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. 

Flash nonfiction: Good news and a field guide recommendation

Vintage postcard: Bungalow scene in Santa Ana, Calif.

Good news

I’m happy to share that my flash nonfiction piece “Handwashing Dishes” has been published online by The Southeast Review.

The Southeast Review, established in 1979 as Sundog, is a national literary magazine housed in the English Department at Florida State University, Tallahassee, and is edited and managed by its graduate students and a faculty consulting editor.

I especially appreciated working with Nonfiction Editor Liesel Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in nonfiction writing. She asked smart questions during the editing process, and her attentions truly made the piece better.

What is flash nonfiction?
“I am including creative nonfiction work up to 2,000 words, though the great majority of what is discussed is briefer: 500 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even fewer…. [L]ike literary fiction and poetry, the nonfiction we discuss is marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voice and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human—and often unanswerable—questions that concern all serious art…. [T]he work itself is individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.” (xiv)
—Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction  

Flash nonfiction field guide

If you’re interested in writing flash nonfiction, I recommend The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore. As the subtitle says, the book offers “advice and essential exercises from respected writers, editors, and teachers.”

The chapter “Memory Triggers and Tropes” by Rigoberto Gonzalez of Rutgers University was especially helpful in drafting “Handwashing Dishes.” The prompt Gonzalez wrote starts with a useful distinction:

“Recall a memory that has emotional (not sentimental) value for you. To differentiate, an emotional response is attached to reason or thought and makes you ask (and want to answer) who, what, where, why, and how; a sentimental response is attached to feeling and simply asks those same questions without seeking to assess or investigate them.” (35)

Emotional vs. sentimental

The idea of a memory with emotional value immediately made me think about the dishes. They helped me unlock the memory of flying across the country to check on my mother’s welfare after being called by the Phoenix police. I needed to write about the state of my mother’s kitchen and family memories I’d been trying to make sense of for years.    

As I drafted and re-drafted the story, finding the right point of view held me back. A straight reportage third-person version (she/they) seemed too detached and clinical. Meanwhile, a first-person version (I) was too much about me. The second-person point of view (you) offered a balance between emotional distance and experiential immediacy that fit.

Two chapters from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction focused on writing in second-person. When I read Dinah Lenney’s chapter, “All About You,” I saw similarities in our approaches to second-person narration.

Hey, you! (second-person narration)

We both started with research. I remembered the second-person point of view in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City from grad school. Lenney of the University of Southern California offered a longer list. She included “Carlos Fuentes, Marguerite Duras, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Beckett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rumer Godden, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, etc.” (100).

But what about specifically nonfiction examples? These were more elusive. I added Mary Karr’s Cherry: A Memoir to the list because the book starts with a second-person prologue.

In Lenney’s chapter, she used her flash nonfiction “Little Black Dress” as an example while pointing out what using second-person narration allows a writer to do. She writes, “it slows down the pace of things so that the story happens to you and your reader at about the same time—both of you there, in the middle of whatever it is, however delightful or excruciating” (102).

This slowing down that Lenney refers to helped me see the bigger picture connected to a scene worthy of a squalor documentary. It wasn’t just a weekend of trying to set things to right, there were things that couldn’t be fixed simply with a clean kitchen.

Research (library databases)

The key was further research. I read about the work-related trauma that can impact medical professionals. Mom used to tell me operating room stories—mangled motorcycle riders, disfiguring cancer surgeries, and aneurysms where blood pooled on the floor. She and many career nurses work through physical hazards, such as back injuries from lifting heavy patients, as well as mental trauma. Research into the toll of the health care professions acknowledges the effects of these traumas and helped me see the connection to my mother.  

The combination of research into Mom’s work as a nurse—as well as into the craft of flash nonfiction and second-person narration—helped me make sense of lingering images from her house. To borrow language from Rigoberto Gonzalez, the flash nonfiction form allowed me to highlight a “moment of awareness or awakening that will resonate for a lifetime” (34). The writing helped me get closer to answers that had eluded me.

Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

Postcard Florida lily pond 19_0924b - Copy

Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.

Clearing the Writerly Mind

Mountain meditation pic2

Vintage postcard: From Rim o’ the World Highway to Lake Arrowhead, California. (Mt. San Bernardino, Greyback, and Mt. San Jacinto)

You have time to write, the computer is on, but your mind keeps straying because:

  • There are bills to pay.
  • Someone needs you to do something for them.
  • You want to order that thing before you forget.
  • Someone else’s writing, posts, messages, etc. suddenly seem like must-reads.

Quiet the nattering

You can stage your own intervention: a breathing exercise.

“Breathing exercises can lead to control over the mind,” writes Arthur Liebers in Relax With Yoga, which was published in 1960. Liebers shares an exercise from a Sanskrit text dating back to 1893.

Here’s a streamlined version of the breathing exercise. (I’ll share some of the more intense instructions later in this post.)

Start in a comfortable sitting position (this can be done in a chair at your desk) or assume Lotus Pose.

