Writers and Poets Workshop Day

Saturday, April 1st
1PM – 4PM

Are you a poet, a writer or would like to be one? Successful authors and poets share their experiences through stories, techniques and tips for crafting, marketing and problem solving along our creative paths.


William L Hahn

Chronicler of Epic Fantasy
Reading It: That OTHER Thing You Can Do with a Book



Shannon Connor Winward

Award-Winning Poet , Editor of Devilfish Review &
Riddled with Arrows Literary Journal
Poetry Hacks: Simple Ways to Boost Your Poetic Prowess


  Liz DeJesus

Author of The First Frost Series, Morgan, Girl, The Jackets and Zombie Ever After
Social Media and Technology for Writers


Registration is FREE! To register call

Bear Library – 101 Governors Plaza – Bear, Delaware 19701

If You Can’t Say Something Nice… Say Something Generic


Dear editors,

I’ve got quite a collection of rejections in my email today (and one sale! whoo hoo!).  I’m stealing some time to process them all – you know, update my submisions records, rat on you to Duotrope, that sort of thing.  Happily, there’s a higher-than-usual number of nice ones – some personal notes with regrets and reasons, some well-crafted and still-encouraging form letters.  But then there a few that make me shake my head, and some that make me want to find your address and come egg your house.

I won’t do that, of course – if I egged every editor who peeved me it would rake up my grocery bill, and I’m not getting paid enough for these poems and stories to justify that.

I would, though, like to ask you to please carefully consider the turn of phrase you use when writing rejection letters.

You’d think this would be obvious, since these letters are part of the triforce of impressions you make to the public – next to 1) the magazine itself and 2) your website/guidelines, rejections say a lot about who YOU are and to what extent you give a shit about the writers who make your magazine possible.  But a lot of you seem not to realize how unfavorable an impression your letters are making to would-be contributors – and that should concern you.

For example, “your submission does not meet our criteria” is one I just received.  Seems bland enough, at first glance, but think about that word, “criteria”.   It means “conditions which must be met”, basically, or “the standard to which we are holding you up”.

We’re writers, see.  Words have nuance.  Words matter.

So while you may have meant “this is not what we’re looking for at this time”, it comes across to the rejected as either “you didn’t follow the guidelines” (which I did, indeed) or “you’re just not good enough for us.”

And that may very well be true, but for goodness’ sake, why would you SAY that? It’s elitist and rude.  Don’t be elitist and rude.

Also? Also.  Editors, suggesting that submitters read the magazine to “get a feel for our style and preferences” or to pay attention to the guidelines is perfectly reasonable IN THE GUIDELINES.  Forewarning is fair.  But saying it in the body of a rejection is just bad form.  Please stop doing this.

Yes.  Lots (LOTS) of submitters get it wrong.  They send things that are inappropriate.  They ignore the rules and attach their name when they’re not supposed to or send the wrong type of file or put all the poems in one doc instead of one for each, or vice versa, I KNOW.  (I reject dozens of poems unread for breaking guidelines over at Devilfish – READ THE GUIDELINES!!)

BUT. When someone has studied the magazine and done their homework and made thoughtful selections, this kind of blanket finger-wagging is really just an insult.  It alienates the writers who are behaving.  It’s like scolding the entire class because someone in the back was passing notes and talking. It means you’re lumping the poet whose work you just didn’t prefer this time in with all the rule-breakers because you’re cranky.

Don’t be cranky in a rejection email.  It’s just not professional.

I’m also not a fan of “I’m going to pass.”  Maybe this one is just on me, but doesn’t it sound like something you’d say if an ugly person came on to you at a bar?

I’m not an ugly person in a bar.  I’m a sensitive writer.  I’ve written you a respectful query letter, entrusted you with my creative property, and opened myself up to your judgement.  Is “pass” the best you can do?

I mean, really. “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not what we’re looking for at this time.” Is that so hard?

When I first started submitting work for publication in earnest, a personal rejection (when an editor or reader gives specific feedback, such as what they liked about your work and/or why it was rejected) was rare and valuable; almost as good as an acceptance.


Almost as good like winning a free sandwich on a scratch-off game, to be sure – yes, I’d rather get published / win the big prize, but sandwiches are nice too.

