Category Archives: Essays

The Art of the Essay

An essay is a short nonfiction piece told in the first person point of view. It is about the author and the author’s insight, precipitated by a simple thought, event, or experience.

It is about insight.

The purpose of an essay is for the author to coalesce the initiating experience into words on paper, so the reader may learn something about him/herself by reading the essay. In other words, the essay must have its genesis in something fairly normal, but have greater, broader, meaning and value. The essayist must pass that insight, as closely as possible, to the reader.

There are roughly three classifications of essays:

  1. Observational, where the essayist observes something, teases out its meaning and documents the result.
  2. Investigational, where the essayist engages in research to discover one thing and discovers other, more important things in the process.
  3. Opinion, where the essayist believes his/her opinion to be of importance due to specific, unique insights about the topic at hand. (Be careful; an opinion essay without form devolves into a rant.)

Begin with the thesis, a provocative statement that kicks the whole thing off. 

 “When I finally quit playing the piano, the first thing I learned to appreciate was the possibility of my own silence.” —Daisy Eunyoung Rhau

“Fashion nearly wrecked my life.” —Barbara Kingsolver

“The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow, and the men who lend.” —Charles Lamb

Then give as much background as is required, and as much information as is needed in order to have the reader follow the progression of thought all the way around to the end, to the insight, which should, in fact, explain the thesis. Be wary of indulging in too much extraneous biographical information. Stick to the topic at hand.

Essays are circular in nature, and the ending should not merely echo the beginning, but should tie in directly. The thesis is the ending. The body of the essay is an explanation of the thesis, and the ending is a restatement of the thesis, expanded with insight.

It is a simple, important form of communication.

As with all things, if you intend to write a good essay, go to the library, pick up a couple of books of essays, and read a dozen.

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Selling your short stories

Attention, class.

This is a very brief description of how I have come to have close to 300 short stories, articles and essays in print. I’m not going to talk about articles here, because they are a completely different thing from short fiction and personal essays. 

Today I received a submission in the mail for a defunct series I used to publish (last edition edited in 2003 and published in 2004!). He sent me what is clearly an original, typed copy — it was worn and had seen many submissions — it was a translation, and it came from India with no SASE or international return postage certificates. Normally, I throw these in the trash. But this? This is going to cost me time and energy to return it to him, and that makes me mad. I’ve thrown it away and pulled it back out of the trash three times so far this morning. And now I know I will take the time to take it to the post office, and put the postage on it and send it back to him. Grrr.

Over the ten years that I edited and published short fiction, I was continually astonished at the unprofessional submissions that crossed my desk: single-spaced, printed on both sides of the paper, no SASE, no return address, submitted three years after the series expired. So hear me when I say this: If you look and act like a professional, you’re already in the top ten percent of those who submit.

So here are my rules for successful story and/or essay submission.

1. Make certain this story or essay is ready to go. Never send anything to an editor straight out of your head. Be sure you give it sufficient (at least two weeks) cooling off time after writing it before submitting it. If, after letting it cool, you read it and decide that major rewrites are in order, give it another two weeks after rewriting before sending. Trust me on this. You will save yourself much embarrassment. Know the proper manuscript format. Make sure that your contact information is at the top of the first page, and that your name and the story name, along with the page number is on every page. During that cooling period, it wouldn’t hurt if you let a friend read it, or if you passed it by those in your writing group.

2. Make a list of potential markets. Be familiar with these markets. I rate them in order according to how much they pay (those who have published my work before are always at the top of the list), but if you’re a new writer and are seeking publishing credits, pay should not be as important to you as a high chance of success–i.e. sending it to the perfect publication. I try to put twelve publications on my lists of potential markets. If you’re not familiar with twelve publications that publish what you’re writing, then you don’t read widely enough. Get busy.

3. Send your manuscript, with a short cover letter (1-2 paragraphs that state your credentials) to the first publication on your list. If you have no publishing credentials, you don’t need a cover letter. Be sure to include a #10 Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE). Assume they will not return the manuscript, but will either send you a contract or a rejection letter. Put a copy of your cover letter in the file where you keep a copy of the story and your list of potential markets, or note on your list the date you sent it. (This is also the file where you will keep all contracts for that story.)

4. Forget it. It will either come back or it won’t. Meantime, get busy writing something else. If it never comes back (this has never happened to me, but sometimes it has taken a couple of years), then some day you’ll come across it, dust it off and continue its rounds. I don’t keep track of these things on a spreadsheet because then I will tend to agonize, and if I’m agonizing, then I’m micromanaging, and if I’m micromanaging, then I’m bugging editors. I absolutely forget it and get on with the next project at hand. Once it’s out into the world, what happens to it is someone else’s job.

5. If the rejection letter comes, print out another copy of the story and send it to the next name on your list that very day. Do not let your story sit on your desk overnight, or you will be tempted to read it. Then you’ll reread the rejection letter (even if it is a form rejection letter), trying to divine some secret truth in it that will help you become a more successful writer.  Then you’ll want to rewrite the story, but you can’t do it now, maybe next week.

And there your story will languish.

Please do not do this.

Once I deem a story fit to publish, I trust that instinct. Only when it is rejected from every publication on the list (this can literally take years), or I receive sincere revision suggestions from a respected editor, do I reread it. Then I will probably rewrite it, make a new list and begin again.

6. When your story has been accepted for publication, note the date that rights revert to you or else give it 18 months courtesy time after publication, then begin selling it again. I have sold stories up to five times.

Being a professional writer means acting like a professional. It’s a business. Have nice-looking letterhead, because that is the first impression you make on an editor. If you view yourself as a pro, so will the editors.

Always remember that competition is stiff for those limited slots in the best magazines and anthologies. Submit only your best.

So get busy, slick up those stories and get them circulating. They aren’t going to get published while idling in your file drawer.

Good luck!

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