sore, untethered, blank —
the grounds gift their warm blessing;
I sip. I am found.
Getting Published in a Literary Journal – A Beginner’s How-To Guide (repost)
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. (UPDATE: A few more now, I am happy to say - my website link in my profile has my publication list if you're curious.) 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 (https://theprose.com/post/454789/inform-persuade-entertain). 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.
The Ghosts on the Glass
I'll probably take this down in a few weeks, but this challenge seemed like a good time to share an excerpt of the novel I finished. The Ghosts on the Glass follows the career of engraver-turned-photographer William Mumler from 1862 to 1875. This page comes at the end of chapter one.
I hope, someday, that my novel finds its publishing home so I can share it with you all.
“You may use the camera, if you wish,” Hannah said, “and lock up when you have finished.”
“Thank you… I think I shall,” William said.
“I will see you in the morning, Mr. Mumler.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Stuart.”
She left to heal the supplicant woman. He stood for some minutes before passing to the room with the window facing the sky.
The sun had passed the prime position, but he knew sufficient light remained. He had learned by watching these six months. The gallery had chemicals to organize, glass plates to clean, prints to mount and roll: much more than enough for a woman running her own business, let alone one who was also called to employ her strange gift. He had seen a man faint who had felt her life-giving magnetism. He had doubted, at first. But what is electricity? A force that passes silently and invisibly over the wire and performs its work. Hannah places her hands on a patient’s body, the current courses through the tissue, and another sufferer heals. It is scientific; it is wonderful.
The machine waited for the command to capture light. A box with a lens, a black cloth, a piece of ground glass for viewing. Hannah had shown him its workings, revealed how the same elements he handled in his shop could engrave the world itself on glass, smoothly, without the touch of any blade.
He ducked beneath the cloth to make the focus right. In the dimmed light, he could see on the ground glass viewer what the camera could see. The lens cast the image upside-down, floating. The colors appeared so rich they belonged in a dream: a tied cord held a blue curtain behind a table and a handsome chair, deep coffee brown with woodworked curves decorating its top rail. The camera circumscribed and transfigured all.
He had grown ineluctably from helper to hobbyist. For all his skill with a graver, this was something else. He remembered the first daguerreotype he’d seen, as a boy, at the Historical Society on Tremont Street. His father had taken him. It had shown the portico of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, each column stark in silver. He had asked how a man could make such a thing.
Clean the glass plate with solution of rottenstone, wipe away the calcium carbonate, coat with collodion, bathe in silver nitrate. Carry the plate in the shield, which sits in the opened camera. Pull the dark slide out from the shield, remove the cap from the lens and expose the glass to the light.
He would stand. The photograph would illustrate a man at work in vest and sleeves. William’s hand would rest firm on the chair, his beard in strong relief against the white wall. He would meet the lens’s gaze, and he would hold the cloth in one hand to show what he had done.
Mumler yanked the black cloth from the camera.
Shivering in the Boston air, I realized that Aaron Sorkin’s shitty Oscar would fade into oblivion. I pictured the gap that would inexplicably appear on his trophy shelf and I smiled. It’s the smile that I remember. It had been a long time since I had smiled.
This is a strange way to begin, I know. The Social Network cannot even exist for you, but I could not begin with the suicide. You must have patience.
I held that thought of Sorkin’s shelf as long as I could so I would stop visualizing what would have to be: shattered glass, a bloodstained hoodie. Murder repulses me; I want you to know that. I am, in my own eyes, a repulsive creature. I would have chosen another life. If events had taken literally any other course, I would have remained an underpaid, well-liked, and more-or-less happy teacher of physics.
The violence of it threatened my resolve that first time. I was capable: when I still thought I had infinite time, I used much of it to become an accomplished marksman. But in the minutes before the shot, it was still possible to return the rifle to my duffle, close the door of my machine and leave. I’ll admit I considered it.
If I returned to 2025, wrote a paper for a peer-reviewed journal and presented my time machine, I would have been hailed as the greatest mind of the 21st century. But in seeking fame and fortune, I would have been no different than him.
No, if I returned, it would have been to her, and it would have been to one of three times.
She was three years old in 2010. She wanted gas for her red plastic car. It was one of the Playskool ones a kid sits inside, with the big eyes where the headlights should be. Her flashing Keds ran it all around our driveway. She wore a Superman cape she had gotten for her birthday, and every two minutes she’d Flintstone the car to me, and she’d say, “Fill it up, daddy!” I would have gone back to that day, over and over, just to look on from the bushes.
