I can relate. It took 68 queries before I got the “yes I’d like to publish your memoir.” And like David Berner, author of There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, I kept submitting. I persevered. I believed I’d find a home for my book—even though the subject matter is mental illness and suicide.
So, here’s my plea to all writers: David has given you great advice. Read it, believe it, and keep writing and submitting – always with the positive attitude that your “yes” will come in time.
Please welcome David as he tours his new book with WOW! Women On Writing.
The Best Way to Submit Your Creative Nonfiction to Small Publications
and Literary Journals
By David W. Berner
I received more than 30 rejections to the manuscript for my second book, Any Road Will Take You There. Thirty. Each one of them arrived as an email, one after the other in a steady beat for about two years.
“But these are good rejections. They like the story,” said my agent.
The editors did like the story, but many insisted it wasn’t the “right time” to publish a narrative about a 5000-mile road trip and the joys and sorrows of fatherhood.
“Then what do I need to do, add some vampires?” I jokingly asked.
No vampires appeared during the journey, so I wasn’t about to add them to the story just to get published. Books about vampires were selling like crazy at the time and if I wanted to be published, it might have behooved me to write to the marketplace.
The book was eventually published without a single vampire.
I tell this story because it illustrates the reality of modern-day publishing, at least book-length work. And it also focuses on how to approach getting published these days in any form—newspapers, literary journals, online journals.
There is a difference between being a writer and being someone whose primary goal is to be published. It’s when you can successfully merge the writing with the marketplace that you become an author.
This needs some explanation.
Ernest Hemingway is believed to have said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, sh*t detector.”
Hemingway used the word “writer” very carefully and for a very specific reason. He didn’t say “author,” he said “writer.” There’s a difference.
Whether you work in creative nonfiction, as a memoirist, or a writer of fiction, writing with authenticity is the key element. All the best writers have that “detector.” And if you set out focused solely on being “published” then I would suggest writing only on subjects and in the genres that the market is currently devouring. That might still be vampires or maybe medieval fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are very good at it and, yes, books on those subjects sell. But if you want to be a writer, then write what is in your heart. Be honest. Be real. And eventually, if you keep at it, you will be published. Your authenticity and the tenacity for your work are what count.
So where to start?
Start small. Think little publications. And don’t expect anything in return. You will likely not be paid and it may take a long time to get a response from an editor. Months sometimes. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing like seeing your story in print or online with your name below its title. That should be your only goal when you are starting the process of trying to get your work published for the first time.
One of the best places to search for publications that are actively looking for stories—fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, or poetry—is at Poets & Writers Magazine. The website—www.pw.org—has a database of hundreds of publications and you can search by genre. It is a wonderful tool.
But before you move forward on submitting, make sure you’re ready.
Be certain your work fits the parameters of the editors’ needs—the length, the subject matter, the style. Read the publications before submitting. Find out what they publish, what the editors look for. And be certain to submit exactly how they ask you to. Be aware of the font style they want, the word count, if they want you to use an online submission tool or snail-mail you an old-school hard copy. Sometimes editors are very picky about this process and if you don’t comply, your work can be tossed no matter how good it is.
And speaking of that: How good is it?
This is a subjective matter, certainly. But don’t submit work you are not convinced is wonderful material, the very best it can be. Let others read it before you submit. Re-draft and then re-draft again. No grammar mistakes; no typos. Be 100% proud of it.
And then keep submitting. Make a schedule. Each Friday, I will submit my work to three publications. Be religious about it. And if one story gets a lot of rejections, maybe consider another re-draft and then submit it again.
Lastly, in regard to making sure you are ready. Submitting work is not a pretty process. You are going to be rejected. Guaranteed. Don’t take it personally. Consider it a badge of honor. Embrace it. But don’t allow rejection to temper the process. There are hundreds of stories of published authors who worked for years trying to get work in the right hands, and when they finally did, the gates opened and editors of all kinds wanted to see their work.
There were many times when those 30 rejections were coming in that I wanted to quit; stop the bleeding, if you will. But I knew I had a good story, I knew I had re-drafted it well, and I was confident there were readers who would find it compelling, meaningful, and worthy. I was positive there would be a day I would have an editor finally say “yes.”
Keep writing. Keep submitting. Your “yes” is coming.
Thanks so much, David. I know you’ve encouraged my readers/writers to keep their seats in their chairs and their fingers moving on their keyboards. Your success is a great inspiration to us all.
A book of essays by award-winning author and journalist David W. Berner is the next best thing to storytelling around a bonfire. In There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, Berner shares stories of “a life in pets”—from a collie that herds Berner home when the author goes “streaking” through the neighborhood as a two-year-old, to a father crying in front of his son for the only time in his life while burying the family dog on the Fourth of July. And from the ant farm that seems like a great learning experience (until the ants learn how to escape), to the hamster that sets out on its own road trip (but only gets as far as the dashboard). Along the way, Berner shows that pets not only connect us with the animal world, but also with each other and with ourselves. The result is a collection of essays that is insightful and humorous, entertaining and touching.
David W. Berner is a journalist, broadcaster, teacher, and author of two award-winning books: Accidental Lessons, which earned the Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature, and Any Road Will Take You There, which was a Grand Prize Finalist for the 2015 Hoffer Award for Books. Berner’s stories have been published in a number of literary magazines and journals, and his broadcast reporting and audio documentaries have aired on the CBS Radio Network and dozens of public radio stations across America. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
Excerpt (from the chapter called “The Intelligence of Dogs”):
When I was three years old, my mother turned her head for just a moment, and I slipped out the front door. I toddled my way down the steep street in front of our home. Naked. Absolutely bare-bottomed.
“Do you know where your son is?” This is how my mother remembered the neighbor’s phone call to our house. “He’s happy as ever; just out for a stroll. But he also looks like he’s on a mission. Oh, and now the dog’s there, too.”
Sally came sprinting from behind. When she caught up, she started to bark and then nudge her nose on my butt and belly.
“The dog is dancing around him like she wants to play or something,” the neighbor told my mother.
Sally kept barking, nudging. I kept walking. Then Sally started to run in a circle around me, as if she were herding sheep.
Mom hung up the phone and hurried out the door.
By this time I was all the way down the street, but I was no longer walking away from home. I was now walking back. Sally, with her persistent shepherding, had turned me around.
My mother was part of the way down the block when she stopped and instead of frantically chasing after me, she simply watched.
“I knew Sally was a good dog,” she said. “But I had never seen a dog do anything like that.” Mom grabbed my arm and gave me a slap on the butt—just enough to get my attention—and then crouched down, wrapped me in her arms, and pulled me in tight. Sally began to whimper and lick my face. My mother hugged her, looked Sally in the eyes, and softly said, “Thank you, girl.”
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