Sidetracked but Not Derailed

I have a passion for railroad trains. As a child, when I was tucked into bed at my grandparents’ house, I loved to listen to the distant choo choo of passing trains. As an adult, I enjoy living on the wrong side of the tracks, where I can hear the call of the trains’ whistles while I work.

Railways have been a thing since the seventeenth century. They’ve been in use in the United States almost since the country’s inception. But for the first two hundred years, the cars were drawn by horses. In the early nineteenth century, John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, came up with the idea to combine a locomotive with the steam power that was being used to propel ships along American rivers, and it was game on.

The things we love always seem to find their way into our writing, whether we mean them to or not. I often find myself sneaking train metaphors and imagery into my writing without realizing it. Train terminology has made its way into our everyday language, too.

For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the origin of the word sidetrack:

sidetrack (n.)

also side-track, ‘railway siding,’ 1835, from side (adj.) + track (n.). The verb meaning ‘to move (a train car) onto a sidetrack’ is from 1874; figurative sense of ‘to divert from the main purpose’ is attested from 1881.

 

Originally, a sidetrack was a short length of track to which a train could be diverted for purposes of loading freight or so another train could pass. But the 1881 figurative use of the word has stuck. Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb sidetrack as “to turn aside from a purpose.”

Derail also has its origins in railroad jargon, but comes to us from the French language:

derail (v.)

1850 (Dionysius Lardner, ‘Railway Economy’), in both transitive and intransitive senses, ’cause to leave the rails or run off the tracks; to run off the rails or tracks,’ from French dérailler ‘to go off the rails,’ from de- + railler.

 

If a train is derailed, it is a much more serious, permanent, and catastrophic departure from the train tracks. Like sidetrack, the word derail developed a figurative meaning. Today, Merriam-Webster defines the verb derail as “to obstruct the progress of” or “to upset the stability or composure of.” Again, a much more serious tampering, with potentially permanent results.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train at Roaring Camp, Felton, Santa Cruz County, California.

 

Writer, why am I talking to you about trains? Because I’ve been thinking about trains as I work my way back into manuscript revisions.

I decided at the beginning of summer to set aside work on my book for a month, in favor of catching up on some other things and finishing a few projects that were hanging over my head. It’s hard for me to focus on writing when other things are pulling at me. And it’s never a bad idea to give a manuscript a rest, so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.

Once I was in a better place, I was thrilled with the idea of getting back to my book without anything hanging over my head. I woke up early in the morning and headed straight to my keyboard, free of anything else that I felt like I should be doing. But then, life happened, as it always does. Over the past several months, my day job became increasingly demanding. I worked a lot of extra hours–long days, evenings, and weekends. I found myself skipping over my early morning writing to get a jump start on my day work. I really hate having things hanging over my head.

I let myself get sidetracked from my writing.

But Writer, that’s no way to live for any length of time. I’ve found myself feeling anxious and a little blue. I like my day work, I really do–I help people, and it’s rewarding in a real world sort of way. But my family and writing and working with writers are the things I’m passionate about; those are the things that make my life worth living. If I don’t have a balanced mix of all of those things–if I consistently allow my day job (or any one thing) to get the biggest share of me–then I’m not a happy person.

I like being caught up on my work–like I said, I find it difficult to focus on writing when I’m not. But there’s always something to pull us away from our writing, am I right? I can say that just this once I’ll skip writing and start work early, but it can become too easy to do that again tomorrow, and then the next day, and then the next. It’s a dangerous mindset to sidetrack the things we love too often or to feel that we must do all the other things first, before we can sit down to write. The most important things should come first if we are going to live the lives we were meant to live.

Let’s face it. Things come up. We’re going to get sidetracked from writing now and then. That’s okay if it’s an occasional thing because, on a particular day, because of particular circumstances, something else has to take precedence. But let’s make a promise to one another, Writer: we may get sidetracked now and then, but we will never be derailed. We will always get back on track.

My Happy Place

I haven’t been to Monterey for more than three years now, but I’m dreaming of it lately, and I hope to get back to visit soon. Monterey is the place in the world that feels most like home to me. It’s the place where I feel most like myself and where I feel most inspired to write. I want to talk to you about Monterey because it has contributed so much to the way I write. I credit my time in Monterey County for my passion for place in my writing. I’m wondering whether there is a place in your life that helped to create the writer you are, too.

Visiting Cannery Row always spirits me back in time, not only in my own life, but in the lives of my ancestors and others who were drawn to this place, like John Steinbeck. You don’t grow up in the Salinas Valley without having at least a little something in common with Steinbeck. My family emigrated to Monterey County from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, just like the characters Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.

My grandmother Rubye never read a Steinbeck novel, but she came to California from Oklahoma as a child, and the language was in her bones. She once wrote this in her journal: “My first schooling I ever remember was in Moss Landing, California, and we lived in a very little house and our bedroom went out over the water. When the tide came in, it was so very cold and we would watch [the ocean] down through the big cracks in the floor. The little house was back behind Johnny’s Fruit Stand. My father and brothers, Grover and Peck, picked apricots, and my mother and sister Pete cut them to dry in a shed. … After the jobs ended, we put our mattresses, pots and pans on top of two old, open touring cars and headed back to Oklahoma.”

Eventually, my grandparents moved to California permanently. My mother went to high school in King City, where Steinbeck’s East of Eden is set, and I was born there. As children, my siblings and I visited both sets of grandparents in Soledad, the setting for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. We played on the banks of the Salinas River, just beneath the Soledad overpass, in the same spot where George and Lennie have their last talk.

Salinas High School, where John Steinbeck graduated in 1919, and
where my girlfriends and I hung out to meet boys in the 1970s.

 

I read my first Steinbeck books in junior high, The Pearl and The Red Pony. I went to North Salinas High School. Steinbeck went to Salinas High–they were our rivals in football, but we drove slowly past the school when we cruised Main Street, or we hung out on its grassy lawn if we were on foot. I was a young mom when the film version of my favorite Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row, premiered in Salinas, complete with red carpet, flashing cameras, and Hollywood movie stars.

