Natural Bridge Issue 29 is edited by Mary Troy and continues Natural Bridge‘s tradition of featuring the best new work from emerging and established writers, including a new three-part interview with Meghan Daum.
From the introduction:
My job as editor of Natural Bridge, a journal of contemporary literature, consists mainly of providing oversight or advice to the other UMSL MFA faculty members who take their turns as guest editors and select work for the book we put out twice a year. I also have the privilege of working with our managing editor, invariably a talented MFA student with a bent toward publishing who does all the real work. I also oversee other of our talented and hard working MFA students, the advanced ones, who serve as assistant editors, readers of all the work submitted. Sometimes, as we did for this issue, we allow MA students to join in the selection process, and they make the job that much more stimulating. Oversight of all those listed above is easy, is fun, is uplifting. But every fourth semester, I’m given more fun, for it is then I have the privilege of serving as guest editor, and, along with the assistant editors, I read and sort and select from good work submitted by talented and emerging writers. This book, number 29, is not the result of call for a themed issue, but when I look at what we accepted, I see a theme has emerged: Ways we navigate through ourselves to a relative safety. Broad, yes, but not less fascinating for that.
Continue reading the introduction.
By Amy Milton, Assistant Editor
So you’re on the editorial team of a literary journal. It’s a few weeks into the reading period, and the sum total of your accepted pages is less than 10. You start to wonder if your standards are too high, if maybe that story about the girl who saves her town through dance was really so bad. You wonder if it’s just not a good year for literary writing, or if the problem is with the work that’s being sent to your journal, which you didn’t think was bottom-of-the-barrel but at this point might as well be a pamphlet with a cover that reads “WE’RE SORRY.” You begin, in other words, to panic.
Yes, you have an obligation to your subscribers to provide them with a journal. Yes, a piece of fiction or poetry that’s only a 6 or 7 out of 10 is better than blank pages and an invitation to readers to “Write your own story here!” But a big part of the purpose of literary editing, as well as literary fiction, is to set standards that are a cut above. Quantity is required, but quality is essential. Your mid-level literary journal won’t read like a Best American collection, but each piece should have that spark of originality, insight, and inspiration that challenges, enlightens, and keeps us reading. We want work that is entertaining and worthwhile, and that is what your readers signed up for when they subscribed to a literary journal. Journals that fail to deliver gain a reputation and are pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.
Ok, I see why you’re panicking. It’s easy to accept the pieces that are really dynamite and to reject the flood of work that ranges from cliché to insane. But what to do with a short story that is likeable but flawed, smart and fun but a little underdeveloped, with realistic characters but a slightly rushed resolution? Or the poem with 12 lines you love but 2 you hate? Do you accept them to fill space and risk lowering the overall quality of your journal? Or do you reject them and take the risk that you might not get anything better?
A great thing about writers who send out to journals is that they never know when their work will be read. They don’t expect to hear back for months after they put the envelope in the mail or submit online. They’ve likely already waited for a few months by the time you’ve read their piece, shared it with your fellow editors, and torn out bits of your hair deciding whether it’s the best you’re going to get.
This expected waiting period can work to the uncertain editor’s advantage. You don’t have to make a snap decision on every submission. Putting a story, poem, or essay in a hold pile for a month or two can’t hurt you (unless it’s accepted somewhere else, but if so you weren’t all that attached to it anyway), won’t offend the writer, and gives you a chance to find out, rather than speculate, whether or not you’ll receive better work later in the reading period.
It’s also nice to return to a piece you felt sort of ambivalent about a few months after your first reading. Sometimes you won’t like it as well; other times you’ll still be charmed and want to accept it, even without panic as a motivator.
By Glenn Boothe, Assistant Editor
Pen names, or pseudonyms…why do writers choose to use them? As a newbie writer in an MFA program, I had not thought about the importance of considering whether or not to use a pen name. I had thought that using a pen name was just a way to remain anonymous, to hide behind the pseudonym. But why would an author wish to remain anonymous? I have learned that there are many reasons—reasons that never occurred to me, yet make sense and, in some ways, seem obvious.
Many writers throughout history have used pen names to hide their gender. George Elliot was a female using a pen name to suggest that she was a male. Other writers (J.K. Rowling, for example) used initials in order to make gender ambiguous. Male contributors to the romance genre may wish to be perceived as female, while women appealing to a male audience in the science fiction or action genre may adopt a male pen name, or use initials.
