Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Author: Nathaniel Tower (page 2 of 4)

Finding Redemption with Gary V. Powell (Contributor Interview Series #2)

Bartleby Snopes has been lucky enough to publish a few of Gary V. Powell’s short stories in the past. This fantastic and prolific writer has an excellent new short story collection titled Beyond Redemption. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Gary about his work. Here’s what he had to say.

BS: The title of a short story collection often draws from a particular story or reflects a particular theme. Tell us, why “Beyond Redemption”?

beyond redemptionGVP: A flash piece that appears in the collection by that title originally appeared at Prime Number Magazine. In the story, the narrator’s uncle, an evangelical preacher, endeavors to save the narrator’s family from sin. The irony is that the self-righteous uncle has no clue as to the family’s real troubles—the father’s a closet alcoholic, the mother’s seeing another man, and the teenage son is engaged in that sin of all sins, premarital sex with a neighbor girl. The further irony is that although the mother, father, and son attend the uncle’s tent revivals with apparent enthusiasm, they have no intention of repenting of their secretive lives and “sinful” ways. 

Like many of the characters in my stories and flash, these characters have found personal redemption in a place that is beyond the redemption offered by the preacher, yet their compromises and choices allow them to survive this difficult condition we call daily life. That, I suppose, is the final irony.

BS: You open the collection with a story about hunting and lawyers. I know you used to be a lawyer. From the story, I’m guessing you aren’t a big hunter. (But I’m not a hunter, so what do I know?) How does personal experience play into your stories in general?

GVP: Nearly all of my stories originate from memory—an event, a scrap of conversation, a character, or a place. Yet, none of my stories are what I would call autobiographical. I use personal experience as a launching pad, but nearly always move past the memory in order to satisfy the demands of the story, For example, the story you mention, “Miller’s Deer,” has its  origins in my experience as a young lawyer. For a couple of years, I worked in a firm where each year the senior named partner invited a select number of associates and clients to his north woods cabin for a raucous weekend of drinking and deer hunting. Much like in the story, one’s chances of “making partner” depended as much on garnering an invitation to that event as on one’s legal skills. But the need to create tension, action, and eventually resolution, or something like it, caused me to abandon my pedestrian personal experience in favor of a more dramatic and satisfying story line.

While real life, if thoughtfully observed, is a good starting point, it’s only that. What matters is creating an entertaining story by placing characters in challenging situations while using well-constructed sentences and engaging language. If, in the end, some truth about the human condition emerges, that’s an added benefit.

BS: The collection feels diverse, both thematically and in length. How important is the order of the stories? Can you walk us through the gary v powell beyond redemptionprocess of how you put this collection together?

GVP: When I set out to assemble Beyond Redemption, I quickly realized I had enough previously-published content for two full collections. I decided to assign my earlier content to this collection and more recent work to the other collection, which I’m shopping around and subbing to contests.

I think the first story in a collection should be one of the strongest, but it should also be accessible, and should tip off readers as to what’s to follow. My story, “Miller’s Deer,” which was runner-up for the 2008 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and was originally published in the Thomas Wolfe Review, met those requirements. It’s not only a pretty good story, but just as importantly (at least to me), it’s a story that most readers can relate to—bottom-line, it’s about a young person in an untenable work situation forced to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. Also, the story sets a tone for the balance of the collection—like “Miller’s Deer,”most of the  stories in the collection are realistic, gritty, and traditional with a beginning, middle, and end.

I interspersed flash pieces among the longer stories also with the reader in mind—the flash pieces represent a “breather” between the longer stories. And, while the stories as a whole are, as you say, thematically diverse, the pattern of long and short is consistent throughout.

As the reader progresses through the collection, the stories and flash become somewhat more demanding. For example my story “On Horicon Marsh,” takes two families on a day trip in a mini-van to an inhospitable place. There’s alot of dialogue going on at once. The story is not an easy read, but overall I think it’s one of my better stories. Hopefully, by the time readers reach this story, I will have earned their trust.

The story ends with a flash piece entitled “Dancers: 1969.” It’s an affirming piece, and over all, while many of these stories have dark aspects to them, I consider the collection to be affirming. I want the reader to finish reading the collection feeling good about the effort and wanting more.

BS: Were there any stories you wanted to include that just didn’t make the cut for one reason or another?

GVP: The greater challenge was choosing whether to assign stories to this collection or the other collection. Once, I decided to collect mostly earlier stories in Beyond Redemption and assign more recent stories in the other collection, things pretty much fell into place.

BS: In “Snow Day,” an adolescent boy has a thing for his friend’s mom. Did you ever have the hots for a friend’s mom? How did that play out for you?

GVP: Oh, boy, that’s a dangerous question. I did have it bad for one of my friend’s hot mom. But like the character in my story, I kept that little secret close to my heart. The thing is, I wasn’t the only one who thought Mrs._____ was hot. I mean, she was blonde and pretty and had a good figure—especially for a mom, right? All my buddies said that. Moreover, she was friendly to me, friendlier than she had to be. She no doubt screamed at her own kids when I wasn’t around, like all the other moms, but she was always asking how school was going, how sports were going, how things were going with my girlfriend, assuming I had one.

