From The Publishing Trail

You’re a Big Failure. Here’s How to Succeed.

I got your attention, didn’t I? It’s very rare for people to actually tell us that we’ve failed. And yet there’s probably no more universal a feeling than the feeling of failure. It happens when we do badly on a test or lose a race; for writers and creative folks, it happens when we get that rejection in the mail, or just when we look at the great yawning gap between what we want to achieve and what we have actually done. There’s no worse a feeling than when we fail, and we begin to doubt everything we’re doing. We begin to think that one failure, or a series of failures, means we ourselves are failures; maybe there’s just something fundamentally lacking and untalented in our cores.

The secret is, everyone is a big, flailing failure.

Attending a conference panel discussion on failure recently, I felt the whole audience breathing a sigh of relief as each accomplished, published, award-winning writer on the panel admitted to us that they, too, were failures. The writers told us about the days when everything seemed to be going wrong; when no one would read their work, or thought they could succeed. At that stage of their careers, they needed to hear about other people’s failures, because it can be heartening, sometimes, to remember that other people go through this too.

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The Rising Rollercoaster of AWP

AWP! Each year that you attend this massive conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, each year you crack open the wallet and plunge for the airfare to another city you’ve never visited, your emotions are taken on a wild climb, dip, and climb. For those of you unfamiliar, the thing that briefly took over the writerly corner of Twitter this week was an annual conference held in different cities each year for writers and all their ilk. It includes back to back panels led by publishers, agents, and writers, as well as a massive bookfair in which every literary magazine and MFA program under the sun has booths, tote bags, cheerful interns, and endless swag. It’s an exhilarating time for writers, particularly because we are a solitary lot, and it provides a time for socializing, boozing, and a healthy dose of motivation. 

I’ve been twice now, and it can feel a bit like a ten-year high school reunion that’s held every year. The first year, in Boston, I was barely out of my MFA program and somewhat terrified at the idea of talking to anyone. I couldn’t imagine nosing my way into a conversation or confidently speaking about my work. I had business cards made up but ended up giving them to no one. The panels were informative but I don’t think I was fully ready to absorb much of their advice. What a change a few years makes!

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3 New Skills Writers Need to Make It

Let’s face it: the world of writing, and writing careers, have changed drastically in the past decade. The internet and social media have changed what it means to be a writer, who can call themselves writers, and how we can succeed in this difficult world. If you’re a writer, you have to be a shark, constantly moving forward with the tide of how the culture reads. Here are three skills every budding writer should work on (on top of all that writing, of course).

1. Creating an online platform and persona.
Do you know how John Green won the hearts of millions? It all started with a Youtube channel he created with his brother, talking about his thoughts, telling jokes, and crafting funny videos. From there he created a platform of fans ready to read and enjoy his books. Today, many writers are expected to have a firm online presence. That might mean posting on Twitter or Facebook, or gaining fans and followers on sites like Teen Ink. If you want your writing career to take off, start creating relationships with followers online. Tell them your thoughts and solicit theirs.

2. Networking with other writers.
Never has it been more clear that connecting with other writers is a crucial skill. It’s a myth that writers must work in isolation; while the actual work needs peace and quiet, the other part of writing has always been about community. You can go back to Hemingway in Paris and note that he spent most of his time chatting with fellow writers in cafes, sharing his talent and helping with others’ writing. Being part of that community is still important today; after all, if you spread the word about a friend’s book, he’ll spread the word about yours! Think about making friends of other writers. Start a creative writing club at your school or a workshop circle. Share each others’ words, and you’ll be glad for those friendships in the years to come.

3. Be your own editor.
In the past, famous writers could dump a patchwork, sloppily-written manuscript at the desk of their editors and expect it to be polished to perfection. Now that competition is fiercer, what you put on the editor’s desk has to be near-perfect already. Whenever you send out stories to magazines, remember to POLISH it first! Make sure you’re happy with it in every way before it flies out of your hands; editors, agents, and publishers are hardly likely to be impressed with a story you’ve dashed off without a second thought.

What skills do you think you need to become a writer? And what’s your plan for working on them?

Boston Launch Party!

At our second launch party in Boston, we rocked the Middlesex Lounge. We introduced the mission of Two Cities, held a raffle, heard contributor L. Michael Hager read from his work, and met some great new literary friends. Thanks to everyone who came out for the event, and thanks as well to our wonderful writers.

