by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah Akhtar

I’ve often taken the powerful emotions triggered by real events and turned them into fiction, and find that a pretty successful recipe.

And I’ve almost always managed to steer clear of the Polemical Palisades and Sentimental Canyon while doing it.

But recent world events had enraged and frustrated me, and before I knew it, I was writing A Story with a Message.  And I was so moved by what I’d written, I made myself cry.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Even as I began to suspect it was dreck, I submitted it to the site most familiar with and welcoming to my voice.  And for good measure, sent a copy to a friend, whose intellect is boundless and whose judgment is sterling.

The response from both quarters was what I dreaded even at the moment I hit send.

I’m grateful nobody sent me dentist bills for the throbbing toothaches my story must have inflicted on those first readers.  Instead of powerful emotion and throat-catching moments of universal human suffering and sacrifice, I’d written The Big Rock Candy Mountain of almost unbearable sentimentality, and we all knew it.

The story needed a heart transplant and four follow-up surgeries.  At one point I almost pulled the plug on it, convinced it wasn’t worth keeping alive.  But It was accepted after the third revision, with the gentle observation that I still had time to find its true soul.

I was still working on it almost up to publication date.

More tears were shed over that story–but this time by readers who found it extraordinary.

I suspect I could have placed the original somewhere.  There’s certainly a market for the Hallmark Hall of Fame genre, too.  But sentimentality is like bonded leather–a cheap substitute for the real thing.  Don’t dazzle yourself with an ersatz product, even if you’re pressed for time.

If you find your eyes welling up when you read your first draft, remember that a holiday commercial can accomplish the same thing.  Get up from your computer, mop your eyes and make a strong cup of tea.  Then get back to work.


Sarah Crysl Akhtars shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable—the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows and Flash Fiction Online.)


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarThere’s a lot of disdain these days for traditional publishing. Unknown writers look at the odds, and then at the alternatives, and are increasingly tempted to self-publish.

There are plenty of springy-looking platforms to leap off of. Anyone willing to invest a little money and a lot of time can start marketing their own work.

Should you bite that apple?

What’s so great about brick and mortar publishers, anyway?

Web-based publishers have cut overhead to the bone and many of them are marvelous. They’ve created a reader’s paradise. Even the cheapest paperbacks are largely unaffordable to people on limited budgets. But an e-book can be less expensive than a cup of coffee from the corner deli.

And web-based writers’ groups help fledgling authors build supportive audiences and markets for their work. You can be in the midst of a thriving artistic community no matter where you live.

But one of the fruits of a healthy community is a sort of self-censorship. It’s not dishonesty, but rather the desire not to wound. If we all said everything we thought, with absolute truth, all the time, life would become unbearable.

And writers’ circles or critique groups tend to form around people of similar levels of achievement. Everyone’s growing together. And everyone hopes for success, for themselves and their colleagues. There’s a powerful fellowship of encouragement.

This Eden needs a serpent.

I have never joyfully welcomed the email saying “there’s a slight problem with your story.” Seriously. Would I have sent it in if I thought it wasn’t ready?

It took me well over a year to skip the mental hyper-ventilating and get straight to revising, whenever a rewrite request arrived. I can still feel my head lowering mutinously as I read any criticism of my work.

But most of the editors I’ve worked with have helped me strengthen my own voice. Sometimes I don’t accede to every single suggestion, but I have never declined to revise a story, when requested.

That was a mistake in only one instance, but I knew at the time I was going for publication rather than the purity of my artistic vision, so to speak. So I take full responsibility for that.

Your mastery of craft is constantly growing. I’m pretty confident in my own gifts, now, but even so, it startles me to see how a beginning story from a couple of months ago, say, will seem awfully lacking today. I’ll need to rework those first few paragraphs before I can go any further.

When you self-publish, you have few brakes on that giddy road towards becoming a fine author. There’s an enticing tidbit that people like to munch on—the lists of successful authors showing how many times clueless agents and publishers turned them down, before they signed their first book contract.