Maybe, because her husband was never around, I thought I had a chance. Maybe, because I wanted to take her friendliness for flirtation, I thought I had a chance. Maybe, because I was always horny at that age—that’s no secret is it—I let my fantasies run wild. The interesting thing is, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Like the mom in my story “Snow Day,” Mrs.______ probably was a little lonely. Like the mom in my story “Snow Day,” Mrs.________ might have been flirting, you know, just a little. Or, maybe I want to believe that, even after all these years.

BS: Your stories often end right at the point of tension or realization. What do you think makes a good ending?

GVP: Endings are really tough. More often than not, after I’ve written a story and think that I’ve ended well, the ending can be improved by lopping off a couple of sentences.

In general, I tend to subscribe to the David Mamet school of thought—arrive late and leave early. For writers, it’s hard to resist the temptation to explicate, to patter on, but stopping writing at the moment of realization or release of tension is important because encourages readers to think about what the story means. As writers, it’s our job to ask questions, not provide pat answers.

A few years ago, I attended a workshop run by Narrative Magazine editor, Tom Jenks. In workshop, Tom eviscerated a story I’d submitted, using my story as an example of how not to end well. In a nutshell, the story ended with my protagonist running out of options and basically throwing in the towel. Tom used the story to teach the class that the best endings are those that open up instead of wrap up. The best endings are those that suggest movement forward, however subtle, through action, or more powerfully, through images that readers can’t get out of their minds.

It didn’t feel very good to have my story butchered like a fresh carcass in workshop. I try to remember what that felt like with every story I write. I try to make the endings open up and I try to challenge my readers. That doesn’t mean making readers write the ending, but it does mean making readers think.

Who among us has read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and not marveled at the incredible imagery and language of the story’s ending. Who among has not been made to think about what it all means, the snow falling, falling. We may not achieve that level of success with our endings, but we should strive for it.

BS: You’ve had many stories published in lit mags. What do you see as the value in lit mags for an author today?

GVP:  I was advised early on that if I took myself seriously as a writer, I should read the “little magazines,” and try to publish in them. That was a long time ago, when those little magazines were exclusively published in print and mostly by graduate programs at a few universities, when all submissions were by snail mail with SASE, when editors threatened against simultaneous submissions with death or worse, and when it took six months to a year to receive an often hand-written rejection.

I subscribed to the Missouri Review, the Mississippi Review, and the Indiana Review, as well as The Atlantic and New Yorker. Then, as now, the work I found in these magazines was, for the most part, much more interesting than the work that made the best-seller lists. I cut my teeth on Ray Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Charles Baxter, and Ann Beatty, among others.

Following a hiatus in my fiction writing, a time during which I raised a family and ran a business, I started writing again and discovered a brave new world of lit mags online. Hundreds, if not thousands, of internet venues welcomed submissions and responded quickly, sometimes within hours. Simultaneous submissions were welcome, so long as….(we all know the drill).

One thing hadn’t changed—lit mags, whether in print or online, whether independent or affiliated with a university program, were not driven by a profit motive. This allowed them to offer beginning and emerging authors an opportunity to reach an audience appreciative of intelligent, experimental, and gutsy writing.

That was, is, and will continue to be the value of lit mags for authors.

BS: You’ve done very well in several major writing contests (Glover Prize, The Press 53 Prize, Glimmer Train Short-Short Contest, Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize). What’s your secret?

GVP: When I started writing again, about twelve years ago, I realized that I was at a disadvantage. First, I was old—over 50. Second, I lacked a MFA—seriously, who would take me seriously. Third, I lacked confidence in my writing—it had been twenty years since I’d published a short story. Finally, I lacked connections—I no longer knew anyone in the literary world. So, I decided the best way to overcome those disadvantages was to win a notable contest or two or three.

I submitted to, and continue to submit to, quite a few contests. I’ve had modest success, winning one contest, and placing in or being chosen in a finalist in several more. That success gave me confidence and provided me with some credits that took the place of an MFA in my bio. It also provided recognition, credibility, and connections. Who among us doesn’t want that?

I don’t have a secret formula, but I will say this. First, comply with guidelines—you’d be surprised at how many others don’t. Second, submit your best work, because only your best has a chance. Third, read what the final judge has written—if she writes mostly surrealistic stories in an urban setting, it’s unlikely she’ll select my realistic story set in the rural heartland as a winner. Fourth, consider who the contest is dedicated to. For example, I’m guessing that The Raymond Carver Fiction Prize is more likely to go to a writer whose work celebrates the virtues present in Ray’s work—clean prose and beaten-down characters—than it is to a writer whose work more closely resembles something Gabriel Garcia Marquez might write. Finally, check and re-check spelling and punctuation—we all know why.

