Category Archives: inspiration

My Journey to Publication

“Don’t make a career out of this.”

I still remember, twelve years later, the words that a creative writing professor at Beloit College penned on one of my admittedly horrible short stories. Those words hit a nerve. Even today, they remain one of my biggest motivators.

For better or worse, I personally respond quite well to negative motivation. I love to prove people wrong and show them up. While my stories in that professor’s class were indeed horrible, his remark was erroneous, as he did not know my own path and character.

I chose to be a creative writing major at Beloit because it seemed fun. Upon entering college, I did not have much of a plan as to what to get out of it, aside from gaining real-world experience and leaving a sheltered boyhood behind. While I am sure that many of my peers in the program had written for years and knew exactly how to improve, for me, the program at Beloit, a very free-form one, was difficult to navigate. The open-ended nature of our program would certainly be ideal for a motivated writer with some experience, but I found it frustrating. The basics were never taught, and being sheltered, I did not have many interesting life experiences under my belt to write from. As a result, my writing was both juvenile and poorly crafted.

I have recounted on this blog several times now about how a friend of mine’s belief in the potential in my writing, even as rough as it was back then, got me to actually love writing for the first time in my life. The confidence that he instilled in me, coupled with my desire to show up the professor who wrote those motivating words on that abysmal short story, were the impetus that led me to start submitting my poetry to literary journals.

Of course, I failed. And failed. And failed. I had, if I remember correctly, my first 24 submissions rejected. Believing that success was assured, I was both blindsided and devastated by the actual results.

I knew that the poems that I was submitting to these literary magazines were objectively good. People that I trusted not to humor me regarding my writing informed me that they were, and many were shocked at the sea change in quality from my juvenilia. This time, I had carefully edited the poems, scrutinizing every line. However, they were not being accepted for publication. The reason for this was that I was sending these poems to literary journals that were simply not a fit for the alternative sensibilities inherent to my creative writing. Traditional literary journals did not cater to the type of writing I was producing, and, of course, they rejected it.

My friend Russell, the man who inspired me to write in the first place, taught me the basics of publication by introducing me to Duotrope.com, but naturally I didn’t use it effectively. I used it to find journals that were esteemed, did not read any of their content, and submitted my poems with only a cursory regard for the submissions guidelines. My whole approach was lazy and disrespectful, not just to myself, but to the publishers of these magazines and the entire literary profession.

Personally, I believe that there are no obstacles in life that cannot be overcome. I knew that if I worked harder, I could get my poetry accepted in literary magazines. I began to read many literary journals, and the ones that I enjoyed reading, ones that featured poets and short story writers with, for lack of a better description, punk rock sensibilities, caught my interest. I discovered amazing writers who I had never heard of, ones whose works appealed to my love of Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson, larger than life writers who both lived and wrote on the edge. When I would read the works of these writers like Doug Draime, Misti Rainwater-Lites, Holly Day, Michele McDannold, Catfish McDaris, Sarah E. Alderman, and Lynne Savitt, among many others, I knew that I had found many skilled people doing exciting things in the alternative presses.

I decided to submit my poem Like A Library in the Suburbs to one of these alternative presses, Michele McDannold’s Citizens for Decent Literature, then one of the top places to publish for alternative poets, and had my poem accepted. I felt vindicated to know that a poet who I respected thought that I had talent enough to publish me, and that if I just targeted effectively, sending my writing to journals that I enjoyed reading and that featured writers with roughly similar sensibilities, I would have a good chance of getting my work accepted. Since then, I have about a 33% acceptance rate for my poetry and short fiction, which would be closer to 60% if not for being overly ambitious and reaching out to some of my favorite magazines that are not perfect fits for my writing.

I will never forget those words that professor wrote, but now, with many publications under my belt, three excellent screenplays composed and currently shopped, becoming lead writer for an amazing startup, being interviewed by literary magazines, and developing publishing projects of my own, I realize that those words were nothing more than a judgment rendered without sufficient evidence. I love writing, and I know that I am good and that I will only continue to improve.

