Editors Are People, Too (Just So You Know)

As a writer myself, I totally understand the frustration of trying to read an editor’s mind and understand the why behind lengthy edits or outright rejections. What’s going on?

I’ve been encouraging my professional writing students to be aware of and submit to literary magazines as an outlet for their creative writing. Some of them were only aware of a few such locations to send their writing, others didn’t know about lit mags at all, others knew only about contests and didn’t enter often because of the submission fee. But with the thousands of literary magazines out there (I just discovered Duotrope and used it to help me locate lit mags that publish in my genre), anyone can build a list of locations for future submissions. Literary magazines don’t generally pay (although a few do), but the by-line and exposure are invaluable. So this semester, each of my students will be researching lit mags and building lists.

As with any publishing house, however, the writing needs to pass muster for any number of reasons in order to get published.

That’s why I love this article by Savannah Thorne over at one of my favorite websites for following the world of literary magazines, “The Review Review” (and thanks to Becky Tuch for creating it!). Savannah was accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Conclave: A Journal of Character, only to find that the magazine was possibly going to close down. So she took the amazing step of taking it on as managing editor and turning it around.

Her article, “What the Editor Sees (That the Writer Does Not)offers wonderful insight from a writer turned editor into the world of editing a literary magazine. She describes for writers what happens after you’ve hit “submit.” And why it takes so long to hear back. And what you should do when you get a rejection. And why you should keep trying. And, yes, why it takes so long to hear back.

I’ll wait while you click on the link above and read her article . . . [pause for a refill on whatever I’m currently drinking]

What’s the takeaway? Do your research, write well, keep on writing, keep on submitting. Editors have any number of reasons for accepting some pieces and rejecting others–and often it’s just a gut feeling about a particular piece.

As I said in this post about how editors really aren’t “failed writers” with, as Martin Eden would say, nothing but failure in their past causing their desire to make life miserable for writers who are still trying. Instead, editors are slogging through piles of submissions, many of which are probably great, looking for the excellent, something that sings to them, something that they want to publish in the magazine about which they care so much.

No, you can’t know what that is necessarily. But write your best. Get critiqued. Keep writing. Keep submitting. If someone rejects it, try somewhere else.

Don’t give up, my friend. Keep writing what is truly you. As Herman Melville once wrote, “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.”

5 Pledges of Literary Citizenship

In the grand tradition of “last lectures,” Cathy Day posted a note to her students on the Literary Citizenship blog at the end of her class this semester. It’s not really a final lecture since the class will be taught again for another group of fortunate students; the post is more of a wrap-up of everyone’s accomplishments.

And for me who got to sit in on the class this semester, it was a way to think about who I am in this literary world.


I took the challenge and revised my blog to focus on my literary life, and I invited you to join us on the journey as I learned what it meant to be a good literary citizen. Bottom line:

Be interested in what others are doing.

I was doing that, but not in a visible way. Now I “like” and comment on blogs. Now I follow Facebook pages of literary magazines and authors. Now I link to other people’s blogs. Now I’m finding people on Twitter who are as passionate about editing and proofreading and good grammar as I am. Now I write notes to authors I appreciate and thank them for inspiring me.

I learned to write about my passions. I decided to focus on areas of editing and grammar, with nods to all kinds of other topics (it is my blog after all). It was great to stake out a territory and then look around for folks already there and join them.

I learned some technical things like how to tag and categorize posts (yes, I CAN talk about things other than grammar) and how to better use Twitter. I learned about book reviewing.

And I’m finding my tribe.

As any great teacher will, Cathy challenges her students not to stop now that the class is over. This is about building a literary life, after all. At the end of her post on the Lit Cit blog, she challenged us with a few questions. I encourage you to think about them for yourself, but here are my pledges of citizenship in the literary world:

I pledge to continue to blog on a regular basis and to share with my readers great books, bloggers, articles, and ideas (yes, and even great grammar!). At times, I’ll write about what I’m doing, but that’s not the focus. It’s not all about me (that’s just true on so many levels. Wow . . . wouldn’t our world be a better place if we all adopted that mantra?).

I pledge to write a personal note to someone at least once a week to thank that person for his or her contribution to the literary world.

I pledge to keep finding, following, and connecting with folks in my tribe. And then I’ll talk about them so more people can know them.

I pledge to be continually interested in what other people are doing.

I pledge to talk about literary citizenship whenever and wherever I can. It’s that important.

Have you pledged citizenship?

A Little Thank You

During the last weeks we’ve been building our tribes, looking at our bookshelves, finding out who inspires us.

Who did you discover? What is it about that person’s writing that does it for you?

You know what you need to do next?

You need to write a “charming note.”

The term comes from a book by Carolyn See called Making a Literary Life (Random House, 2007). She advises that every day, five days a week, you write a charming note to someone whose work you appreciate.

Literary lifeShe actually writes notes–you know, with stationery and an envelope and a stamp. Awhile back, I personally wanted to reignite the art of letter writing and I began to actually write letters to various and sundry friends. Alas, I didn’t get any back, although a few responded by email.

