To Have Greater Understanding
When I began my internship at the Santa Fe Writers Project, I was very much looking forward to reading submissions. To be let in on the secrets of the other side of a Submittable page felt a bit like being allowed to sit at the table reserved for grownups at Thanksgiving or like having one’s first sip of alcohol; it couldn’t help but be revelatory, finally experiencing firsthand precisely what it’s like. Unlike my first sip of beer – people drink this on purpose?! I thought, horrified – reading hasn’t let me down. If anything, it has exceeded my expectations.
For the last several weeks, I have been reading book entries for the 2022 Literary Awards Program, a contest which past winners have described as career-launching. The winner receives $1,500 and 90% of them go on to be published. There are no genre restrictions, so everything from erotica to memoirs to YA fantasy has come across my desk. Although I am allowed to read up to 25 pages, I am encouraged to get a feel and make a decision by page 10, and I’m usually able to.
In my last post, I described how being a reader for SFWP has helped me appreciate the fact that there are just so many factors that go into a piece being accepted or denied, promoted to the next level or declined. While I had been reading, judging, and writing comments on stories, I had been doing it in a bit of a vacuum. I’d received some bare instructions on how to read for SFWP, but even as I tried to respect them, I worried that I was doing a poor job of it in that my ideas about what works are good and what works aren’t up to standard might be radically different from those of Andrew whose baby the SFWP is.
Still, I went along, carefully reading the pieces and being totally amazed by their quality. In the instructions for reading, it was noted that there would be a number of them that you would be able to write off immediately, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all. I can think of only three or four that were unequivocally not a good fit from the get-go. Instead, there were many that I had to drag myself away from and tenfold more that I thought were very, very good. That feeling of not wanting to stop reading has been one of the best bits of my internship thus far, to know that there are people out there writing brilliantly and striving toward the same goals that I have is reassuring. There is so much talent yet undiscovered, and so many names we have yet to know that one day will feel as though they were always there.
This past week, the layers of my learning were deepened even more as I got to read for the first time Andrew’s notes on the stories I had also been responding to. It’s incredible how differently a story can feel from one person to another. A piece that I might find compelling, Andrew may feel is oppressive in its style. A protagonist he instantly likes may fill me with distaste. There are so many examples of this, and we are only two of the many people whose eyes will be on these works before the final one is chosen. Now, even more so than before, I see just how subjective all of this is – almost maddeningly so. However, even though there is a degree of frustration that comes along with this, far more important to me is the understanding it has given me. I feel much better prepared for my future and think I have a more nuanced idea of where I fit into the vast machine that is publishing.
TW: Covid death, teen suicide
It's been an incredibly tough beginning to the year. We started this semester off losing our uncle to Covid (our fourth family member to pass from it in the last six months alone). Our upstairs bathroom decided to try to come through our living room ceiling (oh, the joys of a very old house) the costs of which to repair are just…astronomical. And then this past week, a former student of mine and one of my daughter’s best friends committed suicide. It came out of nowhere, although I suppose it must feel like that most of the time. But to lose a child like that is especially awful.
So, it has not been the start I had hoped for.
While typically I feel hopeful about new years – a clean slate! A chance to make things better! Do things I’ve always meant to do! - I generally dislike beginnings. It comes from a place of perfectionism. I hate not knowing how to do a thing The Best Way, and that period of time between starting a new endeavor and being introduced to new processes and struggling through them to find your own groove and understanding is difficult for me. So it was unsurprising to me that I was anxious about this internship and all that I might be expected to learn and navigate with it. So far, though, it hasn’t been particularly stressful, though it has been time consuming.
Part of this is that Andrew appears to be very, very busy during this time and therefore unable to give me much attention. I feel as though I’ve barely interacted with him, which I don’t fault him for. In some ways, that has made it easier because it has allowed me space to grow without observation.
