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!

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Friday NO-Fridge Link to My Post on How (one) Lit Journal Editor Thinks

It's been a busy travel week for me (complicated by my wrist still being in a cast), so instead of the usual Friday links of interest to writers, there's just one this week; as it happens, one of mine.

Like, I suppose, a lot of writers who send work out via Submittable -- the seamless interface that facilitates easy submissions to thousands of literary and (increasingly) mainstream publication venues -- I was not aware until recently that there's more to the site than submissions. 

Their blog, for example, houses articles on many aspects of the creative life, including guest posts from a diverse cadre of artists. 

While exploring the site, I was coincidentally thinking about writing an article on demystifying the editorial process at a literary journal. Since I can only speak for the one where I edit the Creative Nonfiction section, Compose Journal, that's what I did.

This week, the Submittable Blog editors published "Want to Know How Lit Journal Editors Think? What One Issue's Accepted Work Can Tell You."  In it, I walk the reader through the CNF pieces in the Spring issue of Compose, talk about why a piece was chosen, and give some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the editing process.

I hope you will read it, and then consider exploring some of the blog's other offerings.

(FYI - for my readers who also occasionally write about the writing life, the Submittable blog pays for accepted guest posts. And, the editors were a pleasure to work with.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- June 17, 2016 Edition

> Joshua Becker, at the Minimalist advises, "Accomplish More with a 3-item To Do List." My comment at that post: I have been doing this for years. Didn’t know it was a real thing. I just call it my 1-2-3 Rule. Long to do lists are overwhelming. But who can’t do 3 things?  (And there -- you've just gotten one of my *secret* coaching tips.)

> Read and weep (a little - in the spirit of what my father sometimes said: Beware what you wish for - you might just get it.) "Lisa33 and Me -- The Harrowing True Story of a Six-Figure Advance," at Rottingpost.

> One of my bigger editing pet peeves: dialogue tags other than said or asked.  (Okay, very occasionally I can see the need for something like whispered which usually can't be communicated via the dialogue itself. Then again, I'd probably opt for action, if appropriate, like...he leaned close to her ear and...). My writer pal Linda Sienkiewicz weighs in with "Nancy Pontificated."

> The Wall Street Journal reports that HarperCollins launched a Facebook Live initiative, featuring live video with authors interacting with readers on HC's FB page daily (and also on the individual authors' FB pages).

> At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen with "33 Ways to Have a More Bookish Summer." Why not? (hat tip Buddhapuss Ink)

>Love food and literature, and are local to New York's Hudson Valley? Check out Read and Feed on July 30. Details: "Basilica Hudson, in partnership with CLMP, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, announce READ & FEED, the launching of a projected annual event bringing together artisanal makers of food with artisanal makers of literature." Tickets here.

> At Writer Unboxed, Donald Maass asks (and does a pretty good job of answering) 

"What Makes Fiction Literary: Scenes Versus Postcards." Be sure to check out the many good comments too.

> Finally, if you have not done so yet, do read Maggie Smith's excellent poem "Good Bones" at Waxwing Magazine. It's rare for a contemporary poem to "go viral" but apparently that's what has happened this week. Read it and, if you're paying even sideways attention to U.S. and world news lately and are weary and disheartened, you'll know why it's struck such a universal chord.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Jeopardy Clues to Crappy No Good Writer's Luck

I love the television show Jeopardy. I record it to DVR every night, and my husband and I watch it later before the news comes on. In the arena of our family room, I always win! One of our cousins was a contestant once, a poet I know competed once, and tonight a former writing workshop participant will appear.

But this post isn't really about Jeopardy. Jeopardy was just a convenient hook. This post is about something else, but let's play a little Jeopardy shall we?

Here's our clue:

Two physical injuries, which in combination spell disaster for a writer and editor who was so recently happy that the academic semester was over, and was ready to deep dive into her own creative work.

And the correct answer would be:

A broken wrist on the dominant hand and falling so hard on one's posterior, that sitting for more than 15 minutes, even after 10 days, is all but impossible.


Well at least I got a nifty bright red cast on my right arm (yes, I asked the orthopedist for a colored cast, just like a little kid). As for the other end and the other injury, the less said the better. (Except to say: pillows, a jerry-rigged standing desk, and Mineral Ice.)

Writers, do not go out in the backyard to plant flowers alone when all the outside steps are still wet from days of rain, your entire family is 100 miles away, no neighbors are outside to hear you scream, and your phone is in the house.

I'm writing this using voice dictation, which works great for emails, texts, and posts, but I can't seem to get the hang of it for any real writing. For that, I'm tapping away with the left (spastic!) hand, and two fingers on my right hand, making a zillion errors. But I am writing still, though s..l..o..w...l..y. I'm lucky that my editing clients and adult students have been understanding. And I'm lucky to have a husband and two sons who are all helping out. But enough about that.

On the good-news front -- and frankly, I needed it, as this latest accident was the latest in a series of incidents that are adding up to a not-so-lucky year thus far -- a few short essays have been published recently.

One piece, "Break a Leg," appears in Cleaver Magazine. It recounts a small mistake I made while working with horses as a teenager, and how that reverberated through the rest of my riding life -- and beyond.

The second short nonfiction narrative is running over at Purple Clover, and (depending on what you click/enter from) carries both my original title, "A Father, a Road Trip, and the Polyester Mafia," and the clever one editors gave it to improve clicks (to be fair, it uses a line I wrote within the piece): "Goodfella: I liked being the rich kid whose father may or may not have been in the Mafia."

I'm the smallest person in this pic
(probably  the last time that was true!)
I'll say this about it. I was born, raised, and still live in a part of New Jersey where The Sopranos took place. In fact, part of the pilot was filmed across the street from my son's preschool (all the moms thought it was going to be about opera singers!) and once when they were filming a half mile from my house, I nearly rear-ended a Hummer because I was so distracted by the sight of Tony walking out of the funeral home on our main drag.  This story pivots on a road trip to California when I was a child and overheard my father acting like he was a mafioso. (wink wink)

And that's the story from here for now. 

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons - horse, Blake Hall; Jeopardy, ShawnMSmith;  others, mine

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- June 3, 2016 Edition

> Running out of ideas of where to write away from your house/office? Read Shaun Levin's two-part guest post at Aerogramme Writers' Studio: "Taking Your Notebook for a Walk," an A to K  (and L to Z) of interesting places to write. I thought I knew them all, but many of these surprised me (mostly in a good way).

> Writer Jac Jemc shares her acceptance/rejection stats for applications to writer residencies. 

> Judy Blume has joined the growing list of bestseller authors who have opened independent bookstores. 

> Check out Brooklyn Magazine's "50 Fictional Women We're Obsessed With."

> Planning a blog tour to promote your book? Women on Writing has a few tips.

> At the blog of The Writers Circle (where I teach locally), founder and co-director (and historical novelist) Judith Lindbergh recently posted Part Three (finding an agent) of an excellent, detailed series on getting published. Part Two tackles "the dreaded synopsis," while Part One focuses on the elevator pitch / query letter.

> Interesting, short interview by Debora Black with Mira Ptacin (about the writing, and the difficulty of selling), her memoir, Poor Your Soul, at Bill & Dave's Cocktail Hour. (For a bonus, follow the link at the end to Ptacin's lovely post on her journey to E.B. White's writing shed--and her own move to a Maine island.)

> Finally, enjoy this Yankee magazine essay about a quirky bookstore customer, by my Bay Path University MFA teaching colleague Kate Whouley.

Have a great weekend!