Coffee Fields, Oahu, Hawaii



12/7/13: I've just relaunched this blog! With a whole new look, I'm returning to this blog and will be publishing my fictions - old and new - along with notes and thoughts about writing and being a writer. I'll also be including posts about my work with World Vision as their blog manager as well as my travels. You can now subscribe to this blog by email or through Google+, and you can leave me comments here or in Google+ itself. Come read!

6/28/11: I'm on Twitter! Follow me @MatthewBrennan7

6/18/11: My website is live! I have pages for my fiction and translation projects, news updates, a list of my publications, and information about my editing services. Check it out!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The best acceptance letter I ever got

The moment you submit your work to a literary journal, you are establishing a relationship with the editors at that journal. You wouldn’t go up to someone you were interested in getting to know at a bar and say, “Hey you look good,” and you especially wouldn’t say, “I’m a man, you’re a woman.” The same is true for editors and writers. 

We’ve all heard hundreds of different pickup lines or strategies for beginning human relationships, all of which aim to create immediate links between the two parties and to show a genuine interest in the other. While your fiction or poetry will always, first and foremost, speak for itself to the editor, that editor will be seeing your work as one of many from the slush-pile. You’ll want to entice them to give you a more focused read than everyone else. 

Editors want to be courted. They want to know that you are interested in their journal and actively want your work to be published with them; they don’t want to feel like you sent your story off to the five journals you happened to find online that day with cut-and-paste cover letters in a matter of minutes. Show them that you know and respect their journal, show them that you understand their journal, and through that understanding that your work belongs there. 

This is a proven strategy. I had a flash fiction accepted for publication after writing a cover letter that did just that. I read some of the journal’s other issues, noted a theme of what kind of work they liked, then sent them a piece that I felt fit them, while mentioning that theme in my cover letter. 

Here’s what the editor wrote back to me when he accepted my piece: 

Dear Matthew, 

Your cover letter impressed me. Not only did you take the time to familiarize yourself with what we publish, you pinpointed one of the things we like to highlight in our work. Because of your keen eye, you found a good submission that matched what we do, and what we like. As an editor, I can't thank you enough for that. It immediately set you apart and set us up to like your work. 

And then we read the submission. True to your word, it demonstrated the proper subtlety and nuanced tension that we love. We understand this is a simultaneous submission, so we wanted to move quick with our acceptance of this story. If it is still available for publication, we'd like to run it in the September issue.

I’d submitted to this journal twice before and received generic form rejections. That doesn’t mean this new story is necessarily better than the others, it means that this editor gave it a proper read. Ironically, nuanced writing is sophisticated and often most worth publishing and reading, and yet it usually takes a closer read to understand everything that’s going on … and editors don’t necessarily read their slush pile that way. You need to invest in them and show them that it’s worth their while to invest in you. 

This editor went on to nominate this story for that year’s Pushcart Prize!

You can read the story here:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Inundation as a submission strategy

When I was working on my MFA in fiction, I had a colleague who would send the same short story out to 30-40 journals simultaneously. Now that's playing the odds! Duotrope currently lists over 4,900 literary journals, and with every editor having different tastes and needs, it can certainly feel like a needle in a haystack trying to submit one story to that one perfect editor or journal.

Most journals allow simultaneous submissions, but think about this: if you receive your "yes" sooner than later after 40 submissions, that's a lot of withdrawals notices to send! Once I get a story out with 3 or 4 journals, I start to feel reluctant to continue, wanting to hear back before sending submissions that – optimistically – might have to be withdrawn.

My best advice about this problem is simple and often said but can't be said enough: always keep writing! No matter the rejections, the busyness of submitting, etc. Keep writing. That's how I was able to find publishing success through a different kind of inundation.

Rather than sending out dozens of copies of the same story, for the past several years I've been maintaining submissions out with anywhere from 20-60 journals at any given time … but no story to more than 4 or 5 journals at once, because I'm writing enough stories to keep new ones always going out.

This is one way in which writing flash and micro fiction has helped me because they write and polish up faster than longer pieces; I'll be posting more about how best to write these styles soon.

Even with 60 submissions pending, none of them were sent blindly. Check calls for submissions at Newpages, Duotrope, Poets & Writers, etc. Do a Google search for journals. Search Twitter (more on that to come, too!).

Even though editors may feel like a needle in a haystack, many of them do tell you what they want in the submission guidelines. Though you should support the journals you like, you don't actually have to read several issues of every one you want to submit to. But do your research and try to pair your submissions up with journals that you feel are a good fit. If you think it fits, your chances are better of finding an editor who agrees.

Also remember: the more you submit, the more rejections you'll get – sometimes I get a rejection every day! – but you'll place more, too. For a while, I was able to publish 1 or 2 publications each month with this strategy, which is significant considering that before I started doing this, I'd published only one. Ever. You do the math.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Don't let me say no

"No" is a response writers have to get used to hearing, though it rarely comes in that exact simple form – "unfortunately" … "I'm sorry to say" … "not for us" … "not quite right" … "did not find a place for" … "we must pass" … "not right for my list" (i.e. it's not you it's me).

