On June 24, 2020, the New York Times published one of my essays on their website for the first time.
Soon after “All We Can Do Is Sudoku” appeared online, an executive editor from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, followed me on Twitter. As a writer of nonfiction seeking representation, I was thrilled. I’d written the memoir To Have and to Hoard: How I Found Treasure in My Husband’s Trash and planned to query agents soon.
Publishing in a goal publication is a confidence-booster. But even reaching for your goal pub can increase your confidence and improve your writing—whether or not your piece is accepted. I didn’t know that when I dove in, so I want to help other memoirists and novelists use their time wisely.
Consider your “reach” publication. Perhaps your goal pub is the Washington Post, The Rumpus, or Vogue. Look for a publication with a large audience and content that fits your topic; if you’re writing about technology, for example, WIRED is a good fit.
With my increased confidence and the attention I’d gained, I decided to tackle Modern Love. Editor Daniel Jones launched the column in 2004, and it’s become a media juggernaut with a connected podcast, a 100-word series called Tiny Love Stories, a streaming series, and a book. Since the launch of Modern Love, dozens of the columns have led to book deals for their authors, including Amy Sutherland, Aspen Matis, Nicole Hardy, Ada Calhoun, and Andrea Jarrell.
In Aug. 2020, I wrote my first Modern Love draft based on my memoir manuscript. Dozens of drafts later, on Oct. 31, I hit send. I won’t know for months if Jones accepted my essay—one friend reported it took six months before the editor responded.
But even if the essay is rejected, the knowledge I gained was worth my time investment. I built my confidence, hired an editor for the first time, tightened my work’s narrative arc, and improved my writing skills. Let me show you the eight ways that submitting to my goal publication, Modern Love, improved my book-length work.
Your choice of goal publication should feel like a scary stretch. Once you’ve decided on a publication, be diligent. Read the submission guidelines and follow them exactly; read as many of its published pieces as you can. Your excitement will build—you can do this.
I’m not famous, nor am I the most brilliant or skilled writer. But I have a story only I can tell. I deserve the chance to tell it in a visible place. Although Jones accepts only 1% of submissions, having the courage to submit confirmed something: I deserve a coveted spot.
Listen to the writers who encourage you. Ignore those who don’t. Some writers in my circle warned me to prepare for rejection. They counseled me to create a list of outlets to take the piece if Jones didn’t accept it, so my work was able to be used. They mentioned Hobart, which publishes a “Rejected Modern Love Essay” section. I ignored them but appreciated the wisdom of having a backup plan. I compiled a list of publications known for publishing essays about relationships, among them HuffPo Personal, The New York Times’ “Ties,” and New York Magazine’s “The Cut.”
If you’re new to finding and hiring an editor, as I was, ask your friends for referrals. That way you’ll know a trusted source vetted the editor. If there’s a college or writing school nearby that you admire, email them and ask for referrals, or see if their instructors accept editing projects on the side.
To vet an editor, ask them about their fees, how they work with writers—their exact process—their areas of expertise, and the number of edit rounds included in their fee. Take the piece as far as you can before sending it to your chosen editor. I wrote three dozen drafts before looking for an editor.
I had noticed author Susan Shapiro’s comments in a Facebook group we belong to. She was my first choice for editor since she’d published in Modern Love and taught popular courses that had led her students to book deals. I worked up the courage to contact her. She sent an encouraging response. Although she didn’t have time to work with me, she recommended colleague Paula Derrow.
I hired Derrow because she’d had two Modern Love essays published and had been articles director at Self magazine. I had no traction with glossies, so maybe she knew things I didn’t.
Since Shapiro had provided Derrow’s bona fides, I made the mistake of not asking any questions before hiring Derrow. As a result, I hired an editor who didn’t understand my topic, hoarding. On top of trying to work with her to edit my piece, I had to educate her on its subject. We went through two rounds of edits.
I learned to look for editors who are knowledgeable about my subject matter, and as a result I decided to engage several new beta readers who will relate better to the material. One is a psychotherapist; the other writes about a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Be humble and open to feedback. When I approached Derrow I thought my piece was nearly done. I had done the big picture work, but I hadn’t narrowed my focus, and after feeling upset about her copious feedback, I returned to the page after reality-testing with trusted colleagues. Remind yourself of your end goal to stay on track after receiving more feedback than you may have expected.
If you practice working with an editor, it will set you up for success after you sell your book, when you’ll collaborate with an in-house editor, and you’ll be required to maintain a productive working relationship.
At times I grew impatient with Derrow’s seemingly endless questions about my life. Weren’t the answers already on the page? They weren’t. Causation was unclear. Everything that happens should be the effect of what preceded it. Causation, covered in this article by the Writer’s Ally (for novelists, but the advice applies universally) engages the reader and keeps momentum rolling.
Your essay and book-length project must show HOW one event caused another in the narrative arc. I refined and clarified the events’ causation and re-examined the turns in the essay. I referred to my manuscript and noted passages that needed work. I learned to pay closer attention to causation, a craft lesson I might not have learned without Derrow’s fresh eyes.