If you have some nice stationery gathering dust in a desk drawer somewhere, pull it out. Carolyn says in her book not to use anything floral or those notes with the Monet paintings on them, but personally, I think the very fact that you might actually write a note and mail it cancels out the flowers or Monet (although seriously, think about the impression you give by what the note looks like). She suggests getting some of your own stationery with your name professionally printed at the top–like those old-time calling cards. Not a bad idea. Of course you’re writing to them and it’s about them, but it can’t hurt to have your name on your correspondence in a classy way.

You don’t have any stationery, you say? Just some note cards with your last initial on them? That’s okay. Get started.

Seriously, it’s never been easier.

If you want to actually write a physical note to a physical address, you might be able to locate an address online, or at least a publisher’s address. You can always write to the author in “care of” a publishing house.

If you’re just not the “find a stamp” type, write your note by way of the person’s web site. Or find him or her on Facebook and write it there. Or Tweet it if you have to (it’ll have to be really short . . .).

Now, who was the last person who “wowed” you? You need to tell him or her. You need to write a charming note.

Carolyn See suggests this to her students: “Why not divide the note into three paragraphs of three lines each–the first one about their work that you like so much, the second saying who you are and why the work touched you, the third suggesting politely that you’re looking forward to the next thing they’re going to write?” (45).

And don’t be embarrassed. Think about it. How do you feel when someone takes the time to thank you–for anything? Sure, if you write to Stephen King to tell him how On Writing changed your life, you may never hear from him. But write to Alice Hoffman who published a wonderful essay about the “permission to write” titled “Introduction: Storyteller” in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares magazine and chances are you might hear back from her. Then check out her novels and children’s books. You might make a new friend, a new person to add to your tribe because she inspired you.

Write to someone who is unknown and just starting out, and imagine how much it will mean to that person!

As citizens of the literary world, we should show our appreciation for others’ work by letting them know, and then letting others know.

Do that by blogging about it and sharing links, by talking about it, by buying the books or subscribing to the journals and . . .

. . . by writing “charming notes.”

If five times a week is daunting, then just do it once a week. Surely at least once a week you read something you like. It doesn’t have to rock your world–maybe it just made you think, or inspired you, or gave you a new idea.

Be willing to cross genres. If you’re a nonfiction writer, read fiction, poetry, flash. Gaze at some photographs in that literary magazine. It’s okay to write the poet and thank him or her for a piece that moved you—even if you didn’t fully understand it. You don’t have to be a scholar, just an appreciative audience.

It doesn’t even have to be “literary.” Perhaps the article by Carrie Neill in the November/December 2012 issue of Poets & Writers (“The Medium Is the Message”) about the future of print publishing helped you understand something that was heretofore mysterious.

And it doesn’t have to be current. Maybe what you read was from the 2005 issue of Ninth Letter that you found at the library or on the table at your doctor’s office (really? Give me the name of that literary doctor!). In any case, who cares how long it’s been? Art is art. Inspiration is inspiration. Write a note.

Be sincere. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about trying to network or “brown-nose.” Remember, we’re all just writers in this together, keeping literature and books and good writing alive.

Say thank you.

Remember what your mom taught you? A little thank you goes a long way.

Who Inspires You?

Who is in your tribe? I know I’ve been thinking about that this past week and considering who I want to travel with in this literary life.

This week I read (and highly recommend to you) Austin Kleon‘s book, Steal Like an Artist (Workman Publishing, 2012). It’s a fast read, a little book with lots of fun visuals that packs an important punch when it comes to our discussion of literary citizenship.
One of his points is that there’s nothing new under the sun, so all of us are really getting our ideas from other people–“stealing” them as it were. “The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect the things that they really love. . . . Your job is to collect good ideas” (13-14).

Where do you collect good ideas? Your tribe and the conversations you have and the books you share and the literary magazines you read and the bloggers you follow–those are places to start. And Austin Kleon advises that you look to history as well. What classic books do you absolutely love? Which ones are on your shelves because . . . well, just because they do something for you? They speak in a way that no one speaks anymore. Find that one author and study everything you can about him or her–lifestyle, writing habits, opinions about writing and publishing, and of course, writing style. Then find others who had an influence on that writer and study them. Build your own “creative lineage,” as Kleon calls it. Add them to your tribe. They won’t mind. In fact, as Kleon notes, you can apprentice with them totally for free. “They left their lesson plans in their work” (17).

Then, what current writers are doing it for you? Who would you be a groupie for if authors had groupies? Who would you wait in line to meet? Who is writing in a way that causes you to just sit back and say, “Wow”?

What literary magazines do you subscribe to? Whose blogs do you follow? What online journals do you consistently read? Whose writing amazes you?

As citizens of the literary world, we should be studying and learning from those writers who inspire us.

Build your creative lineage, as Austin Kleon says. Collect good ideas. Surround yourself with the people (present and past) who bring out the best in you, who challenge you, who give you great ideas. (And you’re not really “stealing,” but you’ll have to read Austin’s book to understand what he means.)

Be inspired. And chances are, you’re inspiring someone else, though you may not even realize it.

Discover the people who do it for you. Share their books. Talk about them. Buy them. Give them away. Blog about them.

Just tryin’ to practice what I preach.