Someday, I hope to spend a month writing in John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio or Cottage, both of which are available to rent on Airbnb. It is one of a handful of things on my bucket list.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” Steinbeck wrote. “Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.” (The opening paragraph of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945).)

Cannery Row is my favorite Steinbeck novel not only because of the story, which stands alone, but because I am intrigued by the very real characters behind the story, including Cannery Row itself. Cannery Row is more than a setting. It became the title of the book for a good reason–it easily takes its place next to Doc as one of the main characters in the novel. Steinbeck was passionate about place, too.

John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio in Pacific Grove, California

 

Steinbeck was also passionate about people and marine biology. The character of Doc is based on Steinbeck’s real-life friend, Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a marine biologist. The friendship and marine science work of Steinbeck and Ricketts are well-represented today at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and throughout Cannery Row.

“And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable … that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things–plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” (From The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (1951).)

Steinbeck incorporated all the things he was passionate about into his writing. Those things make his writing transcendent and evocative. Capturing a sense of place in your writing is just one way of adding texture and layers to your stories. Pay attention to the ways your favorite writers incorporate place and setting into their stories. Think about the places you love, and take a crack at describing them in such exquisite detail that you give your readers the gift of experiencing them, too.

Be the Brando

About ten years ago, I decided to watch all the Academy Award winners for Best Picture in order, starting with Wings (1927), a silent film with a plot reminiscent of Pearl Harbor (2001). Wings stars Clara Bow (the original “it girl”), Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen. It features an early screen appearance by a young Gary Cooper.

What was most fascinating about watching the films in order was seeing the gradual evolution of elements like plot, special effects, cinematography, technology, even opening and ending credits. I watched movies go from silent to talkies, from black-and-white to technicolor, from war to peacetime. I enjoyed seeing the early careers of then-unknown actors who are Hollywood icons today.

But 27 film-years into the history of cinema, I sat down to watch On the Waterfront (1954), and my mind was blown by the sudden leap in the quality of acting. I’m talking, of course, about Marlon Brando. Brando was a noticeably better actor than those who had come before him, and he stood out among a cast of great actors in On the Waterfront.

I’m not the only one who thought so. Al Pacino had this to say:

“You know, today when you tell young people about [On the Waterfront], the response isn’t quite the same about it. But you have to understand, this was in that period, a revelation. It was a breakthrough. His acting on screen was different than we’d all seen. So playing with him in [The Godfather] was… it was a little unnerving.”

 

Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

 

Why was Brando so good? I’m guessing part of it must be a natural talent for acting. But he also studied his craft intensely and was committed to being the best actor he could be. He made it his job, even before it was his job. He didn’t skate on his innate talent–he worked at building on it.

Don’t get me wrong. Other actors in On the Waterfront studied their craft, too. Karl Malden studied acting at The Goodman School, part of DePaul University in Chicago. He’d won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role three years earlier, for his work in A Streetcar Named Desire (also starring Brando), and he was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in On the Waterfront. Lee J. Cobb ran away from home to Hollywood at the age of sixteen and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in On the Waterfront. Rod Steiger studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York. Perhaps my favorite thing about Steiger is that he was critical of Charlton Heston’s views on gun control long before the issue was in the mainstream.

As far as I know, Brando’s co-star, Eva Marie Saint, never studied acting formally–she learned on her feet, which is just as valid a way to learn as any. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for On the Waterfront and won numerous acting awards throughout her career, including the King Vidor Memorial Award in 2004 at our local San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Saint turned 98 years old on the 4th of July and is the oldest living actor to have won an Academy Award. She remains active in the film industry–in 2018, she presented the award for costume design at the 90th Academy Awards.

 

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire

 

Marlon Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three years earlier, for A Streetcar Named Desire. For the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando brought his stage performance to the silver screen–he’d originated the role on Broadway. Brando didn’t hold anything back in his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski. This was the first time movie-goers saw this kind of acting in a motion picture; before that, such raw and unrestrained performances were confined to the theater. The Academy Award went to Humphrey Bogart that year, for his portrayal of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, but it made Brando a major Hollywood movie star.

Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for On the Waterfront at the 27th annual Academy Awards. He was surrounded by talent when he made On the Waterfront. Besides Best Actor, the film took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint), Best Directing (Elia Kazan), Best Writing (story and screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography (black-and-white), and Best Art Direction (black-and-white). Still, among all the talented people who made On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando stood out to me.

A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront were just the beginning for Brando. I’m a huge fan of 1970s cinema, and The Godfather tops them all. I’m not an actor, but I did play Alice, the female lead, in my high school’s junior class play, I Never Sang for My Father (makeup by David W. Smith). I channeled Estelle Parsons’ 1970 film portrayal, which wasn’t very original or industrious of me. But here are my three degrees of separation from Marlon Brando: I studied acting at North Salinas High School with Lewis W. “Ig” Heniford, a wonderfully kind man, who also taught acting to Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather, a Native American civil rights activist, who in 1973 declined the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Godfather on Marlon Brando’s behalf.

 

Lewis W. “Ig” Heniford (April 16, 1928-November 26, 2018), my high school drama teacher and one of the coolest and kindest people I ever met.

 

I’m one of many who think Marlon Brando changed acting forever. Edward Norton once said this about Brando:

“There’s this history of famous actors, and it sort of begins with Brando, because Brando had such an enormous effect on the psychology of men in America. If you look at what I’d call ‘the great generation’ of American actors (Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep), that’s all the post-Brando generation. All of those people, literally all of them, wanted to become actors because of Marlon Brando. He rewrote the idea of what it was and what it could be.”

