How to become an author in ten (or so) easy (or not so easy) steps

This post is a revision and/or a reiteration of a previous blog post — actually a reiteration of many different blog posts I’ve got on the subject of becoming an author. It comes from a place we call “the gift economy,” which is related to the uncompensated labor we are expected to do as writers. It comes from the numerous responses I give to everyone who asks me how they might become an author.

Thing is, I am loath to give this kind of blanket advice, because there is no single, correct path to authordom, but people come out of the woodwork and ask me all the time. A lot of people are looking for some quick tips, little hacks to hasten the task, and they bristle when I tell them about the work involved. I don’t have any life hacks for you. I just have a list of recommendations, things to think about if you think you are serious about becoming an author.

NB: these steps privilege the small presses and independent publishers. I have never gone the agent and the corporate route, and so if you want that advice, it’s not here. Also, if you are looking to go the book contest route, that’s not something I cover here either.

  1. Take writing classes. Some of the advice seekers who approach me have never taken a writing class and have never shown their writing to another human being. In the very least, writing classes bring your work to the eyes of other human beings. There are community workshops, local community college classes, university extension classes. Something here will fit your budget. Poetry Flash has a list of local workshops and writing conferences. There are probably publications like this in your area. Why take writing classes? Well, even if you think you have natural talent as a writer, we take classes to seek guidance, to find mentors, to improve and expand our skill sets. Classes are structured learning. Classes can build your discipline. Classes will enlarge your knowledge bases. Think about it. When you are learning ballet, your teacher is a trained dancer who teaches you the five positions at the barre. These positions are the foundations of your art. Mikhail Baryshnikov did not spring from his mother’s womb a master.
  2. Read. I don’t know how many times I have heard aspiring writers publicly and proudly proclaim that they do not read because they do not want their unique voice influenced by others. Don’t be one of those people. Read. What is out there in the world of books? Who are folks who exhibit mastery in their craft? Think about this. When you are learning how to play the piano, your teacher, the trained pianist, teaches you to play works by Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Gershwin, et al until you are proficient. And then you keep playing the works of those who came before you. You do this before you ever compose your own work. And so, as an aspiring writer, what you read is work that is showing you what is out there, what’s been out there, who has written what, how, and why. What can you learn from them.
  3. Find your writing community. Perhaps these are your writing class classmates. They are learning just like you are. Perhaps in your circle of friends, there are a couple of aspiring writers. Strength in numbers here. You can hold one another accountable. X number of poems or pages per week. Ground rules for providing feedback to one another. This means, yes, you too are providing feedback to others; they are not there solely in the service of you. This is community. You are learning how to read critically, and you are learning the language of critique. you are learning sensitivity to other writers’ strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They are learning yours. You are learning how to be articulate and constructive. Be open about this.
  4. Cut your teeth in public events, readings, open mics. Here, you learn to read your work aloud. You get to hear how your work sounds. This can be a great editing tool. You can hear the clunkers and transitions that need work. You can hear words, phrasings, order, redundancies, leaps in logic that need to be rethought. Perhaps you will also expand your community here. Whose works do you like hearing? Why? This is you, listening and thinking critically about your preferences.
  5. DIY. If in your classes and with your community, you’ve been working on a body of work, then you’ve probably got all of this writing saved either in individual doc files, or altogether in a large doc. if the former, I encourage you to try the latter, because in doing so, you are now thinking about how your individual pieces work together — thematically, aesthetically. You are now envisioning your work as/in a collection. Maybe you have eight, ten, fifteen pages. Make a cool cover. The internet is full of public domain images and creative commons images which may be reused. Lay it all out in a booklet form, print, copy, staple and take them with you to your next public event, reading, or open mic. Perhaps you would like to DIY as a writers’ collective; this is also a totally great option.
  6. Work in publication. In your classes and community building, perhaps you are presented with the opportunity to work with publications. Perhaps your teachers/mentors need interns. Perhaps a class or community org has publication as one of its activities. Participate. This way, you can learn how the process works. Submissions come in from aspiring writers such as yourselves. There’s a selection process. Participate in this. See what gets in and what doesn’t. Think about, discuss why this is — you learn so much in these conversations among your community about what you all like and don’t like. You learn there are numerous answers to why a piece is ultimately rejected. You also learn what constitutes a literary submission, what submissions guidelines are, and what happens when one does not abide by submissions guidelines.
  7. Submit your work. In your classes and community building, perhaps you’ve met someone who produces a zine, or a publication either online or print. Perhaps you are working as a publication intern (see above). Perhaps your teachers/mentors know venues that focus on students’ and/or emerging writers’ works. Perhaps your teacher/mentor thinks your work might be a “good fit” in a particular publication — here, you get to learn what “good fit” means and why it is so important. These are places you learn how to submit your work. Or you could take a class or workshop specifically geared towards the submissions process, if you’ve got the resources to do this. Once you submit your work to enough publications, you will slowly but surely build your publications cache.
  8. Receive a rejection letter or two. Or more. Not every publication you send your work to will accept your work. This is OK. As you would know from your own experience and participation in publication work, there are numerous reasons why a work is not selected (see steps 6 and 7 above). Take the time to acknowledge the rejection, and then move on. Find other places to submit your work; ask your writing community, ask your teachers/mentors where they recommend.
  9. Revel in your acceptances! Not every publication will reject you! If they say yes, celebrate this. If these publications do release parties, participate in these. In addition to celebrating, you may be invited to share your work on the mic.
  10. Once you’ve done steps 7, 8, and 9 ad infinitum, perhaps you will have the confidence to compile chapbook length bodies of your work, or straight up, your full length manuscript, and perhaps you will revisit the possibility of classes and workshops to focus yourself and to level up, and perhaps this leveling up maybe include exploring graduate writing programs.
  11. Submitting full length manuscripts to prospective publishers is kind of like submitting to publications (journals, magazines, anthologies). In other words, you’ve already had dress rehearsals, though if you still feel like you’re apprehensive, try submitting chapbook length projects. Discuss with your mentors and community, do your research thoroughly for what “good fits” there may be for a body of your work. The New Pages website has the best compilation of independent publishers and small presses; there are also publishing/author cooperatives — do learn about this industry. At the very least, find out when certain publishers accept work, what kind of work they are looking for. Read the submission guidelines and follow those to last letter. Write your cover letter and keep it professional. Send your properly formatted submission — query letter, manuscript excerpt, or complete manuscript via letter or email if that is what the publisher asks — via US mail or Submittable, as per their guidelines, and then take a breath. Repeat this step for as long as you’ve got the stamina for it; take a break when you have to. If editors give you feedback on your manuscript, do listen. Also: My recommendation is to not break the bank about this, i.e. do not put yourself in economic hardship over submissions.
  12. Remember step 8. Rejection happens for various reasons. If editors give you feedback on your manuscript, do listen.
  13. Acceptance will eventually happen. In this case, ask yourself: Can you work with these editors? Will they hear/listen to you? Prioritize. What are the absolute most important things to you at this point, in getting your book into the world? And can this publisher give you that? And what can you let go? And what will you do to help them get this book as far into the world as you can?
  14. If acceptance is not happening, then perhaps it’s time to reexamine the manuscript and also where you are sending it. Go back to your community and talk about the work. Think about alternatives to going this route. Maybe this isn’t the route for you. There are so many others.


