Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reading What You Want to Write

One of the best ways to put yourself in the right mind frame to create a certain type of writing is to read works in that same mold. For instance, if you plan to write formal poetry, read formal poetry. If you plan to write a novel in the voice of a female, first-person speaker, read books that have a similar narrator. The advantage is not just that you have a model to imitate. I believe it actually affects your brain to read certain types of literary works.

The so-called “Mozart Effect” was announced by researchers in a letter to Nature magazine in 1993, claiming to show that the IQs of test subjects spiked upwards after listening to ten minutes of Mozart. I believe from my own experience that listening to complex music such as classical or jazz can energize the creative sectors of the brain. I also feel that my own ability to write in a literary way increases when I read or listen to good books. There may well be biochemical changes that happen in our brains when we read or listen to certain kinds of writing.

I experienced the benefits of this myself when I was trying to translate George Sand’s novel Horace from French to English. 

George Sand
It took me about two years to translate this remarkable novel, written in the 1840s, and so far ahead of its time in its treatment of the rights of women and working people. During the two years I was working on that translation, I read almost exclusively novels by nineteenth century authors, mainly women. I was trying to get into my head an English voice that I felt would be an equivalent to George Sand’s narrative.

What an amazing education and privilege that was, to read Persuasion by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, (who took part of her pen name from Sand), The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and other books. Oddly enough, though, none of those writers reminded me of the wry, urbane George Sand. The English Romanticism of the Brontës or George Eliot is more earnest and less urban than Sand’s Horace. Austen is similar—she's also a comic writer, but her world of rural Regency England is so much more innocent than the Paris of George Sand during the Romantic era of the mid-nineteenth century. The book written in English that most sounded to me like the voice of the novel Horace was William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with its satiric look at London society.

It is possible to overdo reading what you want to write. When I was translating George Sand’s Horace, I became so immersed in Victorian diction that every sentence I wrote in English felt as though it was choking on a tightly knotted cravat. I had to back away and rewrite the translation in a more contemporary voice, and then merge the more modern version with the draft that was written in old-fashioned and formal diction. I was very much helped and guided in this process by my editor at Mercury House publishers, Tom Christensen, an accomplished author and translator, who is also a fellow editor at Catamaran Literary Reader.


But in general, I think reading what you want to write is a good rule of thumb. So unless you plan to write blogs, this is probably the place for both you and me to stop for now!

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, December 6, 2014

How to Get Started on Publishing Your Work: Themed Issues and Anthologies

I recently updated this post from a couple of years ago:

One good starting place for writers who are new to submitting their work for publication is to begin with theme issues of magazines and themed anthologies. Publishers announce they are looking for work for a themed issue or anthology by putting out a call for submissions. Calls for submissions often appear on several websites and in magazines. Probably the most useful listing right now for publications in the U.S.A. is the  New Pages site, since it is updated several times a week. Other sites are also very helpful, including Poets & Writers Magazine, which has a comprehensive list of publications looking for new work, and Poetry Flash. 


Joyce Jenkins, editor of Poetry Flash
I’ve recently bookmarked another site called writingcareer.com that focuses only on publishing opportunities that pay writers. It has sections devoted to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. 

There is also a site called Writer's Relief that has a page just on anthologies that are looking for work, although they are now charging for subscriptions to their service. I also visit a website that lists calls for submissions in the U.K. and in other countries outside the U.S., called The Poetry Kit. Another good site for international publications seeking work is 15 International Magazines Seeking English Submissions. I’ve also been consulting The Review Review, a website that also has some good calls for submissions.

Why begin your publishing career with themed issues of magazines and anthologies? For those publications, editors are keenly interested in work by writers from a particular group or region, or work written on a specific topic. They tend to be much less interested in whether you have published before, or whether you are a well-known author. The editor(s) of the magazine or anthology might also solicit work from well-published authors, but that’s all the better, since your writing, if accepted, might appear side-by-side with the writing of an author you admire.

When you submit work to a themed issue or anthology, be sure to read the guidelines extremely carefully. The editor’s phrasing will give you a sense of how loosely or strictly the publication is interpreting the theme.

As an illustration of how to make use of a call for submissions, here’s one (no longer current) from the website of Slipstream, an excellent poetry magazine: We are currently reading for another theme issue (#32) for which we will explore ‘Cars, Bars & Stars.’ A poem could include any combination of the subjects or only one. Creative interpretations are encouraged.” Clearly the editors are leaving the theme fairly loose, as they indicate by the phrase, “Creative interpretations are encouraged.” You have some leeway here.

Here’s an example of a stricter theme I saw a couple of years ago on the website of Poetry Flash: “Windfall, A Journal of Poetry of Place is accepting poems about places in the Pacific Northwest for its spring issue. Submit up to five short poems that should not exceed fifty lines each.” This is much more specific. You don’t have to actually live in the Pacific Northwest to submit, if I’m reading this correctly, but you do have to write about its landscape and/or geography. The length requirement is also very specific, and would rule out any poem longer than a page and a half. You have to pay careful attention to those details when you are submitting, otherwise you are wasting your time and the editor’s.


Some journals, such as Slipstream, often publish theme issues, and those are ones where you might want to check their website regularly, to see what their latest theme is. Another good example of this is Spillway magazine, edited by Susan Terris. You may not think of a work you’ve written as being about a specific theme, but if you look with the lens of that theme, you may discover a side to the work you never saw before.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer