Interested in publishing your creative nonfiction at Literary Mama?
Our creative nonfiction editors read between 30 and 50 submissions every month and aim to publish two or three in each issue. I asked longtime editor Kate Haas and former editor Lisa Factora-Borchers to share a few comments about the submissions they receive.
KC: The LM guidelines encourage submissions with “fresh voices, superior craft, and vivid imagery” and in CNF, one of the things you look for, in particular, is a compelling narrative. What components make a narrative “compelling”?
KH: Scenes. Dialogue. Strong characters. It’s not enough to simply reflect on a situation. We want a narrative that draws readers in, where something happens, and where the writer arrives at some moment of insight. We’re all hardwired to like stories, and a good story is what we look for. Yet a good story does not require a hugely dramatic incident as its impetus. The kernel of a terrific narrative can spring from something quite mundane: a moment with a screaming toddler, the acknowledgment that your pediatrician is kind of hot, or a strange kid’s comment at the playground.
LFB: What I find most compelling is the point at which the scene, dialogue, and character development not only flows well, but the writer captures a uniquely-expressed but universal insight about motherhood. I’m compelled when the writer pulls me into the corner of her world and can describe the taste of a crumb, the ache of a memory, or the release of a burden in a way that sears its vibrancy in my memory.
KC: Each piece you’ve ushered to publication is sure to have had its own revision/editing issues, but has there been an over-arching issue—such as grammar or narrative structure—that’s been a constant teaching point? Or, in other words, are there two or three grammar or narrative structure “mistakes” that you commonly see and would encourage writers to make special note of as they write?
KH: Telling, rather than showing, is the most common “mistake” we see, especially at the beginning of a piece. For example, a writer will begin with a bland statement like: My life changed when I had a baby. More compelling to us is a scene detailing the dirty dishes piled high, the unanswered emails, the wailing baby, the mother’s ambivalence. My particular pet peeves include referring to oneself and other women as “mommies,” and the word “boobs.”
LFB: My biggest pet peeve is when writers forget that there is a difference between telling a story and crafting a personal essay. Writers should not expect extraordinary circumstances to carry an entire piece. It’s the artful selection and careful drawing out of insight, lesson, and meaning of those circumstances that shift a story into a well-crafted literary essay. In other words, don’t just tell me the story. Tell me its meaning.
KC: What kinds of questions should writers ask themselves as they’re writing pieces of nonfiction?
KH and LFB:
- Can I craft my experience into a compelling story that will have meaning to others, not just myself?
- Can what I just explained in the last paragraph be conveyed via a scene?
- There’s a lot going on in my essay; what is the story I really want to tell?
- Am I including this because it deepens the story for the reader or because I have an attachment to that specific point or memory?
- I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this; how I am telling MY story so it’s authentic, powerful, and unique?
KC: I imagine you get tons of submissions about giving birth and babies. What topic is not as widely addressed that you’d love to read about?
KH: I would love to see more submissions focusing on motherhood during the middle school and high school years. That was such a fraught time for many of us, and I’m interested in essays about navigating our own kids through those rough waters.
LFB: I love reading about the complexities of motherhood and identity. I was always looking for high quality literary essays that gave voice to issues pertaining to race, politics, sexuality, faith, and non-binary identities.
KC: What authors/writers do you enjoy reading? Why?
KH: I am a huge fan of Ursula le Guin, because she is such a wise, thoughtful, imaginative writer. Her science fiction has a wonderful, anthropological bent, and I can’t count the times I’ve read my favorite of hers, The Dispossessed. I also love Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, particularly those featuring Harriet Vane, for their wit and literary allusions. And for one novel that combines the three themes of marriage, motherhood, and friendship between women, Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz cannot be beat.
LFB: This is probably the worst question to ask a writer or editor! The list is too long. Right now, I am specifically exploring writers of color who did not stay within one genre. I enjoy comparing the writer’s style and format when they write across genres and examine their strengths and struggles on the page.