Interview: Finding Her Readers

Check out this interview I did with the UNLV News Center! I talk about rejection, Margaret Atwood, and writing (three of my favorite things! well, maybe not rejection).

For the full interview, click here.

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Picture Credit: (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

 

Manuela Bowles (also known by pen name Manuela Williams) has managed to accomplish in a few short years what many writers hope to achieve over the course of a lifetime—and all before she’ll receive her undergraduate degree in English this week. In addition to the 11 individual poems and stories various literary journals have scooped up for publication, independent press Birds Piled Loosely recently published a short collection (or chapbook) of Bowles’ poetry, Ghost in Girl Costume — placing her work alongside that of long-established poets with full-length collections under their belts. Bowles also serves as a guest reader for literary journal Carve Magazine, reviewing and recommending the work of her peers for publication.

Bowles is also a skilled academic writer and researcher. She won a 2015 UNLV University Libraries Lance and Elena Calvert Undergraduate Research Award as a junior for her paper “Margaret Atwood and the Implications of the Word ‘Love,’” in which she explored the portrayal of ideal romantic love in Western literature and Atwood’s rejection of that ideal in the author’s work.

— Alexandra Karosas

From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Build Urgency From the Beginning

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit it to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 2 of a multi-post series. For PART 1, click here.

Build Urgency From The Beginning

Lack of urgency is the number one reason why I turn down stories. The prose might be beautiful, but I can’t be sold on that alone. Your story needs to open with a bang and keep me hooked from sentence one.

If your story starts out with two characters discussing the weather, then I probably won’t read on (unless they’re talking about sharknados). Another pet peeve of mine: when a story starts off with a description of scenery. While this can sometimes work, it often doesn’t and leaves me yawning after the first couple of sentences. As a rule, start with some action, or an interesting scenario.

3D exploding bomb

No bomb required. Unless your story is actually about a bomb. Then I would highly suggest that you write about a bomb within the first two sentences. Image Credit: freepik.com

Two very important things you should cover within the first 1-2 pages:

  • Who is the main character, what do they want, and why should I care about them?
  • What are the stakes? In other words, what does the main character have to lose if they don’t get what they want?

If I don’t care about your character, or if I can’t get a sense of what’s at stake from the beginning, then I will not keep reading.

Once you build urgency, you have to maintain it throughout your entire story. How can you do this? Here are a couple ideas:

  • Keep raising the stakes. How much can your main character stand to lose?
  • Prevent your character from getting what they want.

For a more complete list, check out this post on the Terrible Minds blog. Chuck Wendig really knows what he’s talking about with this one.

I recently read an excellent story from Family of Fallen Leaves called “Thirteen Harbors.” It begins like this:

“I took a new wife for my husband. Maybe the strangest thing ever to happen at Yen Ha village, I chose my good friend to be the bride, a woman who had passed the age for marriage but for a long time had desired a child and wanted a husband.” — Suong Nguyet Minh, “Thirteen Harbors”

Talk about a bang, right? And from there, the story doesn’t let up in its urgency as main character Sao suffers from devastating miscarriage after miscarriage.

If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest you read the rest of it. Not only is “Thirteen Harbors” a haunting story about the effects of Agent Orange, but it is also expertly crafted, which is really beneficial for us writers.

So, how do you build urgency in your own work? Have you read any particularly well done short stories lately?

— Manuela Williams

 

From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Submit A Story That Stands Out

Let’s say you’re the editor of a literary magazine. You have ten submissions to review before lunch, a looming press deadline and, on top of everything else, a full time job. What kind of stories do you want to read? The ones with typos, poor formatting, and a nonexistent plot? Or the ones with a compelling beginning, memorable characters, and prose that shines?

Simply put, editors are busy people. From managing the business side of their magazines to reviewing submissions, they have a lot on their plates. As a writer, your job is to make the editor forget about everything but your story.

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 1 of a multi-post series.

Submit A Unique Story

Obvious, right? Maybe not so much.

I’ve read way too many “boy-meets-girl” stories. All had similar premises: guy meets mysterious girl, they have quirky conversations, they may or may not break up by the end of the story, etc. etc. etc. After a while, these stories get boring and predictable. The same goes for stories about breakups, cheating spouses, manic pixie dream girls, and the like.

Young woman sitting in a cafe with her laptop, Stressful for wor

When I have to read yet another breakup story. Image Credit: freepik.com

Sometimes, though, I stumble across a story that is truly unique.

What makes a story unique? That’s a harder question to answer.

We all have experiences that make us unique (if we didn’t, then we’d all be the same and that would be an awfully boring world to live in). Some of the best short stories I’ve read have dealt with situations that appear to be based off of deeply personal, life-changing events.

Check out this short story written by Carve Magazine contributor Eric Cipriani. It’s about a relationship, yes, but the relationship between father and son (and what happens when the child must become the parent). What makes this story unique? Perhaps it is the slightly humorous yet heartbreaking conversations between father and son. Perhaps it is the family dynamic within the story, which at times feels very familiar, yet also alien. What matters here is that each element combines to create an emotional, honest, and unique story.

