Category Archives: writing

When a writer’s best isn’t good enough

For the past several decades we’ve been teaching children that doing their best is all we expect of them. What happens when a child who has received and internalized this message grows up with the dream of being a book author and confronts the reality that his or her best isn’t the stuff of a career, or even a brief moment of notoriety?

Well, for one thing, a throng of entrepreneurs pitching services and wares to creative writers are happy to assume the voice of nurturing parents by insisting that persistence and inspiration will make anyone into a successful writer. By defining success as trying one’s best, I suppose they’re equivocally correct.

It also might be argued that boosting a writer’s self-esteem, giving the person hope, or telling the eternal optimists only what they want to hear indeed are valuable services. What writer wants to pay to be told that he or she still has a lot to learn? Or to put it another way, an unscrupulous company will find it much easier to sell an illusion. Evidence that aspiring authors are being misled comes to me in the form of query letters from writers who describe the same unimproved manuscripts year after year.

Over on Jane Friedman’s blog, freelance editor Rebecca Faith Heyman reports honestly that “difficult-to-agent books often have significant problems.” The completed manuscripts may be the results of writers’ best efforts, but that alone doesn’t make them good enough. Fortunately, educational resources, very often free of charge, are available to writers who are capable of recognizing their own shortcomings and willing to work to improve their chances of success. The public library loans excellent reference books, and my blogroll is another place to begin the search.

writer working

Writers as role models and interpreters

I’m so grateful to Susan Cain, Elaine Aron, and Brené Brown for popularizing the perception that sensitive, quiet, questioning, imperfect introverts often are contented people with ways of experiencing the world that can be valuable to others. These brilliant women have discredited our society’s tendency to label as a misfit anyone who isn’t bold, gregarious, charismatic, and extroverted.

Writers, photographers, and other creative professionals who work alone do not only show me the way, they teach me how to see what I might otherwise overlook and how to understand what isn’t immediately clear. They reinforce the notions that the solitude I crave enables me to find the splendor in my surroundings, that sensitivity allows me to listen wholeheartedly, and that silence makes me receptive to a deeper awareness. By serving as role models and interpreters, they grant me, and others like me, permission to resist the pressure to conform. They’re the gentle inspiration we need.

How many litmags can you name?

On Delicious, I continue adding to my lengthy list of all types of publications that include creative writing in their pages. The list is a good resource for writers who would like to accumulate publication credits. The last time I counted, it included more than 4,000 sites. Most writers are aware of relatively few of them, just as they’re unmindful of how many creative writers are competing to be published. It seems to me this is the hidden source of immense frustration: an unrealistic or uninformed perspective, easily rectified.

I appreciate the fact that technology has permitted writers to connect directly with readers without first obtaining the approval of literary tastemakers. The big picture (which I should refer to as the market), inclusive of all readers, is far beyond the scope of what interests me personally. Occasionally, I encounter a writer whose work is likely to meet with commercial success, although it isn’t work I would want to endorse. When it comes to selecting writers to represent, my criteria are miles apart from other literary agents.

Naturally then, the literary publications I find appealing will amount to a tiny subset of what’s available. More than ever, there’s something out there for everyone—readers and writers. To each his own.

I’ve blogged about litmags that:

Are among the new breeds

Focus on literary travel writing

Are well established

Get a lot of attention online

Publish the creative writing of physicians

Want stories about mental illness and recovery

Had attractive websites

Take a look, for example, at the five impressive publications pictured.

The long whine

dog behind fence

(Photo courtesy of Ned Horton, Horton Web Design, Nashville, TN)

I told some friends that this decade, which doesn’t even have a good moniker, could go down in history as one long whine.

Look, the standard of living in the United States probably has peaked for the majority. Most people have legitimate complaints. We’re competing for increasingly limited resources. The 1% must be having a jolly good time watching us tear into each other.

At times like these, it’s easy to blow up your means of survival by insisting on what you believe to be your entitlement without first looking at the big picture, without recognizing the rights and needs of others. It’s an adolescent outlook that too many people maintain into their adulthood.

Gracious respect for and curiosity about other people are hallmarks of the world’s best writers. They also are qualities that can be cultivated, even late in life. Their absence, let me tell you, is noticeable.

There’s no magic. Succeeding as a book author is hard work.

My work isn’t easy. The work my clients do isn’t easy. I’ve had clients who didn’t want being a successful book author to be challenging work. They aren’t my clients anymore.

For some writers who are consumed with the idea of getting a literary agent and having a book published, their obsession feels an awful lot like work. The dream occupies their time and exhausts their patience, yet it doesn’t result in progress. It’s especially easy for them to find and commiserate with other writers who don’t make particularly good role models. It’s harder to find a way out of the rut.

The level of difficulty and the amount of work involved are the reasons there are relatively few successful authors. Not many writers possess the necessary creative talent along with a willingness to develop crucial skills and the time to devote to the job of collaborating, improving, and adapting.

