What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.
Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.
I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.
Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.
I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:
1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.
2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.
3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.
4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.
5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.
The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.
I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.
Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.
Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.
Tip 5: Hone Your Performance Skills
A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to practice being a ‘public writer’, especially getting comfortable reading one’s work. I got comments both on the blog and by email about how challenging it is for some of us to read our work and claim our writing identities. I wanted to return to this subject and I first went to my bookshelf to see what insights other writers have shared. I have many many writing books and to my surprise most of them are completely silent on how to cultivate our performance skills as a writer. This is so striking given that writers labor to bring our work before an audience. Dare I say, many of us dream of that time when we will stand in front of an audience reading from our published work. How interesting then it is that we have gaps in preparing for that dreamed of day. Most writing guides will say ‘practice’, but often leaves out the ‘how’.
So here are some things that may be useful in honing one’s skills for readings, specifically at open mics:
1) Practice what you will read. OK, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Practice for the rhythm of the words. Feel free to eliminate some words, if that makes for a smoother reading. Practice at least ten times. And, usually when people are nervous, they read faster. Try to get a sense of what reading faster will look like for your piece.
2) When you get up to the mike, pause and smile. It relaxes you and the audience. Remember, they are on your side. Don’t get freaked out if you have to adjust the mike, take a moment to get it right.
3) Don’t use up your time by going into a long detailed account of yourself and your work. I’ve seen many writers use a third of their time going into a lengthy biography. We can’t possibly grasp the complexity of you or your work in 5-8 minutes. Think seduction and foreplay. Less is more. Make them want more. Keep it short and they will. They will come up later and ask you plenty of questions.
When I read, I’ll usually say something like: “I’m Michele Tracy Berger [say your name even if the announcer has said it. People are often talking or drinking in between one writer leaving the stage and another coming to it ], I’m a fiction writer and I’m working on a collection of speculative fiction short stories. I’m reading from an excerpt from the story….” Let people know if you are reading from the beginning, middle or end.
4) Dress nicely—whatever that means to you. Remember, you are cultivating yourself as someone who wants to paid for their writing. A professional. You never know when a potential editor, agent or buyer is in the audience.
5) Nerves are fine, but if you are super anxious, think about drinking some calming tea beforehand or investigating some homeopathic remedies that deal with anxiety (e.g. Bach Flower Rescue Remedy).
6) Choose a piece that you can be a clear channel for when you read it to the audience. You need some emotional distance from a piece in order to convey the power of it. Ironic, I know.
7) Print out your piece in a large font, so it is easy to read. Decide whether you want to staple it or slide the pages across the podium (if there is one). Practice your technique. I’ve seen people who get their pages out of order, fumble and/or drop their papers.
8) Bring some cough drops (e.g. Fisherman’s Friend or Hall’s or Ricola). [this tip I learned from Marjorie Hudson]
9) Have a bottle of water with you. Nervousness closes up the throat.
10) Know the piece well enough so that you can look up and engage the audience periodically. You may want to have 1-2 lines memorized.
11) Be aware of your posture. Stand up straight.
12) Time your piece and find the most appropriate place to end. Try not to get caught by the buzzer, bell or emcee. End at a juicy and interesting place. I actually like to go 30 seconds under time.
13) Smile when you finish and remember to say ‘Thank you’. Someone just witnessed your work and tried to be present for it. Also, thank the organizers of the event (or, you can also do this when you introduce yourself). Hold the space as people are applauding (even if the applause is just polite).
14) Don’t hustle out of there after you read—that’s bad open mic etiquette. Stick around and be that supportive presence for other writers.
Got tips on this topic? Please share.
I’m continuing on with tips to boost your writing mid-year.
Tip 4: Practice Being a ‘Public Writer’.
Although summer is the time of beaches and barbeques, I would challenge you to add in a few ways to practice being a ‘public writer’. There are lots of ways to do this, but I am going to focus on two topics here—attending open mics and readings.
