How Sonal got her groove back, over and over again.

The first story I ever had any success with was just published, four years after I wrote it. You can read it here. Here’s the story behind that story.

I first had the initial inkling for that story in 2004, not long after I found my way back to writing. It was just an image. I’d been planting tulips. I thought more about how clever I could be with this image, but had no idea what kind of plot or character would go with it, so I never started. Clever is not a starting point. Eventually, I forgot about it.

In 2011, I was in a writing rut. I’d been rejected by an MFA program. I’d turned in my best work, and it wasn’t good enough. I’d told everyone about how I was going to be pursuing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, perhaps as my own way of trying to say “I am a writer! Take me seriously!” and now I hadn’t gotten in. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t sure if I was up for writing. The MFA people said “Apply again” but I wasn’t sure I was going to. I mean, what was the point? Clearly, I sucked.

Dispirited, I took a writing practice class in the spring with Sarah Selecky. I almost didn’t take the class, because I sucked, but it got me jazzed up on writing again. Perhaps I did not suck. I wrote a story for her class–not this story, another one. I wanted to take another class. Sarah wasn’t teaching that summer, but instead passed over her online class to Matthew J. Trafford, and so I took his class. I needed to come up with another story and suddenly I remembered tulip bulbs.

I still had no idea what the story was going to be about when I wrote it. I just wrote it. It surprised me. Matthew made a number of positive comments about the story and suggested a restructuring. I hated restructuring stories (what, they don’t just come out perfect?) but I ran with it and it worked. I used that story and the other story I wrote for Sarah’s class to re-apply to the MFA program. I got in.

I sent the story to The Star short story contest. I made a resolution to write a new story every month and send it to a friend of mine. I made plans for what I was going to do with my winnings from the contest. I wrote nothing. I did not win. New rut.

But I got an email from Jessica Westhead, who had been a judge for the contest, saying that she had loved my story, but consensus, taste, blah, blah. I spent the next hour running around my apartment repeating “Jessica Westhead likes my story” to myself.

I started the MFA program, having published nothing, and faced a class where it seemed like everyone had a huge writing CV. I re-read Jessica’s email. I got up the nerve to ask her about working with me and with her help refined it a little more.

I sent that story around to a dozen places. I collected a dozen rejections. I decided it was done, it sucked, there was no point in sending it anywhere else. Clearly, I sucked. I put it away. Months passed. I pulled it out again, looked at it again. Everyone hated it, but I still liked it. Jessica had liked it. I sent it back out to a dozen more places. I collected a dozen more rejections. Put it away. Pull it out again. Collect more rejections. I sucked.

The other story I had written got published. My first publication. Other work I wrote got published. I had a play produced. Maybe I didn’t entirely suck. But this story was being rejected left, right and centre. Put it away. Pull it out again. Was there something wrong with me that I still liked this story that everyone hated? Was this hubris? Collect more rejections.

A few places gave me some feedback on the story. Conflicting feedback. One said it was too on the nose. One said it was too subtle. One gave me gardening advice.

I emailed Jessica. “Everyone hates this story but you!” She reminded me about persistence and taste. I stopped putting it away and kept putting it out there. Collect more rejections. Collect more rejections. Collect more rejections.

And then, four years and perhaps forty rejections later–we would like to publish your story.

I would like to say that I am now a supremely confident writer who has complete faith in everything I write. This is not true. This will never be true. Over and over again.


Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader (Part 1)

I’ve been on the editorial board for PRISM for close to a year now, and what that means is that instead of being rejected I get to reject other people. It’s less gleefully vengeful than it sounds.

I can’t speak for the entire magazine, but I thought I’d clear up a few myths about what makes a submission a Yes versus a No–at least for me. (If you want a more official sense of what happens to your submission, you can read that here.)

Myth: You need to sell yourself in the cover letter with your awesome personality and quirky life experiences.

WTF? A lit mag is not a popularity contest.

People subscribing to this myth probably think that they need to convince me to read the story at all. Not even remotely true. Everyone on the editorial board has to comment on every single story to explain why we gave it a yes or a no, which means each one gets read.

Myth: You need publication credits to be taken seriously because it shows you’ve made it.

I’ve actually been surprised at how many people submitting have extensive publication credits, particularly since I reject most of what comes in.

If you’ve never published and I reject your work, I can at least respect you for trying. But if you’ve published a lot and turn in something that’s gawdawful I have to wonder how it is that so many places published your work. (Oh, and I don’t care how many followers on Twitter you have. Yes, someone has told us this.)

Myth: Cover letters don’t matter because no one reads them anyway.

I read every cover letter before I read the stories. What I’m looking for is the completely batshit crazy cover letter that’s in every bunch, and that usually accompanies a completely batshit crazy story that isn’t even remotely publishable, which means I can reject it quickly and feel like I’ve made progress.

Otherwise, there’s some basic information I need to pick out (for example, due to grant rules I don’t understand, PRISM tries to publish a certain percentage of Canadian writers so where you are from matters) and the rest is only a mark of your professionalism.

Myth: I should be sure to suck-up and say how much I love the magazine.

Flattery gets you no where. I don’t care what you think of the magazine. Maybe the actual editor cares, but no one is going to publish you based on your love of the magazine. Especially if you say you love it and then turn in something wholly unsuitable.

Myth: A single typo will get you instantly rejected.

No. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t proofread your work, because you should, but if you’re capable of writing well, a typo here and there won’t sink you because it will be obvious that it’s just a silly typo. If you keep making the same grammatical or spelling error, however….

Myth: My work is spelled correctly and formatted nicely, so it will stand out.

No. Most of the work that comes in is competently written in the sense that the sentences are basically grammatical and the words are generally spelled correctly, and things are in a nice clear type. For all the warnings about sending in work that looks professional, I haven’t seen any that’s particularly unprofessional. (Although someone once drew us a picture.)

Myth: Modern software counts words, so I don’t need to put in the word count

This is probably my own pet peeve.  When I sit down to read submissions, it’s usually in between other things. I read online via Submittable, and so unless someone puts the word count in their document (preferably in the cover page) I don’t actually know how long it is when I start. I like the forewarning so I can plan my time. I also read in order of shortest to longest, because if a story is bad and short, at least I can get through it quickly.

Failure to put in the word count won’t get you rejected though.

Myth: If I want to make my story universal, I should avoid giving my characters names

I see this one a lot, and it annoys me every time: characters are referred to as “the man” or “the woman” for no good reason. I’ve never rejected a story for this reason specifically, but I’ve yet to come across something I’ve said ‘yes’ to that did this.

Universality does not come from being general. It comes from being specific. Think of any novel or story you read that really spoke to you. Chances are, it featured a character who had a name.

Myth: If I’m writing non-fiction, I don’t need to write it well because the story itself is so amazing and true!

I don’t see a lot of creative non-fiction in the slush-pile, but most of what comes in is poorly written. This is a literary magazine.  The quality of your words matter.  Creative non-fiction involves a lot more than just presenting a cool story.  You have to present that cool story well.

Myth: No one reads the whole story.

Totally wrong. I read everything until the end.  That said, on at least half of what I read, I can tell that this is not publishable after about 2 pages, and if the story is long I skim the rest.  About half of the other half fall apart at the end.  The remaining ones are either publishable, borderline or have more systemic issues.

That’s it for myths (for now.)  Was any of that helpful? Do you have any other questions? Let me know in the comments below.

And stay tuned for part II, where I talk in more detail about what actually happens when I reject a story, and what it really means.