Hello COALESCE Community friends! We are happy to be announcing two exciting opportunities for creative nonfiction writers. Behold, the bag of goodies!
“Fresh Eyes and Renewed Perspectives” Creative Nonfiction Contest
We are looking for outstanding creative nonfiction pieces 2750 words or less that reflect on seeing something, someone, or a situation with “fresh eyes” or a “renewed perspective”.
First place will be awarded $100 and be featured in our Winter Solstice 2022 Collection
Second place will be awarded $50 and be featured in our Winter Solstice 2022 Collection
Third place will be awarded $25 and be featured in our Winter Solstice 2022 Collection
Submissions will be accepted until October 15, 2022
$10.50 submission fee
More information on contest guidelines, timeline, and awards, and submission instructions are on our Submittable page.
Ongoing Open Review and Feedback Services
Whether you are in the drafting phase, or have a finished piece that you want reviewed by knowledgeable and skilled writers who can offer another perspective to make it even stronger than it is, we are happy to collaborate and work with you.
Big Picture Review ($15) – We will provide comments and suggestions around larger ideas of your story: sections that could be expanded, questions to get you thinking differently about how to engage the reader more effectively, comments around the flow of your story and cohesiveness, and so on. This will include in-text comments where necessary, as well as up to one (1) page of single-spaced written feedback.
Full Review ($30) – We will provide track change line edits, in-text comments, and a 1-2 single-spaced paragraph summary (or up to a page) of our feedback. This feedback costs $30 per reviewer.
More information about the review process, length of time, and submission instructions can be found on our Submittable page.
Receiving Submissions for Fall Equinox 2022 Collection
And if you haven’t seen already, we are accepting submissions for our Fall collection until September 1st. First 75 submissions are free. Submissions after the first 75 are a $2 submission and reading fee. We are almost at our cap of 75 for free submission, and we would love to read your piece, so send them our way! Submit at Submittable
We officially released our Winter Solstice 2022 Collection of personal human stories today! Consider taking some time this winter season to sit by a fire or at a cozy cafe and read some of these engaging and moving stories and poems. Thank you to all those who submitted and our contributors this season!
Four things to try when your creative nonfiction story gets rejected
No one likes getting their story rejected from a literary magazine, but it can be difficult to know what to change and revise in the hopes of getting it published.
Most often, because of the number of stories they receive, literary magazines will send a brief rejection with the explanation that the story “wasn’t the right fit”. You’re left wondering where your story went wrong and what to do about it.
In her Masterclass, author Joyce Carol Oates says that failing to publish a piece is an opportunity to rework the story and make it better. It’s important to look at it with “colder and cooler eyes and see that maybe it wasn’t that great, and I can rewrite it.” She even goes on to talk about how she now feels lucky that she received rejections on some of her stories so that she was able to revise and rewrite them.
Receiving a rejection is a time to look your story over and see not where you went wrong, but where you can get it right this time. But where should you start with your story? Below are a few general ideas that can benefit any writer and help you get your piece published.
Replace adverbs with better verbs
Ah, the adverb. One of my favorite quotes concerning writing is from Stephen King, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Adverbs are one of the more widely misused elements in writing that signifies “lazy writing” to a reader. Why is it considered a sign of laziness? Because you’re letting the word do the work for you. Instead of showing the reader the man was angry—
I saw his neck veins bulge, his shoulders grew broader, his chest swelled. His pointed finger dug into my chest as he spit out words through gritted teeth. “Stay away from her.”
With the adverb, what we get is—
“Stay away from her,” he said angrily.
Here’s another way to look at it. What’s angry to me, might be a different kind of anger to someone else. My anger looks hot and impassioned, for others it might be cold and calculating. Slamming doors versus the silent treatment. If it helps, imagine every time you use an adverb, you’re losing control over your own story.
If you want me to see what you mean, to see the world you’re creating with words, then you’re going to have to care enough to show me. Otherwise, you’re asking too much of the reader. If we don’t care about the scene we’re writing enough to show it in the details, then our reader won’t either.
On the topic of verbs, let’s talk about the uninspired ones. The ones that we plop into a sentence without much thought about whether they are the best word for the job. As writers, we want to make sure we help the reader visualize the image we are creating with words. If you have a character where you want to show their nonchalance in a situation, why say “walked” when you can say “strolled.” That gives the reader a much clearer image in their mind. Or better yet, what if they oscillated down the sidewalk.