Attend More Open Mics and Read at Them
Reading your work in front of an audience is an invaluable experience for a writer. We can see when people lean toward us, laugh (one hopes at the appropriate places), and get a sense of how our words affect others. Reading aloud also helps us to become comfortable with our work no matter what the reaction. We meet new friends and learn about the work of other writers. In most places there are many opportunities to read your work in public—open mics organized by writing groups, in bookstores and cafes, writing conferences, and informal gatherings with friends. Practice, practice and practice some more.
If you get to read your work in public, be gracious if someone compliments you on your writing. Don’t say that you’re not really a writer because you’re not published yet (or published widely), or let any negative comments about your work leak out. Shine in the moment.
Attend More Readings
I hear from so many writers, “I don’t have time to read or attend readings.” Reading other writers and hearing them read is part of our writerly duties. We have to make the time. Attending a reading helps us learn about writers new to us. But, it is also about building community and being visible as a public writer.
You learn so much from how an author gives a reading. You learn about their writing practice, you learn about how to answer questions skillfully, you learn about what kinds of things to reveal, and you learn about how much work an audience can digest in a given sitting. It’s a great way to observe differences in style and tone between newly minted authors and long-standing ones. We also get to practice going up to a published writer and introducing our self and talking intelligently about our own work (if asked).
I recently got to see speculative fiction writer Mary Robinette Kowal talk about her new book, Valor and Vanity. She is a former puppeteer and she incorporated puppetry into her talk (which was very cool). She dressed in an outfit that reflected the early 1800s time period that she was writes about (partly handsewn, to boot! Mary is super creative!). Her discussion of 1800s fashion became another interesting layer of the reading. Mary oriented the audience by giving some background on the ‘Glamourist Histories’ for those of us who were new to her work (we were in a minority), which I appreciated. But, instead of reading from her current novel, she did something very interesting. She gave us a teaser from the novel that she is currently writing which will complete the series and is due out in 2015. I thought that was a very cool thing to do as most people were probably going to buy the current book anyway, so it was nice to feel like we were hearing fresh material.
She also encouraged the audience to buy something from the independent book store, even if it wasn’t her book. As incentive, for people who bought any book, she gave out beautiful fans with a clever tag on them that contained information about Valor and Vanity. Not only did I learn about Mary’s work (Valor and Vanity is the 4th in the Glamourist Histories series), and buy her book, but I learned something new about how to promote one’s work in a fun, clever and ethical way. Her exemplar reading satisfied and surprised on so many levels.
Another tip for jump-starting mid-year writing.
Tip 3: Plan a Submissions Party
In my first writing group, more than fifteen years ago, I learned about the power of holding at least one ‘submission party’ during the year. A submission party meant that we planned a date and we all brought our polished manuscripts, manila envelopes, our bundle of SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes –yes, back in those days when you had to send manuscripts via snail mail and with a SASE!), and food and drink to someone’s house. We helped each other write query letters, find new markets to submit work, develop submission charts, and triple check final copies of stories. And, the best part of all, we’d each leave with several stuffed packets ready to mail to magazine and anthology editors and contest judges. These parties uplifted us and took the fear, dread and challenge out of submitting. And, they helped us get a batch of stories into the mail at one time.
If you are trying to stretch yourself by increasing your submission rate, a submission party might be just the kind of event that inspires you.
Last year, my current writers’ group decided to gather for a submissions party. Now, we were very lucky as our impeccable host went above and beyond throwing a simple submissions party. She set up stations where we could list our current writing accomplishments and talk about the rejection (or acceptance) letters we had received (i.e. the ‘good, bad and ugly’).
She also made up little gift boxes for each of us containing chocolate, specific submission markets and also laminated strips of paper with prompts for building characters (gleaned, she said, from the local community college catalog—reminding us that inspiration is everywhere).