Yes, it is true that genius is not always recognized in a timely way by the minions born to serve it. It’s true that very fine writers are rejected every day, and that self-publishing can be a midwife to works that truly deserve to see the light of day.

It can also make a name for you that you might wish you could escape, later. Maybe you’ve got great potential now but you’re not quite there yet. Maybe in a year or two or five, undaunted by rejection, you’ll have found that remarkable voice you always knew was inside.

Or maybe you published before you should have, and you had a brief exciting moment of seeing your stuff offered on Amazon, with wonderful reviews by everyone you know, and you never got any better than you were at that moment.

Don’t just believe the people who like you, and care about you, and want you to succeed. Think about why some of those people who’d love to have discovered the next new great talent are saying you’re not ready yet.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Susan Tepper


No.  No, no, no, no, no.  Yes—  we’ve all had weeks of those words (sometimes multiples on the same day!) where our incredible story or poem or essay or novel manuscript has come back to hit us in the face.  A story of mine was called ‘regurgitated sit-com’.  The ‘editor’ who wrote that back to me didn’t have the balls to sign his or her name.

Different writers respond differently to ‘rejection’.  When I was teaching brand- new writers, I made a conscious choice to not use the word rejection but instead called it a turn down.  New writers can be crucified by rejection.  I’ve seen very talented new writers throw in the towel because of badly formed turn down letters.

But, here, for the sake of ease, let’s use the currently accepted term: rejection.

Nobody actually likes it.  Some of us have come to terms with it more easily than others.  I do know writers who are published constantly then have a total freak-out when they get a rejection.  This kind of behavior is a bit much.

It taught me how subjective the writing business can be (it is a business).

Nobody can expect everyone to love everything we put out there.  When I was a newbie writer studying in NYC, an editor from The New Yorker came to our class as guest speaker.  This editor and our writing teacher got into a little offhand conversation about a newly published story in The New Yorker magazine.  They both disliked the story.  But apparently enough people at The New Yorker liked it enough to publish it.  So there you go!  That moment was a big eye-opener for me.  It taught me how subjective the writing business can be (it is a business).  And knowing that took a lot of the heat off rejections.

Down the line I learned that often pieces of work are accepted for reasons other than merit.  I learned about the politics of writing as the years went by.  That was something less nourishing for me as a writer.  It taught me to stay clear of the politics of writing when I became an editor at two literary magazines.  I can say with a fair amount of pride that at those magazines we never chose any work that didn’t delight and inform us, regardless of the particular writer’s track record or lack thereof.  It was while editing at those magazines that I learned there is an art to telling someone you will not be accepting the work they submitted.

Magazine editors that are sensitive to this situation (after all, most are writers too) will often use a short, polite form letter to turn down work.  We had that set-up at both mags.  We also had a little box where the person turning down the work could choose to write a short note to the submitter.  If the story held promise but just needed a little more (of something), well this was a good place to make that suggestion to the writer.  Most people accepted what you suggested and moved on.  Occasionally someone took umbrage and came back with a rebuttal.  Our editorial policy was to ignore those little outbursts.  We writers, even the blustery ones, are sensitive souls, and many become easily hurt and offended.

I think it’s important that editors hold onto the realization that they are dealing with someone’s ‘private matters’ despite how fictionalized the material might be.  All writing comes from that subterranean space of heart and mind.  That should be respected.  When editors take it upon themselves to act aggressively toward a submission, or throw out insulting language, they are hurting themselves as well as the writer and the writing they choose to denigrate.  Each time someone acts in a vicious or sarcastic or mean-spirited way toward someone else, for no good reason whatsoever, they are damaging all of society, not to mention chipping away at their own wholeness.  Do it too many times and you have a fractured being who will level all sorts of harm toward the world at large.

It is my belief system that we have to acknowledge the good in each piece of writing (even if it’s just one sentence or paragraph), and respect that writer for their courage and intelligence to put it out into the world.  If writers are treated in a respectful way, that sentence or paragraph will grow and expand over time into larger and better writing.  Words carry enormous weight.  People often say the most harmful things to other people, or about them.  Then, when confronted they will respond: It’s not what I meant.

