Creative writing: Adaptations can update, critique, distill fiction  

Vintage postcard: Curry’s Lebec Lodge on the Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California.

The best adaptations add to the literature & expand the conversation

Adaptation is a long-standing aspect of creative writing. The first adaptations I remember were cinematic — a couple 200-year-old novels re-imagined for the present day:

  • The movie Clueless adapts Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma for 1990s Beverly Hills where matchmaking perils become a story of surviving high school and finding love.
  • The movie/novel Bridget Jones’s Diary adapts Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice for London in the early 2000s. The crux is Bridget/Elizabeth discerning the character and motives of potential suitors. Does the name Mr. Darcy ring a bell?

The number and array of adaptations of Shakespeare are legion. For example, Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres adapts King Lear and his three daughters for Iowa farm struggles. David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle adapts Hamlet’s tragic brother-killing uncle for a family of dog breeders in rural Wisconsin.

Shakespeare himself was an adapter and borrower. For example, All’s Well That Ends Well traces back to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in a more troubling manner than most. Some have said this Shakespeare play is “a direct lift.” In today’s world, would Shakespeare be accused of plagiarizing or passing off a translated work as his own?

Beyond the word adaptation is a range of approaches — including homage, hauntings, satire, critique, retelling (slantwise or not), and re-imagining — that Margot Livesey explores within her book The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. In the chapter, “Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be: Paying Homage,” she explores the gradations of borrowing from predecessors in literature, as well as art.   

The adaptation process can approach writing as a series of conversations, instead of a solitary act of creation. “That is, we write in response to what we have read, and expect others to read what we have written and to write in response to us.” This quote, which came from a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee first-year writing program common syllabus, applies to a range of writing from adaptation to refutation. The notion of critical conversations is especially important given today’s changing reading patterns, namely more skimming and less deep reading.  

The idea of a conversation acknowledges that novels, plays, and other creative works, no matter how highly esteemed, have weaknesses and strengths. Adaptations may update (for example, by revising uninformed mental health portrayals from past centuries), critique (for example, by addressing the lack of gender or racial diversity), or otherwise distill elements of the original.

Adaptations may:

  • Update (for example, by revising uninformed mental health portrayals from past centuries)
  • Critique (for example, by addressing the lack of gender or racial diversity)
  • Distill elements of the original

However, adaptations/responses/critiques should go beyond copying, plagiarizing, or copyright infringement. A worthy adaptation is “very much its own work of art, one that can be appreciated by readers with no inkling of its ancestor,” writes Livesey. The adaptation needs to add to the conversation, not just repeat it.

Writing prompt

Think about the books, plays, poems, or other works that have stuck with you. Maybe you’ve found yourself re-reading one or two of them. If so, ask yourself why. Why was this work so significant to you? Do you have something to say in response to the plot, main character, voice, subject, or a mix of those and other elements? Maybe you want to explore what made the original so compelling – how did it work? Or, consider the adaptations that you’ve admired. Is there something you want to add to the conversation through your own writing? 

Reading recommendation

Outside of my classes or reading/writing groups, I try to include books on the craft of writing in my daily reading. Books such as Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery offer reminders and ideas that enrich my works in progress. Even by reading ten pages a day, a craft book a month is useful in terms of continuous improvement as a writer.

Revision: Use the Read Aloud tool in Word to hear (and fix) glitches in your writing

Vintage postcard: Highway from Torrey Pines, on the Coast Route between Los Angeles and San Diego.

One of the following sentences includes a misused word:

A. “I defiantly think that word should be changed.” 
B. “I definitely think that word should be changed.”

Although B is preferred here, my students often type “defiantly” when they mean definitely. Neither spellcheck nor the grammar checker flags “defiantly” in this context. Nonetheless, imprecise and awkward word choices can be an issue in college essays, and in business and professional writing the stakes are higher.

Checking dictionary definitions can help pinpoint misused words, but another tactic is hearing your text read aloud.

Microsoft Word has tools for that

The “Read Aloud” tool in Microsoft Word helps you listen to your drafts. Hearing your words can help you identify (and fix) word-choice glitches, subject-verb agreement errors, misspellings, and more. Hearing the word “defiantly” when you meant “definitely” can spotlight a needed revision.

