Does Your Writing Reek Enough to Pass the Five Senses Test?

I’ve been reworking a short fiction story for the past two weeks and though I really liked the idea, and was growing increasingly fond of many of the sentences and some of the full-length scenes, I could tell the story wasn’t really popping off the page. If I were being honest with myself, I knew it was a little flat. I kept adding more and more description, attempting to make the settings and characters come alive through elaborate imagery. But depending so heavily upon sight was leading to some clunky, wordy, never-ending paragraphs. According to “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?,” by Jill McCabe Johnson over on the Brevity blog, my writing didn’t stink enough. The solution to limp prose? Make it stink to high heaven.

Literally.

Smell, according to Johnson, is a powerful writing tool:

Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores . . . Smell . . . has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know.

It’s such a simple thing, but upon reviewing several samples of my writing, I realized that I rarely include scents.

You might not realize it, but most of your favorite books snuck in some distinctive odors. Take Harry Potter, for example. The Amortentia potion wouldn’t mean much if, to Hermoine, it didn’t smell like “freshly mown grass and new parchment and–” something else associated with Ron. Maybe smell is the secret ingredient used by the great and the published?

And though this other fabulous blog post by Sammy, “Writing in Style, or Style in Writing,” over at Stet That returns to the sense of sight, it reminded me how important it is–and how non-verbally descriptive it can be of both the character and the situation–to shine a brief spotlight on their choice of wardrobe. As Sammy wisely puts it, “black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement.”

With both those suggestions in mind, I added the scent of burnt coffee and some cheap foam flip flops and–I know this might sound cliché–my story suddenly had new depth to it. Just by adding a detail about one of my character’s five senses, it led me to write more details about other senses, and even led to some more character motivation:

Original prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car to follow him into the building. In the waiting room, Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

New, invigorated, smelly, and well-dressed prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car. The heat of the summer-soft tar seeped through her foam flip-flops, burning her feet, and she scurried through the parking lot like she was escaping a runway of hot coals. The faint smell of burnt coffee greeted her, and the smell grew stronger when she walked into the waiting room. Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

I know that there was a lot more rewriting and development in the second example than the strict insertion of (some of) the five senses, but by integrating touch and smell, the details led to more details and really fleshed out the moment. Personally, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s developing.

Now your turn. Will your writing pass the “Does My Writing Stink?” Test?

Randomly select ten pages of your own writing, and count the number of times you’ve referenced odors. Award yourself one nifty Nose for every reference to odor, then use the scale below to rank yourself among your fellow writers. Note: references in your writing to freshly baked bread, cut grass, flowers, or ground coffee count as only half a Nose. [Click here to find out what your score means.]

Speaking more broadly about all the senses, I think having 3/5 senses (or include the sixth sense, if you prefer) per page is a solid win. In my opinion, though, 5/5 might be a sensory overload for the reader. I say this because, unless your character is a chef, you can’t have them tasting something every scene, your characters can’t constantly be groping things to describe their texture, and you don’t want to overdose on the odors. Do you agree or disagree? What’s the perfect balance?

What are some of your favorite sensory-satisfying scenes? And what do they score?

The “Writing What You Know” Rule is Baloney

A lot of you writers are probably throwing up your arms in disagreement at my sacrilegious statement.  But honestly, fiction writing would be really boring if authors strictly stuck to writing only what they know.  Books wouldn’t portray fantasy creatures that they concocted because they never experienced meeting one themselves.  Can you imagine how awful it would be if J.K. Rowling had never written about a hippogriff simply because she was tethered to the impractical rule that you only write what you know?

And how sad would you be if Orson Scott Card had never written the Ender’s Game series, just because he had never traveled to outer space before?  How TAME and utterly LAME would fiction be if writers always followed this rule?

Anyway, just some food for thought as you work on your own writing.

On a side note, if you’re in search of some bedtime reading material, a friend sent me the link for these sheets.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them though.  I feel like I might become a little OCD in how I make my bed every morning.  They would have to go in the appropriate page order!

Apparently there’s this thing called “Publishing Time” that significantly slows down the entire submission response process across the industry.  I’m not a huge fan.  As you can see, I’m still waiting on a lot of stuff.