BS: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. What’s next for Gary V. Powell?

While working as a lawyer and business owner, I learned to juggle a lot of different projects at the same time, so it should be no surprise that I have a lot on my plate. When I’m not wrangling my fourteen year-old son, I devote full-time to my writing.

I recently completed my second novel and am shopping it for representation I consider it a literary work with cross-over commercial potential. For anyone wondering, my second novel is not a sequel to my first novel, Lucky Bastard. The second novel is set in a different time and place with a whole new set of characters.

I’m also shopping and subbing the second short story collection that I mentioned earlier.

I’m currently serving as guest editor for MadHat Lit’s annual fiction contest, and that means reading a lot of submissions.

Also, I’ve got new work in progress. I’m taking a break from short stories and flash this year to work on a third novel as well as a novella. I’m about 2,000 words into each.

Finally, if anyone is interested, autographed copies of both Beyond Redemption and Lucky Bastard are available by order through my website at www.authorgaryvpowell.com.

Loving Life to a Pulp with CS DeWildt (Contributer Interview Series #1)

CS DeWildt, a frequent Bartleby Snopes contributor, is making all kinds of noise with his brilliant and powerful new book, Love You to a Pulp, out now from All Due Respect Books. We were lucky enough to get the chance to catch up with CS and learn a little more about his life and writing.

Love You to a Pulp

BS: I just finished reading Love You to a Pulp this morning. It’s a stunning book that’s both horrifying and beautiful. Can you talk about the inspiration behind this crime/noir story?

CD: Thanks for having me. The biggest inspiration for the book was the setting. I moved to southern Kentucky in 2003 and I was completely taken aback by the beauty of the place, particularly the temperate forests and cave country. But despite the beauty, there is also something very unsettling about the more rural areas I saw: the poverty mostly, but also in the people who definitely lived up to the stereotypes of “southern folk.” And it was that disparity between the two feelings that truly gave birth to the novel. I wanted to tell a gritty, dirty, violent story while still preserving everything I loved about the region.

BS: A few years back, we published your short story “The Bull” in Bartleby Snopes. One of the chapters in Love You to a Pulp is heavily derived from that story. Was this something you planned when you wrote “The Bull,” or did it just seem to fit when you were writing Love You to a Pulp?

CD: The version you read in LYtaP is closer to the original vision I had for the piece. When I began writing the story you first saw, the father figure was motivated by money and he didn’t really consider what he was doing to his child by making him fight. I didn’t consciously choose to change up the dynamic in the original, but that’s what happened. I found my sympathy for the father and the whole tone of the piece changed, from a boy exploited by his father for profit to a more complex relationship in which they depended on one another for survival. They were all each other had. But the original idea stayed with me and I don’t know what motivated me to rewrite the story, but I did, setting it in the South instead of the desert and removing most of the sympathy for the father and focusing on the kid. Fast forward a couple years when I was working on the novel and I found the new piece fit in very well to the backstory narrative.

BS: One of my favorite passages (when Neil discovers the “cancer” on himself) is based on something that actually happened to you. How does real experience shape a book like this? I mean, your life can’t possibly be anything like Neil’s, right?

CD: My childhood was definitely not like Neil Chamber’s early life. But I did, as an adult, pull a blood-swollen tick from my scrotum, and when I found it, for a moment, I was sure it was some kind of malignant growth, just like Neil. I was relieved when I discovered what it was, but also horrified. The thing was huge and I have no idea how long it was feeding on me. There’s a strong tick motif throughout the book, and the ticks are many things, but in this instance, I wanted highlight Neil’s vulnerability, he’s recently been orphaned and now he thinks he’s got cancer on his nuts. But he figures out what it is and takes action without complaint. And that is a trait that continues into his adulthood, if it’s something within his control, Neil deals with it. It’s a crucial existential moment for him, in terms of the motif, the symbol of the ticks, which previously stood in for the comfort of religion, becomes something else and as a result: Neil realizes that he is truly alone and that crying about it isn’t going to help him any. That’s not to say I planned it that way. I just like ticks and the very thought of them is enough to make most people squirm, which is my intention (partly) when I write. 

BS: What is the value that lit mags have to writers who want to publish longer works and find success in other markets?

CD: I can only speak for myself, but I think many writers would agree that the magazines are incredibly useful. Not only are they chocked full of great stories, but they’re an opportunity to build up a list of credits, and they’re a great proving ground for writers. Submitting to magazines helps us learn to deal with rejection, how to work with editors, and of course when submitting to lit mags, we are writing, which is the most important piece of the puzzle. If that’s too abstract I will say that submitting to magazines got me noticed by some other folks doing the same thing and allowed me to become part of a very supportive network of authors and publishers. Additionally, I have queried numerous agents over the years I’ve been at this, but only one agent made the initial contact with me, and he did so because of a piece I submitted to an anthology. So, what’s the value of lit mags for writers? Education and exposure. We need these things if anyone is going to take a chance on our longer stuff.