You’ll find “Read Aloud” on the Review screen’s toolbar in Word 2019, Word 2021, and Microsoft 365. You can customize this tool to read faster or slower, pause, skip forward or back a paragraph, and more. For more information, see the Microsoft support page, “Listen to your Word documents.”

If you’re using an older version of Word, you can still get the program to read your text to you. Add the Speak feature to your Word screen by following the five steps detailed by Microsoft at “Use the Speak text-to-speech feature to read text aloud.”

Pro tip: Find a fresh approach

Reading aloud, whether you read to yourself or use tech tools to read to you, is a strategy that professional writers use. I’ve seen reporters in newsrooms whispering their stories to themselves just before deadline. I’ve experienced the deep revision that comes from preparing to record a story for a website.

With text on screens, it can be easy to insert words and adjust sentences as you read. You keep adding the missing words or fixing the awkward sentences in your mind. However, the actual words in your file may say something different. Approaching your text fresh, so that you don’t rely on what should be there versus what is actually there, can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Time can be a great resource for approaching a text fresh. In other words, put away your project for a week or more and then come back to it minus your assumptions. However, time can be a luxury that isn’t available when a due date or deadline is looming.

Whether you’re on deadline or not, hearing your words aloud can give you a fresh perspective that reading on screen over and over can’t.

Multilingual writers

Hearing a text can also be helpful for writers who are working in a second language. In my college writing classes, I’ve had students who are working in English when it’s their second or third language. I can point to a paragraph containing, for example, subject-verb agreement problems. When I ask them to read the paragraph aloud, they often fix the verb tense issues as they speak. They are often surprised when I point out the error in the text—the error they fixed when they read aloud.

For English speakers who are working in other languages, the Read Aloud tool can also be useful. The tool can be set to read in an array of languages.

Bookshelf: 3 how-to books on novel writing to keep your project moving

Vintage postcard: Moonlight on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, “America’s Super Highway.”

Working in tandem with a how-to book on the craft of novel writing can keep you connected to the big picture of your project. Writing creatively and critically at the same time can inch your novel project closer and closer to a satisfactory conclusion. Yay, a book!

Companion craft books (how-to books) can be lifesavers. They can keep you from drowning in detail or drifting wildly off course.

For example, sometimes you’re driven to figure “it” out. “It” may be big or small—from fixing the whole plot (big) to researching a telling character or setting detail (small). Depending on your tolerance for uncertainty, skipping a day (or more) of writing could become easy. Too easy. Weeks or months may pass since you’ve worked on your so-called passion project because you can’t figure “it” out.

Another example is that you may approach a novel project by writing and writing and writing. You think (hope) that one day your hefty word count will make great-American sense. However, you can end up with a hundred-thousand sprawling words that don’t fit well into current publishing models, unless you’re Diana Gabaldon or Thomas Pynchon.

Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve encountered one of those days when you don’t know what to do, how-to books on the craft of novel writing can keep your project moving forward. Nonetheless, while the following books, workbooks, and videos are great resources, the key is you. You need to keep working, keep trying.

Here are three how-to books on novel writing I recommend:

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This 2016 book’s subtitle and sub-subtitle explain Cron’s approach, “How to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel* [*Before you waste three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere].”

Story Genius chapters on novel-craft include “What To Do” tasks that prompt you to examine the parameters of your current project. The tasks help writers avoid common glitches, such as neglecting to identify a main character or forgetting why your protagonist wants what s/he wants.  

“The reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected—either by publishers or by readers—is because they do not have a third rail,” writes Cron. “Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one… [T]he internal problem predates the events in the plot, often by decades.”

Also check out: Curious to learn more about the “brain science” aspect of storytelling from the subtitle? Check out Lisa Cron’s 2014 TEDx Talk “Wired for Story” or her previous book by the same name, Wired for Story.


Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody. Brody adapts lessons originally intended for screenwriters to the needs of novelists. To make a story worth telling, Brody says you need “plot, structure, and character transformation. Or what I like to call the ‘Holy Trinity of Story.’”

