Not Just Sawin’ Logs
I like an ax. I like the heft of the head, and the smooth ergonomics of it’s shaped hickory haft. I like the power conveyed when one is cocked overhead, lightly balanced, playing you like a fulcrum. I like the speed with which one falls, the weighted head using gravity for assistance.
An oddly shaped knife is all it is, forged for chopping. A billet of iron, or dense steel shaped and forge welded to a sharpened steel bit for penetration, and an eye pushed and punched through hot metal by a leathery-skinned artisan wielding a ball-peened hammer.
And with it the iconic images of Honest Abe building a cabin, George Washington owning up to the Cherry Tree fiasco, or even Lizzy Borden, who might have just been a crazy woman, or whose Poppa might have been a mean, mean man… history has left us uncertain as to which.
Either way, Lizzy undoubtedly shared mine and Abe’s love for the versatility and practicality of a good, old fashioned ax. Her daddy must have gained a newfound respect for it’s abilities too, right there at the end.
Hospital bills laid out on her bed. This is who you are, she said. This is what you have cost me. Being seventeen feels criminal.
Through shadowed days
hunker while you must,
bear it for a time and dream
of green, barely born,
slipping free from wood in the
fragile sun at dawn: April
love poem with milk stains
i think of you in your favorite sweater
and weep. i’m in the local coffee shop,
by the way, and feeling like a creation.
like something that was made to survive
the end of the world.
i’m too peculiar to go out in an ordinary way
but i’m not selfish. i’ll take what i can get.
(the sweater has two holes,
one in the right wrist
and one across the collar.
like a lover took a knife
and put them there so that you might breathe.)
i’m a disaster in slow motion, the kind
you have to step back from to notice.
a wave the ocean rejected, behemoth
and hungry for a taste of humankind.
i want to view this from afar and above.
i want the lemons on cutting boards,
the infectious peals of laughter,
the radio-wave sun.
i want you, whole and returned to me,
like an artifact from an ancient civilization.
i stormed because i believed this to be the only way to devour.
i grew blue-hot under the tormented moon.
(the sweater is blue, and knows your scent like a dog)
in the coffee shop, they don’t take to weeping lightly.
take your existentialism elsewhere.
they play soft music
make mute conversation.
so i order that drink you like.
that i always pretended to like too.
you and your rickety holiness.
patron saint of tidal waves and sweaters.
most days i feel like a thing spinning in the rafters.
left to find my way to the ground after the party is long gone.
and all these strange stares, animal.
this, at long last, is an exhalation.
all the things i have wanted to say.
loss became a hole just beneath my left atrium.
like breathing could hold you there.
I love the scurry scurry pitter patter,
sleep snort beside my feet,
mail alert before the door,
tinkle tags with stair rush,
linoleum nail click, the
eager-for-arrival door leap,
the bowl lap
I fear my own heart
I’m trying to pry myself away from my stupid heart which wrapped a spiderweb of veins around my body, cramming blood into my hand and making it feel empty without another human clutching it. My heart sprouts roots that twist around my feet, dragging me back to childhood, honey light, and ghosts. Tentacles pulse in my brain, I’m curled up and stupid, sobbing over the goodbyes and graves of ghosts, and the throbbing of the honey light, and how you can’t go backward but only be tugged till your lungs fissure and veins break like dams. Your heart will murder a thousand bodies, then you will haunt yourself. I will not forgive my stupid heart, but I beg strangers and loves to take both me and the tangle of heart, to hold our hands and stare at the pinpricks of dead stars and pretend the sky is the only haunted thing.
a computer reports on softness
i up hold the paradox that is love
against all calculable odds.
i run the numbers through my machine:
we shouldn’t be good.
we shouldn’t be holy.
and despite this, tenderness.
and despite this, light.
i overview and look over.
i analyze and edit.
we shouldn’t be wondrous,
in the room flooded with yellow light
you were on fire.
we could not have predicted this.
hair falling on a shoulder.
we could not have computed this answer.
when we ran all the systems
we did not think about this.
how your body is a sun in the darkness.
and all the stars were shapes beneath your eyes.
according to all known odds,
we are ruinous.
and yet. and despite. and regardless.
in the field beneath the sky
you saw everything.
Snow falls into the waves. By the thousands, flakes unify with the water while I sip coffee and watch, separated from the chill by my sweater, the fire I lit upon waking, the tall pane of glass that overlooks Keuka Lake.
I dream of winter because the lake is for summers. It’s not cheap at any time of year to rent a house on a shore: if you’re spending the money, you do it when you can kayak or swim or fish, or at least read a novel in the shade of a tree without the upstate January driving you indoors. My wife and I married within sight of our lake in July 2008; since then, her parents have rented a house on Keuka for a week every summer for us to gather. Those seven days are a highlight of the year because they exist outside of man-made time, without external demands or appointment calendars. There is food; there is love; there is the water. Two million years ago, glacial ice scraped out the valleys that would fill. Since then, the lake has been. Lakes invite being.
