35 // Massachusetts Review—Trust Your Writing with Emily Wojcik

The Massachusetts Review, in its 60th anniversary, promotes social justice and equality, along with great art. Committed to aesthetic excellence as well as public engagement, they publish literature and art that provokes debate, inspires action, and expands our understanding of the world around us.

Managing Editor, Emily Wojcik has worked in nonprofit publishing for more than a decade, first with Paris Press in Ashfield, MA, and now the Massachusetts Review.


Massachusetts Review is a journal “more interested in the world than the self”—it’s a little bit more on the political and social justice side.

Managing Editor, Emily Wojcik, shares the best analogy for writing that takes a while to get started. (You might have the theme music to a beloved cartoon from the 80s running through your head after this.)

She shares her wisdom on trusting your own writing and trusting that the reader is okay with endings that don’t necessarily “satisfy.” But she also empathizes with writers who try on different things (what they hear in workshops, from outside advisers) because they get nervous and really want to be published.

One thoughtful question she has for writers is: Where are you getting in your own way? This comes from her experience of seeing a lot of writing that is almost there in the MR slush pile. And she advises writers to learn to distinguish between what is sharp and almost there and what is not quite there.

Read Full Transcript

 

Hi, lovely writer, it’s Rachel here with what will be our final episode of twenty nineteen, so we’ll bring some Lit Mag Love back to you in the spring of twenty twenty. My guest this episode is Alle C. Hall.

She’s a senior non-fiction editor at JMWW and she also reads Flash Fiction for Vestal Review. Vestal Review is firmly established as an exciting venue for exceptional flash by both emerging and well-known authors. Their stories have been reprinted in numerous anthologies and been selected for Wigleaf top fifty multiple times. Vestal Review is an eclectic magazine, open to all genres except children’s stories and hard science fiction. Now JMWW is a weekly journal of writing, publishing the best in fiction, poetry, flash essays and interviews or close approximation. And I speak with Alle C. Hall about both of these journals.

So welcome to the Lit Mag Love podcast, Alle C. Hall.

Thank you.

I know you teach writers to publish their works. I want to start there and I’m wondering if you can tell our listeners what are the most important things to focus on when it comes to publishing in lit mags?

Well, the most obvious thing, which is something writers skip all the time, is you need to read the magazine before you send and you need to read a lot of literary magazines to understand the differences between them, because they all say we seek the finest literary work or the best prose, and we’re interested in publishing new as well as emerging writers. So to get a sense of what they’re looking for, you will just save yourself so much time and pain if you read the magazine.

Now as an editor one thing that I always appreciate is you put your work count on the cover page and if you can also put it on the manuscript page, because I really like to know what kind of time commitment I’m going to prepare for. Something that really happens if you don’t try to figure out what your no means, it just means no. So just get to work on your next submission and don’t cast doubt over it. And this is the one I think will probably be most helpful, which is that you need to prepare for rejection, not as in generally you will be rejected a lot.

I mean, prepare. So when you send a piece, send it to five to ten places, then you’re waiting for a response. You set up a list of another five percent, five to ten pages. And as soon as you receive a no, just send the next place right away. Don’t even think about it and then have your feelings because it’s eminently possible to have your feelings within the next sub already in the pipeline. And then you come out of your feelings and you’re already back to five to ten pages.

I love that last one about because I think it’s so true and so affirming. And it’s something that I talk to writers about a lot, too. It’s not like you’re going to get over the rejection, it just feels hard and you’re never going to get to a place where it’s like, oh, this feels great being rejected.

I’m actually going to push that back a little on that one. When you have this process set up and your aim is to get hundred rejections a year. When they come in, you actually get excited. Well, I do. I’m like, oh, I can send to the next one now. Woo hoo! Now the ones come in no that you really wanted. That’s going to hurt but you can if you’re sending out enough, build up a nice scar so that it just becomes what you do.

You send in, it gets rejected, you send in another one.

Some of the writers in the Lit Mag Love community are playing that game called Sink or Submit. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that.

I haven’t.

It’s basically just a way to gamify rejection, too.

So you get more points for the more rejections you get.

[laughs]

So you go back down to zero, once you get an acceptance. [laughs] So the winner gets a small gift.

I think the take away would be send out a lot. And there are very few magazines anymore that don’t accept what’s called a simultaneous submission, which means you’re sending to more than one place at the same time. A very few of them, who are very high end do. And they expect you to send it in and wait for a year for them to say no, that’s basically the game. But so many magazines accept simultaneous submissions that you might as well send to five to ten places, have that piece out there and just keep getting your nos and keep sending them out.

When it comes to nonfiction, you say you’re interested in writing that shows the narrator’s growth, lack there-of but most importantly, humanity. As you’re looking at the submissions you received in your experience, what’s the key ingredients for writers to show that growth and humanity in their work?

Wow, what a great question. Let’s see. I think that this is hard to put into words because what you’re looking for is some sort of universal you need a sense that the story is operating outside yourself. And I wrote a piece once about two miscarriages and then finally having children. And in their early drafts, I was given a note that said, well, as a rejection note, it says, the essay does not convey the idea that the writer understands that other people also have gone through this experience.

So the question is, how you do that and how you do that is really up to the writer slash up to the muse. You just have to figure out how you’re going to do that. But I like writers who indicate that they are going to let you know that they understand that they’re not lost in their own pain or their own terror.

I think it leaves the reader feeling either bored or overwhelmed.

That they’re so lost in their own narrative?

Pain or terror or whatever the feeling is around the essay that they’re trying to I think the only time that works is if they’re lost in their own humor and then I think that’s fine. But if you’re trying to keep the writer moving forward towards this ending that you’re writing toward, you have to have them involved in the essay. And the only way to do that is to appeal to them on a level that’s almost like a teacher or some sort of holy figure that is guiding them. So the sense that they’re involved in the essay as well. And again, how a writer does that is going to be up to the writer to figure out.

In a way, it almost sounds like you’re saying they need to be able to transcend that experience.

Absolutely.

People work through experiences in writing. But I guess when you’re ready to send it out, if I can kind of extrapolate what you’re saying and correct me if I’m wrong, it’s like you’re maybe working through something in the writing, but it’s only when, you know, OK, I hear I have transcended it in some way. That it’s like, OK, you can start sharing it.

You can use writing as catharsis. But I don’t suggest sending out that draft because it’s too fraught. There’s no sense of control. And so that’s when you get into your editing process. This piece that I am referring to, it took ten years to find the ending because the ending was I had my second child and she was a girl. And I came around to understanding that how as someone who was abused by a mother, how was I going to be a mother mothering a girl without being abusive?

That was the end of the lessons of the miscarriage. And there is no way I could have known that. So some things just take time to bake.

Literally you had your child in that time period?

I had two. One son and then a girl.

So I’m wondering if I can ask you the qualities of writing that doesn’t quite make it. I mean you’ve touched on that a bit, talking about it, feeling like, you know, they’re lost or they’re in terror. Are there any other qualities that don’t quite make it for you when you’re reading?

Again, that’s very hard to define because it’s going to be so subjective for me. It’s someone who’s well, at the Vestal Review, we say most pieces don’t get rejected because they’re not good. They get rejected because they’re not good enough. There is something meandering about the piece. There’s something writers love to weave stories together, take this issue that issue them, then braid them. It is much more effective to begin at the beginning of the story with a simple, declarative sentence.

We were outside, it was raining and we heard the rumble. So you place the reader right away and you proceed from there completely chronologically, at least in the first draft. The other thing I see a lot is the first literally two or three sentences and then the writer leaps into the back story. And I don’t want the back story. I want to be in the story as it progresses forward. And sometimes it takes several drafts before you can figure out where does the story start?

Does it really start where I started with the cup of tea with my neighbor, or was it really three days ago when the neighbor said something when we were raking leaves. Is that the start of the story? Because if you refer to it later, you need to go back and start there, just place that at the top and proceed chronologically from there. That is a much easier story. To have the reader follow or stay with you, I suppose, is a better way of seeing it.

And the other thing is when people try to be too funny or too auteur by using swearing. I’m not a big person that uses swearing in my writing, you have to use it very judiciously. Shock for shock value, sex for shock value. None of that is very interesting. There has to be organic reason that it’s a part of the piece. And I don’t like the sense that words are being wasted. Many times you’ll see one sentence and then the next sentence.

And they’re saying exactly the same thing, like the writers reiterating the point. And you just want the best of those two sentences.

What are different things you’ve learned from working with two journals and two genres? And has editing influenced your approach to writing?

I can’t say that I’ve learned hugely different things about the process from working at two journals because the process is the same. Pieces come in. The first readers read them, the second readers read them. If they make it through both those, the editor in chief will read them or some journals have four or five levels. It just depends on how staffed they are. I would say I’ve learned a lot about flash fiction. I started as a first reader at Vestal Review and I read a lot of just garbage, just like what is the point of this?

It was very exciting then to see a piece that came in and when my heartbeat started going, I thought, this one can get moved up. And again, that goes back to what we were talking about, writing a good story, but writing a good story in five hundred words or less is very challenging. And JMWW, I’m much more involved in the placing of the piece. You know, when the pieces come in, our readers read them, they make a recommendation.

I often will go back and read them anyways, even if they said no, because I’m also interested at JMWW of working with the writer and sometimes there can be something in a piece that I think we could pull out and make that the essay. And so the actual thing I’ve had to learn is we’re not a writing class, we’re a magazine, so don’t take on a piece that’s going to be too hard because that could take weeks and weeks and weeks and then still not make the essay.

I like that analogy that it’s not a writing class. It’s a magazine. And maybe that leads me to wonder what should readers expect when their work is accepted by you and if you make developmental suggestions at all, or are you willing to work a bit with the piece that maybe is, not at the writing class level, but is further along?

Definitely. At JMWW, I really do that because most essays that come in, I think there have been two in the year and a half that I’ve been there, that I was like, we can run this. Let’s make this little one, and this little one. Correct. And then move on. Most of them come in at a B plus stage, I would say, but we’re looking for A-plus. So I can spend weeks working on it with the writer.

And they have to understand that we’re undertaking this with the understanding that it might not get published, that the final decision is made by the editor in chief. But I’m not going to send it to the editor in chief until I feel like we have an essay. So generally, most people accept me at that level. They say, OK, I’ll work with diligence and you’ll work with diligence and we’ll get to an essay that we hope we can publish .

At Vestal Review, I’m not involved in the final selections. I’m an associate editor, so I take the first level or second level of pieces that have come up to that level and I’ll pass them on. From my own experience as a writer, most of the time they run it or they don’t. And some magazines will come back to me and said, well, we wanted to change this comma or, you know, can you work on this section? But there’s not a whole lot of editorial development when you get into the higher levels of magazines.

They have so many submissions, they’re just going to go with the perfect ones. I do get a sense from writers when they speak to them sometimes that they want to send something out and have a magazine act like a writing class and say, you’re so talented. Let’s take this and let’s blow this up or let’s open this up or let’s take this out. And the editors don’t want that. They want a finished piece and they’re going to assume that the piece you sent in is the best you can do.

And so you’ve got to send them the best you can do.

What are some of the qualities of writing that you’re eager to read in submissions to either journal and that maybe you haven’t had come in just yet?

Definitely humor. You know, happy people from perfect childhoods I don’t think tend to be literary writers. They don’t have enough to go on. And so if you can work humor into your piece, that’s a one really good way of letting the reader know they’re going to be safe, they’re going to be carried through the story and will take them to a place that they wanted to. And because we tend to write about the things that are traumatic and awful and therefore dramatic, to have some humor in there is just so lovely.

