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.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- August 5, 2016 Edition

 > At the L.A. Review of Books, Tarn Wilson takes a close look at "How to Write a Collage-Style Memoir" by examining the craft and structure in A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice by Christine Hale. (Tip: Don't let #1 fool you!)

> Wondering what college students will be reading this fall? (Humor me, I have one of these species.) NPR rounded up some of the books being read campus-wide at a variety of universities.

> Yet one more site that rounds up links of interest to writers on Fridays -- Being Rudi.

> Has anyone (I'm thinking about you, list essay writers) explored (or tried posting at)

> Now that Oprah has named his new novel, The Underground Railroad, her newest book pick, Colson Whitehead talked to the New York Times about "Slavery, Success, and Writing the Novel That Really Scared Him."

> Department of Shameless Self-Promotion. My nonfiction narrative, "The Amazing Technicolor Horse Dream" appears in the July Hippocampus Magazine (part of their "Firsts" theme issue). It's my second essay on the site; I'm proud to have my work appear in the same venue beside so many excellent examples of the creative nonfiction genre. Have I mentioned (maybe only a zillion times!) that last summer Hippocampus put on a stellar first conference for CNF writers, one where every writer, at every level, was made to feel welcome? And that I'll be presenting once again when the second installment convenes next week in Lancaster, PA?

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Author Interview with Nancy Davidoff Kelton on Her Memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein

I met Nancy Davidoff Kelton about 15 years ago in her one-day personal essay writing class in Manhattan, and then I signed up for her weekly workshop. I liked her brand of "tough love" critique balanced by genuine interest in her writing students. Since then, we've stayed in touch through reading each others' work.

I'm happy to have her here today and ask about her recently published memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein. Nancy's six other books include Writing From Personal Experience. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Buffalo News, Parents, Redbook, and Working Mother, among other publications. Nancy teaches at The New School in Manhattan. 

Please welcome Nancy Kelton.

Q. First, we must discuss the title, which I just love. (If I were to write such a book, I guess I'd have to call it Finding Mr. Baccagaloupi!) Where did it come from? Was this the title from the start?

A. Finding Mr. Rightstein was always the title. I don’t remember how it came about. I was probably caucusing with my unconscious, which is how I think my favorite things come out of me.

Q. I remember in a class of yours, you once said that if you aren't willing to empty your gut on the page, there's no point writing essay or memoir. With this book, were there times when you didn't quite want to spill your guts? Did age makes it any easier or harder to be so vulnerable on the page?

A. I am not sure if it is age or from many decades of writing, but I seem to have easier access to my emotions and an easier time saying what I want to say.  Also, I never would have written this book when my parents were alive.  

But in terms of emptying or spilling one’s guts: yes, you have to be willing to reveal yourself, get under your skin and there were times when that was not only hard, but downright scary. But: 1.Writing is NOT therapy. Therapy is therapy. That’s where you spill guts directly. Writing is a discipline, an art form, a difficult one.  2. Although I am able to reveal what is in my heart, I certainly to do NOT spill out everything.  That would be nauseating.  Boring.  You can’t do that to your readers.  In first drafts, I get out the kitchen sink. Revising enables me to get rid of what’s not working, clean up the clutter and the uninteresting parts.  Each revision means deepening what I want to say.  

Q. I recall that you wrote a series of essays for the AARP website about dating as a senior. How much of the book grew out of that experience?

A. Not much. My book is not a dating memoir. It’s a story about growing up, getting older, getting out of my own way, finding the love inside myself, and coming to the love of a good man. Some of the men I dated figure into my journey.  I hope I captured the challenges and joys I faced.  

Q. You've published dozens of personal essays in magazines, newspapers, and online media. What particular challenges did you face in writing a full length memoir instead of an essay collection?

A. Facing myself and facing the blank screen consistently for such a long period of time.

Q. You've infused even some unpleasant events of your life—a depressed mother, your divorce, losing parents—with humor. How do you make those writing decisions and why is humor important when writing about serious matters?

