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Thursday, August 17, 2006

On getting published

A few days ago, my sister-in-law ap and I had a brief conversation about writing and getting published (unfortunately, all our conversations were brief on this visit). She was commenting on my recent publishing successes and said “I guess I just don’t have as much confidence that people will be interested in the ordinary-ness of my life as you do.” Now, I could either take that as a compliment (ie. I have confidence in my writing) or as an insult (ie. my life is boring and I shouldn’t assume people want to read about it). I chose to interpret it the first way, ‘cause I’m not just “confident”, I’m optimistic. :-) I’ll leave it up to ap to correct me if I’m wrong. (By the way, ap is an amazing writer and the only reason she hasn’t gotten more stuff published is because she doesn’t send it out there!!)

Since then, I was reading Kvetch’s post about wanting to get published (she’s a great writer too – worth a visit – and I just ASSUMED she had a whole lot of confidence as a writer because she has such a great blog) and I threw my 2 cents worth into her already bulging comment box (she doesn’t think she’s got one o’ the “cool blogs” even though she can elicit 35 comments!)

These two interactions and a follow-up e-mail from Kvetch made me think that perhaps there are other people out there longing for that first publishing success who might like to hear about some of my experiences. At the risk of sounding horribly presumptuous and pretentious, I’m going to throw out a little unsolicited advice, even though I’m FAR from an expert. You see, a few years ago, when I facilitated an AMAZING, transformative eight week workshop on creativity (I say it was amazing not because it was mine, but because the people who participated made it so), I realized how rewarding and rich it felt to help unleash other people’s creativity. Giving eight women “permission” to set aside their busy lives for a little while each day and lose themselves in some creative venture felt like I was giving them the world. We all wowed each other with our creativity and inspiration, and we all walked away enriched from our interaction with each other. Because of that, I’ve learned the importance of sharing whatever wisdom and experience we have, even though it may feel like a mere pittance. And besides – it’s often easier to accept advice from an amateur with just a little more experience than ourselves (and hopefully still a reasonable amount of humility) than from a pro who’s left us in the dust long ago.

So here it is – my tips for getting published (in magazines, that is. I still haven’t figured out how to get a book published, although I’ve tried):

1. Start sending stuff out there. Sounds simple, I know. But you won’t get published if you don’t try. Polish up your best pieces, look for a few markets, and kiss those envelopes or e-mails good-bye. Also - it pays to have a back-up plan for a piece so that when/if it comes back rejected, you’re ready to send it to the next market before your bruised ego has a chance to stop you. And that leads me to my next point…

2. Get ready for rejection. Again, it sounds simple, but trust me, it can be painful. For every one of the 20 or so acceptance letters I’ve received, I’m sure I’ve gotten twice as many rejection letters. Sometimes my skin feels a little thin and I let the rejection letters dry up my attempts for awhile, but with some practice, I’ve gotten pretty good at rolling with the punches. The thing is, a rejection letter doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not well-written, it just means that it doesn’t work for their publication or their editor was having a crotchety day (we’re all human after all – even editors). I once had a piece rejected by a relatively small local publication, and then the very same piece (with absolutely no editing) was accepted by a much larger national publication. After several years of getting used to rejection, I’m happy to report that my acceptance letters now outnumber my rejection letters. It took a long time though!

3. Trust yourself. If you believe that you’re a good writer, and you’ve been told by lots of friends and maybe your high school teacher that you’re a good writer, believe it. Keep believing it after a string of rejection letters. Keep believing it after a bad case of writer’s block. Keep believing it even though some well-meaning relative suggests you’re wasting your time. Keep believing it until some editor finally catches on. Keep believing it when that well-meaning relative has to EAT CROW!

4. Say good-bye to perfection. Your piece will NEVER be perfect. You can keep polishing it until the cows come home, but you will still always find something that could be better – even after you see it in print. Give it up. Yes, it’s important to edit it a couple of times, and I usually set a piece aside for a day or two before doing a final read-through, but at some point you just have to trust that it is “good enough”.

5. Make sure you’re targeting the right market. Get to know the publication you’re sending to before you submit. Go to the library and browse through some old editions to get a feel for what kind of stuff they like to publish. You’ll never get a gardening piece published in a travel magazine (unless it’s about gardening in an exotic travel destination, I suppose). And you’ll never get a “George Bush rocks” piece published in a left-leaning political rag. If you like to write personal essays (my preference) rather than research articles, look for a publication with that personal touch.

6. Start small. You may dream of seeing your name appear in Time magazine or Reader’s Digest, but consider the fact that thousands (maybe millions) of other people want the same thing. Their editors are getting inundated with submissions, so their first inclination will be to look for what’s safe (since they have to sell millions of copies), and that tends to be the well-published writers. Instead, visit the library or local bookstore and look for some interesting independent magazines – the ones with a few less glossy advertisements. Whenever I’m in my favourite bookstore, I browse through the magazine racks to see if there are any new and interesting magazines I haven’t seen before. Chances are, they’ll be a little more willing to take a risk on an unknown writer with a unique idea. It may not get you notoriety or a guest spot on the Oprah show, but you’ll see your name in print and that, my friends, is a RUSH!

7. Read submission guidelines carefully. If it says they don’t want unsolicited material, don’t send an already completed piece. If it says they don’t want poetry, don’t try to change their minds, even if your poem is brilliant. If it says the maximum length should be 1500 words, don’t try to sneak in a 2000 word piece. You won’t be doing yourself (or them) any favours.