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  7. Brevity (date submitted: May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  8. storySouth (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  9. Weave magazine (date submitted:  June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)

I emailed Cicada magazine awhile ago to ask about my submissions since it is way past the official response time, but no response to that either.  I’m a little surprised just because I’ve had really good response time experiences with them before.  [shrug].  Maybe it’s a combination of Publishing Time and Summer Time.

I did get two rejection letters this week though–form letters at that–which wasn’t terribly heartening.  I’ll give a short bio for both those journals tomorrow on New Magazine Monday.  At least the rejections give me the opportunity to better inform you all how long you might have to wait :]

Keep writing while you wait!

Unexpected Writing Scams: Should You Pay to Submit Your Writing?

Like Brevity, I’m a little confused about the cancellation of the Richard M. Thorson Literary Prize for Agrarian Prose, for the allegedly unacceptable practice of charging contest submission fees.  Very nearly every sanctioned writing contest I’ve ever entered, I’ve been required to pay a small reading fee.  None of them were scams.  Many were posted by sources that I trust, such as Poets & Writers writing contest listings online and in their magazine, or on the Writer’s Relief’s listings.  They’re hosted by completely reputable literary journals.  Even book contests organized by the National Association of Elementary School Principals have fees.  In fact, I won 2nd place in a writing contest at The Baltimore Review that required a small entry fee of $15 (normally it’s only $10 entry fee, but I opted into the reduced year’s subscription combo package).  Nobody is calling for all these contests to be cancelled and, as someone who has submitted to both the aforementioned contests, I’m certainly not feeling scammed.  I understand that writing contests depend on those fees.  Where do you think the prize money for winning first, second, or third place comes from?  How else would they function?

Some literary journals, such as Zahir, are now requiring writers to pay small fees for general online submissions too.  Ranging between $1.50 and $2.50, these literary journals argue that it’s the same price you would pay for postage to mail the manuscript snail mail style.  If writers choose to mail it snail mail, they don’t have to pay the fee at all.  I think it’s pretty fair, all things considered.  I accept that it’s a tiny donation to keep some of my favorite literary journals afloat.

But maybe I’ve just been lucky in my writing submissions.  There are a lot of scams out there.  Other writers have recommended using Writer Beware to safeguard themselves against lecherous agents and fake writing contests.  (P.S.  NEVER PAY TO HAVE A LITERARY AGENT READ YOUR WORK!!  Read this list of red flags for things reputable literary agents should NEVER ask you to do or pay for.)

What do you think?  Should writers have to pay an entry fee for contests?  Is there a maximum amount that contests should charge?  Is it fair that literary journals are charging for general submissions?  Have you ever encountered any writing scams that you’d like to warn us about?

Lesson: You Can Get a Rejection Letter at Any Time

Despite the fact that it’s Sunday morning, I was able to wake up and smell the roses with a form rejection letter in the mail.  A form rejection letter at that.  [Depressed hang of head].

But at least we learned something from it, yes?

 

Palooka: A Journal of Underdog Excellence

Official submission response time:  under a month

My personal submission response time:  11 days

 

The rest of my submissions:

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  7. Brevity (date submitted: May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  8. Owl Eye Review (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction
  9. storySouth (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  10. Weave magazine (date submitted:  June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)

I did send an email to Cicada, politely wondering if my submissions have been lost or forgotten, but didn’t get a response to the email (I sent it 2 weeks ago).  What do you do when that happens?  How long do you wait before you email them again?  Should I try a different means of contact?  (Even though they don’t have one, to my knowledge).  Any helpful advice out there?

How to Grab an Editor’s Attention: Bragging (Politely) in Your Query Letter–With Example

 

For those of you who are shy and don’t like bragging about your publishing credits for fear of being impolite, stop being shy!  Literary journal editors and literary agents WANT to hear about that stuff!  A query letter and a cover letter are like job interviews.  Proving that you’re a qualified writer helps you–and your short story–get the job!  And, if you’ve been following along, and read my last post about how to win writing contests, talking about your past publications boosts your chances.  (Unfair to the brand new writer, maybe.  But they are like recommendation letters, illustrating your past quality work and dedication to writing).  As Brevity: a journal of concise literary nonfiction encourages in their blog, yes, you CAN and you SHOULD tell people about your accomplishments!