A personal rejection means that someone took special notice of your work; it wasn’t just an auto-reject by a slush pile robot or an embittered assistant reader getting drunk on whiskey sours somewhere and reading snippets from your beloved story/poem/essay out loud for sadistic kicks.

For an under-published writer, a personal rejection isn’t just encouraging (though it can be that, too). A personal rejection is medicine. Having trouble finding a home for your work? Here’s why: your poem needs tightening. Your story needs a resolution. Your changing POV is confusing, your narrative is stilted, your something or other needs some kind of attention – it was an almost for us, here’s how it could have been a yes. OR – or! There’s nothing wrong with your work at all; we just couldn’t use it this time – please try us again.


an endangered baby bird carrying a gilded note with advice on how to improve your writing (and your chances of getting an eventual “yes”)

From what I can tell, personal rejections are becoming even more unusual these days. My rate of submission hasn’t changed, so either my writing IS SO GOOD it leaves editors speechless, OR, they have less time and inclination to make personal observations. It’s probably the latter, maybe having to do with the publishing glut and automated submission portals  (though the speechless thing sounds good, too).

Whatever the reason for their rarity, if someone sends you a personal rejection, treat it like precious baby bird.


Then again, sometimes – sometimes! –  personal rejections are dumb.

Recently I received a rejection for a flash fiction / vignette along with a thoughtful explanation for why it had been rejected – exactly the kind of thing I would have salivated over a few years ago. The editor even included a helpful full revision of the piece with suggested line edits and a total overhaul of the narrative style.


I hope you're saying Wait, what? because that is what I said, minus some creative and colorful comments of my own.

Wait, what?

It’s important to keep in mind that this editor is probably a lovely person. Her life is as full and evolved and as busy as yours or mine. She probably deals with hundreds of submissions on a regular basis plus whatever editor-ly duties she has hanging over her head. The fact that she took the time not only to comment but to thoroughly comment on my work was an act of enormous generosity for which I should be grateful. What I should have done was file the rejection away and move on.

That’s not what I did.

Instead, I broke my rule of zen and immediately hit “reply” to explain – as politely as possible while still sounding smugly self-righteous – that while I respect the editorial prerogative to reject my work, there is a difference between editing and re-writing.

Which is true. This editor crossed a line. In her zeal to be helpful, she overlooked personal style and creative choice and revised my (much polished) story to how she would have written it herself, which is unhelpful, at best, and more than a little insulting.

But I should have let it go.

coffee first

Never hit send before the owl mug has been drained. Preferably twice.

I broke the rule because I’m human (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t had my coffee yet and/or was coping with a rash of rejections that week), which brings us back to the point that not every personal rejection is golden because editors are human, too. They have their own prejudices and preferences. They like what they like, and they’re looking for what they’re looking for. Sometimes they make decisions while under-caffeinated. Sometimes they mean well and do dumb things. Sometimes when they reject you, it may be for sound, objective reasons, or it may be because they just don’t get you, which is not to say some other editor/venue won’t.

Bottom line, personal rejections are like any other form of critique. Critique is valuable, it’s necessary – hell, it’s crucial – but only in general. If you’ve ever worked with a critique group or beta readers, you’ll know that for every 5 people you share your work with you’ll get 15 reactions, most of it contradictory, some of it downright dumb. Your job, as a writer, is to sort through it all, look for what’s consistent (if 13 people tell you your action sequence is dull, it’s probably dull) and balance that against your own judgment, your own vision. Sometimes, critique will point you in the right direction, and sometimes it will only muck you up.

Sometimes, you have to say “Dear Editor – thank you for your interest in my submission, but after careful consideration, I have decided that your rejection just isn’t right for me.”***

***Say it – don’t send it.  Drink your coffee.

One thing that really, really bothers me is when people, writers, over-simplify the problem of Writer’s Block. Like:

“Oh I just force myself to write and then I do, tralala”.


“Here’s a list of frufru prompts like “What if you woke up tomorrow as a butterfly – go!”.

I’m not going to say that those approaches don’t work.  Maybe for some people they do.  But Writer’s Block is not a virus you catch and then cure with a “take two and call me in the morning ” prescription.  Writer’s Block is a psychological condition.  It reflects a person’s life circumstances, their frame of mind and emotional state.  Its’ source can be simple (like, oh I don’t know, having work and home and family matters constantly vying for your attention and babies that won’t stick to a predictable nap schedule and snow days off of school that inevitably fall on the day you cleared so you could concentrate on your writing for the first time in MONTHS- just for instance); or, it could be deeply rooted and hard to define, let alone overcome.