The book provides exercises, checklists, and examples of how novels (and later movies), such as The Help, The Kite Runner, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, follow the 15-beat structure at the center of Blake Snyder’s 2005 screenplay-writing book Save the Cat! Brody adapts Snyder’s beat sheets, four-act structure, A- and B-stories, and more to the needs of novelists.

Brody includes manuscript percentages to help novelists know “What Goes Where.” For example, the “All Is Lost” beat should occur at about 75 percent of the manuscript with the “Dark Night of the Soul” following at 75-80 percent. Whether you’re writing novels for schoolchildren or adults, genre manuscript lengths can range from 160 manuscript pages to almost 600 pages. That’s why Brody’s percentages are useful across genres.

Also check out: If you have access to LinkedIn Learning, check out Brody’s course, “Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 Steps.” By using the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel book along with the online LinkedIn course you can speed up or slow down, as needed, to run your novel project through the “Save the Cat” method.


Writing the Breakout Novel & Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel’s subtitle, “Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level,” refers to the author’s background as the president of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York and the broker of publishing deals with “six- or seven-figure advances.”

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, published three years later in 2004, offers “hands-on help for making your novel stand out and succeed.” By going beyond reading and notetaking with Maass’s “breakout” book, the workbook satisfies the need to dive into planning and drafting. Both the book and the workbook offer eye-opening information that can shake you out of the leisurely sail that you think might be a novel. Following the workbook lessons helps you to write smarter and stronger to create a more marketable novel. 

Why literary magazines? They could be an important part of your book’s journey

Vintage postcard: General Motors Building, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933.

Start with the acknowledgment pages

If you read the acknowledgment pages of many novels, nonfiction books, short story collections, and poetry books, you’ll often see where earlier excerpts were published. This can tell you several things, including that the publications listed:

  • May be something you would like to read
  • May be markets for your own work

Often, first publications or excerpts appear in literary magazines. If you’re working on your own book or collection, literary magazines may be an important step in your reading, researching, and publishing journey.

For example, in World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s 2020 book, the acknowledgments include literary magazines such as Brevity, Diagram, Ecotone, and Georgia Review.

Bully Love, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s 2019 poetry collection, lists acknowledgments for Hawaii Review, Heliotrope, Indiana Review, and many other publications. 

Finding literary magazines

Finding information about the literary magazines listed on an acknowledgments page is an online search away. However, reading the stories, poems, and essays they publish can get tricky. The spectrum of literary magazines ranges from fully online to print-only magazines that publish zero content online.

Reading content

Reading online literary magazines can be as easy as signing up on their websites, but reading print-based magazines may involve ordering print or electronic copies of individual issues. Some magazines offer pdf versions of recent back issues that may be available for reduced prices and quick access.

Don’t skimp on reading. An important part of the submission process is familiarizing yourself with individual literary magazines. Research what they’ve published. A friend of mine from grad school didn’t do this, and he ended up with a publication that he finds embarrassing to this day.

Submitting work

Submission windows for literary magazines may vary from one week to year-round. A few don’t accept any unsolicited work. Tactics to find these submission windows and writers’ guidelines start with a magazine’s website. If the magazine offers a newsletter, sign up to receive alerts about content, contests, submissions, blog posts, and (yes) fundraising.

Another tactic to find submission windows and guidelines is to “follow” publications in Submittable, an online submission management platform. Once you follow a publication, you’ll build a dashboard-like “Following” screen within Submittable that you can skim for “opportunities.” Some of these opportunities are solicitations to buy copies of magazines, but the majority are submission portals for fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comics, plays, contests, and more.

Setting your intentions

Many writers set quotas for themselves when drafting or sending out work. However, fewer writers seem to set reading quotas, such as to explore one new literary magazine each week. Or push your weekly reading to include at least one short story, essay, or set of poems from a literary magazine.

This intentional exploring and reading of literary magazines can yield inspiration, which contributes to your writing, revising, and submissions process. You’ll also gather valuable information about the literary marketplace, including where to find copacetic writers and editors.