She was twelve years old in 2019. She wanted a phone. I tried, halfheartedly, to convince her to get something cheaper, but she had her heart set on an iPhone, and I couldn’t tell her no: she was such a good kid, in every way. I signed the contract and handed her the phone, and her eyes lit up because she could talk to her friends like all the others kids did. I would have gone back to that day to snatch the iPhone from her hand, throw it to the ground and smash it with a rock until the chips and plastic were powder.
She was fourteen years old in 2021. She wanted to die. She followed the website’s instructions perfectly: she stood on the chair to loop the cord over the beam in her bedroom, tied precisely the right knot for the noose, kicked the chair aside and dangled until her pulse spent her last breath. I would have gone back to that day to come home one hour earlier and cut her down.
But that would not have solved anything. Not really.
Social media usage among teenagers spiked drastically about 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, rates of hospital admission for self-harm among 10 to 14-year-old girls doubled. Rates of depression and anxiety among girls shot up: a line graph depicting these rates bent upward so drastically that the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt described it as an “elbow.” In 2017, when British researchers asked 1,500 teen girls about social media, they consistently identified Instagram as the most damaging. Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked internal documents in 2021 that show Zuckerberg’s company knew how much damage their apps caused. Facebook’s research found, and I quote, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression… This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”
Teens compare themselves to others. Teens rely on clicks and comments to bring them self-worth. Teens try to build themselves up by destroying others, like when Miranda Smith looked at my darling Jessie’s picture on Instagram and wrote an ugly slut like you would only get likes with a noose around your neck.
I carry the memorial card from her funeral, always, as a reminder. Jessie Marks, 2007-2021, and above that her beautiful, smiling, child’s face. You must understand how much I still love her. You must understand, too, that I have looked at that picture every day for many years, and I have never once been able to see her face without remembering those words. An ugly slut like you would only get likes with a noose around your neck.
Rage and pain remind me, as they must remind you, that to cut the rope would not be enough. They remind me that to murder Miranda Smith, as sweet as it would feel, would accomplish nothing. Neither action would save the others. You must understand these things. You must know it is all for Jessie, but it is not only for Jessie.
She was unborn in 2003, the time to which I travelled. Neither she nor I nor her mother ever set foot in Boston, or Cambridge, as I suppose the place is more properly called. But he did.
He was nineteen years old in 2003. He wanted fame, money, and popularity. He sat at a computer in his Harvard dormitory—Kirkland House—and devised a website on which male students would vote on which female peers were the hottest, and less than a year later, he would found Facebook. He would later buy Instagram, creating untold millions for his company and massive psychological damage for our children. But first, he would ask his friend for an algorithm to help his coding. His friend would write it on the Kirkland House window, and then Mark Zuckerberg would stand at the window to read it.
I had selected the SRS-A2 Covert, which offered vastly more range than necessary, but also great accuracy with a compact size. A standard length sniper rifle would be too difficult to conceal.
I did not know which window, not for certain. My methods at that time were not so methodical, and I had rushed my research. I am embarrassed to admit that I founded my plan on a movie: only when I knelt on the opposing roof, grinning like a fool about Aaron Sorkin’s missing Oscar, did I consider that he might have invented the writing on the window for dramatic purposes. I panicked. My binoculars shook as I scanned the wall of Kirkland House, whipping from point to point, searching for a marker scrawling on glass. There was nothing, nothing at all. I knew The Social Network was fiction, inventing some characters wholesale. How could I have been so stupid as to think Hollywood would pinpoint the location of a famous man on an infamous night?
I saw the marker.
I needed to be calm, unshaking, and I breathed as evenly as I could as I gripped the rifle. I watched the final writing through the scope. The penman stepped aside. The boy in the hoodie stepped forward. I saw the arrogant grin on his face, exhaled slowly as I had practiced on the range, and buried a .338 caliber bullet in his chest. Shouts and screams wafted through the night air as a young man bled to death on his dorm room floor.
His death might horrify you. You might remonstrate, He was 19, he had done nothing to deserve death. But he would have.
In my time machine, I read the prayer on the back of Jessie’s memorial card. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. I flipped the card to the front and studied her face, tried to love her without remembering the words, but they remained lodged in my brain. Only the dates had changed: Jessie Marks, 2007-2022.