All jokes aside, it is often true that editors will receive more submissions they like than they can fit into their current issue, and thus are forced to pass on stories even when they don't want to. For this reason, and because all editors have their own styles and preferences that you can't know for certain even by reading past issues, you can't take rejections personally. It's going to happen, even when you're optimistic, even when you've been published before. It really is nothing personal. Just keep trying. The majority of pieces I have published were rejected by one or more editors before they found homes elsewhere.

If the above paragraph was encouragement, now comes the hard truth: as inevitable as "No" is for all writers, some rejections are actually your fault. And it's not because your story or writing isn't good enough. There are some very specific and very common mistakes that cause these rejections, which ultimately come down to impatience.

But the good news is, you can fix them.

First: typos. When I'm considering a submission, if I see more than two grammatical errors within the first few pages, you're going to have to have the best story ever for me to keep reading – if you don't care enough about your work to proofread it, I'm much less likely to care about it myself.

The second reason also comes down to editing. The opening paragraph of your story is the most important few sentences of the entire piece, and if I'm bored or confused within the first page, I won't want to finish reading it. Take the time to get it right.

What all this comes down to is one very important rule: don't give editors a reason to say no. And they are looking. Editors have so many submissions to get through, the faster they can say no, the faster they can move on with the search to find the story they do want to publish. Don't give them a reason. Take your time editing, make sure every sentence works, typo-free. Don't let them say no. Will you still get rejections? Of course. But self-editing with this in mind will keep those rejections more about the editor's preferences than your writing.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Train Fare

This flash fiction, "Train Fare," was one of my earlier publications (my 5th flash), and I believe my first with an international journal – Pure Slush is published out of Australia. I have since gone on to write for several of editor Matt Potter's anthologies, and have just had a second flash fiction accepted for the journal's 2014 theme of "travel"! You can read "Group Mentality" here.

What I like most about "Train Fare" – in addition to the fact that it's set on a commuter rain between New Haven and Grand Central that I know well – is that this was the story that broke a long dry spell for me. After leaving Arizona in 2011, I was on the job market and spent the first few months doing not much else than writing cover letters. I tried a few flash here and there but ended up with a long chain of unfinished pieces with little potential. This story changed that. I went on to publish 5 of the next 10 in that collection, and beyond to many other projects. 

When we're in the thick of it, especially a dry spell but even success, it's hard to imagine getting past it. I remember the first short story I wrote after college and liking it and being unable to imagine ever writing another story as good. Obviously not true, and "Train Fare" is testament to the continued potential of any writer who feels down on his or her luck. Keep writing. 

Train Fare
from Pure Slush

Laney found an empty seat on the train as it began to move, facing backwards toward a woman dressed in a business suit and skirt. She was reading a newspaper and didn’t look up, just crossed her legs out of the way. Balancing her coffee cup on the seat beside her, Laney opened her wallet, checking that she still had enough cash after breakfast. She had a $20 bill; off-peak fare was $14. 

The train picked up speed as it cleared the station, the momentum pulling Laney away from her seat, and she grabbed her coffee cup before it fell. She looked up to see the conductor enter from the car behind, watching as he worked his way toward her, checking and selling tickets.
The passenger across the aisle from her pulled his wallet out when the conductor reached him. “One adult, one-way,” he said. 

“Twenty-two,” the conductor said. 

Laney’s brother had told her something about different ticket prices, but she only remembered peak and off-peak. He might have mentioned the on-board price, too. Heat flushed her cheeks, knowing that embarrassment would come, and she felt sweat prickling up across her skin. She set her coffee down on the floor, hiding it between her feet, then snapped open the change compartment of her wallet. There was only a handful of dirty pennies. 

The conductor turned to her. “Tickets, please,” he said, then punched her neighbor’s ticket and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

“Can you come back to me?” Laney asked, holding her twenty while making a show of re-examining her wallet’s contents. The conductor scowled but gave a quick nod, then moved past her.

Laney had been in Italy once and found herself on the wrong train after missing a transfer in Empoli. Getting off at a tiny outdoor station that had no ticket counter, she took the next train back the way she’d come, sitting by the door and watching through the small dirty window for the conductor to appear. He never came, and she arrived at her destination without paying for her detour. She hoped that maybe she’d have similar luck today. 

Digging through her empty wallet a third time, knowing she didn’t have two hundred pennies but considering counting them anyway, she felt a tap on her knee. Laney looked up to see the businesswoman’s hand holding a $5 bill toward her.

“Oh gosh,” Laney said, “thank you but I don’t …”

“Is the next station the one you need?”


She pushed the bill into Laney’s hand. “They’ll throw you off there. Probably fine you.” She returned to her paper, the matter decided. 

Her coffee cup still balanced between her ankles, cooling, Laney leaned forward to pick it up. But she stopped, and sat back. She didn’t want her patron to see it.