Monday, June 21, 2010


I went to get the mail today, and there in my mailbox was a SASE. It was sitting there, all by itself and for a moment I wanted to close the box and pretend I couldn’t see it. However, being the consummate writing professional (HA!) I am, I reached in without fear and grabbed the envelop. I knew what it contained, but felt a surge of hope anyway as I stood in the driveway and tore it open. Alas, writer friends, the hope was short-lived as I pulled out a two inch by two inch piece of paper that told me I had been rejected by yet another literary magazine. Sigh. I didn’t even rate a full sized sheet of paper. Good for the environment, bad for me.

If you’re a writer, this is a common occurrence for you. Rejection is part of the game. In fact, I didn’t really feel like a writer until I got my first rejection. (Since then, I’ve put that silly notion behind me and decided that rejection stinks.) Anyway, today I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective. I was reading through some of the stories submitted for EIR, and came across one I really wanted to like. I mean REALLY. It was a subject I think is important and underrepresented. The plot was interesting, yet simple. The writing was clean…and yet, I felt like it just wasn’t there yet. The characters weren’t fully developed and seemed distant, and for me, that’s a killer. Hopefully this story will find a home with another journal. Or the author will rework it and resubmit.

People say that editors are looking for a reason to reject you, and in a sense, that’s true. My inbox is overflowing, the faster I can get through it, the better. But I don’t start reading a story hoping I can reject it quickly. I’m rooting for every story I read to make it. To be The One. Last week I found a story like that, and I’m still thrilled. My guess is that most editors are like me. They want to find a story that grabs them and won’t let go. They’re disappointed when a story they’re rooting for falls short. I don’t think most of us read to reject. I think we read because like everyone else, we Love a good story.

Even the submissions I really don’t like, for whatever reason—subject matter, writing style, the author needs to work on the craft—even those stories get my respect because someone had the guts and the determination to sit down and commit those words to paper. I know how hard that is and I respect the process. So when I reject a story, it’s never a rejection of the author. In sending out their work, the author has already accomplished something most people never will—they’ve finished a story and had the strength to send it out there. That’s something to celebrate, not mourn.

Thinking about it this way helped me handle the rejection letter I found in my mailbox today. Most likely, my work just hasn’t found a home yet. Maybe it was the subject matter, maybe not. Whatever it was, like other writers, I’ll keep sending it out until I find that one editor who likes it. That’s all I need, just one person to like it. And that’s all you need too. Keep working. Keep sending your work out. And know that even when you get rejected, you’re already a step ahead of most people. Celebrate that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some great poets

Last time, I talked about the "death" of poetry. This time, I'd like to write about a few poets who prove that poetry is very much alive. The are some of my favorite poets because whether they are writing about a beloved pet, the death of a lover, the bond between parents and children, or capturing the beauty and diversity of the city, when these poets write, they capture and illuminate that universal connection we all share. Their writing is emotional and transcends boundaries, reaching to the heart of what it means to be human.

First of all, Mary Oliver. If you haven't read her work, then what are you doing here? For God's sake, get yourself to the bookstore and buy Thirst or Red Bird (two of her more recent works.) Oliver's language is simple, but her message is complex. Her joy in life is evident in everything she writes. Without a doubt, Oliver is one of the best poets writing today. I think Oliver captures what is best about being human. She is without a doubt, one of the finest poets working today.

Second, Li-Young Lee. I just finished his, Book of My Nights. Absolutely beautiful. Lee is the son of exiled Chinese parents. His poetry is simple and evocative. There is a silence and peace about Lee's work. You will find yourself thinking about his words long after you've closed his book.

Finally, Michael Henson. A few months ago, I had the privilege of hearing him read They All Asked About You, among other poems. Wow. If you have the chance to hear him read, you absolutely must go. He captivates his audience with his voice and his presence. His poetry is complex, yet approachable, and most of all moving.

Honestly, I could go on and on. There are so many wonderful poets working today. Go to the bookstore and browse the poetry shelves, but don't stop there. Several of today's best poets are the least known. Search them out, you won't be sorry.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Poetry is not dead

I'm happy to announce that Echo Ink Review will soon be accepting poetry! We're still working out the details, and once we figure out the logistics, we'll let everyone know. So start working on some poems and send them our way!

To celebrate, this week the blog is all about poetry. All of the posts will deal with poetry in some way. Now we've all heard that poetry is "dead" and that people are not interested in it anymore. Recently, I've spent a lot of time wondering why that is. Given our ever shortening attention span and our love of twitter and texting, one would think that poetry would be rising in popularity. After all, concise communication is a basic tenet of poetry. So what is about about poetry that scares people away?