December, January, February. Zuckerberg’s blood had bought my daughter three more months.
Back in the future, I tried to understand how that could be. I had not missed: a certain Harvard sophomore had been murdered in his dorm room in October 2003. He had not created Facemash that night, nor Facebook after. Those domains and Instagram’s all remained unregistered. Without Facebook to blaze the trail, Instagram remained a figment in a future that wasn’t.
But in February 2004, a man named Jack Flanagan had launched FaceSpace, which grew to a billion dollar valuation. In 2011, FaceSpace purchased its upstart rival, E-gram. In February 2022, my daughter killed herself.
The second time was smoother. Flanagan spent spring break 2003 in Mexico, where an accident befell him while windsurfing. The Pacific hid both his unrecovered body and the two .338 caliber bullet holes in his wetsuit. His death bought a month-and-a-half: Jessie did not hang herself until mid-March.
I recognized the problem after eliminating Jim Baines, Marsha Robards, Deepak Singh and thus FaceHub, eTree, and ConnectMe. That trio, collectively, moved Jessie’s date of death only three weeks. The internet had been primed for social media. Zuckerberg had moved first, but he had not been the only. Many, many others would follow. Eventually, I even had to kill the Winklevoss twins. I tried killing Jonathan Abrams, too, back in 2001, but his murder did not move the needle at all. No one gave a shit about Friendster. It was Facebook that began the boom, or if not Facebook, each pale ghost that filled its void.
You will be tempted to stop. You will kill young men and women by the dozen, enough that you become good at it. Efficient. You will admire and loathe yourself in equal measure, and with blood on your hands and shoes, you will sit in your machine hurtling through the years, crying and wondering why. Then, you will take a picture of a 14-year-old girl from your pocket. You will feel her love and you will smile, fleetingly, before you remember. An ugly slut like you would only get likes with a noose around your neck.
As a creature who lives in its intervals, I have lost the ability to reckon time. I believe that in what you would call the last month, I have murdered 23 people. Jessie lives until age 17. Each new death wins only hours.
It’s funny, almost, to remember when I believed a single bullet could be the remedy. I thought Zuckerberg would fall and before his blood could stain the carpet, Jessie’s date of death would leap to 2080, 2090 on the card. I will never live to see that change. In the mirror every morning I see deeper wrinkles, more gray hair, less hair. Time travel breaks down the human body. I feel pain in my joints and chest, and I know that my remaining years will not complete my task. I will fail.
Listen. I began work on the time machine in December 2021, a month after Jessie’s original death. Building it took me four years. With careful notes such as I am providing, that time can be reduced, but you absolutely must begin around-the-clock work by February 2023. Begin any later and you surrender all hope; I’ve calculated. Jessie might seem fine if I can press on long enough. Without social media to poison her mind she will be happy, I know it, and you will think she will be OK. You will cherish her, love her, think it impossible that the apple of your eye could kill herself. If I murder enough people in my final years, maybe she will not, but it was Jessie’s suicide that prompted me to build the machine. Because I have forestalled her death, this message will have to be your prompt. You, man that I was, must understand: you must leave her to save her. Jessie carries that seed of destruction. If you do not do this work, if you do not return to 2003 to shoot a man named Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University, Jessie will die at age 14 and the horror will return.
You will fear the consequences. Social media might seem new in your world, but it will not remain a harmless curiosity and it must be stopped. I know my actions have caused… alterations. With Facebook and its successors gone, some friends whom I will not name did not marry, did not have children. Other things have happened or failed to happen. I admit there are costs, but you must weigh them against the coming horror. You do not know what social media will do, to all of us, but especially to children. Jessie.
I leave you this recording, notes on the time machine’s construction, and the memorial card from Jessie’s funeral. I do not need it anymore, and if it cannot spur you to action, nothing will. Check it, daily. If I work very hard and live longer than I think, the year of death might change again.
I am also giving you a list of names, locations, dates and times. I have provided a photograph with each name; there are 1,417. If you use my research, if you do the work well and kill these first fourteen hundred quickly, you can build on what I have done. Every hour, every minute is worth more killing to spare a child’s pain.
Save them. Save her.
Revising my tavern
I've spent the morning revising. It's common advice not to edit a novel at all until it's done, but I cannot do that. Maybe others can, but anything fresh that I write is half-formed, or more likely quarter-formed. An unedited piece is a nothing.
