Breaking One of the Sacred Cows of Publishing Etiquette

One of the most important messages that I attempt to convey through the material on The Literary Game is that if you want to be a successful writer, one whose work is published in well-respected literary journals or independent publishers, it is critical to conduct yourself like a professional. It is essential to address publishers respectfully, and on the terms laid out by their submissions guidelines. This is an excellent rule to follow, but like all rules, there are times when this one must be broken. 

Although I hate the idea of labeling any writer’s work, much less my own, for those who are inclined to put everything into neat boxes, it can be said that my poetry and fiction is “alt lit.” Much of my writing draws from the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle, having grown up associating with some wild friends. Naturally, writers write what they know, and I am no exception.

The alternative literature community has its own values, ones that offer many parallels to the punk community. There is an emphasis on DIY (do it yourself), challenging expectations, some shock tactics, and a “hardcore” approach. Whereas the traditional literary world can be seen as fairly conservative in its manner, these alternative writers who are building their own literary magazines operate as a sort of counterculture.

I do not recommend doing this, especially if you are not writing material with similar themes, but I am compelled to share the story of how I approached Brian Fugett, publisher of Zygote in My Coffee, one of the leading journals of poetry in this milieu. I wanted Brian to publish a poem of mine, “You Fuck Like You’re on Antidepressants,” but I had never previously communicated with him before. In a stroke of boldness, I sent him a rather untraditional cover letter, essentially cursing him out and not so subtly telling him that he would be a fool not to publish my poem. When he responded with his decision, the first part of his email was him returning the favor and cursing me out, and the second was him accepting the poem for publication. I knew that Brian, and his journal Zygote in My Coffee, did not want to associate with unprovocative writers, and so, I chose not only to submit a poem that was an appropriate fit, but a cover letter, as well.

So, what is the takeaway from this anecdote? While there are rules that should be followed to increase your chance of success in anything, including publishing your writing, sometimes breaking those rules can lead to amazing results. 

Cheers,
Alfonso

My Journey to Publication

“Don’t make a career out of this.”

I still remember, twelve years later, the words that a creative writing professor at Beloit College penned on one of my admittedly horrible short stories. Those words hit a nerve, and even today, they remain one of my biggest motivators.

For better or worse, I personally respond quite well to negative motivation. I love to prove people wrong and show them up. While my stories in that professor’s class were indeed horrible, his remark was erroneous, as he did not know my own path and character.

I chose to be a Creative Writing major at Beloit because it seemed fun. Upon entering college, I did not have much of a plan as to what to get out of it, aside from gaining real-world experience and leaving a sheltered boyhood behind. While I am sure that many of my peers in the program had written for years, and knew exactly how to improve, for me, the program at Beloit, a very free-form one, was difficult to navigate. The open-ended nature of our program would certainly be ideal for a motivated writer with some experience, but I found it frustrating. The basics were never taught, and being sheltered, I did not have many interesting life experiences under my belt to write from. As a result, my writing was both juvenile and poorly crafted.

I have recounted on this blog several times now about how a friend of mine’s belief in the potential in my writing, even as rough as it was back then, got me to actually love writing for the first time in my life. The confidence that he instilled in me, coupled with my desire to show up the professor who wrote those motivating words on that abysmal short story, were the impetus that led me to start submitting my poetry to literary journals.

Of course, I failed. And failed. And failed. I had, if I remember correctly, my first 24 submissions rejected. Believing that success was assured, I was both blindsided and devastated by the actual results.

I knew that the poems that I was submitting to these literary magazines were objectively good. People that I trusted to not humor me regarding my writing informed me that they were, and many were shocked at the sea change in quality from my juvenilia. This time, I had carefully edited the poems, scrutinizing every line. However, they were not being accepted for publication. The reason for this was that I was sending these poems to literary journals that were simply not a fit for the alternative sensibilities inherent to my creative writing. Traditional literary journals did not cater to the type of writing I was producing, and, of course, they rejected it.

