Publication in literary magazines tend to be a bit of a hit and miss. It takes months of submissions to find some stories a home. others, like my piece at Smokelong, land the first time they are sent out. Publication is tough, and submissions a gamble, but it is also a full-time job. You need to write publishable-quality stories, and then you need to shop them ad nauseam. To do this, you need the right approach, and good advice from someone like John Haggerty, an author I admire, and one of the founding editors of the Forge Literary Magazine.
As part of my ongoing guest post series from the publication industry in this blog, a few weeks ago we heard from Maria Vicente, Associate Agent with the P.S. Literary Agency. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome John, an author and editor, but most importantly, a generous mentor. He’s given very useful, practical advice for those starting on the writing life, and publication in literary magazines. I’ve highlighted some of it for you in blue.
- What led you to write fiction? What are your preoccupations as a writer?
I was one of those geeky kids who liked reading better than sports. The more I read, the more amazing the act of writing seemed to me to be—that writers were able to invent entire worlds, filled with people that nobody else had ever met. So of course I wanted to be a writer. For the longest time I had terminal writer’s block. But now, finally, here I am.
As far as my preoccupations go, I seem to keep coming back to the ideas of power and delusion. Power is such an interesting thing—not so much in its more obvious manifestations like politics and money, but in the smaller, subtler ways it manifests in our daily lives. The use of power damages us in ways that are often very difficult to perceive—power is as dangerous to the person who wields it as the one who is subject to it. Delusion is equally interesting. Having watched my mind for a while now, I have an enormous respect for my ability to lie to myself—to paint my motives as completely pure when they rarely are, to see circumstances as simple and certain when they are anything but. It seems to me that we walk around in a fog of alternating self-congratulation and self-condemnation all the time, and rarely, if ever, see things as they truly are. The good news, I guess, is that it gives me plenty of things to write about.
2. What books/ stories have you recently read that you would recommend to the readers of Daily (w)rite, and why?
Bad Behavior – Mary Gaitskill: She is so good at getting to really uncomfortable places in human interactions, the awkward, the disturbing, the frightening—she renders these situations with such deftness and grace.
Laidlaw – William McIlvanney: McIlvanney was one of those really psychologically acute writers who can lay open the complexities of a character without seeming overbearing or didactic. Sort of like Dostoyevsky meets Ross MacDonald in Scotland.
Stoner – John Williams: I am not the most subtle of writers. I enjoy big plots, big writing and, of course, jokes. So I really like reading authors who can do more with less. The basic outlines of Stoner—an English professor who struggles with his career and an unhappy marriage—sounds as though it could be tremendously dull, but I found it riveting and ultimately very moving. Williams can do so much with small, quiet scenes.
3. Tell us about your journey to find an agent for your novel.
I guess the short story is that it wasn’t easy. I was pretty naïve going into the process. I had a reasonably good publishing resume, and I flattered myself that my book, Calamity Springs, wasn’t terrible. But the publishing industry is a difficult place these days. Readership is decreasing, and and the big publishers are retrenching and taking long, hard looks at every title they consider buying.
My single piece of advice about it would be that personal connections seem much more effective than cold queries. The majority of my full manuscript requests came from agents with whom I had some previous connection. This means going to conferences, socializing and schmoozing, all of the things that we writers tend not to be very good at. It’s not impossible to get an agent with a cold query, but it is harder.
4. Your stories have seen wide publication, been shortlisted for, and won various awards. To an aspiring writer submitting to magazines, what would be your advice?
Whenever people ask me for inspirational writing quotes, I trot out Virginia Woolf: “The world is indifferent to your art.” People often find this deflating, but I think it’s perversely inspirational, if only because of its painful truth. Let’s face it—nobody would really care if I quit writing tomorrow. In fact, my wife might even be relieved.So if you are writing to become rich or famous or to make people love you, it is extremely likely that you will end up bitter and disappointed. If you are writing for vague, fictional audiences in your head—editors, agents, publishers, the hungry public—your work will be shallow and self-conscious. I find that if I start with an assumption of my insignificance and I still want to write, things work out much better, both artistically and, uh, spiritually, for want of a better word.
