By Pauline Paranikas, Daniel Boyko, Danielle Sherman, and Lara Katz
We recently received the following questions from a writer:
What determines whether or not you accept a piece? (Craft/content/style/perspective?)
Any advice for young writers who are submitting their work?
How many rejections have you faced, and how you dealt with rejection?
What book of poetry/craft would you recommend that young writers read?
Here to weigh in are four Polyphony Lit Executive Editors and Genre Managing Editors!
What distinguishes a piece for me is the sincerity of the writing. Sometimes, when reading a piece, I feel as though the author is putting on a facade or trying to sound too official. While that can be helpful at times, I appreciate pieces that make me feel as though the author is writing without artifice. No matter the style, I find a decent piece where sincerity bleeds through the writing is always better than a highly polished piece that feels artificial.
This kind of ties into my answer to the first question, but be yourself! If you’re a funny person, submit a humorous piece. If you’re going through a rough time and want to write about it, submit your work, no matter how it reflects your feelings. If you want to try a completely different style than what you’re used to, go for it. A genuine attempt is always appreciated at Polyphony.
I’m not going to be very helpful for this question as I don’t submit my writing to magazines or anything. I’m not someone who writes much, and when I do, it is often something private that I don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing.
I think any Ray Bradbury short story can be really helpful in illustrating how to write a powerful work of fiction using relatively conversational and simple language. My personal favorite collection is The Illustrated Man, if that’s helpful.
Similar to Pauline, I also agree that possessing sincerity in writing is important, and a key component of this is the voice of a piece. This is slightly difficult to accurately depict in words, but when a writer is able to use diction and a perspective specific to them, I always feel that it invites me, as a reader, to want to continue reading; it almost feels as if the writer is sharing a personal part of themselves, and there’s something very powerful and compelling about that.
My biggest advice is to always try to read the pieces published in a literary magazine or journal before submitting to get a feel for what they publish and/or are looking for. Especially at Polyphony Lit, we consistently publish a wide variety of styles, so don’t be hesitant to submit a piece that breaks genre barriers, is on the shorter side, or doesn’t adhere to tradition.
Personally, I’ve faced many, many rejections (probably enough to count on both sets of fingers and toes and still have some leftover), and truthfully, it can be tough at times. A first rejection is always devastating, as is the second and third, but for me, I’ve always handled it by trying to understand that it’s all part of the process. Nearly everyone has been rejected before, including many of your favorite authors, and it’s almost impossible to get accepted without ever receiving the dreaded rejection email. My biggest advice is to know that being rejected doesn’t diminish your work or your talent as a writer, and that if you instead view rejection as walking one step closer to publication, it becomes that much easier to eagerly submit.
I think Richard Siken is an excellent poet who you may have never heard of before. He consistently shows a mastery over untraditional syntax and conveys significant messages and ideas with simplistic language and repetition. My personal favorite collection is Crush, and I highly recommend reading it if the only poetry you’ve ever been exposed to relies on rhyme (which is, of course, fantastic, but there’s also so much more to poetry than just that).
Like the others said, I think voice is a really important component of writing - not just the perspective of the author, but the unique way in which they use language to develop this perspective and their own writing style. I also tend to focus on the subject itself, especially in fiction; an interesting premise or sound narrative structure can even make up for awkward language if done well enough.
Rack up those rejections, and take pride in them! I’ve learned to appreciate getting those kinds of responses because, really, they’re just one more rejection out of the way until you finally get an acceptance somewhere. I’d encourage other writers to submit often, because submitting feels a little easier each new time, and to keep writing no matter the outcome, because moving past rejections gets easier with repetition too.
I’ve only just started submitting with regularity in the past few months and I have seen that, of course, rejections come hand-in-hand with submissions. I’ve gotten varying kinds of rejections, like the flat out “no”, the frustratingly ambiguous “we’d love to see another draft at another time”, and (the worst) no response at all. I’ve found that having a backup submission site in mind is helpful for dealing with rejections; once I go back and edit, I’ll send my writing to a second place so I don’t linger on a response.
Because most of the fiction we read is in novel form, I think reading short stories is really useful. I have to agree with Pauline that Bradbury is one of the best! I highly recommend Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, which I thoroughly enjoyed, or any other short story collection of his. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler taught me a lot about narrative structure, too. I’ve also learned from reading university magazines and other literary magazines—not just those geared toward high school students, but those made for adults. I think you obtain a wide range of skill and style that way, which you can use to track your own improvement.
I have two main criteria for determining whether or not I choose to accept a piece. I first look to see if the piece is cohesive, and cohesive around a topic/character/message that feels meaningful to me. The second thing I look for is whether or not the piece is original and memorable—i.e., I can still remember it five minutes later, five hours later, and, ideally, five days later. It shouldn’t blend together with other submissions; it instead stands out and brings something new to the table.
I would recommend submitting as much as possible. In order to submit as much as possible, it's necessary to write a lot, so that you have things to submit. This is just math, really: Increasing your output increases the likelihood that you'll write something publishable (not just statistically, but also because the more you write, the better you get at writing). And the more places you submit each individual piece of writing to, the higher your chances are of that piece being accepted.
I had to go check my spreadsheet to figure out this number. The answer? I have 82 rejection letters. This is not even counting submissions to publications that have not provided a response (even though, in some cases, they have had years to respond; for reference, I have submitted 155 pieces of writing to various publications). On the flipside, I have had 12 distinct pieces of writing published by various publications. As I said in answer to the previous question, numbers make a difference. So how to deal with rejection? Don't take it personally, and get used to it. From my perspective, the easiest way to not take it personally is to remember that you are not your writing, and that the publication is not, in fact, rejecting you, but instead rejecting some words that happened to have been written by you. But how to get used to it? Well, we're back to the math question. When I got that 82nd rejection just a few weeks ago, I didn't bat an eyelid, I just plonked it into my spreadsheet. The more rejections, the higher your chances of being accepted—and the smaller your reaction to the rejections.
This last question is so tough, because I haven't read too many books ostentatiously about craft. I'll go with the book of poetry instead. One of my favorite poetry collections is American Journal, which is a compilation of poetry by a diverse array of American poets, all selected by the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith. The diversity of the works in this collection make it a kind of literary education in and of itself.
Pauline Paranikas is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Editor-in-Chief of Voices.
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Managing Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Danielle Sherman is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Lara Katz is the Editor-in-Chief of Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.