Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Learning to Teach Creative Writing

         This August marks one year since I moved to south Florida to pursue an MFA in creative writing. A lot has changed in one year; most happily, my feelings about teaching.  I’ve gone from being a quite terrified and reluctant graduate teaching assistant to viewing my GTA role as an essential part of my education at FAU and hoping to pursue teaching creative writing as a career.  When I clocked long hours in my tiny cubicle at my previous office job, I knew that I needed to do something different and that it should involve writing, but I couldn’t imagine what specific form this idea would take.  Now I think I am beginning to know.
    While still finding my way teaching ENC 1101 last year, I registered for Dr. Schmitt’s “Teaching Creative Writing” class on the excellent advice of a third-year MFA student. I had only a vague idea of how to articulate the ways good writing is produced.  In ENC 1101, my students seemed to respond well to very specific instructions for writing academic essays, but creative writing allows for more freedom and relies more on what may be described as the “X factor.”  How do we know that writing is “good,” anyway, and can we teach this to our students even if we do profess to know? As I learned from the readings for the TCW class, these are questions that have always been and probably always will be discussed, and the varied attempts to answer them make creative writing a perennially interesting and evolving discipline.
    My favorite assignment for TCW was delivering a craft lecture, which required us to speak for about 30 minutes on a single specific aspect of writing as a craft.  My chosen topic, “religion in fiction,” allowed me to examine two of my favorite works, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ.  I had known for some time that these works moved me beyond measure, but in preparing the craft lecture I had the opportunity to explore how these authors used words and ideas to create such a profound effect. The “X factor” still exists, but it’s not so ultimately mysterious as I once thought.  Understanding how writing works doesn’t make it any less beautiful.  When I analyzed the authors’ words, I felt the excitement of new discovery and wanted to share it with my audience: See what Steinbeck did there?  I have to find a way to tell you how great that was.
    In my best moments of teaching I feel alive, and it is very similar to how I feel when my own writing is going well.  In both teaching and writing, there are false starts-- ideas that don’t work as well as you thought they would—but then you step to the side, approach from a different perspective, and find words that are different and better.  I see now how teaching informs writing and vice versa, both providing the indispensable opportunity to create.   

Katrina is a second-year fiction candidate in the MFA program.  She loves Steinbeck and Faulkner and is currently working up the courage to start a novel.                 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ruminations on Writing My First Novel

The following two points are personal introspections that have occurred during the process of switching between writing my first novel and reading other works of literature.  I am not stating absolutes, just expressing ideas.

Rely on the Subconscious – Your subconscious will make thematic and metaphoric connections for you while you write the novel.  Relationships between moments will suddenly appear even though you did not consciously intend to create these relationships.  It’s quite striking and encouraging when these moments occur during the writing process.  Rely on your subconscious to enrich the literary quality of your novel during the initial writing process, then return to the work during revision in order to consciously stitch together intentional thematic elements.  The stitching or binding together of thematic elements requires the writer to make choices, which leads me to my next point about how choice is intertwined with both the writing process and the writer’s ability to write.

Choice, Talent, and the Writer – This thought regarding choice surfaced while reading A Farewell to Arms.  I’ve read that Hemingway eventually collapsed beneath the weight of his own genius, or that he could no longer organize his thoughts.  Of course, what must first be noted is that a good, if not great, writer must be able to clearly express his or her thoughts – but that is merely a necessity to becoming a solid writer.  It is not the essence of talent, because the clear expression of thought can be developed to an extent.  The true core of a talented writer partially resides in his or her ability to make the proper choice in terms of the writing itself, to decide which choice is the absolute best (or at least one of the best) out of a multitude.  For example, in A Farewell to Arms Hemingway writes:
That night in the mess after the spaghetti course, which every one ate very quickly and seriously, lifting the spaghetti on the fork until the loose strands hung clear then lowering it into the mouth, or else using a continuous lift and sucking into the mouth, helping ourselves to wine from the grass-covered gallon flask; it swung in a metal cradle and you pulled the neck of the flask down with the forefinger and the wine, clear red, tannic and lovely, poured out into the glass held with the same hand; after this course, the captain commenced picking on the priest. (7)
Hemingway chose to avoid using periods throughout the entire passage in order to mirror the constant flow of food and drink consumption that occurs during dinner.  The punctuation reflects the narrative moment.  Therein lies talent:  knowing which choice is the best, the most effective.  If you think of great writing in these terms, then Hemingway, at the end of his career, might not have been able to extract the best choice out of a million possibilities.  He could no longer discriminate.  This condition would have been devastating to a writer who had previously known the best choice going on instinct alone.  Losing this ability, this talent to instinctively make the best choice, would tear down the self-image, hence destroying the foundation on which the writer’s personality had been built.  The human being without a conscious sense of self becomes a disoriented animal.  And an animal without instincts is, for all intents and purposes, already dead.