I definitely look for humor and I don’t see it nearly enough. I’m really interested in a lot of Me Too stories, for lack of a better word. I think the level attention being paid to sexual abuse, sexual harassment is fantastic and most people have them and they have good ones. But what I’m not seeing in that category would be not enough of people who have come through the other side. So they’re not living in the problem of having been abused in some way.

They’re actually in the solution, their solution. And they’re writing about that. That, to me, is more interesting. You can cover the story and then get to what happens next. Why do we want to keep reading that women are being sexually assaulted if we don’t get to, I chose not to sue and I came to my own personal resolution around this or I see the guy and he went to jail. Fantastic. You know, some sort of that place they were talking about of like a deity who understands what’s going on.

The third thing I’d like to see more of is some spiritual writing, not necessarily about religion. And I certainly don’t want to write your treatise, you know, from your theological degree. I want a story that touches on spirituality. In some respects, it could be a nature story. It could be a story about how you came to a certain spirituality, but something that has to use a phrase, something going on that’s greater than yourself and an acknowledgment of that, that you’re not the only thing in the universe and that there are some true paths out there, whether you identify them as such Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, whether you identify with that or whether you look at nature or birds.

I had a beautiful piece by Elizabeth Felicetti, who is actually a minister, and it was about birds and how the birds helped her understand her father’s death. And in the end, she saw a bird that let her know that her father had moved on in a good way. That’s the kind of piece that really appeals to me.

You mentioned that you like Me Too stories for lack of a better word. And then you also say you welcome stories from people of color, marginalized people, the disabled, LGBTQ plus feminists, and then also those in addiction, co-dependency, recovery. But the focus on recovery, which doesn’t surprise me given what you said earlier, but I’m wondering what has been the impact of being explicit about this and what you’re looking for the Journal?

I just posted that about a month ago, so it’s hard to see the impact. But I do have more people of color writing in. The submissions we get tend to largely be from white, I would say middle to upper-middle class economically women with a kind of a specific story to tell that is valid. I’m starting to see more in an economic variety, people who just, you know, younger people basically who may not have the resources yet to sit and write.

I mean, you have to have time to sit and write. So you have to have figured out some sort of economic situation for that. But I, I feel like I haven’t done what I need to do to reach into those communities. I did go to a conference, the AWP conference, and I went to several panels on how to get more diverse writers into your magazine. And one thing that was very clear is that those writers don’t want to apply to places that say we’re doing an issue on gay lesbian stuff.

They don’t want to be that writer. They want to be a writer who happens to be gay or, you know, lives with a certain medical condition, has a wheelchair, is older. There’s another thing we don’t get a lot of writers who are much older. And so those people want to be invited in because of their writing, not because of their skin color or their religion or something. So I think it’s incumbent on the editors to go out there and find those communities.

And I’m still struggling with the time to do that. Nobody gets paid at any of these magazines. So we all have to figure out how we’re going to run our finances and run our families and do our own writing and edit the magazine. But that is definitely something that I need to explore on my own as an editor is how to reach into those communities, because when they come in and there’s that story that I want intellectually, if it’s not the story, it’s not going to be published just because it’s by, you know, someone with a club foot or something that’s like, oh, well, you still have to be able to write.

You can’t skate by. There are too many good writers to skate by on your ism.

I’m wondering if you can by describing any recent work that stands out for you that comes from those communities of those focuses as well.

Well, it’s hard because actually today on JMWW, we put up a piece that is by a white man. I’m just I’m in love with this piece right now. It’s called “My Hangover Killed Lou Reed.” And it’s by Richard Prins. And so that’s the one that’s kind of dominating my thought. But one from an older man, also a white man is called “North Lake, I remember.” And that’s in the works. And it’s a beautiful piece that has a kind of Jacobean feeling and the sense of the “Once More to the Lake” that E.B. White wrote. The one directly that comes out of that sort of over would be Katherine D. Morgan’s Flash.

And it’s called “In the Pocket: Day Five: Fat Black Woman With No Ass But Breasts That Make Up For It.” You can just Google fat Black woman and you’ll probably get there JMWW fat Black woman.