Here’s our reader, L. Michael Hager:

This means that issue 1 is officially launched! You can read it online at our Current Issue page, or you can buy a print copy online at the following link, at Lulu:

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Keep following us for more thoughts on the city literary life, and don’t forget to Submit your work for our summer issue of Two Cities Review!

Keeping A Few Pots on the Burner

As you have heard, I’ve got a lot of things going on in my writing, teaching, and editing careers right now. I’m finalizing a version of my novel, and I’m also beginning to tentatively send it out. I’m maintaining this blog and writing for another; and I’m in the process of starting and co-editing a new literary magazine, Two Cities Review. That isn’t mentioning my day job as a writing teacher. That’s quite a lot of activity!

I know I’m not unusual in this regard; most of us are absolutely swamped by different demands and activities these days, and we’re struggling to further our creative lives at the same time. The tendency is to attend to our most pressing, short-term needs, such as that looming deadline or that aspect of the day job, while neglecting the projects that require a longer view. This is why it takes people so long to finish their novels, if they finish them at all. But years later, if we look back and see that we didn’t think long, we’ll regret it. The difference between that talented writer who published her book and that talented writer who didn’t is often a question of who devoted herself more to that book’s getting out there and getting read.

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How to Write a Query Letter

IT’S TIME. You’ve finished not just the first draft of your novel, but at least the third or fourth. You’ve edited and sweated, worked and thought and re-imagined. You’ve figured out what your novel was missing and you’ve finally given it what it needed. It’s time to write that query letter to an agent, seeking publication.

How does one actually write this most dreaded of letters?

My goal today is to give you a little insight into the process, and share my own process as I embark on the publishing trail myself. It’s not going to be an easy journey; in fact, this stage of the journey might end up being longer and more harrowing than the actual writing part. But we’re going for endurance here. We writers are marathoners; we know we need more than a sprint. So today, let’s go into the typical components of an agent query letter.

1. Show your connection
The first step is to establish any personal connection you might have with the agent. This is assuming that you’ve already done your research and picked out a list of your top agents, the ones who would be a perfect fit for you and your novel. That’s a topic for another post. But if you have any sort of connection to this agent, now is the time to share it. You may have met the agent at a panel discussion or at a cocktail party or at a reading; that’s a great way to establish a relationship. If you haven’t been so lucky, there are still ways to find connection in today’s modern age. Maybe you read the agent’s blog or twitter feed; that’s something to mention in a natural way.

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Participate in the Writing Community

Another rejection, we grumble when we get a rejection slip from a magazine we barely know in the mail.

Why don’t they understand my work, we think, about a magazine we haven’t bothered to get to know.

I deserve to be paid for my writing, we say, about a magazine we’ve never bothered to pay for to read.

There are variations on this mindset throughout the writerly community. We desperately want to be part of the group; we want to be accepted and celebrated as members. And yet we are unable to pay our dues, whether financial or just in terms of an investment of attention and time. We don’t read what we should read; we don’t take the time to learn and participate in the very community we’re trying to join.

Sometimes it seems like a person trying to join a country club who won’t bother to learn the game of golf or talk to the other members. I just want to eat the free snacks and sit by the pool, they say. I don’t want to actually invest in the community.

Snooty country clubs aside, there are ways that we really should invest ourselves in the writing community. And the good news is that if we do, we’ll get a number of things out of it, including easier acceptance into that exclusive society.

1. Read more magazines

We all know there isn’t time to read every literary magazine under the sun. We’re already drowning in our RSS feeds, and we can’t afford to buy every one. But if we don’t choose a select few, then we’re not contributing at all to the world we claim to love. I choose to read and subscribe to a few favorites, including The New Yorker (duh) and the excellent One Story. The great thing about One Story is that you don’t get swamped in reading material — every few weeks you just get one killer story in the mail. (Full disclosure — I used to intern for One Story. But I chose to intern for it because I love the quality of the magazine). Pay enough to subscribe to a couple magazines you love, and you’ll be doing your part to keep the writing world alive.

The other benefit of reading these magazines is that you will actually be getting to know the kinds of things they publish. Untold numbers of stories are sent to magazines when the author has never even glanced at a copy. Knowing what the editors like will give you a big leg up.