Ben Hill Parham is a third year MFA candidate in fiction.  He plans on finishing his first novel soon, even if it kills him.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Writer’s Life: The Art of Submitting to Literary Journals

When I first starting submitting my work to journals, I had no clue what I was doing. Basically, I would find a journal, any journal, submit a short story, and then wait, hoping for the best. What I didn’t know was just how diverse the world of literary journals was, that one really needs a system for learning about them, and that tracking your own submissions is key. I also didn’t know that submitting is all about rejection and hope. You will be rejected. A lot. No, like a lot. Sometimes multiple times a day. But you have to keep hope alive that somewhere out there, there is someone who will say, “yes.” So to help others submit work to journals, I put together this little how-to-guide. In 5 easy, yet multi-layered steps, I’ve tried to break down the process as much as possible. It’s meant to help you find your own process and strategy for getting work out there.

Step 1: So you have a finished story, poem, or essay, and you want to submit it to journals…

First ask yourself these questions:
·         Is it a first draft?
o   If so, it probably needs a revision or two.
o   Take some time to review your work before it’s ready for an editor’s discerning eyes.
·         Will you be embarrassed by it later on if it is published?
o   If so, reconsider sending it out into the world.
o   You don’t want your own work to haunt you later (this may or may not have happened to me).
·         Is it your best work?
o   If not, make it better!
·         Did you proofread it?
o   No, really, did you proofread it?
o   How embarrassing is to find a typo in something you have already submitted? Really embarrassing. (I may have submitted something that had a chunk of a paragraph missing. Allegedly.)

Step 2: Learning about the Literary Journal Market
Here are some resources that will help you familiarize yourself with what kind of journals are out there (‘cause there are a bunch):

·         Writer’s Market (Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and Poetry Market) - Contains information on literary agents, book publishers, writing contests, and more, as well as other useful advice.
·         Prize Anthologies - Contains short stories from the best literary journals
o   Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, Pen/O.Henry Prize
· - Listing of journals, magazines, contests, reviews, and calls for submissions
o   Spend some time just combing through and checking out links.
·         Poets and Writers Magazine – - A print magazine and online listing for writing competitions, MFA creative writing programs, literary magazines, and small presses
o   I especially like the page on contests.
· - Reviews of various print and online literary journals
o   It’s impossible to read every journal out there, so see what others are saying/thinking about journals.
· - Subscription-based site with detailed listings, recent responses, and a tracking system for your submissions
o   Once a free site, but now a paid one, their listings for journals can be overwhelming, but they do give you good info.
·         The Submission Grinder: -
o   A free site that has most of the same features as Duotrope, but sadly, also has less users.
·         Perpetual Folly blog by Clifford Garstand: - Ranks journals based on how many times their stories appear in the Pushcart anthology
o   Most lists of the best journals are subjective, so this list takes out that subjectivity as it’s based on math related stuff. (Keep in mind it can still be argued that the Pushcart is subjective, but if you want to be in the Pushcart, it’s good to know where they pull most of their stories from).

Social Networking:
·         Follow journals on Twitter and like them on Facebook (it makes your feed more interesting than just reading about what your high school friend, who you never talk to, ate for dinner!)
·         A part of submitting is getting to know what’s getting published and what new journals are out there.
·         Not only will Twitter and Facebook update you on submission deadlines and contests, they will also get you in on the conversations happening in the literary world.

While you can’t subscribe to everything out there unless you want to be broke and overwhelmed, choose journals that you are most interested in and subscribe for a year, and then subscribe to something else the next year.

Step 3: Before Submitting
You have a finished piece, want to submit it, and have done some research…so now what?

First, make sure you always read the guidelines journals post on their websites. Journals, like people, have their own particular habits, needs, and desires. Make sure you pay close attention to the following:

·         Word count
o   Some journals will send back submissions that go over recommended word count, but others don’t hold to such rigid standards.
·         Any formatting requirements
o   There is very little reason to deviate from Times New Roman, 12pt font
o   It’s easy to look unprofessional with weird formatting and fancy fonts. Only use these things if they are essential to the work itself.    
·         And most importantly, the dates the journal is open for submissions!
o   Many university journals open in Aug/Sept and close in April/May
o   Others are open year round (Missouri Review) or have short submissions periods (Iowa Review)
o   So don’t waste your time (or the journal’s) by sending submissions when they are closed as they’ll just get thrown out.

Snail Mail and Online Submissions:
With the advent of technology, a majority of journals now have electronic submissions, which makes the job of submitting much easier. But here are things to keep in mind:

·         Most journals accept online submissions using either their own submission system or sites like and
o   Sometimes there will be $2-3 reading fee, payable online; although, a lot are free.
·         But some journals still only accept snail mail submissions.
o   With your submission include a cover letter and a SASE (without a self -addressed, stamped envelope, you will never receive a response)

Simultaneous Submissions:
Once it was standard for journals not to accept simultaneous submissions (sending the same work to multiple places) for reasons such as the mail was slow and it was hard withdraw a piece if it was accepted elsewhere. Today, only a select few journals say no to them (you can decide for yourself whether to follow that guideline or not; I won’t admit to ignoring it most of the time).