A. The writing decisions: I think with each draft and eventually with good editors, I saw what parts flowed, sang, or were just ho-hum.

Humor: I think humor is important in every aspect of life. It is among my best survival tools. It’s among my strengths. I think the best humor comes from pain and having a perspective.  Or as Charlie Chaplin said, “From seeing life from the long shot." When what I write comes out funny, I can’t say how or why.  That is how I see it.  And say it. I am very blessed I have that ability.

Q. Your last book, Writing From Personal Experience, is a great resource for those who write personal essays. It comes off my shelf frequently, tagged with sticky notes, marking tidbits I share with my students. Do you have one or two additional insights, maybe particular to writing personal essays for the web, that you can share?

A. Write from your heart. Have courage. Pretend you are on a brightly lit stage. Show your readers how and were you started out, where you are going and where you arrive. Do NOT tell them. Telling is off-putting. Distancing. And do NOT show EVERYTHING you went through. That is really boring.

Q. Speaking of your own "Mr. Rightstein" (the man you married in 2009, after years of living single), do you have any kind of understanding with him about when or how you include him in your writing? Did he, or others, read the manuscript as you were working or before it went to press? 

A. My husband reads my work right before I send it out because he is a good editor. Somewhere in the course of writing Finding Mr. Rightstein, I asked him how he felt about my writing about him in my work, and he said, “This is what you do.” Period. That was that.

The only people who saw Finding Mr. Rightstein for content were my daughter and son-in-law and only the sections in which they appeared. Again, I could not have written this book when my parents were alive. I don’t write to do a hatchet job. I write to tell my story with my struggles, wounds, and glories.

Q. Is there a new large writing project on your desk (or in your imagination) right now?

A. Yes! I am into a new book. It's about half written. 
Learn more about Nancy by visiting her website.

Images: Courtesy N. Kelton

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-out: Links for Writers -- July 22, 2016 Edition

> So many, me included, were particularly saddened to hear of the passing of Carolyn See, novelist, writing professor, book critic, and tireless literary citizen whose generous acts and motivating book, Making a Literary Life, inspired so many writers over decades. Here is the New York Times obituary, and at KCET's website, a stunning, meaty, loving tribute by Gayle Brandeis.

> I missed this back  in March, but it's just as relevant today: Rebecca Hussey's "100 Must-Read Essay Collections," at Book Riot.

> Some days we need, "17 Poems to Read When the World is Too Much." Especially haunting: "What They Did Yesterday Afternoon" by Warsan Shire.

>Writers continue to react to the idea of aiming for 100 rejections per year. On the Kenyon Review blog, Laura Maylene Walter shares how she racked up 215 rejections in 2015, how those numbers added up, and what it means to her.

> Occasionally, I like to point readers to other places on the web (like my Friday posts) to find weekly round-ups of writerly news and links. Try the Literary News column at Change Seven journal.

> Although Beyond Your Blog will stop posting new material soon, the archives are rich in podcast interviews, tips, advice, resources, lists, and links that will help writers who want to get published online and in print.

> Student Brag Box: Bay Path University MFA student Heidi Fettig Parton's work of creative nonfiction, "When You Wander West" appears in the current issue of Angels Flight Literary West. If, like me, your kids are near, entering, or working their way through young adulthood, you'll appreciate this one!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Circle of the MFA: What I Learned 10 Years Ago, and What I'm Passing On (I hope)

Every January and July, I anticipate the photos and congratulatory notes for the newest graduates of the MFA program I myself completed in 2008. The two years I spent attending residencies at Stonecoast (at the University of Southern Maine) were pivotal for me as a writer, and in many ways, as a human being.

Almost coinciding with the news about this summer's graduates, I found myself talking about what I learned at Stonecoast and how that influences my work today as an instructor and thesis advisor (in the Bay Path University online MFA program in creative nonfiction). The occasion was an interview for the Bay Path Director's Blog.