My friend Russell, the man who inspired me to write in the first place, taught me the basics of publication by introducing me to Duotrope.com, but naturally, I didn’t use it effectively. I used it to find journals that were esteemed, did not read any of their content, and submitted my poems with only a cursory regard for the submissions guidelines. My whole approach was lazy and disrespectful, not just to myself, but to the publishers of these magazines, and the entire literary profession.

Personally, I believe that there are no obstacles in life that cannot be overcome. I knew that if I worked harder, I could get my poetry accepted in literary magazines. I began to read many literary journals, and the ones that I enjoyed reading, ones that featured poets and short story writers with, for lack of a better description, punk rock sensibilities, caught my interest. I discovered amazing writers that I had never heard of, ones whose works appealed to my love of Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson, larger than life writers who both lived and wrote on the edge. When I would read the works of these writers like Doug Draime, Misti Rainwater-Lites, Holly Day, Michele McDannold, Catfish McDaris, Sarah E. Alderman, and Lynne Savitt, among many others, I knew that I had found many skilled people doing exciting things in the alternative presses.

I decided to submit my poem Like A Library in the Suburbs to one of these alternative presses, Michele McDannold’s Citizens for Decent Literature, then one of the top places to publish for alternative poets, and had my poem accepted. I felt vindicated to know that a poet who I respected thought that I had talent enough to publish me, and that if I just targeted effectively, sending my writing to journals that I enjoyed reading and that featured writers with roughly similar sensibilities, I would have a good chance of getting my work accepted. Since then, I have about a 33% acceptance rate for my poetry and short fiction, which would be closer to 60% if not for being overly ambitious, and reaching out to some of my favorite magazines that are not perfect fits for my writing.

I will never forget those words that professor wrote, but now, with many publications under my belt, three excellent screenplays composed and currently shopped, becoming lead writer for an amazing startup, being interviewed by literary magazines, and developing publishing projects of my own, I realize that those words were nothing more than a judgment rendered without sufficient evidence. I love writing, and I know that I am good, and that I will only continue to improve.

I hope that my story gives you the confidence you need to fully embark on your career as a successful writer.

In success,
Alfonso

p.s. I strive to present all the tools necessary for writers to dramatically improve their craft and chances of publishing through my blog posts, free Q&A service, and free fiction writing 101 course. However, if you require more personal attention, please consider my editing and/or publishing consultancy services.

How To Find Appropriate Publishers For Your Writing

The whole process of becoming a successful writer, at its essence, can be boiled down to three simple steps:

1. Write the manuscript of your novel (or short story, poem, etc.).

2. Have your work edited to a publishable standard.

3. Find an appropriate publisher and submit your writing.

Regarding step 3, one of the most common errors new writers make is submitting their writing to publishers who have no interest in the style, genre, or content of their work. There are few publishers who do not have VERY specific parameters of what publish. If your writing falls outside of those parameters, the chance that your submission will be accepted by that publisher is close to 0%, no matter how good your writing might be.

First, let’s backtrack for a second. If you have amassed a body of writing that’s been edited and is ready for publication, but have no idea how to get published, it is critical that you become familiar with these two resources:

Duotrope.com – Duotrope is a subscription-based (only $5/month) catalog of most every high-quality literary journal, contest, and many publishers. Duotrope is highly recommended for any writer looking to find a home for their short fiction or poetry. For contests, I personally prefer using Poets & Writers (pw.org). For manuscripts of novels or nonfiction, the Writer’s Market is a far better resource.

Using Duotrope, you can search over 5,000 literary journals by a variety of limiters, allowing you to find journals that are a match for your genre, form, etc. Once you find a match using Duotrope, it is essential that you carefully read through at least one full issue of the magazine (or at least ten pieces of fiction or poetry for those that are not issue-based). Does your work convey similar themes? Is your writing style similar to that of the writers they publish? How does the content of your writing compare to the content of the authors published in the magazine? If you perform your due diligence and truly study the publication, then you will be aware of whether or not your writing is a match for the publication. If it is not, do not bother wasting your (not to mention the publisher’s) time by submitting your writing, as it will not be accepted.