“One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people.”

Jamaica Kincaid is quoted as saying, “One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people.”

And I am all over this. I was just having a conversation yesterday, about the MFA Industrial Complex, and the Book Award Industrial Complex. (Is that a term? If not, it should be.) Again, with the book award machine, operated at the slush pile level by the unpaid interns, the least experienced and the least qualified. Why would you want your hard work, your work of art, in the hands of these folks. You still have to pay to play in this model. I see people on social media disclosing how much they spend on contest fees per year. These are the same people who are getting paid very little as adjuncts in their institutions, and oftentimes, this is their only source of income. And then they pay to go to AWP. And then they’re paying off student loans.

I do not know how this is sustainable. Math tells me it’s not.

I am not accusing anyone who may fit the above demographic. I am questioning why it is acceptable, why it is the norm, why it is expected that folks live like this.

Back to Jamaica Kincaid’s quote. I want to know who is to be pleased with/by our work. And how will they be pleased. What kind of work fits the bill as pleasing to these bodies — whether it’s MFA application committees in the over-bloated MFA system, or if it’s these unpaid, inexperienced interns at one of several million book prizes. “Several million” is exaggeration, of course, but this kind of saturation I feel is diminishing the value of work — talking to a lot writers and aspiring authors, especially the ones who bum rush my space with their industry demands, I can’t tell anymore, why they write, why they want to publish in the first place. And the thing about this saturation is that folks are still instructed to operate in a scarcity model that makes folks act so cruel to one another.