My responsibilities thus far for SFWP have been being a reader for the contest. To do this, I received access to the SFWP Submittable and a sheet that described how I should approach reading. Most of it was simple enough – dismiss entries with overt issues such as racism, sexism, etc., stop reading after 25 pages - but two bits stuck out to me. The first was that lots would be unreadable or bad within the first few pages. The second was that I should be able to complete reading 20 to 30 entries per hour. Holy shit, I thought! That was a lot of entries to complete in an hour. However, I thought, if lots really were unreadable within the first few pages, maybe it was possible.
Alas, while that number might be reasonable for a seasoned reader, it has not been my experience. There have been precious few that I felt could be thrown out within the first few pages, and I generally have to read around ten to confidently decide whether or not an entry should progress to the next level. After reading, I must comment on the story so that Andrew can have a basis for responding to the entry. Although I read at what I’ve believed to be a pretty good pace previously, it’s still taken me about an hour to finish ten entries and sometimes longer.
Being on this side of the submissions process has been illuminating. Although I understood intellectually before this that literary magazines, publishers, and websites receive such a large volume of work that it is extremely difficult for your submission to just happen to hit all the right buttons it needs to get accepted (be of excellent quality, be the correct length, be a topic that fits in with the flow of the magazine, etc.), it is different to be on the receiving end and actually sifting through all of these entries.
There are so, so, so many incredibly accomplished writers sending beautiful work out. It’s stunning, really, just how much talent there is out there. Of all of those I read, I probably progressed fifty to the next level, and of those, a solid twenty would all be so excellent (from what I’ve read) that if any of them won, I would have to nod and agree that yes, they deserved it. So that really helps put things into perspective, to not just know something because you’ve read it and been told it but to really experience it firsthand and see just how chancy the whole process is.
A side effect of that is that it’s also made me feel good about the choices that I’ve made since early 2020. When the pandemic hit, I couldn’t create anything. I couldn’t enjoy reading. It was like my entire writerly spirit had been drained from me. But I had just at the beginning of 2019 declared that I was going to pursue being a writer, and 2019 had been good to me. I didn’t want to lose that momentum, so I considered that from everything I could tell, success in being a writer depended on three things: talent, education, and platform. You couldn’t just be talented; talent plus is necessary.
So I decided to invest in those things as much as I could during that period of being unable to write, and now, nearly two years later, I believe it’s really paid off. I’m coming closer to the end of my studies through which I feel I’ve learned an incredible amount that I’ve been able to put back into my writing, and I have a platform that I can be proud of and might just be enough leverage that I could one day get a reasonable book deal. It’s good to have that positive to look to right now. The past two years haven’t only held tragedy; they’ve held good stuff, too, and it may just pay off someday.
This semester, I’ll have the pleasure of interning with the Santa Fe Writers Project, the independent press baby of Andrew Gifford. SFWP publishes books as well as a quarterly literary journal and is located, unsurprisingly, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In all honesty, that gave me some anxiety at first, that it calls a place I’ve never been home, and I was worried that I wouldn’t possess the right personality or tools to fit the bill. After digging into Andrew, though, and familiarizing myself with SFWP, I feel much more at ease about it. My internship will be a remote one, and I’m interested in seeing the logistics of how that will play out.
I know that this should be an internship focused on the publishing side of things, but I think I am most interested in the opportunity to read submissions and hope I will get the chance to. It would be good to be exposed to such a broad range of writing styles and subjects, and I would like to have a more intimate understanding of how pieces are chosen. I’m a little anxious about other tasks I might be asked to take on. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and am afraid within the short period of time we have in our placements that I will just be getting the hang of things when it’s time to check out for the semester.
No County for Book Lovers
In the county where I live, there are no bookstores at all, indie or otherwise. In the decades I have lived here, I can’t remember there ever being one. If you want a book, you can hope the local Wal-Mart or CVS might carry it, or that someone might’ve donated it to the charity shop, but otherwise, you’ll have to look elsewhere. It’s difficult to pin down the exact ramifications of not having a bookstore of any kind in our area, and it feels a bit like a “chicken or the egg” scenario: do we not have bookstores because we are statistically so uneducated or are we so uneducated because we don’t have bookstores? I’m uncertain about what the truth might be. It seems fair to assert, though, that the lack of one has been detrimental to those who live here, and particularly to those who grow up here.