For help, check out “Resolve to read a literary magazine,” a recent effort by the Community of Literary Magazines and Publishers. Click through the CLMP membership directory for reading and submission options as well as discount subscription bundles. 

3 blogs that flog, deconstruct or explain the choices fiction writers and editors make

Vintage postcard: Soldiers Field & Field Museum at the Chicago lakefront.

Miss those fiction workshop critiques of other writers’ work? Maybe? I remember having a lot of time to doodle in MFA workshops, especially when the conversations turned contentious. Then, moments of constructive feedback would connect to my own writing and lead to furious notetaking.

Reminiscent of the best graduate school critique sessions, the following three blog series offer insights into the craft of fiction writing. We have the added knowledge that whatever worked (or not) in the stories has resulted in publication.

Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the Page of This Bestseller?

In monthly posts on Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey provides a novel’s first 17 lines and asks “Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter?” And, by extension, would you be willing to risk money and time to read the book, especially if you were a busy literary agent?

After the novel’s opening lines, Rhamey shares his verdict, explains his reasoning, and polls blog readers for their verdicts and comments. Reader comments, along with Rhamey’s own, offer useful perspectives into storytelling choices and their consequences. The series has examined books by Elin Hilderbrand, Kristin Hannah, Stephen King, and John Grisham, among others. The outcomes can be surprising, especially when the writing of a well-known novelist doesn’t conform to commonly held writing advice. (Note: The opening of Stephen King’s most recent novel didn’t fare as well as you might think.)

Ray Rhamey offers the opportunity for writers to receive similar feedback on their works in progress through his Flogging the Quill blog. Rhamey is the author of five nonfiction books, including Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, and four novels in genres such as political thrillers and contemporary fantasy.

Let’s Deconstruct a Story

“Let’s Deconstruct a Story: A Podcast for the Story Nerds” is a series of podcasts and blog posts that include author interviews conducted by Kelly Fordon, who teaches writing in the Detroit area and has published two short story collections and a poetry collection.

August’s post featured an interview with Susan Perabo about her story “This Is Not That Story,” which appeared in The Sun in March 2006. Perabo, whose most recent book is They Run the Way They Do, ended the interview by saying, “I love getting into the choices and the questions that only deep reading and deep thinking can get you to. I think you’re doing a great service for writers and for students of writing, and that’s all of us, right?” 

As with all critique sessions, you should read the story first, and Fordon provides links to the texts under discussion. Her posts often go beyond the basics. For example, in a deconstruction of the story “Creve Coeur” by Jacob M. Appel, Fordon created a word cloud from the adjectives Appel used. It’s telling that the words “dark” and gray” stand out, as do the words “indifferent” and “happy.”

NOTE: Beyond deconstructing someone else’s story, creating a word cloud for your own work can be a useful editing and revision tool for exploring a story’s tone and the ideas or themes being explored.

“I’m basically offering these workshops on ‘Let’s Deconstruct a Story’ for my own gratification because I feel like I learn so much from studying the stories of other writers,” says Fordon at the beginning of her work with Appel’s short story. “Really delving into them. Seeing how they work, the mechanics, so I can get some more tools for my own toolbox.”

(Thank you to Erika Dreifus and her “Practicing Writer” blog for bringing Kelly Fordon’s work to my attention.)

Why We Chose It

The Kenyon Review’s blog includes the occasional feature “Why We Chose It” written by the literary magazine’s fiction and nonfiction editors. Posts in the series link to a current selection from the Kenyon Review so that you can read the text being discussed. For veterans of lit-mag rejections, the posts offer insight into what drew an editor to a particular story.

In a recent “Why We Chose It” post, the Kenyon Review’s Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky focuses on the short story “Caduceus” by Perry Lopez, which appeared in the magazine’s July/August 2021 issue. Kenyon Review is published six times a year at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Literary magazines offer free access via websites and Project Muse during pandemic

Vintage postcard: United States-Mexico boundary line near Tijuana, Mexico.

At least two print-based literary magazines have opened up their recent issues for online reading during the pandemic:

  • Ecotone issues 25, 26, 27, and 28 (their most recent issue) are free to read online “throughout the pandemic.” To start reading, go to: https://ecotonemagazine.org/magazine/ 
  • The Missouri Review’s content is available online through the Project Muse database until the end of March. (See the tech note below, to help you navigate Project Muse.)