Really?  Then why say it at all?  How can trashing someone’s story or poem or essay make you a better writer, editor, or person?  Respect is the big issue.  If we try and respect all writerly output, hopefully the courtesy will be returned.  This is a difficult business.  We need our friends.  We need to keep making more friends.  We need the writer chain to grow and strengthen, if we are going to continue along this path. Words, when properly used, can heal and move things in ways that seem  impossible.

So—  getting back to rejection.  Like everyone who has been writing a long time, I have been rejected in all forms.  On paper for years through the mail, now almost exclusively via email.  I’ve had mostly decent and impersonal rejections.

Unfortunately I did get that recent one that kind of stood my hair on end.  Regurgitated sit-com material?  First it felt like a letter from someone who deeply disliked me.  Like an old lover hurling his vitriol.  I looked up the masthead and saw that I ‘knew’ all but one of the editors.  I felt sort of shocked.  Then it struck me funny because I would love to write a sit-com and make lots of money.  Maybe this rejection was a message to me.  Maybe it was a new path opening.

There is an art to rejection.  There is a way of saying: I love you but I can’t marry you.  There is a way of saying: your dress is gorgeous but this is a barbecue.  There is a way of saying: I dig your tamales but my stomach is acting up.  There are so many good ways of saying: Thanks, but no thanks.  


Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry.  Her recent book The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, July, 2013) is a novel in stories about a young woman’s adventures in life and love on two continents. Tepper is a contributing editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she interviews authors about their books and lives on UNCOV/rd.  She also curates the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC


by Carly Berg

Invitation into your inner world is an honor. Reserve it for those who deserve it.

 Who would have thought writing required more forethought about handling people than anything else you decided to do?  It can certainly cause friction, for such a solitary, quiet, and low-cost activity. Those of us who have gone before, with our big faces hanging out unawares, can attest to that. Here are some tips to bring your writing habit out in the open smoothly.

 The Nearest and Dearest

The practical considerations count with those who share your space and obligations. Since you have responsibilities together, such as a house or children, you may want to come up with a writing schedule and get your spouse’s blessing.

If you’re like me, people talking, walking into the room, television noise, all yank me out of my writing trance. It’s as jarring as if they had jerked me from my sleep. I hate it. Non-writers do not understand this unless they’re told.  More than once. Tell them. Make a deal. Craft a “please do not disturb” sign to hang on the door when you’re writing.

 Friends and Relatives

Family and friends are easier because your lives don’t overlap as with those in your household. Emotionally, they can still provide a boost or pack a wallop, though. How much should you reveal?

Most of us have a “sharing” regret tale. Our stories are our creations. We’re sensitive about them. Having them rebuffed or ignored hurts.

Some people love us to death and understand writing means a lot to us. Yet, it’s not their thing. That’s okay, right? That’s why we’ll join a forum or group and get to know other writers.

 And certain people aren’t to be trusted with your writing or your feelings, even if their title is “relative” or “friend.”

Remember, you can always take the cat out of the bag, but you can’t put it back in.

Consider letting people in step by step. Drop a hint, or ask the other person if they want to read something you’ve written. Phrase it in a light way that leaves them an easy out. If they’re interested, show them one short story, chapter, or poem. A sample, not everything.

Do not reveal your pen name if you use one. After all, how will you feel if you expose all, and they: (1) never mention it again, (2) say something like “I didn’t really see the point,” or “Are you all right?,” (3) make a few copies and hand them out without your permission?

 In offering only a small portion, you have taken only a small risk.

Closely related to how much you share is what you share. Some non-writers do not realize that you and your main character are not the same person. Or, they may inaccurately read themselves into your story as well. It doesn’t hurt to keep this in mind when you consider which piece to let them read.

You may get that rare find, an interested, supportive, non-writer friend. Woohoo for you!

If you’re like most of us and have already done this wrong, at least you know who not to trust again. We go on.

