Publication is not the point–but publish anyway.

Reading my blog, you might think I’m very anti-publishing. It’s true that I don’t think publication is the magic gold medal that we all once secretly believed it was. And it definitely means a lot less than non-writers think it does. (I keep a secret mental list of the family and friends who had zero interest in my writing until after I had some conventional success whereupon it became a thing for them: I call it the Phony Assholes list, and it’s very long.)

But in truth, nothing annoys me more than reading the work of good writers who don’t send anything out. Particularly on those days when the slushpile is extra slushy. Here is this writer–a friend, a student–sitting on work that is good, that is interesting and well-written, and doesn’t do anything with it. Why? Why? Why must I read 25 pages of “spiritual fictional memoir” when there is good work sitting in a drawer somewhere unsubmitted?

One friend admitted that they just don’t know how to submit. Fair enough. It’s not a very difficult process, but it takes a little bit of getting used to. Here is blog that points to Doretta Lau’s excellent presentation on how to submit to literary magazines.

Some of it though, is confidence. “I don’t know if it’s good enough.” Trust me, if you are conscientious enough to ask yourself that question, it is definitely better than the worst of the pile.

Truthfully, I don’t think you ever really know if it is good enough, but at some point, you have to make peace with that and launch it out in the world. You really can nitpick forever. And really, if you know it is good, you have probably played it a little safe. You haven’t pushed yourself to the edge of your abilities. You might suspect it is good, you might be proud of parts of it–but I think that little bit of wondering “Did this really work?” is a good sign. Some doubt is normal to have.

But I think that goes to the heart of why you should submit writing, even if publication is not really the point. Confidence. Not so much confidence in whether or not something is good–anyone can be confident if they know it’s good. But confident that you accept it as yours. That you are willing to put your name on it and send it out for other people to read.

Sending work out into the world shows a willingness to stand behind your work, whether it’s good or bad, whether you are sure about it or not. This work is yours and you are publicly claiming ownership of it.

(I am now imagining my work as a toddler, standing in the middle of a department store screaming “I want vagina!” while people stand around looking for me, the parent, to come and claim her.)

You need to own your work. You need to stand behind and be willing to say “Yes, this is mine” even though it’s not perfect. Yes, absolutely, you need to revise and rethink and rewrite until it’s as good as you can make it or you are sick of it (the latter usually comes first), but then, one day, you need to format it like a manuscript, find a magazine and send it off. It’s your work and you are willing to tell people that.

Now, unless you are writing a spiritual fictional memoir, dust off a story and submit it somewhere.

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The Shit Sandwich.

At some point in learning to workshop and critique, we come across something called the Shit Sandwich.

The Shit Sandwich is basically this: when you critique someone’s work, start with something good (the bread).  Then tell them the problems (the meat… er, sandwich filling).  Then end on a good note (more bread.)

I had another teacher whose method was more of an open-faced Shit Sandwich–go around the room with everyone saying what works, and then go around with everyone saying what doesn’t work.  There’s a nice simplicity to that, though it means things potentially end on a negative note.

I have mixed feelings on the Shit Sandwich.  I like it as a teaching tool.  I hate it as a workshop participant.

One of the things I discovered as I began teaching is how very necessary it is to give positive feedback, particularly for new writers.  Out there, in the big bad world, you really can’t depend on anyone to be positive about your writing.  It’s wonderful if you have have supportive friends and family and (perhaps more importantly) a writing community, but few people have than when they start.  Out there, you are not guaranteed encouragement to keep writing.

The other thing is that the Shit Sandwich forces both teachers and students to think about what is working.  It’s so much easier to see what’s not working–it jumps out at you like a coffee stain on white pants.  You have to actually think about it to really notice the nice fabric that makes up those pants.  (Note to self: wash white pants.)

But the problem with the Shit Sandwich can be illustrated by the time someone said the following to me: “I’m not giving you the Shit Sandwich. I really do like this.”

Since most writers have a really powerful inner critic, it’s hard enough to trust positive feedback without wondering to yourself “Wait, do they really think this is good, or were they scrambling for bread on this Shit Sandwich?”

It’s the formulaic sandwich structure that makes this tool both useful and hard to trust.  You have to come up with bread.  But would it be there if you didn’t have to have it? It’s difficult enough, sometimes, to trust in people’s positive feedback without wondering if they are only saying that because they’re giving you the Shit Sandwich.  Or because they believe they are saying something nice because you are supposed to say something nice.

The other issue with the Shit Sandwich is that so often the negative things take a long time to explain, where as the positives are “Great read!”  Um.  That’s some thin bread around that giant mouthful of shitty filling.

Then there is worrying about how someone will take something so much that you start couching and qualifying your words in a way that only suggests your point rather than actually stating it.  That’s not an unwarranted worry–as writers, we’re all super-sensitive.  But as someone who has been known to miss the point a number of times, there’s a lot to be said for clarity.

Perhaps sometimes we lose sight of the fact that saying that a work needs work isn’t necessarily a negative.  Is “Your basic structure works well; once you fill this out some more it will be fantastic!” really a negative?  Not for me; telling people how you think they can go from “potentially great” to “actually great” is a good thing.  I haven’t really encountered a lot of writers who go into a workshop believing that their work is perfect and only wants people to tell them so.  Perhaps, however, those people don’t frequent workshops; they submit directly to literary magazines and publishers. (I have seen some crazy things in the slush pile.)

I think my overall point here is that you do no one any favours by not being clear and honest in a workshop.

But….

That doesn’t require being mean or negative or being formulaic in how you deliver the message. And feedback means talking about what works too.

Thoughts?  Comment below.  (And no, you don’t need to give me the shit sandwich in your comments.)