Slow Learner


Lake of Earth is nearly a year old. As a way to mark that, I thought I’d list some things I’ve learned over the past few years. Some of this might seem painfully basic, but they’re lessons that’ve taken me a while to get right.

1. Do the Work

I had a professor in undergrad, Rebecca Gorman-O’Neill, who told us that “writers write.” This seems like obvious advice, but I didn’t do a great job of it after graduation. From 2008-2010, I wrote very little. I’d chip away at existing stories once or twice a month or write first drafts I never returned to. I almost never submitted work. I’m not sure what I was waiting for. I told myself that I was collecting ideas, that I only wanted to write when I was “inspired.” Those reasons were bullshit. I just didn’t want to do the work. While I discovered a lot of great authors in that time (Gary Lutz, Blake Butler, and Aimee Bender to name a few), I had zero disciple, so I never got finished anything.

In early 2011, I started writing on a schedule and sending out work. Later on in the year, the work started getting published. I also began writing in a journal about what I was reading, and that kind of close analysis helped my stories. In this article about Maria Bamford, her mantra is reportedly “Do the work.” It’s good advice for all realms of life. If you want to do something well, you’re going to have to put in the hours.

2. One Thing at a Time

When I wasn’t writing, I was worried that I could never produce a “great work.” I thought that masterpieces were perfect creations which came out perfectly. One of the benefits of reading critically was seeing that great work isn’t one unassailable product of inspiration, it’s actually made up of thousands and thousands of excellent decisions. This is strangely comforting to me. I don’t have to worry about nebulous things like inspiration and perfection, just make sure I’m making good decisions, as well as finding opportunities to make them. I’m not saying that big elements like plot and structure don’t matter, just that they’re a part of a whole, and it all matters.

3. Submit Discriminately

An editor friend of mine said the biggest issue with open submissions is that most of the writing submitted is clearly unfit for the journal. When I first started sending out work, I would open up the New Pages list of literary magazines, go through a letter, and submit work to two or three places that seemed like a good fit. I’d skim one or two stories in their last issue, and when in doubt, I’d just go ahead and send the work. All this did was waste both my and the editor’s  time.

It’s good to remember that editors aren’t evil overlords sitting on high thrones; they’re people with jobs to do. Yes, you have a vision for your writing, but editors also have clear ideas of the work they want in their journal. Looking back, my stories that have been rejected have either been a bad fit, not ready for publication, or not a great idea to begin with. I eventually had to accept that the editors who rejected me when I was first starting out were doing me a favor.

4. No Hiding

When finishing the draft of Lake of Earth that I submitted for Caketrain’s chapbook competition, I would sometimes find sentences that felt off. I would skip over the problems, thinking they were minor issues the editors wouldn’t notice. In most situations (if not all), the Caketrain editors picked up on these weaknesses and made great changes. I’m lucky to work with editors who saw through those problems and were willing to work with me, but I should have caught them ahead of time. This isn’t to say that I saw all of their edits coming, just that many of the weaknesses I noticed were ones they noticed as well. I’ll run through a few examples. The original sentence is first, followed by the edit.

“The man approaches. The passenger door is open for him.”
“The man approaches. The passenger door is open.”

A simple change, but the reader can tell through context clues that the door is open for him, particularly since there is no one else around that would get into the car.

“The man sees little structures, buildings, towns, cities, collapse inside A.”
“The man sees little homes, towns and cities collapsing inside A.”

This gave the sentence a more interesting rhythm, while also correcting it to present participle.

“He thought, dear god, dear god.”
“Dear god, He thought, dear god.”

Again, a better rhythm, while also creating a symmetrical structure that is replicated often in the book.

Lastly, I wanted to share what I thought was the best edit:

“We never shopped at legitimate grocery stores…”
“We never shopped at legit grocery stores…”

This is from “Five Cities,” the second story in the collection. While looking through the draft with marked changes, this edit caught me completely off guard. I first thought I’d never use the word legit in piece of writing. Then I got “2 Legit 2 Quit” stuck in my head. I was certain I was going to argue against it. Then I read through the pdf without marked changes (the clean copy). When I came to that sentence, I almost didn’t notice the change. It was suddenly seamless, and not only that, it shifted the voice of the piece and gave it a subtle charge that I didn’t know it needed. It’s one of those thousand or so decisions that goes into a finished piece, and I’m tremendously grateful that they suggested it.

(Image Credit)

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