For a long time, this lack of a bookstore meant that most book buying occurred over the internet, usually from places such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon. In recent years, though, the capability of smaller bookstores to compete with big stores has increased. The development of Libro.FM and Bookshop.org have made it possible for me to support somewhat local bookstores through my physical and audiobook purchases. I have tried to support these in my capacity as a writer and reader, as well: I am a member of the Libro.FM Influencer program and am an affiliate for Bookshop.org and promote the use of them through my public accounts. I can’t remember who said this, but somewhere online I read a statement that went something like: “Buy that book from an indie bookseller. You don’t need it in two days” – referencing Amazon’s Prime shipping, of course – “you aren’t going to read it for six months, anyway.” It made me laugh. In many cases, that’s the truth.
Though our county doesn’t boast any bookstores, a couple of our neighboring counties do or have at times over the years. I remember in high school having a field trip to a bookstore in the next county over. I think it must’ve been for our honors English class, or perhaps a gifted trip. It seemed to me like something you’d see on television, the background setting for a group of college students. It was very dark, I remember, and it had a very earthy ambience. It had a front section that had shelves and shelves of books artfully arranged, but in the back, there was a coffee shop that served a number of decadent dishes (or so they seemed in my childhood).
I don’t know when they went out of business. Likely, it was when I was away at college, but especially after what we read this week, it isn’t surprising that it did. From the details of costs of running a bookshop versus the profits of one, it seems miraculous that anyone ever manages to successfully do so. Things such as Bookshop.org and Libro.FM certainly help, though. There is a new independent bookstore in our neighboring county now, and I am linked to it through my accounts though I have never set foot there.
Sad Words for Writers
Errata, kill fee, midlist, remainder, widow. These terms stood out to me in my reading this week of publishing terminology. Publishing is such an exciting topic to me, and nearly all of the words on the lists gave me a wee thrill, with these notable exceptions, and it was striking to me that I had not acknowledged that publishing, like any other thing, would have terms with negative connotations.
An errata, a loose sheet detailing errors found in a printed book, was not something that I realized had a title. I would like to know more about this but could not find the information I was looking for online. You understand as a writer and reader that inevitably there will be errors in even the most carefully edited and proofread books – these things slip by – but for my part, anyway, I didn’t realize there was an official means of dealing with them. Though I understand an errata to be composed after a book is imprint, I wish I knew who did the composing and what that looks like in practice. Is there a dedicated team of readers who go through the first printing and email in, “Hey, Georgia, I found an error here, here, and here,” and then all of those emails are composed into one final errata? Or is a fluid document?
Kill fee - a payment that may be made to an author or illustrator when a publisher cancels a project - I imagine would be a term that could cause any budding or established author to wince. On the one hand, I’m glad to see that there is such a thing. It’s good to know that should a project fall out there is something there to offer some consolation to an author. That said, the pain of having a project canceled must bring on all kinds of stress: fear of the lack of income, fear that your artistry is failing you, fear that you don’t have a place in the publishing world, fear of what your peers and family and friends will think.
Midlist, or books with a strong intellectual or artistic bent which have a chance of significant success but are not assumed to be likely bestsellers, was a term that I suppose would not have a negative connotation to everyone. To me, though, there was a sadness in the books seemingly most likely to be noted for their brilliance or superior artistry being labeled “midlist” instead of “top-of-the-list.” I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with wanting to write a bestseller – I don’t know many or maybe any writers who wouldn’t want to – but the highest aspiration, I would think, is to be among these so-called midlist books.
Ah, the remainder, or all the books that didn’t wouldn’t couldn’t sell. When I hear that word, I imagine a closet or a corner of a basement in an author’s house being occupied by boxes of books, black lines slashed through the bottoms, the dark ink a final nail in the coffin of all the hope that book initially held when the author learned it was to be published.