 Everybody Else…

When I worked with children in foster care, one of the things we did was help them formulate a “cover story.” This isn’t a “lie,” as the term often means elsewhere. It’s a blanket of surface-only answers, to preserve the child’s dignity. Who do you live with? Mrs. Jones. Oh really? Is she your aunt? No. She’s just Mrs. Jones. Where are your parents? They can’t take care of me right now. Oh, dear. Are they sick? They just can’t take care of me right now, so I’m with Mrs. Jones. Note the polite repetition of nonspecific answers to those with no need to know. This shields the child against having personal details trotted out before the general public.

Many writers could also use cover stories. In our society (or maybe every society, what do I know?) we understand paid employment. We understand hobbies.

We don’t have as solid a grasp of that other thing. The writer may be insulted to hear their writing labeled a (mere) “hobby.” And, the writing may or may not bring in money.

So, we can name it a “calling.” But then, many non-writers still believe such a “calling” fits somewhere between a “hobby” and a “career.” The writer, in sharp contrast, may value writing above both hobby and career. It causes trouble.

If you tell people you write, they often promptly say the wrong thing. It goes like this:

 NWA (Non-Writing Acquaintance): So, I hear you write.

You: Uh-huh.

NWA: What do you write?

You: Oh, different things. Stories. And I’m working on a novel.

NWA: So then, you want to be a writer.

You: Um, no, but I—

NWA: Do you get paid for your stories?

You: Um, mostly not. But I—

NWA: Well, you just keep at it and someday maybe you’ll be a writer.

You: —–

NWA: Now I’ll tell ya what ya oughta write. How I met my husband. Now, there’s a best seller. I’d write it myself, but I’m too busy with my important business.

NWA wants to know where the product (published work) is, where the pay is. You might have studied the craft for years. Yet, she believes not having the time is all that prevents her from being published. Talent and skill aren’t mentioned.

To you, publication and pay may well be the by-products rather than the goal. NWA has missed it entirely.

Thus, conversations with non-writers can bruise the writer. My suggestion: Don’t engage. They don’t get it, and you don’t have to account for yourself on demand.

How about this instead:

 NWA: So, I hear you write.

You: Mmm, a little. That’s a pretty bracelet.

NWA: What do you write?

You: Oh, I don’t talk about it much. Is that bracelet onyx?

NWA: So then, are you published?

You: I don’t really talk about my writing.

NWA: Why not?

You: Meh, I just don’t. Didn’t you just get a new job?

You’ve remained polite, but in spite of her persistence, all she’s gotten is cover story. The trick, I think, is to think it through ahead of time so you‘re not caught off guard.

I’ve learned to involve people in my writing according to their position with me. I owe the most to those in my immediate household. Friends and relatives are considered individually, based on their interest and my trust. Acquaintances are generally kept at a distance. Invitation into your inner world is an honor. Reserve it for those who deserve it.


Carly Berg‘s work has been accepted by publications beginning with every letter of the alphabet except for “K,” the absence of which keeps her up at night. “The Care and Feeding of Non-Writers” is from her book in progress, The 100 Credits Club. She can be found here.


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

“I write.” Not “I’m a writer.”

Silly semantics?  I don’t think so.  I love writing, I’m incredibly happy I write. I’d be miserable if my brain dried up-but what I do is write, what I am is me.

I know, you don’t hear anyone say “I do medicine” or “I provide legal services.”  And certainly, now that I’ve had enough stories published, I probably won’t be accused of puffery if I introduce myself as an author.

But what comes out of my mouth naturally, without thinking about it, is “I write.”
I said that to a writer I ran into recently when she asked what I did.  She asked what I wrote, and I told her. “You should try novels,” she said, as one does to a child who really should leave those training wheels behind. Clearly she didn’t think I had the right credentials for her club.

Whatever you write, don’t accept that from anyone. One kind of creativity isn’t better than another–just different. Don’t let anyone slap labels on your work, or on you–and don’t do it to yourself. You might think you’re one kind of writer–and then something strange and unexpected falls out of your head one day, and you realize there’s a lot more in there than you knew.  Or even wanted to know.

The joy of writing is doing anything you want to on the page. The joy of living is finding out how much there is to you. Keep away from those labels–and enjoy all that nice new space around you.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

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