I have not found a single public library in the United States that does not have a copy of the Writer’s Market in their reference section, and many have older editions available to check out. The Writer’s Market is an invaluable resource for anyone who has written a novel (or a long work of non-fiction). This book has an index of publishers that you can browse through, with quick descriptions about the publishers. Using the Writer’s Market, you can quickly identify potential homes for your fiction amongst a variety of independent publishers. Once you notice a potential match, I recommend that you visit the publisher’s website and read some of the blurbs of the books they’ve put out. Again, are they similar to your manuscript in genre, style, and content? If so, you should submit your manuscript and see what happens. If not, do not waste your time, as you will not have your manuscript accepted.

Of course, there is also the self-publishing route, which has its own advantages and drawbacks, but that is a topic for another post.

In short, the key to getting your writing published is to ensure that your writing is a direct match for what the publisher puts out. If your writing fits a publisher’s niche, you have a good chance of getting your work accepted.

In success,
Alfonso

p.s. I strive to present all the tools necessary for writers to dramatically improve their craft and chances of publishing through my blog posts, free Q&A service, and free fiction writing 101 course. However, if you require more personal attention, please consider my editing and/or publishing consultancy services.

The Importance Of A Writing Schedule

The difference between emerging and established writers and aspiring writers often comes down to a question of discipline. Not all, but a significant number of aspiring writers do not make nearly enough time to write on a consistent basis. This lack of effort often translates into a small quantity of work, few, if any, publishing credits, and works that are not to the writer’s potential.

Of course, inspiration can happen at anytime; however, do not let this preclude you from writing even when you do not feel any inspiration. The discipline of a consistent writing schedule has many major positive effects, including:

  1. Improving your writing. If you make writing a consistent part of your life, rather than a sporadic one, your writing will improve by leaps and bounds. You will begin to notice mistakes and ways to improve even without any instruction, and your prose will be much sharper.
  2. Producing a larger quantity of work. Rather than having one manuscript, or a few short stories, you’ll have quite a bit more if you discipline yourself to writing on a consistent basis. This assortment of work will allow you to more easily become established. When applying to different literary magazines or publishers, you will see that certain pieces will be better fits for certain places, and have a greater likelihood of getting your writing accepted for print.
  3. Increased self-confidence. If you talk a lot about being a writer, but have little to show for it, it’s quite likely that you will face kickback from friends, family, co-workers, and other parties with which you associate. By producing a large quantity of work of higher quality and perhaps with a few publishing credentials to your name, you will feel confident that you ARE a writer, not simply someone who wants to be a writer.

So, how should you set up your writing schedule? That depends on you. Do you have a job? A family? Major health issues? Pressing social engagements? If you’re quite busy, even setting up three days a week where you write for 45 minutes can be effective. If you have a bit more time in your schedule, perhaps an hour every day would work. If you find yourself in difficult circumstances such as unemployment, or have the privilege of success in other affairs and thus a lot of leisure time, then why not treat writing like a 9-5 job, with an hour break for lunch. You can even combine the schedules, with your weekends on a 9-5 schedule, and an hour after dinner every weeknight.

The consistency of a writing schedule will pay many dividends. It will provide you with the discipline necessary to produce more writing, better writing, a higher likelihood of getting published, and increased self-confidence. As a writer, you owe it to yourself to develop the discipline necessary to be your best.

In success,
Alfonso

p.s. I strive to present all the tools necessary for writers to dramatically improve their craft and chances of publishing through my blog posts, free Q&A service, and free fiction writing 101 course. However, if you require more personal attention, please consider my editing and/or publishing consultancy services.

Writers Need To Capitalize On Opportunities

One of the foremost problems that new writers who are intent on breaking into the literary world face is the quick realization that there is tremendous competition. Sadly, many aspiring writers who are not cognizant of the nature of their profession end up quickly demoralized, as they see that their writing is not reaching an audience, not being published, and being heavily critiqued by those who do read it.