All of the above is predatory.

Maybe I am idealistic or nostalgic, but what I appreciate and prefer is the corner of the industry — and yes, I am acknowledging this is an industry; Carlos Bulosan wrote, “the writer is also a worker.” — where there a lot less noise, where there still exists the editors and presses whose value systems resonate with our own. Where the possibility of human conversation about the work still exists. The most recent editors of my books are people I have been able to have a drink or share a meal with. Having space to talk.

There is so much now in this industry that prevents these human conversations from happening. I am feeling, as I get “older” in this industry, this is something that’s climbing my list of priorities. Human interaction with folks who want to know and come to know my value systems, why I write, why I must write what and how I write.

I used to think doing this my way would mean retreating into a tiny corner and never being heard from again. I am sometimes surprised this has not been the case. So then, there has to be something to be said about longevity in this industry — building up, improving the work over time. Sticking to your guns, and persisting!

My dos centavos for today. Maybe I’m just an old grump.

Author pre-publication notes on Anxiety and Reticence

Friends, we’re getting close! Invocation to Daughters is due for release November 14. It’s going to come fast.

I’ve just proofread the galleys, and sent my feedback back to the editor. It looks really great, very simple, which is my usual preference. It’s clean. Add this super clean design to the vibrancy of the cover and its colors. I am so pleased. This book is exactly what I want it to be — the publisher I want (and the chillest, most polite editor ever), the content I want, the aesthetics of the design that I love. (Does this ever happen? I’m not sure.)

Maybe the more relevant question though, is why I’m feeling really anxious about this. Specifically, why I’m feeling anxious about this book being released into the world.

Well, readers don’t always love your work. I’ve been raked over the coals before, especially for Poeta en San Francisco, which had some readers not enjoying my “reverse racism,” and “anti-whiteness.” Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about my work just being published (presumably, in place of theirs — hello, scarcity model) in the first place. Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about critical acclaim my work has received. Other readers are Filipino Americans who claim I have gotten Filipino-ness wrong, that my work “does not properly represent them,” and especially “the beauty of our culture.” These are things to which I have grown much accustomed.

Some thoughts.

I think part of my pre-publication anxiety has to do with timing. I’ve recently blogged about Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, as we’ve read through the narrative/narration of Alex Tizon. So many of my questions and concerns about this story — perhaps they are solely or primarily “writerly” concerns — have to do with Tizon’s narration, versus Lola Eudocio’s narration.

These are not new issues to me or my fellow Pinay writers. We discussed this at our Critical Pinayisms panel a few months ago. How do you tell the stories of these women, and not perpetuate/further the victim narrative. What does it mean to “humanize” a person via your writing. How do you do this. How do you tell these stories, and not appropriate them.

I’ve been thinking and talking about a lot of these things. I was recently interviewed for the NEA Art Works Blog, and one thing we talked about there was my assertion that there is no singular narrative that encompasses our ethnic experience. The same can be said of any individual person. Does/can a single narrative ever do justice to a human being’s entire life lived? My students and I talked about this at the end of the semester — how even a trail of official documents does not sum up the human being’s life. There are so many gaps, so much substance beneath the surface of a label or official status. There are different points of view. There is translation. And so then, how can one book speak for us all, and get it all right. What about the dissent, what about the contradictions, what about the silences and secrets. What about the non-verbal clues and cues.

I return to the discussions I have with my Pinay Lit students about the many ways in which women tell their own stories. That we must ask. That we must listen. Even when we hear something we don’t want to hear.

There is narration, and there is dialogue.

We do not own these stories, so do we have the right to tell them — this is a question that comes up a lot. One response — if we do not tell them, then who will ever know. Alex Tizon told a story (in an enormous venue), and because of this, Lola Eudocia becomes known to us.

I am still chafing from the terrible stuff our community has been processing in the wake of her story. I am overwhelmed with it, the responsibility to “get it right,” in which “right” means what exactly?

I think a large part of it has to do with position in relation to the subject. Are we speaking too much, too loudly, drowning out the voices of others. Have we left space for others to speak their piece. And have we opened up space for others to speak.

