Tip #1: The Benefit of Baby Steps
There is a reason why most of us* crawl before we walk. It’s simply because we’re not ready yet, not strong enough to take our first steps. Crawling gives us a chance to try out our muscles, a safe way to make forward motion without risking too much.
The first prose piece I ever submitted was to The Sun. On January 1, 2012, I mailed a second-draft, Christmas-themed creative nonfiction piece about my family to a magazine with over fifty thousand readers. On February 14, I received their kind, poetic rejection letter. And rightly so. I had tried to shoot the moon (er… The Sun) with a crudely made sling shot. Or, to go back to my original metaphor, I’d leaped from my crib expecting to dance and instead landed smack on my bottom.
I wasn’t ready for The Sun. Even after I learned to take time with my work and get feedback from peers, even after I’d figured out how to craft a proper cover letter and research a journal before submitting to it, my writing still wasn’t ready for the level of The Sun. It probably still isn’t.
A lot of new writers start out thinking they’ll get published right away in Glimmer Train or Tin House or Narrative, and I’m sure a few of them do. But most of us aren’t ready for powerhouse journals like that when we’re first starting out. For me, it wasn’t overconfidence in my writing ability that made me submit to The Sun, it was complete and utter ignorance. In January of 2012, I didn’t even know who Glimmer Train, Tin House, and Narrative were, and I had no idea that so many publication opportunities existed. Every genre, every level, every niche, every region, everywhere. No clue. Someone gave me a few copies of The Sun, and I naively thought, Hey, I think I’ll send them a story.
By 2013, I had learned to slow down, to research my options, and to aim… (not lower, I wasn’t going to say lower) …more appropriately. I set my sights on some more achievable goals, and I saw some success. Last year, I found homes for five short stories (four of which are horror) and even won first place in Writers Weekly’s 24-Hour Short Story Contest.
Some people may look at my list of credentials and shrug. Some, when they learn that (except for the contest win) my publications didn’t earn me any money, may scoff. Some may say that, for them, it’s go big or go home. They’re going to keep trying for Glimmer Train until they get in, gosh darn it! That’s fine.
But here’s the thing. Those little baby steps felt really good. Each time I got that acceptance email, I jumped out of my chair and did a happy dance. My arms felt tingly for hours. My goofy smile didn’t fade for days. And success, even minor success, breeds creativity. As soon as you feel that thrill of excitement, you want to feel it again. So you keep writing. (Not to mention that it’s a lot more affordable to submit to the smaller publications. Those big journals have big payouts, but a lot of them have pretty big submission fees too.)
It’s not like I quit shooting for the stars altogether. I still submit to the big journals now and then, and (so far) I still get rejected. But I’m also still learning, still improving my craft, still researching, still writing.
I still believe that one day I’ll make it in. And I’ll be proud of the baby steps that got me there.
* I say “most of us” crawl before we walk because a couple of years ago I read Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Small Assassin,” about an infant who is so bound and determined to do away with his parents that he learns to move about the house at just a few weeks old. It’s a great story, one that really stuck with me, but it’s not something new moms should read. (Trust me on this.) I couldn’t find an online version of the text, but you can watch the Ray Bradbury Theater version on YouTube.
Tip #2: Pack Your Cart With Rainbows and Chocolate
I’m standing on the staircase that leads to the third floor at Book People. In front of me is a curtain, and on the other side of the curtain is the young bookseller talking to a crowd of people—teenagers and adults alike, most sitting, some forced to stand, many clutching a hardback book with my name on the spine. The bookseller finishes his enthusiastic introduction with, “So help me give a warm welcome to… Carie Juettner!” I step around the curtain to eager applause.
This is a scene that I visualize often. Me, at my favorite local bookstore, doing a reading and book signing for my popular new young adult novel. I can see it. I can feel it. I can taste it. Anytime I go hear an author read, I picture myself up there. I think about what I would say. I brainstorm various ice-breakers to help me interact with the crowd and (hopefully) calm my nerves because I know I’ll be a wreck. (A happy wreck, but a wreck nonetheless.) In one scenario, I bring my Magic 8 Ball and let audience members ask a few questions before we begin. Then, later, when the book-signing line stretches all the way down the staircase, people entertain themselves with the 8 Ball while they wait. (Authors—if you steal this idea from me, the least you can do is tape my blog link to the 8 Ball.)
