Submissions as Writing Prompts
Illustration by Josh Quick

Back when I was in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University, I wrote some brilliant essays. Okay, well I thought they were anyway, and for a while I sent them off to literary journals, web sites, and anthologies, certain that each one would be published, that every editor would understand my genius. I was clearly suffering from some kind of delusional illness, because everything I sent in was rejected. And that’s the life of a writer, I told myself. Trying to get published is like trying to get a movie role. A starring movie role.

What went wrong? I wondered. These pieces had all been workshopped. I followed every bit of advice from my teachers. I knew my writing was pretty good, or sort of good, or, all right, maybe slightly above average, and I needed the validation of publishing credentials, not just to show off to my grad school buddies, but to gild my CV for the elusive, tenure-track teaching positions I coveted. I knew I had to do something radical. I had to break the rules I’d dutifully followed in my MFA program, where my teachers taught me to craft my art, hone my skills, and write only what inspired me.

“Write for yourself, not potential readers,” my professors said. “Don’t write to get published.”

This is all well and good if one is independently wealthy or some kind of reclusive shut-in. I didn’t want to write in a vacuum. I wanted people to read my words, lots of people, and I needed to pay my utilities, car loan and credit card bill, and I wanted to do that by writing and by teaching writing and I wasn’t willing to compromise. I did something that is anathema to every serious creative writing professor. It was disgraceful, but it worked.

I used calls for submissions as writing prompts.

And I got published immediately in an anthology, with a two hundred dollar check no less.

I tried it repeatedly and it kept working, over and over. It was like I’d hacked one of the secrets of publishing.

Using a simple strategy, I was finally able to get my essays out of my laptop and into the hands of readers. I’d scour calls for submissions lists and look for topics that interested me. Then, I’d make a list and make sure I fit the publication’s criteria. I submitted everywhere — to anthologies, print magazines, literary journals, web sites, and even my local newspaper’s essay contest (which I won). Don’t worry, I would never do anything fraudulent or claim to be someone I was not just to get published. That’s evil. Instead, for instance, I’d see an anthology looking for poems about the beach and I’d go and write a poem about the beach. If I saw a call for cat stories, I’d write a cat story because Lord knows I’ve had a lot of cats in my life. Someone wants Christmas essays? Let me whip one out right now. Taking it a step further, I never wrote the first thing that came to mind, because chances are that would be too similar to the first thing that came to everyone else’s mind, too.

To get published, you have to stand out. Editors want an original story and that’s what I tried to give them. As I searched the calls for submissions, I tried to imagine what most people would send in. What common themes, stories and images would cause these editors to want to bang their heads against their desks in exasperation at the total lack of originality? Then, I banished these clichés and wrote the total opposite, turning the subjects on their heads from the very first sentence as best as I could. I found a call for submissions for true stories dealing with divorce. I’ve never been divorced and I figured most of the pieces they’d get would be from divorced women. Instead, I decided to write about what it was like to be a child with divorced parents. I was a little unsure, thinking maybe that wasn’t what they were looking for, but guess what? They loved it.

Calls for submissions make great writing prompts and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sure, work on your other pieces, too, but if you get stuck creatively or you don’t have anything that fits what your favorite journal or anthology is looking for, calls for submissions can serve as excellent sources of inspiration. Take the risk, be unique, put your unusual spin on the themes they’re looking for and I’ll bet you’ll find some success in publishing your work, just like I did. (Note: My strategy even worked for Submittable.)

 

 BIO: Victoria Fedden is the author of Amateur Night at the Bubblegum Kittikat and Sun Shower: Magic, Forgiveness and How I Learned to Bloom Where I Was Planted. Her third memoir This is Not My Beautiful Life is forthcoming by Picador USA. She blogs at www.victoriafedden.com. Her writing has appeared in publications including Real Simple, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Huffington Post, Redbook, Scary Mommy, and The South Florida Sun Sentinel. She lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with her husband and daughter.

 

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  • Bryan Pitchford

    Great read Victoria! My mentor signed my MFA Thesis this past month. Now is the waiting game for my degree. I am intrigued by your advice and experiences. I have already started submitting to contests and other publications!