  1. Inhale through the left nostril
  2. Hold
  3. Exhale through your right nostril
  4. Hold
  5. Inhale through your right nostril
  6. Hold
  7. Exhale through your left nostril
  8. Hold
  9. Repeat steps 1 through 8.

Recommendations:

  • Feel free to use your hands on the sides of your nose to shift the breathing from side to side.
  • Use whatever count for the breaths and holds that you find comfortable (for example, a count of eight).
  • Repeat the pattern several times (maybe, four times).

The combination of the rhythmic breathing, the concentration needed to move the breath from side to side, and the length of four cycles helps me find my focus.

Original from Liebers

If you’re wondering what I consider “intense,” the prep work in Liebers’s book calls for one to “Cleanse the gullet with a strip of cloth, the width of four fingers, by swallowing it and then withdrawing it” and “Cleanse the nostrils by putting up a thread and drawing it out by way of the mouth.”

Also, here are the original instructions from Relax With Yoga :

“The Yogi assuming the Lotus Pose should draw in the prana (breath) through the ida (left nostril), and, having retained it as long as he can, exhale it through the pingala (right nostril). Again, inhaling through the right nostril, he should hold his breath as long as possible and exhale slowly through the left nostril. He should inhale through the same nostril by which he exhaled and having retrained the breath to the utmost (until he is covered with perspiration or until his body shakes) he should then exhale slowly, as exhaling forcefully would diminish the energy of the body.

“These exercises should be performed four times a day—in the early morning, at midday, evening, and midnight—slowly increasing the number from three, each time, to eighty. Their effects are described as ‘to render the mind and body slender and bright.’ Although in the direct translation from the Sanskrit, the ida is named as being he left nostril and the pingala as the right one, these words more properly designate the two supposed conduits which connect with the nostrils, and thence conduct throughout the entire body the vital air (the prana) that enters with atmospheric air.”

Liebers, Arthur. Relax with Yoga. New York: Bell Publishing, 1960.

Worst Writing Group Ever

mine postcard2

Vintage postcard: Dumping ore into a pocket at a shaft station, Cliff Copper Mine near Phoenix

For the past decade or so my writing group has, on average, taken months to get back to me. In a couple cases it has taken them more than a year. Good turnaround is about six to eight weeks.

When they do respond it has usually been brief and vague. These may sound familiar:

  • “After careful consideration, we’re sorry to report…”
  • “We enjoyed reading it, and though it doesn’t quite…”
  • “We read your submission carefully and regret…”

Time

A benefit of continuing with this group has been time:

  • Time for my own work to become distant enough that I can read it like a laser-eyed stranger
  • Time for me to read other writers (both successful and less so)
  • Time to further develop the craft of revision, storytelling, structure, line, and so much more

Encouragement

Another benefit has been encouragement, especially when editors include personalized notes, more detailed rejections, or invitations to submit to them again.

Nonetheless, I still had a strong reaction when I read the following quote in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer:

“[G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, [said an assistant editor at The Missouri Review], when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.”

Friedman went on to describe the social media response to the original blog post, “Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good” by Michael Nye. “His post provoked a significant backlash from writers who felt tired of banging their heads against the wall—pursuing success within a system that never seemed to work that well in the first place,” Friedman wrote.

While rejections no longer sting as much as they used to, I connected to this conversation and not just because I have rejections from TMR dating back to 2002.

Paying for feedback

I’ve found a couple bright spots. One is the “in progress” designator in Submittable, which may indicate when my work has made it past the first readers.

A larger one is the feedback option offered by some publications, such as Tahoma Literary Review. Sometimes it’s a small fee for a few paragraphs of commentary. Other times it’s a lot more money for an in-depth critique. I’ve paid for an in-depth review on a project that was especially important to me through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Continuing Studies. Faculty member Christine DeSmet offered concrete feedback beyond what I’ve received from family readers and writer friends, who might have been concerned about hurting my feelings.

Persistence

One thing my continued participation in this “writing group” shows is persistence. In the face of years of rejection, I continue.

“To Walk Chalk” in Superstition Review

1898 house parlor to dining room (800x408) (2)

My story “To Walk Chalk” has been published in Superstition Review, an online literary magazine at Arizona State University. (The review staff was wonderful to work with, and they run a great website.) Here’s the link to the short story: “To Walk Chalk.”

The setting for this story stuck with me years after seeing a newspaper ad for Sharer’s Funeral Parlor and Mortuary in my grandmother’s scrapbook. The address for the mortuary was the same as the house my great-great-grandfather had built in 1898 in a small Wisconsin town known for tobacco farming. My grandmother had lived in that house for the majority of her eighty-plus years.

Problem: No one in the family had ever been in the mortuary business. No one in the family had the last name Sharer.

Answer: The family home had been rented out during the Great Depression.

Only after learning this did it make sense why my grandfather had once told me, “They embalmed people in the basement.” I must have been twelve when he said this, and it changed my perception of the basement forever.

The house is no longer in the family, but we have pictures such as the parlor scene above. And now some of my memories have been spun into the short story, even if I modified the description of the house’s exterior to include details from at least two other Wisconsin buildings.