Thursday, September 29, 2011

Your Life in 75 Words

Writing a succinct bio is a little like Tweeting. As I said in the post on cover letters (Take Cover), editors want to get their work done and go home or go out for a beer or anywhere but the office, if they have offices. (I think most of the people in my local coffee shop are poetry editors looking for a home.) When submission guidelines ask that you include a bio, they often say how many words they want, and it's not many. The safe thing to do is read the bios in the current issue of whatever market you plan to send poems to. You'll quickly get a sense of their style.

Some bios, usually found on the contributors' page, are funny but don't tell you much about the writer as writer. They tell you about the family dog, the wacky diet, or the esoteric day job, like worm farming. Others will be very dry and to the point: education, day job, previous publications. Lately more and more writers include their website. (More on that another day.) Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy. But what if you dropped out of school in kindergarten and have not yet published a word? Well, you'll have to come up with something. Often the state or region where you live, what you do to earn your bread--assuming it's legal or you're not in the witness protection program--and a line about how you became interested in poetry. You might mention a favorite poet, if he or she is well known enough to lend some credence to your fanship.

I paste my standard bio into the cover letter. If the market asks that you use an electronic submission site, like Submishmash, use the comment portion of that site to include your bio. No fancy fonts, just the facts. Now, go, submit. It won't hurt a bit. Tee hee.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Take Cover

I have given you my take on critiques, organization, and market search for your poetry. Now it's time to, as Emeril would say, kick it up a notch. Let's assume that you have found a poetry magazine, online or print, that might be a good fit for your work. You have selected 3-5 poems, scrubbed them and combed their hair, made sure they have on their best clothes. They will be in a readable, unfussy font, usually Times New Roman. You are almost ready to send them to the world. Send them with a letter of introduction, called in the biz, a cover letter.

Remembering always the busy lives of busy editors in this business, you will keep your letter short and clear. After all, you want publication for the poems, not the cover letter. Here's a version of my wording:

Dear (Editor),
Enclosed/attached please find five poems for your consideration: "Title One," "Title Two," "Title Three," "Title Four" and "Title Five." None of these is in submission elsewhere, nor has any been previously published.

As requested, I have included below a brief bio. Thank you in advance for your time and attention. I look forward to your response.


Karen Douglass
(snail mail address)
PH: 000-000-0000

No, I don't italicize. This is for your ease of distinction here.

If this submission goes by USPS, I might add that the ms can be recycled after use and that I have included an SASE. However, the majority of my submissions go out electronically, so no recycling needed. As I've said before, be scrupulous in following instructions about attachments vs. pasting into the email. If you attach when the editor refuses to open attachments, well, you can see the problem. If you paste in, be prepared to re-enter any special style effects, as many email servers won't automatically copy your italics, bold, or certain fonts. Yes, it's work, but this final step takes less time than going to post office. Once you hit send, record the submission in your binder and on the Duotrope spread sheet. Then forget about it while you write more poems. Good luck. Let me know if this helps.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Your Own Marketplace

This post is part three of a general discussion about staying organized and effective in submitting poems for publication (See "Beating Poetry Submissions into Shape") . If you want to buy lettuce or a new SUV you are sure to know the difference between the grocery store and the dealership. The same idea works when you consider how to choose a publication to receive your precious poems. I want to suggest a couple of ways of knowing where to submit.

1. Read as many poetry sources as you can. Look at the poems you like and turn to the contributors' notes to see where else these poets have published. If your work is in the same vein--free verse, formal, political, nature, etc.--check out those markets in addition to the one at hand. Given the ubiquitous presence of poetry online, this is no longer hard to do. Google them and read deeper into their archives. Pay attention to whose work appears in a given source. If every poet in the magazine is a Pulitzer Prize winner, you may be in deep water. If the magazine is a "fledgling" the staff may welcome a less famous writer, like us.

Find the submission guidelines for the magazine, usually a tab along the toolbar or sidebar. I open a blank page for each on my desk top and copy relevant info to that. This eliminates the frills and furbelows that take up space in my files. Then I highlight the deadlines, number of poems requested, rights claimed, etc. And a hard copy of this info goes into a calendar file until I need it.

2. Find and learn to use Duotrope, a huge interactive file of magazines and online venues that publish poetry and/or fiction. The directions are easy to follow and the site includes a spread sheet where you can record and track your submissions. Live links take you to individual poetry sites. This is a free tool, but they often need a little help, so I shoot them $5.00 every couple of months. When I spot a market that I like, I do the same copy and paste for my calendar file.

More important than any other bits of advice I can offer are these: Read widely and follow the guidelines meticulously. An editor who asks for dark and eerie won't be pleased if you send her sweet and sentimental. (Well, none whom I know want sweet and sentimental anyway, so don't bother with that.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Honor Among Poets

The second step in the submissions list I posted recently involves getting an honest critique of your poems before you offer it for publication. For some of us, this is an easy step. We have long-standing relationships with other poets intent on good work. We live in an urban area where writers' groups abound. We have thick enough skin to accept well-intended criticism. And ill-intentioned criticism rolls off us, puddles around our feet, drains away, dries up.