I'll post the excerpt I edited today at the end here to illustrate what I mean, but it's revision that brings shape to a thing. Churning out words is a slow and awkward business for me. I have to be able to step back and look critically at the muddle I've created. I've got to see where it points, and assess which bits have real beauty, which are irredeemable, and which bits I forgot to create at all.
I remember, years ago before I learned how to write, rereading a chapter that had felt electric as I typed the night before. In the light of day, it was misshapen. I felt disgust; I felt I failed.
My great breakthrough as a writer came when I learned to trust myself, not to compose flawless words, but to fix broken ones. I know full well that my prose will be misshapen, and I know I can make it better. I can edit, edit again, edit again, and edit again, and one phrase at a time, I can give my prose shape and strength. Precision.
I spent my morning on 350 words, the start of my current project's sixth chapter. I can't give useful context in any reasonable space, but my protagonist is in a tavern eating stew that an important man bought for him; following the excerpt, he'll meet the man for a drink in the tap room. Here's what I started the morning with:
Having eaten nothing since dawn but some bread and dried venison, he appreciated the stew. It was warm and exceeded the standards of his father’s cooking.
The four tables, simple but sturdy, had four chairs and one candle apiece. Each wick and the hearth burned. More light came from the chandeliers, dangling from the rafters by iron hooks. Their metal arms held long tapers in front of a brightly polished shield, which reflected the light in all directions. Accustomed to eating in their cabin by the light of a single candle they’d dipped themselves, Elnathan appreciated his surroundings, much more than when he’d come with his father. The chair was by no means his grandfather’s Windsor, but it was well-made and comfortable. A bright blue-green mantle surmounted the hearth, with two candlesticks and a basket resting on it. Above, Elnathan saw a printed portrait, maybe a foot and a half in height, of a somewhat older gentleman wearing a high collar, a cravat, and a respectable wig. From his table, Elnathan could not quite read the script beneath the image. He sat near the door to the foyer and heard a constant murmur from the tap room beyond, punctuated with the occasional laugh or exclamation. Charles Williamson sat within, and he expected Elnathan Holm.
When she served the stew, Metcalfe’s wife had told him that the Colonel had taken care of the meal. Considered practically, it was a small gesture, a pence marked to Williamson’s account rather than Farnsworth’s. Yet the chief man in a growing settlement had thought to pay for Elnathan’s meal.
That morning, he had expected to ride a pace behind his father, reach Bath and sell two calves, without incident. He wondered, again, what his father would say, or at least think.
Samuel Holm would have gone to bed. He would have risen early in the morning, purchased the nails and sugar, and returned to his farm as quickly as he was able. He would have exchanged fewer than a dozen words with anyone. He would absolutely not enter a tap room.
I reread that, and I did not like it one bit. There's no forward movement. It starts with stew, then a paragraph later flashes back to explain what happened when the stew arrived. There's a series of descriptions without any sort of flow or unity. It's disjointed. The excerpt speaks to the contrast between Elnathan's present circumstances and his life at home, and between his planned actions and his reserved father, but it's not all there yet.
Here's what a morning of editing yielded:
“The Colonel has taken care of your meal,” Metcalf’s wife said, setting the wooden bowl on his table, “so don’t you trouble about asking for anything you want.”
“I thank thee,” Elnathan responded, and with a matronly smile, she returned to her kitchen. The door she closed was green: though the evening had advanced considerably, the door’s color remained bright across the dining room. Lit candles sat on each of the four simple yet sturdy tables. More illumination radiated from the chandeliers, dangling from the rafters by iron hooks. Their metal arms held long tapers in front of brightly polished shields, which reflected the light in all directions. In his father’s cabin, Elnathan ate meals by the dim glow of a single candle he had dipped himself. Here, sitting in a proper chair and not on a stool, he could see every corner of the room with clarity. Surmounting the burning hearth, a mantle painted to match the door held two more lit candlesticks and a wicker basket. Above, Elnathan saw a printed portrait of maybe a foot and a half in height, depicting a somewhat older man wearing a high collar, a cravat, and a gentleman’s wig. Elnathan could not quite read the script beneath the image from his table. He sat near the door to the foyer and heard a constant murmur from the tap room beyond, punctuated by occasional laughs or exclamations. He tried, unsuccessfully, to discern the voice of Charles Williamson.
