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ZZ Packer

:: 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 Weekly

"Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop." -Kirkus Reviews


WORDSMITTEN: What advice would you give to unpublished short-fiction writers today?

ZZ 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.

I 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:

1) 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).

2) 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.

I've 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.

My 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.).

I don't know how I lucked upon this system—I think because I honestly was interested in feedback from magazines. But it works.

The 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.

It 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.




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You'll read about authors Frank McCourt, Alice McDermott, Connie May Fowler, ZZ Packer, and Jeff Pearlman. You'll discover great literary agents like Gail Hochman, Eric Simonoff, Jeff Kleinman and editors that include Nan Talese, Marcela Landres, Stephen Power and more.

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