Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
Pitching and Moaning: A Guide to Submitting Your Writing, Tony Tulathimutte (@tonytula), Catapult
For writers who enjoy breaking the rules, Tony Tulathimutte’s advice is a wakeup call. How do you pitch a piece to a magazine or submit to a literary journal? The best way to submit is to keep it simple.
Always follow the submissions guidelines, and don’t try to “stand out” in any of your submission materials, aside from the manuscript.
How do you write a cover letter? First impressions matter. Proofread copy, check for spelling errors and address the editor correctly. Don’t be stylish in your cover letter and keep it short. If your piece is rejected, refrain from clicking on the trash icon. Analyze the rejection.
Form rejection. The blow, but once you get a few hundred of them (like I have, not exaggerating), you’ll eventually feel numb to your core, which is how a working writer deserves to feel.
Personalized rejections. These are four-carat diamonds. First, they’re flattering—an editor took time out of her day just to tell you she’s a fan. Second, and more usefully, your name is now in the editor’s head.
If your piece is accepted, then what? It is prudent to know what is in your control. Often times, you won’t have control over the headline, photographs or how the piece is presented. When will you get paid? Tulathimutte says the process isn’t always fair, but offers advice on what to do.
It is grotesquely common for publications to be disorganized, late, and even delinquent in paying freelancers. If it’s been a week since you published with no pay, send them a quick follow-up email asking what the status of the payment is; take an increasingly terse tone with each successive weekly follow-up.
From draft to publication, the writer must learn how to submit, deal with rejections and acceptances, and how to tackle nonpayment. Juggling multiple hats become a given in the writing profession.
How to Immediately Improve Your Query Letter’s Effectiveness, Jane Friedman (@janefriedman), Jane Friedman
Crafting compelling characters, paying attention to imagery and writing lyrical sentences are key components in a well-written piece of work. However, to get noticed by agents, it is integral to write a query to garner interest in your novel or nonfiction premise. Jane Friedman shares critical advice on what to avoid in a query:
Remove anything that sounds like a book report. This is by far the biggest sin of most query letters. It’s where you try to explain in detail what happens in your book, thinking that the more intriguing or juicy description you share, the more interested the agent or editor will be.
Some writers make the mistake of describing their motivations for penning a book or decide to include the praise of family and friends who love their work. Avoid this strategy in your pitch. Brevity in your query is key.
Your query letter mostly consists of the story premise. You’ll also mention the basic facts of the work—title, word count, genre—and probably include a line or two about yourself. All together, your query length should be around 300 words, maybe less. If your query runs an entire single-spaced page, you’ve likely said too much. The query letter is about seduction; you want to leave something to the imagination, and you want to leave the agent/editor wanting more. Almost no one will complain that your query is too short.
Querying is an art too. Learning the subtleties is imperative in getting your foot in the door.
Don’t Make Yourself the Hero of Your Own Story, Elena Lappin (@elenalappin), Literary Hub
Elena Lappin accidentally landed in memoir. A phone call instantly changed the narrative of her birth story. She felt the need to grapple with this news by writing a memoir before returning to fiction. When she approached the crafting of her story, she learned difficult lessons about the process.
As it was my life, what could possibly go wrong? All I had to do, I thought—and my future publishers obviously agreed—was to write it. But a funny thing happens when you are still living the narrative that is the subject of your book: you become your own obstacle. The pitfalls of this situation are many, and they are fascinating—but only once one has survived the very real danger of failure.
As I work on my memoir, I found myself nodding my head at many of the points Lappin references in her piece. The obstacle I constantly face is the fear of hurting others when writing my truth. Where do I draw the line? How do I convey my reality without disrupting my relationships? Every writer has to come to terms with what he or she is willing to reveal and also anticipate the fallout from writing these truths.
A writer might go to incredibly convoluted lengths to avoid saying what they really want to say. But until they do, not a single word of their memoir is worth the proverbial paper it’s written on. In real terms, it is absolutely useless. All good writing, of any kind, must be fearless. But memoir writing requires a special quality of fearlessness. You have to reach the point of being completely ready to let the world inside your mind and soul, to expose your fears and vulnerabilities, and be prepared for the consequences.
Combating fear is only one pitfall that memoirists face. Lappin details other practices writers must avoid – don’t make yourself the hero of your own story, don’t talk about your memoir as you are writing it and most importantly, don’t confuse memoir with therapy.
Cry, if you want to. Don’t be embarrassed to be moved by what you write. Memoirs have a way of bringing out our hidden emotions, triggered by memories and thoughts that may have been dormant for a very long time. But don’t mistake these feelings for any form of therapy, and certainly don’t write a memoir as therapy. Writing comes from a different source.
In revision, I’ve detected places where I needed to pull back the confessional and focus on making my personal truth a relatable universal. Memoir is a form of catharsis for the writer, but also must find a way to resonate with the reader too.
Memoir writers – What are lessons that you learned in weaving your narrative? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.
When Writers Put Themselves in the Story, Joe Fassler (@joefassler), The Atlantic
In Joe Fassler’s piece, “When Writers Put Themselves in the Story,” he interviews Joshua Cohen, author of Book of Numbers and the idea of writers inserting themselves in the fiction they write. His inspiration is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double, in which the protagonist faces a mirror image of himself.
Cohen said this gesture dramatizes the anxiety novelists feel about the texts they write—the books that, in a sense, become doppelgängers stalking their creator. After examining the literary origins of The Double’s story, Cohen explained his attraction to writers (from Cervantes to David Foster Wallace) who write themselves into their fictions, his mistrust of the third-person narrative voice, and the crises novelists face in the Internet age: Who’s talking? Who’s listening? And how should we speak?
Cohen employs the same strategy as Dostoyevsky. His novel’s protagonist, “Joshua Cohen, a floundering novelist, is hired to ghostwrite the memoir of Joshua Cohen, founder of Tetration—a Google-sized tech company redefining the Internet search.” The intertwining of these connections is tricky and complicated. Which self is reality? This is the uncertain fun that has the potential to captivate readers.
Which is to say, we aren’t sure which world we’re in. Ancient or modern? Magic or science? Ultimately, the plot will pass judgment—but until then, the ambiguity intrigues.
Employing this technique is a challenge, but it forces the writer to hone his or her voice with a renewed purpose and will likely help the author readily extinguish any obvious cliches.
Painting the Snake: Ambient Accuracy in Creative Nonfiction, Jan Priddy, Brevity
With the advent of technology, there is a risk of skimping on research that requires a writer to delve into the nuances of a particular subject. Jan Priddy cautions against this approach in her piece, Painting the Snake: Ambient Accuracy in Creative Nonfiction.
Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.
Some nonfiction demands that we not only research, but ask questions of experts and explore the full terrain of what we intend to convey in our writing. Taking this extra step lends not only to the authenticity of the prose, but to the credibility of the writer.
It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious.
Readers are intelligent. They realize when a writer is more interested in rushing through the piece, instead of taking time to linger with the details. An insightful narrative requires patience with the process and a full understanding of the facts.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!