A widow is a high note among this list: a sad word and idea, to be sure, a lone word left on a page, unwanted, undesirable. At least, though, the writer won’t be hurt by thus one. Irritated by the presence of one in a book, sure, but not hurt, and as many times as a writer may be hurt between a first draft and a final publication, that is a good thing, I think, to have a mistake that is in no way on your head.
Accomplishment Versus Success
My idea of “accomplished” has evolved over the last few years. In 2019, when I started properly writing, my only desire was to see my work published two times, with no real care for what the publications I was getting published in were as long as they had a legitimate presence, and I was very successful in this, getting eight (if I’m remembering correctly) short pieces published by different literary magazines and websites within the year. But at the end of that calendar year, I realized that while I had succeeded in my original desire, what I was doing wasn’t quite right, and I was unsure how to proceed. Although I was getting published, I hadn’t been focused on the quality of the outlets I was being published in, and although I wasn’t ashamed of them, they weren’t the magazines and websites where I ultimately hoped my work would be featured. I became stuck in a rut of uncertainty. There were several months where I wrote nothing at all, and in the midst of those, the pandemic hit, and I became even more unsure what I was supposed to be doing.
Eventually, I decided that I needed to approach a career as a writer in two ways: I needed to build my audience and I needed to hone my craft. If I could achieve both of these, I felt I would be the writer I wanted to be.
The desire for the latter resulted in me applying to this program, and it has been such a joy. I had forgotten what it was like to be in school and feel yourself growing and learning and getting better. There have been so many moments in my courses when I’ve thought, “Ah! If only I’d known this before…” which is a rather wonderful feeling because you can see where you have room to improve and have the tools to know how to. If accomplishment is growing in skill and learning from one’s mistakes, becoming a better version of yourself, then I believe the program has helped me to become more accomplished in a more important way than mere publishing could.
The former – building an audience - seemed the easy part. Though I was unable to write in those months prior to starting classes in August of 2020, I was able to work on my social media pages and form connections with other writers and readers, and I started using those pages as an outlet for nerdy joy when everything around me in the real world seemed to be crumbling. They became a community of support and happiness for me, and I do feel accomplished with how far I have come with approximately 45k followers across my pages.
Although I have been published, am getting better as a writer, and have a healthy audience at my disposal, I am far from how I would define successful. While I feel accomplished, success will look and feel much different to me. To be successful, I will need to write something I truly give myself over to and, hopefully, will earn a tidy bit of money from. I haven’t found that project yet, whatever it will be, but when I have completed it and worked it into something that I can be proud of, then I will feel successful.
The Year of Three Thousand Follows
A year ago today, I did something which seemed necessary but also absurd and pretentious: I created a Facebook page proclaiming myself as a writer. Tara Wine-Queen no longer would just exist; Tara Wine-Queen would write.
I had just submitted my first piece to be considered for publication and needed a Facebook page for the sake of the submissions. I had set a writing goal for 2019 which seemed enormous at the time: I just wanted to get published in multiple publications - twice would suffice, and any legitimate publication would do. I simply needed validation outside of my social and academic circles, for people who did this professionally and who had no reason to be swayed by any relationship with or love for me to say, "Yes, this is good, I approve."
Not two but eight stories of mine were accepted for publication in 2019. I put out first "Prisons" on my own when it proved too long for traditional magazines and then published my first book, Tenderness and Troubling Times, a collection of stories
largely set in West Virginia and touching on so many themes and subjects dear to me.
And tonight, on the one year anniversary of my ridiculous-feeling leap into declaring myself a writer on social media, Tara Wine-Queen Writes has gotten its three-thousandth follower.
My gratitude and my joy overwhelm me. I could never thank you all enough for joining me and for saying, "Yes, this is good, I approve."
I hope that I can make us all proud.
