Resources for Submitting to Literary Magazines

For years, I have wanted to submit my writing to a literary publication or a contest.

Each time I have ventured into the world of literary magazines, I have become so overwhelmed, so daunted by the quality of work I have read in them, I have retracted, retreated with my tail between my legs thinking, “Wow. This stuff is amazing, my work would never make it into a journal like this.”

Lit Mags

But I kept writing. And as the years have passed, my writing has improved bit by bit. I thought that eventually, there would become a day that I would feel, “Yes, I am ready to submit to a lit mag!” That I would get a piece to such near-perfection that I would feel completely confident submitting for publication. But that moment has never come and frankly, I doubt that it ever will.

I will always have doubts. I will always wonder is a piece is completely finished, truly “ready.” But I could spend years, a lifetime even, telling myself that my piece isn’t ready yet, finding (or creating) flaws, discovering passages to rework or remove. There will always something that we could change about a story or improve upon.

I came across this line in an article about summer submissions, and the timing couldn’t be better:

“Here’s a funny thing about success: If you keep waiting for the right time to go out and get it, you might end up waiting your whole life.”

There you have it.

I do finally have a story that is more polished, more ready than any other story I’ve written before. And so, my trusted writer friend and I have decided that for both of us, it is time to push the baby bird out of the nest. We have read each other’s work, made corrections and suggestions, seen our stories through revisions. It’s time.

I’ve been doing my research, and putting together an excel spreadsheet (yes) of publications to potentially submit to either for this story or down the road.

I’ve only just begun, but I thought I’d share some resources I have found helpful in my research:

Poets and Writers – This is an invaluable resource for writers. Visit the Tools for Writers section of their website for a searchable database of literary magazines and their editorial policies, submission guidelines and contact information. If you subscribe to the magazine, they publish details about creative writing contests—including poetry contests, short story competitions, essay contests, awards for novels, and more which they make available on their website as well.

Your local library or bookstore – Libraries and bookstores may have literary journals you can browse through. Check used bookstores for past issues!

Writer’s Market – This is a great tool to find places to sell your writing. You can also try Poet’s Market, and Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, (all published by Writer’s Digest Books,) which give submission guidelines and detailed contact information. (Hint: your library may have these available for loan, too!)

Journal of the Month – I blogged about this topic recently and highly recommend Journal of the Month for any writer who is looking to publish their work. This is a great and inexpensive way to get exposed to different literary journals and get an idea of what kind of work they publish and what they are looking for.

What Editors Want – This article written by The Review Review is a must read for writers submitting their work to literary magazines. I found a lot of helpful hints.

Twitter – Yes, social media can be useful! Find a lit mag you think you might like to submit to, and visit their website. You may be able to read some of their current or archived content. If the publication is on social media, follow them on Twitter (or Facebook) and get friendly reminders of when they are reading or learn about upcoming contests. At least I can feel like I’m being somewhat productive while scrolling through my Twitter feed…

 

Writers – please help me add to this list! What resources have you found helpful in preparing to submit your work? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

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Floor Plans and Visuals in World Building

There are lots of ways I plan and generate ideas when I’m building the world of a story. When I’m working on a novel, I get a notebook where I can jot down everything from outlines and timelines to characters sketches and scene ideas.

I’ve heard of many writers who doodle and draw in their creative process. While I like visual inspiration,  I am no artist, so my brainstorming usually takes written form – journal entries, letters and scribbled questions.

One thing I do like to see a visual of is a layout of my character’s home.

floor plan

When I am building the world of my characters, it often starts with the place where they live. Do they live in a studio apartment, a townhouse, a mansion? How many rooms does it have? Is it spacious or cramped?  How is it decorated?

In the days when Internet was dial-up, I used to look through home and garden magazines and department store catalogs to find images that seemed to reflect my characters’ tastes in bedding, curtains, furniture and gardens. I would clip them and save them in folders that I could revisit when I needed help describing something or setting the scene.

Pinterest has since replaced my magazine clipping and is a fun way to collect ideas and inspiration. (see my post on Pinterest for Writers, Readers and Bloggers)

I found websites that let you design floor plans for free which can be a ton of fun but mostly, I don’t have the patience for all that. All I need is a rough sketch to help me visualize things.