I’m not qualified to tell you why Marlon Brando was so good, but based on what I’ve read about him, I have a few ideas. He studied and he worked at it. He was brave and took risks. He flaunted convention and scorned public opinion. He was passionate about acting, and he seems to have studied all the things. He didn’t rely solely on his own experiences and emotions. He studied under Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler. He studied the Stavinslavski method for acting, immersed himself in the texts and characters, believed in bringing truth and reality to acting, and was among the first to bring what he learned to film for mainstream audiences.

Marlon Brando was inordinately kind (I love this story about him on Roger Ebert’s website, Brando letter makes the grade), but he could also be self-centered. In an archived interview for the defunct Sabotage Times, “Never Meet Your Hero. Unless it’s Rod Steiger,” Steiger recalls being present for Brando’s close-ups during the On the Waterfront shoot, so Brando had an actor to play off of, but Brando didn’t stick around for his. While I was disappointed to read this about him, it also reinforced to me the depth of his commitment to his own acting.

Brando immersed himself in life, too. “An actor must interpret life,” he once said, “and in order to do so he must be willing to accept all experiences that life can offer.” He devoted himself to acting, he loved it, and reading about him, I get the idea he felt it was his obligation as an actor to be dedicated to his craft. He was ahead of his time because he wasn’t afraid to try new things.

 


Marlon Brando accepts the Academy Award for Best Actor for On the Waterfront

 

Let me bring this back around to writing. I believe hard work is going to win out every time. I don’t believe an actor or a writer or anyone has to have a formal education to be successful. There are too many examples of successful people who don’t. There are plenty of ways to go about becoming a better writer on your own: reading well-written books, studying how other writers do what they do, and of course, practice, practice, practice. But neither do I think writers should be shamed for pursuing education, training, or coaching in their craft. Marlon Brando did it. Most actors do it. Athletes do it. Singers do it. Why not writers?

However you learn to write well, I think the lessons I’ve learned from Marlon Brando are these:

  • Throw yourself into your work with passion. Devote yourself to your craft. Make it your job to be the best you can be.
  • Write with abandon. Be fearless. Take risks in your writing. Learn the rules, then don’t be afraid to break them.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think. Be kind. As Tod Goldberg says, “Don’t be an asshole.” But don’t listen to the haters, and don’t be afraid to put yourself and your writing first when you need to.
  • Live life to the fullest. Your thirst for life will feed your writing.
  • Be the best. Be the Brando.

10 Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals

Submitting prose to literary journals is a long game for most of us. Success doesn’t come overnight or easily, and it’s easy to get discouraged. I speak from personal experience. But you don’t have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and leave things to chance. There are some things you can do to increase the odds of having your work published in literary journals and magazines.

1. Read them!

If you’re a writer, you should be reading literary journals and magazines, whether or not you are submitting to them. I encourage writers to be true to themselves–don’t “write to the market” because (a) the market is constantly shifting and you’ll never be able to keep up; and (b) your best work isn’t going to come from trying to gauge what’s trending in the moment. That isn’t the way to find your voice. But you should be aware, not only of what’s out there, but of where the tastes of specific literary markets lay. For example, you’re not going to get very far by submitting your mystery story to a sci-fi journal.

2. Choose Wisely.

Research the literary journals or magazines you’re thinking of submitting to, to make sure your work is a good fit for them, yes, but also to make sure they’re a good fit for you and for your work. Too often, we are so anxious to be published that we fail to consider whether a particular market is reputable, offers equitable publishing terms, or will help us achieve our writing goals.

3. Start at the Top.

Why not? Sure, it’s faster and easier to get published in a lesser quality journal, and if your only goal is to see your story in print, then that may be the way to go. But don’t sell yourself short. If you want your work to get noticed by potential agents, for example, taking your time and striving toward getting your work published in a well-respected literary journal is the way to go. So start at the top, and then work your way down your list. And never submit to a journal you wouldn’t be proud to have your work published in.

4. Consider Your Goals.

This goes back to the last point: Do you want to see your name and your work in print? Do you want to get make money? Do you want your work to be noticed by literary agents? Do you want to see your work in a print publication or online? Or does it matter? Take your goals into account when choosing where to submit your work. For example, if your goal is to snag a literary agent, then you may want a few publication credits to list in your query letter. Toward that goal, you’ll probably want to submit to fairly recognizable markets, but you probably won’t want to enter a contest that offers publication of your book as the grand prize, skipping over the agent step entirely.

5. Read Submission Guidelines Carefully and Follow Them.

This is one of the most important tips I can give you. I’ve volunteered as an editor for several literary journals, and I can tell you this counts. The guidelines are there for a reason–they make our jobs easier and help tailor the submissions we receive to our publication. When a writer clearly hasn’t read the guidelines, or worse, chooses to disregard them, the writer-editor relationship is off to a bad start.

6. Pay Special Attention to Contest Rules.

Rules and guidelines for contests are often different than regular submission guidelines. For example, it is common for contests to require that writers take their names off their submissions, so the journal’s readers can read the submissions “blind,” without knowing who wrote them. In fact, I’m a little wary of contests that don’t read submissions blind. Make sure your name is removed from all the places: remove it from underneath the title of your piece, take your last name out of the standard header, and delete the address block that normally goes in the upper left corner of the first page of your submission.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
–Octavia E. Butler

7. Watch Your Word Count.

Word count limits for literary journals are all over the place. Some journals are into flash fiction and have word count limits between 50 and 1,500 words. Many journals cap a short story submission at 3,500 words. Some journals accept fiction up to 7,500 words or even 10,000. But the most common word count limits for prose are 5,000 to 6,000 words. Oftentimes, stories and essays that are longer could be much tighter. Space is at a premium in literary journals, and if your pieces fall into that sweet spot of 6,000 words or less, your odds of finding someone to publish your work go up.

