spotlight on the craft
:: An excerpt from WordSmitten Quarterly Journal::
We asked author ZZ Packer what gives her joy. Her 7,000-word
response, which appeared in Volume 1:4 of WordSmitten Quarterly
Journal, gave us joy. We are including that feature article
in a digital series throughout the year. Here is Part One of
this four-part series.
ZZ Packer is working on a novel, Buffalo Soldiers, and has
written a spectacular work (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere/Riverhead
2003) of urban tales. This short story collection is a must
have for every writer's bookshelf. To read more about her writing,
her approach to teaching creative writing students, her trip
to Ghana and Australia, and her objectives for her new novel,
begin with Part One of this series. You'll want to read every
word of this exclusive interview.
The buzz on ZZ:
"The book form of this debut short story collection is
getting the highest of accolades from the New York Times, Harper's,
the New Yorker and most every other branch of the literary criticism
tree. Likewise, the praise for the audio version of the book
should be as lofty." -Publishers
"Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection
that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting
wallop." -Kirkus Reviews
What advice would you give to unpublished short-fiction writers
PACKER: My first bit of advice would be to expect failure.
I know that sounds awful, but plan for success and expect failure.
I remember how surprised I was to hear other writer friends
of mine just so dejected after getting rejection letters. It
came as a complete surprise to me that they would be so upset.
I was like, "Dude, these people could have Lorrie Moore
writing for them, or Stuart Dybek or John Edgar Wideman, or
all these other great writers, so why are you so surprised (and
upset) that your stuff didn't get taken?" I never expected
anything to get taken, so when stories did start getting taken,
I was always pleasantly surprised.
also think you have to cultivate a healthy relationship with
the rejection letter. I counted on getting rejection letters,
so even though my goal was always first and foremost to write
a good story and get it published, I know that more likely than
not, you'll get rejected. So what you have to do is set up a
secondary and tertiary goals for those inevitable rejection
letters. My secondary goal was always for the rejection letter
to include written comments from the editor. That way, you increase
the likelihood that the story will be read to the end, but most
importantly, you get feedback from an impartial source who also
happens to be an editor (or associate editor, or reader). That
feedback is of vital importance, because they're telling you
what, in their estimation, went wrong. So I always tell my students
to write a cover letter that:
Is appropriate to the magazine/journal, showing that you've
actually read the publication and know what kind of fiction
it's likely to accept. (i.e., you should know that Zzyzzva
is a journal of West Coast writing, so a story that takes
place in Minnesota shows that you simply haven't done your
homework). And you should mention why you respect the publication.
(If you don't, don't submit to it. It's that simple).
Explains that you're a young or fledgling writer, and because
you respect the publication so much, you'd love it if, in
the case that they don't publish the story, they could give
you any comments, suggestions or feedback to help your writing
in general or that story in particular.
found that most editors are kind enough to comply. After all,
they care about stories, they love stories, and they love it
when people get it right. If they can help, and if it won't
take too much time out of their day, they'll probably read to
the end so they can scribble a few comments and suggestions.
Editors have told me things that my fellow writers simply were
too kind, or too untutored, to tell me.
tertiary goal was to build a relationship with the editor. If
you wrote to the head editor (a bad idea, because usually the
associate editors or readers are in charge of the initial round)
but get the associate editor, then you know who to write to
the next time you submit. You remind that editor that you've
submitted before, that you thought the comments were helpful,
incisive, invaluable, and that you are submitting a new story
(only submit the same story if they've previously suggested
you should. Send your revised story somewhere else.).
don't know how I lucked upon this system—I think because
I honestly was interested in feedback from magazines. But it
real work, obviously, isn't in the aforementioned mechanics,
but in actually writing a good story. Even if your story is
good, if it only gets good on the third page-who cares? Do you
really think an editor with five hundred manuscripts is going
to read through every single one? You've got one page-one line,
really-to excite and intrigue the reader. To do otherwise is
like showing up for a date in a t-shirt and sneakers. If you
don't look great and seem like someone worth getting to know—the
rest of the date will be an uphill battle. The difference is,
most people feel compelled to go through an entire date, but
an editor can simply chuck a manuscript into the trash or use
it for scrap paper.
all sounds awful, I know. My students are always a little shocked
when I give them the "publication" lecture. Yet, I
encourage them to send stuff in, and a fair number of them have
gotten published this way.
PART TWO OF THIS SERIES, CLICK HERE FOR OUR EXCLUSIVE
INTERVIEW WITH ZZ PACKER, A FOUR-PART SERIES.