We asked WOW! readers to turn in questions for me to answer about submitting your work, and the response was amazing! I’m not able to answer all of them, but several were similar in topic, so I chose the ones that are the most universal. This column addresses those fabulous questions, so we can all benefit from the knowledge and get our work published.
How to tell if feedback is real
How do you tell if feedback from friends, relatives, and others is real?
How do you tell fake, nicey, avoidance-of-upset, realness feedback from real, heartfelt, positive feedback? How do you tell hateful, burned-out, biased, negative feedback from good information?
~ Joanie C.
Getting people to understand the concept of constructive criticism can be hard. No one likes to get their feelings hurt, and no one, but sadists, likes to hurt others. So I guess you could go find some literary sadists to hang out with if you want more than pillow-y compliments. Aside from that, when you receive feedback, pay attention to the comments that open your eyes—the ones that aha! moment you, basically. In other words, focus on what feels helpful. “This is awesome” is awesome to hear, but it doesn’t quite help you out in terms of awesome-ing-up your writing.
Also, a hugely helpful thing you can do to incite more than “awesome” comments is to ask specific questions before you have someone read your piece. That way, they feel like they are replying to something you want to know and not shoving opinions in your face. Finally, when you ask for feedback, say upfront that you won’t take any criticism personally—that this is about writing and craft, not about who you are as a person. I think when you reassure readers of this, it helps them feel more at ease when wanting to provide more than praise.
Finally, one thing to remember is that you will never know if someone is being fully honest with you or not (which is also true for life in general). So if the comments are all praise and no help, then consider taking that person off of your list of readers (unless you’re having a super-bad day and need something to perk you up a bit).
Recommendations for a first-time author
My question is, as a seasoned literary socialite, do you recommend self-publishing as a first-time author or go “balls to the wall” in producing and sending out book proposals for your first baby?
Get them balls to the walls, woman! Go for it! You will never regret being rejected by a big-name publisher, but you will always regret self-publishing something that a big-name publisher would have published. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Start big, then climb down the ladder, one rung at a time, as needed.
How to make your submission stand out
What would be one of the top ten items to do to make your submission stand out from the rest to attract an editor’s interest?
Excellent question. First, know that what grabs an editor’s attention will be different for every editor. I mean, who knows—maybe there’s an editor out there who is in love with graphic, oozy-gooey, dead goats appearing in the very first sentence of every story (though I don’t know any editor who does, but that’s because I prefer to avoid crazy), but in general I think the most important thing is to have a damn fine first line. Get the editor’s attention right away. Then make sure that at least the first two pages are perfect and strong.
As an editor and submissions reader, I can tell you that if I find errors or confusing things within the first two pages, I usually stop reading. If I’m still engaged with and loving the submission after the first two pages, then any little errors I find thereafter don’t matter as much to me—I already know doing revisions will be worth it.
Writing humor can be tricky because you run the risk of offending someone. Chelsey, I see that you have successfully been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Do you have any hints for those of us who love to write humorous essays?
Humor writing is so interesting to me because there are times when what I think is funny, my best friend thinks is utterly not funny. And I’ve had plenty of moments in my life where I’ve been the only person not laughing at a sentence that’s cracking everyone else up. One thing to remember is that you never know what is going to make someone laugh. I worked at a bookstore once, and a customer was updating her account information because she had moved, changed her last name, and changed her phone number, too. I said, “Whoa! Lots of changes going on in your life there! How does your identity keep up with them!” I thought that was funny as hell.
She did not and found it so not funny that she talked to one of the owners about it. Whatever.
The point is that different things are going to offend different people in the same way that different people will laugh at different things. I think the key thing about writing humor is this: make yourself laugh. Have a fun time with it. Write what you think is funny and just totally cracks you up. I think the best humor writing that I’ve ever read is when I can tell the author had a blast writing the essay. And then, well, if someone finds it offensive and it never gets published, at least you had a riot of a time writing it.
Rejection, and when to give up
When should you stop querying and submitting? I have a manuscript that’s been rejected over 100 times by agents. Is that common?
Five thoughts for you:
- Gone with the Wind has thus far sold 30 million copies. Thankfully, Margaret Mitchell is quite tenacious as the novel was rejected 38 times before a publisher picked it up.
- A Wrinkle in Time: Madeleine L’Engle received 26 rejections, yet won the 1963 Newbery Medal.
- Dubliners: 22 rejections. Plus, for its first year, it only sold 379 copies, 120 of which James Joyce bought himself.
- Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Robert M. Prisig holds the Guinness Book of Records for the most rejections of a book: 121. Current status of book: best-seller.
- One publisher who rejected Little Women told Louisa May Alcott to “stick to teaching.” Fast forward 140 years, and the book is still selling millions.
And on a personal note, my first essay collection, BodyHome, was rejected 62 times. Admittedly, I did give up on it. I finally said, “Okay, that was a practice book,” and went on with my next project.
Two years later, an editor liked an essay I wrote for her publisher’s contest and asked if I had an entire book she could read because she really liked my writing. I gave her BodyHome because…why not? Six months later, BodyHome was published.
So, don’t ever give up on anything—I mean, you can totally put something to the side, but keep writing, keep going after it, and then perhaps return to that manuscript later on to revise it and see what it’s like. Basically, while you are waiting to hear back from publishers or wondering if your manuscript could really be a book, keep writing!
How to get an essay collection published
How do you get an essay collection published? Which publishers are looking for collections?
Instructions for getting an essay collection published (with helpful links):
- Write unique and amazing essays
- Paper the world with your essays by submitting everything everywhere
- Put all essays in one document and in a telling/brilliant order
- Call that thing a book
- Write a book proposal
- Research agents and publishers
- Paper the world with your book or proposal
Next column, we’ll explore how to decide if something that is hard to read—whether super personal, revealing of others, or a taboo story—is really something we want to publish.
Chelsey Clammer is the award-winning author of Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). A Pushcart Prize-nominated essayist, she has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, Hobart, The Rumpus, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She is the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.
Chelsey is also an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. She’s offering column readers a Submissions Consultation of up to 12 pages (4,500 words). Find out more.
Building a Community: An Interview with Becky Tuch, Founding Editor of The Review Review
What to Expect when Expecting to Work with an Editor
Them Fightin’ Words
Writing Contests: You Have Nothing to Lose
Breathe and Proceed: Poet Tammy Robacker on How to Submit the Hard Stuff
How to Hold Your Horses
Caring About cover Letters (because nothing says “please reject me” like a terrible first impression)
Find or Fling? Figuring Out Where to Submit
Rejection Acceptance: Interview with author/editor Jac Jemc
Hard-Working Writer Seeks Widely-Read Journal
What My Submissions Spreadsheet Teaches Me
Submit ’Til You Make It