Here's a bit of my response to a question about what I most want to tell students: 

"... I want to advise every student to savor every moment, to dive in deep to every opportunity the program puts in their path, because any MFA in any form is always over too soon..."

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Guest Blogger Susan Breen on Prepping for a Pitch Conference

Perhaps this is true for every writer active online: there are some authors who you warm to and enjoy interacting with immediately—and believe you would get along with in real life, if your paths were to cross. That's how it was with Susan Breen when I discovered her online, about seven or so years ago. I'm delighted she's on the blog today.
Susan’s new mystery, Maggie Dove, was published by Random House’s digital Alibi imprint in June, and the next in the series, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency, will be out in November. Breen teaches for Gotham Writers Workshops and is on the staff of the New York Writers Workshop. She sold her first novel, The Fiction Class, at a pitch conference.

Please welcome Susan Breen

            For nine years, I’ve been a workshop leader at the New York Pitch Conference in Manhattan, where I help participants write pitches for their novels and memoirs. Then I sit with them as they recite those pitches to editors from the big New York publishing houses. Figuring 18 people to a group, meeting four editors each session, four times a year—that means I’ve heard a lot of pitches.

From my unique perch, I’ve witnessed what goes on when an editor listens to a writer’s pitch. I’ve seen their doodles. (Always a bad sign when they begin crossing off your name.) I’ve seen writers sabotage themselves (begging and crying, for example). I’ve also seen editors light up when they hear something that excites them. (At the last conference an editor looked at me and said, “I want this book now!)

So, what can you do to improve your chances at a pitch conference?

1.      Make them want to read your book. This seems obvious, yet often writers get swept up in the rules of pitch writing, or worrying that they accurately convey all the information about the book, that their pitches become brittle. Yes, follow the rules. The pitch shouldn’t be too long. End with a cliff hanger. But the most important thing? Be interesting. It may matter for the plot that the main character gets her teeth cleaned in chapter 3, but does the editor have to know that right now?

2.      Remember, editors judge a book by its pitch. If the pitch rambles, the book probably rambles. If the pitch is unfocused, the book probably is. If the pitch is funny, if the pitch is boring, if the pitch makes no sense… My boss at the pitch conference, Michael Neff, says a pitch is a diagnostic tool, and I agree. When I’m working on one of my own novels, I always write a pitch halfway through. If I have trouble writing the pitch, it usually means there’s trouble in the book.

3.      Setting is an important part of a good pitch. Editors like to know if the book takes place in Paris or Long Island or wherever. Sometimes writers insist that the story can take place anywhere, but that’s not actually a selling point. You want your book to be set somewhere specific, which does not mean it has to be glamorous. Yes, it’s fun to read about Paris, but Long Island can also be intriguing.

4.      Establish an interesting and active protagonist. This is frustrating to a lot of writers, who can cite many classic novels that do not have active protagonists. This is undoubtedly true, and if Proust shows up at one of my conferences, we can debate the point. But I don’t think Proust was going for the commercial market. If your character’s not active, make sure he’s funny or in a lot of trouble.

5.      Credentials help. I’ve had people who’ve won Emmy awards. That helps a lot. But I’ve also had people with stories published in magazines with a circulation of 500. That helps too. It shows the editor that you’re a part of the literary world. You’re serious. Try to build up credentials before the pitch conference. See if you can spin off a chapter as a story. Take a writing class. Join a writers’ organization. Everything helps.

6.      When you are talking to an older editor, do not refer to your work set in the 1960s as “historical fiction.”

7.      Even the best pitches are not successful with every editor. Over the course of the pitch conference, a participant meets with four or five editors. Sometimes every editor will request a manuscript. Other times only one editor will request it. Sometimes that pitch will be a little odd. Or the writer will be odd. And yet, that one editor really connects with it. It’s like falling in love. You don’t need everyone in the world to fall in love with you. You just need one person.

