Category Archives: Advice

Is This Good?

If you befriend a writer, they’ll ask you, “Am I any good?” Writers are desperate for validation and obsessed with the idea of “good”. Sometimes, I think we want the answer to be no, we’re not good, so we can give up on writing. It’d fulfill our natural desire for conflict and tension, and it would mean we could quit guiltlessly.

This morning I realized this kind of thinking is hella flawed. First of all, good is a subjective thing, and there are a lot of metrics for good. Plot, character development, themes, cohesion, scenes, descriptions, word choice, pacing. You could be good at any one of those things and bad at another. There’s no guarantee the person reading your piece will zone in on what you’re good at. You might also be an amazing fantasy writer, but the reader likes mystery stories. Are you good then? It depends, which is an irritating answer, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’re asking the wrong question.

So how about this one: “Am I working hard on this piece, and is this the best I can do?” Alright, so that’s two I slammed together. Sue me.

The difference here is that your best is both a measurable thing—you know when you’re working at your highest level—and something to aim for. If you’re always striving to do your best work, you’ll always be improving, and that bar will constantly move. It also takes the measure of your success out of the subjective hands of someone else and puts it back in yours. It makes you responsible for your own work. Only you know if you’re doing your best.

So stop asking, “Is this good?” because I can’t tell you that. Instead, start asking, “Is this the best I can do?” If it’s not, work harder.

On Learning without Knowing & the Meaning of Hay

There’s a lot to learn when you start taking photography. My professor insisted we start with film, preference on an SLR. This meant we were in control of the f-stop, shutter speed, and had to have a working knowledge of ISO. There was no immediate review button to see if we’d gotten something right, so we had to learn how to work our settings and focus fast, and then hope we nailed it. We shot on slide film, and we’d load our best shots into the wheel at the beginning of class, and Billera would flip through them, critiquing them out loud for everyone. Was our shutter speed too slow, so our images were blurred? Was the foreground out of focus? And if, by some miracle, we’d nailed everything technically, he’d talk about our artistry. How was our composition and our understanding of light? Would the picture have been better if we’d shifted the camera two inches to the right? Or shot from a different angle? Or set our f-stop lower and our shutter speed higher?

When photographing, there’s rarely more than five seconds when the image is available for you to take. So the trick is to learn to recognize that which is noteworthy, compose the image, set the f-stop and shutter speed, and click. That’s it. Done. The moment’s passed, either the girl you’re photographing has moved on, the light has shifted behind the cloud, or the beat of the sidewalk has swept you away. You’ve either got it, or you haven’t.

We spent hours and hours in the classroom learning theory, pouring over photography books, and critiquing our own composition and others in the hope that when we went out into the real world, this knowledge was so internalized, we no longer had to think about it. Billera told us to leave everything we learned in the classroom at home and go out and photograph with the soul. Don’t think, he said, just click. If you’ve done your job in the classroom, you’ll do your job out there.

And it started to work. First I had to learn the technicalities of the camera. I started to guess f-stops and film speeds wherever I was for whatever lighting conditions there were. This took weeks of nearly constantly thought, but I started to get the hang of it, and I got fast at it. Then I had to learn about composition (the oft talked about “photographer’s eye”), and then I had to learn to trust myself. Trusting myself was probably the hardest part because there isn’t always an easily understood why in art.

I was walking through a barn one day, and there was a patch of sunlight on a mound of hay. I thought, “Wow, photograph that.” I carried my camera everywhere then, so I had it. I raised it to my eye, but then paused. It was just hay, after all. The only thing I liked was the light, why take a picture of it? I did anyway because I was there, but I knew my hand wasn’t quite steady enough to hold the camera still at the shutter speed I needed, and I didn’t retake the picture with a tripod or a box to stabilize myself because it was “just a picture of hay.” In class, Billera tore me a new one. He told me I couldn’t walk around throwing away pictures like that because I didn’t feel like using a tripod. I still remember the look on his face, like I’d dropped a gold coin because I didn’t feel like wiping off the mud.

So I stopped second guessing myself, though I still screwed pictures up, and I started taking them whenever I saw them. I never quite understood what was attractive to me, but I had a friend once tell me that looking at them made her feel like she could see the world through my eyes. There was something there that she responded to, even if it was so deep in me, I couldn’t understand it myself.

Writing is the same way. You’ve got to learn everything you can about the craft and the technicalities, the way it works and how it works best, and why it fails when it fails. You’ve go to do your best to master the artistry of it. And then, you’ve got to let it all go. When you sit down to write, you must come blank, knowing nothing, and trust that that knowledge is there for you. You can’t self-edit while you goes because then you’ll never take risks. If you’ve worked hard enough, when you come back around to revise and edit, there will be something beautiful there for you to tease out. Something unique and surprising and worthwhile, a statement about afternoon light and the sheen of hay in the middle of a dusty barn, maybe, something that you didn’t even fully understand the day you sat down to write it.


The Punctuation Trap

I was sitting outside of my undergrad adviser’s office one day (English majors for the win!), when I heard this quote. She was advising a fellow writer/English lover at the time:

“You have a very big vocabulary. But I don’t think you should use every word. Because, the thing is, you know the words, but you’re not using them correctly.”

I snickered because I’m a jerk.

