One Year as EIC: What I’ve Learned.

imageThird Point Press, having now completed its first year of existence, has given me quite a bit to learn from. I guess I had an idea before starting out what the experience was going to be like, having held the position of eic at a college lit mag and then, later, as fiction editor of MARATHON–but honestly that wasn’t quite the case. Starting something up from scratch and having the team we have now (and getting the submissions we get), led to a whole new sort of experience, and one that I wanted to share simply because I don’t often see new pubs taking the time to do so.

So here goes: what I’ve learned in the last year or so.

Submitting shouldn’t be scary. I think writers naturally come to this conclusion on their own, but it became very clear after only a few months of getting submissions for Third Point: there simply isn’t a reason to be scared to submit work: whether or not we accept it is often (like, 97% of the time) a matter of our own personal tastes, what works in the issue, and what we’ve accepted already.

Getting a rejection is rarely based solely off of wether we think you’re good or not–because that’s a given. You should know you’re good. We believe you’re submitting to us because you know you’re good. We judge off of the criteria I listed above, and how interesting your work is/what it’s saying/how it makes us feel.

We don’t really care about your pedigree.

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When Someone Quits Your Writing Group

sailing awayEarlier this week, one of the members of my writing group decided that it wasn’t worth the time or effort anymore (actually, I have no idea what drew them to the conclusion, just that they did indeed decide to not be a member of the writing group anymore). In the cold-hearted sense, the writing group should survive–we have 3 people in total now, and I think that’s a feasible number to get good feedback on work and to keep the drive up to produce–granted, we brought on the 4th (now our 3rd) because I felt, at least, that we should have some more voices–but at least now we have a ready replacement.

In the non cold-hearted sense, though, it’s a very weird feeling to lose someone from something that is so tight knit and important to me. It’s not as though we’re not going to talk to the guy anymore, of course–we’ll still share the near-constant email chains we’ve always shared and the occasional physical, drinking check-ins, but all the same: my writing group has lost a founding member, and It’s making me more upset than I thought it would.

I had a feeling, of course, that it was coming. Participation was low and there was seemingly no time to do so even if it was desired. Still, I was hoping that the MIA nature of their involvement was just a momentary thing–something that they’d see as a phase and then come back to contribute as strongly as they did in the past. I guess I was wrong.

After it happened, I wondered why someone would leave, and I think it can come down to any number of things when we’re talking about a writing group:

  1. No time to be part of a group
  2. A lack of writing
  3. The group doesn’t satisfy needs
  4. The group isn’t supportive/critical
  5. Personal life circumstances

Or anything else, really. But out of all of those, 3 and 4 are the most concerning. Concerning because it implies, more or less, that your writing group has something wrong with it, something that can drive people away, and that’s kind of catastrophic if you think about it. I suppose that we’ll be bringing new people into the group eventually–if not to bring us back up to a healthy 4 people, at least because we’ll come across someone who we simply think would be a good fit. But what if they hang out for only a few weeks and then decide that they, too, aren’t really feeling supported nor getting what they need from the group? How do you change the dynamic of something like that?

I’m not saying that this was the problem, of course. I haven’t yet reached out to the person leaving the group to ask specifically why they left (I was told via a phone call from another member of the group, and then told in the presence of the person leaving who didn’t say it aloud even after it was brought up). Because of that I’ve been trying to imagine why I’d leave a group–and how the hell I’d keep writing if not for the demand of the group to produce.

For me, I guess, I need the push to write. I need to know that my writing is going to be seen by people who I’ve asked to specifically look at it critically and make suggestions or corrections. Without that, I have no drive. I have no interest in writing at all. I guess I need to have that ego boost that comes with people you respect telling you you’re doing good work. Go figure.

There’s also the chance that they’ll come back, of course. That they just need the break. But there is something so concerning about the loss itself, whether or not they ever decide to come back or even start up a writing group of their own.

I realize this is a rambling post–and I appreciate if you followed along. I’m just trying to figure out this new sort of situation.

Revolver, James Franco, and The Illusion of Chance

If It’s a Matter of Quality Over Name, How Does Franco Keep Striking Gold?

I’ll be the first to admit (both as a matter of honesty and because I don’t think I’m alone in this) that I’m not a fan of James Franco’s work. My dislike is nowhere close to my wife’s, who when she hears Franco mentioned, is visibly angered–but it’s still there. I find him to be cheap and privileged, and as someone who wants it to be hard to really make it as a writer, his rabid success is tiring to say the least.

But I believe this dislike stems from a misunderstanding I have about how he makes it into a publication comparatively to how I make it in.