Basing a story off a personal or life-changing experience doesn’t mean that you have to completely recreate an event from your life and write down every detail as you remember it. Instead, pick a specific emotion or moment and go from there. Did you work on a fishing boat during the summer of your senior year in high school? Set a story on that boat. Was your piano teacher a hoarder? Create a character based off of her. You’d be surprised at what kind of stories you can write based off of memories that are unique to you.

So, put a surprising twist on that classic breakup story you’re writing. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the person you were dating back in college wrote romance novels based off your relationship? Probably not the best idea but, hey, I would totally read that story.

— Manuela Williams

Finding Your Work A Home: Helpful Literary Websites

It’s Spring Break! That means I have more time to focus on my creative writing and put together a list of literary magazines I might want to send my work to.

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In addition to working on creative stuff, I will also be taking a road trip during my vacation.

Back in my earlier blogging days (like last year), I wrote a post talking about different websites writers can use when they are ready to start submitting their work. That particular post has long since vanished, however, I have recreated it here and included some new information.

Since there are hundreds of literary magazines out in the world, the process of finding a good home for your work can be tedious. Luckily, there are several websites that can make the search a lot easier.

It is important to note, while the websites listed below are extremely helpful, they should not be used in lieu of doing your own research.

What do I mean when I say “research?” As the writer, you are responsible for checking out a literary magazine’s website on your own. Websites can house a lot of information that might not be present in a database listing. This can include accurate submission deadlines and format specifications.

Another important thing you can learn from scouting out a magazine’s website is the type of work the editor/s tend to publish. If you notice that a magazine only publishes literary fiction, then don’t send them your mystery story. If a magazine states that they only publish flash fiction then, please, don’t send them a twenty page document.

List of Websites

Duotrope. A paid subscription. $5 a month grants you access to lots of advanced search functions. For example, there’s a search option that allows you to search only for lit mags that publish “feminist” fiction, or “creative non-fiction.” There’s also a function that allows you to search for lit mags that are print-only, or online-only. Duotrope tends to be a lot more accurate than some free options. A lot of the time, on other sites like “The Review Review,” a posting will say that a lit mag is accepting submissions, however, when you go to the website, you learn that submissions are actually closed for the year.

New Pages. This is one of my favorite free resources to use when searching for lit mags to submit to. There is a “Classified” section on the website that provides an extensive list of magazines that are currently accepting submissions. Although it can be time-consuming to find a magazine that is accepting the type of work you are submitting, it is definitely worth the time and effort, especially if you check back on a daily basis

Poets and Writers Database of Literary Magazines. A very large database which is also free to use. It lists hundreds of literary magazines for your browsing pleasure. This website is particularly useful if you want to get a feel for the types of magazines on the market. The search function is not as advanced as other sites.

Entropy Magazine’s “Where to Submit.” Entropy is a literary magazine that also publishes a bi-monthly “Where To Submit” blog post. The post provides an extensive list of presses, calls for chapbooks, journals, anthologies, as well as residencies, fellowships, conferences, and other writing opportunities. The best part of this list is its accuracy. For the most part, every listing is accepting submissions during the time period specified by the blog post. Additionally, the post specifies any reading fees involved with submitting to any given press, magazine, and/or contest.

What about you guys? Do have a specific website you like to use when searching for literary magazines? Let me know in the comments.

Happy Spring!

— Manuela Williams

 

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Creative Writing Workshop

Whether it’s through a weekly writer’s meetup at a local coffee shop, or a university-based MFA program, there is no doubt that workshopping your writing is one of the best ways to improve your craft (and make valuable connections with other writers).

But how can you make the most out of your creative writing workshops? As someone who has attended quite a few workshops, both at the university level and in more informal settings (hello, Starbucks!), I have come up with a couple tips on how to walk away from these sessions feeling inspired, empowered, and not like you want to gouge someone’s eyes out.

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My ideal workshop setting. Image Credit: FreePik

  1. Bring Your Listening Ears

Criticism (no matter how constructive) is not always fun, especially when it is directed at your “baby” (i.e. the short story you’ve spent months agonizing over). That being said, when you attend a creative writing workshop, the expectation is that you are there to receive constructive criticism of your work. This criticism is aimed at helping you polish your writing until it shines. When your story or poem shines, the chances of it being selected for publication go up (and who doesn’t want that?).

When your story is being workshopped, resist the urge to interrupt your reviewers and aggressively defend your work. They have taken the time to read your writing and are trying to help you improve. Listen carefully to their suggestions and see if you can incorporate them into your work. It is also helpful to take notes of what everyone says so you can look back on them later.

  1. Reciprocate

If someone is taking the time to review and comment on your work, then shouldn’t you be doing the same for them? Writing workshops are all about giving and taking. If they were just about taking, no one would really benefit from them. Before each workshop, make sure you have read and commented on the work your peers have submitted. Chances are, they have worked just as hard on their writing as you have and, because of that, deserve honest and helpful feedback.

Going the extra mile to thoughtfully review your fellow writers’ work will not only improve your own writing, it will also help forge better relationships. If you have a good relationship with your workshop buddies, then they will be more willing to review your work in the future. Plus, having a posse of good writerly friends is just plain fun.

