Billy’s Blog for Editors and Writers

I thought I’d take the opportunity of this launching of our renovated website to share a few thoughts with Editors and Writers as we head into the final weeks of the submission reading season.

For Editors

We’ve had a busy submission reading season since last July. I’ve included a few of the more notable statistics for volume IX below.

Vol. IX Season So Far

• 125 readers and editors have acted on at least 1 submission this year ; 77  have each acted on at least 10 submissions

• We have received 651 submissions as of March 31, 2013. This number is down about 200 submissions from the same calendar date last year due, we believe, to the necessary remodeling of our website.

• We have so far received submissions from nine (9) countries this year:

 USA, Canada, China, Israel, Korea, South Africa, New Zealand, Malaysia, Luxembourg

• We have received submissions from thirty-one (31) states so far

Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia

• Since our inaugural issue in 2005, we’ve received submissions from English speaking students in 30 countries:

Australia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, Korea, Kuwait, Latvia, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Vietnam

Finally, as we head into what will undoubtedly be the busiest three month period of the year, I’d like to share with you a few letters from some of our submitting authors. Most of you don’t get the chance to connect directly with our submitting and contributing authors. In fact, we rarely hear from authors whose fiction, essays, and poetry we reject. This year, though, we’ve heard from several authors who have expressed their gratitude for the time we’ve spent on their creative work.

Below, are the comments of four of our submitting authors. It might surprise you to learn that all but one of them are authors of pieces rejected by our readers and editors. It pleases me to no end that this is great evidence of one of our primary goals: namely, to be of service to not just our contributing authors, but to all of our submitting authors, poets, and essayists.

I am in awe of what you do,


Writer #1 (author of an accepted piece)

Dear Polyphony HS team, I just wanted to let you know that the experience to submitting to this competition was easy and that the feedback you get back once decisions have been made, make the entire competition worth it. It implies that writing is not only about “winning” and getting published, but about speaking of important matters and touching readers. The feedback has been an immense help! I appreciate how the editors acknowledge that wrriting is process. The editorial notes that I got back will be implemented and have helped me grow as a writer and a person. Thank you so much for all of your time and all of the editors who worked on judging my poem.

Writer #2 (author of an accepted piece)

Dear Billy-I am 100% satisfied with my poem. Thank you all so much for helping me craft this into so much more than I ever imagined it would be. You guys are great at what you do.

Writer #3 (author of a rejected piece)

Hello Editors, I would like to thank you tremendously for replying with feedback to the high schoolers that submit to you. There are not many people who do this nowadays. The comments and advice received have improved my story astronomically, and I am very grateful! 

Please continuing what you do; it is wonderful.

Writer #4 (author of a rejected piece)

Dear Billy, As a writer, and a cancer (zodiac wise), it is hard for me to accept criticism from others, even though I know it’s helping me. Some of the things the editors pointed out, I wish I was there to explain, but I know I wouldn’t be able to do that with every reader of my piece. The title, for instance, means simply, the world through my eyes. But, with harsh society, I’m just another black girl. But with other points, I can easily see what they see what’s wrong. I didn’t mean to have so many ellipses. That was truly an error on my part and I shouldn’t read my piece more thoroughly before sending it. Some of the things in the piece the editors pointed out are things I honestly would have never seen. Some lines being closer together than others must be a computer error, sorry! I wish I would’ve been more descriptive, but sometimes, at least for me, I like for readers to question things and wonder why, and maybe even come up with a reason and meaning on their own but maybe I’m not advanced enough for that yet! The editors critiquing my piece really helped me realize the careless mistakes I make, and really have helped me improve my writing style. I don’t know anybody that can handle critique too well, but as I got past it, I rewrote this piece and would love to re-submit it if I can!

For Writers

I was recently invited to participate with four other writers in a panel discussion about the opening paragraphs of stories we each had published in the Chicago Tribune. It got me thinking about the layers of the Beginnings of stories.

I think of Story Beginnings as an umbrella term that covers three kinds of beginnings:

I.        The Germ, the origin, the seed of the story

II.       The Access Intro

III.     The Final Intro

In the first of these entries for writers and editors, I’ll spend a few minutes talking about The Germ, the Origin, the Seed of the Story: Where Stories Come From…

I.        The Germ: Where Stories Come From

A)  Other people’s stories. Five of the nine stories in my novel-in-stories, How to Hold a Woman, were told to me by three friends. There is no end to the stories that make up other people’s lives. Fortunately, most people you know don’t want to write as much as you do. Listen to them, steal from them, make their stories your own

B)   Personal events. I completely agree with Flannery O’Connor who believed that, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

C)  Lines. Every once in a while a line occurs to me that serves as the germ of a story idea. While shoveling in the baby blizzard that blanketed the Midwest in 2010, this line came to me: “It was the year my father blamed a blizzard on me.” Eventually a story was born of it.

D)  Scene. Sometimes stories start with a scene. A man drops his phone in a porta-potty. A teacher walks into class with a disobedient tuft of hair growing from his head.

E)   Ideas. A perfectly ambidextrous athlete who becomes a Major League Baseball switch pitcher. An Idiot Whisperer. A homeschooled girl who develops a gift for whispering the perfect thing to jerks to make them stop being jerks.

F)   Place. For some writers, stories begin with place. My first book, The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories, is set in and around my childhood apartment above a bakery in Chicago.

G)  Image. On a Chicago sidewalk near the school where I teach, I saw this etched into the cement: F_ _ _ You, Mary Nelson. It may as well have been etched into my arm. It developed into a central image in that first book.

H)  Dreams. I had a dream once that my son was a native speaker of Spanish, speaking English with a Spanish accent. In my dream he lost my keys and made me so mad I raised my arm as if to strike him. This uncharacteristic behavior on my part became the germ of a story.

I)    Character. Wherever the idea for a story comes from, for me at least, if it is to have a chance at making its way to a story, it has to immediately become about character. Each of the examples of story germs here, immediately became about character for me.

J)    Overlapping Origins. Someone told me once, about an autistic girl who, upon meeting a teacher for the first time, lifted up the hand of the teacher and smelled her wrist as though it were a flower. This anecdote, which became the final image in my story, Clover, is at once: an image, a character, a scene, and another person’s story.

Inherent in all of this, is the massive value of creating some file for your self in which to store ideas, images, lines, scenes, events, dialogue, gestures, behaviors, etc. I keep a little moleskin pad in my backpack all the time. I am not the first person to speak to you of the importance of keeping a pen or pencil and a notebook with you at all times. Be the guy who always has a pen. Be the girl who always is writing something in her notebook. Take notes, write down snippets of conversations, if something occurs to you at night, get out of bed and write it down. Chances are fantastic that you won’t remember it in the morning if you don’t write it down immediately. Maybe it’ll sound crazy when you wake up, but let the light of day be the judge of that.


Next entry: The Access Intro