All posts by Sophie

Five Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Writing

I’ve been trying this writing thing for a long time now, and while I’m far from an expert, I’ve been around the block enough to come up with a few truisms. These are things that I remind myself of every day. They’re things that discourage me, inspire me, and keep me working. I wish someone had drilled these into my head years before I decided to become a Writer-with-a-capital-W. Hopefully they’re at least entertaining to you, if not useful.

1. There is no magic formula for anything ever.

No matter where you are in your career, you will more often than not find yourself engaged in a conversation with another writer who’s convinced that if she can do something with a certain process, if she can approach her writing consistently in a certain way, she’ll find success – usually in this case, success means publication.

The truth is, it doesn’t work like that. There is no magic formula. Not for publication, not for good writing. Even if you find a method that works for you most of the time, chances are it’s not going to stick forever. And whatever method that Jack Famous Writer uses isn’t necessarily going to work for you. Writing isn’t like building a lever, where you study the pieces and put them together the right way every time. Think of it like this – you build the lever once, and then the next time around, you have to build a better lever.

2. Your writing will not always seem as good as it was before.

I think this happens to a lot of us because when we get better at recognizing the bad, we start seeing so much bad in our own work that we can’t see the good anymore.  It happens to me all the time. First drafts suck. They’re not hard to write – they’re just bad. How can you go from a first draft to a final product that you’re not embarrassed to show to people?

Before the reality of the badness in your own writing sets in, it can be easy to think of everything you write as something amazing. Ignorance is bliss. But don’t let it fool you! You are getting better, no matter how difficult it may be to see. In fact, if you’re looking at your writing and going “blech!”, chances are you’ve definitely improved.

3. Everyone is always stressed out.

There is no part of the writing process that is easy on anyone. One of my writing partners described it like climbing a never-ending mountain. You get to a plateau and think that everything from that point on is going to be easy, but you are so wrong. Once you craft a publishable story, you have to play the waiting game. If it gets accepted, you wait for reviews. You have to write a second story, now, too, and it has to be better than the first. And on. And on.

There are no breaks. There are, as I said before, no magic formulas. It’s hard. That’s just the reality of it. But letting the negativity get to you, is the wrong way of going about this. Look around you. Talk to other writers. Everyone is as stressed out as you are. You are not alone.

4. You’ll be happier if you stay flexible.

Rigid deadlines have their place, and goals are important, yes, but if you let everything in your writing career become dictated by expectations and must-dos you’ll find yourself slowly going insane. Keep goals and deadlines in mind, but work toward them in a way that doesn’t resemble a single-minded kamikaze attack. Let your work breathe. Let yourself take breaks. Life is too short to kill yourself over anything.

When it comes to actually working, to getting the words themselves out, let it happen in any way that it wants to. I keep several notebooks (lined and unlined, big and small), in addition to my laptop. Sometimes I find a story really wants to be written on small, unlined notebooks. Weird? Yes, but it works for me. Sometimes I want to take a day off from one story and work on something else. Do I let myself do this if I have a deadline to reach, or a specific goal in mind (ie: I must finish this story before Wednesday or I am not allowed to eat cake for the rest of the month)? No. But if it isn’t crucial, I’ll let my mind wander.

5. Success is relative.

Comparing yourself to other people will never make you happy. When I was a little kid, my parents always told me, “There is always going to be someone smarter than you. There is always going to be someone better at what you want to do than you are. There is always going to be someone more successful than you. There is nothing you can do about it.” Jealousy and petty grudges will get you nowhere.

Am I saying that you need to love everyone equally and forego all righteous indignation? No. A little righteous indignation is good for your blood pressure, it turns out. The point is that having active grudges, dislikes, and “rivalries” with other writers is a waste of time and energy. You have better things to do with that time and energy. Get indignant if you must, but then walk away from that feeling, and stop. Thinking. About. It. Stop comparing yourself. Stop measuring your success against other people’s. Remember the immortal words of Jay-Z: Get that dirt off your shoulder.

What about you, readers? Do you have any pieces of wisdom you wish someone had tried to drill into your head when you were a wee writing sprout? Tell us in the comments!