Other writers have used pen names either to hide or convey a particular ethnicity. For example, a story about Irish castles and the ghosts that haunt them may seem more credible if written by a writer with an Irish name. Then there have been writers who want to write in different genres, and/or send work out to different types of journals for publication. In this manner, a writer may submit their best works to only the best, most prestigious journals; other works are sent to other types of journals under different names. Other reasons include the desire to make as much money as possible by writing in many different genres and/or sending in several different works to the same publication. A writer may use one pen name per work to increase the likelihood of having multiple works published in the same publication.
Of course, this practice begs the question, “Isn’t this somewhat dishonest?” One writer I talked to believes that one shouldn’t use a pen name; she feels that it is dishonest in some way. Yet she also told me that she knew a writer who was trying to make a living in the literary world by writing erotic material. This leads to another consideration for using pen names; writers may want to separate their writing life from their family and/or their professional life. Writers who write erotic works may not want family to find out. An engineer, a salesperson, or a manager may not want co-workers, HR, or bosses to read writings that may not align with their company’s ethics.
As I researched the reasons behind using pen names, I gained a new perspective and found that there are many more reasons than what I have touched on here. I have also come to the conclusion that using a pen name is much like having multiple email addresses, and/or having multiple account names, multiple blogs, multiple social media sites, multiple gamer tags, and so on. Thought of in this way, it is my opinion that using pen names is not dishonest in any way; it has, in a lot of ways, become a necessity for writers who want to make a living, who write prolifically and in many different genres, who may use gender purposefully, or hide gender for various reasons. Or perhaps they just want to portray a neutral image, unbiased from race, religion, or political affiliation.
As I conclude, I wondered how much consideration I give to reading something by looking at the author’s name. I wondered if I should seriously consider using a pen name or names myself. As I considered this, I realized that I do judge a book by its cover, and I do judge a name that is written on that cover. I think most of us do, even if we don’t realize we are doing it. At least it gives me pause now, and the next time I pick a book off the shelf or flip through a literary journal trying to decide what works I want to read, I’ll look at the name and smile and wonder who is hiding behind that name.
By Megan McCormack, Assistant Editor
You haven’t heard anything in months. You check your email constantly, your mailbox, your Submittable account, hoping for something—anything, really—to give you hope. Your friends call you obsessed, but really, what do they know? And then, one day, there it is: something in your inbox from the journal. Finally, a response! Your heart skips a beat in anticipation as you click and scroll to discover…
You’ve been rejected.
At first, you can’t believe it. You re-read it several times, but the words don’t rearrange themselves into something better. Denial quickly slips into anger as you shout several four syllable words at your computer screen, reaffirming your neighbor’s suspicion that you are, in fact, insane.
But you aren’t (at least not as a result of this situation). You are dealing with rejection, and that is perfectly acceptable. Here are some suggestions on how to get through a journal rejection successfully:
1. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Sometimes, a journal might reject you on the grounds that your work is not the right fit for that publication. While you may initially think that this is a pathetic excuse, it can really be true. Often, journals have very specific guidelines for the type of material they publish. Make sure that you take a very careful look at their requirements. I’d recommend looking at a couple of their past issues. For example, you don’t want to submit a short story about robots to a journal that only publishes realism pieces set in the Midwest.
Also, you don’t know what was going through the minds of the editors who read your work. Every journal editor has his or her favorite style, bias, writing pet peeves, and so forth. This means that your audience is extremely varied. One set of editors could love your submission for the same reasons that another set of editors could hate it. Don’t take it personally because sometimes it really isn’t your fault.
2. “There are other journals in the sea.”
There are hundreds of journals out there. New ones are being created all the time, especially online journals. Do your research and come up with a list of journals to which to submit your rejected piece. While I am not implying that you should just settle, you might find a journal that is a better fit for you than the one rejected you in the first place. Don’t let this rejection be the end all, be all. Cry into your pillow a bit, and then open that laptop and find yourself another journal to try.
3. “Take rejection slips and pin them on your wall.”
