Monday, October 24, 2016

How I Got Into That Journal (or, how to get into any journal)

Occasionally I teach a class on Submission Strategies, and from the start, I passionately insist that for every time I get an acceptance from my top-pick, first-choice venue, without sending the work anywhere else, there were at least three instances of sending a piece around to a half dozen (or several dozen!) markets before it landed in a good literary home. 

And though everyone dutifully takes notes and nods, I'm guessing some are quietly thinking, well maybe for her, but that won't be me. Few people ask questions at this point.

But at the next session, I bring in a couple of printed out 11 by 17 worksheets from my (long, tedious, but vital) Excel spreadsheet that I use to track all of my submission, cross-sorted by venue and piece of writing, dates, outcomes, editor notes, etc. When this starts to make its way around the table, eyes widen, jaws drop a little, questions erupt.

Did you really send 8 (or 18 or 28) pieces to X before you got a yes?


Did you really have to submit that piece (the one got nominated for an award, the one that won an award) to 8 (or 18 or 28) journals before it was accepted?


But now that you have lots more experience, it's easier right?

Ha. No. And, yes.

You learn stuff. You get better at this enterprise, this business, this game of figuring out where your work will succeed. You develop instincts, learn from mistakes, know more about what editors want based on what they've already published (because you read and read and read). You also learn more about yourself and what you are interested in accomplishing by publishing, what you can live without, what you don't care to negotiate. This takes time, commitment, some analytic skills, gut instincts, and a little luck. Not to mention (but oh let's mention) that this only happens if along the way, your writing craft is also consistently improving, even if only incrementally.

When it all works, when the venue you are after wants what you have to offer, after you pat yourself on the back, it's worth figuring out what you did right that time.

That's what I do in a guest blog post running over at the Brevity blog -- analyze what I did that got my essay into the Fall 2016 special issue of the literary journal Brevity Magazine. The post is divided into nine steps. I hope it's helpful to any writer wanting to break into any market that's personally meaningful. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

When a Themed Submission Call Prods a Story

September was such a busy month for my writing that I've not yet mentioned—not here on the blog anyway—one publication that made me particularly proud. Those who write and read creative nonfiction, and especially fans of short works, know the quality of the essays and nonfiction narratives at Brevity, all presented in 750 words or less.

I'm so pleased that Brevity chose to publish my work, "On the Near Side of the Tracks," in their Fall 2016 issue, which had a special focus on race. What makes this slightly more gratifying is that this story—though the actual experience lasted less than 10 minutes—was one I sat on for years, not knowing precisely how or when or where to tell it.

When I came across the Brevity themed call for submissions in the spring, something slid into place in my head—and eventually, onto the page. I believe that's true for some stories: we wait and ponder and think, and wait some more, often not sure if it's ever going to live on the page. Then, something clicks and we "suddenly" know how to write about it, where to send it, and that it's time to tell it.

I'd love it if you took a few minutes (really, that's all it takes to read 750 words!) to read it. While there, perhaps take a bit more time to read some of the other stellar work in the special Brevity issue, which includes work by Deesha Philyaw, Roxane Gay, Tyrese Coleman, and several others, all with unique perspectives.

I'd been chasing a Brevity byline for a while, undaunted by a half-dozen rejections before this wonderful acceptance. That's not unusual, that's the writing life. Whatever you're chasing, I hope it shows up in your writing life.

UPDATE (10/19/16): Over at the Brevity blog, you can now read about the steps I took to nail this long sought after acceptance

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- September 23, 2016 Edition

>I love reading about all the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipients, but of course pay special attention to the handful of stellar writers always on the list. Included among them for 2016 is Claudia Rankine, who says the "prize is being given to the subject of race."

>My kids aren't young enough to have enjoyed "Llama Llama Red Pajama," and other books in that series by Anna Dewdney. But I fell in love with the author when, after she passed away this month, instead of funeral services, she asked everyone to read to a child.

>I learn from coaching clients all the time. Recently, a writer looking for new ways to approach complicated essay topics, found "Let's Discuss Shredded Romaine Lettuce," an essay from 2014, by Wendy Rawlings. Whoa. It immediately became suggested reading for my MFA students.

>Part sounds-like-fiction horror story, part you-can't-make-this-stuff-up nonfiction, and altogether creepy/fun reading: Lesley's Kinzel's "The Writing Retreat From Hell: Or, a Completely Weird and Slightly Terrifyig Adventure in Small Town New England."

>I reported over the summer that Beyond Your Blog--a helpful trove of advice and resources for submitting essays and articles--had stopped putting up new material. Now I'm happy to say it's resumed doing so, with a few tweaks.

>Finally, I know I'm late to the Taylor Mali party, but caught on when my college freshman son sent me the link to Mali's  hilarious video send-up on "The Impotence of Proofreading" which he saw in his freshman comp class.  