Elnathan dipped his spoon into the stew, and he immediately felt the hunger he had denied for many hours. Since dawn, he had eaten nothing but some bread and dried venison in the bateau.
The afternoon in the boat and the stew in his gullet belonged, improbably, to the same day. Elnathan had steered the bateau with his pole as his father bid him, watching the waters he knew so well. They landed on the southern shore with the calves his father wished to sell, and all of that belonged to the time before, to the boy under his father’s eye. Everything since belonged to a man, self-determining and self-reliant, yet one day and one person encompassed all of it. It all belonged to Elnathan Holm.
The stew was delicious and hot. The chief man of a growing settlement had bought it for Elnathan. He knew it was a small gesture, a pence marked to Williamson’s account rather than Farnsworth’s. Still, satisfaction seasoned the broth, and he devoured a second helping when the mistress of the inn refilled his bowl.
Samuel Holm would finish his meal and go to bed. He would rise early in the morning, purchase the nails and sugar, and return to his farm as quickly as he was able. He would exchange fewer than a dozen words with anyone. He would absolutely not enter a tap room.
It's better. It's not done. I don't even know how many more times I'll edit this before I proclaim the novel finished many months from now. But it's closer, and I know I can bring it the rest of the way. I trust myself.
after he fired
whisper, soft summer
moon, stay; shine while the echo
fades from his shot, my . . .
I knocked—one rap, a pause, then four raps in quick succession—and he opened the door. He walked back to table and stared out the window. The table was the small hotel standard, the window anything but. The city stretched wide through the floor-length glass, dark with ten thousand pinpricks of light below. All the same, once I had latched the door behind me, it was the table that commanded my attention. I sat in the other chair and folded my hands.
He did not move. Seated across from him, I noted he looked upward, rather than down toward the buildings and streets. He looked to the sky. Whatever he hoped to find there, he wouldn’t, and it had nothing to do with the clouds.
When I cleared my throat, he finally turned. I raised my brow in question. He closed his eyes, but he gave the nod, and I slid the envelope of bills to my side of the table. He still did not speak, so I did a rough count. My rate is $25K. As I’d expected from our previous conversation, he gave me fifty.
Miscommunication is nobody’s friend, certainly not in my line of work, so I lifted my hand, two fingers. His lips trembled, his eyes filled, but he gave the second nod.
I tucked the envelope in my coat pocket and left him, so he could stare at the floor or the clouds or the city where he’d spend the next three days. A phone call would interrupt his stay. He’d have to book a flight home for the funerals.
2022, A Year of Writing
For Christmas, my in-laws gave me a small photograph of an unknown, long-dead sixteen-year-old girl. It was an exceptionally thoughtful gift. It’s a memento of my writing in 2022.
Strictly speaking, it is not a “photograph” at all, since that term refers to an image printed on paper. They gave me an ambrotype, which is a glass plate with a negative image, placed over dark paper so viewers perceive it as a positive. To confirm my identification, I delicately pried the ambrotype from its red velvet-lined case. Called a union case, it is made of shellac and wood pressed together with an intricate design on the cover. The material was an early forerunner of plastic, patented by Samuel Peck in 1854. Between the case and the photographic process, I could date the gift approximately to 1860, just before cartes de visite printed on albumen paper became the new standard.
Three years ago, the ambrotype would have meant nothing to me. I knew nothing of photography, let alone historic photographic processes. But during the pandemic summer of 2020, I started writing a novel titled The Ghosts on the Glass about William Mumler, a 19th century photographer who claimed he could take pictures of spirits. In 2022, I finished.
I produced far fewer pieces of writing this past year than in ones. After joining Prose in fall of 2019, I produced a piece per week: short stories, poems, essays. I dabbled. Writing The Ghosts on the Glass, I periodically paused my novel writing and editing in favor of a few poems and short stories, but mostly I stashed ideas in documents and put them aside. When the novel is done, I’ll write some of these stories, I told myself, and late this summer, I did write two. I posted “The Last Paddle” to Prose almost immediately. “Servant of the Servants of God” awaits further revision before I submit it to an historical fiction journal to see what happens. I waited a couple months to finish editing because I’ve learned that time away from a piece freshens the eyes. I am still waiting as the year closes out because I’ve learned that novel writing is addictive.