I’ll post a link on our show notes too.

Oh, good. OK, it’s a beautiful piece about a woman who imagines. It’s so imaginative, how she imagines enjoying her fat Black woman with big breasts ness, and how that would take shape and what she would change and that one just came to me, I was looking for flash pieces and I put out a call. We were going to do a flash issue. And this was one of the ones that came in.

And like I said, when you read something where your heart goes pitter-patter, you definitely want it. I will say that Vestal review is more traditional in the sense that it has issues we’re doing, you know, this issue on this and this issue on that. And so you have a deadline and things like that. But with JMWW, we publish two or three times a week, and so we never have a reason not to turn down your story.

It’s never not going to fit if we want to publish it. So you do have a better chance of getting published with us because we don’t have to cut anything out. We just publish it later.

Hmm. That’s a really great tip for listeners who want to submit.

And the fact that I really work with writers I think are the two reasons you would choose to submit to our magazine over a lot of others that are kind of like we’re not the New England Review, we’re not the Paris Review, we’re not The New Yorker. So then I have all these other magazines. How do I choose even which to submit to? And that’s one way is that we work with writers and you have a good shot of getting in if we like the piece.

There’s sort of this line, I think, between what you said earlier about submitting a piece that needs work. I mean, submit your best work. But then there’s kind of a beautiful opportunity here, too, where they can submit their best work, but then even make it better by working with. Hands-on like yourselves.

Exactly. I’ve had one or two people who usually it’s one comment I remember I published a piece for creative nonfiction. This was my first kind of big publication to get into creative nonfiction. And all that Lee Gutkind said was, I don’t get the ending. I’m a guy. This ending has to do with lipstick. I don’t get it. If you can fix that, we’ll run the piece. That really affected the rest of the essay.

I was like, well, I can’t change this about the ending if these other things in the essay don’t change. And because of that comment, it became a much better essay. But in general, that’s the most I’ve gotten has been like a simple comment about the whole thing that maybe go ha, and fix that essay. Most of the time they just want the piece to be good.

Good as is and not have to do too much work.

Well, there’s no time. And I think editors would love to get their hands on a piece and edit it, but I was actually on the other end of that recently. I just had a piece accepted by Under the Gum Tree and it went in as a flash and they liked it, but they wanted me to fix one thing. And then when I did that opened up a whole new level to the essay and they said, you just have to run with this.

And so then we edited back and forth three or four times with the new piece that was based on the old piece, but really had a whole new section. It was entirely new and I was the one waiting to find out if it was good enough and it was going to go in.

And that was very challenging as a writer.

But maybe helps with empathy for the people working with you, I find.[laughs]

Because I’m coming from I’m truly coming from the position of this is going to work. And then I give them all these notes and I’m working fast and furious because I don’t have time for compliments, really. And I try to say I like this and this is good. But to me, if it’s working, I’m just not going to fuss with it. It’s the parts that aren’t working that I’m going to fuss with.

So they’ll get this page of notes. And I’m sure now that I’ve been through that, I’m sure they’re thinking this is horrible. She hates it. I’m never going to get in. She’s going to cancel this. When I’m actually right there with it. If I’ve given you lots of notes, that means I’m good. We’re working. This is what we’re supposed to be doing.

Wonderful. I love it. Well, thank you so much for sharing your Lit Mag Love with us today.

Sure. Thanks for inviting me. I had a great time.

I’m so glad. There’s so much to love and learn from in my conversation with Alle C. Hall About Vestal Literary Review and JMWW. From the practical, where she talks about putting your word count on the cover and on the page. And the reason for that I think might be helpful to remember that it’s to let the editor know how much time are we in for as we read this piece. And then she had some really specific advice that I found so helpful about handling rejection when it comes to submitting your work and in fact, that she thinks you can start to enjoy rejection when you gameify it.