Sketching a floor plan usually comes somewhere in the middle of the creative process for me. I’ll have a vague image of the space in my mind as I’m writing, but eventually I get to a point where I like to see how everything is connected. Once I draw out the floor plan, it helps me to understand where my characters (physically) are as they move through the rooms.

After I have a solid grasp around the layout of the rooms, I can focus on the details like the  arrangement of the furniture and the location of windows and doors.

Then I turn to visuals like Pinterest to think about the decor and how it reflects the character’s personality and tastes.

Slowly, it all starts to come together. I no longer have characters walking around in white-washed rooms, they have a leather couch to collapse on to and a copper tea kettle on the gas stove to make a warm beverage.

Writers, do you create floor plans when you’re world-building? Do you sketch or draw as part of your creative process? What sort of visuals do you use to inspire your stories?

The Practice of Writing

While having coffee with a friend last week, talking about our writing and what we’re working on, I realized I have several stories I wrote five, six or even seven years ago that I keep coming back to. I visit them from time to time, their characters still rattling around in my mind like old friends I haven’t seen in a while. I wondered, is it sad that after so much time I am still hung up on stories I wrote so long ago? Is it time to let them go, to move on?

I see every piece I write, regardless of whether or not it ever sees the light of day, as practice. Whether it is a short story I wrote in a workshop or a few pages written in a burst of inspiration, they are all part of the practice of writing. With each revision I am stretching my writing muscles, developing my plot a little deeper, breathing more life into my characters.

I can look back on the various drafts of these stories and see their progression and my growth as a writer. Though I originally wrote these stories several years ago, over that time, they have evolved. They have gone from first drafts written hastily in order to meet a deadline, to second drafts and third drafts, each one better than the last.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about what she calls, composting:

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Soil

Every story has value, it is all practice. It is compost for us to work with, none of it is wasted.

I save just about everything I write, including those little passages and pages written in a moment of insight that didn’t amount to much. Those are always fun to come back to; they are characters, scenes and moments in time that stay with me that may eventually turn into something more.

Those deleted scenes, discarded characters and unused settings are all part of that compost too.

My error is not that I have held on to these stories for too long;  it is that I have neglected to bring any one of them to a stage of being polished and print ready. Rather than doing the hard work and editing necessary to finish them, each time I’ve returned to them I’ve  left them in some state of in-completion.

If a piece no longer has movement, if there is nothing left I can do with a story to move it forward then perhaps, yes, it becomes time to “move on.” Until then,  I will still think of them every now and again when I hear a particular turn of phrase or a certain song on the radio, and I’ll continue to work the soil.

Do you still return to poems or stories you wrote years ago? What keeps you coming back to them and how do you know when it is time to move on?

Writing Goals

November may be over, but I’m still writing with new word count goals.

In NaNoWriMo’s past, I have been so burned out after a month-long writing marathon, I needed a break from writing. And while a break is well-deserved, the longer the break is, the harder it is to get back into the habit of writing every day.

I loved this from Holly McGhee’s NaNp Pep Talk:

Sometimes if you haven’t touched your laptop in a while, you begin to fear it. You’re afraid to start typing and you’re afraid not to start typing. Writing becomes a stranger—and without realizing it, you’ve closed the door on your closest friend, your imagination.

NaNo ChartThis year, I decided not to take a break after NaNoWriMo. I’m going to maintain my habit of writing everyday.

In tracking my writing sessions throughout November, I noticed that I write well in short bursts, writing several hundred words in twenty or thirty minutes. Some days, it would take three separate writing sessions throughout the day for me to reach the daily goal of 1,667. And when I fell behind, I had to write even more to try to catch up.

1,667 words a day is a decent goal, but one I have trouble maintaining regularly. I’ve decided to shoot for 500 words a day, six days a week. If I write more than 500 in a day, even better and allowing myself one day off a week gives me a little flexibility.

Word count isn’t the only way to set a writing goal. You can set milestones in your story to write certain scenes or get to a particular point in the story arch.

Are you setting any post-NaNo writing goals? Let’s hear ’em!