I also picture myself doing panel discussions and interviews about where my ideas come from. (I don’t really know—they just appear—so that’s an answer I’ll need to work on.) Recently, I discovered a whole new joy—locating the spot on the library or book store shelves where my novel would be if it existed. (And let me tell you, it’s pretty exciting to imagine it there.)
You see, with each small success in my career, I envision larger, more grandiose rewards in the future. It’s like, One small step for the writer, one giant leap for the writer in my head.
If your hand is over your heart right now and if you’re thinking, Oh, poor thing, then STOP IT! I do not visualize these things in a woe-is-me-for-I-am-just-a-lowly-peasant sort of way. That stereotype of the lonely, depressed, self-loathing writer persona does not fit me. I’m one of the happiest people I know. I bounce around my house (yes, literally bounce, often bumping into things) chattering to my husband about my latest ideas and sharing status updates on all of my projects. When he won’t listen to me anymore, I talk to the dog. I am thrilled with every contest opportunity that comes my way, ecstatic about every new story I start, and annoyingly content with my life in general. And while I toil away at my drafts and revisions and query letters, I keep my eyes focused on those prizes at the end. They keep me headed in the right direction.
Some would say this is putting the cart before the horse, but I don’t care. Maybe I just haven’t hit the hard part yet. Maybe someday I’ll sink into the gloom that is supposed to envelope me. But right now, I’m enjoying the writing life, in all its elusive glory. If I’m putting the cart before the horse, then at least I’m stocking it full of rainbows and chocolate first. I suggest you do the same. Stand on your tiptoes and look down the road a bit. See what prizes await you at the end of your hard work. Even when things are difficult (especially when things are difficult) imagine the good stuff. The publishing contract. The first sale. The day you see somebody in a coffee shop reading your book and you sit near them and try to act nonchalant while waiting for them to realize that you look just like the person on the back cover. Toss these things in your cart and carry them around with you. Enjoy them. Then get back to work.
(Note: If I do ever hit depressed-writer-rock-bottom, I’ll try my best to blog while I’m down there and, if I remember, I’ll link to my tormented ramblings here. <– Until a hyperlink appears, you can assume I’m still doing all right.)
Are you looking to aim more appropriately? Check out these links to various markets.
* Horror: http://darkmarkets.com/category/markets/magazines/
* Literary: http://www.newpages.com/literary-magazines/
(Note: These lists are not always kept up to date. Always go to the journal’s website for current information.)
Are you looking to fill your cart with rainbows and chocolate? Nothing says happiness like a good success story.
* Interviews with debut authors about how they got their starts:
* Lynette Noni’s adorably excited blog post about signing with Pantera Press:
5 thoughts on “10 Writing Tips in 5 Days: Day 1 – Start Small, But Dream Big”
Now I am incredibly curious about that Bradbury short story. I think I’ll heed your advice and wait to look into it though, as I am pretty sure my toddler is already out to get me.
And WHEN you are the guest speaker/author at Book People, we’ll be in the front row! 🙂
STAY AWAY from that story, Elisabeth! It’s, um, boring. And poorly edited. And… yeah, just don’t read it. But I can’t wait to see you in the audience at Book People! You’re so sweet. 🙂 (Don’t read the story.)
Of course I wouldn’t mind! I’d be honored! Thanks for adding your wise words to this post. Reading journals. Yes. It could have (should have?) been tip #1 1/2.
*Your parenthetical close to the above comment cracked me up*
I ADORED this post. This is indispensable advice to give to novice writers and intermediary ones. I know I needed to hear it. Especially that ignorance leads us to just submit our stories and poems out there into the big writerly world with no wherewithal of what those powerhouse journals put out. Even as we grow as writers, when we first write something, without that appropriate amount of time afterward, that distance you need before you return to revise and polish, excitement can lead us to still want to submit to a powerhouse in our moment of triumph. But it truly takes that buffer period to get a clear perspective. This also reminds me of something VITAL I read regarding writers who want to submit to journals must do (something I am just starting to do): READ journals. Only after reading 3 issues of One Story and perusing The Southern Review do I see that I need more time to grow and advance before I should expect an editor to want to feature my piece next to these writers who have obviously put in YEARS of time reading journals, writing, and accruing rejections. Does any of this mean we should think we aren’t good enough for powerhouse journals? By no means, NO! It just means that, as writers, more than any other art, we must take the time to let our work age a little and breathe before bestowing it to the rest of the world.
I love the idea of packing my cart with rainbows and chocolate too! How encouraging and sweet (literally!). Your links are fantastic too!
Do you mind if I link to this in one of my blogs?