8.      Word count matters. Most editors want books between 65,000 to 100,000 words. If the concept is strong enough, they may ask to see something with a longer word count, but it definitely creates an obstacle.  Publishing is hard enough without adding obstacles. I also work as an editor and I can assure you that I’ve never read a novel that couldn’t be shortened.

9.      Know the comparable titles in your genre and category ("comps"). My agent pitched my new mystery as "Agatha Christie meets Anne Tyler". That gives an immediate sense of the tone. When a writer has no idea of what’s comparable to her book, I feel alarmed, because that makes me think she hasn’t read anything. Sometimes people will say, “I’m writing a romance because I want to sell it, but I don’t actually read this junk.” That’s not an inducement. If you publish a romance, you’ll be meeting a lot of romance writers who will not be happy to discover you think they are idiots. Write the book you want to write, and read other books like it.

10.  Don't argue with an editor. If the editor hears your pitch and says, this would be better if the protagonist were a woman, or this sounds like a YA novel, just say thank you. They might be right or they might be wrong. No one is going to force you to change your book, but it’s worth absorbing the input and thinking about it afterwards. Keep in mind that part of what they’re trying to do is figure out if you’re someone they want to work with. So if you immediately resist or argue back about every suggestion, that’s not a good sign.

11.  If no one at a pitch conference warms to your book, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, a bad person, or a failure. It just means that the handful of editors you met with, didn’t want your book. There are many other editors. There are many other books to write. My first two books didn’t sell. My third did. My fourth one didn’t. My fifth did. Hopefully, I’ve figured it all out now, but if I had quit after one, I’d be nowhere.

12.  Finally, try and enjoy the pitch conference. Yes, it’s stressful, but you are getting the chance to meet face to face with the people who run this crazy business we’re in. That’s exciting.

Learn more about Susan at her website, or by connecting on Facebook or Twitter.  

Images: Stack of Journals, Jon Betts and Talk Bubbles, Raiznext, both FlickerCreativeCommons. Others, courtesy Susan Breen.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- July 1, 2016 Edition

> Lit Hub has two interesting posts this week for those who write and send out literary work. Before you get into action collecting No's, as suggested in Kim Liao's "Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections in a Year," consider the tips Erika Dreifus shares in "13 Questions to Ask Before Submitting to a Literary Journal." 

>For those who publish regularly on more mainstream sites and are curious about the reach of your work (especially if your payment is partially determined by clicks), have you tried out Muck Rack, which claims to track all blogging and social media shares?

>I won't get to see Hamilton on Broadway until January 2017, but later this summer some teaching colleagues and I will be incorporating it in our Teen Creative Writing Intensive workshops, which makes the timing of Roy Peter Clark's article in Poynter this week, "Learn From the Word Craft of Hamilton and Make Your Stories Sing," just perfect.

>When a normally savvy, professional, and experienced author (both traditionally- and self-published) apparently gets ripped off by a book PR "firm," it illustrates how easy it is to lose money and waste time while seeming to be doing the right thing for a book launch. Linda Formichelli, of The Renegade Writer, bravely shares her cautionary tale. Later, Sandra Beckwith, of Build Book Buzz, posted about how others can avoid Linda's experience.

>Write a book (even a slim one) under contract in two weeks is a crazy idea, right? Right. Even Sonya Huber, who did it (The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton - SquintBooks/Eyewear Publishing), will agree. But her generous post this week about exactly how she did it, isn't crazy at all.

>Brag Box: I'm so proud of my former coaching student Emily Klein for her essay, "Variations on a Theme: Sing it James
" now up at Entropy. It's always a little thrill for me to read the final, polished, published piece, having once seen it in its infancy. It's a lovely essay about what the music of James Taylor means to an ill baby--and aching mother.

>Finally, for typewriter lovers (I know there are still a bunch of us out there), check out Chryselle D'Silva Dias's City Lab article on the state of the typewriter industry in India (bonus: photo of cool typewriter sculpture).

Have a great weekend!