I hope that my story gives you the confidence you need to fully embark on your career as a successful writer.

In success,
Alfonso

Writers Are Wise: Some of My Favorite Quotes

I want to deeply thank my readers for supporting this blog. It’s quite an amazing feeling to know that many aspiring writers have found my thoughts on the literary game useful. With that said, I’m switching the format up tonight. Rather than offer my advice, I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes from other writers. Many are inspirational; others are thought-provoking. Enjoy!

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“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” – Doris Lessing

“You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.” – René Descartes

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” – Albert Camus

“I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses.” – Arthur Rimbaud

“When shall we live if not now?” – Shirley Jackson

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” – Charles Bukowski

“Don’t complain, don’t explain.” – Raymond Carver

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” – Oscar Wilde

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” – Cormac McCarthy

“All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.” – Flannery O’Connor

“All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all. Our hunger for foreign places and new ways has been with us almost like a national disease. Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest, and our writers have been great wanderers.” – Carson McCullers

“I’m an idiot, I’m a fool, I know, but I’ve been a good read, right?” – Hunter S. Thompson

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” – Ayn Rand

How I Started Getting My Fiction and Poetry Published in Various Presses

I graduated from Beloit College with a BA in Creative Writing in 2007.

The first journal that published my writing was O Sweet Flowery Roses, a non-competitive journal put out by my friend Russell Jaffe. That was in 2008. He ran some more poems of mine in 2009.

It wasn’t until four years later that I published my first piece in a competitive press, Michele McDannold’s journal Citizens for Decent Literature. That was in March 2013. One month later, I had a second piece accepted by Jack Marlowe’s Gutter Eloquence Magazine.

I was finally getting my writing published in excellent journals, alongside MFAs and prolific writers with many books to their credit. I had grown enough as a writer in the past decade to have reached a point of being able to write well, but the question was what now?

I was employed at Monroe College as a librarian, English tutor, substitute professor, and advisor to the campus Poetry Club. I truly enjoyed my jobs at Monroe College, but I knew I had a choice to make. I could either stay in academia and write a little bit here and there, or I could take a leap into the unknown and really move forward as a writer. I did what I knew was best and left my position at Monroe.

Some might consider it crazy to leave a good job that you enjoy behind to pursue your literary dream. Maybe it is. However, if I didn’t do that, I know that I wouldn’t be the writer for an upcoming blockbuster TV series’ accompanying book. I know that if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have my writing widely published. I know that if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have had any time to write period.

I left New York for a friend’s home in rural Pennsylvania. She gave me a free room. I wrote, and I let her skewer my writing, working with me as my editor until my writing was flawless. Afterwards, I sent out my writing and much of it got published.

Why did it happen? How did I go from ten years of no publications to someone beginning to make a name for himself as a writer? I credit it all to the bold move of burning my bridges and just going for it.

Now, of course, it’s not just about being bold. You have to mix boldness with intelligence and hard work. I wrote incessantly. I worked with an excellent editor who gave me great feedback because I knew that no writer can be objective about his own writing. I spent countless hours reading and researching various literary journals to find which ones would be appropriate matches for my writing. That’s how I did it. I realized that there is no other way, but that three-part process:

1. Writing: You need to write all the time. Some of your ideas will be great and others will not, but just keep writing. It’s the only way you will improve.

2. Working with a skilled editor: Rairigh Drum saved my fiction. My stories were good, but she made them excellent. I couldn’t have done it on my own. I needed her. All writers need editors.

3. Researching the publishers: No matter how great a piece of writing is, if you send it to a market that’s an inappropriate fit it’ll get rejected. The hours I spent researching literary journals online was not only an exercise in finding other amazing writers, but it really allowed me to find appropriate homes for my work.

I hope you found this blog post helpful—now go out there and make your mark on the literary game!

