So You Want to Be a Writer? Become a Sadist.


For as long as you can remember, you’ve been telling your parents, your girlfriend, and your old high school friends that you want to be a writer. On your best days, you take that “want to be” part out and just say that you ARE a writer. Yet, every day it seems, you find yourself wasting time, caught as you are by bad habits, trapped by modern life and its attention grabbers, tripped up by your own excuses and laziness. Sorry if I’m making you feel bad, but not really, because I know how you think. You’re lazy. You have bad habits. You get sidetracked. You make excuses. I know how you think because I think that way, too. Because I’m a self-proclaimed writer who hardly ever brings himself to write.

Or at least I used to. Now I do it all the time. I’m not saying that as smugly as you’re hearing it in your head, honest. I’m not being a jerk here; I really do have something important to tell you. I write every day now, and I do it because I’ve become something that I never thought I’d be. I’ve become a sadist.

I’m sure a pervert like you has read the dictionary definition of sadism. But if for some reason I’ve pegged you wrong, it’s “…the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others; (in general use) deliberate cruelty.” Take out the sexual bits—those belong to an article for a later time. (Though if that’s the kind of stuff you write, or you want to write, more power to you.) Just keep in mind that sadism is all about deriving pleasure from the infliction of pain, suffering, and humiliation. Now apply that to yourself. You’re the person on whom you’re inflicting deliberate cruelty. Day in and day out, that is what it means to be a writer.

Sounds great! But how do you do it?

I’m glad you asked. I have a handy three-point plan for you.

First, jump on your task at a specific time every day, even though that might mean deleting other things from your schedule. Make your writing time your priority. I’ve found that mornings work best for me, after my brain has had the time to process all of its garbage thoughts from the day before, and before I have to start pumping in more useless thoughts about when I get a lunch break or if someone packed another box wrong (box packing unions just aren’t as good as they used to be). I get up, make myself some coffee, read one chapter of an improving book, and then get to work. I start writing at 8:30 every morning, and I write for at least a solid half hour. On the weekends I write for longer. The point is, at 8:30, I am there waiting for my muse to show up with whip and bondage gear.

This isn’t to say that the words always come easily. Your well of thought has to be replenished from time to time. For me, the best way to do that is to constantly refill it by reading.  Every day I try to read something that improves my mind (as opposed to Buzzfeed articles). If you write too much for too long, and it’s all output, no input, you’re in serious danger of burning out. But when you read daily, you balance out the mental energy. It’s like eating and exercising.  If you don’t eat, you won’t have the strength to exercise, and if you don’t exercise but you do keep eating, you’ll want to exercise soon enough.

Second, write whether you think it’s fun or not. The hard truth is, sometimes writing is not fun. And your landlord for sure does not care if writing is fun. I’ve said before on this site that there are big differences between amateurs and professionals, and this is one of them. You’re not getting paid to have fun; you’re lucky that sometimes you get to have fun as you work this job. And make no mistake, writing is a job. Or at least it is if you are serious about it and want to make something happen from it.

Third, tear your heart out. I’m not talking about melodrama here (unless you’re into writing melodramas, which, again, more power to you). I’m talking about writing the things that make you uncomfortable, that rip into your chest and make you feel the squishy bits that gross you out. If you’re not writing things that stretch you, that push you, that challenge you, you’re not growing. This growth can be in subject matter (that time when you were eight that you still won’t tell anyone about) or it can be in form (how many times do you think people will tolerate the same sentence structure before they fall asleep?). Think of it this way: how do muscles grow? When you exercise, the effort and exertion actually damage the muscle fibers. But then your body gets to work fusing new muscle fibers together, and these form bigger strands, causing growth. I’m not a muscle scientist, and parts of that might be wrong, but the general idea isn’t. There is no growth without there first being damage.

So—sadism. Do it. Discipline yourself every day. Get into that same chair, get into that same mindset. Make yourself get up. Forego that extra half hour of sleep. Then write, even if it isn’t fun, because your long-term goals are bigger than your temporary desires. And finally, write the stuff that’s hard to write—the stuff that breaks you—because that’s the only kind of stuff that will make you grow. Derive pleasure from the pain. You’ll find that pleasure is a much deeper experience than fun, anyway.

How to Beat the Submission Game

Dear Reader,

So you want to know how to get your work accepted by literary magazines?

Firstly, follow the directions. As tedious as it sounds, read every bit of the Submission Guidelines (Writer’s Guidelines, Submissions, Submit) page. I even encourage you to read any About page you can find. Study the mission of the magazine/website. Pay attention to the parameters given to you for submission.

Read material the magazine has accepted and published. Sometimes this is tricky, because magazines want you to subscribe before they’ll let you read anything. You can get around this by reading any excerpts offered on the site. Sometimes they will post a part of the piece to entice readers to subscribe. Sometimes they don’t. In this event, you’ll be taking a risk if you submit blindly. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t. There are some facets of writing that continue to be the darlings of the literary world. If you write realistic fiction of any kind, your chances of being accepted change drastically. Genre writers, writers who experiment with form and structure, and those who employ elements of slipstream and magical realism are at a disadvantage by submitting blind.

Now you’re probably saying: I don’t have time for this shit. Then, you don’t have time to become a writer. There, we’ve solved that mess.