  1. Follow Up/Follow Through

I personally love it when a writer takes workshop comments into consideration and follows through with editing their work. Besides, what’s the point of workshopping your story or poem if you don’t plan on doing something with it? It’s always nice to let the workshop know where you are with editing and/or submitting your work for publication. It’s even better if you can say something along the lines of, “With your comments in mind, I rewrote such-and-such section of my story/poem and the theme I was going for is much clearer now.”

I also think it’s nice to follow up with your fellow writers. Ask them how their projects are going. Ask them if your comments were helpful or if they would like clarification on anything you said during your last workshop. Engage. It feels good knowing that someone is interested in your work and progress as a writer. Pass those good feelings on!

Creating a strong network of fellow artists is an important step in your writing career. Don’t let poor workshop etiquette affect your growth.

Do you have any other workshop “survival” tips? Share them with me in the comments!

— Manuela Williams

Behind the Scenes: Volunteering for a Literary Magazine

I have been a member of Carve Magazine’s Guest Reading Committee for about a year now and I can’t say enough good things about it. Not only have I had the opportunity to work on the other side of the publication process (through reviewing submissions), I also read for annual contests (and even conducted my first author interview earlier this year!).

While I can’t speak for every literary magazine out there, I would still like to give my fellow writerly friends a sneak peek behind the scenes and encourage everyone to volunteer for a magazine at least once. It is a great way to familiarize yourself with the publishing world, connect with others, and hone your craft.

Why do literary magazines need volunteers? Depending on the size of the magazine, they can receive a high volume of submissions, which creates a large backlog of work. In order to keep up, editors will assign volunteer readers submissions from the slush pile. From there, the volunteer weeds through countless submissions in order to find pieces worthy of publication.

This is certainly not a glamorous job, but the process of reading through hundreds of submissions exposes you to all different kinds of writing. From the good and the bad (and the very bad), you will inevitably learn what works and what doesn’t work, as well as the ins and outs of the publishing world.

Some believe that all literary magazines house their headquarters in posh, New York offices. Although this would be amazing, most small presses do not receive a steady income. As a matter of fact, literary magazine staff members often have separate, full time jobs and conduct magazine business in their down time. This means that a lot of the work is done remotely and online (such as the review of submissions and correspondence).

Office desk with laptop computer, planner, mobile smartphone and coffee cup.

My swanky office (not). Image Credit: FreePik

What does this mean for you as the writer? It is not uncommon for months to pass before you get a response from a magazine regarding your work. This can be due to a magazine’s high volume of submissions, as well as the fact that each piece submitted must go through several rounds of careful reading before a decision can be made. It is important to understand that running a literary magazine is very much like running a business; editors are dedicated to publishing the best work they can get their hands on and must make sure that each piece fits their magazine’s aesthetic.

So, don’t panic if you don’t receive a response regarding your work right away. Magazines will typically provide a time frame for you in their submission guidelines. If you haven’t heard back within the specified time (and if the magazine is okay with queries regarding submitted work), feel free to reach out to the editor/s with a polite email.  

— Manuela Williams

Evolution of a Chapbook

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Image Credit: Birds Piled Loosely Press

Since I first started seriously writing poetry (and by seriously, I mean that I stopped rhyming “rain” with “pain” every other line), I wanted to publish a chapbook.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a chapbook is a shorter version of a full length book (for example, my chapbook is only 32 pages, compared to 100+ pages). Chapbooks can be cheaper than full length books and, according to the Writer’s Digest article I linked to above, inexpensive for publishers to produce (as most are sewn or stapled together rather than hard bound).

Before I began the submission process, I had hundreds of poems stashed away on my computer. Why didn’t I just throw all those together into a manuscript, send it to a press, and call it a day? Simply put, when putting together a chapbook manuscript, story still matters. How are the poems working together as a whole? Do they form some kind of story? Speak to a specific theme? All of these questions matter when putting together a good manuscript.

When I was confident that I had a strong manuscript, I turned to one of my favorite resources: Entropy Magazine’s “Where to Submit” bimonthly blog post. I absolutely love this website and it has helped me find small presses and journals for my poetry.

It was through Entropy Magazine that I found the 2017 Hard to Swallow Chapbook Contest from Birds Piled Loosely Press (BPL). And the rest, as they say, was history. My chapbook manuscript, Ghost in Girl Costume, was one of three winners and is now available for purchase.

I found working with BPL to be very rewarding. The editors were responsive and wanted me to be 100% happy with the final product. They worked closely with me on cover and interior design and were patient with all my “newbie” questions (hey, this is my first chapbook, cut me some slack).

One of the most rewarding aspects of the process was the “final workshop” of my manuscript. Through Google Hangouts, I met with BPL’s editors, who went through my manuscript page-by-page and suggested ways in which the manuscript could be further improved. That being said, they never forced me into any changes (creative freedom, woohoo!).

Finally, as I am a firm believer in giving back, I decided to donate any royalties I make through this chapbook to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a cause that I am extremely passionate about.

This certainly isn’t the end for me, though, and I hope to have some new material out in the world soon. Keep an eye out!

— Manuela Williams