I started my career as a writer primarily as a poet. My friend Russell Jaffe offered me the opportunity to open at his poetry reading if I were to write a few poems, and I took him up on the offer. I realized, free from the constraints of an organized creative writing program, that I had some talent. From there, I started writing many poems, and later on, getting many of them published once I realized how to find and effective target literary magazines.

After finding success as a poet, I was desirous of publishing short fiction. I was working four different positions at an academic institution, spread out over six days. I didn’t have much time or energy left to write when I was off from work. My opportunity came when a friend of mine who believed in my writing offered me free housing in rural Pennsylvania and promised to edit my writing. I took her up on that offer, and produced an assortment of short stories that met my standards, and were published.

At present, I am a communications partner for a new startup. My duties entail that I be responsible for producing any accompanying books related to the startup once it goes public, in addition to more mundane duties related to day-to-day correspondence and copywriting. As anyone who has previous experience with entrepreneurship knows, sometimes it can take a bit of time for a venture to go public. Being that I lead a pretty Spartan lifestyle, one that is supported through freelancing my services as an editor and publishing consultant, and that the startup needs some time before it can reach fruition, I have a significant amount of off time. During this time, I have been writing screenplays.

The reason that I’ve chosen to write screenplays, again, boils down to opportunity. My cousin Andrew Friedman works at FOX. He regales me with fabulous stories of parties with Method Man and Seth Rogen. His mother worked for 25 years in sales at Paramount Pictures. Furthermore, my girlfriend Lauren Rubin, as a graduate of Vassar College, has an assortment of high-powered contacts in the film industry. Her mother, Joanne Larson, through her business dealings, also has access to a multitude of producers and other film professionals. This access, and the potential for serious rewards from success as a screenwriter, has led me to conclude that this is the perfect opportunity for me now.

So, in short, to quickly ascend as a writer, leverage any existing opportunities immediately. 

If you are unsure of the nature of the opportunities around you, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Who do I know who has offered to help me?
  2. Who do I know who has a foothold in any way in the writing community? Would they be willing to help me if I asked them?
  3. Are there any opportunities local to your area or current life related to a particular type of writing?

I wish you success in capitalizing on your opportunities.

p.s. I strive to present all the tools necessary for writers to dramatically improve their craft and chances of publishing through my blog posts, free Q&A service, and free fiction writing 101 course. However, if you require more personal attention, please consider my editing and/or publishing consultancy services.

 

A Simple Trick to Markedly Improve Your Prose

I’ve been honored to have had my short fiction published in some truly impressive magazines. That said, I can guarantee that if I didn’t do one simple trick to improve my prose, I would not have been published in any of the literary journals that featured my short stories.

What is that trick? Analyze how your favorite authors construct sentences.

When I delve into my personal story on The Literary Game, I never sugarcoat any of my failings. The reason I believe in such complete transparency is because I know, given my experience, that anyone can pull themselves up and become a superb writer. I certainly wasn’t always a writer with a real shot at publishing my work anywhere that was an appropriate fit; I started quite a bit more humbly than that.

I didn’t start writing until I was 20, when I decided, on a whim, to become a Creative Writing major while enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin. I felt outmatched during my time there, and lost motivation to try, and my work was truly poor in quality. When I graduated, I moved back to New York City, landed a job as a teacher, and tried to forget all about the failed experiment that was my attempt to do creative writing.

My friend Russell Jaffe, a quite talented poet, moved to New York about 18 months after I graduated. We got back in touch through Facebook, and he mentioned that he was setting up a poetry reading in Williamsburg, a local arty neighborhood. Russell asked if I had written anything recently, and I told him that I had not. He mentioned that he liked my stuff from Beloit, and told me if I wrote some poems, he’d put me on the show. I gained a lot of confidence from Russell’s belief in my writing’s potential, and the successful show, and started writing poetry. I amassed a huge collection of poems over four years, and then decided to do something with it, and started publishing many in my collection and new ones, as well.

As I started amassing many publishing credits for my poetry, a spontaneous rush of ideas for short fiction came into my head. Circumstances had aligned so that my friend Rairigh was able to give me a free room in rural Pennsylvania, and I had a bit of a savings from my job in academia. I quit my position and set out to be not only a poet, but also a fiction writer.