Things I’ve Learned From Slush

Reading slush is actually an incredibly educational process. Apart from the obvious “don’t be a jerk” rules that I now understand, I’ve started to realize that slushing is actually benefiting my writing. And so, in the hope that things that I’ve learned can somehow help you, I present: Things I’ve Learned from Slush.

Your first line,

while important, shouldn’t overshadow the rest of your writing. If your first line is fabulous, then the rest of the lines in your story should also be fabulous. And while first lines are great, and fun to write, and fun to read, editors aren’t just buying
your first lines. They’re buying your stories. So your first line should be representative of your story – no flashy explosions or mass murders if your story is going to be a quiet psychological study of a young woman in a small Iowan town, please.

As you write your first line, you should consider how it fits within the context of your story, but also how it fits within the context of the first paragraph – or whatever you have in the first few lines of your story. Writing isn’t just about pretty sentences, after all, it’s about putting those sentences together.

Think about your ending

as much as your beginning – it shows if you don’t. I hate writing endings, because I can never figure out how they’re supposed to work. Somehow, you have to juggle emotional resonance, plot, character development, and voice throughout your entire story, and then catch them all again at the end. Drop one and the entire story falls apart. Who knew?

It’s also very easy to tell when someone hasn’t thought about their ending. I’m so guilty of this, myself. I figure that as soon as I reach the ending, the story will take care of itself. This rarely happens, so think about your endings. Edit them. (You should be editing everything. Do not only edit your endings.) Read them over. Do they resonate? Do they relate to the beginning, middle, and end? Or does it read like a cop-out, or worse, a Big Lipped Alligator moment?


are really the absolute worst. Not only are they embarrassing when they turn up in your own work, but when I read them in a story, or in a cover letter, they completely throw me out of the story. Is this nit-picky? No, not really. I’ve definitely sent out stories with typos, and when I realize it, I’m always mortified. Typos are an amateur’s mistake that any professional can make, and being on either the giving or receiving end of a submission with typos is just the absolute worst.

I guess what I’ve realized is that reading slush is sort of like a trial by fire, just like going through the slushpile is a trial by fire. You develop Slush-o-Vision to pick out the best stories and become good at seeing problems because you have to. When you take those Slush-o-Vision eyes to your own work, you realize, “Oh. Wow. Oops.” Then you get working.

Your Turn

Do you read slush? If so, what has it taught you about writing? Leave us a comment!

Networking for Networking’s Sake

There’s a lot of talk of how you, as a writer, can increase your web presence and somehow, as a direct result of that web presence, get connections that will help you get published. Well, this may, in a roundabout way, be somewhat true. But maybe not in the way that people expect.

I actually attended a panel on publicity and marketing about two weeks ago, courtesy of my university. What struck me most was what one of the panelists said about how advertising is changing. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something along the lines of, “Today’s consumer wants to feel like they have a personal connection with whatever is being advertised.”

Generally speaking, what you, as an unpublished author, are advertising, is yourself. How can you advertise yourself in such a way that people will feel like they have a personal connection with you?

Just make friends.

This can seem really overwhelming at first, so I’ve broken down some key steps into easily digestible pieces.


Get an account on some forums. AbsoluteWrite is where I started, and it’s a fantastic resource for writers of all levels of experience. There are a variety of other writers’ forums out there. A quick search should give you a variety of options. I suggest that you spend a few minutes–maybe ten or twenty–browsing the website before you make an account. You want to make sure that the atmosphere and resources of the community (opportunities for critiques, beta readers, etc), line up with your expectations for what should essentially be an online writers’ group.


There are so many different blogging platforms out there that it can get a little overwhelming. Blogspot, WordPress, and LiveJournal seem to be the big ones, but there are more and more cropping up every day. A blog can function almost like a personal website, providing information about you and your work. I find that blogs are most effective when readers can get to know the person who’s blogging. Write about you – your work, your day, things that interest you, your writing.


Twitter is a nice way of getting news about people and events that you’re interested in. If you want to get more followers, which is the only way to meet new people, I suggest taking part in lots of Twitter chats, using tons of hashtags, and getting a program like TweetDeck that will let you access your Twitter account away from the webpage (as the webpage really isn’t conducive to following conversations). I recommend Twitter as a last step for those of you who are just beginning, because it helps to start off with some internet buddies who will be willing to “follow” you. That way you look like less of a spammer, and you have people to tweet at.