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Guest Post: What it Takes to Be a Writer

This week’s guest post is from blogger and freelance writer Allison. She’s continuing our discussion of personal publishing stories by adding her testimonial today.

What it Takes to be a Writer

You know, when I got the idea that I wanted to be a writer as a profession I did not really understand what that meant. I had some romantic notion that writing was an easy thing. Something you could do with no problem. I would sit down at my computer and type out a novel or two, get it published and I would be a real writer.

As I got older the dream dimmed. I had not written a novel. I had not time to devote to that sort of thing. I figured that it was almost impossible to make any money as a writer. I mean, you had to be successful like J.K. Rowling or something, right? And there were no real other writing jobs out there beyond a novelist or journalist or technical writer. Ug. I had zero desire to write the latest article on sports news or weather.

So I worked one dead end job after another, trying to find a calling that would pay. After making some okay money I found myself increasingly dissatisfied. I wanted to write. Not just as a hobby like baking or hiking, but as a day in day out job. But how could I get started? I did not have a degree in writing. I had not had anything major published outside of some school stuff. I had not even written anything really for three years. Who would hire me?

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Guest Post: 5 Things to Do to Get Your Book Published

This week’s guest post is from web writer Nick Anderson. He writes about The 5 Steps You Need to Take in Order to Get Your Book Published.

Getting a book published is not simply a matter of having an idea. If you are an aspiring writer, or even an experienced one, and want to get your book published, here are the five important steps to follow.

1. Come up with an idea – the idea is of course the basis of the book. Your main concept or idea will determine whether your content is good enough to publish. If you have an original idea that has been floating around in your mind, discuss it with some trusted friends and colleagues who can give you an honest opinion about it. Having an original or inspired idea is always useful, because a calculated assessment of current trends can only help you a certain amount.

2. Do Your Homework – once you have an idea you can think about who the audience is meant to be for your book. Is it meant for children? If so, what age? Is it mainly intended for boys, or girls, or both?

Knowing your audience will help you when you begin writing your manuscript. Your target reader will determine how you develop characters and the style in which you write. Doing your homework also includes making a broad and loose outline for your story. This may help you by acting like a framework when you flesh out the book.

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When Is My Story Ready for Publication?

As a creative writing teacher, I usually focus on the craft and art of writing. We talk in class about sentence structure, story, pacing, character development; we discuss word choice and mood. But students are always hungry for something else, too; they want to know, of course, about getting published. They want to know about getting famous, about seeing their names in print. Here at Writerly Life, I want to satisfy that need as well, and provide what information I have about the typical publishing trail, from stories to agents to novels to everything in between. It’s about time to devote a little time to that issue once again, the issue of knowing when your story is ready to go out.

Let me preface this conversation with two warnings: first, anyone trying to become rich and famous by writing has been misled. That’s not really why writers write, and it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Instead, we can think about finding an audience, of entering the world of words, and strive for that. And my second warning is that your story is never really, totally, one hundred percent ready. Something more can always be done. And in fact, even if it is accepted somewhere, it will pass through another round of edits, another gauntlet or two of changes. The only thing we can do is make it the absolute best that we can.

In that way, knowing when our work is ready to be sent out might be a bit like sending children out the door. There’s no one moment when the story is all grown up, but there might be a moment when you just can’t have it under your roof anymore, and it’s time for that story to sink or swim. Before that moment, though, you can give it every chance in life. Here are a few key tests your story should be able to pass before you send it out.

1. Is it polished?

The first and most obvious criteria for a story is whether it has been polished to a professional level. Are there any grammar mistakes? Is the punctuation correct? Any typos? Have you read through for homonym mistakes, or just used spell check? Are the page numbers there? Is your name on every page? These little things are the easiest way to prepare your story, but they’re no less crucial for that.

2. Have you closed plot holes?

Have you read through the story and found everything to be logically consistent? Are there any continuity errors, like saying the character’s eyes are brown on page 3 but green on page 5? And in a larger way, does the ending make sense? Does the story make sense? Is it believable, or are there moments you halfway doubt? If there is even a moment that you think might be a little hard to believe, consider changing it. You, after all, are the person on the planet with the most inside understanding of this story, and if even you doubt a portion of it, there’s no hope for others to believe it.

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