In my case, it’s a matter of writing a story, revising it, sending it out to my writing group, rewriting it, and then sending it out (where it will, more than likely, come back to me with few notes on what was wrong with it). Repeat this process a handful of times and perhaps it’s picked up by a publisher. This is the standard, I’ve found, and something that all writers talk about and commiserate over and blame drinking on.

Real talk: I  received a rejection while writing this post. 

It’s part of the experience–the rejection and self-doubt and everything else that comes along with it.

But it seems that Franco, with work which at best sophomoric, doesn’t necessarily deal with that experience. It seems as though he has a preternatural ability to send his work to places that are willing to pick it up and run with it (American Poetry Review, Revolver, Graywolf–even Columbia’s MFA program).

I recognize that I’m not seeing the rejections Franco is receiving, of course. If he is indeed going through the process like we all do, he is surely getting back a fair amount of rejections (and I for one would love to sneak a look into his Submittable account), but again this doesn’t necessarily signify.

Assumed Promises

We believe as writers that any one of us has a chance, or at least the hope of a chance. We’re told about blind reading and quality of work over our names, but is that even really the case. With Revolver publishing the most recent poems by Franco, it almost seems like they couldn’t possibly have chosen them without knowing who they were coming from. The poetry is sticky with effort and try so hard to draw themselves together to a larger truth–the case can be made that they aren’t horrible, but they certainly seem to be weak when compared to other work featured on the site. So the question becomes: how do these poems get through when compared to the wide world of poets submitting work? How does Revolver or Greywolf or anyone take the poetry of a relative newcomer–and one who isn’t really shaking the world with what they are producing?

It is possible that the process is different if you have the kind of name recognition Franco does. It could be (though unless someone comes out and says it, we won’t know for sure) that Franco might start in the slush pile, but as a reader pulls him out he’s sent directly to the editors. Is that wrong to do, when including such a big name assures views and commentary? Is it just a childish assumption that all people are playing by the same rules when it comes to getting work published?

Same Field, Different Game

Perhaps not, but it’s certainly hard to believe that Franco is playing by the same rules. Comparatively to other poets and writers playing the game, Franco could buy and sell many publications if he willed it. So maybe he’s not exactly using his full weight to get work out and into the world–but I doubt that his name has no affect on whether he gets an acceptance or rejection.

Does this mean we should feel even more outrage or disbelief at Franco’s unbelievable luck? No, I don’t think so. I see it as a strange offshoot of vanity publishing. His work (which, again, I find deplorable) is published because the places he sends it to know publishing it is good for getting eyes on their pages, perhaps, not necessarily because there is much merit in it.

So as Franco continues to get pieces accepted and, presumably, wins a Nobel Prize in literature sometime soon, you and I can take heart knowing that he’s not playing the same game we are. His is one where he (or publishers) put his name first, whereas the greater majority of us are putting our work first, our names coming along for the ride.

The Serenity Prayer and writing: Let’s just go there.

serenityI think there are plenty of parallels between alcoholism and writing (really, any ism and writing). Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think when a writer is really being a writer, they are generally ignorant of other people, they are self-centered, and they are obsessed with the drunkenness of getting those words on the page/screen.

It’s easy to become addicted to certain steps of writing–not that I want to say the two are equal in regards to danger or risk, but being a writer does come with a certain amount of abandonment of a normal life. You spend hours (hours each day, hopefully/sadly) working on something that is only meaningful to you, and generally draws you away from the other aspects of a healthy life; including but not limited to family interaction, bathing, or seeing the sun.

And it’s here that I bring in the Serenity Prayer, which I learned through my father due to the exact reason you’re thinking. It goes (for those who aren’t initiated):

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

While this has been useful for many recovering addicts, I’d like to filch it for application to the writing life.

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change

I get rejections all the time. I have stories that are waiting to be rejected (there’s that positive attitude!), and have been waiting for months and months. I have stories that are out which are published but I wish weren’t. I have days where I don’t write because I’m lazy or busy or simply not in the right frame of mind to work.

Likewise, I have days where I write for hours and come away with nothing but a cramped hand and wasted ink.

These are the things that I cannot change. They come with the business of writing, and should be accepted as such. Waiting for acceptances or rejections is part of the landscape. Wasting your own writing time is just another element of the larger picture. These are the little things that they tell you in an MFA or “how to write” book, but you really don’t grasp it until you’ve been spending unbelievable amounts of time refreshing your Submittable page hoping that one of your in-process entries will disappear and you’ll switch to refreshing your email over and over (I never look at the alternate options in Submittable: only “in process” or “received.” I like to thrill myself).