We have a couple kayaks and a canoe in our garage where we ought to park a car. Between May and October, I’ll hoist the boats atop our vehicles, lash them down and drive fifteen minutes to the public beach, solo or with the family. We admire the various lake houses as we paddle. Our favorites are not the new constructions, whose thousands of square feet dwarf the family cottages they replaced. We prefer the homes that have been here for at least the fifteen years we have, the old favorites.
“I wish we could live in that one,” my daughter said once as our canoe glided by.
“We could have owned a lake house,” I answered. “I started college as a business major on a finance track. Fund managers make a lot more money than teachers.”
“Why did you become a teacher?” she asked.
“People in finance told me to expect 80-hour work weeks, and I knew I wanted a family. A house on a lake is no good if you don’t have time to be with your family. And I wanted to teach,” I added. “I believe in it.”
My own father passed on lucrative promotions that would have uprooted us from our home and schools; he did, genuinely, attend every baseball game and concert. I understood then, as his son. I understand as a father now, and I hope my children will, too.
Regardless, I chose my path. As I told friends at the time I changed my major, I did not want to dedicate my life to earning more money for rich people—I wanted to teach; I wanted to have a family. These were the right choices. There are good days and bad days, but I do not pine for a road not taken. My hours are meaningful and good. The road ahead has unseen twists and turns, and there may be bridges out. Accidents. I feel optimistic, though, that I can continue to glance in the rearview mirror and see a life well-lived. Be a simple kind of man, Lynyrd Skynyrd sang. Be something you love and understand.
A teacher can live securely, not luxuriously. It is still possible my wife and I could someday retire to a lake house of our own through a combination of prudence and luck, but well-lived lives do not necessarily yield dollars. I am at peace with that truth. All the same, as my kayak cuts through Keuka’s waves, I dream sometimes of occupying one of those homes for decades rather than a rented week. I dream not just of summer but winter days, of that coffee and snow on the water. I dream of watching seasons pass over the water a morning at a time so I am part of the cycle of the lake. Of being there.
Ripped jeans and a sweatshirt,
tapping the cap of the pen,
she sits, stare and paper
vacant, and you wonder what’s
behind her eyes, what plans
or dreams, concentration or
boredom she channels into
the incessant flick of her
pen, purple, as it happens—and
upright now, in rapid, pressed
motion across the page with
ink flowing thick as she
leans over creation itself and
Getting Published in a Literary Journal – A Beginner’s How-To Guide
A wise friend once told me, “A writer is one who writes.” No one needs a special qualification, degree, or resumé to be a writer. Certainly, one does not need publication to be a writer. Not every needs to seek publication in a journal or should: writing can be its own reward, and there are many wonderful ways to share work with others (including Prose). Personally, though, I sought publication of short stories and poems in literary journals and have met with a small amount of success, and in this post, I will offer what advice I can for similarly-minded individuals—with a couple of significant disclaimers.
Disclaimer #1 – I have absolutely no idea how to make money at this. I’ve gotten four short stories and three poems published in various small journals, for which I have received a grand total of $20. Writing is not a career or even a side gig for me. If you want to know how to make a living with writing, read Finder’s post for this challenge – she’s done it. From what I understand, there are far more paid writers of advertising copy/website text/technical manuals than there are creative writers, and if you want to pay your bills with writing, that’s the path to follow. I’m also given to understand that the majority of creative writers out there don’t actually make a living with it: most have other jobs (notably teaching, which is most of the reason people seek creative writing MFAs). I’m a high school teacher who writes, rather than the other way around.
Disclaimer #2 – The "beginner" in the title of this post is me. I am seriously small potatoes. Odds are, dear reader, that you have never heard of a single journal where I’ve been published. In other words, I lack any real qualification to be writing this post, but perhaps the scraps of knowledge I’ve gleaned can get someone else started. (Thanks to Finder for nudging me to write this.) If anyone reading knows something that I don’t, please, please share in the comments. I will be grateful for the advice.
Alrighty – steps, as best as I know them.
1. Improve your writing. I started submitting pieces to journals when I thought I was ready; the reality was, I had more learning to do. How vivid are your settings, how clean is your dialogue, how condensed are your sentences? Sentences in published pieces are certainly not short, but they almost never contain extra words: each letter in a piece serves a purpose. This is a post of submission advice and not writing advice, so I’ll stop there, but growth in writing is a process that never really stops, and if you tell yourself “I’m there!” you’re probably cutting your journey short.