During my first few days in Clarion, Pennsylvania, I had a firm intent to write fiction, but didn’t know where to start. My sentences seemed clunky. I have always been a voracious reader, but for me, unlike many other English majors, I always saw great books as pleasure, not as something to firmly dissect and get into intellectual debates over. That being so, I rarely paid much conscious attention to the way writers constructed their sentences.

The brilliant idea that changed everything for me as a fiction writer came to me after a few frustrating days of trying, and failing, to write. I decided to head to the Clarion Public Library and study some of my favorite authors. I pulled from the shelves works by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf, William Faulkner, and a few other authors whose work I admire. I studied exactly how they constructed sentences, how they did dialogue, how they transitioned between paragraphs, how they integrated description, how they paced their works, and every other feature that these impressive authors did regarding their prose.

When I came back to my apartment, I started writing my first short story and it was EASY. I didn’t steal the style from any of these authors, but I had learned exactly how good writers write, and adapted that to my own vision.  My summer in Clarion, and fall in the nearby town of DuBois, led to an impressive assortment of short fiction, and my first few publications as a fiction writer.

So, in short, if you want to improve your writing, study how your favorite writers construct their prose. It will definitely help you write better.

-Alfonso

 

p.s. I strive to present all the tools necessary for writers to dramatically improve their craft and chances of publishing through my blog posts, free Q&A service, and free fiction writing 101 course. However, if you require more personal attention, please consider my editing and/or publishing consultancy services.

 

I Want To Be A Writer – What Do I Do Now?

I have had the pleasure of speaking with many individuals who are impressed by the fact that I am a published author. Quite often, the topic of conversation quickly switches to their desire to become a writer. Few of these people ever end up actually writing anything, and of those who do, many quickly become discouraged, as they have no direction as to what to do next.

For a new creative writer, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is this: What is going to be my path?

To become a writer, one who is paid, one who is recognized, one who is celebrated, you have to have more than just a vague intention. You need to develop a plan. 

When you’re starting out as a writer, unless you have achieved some degree of acclaim from some other facet of your life, you are at zero. No one knows who you are, and no one has any reason to pay attention to your writing, aside from friends and family. This is the reality. This is a discouraging starting point, but it is where at least 90% of writers start. The question then, again, is where do I start?

Below are a few separate paths you might want to explore, once you unequivocally decide that you are serious about becoming a creative writer:

  1. Begin publishing short fiction and/or poetry in reputable magazines. This has been my approach, once I became serious about becoming an author. I found journals that published writing that was similar in style and content to my own work, targeted them, and began getting published in order to start the process of making my name.
  2. Start writing your novel. Without any prior publishing credits, and with no platform, you are going to have a difficult time landing a publisher for your manuscript. Undoubtedly, your only choices will be independent publishers, or self-publishing. If you choose to try to get published with an independent publisher, ensure that your work is tightly edited and you should probably hire a publishing consultant, as well. If you go the self-publishing route, be clever and persistent in your marketing approach to ensure that your work is not ignored amongst the sea of self-published novels.
  3. Connect with local writers. Find writer’s workshops or seminars in your local area, and begin striking up friendships with other writers. You can have other, more experienced, writers take you under the wings, and show you the ropes.
  4. Obtain proper training. I highly recommend the incredibly practical, affordable and effective Gotham Writer’s Workshop if you want a quick run-through of the principles of creative writing in an interactive environment. If you are looking to obtain your Bachelor’s Degree, enroll in a Creative Writing program. If you are looking to obtain a Master’s, consider applying to MFA programs.
  5. Land a writing job. One of the best ways to become an effective writer is to write daily. If you want to write creatively, perhaps landing a job in communications, where your writing acumen will be utilized and sharpened every day, would be an excellent first step before embarking on the world of creative writing.

Whichever path you choose, I wish you success in your journey as a writer. I am here for you if you have any questions, or if you need an editor or publishing consultant to get you to the next level.

In success,
Alfonso Colasuonno
Publisher, The Literary Game