BS: What’s next for CS DeWildt?

CD: I’m finishing a new novel and trying to land that agent I just mentioned. Got another I’m aching to start on. In the meantime I’m just trying to promote Love You to a Pulp and generate a little buzz for myself my titles.  

BS: Wild card question: What are the best and worst things in the publishing industry today? cs dewildt

CD: The best thing is the way technology has created so much opportunity for writers who didn’t have any real venue for exposure and publishing. The digital world has become a microcosm of sorts of the “real” world, and as a result, people can connect much more easily with like-minded professionals without the various roadblocks associated with the “traditional” publishing model. It’s easier to publish and to get published and exposed, and for indie writers especially, it’s a wonderful development. However, there is still a lot of resistance to the digital model, and that’s what I find to be the worst. I hear people talk about how they “prefer paper” to e-books, reviewers who won’t look at print-on-demand titles, fine, great, but did these types show the same kind of resistance when the printing press came along? Did they consider the experience lessened because books no longer had to be hand scribed in a monastery? Probably, but they’re dead now. Paper books will always be around I think, at least for quite a while, but to dismiss progress as a fad is silly. Efficiency and convenience will win out every time, and soon the aging herd of dinosaurs will die and the world will forget that a traditional-virtual dichotomy ever existed. I love paper books too, but I also love being able to carry a virtual library with me wherever I go.

BS: Long live paper and digital! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Good luck with the new book and your next projects. Now, if you’re still reading this, go and buy some of CS’s books.

CS DeWildt is the author of Love You to a Pulp, The Louisville Problem, Dead Animals, and Candy and Cigarettes. He lives in the American Southwest with his wife and sons.

 

Growth of a Lit Mag: 2014 in Review

2014 was the seventh year of publication for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine—and by far the most successful. We believe in transparency and doing our part to help the writing community, so we want to share our data with readers and writers.

Submission Stats

Let’s take a look at submissions first. This year saw a huge increase in the number of submissions we received. During 2014, we received 3,325 submissions. This is up from 2,199 in 2013, which means we had over 50% more submissions this year.

Our most popular category was “flash fiction with feedback,” which saw over 850 submissions. The “with feedback” categories continue to dominate the “without feedback” options, although we did see growth there as well. Writers are more than twice as likely to request feedback as they are to opt out.

BS 2014 review subs

So what did we do with all those submissions? Here’s a brief recap:

We accepted a total of 112 submissions. This includes the 96 stories we published in our regular monthly issues, as well as our Dialogue Contest winners and artwork submissions for the semi-annual print magazine. This puts our acceptance rate at 3.37%, which is down from 4.8% last year. Of course, it’s never our goal to lower our acceptance rate, but we do continue to raise our standards as more submissions roll in for a finite number of slots.

Our eight editors kept very busy this year. Combined, we “voted” on submissions 8,997 times in Submittable. Here is a breakdown of those votes:

  • 370 “Yes” votes
  • 571 “Maybe” votes
  • 8,059 “No” votes

A “No” vote doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t like a story or that we don’t think the writing is good. In many cases, a “No” simply means we aren’t the right venue for the story. This is true of virtually any publication. Many of the stories we reject end up published elsewhere. This in no way is an indication of the inherent quality of our lit mag versus theirs. Much of it comes down to taste, style, aesthetic, or whatever you want to call it.

Traffic Stats

2014 wasn’t just a record year for submissions. We also saw extraordinary growth in our website traffic. The correlation here is pretty obvious. If you get more submissions, you certainly will be getting more traffic to the website. Just how much more did we get? Well…

In 2013, we had approximately 31,000 visits (Google Analytics refers to these as “sessions” now) to the site, about 17,500 of which were unique visitors. These visitors accounted for approximately 83,000 page views (please note that 2013 stats are not exact because of some missing Analytics data from January).

Fast forward to 2014, and here’s what we saw:

BS 2014 review analyticsThe site had a 68% increase in visits, an 83% increase in unique visitors, and a 90% increase in page views. So more people came to the site, they came more often, and they looked at more pages. What exactly does 157,966 page views mean for your published story? It means people are actually reading it.

Other News from 2014

This year saw several other steps forward for Bartleby Snopes. These include (in no particular order of importance):

  • Expanding our staff to 8
  • Publishing 2 brand new flash novels in print and e-book
  • Creating artwork to accompany each Story of the Month winner
  • Giving away over $2300 to our Dialogue Contest finalists
  • Awarding $25 to each Story of the Month winner (beginning in the final quarter of 2014)
  • Redesigning our website for the first time since 2008
  • Launching the Bartleby Snopes Blog
  • Providing complimentary contributor copies to all authors and illustrators accepted for our semi-annual print issues
  • Hosting our first-ever themed issue (Everything October)
  • Publishing 96 amazing stories

So what’s ahead for 2015? More great fiction, more money to contributors, and hopefully much more readership.

