Behind the Scenes
Q & A #7
If you have questions about writing or publishing or whatever, leave them in the comments or e-mail them to roxane at roxanegay dot com and we will find you some answers.
1. Do editors pay big attention to gaps with no activity, the way I’ve heard employers do with resumes? Like if you had 3 things published 4 years ago and now nothing and you’re wanting to get back into it.
Adam Robinson: I don’t. I doubt any editor would. When reading through lots of submissions, it’s true that “the only thing that matters is the work.” I only consider other stuff like bio details if the submission is good — and if I thought about something like a gap in publishing, it would probably just make the writer seem more interesting.
Janice Lee: I don’t really as well. I look at the work first, and the glance at the bio. Plus, the bio usually list publications but not dates, so that doesn’t even run through my mind.
Ben Mirov: I don’t think editors care whether or not you’ve published recently. If I were in said editor’s shoes, I would think something like, “Rad, this person doesn’t publish frequently and she chose my mag to send her work to.”
Lily Hoang: I don’t know for sure, but I doubt most editors would even notice. In my editorial experience, I tend to read cover letters and bios after the submission, so any lag wouldn’t matter. In my submission experience, I’ve never included when I published, just where I published (unless it’s something that needs a time-stamp, like the year an award was won or something).
2. i’ve been very tentatively scoping out MFA programs. beyond the ongoing discussion of whether they are good, evil, etc. etc., i have a logistical question about the application process. every program i’ve looked at requires letters of recommendation – usually three. i am three years out of undergrad [where i was a literature major who took a few creative writing workshops] and have maintained spotty contact with one of my professors. while awkward, i would feel comfortable sending her the work sample i plan to submit and ask her to write a recommendation, and i feel comfortable that she would oblige. however, beyond that, what is one to do when there is no one else who can recommend their work? asking because i fear the answer is: don’t apply. thanks for any insight you can help provide!
Adam Robinson: I think you should ask that professor and don’t bother sending her the work sample unless she asks. Then, for the other recommendations, think creatively. There must have been another professor that you thought was okay. That person will do it, don’t worry. They love that shit. And is there an editor who has published you that you can ask? Can you make a recommendation from your pastor seem convincing? What if you, like, crowdsourced a recommendation from your Facebook friends.
Janice Lee: I agree with Adam’s response, ask the professor and send her the work if she wants it. and for the others, yes think of others, like past employer, editor, another writer who is maybe more in the public face who would be willing to write one for you. I’ve myself written a recommendation for a friend before actually and she was accepted, though I’m sure it wasn’t my letter haha. from my experience, mfa programs look at the writing first as well, so if you can get past that first round the letters should only support you.
Catherine Lacey: Absolutely first thing: shed all guilt/awkwardness about asking for a letter of rec. Yes, you’re right that it is an awkward guilty strange thing, but it just does not matter. This is part of the “Being A Professor” package. They know what they need to say. They know how to play up your strengths. Even if they haven’t taught you in three, five, ten years– whatever. The young professors will feel cool and useful. The old ones are basically filling out a template. (Some awesome teachers may go above and beyond but most of them –despite how good a student you may have been– are phoning this shit in.) Go ahead and ask any teacher you wrote an essay for & don’t worry about it.
Secondly: The letter of recommendation is, in some ways, a sham. MFA programs almost all have inferiority complexes– they just do. They can’t help it. Some of them want you to take the goddamn GRE and get 5 letters of Recommendation and be able to juggle and pay your tuition in blood and plasma and submit The Next Great American Novel as your work sample. They do this because they need to look ‘tough.’ They need to be ‘hard to get into’ and whatever else. Mostly your letters of rec tell the MFA program that you are probably not an axe murderer and that you can probably show up to class (maybe, some of the time, a little, kinda.) Work on your work & don’t worry about who is writing your recs.
Last: Probably no one is going to tell you not to apply to graduate school. (Except your parents or someone who wants you to earn a lot of money eventually.)
Ben Mirov: I would try to hit up a writer you know, preferably someone with name recognition or at least a book or two. It’s better to stick your neck out and get a rec, or ask someone you know than not apply.
Lily Hoang: Ask your old professors. It’s part of the job. Don’t feel awkward about it. When you ask, just include, as an attachment, an updated CV and sample. Worst case scenario: you’ve given them too much information and they just won’t open the attachments. Best case scenario: they think you’re on top of your game and are very serious about grad school.
If you don’t have enough professors, try editors. Or, try people whose work you admire (preferably who are in the academy) and approach them. If they are already professors, they’re used to being asked for letters. Again, worst case scenario, they say no. I believe that there’s never any harm in asking. Sometimes, you’re rejected, but most of the time, people are both nice and generous, esp. if you’re sincere in your requests.