Now, it may sound silly and somewhat masochistic to have a Wall of Failure. However, if you really want to be a successful writer, you are going to be rejected over, and over, and over, and over again. It does get easier, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt every time it happens. Instead of turning into a bitter shell of a human being, take that rejection letter and pin it to your wall. Print out the rejection email. Do a screenshot. Whatever works for you. Doing this makes the rejection process less personal. It also forces you to confront the rejection rather than forgetting about it and denying it ever happened—which is not healthy.
4. “Embrace the friend zone.”
Occasionally, you might receive a personal rejection rather than a pre-made form. An editor may have enjoyed your submission, but it might not be as developed as the editor wants. Sometimes these personal rejection letters will even include some editing suggestions. This is what you want (aside from an acceptance, of course)—it may get your hopes up, but there is still a chan work. This could indicate that you are on the cusp of an acceptance, but your work isn’t quite there yet.
See: Bukowski’s “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip”
5. “Do a make-over.”
Have you been sending in the same ol’, tired story that you wrote in a workshop almost five years ago? Not to say that you need to change your identity as a writer, but it may be time to break out of your comfort zone. A writer doesn’t grow unless he or she challenges him or herself. Sure, you can stare at your Wall of Rejection and fume about it. You can send in the same piece that was rejected to several rebound journals, hoping to find a quick fix. Have you considered, though, that maybe it is you, not the journal that is the source of the issue? Why not try experimenting a bit? Try a new style. Shake up your routine. You have to be willing to edit, change, and adapt. As Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your all darlings.”
6. “Get the right kind of pep talk.”
Who was the first person you told about the rejection and how did they react? Whoever that person was, he or she probably told you they were very sorry it happened, and that the journal has made a huge mistake. Then, he or she probably suggested that you go out for a drink or ice cream to talk about how that journal will be on its knees at your solid gold doorstep when you are a super-rich-famous author one day. These are all good things to hear. However, it’s not going to help you in the long run. What you need is practical and honest advice: constructive criticism. Once your ego has healed enough, gather up a list of people you trust to read over your rejected work. You need people that will rip apart your writing and then help you stitch it back together into something better.
The lesson to learn from this is that rejection doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Don’t let it control you. Use this as your opportunity to become stronger and even better than before. It’ll make receiving that acceptance letter all the more worth it in the end.
By Marisol Ramirez, Assistant Editor
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. That rejection slip may have you thinking, “Well, I must be a bad writer,” and the truth is you very well may be if you are not avoiding these common writing pitfalls that lead to rejection. Let’s not pity ourselves now or be satisfied with the nonspecific, condemning title of “bad writer.” It’s time to diagnose and remedy. Does your writing suffer from any of the common ailments below?
1) Anemia. No, it’s not a lack of red blood cells, but rather a total absence of entertainment for the reader. This happens for several reasons.
- The story or poem does not create a world. The setting, characters or speaker are underdeveloped. These pieces read only at the surface. Please consider that if your story’s main character spends too much time by himself or in his head, there is something wrong.
- There is no point, nothing notable to take away after reading. Always leave the reader with an interesting answer to the infamous “So what?” question. At the same time, don’t hit us over the head with that answer. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Trust your reader to follow. (See 7, Paranoia.)
- There are no stakes. If there are no stakes for the characters or the speaker, then why should the reader care? It is not enough to paint a picture. Get to the emotional core of what really matters.
2) The common cold. Everyone has had one, the sniffles, the cough. Is your writing doing all the same things as the other stories and poems? Is it cliché and/or derivative? We are looking for fresh ideas, fresh images, and fresh language. Relying on subject matter, however personally meaningful (cancer, miscarriage) rarely makes for interesting literature. It’s the author’s treatment of the subject that makes it interesting.
3) The seizure. Your writing lacks control. Images, metaphors and scenes are left dangling or plopped in where they don’t belong. Turning points misdirect and lead stories and poems into frivolous or unnecessary directions. Every move and word must not only be purposeful, but affective.
4) The heart attack. Going for shock value? Throwing in an extreme blood bath or outrageous sex scene gets you negative attention, especially when shock value seems to be the only point to the story or poem. Unless you are Tarantino, skip this or downplay it. If you want to shock us, do it with the quality of your prose, not the vividness of your main character’s dismemberment.