But the particular advice she gave was to not spend time thinking about what a no means and really just have a plan of where to send the work next before you have your feelings. So work comes back and maybe you’re disappointed in the rejection, but you already know where you’re going to send it out again, and you do, and then you sit with that disappointment. That is really something that seldom goes away for writers. And when it came to the kind of writing, the qualities of writing that she enjoys and that she would accept that either of those publications are writing, that’s not lost, where the writer is not lost in their own pain or terror, as she put it, or whatever the feeling is.

So if you want to keep the reader along to the ending, you need to involve them and to be a guide to them to be able to transcend that experience. And she noted, though, that some of these things really take time to bake, maybe years, especially when it comes to writing personal essays.

And then some other story advice that is stuff that I’ve heard several times from editors for both fiction and nonfiction as to really proceed chronologically. It’s really difficult when a writer will write for two or three sentences and then leap into the back story. And she noted that sometimes it really just takes several drafts to find out where the story starts, and that’s a way around that problem. So finding where your story starts and maybe that’s why you’re jumping around a timeline, but that in fact, you could write it chronologically if you start in a different place. Some practical things, too, that she doesn’t want to see in submissions.

And it’s not something that appeals to her personally as an editor is swearing, sex for shock value and one sentence and then the next one that repeats itself.

And that’s something I’ve heard referred to by editors several times as baggy language. Another thing she noted is that literary magazines are not writing classes, they’re magazines.

So they really don’t take on pieces that are too hard and that she’s really looking for you to send in the best you can do, in spite of the fact that she works closely with writers. But she wants you to really bring it as far as you can and not expect to be able to elaborate on a section or develop a different part of your piece based on her feedback. You need to be ready to have it as close to ready as you can possibly do.

Some of the stories that she’s interested in, are Me Too stories and that she said she’s not seeing enough of those stories from people who come through the other side.

So writing from being in the solution to be able to cover the story and then get into what happens next.

And one of the differences, she noted, between Vestal Review and JMWW is that Vestal is limited in the space that it has. But JMWW really doesn’t have limits on how much they publish. They’ll publish whatever writing they think is good. So this is a place where you have higher chances of being able to be published. So I mentioned this is the final episode of the Lit Mag Love podcast this year and will be back in spring Twenty Twenty.

This is also the final episode of the podcast being co-produced with Room magazine. And I just want to really thank my Roomies out there, the people who have been helping put this podcast together, starting with Meghan Bell, who did some of the initial edits and initial brainstorming around the podcast, and moving to Mica Lemiski, who’s been the sound editor and a great sounding board for me working on the podcast. So I want to thank everybody on the collective for participating, there are several guests as well who came on the show.

And that has been really a wonderful boon. And speaking of Room magazine and Roomies, I continue to be on the Room’s collective and I’ll be editing an upcoming issue, co-editing it, in fact, with Meghan Bell, our former publisher, and is on the theme of neurodivergence. So if you want to send in work to us, we would love to receive it full of lit mag love. And we’re definitely looking for work that challenges us to think or feel differently.

And you can submit that work at Room magazine dot com.

Finally, I want to thank you listeners, dear listeners, dear lovely writers, for listening to these episodes of the podcast. I always love getting your feedback.

So please, please share with me what anything you’ve learned from the podcast or any way that it’s helped you submit to journals.

And in the New Year, I also hope to do more listener letters or to start listening to listener letters and sharing those with listeners as well.

So if you have a question about a specific lit mag. One that can wait until spring twenty twenty, but do send me those questions now in the meantime, so we can address them in a future episode. Thanks.

Lit Mag Love is co-presented by Room magazine. Literature, Art and feminism since 1975 and the Lit Mag Love Course, an online course to get smart, fearless and published with lots of help from me. Sound editing for the episode is done by Mica Lemiski. And I’m your host, Rachel Thompson, [theme music plays]if you want to give us some love in the form of a review, wherever you get your podcast, we would love that. And it really helps other writers discover the podcast.

You can find us online at Lit Mag Love podcast, dot com or on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at Lit Mag Love. Thanks for writing and reading literature and thanks for listening to Lit Mag Love.[theme music fades and ends]

 

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