Print-based literary magazines don’t seem to share much of their content online, so these opportunities are worth checking out. 

Magazines offering full-text content through Project Muse

Here are seven lit-mags, including The Missouri Review for now, that continue to offer full-text content from their recent issues through Project Muse:


Publication

Available content

Most recent issue
The Missouri Review
(University of Missouri)
1978 to presentWinter 2020 (Vol. 21, No. 4)
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction
(Michigan State University)
1999 to presentFall 2020 (Vol. 22, No. 2)
Prairie Schooner
(University of Nebraska Press)
2003 to presentSummer 2020 (Vol. 94, No. 2)
Minnesota Review
(Duke University Press)
2010 to present
(plus many older issues)
2020 (Issue 95)
River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative
(Ball State University)
2003 to presentFall 2020 (Vol. 22, No. 1)
Sewanee Review
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
2007 to presentWinter 2021 (Vol. 129, No. 1)
Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing
(University of Hawai’i Press)
1999 to present2020 (Vol. 32, No. 2)

Note that database content can change quickly. In other words, due to budgets, contract negotiations, and legal and financial wrangling, publications can pop into and out of Project Muse and other databases. What you were looking at yesterday, might not be there today.

For my students, I recommend they download any database document (including bibliographic information) if they even think it might be useful in their work. Note that these downloads are for personal use only.   

About Project Muse

Project Muse is an online database available through many college and university libraries. The database offers access to articles, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and other content published by a variety of journals, including select literary magazines.

In terms of market research, database access to full-text content is valuable because once you’ve read what a magazine is publishing, you can sense whether your writing might find a home there. Also, it never hurts to mention a memorable piece you read from the editor’s magazine when writing a cover letter.

TECH NOTE: How to search the Project Muse database

Databases offer multiple points of access, but the following is the quickest way I’ve found to search for and read content from the magazines listed above using Project Muse.

1.

Select “Project Muse” from the list of databases available on your college or university library’s website.

2.

Instead of using the search box at the top of the screen, scroll down to find the “Journal” filter on the left side of your screen. Enter “Missouri Review” in the Journal filter.

NOTE: Skip the “Content Type” filter, which starts a much broader search related to journals.

3.

After typing “Missouri Review” in the Journal filter in Step 2, an overwhelming 4,373 results were returned.

To narrow your results, click on the name of the publication (the link) within your Results list.

4.

After clicking on “The Missouri Review” in Step 3, you should get an “About this Journal” screen that provides some background about The Missouri Review.

Scroll down on the “About this Journal” page and you’ll see a list of the available volumes and issues of the magazine. If you’re doing market research, you’ll want to look at the most recent issue, which is currently “Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 2020.” Click on the link to the issue you would like to search.

5.

After clicking on the link for the most current issue “Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 2020” in Step 4, you should get an “In this Issue” and “Table of Contents” screen that offers links to the articles within the Winter 2020 issue.

From this Table of Contents screen, you can click on View (to read content online), Download, (to get the pdf file), or Save.

NOTE: Content isn’t often labeled as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but the page numbers offer useful clues. A one- or two-page article is more likely to be poetry, and a 10- or 20-page article is likely to be fiction or nonfiction.

Submittable: Follow the money in literary magazine publishing

Vintage postcard: Night view of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago from the sky ride’s observation platform.

Pondering “Giving Tuesday” donation requests and everyday submission fees at lit mags

Writers don’t earn much for publishing their work in literary magazines. In fact, after you add up the online submission fees and the costs of old-school printing and postage, many writers actually pay to have their work published.

However, publishing can build a writer’s social capital. It’s a different type of earning. Publishing is a status symbol, of sorts, that can verify your topic or your writing is good or interesting or digressive or [insert another adjective]. For writing teachers, especially those on the tenure track, publications listed on a vita show a teacher’s relevance and contributions to their field, which helps them get hired or promoted or keeps them employed. 