Five Things Aspiring Writers May Think Are True, But Aren’t

It’s a huge high when you first decide to take the plunge and devote yourself to writing…but like all highs, eventually you will come down. Sadly, it’s quite common for aspiring writers to fall into deep depressions and begin believing things that simply aren’t true. This post seeks to dispel five of these erroneous beliefs that you may have:

1. I will never improve as a writer.

Have you heard of a man by the name of Malcolm Gladwell? How about a little obscure band from the U.K. called The Beatles? Skillful writing, like any other talent, takes time to develop. Gladwell posits that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. The Beatles were just another local band before they went on tour in Germany, playing night after night for an extensive period of time. By the end of that insanely demanding stint in Germany, they had transformed from a silly local band to quite possibly the greatest band of all time.

Look, we all start from humble origins. If you have a natural gift for writing, and you most probably do if you’re reading this blog and writing already, then just have the patience to develop your skill. Your work will improve. If possible, take classes in Creative Writing, go to local workshops, or have an editor take a look at your work and help improve it. In time, you will become a better writer if you stick with it.

2. I will never get recognized.

OK, let’s face facts, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon—these authors probably wouldn’t be recognized as easily in public as LeBron James, Brad Pitt, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. Even Stephen King wouldn’t be as easily recognizable as any of the aforementioned four. Unfortunately, many people in our modern society don’t read; however, those who do so are often quite voracious about it. People do buy books. People do read literary journals. People do appreciate amazing authors. Successful authors get speaking engagements, generous contracts from major publishers, and major press attention. This can happen to you. 

But it goes back to the 10,000 hours thing. Develop your skill and then learn how to market your writing.

3. I will grow to hate writing.

Will you? Really? If writing is your passion, or at least one of your passions, and you’re devoting time to it, how can you develop a hatred for it? If anything, as you improve, as you get recognized more and more, and as you begin receiving compensation for it, you’ll grow to love writing even more.

If you hate writing now, ask yourself if it’s really something you enjoy doing, or are you doing it against your will. If you hate writing, ask yourself if you hate the lack of recognition, financial compensation, or how your work stands up to your favorite authors. If any of those three are what’s causing you to hate writing now, then put in more hours and watch how in time your hatred will dissipate and transform to an unquenchable love.

4. Writing is something that cannot be lucrative.

OK, in fairness, if you want to be a millionaire, writing is probably not the profession for you. However, if you develop your abilities as a writer, you can get by, and even live well purely from your own creative output. Also, recognition as a writer grants you a huge in to communications jobs and if recognized enough, work as an adjunct professor (or more with the appropriate degree).

A few months back, I met a gentleman who runs an open mic for poets and other talent in New York City. His name is Mike Geffner and he is the founder of The Inspired Word—New York City’s best open mic. As a young man, he sought to make a living through writing, and he’s never had to work in any other field to get by. You can too.

5. My writing isn’t good because it’s not like the stuff I read in high school/college.

Stop! High schools and colleges primarily teach literary fiction and classical fiction. There is quality writing in these genres, undoubtedly, but there are talented writers who write for audiences other than academics and other erudite individuals. Few academics would dismiss the work of Arthur C. Clarke. No one can argue with the sales prowess of J. K. Rowling. You don’t have to write literary fiction to be a writer. If you want to write well, you need to write what you want to write, not what you imagine others expect you to write.

I hope this post was informative. If you find this helpful, please share this with your friends on social media.

The Top Ten Excuses You Can Use to Justify Not Writing

Hey everyone! Summer vacation is over. The Literary Game is back!

I’ll be getting back to posting serious, content-rich posts geared towards help aspiring writers edit their work, publish their work, and stay sane…tomorrow.

Today, I’m going to have a bit of fun.

We all sometimes slack on our writing. If any other writers try to guilt trip you about it, here’s a list of top ten excuses you can use to justify not writing:

10. I can’t write because my eyes are blurry from staring at rejection letters all night long…and crying.

9. I can’t write because I need an MFA first, because, like, all writers have to have one, right?

8. I can’t write because I sprained my finger…from typing.

7. I can’t write because there’s a Doctor Who marathon today, my D&D group meets tomorrow, and that old copy of Metroid is coming in the mail in two days.