Roxane: Ask your professors. It’s their job, even if you’ve graduated. Ask editors you may have worked with. Ask writers you know who have, as Ben noted, some name recognition. I’ve had complete strangers I published once or not at all ask for recommendation letters. I’ve generally written them letters. Let there be no shame in your game. You’ll get some “no”s but most people will say yes and dash off something based on a template they have or ask you to write your own letter and sign their name to it, if they’re really busy.
3. How do you get started on submitting if you’ve never sent out work before?
Adam Robinson: Read a lot of journals.
Janice Lee: Read a lot of journals. (Echo Adam) And just do it. Try it, get rejected, learn from the process. Try it, get accepted, be happy.
Ben Mirov: I started submitting by obsessing about a few mags I liked online and in print. I found those publications through the bios of individual authors or by looking for authors I liked in random journals I picked up at book stores. Once I found a journal I liked I would send them work until they accepted something. I still submit work this way.
Lily Hoang: I agree with everyone else. Read a lot of journals. And then submit. Get rejected and submit again. Be sure you know the journal’s aesthetic.
4. A lot of writers seem to have blogs and websites and Twitter feeds even if they don’t have books or many publications. Is this sort of social networking now just standard for writers, even those of us who are just starting out?
Adam Robinson: It’s standard for writers who want to do it. It’s not important though.
Janice Lee: I think it’s just standard for people these days, writers and non-writers alike. I think it can be useful & important if you want it to be. But being widespread doesn’t make it mandatory.
Catherine Lacey: I think all writers have a love/hate relationship with the social networky blahblah that writers have fallen into, but I think it boils down to slowly increasing your perceived legitimacy and making your work easy to find. I started a blog in 2007 or 8 because a few of my friends had them. Then I submitted some fiction, then I posted a link to that fiction then I submitted more then people started asking for it then Blake or Justin asked me to start blogging for HTMLgiant then more people started asking for writing and that’s awesome. All of that happened (at least in part) because I was findable.
I don’t have to tell anyone who reads this blog that being a writer means no one gives a shit about what you’re doing most of the time. A professor of mine once used this as the reason going to an MFA is a good idea: “For two years you don’t feel like a schmuck.” You feel this way because you’re being held accountable and because on some level you feel legitimate (in a tiny internet bubble of legitimacy way.) This internet noddle soup writer network twitter blog boondoggle is something akin to a support group. You don’t have to join, but if you do you might meet some people who you like and like you.
Ben Mirov: I think of social networking as part of my life as a writer (it feels sorta dirty to write that, but it’s true). But people have plenty of success without it. My buddy B.C. Edwards just won the Hudson Award from Black Lawrence Press (they actually took his book of poems for the award and a book of stories he wrote as well) and he is not a hype beast at all.
Lily Hoang: I agree with everyone else (again). Not every writer social networks, but a lot of us do. I think this is more indicative of our generation than the fact that we write. We all want to be connected and instantly in-the-know. I haven’t updated my blog in (many) months and I use FB haphazardly.
I know a lot of writers who think that the number of writer-Facebook-friends they have will translate into publications or popularity at writing get-togethers like AWP. It doesn’t. Not really. Just do what you want to do. Use technology if you like it. If you don’t, don’t. It won’t make a huge difference either way, at least not IMHO.
5. I’m looking to start submitting my first novel to agents. What kinds of information should i include in my query letter? Do I list my publications? Do I mention that I work at a magazine? What does an agent want to know about me?
Adam Robinson: OMG just read Writer’s Market. And whatever you do, be brief.
Janice Lee: “OMG just read Writer’s Market. And whatever you do, be brief.” <– Agreed
Lily Hoang: I’m definitely the wrong person to ask. If all else fails, brevity is always good advice.
Roxane: Describe your book, concisely, in a way that would make someone actually want to read it. Don’t explain the “significance” or “meaning” or anything weird like that. You can include some biographical information. Most of it won’t matter unless the credits are big and fancy. Definitely only list the most significant stuff and not your entire resumé. Don’t be a robot, without personality. Be original without being all LOOK AT ME! I AM CLEVER! Gimmicks (99% of the time) won’t get you anywhere. Ask writers with agents if they will share their successful query letters so you can get a sense of what works.
6. An A without a Q.
I’ve been reading book manuscript submissions and it has surprised me how often writers will just throw a bunch of pieces into a file without anything else. If you’re going to submit a book, format it like a book. Think of it like a book. Most publishers will have submission guidelines but if they don’t or if those guidelines are vague, there are a few basic administrative details you can attend to that will help things along.
- Title the manuscript. Include that title in the manuscript.
- Contact information on the title page never hurts.
- Insert page numbers.
- Generate a Table of Contents.
- Include a list of acknowledgments where pieces, if applicable, have been previously published.
- Start a new story/essay/poem on a new page.