Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write-up is by Benjamin Newgard. Enjoy!–LV
In spite of stormy forecasts, Day 2 of the One Story Summer Conference began with clear skies and sunshine. After morning coffee and tea, conference participants attended another round of workshops led by authors Will Allison and Anna Solomon. Following workshop and a refreshing Mediterranean lunch, conference writers shifted focus from craft and technique to the business side of literature.
One Story co-founder Hannah Tinti, whose own publishing career traces back to such esteemed magazines (in addition to One Story, that is!) as the Boston Review and Atlantic, kicked off the afternoon with her lecture, “Out of the Slush Pile.”
For conference attendees, “Out of the Slush Pile” contained a bevy of crucial tips and guidelines for establishing a professional, compelling presence in the literary world. To begin, Hannah listed the basic features of proper Manuscript Format—what she considers a bare essential before she reads any submission:
- Always double space (single-spaced work, Hannah cautioned, might be subject to immediate rejection)
- Use a 12-point, simple font, such as Times New Roman or something similar.
- Include your contact information on the first page: name, email, phone, and postal address (unless submitting to a publication that reads ‘blind,’ meaning they look at the cover letter and contact information after reading the piece).
- Place an asterisk in any intended space break, just to ensure these don’t get lost in translation (between file formats, for instance).
- If submitting a physical manuscript, print on plain white paper (here Hannah recalled how she once received a submission on scented paper), and print only on one side. This last tip will improve legibility, plus editors often like to take notes on the back.
- Include page numbers!
These rules, as Hannah noted, often change depending on the publication in question. Many journals, for instance, prefer that writers submit work in a particular file format, such as Word or PDF. In all cases, Hannah stressed the importance of checking the targeted publication’s submission guidelines, as breaking these can often disqualify a piece from the get-go.
Beyond preparing a brilliant, soon-to-be-prize-winning manuscript, there remains the question of where to send it. On this point, Hannah urged writers to do their research and separate potential publishers into tiers, somewhat like applying to college or graduate programs: Which journals, for example, might comprise ‘reaches’ or ideal places for your work? Which seem like safer bets?
To help in the search for potential literary homes, Hannah recommended three indispensable anthologies as resources: The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. Not only will these provide a sense of the quality writers should strive for in their work, but also an overview of celebrated, widely read outlets that could elevate a writer’s career.
Those hoping to publish not just a story, but a collection or novel are more likely preparing their manuscripts for submission to an agent or agency. In this regard, research proves no less important—Hannah encouraged all writers to find agents who have worked in genres similar to their own, and who have published authors they admire.
Whether submitting work to a magazine or agency, Hannah noted the importance of a strong cover letter. As discovered in her own experience as a writer, editor, and publisher, the most effective cover letters adhere to a simple set of conventions. They should:
- Be short.
- Be addressed to a particular editor on the masthead (as in the Fiction Editor, or the Editor in Chief)
- Mention any previous personal notes or acknowledgements from the editor.
- Include a (brief) biographical blurb, mentioning the most important past publications, mentors, classes, and other relevant accomplishments.
- If submitting a short piece or story, say nothing about the content of the work! No synopses or plot information!
To conclude her talk, Hannah focused on the most dreaded, yet all too familiar aspect of publishing: rejection. And while this familiarity might make us bristle and wither (even the most encouraging rejections “still stink”), Hannah reminded the class that many of the most successful, even canonical writers first faced repeated rejection before becoming literary legends (including Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe). Rejection, in other words, is an inevitable part of the process, and as such Hannah encouraged all writers to develop their own rituals for easing the anxieties and pressures therein—for “taking the stones out of your pockets.”
Hannah’s lecture proved an appropriate prelude to the final event of Day 2, a panel of established book editors hosted by One Story Managing Editor Lena Valencia. Here conference attendees gained vital, firsthand insights into the publishing industry from Noah Eaker (Editorial Director at Flatiron Books), Megha Majumdar (Associate Editor at Catapult), Katie Raissian (Editor at Grove Atlantic), and Jessica Williams (Senior Editor at William Morrow).
Among the most heavily emphasized points they discussed was that the editor-writer relationship be understood as a partnership. As Williams put it, the editor’s job is to be the writer’s “toughest critic,” but also their “fiercest advocate.” First and foremost, she said, “It’s about the love, the passion for your book. It’s about finding the right fit for the editor of your book.”
Near the end of their discussion, the editors offered various pieces of advice for emerging writers. Some of these include:
- Don’t get discouraged! If your debut book, for instance, doesn’t quite take off, there’s always the second, the third…
- When it comes to finding an agent or publisher, a good way to get your foot in the door is to submit to magazines and journals. These much more frequently accept unsolicited and non-agented submissions, and many agents and editors search quality journals for new writers to work with.
- Be nice! No matter your chances, unkindness can only make them worse.
- Revise, revise, revise. Let your work sit, then come back to it. Editors, in other words, want work clearly cared for, work that demonstrates the writer’s effort and faith on the page.
Following the panel, workshop attendees got a chance to mingle with these editors over wine and cheese, which brought day two of the One Story Summer Conference to a pleasant, creatively buzzing close. Further literary exploration and learning await for day three—stay tuned!