6. I can’t write because I have to live first. I’ll write in a few years after I’ve amassed enough experience. Ladies, I’m single, I work at Starbucks, and my mother says I’m a snappy dresser.

5. I can’t write because I like totally love you. Do you know I’m on molly right now? And I love you.

4. My C.O. said I can’t write until after I get off probation.

3. I can’t write until I’m drunk. All writers are drunks, right? I read that in a Bukowski novel, I think. I’m only nineteen, so it’ll just be two years until I can legally become an alcoholic…and a writer.

2. I can’t write until I get famous. What’s the point when the advances are so small? The plan is to go viral first by rapping NWA songs in my tighty whities and uploading them to YouTube. I swear I’ll start writing after Dr. Dre gives me daps.

1. I can’t write until I get good, which can’t happen until I get my work edited by this dude who runs a blog on WordPress.

How to Deal with Constructive Criticism as an Aspiring Writer

Malcolm Gladwell states that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of anything.

Have you put 10,000 hours into your writing?

If you’re not even close, it’s going to show. Your writing will be rough around the edges. Your technique will be off. You may make some egregious errors in plotting. Your description could be overdone or nearly nonexistent. Your characters may be poorly developed. Your dialogue might sound unrealistic.

Don’t freak out! All of this is part of the growth process when you’re an aspiring writer. You’re normal. You’re not a bad writer. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.

You’re going to make mistakes, plenty of them; and if you show other writers your stuff, they’ll pick it apart. That’s a good thing. They’re helping you, even though it feels like they’re insulting your precious literary babies.

I don’t personally believe in literary genius; I believe in literary effort. If you put the effort in, you’ll become a stellar writer. If you don’t, you’ll have to deal with constructive criticism, which isn’t such a bad thing.

When you do face constructive criticism of your fiction (or any other type of writing), always remember the following three things:

1. Remember that it’s not meant as a personal attack.

2. Remember that’s in your best interest to get critiqued if you would like to improve your writing.

3. Remember that an aspiring writer who puts the effort in is constantly increasing her/his abilities.

How do you handle constructive criticism of your writing? Have you ever felt uncomfortable when receiving constructive criticism? Why?

You Don’t Have To Be a Serious Writer

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I write serious fiction. My work is offbeat, but it’s still within the sphere of the literary establishment. However, I dislike the attitude that permeates certain circles, one that believes that literary fiction is more important than other types of fiction or is the only type of quality fiction.

I think that much of this attitude is born out of the academy. If you’re enrolled in a  creative writing program in your undergraduate career or if you are pursuing an MFA, you’re going to learn craft, and most likely you will become skilled in the technical component of writing fiction. However, you also may consciously or subconsciously start picking up on the cues of the kind of writing that a serious writer should and shouldn’t write. That’s why it can be confining to write for a literary audience—the parameters are not nearly as wide as for the audience for literature as a whole.

A writer should write whatever story she feels called to put on the page. Of course, it should be technically sound. However, it doesn’t have to be limited to stories about serious people dealing with serious situations within the tradition of realism and hefty with a subtle philosophical weight. Your work can be light, it can be a romance, or a mystery, or pulpy, or fantastical, or belligerent. As long as your writing is sharp, as long as your writing is fresh, you ought to feel pretty satisfied, regardless of whether your work would be deemed “serious” fiction or not.

What’s your take on this? Do you write literary fiction? Am I going too far? Do you write mainstream or genre fiction? Have you ever felt slighted by the literary establishment?

Friends and Lovers

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“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

If you’ve seriously committed yourself to your writing, by the very nature of the task, you will have to have to spend a great deal of time working alone. If you’re fortunate enough to be a full-time writer, you may have no reason to come into contact with anyone, other than at readings, when networking with other writers, or perhaps through meetings with an agent or publishing representatives. If you have a job or are in school, the bulk of your time away from your professional responsibilities may very well be spent writing.

To join the literary game, to get readers to discover your writing, to get publishers to take you seriously, to maybe make a bit of money from your writing, you need to be serious about work and make writing a consistent part of your life. However, sometimes writers can take their profession so seriously that they become recluses, avoiding friends, disregarding or not seeking out lovers, and distancing themselves from supportive family.