This seems to me to be either the first or last step. That is, either you have a Facebook already, or you’re not going to get a Facebook no matter what I say, no siree. Either way, I’m totally down. I got you. But for those of you who have no strong feelings on the matter, or who have a Facebook but haven’t used it for writing-related things, let me address this section to you.

The goal of all “networking” is to make connections. I want you to think about creating friendships. Friendships that you are happy to have in your “real life”, not just your internet life. Because you want to be a writer in “real life”, yes?

Facebook provides an opportunity for you to have a more personal connection with your internet writer compatriots. I’m FB friends with a lot of my internet writer friends. We wish each other happy birthday and talk on each other’s walls. I’ve even found that some of my friends live in my area, thanks to Facebook.

I’m not saying that everyone should run out and get a Facebook page, or that you need to start friending writers left and right. I’m saying that the quality of the friendships that you form when you’re “networking” should be somewhat similar to the ones that you already have on a site like Facebook – they should be “real life” friends who you talk to on the internet.

Finally: The thing is, today people are savvy about marketing. They know when you’re trying to sell yourself, and no one wants to feel like the only reason people are talking to them is because you want to “sell yourself.” If you start on your journey to increase your web presence with the object of making friends, on the other hand, you’ll create real relationships that won’t set off everyone’s marketing alarms.

So what should you do? Go out and talk. Talk to people. Post on forums. Blog. Use Twitter. Use Facebook. Or only do some of these things. Or do all of them but not in that order. I just want you to start talking to people who interest you about things that interest you. Talk about writing. Talk about anything. Just talk. And listen. And remember that networking and marketing sound difficult, but they can be fun, too.

Your Turn

What social networking have you explored? What works? What doesn’t? Tell us in the comments.

Everything They Told Me Was Not a Lie

When I started reading slush, I don’t think I was entirely prepared for what I was going to find. I was filled with preconceived notions about how slush reading had to be (“It can’t be that hard to read my story in a week! What are they talking about?”), and even as I familiarized myself with the industry, a lot of those preconceived notions never went away.

Until I started reading slush. The more I read, the more I had these moments of realization.

Everything they told me was not a lie.

Full disclaimer: Everything I’m saying here is anecdotal. This is not the end all be all of slush truth, and I definitely don’t want to pass this off as fact, or as true for all slush readers. Okay? Okay.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Cover Letters Really Do Matter

Yes, cover letters matter. But not in the way you might think. I really don’t care what you say in your letter, as long as it isn’t profane or creepy. Your letter can be a sentence long for all I care. Feel free to say, “Attached is my short story, TITLE, for your consideration. Thanks, So and So” and be done with it.

What I really, really care about is your salutation. I want it to say, “Dear Ms. Wodzinski”, or “Dear Ms. Wodzinski et al”, or, if you feel like mixing it up, feel free to address it to anyone who reads slush. Don’t say, “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Editor.”

The reason isn’t that it’s polite, or that I want some kind of validation that I am a real human being and not a slushbot, but that, overall, the stories that have a cover letter that begins with a personalized salutation are better than the stories without. That salutation makes me sit up a bit straighter in my chair, take another sip of coffee, and get excited about your story before I even open the document.

That doesn’t mean that I’m going to penalize you if you don’t personalize your salutation, but let’s be honest here: In such a competitive industry, can you really turn down anything that gives you an edge?

But that said…

Publishing Credits Don’t Matter as Much as You Think

When I started this writing thing four or five years ago, I thought that once I had a publishing credit under my belt, I would have it made. Editors all around the world would clamor for my stories. I’d get shifted into the “short-list” slush pile. Golden laurels would form on my head, and I’d ride a white stallion into the sunset while penning deathless prose, all of which would be gobbled up by waiting zines almost immediately.

Truth is, if a story isn’t right for the magazine, I’m not going to suggest it to the other editors even if the author has tons of published stories to her name. Do I take that credit into consideration? Sure. I might even be guilty of thinking, “I don’t like this, but this author was published in such and such a magazine. Maybe I should read it again…”

However, after that reread, it’s rare that I’ll send a story forward.

