Archive | Fiction

Let’s Get Our Damn Books to Agents This March

agents this marchThis is a text exchange I had recently with a good friend and fellow writer who is determined to get her debut novel out to agents this March.

We both have novels we’ve been working on for a while. A long while. Every year we say this is the year. But so far, year after year hasn’t been.

For me, the process of writing this first novel has been an education in and of itself. I’ve lost count of the number of drafts, but this is at least the fifth. I have quite literally deleted thousands of pages. It is a completely different story than it was when I started and I am a much better writer.

So when is it done?

I don’t know. When well-meaning friends and family ask, I usually reply that I read a lot, and I know a good book from a bad one. My book will be done when I read it and think it qualifies as a good book. To put something out into the world before I’m happy with it would just be a mistake. But it won’t ever get there if I don’t put the effort into finishing it.

Currently, my novel is sitting in a drawer, which I actually consider an important part of the process. I need some distance from it. While I’m accumulating this distance, I am working on a second novel. But I think I would be ready to go back to the first novel in a few weeks.

For some reason my friend has decided that March 2017 is the month to shoot for. And why not?

If I take my draft out of the drawer on September 1, and finish a draft by the end of November, I could hand it off to a few trusted readers in December. That would allow me to get feedback in January, make revisions through February, and start sending it out to agents this March.

It’s not a bad plan. I really would like to finish that baby and get it out into the world. Emotionally, I toggle back and forth from feeling pretty good about it, though I know it needs work, and feeling like “hey, it was a good exercise, and nobody ever needs to see it.”

So I guess I need to get over the doubts and just get back to writing. Now, to address the text message from my friend – what kind of pushing do I want?

My husband suggested I write a donation check to the NRA (in some painful amount like $300) and give it my writing buddy. Then, if I don’t hit my deadline, she is allowed to drop it in the mail. That would be motivating, for sure.

Do any of my writer friends out there have methods of motivating themselves that have proven particularly effective?

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My Updated Submission Spreadsheet

Updated submission spreadsheetA few months back I shared a submission spreadsheet that I created in Google docs to track when and where I submit my short stories. If you missed that post, you can check it out here for a full explanation of what this thing is all about.

Since then, I have finished other short stories and have started submitting those as well. As I tossed those stories into the mix, it quickly became apparent that the spreadsheet needed a face lift. And since I’m not the only one out there submitting short stories to journals, I thought I would share the new and improved submission spreadsheet with all my fellow writers out there.

You can download the updated submission spreadsheet here.

And to help you make the most of it, here is a brief explanation of what each of the columns is for.

A. Status
This is usually “Submitted” or “Passed.” It sometimes says “ACCEPTED!” It is, clearly, the status of my submission. As a side note, I tend to grey out the rows with the status of Pass. It makes for easier scanning of the table as a whole.

B. My Rank
Generally I rank my submission priorities by circulation numbers (the way I figure, the larger a journal’s circulation, the more eyes will see my story). However, Column B is my acknowledgement that size isn’t everything. I use tiers and rank journals a 1, 2, or 3. So a journal that has a smaller circulation and would otherwise be low on my list, may still get a 1 because I really like it, or my story fits a themed issue they have coming up, or something.

C. Story Submitted
This is a key new column that I added when I started having more than one story out in the world at a time. You need to know what story you sent to which journal.

D. Date Submitted
A good thing to keep track of. Most journals don’t want to hear from you, but I feel like if it has been four months, it’s okay to drop them a line.

E. Name of Journal/Contest
Nuf said.

F. Submission Window
I found that while I was researching places to send my story I often came across journals that weren’t accepting submissions until, say, the first of September. So I make a note of the submission window.

G. Cost to Submit
The cost of submitting is something I’ve become hyper-aware of lately, as I am submitting more and more. This is simply for me to help budget future submissions. It’s also kind of depressing, and you can totally ignore that column if you want to.

H. Circulation
Not all journals list their circulation, but if they do, or if I can find it on Poets & Writers, I make a note of it. See B for my reasoning behind this.