More literary magazines are offering an honorarium beyond “paying” in contributor’s copies and bragging rights. Often honoraria run $25. A few magazines, such as those with commercial or foundation backing, pay professional rates. These mythical outlets may pay $250 to $1,000 or more, but their fiction is liberally sprinkled with agented submissions.

Science fiction, fantasy and other genres

Genre publications, including science fiction and fantasy, seem to take writer’s payments more seriously. Publications can’t be considered professional or “qualifying markets” by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America unless they pay at least 8 cents per word, among other criteria.  

This professionalism goes both ways. Many science fiction, horror, and other genre publications pay their writers, but they may require exclusivity. Their writer’s guidelines may prohibit simultaneous submissions, but in return, they often make their decisions (to publish or not to publish) in days or weeks, rather than months.

SFWA members frown on reading or submission fees. “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees” is the title of a 2018 SFWA blog by John Walters, a hybrid author who has published more than 20 books. Walters critiques the literary marketplace’s submission fees and their impact on disenfranchisement and diversity.

Poetry has value

As for poetry earnings, think back to the blog “Poetry Has Value” where poets shared monthly tallies of their submission fees and income. For example, Erika Dreifus, author of Birthright: Poems, earned $517.65 from her poetry publications in 2016. However, she did this by pursuing free markets for her poems.

“Thanks to my Poetry Has Value posts, I can tell you that I sent out 134 [packets of] poetry submissions in 2016… Had I spent $3 each time, I’d have shelled out $402 on submission fees. Which would have left me with $117.65,” Dreifus wrote in “Making Poetry Pay: Five Ways to Increase Your Poetry Income,” which was published in The Writer’s Notebook in July 2017.

NOTE: The free monthly Practicing Writer e-newsletter from Erika Dreifus includes “fee-free (and paying) calls and competitions—plus other resources—for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.” More information is at: ErikaDreifus.com

Where is the money in literary publishing?

So, what happens when you follow the money in literary magazine publishing? Like a big shining billboard, there is Submittable.

Submittable, a “submission management software” company based in Missoula, Montana, gives writers an online platform to submit their creative work to publications. Costs for printing, postage, and SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) have morphed into online submission fees. Magazine staff members use the Submittable platform to accept or reject work online. Stacks of mail and full recycling bins have turned into burgeoning electronic queues.

“Since starting, Submittable has partnered with over 11,000 organizations to promote calls, accept, review and take action on over 50 million submissions and applications from over 4.5 million users,” wrote CEO Michael A. FitzGerald in November.

Fifty million submissions…

Some of those submissions were free. Other submissions cost $25-plus. Most of them were about $3. Some of that money went to the publications and some to Submittable. If you read Tahoma Literary Review’s “What We Pay (and how we do it),” you’ll see that in spring 2020 Submittable’s cut of each submission was 5 percent plus 99 cents. This is on top of a yearly fee, which can be $999 for Submittable’s “basic” level.

For Submittable, what does this look like in rough numbers?
• 50 million submissions @ $3 apiece = $150 million * 5 percent = $7.5 million
• 50 million submissions * 99 cents = $49.5 million
• Total: $57 million
(This estimate doesn’t include Submittable’s base fees.)

Not bad for a company, originally called Submishmash, that FitzGerald started in his basement with Bruce Tribbensee and John Brownell in 2010. 

FitzGerald stepped down as Submittable’s CEO in November 2020 to continue his treatment for colorectal cancer. Thor Culverhouse has since taken over as CEO, but the transition and the recent global recession brought to light hints about the financial side of Submittable. As reported in the Missoulian newspaper:

  • In July 2019, the company raised $10 million in venture capital.
  • In April 2020, Submittable laid off 30 of its 130 Missoula-based workers.
  • I’ll add that, during the pandemic, literary magazine submissions may be up, if the quick closing of metered or free submission windows is any sign.

Why “Giving Tuesday” made me think about this

Even before “Giving Tuesday” I started receiving donation requests from literary magazines that I submitted work to over the years. I don’t mean to put a negative spin on this, but some of these magazines last communicated with me via a boilerplate message like, “Thanks for your submission [and submission fee], but we’re not going to publish your work. We’re so busy that we have nothing more to say right now. Good luck.”