To all of our readers, whether devoted fans or first-time viewers: Thank you for making 2014 our best year yet. Now let’s do even better in 2015.

When a Good Idea Isn’t a Good Story

All stories can be broken down into two core components:

1. The idea

2. The execution

The idea, also sometimes referred to as the premise, is often where a story begins. Rarely does a writer sit down with absolutely no idea and end up with a brilliant story after pounding aimlessly at the keyboard.

In order for a story to work, there must be a strong idea at the core of the story. If the idea is unique, or at least not overdone, then the story has a better chance of succeeding. A story with a tired idea will often be read without enthusiasm regardless of the quality of the prose.

Can fantastic prose save a bad or cliché idea? Perhaps, but the prose had better be truly phenomenal. Such writing is truly rare.

At the same time, a great idea does not automatically make for a great story. A writer must be able to execute the idea within the context of the narrative. This requires careful attention to structure, word choice, characterization, description, and so forth. In other words, you can’t just slap down anything around a great idea and call it brilliant.

Many writers seem content writing a story that either has a great idea or is well crafted. When one of these two elements is sacrificed, it is typically the execution. Very few writers will brilliantly craft a story with a lousy or non-compelling idea. Rarely do I read a submission that makes me say, “Holy shit, this writing is amazing. It’s just too bad the idea for this story sucks.” Much more often, I will say, “Wow, I love this idea. The author could have something great here if he/she just put some more effort into the execution.”

So how does one properly execute a great idea?

There is no single formula for doing so, but it typically takes several drafts. Often, the final draft will only slightly resemble the original one. In these cases, drafts are much more than looking for grammatical errors and cleaning up a few spots of confusing prose. Rather, they consist of looking for new ways to tell the story.

Oftentimes in life, we will do something that sounds like a great idea at the time only to find out it wasn’t quite as well-thought out as we had hoped. This doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. It usually means we didn’t really think about how to do it.

The same is true for storytelling. When you have a brilliant idea for a story, you can’t possibly hope to dash off a quick draft and submit it for prestigious publication. Rather, you must think out every piece of your story.

Very rarely will a story be ready to go after a single draft. If you have only written one draft and you are thinking of submitting your piece for publication, then you are likely wasting your time (not to mention the time of the editors). Subsequent drafts should involve much more than mere surface editing. You should be looking for ways to tell a better version of the story.

One of the biggest obstacles that prevents a good idea from becoming a good story occurs when a writer never turns the idea into anything more than a mere idea. In these cases, the “finished” work will read like an outline for a story rather than an actual story. It will lack sufficient context, character and plot development, proper pacing, and more. Many times, it will seem more like a writing exercise than an actual attempt at writing a story.

Too often, writers are submitting their stories when they should be working to make them better. Before submitting anything, make sure it’s the best version of the story you can possibly tell. If you can imagine a better version, then write that one instead.

Remember, no matter how good a story idea may seem, the story itself can only be as good as the idea and the execution. Many times, great ideas are drowning in mediocre prose and careless structure. Rather than rushing through your good ideas to make them into something that can barely pass as publishable, give your ideas the nourishment they need to grow into something brilliant. It may take significantly more time, but you will be a significantly better writer.

Why Formatting Matters

Although it may sound petty, one of the biggest obstacles a writer has to getting published is following the rules. A great story may go entirely unnoticed because the author refuses to play the game the way a publisher insists it must be played.

Back when I used to submit my writing constantly, I prepared all my stories in standard manuscript format. This made it easy to adjust my submissions as needed. Very rarely would guidelines require something outside of this format. After all, it is the standard: appropriate contact information, normal font and spacing, very readable format. Most publishers happily accept the standard (of course, whether or not they’ll accept the story is a different tale).

Eventually, I became lazy and just typed my stories in whatever fashion I wanted. I wasn’t submitting as much at the time, so I then had to reformat my stories after I was finished. Still, it didn’t take much additional time or effort on my part.

Occasionally, a publisher would ask for something really strange and demanding. Some odd format that would probably take a half-hour or more to create. Whenever I stumbled upon something like this, I didn’t submit. I’m sure that was their goal. Weed out those who weren’t really interested in getting published.

No matter what the publisher wanted, I would never waste my time submitting an improperly formatted submission. If I didn’t plan to follow the rules, then I would walk away from the game. There were always plenty of other opportunities.

At Bartleby Snopes, we keep formatting simple. We want you to double-space your stories. That’s it. However else you choose to format things is fine. While we certainly don’t prefer Comic Sans or pink font color, we won’t reject these submissions immediately. But you’d probably be better off using a more standard format.

What’s that? Your manuscript isn’t double-spaced but you want to submit anyway? Great. Select all your text and hit Ctrl+2. Wow. Now it’s double-spaced. Less than a minute of extra work for you.