Here’s my example bio paragraph of a query letter and/or cover letter:

I recently graduated from Bloomsburg University with dual degrees in Creative Writing and History. My writing has received the 2009 and 2011 Bloomsburg University English Department Award for Creative Non-Fiction, the 2009 Fuller Fiction Award, the 2011 Savage Poetry Award, and 2nd place in The Baltimore Review’s 2011 creative non-fiction contest. I have had work appear or forthcoming in Inside Pennsylvania, The Stillwater Review, and The Honors Review.

This is the appropriate way–the way that editors expect–you to present yourself.  The facts, without inappropriate bragging embellishments like “I am a super talented writer,” or “you’ll love every word I blessed the page with.”  After the introductory paragraph with information such as the title, genre, word count, and brief summary of your short story submission, you slap in this form biography paragraph.

The Formula for a Biography Paragraph in Your Query Letter:

Your credentials (usually only mention this if you majored in writing somewhere or majored in whatever topic you’re writing about and furthers your credentials.  Bonus points if you have an MFA from a renown writing program).  Any awards your writing has won.  Where you’ve been published before.

Throwing out a question to any readers out there:  do you add anything else personal in your cover letters and query letters?  How much is too much personal information?  Any recommendations for what to put if you have no publishing credits or haven’t won a writing contest yet?

Jumping off of a recent discussion over at storynomad’s blog, should female writers sign their query letters and cover letters with gender ambiguous pen-names for the sake of upping their chances at getting published?  I don’t like to think that the literary world is still dominated by stereotypes and ruled by the “good ol’ boys,” but the percentage of male writers being published in literary journals over female writers is startling, according to the 2010 statistics by Vida.

But, according to Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul, it doesn’t matter whether women use male pen-names or not anyway because he has super reader radar that can identify the gender of the writer based on the quality of the writing.  According to him, if it the writing isn’t nearly as good has his own, it’s obviously a woman’s creation.  Even Jane Austin pales in comparison to his dazzling writing talent.  I highly recommend reading the appalling article.  Would love to hear your opinions on the matter, so feel free to share!

On a personal note, it’s Sunday so normally I’d be lamenting the lack of postal service.  I’ve been so busy today though, moving in to NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute, meeting my new roommates, walking through a street fair that conveniently occurred below my dorm window (where I bought a bonsai tree!!  Here’s crossing my fingers I don’t kill it) that I didn’t have time to mope.

But, for consistency, I shall post my ongoing literary magazine submission waits:

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  7. Brevity (date submitted: May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  8. Owl Eye Review (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  9. Palooka (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)
  10. storySouth (date submitted: June 1st; what submitted: 1 fiction)
  11. Weave magazine (date submitted:  June 1st; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)

While you’re waiting, write, submit, and water your bonsai trees!  I watered mine today :]

Tips on How to Win Writing Contests

Since this blog is for the underdog, the yet-to-be-discovered, the unpublished or occasionally published writers, we really need to start talking about writing contests.  While at this stage everything would be a “big break” in your writing career, winning a writing contest has a couple extra bonuses:

  1. Writing contests usually have a bit of money attached.  Getting paid for writing is a nice and (at this stage) rare experience.  It can help with the bills, help pay for a writing conference you really want to go to, and at the very least allows you to brag at the next family reunion that you’re a paid writer who won a writing contest.  (Which will give them pause before asking–again–when you’re going to get a “real” job).
  2. Winning a writing contest is huge bragging rights on both query letters and cover letters.  Once you win something, literary agents and literary magazine editors will start looking at your manuscript and short story submissions more seriously.  It’s like the snowball effect.  Once you get published somewhere or win a contest and your accomplishments start building up, literary agents and editors start taking notice and, provided your short story submission is some strong and impressive writing, you’re going to get published and win contests more and more.

Once you win a writing contest once, it’s only a matter of time before you win again!

So, after me explaining how awesome and useful it is to win writing contests, you’re wondering how the heck you do that.  “I’ve submitted to a hundred writing contests and haven’t won one yet!” you’re probably lamenting.  I know that I submitted to–and lost– dozens of writing contests before getting a little smarter about where I was submitting and what I was submitting.  If you follow the tips below, I promise your chances will improve!