Love and hugs,
End of Year Reflections
It’s nearly New Year’s, which means that it is the time of year when we reflect and look back on the year’s successes and failures. 2019 has been bursting to the seams with things to celebrate and things to mourn in my life and the life of my family, but there is one thing that rises above them all, my favorite thing and the best thing that I’ve done:
I married my husband (again).
It was at a renaissance faire with two of our closest friends on a perfect day in an open-air chapel. He wore a kilt and a Robin Hood hat (fulfilling two fantasies of mine simultaneously) and I wore a red dress with flowers in my hair. The tiny chaplain read a Neil Gaiman poem and I cried when we recited the vows because of course I did.
We looked forward to the vow renewal ceremony for months and as soon as it was over, we were talking about how we couldn’t wait to do it again. (So if anyone sees any cool opportunities for vow renewals anywhere, let me know! Have love, will travel.)
When I look back on my year, this is the part that sticks out, because without my husband and the relationship that we share, it would have been impossible for me to have reached the goals that I have this year. I am a head-in-the-clouds sort. I think up a lot of things that wiser, more grounded beings would never consider, much less pursue.
But whenever I come up with some hair-brained idea or get my heart set on some ridiculous thing, Aaron unfailingly supports me. And not just in a “Sure, of course, go for it” way; instead, he tells me I am capable of anything and then gives me a strong dose of his down-to-earth logic that somehow not only convinces me that I’m not crazy for wanting to attempt it, but that I would be crazy not to with all of this evidence in my corner.
I love him so fiercely for that.
And it is equally unthinkable that I would have made it through the year's failures without him. And let me tell you, this year has had more than its fair share. I have questioned things about myself this year that I thought were long-settled, happily so, our family has had loss, and I’ve experienced depression for the first time in years, since post-partum hit me hard after I had my oldest.
But no matter what I’m feeling, or how much I vent, or how much I don’t feel like the best version of myself, Aaron knows how to reach me and say the things which will make that moment or that day or that week a little bit more bearable. He will let me crawl up on his lap and will tell me that my feelings are valid, that complaining to him is good because he wants to hear the things, that I am beautiful and good. And I know that he means it, that he wants nothing more in life than he wants to love me and our family as completely as humanly possible - and sometimes even more than that.
So without question, the highlight of my year was marrying my husband again, with a close second being every other day I got to spend as his wife. It’s the very best thing to be.
Happy New Year’s, friends.
The Baby Losers Club
Two months into my first pregnancy, I woke up in a puddle of blood. I went to the hospital, where I was told I was miscarrying. "Maybe it's better this way," my partner at the time said, the pregnancy having been unplanned. That what I was experiencing could be the "better" end of anything was horrifying to me. I did not miscarry, though; I was very lucky. I'd spend the pregnancy having near-weekly ultrasounds, under the constant care of the doctors and midwives who would see me through.
But the experience opened my eyes to a reality that is all too frequent for women yet rarely spoken of. No one had prepared me for the possibility that my child might not live, and yet I knew that babies sometimes didn't make it. It just seemed like something which happened in another time, or on TV, or in books. My grandmother had lost babies both in utero and out; I had attributed that to it having been another time, when maternal and fetal science had yet to reveal the myriad of ways we could protect ourselves and the children we bore. That these things could touch me here in the present stunned me. Miscarriage, stillbirths, SIDS - the idea of them haunted me, and when my daughter finally came into the world, I was so terrified something would happened to her that I couldn't sleep for days, in fear that my eyes closing would give her an opportunity to slip away forever as she hadn't managed to before.
It was from this place of fear and revelation that The Baby Losers Club and the stories it would bear was born. I wanted to give a voice to the women (and men) who had struggled to conceive and who had lived through the hardest of human experiences, losing a child.
And I wanted to give them hope, too: a reminder that even if life does not give us the things we desire, it does not make our lives less valuable or worthy of joy.
Tenderness and Troubling Times, a collection of stories including The Baby Losers Club series, is available on Amazon, Books-A-Million, and other retailers.
