Writing Tip - Getting Started with Lists
by Kathryn Mockler
June 2, 2018
Sometimes new writers fear that they don't have anything to say or write about, which is simply not true.
One thing I do to avoid feeling stuck is keep an ongoing list of all the things I'm interested in writing about.
The list may be general or specific.
For example, I might list some jobs I've had, experiences that have been important to me, people I want to write about, or subjects I want to research. One of my lists consists of lines of dialogue, another consists of conversations I've overheard. Sometimes I group lists by genre or subject matter. I have a list for poetry, for screenplays, for short fiction.
I use a free site called Trello to organize my lists, but you can use any list-making platform or just a simple notebook will do.
I like using an online platform for lists because I can get the app on my phone, and instead of scanning social media when I'm waiting in line, I can scan and add to my lists. This is one way of being productive when I don't have a lot of time to write.
When I'm composing a story or script, I even use lists to plot the structure or character details or theme ideas.
So if you ever feel stuck or don't know what to write about, start making a list and see what happens.
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Kathryn Mockler, the Eastern Canadian Editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the Publisher of The Rusty Toque has some behind-the-scenes tips for writers sending out their work to literary journals:
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
If you want to publish in a certain journal, then it’s a good idea to read the work they publish before you submit anything. For instance, if you write science fiction, you’re wasting everyone’s time by submitting to a journal that only publishes poetry about beetles or haiku.
Target journals that you feel will be the best fit because your share their taste or style or tone. Avoid sending blanket submissions.
Read the publishing guidelines for things like format, submission length requirements, and genres. Don’t guess. Each journal is different. Some take online submissions and some don’t. Some journals have themes. You won’t know unless you look.
2. GET THE EDITOR’S NAME
One way that you can indirectly let editors know that you’re professional and have done your research on their journal or magazine is to mosey on over to the journal’s Masthead and get the name of the editor(s).
When you write “Dear Fiction Editor,” you’re indicating that you don’t know the journal you’re submitting to very well. It’s not going to make or break a submission, but small things like this can frame how editors will read your work and how much time they will spend on it.
Make sure you thoroughly proofread your letter before sending it. Sometimes submissions come through addressed to the wrong editor or journal or have several typos. Not a great way to make an impression.
3. DON’T PAD YOUR LETTER
Editors actually want to read less than more. By adding unnecessary information to your cover letter, you run the risk of irritating the editors before they even have a chance to read your submission.
Fun fact: it’s okay to be inexperienced or unpublished. No one is going to judge you for that.
What they will judge you for is a desperate attention-seeking letter that is filled with shoddy witticisms and unnecessary information. Harsh, I know, but it’s true.
Don’t add unnecessary personal information to your cover letter like the fact you live with your cat in your mother’s basement or that you suffer from depression. Many writers suffer from depression. I mean we’re all living in a nightmare for goodness sake! Of course you’re depressed. We all are! But that’s not the kind of information editors need to know.
Many editors are writers and have their own memories of starting out. In fact many editors like the idea of discovering new voices. So rather than trying to pad your letter and to look more experienced than you are—just say that you’re new to writing. It’s okay. I promise.
On the other hand, if you’re a well-published writer and have 100+ publications. Don’t list them all. That is obnoxious. Only list the publications that you think will fit with the aesthetic of the journal you’re submitting to.
A short bio with just a handful of publications is sufficient. Editors don’t have time to read your life story or every magazine you’ve published in.
4. AVOID HUMOUR
Of all the submissions I’ve read over the years, there has only be one writer who attempted to use humour in her cover letter that was actually funny. While her cover letter was genuinely witty, her submission didn’t live up to that initial humour of the letter. Too bad!
If you are hilarious, then put that humour in your story or poem. Leave it out of the cover letter. If your humour doesn’t fit the editor’s humour then you could inadvertently frame your submission negatively.
5. AVOID SUMMARIZING THE STORY
Some editors may feel differently about this, but I recommend not summarizing your submission in your cover letter. [Submitting cover letters for full-length manuscripts is different and they do often require summaries.]
If you have some contextual information then it’s fine to include that. For example, you may want to mention if the submissions is part of a series or if it is an experimental piece that needs some framing. But if you are just submitting a short story, then avoid summarizing it.
If your writing is strong, your readers should be able to come to their own conclusions about what you are trying to say.
When you frame a story before someone reads it, you are setting up expectations. What if your summary is better than your story? Or what if you are terrible at summarizing but terrific at writing?
Your best bet is to just let the editors experience the piece for themselves the same way readers will should your work get published.
6. DON’T ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Many, if not most, literary editors are working for free or for very little money. They hardly have time to read all the submissions they receive, let alone offer critique. Therefore, it is just not feasible for them to give feedback on the hundreds or thousands of submissions they get.
Sometimes if an editor feels strongly about a work then they might provide some words of encouragement or invite a writer to resubmit. If that happens to you, consider yourself very fortunate and resubmit as soon as you have written something terrific. But otherwise be grateful that someone is taking time out of their short life to read your work and publish it. If you want feedback start a writing workshop, post in online forum, or take a class.
7. INCLUDE NECESSARY INFORMATION
Many writers forget to include the basics such as the genre that they’re submitting in or the titles of the works being submitted. Some journals like to know if the submission is simultaneous (meaning it’s being considered by other journals) and others like to know some brief biographical information.
Some editors advise indicating writing you’ve read and enjoyed from their journal. I tend to not like this because it often feels forced and like filler. But I’ve seen that advice around, so it might be something to consider if your cover letter is on the short side.
When writing your bio, keep it short and write it in third person. Don’t include any value statements about yourself or your writing. Don't say things like "you'll love my story" or "I think my story is a good fit". That's for the editor to decide.
Just include the following:
That’s it. Try to keep your bio length to around 50 words.
9. KEEP GOOD RECORDS
Most literary journals now use online submission management systems like Submittable and most journals accept simultaneous submissions (but not all so read the guidelines for each journal before you submit).
These management systems are great for keeping track of your submissions. It’s important to let journals know right away if your work has been accepted elsewhere.
I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of all my submissions because not all journals use the same online system and some still require hard copy or email submissions.
9. PROMOTE YOURSELF
If your story gets accepted and published, share it on social media and with your friends and family.
Some writers feel uncomfortable about this as they may feel like they are bragging. However there are ways to share your work so that it feels like a share and not a brag. For example, share the link to the journal or the issue you’re being published in and thank the editors or prop up the other writers in the issue. That way you’re helping to promote a journal and other writers while at the same time presenting your own work.
10. TAKE REJECTION IN STRIDE
Should your work get rejected, try to take in stride. It happens to us all. You’re in good company.
Never email an editor back to ask why you’ve been rejected or send a nasty note. That just burns bridges and doesn’t help you in the long run. I’ve been published by journals that rejected me for years. It’s just part of the process. All writers go through it.
Avoid letting rejection determine your value as writer. Often editors have to reject perfectly good stories and poems. There is a lot work out there and not enough space to publish it all. A rejection doesn’t mean your writing is terrible. It just means it might not be a fit for a particular publication.
Remember the publishing process is completely subjective. That’s why doing your research is such an important part of the process. The better you know a journal, the better you’ll be able to determine whether or not they are right for your work.
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