There’s no magic, no secret, no shortcut. It’s purely hard work.

don't just stand there

(Photo courtesy of Jeff Sheldon)

Who publishes military memoir?

This is the first time I’ve assembled a list of periodicals and small presses that publish the memoirs of military personnel. The question arises occasionally. I’ll continue to add to the list when I can. Please leave a comment if you know of a specialized publisher I’ve overlooked. Keep in mind that many other publishing houses bring out military memoirs occasionally without specializing in them.


Alternative Book Press

Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth

Elva Resa Publishing LLC

Fonthill Media Limited

Hellgate Press

The History Press

The Journal of Military Experience (JME)

Maverick House

Military Officer

MilSpeak Books

Naval Institute Press

Osprey Publishing, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing

Parameters: The U.S. Army War College Quarterly

Pen & Sword Books Limited

Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press

Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors

Task & Purpose

Tattered Flag Press

Texas State Historical Association Press 

University Press of Kansas

Vallentine Mitchell & Co., Limited

Vandamere Press

War, Literature & the Arts

Warriors Publishing Group

Also of interest:

4th Division Press, a children’s book imprint of E.L. Kurdyla Publishing LLC

The Blue Falcon: A Journal of Military Fiction

Blue Streak: A Journal of Military Poetry

Military Writers Society of America

World Literature Today,War Narratives” by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Looking for a writers’ conference in the Carolinas?

I’ll be participating in two writers’ conferences next month: one in Columbia, South Carolina, and one in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sponsored by the organizer of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop (SCWW) and the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop, the day-long events in the Carolinas will provide an overview of your book publishing options today, with an emphasis on traditional publishing.

Also scheduled to meet with authors on April 17 and 18 during the 2015 Carolina Writing Workshops:

Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary Agency

Diana Flegal, Hartline Literary

Kristy Huddle, Comfort Publishing (only in Charlotte)

Melissa Jeglinski, The Knight Agency

Sam Morgan, Jabberwocky Literary Agency

Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino

The star of the show will be workshop instructor, editor, author, and playwright Chuck Sambuchino, the man who knows how to bring out the best in aspiring authors who are learning to present their ideas to agents and publishers. For years, Chuck has been keeping writers informed with his Guide to Literary Agents Blog and directory.

My favorite part of the upcoming workshops is the Chapter One Critique-Fest, which actually will be a first-page critique of anonymously submitted writing. I’m always pleasantly surprised by agents’ and editors’ concurrence of opinions during these sessions. The manuscript samples that are read aloud can give writers a valuable sense of the competition they face even at beginning levels.

I’m looking forward to meeting you in Columbia or Charlotte. Come prepared to talk about yourself and your writing. I’ll be more than happy to answer your questions about my work as a literary agent, too. See you next month!

Why blog, when you can shoot yourself in the foot?

laptop and cell phone

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Velasquez)

A writer friend who’s been blogging for as long as I have—almost eight years—wonders about recent claims that blogs are old hat. In view of the popularity of Pinterest, Tumblr, and sites like Facebook that facilitate simple sharing, is creating new content actually necessary?

It depends on the user. Is the user a writer?

Our blogs and websites are becoming our professional portfolios. They’re our marketing collateral. We can make them into whatever works for our particular professions. For example, a photographer could post thousands of words and still never convey to her prospective clients what one sample portrait or piece of photojournalism on her website could demonstrate about her talent. Likewise a fashion designer. Or a dog groomer. Creative writers, on the other hand, need to show that they can write. Words. Not shared videos or Instagram snapshots.

The person who holds a factory job on an assembly line or drives a truck or teaches school doesn’t need to use a blog or another form of social media to attract business or establish professional credibility. A bartender isn’t required to know how to take a great photo or write a poignant essay or design a kickass steampunk wedding gown. Most people need social media only to connect and communicate with other people socially. Sharing a 140-word tweet or a bad selfie or a book review written by a critic is more than sufficient to make those human connections and stimulate the type of small talk that would happen in real life.

A creative writer’s objectives include attracting readers, something a blog is designed to enable. Beyond blogging, in order to be seen as a professional in what amounts to the entertainment industry, a creative writer needs to reach the largest possible audience and should communicate in a variety of the media his or her audience uses. Every ambitious online literary journal now links to the journal’s blog, Facebook page, Twitter stream, Instagram, Tumblr, and sometimes a Pinterest board or other social media. Book publishers aren’t far behind. Each professional writer these days has the ability to do the same amount of outreach that publishers are doing.

Competitors are using the best available resources to make themselves discoverable. A creative writer who chooses not to is at a completely voluntary disadvantage. Would anyone who’s been blogging for eight years care to listen to someone complain about shortcomings… that are self-imposed? Please, don’t get me started.