Usually, seeing publishing credits will make me react about the same as seeing a personalized salutation. I get excited, but those credits alone aren’t going to make or break a story.

So, the moral here is, those authors with publishing credits do have a slight edge over those without, but that edge isn’t enough to make me prefer the story from an author with credits over the story from the author without.

“This Just Isn’t Right for Me” is a Totally Valid Response

Before anyone jumps on me, let me just say that I hate this line in a rejection letter. I hate it when I’m on the giving and the receiving end. I generally do try to be a little more helpful than this, I promise.

But sometimes, that’s all you can say.

The writing was solid. The characters were well rounded, complex, and subtlety portrayed. The plot was intriguing, and that twist at the end probably suits someone’s taste. So, it’s a good story. But I don’t like it.

This is generally when I enter panic mode. There has to be something wrong with this story, I think. What is it?

And, in totally anecdotal advice, usually it’s the ending. There’s something wrong with the ending, and either I don’t like it, or I don’t think Beth will like it. But someone else might like it. Some other editor out there probably will like it, in fact, but I can’t imagine this story in Shimmer.

Sometimes, I’ll punt the story upstairs anyway, to see if it’s just me. So far though, it hasn’t ever been just me. Sometimes, the story just doesn’t fit.

Every Slush Horror Story is Probably True

A while ago, Keffy wrote a blog post about how you should not write Editors Getting Their Comeuppance stories. For the purposes of this bullet point, I want you to go on a journey with me.

I want you all to imagine a little baby associate editor, reading stories happily for her new favorite magazine, Shimmer. She opens a story and starts to read.

A few minutes later she’s trying to put her brain back together while glancing over her shoulder to see if someone’s creeping around in the bushes outside.

A few minutes after that, she’s staring at her screen and thinking, “This has to be a joke.”

I’ve only seen one or two scary things in my short time as a slush reader, and only one of those was at Shimmer. Still, those few times are enough for me, thanks. So please, the next time an editor or slush reader tells you a slush horror story, don’t roll your eyes. It’s probably true.

That Said, Most Slush is Not That Bad

I think that on a lot of writers’ forums, people tend to throw around statistics like, “If you check your grammar and spelling, your story will be better than 90% of what editors see.” Maybe this is just my experience, but I think these numbers are exaggerated.

It’s true, a lot of slush can be bad. But it’s not THAT bad. It’s not like we’re getting incomprehensible stories written in a foreign language, with extra commas tossed in like bacon bits on a salad. For the most part, stories are more or less grammatical. It’s more like a collection of stories that are written by people who haven’t fully polished their craft, with a sprinkling of grammatical depravity, and a handful of stuff I like mixed in. The key to standing out isn’t so much writing expertly, it’s about writing well.

There you have it! I hope this was somewhat helpful, and that it formed a better, clearer picture of what slush reading entails.

Your Turn

What slush myths have you heard? Maybe we can dispel (or confirm) them! Tell us in the comments.

Make Your Rejections Work For You

Last time on the blog, Elise had a wonderful post about rejection dissection and what those pet phrases slush readers use actually mean. It was a great post and I was happy to see that some people commented about their different rejection experiences. (In a related post, Silvia Moreno-Garcia talked about how not to deal with rejection.) I want to talk about something that’s related, too: the personal rejection.

Realistically, there are very good reasons why a rejection may not be personal. The sheer volume of stories a publication receives makes it impossible to give every rejection that personal touch. We all love the warm fuzzy, but need to remember that the focus of the editors at any magazine is to put out the magazine, not train writers.

I think every rejection should be personal. Not only because it’s nice for the writer to receive, but because I’ve found that writing a personal rejection hones my own writing and editorial skills. A little bit of personalization helps everyone.

Personal rejections are helpful and insightful, and they make you feel good. Probably not as good as you would feel if your story was accepted and the acceptance letter had lipstick kisses all over the page, but it’s nice to know that a real person took the time to share their thoughts about your story.

Even if you already know that personal rejections can come in handy, you might be surprised to find out that there are a handful of categories of personal rejections. Personal doesn’t always mean unique, and that’s also helpful. It means you can identify telling characteristics and determine what best to do with your newly acquired rejection letter.