This suggestion comes with a caveat. I don’t mean for you to take apart every sentence you write, plucking out your thesaurus and inserting unusual and uncommon verbs everywhere like a literary game of Mad Libs, (although no shame in that tactic every now and then).
If every verb gets swapped out for something special and unique it can provide for tedious reading. As writers we need to take into consideration what the reading experience is like.
As Nathanial Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
Instead of synonym-swapping, try mixing in an unexpected verb for those sentences or scenes that you really want the reader to visualize clearly.
Unexpected could also mean using word pairings that create new meanings for the action. Natalie Goldberg, in her book Writing Down the Bones, suggests an exercise to help with this. On one side of a piece of paper write down a list of nouns. These can be anything, cat, beard, arms, tulips, piano, skeleton, extension cord, bowl, fork.
Then fold the paper in half lengthwise and write on the blank side a list of verbs. Goldberg suggests picking an occupation and thinking of words that someone would do at this job. The example she gives is a Chef. Chop, mince, slice, cut, heat, etc.
Now open the page to view your two lists and begin pairing them together in sentences. The cat chopped through the grass searching for its next victim. His beard minced my cheeks when we kissed. Her arms sliced through the air as she ran, propelling her further to win the race. Not all of these are going to work, but sometimes you might stumble onto something fresh that creates a strong image in the reader’s mind, something that makes them want to keep reading for more.
These words are still simple words— we aren’t reaching for the thesaurus for the fanciest, longest, most complex word. You’re using simple words in new ways. That’s what will excite your reader, much more so than, “The twosome tramped on in stony quietude, both forswearing to fracture it.”
Write a sensory immersive scene
This exercise is a good one to try, not only for your finished pieces, but it’s also a great warmup exercise. Just like an athlete needs to warmup first, writers can benefit from warm up routines before digging into their short stories, creative nonfiction pieces, novels, and memoirs.
This exercise involves choosing a scene from your memory or a scene from your story that you’re hoping to improve. It could be anything from a time when you were a kid playing tag with the neighbors just after the streetlights came on, to just yesterday when you were standing in line at the grocery store with cat food on the conveyer belt.
Close your eyes and visualize the scene.
Recall something from it that touches every sense. What were you looking at, what were you hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. Get every detail down and don’t edit anything, just write. Write for five or ten minutes, then read over what you sensed during that scene.
Maybe there’s the start of a story there. Maybe there’s just one sentence, or nothing at all. Including sensory writing into your stories will help it feel more relatable and real. It connects the reader to something visceral. Every reader really wants to see themselves in a writer’s words. We are always looking for that connection. Placing that reader in the scene with senses is one way to get there.
Read other books about writing outside of your genre
When asked, most authors will tell you there are essentially two things a writer needs to do to get better at writing. Write a lot and read a lot.
It’s important to read in the genre that you write in. If you’re writing creative nonfiction, then it’s good to read other creative nonfiction stories. You can read our new collection of stories here.
Reading published stories from other authors is one way to learn about what a well-crafted story looks like. Read with the intention of learning. Look at the pacing, at the structure, at the ways they include dialogue, and scenes. When you start to read with these in mind, you’ll start to notice the structure of good storytelling.
It’s also important to read outside of the genre that you write in. Gather inspiration and ideas from classic literature, a psychological thriller, travel stories, science fiction. Even a cookbook could offer ideas. Reading all these different kinds of books can help keep your writing from getting stale, from sounding too much like everything else. It can offer new solutions to old problems in your writing.
In this same vein, I would recommend reading books about writing in other forms. Books on writing better fiction short stories, or books on writing better poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, or music lyrics. You never know where inspiration will come from or what ideas you can reinterpret for your own creative nonfiction writing.
It’s important to read other works that are getting published, but the point is not to copy them or change your writing style to sound exactly like what’s out there. Please don’t lose what makes your writing your writing. Reading other published works can help elevate your own and help you look for what your story is missing.
I offer these suggestions because I know what it’s like to have the goal of getting published. I know how it feels to get a rejection for a story you worked on for months, a story you thought you had given everything to. These are some things that have helped me and other published writers that I know.
Using the rejection as fuel to get better, to look for resources and things I could improve on, helped me keep going. But I also want to share that if writing to get published is your main pursuit, then you are missing the most beautiful aspects of what it is to write.