Even though we aren’t very demanding in terms of formatting, we still get an unusually high volume of submissions that ignore our guidelines. Some months, 5-10% of our submissions aren’t double-spaced. All of these submissions are flagged as “Does Not Follow Guidelines” and then rejected immediately, usually without being read (occasionally a story will grab our attention and we’ll strain our eyes before giving up and rejecting it). However, since we are somewhat nice, we almost always include a note asking the submitter to follow our guidelines and resubmit.

Yes, we believe in second chances. Most of the time.

Perhaps we seem like jerks for wanting you to follow our rules, but we don’t think so. We have to go through hundreds of stories per month. We need to have some rules, right?

Some people might say, “But you publish stories single-spaced. Can’t I just save you the time?”

That’s so sweet of you. But it doesn’t save us time. It hurts our eyes. Trying to read all of these single-spaced submissions causes our heads to spin. We get nauseous and then your stories make us want to throw up. No one wins when this happens.

Furthermore, our “single-spaced” stories don’t put as much strain on the eyes as a Word document. The combination of line-height and column-width on our website helps with readability.

No, please don’t try to submit your stories in our “publication format.” We want to read your stories in an editable format, and then transfer them into our preferred presentation.

Still not convinced? Fine. Go ahead and send your single-spaced manuscripts to major publishers and agents. See how many book deals you land.

Tips for Hosting a Writing Contest

Running a writing contest may seem like a risky undertaking for a literary magazine. In order to get any interest at all, you have to put up some prize money. What happens if there aren’t enough entrants to cover your prize purse? How is a literary magazine supposed to come up with that cash? Well, if money’s the only thing you’re worried about, then you aren’t prepared to host a writing contest.

This year, we hosted the 6th Annual Dialogue Contest. The participation was unbelievable, and we were able to award over $2300 to our five finalists. That amount of prize money makes our Dialogue Contest one of the best-paying writing contests on the web. How does a contest sponsored by a small literary magazine get to be so big?

Minimizing the Risk

Before getting into the details about how to make your writing contest huge, let’s talk briefly about how to reduce the risk. There are several risks involved when hosting a contest. The two biggest are:

  • Losing money
  • Dealing with complaints (about judging, submission fees, etc.)

In order to minimize the money lost, I recommend using a formula similar to what we do at Bartleby Snopes. Start with a guaranteed amount that won’t break the bank (we originally started with $250 and now guarantee at least $500). Charge a modest submission fee (we have always charged $10). Add a little bit of money to the prize pot for each entry over a certain threshold. For example, once you get to 25 entries, add an extra $5-$6 for each new submission. Two warnings here:

  1. You will need more entries than you think to cover the prize money (if you have a $10 entry fee, you should only count on $9 per entry after processing fees).
  2. You’ll get the majority of entries near the deadline, so don’t panic if it seems like you’re behind.

Don’t promise an amount that you don’t feel comfortable losing. Always imagine the worst-case scenario. Can you afford to pay the entire prize money out of your pocket? If not, then lower your starting amount (or don’t have the contest at all).

The other major risk you run into when hosting a contest is backlash from the non-winning writers. If you aren’t careful, there may be cries of bias or unfair judging procedures. Writers may ask for their fees to be returned. You may hear complaints that the winning entries weren’t any good. You need to be sure your contest rules are clearly stated, including a bit of legalese. Don’t forget to include these statements:

  • All decisions made by the judges regarding the winners are final
  • No contest entry fees will be returned
  • By submitting, you are agreeing to all contest rules
  • Contest rules are subject to change

Additionally, it’s always a good idea to be specific regarding all the various components of the contest. Tell your submitters who the judges are, where the contest fees go, when the winning stories will be published, etc. By taking this proactive and transparent approach, we have been able to stay clear of complaints. None of the writers have asked for their fee to be returned (unless there was a glitch), and only one writer has complained about the results (it was a cry of sexism because one year all 5 winners in our BLIND contest were males).

Getting Enough Entries

Our Dialogue Contest wasn’t always a big deal. During our first year, we gave out just $450. While many writers would be thrilled to win a piece of that, we’re not exactly talking about big bucks. Five years later, our prize pot was over five times that. How were we able to grow so much during that time?

If you want to maximize the number of entries your writing contest gets, you need to do a few things:

  • Make the prize worth it
  • Establish credibility
  • Be transparent
  • Advertise and promote
  • Do something unique

Make the Prize Worth It

A contest doesn’t have to award over two thousand dollars to be worth it. Of course, that all depends on what you are asking the writers to do. The higher the fee you are charging, the bigger the prize should be. I recommend a prize-to-fee ratio of at least 20 to 1 (that’s a $100 prize for a $5 entry fee). If the prize is only $25, you aren’t going to get people who are willing to pay $5 or $10 to enter. If your prize-to-fee ratio is on the lower end, be sure to throw in some extra incentive (such as a free issue or subscription). Never offer guaranteed publication to all entrants.

There are a couple other things to consider when making a prize that’s worth the entry fee:

  • What are the odds of winning?
  • How much work does the writer need to do to participate?

