The 52/25 Challenge:
Interview with Lizanne Herd

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In December 2010 I joined a brand new writing challenge group: 52/25. The idea is to write twenty-five stories over the course of fifty-two weeks. I joined in order to get into the habit of writing more short fiction and to meet new writers. For this month’s Absolute Blank article, I sat down (virtually) with group founder, fellow writer, and friend Lizanne Herd to ask her about her passion for 52/25.

Toasted Cheese: Where, when, how did you get the idea for 52/25?

Lizanne Herd: I’ve been participating in NaNoWrimo off and on for six years. I tried to get going on it this past November, but I became stymied almost before I started. I had big ambitions: I wanted to go untraditional by writing 50,000 words in short stories rather than a novella. I even had a list of story ideas and a plan. By Day Two I was done. I could not carve out the time I needed and frustration made it all fall apart. I had also attempted a NaNoWriMo mini-podcast, which I did for about four days before discouragement and embarrassment made me file that away as a “fail.” So, I had to think of a way to salvage my plan.

I still liked the idea of a portfolio of shorts. I’m not much of a novel writer as it is, so I got to thinking: maybe something that functions like NaNoWriMo but caters to the heart of the short story writer.

Once the wheels in my head started turning on this, the pieces fell together pretty quickly. I posed the idea to a few people who liked it and I decided to Just Make It Happen. I made the Facebook page, grabbed a little blog room and invited people. The guys at Dunesteef Audiofiction Magazine liked the idea and offered me ad space, so I threw together a fifty-second pod-ad and people started dribbling in. Here in the second week of February we now have nineteen people. Which isn’t too bad, considering NaNoWriMo’s first year was twelve.

TC: How do you use social networking, blogging, etc. as part of the 52/25 Project?

LH: Facebook is such a natural for this kind of interface. It is so immediate. Even solitary and secluded writers will take the time to share on Facebook. Plus, most writers look for excuses to stop writing for a moment and see what’s going on Out There. Irony: Writers are notorious loners, so getting them together on a social networking site makes me happy. It encourages a feeling of community and shared identity. For such a solitary activity, writers don’t really want to be that alone. Which is the whole reason I created 52/25.

I have the 52/25 blog mostly to post the podcasts. I was a bit nervous about doing the podcast, since I know so many people who are really good at it and I’m just some mook with a nice microphone and mixing board. But it seems to be working! Hopefully I can expand on the blog as the year goes on. Right now it’s just a placeholder. Any ideas?

TC: I dig the podcasts. I’m lucky to find time to sit and listen for those 10 minutes. I think people have thrown over traditional blogging for Facebook, Twitter, and podcasting anyway so you’re ahead of the curve. Tell us about the 52/25 podcast (technically, schedule, content, etc.).

LH: [Dunesteef Audiofiction Magazine co-creator] Rish [Outfield] encouraged me to do the podcast. The audience is limited, but I hope it is well-received within that circle. I have a fairly slim structure, where I talk about member progress, my own progress, some (hopefully) words of encouragement and either an interview or a contributed recording by one of the members. I have only recorded two episodes, but my plan is to record every two weeks to correspond to the story production rate. The episodes run from about ten to twenty minutes, depending on contributed material.

TC: I love that we’re all invited to participate in the podcast. It tightens that sense of community. Besides the two of us, who are some of the writers involved in 52/25 so far? What are some of their projects, that you know about?

LH: We have some amazing participants that don’t always wave their flags. So let me.

  • Big Anklevich and Rish Outfield: These are the creators of the Dunesteef Audiofiction Magazine. They’ve run this spec-fic fullcast production for over two years. Along with the stories they produce, they include abundant discussions after each story. In addition to fun stories, their discussions are well worth listening to, especially if you like to listen to funny, bawdy, sometimes edgy banter. They joined 52/25 to force themselves into better writing habits and to write more of their own material.
  • Nathaniel Lee: Nate is a very prolific writer. He writes a 100-word drabble every day on top of everything else. You can find a lot of his work at his site Mirrorshards. He’s had short fiction published all over.
  • R.E. Chambliss: She’s a novelist, not a short story writer per se. She joined 52/25 to beef up her writing time. She does podcasting, voicework and she writes writes writes! Her blog can introduce you to her work.
  • Most of the people I don’t know too much about. A few of them have their own podcasts, but since they didn’t join 52/25 for publicity, they’ve been somewhat reticent about giving me links.

TC: What have you written so far as part of 52/25?

LH: I have this enormous binder of story ideas. I took on as my first story an idea that’s been rattling around in my brain for a good long time, close to three years. It is a more scientific take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It is a very long story coming in at just over 12,000 words. I think it could be fleshed out into a novel if I ever get the desire.

I then moved on to a story that I actually wrote three years ago for a contest. I am rather fond of the story and I always wanted to work on it until it was publishable. So, I took all the constructive crit I received on it and finally polished the thing. You can find an early draft of “The Marble of Notness” posted on the boards at Toasted Cheese.

I am currently trying to put butt on chair and fingers on keyboard for story three, but I’ve only gone so far as research and branch-outline. Sigh.