5) Manipulative Behavior. Obviously if you are getting rejected, your manipulations aren’t working. Quit writing poems or stories that purposefully try to trick readers. This is irritating. We want to be in the moment with the speaker, not battling him. Likewise, it is equally distracting (but not as irritating) when we can sense the writer stage-managing, meaning that a certain line or scene is only there in order to bring about a particular ending. When this is painfully obvious, the reader is ejected from the story and distracted by the writing itself.
6) Bipolar Disorder. This isn’t about sudden angry rants and blissful glee. Rather, your writing fluctuates drastically in quality. It suffers from moments of brilliance followed by moments of carelessness. Usually this means a fresh image or idea is followed by a cliché one. Nothing is more disappointing than having to reject a piece of writing that captures us but then loses us. Oh how we want to love your work and accept it, but we just can’t when its weak moments drag it down. As a writer, you know when you write filler lines. They only hold the place of a better line that more accurately portrays what you want. While it is hard to live up to the best lines, it must be done, and your brilliant moments prove to us that you are capable of it.
7) Paranoia. Will they see the connection? What if they don’t? I don’t want them to miss it. What if they miss it? Will they get? YES, we get it, so stop over explaining your image. We are picking up the hints, we promise. When we read about thunderous skies, we know a symbolic storm is brewing. No need to write, “And problems are coming.” Trust in your images; they get the job done just fine.
8) Dementia. Your writing suffers from a bit of the crazies. Mostly it is absolutely, mind-twistingly confusing. If you can barely make sense of your own poem or story, you can’t expect your reader to be able to follow it. Or maybe your writing makes sense to you, but this is only because you know the intentions behind what you wrote. For this reason it is always good to have an outside reader to share your work with. Confusion can happen when a writer tries to be too mysterious. There is nothing to be gained from trying to make your reader work harder to understand exactly what you are talking about. Of course there is some puzzle solving to be done when reading poems, but this involves relating a clear metaphor to an object. When descriptions are cryptic, the relationship of metaphor to object is lost on the reader.
Writing suffering from the above ailments is NOT ready for submission, but rather for workshop. Workshop will not only set your writing on the road to excellent health but also teach you how to better self-diagnose when you are on your own. So please, if your writing is ill, seek professional help. Whatever you do, don’t trash your work. Symptoms will persist unless treated.
As Augusten Burrough’s said, “When you have your health, you have everything.” He may or may not have been referring to the increased likelihood of publication.
By Michael Smith, Assistant Editor
While submitting to journals can be an intimidating experience, being on the other side, working on the editorial staff of a literary journal, can be just as intimidating. If you read journals regularly you have probably had the experience of reading through an issue and thinking at one point or another, “Now why the hell did they decide to publish this?” That uncertainty—about the validity of your tastes, about your ability to distinguish between what’s good and what’s not—tends to stick with you when, as an editor, you start reading through submissions, trying to determine what is publishable.
Being the only M.A. student on a staff that is otherwise composed entirely of writers working their way through UMSL’s M.F.A. program certainly doesn’t help with this uncertainty. But one fact does help: this is not my first rodeo. As an undergrad I worked for several semesters on the editorial staff of the journal published by my university.
However, I have found that, given the many differences between that journal and Natural Bridge—differences of circulation, number of submissions received, and staff structure—the transferability of my experience and knowledge gained as an undergrad is limited. Here I hope to give a brief account of these differences, both to illuminate the variety of experiences one can encounter when working on an editorial staff and to give writers a sense of the kind of attention and scrutiny they can expect their work to receive at different types of journals.
The most noticeable difference between Natural Bridge and the journal I edited as an undergrad is that the latter has a circulation of about 2,500, whereas the former’s is less than a thousand. This means that at Natural Bridge we receive fewer submissions, which can be either a good or a bad thing for you as a submitting writer. Essentially, what it means is that we can spend a lot more time with your submission. Whereas editors at the larger journal were told to spend no more than ten minutes looking over each submission (allowing each to burn through between 30 and 50 submissions per week), at Natural Bridge each editor is assigned about eight submissions per week to carefully peruse.
So if you are a writer whose strongest writing appears in the first page of your submission, this could be bad news, as we will be looking closely at the entirety of your work. This is not to suggest that at a larger journal your work could squeak by and get published on the merits of its first page, but it would certainly be more likely to reach a higher point in the editorial chain of command, possibly delaying your rejection and earning you what we liked to call a “nice rejection.” On the other hand, if you are a writer who has stronger endings than beginnings, your work is more likely to receive the serious attention it deserves at a journal like Natural Bridge, where we have time to consider the effect of each story in its entirety.