I. Max Word/Page Count
Again, I found this useful as I started submitting more than one story at a time. I have some stories that are short (1,500 words) and some that are longer (15,000 words). Most journals have a range they’re looking for.

J. Prize or Payment
I tend to give priority to any journal or contest that actually pays cash money. Given how much I am spending to send things out (see G), it would be nice to be paid in more than copies.

So there you have it, the updated submission spreadsheet.

If you’ve made any modifications, or if you have your own method for tracking submissions, I would love to hear about them. This is, more than anything, an ongoing project and I am always looking for ways to improve on my methods.

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How to Write a Good Rejection, Says Me

I’ve been writing fiction for a number of years now, and I’ve sent a fair number of stories off to literary journals. Most, but not all, of those submissions have been met with rejection.

So I at this point I feel like I have a pretty solid sense of what makes a good rejection letter, and I have some thoughts to share. Let’s look at a few examples.

Here’s one I got recently from the Paris Review.

Paris Review good rejection
Now, there’s nothing terribly considerate about this rejection, but at least they don’t beat around the bush. Also, they get points for being old school and sending actual paper, even if it is cut in a way that suggests they didn’t want to waste any more paper than absolutely necessary. What’s that, like 1/8 of a page?

Okay. Onward.

Here’s an email I got from the editors at n+1

Dear Ms. Davila,

Thank you for your submission.

Unfortunately we don’t feel it’s a good fit for n+1, but thank you for thinking of us, and we wish you good luck in finding a home for it elsewhere!

Regards,
The Editors

I recognize that this is a form letter, but it’s nice. “It’s not a good fit…” Yeah. Okay. I can accept that. And they end with some encouragement (with an exclamation point no less). My soul is not crushed by this response. It just makes me want to write something even better and send it to them ASAP.

Then there’s this one, my absolute LEAST favorite form of rejection. Hold on to your hats, this is brutal.

Dear April Davila,

Thank you for your entry to XXX’s 20th Annual Literary Contests. Though your work was not selected as one of the winners or finalists, we wanted to let you know we enjoyed reading all the entries from a very strong group of submissions.

Okay, it’s a super form-letter-y response, but it’s not terrible. Then they go on…

We are pleased to announce the winners and finalists… (insert detailed list of every writer who won any recognition in their contest – it’s long)

And here’s where they kick you in the teeth:

All three winners will each receive $2000 and their winning entries will appear in the 2017 issue of XXX, which we hope to have out by June. Also, the finalists will be announced to our readers in this issue and each finalist will be offered publication in the issue with a payment of $500.

I try not to be a jealous person. I really do. But to accompany my rejection with the list of winners and a detailed description of the wonderful prizes that await them, just feels like rubbing lemon juice in a paper cut.

Ouch. Seriously.

If I were in charge (and yes, I know I’m not), I would have simply said something like: “winners will be announced at xy venue on xy date,” thereby allowing me to politely ignore the winners and go about my business.

Is that too much to ask?

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Studying with Barbara Abercrombie

Abercrombie seminarOn Sunday, I attended a one-day writing seminar in my new home town of La Canada. Honestly, the location was the only reason I signed up. My mom was in town, and the timing wasn’t great, but I’m on a bit of a mission to find a community of writers here and this seemed like an opportunity with some potential.

Funny enough, the person I most enjoyed getting to know was the instructor, Barbara Abercrombie, who doesn’t actually live or work in La Canada at all. But her son and his family do, and she is considering making the move from the west side to our little town. It would be a big shift. If you don’t live in southern California, it’s difficult to understand that the east side and west side are actually very different places.

You might think, what’s the big deal, it’s all LA, right? But you’d be wrong. West siders have the beach, east siders have the mountains, and between us is a world of traffic that only a fool would traverse on a regular basis. In fact, I’ve met many people who simply say they don’t cross Normandie, not for nobody, no how.