There’s this other story at the Philippines-based The Rappler, in which the writer interviews the surviving family members of Cosiang, which is what they called Lola Eudocia. Many things about this story are making me think. There is so much more in this story, including the fact that the writer of The Rappler article gives space for the surviving family members to speak for themselves, in their own native language — printed in Ilocano, with English translation in parentheses. Perhaps for The Atlantic that would not be an option, I don’t know. So I go back to “getting it right.” We get to read the questions they are asking, and the stories they know. There are so many other stories of Cosiang. We can only hope for even more stories, more points of view, more voices. And perhaps that will contribute to a larger picture, with more depth and dimension.

So I am thinking about how to go about “getting it right” in our own writings in/about our community. And for myself, for Invocation to Daughters, I am hoping I am getting my poems right. I can only say I am doing my best to make space for other voices. Which, of course, you may point out is a contradiction, given that this is a work of my authorship. I hope I have asked enough, and I hope I have listened enough. I hope it contributes to a larger picture of “us.”

I also understand why so many writers I know are so reticent, why their writings never leave their notebooks and their closest circles. The blow back is so painful. But we do have to try. Even if we fail spectacularly.




Processing through Alex Tizon’s story about “Lola” Eudocia Tomas Pulido

By now, everyone is talking about the late Alex Tizon’s story, “Our Family’s Slave,” which was just published yesterday, posthumously (Tizon passed away in March) over at The Atlantic.

I won’t plot summarize; it’s a lengthy story and well worth the read. It’s a difficult read. Folks are feeling defensive, indignant, triggered, confused. Folks are quarreling, shaming, name-calling, weeping and straight up ugly crying, but yes, they are (for the most part) reading this.

I am not writing this to chastise anyone for their response to Lola’s story.

First, yes. Lola has a name. Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Say her name.

I want to think through a couple of points of view here. I am a teacher of Pinay Literature. The core of my work is to center Pinay narrative, lyric, and epistemology. I am an author, and as Carlos Bulosan wrote in “The Writer As Worker,” “the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life.”

I am struggling with Tizon’s story, and I start with language.

“Lola,” means grandmother in Tagalog. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was not the writer’s grandmother, though her role was to mother, and to serve. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s story is a story of uncompensated reproductive labor, and it exists within the Philippine historical context of colonialism, feudalism, and patriarchy.

I had not heard the term “utusan,” to describe human beings. I know the word, “katulong,” who work in the homes of the wealthy and the middle-class. I admit my naivete, in not knowing of the “utusan.” I admit also, that I know little about the “katulong,” except that my extended family in the Philippines has always had “katulong” in their homes.

If you are reading this, you might want to shout at me; you may be judging me for “giving Tizon a pass.” I am not giving him a pass. I am trying to work through a lot of complex emotions and responses I am having to this story. If the kind of dialogues happening right now are an indication of a story’s success, then this story is a success.

I want to be clear on this: One thing that is apparent to me is that this story is Tizon’s story. I also believe Tizon could only write Tizon’s story, from his own point of view. This is not to say there is no possibility of honoring Eudocia Tomas Pulido, though I use the word, “honoring,” with some amount of reticence.

Does this story honor her? I am not sure. I think this story was Tizon’s way of working through the shame and guilt of owning a human being. There are readers who are saying Tizon did not do enough, and did not do it soon enough. There are readers saying he glorifies his own position as a master, paints himself as a benevolent master.

As a writer, I will say that we back away from writing because it is hard. Stories like this must be told. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story. But also in my world, we come to resent writers for not doing what we expect them to do, make the difficult understandable. We come to resent writers, not knowing exactly how difficult it is to do this. Some writers stop trying; the anticipated backlash already being a deterrent to even getting started. And then some writers try their best.

I believe Tizon tried. Did he fail?  If his reason for writing this story was to humanize Eudocia Tomas Pulido, maybe he failed. In my world, Eudocia Tomas Pulido would be able to tell her own story as a human being with a voice.

But as writers, should we then not attempt to write these stories?

I do not want to valorize Tizon; I will not say he is brave for coming forward with this story of modern day slavery in his own home. I do not want to valorize the master; to do so would be to valorize generations of class-based and gender-based institutional violences. I do want to give him credit as a writer, for attempting to tell this story.

As a teacher of Pinay Literature, in which we center Pinay voices which have been silenced, or squelched before the Pinay can even take a breath and think of the first words she may say on her own behalf, I want to think about whether there are any places in which Eudocia Tomas Pulido tells her own story, even if in flickers and small moments. If these exist, then they are not so small.

