Writers With Responsibilities: Patience is a Way of Life

veruca-salt-charlie-and-the-chocolate-factoryDear Sally,

I want it all, NOW! What do you have to say to that?

Your friend, Veruca Salt


Dear Veruca,

You can stomp and jump up and down all you want—but the truth is, if you’re a writer with responsibilities, you’d best get down with the heavenly virtue of patience. I know, I groan every time I hear it mentioned, too. Job practiced patience and look what happened to him. It makes sense in theory, but why does it have to apply to me?

But I have proof for all you nonbelievers.

Witness, Megan Marshall, author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. This latest venture took her six years to complete. She started writing it from a large house in Newton and completed it from her two bedroom apartment in Belmont, all while coping with a difficult divorce. Margaret Fuller encouraged her to reinvent herself. Marshall says, “Patience is not a virtue, but a technique!”
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Writers With Responsibilities: Keep Your Mojo


Dear Sally,

I found my voice relatively late in life—40—but once I started to write I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I took classes, joined writing groups, and wrote all the time. I published essays in my local paper and people stopped me in the grocery store to thank me for making them laugh. I felt complete. Before I got my MFA I wrote for the love it, whenever and wherever I could squeeze a sentence into my busy life.

When accepted into a program, I started to feel like a “real writer.” I went to school  full-time, worked part-time, and managed a household of five, all as a nontraditional student (think old). I powered my way through doubt and thoughts of “Do I belong here?” towards relative successes. And that’s where the problem lay: after learning about craft and understanding what I did well and what innate skills I lacked as a writer, I silenced myself.Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: Cover This

256px-Hadise_writes_a_letterLet’s talk about cover letters. I know, I know: exciting, right? But remember what mom said: first impressions matter. So here’s a piece of advice: keep your letter professional and succinct. A reader and editor wants to know who you are, your publishing credentials (if any), and the name of your submission.  What we don’t want is a synopsis of your story. Or, “this is a true story, but I changed the name of my Aunt Sally so I’m submitting it as fiction.”

Why do we want to know about publishing credentials? Only for the screening process. Remember we receive approximately 11,000 submissions a year. Authors who have been published in Ploughshares—whether it was a year ago or forty—get sent right to an editor.  Those with substantial publications under their belt get sent to a senior reader. What do we mean by substantial publications?  A book or two, or publication in a number of top-tier literary journals. (Just so you know, pass-ons from slush go right to an editor just like pass-ons from notables.)Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: The Numbers

Numbers image.svg

When I see numbers I generally shut down, but I know there’s a whole host of you out there who want to see pie charts, graphs and digits. So if my ranting about pluck and resiliency isn’t enough for you folks, here are the cold hard facts when it comes to submissions to Ploughshares.

We publish three issues a year. Two are guest edited, and the Winter issue is staff edited (by Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief; Margot Livesey, Fiction Editor; and John Skoyles, Poetry Editor). For each guest-edited issue (Spring and Fall), fifty percent of the content is solicited. That means the guest editor asks writers of his/her choice for about ninety pages of material, while the remaining ninety pages are derived from a short list of submissions that the office provides. The short list is made up of unsolicited material submitted to the office, and includes a mix of slush and notables. (“Notable” is a term we use to describe manuscripts by those who have substantial publishing credits in major journals or books by major presses.) The short lists’s ratio of slush to notables is about 50/50; if you don’t believe me, check it out the breakdown of our current issue, all fiction, guest edited by Peter Ho Davies:Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: Speak to Me

Büro im WasserIn his introduction to the most recent issue of Ploughshares, guest editor Peter Ho Davies says that the thrill he found in each selected story was the sense that it spoke to him alone.  But how do you make that happen? We’ve talked about a lot of different strategies to make your stories rise to the top and have editors take notice, but strong beginnings and endings will do nothing for you if your characters are forgettable.

The stories that I pass on are the ones that stick with me. Those are the ones with fully fleshed out characters and settings. You must know your characters inside and out; what they want, where they live and work, what’s inside their junk drawer. All of that information need not make it to the page, but the more intimate you are with the character, the more you will be able to pick the right details.Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: Don’t Fall Flat

256px-Alfred_Hitchcock_NYWTSAlfred Hitchcock says, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”  That is absolutely true for the stories that are being passed on to editors. It is your job to tell the story but get rid of the boring bits. A reader wants to travel seamlessly from scene to narrative bridge and back again.