8. Send Your Best Work.

You’ll hear me say this again and again: Polish your work until it shines before you submit it to a literary journal or magazine. Markets get many more submissions than they are able to publish. It’s already a challenge for a piece to stand out amount hundreds or thousands of submissions. Readers are eagerly searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack–a sparkling gem that catches their eyes and stands out among the rest. At the same time, they’re overwhelmed with submissions, and they’re looking for a reason to reject yours. If the work is sloppy, or amateurish, or replete with misspellings or errors in punctuation and grammar, it makes it easy for a reader or editor to decline the piece and move on to the next. Besides, once your piece is published, it’s out there in print or online forever, for all practical purposes. Make sure you’re proud that’s the case.

9. Pick a Dream Journal.

A “dream journal” is a shoot-for-the-moon literary journal or magazine you’d love to have your work published in, but that perhaps seems out of reach. Think the Paris ReviewPloughshares, Kenyon Review, or Zyzzyva. Having a dream journal (or a half dozen dream journals) is motivating. It gives a writer something to shoot for and to celebrate. But dream journals don’t have to be the most well-known or the most difficult-to-get-published-in journals. The journals I listed above are some of mine, but so was Kelp JournalKelp Journal is a relatively new literary journal, but I fell in love with it because of its aesthetic and its quality. My short story “The Jetty” was published in Kelp Journal‘s fifth issue. I will never forget the feeling of reading the email from one of my dream journals that began, “I’m delighted to inform you ….” After that, I took my love of Kelp Journal to the next level and applied to be a fiction editor. I’ve since edited fiction for two issues. We are currently accepting submissions for Issue No. 8, so send us something! And remember, no dream journal is out of reach if you follow Tip #10.

10. Persist.

This is the best tip I can give you: Don’t give up. The odds may be stacked against you, but that only means the odds get better each and every time you submit. And your writing is getting better and better too! It’s not uncommon for a piece to get upwards of 30 rejections before it finds its home. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the story or essay, but that it didn’t suit a particular market at a particular point in time. If you’re sure you’ve followed all the other tips and submitted your best work, it’s a matter of being tenacious until you find the literary journal or magazine that’s meant to publish your piece.

Bonus tips:

  • Don’t bombard your dream journal with submissions–guidelines often request that writers submit no more than once per submission period, and annoying them isn’t going to win you any points.
  • If a journal says they’d love to see more of your work, believe them. Send them something even better and/or more suitable than the piece they praised.
  • Once a piece is accepted, be sure to withdraw it from any other markets to which you’ve submitted it for the sake of the journal’s readers and editors, as well as your reputation as a writer.

The Calm Before the War

Last week, I wrote about The War of Art, a book by Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book was recommended to me at just the right time in my life. I finished my MFA last year and came out of it tired, but promptly enrolled in two more year-long programs and launched a book coaching and editing business, while continuing to work at my full-time day job. A little over a year ago, I was up before dawn, writing three to four hours each and every morning before my day job even started. So I know I can do it. But over the past year, I’ve mastered every excuse for not writing or for promising myself I’ll get back to my old writing routine “starting on Monday.”

Pressfield’s book was perfect for me. I was well-positioned to write for several hours a day. I just wasn’t doing it. My only obstacle was myself. So I needed someone to tell me to stop mucking around and do my work. Thanks to Pressfield’s advice, I am beginning to think of myself as a professional writer and to behave accordingly.

But as I read, I also thought about the fact that not everyone is as privileged as I am. Not everyone can climb out of a warm bed in the morning, turn on a light, make a cup of coffee and a slice of peanut butter toast, boot up a computer, and write for several hours, without worrying about anything or anyone else. (Which makes my neglect of my writing all the more shameful.)

I was gradually reminded of “prosperity theology” (abundance as a sign of divine favor) and “limiting beliefs,” a philosophy that blames any lack of success on a person’s mindset, despite the person’s circumstances.

I am uneasy with descriptions of things like drug addiction, chronic illness, and tolerating abuse as products of a mind trying to avoid creative work. I’ve been guilty of allowing life’s unnecessary dramas to keep me from writing, and that, I agree, is disrespectful of my life, my dreams, and my talents. But there are things which are not so easy to set aside or escape from. I don’t believe that someone who is in an abusive relationship or battling illness or addiction is allowing limiting beliefs to keep them from realizing their potential as a writer.

I do believe writers can find greater success by changing their mindsets and by developing professional work habits. We can be limited by our beliefs. For example, we might believe we aren’t worthy of good things in life, when we most certainly are. Or we might believe we can’t wake up a couple of hours early to write before work, when we definitely can make that shift in our schedules. But it’s a mistake to say we can’t also limited by our individual circumstances. To believe otherwise is a limiting belief in and of itself, a way of shirking our obligation of love toward our fellow human beings. It’s similar to victim blaming–a way of shielding oneself from fear by thinking, “That could never happen to me. I would never end up like that, I would never find myself in those circumstances or in that situation, because I would never do the things that person did.”

I’m thinking now of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the most basic and accepted psychological theories, usually depicted as a pyramid:

The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy is that human beings must have their basic needs for physical well-being and safety met before they can worry about other needs. In other words, if a person is homeless, cold, and hungry, their focus is going to be on finding shelter, warmth, and food. If they’re experiencing those circumstances, and they also have children in their care, or are struggling with a drug addiction or physical abuse, they face even more difficulty. In the meantime, they probably aren’t going to knock out the great American novel. They’re not going to move up the pyramid. They’re not limited by their beliefs; they’re limited by their circumstances. They’re limited by their need to spend their waking hours looking for food, or housing, or a job, or a place to sleep or shower. As you can see, “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities,” is way up at the top of the pyramid.