About those $3 submission fees, my math shows:
• $1.86 stays with the magazine
• $1.14 goes to Submittable
Note that it’s not unusual for a higher-tier magazine to receive 10,000 submissions a year.

Nonetheless, I saw a stark contrast. The donation solicitations were annoying, especially those from magazines that hadn’t communicated regularly through newsletters or other avenues. But these literary magazines needed donations, grants, subscriptions, and submission fees to keep publishing. We’re talking about budgets of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, a company that “partnered” with these sometimes-struggling publications talks about fees and venture capital on the order of millions of dollars.  

And writers? Maybe they made $500 through their writing last year, if they worked hard and avoided submission fees.   


An update from Submittable

Keriann Strickland, director of product & content marketing for Submittable, contacted me to provide additional information about their business and fees. Here’s what she wrote:

  • First, you caught an error for us; thank you. Michael’s [former CEO Michael FitzGerald’s] blog post should have said nearly 20 million submissions [instead of 50 million].
  • As the blog you quote mentions, we’ve expanded from our literary roots into many other industries and use cases. That total submission number represents all of those industries/use cases (not just literary journals)—most of them without submission fees.
  • In the minority case where an organization charges fees, you’re correct that we charge $0.99 + 5% of the total sum collected—4% of that goes to our payment processor (we use a 3rd party for security and compliance standards). More on that break down here: https://www.submittable.com/features/fees-and-payments/
  • In partnership with CLMP [Community of Literary Magazines and Presses], we also offer special discounted plans for literary journals at $39/month or $290/year (well below our basic pricing https://www.submittable.com/clmp/).

Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)

A newer three R’s for writing: Reject, revise, and repeat

Chicago World's Fair sky ride 2 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Sky ride, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933

Some literary magazines offer a few sentences of feedback if you pay a couple of dollars more for your submissions. A few sentences or a paragraph or two is what you get—not a full critique.

While a full critique can cost hundreds of dollars, a couple of dollars seems worthwhile to get something beyond the generic rejection of “doesn’t fit our needs,” “wasn’t right for us,” “unable to accept,” “not selected for publication,” and so on.

Note: On Submittable.com, you can search using the words feedback or comment to get a list of current submission opportunities that have a feedback option.

Nonetheless, feedback isn’t always easy to take. Here’s an excerpt from comments I received recently:

I liked this story, but a good amount happens here that doesn’t move the story forward. Some of it is in extraneous description; some of it is action. Reading these bits, I can see how they are good writing, but they don’t quite contribute to the story, which bogs down the reading experience overall.

This feedback applied to a short-short story of about 700 words. My first reaction was, “If you took out the description and the action, what would be left?” But then, the feedback only referred to “extraneous” description and “some” action. Where was it?

I reread the story and let it sit for a week. For me, time is an important revision tool. You come back to a piece with many assumptions forgotten, much like a new reader. More than once, I’ve reread a rejected manuscript and thought, “Rightly so.” Problems jumped out at me, but this short-short wasn’t one of those.

Having been taught to show not tell, I looked at elements in the story that were supposed to show. What I was showing didn’t seem to be coming across, if the feedback was any indication. I brought back a few of the story elements I had cut earlier. This also involved reordering some material to smooth progressions and connections. I had waffled over much of this earlier in the drafting process and had opted for a more streamlined piece, leaving much lurking but unsaid. Now, I was putting some of these things back in.

The story is resting again, like dough. We’ll see what rises with the next rereading, as well as the next steps in the submission/feedback process. Maybe these revisions have gone too far, and I’ll need to dial them back again. We’ll see.

Contests vs. general submissions for fiction, poetry, nonfiction: Economics & odds in publishing

Chicago World's Fair federal building (2) - clean copy

Vintage postcard: Federal building at night, Chicago World’s Fair 1933

I’ve rarely entered writing contests. At $20 to $30, most entry fees seem too high. Granted, some publications do ease the sting by sending you a copy of the issue containing the winning entries or a year’s subscription, but still…

When you could pay a $3 reading fee for 10 general submissions versus one $30 entry fee for a contest, the economics win. The return on investment for contest entries often seems too low.