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Happy Best American Essay Brithday

When my birthday arrives in about 10 days, my card may say, "Your gift was delivered on  September 13."

Here's why (and I beg of you, imagine this in deep narrator voice-over like at the Oscars): This is Lisa's second nomination, and first…

Let me not bury the lede any further: I received word that an essay of mine, published in 2015, was selected for the Notable Essays list included in Best American Essays 2016. How simple and calm that sentence sounds. So unlike how I sounded when I got the news.

No, that was more like this (imagine this in hysterical barn owl voice at 140 decibels): What?! NO WAY. Wow. Whoa. OMG! Wait, REALLY?

BAE doesn't notify those on the Notables list. I learned it from a a Facebook who'd scoured the Notables pages (using Look Inside) as soon as Amazon put BAE '16 up for pre-order.

As you probably know, BAE is an annual anthology that republishes about two dozen essays that exemplify fine writing craft. Tucked in the back is the Notables list, a few hundred pieces culled from thousands of nominations. When I think about all the essays published in all the print journals and all the online literary journals, and all the mainstream magazines and websites, across a full 12 months, the odds of being selected are small. The honor is huge.

Often, a media venue will let a writer know that it is nominating one's work, as happened several years ago when Under the Sun nominated an essay of mine from 2013 (no booming narrator voice that time around).

But this time, I was not aware that the good folks at Blue Lyra Review, notably nonfiction editor Adrienne Ross Scanlan, had thought highly enough of my essay, "Not Quite Meet Cute" (which appeared in their Spring 2015 issue), to place it in nomination. So the news last week was extra surprising, extra sweet. My heartfelt gratitude goes out to Adrienne and BLR.

If you like this sort of stuff, the backstory on that essay includes the usual forces and vicissitudes that accompany this wacky thing called essay writing.

It's such a personal piece that after the crappy first draft in 2007, I put it away, worried my husband wouldn't like the world knowing how he behaved when we first met, or how I'd behaved before we met. Then there was the inevitable cycle: revise, rewrite, put-it-away-this-is-crap, forget-about-it-for-another-year, revise, this-is-less-crappy-but-it's-still-crap, revise, rinse, repeat.

Finally, it entered the gee-this-maybe-is-not-so-bad stage, followed by revise, submit, rejection, submit, submit, submit. Once it found a nice home at BLR, the only next step I considered was that I might include it in a future essay collection of my own (yes, I'm delusional that way), but essentially, I figured that was the end of that story.

The BAE listing comes with not a dime of monetary compensation, and of course, the Notable pieces themselves are not printed in the book. That booming narrator voice isn't concluding with….and her first win. A Notable is more than a nomination, less than a win, but it's something rather nice, and I'm excited. It means the judging committee and editors think it has merit.

And I’m thinking that, in the everyday trenches of revise, rewrite, put-it-away-this-is-crap, forget-about-it-for-another-year, revise, this-is-less-crappy-but-it's-still-crap, revise, rinse, repeat, gee-this-maybe-is-not-bad, submit, rejection, submit, submit, submit – that's going to help.

Though I guess this means my husband figures he's off the hook for a birthday gift.

Monday, September 5, 2016

When a Targeted Submission Fails: Rinse, Revise, Repeat

Not everything we write lands where we hope. I occasionally write essays for themed calls for submissions, especially for anthologies, and have had some success (10 thus far). But when the resulting essay is declined, there are decisions to make. Like every writer, sometimes I am tempted to forget about it. But not often. Because when I work hard on something, I like to salvage those efforts.

I try to remember what I advise my students: that the gift inside rejection (for something I wrote and submitted exclusively), is that I now have new material. Even if it requires a little (or maybe more than a little) revision, I have something to submit elsewhere.

Last July, I submitted an essay to a planned anthology to mark the 10th anniversary of the mega-memoir, Eat, Pray Love in 2016. I learned in November that mine—along with some 1950 other submissions—was not accepted for what eventually became the book Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It.

I let many months go by, mostly because I was busy with teaching and other projects, but eventually realized that if I were going to place that essay, it had to be in 2016.

Fortunately, the original call had a word limit that coincided with what many mainstream online destinations look for in personal essay length. So I examined the content, and zeroed in on an angle that I hoped would help it sell: although Elizabeth Gilbert, author of EPL, was in her thirties when she rebooted her life, my own story of connection with the book was rooted in midlife, so I enhanced that aspect of the essay. When I sent it on its way, I aimed at venues with readerships in that age range and that seemed likely to include EPL fans. I emphasized in my pitch that the globally successful book was celebrating its 10th anniversary.