Journal Aesthetic:
Each journal is different, so get to know the guidelines of the places you want to submit. In these guidelines, journals will sometimes mention what kinds of work they look for.
·         While you should pay attention to this, don’t always let it stop you from submitting.
o   A good story is a good story, and you may just surprise the person reading your submission with something they didn’t know they wanted.
·         But if the journal has a very limited aesthetic, then submitting your realist, urban crime story to the Fairy Tale Review might not be the best idea.
·         Use your best judgment and common sense.

Contests vs. Regular Submissions:
It’s impossible to tell whether you have a better chance of acceptance through contests.
·         What’s for sure is that you will be paying a $15-25 fee for most contests.
o   If a free subscription comes along with the fee, it’s worth it as the fee is often less than regular subscription rates.
·         But just because you don’t win doesn’t mean something might not come out of it.
o   I was informed once I almost won a contest, but that no winner would be picked. However, that rejection did come with the invitation to revise and resubmit which I did, and that story was published by them in the long run.

Print journals vs. Online journals:
This is one you have to decide for yourself. There is something magical about seeing your work in print, but you shouldn’t discount online journals, who are gaining more and more readers and have more clout than they once did. Instead of basing where you submit on this factor, base it on submitting to the best journals out there and the ones that fit your work best. Aim for the top, whether that is print or online.

Cover Letter:
Cover letters are a must, but they will not sway a journal one or another to accept your piece. Generally, the real people who read submissions are curious about who is submitting to them. For my cover letter, I stick to the basics as I’m not comfortable with being edgy or humorous. If you are comfortable with those things, keep in mind that you still want to present yourself as professional as possible (so, you know, don’t curse or get too intimate).

·         A cover letter should contain:
o   Your name, address, email, and phone number
o   A short, brief biographical note about who you are and where you come from
o   Any previous publications (limit to four to six), but if you have none, that’s okay too, just say if accepted, it would be your first published piece – journals like discovering new writers.
o   A mention of anything specific you like about the journal (ex. a story in their last issue)
o   A friendly closing

Step 4 - After Submitting
Keeping Track and Waiting…still waiting…and more waiting…

You must keep track of your submissions. You don’t want to keep submitting the same piece to the same place at the same time (which I may have done once. Allegedly). Duotrope has a built-in system for tracking, but when they went paid, I created my own excel sheet, which I like better as I can use pretty colors on it.
·         Make sure whatever system you use tracks:
o   Name of journal
o   Date of submission
o   Date of response
o   Any feedback
o   You can also keep track of the number of days a submission has been out. If enough time has elapsed, you can then follow up, according to guidelines, of course.

The Waiting Game:
Submitting is nothing more than a waiting game as response times for journals varies widely.
·         Some journals, like Threepenny Review, will give you an answer within 4-5 days.
·         Other journals, like Mid-American Review, average around 250 days.
·         Some journals, like AGNI, will send out mass responses from submissions waiting 50– 150 days.
·         There really is no way to judge how or why a journal hasn’t sent out a response to you. Don’t read into it!

Step 5 - Handling Rejections and Acceptances

What does that rejection mean anyway?
·         It does not mean that your story, poem, essay sucked.
·         It does mean that it didn’t appeal to whoever read it, wasn’t right for the issue the journal was putting together, didn’t quite fit the aesthetic of the journal, or a number of other subjective reasons that will forever remain a mystery to you.
·         And maybe the piece still needs some work, so take another look at it and revise again.
·         Never, never, never respond to a rejection to tell the journal they are stupid or have no taste or should read your submission again or to curse at them. The publishing world is a very small place, and you don’t want to burn any bridges. You might need to cross them later on.
·         Soldier on – submit to other places. (It is absolutely true that my last accepted story was rejected 57 times before it got a “yes.” 57.)

Rejected :( Now What?
·         Most journals have tiered rejection systems that range from form rejections to personal rejections.
·         99% of your rejections will simply be form letters expressing the journal’s deep sadness and condolences that they couldn’t publish your piece.
·         If you get a personal rejection (in which the editor asks to see a revision or is particularly nice to you, mentioning specifics of your piece), then you may respond in some way if it is warranted – a simple thank you suffices.
·         But don’t be fooled by overly friendly form rejections.
·         Check out the site,, to see what kind of rejection you received!

ACCEPTED! :) Now what!?!
First, Yay! Relish that moment of triumph and joy (trust me, it’s fleeting).
·         Write back to the editor, telling them you would love to have your piece published by them, thank and praise them, and wait to hear back. (Yes, even in acceptance, there is waiting.)
·         This is what that tracking system is for, so go through and immediately withdraw the accepted piece from other places.
·         Depending on the journal, you will either work with them on edits, or they will send you final proofs.
·         Then, one bright shining day, the issue with your work will arrive in the mail or be posted online, and you can celebrate. Tell all your friends and relatives! Brag a little, but fake modesty, too!
·         And the process starts all over again with your other work. Yay?

Khristian Mecom was born in Oklahoma but grew up and still lives in South Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her fiction has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Passages North, Yemassee, Zone 3, Digital Americana Magazine, and elsewhere.