The NaNoWriMo Experience

I did it. I wrote 50,298 words in November for National Novel Writing Month.

Image

I honestly didn’t think I would make it this year. I’ve only won NaNo once before and after a fairly lousy Week Two and a Week Three that wasn’t much better, the odds seemed stacked against me. As the month wore on, I slowly gave up all my good writing habits: I started sleeping in instead of getting up early to write before work, I worked through lunch instead of writing on my lunch break. By the time I finally sat down to write for the first time each day at six o’clock p.m., I was mostly too exhausted to produce much more than a few hundred words.

Once the final week rolled around, I wasn’t feeling very motivated and I was behind on my word count, but I figured I had come to far to quit.

So I kept writing. Every word, every sentence was agonizing at times but I kept going. As the end of November neared with a long holiday weekend ahead, I still had hope to come from behind to win. I didn’t give in to my exhaustion and self-doubt. Those last thousand words were slow to come together, but they did.

I think the NaNoWriMo experience was pretty well summed up in these words from author, Ralph Peters in his NaNoWriMo Pep Talk:

“Writing is wretched, discouraging, physically unhealthy, infinitely frustrating work. And when it all comes together it’s utterly glorious.”

I spent a large part of NaNoWriMo feeling frustrated, and discouraged. But I learned that I can sit down at the laptop and write every day even when I’m too tired or not feeling inspired. And because I kept going, I was able to write more than 50,000 words in a month and win NaNoWriMo, even when I didn’t think I could.

So to all those who won NaNo and to all those who participated, congratulations. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

What did you learn this November?

What’s in a Name? Finding the right Names for your Characters

In my last post, I shared that getting to know my characters is my favorite part of the writing process. I find one of the most difficult parts of developing characters is picking their names. There are many factors to consider when deciding on a name – the character’s personality, their age and the era they live in. I often end up changing a character’s name several times in the draft writing processes because as I get to know them, I find the name I initially picked for them just doesn’t suit their personality.

Character NamesIn my early writing days, I picked a name for a character simply because it was a name I liked or because it sounded pretty. But after a while, it just sort of fell flat. It didn’t fit the character. Now, I take more time in the naming process because I like their names to have meaning, to say something about them, to contribute something to the story.

For example, in my previous novel about three generations of women, the last name was particularly important because my three main characters would share it. I chose Winters, taking into consideration the connotations of the word. Winter can be beautiful, yet cold and stark, reflecting the beauty of my protagonist while also depicting her mother’s harshness and lack of maternal instinct.

Here are some places you might look for name inspiration:

  • The Social Security Administration – This baby name database  from the Social Security Administration lists the top 100 male and female baby names for each decade since the 1880s. Determine when your character was born and, if in the U.S., you can look at top names by decade. This is a great way to find age-appropriate names for your characters.
  • Yearbooks – Blow the dust off your own yearbooks, or visit the local library which might have decades of yearbooks available to search. Another great way to find from the right era.
  • Baby Name Sites – Websites like BabyNames.com are great tools to search for names, their meanings and origins, and reference name lists. Does the meaning of your character’s name reflect their identity or conflict with it? For fun, try the Random Renamer or find an online random name generator!
  • Phone books – If you can still get your hands on a hard copy phone book, open to a random page and pick a name. Or browse until something inspires you.
  • Name Origin Sites – I often spend so much time choosing a character’s first name, I forget to give them a last name. Consider your character’s heritage and family background. I have used this website Behind the Name which allows you to look up surnames by origin and meaning.
  • Newspapers – Scan headlines and newspaper articles to see if a name jumps out at you.

As you find names you like, be sure to write them down!

Some other things to think about when naming your characters: Give your character a nickname. Was your character teased in school? Do they despise their full name and instead go for a shorter nickname? Nicknames can be a useful device. In my previous novel, my main character was called Kate by her friends, but her mother only ever referred to her by her full name, Katherine. I used this as a way to portray the distance in their relationship.

Be wary of giving central characters similar sounding names or names that start with the same letter. As different as your characters may be, giving them similar names can be confusing for readers. I also try to avoid names that are awkward to pronounce. As a reader, names that are unpronouncable can pull me out of a story. Try saying your characters names outloud to see how they sound. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.