As an undergrad working for a larger journal, I had the privilege of seeing famous writers published in nearly every issue we put out—writers like Sherman Alexie, James Richardson, D.A. Powell, and Mary Jo Bang. On the other hand, most of these writers’ work was submitted directly to those previously mentioned editors who were higher in the chain of command, and I’d never see this work until it appeared in the final publication. Rarely, if ever, would I encounter in my reading any of the work we actually published, often leaving me with the feeling that my job was merely to skim the slush pile, making sure we didn’t accidentally miss any big names.
Natural Bridge offers an entirely different editorial experience. Every piece of writing that we publish is read by every member of the staff before a final decision is made. When there is disagreement concerning whether a piece is publishable, the matter is put to a vote, giving each of us a truly influential role in the formation of the final product. While this is empowering, it can also be, as mentioned above, intimidating. There is no safety net, no deference to a chain of command. If we publish something bad, we are all equally responsible. However, on the rare occasions when we find something we can all agree is an excellent, moving piece of writing, we all share equally in the pride of having brought it to publication.
By Ryan Smith, Assistant Editor
Publishing poetry can be a tough gig. The daily grind for most poets – the real grind, the dull work we do absent any intrinsic reward, as opposed to the scarce but enormous fruits of writing and wrestling a poem into something halfway decent – involves submitting to lit journals. Sometimes dozens of them. I agree, it sucks, and it’s the closest we get to feeling that writing is the shitty office job that we took up writing specifically to avoid.
Nothing I can say will make you feel better, except to remind you that at the end of all of your letter-composing, stamp-licking, envelope-stuffing and/or file-attaching and/or copy-pasting, etc., is the possibility that you will be affirmed and validated and feel as though a group of people chosen specifically to despise you and everything you have to say or think actually finds your poetry sensitive, well-crafted, and moving. This is one of the better feelings in the world. I can also give you some advice – as a poet who is also sending his stuff out and so he’s right there with you, buddy, but also as the assistant editor for a couple of journals – on how to make sure your poems get a fair shot and look like the hard work of not just a semi-respectable and professional human being, but a decent one, a person who respects the time and work and eyesight of others.
The first thing I ask you to do is to read the submission guidelines. Seriously. Read them. Read them and follow them. You can find them on the journal’s website (you can find the guidelines for Natural Bridge here) or in the front of the print journal. The guidelines will tell you the reading period (the period during which the journal is accepting submissions). More importantly, the guidelines tell you how many poems to send; whether the journal accepts work that has been submitted elsewhere simultaneously; and whether the journal wants you to submit your poems through the mail or online.
Please take note of the number of poems the journal requests. Natural Bridge, for example, asks for 3-6 poems. Now, if I receive a submission with just one or two poems, I don’t care. I’ll read your poems, and I won’t think anything more or less of you. Other journals work similarly; their guidelines contain a ceiling for how many poems you can send them, but not a floor. Don’t break the ceiling, not even by a single poem. It’s not that we’ll return your submission unread, it’s that we’ll think you either a) didn’t care enough to read our guidelines or b) read our guidelines, and didn’t care. Either way, you come off as kind of a jerk, especially if you wildly and frantically ignore the number of poems we can handle at a time. For example, do not, as did one poet whose submission I was assigned recently, send us more than 50 pages of poetry. If you send us too much of your work (even if all of it is worthy of publication), we won’t read all of it, and we won’t want to publish you regardless of the quality of your poems because you will have activated our human desire not to reward bad behavior. You never want to push that button in an editor.
I would also take this second rule to heart: the arrangement of your packet is not arbitrary. Do you have control over the order of the poems in your packet? Exercise that control. So many things are outside of our power when we submit our work to journals that when we have control over an element of the process, why not take advantage of that control? Be intentional; make decisions about what poem goes first, what goes second, and so on. My suggestion is that the best poems in your submission go first and last. The final position is important because it’s the poem you leave the editor with. The first position is important because it’s your poems’ introduction to the editor, and it gives you an opportunity to get the editor on your side. As a caveat, I’ll let you know that I often like the first poem in the submission of a poet that Natural Bridge ends up publishing, but it’s not always the poem that gets published. It need not be THE best poem you have for us – but it should be one you’re confident in. If the first poem makes me confident in your abilities and intrigues me, I’ll be on your side, I’ll want to keep reading.