TC: That’s further than I’ve gotten. I haven’t done a new short story yet but the project is so flexible, I can catch up if I want to. It seems I have a thousand things to do and a lot of them are creative projects. What creative work have you done that doesn’t relate to 52/25, particularly since the new year?

LH: I am so glad you asked! I do a lot of pencil art. You can find some of my work posted on the art page of my personal website. I am in the regular artist rotation for The Drabblecast, which if you aren’t listening to it, shame on you! It is one of the best spec-fic podcasts out there.

I have been working on art pieces to send to Illustrators of the Future, which is a high-profile contest, both for writers and artists.

My friends and I just started a new trivia podcast called Guru Showdown. Each week a contestant challenges trivia gurus for fame and notoriety and hopefully prizes in the future. Want to be a contestant? I am the Animal Guru. I am undefeated. Hear me roar. Seriously—I roar.


Speaking of roaring, Lizanne has roared three times as the “Gold” winner of our Three Cheers and a Tiger 48-hour short fiction contest: “The Ships Come Tomorrow,” “In Memory of Maggie,” and “Dante’s Grid.” Her entry “Picasso’s Guitar” received an honorable mention in our 2007 A Midsummer Tale creative non-fiction contest, her poem “Ideas” was our Best of the Boards in September 2007, and her story “Offal” was our Best of the Boards in December 2010.

Final Poll Results

A Guide to Designing Assignments that Require Students to Submit their Work for Publication

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Because Toasted Cheese is open to new and unpublished writers, we often receive submissions from students at all levels (graduate, undergraduate, high school, and occasionally even middle school). Some are writing students, but others are not. Some submit work of their own accord, while others have been required to do so as part of an assignment for a class. For those who submit on their own, their student status is usually incidental. They are writers first and foremost; they have something to say and their goal is the publication of their work—just like any other writer.

In contrast, those who submit because it’s required of them may not self-identify as writers, and in these cases, a desire to fulfill the requirements of the assignment is frequently their primary—and sometimes only—motivation for submitting. Oftentimes, a student’s reluctance to share their work and discomfort with the process can be painfully obvious.

On its own, “because it’s required” isn’t a great reason to submit. Students may end up frustrated and discouraged by a process that can leave them feeling embarrassed and rejected. The publications to which they are submitting may be annoyed by, or perplexed with how to deal with, a glut of inappropriate submissions. Teachers may be disheartened that a great idea in theory didn’t turn out as expected in practice. With that in mind, in this article, I walk through how to design a submit-for-publication assignment that is satisfying for all involved—teachers, students, and editors.

The Big Idea

Let’s imagine I’ve decided to assign my students the task of writing a story, poem, personal essay, opinion piece, or the like. Since I want students to see that this assignment as something that has a real-world application, I think it might be a good idea to require the students to submit their final work for publication. As I design the assignment, I want to keep in mind the answers to the following questions:

  1. What’s the education level of the students? Are we talking creative writing MFA students or ninth grade English students?
  2. What are my goals for the students? What do I want them to learn from submitting their work for publication?
  3. How much time will be devoted to this assignment? Is it going to be a semester-long process or is it something that needs to fit in a one-week window?

Overview

Like any assignment, a submit-for-publication assignment needs to be tailored to the abilities of the students. While MFA students are presumably capable of submitting a piece of work on their own without guidance, ninth grade English students are not. The less experienced the students, the more time I’ll need to put into guiding the submission portion of the assignment, to deciding what the ultimate objective of the assignment will be, and to following up after the submission process. I don’t want to make the mistake of spending the majority of the allotted time on the writing portion of the assignment and neglecting the submission portion. If there’s not enough time available to do anything more than have students submit their work for publication at the same time as they turn in the first draft of the assignment to be graded, I should rethink the assignment.

A submit-for-publication assignment should include at least one round (preferably more) of critique and revision prior to submitting. From a submissions perspective, this is important for a couple key reasons. First, submitting to real publications involves third parties: the editors of those publications (who, keep in mind, are often volunteers). It would be thoughtless of me to require students to submit without first assuring myself that they are sending their very best work. Second, I want my students to feel confident about the work they are sending out. After all, the reason many students, including writing majors, don’t submit on their own is because they feel insecure about their work. Asking them to submit before they’ve received any feedback on a piece is likely to make them feel even more uncomfortable about submitting. A few rounds of feedback before the actual submission will go a long way to polishing their work and instilling them with confidence.

I will also need to consider how to direct the submission portion of the assignment so that students target publications that would look forward to receiving their work. For students, submitting their work isn’t going to be satisfying unless their submissions have a real possibility of being published. Similarly, if editors are to look upon student submissions favorably, they must receive submissions that are appropriate in style, genre, and quality for their publication.

Finally, I should ensure there is sufficient time remaining after the students submit for a debriefing stage where students reflect on what they’ve learned from the process and how they might put that to use in the future. Depending on class size and the time available, the debriefing stage might include class discussion, teacher-student conferences, and/or a journaling exercise. Topics for discussion could include similarities and differences in submission requirements, common errors made by the students, reasons for choosing particular markets (and whether those were the right choices), which publications were student-friendly, etc.