Anyhow, I’m getting off topic. Abercrombie usually teaches at UCLA Extension (on the west side). In fact, her teaching style reminds me a bit of my class with Mark Sarvas in the Extension program. She is very encouraging and diplomatic. She didn’t let anyone commandeer the room, but still left space for kidding around. And the class size was perfect. There were only six students in the room.

The group that hosted Sunday’s event is putting together another seminar for October 2. It would be awesome if we could get some east-side writers to represent and draw Ms. Abercrombie to our side of the city, if only for a day.

I can’t find any information online for it yet, but stay tuned. I will be sure to post about it as it gets closer.

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The Pros and Cons of a Writing Routine

Since quitting my job in December, my weekday writing routine has been to get the kids off to school, work on my writing for two hours, and then devote the remainder of my day to my freelance work until it’s time to go get the kids. It was a good routine, until it wasn’t.

The trouble with writing routines is that the smallest thing can throw them off and disrupt your writing. Never mind the big things, like moving.

That was the first disruption I had this year. Moving to a new home not only drained all my energy and made it hard to find anything, it also just messed up my routine. I can’t even say why exactly, but in the old house, when I sat down to write, my brain knew it was time to engage. At the new house I found I was distracted by the tiniest things.

Then, just as I was beginning to adjust to the new space, the kids finished up school, and changed up our routine all over again. This is the first summer that I’m not working full time, and I love being home with them, but my routine has taken a serious hit. I feel like I am always scrambling to find time for the work that needs to be done for my clients, and then I end up squeezing in my own writing whenever I have time – which I rarely do.

It has raised the question in my head: is it more productive to have a regular writing routine, or better to avoid routine and be able to write anywhere, any time?

I would love to hear from the other writers out there, particularly those with kids. How do you juggle everything? Do you stick to a routine, or fly by the seat of your pants? I’m looking for a detailed daily breakdown here. Help a writer out.

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Keep The Channel Open

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

-excerpt from Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham- A Biography

I love this quote. It reminds me who I am writing for: me. I write the stories I want to read, but it is a challenge every day to not compare myself with other writers. Every day I strive to keep the channel open, to not think about whether my work is valuable or not. I struggle every day to set aside the question of whether or not I even believe in myself.

Martha’s words remind me that writing is an art, and that I have a unique voice to add to the chorus of voices out there. In the same way I sing in the shower, I endeavor to write like nobody is reading, just for me.

This is probably only going to get harder, because eventually I do plan to pitch my novel to agents, and I hope to sell my book to a publisher, who will then attempt to market it to the masses. Every step of that process sounds like an exercise in humility.

But I guess I’ll jump off those bridges when I get to them.

For now – I write, and keep the channel open.

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The Very Real Costs of Submission

the cost of literary journal submissionI was looking at my journal submission spreadsheet the other day. I got another rejection (ug) and so I was checking to see where to send my story next.

I’ve blogged before about how I try to see rejection as getting closer to acceptance, but as I scrolled down the list of places I’ve submitted to over the past few months, it occurred to me that almost every time I send my story out I pay a fee.

Reading fees are modest, yes, but they do add up. In my experience, they fall somewhere between $10-15, with the average closer to $12. So far, I’ve submitted my most recent story 30 times. That’s about $360 in submission fees, give or take.

Considering that, when the story is finally published (as I’m confident it will be), payment will be in copies, the money I’m spending in pursuit of publication is not money that will be recouped. So what am I getting for my money?

The word that comes to mind is encouragement. Especially given that my most recent short story is an excerpt from the novel that I’m working on, having a journal publish it would be so encouraging.

There is also the slim, but real, chance that an agent might see my story and be interested in seeing more from me. That would be the best possible income.

But how much is that worth to me?
$500?
$1,000?

I can think of a lot of ways I could spend $1,000. None of them would get me an agent, but they are all better than pissing money away. If I simply want to throw money around, a weekend in Vegas would be a lot more fun.