2. Wait to submit – you want to revise your piece again. Finishing a piece brings a rush of pride, but that is the wrong moment to dash off a submission to a journal. This should go without saying, but when you’re seeking to be viewed as a professional, “minor grammatical error” is an oxymoron. Never send out anything that could have so much as a single misplaced apostrophe. (Most common error on Prose, btw? it’s vs its.)
Good revision means more than proofreading. Revision requires time and perspective, and rushing your piece will only slow you down in the long run. Finding an editor—that is, someone whose skills you respect who is unafraid to slather red ink on your crap—is a godsend.
When I decided I was ready to submit to publications, I wrote a flash piece called “Inheritance” of which I was very proud: it was based on a story my father told me of my grandfather, but fictionalized in that the narrator-son felt confused about the tale’s meaning. It started at 750 words, and the ending was lackluster; an editor-friend helped me trim it to under 500 words, and a long-running dialogue with him helped move the ending closer to right, and I sent it off to some places. Several months and rejections later (a couple of them extremely helpful rejections – more on that later), I revisited, and I couldn’t believe I had overlooked its flaws. For one, the story was too sentimental. Here’s the original ending:
Tonight, a decade later, the brother I hadn’t seen for eight years dialed me with the one phone call the law gave him. I realized, when I clenched my teeth, what was passed to me, and what Grandpap fought in those flames.
I got my coat.
I kind of like that first line as a sentence, but as an ending to a story, it’s a forced a-ha moment: “And then the narrator discovered the meaning of brotherly love.” The Hallmark story has its place, but I was not submitting stories to Hallmark; I also did not want to write for Hallmark. My editor friend had tried to tell me of that risk – and he had indeed gotten me to improve the ending – but I was too close to the subject matter to see its sentimentalism until I had distance. The intervening months and writing growth revealed a second fatal flaw: it was still far too long. I edited “Inheritance” down to 300 words, less than half the original length.
3. Find where to submit your piece. There’s really two phases here: understanding where one discovers journals, and determining whether a particular journal might be receptive to your work.
Lists of journals: As far as the where, there’s a big ol’ ranked list here: http://www.erikakrousewriter.com/erika-krouses-ocd-ranking-of-483-literary-magazines-for-short-fictionThat list is geared toward short fiction, but many journals would also take poetry or creative non-fiction (CNF).
Here’s a place I check regularly where some journals advertise their calls for submissions: https://www.newpages.com/classifieds/calls-for-submissions
Most journals will expect you to submit using Submittable (www.submittable.com) – signing up for an account is free, and if you click on the “Discover” tab, you can see submission calls listed by end date.
Speaking of Submittable, you’ll see that most publications on it require a small fee ($3-4); that’s normal. I won’t say I’ve never paid a larger fee, but generally speaking, I don’t think it makes sense to pay more than the nominal $3-4, and regardless, they add up. (Note that earlier I said I had “received” $20, and not that I had “made” $20, because the latter would be a lie; I am very much in the red thanks to fees.) If you’re looking to avoid submission fees, it will restrict your submission possibilities, but it can be done: a lot of journals offer free reading periods, and some never charge (particularly those that operate through email alone and thus don’t have to pay a submission management platform). I would also urge you never to fall prey to “publishers” who send enthusiastic acceptance notices offering to sell you a copy of their “anthology” for the low low price of $40+. Legit print publications usually offer contributor copies even if there’s no other payment.
Picking journals: Sending your work blindly will likely waste your time: you need to do some scouting. Every single journal will advise you to read their past issues; as a practical matter, you probably don’t have time to read that much. I always look for the “About Us” or “Mission” tab on a homepage for starters. For my own part, I never send work to publications seeking “experimental” or “cutting edge” pieces, as what I write does not qualify; other publications specifically seek work from women, or teenagers, or people of color, or LGBTQ+ individuals, of which I am none. Some journals are genre-specific.
I generally do read a piece or so from the journal before submitting, attempting to judge whether my general style and approach are in keeping or at odds with what they publish.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with submitting a piece to multiple journals at the same time, and most journals explicitly state that they “accept simultaneous submissions.” (A handful don’t, and you should respect that.)
Another word of warning: the overwhelming majority of literary journals state that they want “unpublished work,” and pieces posted on social media or elsewhere on the web almost always count as published. A piece you have posted to Prose is therefore ineligible for most journals.
4. Format your piece. Follow the directions the publication gives. Whatever information they want, or don’t want, or font or spacing or lack of italics or pasted in the body of an email or RTF format or cover page or anything, just do it. You’re asking the editors to do you a solid by reading your work: respect their wishes. Almost every journal wants something slightly different in the formatting, which means the process of submitting will take far longer than you expect it will, but give them what they want.
