Creative Writing Program Coordinator Michael V. Smith Offers Advice to New Writers
February 8th, 2018
Smith demystifies the process of targeting journals, sending simultaneous submissions, and building a rapport with publishers.
Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Michael V. Smith, the Creative Writing Program Coordinator here at UBCO, and I asked him a few questions about the world of publishing. Unsurprisingly, he had a wealth of knowledge on the subject.
Daniel Greene: At what point should new writers start looking to journals to publish their work?
Michael V. Smith: I think you send out as soon as you have something finished. Because just putting the poem on a fresh sheet of paper and printing it up and putting it in an envelope, or emailing it, just that process makes you think of that object, the writing object, as a new thing. You get a new perspective on it. You see it in relationship to all the things you’re sending it to. I sent stuff out in high school, and I didn’t get anything published for a long time. But I started in high school, and it was educational to see that work going off into the world. Also, even though you get rejection letters, you can’t get too hung up on rejections, because you’re going to have a life of them. It’s inevitable. But there’s a real great boost and thrill when you send it off. Like, you birth it, then you send it to school. That’s an exciting experience. It makes you want to do more.
DG: There’s a lot of journals in Canada. As a new writer, how do you decide which journals to target first?
MVS: Well, the best one I think for new writers is Broken Pencil Magazine which is published out of Toronto. It’s geared specifically toward younger and DIY artists. But apart from that, I think going with a publisher that’s near you, so someone that may have a regional interest in your work, is a really smart idea, so other BC publishers or even Okanagan publishers, if you can find them. There’s lots of BC people who have a mandate to publish other BC people, like SubTerrain Magazine out of Vancouver, Prism International which is run out of the UBC creative writing program, Contemporary Verse 2 out of North Vancouver, and Event, they’re out of Douglas College. All those presses, if you say in your by-line in your cover letter that you’re a poet from the Okanagan, that will make a difference for them.
“It’s important that, if you’re going to send work to a magazine, that you’ve read a number of their back issues, and recent back issues, so you know what kind of work they’re interested in.”
DG: What are some of the biggest mistakes that writers make when they first get into publishing?
MVS: I think the biggest mistake is often that they don’t do enough research about the market. It’s important that, if you’re going to send work to a magazine, that you’ve read a number of their back issues, and recent back issues, so you know what kind of work they’re interested in. Like, sure they publish poetry, but what kind of poetry? Is it very traditional, what kind of content is in it, what kind of stories are they interested in hearing? Who are the types of people that are represented in those pages? Every publication has its own flavour, and you need to find places where the palate suits the work that you’re sending. But it’s pretty easy to search that stuff up. You find some new publication and look in the back of it and see where that writer has had their work published.
DG: Another thing is simultaneous submissions. If you have a story and you just want to get it out there, what is the etiquette? Is it rude if you’re sending three or four copies of the same story all over the place?
MVS: Well, it feels like we’re in a real time where that’s changing. It used to be a hard and fast ‘no.’ Some places say really specifically ‘no simultaneous submissions,’ so you don’t do it if they say that. But if they don’t say that, if that’s not explicit, then I think it’s always smart just to mention, ‘I’m sending you this work and I’ve sent it to a couple other places too.’ Something that’s really helpful is to say, ‘I’m going to give you a deadline and check back with you in two months,’ or whatever, to see if they’ve had a look at it. And then you do that. And if you haven’t heard from the press in four months, then you send them an email and say, ‘hey, I sent you this story four months ago on this date, here’s the title, here’s the subject line from the email, I’m just wondering what the status is of it, and if I don’t here back from you in a week then I’m going to send it out to more places.’ And that’s a really nice strategy because it helps build a relationship with them. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, this person knows what they’re doing, they’re operating a real business here, I’m going to look at that.’ It begins a correspondence with them.
DG: What’ advice would you give a writer who’s trying to make it in the publishing world or who’s trying to get themselves out there.
MVS: Well, I have two really big pieces of advice that I love to tell people. One is you need to separate your value as a writer from the value of your work. So if your work gets rejected, that’s not a rejection of you or any statement on you as a writer, it’s only about that piece. And that I find is really hard to do but is really key to staying optimistic so you don’t get disheartened by every little failure. And the other piece of advice is to just pursue your interests. People sometimes get caught up in what other people are doing, and what the publishing industry wants, or what they think a poem should be, or what they think a short story should be. If you’re interested in Dungeons and Dragons, well, write some Dungeons and Dragons poems if they’re going to excite you and thrill you. Write some poems about rockets, or bumblebees, or whatever other thing you think other people find boring but that you’re fascinated by. Follow the things you’re crazy about, because it’s a huge world and you’ll find your audience eventually even if they’re not right at hand, and the way to find your audience is by making the things you’re most interested in the best that they can be. It’s the same advice I have about having been a gay kid growing up. You can’t pretend not to be the gay kid, because you’ll never find the gay people if you’re always pretending to be the thing you aren’t. Same with being a writer.