About a week ago, I had to get some blood drawn, and the phlebotomist asked what kind of work I did. When I told him I was a writer he said something interesting. He told me he wrote poetry, but didn't read it. When I asked him why, he said it was because he didn't understand it. So here's someone with an obvious interest in poetry but isn't reading it because it's not accessible to him. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard a version of this comment. If this is true, then poetry suffers from a problem of perception. There's a market, but because people think they won't understand it, they won't read it.

So what do we do? Well, talking about it is a step. So much wonderful poetry is out right now. Tell your friends about poets you love. Tell them that poetry is not dead, that it's not just for the elite. Good poetry speaks to the part of us that is the most human. Those moments and emotions that transcend race, gender nationality and any other artificial barrier we construct. And it does all of that with as few words as possible.

Poetry has the power to unify, to inspire, to reach out to people and let them know they are not alone. It doesn't take a degree to understand this. It just takes opening your heart and your ears.

Let's start talking about poetry. Let's find those poets who speak to our souls and celebrate them. Tell our friends and neighbors about them. Who knows, we might just start a revolution.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


This post is coming one day ahead of schedule because tomorrow I leave for vacation! That’s right, all next week I’ll be lying on the beach, soaking up the rays, sipping frozen drinks with little umbrellas…or at least I would if I didn’t have four kids. Alas, the days of lounging by the pool are over for me. Instead, I’ll be breaking up fights and trying to convince my youngest son that he will not die if he gets his face wet. Think National Lampoon’s Family Vacation and you’ll get the idea. I’m going to try to post, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to.

First a programming note: As I am both an editor and a writer, I’m going to have posts from both perspectives. My plan is for the posts on Monday and Wednesday to deal with editing issues. Then on Friday, I’ll switch and talk about the writing process.

Now that that’s out of the way, today I want to talk about obsessions. Not the kind that get you thrown in jail for peeping through your neighbors windows, but the writing kind. In my poetry writing class last semester we had a great conversation about writing obsessions. You know, those subjects you keep returning to over and over again. Some of us had them (okay, it was pretty much just me) and some didn’t.

Even when I don’t set out to write about a certain theme, I find them cropping up in my stories anyway. Sometimes this is a good thing. I always have something to write about, and if writers are supposed to write what they know then having an obsession means you know your subject really well. But sometimes, I worry that my readers will become bored reading the same themes over and over again.

What about you? Do you find yourself circling back to the same subjects, and if so do you think it’s a good thing or something you want to break away from?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What I don't want to see

Last time I muddled around and vaguely answered the question "What are editors looking for." This post won't be so vague. After working on two different literary journals, there are some things I see over and over again. Things I'm honestly tired of seeing.

However, before I go on, keep in mind that this is just my opinion. Others might differ. As I said in my previous post, write what you're passionate about. If you're writing what you love, then it honestly doesn't matter what I think.

So here it is. A list of things I'm tired of seeing in short stories.

1) Stories about drug/alcohol abuse. Really, I don't know why people seem to think it's literary. It's not. It's overdone and it's boring.

2) Stories that are just a slice of life where nothing really happens. There's no character growth, no tension. It's just a snapshot of someone's life. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Stories need tension! It's what draws a reader in and keeps them reading. Short stories especially need tension. You might get away with a slice of life scene in a novel (although even there I'd argue you need a reason for it) but not in a short story. If it's not moving the story/characters forward, cut it.

3) Sex or violence for the sake of sex or violence. As with drugs/alcohol it's not literary. It's not shocking. It's overdone and boring.

4) Stories where a character dwells on the description of a grandparent's hands. I don't know why people keep writing about this, but they do.

5) Priests / ministers abusing (sexually or otherwise) children. I know it happens, and it's horrible when it does, but there are sooo many short stories about this topic that the plot is becoming predictable. Really, as soon as a priest / minister shows up in a story I know he's going to be the bad guy. You know what I'd like to see? A short story where a priest / minister is just human like the rest of us. He or she is neither all bad nor all good. That's something I haven't seen.

6) Stories that are too concerned with making a point (political, religious or otherwise) and forget about everything else. By all means write a political or religious story, but make sure you remember you're writing a STORY.

7) Finally, stories that are submitted before you've fully mastered the craft of writing. Please, do yourself a favor and learn the craft. Research proper manuscript format. Use it. Make sure you are always sending out your best work.

Now get back to writing!

Monday, June 7, 2010

What are editors looking for?

So many times as writers we wonder what editors want. If we could just find out what they want, then we would write that and presto! Published Author!

The truth is relatively simple. What we want is a good story. That’s it. I don’t care what genre it’s in. I don’t care which POV you use. I don’t care if the protagonist is male, female or some odd mix of the two. What I do care about is the story. Pull me into your world. Make me care about the characters. Make me feel something. Make me forget that I’m looking for reasons to reject the story. Make me forget that I’m wearing my editor’s hat while I’m reading it. Simple, right?