But how? Here are the simplest techniques.Continue Reading

It’s About Point of View

Note: Following the Marathon bombings, and the subsequent citywide lockdown, we took a conscious decision to keep the blog free of commentary about both—despite several contributors volunteering. A literary journal isn’t the place for punditry or analysis of current events, we decided, and there were plenty of other places to find that if you were looking.

Yet when one of our own, Sarah Banse, asked to write this very personal account of her ex-husband’s injury near the finish line, and the days that followed, we felt she had something valuable to say—not as a pundit or a commentator, but as a mother and a writer. We present it now, without further commentary. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor


The events of April 15 collectively shook us to our core—our city, our marathon, our children.  The world was inundated with horrific images, round the clock coverage and speculation. The worst of humanity gave rise to the best: heroism, unity, and resolve.  I admire the solidarity, yet I feel strangely removed from Boston Strong. When the unthinkable becomes personal, it adds a level of alienation to the collective sorrow. Yet in the end, that alienation is a gift.

My ex-husband and the father of my four children left his office on Boylston Street early on Marathon Monday. He wasn’t running or watching, just going to get his car out of the Prudential parking lot.  Wrong place, wrong time—unlucky some might say.  As a writer though, I know it’s all about perspective. In my house we feel blessed and know that in fact, the gods were smiling on him. Despite two weeks in the hospital and a to-be-determined amount of time in rehab, he hasn’t lost any limbs or his eyes, and we expect him to make a full recovery. Each day we see more hope and strength, and for my children, that strength comes from their father and those taking care of him.

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From the Slush Pile: Have You Got What it Takes?


I’ve said it before: you have to play to win. And I’m sorry to say, in terms of the slush pile, “winning” is a bit of a crapshoot. To rise out of the slush pile you must submit and keep submitting. It’s a numbers game and resiliency and pluck pay off.

And there’s the rub. It’s a roll of the dice. The only thing you can do is submit your very best work and if it gets rejected, send it out again. Jasmine Sawers, winner of last year’s Emerging Writer’s Contest, received a multitude of rejections for her winning story, “The Culling,” before she got the call from Ploughshares. As a screener for that contest I read hundreds of stories and as soon as I read it, I said yes without hesitation—that piece had to be passed on. I can’t guarantee that a fellow screener would have felt the same way however, and therein lies the dilemma.

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From the Slush Pile: Don’t Leave Me Hanging


The_End_BookMonday morning, two days post-AWP, your 2013 Boston Tote Bag filled with literary swag: postcards, pins, temporary tattoos, and journals. You have a renewed energy. Yes, this is the year. You will submit—over and over again if necessary—and you will get published.

For those of you who have never been to AWP or have no idea what it is, it’s the nation’s largest literary conference, sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and this year it took place in Boston. (For all who attended, I hope you stopped by the Ploughshares booth and introduced yourself—and then raced home to polish up your entry for the Emerging Writers Contest.

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From the Slush Pile…

It seems clear that what you all want to know is, “How do I get published in Ploughshares?” So, lets start at the beginning. Literally.

If you want to get out of the slush pile, one of the worst things you can do is write a lackluster first paragraph. Don’t make the mistake of thinking: the really fine writing starts on page three of my story, and I’m sure they’ll appreciate it when they get there.  By page three, I’m frustrated. If you want out of the slush pile, you must prove it from the first paragraph, from the first line.

In Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing, Debra Sparks says, “[A] lot of fine openings…make you think, ‘Wait, that can’t be right.’ They offer a moment of confusion that is interesting rather than discouraging…Often enough, slightly curious sentences deliver an image or line so fantastic that we feel the promise of a good story ahead.”

You can be sure that every manuscript selected for Ploughshares delivers on Sparks’ insight. Look at the first line from Joshua Howes’ story Grace in the latest issue: “It’s been a month now she’s been tutoring a dead girl on Park Avenue.” First sentence, first paragraph.  I read hundreds of stories last year and I still remember that opening line.

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