It is very important to know the difference. My current critique group meets weekly, core members (three or four) show up regularly, they read carefully and keep the focus on the poems. No one attacks another's beliefs or personality. We are specific: "I don't think the second stanza is as strong as the first and third, because . . ." That sort of thing. We also say what we like, mention specifically good line breaks, startling images, musicality, etc.

I listen, say nothing until everyone else at the table has had a chance to comment. If asked, I may explain my intent, if I had one, when I wrote the piece. Maybe I have to clarify the situation of the poem. Sometimes it is startling to hear an interpretation that diverges widely from what I thought I wrote. Ultimately, it's still my call. I revise as I see fit. Often the comments from the group do improve my poem. Sometimes I dig my heels in and keep most of the original. But at least I know how several accomplished readers have responded.

Please, if you don't have a group such as this, find one. You may contact a few poets in your area whose work you take seriously (Just don't take yourself too seriously.) and try a few meetings. Go to an open mic and take names and numbers. You may be able to find worthwhile comments on line, although in that case I see an awful lot of poems poorly conceived and carelessly raised. They are selfish, ill behaved, and ought to be kept in the corner until they grow up a bit.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Crowd Control for Your Poems

If you plan to submit poems for publication, you need poems, lots of them. And the only way to get lots, without plagiarizing, is to write, write, write. Daily is best. This means that you make time to sit down, put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard and string words across the page or screen. DAILY. This does not mean that you will create a publishable poem every day. If you get one a week, you're doing very well. I'm not about to tell you in one short blog how to write great poems. There are plenty of courses, programs and books to tell you that. I'm going to tell you how to get this mass of work organized so that you can manage the output.

  • Computer files: keep several with clear labels. I keep one POEMS, one CFP for my online writing group, one GAMUTS for my weekly critique group, and one PUBLISHED, for the retired pieces that have, hooray, gone out there and found their niche. You might also want one IN PROGRESS or REVISIONS.
  • Cloud files: explore Google Docs or Dropbox or some similar virtual filing system. When I watered my laptop as well as my philodendron I lost text that I had not yet printed out. Won't do that again. These services are not quite the same is an external hard drive for backing up work, a device I also use. (Reminds me of a friend who kept a copy of her thesis in the trunk of her car and one in the freezer, in case of fire or burglars. Would that someone stole poems.)
  • Paper files: my REVISIONS live in a paper file that I often tuck into my work bag as I leave the house. I like working in my local coffee shop, so I drag this file along, just in case. A copy of the critique poems lie in a similar portable file.
  • Binders: I could not, even with all the digital tools available, keep my poetry house in order without binders. I keep a hard copy of each poem, filed by title within alpha dividers. Published ones get a notation in the upper right corner as to where and when.
Why do you need such a mass of poems that you have to organize them? Because you will send them to editors in batches, usually three to five at a time. This poetic wealth helps convince editors that you are not lazy or of limited talent and that their readers may look for more of your amazing output in future issues. The game of publication requires that you impress your editors, not by sending flowers or key lime pie, but by offering an abundance of well-crafted, energy-filled, readable poetry. So, create your writing space, keep copies, know where they are and backup everything.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beating Poetry Submissions into Shape

At breakfast yesterday with Lars, one of the poets I mentioned in my previous blog, we talked about the process of submitting poems for publication. He's beginning that daunting job now that he has a fair-sized body of work in his blue binder. Here's the general process as we defined it:
  • Write, revise, incubate, revise again till you just cannot see another improvement.
  • Show your work to those friendly but honest first readers to give you feedback. Consider their comments carefully and act accordingly.
  • Survey the market: read samples and archives from poetry publications and decide if you have something to offer any of them. If you're very new to the game (and that's how I think of this--as a game), probably you should not aim for the paying markets. The competition will discourage you. If you can find the name of the poetry editor, jot that down, along with her/his contact info.
  • Learn to use (and support) Duotrope, a valuable online reference to publications and a place to record your submissions. Bookkeeping is part of the process--where and when a particular poem was submitted, what the result was, which publication has already rejected or accepted the work.
  • Keep a notebook for hard copies of submission guidelines; write on each one the poems and the date when you contacted them. READ them and abide scrupulously by the various ways to contact editorial teams.
  • Create a fairly standard, short cover letter. Don't try to dazzle the editors with BS. That's all the excuse a busy editor needs to weed you out of the current crop of submissions.
  • Create a bio, usually 50-75 words that you can paste into the cover letter.
  • Learn patience. Even with the abundance of online and print markets, it often takes months to get a response. Meanwhile, write more poems. Read more poetry mags and e-zines. Keep growing your garden of verse.
This is so general that I'll come back and expand each point. But if you're new to submitting, welcome to the Big Dance. Fame and money will not follow, but you'll build your cred with other writers and readers, and most importantly, your poems will find homes other than on your cluttered desk.