That piece, eventually titled, "Happy 10th Birthday Eat, Pray, Love: A Big Shout-Out to the Book that Inspired My Three Big Midlife Changes," was published in late August on Purple Clover, a popular site geared to midlife women. The site's tagline is: still crazy after all these years. It seems like a good fit for the piece, the paycheck is welcome, and I love knowing that my original efforts paid off, though in a different manner.

Later this fall, a similar story will play out when a much longer, more literary nonfiction narrative I originally wrote for Creative Nonfiction Magazine's 2015 call for works about the weather will be published by Harpur Palate, another journal where I'm happy to see my work appear. Lately, I've been seeing a number of well-written nonfiction pieces about weather popping up in many quality venues, and I've been secretly wondering if those traveled the same road, too.

Do you have pieces that you intended for one place that wound up in another? I'd love to hear your experiences.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- September 2, 2016 Edition

> Ursula LeGuin, interesting and forthright as always, had something to say about being named to the Library of America (New York Times).

> At Assay Journal, Sarah Einstein probes "
Questions of Authorial Selfhood and Ethics in ​First Person Creative Nonfiction." 

> Did you know that half of those you ask for a book blurb will probably say no? Dorit Sasson, author of the memoir Accidental Soldier, offers "Top 10 Tips I Learned About Getting Book Endorsements," 
over at Funds for Writers.

> Joanna Novak at Bustle features "9 Women Writers Who Are Breaking New Nonfiction Territory."

> Recently discovered Pitching Shark, which offers freelance writers tidbits from editors of print and online venues, including topics they'd like to see pitched, as well as their email addresses. Also, advice about writing, pitching, etc.

>Brag Box: I'm super proud of my coaching clients who landed the assignment to write this cool story for's travel section. (I work with freelancers on polishing their pitches; details are on this page.) 

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons - James Jones Puggles

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Post-Conference, Post-Vacation Post

Probably the smartest thing to do after a writing conference would be hurry home and burrow in, open a new document (or six!) for all the ideas that skittered across your mind while there. Or, better yet, take a solitary decompressing trip, that frees you to write and muse. I've done both of those things before.

What I hadn't done was return home, run a load of laundry, answer only the urgent emails, repack, sleep a few hours, and then set out with my family for an enforced four days of R&R—strictly away from my computer, all of us together in a small seaside house (often huddled in the A/C to escape daunting heat and humidity when not under a beach umbrella to escape frigid A/C), and on unspoken but rather clear orders from my husband not to disappear into my brain and essentially away from the moment

I had books. I had my notebook. What I didn't have was time to spread out all my notes from Hippocamp 2016 (a conference for creative nonfiction writers), and reflect, make notes, tackle follow-ups in the immediate manner I like, and to write a post-conference post.

But I'm back at my desk now (feeling of course as if I never did leave it!), so here goes.

If you read my post from the first day of activities this year, you already know how much I love this conference. You can scroll the live-at-the-time tweets, and read other post-Hippocamp coverage here and here and here, and at the official conference recap page. I'll just share some of what showed up in my notebook and program margins when I was sitting in the audience at various presentations.

First, I'll note that I was completely unprepared and overwhelmed by the lovely, positive reaction to my own session, "Writing About the Same Experience Across Multiple Pieces." Not only did people fill every seat in the break-out room (nerve-wracking and wonderful), but I was gobsmacked by how—for hours afterward and into the next day—so many writers approached me to say that the session opened up something for them about their own CNF work. I've never had that kind of response before, and almost cannot adequately express how much it meant to me. (And served as a timely reminder that when I'm in the audience and find value in a speaker's presentation, saying so afterward, face-to-face, can be a true gift to that person.)

Now, on to some of the small gems I came away with.

> In the Collage Essay Workshop (a pre-conference add-on), we got to talking about other fragmented forms, and Sarah Einstein shared her own definition of a segmented essay, which she thinks of as not exactly linear, but a series of interconnected stories that follow a timeline progression. Yes! That makes so much sense; something I think I intuitively understood but hadn't worked out a definition for.

> During a panel on query letters, one agent (sorry, didn't record who!) suggested a simple formula: "The hook, the book, the cook." What's the essential heart of the book?  What is the book about (slightly extended description)? Who is the writer?  Another noted that query letters should involve no more than "one scroll" of the email screen. Still another advised digging through the Manuscript Wish List's site or following #MSWL on Twitter.

Wendy Fontaine, part of a panel on truth in nonfiction, shared some of her captivating research on memory and recall, brain anatomy and function. This, for example: "The brain makes no biological delineation between a true memory and a false one." Whoa! Certainly makes me want to think twice, or three, maybe four times when writing about what I think I remember clearly.

> At a presentation on designing and delivering a writers' retreat, Joanne Lozar Glenn advised working backward from the intended outcome. Ask yourself what you want the writers who will attend to take away from the experience. Newly generated pages? A notebook of ideas? Feedback? New process skills? Community? A combination? Something else?