Goal: To Familiarize Students with the Submission Process

I now need to decide what specific goals I want to accomplish with this assignment. One common goal is to get students comfortable with the submission process. Accomplishing this goal breaks down into two key components: researching and finding a suitable market to submit to, and learning to write a cover letter and follow submission guidelines. Depending on the students’ level and abilities, I might focus more on one or the other aspect. For example, with younger students, the main goal of the assignment might be to have them learn how to follow guidelines and write a formal business email. With graduate writing students, it would make sense to focus more on market research.

When it comes to the mechanics of submitting, I know younger students need more guidance than just “follow the guidelines” or “submit via email.” Most will have never written a business email and as this is a transferable skill that all of them can use regardless of whether they go on to become writers, it’s worth it to spend some time on this step. Some points I should cover include: using a professional-sounding email address, filling in your name on your email account so it appears in the “From:” line, locating submission guidelines, filling in the subject line as per the guidelines (never leaving it blank), sending submissions to the correct email address, and addressing submissions to the correct person.

If I’m focusing on this aspect of the assignment, I’ll have the students practice submitting by sending their complete submission to me, along with a copy of the submission guidelines they are following. This will give me the opportunity to give them feedback on their cover letter, as well as to ensure that they have followed the guidelines, before they submit. If I ask students to provide me with proof of their submission by sending me a copy of their email, I will instruct them to BCC (not CC) me, so that my email address does not appear on the email. While the receiving editor being aware that the submission is for a class assignment may have no effect on the outcome, there is no reason to unnecessarily put the students at a disadvantage.

Market research involves students finding and reading various journals and magazines in order to find suitable publications for their work. At this stage of the assignment, I might have students write reviews of their top three or five choices, explaining why they would like to see their work appear in these publications, why they think certain pieces were selected for publication, and why these venues are the best fit for their work. To accommodate a shorter time-frame or less-advanced students, I might modify the assignment by providing the students with a list of potential journals to start from. Regardless, before the students submit, I will ensure that the submissions are spread out over a number of journals, perhaps by having students declare their intended market on a first-come, first-served basis. I will not make the mistake of allowing fifteen students submit to the same journal, as this serves neither the students nor the targeted journal.

Finally, if I don’t think the students’ work is ready to submit yet, I will not have them submit to an external publication. Instead, I will consider an alternative such as having them put together their own anthology. Depending on the time available, this could be as simple as compiling all of the pieces into a PDF ebook or as complex as having the students themselves design and edit the anthology, and have it printed. With the many print-on-demand options available, this would be quite doable.

Goal: To Have the Submitted Pieces Accepted

Another common goal is to get the submitted pieces accepted. To accomplish this goal, I will of course require one or more rounds of revisions during the writing phase of the assignment. Ideally, students will receive feedback from their peers as well as from me.

Preferably, students will complete more than one writing assignment before attempting to submit anything. In a course with several writing assignments, I won’t require the students to submit every piece. Rather, I will have the students to choose one or two of their best pieces to submit. Every writer knows that there are projects that are best left as practice efforts, ones that don’t turn out as planned making them unsuitable for the intended market, and ones that need to be set aside to rest before being revised once again. Building in room for failure, experiments, and mistakes will improve students’ chances at success, both because the writing process will be less tense and because they’ll have confidence in the pieces they choose, an empowerment which will show in their cover letter.

I also need to keep in mind the students’ level and abilities. While a ninth grader’s C-grade story is definitely not ready for submission to The New Yorker, an MFA student’s A-level story is not necessarily either. There can be a difference between an excellent job, given the time constraints and guidelines of the assignment, and publishable quality. More importantly, there’s a distinction between work that’s so exceptional that it’s publishable anywhere and work that’s publishable, given the right market. Unless I have Alice Munro or one of the 20-under-40 in my class, it’s unlikely my students will have success submitting to The New Yorker. My role at this stage is to judge each student’s work honestly and to guide them toward publications where they will have the greatest chance of success. This will mean different goals for different students even within the same class. Maybe I do have an exceptional student who should try submitting to The New Yorker. Great. But for most students, it makes sense to have a more modest goal, particularly if this is their first submission.

Young students will improve their chances at success by aiming for markets that are only open to or that openly solicit work from young writers. Some ideas:

  • School-affiliated publications. Some school magazines/newspapers accept work only from students at the sponsoring school, others from similar-age students regardless of the school they attend.
  • Other publications that only publish young writers.
  • General-interest publications with calls for work from young writers (for a young writer issue, for example).
  • Writing contests that are only open to writers up to a certain age or enrolled at a certain level of education.
  • Community publications, particularly if the student has written a non-fiction piece on an issue of local interest.

There is no denying that facilitating a submit-for-publication assignment is labor-intensive, but done well, it will be a rewarding and positive experience for all.

Markets and Other Resources for Young Writers

Literary Journals that only publish Young Writers:

Contests:

Online Communities for Young Writers:

Workshops:

Additional Resources:


My thanks to Liz Baudler for sharing her insights as a creative writing student and editor.

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