At this party, we also helped one of the writers come up with a marketing strategy for her recently published novella. We traded literary journals and read aloud some of our favorite poets. We talked about our dreams for ourselves as writers and, of course, we told stories. We’re a critique group that meets monthly, so this party was a nice departure from our usual routine. We’re planning another submissions party in July and I suggested that we each bring a recipe for a drink of one our favorite writers (or make up one for a character that we’re working on). The making and sampling of a variety of non-alcoholic and ‘adult beverages’ should be fun!
At your next writers’ group meeting, suggest hosting a submission party during the summer. And, it doesn’t have to be as elaborate as the one I described. And, if you’re not in a group (Well, you should be! Remember–when focused friendly people come together to support each other, they can produce incredible results!), then ask a writing buddy, if he or she would be interested in executing this idea on a smaller scale.
This piece originally appeared in the ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News, June 13, 2014.
Like many other people, over the past few weeks, I have been remembering Maya Angelou and mourning the loss of such a tremendous creative force.
Dr. Angelou was a teacher, writer, healer and lover of life until the very end. I discovered her work in college and remember performing her poems “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” with other powerful women at various gatherings. As a young woman, I found her work accessible, rich with positive female imagery, sensuous and often jubilant.
Maya Angelou’s death has made me think about aging, writing and being a creative “late bloomer.” What many people don’t know about Angelou, and I take great comfort in, is that she didn’t publish her first book until her early 40s (although she longed to do so before this).
She was an actress and performer for many years and then left the United States in 1960 to live in Cairo, Egypt, where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. Her next stop, a year later, was to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She continued honing her writing there by working as a features editor for The African Review and also wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
She used her years abroad to great advantage by studying and taking classes in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. After her return to the States, with encouragement of her mentor, the esteemed James Baldwin, she started work on her famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became an international bestseller. And once those creative floodgates opened, she didn’t stop, writing seven memoirs in total (with an eighth underway at the time of her death), a cookbook, television and film scripts, music scores, and more.
Angelou’s writing trajectory that began later in life makes me grateful about manifesting my creative work in my early 40s. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to appreciate that the path to your heart’s desire is rarely straight and narrow, or progress easily demarcated strictly by one’s age.
Enchantment with child stars and people who seemed to achieve big things early in their careers used to fascinate me. And, it’s true that as an academic, I’ve had solid and early professional success, so I can’t complain on that front. I’ve written creatively all my life, but it is has only been in the last decade that I’ve made more space for that identity to flourish. When younger I was convinced that something needed to happen at a particular age – 20, 25 or 38. I’m now less worried about age being a gauge of inner or outer success. If they have been blocked, by midlife, people often open to inner prompts, urgings and guidance about fresh directions. This leads to new commitments to pursue buried or unrealized dreams.
I am also cheered by examples of writers including Sapphire, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison that didn’t start their writing careers until their late thirties and early forties. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a remarkable memoir. The skill and focus it took to craft it might not have been there if Angelou had not lived a full and complex life (i.e. sex worker, sexual assault survivor, performance artist, world traveler, and teacher), and faced her internal demons and doubts as a mature woman.
A writing life in middle age, though, demands mandatory self-care. The average life expectancy for American women is 80 years. It will take all the mental and physical courage I can muster to meet the page every day for the next 30 or so odd years; I want a supple mind and a healthy body. I have embraced a preventative regimen: a weekly schedule of yoga, exercise (to counteract all that sitting), meditation (to counteract loud inner critics), eating right and easy on the alcohol.
Watching Dr. Angelou over the years, it seemed that she found a balance between work and deep pleasure. She taught until 2011, but had plans to go back into the classroom later this year. Angelou appeared to be as delighted by the language of aspiring poets as she was by the writers she deeply admired including Shakespeare and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. And, her dinner parties in Winston-Salem were legendary.
If I die at my desk, at 80, with a pen in my hand, a gorgeous journal in my lap, surrounded by my published works, I’ll be a happy woman.
And, if I can get a few fabulous dinner parties in before I go, I imagine Maya would be proud.