This is a really common thing for new writers, but it isn’t limited to words. I see it most often with punctuation. You know which guys I mean:?! … ;

The problem with these grammar marks is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re stealing the show. Everything new writers use them for those first few years–trailing off, adding emphasis, indicating confusion–can and should be better achieved through words and actions. Using them is like using a cliche. It’s cheating. It doesn’t really show a feeling or an emotion, except in the broadest, most ineffective strokes.

New writers reach for them to sound like more experienced writers. Lacking confidence in themselves, they bolster their text (or their feelings) with big words and obscure punctuation. Because hey, if you can use punctilious correctly and throw in a semicolon, you can’t be all bad, right? Not quite. Punctuation marks are the spices of writing. The more obscure spices, like turmeric, paprika, and sage, are great with a light touch, but pour on too much, and the dish is kaput.

The basics will get you by just fine for a very long time. A manuscript that has proper periods, commas, and quotation marks is far more impressive than a manuscript chock full of misplaced semicolons, ellipsis, and whatever you call this: “?!”. When starting out, cull the more obscure punctuation from your writing. Learn to use the standards more effectively. How can a writer indicate confusion without a question mark and exclamation point combo? How can a writer combine thoughts, but still use separate sentences?

Once they’re gone, keep them gone for years. And I mean years. (Unless you’re writing thousands of words a day, then maybe nine months. At least give yourself the amount of time it takes to make a baby.) When it has been programmed into your brain that you do not use those, when you’re so blind to them, you red-pen them without even considering if they’re appropriate, then you may open your eyes to them. When do they work? When do they emphasize instead of scream? When do they give a feeling that is best earned through their use, and not some other word or gesture? When is a semicolon really a better choice than having two sentences? (If you find an example, please share it. Because, really, when?)

There are a few, rare moments when these little guys, the lovable jerks of the grammar world, are appropriate. And when they are, that one time in an entire novel-length manuscript, use them. They can be like swear words, completely effective when used properly, or so over-used, they slip out in front of grandma.

*Edited for an ironic grammar error.


How to Submit to Lit Mags

Since I’ve had (very, very) mild success submitting to Lit Mags, a friend asked how I did it. I didn’t think I had much to say, but stuff gushed forth in an email I wrote on Saturday…on mobile. So I guess I had a lot to say. Take it with whatever grains you think best: salt, sand, or hops.

She asked, specifically, “What does ‘we want meaningful works’ mean?” I’m going to lump all the Lit Mag phrases in together right now: send us your best work, send us stuff that wows/moves us, or makes us feel things. I’m sure there are tons more. What do they mean?

Well. Nothing. For the Lit Mags, they probably mean something, but for you, the author, no. Pretty meaningless. Maybe they’re meant as scare tactics, I don’t know. But you definitely can’t glean anything about whether or not you should submit from them.

So what’s important?

Pay attention to any adjectives they use and any genre words, those are important. Character vs. plot driven is a helpful distinction. My pieces focus on  emotion and I aspire to be literary, so I pay attention whenever those words are used. Don’t be too picky here. You’re looking to rule mags out more than rule mags in.

Once you find a call that might fit your piece, open the website. Does it look like shit? If it does, don’t click away yet, but start looking for anything that validates them. Do they pay their writers? Have they nominated their stories for any awards? Have they won any awards? Are they promoting any of their current or past writers on their front page? If the answer to all of these things is no, I close the window and write them off. They only need to check one of those boxes to keep my attention. (Some really solid mags have shit websites.)

Most of them have stories available to read online. If you have the time, read them. If you don’t, skim them.* Pay attention to their writing aesthetics. Do their stories sound or feel like your own? If they do, this is probably a good place to  submit. A lot of people ask if you like the stories, but I like a lot of styles that don’t mesh with my own, so I don’t really like this approach, personally.

Submission fees– I can accept small fees of $2 or $3. I’ve seen fees up to $23 (and even paid one once, but never again). Since the literary market is kind of flooded right now but doesn’t have money, I don’t mind the smaller fees at the starting gate, but I try to find mags that don’t charge. If I really like a mag or it has a good name for itself (like Ploughshares), I’ll pay.

If a mag charges and doesn’t do any of the things in the “shitty website” paragraph, I get out of there fast. That’s just lazy people being lazy.

I’ve had luck filtering searches at (and will frequently check for reviews or listings on there when I find a mag a like).

I think the whole process is easier if you’re looking to send out a minimum of 3 stories, but works best with at least 5 stories. This way, its math working in your favor. Sifting through calls to place your one perfect story is disheartening and hard, and the rejections sting more. Looking for 5 stories at once? You’re bound to find more mags that fit the bill, and since you have multiple pieces out, the rejections sting less (in my experience). I try to sit out and send out enough pieces to enough places that, by the end of it, I can’t quite remember where they all want.

On this note, keep track. I use excel. I have one spreadsheet per story, and track the name of the place I sent it, the date I sent it out, and whether it was accepted, withdrawn, or rejected. I also keep notes. Do they take a particularly long time to get back to you?  Was the rejection nice? I like to remember this. Spreadsheets like this especially help if you have to withdraw a piece. You’ll know all the places you sent it without having to wrack your brain.

*I think it’s important to read and support literary mags. I’m not saying don’t  do this. Really, find the magazines you like and read them. But I don’t think reading lit mags and submitting to lit mags are the same process. Read for fun. Submit like it’s a job.