Do people write novels under adverse circumstances? Yes, they do. We’ve heard about the outliers, like the woman who wrote an unbelievably successful book about a boy wizard while she was a single mother, living on government assistance in a rodent-infested flat, and hiding out from an abusive spouse, or the highly successful romance author who wrote all her books late at night after putting her seven children to bed. Stories like these can make us feel ashamed that we aren’t as industrious or as dedicated. But if someone doesn’t produce art while setting mouse traps in the kitchen, applying for restraining orders, and enduring rude remarks in the checkout line as they pay for their groceries with food stamps, to say that person is being held back by a scarcity mindset is a surface-level oversimplification. Even with the outliers, if you look at their stories more closely, there is almost always a little luck or privilege involved, as well as some access to support and options not everyone has.

I’ve had some rough circumstances in my own life. I’ve overcome some tremendous odds. Statistically, I should never have even graduated high school. And yes, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been stubborn. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I’m also mindful of what part of that wasn’t earned, but was luck mixed with privilege. I’ve met other women who’ve experienced similar circumstances and who, for whatever reason, were broken by them or didn’t survive them in the same way. I’ve known women who didn’t survive at all. When I was in the worst of it, I was not brave or tenacious or resilient. I wasn’t writing. I was barely getting by. I didn’t do anything special to have come out okay on the other side, and the others didn’t do anything to deserve not coming out okay on the other side. I was lucky, and I was more privileged in some ways, and they were not as lucky or as privileged. Life, in that sense, isn’t fair. I’m quite aware things could have gone a completely different way for me, and I’m mindful that I didn’t do anything to earn the fact that they didn’t.

I was lucky for a long time before I found myself in a position to be able to build on that luck with my own hard work. I survived the storm and came into the calm. Only then was I able to begin to think about anything besides battening down the hatches and bailing the boat nonstop with a thimble.

I know this is kind of rambling. I guess what I most want to say is to be kind to yourself, but also be kind to other writers. People are struggling in more ways than we can begin to imagine. Be a warrior for yourself and your own writing, but also be a warrior for those who need a boost. If you are struggling, rather than shame yourself, consider what is holding you back–I think there is a lot of power in just knowing what we are up against. And then, please, ask for help. With any of it. With all of it. There are people who will help you reach the calm so you can have peace and begin to think about other things. After that, ask for a notebook and a pencil–writing will save you. And if you’re already in the calm, if you’ve had a bit of luck, enjoy your success, but then lift others up behind you.

Writing and Warring

I just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2012). At the risk of oversimplifying, the book’s advice boils down to this:

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

Writer: “But–“

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

I enjoyed the foreword by Robert McKee immensely. McKee is an author, lecturer, and story consultant, perhaps most famous for the “Story Seminar” he developed and taught at the University of Southern California and for Brian Cox’s portrayal of him in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. “Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art for me,” McKee writes. “He undoubtedly wrote it for you too, but I know he did it expressly for me because I hold Olympic records for procrastination.” McKee is funny–his foreword made me laugh out loud.

Pressfield starts out strong. The first section of his book defines what we writers are up against. “It’s not the writing part that’s hard,” he writes. “What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Yes! Resistance stands between “[t]he life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Yes! “[T]he battle must be fought anew every day.” Yes, yes, yes! I felt seen as I read the opening pages of The War of Art. I’ve often wondered what goes on in my mind when I come up with excuse after excuse not to sit my butt down in the chair and write. Now I feel I know.

The second section was my favorite. It discusses becoming a professional and applying the same kinds of principles to our writing that we apply to our day jobs, like showing up each and every day and doing our work. Pressfield is right–I show up at my day job every day and do my work. I stay at my job all day long, whether I want to or not. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I don’t employ the same kind of self-discipline. If I called out from my job as often as I call out from writing, I wouldn’t have to worry about it, because I wouldn’t have a job anymore. I’d never thought of it this way.

The third section explores muses, angels, God … “the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves.” The book leans a little heavily into religiosity toward the end. I am spiritual, and beyond that, I strongly believe there are forces we can’t begin to imagine, not to mention little-used parts of our brains, at work when we write. Many times, I’ve been surprised by the ending of a story I am writing–an ending that comes out of nowhere and writes itself. Countless mornings, I’ve awakened from a good night’s sleep with a solution to something I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the day before. Frequently, when I’m out for a walk or shopping for groceries or enjoying a few minutes’ peace in the carwash, an idea will pop into my head unbidden, when I am thinking of something else or nothing at all. So spirituality and these kinds of concepts speak to me personally, but they may not be for everyone. To his credit, Pressfield acknowledges this.

The War of Art is 167 pages of no-excuses advice for writers and other artists. I respond well to this kind of upbraiding. I need a kick in the pants now and then. This is what I needed to hear. It works for me. My writing life will change because of it–I’m turning pro.

My only criticism is that the advice sometimes comes from a black-and-white, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps perspective that fails to consider systemic racism, ableism, and poverty, as well as the disparate treatment of people based on age, gender, or sexual orientation. For Pressfield, no excuses means no excuses. Again, this works for Pressfield, and it works for me. But I think we must recognize that it doesn’t work for everyone. We aren’t all on a level playing field. It is much harder for some to work toward or realize their dreams than it is for others. The solutions Pressfield offers may not work for every person at every point in their life. I recommend the book with that caveat, and I’m going to write about limiting belief theory for next week.

The Benefits of Typing

California Typewriter is a 2016 documentary about typewriters, named for a typewriter repair and servicing shop in Berkeley, California, that went out of business just before the pandemic. In the documentary, you’ll see people shopping for typewriters, servicing typewriters, and fixing typewriters. You’ll see Tom Hanks’ collection of typewriters. You’ll see John Mayer writing songs on his typewriter and Sam Shepard writing plays on his. By the time you finish watching, you’ll long for a typewriter to call your own.

I recommend watching the documentary–it’s a wonderful exploration of the mystique and whimsy of typewriters. With the loss of typewriters as a mainstream writing implement, we’ve lost other things as well. But I wanted to share with you two sets of clips from the documentary because they go to the benefits of typing versus keyboarding for a writer.

