Since the new year often infuses new vigor into writers, nudging us to put ourselves out there more—submitting work for publication and contests, applying for residencies and fellowships—let’s talk about triumphing over the slush pile.
I’m going to skip over the most basic advice, (though, if you’re wondering what that is, please read this, this, and this) and share some tips I received recently from friends of Gotham who have logged a lot of hours reading slush pile submissions. Taken together, I think their impressions can give you a distinct edge.
First, from Gotham student Kelly Horn, a “first reader” for Daily Science Fiction: Skip the silly pen names.
“Some were almost as bad as Bart Simpson’s prank calls as ‘I.P. Freely,’ ” Kelly said. Though she personally never rejected a submission because of a juvenile, obviously fake name, they read like red flags.
Even if it’s not goofy, I caution writers to think twice about publishing under pseudonyms: After all the sweat and strain and pain of writing, when your work finally finds success, don’t you want to own it?
Sometimes a writer really, absolutely needs to publish under a pseudonym—like when employers demand it. If that’s the case, choose a name that reflects who you are—less Heywood U. Kuddulmee, more Joseph Anton. As Kelly put it, “you want one that won’t bring your professionalism into question.”
Next, from Susan Rich, poet and author of The Alchemist’s Kitchen: Be original.
Susan has judged hundreds of applications for the Hedgebrook Writing Residency for women, where applicants must answer the question, “Why Hedgebrook? Why now?” Way too many writers answered the same way:
“Whatever you do, don’t mention Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own,” Susan wrote on her blog. “It is the cliché of the artist statement at Hedgebrook! What I would look for is … a strong sense that the writer knows what her project is and how the time at Hedgebrook will fit with it.”
Last, from Gotham Fiction instructor Thaïs Miller, a reader for the literary journal One Story: Don’t shy away from your sense of humor.
“It’s hard to entertain the reader when all the puppies die. I love emotionally compelling stories more than most (I’m always up for a good cry after reading), but I also need some levity to balance it out.”
Do you notice what these three tips have in common? Each one encourages you to present your truest self—your humor, your honesty, your name.
And that makes sense, because it’s from your true self that the best writing flows. Embrace it in your submissions, and don’t be surprised if it works for you there, too.
Dean of Faculty