If you’re submitting through an online submission manager, as most journals are having you do these days, then pay attention to your pagination. Are you copy-pasting anything? Review and correct any formatting errors that have resulted. Are you attaching the file? (And it’s one file you’re sending, not 3-6. Editors get aggravated by having to open a different file for each poem, and they’ll usually tell you they want the poems as a single document). If you’re attaching the file, look at the document before you do. Make sure that each poem begins at the top of the page, and not in the middle or the bottom. If you can, correct last lines that might get orphaned on a second page. As readers, we can find these phenomena jarring, and as fellow writers, we want to know that you respect the logic of the page and the experience of the reader enough to remedy stuff like that.
The final thing you ought to do when you’re formatting your poems is to choose a good typeface. This is an easy choice to make, as, as far as I’m concerned, you have two options: a serif font like Times New Roman, or the default in your word processor. It only becomes difficult if you have changed the default to anything but a serif font like Times New Roman. If you’ve done this, change it back. If you find yourself clicking on the font bar in your word processor with your mouse, stop. Your typeface ought to look like the typefaces most journals actually use, as it will help us visualize your work in the context of what we’re putting together, and that’s always a plus for you. Your typeface should not look like it was meant for a yoga studio brochure or for a really funny chain email – in other words, no papyrus, no comic sans, no computer cursive. I wouldn’t even use Courier, the font that makes it look like you used a typewriter. At least to me, the suggestion that your preferences for technology are old-fashioned and obsolete is a red flag that your aesthetic preferences might be old-fashioned and obsolete, too. And no, this isn’t entirely fair or rational, except insofar as a lot of my editorial reading has proven it to be true, at least as far as poetry goes.
Most importantly, what an acceptable typeface does is let us focus entirely on your poems. It’s legible. If we pause in the middle of your poem, it’s because we’re appreciating a phrase or grappling in the best way with a complex thought, and not because we’re deciphering a letter. To paraphrase Marianne Moore, it’s a plain font that cats and dogs can read.
Don’t be afraid of sending your stuff out (and don’t be afraid of sending your stuff to us; we’re still reading). We give you a fair hearing. We want what we read to be good, believe me. All that my advice is meant to assure you is that it’s the content of your work that catches our eye and demonstrates its quality. A good poem will jump out and seize our attention, and that’s all you need to work toward. So don’t show up in our mailbox in a bathrobe; don’t waltz in and start rifling through our fridge. Be cool.
By Sara Ross, Assistant Editor
In fiction-writing, we cheat and embellish, manipulate worlds to match our whims. We get to do whatever it takes to make a reader feel something, see a bigger picture than what’s there on the page. In creative nonfiction, we’re working within a whole different set of constraints. We’re fighting to take pieces of memory or history or theory and make these personal bits matter to a reader on that same grand-scheme human scale. The chance to see a writer do this successfully – turn regular life into something transcendent – is what keeps me reaching for more nonfiction submissions to read.
This all sounds really lofty and hopeful. In reality, reading though essay submissions, there are a couple of ways things tend to go:
#1 – It’s just not that interesting. In many of the essays we read, not a lot happens. Now, you might say that real life is boring, mundane. So, if you’re writing nonfiction, depicting real life, there is bound to be some humdrum everydayness in there. You’re right! For most of us, life is going to work then making some dinner, walking the dog in the morning or taking the kids to the bus stop, reading and writing whenever we find the time. That is not very exciting stuff. But here’s the trick: a good essay about it is. (More on that to come.)
#2 – The weight of the piece relies on the plot. We know to avoid this in fiction, but in nonfiction, it comes up a lot. These are the unbelievable-but-true stories, the rare disease stories, the life and death, or religious conversion stories. I’m certainly not saying that these topics couldn’t hold the center of a good essay, but it can’t be all there is, because even if a writer has an extraordinary story to tell, it’s probably not that extraordinary. It’s cliché because it’s true: every story worth telling has already been told. This means we have to give a reader something more than just the story.