But what do I look for when I read these magazines? Look for content: are these pieces largely contemporary or do they deal with historical moments? Do they deal with specific places? Look for genre: are there elements of genre in these pieces? Look for style: are these pieces voicey, traditional, experimental, long, or short? Look for sentence and paragraph length (I’m not kidding). Look for any repetitions of plot and theme. Finally, compare these elements to your own piece. Will your piece differ from the aesthetic of the magazine? If yes, don’t submit it there. If your piece seems to align with a good deal of the aesthetic elements of the magazine, submit it!

I’ll give you an example of two different places to submit: McSweeney’s publishes satire. From their blog posts, nonfiction pieces, to their fiction, McSweeney’s is an outlet for comedic (and primarily satiric) literature. In this case, there is no doubt. They are transparent in their intentions, and the work they choose to publish is easily identifiable from the rest. But not all can be distinguished so well. American Short Fiction is a more elusive beast. Upon a review of the excerpts from four or so stories, their aesthetic becomes more clear. They seem to prefer more traditional pieces of both contemporary and non-contemporary value (though they all feel nostalgic in a way). They also seem to prefer third person narratives. There’s nary a first person piece in sight.

Tips for cover letters:

Address the letter by the name of either the main editor (Editor-in-Chief) or the name of the editor that handles specific submissions (Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, Nonfiction Editor). Be aware that these positions and the faces that inhabit them are ever-changing. So always check before you submit. Never assume the same person is working in the same area or at all. If you’re concerned you’ll get the wrong person (by some change in leadership) then simply put Editor. I’ve found by being a reader and also submitting my own work, that addressing the cover letter with the first name of the editor in question gets particular attention. At the magazine where I currently read, if a cover letter seems in any way to indicate a personal relationship with our editor, we are to flag it. Flagging it means it gets to the editor faster for review. As a submitter, my pieces seem to get reviewed much more quickly when I title the cover letter with an editor’s name (or maybe I’m just imagining it, you never know). My rejection letters also tend to seem more personalized (as if someone actually took the time to write it rather than copy and paste a form).

Your cover letter should never be more than about two hundred words – in my own personal opinion. Any longer and you’ve added unnecessary information or you’ve begun to sound arrogant. You don’t need to list the one hundred places you’ve been published. Only list the top three to five. If you’ve never been published, don’t mention that. If you’ve only been published once, make sure you do mention it. Never indicate the amount of times you’ve been published if it could be to your disadvantage.

Your cover letter should in some way indicate that you are grateful for the reader’s time. A short, “I’m honored (excited) to share this piece with you” will do.

If you’re an undergrad, don’t mention that. If you’re a master’s student, only mention it you have nothing else to say (some editors and readers are just snobs; it’s a sad reality). However, keep in mind that if you’ve completed an MFA program, that is a credit to your name.

Don’t lie. That’s really all I have to say on that.

I’d like to say don’t be boring, especially in your first few pages, but experience has taught me that boring is a literary genre and one that prevails in the publishing arena. Perhaps that’s just the consequence of preferring to write epic fantasy and science fiction – a story about someone brushing their teeth and contemplating existence seems dull. To illustrate my point: I once wrote two short stories (that are indeed realistic fiction), and I wrote them in the span of three hours. I didn’t even look back at them before I submitted (mistake). They were both accepted by the same magazine. Now, the story I’ve been writing for five years which is arguably speculative fiction continues to be rejected.

The world of publishing is a precarious place, both predictable and yet wildly unpredictable in its taste. Never become too discouraged by the onslaught of rejection. Simply become smarter about where, when, and why you submit!


Alexandra Stanislaw

P.S. Devise is currently seeking contributors to examine literary magazines for their aesthetic preferences (think The Review Review). Those interested should email with a cover letter, resume, and relevant writing samples to apply.

Be Your Best Writing Self

After attending several readings of authors (among them Bonnie Jo Campbell and other award winners), I’ve learned that the majority of writers in my life are hungry for the answer to an elusive question: when is the most productive time to write?

The answer is usually: it depends!

If I were answering this question, I’d say the exact same thing. But it was one man who gave myself and my colleagues a real answer, a solid, tangible thing to grasp onto. His name was Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son and winner of the Nation Book Award. After an outstanding verbal performance of his short fiction, Johnson was asked what habits make the most productive writer.

He paused. He thought. And then he descended over a group of eager minds like a fabled savior.

Johnson said something the effect that when he was first writing, he would log the times, dates, and words that he’d write. He’d note everything in order to discover a pattern – all collected in a document as simple as Microsoft Excel. We were in awe, having expected the same answer we’d gotten many times – it just depends. In a way, this was the same answer, but told in a way that had opened our eyes.

It really does depend. But Adam Johnson’s advice is to find your own pattern and then to exploit the moments where you are most productive.

As we sat, staring at the mighty words of a mighty man hanging in the air, he continued. He said that when he tracks his word count every day – particularly the amount of words that he writes and that actually make it into a final draft – the days of missing writing are like missing teeth. They’re unsightly and leave you feeling bereft.

Motivation drives the success. There is no other way but to finish. Finishing needs productivity. After so many years of haphazard, thoughtless advice, Johnson has awakened us all.

Perhaps this is something we could have thought of on our own. But with all the ideas swirling inside us, wrapping up into our daily functions until are we nothing but decaying artists, it’s difficult to always know the way.