Find a Home for Your Stories in Literary Journals — Getting In
by Joe Marren
Special to Poynter.org
You say you got all the money you need but you don’t have publishing happiness?
You think that a good lede, tightly written, sings better than any fat lady at the Met?
And you often argue around the newsroom water cooler that the dumb city editor wouldn’t know a good story if it bit him on the ... well, let’s leave that one alone, shall we? So wotta ya gonna do, bunky?
Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman, co-founders of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, have the answer and it’s right there in their pages –- or in any other small literary mags pages, they told a room of about 120 fellow enthusiasts at the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.
So here are their eight easy steps on how to publish in literary journals and magazines while keeping a journalism day job:
• First off, forget about always pleasing the cranky daily newspaper editor. And, let’s be honest, do extra work! Why not write two versions of the story? You know your paper will print one, okay, fine. Then let yourself go and write another version that you know the paper would never publish. For a good example of the principle in action, look at River Teeth’s Fall 2000 edition and read Tom Feeney’s "Hairdo." It gives new meaning to the phrase "bad hair day."
• Turn a moment of reporting into lyric essay. This genre is typically short and you can write it while your editor isn’t looking or on guerilla forays into uncharted areas of a newsroom, say around the copy editors’ reference desk. Stop and think about this: A typical news reporter already has the writing know-how. So when out on an assignment, take a moment to use your senses. Look around. What does the burnt coffee smell like? What are the color of the victim’s eyes? This favors reporting and language –- the perfect marriage of content and meditation. And to top it off, editors love short things to publish.
• Ever go to a board meeting and come away hitting your head, wondering, "What’s happening here? Where’s the news?" Of course you have. So look for people on the periphery and take note of the people nobody sees. This gives you the advantage of being able to write about other things while still doing your reporter’s job.
• Don’t shy away from doing some first-person reporting, even if that perspective is added later while revising the piece. After all, as a writer you care about a topic and can make yourself the protagonist. That’s hard for traditionalists such as third-person devotees Joe and Jane Journalist to do, but try structuring a story around the idea.
• However, if you do write about yourself, your family, your dog, your first convertible in California, be sure to include reportorial elements. Journal editors are inundated with memoirs; make yours different by using reporting as well as memory to tell an interesting story that you are immersed in.
• Okay, now let’s deconstruct everything we discussed above. Why not try de-emphasizing the reportorial aspects and concentrate on language, senses, images, impressions and description, essentially writing an essay for a lit mag by reworking what you just handed in for deadline?
• Move from the public to the private. Tracy Daugherty’s "Five Shades of Shadow: Migrant Journeys After Murrah" (due out in spring 2003 from the University of Nebraska Press), is a mix of essay, memoir and reporting that stretches from the legacy of the fictional Tom Joad to his childhood and a bit of reporting on the families of the Oklahoma City bombing.
• Write brief. Short. Like this. Get it? Understand? To break the rule, brief literary nonfiction can be driven by detail and scene along with a pinch of action or reflection. Examples can be found on www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity.
Now comes the kicker: What can you expect to be paid for all this work? A couple of contributor’s copies. But whoever said we were in this for the money anyway?
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.