Depression, Writer’s Block… Kissing cousins?

Sometimes, telling a writer “Just write,” is like telling a barren woman, “Just conceive.” For many of us, lack of inspiration is serious business that goes beyond a shortage of will power or ideas.  For many of us, Writer’s Block can be downright crippling.

I was given a couple of poetry exercise books for Xmas, the kind meant to help inspire you and get you writing. I only just now cracked one open – it’s been that kind of winter.

I’m very hopeful about getting something from these books; I was introduced to some of the exercises at the writing retreat in October, and went on to use them, successfully, for a week or so after, until the tsunami of real life reasserted itself.  Le sigh…

Instead of sitting down to bang out some proto-poems, though, I found myself snorting at a comment in the first chapter, and ended up here with a mini-rant on the topic of blasé attitudes towards Writer’s Block.  I guess you could say I was “inspired”…

The author starts out by confessing how he wasn’t writing much at all because he had no time and no inspiration.  One of the things he says helped him overcome the problem was making lists of ideas.  This, he says, eliminated all excuses because he could no longer “play the no inspiration card.”

While I can relate to the concept – and let me just say, I do think it’s a good idea, and I do it, too, and it helps – I just have to point out that having a list of “things to write about” is not the same as being inspired.

For me, having an idea – a theme, a setting, a premise, a haiku moment – is just tinder.  Yes, you can’t start a fire without it.  But what else can’t you start a fire without?

That’s right, kiddies.  A SPARK.


How cool is this picture?

And therein lies the real problem.  The world is full of things to write “about”.  Learning to see them is a skill, like anything else.  It takes practice; writing lists, yes.  Free association.  Observation.  Journaling, recording dreams, people watching, eavesdropping. Recently I overheard someone say, “Once you start thinking about crows, you see crows everywhere.”

Ideas are crows.

But even if you have so many crows you can’t step out of your house without tripping over one, it won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not inspired.

Inspiration is another animal entirely.  Inspiration is a non-quantifiable, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it, enigmatic THING.  It’s either there, or it’s not.  Inspiration is why I tend to poo-poo the “Write about a time that you were mad,” kind of prompts and the “Just Do It” sneaker philosophy of writing.  Without inspiration, it’s all just tinder.  Or… crows.  Tinder crows.

So how DOES one set their crows on fire (now THERE’S an image for you).  Obviously, the answer to that is different for everyone.

For me, it’s like seduction.  Firstly, I don’t go for just any idea.  I like the smart ones, the weird ones, the ones that most people overlook.  The ones with lots of layers, inner meaning, a Jungian’s fantasy.

Secondly, it takes time.  I like to flirt with an idea for a long time.  Sometimes days.  Sometimes years.  I like a slow burn.

And the final payoff? Let’s just say it’s a magic combination of timing, setting, opportunity, and mood.  And coffee, or a cigarette, or… something to put in my mouth.  I’ll just leave the rest to your imagination.



Step One: Write a List. Step Two: … Step Three: Inspiration.

But that’s just me.  For you, it might be something totally different.  Maybe lists ARE your thing – that neat, orderly, tantalizingly visual representation of thought.  Of… possibility.

Or maybe you’re into butterflies.  I mean, whatever – to each their own! My point is just that, as writers, we are all keenly aware of how personal the creative process is.



No matter what we write, or how, we invest so much of ourselves in it.  We are all beautiful unique snowflakes and, as it happens, some of us snowflakes have Writer’s Block and it sucks, so shut up with your platitudes already and have some compassion.



My snowflake is cranky when she doesn’t write.

Writerly friends: if you don’t already follow Jessica Bell, you should.

jessica headshot - Copy

An Australian-native fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Her poetry collection, FABRIC, was a semi-finalist in the GOODREADS CHOICE AWARDS 2012 for BEST POETRY. Sellers like offer a selection of her fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including her pocket guide WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series, which offers user-friendly “how to” demonstrations to help writers hone their craft.