Alice Walker wrote in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” of the many places women tell their stories, when they have been systematically denied access to literacy and education, much less any kind of autonomy, ability to make decisions for their own lives and destinies. I have been combing through this story for those places where Eudocia Tomas Pulido conveys her own narrative — which, of course, is filtered through Tizon’s narration. Tizon did not own Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s narrative, but it is through his filter that her narrative becomes known to us.

Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to narrate her own story. Eudocia Tomas Pulido was a human being who never had the opportunity to choose her own path. I do not absolve Tizon and his family, for they were the central beneficiaries of her servitude. My sadness, the kind of mourning I seem to be experiencing stems from knowing Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s voice, her narrative will always be filtered through others with more power than she ever had.

I think also of Tizon’s mother, who, for lack of a better term, is the “villain,” of this story. I want to think about the relationship between Tizon’s mother and Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Did the mother ever experience the kind of guilt that Tizon appeared to experience? With my students, we discuss Pinayism, and the social, historical, and cultural barriers which prevent Pinays from connecting with one another. In this world, we are bred, conditioned to take one another down. What does it take to subvert this? A lot of work of seeing and understanding that the patriarchy needs us to never form solidarities with one another.

As a counterpoint, I have been thinking of the narratives I do present and discuss with my Pinay Literature students — those of Whang Od and Lang Dulay. I am thinking of the narratives of Mary Jane Veloso, Jennifer Laude, Izabel Laxamana, Norife Herrera Jones.

I think of the work so many have attempted, as journalists, activists, advocates, artists, and writers so that these Pinays’ narratives are centered, and may speak on their own behalf. I am thinking of Yay Panlilio Marking, Angeles Monrayo, Helen Rillera. I am thinking of Sister Mary John Mananzan, Marjorie Evasco, Xyza Cruz Bacani, Ninotchka Rosca, M. Evelina Galang, Jean Vengua, Melissa Roxas.

I think of myself as one Pinay advocate among these Pinay advocates, and as a work in progress in centering Pinay narrative, lyric, epistemologies. I think this work is hard. I think if we attempt it as we do, we will experience failure. I think this failure should not deter us from this work.

So this is what I am thinking this morning.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Drafting My Keynote Address for UC Berkeley Pilipinx Graduation

Image: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and writer Courtney E. Martin.

The theme for this coming Sunday’s UC Berkeley’s Pilipinx American commencement ceremony is, “araw,” which means both sun, and day. I admit, I have been at a loss for a “message,” I may impart upon young Pilipinx American college graduates. Part of it is my exhaustion from teaching and working, but a larger part of it has to do with the need for quality time with young people for exchange, and for dialogue. And a larger part of it has to do with a certain cynicism that the current political moment has got me in. How do you tell young people to fight for what they believe in, when we are living in the now that we are living in. What longterm good are inspirational memes and their vapid clichés.

I am combing through my own essays and interviews for glimmers of sunlight. I am clicking through so many literary websites to see what others are saying. I found the above image over at Brain Pickings, and this is helping me tremendously.

Perhaps I start by recounting this experience to the new graduates. It is challenging to find these moments, these glimmers of light during such cynical and corrupt times. We lose our faith. We want to crawl inside of ourselves and into our own darkness, at first to escape, and then, to heal, and then to incubate. These moments, these rites of passage are acknowledging that we now enter society as grown-ups, and decide how we are going to work. We have to reaffirm our belief systems; do we really believe what we have been saying we believe, in the vacuum of the academic institution, in which consequence is intellectual. How do we become thinkers and doers in the real world, and can we become agents of social change in that real world?

The work is day-to-day, and we can fall into the drudgery of the longest days. It is more often unromantic, bureaucratic, and it feels the obstacles and setbacks are more frequent than the successes. This is where we must put our work ethic to the test. Changing the world, changing our communities, changing our families, is a glacial, incremental process, every day a new setback, another closed mind we must attempt to open, another person sitting in darkness, to whom we must bring that light. People will resist, they will dismiss you. They will tell you, you are young and so what do you know — you with your fancy new college ideas, what place do they have in the real world, where people struggle, go hungry, become homeless, lose their loved ones, and so they have no time for your ideas. Or they may not recognize that they have been sitting in darkness (they’ve been there for so long); they’re just fine where they are.

So that’s where I am this morning. Contemplating light, and change.