This clip in particular is valuable for writers–John Mayer discusses the ways typing has transformed his songwriting process, in part by preventing him from editing as he writes:

I also love this clip of Sam Shepard discussing his reasons for using a typewriter. An actor, playwright, poet, and short story writer, Shepard has been one of my favorite writers for close to forty years. I named my blog, “The Write Stuff,” in honor of the first movie I saw him in. In this clip, he talks about the way typing is more artistic than keyboarding–picture the splash of ink on the page. I love that he also validates an old writing saw we hear often, which is to stop writing while you’re hot and save something for the next day. From Shepard’s mouth, it becomes more gospel than cliché:

You can read more about the documentary at its website, californiatypewritermovie.com. The documentary is available for purchase, but it is also streaming on Peacock and, I’m sure, other streaming services. It has a 100% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes and an 83% audience score. You can also read about the closure of California Typewriter in Berkeleyside: Berkeley’s California Typewriter, star of documentary, closes shop.

5 Great Keyboard Getaways

So, I’m aware of the fact that I often seem to be advising writers not to write. But it only seems that way–all the things I encourage you to do as a writer will ultimately feed your writing, even if that means taking a break from writing so your subconscious brain can do its share of the work. Still writing.

Today, I want to share five ideas for writing that get you away from your computer screen and keyboard.

  1.  Take a walk. Or listen to music. Or paint a picture. Or take some nature photographs. I give this kind of advice so often, you probably already guessed it, so I may as well list it first and get it out of the way. I used to be such a hard taskmaster when it came to my own writing. I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of all the subconscious writing tools my brain has to offer. And my writing suffered for it. My subconscious brain is much more creative than I am. These days, when I’m stuck, I don’t try to force it. I set the writing aside and take a walk. I’ve had great mentors in my life who’ve taught me that taking a walk or engaging in other creative endeavors or doing a mindless activity like washing the dishes is writing. Our brains need time to work out those plot twists and mind-blowing story endings, without the stress and pressure that stifles creativity. When I am working too hard and not taking breaks, I notice it now. The writing isn’t as good, and it doesn’t come as easily.
  2. Write the Old-Fashioned Way. Grab a notebook and a pencil and outline your novel or scene or story on paper. Do it away from your computer and your desk–sit in the comfy chair in your reading nook, or better yet, sit outside in the sunshine. This is a great way to brainstorm too. Not sure how your story is going to end? Brainstorm many possible endings in a stream-of-consciousness way. You may be surprised with the brilliant ideas that come out of nowhere. Not sure what your character wants? Write a character sketch. If you dare, start writing your story or novel by hand. In a 2020 study, professor Audrey van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that “the brain … is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard.” She writes that: “The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.” (Why writing by hand makes kids smarter.) You might also consider printing out your keyboarded pages for reading or editing.
  3. Use Print Research Materials. Twyla Tharp suggests that artists have a box or some sort of container for each project they are working on. I love this idea and am just beginning to use it. This means that, instead of bookmarking all my research materials on the computer (although I’m doing that too), I’m printing some of the materials out so that I can read them in a more relaxed (and creatively productive) way, with a highlighter and a pen nearby. Then I toss them in the project box so they’re available when I need them. Depending on your research needs, consider visiting the library and checking out books to read for your research, instead of spending all that time on the internet which, for me, ultimately has me going down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with what I’m working on.
  4. Try Dictating Your Work. Consider writing your book (or parts of it) by dictating the words into a recording device. Our ideas begin in our minds, and like handwriting, speaking them out loud has its benefits, especially for writing dialogue. It activates different parts of the brain, stimulates spontaneous thought and ideas, and increases creativity. Try dictating hands-free while driving a long distance, gardening, or doing chores around the house, then listen back later and see what you’ve come up with. Another idea: read your printed pages aloud, or better yet, record yourself reading them and then listen back.
  5. Use a Typewriter. Like handwriting, typing offers benefits the computer keyboard doesn’t. Author Natalie Goldberg advises that “[W]riting is really a physical activity.” In Writing Down the Bones, she writes, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.” Many writers swear by the typewriter. John Mayer says it keeps him from editing himself when he’s writing a song. Sam Shepard says it’s more creatively satisfying, feeling the key hit the page and seeing the ink sink into the paper. I’ll go into more detail about typewriting next week.

5 Things I Learned About Writing from AC/DC

When I was 19, I was way into AC/DC. I wouldn’t date a guy who didn’t own Highway to Hell on vinyl or cassette. Not because I was a spoiled brat, although I suppose I was at 19. But because the album meant so much to me. If we didn’t connect on this most basic level, what was the point? I’m no longer 19, but I’m still an AC/DC fan, and I have been for more years than I care to count and through untold ups and downs.

I was thinking about this the other morning–what hooked me about this band and this album? What could I learn from that? And how could I harness the power of AC/DC’s effect on 19-year-old me in my writing?

I still own Highway to Hell on vinyl, so I listened again, and here’s what I came up with:

1. Simple does the trick. When I wanted to learn to play the bass guitar, my drummer friend Mark W. told me to start with an AC/DC song. “Their songs are so basic,” he said. American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine recently wrote: “AC/DC’s rock was minimalist–no matter how huge and bludgeoning their guitar chords were, there was a clear sense of space and restraint.” In a 2008 article for The Guardian (“Things really must be bad–AC/DC are No 1 again“), British rock critic Alexis Petridis wrote that AC/DC’s music is “wilfully basic,” a band to turn to “when the world appears on the brink of chaos.”

Listening again, Mark W. and the critics who recognize AC/DC’s intentional simplicity are right. And yet, the simple notes and chords and beats are strung together in ways that are sometimes thrilling, sometimes harsh, sometimes sexy, sometimes menacing, always charged with electricity. Always powerful. AC/DC’s songs aren’t complex or fancy, but they don’t need to be to move listeners. And writing doesn’t need to be complicated or sophisticated or grandiose to move readers.