Jessica has a warm and witty online presence on social media sites like Facebook and Goodreads. She’s also part of the team that brings us Vine Leaves Literary Journal – a high-quality (and visually stunning – seriously, have a gander) online journal. Taken from the original meaning of the word, “vignette” (“something that may be written on a vine leaf”), Vine Leaves celebrates the kind of short, emotive writing that is too often overlooked in a literary culture fixated on the plot, the plot, the plot. By recognizing that there is also artistry to be found in a moment, a feeling, an array of words – and creating a venue for it – Jessica Bell became a hero of mine. So when she announced that she was launching a virtual tour for her upcoming projects, I happily volunteered.

Adverbs-&-cliches_cover_for Internet

Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Subversions of Adverbs & Clichés into Gourmet Imagery is the second installment in Bell’s WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series. In this NUTSHELL, Bell tackles those insidious, tricky little linguistic buggers that tend to slip into our writing because they’re familiar, easy, and ready-at-hand. We all do it: unconsciously, habitually, we rely on adverbs to tell (not show!) how something is done. Like a rat on a wheel, we use clichés to get our point across – and thus we keep our writing mediocre, rather than great.

But how, HOW, do we avoid the pitfalls of adverbs and clichés? By subverting them, Jessica says. Identify them, drop them from your repertoire, and replace them with something original. Give details in your prose to show that your character is mad, rather than having her say it angrily. Plumb the treasure trove of your imagination for metaphors to convey his love – don’t rely on his racing heartbeat or the truth welling up from the windows of his soul.

With Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell, Bell gives us thirty-four specific examples how to turn adverbs and clichés into vivid and unique imagery. This in itself is unique, so far as I’m aware – tons of writing books and blogs tell you what not to do, but with this guide you can actually see how it can be done – over and over again. Plus, it comes with prompts to practice writing subversions of your own.

Now, I don’t believe adverbs and clichés are always, universally evil. I raise a literary eyebrow when the media buzz tells us what is in, what is out, what defines good writing, and (even more fun) what makes writing bad. (Ten things you should NEVER do! Twelve things every agent HATES! Eleven ways to ensure you’ll never see your work in print EVER!) The pundits say it, it gets circulated and internalized and taken for gospel when, really, what’s good has a lot to do with context. SOMETIMES, clichés work. (They are clichés for a reason, after all). SOMETIMES, adverbs work (saying it quickly can be better than taking up a paragraph with original purple prose to demonstrate how it’s said).

AND, I shall be quick to point out, Jessica Bell says this too, right up front. She gives a very good argument for the whys and why nots of adverb and cliché use in the introduction – the best argument I’ve seen. The danger in my mind is that writers, especially new writers, may accept that these writing rules are (cliché alert) written in stone, and may learn not trust their own instincts, their own voice. But I use the word “danger” loosely – it’s not like writers are going to be blowing things up with adverbs. And there’s nothing wrong with learning the rules well – if nothing else, it may teach you how and when to break them.

The biggest critique I have of Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is that I wish the sample adverbs and clichés (of which there are over a hundred, I believe) were treated individually, rather than clumped together in thirty-four sample passages. Some of the passages are short, but many are quite dense, encompassing twenty or more “problem phrases” in one scenario. This clumping can make it hard to remember which phrases we’re subverting – I had to keep scrolling back and forth to figure out what Bell had changed from the “adverb” and “cliché” examples to the new, original writing. I even thought, in a (very) few cases, that the original “bad” writing was better, if only because the “better” samples tried to encompass so much.

For my purposes, I would have preferred one, maybe two adverbs and/or clichés per example. It would have been cleaner, focusing the reader’s attention on each problem phrase and an example of how to rewrite it, rather than making a dozen or more phrases depend on one another within a scene. It would have made the book longer (hence not a “pocket guide”) but way easier to use.

Still, Bell suggests that the book is meant to be read and then reread, several times over, and I can see how that would help the reader begin to pick out the nuances. And, indeed, that is how a writing book is meant to be used – often, and repeatedly. It is a reference, after all.

And for that, Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is a great resource, and a great buy. At a mere $1.99, I don’t see why any writer wouldn’t want to snatch it up. So go do that.

Here’s how:

Click one of the following links to purchase:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Ca | Kobo

For more information about Jessica please visit:
Website| Blog| Twitter | Facebook