> In a talk on incorporating science into CNF, Jeannine Pfeiffer, writer and scientist, suggested ways to track down data and experts without spending a lot on abstracts or other access to scientific journals—such as using Google Scholar; the Public Library of Science; asking a professor friend to let you search on or; gaining in-person access to a local university library; and searching the terms "open access journals" + "your topic".

> At a session on content marketing, Kelly Kautz noted that for writers who are marketing themselves, their books, and/or their services, it's wise to tame the intimidating monster that is analytics data, focusing only on areas that are meaningful to you. Identify keyword combinations that work, and then purposely use them in posts or social media exchanges. That means, for me, posts incorporating the word combinations "New Jersey… Editor" "Writing teacher…NJ" and "NJ…writing coach," might be in my future.

Jim Warner, on a panel about literary citizenship, invited writers from everywhere to submit audio files from literary events, especially interviews with authors, for consideration for his podcast, CitizenLit.

> Finally, it would be impossible to sum up all the wonderfulness that was Mary Karr's keynote address, so I'll leave you with these notes:

On writing about family: "A dysfunctional family is any form of family with more than one person."
On stories within memoir: "Memoir is, by its nature, episodic. Everyone has stories."
On melodrama: "Don't write how you suffered. Write how you survived."
On writing from reality: "Don't exaggerate. Trust that what you experienced was enough."
On blame: "Judge yourself more harshly than anyone else."
On her writing process: "One sentence at a time. There's no strategy. Jump lump along. Six hours or 1000 words a day, whichever comes first."
On revision: "Make the ugly parts prettier. Make the pretty parts better. And if you can't, cut it out, because you don't want to be boring."

There was so much more. I suspect it's all going to be buzzing around my writer's brain for weeks or months to come, and maybe as long as it takes to get back there in September 2017. Which is what I want out of a conference after all.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Writer Communing with Notebook: Early Morning Conference Insomnia (the good kind)

This definitely-not-a-morning person is up at 5:30 on a Saturday because I am at my favorite writing conference, and after Friday's invigorating start, well—who can sleep? (And not just because I'm a little jumpy about my presentation later today and suddenly remembered that little change I need to make on slide number six.)

I'm propped up in bed, my hand whipping across notebook pages. So many new ideas are flying around in my brain, so much stimulation, all the fresh perspectives I absorbed yesterday, all insisting on equal time. I'm exhausted already (you know, in that good way.). And baby, I've got lists. Write this…research that…read her book…read his essay…think about that other angle…this other point of view…try a new essay form…add this to next semester's syllabus...share that with my clients.

HippoCamp, a conference exclusively for creative nonfiction writers (sponsored by Hippocampus Magazine), is in its second year in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and if day one was any indication, it hasn't outgrown its well-earned inaugural appeal.

This dazzling little gem of a conference feels like that secluded, still-undiscovered-by-the-masses vacation spot you want to shout about to everyone but at the same time, want to keep secret to it doesn't get overrun next year. For me, it's also just the right size (smallish, around 150 or so attendees), the right distance from home (under a three hour drive), and embodies just the right vibe (welcoming inclusion for all writers, where everyone is in the club regardless of publishing resume).

Last year, I could only manage to be here all day Saturday and a bit of Sunday morning. This year, I decided to plunge all in, say yes to more, and signed up for the optional post-conference agent/editor pitch sessions (never did one of those!), as well as one of the pre-conference workshops (don't get much chance lately to be one of the writers at the table instead of the leader).

My workshop was on the collage essay with the lovely Sarah Einstein, whose intriguing pre-workshop emails and Facebook posts promised unique sensory prompts—and she delivered. Which meant I generated 12 notebook pages of rough writing for a future essay (essays?). What unique prompts, you ask? How about these: we lit sparklers, danced the hora, sniffed Tequila-soaked cotton balls, blew up balloons, passed around party favors, and listened to a sad/not sad funeral dirge. Phew.

I'll be back next week with more about the wonderful time I know I'm going to have later today and tomorrow. As for my presentation nerves, I keep telling myself (like I do when I go to the dentist) that in a few hours it will all be over, and (unlike post-dentist) before you know it, keynote speaker Mary Karr will be on stage in the main room and I can relax. Except for my pen flying across new notebook pages.

To get more out of the rare opportunity to connect for several days in real life with writers (many of whom I "know" only from social media), I've decided I'll mostly keep my phone in my pocket. I want to keep my eyes up and alert and have live conversations even if they are sometimes awkward. 

But you can follow some of the action on Twitter with #HippoCamp16, where lots of people more talented than I (who can do two things at once), are already sharing the wisdom and the fun.