In the absence of specific formatting guidelines, double-space prose using size 12 Times New Roman; include a header on every page but the first with name, title, page. Here’s the one I used: (Love – “Inheritance” – 2). For better and more precise guidance, click on “Standard Format” here: http://www.erikakrousewriter.com/other-author-tools-and-resources Poetry is often requested to be single-spaced. Many journals permit submission of 3-5 poems at a time. Again, your submission format should be whatever the hell the journal specifies, but here’s a general example of a submission of multiple poems: https://www.shunn.net/format/poetry/
5. Write your cover letter. Cover letters for literary journals should not be long or fancy. As always, follow all directions. Be polite and direct: they usually need your name, the genre of your submission, the length, and a third-person bio. If the piece is a simultaneous submission, tell them and assure them you’ll notify them of acceptance elsewhere. On the rare occasion when I’ve submitted something previously posted on Prose because the journal did not rule such pieces out, I’ve identified the writing as having “previously appeared on my personal page at Prose, a site for aspiring authors to share their work with one another.”
If you know a specific editor or two who will be reading your work, address the letter to them rather than the general “Dear Editors.” When I submitted “Inheritance” to The Blue Mountain Review, it fell under their microfiction category by word count. I found the name of the microfiction editor, then googled him to ensure I could have his proper title or pronoun – it turned out that he taught at a university. Here’s the full text of my cover letter, which I pasted into the proper field in Submittable:
Dear Professor _____:
Thank you for taking the time to read my microfiction “Inheritance,” which is 300 words long. A childhood memory my father described inspired the story. It is a simultaneous submission; I will notify you immediately if the story is accepted elsewhere.
Here is my bio:
Ryan F. Love teaches high school English in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he earned a degree from Alfred University. He lives with his wife in a Victorian with pairs of daughters, beagles, and guinea pigs. His work has been published in Blue Lake Review, The Copperfield Review, Sleet Magazine, and Blueline.
Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing from you.
Ryan F. Love
6. Bring on the rejections – and read them. If you’re seeking publication, you will receive rejections. You will receive so, so many rejections. It’s normal. Rejections mean you're trying. I read a blog post by a writer whose stuff has appeared in journals I only dream about, and she said her acceptance rate was about five percent. I make a ritual of it: before I open any email from a journal, I say the word “rejection.” A rejection could mean that your piece wasn’t really ready, but it could also mean that they published something else similar recently, or that it didn’t quite suit the journal’s style, or it just couldn’t quite fit in the issue. Exact words from a rejection email I received: “Though I won't be taking this piece, it is lovely.” I deeply appreciated the encouragement.
There’s no need to keep feverishly refresh your email or Submittable page to see if you’ve heard anything yet. The Submission Grinder (https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/) gives quality estimates of response times (more accurate than the journals give themselves, in my experience). If you see a light blue “In Progress” flag in Submittable, it means precisely diddly squat: you still might not hear anything for six months. You might also get a rejection (or acceptance!) without the flag ever having moved from “Received” to the pointless “In Progress.”
Keep track of your submissions and rejections: Submittable will do this for you on a basic level, but you should note when you get some kind of tiered rejection that’s more encouraging. If you’re told to send more work, you should try to do so and mention the previous interaction in your cover letter. (If you’re not sure whether you got a standard rejection or a higher tier, check out the journal’s samples on the Rejection Wiki - https://www.rejectionwiki.com/).
A rejection with personal note from an editor is a high compliment. It can also be extremely helpful. An editor rejecting one story of mine wrote, “We love the humor and the sense of place, but flash fiction has to start quickly. This one just didn’t grab us.” I didn’t yet realize how much it meant to get a personal note, and that one felt discouraging when I read it; it was actually exactly what I needed to hear. I was taking too long to get my flash fiction started. The criticism rang around in my head a few months before I processed it, and then that advice prompted me to take an axe to the beginning of “Inheritance.” The finished result was a vast improvement: it still got rejected twice, but that 300-word version is the one that got published. Finished version here, if you want to read it: https://issuu.com/collectivemedia/docs/bluemountainreviewjune2021/286
7. Keep writing. This is the part where I say things about improvement, practice makes progress, etc., but writing is inherently valuable in and of itself, whether a journal accepts it or not. Don’t let the quest for publication, or the inevitable rejections, stop you.
I first submitted to a journal way back in 2014. The essay was the best thing I had written up to that point. I made a lot of mistakes with the piece itself and with my submission process, but the dumbest mistake of all is easy to identify now: when that essay got four rejections, I stopped writing essays, stories or poems for five years.
Don’t do that.
When I’m working away at a draft of something that I’ve already revised three times, I quite frequently pull up a Prose challenge and post. There’s joy in writing; there’s joy in sharing writing; there’s joy in a writing community. If you choose to pursue publication in a literary journal, I wish you all the best, but publication is not purpose. You have reasons why you write; remember them, always, and keep at it.