As I plan my NaNo novel, I’m trying to carefully pick the right names for all my characters so I don’t have to change them later on.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Six Techniques for Getting to Know your Characters

When I get an idea for a story, it almost always starts with a character. My favorite part of the writing process is getting to know my characters. I like to know their background, what makes them tick. I want to know what makes them happy, what they fear, what keeps them up at night and what they carry with them in their pockets.

Whether your story is plot focused or character driven, well-rounded characters are essential for any story.

Characters can bring a story to life. A good character can feel like an old friend by the time we finish a book – they are what keep me coming back to books I love again and again.

Here are a few ways to get to know your characters:

Character Sketch – When a character comes to me, I usually only have a vague sense of them, while the details are fuzzy. Begin with the basics: their age, where they live, hair and eye color.  Describe their features.

Then start thinking about the details of their appearance, their likes and dislikes. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What style of clothing do they wear?
  • What kind of music, books or movies do they like?

Go deeper into thinking about your characters’ personality. Ask:

  • What are their regrets and their dreams?
  • How would other characters in your novel describe them?
  • What sort of first impression they make?

Give your characters’ strengths but don’t forget to give them flaws. Perhaps your protagonist is ambitious but self-involved and critical. No one is perfect, and a too-perfect character will fall flat. We all have vulnerabilities, our characters should have them too.

Pick their Astrological Sign – I’m not a big believer in horoscopes, but I love to assign my characters an astrological sign. Is your character a creative, quiet Pisces or a playful, risk-taking Leo? Years ago, I purchased a book called Your Star Sign Life Coach by Lorna MacKinnon. I use this book to look at each astrological sign’s strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes to help flesh out my characters. This book also breaks down parenting styles and relationship behaviors that help me to think about what kind of parent my character would be, or how they are in a romantic relationship. Always stay true to your character when picking their sign, but use these traits to think about them in a more meaningful way.

Freewrite or Journal – Freewriting is an unstructured way to learn about your main characters. Write journal entries from the perspective of your protagonist. You can keep it simple, reflecting on the character’s day or go deeper. Write a letter from your central character to the antagonist. How does your main character feel about him or her? Did something happen between them in the past that will add to the tension in the present narration of your story?

Write a short story – My last NaNo novel actually began as a short story that evolved into a novel-length work. Thinking about your characters or your story on a smaller scale can be more manageable and less overwhelming before trying to write a whole novel about them. Is one of your minor characters still a bit fuzzy for you? Try writing a short story from their perspective. Think about your main character’s history or backstory. Craft a snapshot of your character with a defining moment that shapes him or her. You may end up with some usable material for your novel!

Find their celebrity likeness – In NaNoWriMo’s past, I have found celebrities who resemble my characters and pin their pictures to a Pinterest board dedicated to my NaNo Novel. Selecting a celebrity lookalike for my characters is fun and it helps me to imagine my characters and more accurately describe their features.

Pink Ballet SlippersTake a walk in their shoes – In college, I took a beginner ballet class to get to know my main character, who was – you guessed it, – a ballet dancer. I could have done all the research in the world about ballet, the structure of the classes, the life of a dancer – but I learned more in that semester than I could have in a year of writing and researching.

Get into the psyche of your character by participating in their hobbies and getting to know the things they enjoy. Take advantage of free or inexpensive classes in your area. Is your character a fantastic cook? Take a cooking class and learn techniques for chopping and sauteing. If participating in a class isn’t an option, ask the instructor if you could simply sit-in on and observe a few classes and explain why – it’s worth a shot.

You can do this on a smaller scale, too. Does your character drink herbal tea? Trying drinking a steaming mug of tea while writing from their perspective. Get involved in networking groups in your area or follow blogs about topics your character might find of interest.

Like any relationship, the most important factor for me in getting to know my characters is time. I can’t learn everything there is to know about them overnight, or even in a month. But slowly, as I write about them and as I go about my day and they appear in my thoughts, they reveal themselves. This is, by far, what I love most about writing.

What techniques help you get to know your characters?