I generally categorize rejections into one of three categories:

Market Research

Let’s face it, even if all the magazines in the world could keep their submission guidelines up to date all the time, there are bound to be little quirks of the editors’ that don’t make it into the guidelines. This doesn’t mean you should panic or second-guess the guidelines. A lot of the time, it comes down to a problem of semantics.

I submitted a story that I described as “quirky fantasy.” To me, quirky meant something with an unusual storyline that focused on the absurdity of the situations that my characters found themselves in. When I submitted that piece, I found that when a certain editor said they wanted “quirky,” they really wanted quirky characters, not storylines. When I received that rejection, I made a note of that preference and moved on. In the future, if I happen to write something with quirky characters, I’ll try that magazine again.

Revision-focused Rejection

This editor liked X but didn’t like Y. She wants to see more tension in the first part of the story, and thinks the middle sagged. Hmmm…this sounds eerily familiar. Maybe it’s because this is what my beta readers were saying! If I get a rejection like this, I try to incorporate any criticism the editor has into future revisions of the story. Of course, most rejections won’t be very detailed. There’s a fine line between addressing problems in a story and hitting the author over the head with them. Most editors try to stay far away from the latter.


Even if the editor doesn’t have anything to say about your story that you find particularly helpful, a personal rejection can give you a little zap of encouragement where a form rejection would not.

I have some of my favorite rejections in a folder that I keep in my desk. The best ones tell me to please keep writing and submitting. These are my favorites because I know that someone other than my writing partners or my sister saw potential in my work–enough potential that they felt they should encourage me to continue writing. The support of a stranger is an incredibly powerful thing for a writer to receive.

Your Turn

What about you, readers? How do you feel about personalized rejections? Do you find them useful or encouraging? Let us know in the comments!


You Are Awesome

You are awesome. I mean that in a completely honest way. You, composer of sentences, sender of query letters, super-writer extraordinaire, are awesome.

Before I continue telling you how amazing you are, let me give you some background into why I’m saying this.

I’m very new at Shimmer, having started a mere two (or is it three?) months ago. First and foremost, I’m a writer. In fact, I think most of the staff at Shimmer are writers, which brings me to the first reason why you, personally, are awesome.

1. We think you are awesome because we love writers. We are writers, after all, and even though publishing can be an incredibly competitive atmosphere, at the end of the day, we are all on the same side. Especially writers, who commiserate through rejections, help one another with gnarly plot problems, offer a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on, and tell you when to gut your story (or blog post) of clichés.

The other thing you should know about me is that I work. In particular, I work part-time and attend university the rest of the time, so I’m basically reading slush whenever I can sneak it in. When I write, it’s either very late at night or very early in the morning. And this brings me to the second reason why you are awesome.

2. We think you are awesome because you are writing, editing, and submitting your stories when you probably have fifty billion other things you need to be doing at any given point in time. Let’s face it: life is not kind to artistic types, and time is in short supply. The fact that you’re making time for your art is truly awe-inspiring. After all, there are plenty of wishers and wannabe writers, but what separates them from you is that you are out there working towards your goals.

The last thing you should know about me is that I love slush. I love it tons. Every single letter is like opening a present. Of course, sometimes you get socks instead of the latest Nintendo game – but that’s not to say that I indiscriminately dislike socks. No, there are definitely some days when I’d love to get a present consisting of nice, thick, Dumbledorean socks. (The Christmas after I moved up to the wintry north comes to mind.) So even if, one day, a story filled with metaphorical socks doesn’t strike my fancy, a couple weeks down the road, I could find a sock-filled story and adore it.

And this brings me to my last reason why you are awesome.

3. We think you are awesome because you send the query letters. Being on submission is an incredibly nerve-wracking process. I know I’ve been there. Most of us have, as a matter of fact, been in the same shoes as you’re wearing right now. They’re tough shoes to wear. They pinch your toes. You take the risk and put yourselves out there, essentially letting a bunch of strangers pass judgment on a piece of art that’s intensely personal. That is an admirable thing you are  doing, my friend. Keep up the good work.

You are awesome.