If you are getting thousands of entries, you need a huge prize. The lower the odds an individual writer has, the more you better hand out.

If you are asking for a very specific story, or if your contest requests a large volume of work, then you need to respect the effort a writer will have to put in to participate. Writers aren’t going to create a story just for your contest if they have only a small chance of winning a small prize.

Establish Credibility

This might sound like it’s impossible to achieve during the first year of your contest, but it definitely can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get an endorsement from a respected figure in the writing community (this could be in the form of a guest judge)
  • Get your contest listed by credible publications
  • Establish yourself as a respected and professional publisher/editor prior to hosting a contest
  • Make sure your contest details are thorough

I wouldn’t recommend launching a contest during the first few months your publication exists. Establish yourself first, then establish your contest.

Be Transparent

In a world where privacy is becoming more and more of a commodity, people want to know more and more about what they are getting into. Don’t hide anything about your contest. Be forthcoming about everything, including:

  • Who the judges are (provide names and links for guest judges)
  • Where the money will go (especially if your contest will bring in more money than it awards)
  • When and how the winners will be paid
  • When and how entrants will be notified
  • When the winning stories will be published

Additionally, if you’ve run the contest in the past, you need to make examples of past winners easily available. If the only way to see past winners is by paying money, then you aren’t being transparent. It’s also a good idea to write a blog post or article about the contest. For example, you could discuss the types of stories that generally don’t do well in your contest. Or you could give tips about preparing a contest entry. Naturally, this will also help to establish your credibility.

Advertise and Promote

Advertising your contest can add up quickly. An ad in Poets & Writers can run you $500 or more. Add in a few other ads and maybe some promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter, and you are easily looking at $800-$1000 just to advertise your contest (which is about what we spent to promote our contest this year).

If paying big bucks to promote your contest isn’t in the cards for you, then find as many free outlets as possible. Make sure you have a contest listing everywhere you can. There are dozens of lists that compile writing contests for free. Make sure you are on all of them (or at least all the ones you qualify for). Have a separate listing on Duotrope that’s just for your contest. Post about your contest in legitimate writing forums. Reach out to MFA programs and ask if they will spread the word. Be sure to put together a professional announcement regarding the contest. In many cases, your free promotion will bring in more entries than your paid ads (in the coming weeks, we will release data that supports this).

Of course, you should also use social media, but promoting your contest doesn’t just mean you Tweet about it every day. If you really want to promote a contest, you need to find a variety of outlets. The most valuable promotion is anywhere people are already looking for opportunities to make money as writers (online contest listings, Poets & Writers Contest Issue, social media groups dedicated to paying publications, etc.).

Do Something Unique

There are thousands of writing contests held every year. If you want people to enter yours, you need to do something different from everyone else. If your guidelines are “Write any story you want and we’ll pick the best one and give you a handful of money,” then no one is going to submit. When I created the Dialogue Only Contest, I was trying to do something I hadn’t seen done anywhere else before. My “great” ideas included:

  • A rolling rejection process
  • Unlimited entries for one price
  • A growing prize purse
  • A very specific format (stories had to be composed entirely of dialogue)

I can’t tell you how many writers have contacted us to say they really enjoyed participating in this contest. Every year, I’m surprised by how many entrants respond to rejection letters by thanking us for hosting the contest.

Final Notes

Hosting a writing contest is no easy task. There are plenty of obstacles you will deal with along the way, none more difficult than the colossal challenge of sorting through all the entries to pick a winner. If you run your contest the right way, you will find it a rewarding experience. Being able to award almost $2400 to writers is definitely worth the hard work.

6th Annual Dialogue Contest Winners

We are thrilled to announce the winners of the 6th Annual Dialogue Contest are:
 

1st Place – Slurpie Safari by Sorrel Westbrook-Wilson – $1428

2nd Place – Everyone Smiles by Amy Morris-Jones – $476

3rd Place – Sorry, Was That Pronounced with a Long O or A by Daniel Thompson – $238

4th Place – Where We Go When We’re Gone by Gabrielle Hovendon – $124

5th Place – Blue Frosting by Mathangi Subramanian – $114
 
All of our winners will appear in the 13th Issue of our semi-annual print and PDF magazine due out in January 2015.
 
Congratulations to our winners and thank you to all who participated.
 
For more information about the Dialogue Contest, please visit here.

Everything October Themed Issue Now Open for Submissions

This October, we are releasing our first-ever themed issue. The theme: Everything October.

What do we mean by “Everything October”? We mean if it relates to October (Fall, October, Walpurgisnacht, Halloween), then we want to read it.

We’re still publishing two stories a week. We’re still having a story of the month contest. We still want good stories (that are double-spaced).

Oh, and we’re paying $5 for every accepted story. Keep reading. It gets better.