I’m four chapters and 10,000 words into my second novel and loving it. It’s more historical fiction—the genre and the need for research suit me well—based this time on some local history. Before 2023 closes, I’m hoping to write another 40,000 words. I’m also hoping my first novel finds its publisher. I don’t want to inflict blow-by-blow announcements on the world, but I will say I am neither at the starting line nor near the finish line of achieving publication. When I have definite news to share, my Prose friends will be among the first to know. I think you’ll like The Ghosts on the Glass.
Someone else did. I published a few short pieces and created my website this year, but whenever I look back on my writing in 2022, I will most remember the conclusion of the George Saunders contest on Prose. I did indeed get to send him 25 pages of my writing, the first section of The Ghosts on the Glass. I assumed I would get a brief paragraph of notes, and I crossed my fingers for some sort of general compliment; I got so, so much more. Mr. Saunders turned out to be just as thoughtful and generous as you’d hope from reading his work and listening to him speak. He gave me fantastic, very detailed advice for those 25 pages—and he liked them. The man who wrote Lincoln in the Bardo read 25 pages of my writing and said they were good.
That’s my mountaintop. I’ve learned enough about the publishing industry in the last year to know that nothing is certain, and many would-be books die during submission. I believe that The Ghosts on the Glass will find the right editor at some point; for that matter, I’m optimistic that my work in progress will, too. Regardless, I’ve written something genuinely good, and I have a multi-page email from one of my favorite writers to prove it. I keep a printed copy tucked in a notebook, on a shelf in my usual writing room. I read it again, sometimes, when I need to believe.
A, B, C, D
Contrast teaches us who we are. We most easily recognize our gifts—or our shortcomings—as we recognize how we stand apart from others.
I learned about my gift in a longstanding series of early morning, Mountain Dew-fueled arguments.
Derek and I loved to debate, about anything. We were bright high school kids, he two years older than me, and after we met, we each realized we had found a sparring partner. We’d argue about morality, politics, economics, whether or not that movie we just saw sucked. When we really got going, our friends would sit back and spectate; it was apparently something to see. We’d agree on the big things. If anyone else challenged one of us, Derek and I would meet on our common ground long enough to claim the field as ours, and then we’d retrench and relitigate the minutiae of our disagreement. But for all our accord and shared love of debate, our brains worked differently.
Derek has the quickest mind I’ve ever had the pleasure of observing. In comparison, I am a more deliberate thinker. I explained it to people this way—
Virtually all individuals, it seemed to me, could trace a path of thought from A to B, and a lot could then proceed from B to C. Some could then make the final step to D all alone, some more could see D with assistance, and others would never be able to reach that final conclusion. I was generally able to move along the steps efficiently, A to B to C to D. But Derek was special: he didn’t need all the steps. Show Derek point A, and with barely a moment’s thought, he would fully understand point D.
My comparatively slower mind did have one advantage over Derek’s, though. He could have difficulty explaining his conclusions. With a touch of think time, I could do more than move from A to B to C to D. I could explain all the steps to others. I could find the right words, comparisons, examples, parallels, or whatever else I needed to guide another along the path. I could help people learn.
Derek got a job with the Department of Defense. I got a job as a teacher.
The English teacher who secretly dreams of quitting his job to write bestsellers is a cliché. It is also not me. I love writing and I work at it, but my true gift is for teaching.
Colonel Williamson cleared this land
built this settlement,
buried his daughter:
1793, Genesee fever.
Sex offenders live near her grave.
At night we hear the freeway:
rushing ghosts of our children
following lamps away
Once there was the Chat-a-Wyle,
Known for miles, the Chat-a-Wyle,
Once there was the Chat-a-Wyle,
The diner on Main Street.
The Colonel strides in the moonlight to
pitch-pine tavern, whiskey,
drinks to his pilfered land of
neighbors on porches,
dollar stores, feral cats.
He took this land for his people:
rugged white father,
Country steak and sticky buns,
For old and young, sticky buns,
Country steak and sticky buns,
Coffee salad bar sweets.
The city down the interstate makes:
ethnic cuisine, fiber optic filament,
specialty glass, opportunities for
engineers and immigrants.
Our town makes:
off-color jokes and pie.
Locked up dark with for-sale sign,
Staff resigned, for-sale sign,
Locked up dark with for-sale sign,
Stale air and cobwebbed seats.
The Colonel grips his musket in moonlight
scouring the dark for dark skin.
Your people feel you, Colonel Williamson.
The plaque in the park bears your name.
We dwindle safe in the town you made;
we nestle below the highway and
hobble to childless death.