I need to think seriously about the balance between cost and reward here. Maybe there are grants available for submission fees. Or maybe I should be submitting to contests with prizes instead of literary journals. Any writers out there have some wisdom on this one? I would love to hear it.

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Old Longings and New Homes

Old longingsFor my birthday, a friend gave me a copy of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” by Rebecca Solnit. The title seemed appropriate, as this is a friend I used to get lost with all the time. We’ve happened upon glaciers in Canada, explored the Mojave desert by moonlight, and wondered through Berkeley on mushrooms. We’re good at getting lost.

Normally, I’m not really into books that just kind of explore ideas without plot or purpose, but this one is so beautifully written that I made it all the way through, underlining several passages along the way.

In one section of the book, she talks about “strays and captives,” people who are far from home, with every intention of returning from where they’re from. She writes about the “stunning reversal” that often happens when, at some point, “they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” She goes on:

For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized that the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time…

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of stories and how to end them. So many stories are about people with old longings trying to find something or get somewhere, only to realize that what they really needed was right in front of them all along. It’s a satisfying ending.

The transformation of longing into recognition makes for good story because of the suffering that comes between the two. We try to get home, or go back, or find the love lost, but striving only brings suffering. When we let go and recognize that we are home, or that we have what we need, the suffering ends.

This is not true just for story either. It’s something to consider in our lives: the things we hang on to cause suffering. And maybe that’s why it rings so true in fiction.

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Celebrate Milestones

celebrate milestonesWriting a novel takes a long time. As my teacher Mark Sarvas told me once, you have to celebrate milestones along the way, because if you wait to celebrate just one final step (say, publication) you have to wait a long, long time.

So I am very happy to announce that I have finished (yet another) draft of my novel. Yay!

In truth, I wasn’t even going to blog about it, because it doesn’t feel like a very big deal. I’ve been here before. Officially, I think this is the seventh draft I’ve finished, but why bother taking classes if you aren’t going to listen to the advice that gets doled out? Tonight, we celebrate.

Another piece of oft-repeated Sarvas advice is to put your draft in a drawer and leave it there for a while so you can come back to it with a fresh eye for rewrites. I plan to follow that bit of advice as well, but not just yet. I have a few things I want to do before I put it aside. First, I am considering a new opening scene that needs to be written. Second, I want to go through, scene for scene and just make sure that I’m hitting the beats I intended to. Then, once I’m satisfied that it is actually a solid new draft, I will put it in a drawer.

I’m thinking I’ll leave it there all summer. I’m going to take the opportunity to work on my next novel. If you’ve been following along for oh, I don’t know, years, you know I hit a wall with novel number 1 a while back and took a break to outline novel number 2 – a story that’s been gaining steam in my head since way back before I was even a writer. It’s the story that made me want to be a writer. I am very excited to get back to working on it.

Doughnut anyone?

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Goodbye UCLA

UCLA extension writing groupThis evening is my last UCLA Extension class for the foreseeable future. Over the past six months, I’ve taken two extension courses, Novel IV and Novel V, with Mark Sarvas, and they have both been great classes.

I have mixed feelings about being done. Sarvas is offering a revisions class over the summer, but I didn’t sign up. I would have to miss more than a couple sessions, due to travel for weddings and whatnot, and more than that, I just felt I needed a break.

Homework takes up a lot of time, and making it across town to campus once a week takes commitment. With the kids off school, my schedule isn’t going to get any easier. My biggest challenge over the next three months is going to be finding time to write at all, let alone read and give feedback on the writing of others.

Still, these UCLA Extension classes have been a real touchstone for me. It’s been good to have a group of writers to get together with once a week. As you know, my writing group isn’t what it used to be (more on that soon, as promised), and landing in a new town has left me without an immediate group of creative types to share ideas with.

I think that’s where I need to focus my efforts. I am coming up on the end of a new draft of my novel, and I want to find a group of writers on the east side (preferably in La Canada) to work with. It might be time to bite the bullet and try meetup.com. I suppose it couldn’t hurt.

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