8. “No unsolicited material” does not necessarily mean you need to have an agent submit to that market for you. If the guidelines indicate that they don’t accept unsolicited material, it simply means they want to see a query letter first. Write a really compelling query letter about the piece you want to write (there are lots of sample query letters in writing books and probably on the internet), tell them why it would fit into their publication, and convince them you’re a good writer. Funny story - I once sent a query letter and attached a sample piece for them (something I’d written on my blog that was similar to what I was proposing I could write for the magazine) and they actually published the sample piece I sent without any edits!

9. Read lots of stuff similar to what you want to have published. I find that reading does a few things for me: a.) it inspires me and provides me with ideas for my own writing; b.) it reminds me that my life is just as interesting as the writers’ which gives me confidence to believe people will want to read what I write; and c) it gives me a good sense of what things people (and especially editors) are interested in reading. If you read something really good, make sure you send a note to the writer (if you can). I can hardly tell you how good it feels to get an e-mail from someone who’s been touched by something I wrote.

10. Look for newspapers and magazines that have a “your turn” section. Our local newspaper used to have a “View from Here” section that accepted submissions from anyone. I’ve had a few pieces published there and it’s a good way to get some practice and experience that good ol’ publishing rush. Even if you don’t get paid for it, it’s still good for the ego to have at least one publishing credit to your name.

11. Take risks. Yes, you’ve heard it before in lots of those “here’s how to change your life and become the person you dream of” inspirational talks and self-help books. Don’t bother with the books or tapes, just believe it and do it. You have to take a few risks now and then if you want to see your stuff in print. Send it out even if you’re not completely convinced it’s brilliant. Even though I said you should pay attention to submission guidelines and target carefully, sometimes it pays to be a little “on the edge”. Send stuff that stretches the boundaries a bit. Think about a new angle for an old story. Try something fresh. Dig down deep and be as honest as you can be, even if it means showing your weakness and vulnerability to the world. Someone will thank you for it.

12. Celebrate! Even if your first success seems minor compared to your writing idols’, celebrate your accomplishments. Tell all your friends, take yourself on an “artist’s date” (read The Artist’s Way for more inspiration), buy yourself a new book (or one of those independent magazines you’ve been leafing through) as a treat for your success, and then write some more. Since I haven’t gotten to a stage where I get paid hoards of money for what I write, I usually use the small cheques I get (or at least a portion of them) as a re-investment into my writing. I buy books, magazines, or cds that will further inspire my creativity. With the latest cheque I got, I bought a season ticket for the local theatre. I’d encourage you to do the same. (I’m still hoping for a cheque that will buy me a laptop computer, but I haven’t got there yet!)

There you go, folks, my “mere pittance”. I hope it inspires you in some small way to trust your creativity. When you get published, make sure you come back here and tell me about it. I’d love to celebrate with you!

(Oh, and by the way, I know all about the half-truths you tell yourself for not sending stuff out… “I don’t have to get published to feel good about my writing” and “oh, my stuff is meant for me, not for the public” and “I don’t need the attention or the gratification of getting published”. Fine. Be that way. But I’m pretty certain that everyone who likes to write would like to see their stuff in print in a real publication now and then even if they don’t admit it to themselves or anyone else. Go ahead and TRY!)

"If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never." - Kierkegaard

"If we all did the things we are capable of doing we would literally astound ourselves." - Thomas Alva Edison

7 comments:

Gina said...

Thanks, Heather. I don't think there is one person who thinks you are even slightly pretentious!

Coll said...

Such great tips for inspiring writers. I am certainly not surprised to learn that your works have been published.

Karla said...

That was awesome Heather. I've been taking some courses in professional writing and publishing, and it's a damn hard market to break into. The one thing my teacher stressed was the importance of a proposal letter and not to submit the actual article until they accept your proposal. Although in theory I can see how this would work, it hasn't worked to my advantage just yet (seems most editors want the actual submission). Your advice certainly didn't come across as pretentious. I think you've hit the nail on the head, and obviously have had your share of successes to know what works!

I'm tickled pink that an article I wrote will be published on the front page of the PBSO's newsletter this month! It's not paid, and it's not overly well known, but it's a start right? Another editor has considered an article for their winter magazine, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that one too.

I'm still working on number 2 (rejection). I think that is what's keeping me from submitting stuff more often. I'm a total softie and need to build up that confidence some more.

Linda said...

Great tips Heather. Your last paragraph could include those musicians I know who don't like to play for other people. They play only for their own enjoyment. Bah. Music, writing and all things creative must be shared. BTW I have received only one rejection letter and have not attempted anything else since!

Hope said...

Have printed this, great tips . I have always wanted to write and illustrate children's books.
I love oral storytelling and would love to put them on paper.

oshee said...

This is a great post! I am bookmarking it as I am sure to need it over and over again!

Thank you!

Bobita said...

I love you.

This is such a wonderful, wonderful post. And I could not have read it at a more opportune time.

I have written a children's book...2 rejection letters...and have let it sit for 5 months. But I'm sending it out again. Tomorrow.

And I have been toying with the idea of submitting some of my writing to magazines. So, I might do that tomorrow, too! :)

And, now that you have mentioned your creativity seminar and have referenced The Artist's Way...I love you more than I did before...and I already loved you a lot!

(Marriage proposal forthcoming!!)