Guidelines:

  • Double-spaced
  • 3000 word maximum
  • Must somehow relate to Fall, October, Walpurgisnacht, Halloween

What we want:

  • Quality stories with developed characters

What we don’t want:

  • Graphic horror
  • Cliche Grim Reaper stories
  • Ghoulish Erotica
  • Previously published stuff
  • Satire pieces about pumpkin-flavored things or “basic white girls” (if you don’t know what we’re talking about, then you are probably in the clear)
  • Multiple submissions (you can attach one story and one piece of artwork)

We wouldn’t mind seeing a story in which Death makes a pie. What kind of pie? You decide. Not pumpkin. And there better be a story somewhere in there.

For the most part, you should still stick to our standard guidelines, but we’re definitely open to just about everything (except for bad writing and cliche stories).

Like we said, you get $5 if we accept your story. All payments will be issued via Paypal within one week of publication. If Paypal doesn’t work, we’ll send you a copy of one of our flash novels.

If you win the Story of the Month contest (as chosen by the readers), you will get an additional $25.

To make it even more fun, submit original artwork with your story and get $10 instead of $5 (if we accept it). You must own all rights to the story and the artwork.

Got questions? Then just submit your story anyway. The worst we can do is reject it.

Send us your October stories today.

 

Contributor Payment Survey

For the past six years, we have been publishing two stories per week, running a Story of the Month contest, hosting a Dialogue Contest, and releasing two PDF/print anthologies per year (as well as the occasional special project). We also recently began publishing single-author flash novels.

Up until now, we have not been able to pay regular contributors to the online magazine. That is about to change.

We aren’t complete strangers to compensating our writers. Our special project authors receive a $5 token payment. We have been fortunate enough to provide our anthology authors with print copies for the past two issues, and we will continue to do this. We also offer 60% royalties to our flash novelists. And, of course, our Dialogue Contest winners have taken advantage of large prize purses (this year’s is almost $2400).

Bartleby Snopes does not pay its editors. Like most other literary magazines, we work without monetary compensation. When we run into extra money, we want to invest it back into the writing community.

Now, we want to extend our writer contributions even further. Please help us decide how we should pay our writers:


Top Ten Reasons You Keep Getting Rejected

Rejection sucks. But no one ever said writing would be all fun and games.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had your fair share of rejections. While we’re usually able to bounce back quickno-68481_640ly and submit again, sometimes it’s important to reflect on why we’re getting rejected. If you’re used to getting a big fat stack of “No” in your inbox, then it’s time to figure out the problem.

Here are the top ten reasons you keep getting rejected:

1. You aren’t reading the publications before submitting.

If you haven’t read at least one story or poem from a magazine, then you are wasting your time submitting. It’s important to read what they publish to get a feel. Besides, why do you want to be published in something you don’t want to read?

2. You aren’t reading enough current writers.

Yes, we all know you write exactly like William Faulkner, but how do you stack up with today’s current writers? It’s important to read what’s currently being published. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that all the best writing was done years ago by dead white guys.

3. You are saving your best work for The New Yorker.

Everything you send out should be your best work. If it’s not your best, then hold onto it until it is your best.

4. You aren’t revising enough.

How many revisions did you go through on the last piece you just submitted? If the answer is zero, one, or two, then you definitely aren’t putting enough time and energy into your writing. Your stories will never be the best on the first or second try.

5. You aren’t letting other people read your writing.

You don’t have to workshop everything you do, but if you never let anyone read your writing, then you aren’t going to gain much critical insight into what you could be doing better. There’s an old saying that we’re our own toughest critic. For most people in the writing world, this isn’t true at all. It’s often hard to figure out what’s wrong in your own writing. Find a writing friend who is ruthless and share your work.

6. Your writing isn’t unique.

Are you writing the same old plots in the same old style with the same old tropes? Stop. You need to write something that hasn’t been written before. With thousands of new pieces of fiction and poetry published every day, you have to do something to set your writing apart.

7. Your submission isn’t a good fit.

The number one reason why a story gets rejected isn’t because it isn’t good enough to be published. It’s because it’s not right for a specific publication. It may all go back to reading publications before submitting, but getting acceptances really does come down to finding a perfect fit.

8. You aren’t following guidelines.

Are you single spacing when they want you to double space? What about the time you went twenty words over the word limit? These things matter a lot to publishers. If you want to get on the fast track to rejection, then don’t listen to what they want you to do.

9. You are submitting too frequently.

The more you submit, the more you will get rejected. It’s a numbers game, but it’s also common sense. If you are submitting twenty times a day, then when are you finding time to write, read, edit, or research? Slow down your submissions and work on the more important things.

10. You are a writer.

We all get rejected. If you don’t want to be rejected, then either stop being a writer or go live in a cave. If you opt for the cave, chances are one day a big bear will come by and reject your work.

If you find yourself getting rejected at every turn, then it’s time to reevaluate what you are doing. By putting more time into your craft and making more sensible submission choices, you can improve your acceptance rate.

What are some other reasons why your stories are getting rejected? Share them in the comments below.

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