Striving to become a better writer, if that is your goal, is tough, yet incredibly rewarding. You will never reach the end, there is no finish line. You can always improve your writing. For some, that may seem daunting and disheartening, but for others, it may provide a sense of freedom.
These were just some general tips to help give you a direction to get started. If you’re looking for a personalized approach, we do offer services to help with your writing. You can find more out about that here and we look forward to reading your stories.
The Fall Equinox is a time of transition; it is an acknowledgment that all things change. The vibrancy of life inevitably cycles through age, death, decomposition, feeding and inspiring the life and energy that inevitably comes next. This realization of mortality, this honoring of our transient nature, is difficult for many of us. As we see the world change around us—aftermath of a global pandemic; ongoing fights for equality and justice; war and climate disasters—it is difficult not to feel afraid, infuriated, and alone. Yet, with these existential struggles, we also have the gifts and the hope of imagination and creativity, of learning, self-reflection, and choosing how we want to grow, transform, and walk our path in this world. Human existence is terribly complex and profoundly beautiful. The stories in this collection grapple with change, with identity, belonging, isolation, fear, and loss. Yet, in their own unique ways, they offer a sense of hope—hope as a discipline, as Mariame Kaba would say—reminding us of our resilience, of our strength through adversity, our ability and responsibility to keep one foot in front of the other. Reminding us not only that we must embrace change, for it is inescapable, but that we can embrace it, and find our way, our sense of self and belonging in this messy life we are given. It is our privilege and honor to share these very real, very human stories with you.
Some of the best advice you can follow is to make a lot of mistakes because it’s the only way you will learn. We grow from our mistakes. We move forward a little wiser. If we’re lucky, the next time we make a mistake, we can learn from it faster. If we’re really lucky we can avoid making the same mistake twice.
But what do I mean when I say making a mistake as a writer? If we’re sitting down to write, arguably the most difficult part of writing, is any of it a mistake to start with? Most days I’m just happy to be in my chair, pen in hand. If I’m worried about making mistakes, I might never write.
Dealing with mistakes comes later after you’ve written. It’s when the editor side of your brain picks up what the writer side has done and looks at it critically. These two sides of you need to work together but the writer side should try to not take anything too personally.
Let’s all agree now, as a writer, you’re going to write a lot of garbage. In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”
You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. It’s how we learn, and it comes with the territory.
It’s important to remember that we are not striving for perfection. We are aiming for the best way to tell our story. There’s no right way to tell your story. However, there are ways you can tell it that will make a reader want to keep going. That’s what I mean by mistakes. Things we do as writers that make a story difficult to understand. Things that take the pleasure out of what we are reading. So here are a few common mistakes that, if avoided, can help the readability of your story, and take your creative nonfiction story from a “shitty first draft” to a polished piece of work people want to read.
Thinking your reader is just as familiar with your family, your history, and your subject as you are
I love a story that drops you in the middle and says let’s go. I love a story that doesn’t hold my hand and trusts me to figure some things out for myself. Those are techniques that, when done successfully, create an enjoyable reading experience. But what can hinder a story is when there are introductions to too many people or references to things in the past that aren’t fully explained and aren’t necessary to the story. You might be able to keep your entire family straight in your mind, but you’ve had your lifetime to know them. If it’s crucial to the story to talk about your mother’s three aunts, then you’re going to have to give them distinguishing characteristics. Does Aunt Moira have an over-dyed blonde beehive and lipstick on her teeth the color of First Kiss Fuchsia? That’s a woman I’m going to remember and recall when she shows up again on page 3. It can be tough, but looking at your story after you’ve gotten it all down on paper with fresh eyes is crucial when you’re editing. Many writers give the advice of putting your first draft away for at least 6 weeks or even a year, before coming back to it. You’re more removed and can look at your writing with a critical and detached eye. This detachment can put you in the reader’s position and help you realize when situations or scenes are unclear.
Writing journal entries
It’s common when writing creative nonfiction to write about a time from your own life. This can be a cathartic chance to unburden yourself, to take what happened to you and turn it into a powerful story. But sometimes if we aren’t careful this can turn into journal entry writing—you list events in the order they happened to you like you’re explaining things to a non-sentient diary rather than another person who wants to relate and understand what you’re writing. This can turn your piece into being all summary and no scene. Lee Gutkind explains this difference in his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, “Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.” Using your journal or daily writing practice entries can be a perfect place to mine for story ideas, but use them as a place to start. Think of them less as rough drafts and more as research for your creative nonfiction stories.