For more concrete advice on how to get published, submitting, and submitting a lot, is the only answer. After a story exceeds a certain level of quality, getting accepted is basically a random process. Good stories get rejected all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality—they are too long or short, they didn’t fit thematically with other stories in the issue, the slush pile reader was hungover and in a bad mood that day—the whole process feels like playing roulette a lot of the time. And when we are faced with a random process, the only solution is to repeat it until we get the results we want.
Having said that, there are a lot of stories kicking around out there that are flawed in some way. The trick is to know the difference between a story that needs work and one that just needs to find the right venue. If you send it out 20 times and get only first-tier form rejections, it might be an indication that the piece needs more work. If you are getting the encouraging “submit again” rejections and personal rejections, odds are greater that you will be able to place it somewhere eventually.
5. Tell us more about the publication of Forge Literary Magazine. What inspired you to set it up?
It was my wife’s idea originally, and to be honest, I couldn’t believe she suggested it. In fact, when she said that we ought to start a literary journal, my exact words were, “Are you insane?” But after she explained her thought process on the publication, it started to make a lot of sense. We belong to an amazing online writers group, the Fiction Forge. We mentioned the idea to some of the other Forgers, and they were really enthusiastic. So here we are.
There are so many talented writers in the world, and I thought if we could just get a few more of them noticed, it would really be a wonderful thing. We also want to pay writers, because writing is hard work. Of course, we’re all writers too, so we don’t have a whole lot of money to spare, but we pay what we can. We’ve successfully solicited and published established authors like Janice Galloway and Nona Caspers, and stories to come are from names like Kevin Barry. Our hope is to match that quality by reading anonymous submissions from the slush.
6. Are you more comfortable with writing short fiction or a novel? In your opinion, how are the two different?
In spite of the fact that I have worked mostly in short fiction, I think I am more naturally drawn to the novel. A novel gives you the space to stretch out and expand on things in a way that short fiction doesn’t–the characters can be deeper, the themes more nuanced. That said, really great short fiction is miraculous. The ways in which, say, Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor could bring moments to such crystalline, vivid life in only a few thousand words, it’s an amazing thing. I still write short stories and flashes—it’s nice to take a break from a novel every once in a while—but I see myself concentrating more on longer stuff in the future for publication.
7. You have a truly gifted comic voice. What makes good comedy—a good comic short story, novel, or play?
Thank you. This is always such a difficult question. Humor is one of those things that doesn’t bear a lot of inspection. Nothing kills a joke faster than poking at it too much. I think the old formula is that the best jokes are truths expressed in an unexpected way, and I guess that’s as good a starting point as anything else. These days, I’m trying to add compassion in as well. Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t want the world to look at too hard, and it can be terribly tempting to ferret out people’s little flaws and foibles and wave them around for the derisive amusement of the audience. But those kinds of jokes are cheap and cruel, and I’m trying to stay away from that sort of thing these days. Then again, if I see some pompous, narcissistic bully out there (and we certainly have no shortage of them these days), or a ridiculous idea accepted as fact, I feel it’s my duty as a writer to mock them. OK, I’m not giving up the cheap shots completely, just trying to be more judicious in where they are deployed.
8. Tell us about the Forge Fiction Anthology. What can a reader expect to find?
One of the things we do at the Fiction Forge is to stage periodic writing exercises, weekends where we try to write as many flashes as possible, or my personal favorite, something we call Team Intrepid, in which we post twenty random writing prompts and then try to write a story in an hour using every one of the prompts in the order given. It’s crazy stuff, but it’s amazing how often the germ of something good comes of these things, and how often those pieces go on to publication. The Fiction Forge is chock full of really accomplished writers. The members have a really wide array of styles, from gritty realism to surrealism, beautiful poetic language and spare, punchy prose.The stories in the anthology reflect this. There is tremendous variety in the publication, and every single piece is excellent. I’m very excited about it.
John Haggerty’s work found publication most recently in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Nimrod, Salon, and The Pinch. He is a member of the online writers’ collective The Fiction Forge, and one of the founding editors of Forge Literary Magazine.
Do you have questions for John ? Are you querying a book, or submitting to literary mags? Are you considering submitting to the Forge Literary magazine? Any other burning questions about the writing life, submitting and publication of stories? Have at it in the comments–John would be answering questions!