We Are All West Virginia
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about West Virginia. It is the safest, most comforting place in the world to me, home to nearly all my favorite people. Her mountains offer a sweet embrace: fiery in fall, lush in spring and summer, spare but no less striking a beauty in winter.
Our people…thinking about the people who reside in these mountains is enough to bring me to tears. Because while I know no finer folks than those I’ve found here, the people of West Virginia have been traumatized, brutalized, taken advantage of time and time again.
If you’ve looked into commonalities in addicts, in studies which have tried to discover what might cause one person to be more susceptible to addiction than another, you’ll find one word over and over: trauma. Addicts are exponentially more likely to have experienced trauma than non-addicts. And trauma begets trauma; violence and addiction are cyclical, and there is maybe nowhere which displays it more clearly than the West Virginia classroom.
The children of West Virginia are desperate. They are continually traumatized. What we would’ve considered difficult circumstances to grow up in twenty years ago are now nearly the norm. If you look at the statistics of displaced children – children who no longer live with their parents, who must be with a grandparent or other family member or in the foster care system, what have you – we lead the nation. Many of those who do live with parents are living with addicts or in undesirable situations where trauma is frequent, but our foster care system is so overstressed and understaffed itself that we no longer have the means or capacity to serve all of those who are in need. We have such profound need here. Despite this, lawmakers voted recently to take measures to not only prohibit same-sex families from accepting foster children but also to exclude children who identify as LGBTQ – the most likely segment of the population to be suicidal – from being included in foster care programs.
People will passionately point at LGBTQ West Virginians, addicted West Virginians, West Virginians so poor that they need the help of our government to exist, and lay our problems at the feet of those populations, say that they are to blame for the state of things in our state.
Our state is in crisis, but by nurturing divisions we are stepping away from what is actually the best thing West Virginia has to offer: the relationships between her people. We are a state made up of communities filled with citizens and organizations who love to take care of other people. When help can be given, when a need is there, we step up to give it, to fulfill that need. It’s in our churches, 4-H clubs, private businesses, food pantries, community centers and clubs. It’s sharing the needs of a family whose house burned down on Facebook. It’s raising money for a little boy with cancer. When West Virginia teachers went on strike in 2018, we had our communities behind us; our state prides itself on its legacy of labor leaders and community support. We take care of each other here, at least when we are at our best. It is the finest thing about us.
And it is also the most significant thing we as individual West Virginians can do to break the cycles of trauma and addiction, because relationships are absolutely critical to healing from traumatic experiences and addiction. In recovery groups, in continuing education classes for teachers, in community-sponsored workshops across the state trying to help us build a better future in these hallowed hills, the importance of relationships – particularly to those who have suffered trauma - is preached until the preacher is blue in the face. There is no overstating the necessity of those relationships. There can be no recovery without human kindness and support.
So instead of focusing on what differences we may have and nursing extreme views which only work to divide us and dehumanize our fellow man, we should remember that all of us in West Virginia have been traumatized; no one here has escaped unscathed from the loss of industry, the opioid crisis, high poverty rates, limited job opportunities.
But we all feel sweet relief when we see that Wild and Wonderful sign come into our sights after time away. Our hearts all flutter when we hear those first few notes of “Country Roads” playing out across the radio or at the ballgame. Each of us has staked a claim here, buried pieces of our hearts in her hills and hollers, and we owe it to that sacred communion which lets us call West Virginia our Mountain Mama to seek to build and sustain relationships with our brothers and sisters in state instead of allowing fear and hatred to lead our paths.
West Virginia can heal from her hurt, she can move past the trauma to be healthy and happy and proud of herself once again, but it must be done from within, from the hearts and hands of her people doing that holy work of loving our neighbors and rejecting those who would try and exploit our differences for the advancement of their own desires.
We all are West Virginia. We owe her our best, and we can only do that by recovering together, building relationships and healing traumas one by one.
I just want to make you feel something.