Not including literary devices
In a recent COALESCE post, I talk about improving your creative nonfiction pieces by adding in literary devices. A literary device is a tool used by writers to enhance their stories and add layers of depth. They can be used to speak to the larger themes and meaning behind your creative nonfiction piece. They can be used to heighten just a sentence or be woven throughout your entire story. These devices could range from adding a metaphor to foreshadowing a future event that will take place in your writing. If this sounds amorphous and open-ended that’s because it is. Literary devices are wide-ranging, and like any tool, it’s up to the user to know which one is right for the job and how to apply it. When using literary devices make sure to experiment, see what works, try different ones out, and find new ways to say things that have been said before. Play with using symbolism, allusion, irony, personification, juxtaposition, and foils. These devices can be used to add freshness to your creative nonfiction. Instead of using stale metaphors we’ve all read before like it was cold as ice, what if it was cold as an air-conditioned office building in summer? The more vibrant and visceral an image you create in the reader’s mind, the more connected they feel to your writing. Adding in literary devices can help with this.
Trying to tell the reader too much in one story
Unlike the first example where you don’t explain enough, this mistake feels more like overexplaining, worrying that your reader needs all the context of your life for them to understand the magnitude of what you want to say. But when everything is given the same importance, nothing becomes important. Try picking one event in your life, one subject of focus. You can use supporting events, but it’s about this one thing. A short creative nonfiction piece is a limited amount of space (at COALESCE our cap for stories is 2500 words). But as Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Get creative with how you tell your story. Every word has a job to do, and every word should be put to work.
COALESCE is running a themed contest that closes October 15, 2022. If you found this article useful, try taking a look at some of your creative nonfiction pieces with fresh eyes while keeping these suggestions in mind. You can find more information about the contest here . As always, I am honored to read the story you share with us and I’m looking forward to it.
Written by: Kate Sowinski, Editor and Artistic Director for COALESCE Community September 10, 2022
As a writer you are most likely familiar with the adage, “Write what you know.” We know our own life and our own experiences, so creative nonfiction (CNF) would seem a natural place for a writer to start. But how many writers know about the genre of creative nonfiction, not just their own stories? As an editor for COALESCE Community Literary Magazine, I’ve come across pieces that can focus too heavily on the “nonfiction” and less on the “creative” aspect. As Lee Gutkind, writes about the genre of creative nonfiction in his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, “The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft…The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.”
CNF goes beyond journalism and writing down facts. We, as writers, have an obligation to write the truth. Our readers expect this because of the nonfiction side of things. How we choose to share our stories is up to us and our creativity. As Joyce Carol Oates says in her masterclass on writing short fiction, “There’s only one rule of show business or writing. And that’s don’t be boring.”
So how can we get our stories to sound less like journal entries and more like compelling pieces of fiction while maintaining the truth of our story? Or in other words, how can we add the “creative” part into our creative nonfiction pieces.
Below are a few ideas we can borrow from fiction to think about incorporating into creative nonfiction stories.
5 Ways to Improve your CNF Writing
Tell a story out of sequence: Telling your story in a linear direction might offer clarity to a story but saving some pieces of the story for later can make the story more engaging. You could mention something that’s to come to offer intrigue without confusion, or if your story sounds more like a journal entry than a CNF piece, restructuring the events could help. Even telling the story backward can add a surprising or unexpected element that engages the reader.
Pair two stories: A favorite approach of mine is to take two separate stories that, on the surface, don’t relate to each other, but then through an exploration of theme the reader comes to realize these two stories needed each other. You could take a story from the past and one from more recent memory and find the common thread between them, a link that binds them so that through each other they reveal something more to the reader.
Changing the tone of the piece: Is the tone of your story earnest when it should be sarcastic? Is it dry and pessimistic when it should be humorous and optimistic? Is arrogant or inspirational? It’s important to consider how your reader is receiving the message of your piece and how the tone of it communicates this. Just by altering the tone, you can change the whole feel of the piece.