The solution to both of these problems is obvious, but not simple: craft matters. This is harder to see when we’re writing memoir-style nonfiction because the fact that we’ve had a particular experience makes it feel momentous, powerful – whether we’re writing the mundane or the extraordinary. We imagine that nobody else has felt this particular blend of emotions before, that our stories are one-of-a-kind. This natural preoccupation with our own experience is why, in creative nonfiction, we have to be even more careful to look for the larger Truth in what we’re putting out there for our readers, to think about the experience of the reader, rather than the experience of the self.
For an example, pop over and take a look at the very short essay, “Nearing Solstice,” by Lisa Ohlen Harris, published in Sweet, Issue 4.1. This piece is about making coffee on a summer morning, about remembering being a kid, about growing old – all that mundane, regular-life stuff I was talking about earlier. But there is an emotional pull that carries the reader far past the mundane. There is a care with language that makes us want to say the lines out loud. There is a familiarity, but also a momentum pulling us forward from summer into fall and reminding us of the ache when the carefree, long days end. There is something of human experience here that reaches past this one life and makes us think about our own. This is the mark of a good essay – like good fiction or poetry – that a reader can feel emotion resonating with something bigger, something grander than just the life being described on the page.
Maybe this point seems obvious, that the reason for writing is to expose some capital-T Truth or capital-B Beauty. Maybe it should go without saying. But in writing about our lives, it’s an easy thing to let slip. As writers, we so often live in our heads, in our own little made-up worlds. This is necessary and useful much of the time. The mark of good nonfiction writing though, seems to be an ability to step out of that internal space, out of the this-happened-to-me mentality and figure out how our little lives fit into something larger.
By Kasey Perkins, Assistant Editor
Cover letters. I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately as we’ve really plunged into reading submissions for Natural Bridge. As the envelopes pour in, there has been quite the variety of ways in which people choose to introduce themselves to our editors, from typed to handwritten, from fine linen paper to yellow copy sheets, from tiny leaflets easily lost to a full page of polished prose. And that’s what a cover letter is, really—an introduction. A first impression. As we’re nearing Valentine’s Day, one may even liken this to a first date. To that effect, a lot of writers out there may be wondering what makes a good cover letter.
Well, much like that first date, a cover letter for a submission to a literary journal should really abide by the rule “less is more.” A polished physical presence is certainly important—having nice letter head or fancy resume paper can help you stick out in a crowd—but what really matters is content. We want a brief, honest introduction to you, but we don’t want to hear everything. Save that for our second date. What would a journal need to know? Knowing what poems, stories, or essays are enclosed helps our organizational process, while knowing your university affiliations (if applicable), gives us a sense of where you are as a writer. As far as day jobs are concerned, these are always a great add if they give context on your work—if you’re writing poems about abused animals, knowing you work at a shelter gives us a perspective on your work that is perhaps useful or even necessary.
And while letting us know you’ve been asked to submit is an excellent idea (we’re more inclined towards personal response that way, though not always), letting us know too much can be detrimental to your submission. Much like that first date, a cover letter shouldn’t be filled with emotional blackmail, such as begging for feedback. With the number of submissions we handle, this just isn’t realistic. Similarly, trying too hard to dazzle us with personal information (such as attaching an entire CV), can backfire if your work doesn’t live up to your credentials. Information overload goes double for the work itself—leave a little to the imagination, rather than explaining your work in a cover letter. The person across the dinner table wants to discover you for themselves, not have you explained to them at first meeting.
Basically, a polished, brief, relevant, and polite cover letter can buy you a lot of attention. Why should we slow down before tossing this submission in the slush pile? Why should we give you that second date, or rather, a second read?
And if you don’t include a letter, well—as one of our editors opined last week, “a cover letter shows you are not a barbarian.”
By Michael Nye, Guest Blogger
Even before I graduated from my MFA program, I had some idea of a story collection in place. This collection comprised nine or eleven stories (digression: always an odd number; for whatever reason, this always appealed to me, that somehow nine or eleven was better than ten or twelve. I have no idea why). I published my first story in Sou’wester in 2005, and I was certainly a better writer thanks to my MFA program, and I had written many stories, so, of course, I was ready to publish a collection!
It’s worth stressing that of the nine stories in my book, only two were written while I was in graduate school.