In the same way, I’ve spent so much time worrying about the stories that I have published–how they are received and how they impact the perception others have of my ability and work. I’m positive I have stories out that do nothing to help people along in thinking me worth their time, and there is relatively little I can do about it. After all, it’s work that at one point defined me in one way or another. I need to accept that I cannot change it.

The courage to change the things I can

All of that being said, ours is a flexible life. Last week I found myself hung up on a story–rewriting the same scene over and over almost every day. This week, I presented the story to myself in another way, and now I feel like I’m on track with it.

Likewise, I’ve mastered the ability to talk to editors when I have a question or concern. I have the courage to challenge those gatekeepers that, in years past, seemed much to important to bother.

Actually I thank Twitter for this, primarily.

Writers sometimes fall into the trap of thinking there are only a few ways to be a writer. You must work on a typewriter or you must use storyboards or you must feel guilty or overpowered or brilliant or whatever. Hokum. You must do what makes you stronger and productive as writer, nothing else. This is why I bought the MFA vs. NYC book but don’t care about what the arguments are, necessarily, between the two sides. You should do what makes you stronger as a writer, and that’s very rarely what makes someone else stronger as a writer. Everyone’s a unique little rainbow snowflake.

And the wisdom to know the difference

This is the most challenging part. Oftentimes I want to have complete control (I think all creatives do, to some extent), when honestly we have very little near the end of the process. You have complete control, more than likely, during the creating part, but that slips away more and more as you send out your work/have it accepted/edited/published/trashed by critics.

Even less control if you’re simply rejected. No matter of blood pressure raising and wishing will make an editor change their mind.

So understanding this: that there are moments you can control (setting a schedule for writing that you stick to, making sure to actually revise, challenging yourself) and moments you can’t (editor’s decisions, critic’s opinions, your own constantly nagging self-doubt) helps keep you a bit more grounded. It’s impossible to feel like you’ve done everything you can, but it is possible to understand that you’ve done all you can for now. 

Next time you find yourself sweating over a submission that is taking longer than you expected to hear back about or find a typo in a story that was published last year online or get a story you’re really proud of soundly rejected by everywhere you send it, say the Serenity prayer to yourself and try to work out whether it’s something you can’t change, something you need courage to change, and whether you’re able to tell the difference.

To Rejection and What Comes After

train derailed

First, and let’s be very open on this: I’m very happy to see that Press 53 has chosen the shortlist for their 2014 Short Fiction award. They publish amazing stuff and I love reading their authors, so there’s nothing but good, wholesome feelings towards them in this post.

But, unlike past years, this is the first year I myself entered a manuscript for their consideration. And as one would expect when submitting such a thing to such a great publisher, I wasn’t one of the ones they chose to shortlist.

And it’s great. Rejection is great. I’ve got disappointment coursing through my brain right now, sure, but also pride in actually taking the risk and joy in knowing that I didn’t let my fear of rejection dictate what I would or wouldn’t do.

Point in fact, this is my biggest rejection to date, and I’m thankful for that experience, too. I’m happy that I now have this under my belt, as it were, and that I can move forward without the looming fear of getting my first manuscript turned down. It’s empowering.

So what comes after such a big rejection (to be super melodramatic about it, what comes after an esteemed editor says “we don’t like your entire writing collection“)? Well, I think first and foremost is a self-congratulation, which I’m doing in this post. Next, ice-cream or some other kind of stress-eater sort of pleasure just to make myself feel better. I’m not immune to the pang of rejection, after all.

After that? I suppose looking at my collection as it stands and making some decisions about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been writing between submitting the collection and now, thank God, so I should have some stories that are stronger than some of the ones currently included. I get the chance to make my collection stronger and more battle-ready. I can shape it a bit more, too, I think.

Now comes the long war. The first battle is over, my pretty MFA uniform is dirtied up a bit, and I’m not nearly as green as I was before this process started (yes, I know one manuscript rejection doesn’t make me a veteran, but it is a sort of right-of-passage, isn’t it?). Now I know I can at least go through the process of submitting a whole collection, and that’s a new tool in my writer’s toolkit, is it not?

I’ve got the same collection out with another small press now, too, but shouldn’t hear back (one way or another) on that until April, if memory serves. I expect that will come back with a “no thank you” as well, but that’s because I’m a realist/pessimist. However, I’m looking forward to the outcome of that one as well. If an acceptance, then I’ll learn about the process of heavy editing and having a collection to push to all my friends and relations. If a rejection, my writer’s skin gets thicker, my battle scars deeper, and my willingness to take chances grows. The fear of submission diminishes, and I get to eat another pint of Neapolitan ice cream.