Change of person: Primarily stories are told in 1st and 3rd person (I’ve seen some successful stories told in 2nd, but this is difficult to do). Some writers may find it easier to distance themselves from the story they are telling by sharing it in 3rd person. Others may find it very natural to write in 1st, especially if you are relating a story of something that happened to you. At COALESCE, we want to hear your story. It’s the underpinning of our Literary Magazine so most, if not all of, the stories we read are in first person. But in your other CNF pieces, a change in point of view might freshen your work. It might liberate you to add another layer of vulnerability or take the story in an unexpected direction.
Incorporate literary techniques: In a nonfiction piece, you can’t break the cardinal rule of telling the truth. But you can incorporate literary devices that will add interest and engage your reader. Playing with extended metaphors, imagery, symbolism, irony, personification, juxtaposition, and foreshadowing are just a few examples of devices you can add to a story that won’t alter the truth but will alter the strength and creativity of a piece.
I also wanted to share some suggestions for books you can read to further help with your creative nonfiction writing.
Suggested CNF Readings
Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Not only does he explain the history of creative nonfiction, but the second part of the book leads you through examples of work and offers prompts to help you start generating ideas for your own CNF stories.
Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present: This last book is a collection of creative nonfiction. If you want to write a great story, then you should also be reading great stories. Anthologies are a great place to start since you’ll have access to many different voices and styles. There is no one right way to write a creative nonfiction piece. It’s about telling your story in a way that honors it and makes people want to read it.
I hope these suggestions help with your creative nonfiction writing and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s submission. The deadline for our Fall issue is September 1st and we publish on September 22, 2022.
Written by: Kate Sowinski, Editor and Artistic Director for COALESCE Community August 23, 2022
Share, spread, and strengthen the creative life force in all of us.
We are more than a literary magazine. We are a collaborative, creative and compassionate community. We care about your dreams, your goals, your vision for your highest self.
Co-creating is a beautiful life-giving process. Have you felt excited and inspired by a vision or idea, but unsure how to start? The COALESCE Co-Creators Circle is a space to nurture the life and energy of your visions, dreams, projects, and ideas. It is a space to share these and get positive and constructive feedback, workshop something you’re stuck on, have others help you fine-tune an idea, or come up with a creative solution. It is a space to bring your loving and life-giving energy to support others. Sometimes we need to talk things through with others, to have them pick our brains, flesh out the ideas, provide their insights, even offer their own resources, networks, and expertise.
Our upcoming Circles will be held on July 2nd and August 6th virtually via Zoom. You can register on our Eventbrite page or visit our Workshops page to learn more.
At the moment our cap is 30 people per Circle session. We hold breakout groups so you have the opportunity for a more focused conversation with one or two others. Our Co-Creators Circles are free. If you love them and appreciate the work we are doing and want to support us further with a donation, we welcome any amount you feel comfortable offering.
We are very excited to announce that our submission window for the Summer Solstice 2022 Collection of personal human stories is now open! Please view our Submissions page for information and submit via Submittable. We are looking forward to connecting with you and reading your story!
Submission window closes June 1, 2022.
Friends at The BeZine
I recently had the pleasure of meeting one of the editors of The BeZine, who kindly asked to feature us in a blog post to help share the origin story and mission of COALESCE Community. Have a look and check out their meaningful work and publications, focused on sacred space and activism. The BeZine’s mission is “to foster proximity and understanding through our shared love of the arts and humanities and all things spirited and to make—however modest—a contribution toward personal healing and deference for the diverse ways people try to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of a world in which illness, violence, despair, loneliness and death are as prevalent as compassion, hope, friendship, reason and birth.”
We are very grateful for the love, advice, and support from established LitMags – such beautiful examples of community.
Our first collection of human stories features creative non-fiction, poetry, and a photo essay, which explore themes of loss, grief, aging, abuse, relationships, healing, transformation, love, hope, identity, culture, and belonging. Our contributors range from individuals who have won awards and are already well-established to emerging writers. Part of the beauty of this endeavor is the connection that comes with sharing our stories. Having the privilege of reading and reviewing each of these pieces, we felt like we were cultivating a relationship with these writers and got to know them in an intimate way – just as if they were sitting across from us, telling us their story in person. The stories gave us chills, got us thinking, made us laugh, brought tears to our eyes – touched our humanity. We are honored and deeply grateful to share them with you.
Our Photo Essay contributor, Karyna Aslanova, a Kyiv-born Ukrainian multimedia artist, director, and photographer, kindly provided a link if you’d like to learn more about the Russia-Ukraine war and ways to support efforts in Ukraine. Please visit ukrainewar.carrd.co/