Of course it’s not simple. If it was, I’d be whipping out two or three novels a year and we’d all be published in the New Yorker. The truth is, writing a good story comes from loving the story you’re telling, and there’s no formula for that. Find a story you’re passionate about though, and I’ll bet it will come through in your writing. Write that story and an editor will love it.

Since this post was maddingly unspecific, next time I’ll tell you what I don’t want to see. And yes, I’ll be specific!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Importance of Research

As promised, today's post is on research. Really everything I have to say can be summed up in two words: Do It.

However, I suspect you're looking for a little more than that. So here goes. Why is research so important in fiction? I mean it's not like you're writing a dissertation on quantum physics. You're writing fiction. In fact, you might be writing fiction specifically to avoid research. Sorry to burst your bubble, but research matters, even in fiction. Heck, even in poetry. I recently wrote several poems that I had to do a lot of research for.

Research matters because it goes to your credibility as an author. You're asking people to invest a significant amount of time reading your story and if you can't spend the time to get your facts right, why should they spend their time on you? I am not saying that you need to have an intimate knowledge of the rainforest ecology or cardio-thorasic surgery or whatever you're writing about, but you do need to know enough to get the details right. Which means you're going to have to do some research.

You obvioulsy have access to the internet. Use it. If you can't find what you're looking for there, try your local library. Ask the research librarian for help. She/he would be happy to help. If you're writing about a specific profession, call or email someone in that field. People love to talk about themselves, and most are flattered to answer questions.

Then use the details you find out in your story. It will make your work more believable, it will show that you take writing seriously, and that you have enough respect for your readers to get it right.

Nothing (okay, almost nothing) makes me reject a manuscript faster than a writer who hasn't done their research. I can--and do--forgive minor errors. But if you are writing about gardening and you have daffodils blooming in November, or tropical plants growing outdoors in February in Michigan, well that's an automatic reject.

Don't tell me you're writing fiction and the reader should be willing to suspend her disbelief. If you're asking your readers to accept that daffodils bloom in November in your story, then you need to explain why. Perhaps the climate has shifted. Perhaps the story is set in another world. Either way, you need to know when daffodils normally bloom so that you can explain what's different about your world. If you don't get your facts right, mistakes like this will jar the reader out of your story.

Keep in mind that most editors for fiction journals have other jobs. You don't know what field someone is in. What if you're writing a story filled with incorrect legal details and you send it to an editor who is an attorney at her day job? You're just asking to be rejected.

Don't make things harder on yourself. Do the work. Respect your reader, and respect yourself enough to send out your best work.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shameless Self-Promotion

Obviously I'm past due for an update. Between school, the kids, and my own writing, things have been a little crazy, but never fear Dear Readers, I'm back!

First, a few updates on some of my recent publications. I know, I know, you've all been dying to read some new stories by Steph. So here's my shameless self promotion:

Short Fiction:

My story Modeling Life is in the current edition of Echo Ink Review. The journal is absolutely beautiful. Rush out and buy one, you won't be sorry.

Narrative Nonfiction:

My story Being Enough is in the current edition of The New Plains Review. Again, another gorgeous journal with some impressive work. This piece has a special place in my heart. Along with being my first published piece of nonfiction, it is about my Mom's death and my daughter Grace who is autistic. Although it might sound like some heavy stuff (and in some cases it is) I believe the ending is uplifting in a bittersweet way.


This spring I've been writing a lot of poetry. My first published poem, Lost, is in the Spring 2010 issue of Tipton Poetry Journal. The poem is also about my daughter Grace and autism. My poem To Mary Oliver will be in the Summer 2010 edition of the Tipton Poetry Journal.

I'll wait now while you search for your credit card and order your copies....(drumming my fingernails)....(singing to myself -- The Rainbow Connection if you're wondering)....

Ahh, you're back. Now Dear Readers, I'd like to make an programming announcement. While you were purchasing your copy of Echo Ink Review, you might have noticed my name is not just on the front cover of the journal, it's also on the Masthead. No, I did not publish my own story. Founding Editor, Don Balch, scooped up Modeling Life. The story won the journal's Writing and Editing Award, which carried a six month stint reading manuscripts for Echo Ink. After my six months was up, Don generously offered me the position of Managing Editor, which I happily accepted.

So what does all of this have to do with you? Two things. First, I will be blogging again on a more regular basis. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will have a new post. (Maybe more if I can wrestle the computer from my 13 yr old.) Second, as I cull through the incoming manuscripts, I will share some editing tips. Basically, I'll let you know common mistakes I'm seeing, what I'm looking for, what I'm seeing too much of, and anything else I think will help.

This is Very Valuable Stuff. Use it carefully. Use it wisely. But most of all, just use it. Knowing what an editor is looking for will help in your own quest for publication.

Friday's post is going to be about research.

Happy Writing!