Tips on How to Win Writing Contests

  1. Work on your writing.  Make sure the short story you’re submitting is the best as it can possibly be, plot-wise and grammar-wise, before sending it off.
  2. Read–and then re-read–the submission guidelines.  Don’t disqualify yourself from the contest because of a dumb mistake like having your name on the submission when they want it to be anonymous, or sending it snail-mail when they only accept email submissions.
  3. Search for literary magazines and literary journals that are selective for some reason or another.  For example, they might only publish female writers, or writers from a certain geographical region, or only undergraduate students.  This narrows down the submission pool, making any contests they hold slightly less competitive.
  4. Submit to writing contests that have small prizes.  If you’re just starting out this whole process, don’t start submitting to the $1,000 1st prize writing contests.  It is very unlikely that you’ll win one of the big contests with a big literary journal (who can afford that kind of prize) as a new writer.  Go for the smaller ones, with 1st prizes that are only $100, or where you only win a few free copies of the publication.  You’ll be completing against less big-name, established writers.

Since I think that it’s really important for writers to submit to writing contests, I’m going to start posting a writing contest–one of the small ones that you have a better chance of winning–every Friday.  Today I shall highlight Literary Laundry.

Literary Laundry Writing Contests

Awards of Distinction:  $500 for best poem; $500 for best short story; $250 for best one-act drama

Undergraduate Awards:  $250 for best poem; $250 for best short story

Though they accept submissions from everybody and anybody, if you’re an undergraduate, make sure you mention it in your cover letter because it uniquely qualifies you for their Undergraduate Awards AND their Awards of Distinction.  Check out the rest of the submission guidelines here.

Type of Journal:  Online

Deadline:  December 1st, 2011

Official Submission Response Time:  Unknown

While you’re waiting, read their online journal and find out if your writing fits their style.

Do you know of any other small contests that you’ve won or think people should submit to?  Feel free to share :]

Good luck!!

(Image, Creative Commons)

Listen to Your Mother: Waiting By the Phone Never Gets You Anywhere

Sixty-five unopened emails greeted me.  Not a single one was about my submissions.  An awful great amount were from Victoria’s Secret and Barnes and Noble, warning me about last-minute sales.  Lame.  One was The Honors Review, announcing that the print version of this year’s issue are heading out in the mail this week (!!!)  So, I guess it’s not all bad news; I’ll get to see my name in print soon.  But after seven whole days away from the computer, I was expecting to have some rejection and/or acceptance emails waiting for me.  A reward, of sorts, for being Patient and Technology-Free.  Apparently, that award has been officially retired, so I’m glad that I didn’t spend vast portions of the past week pining away, refreshing my email and compulsively checking literary journal websites (which I’m off to do right now).  Even forgetting about the EXISTENCE of the pot of water on the stove didn’t make it boil faster.

On this day upon which I cannot look forward to any responses at all because everybody in the literary and mail delivery world is sleeping in (or at church) I am still waiting upon…

  1. Painted Bride Quarterly (date submitted: January 4th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 1 non-fiction)  TWT (Total Wait Time): 5 months, 5 days
  2. Cicada (date submitted: February 16th; what submitted: 2 poems)  TWT:  3 months, 2 weeks, 4 days
  3. matchbook (date submitted: March 7th; what submitted: 1 short short fiction)  TWT:  2 months,  3 weeks, 6 days
  4. The Susquehanna Review (date submitted: March 14th; what submitted: 1 fiction, 2 non-fiction)  TWT:  2 months, 2 weeks, 6 days
  5. Zahir (date submitted:  April 25th; what submitted: 1 fiction)  TWT:  1 month, 6 days
  6. Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle (date submitted: May 11th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)  TWT:  2 weeks, 4 days
  7. Brevity (date submitted: today, May 19th; what submitted: 1 non-fiction)  TWT:  1 week, 3 days

Please forgive me if I counted up the TWT wrong.  Math isn’t my strong suit.

How long have you all been waiting to hear back?

P.S.  Tybee Island and Savannah, Georgia, were awesome.  I highly recommend you visit if you enjoy the beach, seeing a brick wall pockmarked with cannon-ball holes, lighthouses, seafood, ice cream, dolphins, reading historical plaques attached to big tall monuments, or were ever a Girl Scout.