Finishing the collection, actually writing nine stories (or eleven, or seven, or whatnot) or writing forty-eight pages (minimum) of poetry, is, of course, the hardest step toward publishing a collection. Recognizing this is also the part most writers struggle to grasp. No one should be a harder critic on the work than the writer, but in our desire for a book, the ultimate affirmation of Being a Writer, we can make the mistake of leapfrogging glaring holes in our manuscript. How do you know when the book is really and truly done?
Big surprise, but the guy who has worked for three literary journals is going to say, yup, publish the work in strong literary journals first. A manuscript filled with stories that have appeared in Southern Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House is probably stronger than a manuscript filled with stories that have never been previously published in literary magazines. A track record of journal publications is an excellent external approval of the work.
The next step is tricky: what actually goes in the collection? Choosing your two or three “best” stories (we’ll leave the criteria of “best” for another day) is a given. But how do you select from the other, say, eighteen stories you’ve written? Even stories that you’ve published in top literary journals might not fit your collection as a whole. This is an entirely subjective measurement, and it’s helpful to have writer-friends who can honestly assess your work for you and suggest what makes the cut and what doesn’t. I’ve relied on my network more than I can possibly state in a short essay.
In May of 2011, five years after I graduated UMSL’s MFA program, I put together a spreadsheet of short story publishers. The initial list had ninety publishers, some of which I was very familiar and some that I had to do some digging on. I used Duotrope and NewPages to find all these publishers, first just copying their name and their URL, and then going back to find out if they only read through a contest, what the reading period was, and writing any additional notes I might have (such as “submit via hard copy” or “query first with 30 pages”).
Looking over this list now, I see a diverse range of publishers–New American Press, New Rivers Press, Sarabande Books, Atticus Books, and so forth–some of which I picture clearly, like Graywolf Press, and others which I’m a bit fuzzy on who they are. This isn’t to say that those presses that aren’t immediately jumping to mind are no good (not at all, in fact), but to stress that I was not, could not, get intimate knowledge of each and every press. When I was familiar with the authors and had a physical copy of a book the press had recently published, it mattered.
Small press publishing, unlike publishing on the Big Five, is a collaborative process. Knowing that in-advance, I knew that wherever I was lucky enough to place my collection, there would need to be a strong working relationship with the publisher/editor. I expected this process to be time-consuming; after all, literary journals often took four months to read one story, so reading a manuscript of nine stories would, I figured, take some time, too. I followed the guidelines, most of which were submitted via email, comprised of a query letter and the first story from the collection.
Erin McKnight of Queen’s Ferry Press had her guidelines online and they were simple: a specific style for the subject line of your email (publisher’s get lots of mail, so this makes it easy to find submissions, and shows whether the writer can follow real basic steps), a letter of introduction in the body of the email, and the first two stories of the collection. Less than two weeks later, Erin wrote and asked for the full manuscript. This was in late summer of 2011. By November, we had a deal: my book would be out on Queen’s Ferry Press in October of 2012.
Once an offer is made, you need to ask the publishers lots of questions. Better now than never. Here is where poets are particularly helpful: most poets don’t publish their second book on the same press, so they’ve experienced two very different editorial experiences. I asked several of my friends about what to ask, and collectively, here are a range of questions that are critical to ask a potential publisher:
What about my collection did you like? Could you speak about a specific story (always a good sign if the publisher can do that)? Who has final editorial control? Who has control over layout, cover art, margins? What is your promotional and marketing plan for my work (it had better be more than having a Facebook and Twitter account)? What’s your publishing schedule for my work and the rest of your list? How much attention will my book receive when it launches? A writer should also ask his/herself how much control, really, do I (the author) want for all this? What’s the royalty rate on print and on ebooks? How will you (the publisher) talk to reviewers about my book?
Finding a small press publisher came down to two things: honestly knowing that your book is done, and then being organized. Editing the collection with Erin made me appreciate what she read and trusted in my work: a collection of stories that was character driven, interior, carefully paced, not a lot of gimmicks with the page or celebrities appearing as characters in the stories. My work fit her list, and vice versa. On a small press, this relationship is critical, and I’ve been very fortunate that Queen’s Ferry Press has been a perfect home for my book.
Michael Nye (UMSL, MFA ’06) is the author of the story collection Strategies Against Extinction.