The problem with learning to write poetry and fiction is the absence of a formula. Any student willing to learn can master an essay, yet a two hour lesson on how to write a short story often produces dismal results. Writers develop their craft much like a pianist does - through hard work and dedication.
One thing we have observed in working with young writers over the last dozen years, is that successful writers do two things: they read and they write. They do a lot of both. Perhaps because this seems so logical it is often over-looked.
One is not likely to become a successful writer until a commitment is made to these two elements. Consider the following routine and think about what it might do to heighten your awareness and proficiency as a budding writer.
Read Three Published Poems a Day
When you find one you particularly like, read it again and again. What elements of style stick out? What person is it written in? How does it observe punctuation and line breaks?
Write about what you care about. Write in detail, using concrete imagery that gives the reader a chance. Get it on computer. Edit it. Cherish it. Love it to death. Then put it away. Imagine at this point that you are raising a child. You need a break and the poem needs time to breathe. Send it to summer camp and accomplish both goals. Make it a two week camp. A four week camp. When your poem comes back home you will see it for what it is (or isn't).
Is there one line or one image you could play with that would make a significant difference? One poem you are proud of a week doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment, until you realize it would constitute a book of poetry. A whole book's worth in a single year. By you!
Read Three Published Stories a Week
If you find a story you just love, re-read it, examining the voice, the style, the narrative point of view, the verb tense. Often a successful story is the matching of a veritable idea with a style that supports it. How does the style of this story work? Would this style fit an idea you have?
One fleshed-out, well-developed, three or four draft representation of a story is a lot of work and accomplishing one each month is quite an achievement. If you can hammer out a first draft (get it on computer asap) in a week, let it rest. Carry on with your reading. Come back to it in a week or any time you have an insight that will strengthen your story. Raymond Carver was said to treat his stories to 50 or 60 such drafts. Now one story a month sounds like an amazing accomplishment, doesn't it?
If you wrote one great story a month, one you are truly proud of, in one year you would have a book of short stories. Amazing!
Literary Magazines are an Excellent Source for Several Reasons
For one thing, they sparkle with newness, what writers are doing with your favourite genre. The work contained therein has been culled, likely from thousands of submissions, and has undergone the guidance of an editor. What you will read in literary magazines are samples from short story collections and poetry books soon to hit the bookstores. You are dealing with avant garde.
These are collections of work gleaned from literary magazines or books already published. They are one editorial board's definition of excellence. Good examples for short stories include The Journey Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories. Both come out once a year and libraries generally stock them.
Whether this is poetry or fiction, once you find a writer you respect, read them. Study them. Analyze their work. You probably like their work because it contains a style or subject matter that is close to what you could see yourself producing. Give hints before Christmas, birthdays.
Enroll in a Writing Class if You're Not Already in One
If you are, join another one when this one is finished.
You'd be surprised how many established writers still do this. Learn from others. Surround yourself with discerning readers; people who will honestly tell you what they see. Avoid "friends" who think your work is "nice."
Subscribe, find a sample in your local library or write away for a single copy. You wouldn't pick just any doctor if you were having vision problems. Literary magazines vary in their taste and selection process. Some publish issues according to specific themes.
That means work you have thought long and hard about, work you have edited and spell-checked and work that has been read by others. Show them your good side. Sending out first drafts is an act that only supports the post office.
Send out from 3-6 of your best poems. Do not overlap poems on the same page, give each its own pedestal to stand on.
Always double-space your story and use 11 or 12 point font. Avoid fancy, unintelligible fonts. Paginate your story and give an accurate word count at the top of the first page. Most magazines do not mind your work being stapled, but many prefer them paper-clipped. A small header or footer with the name of your story on each page is never a bad idea.
State your name, mailing address, e-mail address and phone number. (In our case we also like to know where you attend school and how you found out about our magazine.) Give a brief 10-30 word BIO of yourself. Most magazines report back between four weeks and four months.
This stand for Self-addressed, Stamped Envelope. If you fail to include one of these, chances are you will never hear back. Literary magazines are virtually all non-profit organizations strapped for cash. If you are dealing with a magazine that is not in your own country, use International Reply Coupons (IRCs), unless you have stamps that serve the country of destination. Otherwise, they cannot mail a response back to you.
Read the rules for the contest you are entering carefully. In most cases, your name must not appear anywhere on the submission itself. If you are not meticulous your submission will likely not be entered.
A polite inquiry is suitable, providing you did include a SASE. Dogs have been known to eat submissions. It's rare but it does happen.
It may be your work didn't suit one editor. Possibly the magazine just accepted a "grandfather" story. When your work comes back, read it again carefully. Is there anything you might change? Have the editors made any suggestions? If you still have faith in your work, send it out again. Many times, a successful story has made the rounds of 8-10 magazines before finding a home. Don't Give Up!