Photo Credit: Jim Houghton

 

2. Readers are loyal. When AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott died in February of 1980, my friends and I were distraught. Our friend Cary H. rode his motorcycle in the pouring rain to Hartnell College in Salinas, California, to pull me and my best friend Kathy W. out of typing class. He wanted to break the bad news before we heard it somewhere else. We all gathered in a friend’s garage to jam all night and mourn together. We loved Bon Scott and knew no one could ever replace him, and AC/DC felt the same way.

AC/DC considered disbanding after Bon Scott’s death, but ultimately knew that’s not what Scott would have wanted. They chose a new lead singer who, Angus Young said, was not “just a perfect imitation of” Scott, but who had similar qualities and who was someone Scott had actually admired. Scott is the one who’d told them about Brian Johnson’s distinct voice, and Johnson was an Australian who embodied Scott’s spirit, as well as the band’s. They recorded Back in Black with their new vocalist, released it in the summer of 1980 with an all-black album cover, and dedicated it to Scott’s memory.

What can writers learn from this? If you’re honest with your readers, respect them, and give them what they are looking for, they will be loyal to you and will follow you wherever you go. For AC/DC, this meant fans mourned Scott, but embraced Back in Black and AC/DC’s new lead singer because they trusted AC/DC to be respectful of Scott, thoughtful about the way they moved forward, and considerate of the fans. For writers this means that, if your readers trust you, and if you respect that trust, you can try new things in your writing and lead your readers in new directions.

Photo Credit: Bridgeman Images

 

3. It’s all in the voice. The things AC/DC writes about–sex, rock and roll, flaunting convention, misbehaving, partying, being badass–aren’t all that unique. What made AC/DC special in 1979 was the band’s heavy rock guitar, courtesy of brothers Malcolm Young (rhythm) and Angus Young (lead); Bon Scott’s unique rasp and growl; Phil Rudd’s measured involvement of the kick and snare drums; Cliff Williams’ rhythmic downpicking on bass. What makes AC/DC special in 2022 is the same, except that Malcolm Young’s nephew Stevie Young has replaced him on rhythm guitar (RIP Malcolm) and the unique rasp and growl belong to Brian Johnson (RIP Bon). Scott’s and Johnson’s voices are different, but similar enough to capture the essence of what AC/DC is about.

A writer’s voice is what sets them apart, too. “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” (“Writer’s Voice: ‘Intolerance and Love in Jamaica,'” by Katherine Schulten for The New York Times.) It can take many, many years for a writer to find their voice. But with practice, it will come, and that is when the writing really takes off and becomes something special.

 

4. Writing is for the readers. Like I said, AC/DC’s song topics aren’t unique. Their songs embody the usual teenage anthems, but they encapsulate the kind of powerful calls to action that remain meaningful to us, through adulthood and beyond–no matter our ages, we remember how it felt not to be beholding to anyone or anything, and we yearn for that kind of freedom again. AC/DC gives listeners what they want.

Successful authors don’t write to the market. They remain true to themselves and their own voices. But if they want their stories to be read, they remember that they aren’t writing for themselves alone. They are writing for their readers. So they don’t write in a way that is cutesy or condescending or shuts readers out. They write in a way that lets readers in, makes readers a part of the action, allows readers to feel something. It’s that connection and partnership that build a bond between writer and reader.

Photo Credit: Josh Cheuse

 

5. It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). Actually, after AC/DC formed in 1973, it only took them three years to become one of the most popular bands in Australia, score a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and get worldwide distribution of their music. But they’re the exception rather than the rule, and that doesn’t mean those three years were easy. For a musician, “overnight” success is particularly grueling–it means nonstop touring, starting in their hometown and gradually expanding out to other venues. During those early years, AC/DC played live shows every night, giving their all even in seedy venues with few patrons. Next year marks the band’s 50-year anniversary, and they’ve toured hard for most of those 50 years.

Bon Scott, Angus Young, and Malcolm Young wrote “It’s a Long Way to the Top” in 1975, to commemorate those early years. Scott taught himself to play the bagpipes–he played them on the recording and live in about 30 performances. Out of respect for Scott, Brian Johnson doesn’t perform the song.

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll
It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

If you think it’s easy doing one night stands
Try playing in a rock-roll band

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

Most artists spend many years painting, sculpting, or writing in solitude and without acknowledgment, and enduring a great deal of hardship, before they reach a modicum of success. It takes a special kind of tenacity to become a successful artist, as well as an understanding of what success means to you. And it takes hard-rock stamina to maintain and to keep building on that success. The lesson to take from AC/DC, writers, is to give it your all, each and every day, to be consistent, and to keep working hard even when you feel discouraged. Keep the faith, and trust in the process–if you continue to put in the work, you will get there. It probably won’t happen overnight, but that will make it all the sweeter when it does.

This is the official video for AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” It’s one of my favorite AC/DC songs–the call and response between the bagpipes and guitar is amazing!

5 Reasons Not to Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests are fun. I love them, and I enter them often, although I’ve yet to make it past the “finalist” level. But I don’t care! During those weeks or months of waiting for the winners to be announced, it’s exciting thinking that one of the winning stories might be mine. I recently read an article encouraging writers to enter contests and listing all the reasons they should do so, with the premise that, “you have nothing to lose.” Yes, there are many reasons writers should be entering writing contests. But depending on the contest, writers may have something to lose.

I was sadly reminded of this recently. I’m a fiction editor for a literary journal, and I was working with an emerging author on a short story that I’d fallen in love with. They’d submitted it to our journal, we’d accepted it for publication, and I’d worked with the author on developmental edits. We’d just received copyedits back from the copyeditor and were going over a couple of final details prior to publication of the story. I was trying to help the author resolve an issue with the story’s title, and during my research that last morning, I came across the story published on a business’s website.