I urge all writers to try to find a balance between their non-writing obligations, their writing, and their life and the people who love them. You’re not a machine, you’re a person. You need love, the same as anyone else. You have to embrace the love around you, not run from it because you have a “greater task.”

The isolation will destroy you. It’s not tenable over the long haul for producing good writing either.

Make sure that you value your loved ones. In a solitary profession like ours, they can be your cheerleaders and confidantes, but it’s not just about you. Humans are social creatures. Scientists have proven that without love, your DNA becomes damaged over time. Embrace the love. It will keep you whole.

How do you balance your writing, your professional obligations, and your relationships? Have you ever had any problems doing so?

A Letter to a Young Author

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Please, whatever you do, never give up.

I know it may seem like all your efforts lead to absolutely nothing, but please don’t give up.

Believe me, I know that it’s hard rolling the boulder up the mountain to get everything going, it may even seem like a Herculean task, but please, don’t give up.

As best as you can, try to get over the initial hurdles, the ennui that keeps you from writing, the hurt feelings from the rejections, the fact that you know just how many other aspiring writers are out there.

And, please, stay calm. I know that it can be incredibly challenging for an aspiring writer to break in. It takes time to get the technique right, it takes time to know where to publish, it takes time to get the respect of other authors.

But please, try not to let your current situation get you down. So many other aspiring writers get discouraged. They could get to where you’re going, but they won’t because they are choosing to give up. You can take their place. You can get your work out there.

So please, don’t get discouraged by all the hurdles along the way. You have work to do, lots of it, to push that boulder up the mountain. It may seem immovable, but it isn’t. Just please stay calm, regroup when you fail, and keep pushing.

You could be great, but the world may never know if you give up…

Announcement: Hey everyone. I want to thank you all for reading The Literary Game. I’m honored by how much support I’ve received since starting this a little over a month ago.

I write a lot about writing here. I hope you’ll want to read a bit of my actual writing. My piece UFO, a work of flash fiction, was just published in Farther Stars Than These. I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks!

There’s No “I” in Poetry

I graduated from Beloit College with a Bachelor’s in creative writing in December 2006. I didn’t write another poem until August 2008.

When my friend and former Beloit classmate Russell Jaffe (founder of Strange Cage) moved to Brooklyn in the summer of 2008, the first thing he asked me was “Are you still writing poetry?” I told him the truth: I wasn’t. Russell had just completed his MFA from Columbia College in Chicago and was determined to make an impact in New York’s literary scene. He had booked a space at Flushnik Studios, an artist’s space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and planned to put on a poetry reading there. He offered me a slot—if I had poems to share.

The truth was that I had felt rather down about my creative writing. I didn’t start writing until I was 20, during my sophomore year of college. I didn’t believe in myself as a writer back then. I gave it up after college—until Russell believed in me enough to put me on the show. Russell had spurred me on to write again. After talking to him, I composed a series of poems heavily influenced by slam poetry, filled with verve and clever wordplay, sharper than anything from my days at Beloit.

But they were filled with I’s.

I showed them to Russell about a week before the reading. He liked them, but he gently suggested that I should perhaps consider removing the “I’s” from my poems. I did. When the time came to read them, I was thrilled by the raucous applause I received afterwards. It felt a lot better than the similarities to being in front of a firing squad whenever my poetry was workshopped in college.

It’s not a hard rule that you should never use the word “I” in your poems. However, if all your poetry is so intensely personal it devalues the intimacy of the device. It makes your poetry seem confessional and limited, when it could be so much more by choosing to remove the “I” and present it as far more expansive. Your work will go beyond seeming to be just relevant to the narrow contours of your life.

There’s a time for “I” in poetry. You should certainly keep using it, if appropriate for your poem; however, if your poem feels flat and insular, try taking the “I’s” out and reshaping it to go beyond your immediate feelings and experiences. Your work should truly shine.