem’s lines — where are they broken; where are they end-stopped; where do they enjamb (run over to the next line)? Do the line choices seem arbitrary or intentional? How do the line choices help the sense of the poem? Do any lines seem to be out of place?  Would the beginning be better at the end, or vice versa?
  1. Is there a leap of the imagination in the poem? Where? Does it work? What could you add or subtract or change that would make the poem better?

And, after all that work, and after giving the poet ample consideration, ask yourself           the following basic, critical questions:

  1. Do I understand this poem? Is it comprehensible on the denotative level, and does it lead me to unexpected realizations on a connotative level?
  1. Does the poem feel true to me, in any of these ways:
  • Is it convincing? Does it present a balanced and mature view of the world? Or is        it able to convey the diversity and messiness of the world? Is the poem rhetorically effective, actually persuading us to see something its way because of its artful manipulation of the tools that poetry can use, or does it just feel gimmicky and self-impressed?
  • Is it interesting, stylistically or substantively, in a way that fits with what I believe constitutes the poetic tradition?
  • Does the poem break new ground, or show me territory I haven’t seen before?
  • Does it feel just? Is it morally and ethically appropriate to the content being discussed, or is there some fundamental sociopathic disconnect that makes me feel creepy? Does this poem fit my sense of honorable human behavior or attitudes?
  • Is it revelatory? Does the poem lead me toward the numinous? Or, if you prefer secular humanism, does the poem show me ways to be a better, more  compassionate human being?
  • Am I simply entertained by it, and don’t give a damn about all of these other considerations?
  • Does this poem afford me a literary experience, or is it a socio-political tract or shameless pop song, etc., masquerading as a poem?
  1. In this age of poetry slams, is this poem designed for the page (a reading experience) or designed for the microphone and video camera (a performance experience) or some hybrid floating somewhere in between the two?

William Patrick author page

 

Reading Fiction: A Brief Checklist

By Wayne Ude 

Five general suggestions:

  1. Read the story through once, quickly, without stopping, both to get a general sense of what it’s about and to see how readable it is. If you have to stop to figure out what’s going on (or, worse yet, to go back and reread), make an x in the margin at that point to remind yourself, but don’t further break your first reading to make extensive notes.
  2. Give the story a very careful second reading, in which you write as many comments in the margins as occur to you. On this reading, you may look for any or all of the elements discussed below.
  3. Ask yourself what seems to be at the story’s core: it could be a character, an event or series of events, a symbol or image, a theme, a relationship, etc. Attempt to identify those elements in the story which most effectively create the core, and those which seem less important or even irrelevant to the core.
  4. Look for elements in at least three categories: strengths, weaknesses, and undeveloped potential strengths. It’s a mistake in critiquing a story to focus only on strengths or only on weaknesses – either approach will lead others to regard you as a one-dimensional critic.
  5. Don’t be afraid to suggest radical changes in the story. One purpose of critiquing a story is to re-open the author’s mind to unexplored possibilities, and sometimes, in the process of rejecting a wild suggestion, the author will simultaneously come up with a better one. In other words, looking at something which the author knows won’t work may reveal what will work.

Some more technical suggestions:

  1. In what ways are characters created – through action and dialogue, through their thoughts, through others’ reactions to them, through the narrator’s commentary, through the quality of the language that surrounds them?
  2. Are important moments shown in scenes rather than in summary? What is the relationship between scene and summary – key moments should be in scene, but ten pages of summary and three of scene still isn’t likely to make an effective story even if the key event takes place in the story’s single scene. Do individual summaries go on too long?
  3. What point of view is used to tell the story? Is that point of view effective, or might another be more effective?
  4. Is the language consistent, or does it range out of control from very colloquial to very formal? Is the language appropriate to the characters? And beyond that: is the language doing anything special, anything that has you noticing and appreciating it? Is there a sense of an individual mind behind the words?
  5. Is the central character involved in relationships, conflict, action, or does s/he tend to go off alone and soliloquize at key moments? If the latter, is there a way to involve him/her with other characters? Further, does the story create or at least imply a society within which the central character moves?

Originally published in Southeast Writers’ Handbook: see our Books

 

Writing —

Thousands of creative writing blogs jam the Web these days. One of the things writers like to do is write, and no one can doubt that the Web has made writing and publishing something anyone can do.

How to get readers for those posts is itself as challenging as it has always been. As someone who has been part of the writing and publishing industry since the pre-computer days, I’m a believer in the fact that good writing will find its way to readers, much as rivers will eventually plunge into the sea.

Here at Sunbreak Press, this creative writing blog isn’t as much about being meditative or creative about writing as it is about helpful ideas to writers for improving writing, connecting to readers, and publishing. As Sunbreak Press develops, more books and connections will be provided on a regular basis. This is a work in progress, and I hope you will be a part of it. Let me know what you need/want, and if I don’t have answers, I’ll try to find them.

As founding editor of Soundings Review, I had little time to begin this adventure; having turned it over to the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and, as of last December, retiring from Skagit Valley College (after 21 years), I’ll have more time to develop other outlets. I’ll also be doing more editing, creative writing critiques, and layout through Blue & Ude Writers Services. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

Let’s see how this goes!