The author had entered a writing prompt contest offering a prize of $250. The author didn’t win, but what they didn’t realize or understand was that the business had published their story on its website anyway, under the terms and conditions of its contest, and so the story had already been published.

We had to decline the story, for several reasons:

    1. The journal I edit for only accepts submissions of “previously unpublished” work. This is the case for most journals.
    2. The journal takes “first publication rights,” which means the journal publishes the story and pays the author in return for the right to be the first to publish the story. Again, this is common. The author’s story had already been published online, so the journal had lost the chance to be the first to publish it.
    3. Even if we’d wanted to go ahead with publishing the story (which we strongly considered because it was a beautiful story by a talented writer), there was another problem. The business’s contest rules required that, if we were to publish the story, we had to (a) give the business credit for the writing prompt that had prompted the author’s story (the idea); (b) credit the business for being the first to publish the story; and (3) link to the business’s writing contest. These are things we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

I was devastated, but the author was even more devastated. This would have been their first short story publication in a literary journal, and their polished story would have appeared online and in print. They would have been paid for the publication of their work. The story needed work on things like structure, tense, and point of view, and we’d worked really hard together on those things and to make the story shine. Now, instead of being published in a quality literary journal, it’s out there on a business website with its early-draft flaws intact, and it will be forever, for all practical purposes.

Before you enter a writing contest, ask yourself these questions:

1. What will you get out of it? If you’re considering entering writing contests, think first about what you want to get out of entering a contest, and then make sure the writing contest you’re considering will give you that. For example, the author I mentioned would have won $250 had they won the business’s contest.  If your goal is a cash prize, then this contest might be for you, but there are a lot of other contests out there that offer a cash prize and don’t take first publication rights to your story even if you don’t win. If your goal is to begin publishing stories and building your reputation as a short story writer, this contest is probably not a good stepping stone toward that goal.

I enter short story contests often. I’m looking for recognition for some of the stories in my book-length manuscript, which may help me find an agent. So I enter contests that are considered noteworthy by agents, or that will result in publication in a respected journal, or that may earn me a meeting with an agent. I consider contests that may result in my book being published by a respected indie press–for my book, which is a more difficult pitch to agents, this may be a good result. But I would not enter a contest that would result in an exploitative book contract, and there are many of those out there.

2. What will the contest organizers get out of it? As I mentioned above, the business running the writing prompt contest likely has other motives for running its weekly contests besides supporting emerging writers. The business is a service company–it matches writers with editors, copyeditors, book cover designers, etc., and earns a fee for doing so. Their weekly writing contest appears to me to be a brilliant piece of marketing. They get about 250 entries every week, all short stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words, and they publish all of the entries on their website. This means 250 new pages of content on their website every week, which is incredible for their website’s search-engine optimization. And they’re pulling writers into these contests–writers who may buy their services. In fact, if they choose any runners-up in their weekly contest, the runners-up receive coupons toward these services.

The best contests for emerging writers to enter are generally those contests that are organized for the purpose of discovering emerging writers and supporting writers. Their prizes and contest rules will reflect this.

3. Is the contest entry fee fair? Whether an entry fee is fair depends on the contest’s motivation, the prizes it offers, and the writer’s motivation for entering. The writing prompt contest charges a $5 entry fee, for example. It appears they get about 250 entries every week, so after paying one winner $250, they’re making about $4,500 a month from this contest, getting free content for their website, gathering the email addresses of aspiring writers, and likely adding them to an email list and marketing their services to them. In return, they’ll publish each entrant’s story, whether or not it’s ready for publication, will award one story $250, and may award gift certificates toward services. Normally, I’d say a $5 entry fee is fair, but in this case, I’d say it’s not. Naïve, hopeful writers are essentially paying $5 to have their stories published.

Another contest I’m aware of charges a high $25 entry fee and runs multiple contests year-round. The contests are organized by a nonprofit organization, and the publication is a quality one and well-known, which made the entry fee feel acceptable to me. Since the organization is a nonprofit, I assumed the money was going toward contest administration fees, marketing, prizes, etc. But after doing some research, I learned that the organization’s board members are paid exorbitant annual salaries. Although the organization isn’t technically making money from the contests, its board members are.

Some higher entry fees make sense. Literary journals will always be struggling. Most of them are staffed by volunteers and charge reasonable or no submission fees. When journals do charge entry fees for contests, the money goes toward prizes and costs and helps them meet their annual budgets. But something to keep in mind is that higher entry fees also contribute to keeping out marginalized writers. Look for contests that offer waivers of fees for writers who can’t afford the entry fee or that allow more privileged writers to pay extra so that others can enter, too.

4. What’s in the fine print? Before you enter a contest, read the rules, terms, and conditions carefully, word by word, and make sure you understand them. The young author I worked with didn’t understand that their story would be published on the business website and didn’t know anything about publication rights or what future publishers would be required to do in order to republish their story.

In a writing group I belong to, I’ve heard more than one writer complain that, after winning a certain organization’s contest and having their story published, they realized that the terms and conditions of the contest allowed the publisher the exclusive right to publish their story anytime, anywhere, forever, and also gave the publisher the  right to option the story for film and reap most of the benefits of that, while giving the author no say and paying the author relatively little.

Know what you’re getting into.

5. Is your piece ready to publish? Writers want their work to be seen. We write for ourselves, but we write for our readers, too. It’s our way of connecting with other human beings. But our desire to have our work published can work against us–if we are too anxious and our work isn’t ready, then having it published can damage our reputations as writers early on in our careers. And in the modern era of internet technology, once something is published online, we have to assume it could be out there forever. So don’t enter a piece of writing in a contest that you may someday regret having published.

Fortunately, if your work isn’t ready, then your chances of winning a contest and having your story published in a quality literary journal are low. But your goal is to win, so make sure your story is polished, run it through spellcheck, and get notes from beta readers or a writing group. Don’t be in a rush–enter your very best work, so that whatever the results, you can be proud of your effort.

Good luck!