Use Freytag’s Pyramid to create a narrative arc, if you haven’t mapped one yet. Review your beats or scenes. Think about “this happens, THEREFORE, that happens.” Not, “this happens, THEN that happens.” THEREFORE delivers causation; THEN is a boring list, with no information for the reader as to HOW you got there.
To determine your story, ask yourself how you changed from the beginning to the end of your book-length work. Ask what life conflict led to your change. That’s your situation, or the plot that propels the story forward.
In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her situation is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, her story is finding her way after the death of her mother. Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story offers in-depth guidance on the two concepts.
Once you have plotted your situation and story, pluck your most dramatic plot beats from the arc to engage readers. You’ll only have room for a few, but on this abbreviated journey, you’ll still need to show a change in your characters. Reducing 71,613 words to 1,700 meant I only had room on the page for what was vital. Ask yourself: What are your narrative’s biggest moments? How can you travel from one moment to the next using the fewest words? What are your strongest images? Should the essay end the same way your book does? I chose a different point to end on with the essay. It was more relatable and less reflective than my book’s ending. Think about what takeaway the reader will have.
To guide me, I used short pieces I’d already written, such as my pitch, “This is the story of a love triangle between me, my husband, and my husband’s stuff,” and a rough Freytag’s Pyramid I’d created. The stakes, that most marriages with hoarding don’t make it, needed to be clear, and the ending (reasonably) happy: we stayed together.
Creating your book in miniature will help you sell it and show you where you may need to revise. It’s also fun.
Grinding away on a book-length project for years can become tedious. A new challenge and a break from the longer work can enliven you. Learn as much as you can about the publication, the writers it has published, and the editor who will choose what to publish. In the search, you’re likely to find yourself reinvigorated by your chosen craft.
I read hundreds of Modern Love columns. I read craft articles that analyzed the column’s structure. I read the submission guidelines and articles about what Jones did and didn’t want (including one found on Craft Your Content!). I found Ben Koski’s website, which listed published column topics in alphabetical order. I searched for my topic to make sure it was fresh. Since Modern Love had already covered my topic, I asked: Did my essay offer an original angle? I hoped so.
All my research and self-analysis had the unexpected consequence of reminding me why I liked doing this writing thing in the first place.
Building and sustaining a varied and supportive community is vital. Others have been where you have not, and their knowledge can boost you to the next level.
Find out if anyone in your network has published in your goal pub. Ask how they did it, then ask if they will comment on your draft. You can swap and read one of their pieces in return.
Try to connect with contacts a few steps beyond you on the publication path, such as authors in your genre. You may be surprised by their response. Best of all, by stretching yourself to submit to a publication that’s a reach and asking for assistance from those who are more knowledgeable than you, you’ll become an expert: the writer everyone asks for help when it’s their turn to submit.
I now know several professional editors. I’ve developed reciprocal relationships with a few new writers. I sent my draft to Molly Howes, an author and member of my writing community who I didn’t know very well. She had published in Modern Love, and she offered helpful feedback.
Through the process of submitting my essay, I joined a new community: I can chime in when others talk about their experiences with Modern Love or post about the experiences online. I can offer input to those who’d also like to submit.
Whether your publication of choice accepts your piece or not, you’ll gain a well-crafted shorter piece that can help sell your book-length project.
I now have a tight 1,700-word essay that captures my book. I plan to recycle it as a synopsis, or summary, one of the building blocks of a book proposal. A book proposal is a marketing document used to convince an agent they can sell your book to a publisher. I’ve begun to assemble one.
Here’s a quick breakdown of a few of its elements, to get you started.
Right before you submit to your dream pub, show your piece to other writers and listen to their feedback. Then decide if there are any final changes you want to make. All the work you put in will pay off in the improved quality of your writing.
“This is the best thing you’ve ever written,” a member of my writing group commented when I was on the cusp of submitting. This was feedback I trusted; it came from someone who had slogged through my drafts for five years.
Perhaps she complimented me because she observed more polished sentences. In my longer work, I had been more concerned about overall flow. The shorter piece forced me to focus at the sentence level. Maybe the story was clearer. Since I had to clarify the conflict in a few sentences, I learned to write with greater precision. In addition, the competition for Modern Love is so fierce, I spent more time than usual reflecting on my words. Did I marry a perfect man with one fatal flaw? Or did I ignore the flaw because there was so much else to love? I decided on the latter because I also reflected more deeply on the reader.
Regardless of whether your essay is accepted, submitting to your goal pub is an efficient way to improve your writing and your book-length project. It will force you to take a closer look at your manuscript’s narrative arc and ensure causation is clear. You’ll create a piece of writing you can repurpose as a book proposal synopsis. You’ll get a break from your longer work and increase your confidence as you move toward publication.
I’m still waiting to hear from Modern Love. But while I wait I have many more people to compare notes with, people I can now help with the expertise I gained. People who will help me with contacts and read my drafts.
Don’t wait to submit to your goal pub. You owe it to yourself and your writing career to stretch your writing skills now by writing a short piece based on your book-length manuscript.
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the Writing Life Editor at Hippocampus Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and Creative Nonfiction. Kristen has appeared on The Gita Brown Show and Writing Class Radio podcasts. Her in-progress memoir is To Have and to Hoard: How I Found Treasure in My Husband’s Trash. You can find her on her website or on Twitter @kpnwriter.