Million-dollar contests

My view of contests was reinforced when I read about the Writer’s Digest contests in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. “When I worked for Writer’s Digest, the revenue from competition entry fees approached a million dollars a year,” writes Friedman. “The number of contests was a budgeted line item in the revenue forecast, and if the projected number was not achieved on time, the contest deadline was often extended to collect more entries.”

This gave me a new perspective on contests that announce they’ve extended their deadlines. Are they just trying to bring in a certain amount of money?

It also led me to do some math in my head—seldom a good thing—when an announcement for the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition popped into my inbox.

For this contest the regular entry fee is $30. I figured that to generate $1 million, the contest would need more than 33,000 entries distributed over the nine categories. Yes, the contest offers a $5,000 grand prize and several other higher-dollar prizes, but when I recently saw this year’s short story winner my first thought was, So that’s what a hundred-thousand-dollar story looks like (at least in terms of entry fees).

Here’s what I was thinking (mistakenly):

$1,000,000             (approximate entry fees)
             ÷  9             (the number of categories)
$111,111             (entry fees per category)

NOTE: This assumed that all categories received a ninth of the entries, or about 3,703 entries, at $30 apiece.

Okay, upon further examination, my math was really wrong because the Writer’s Digest competitions website also lists separate competitions for self-published books, popular fiction, short short stories, self-published ebooks, and poetry. These other contests must be part of the organization’s revenue projections, and I’ve only been looking at the Annual Writing Competition.

The one number I may be close to right on is that $1 million in contest revenue would require more than 33,000 submissions at $30 apiece, not counting expenses for prizes, administration, honorariums for judges, and so on. Nonetheless, the odds of winning or placing among 33,000-plus submissions doesn’t give me any sense that the odds may ever be in my favor, no matter how good or bad my writing is.

I apologize for picking on Writer’s Digest, but their contest just happens to be the one I read about recently. I don’t think their contests are alone in being a “profit center,” to quote Friedman again. I also doubt their odds are unusual among big contests.

Better odds in local and regional contests

When considering contests, I look for better odds. I’ve found this in local and regional contests, especially those held by nonprofits. These contests may attract a few hundred entries instead of thousands.

For example, the annual Wisconsin People & Ideas contests for fiction and poetry received 69 fiction entries and 585 poems in 2014 (the most recent year that I could find reported entry numbers for). The odds were much better for fiction (1 winner in 23), whereas the poetry odds were much tougher (1 winner in 195).

The regular entry fee is $20, and cash prizes range from $500 to $100 for the first- through third-place, respectively. While both the odds and the potential ROI for this contest seem more attractive, entries are limited to Wisconsin writers.

NOTE: In addition to cash awards, the Writer’s Digest contest offers introductions to agents and other benefits that are difficult to place a cash value on. Similarly, Wisconsin People & Ideas, a publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters, offers winners benefits such as a residency, publication in the journal, and a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

Acceptance rates for general submissions

Acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent seem common among many literary magazines, based on what I’ve read through the years.

In a 2016 Review Review article, “Is Duotrope Accurate? Ten Lit Mags Provide an Answer,” writer Jason Peck compared journal acceptance rates to what Duotrope users were reporting.

Here are a few of the acceptance rates literary magazines provided to Peck:

  • Colorado Review 1.06% acceptance rate
  • Flash Fiction Online 0.7% acceptance rate
  • Rattle 0.717% acceptance rate

Tahoma Literary Review regularly provides acceptance rates on a page titled “What We Pay (and how we do it).” For example, the fall/winter 2018 issue received 1,225 submissions, of which 25 were published, which is a 2% acceptance rate (if my math is correct). If you’re interested, the TLR website breaks the submissions down by category.

Final thoughts (for now)

In the end, contests may offer a bit more recognition, money, and perks, but their entry fees could quickly drain your budget for marketing your creative writing. On the plus side, contests offer a deadline, which may help push a project through to completion. Remember, however, that deadlines may be extended to attract more fee-paying competitors.