Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.




Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What a Self-Published Editing Client Taught Me

I have been of two (maybe three) minds about self-publishing: It's totally right for some people, completely wrong for certain writers, and iffy for many others. Now that there are so many types, levels and options even within the world of self-publishing though, I find myself reassessing those blanket statements fairly frequently.

Whatever my own personal feelings about self-publishing, as an editor and sometime ghostwriter, I am always happy to help out planning-to-self-publish folks get their manuscripts ready. When I first began working with self-publishing writers a couple of years ago, one thing I hadn't anticipated was how much my involvement with their manuscripts might mean to me.

Recently, several former editing clients brought their projects to completion, and when each book arrived on my doorstep, I was surprised by my own excited reaction – and it took me a while to unravel why each one meant something different, and important, to me. Like this one.

Florida Artist: Wm. North, His Life and Art is jointly written by a local woman (who'd taken one of my writing classes three years ago), and her 83-year-old father, a well-respected, award-winning painter. Shorter text-wise than most other books I work on, it is also filled with photos of his paintings of Florida scenes, both natural and man-made, making it visually enticing.

During the editing process, I was impressed by Colleen's commitment to (before it's too late) help her father record his life story, explain his philosophy about art, and share his joy at living a full artist's life in retirement after a desk-bound career. The book was not only a labor of love between father and adult daughter, but a marketing tool too – something her dad could sell at his gallery and art book store and to the many fans of his work worldwide. That he is slowing losing his eyesight made it even more urgent to help Colleen bring the book to fruition quickly, and I was pleased that I could direct Colleen to a nearby publishing company so her cherished project remained local and completely within her control, fulfilling an important commitment she'd made to herself and her father.

All of these ingredients made for an excellent use of self-publishing, I thought. When I finally saw the finished book, and the art which I had only seen online, jumped off the pages at me, I had a new feeling of satisfaction for the small part I'd played in helping Colleen and her father. The feeling lingered, and it was about more than words, pictures and a lovely finished product in my hands. This book seemed to haunt me, and I was about to find out way.

Watching and listening to Colleen at her book launch party a few weeks later, I realized that for me, this project was also about something else, something sad and yet also wonderful to finally acknowledge: My own father was a frustrated artist who created pencil sketches, and wrote poems, short stories and essays, but almost always in secret; and I only realized after he'd died four years ago, that we may have had some interesting conversations about his creative endeavors (instead of mine) had I only stopped long enough to notice.

How lucky Colleen and her father were, I thought, to have had this book-length "conversation" while he's still here, and vibrant. Colleen thanked me on the book's acknowledgments page. But maybe I should be thanking her. And so I am.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, June 24, 2011 Edition

►I often refer writing students to Richard Goodman's craft advice, so I was glad to come across, via Gotham Writer's Workshop – four excerpts from his book, The Soul of Creative Writing.

► Susan Johnston's recent Urban Museletter has links to 15 posts/articles on writing craft.

►In issue 14 of Pen America, 50 writers talk about books in translation they recommend, and a few of the writers' choices are available over at the website. While there, you can read some pieces from the organization's 48th International Congress, including this essay on the writer's life by Alain de Botton.

►Lovers of long form journalism will want to explore Byliner. At the Neiman Journalism Lab, this post explains it all.

►In 2002, modest Poetry Magazine received a $200 million donation, and set up the Poetry Foundation to administer the whopping gift. This weekend the Foundation moves into a $21 million new home, and The Chicago Tribune reports on the good times -- and harsh criticism.

► Writers of memoir will want to check out agent Paula Blazer's Saturday Morning Memoir blog, and consider her upcoming (July 9) book, Writing and Selling Your Memoir.

►Finally, this is a new idea -- a literary journal, EdgePiece, edited by "emerging editors" who promise not to "fully reject" any submission, and to work with submitting "emerging writers" in order to polish pieces for publication. Huh. (via New Pages blog)

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writers and the artifacts of publication: Who needs clips and copies?

When I was a teenager, writing for the school newspaper, I couldn't get my hands on enough copies of the final, printed product. The same held when I began writing for magazines and newspapers. Today, when an essay appears in a book, I want at least one copy. Ditto for literary journals; and for the work which appears only online, I want a nice print-out. (Yes, I have links to everyting that's link-able, but that's different.) On my bookshelves, in my file cabinet, and in my basement and attic (where they have not, I hope, been chewed by mice or mold), copies of almost everything I ever got published, reside. It's not that I take them out and reread them, and now that we're long past the days when postal-mailing photocopies of clips to editors was essential to getting new writing assignments, I still just like knowing they are there.

I thought this was what all writers did, post-publication.

But maybe not.

Recently, two experiences have reminded me that not every writer needs to have something tangible in order to savor the writing they've completed and sent out into the world. The first reminder came via a very frequently-published writer friend (16 books, thousands of magazine and journal pieces), who nonchalantly confided she often never bothers to secure copies of the magazines and journals her work appears in; that she must have a printed copy of books number two and five around somewhere, but maybe not; that she's just too busy to spend time or energy collecting and storing "that stuff."

Huh. I found this interesting, but it was also easy to discount, in the vein of…well, if I were as frequently published as she, and had a multiple-book contract, and had just optioned a novel for TV, and was routinely invited to write for major media outlets, I could afford to be that coolly casual too. But since those things don't apply to me, I simply can't understand.

Then, there's this: During the school year just ended, my elder son wrote two lengthy articles for his high school newspaper, both wrap-ups of a sport season. He reviewed coverage of past games, interviewed coaches and players, dug up (and calculated) many statistics, wrote several drafts, and worked hard to revise and polish (and only asked me to weigh in once, maybe twice).

On deadline days, he attached his story to an email to the newspaper's student editor, and hit send. I haven't seen the articles since. Oh, they appeared in the newspapers, he got some compliments (or so he said), and my son saw each of the newspapers. Once. But then very quickly, each edition landed in that mysterious place in every teenage boy's life (and backpack) where physical things go to die. And that's just fine, as far as he's concerned.

Not me.

"Don't you want to have copies to keep?" I've asked. (What I really mean, of course, is don't you want to show me and Dad and have us be impressed? Don't you need/want to hear us say how great they look in print? Don't you want me to make multiple photocopies to send to Nana?)

"It doesn't matter," he's said.

"It does," I try to convince him. I talk to him about clip files, an online portfolio, college applications, wanting one day to get an assignment to write for a college newspaper. Or even if he never writes another thing, I ask why he doesn't want to just have them, have something to show for his work? How will he feel in 20 years when he wants to show someone and has nothing to show?

It does no good.

Here's how he responds: He had a blast writing the articles. He worked hard. He loved doing it. He thinks he did a really good job (I think so too). It was fun. But it's just a few issues of the school newspaper, Mom. Get over it.

I think I get what he's telling me (and maybe what my writer friend above, was saying too): It's not about the publication, or at least not ALL about the publication.

It's about the process. The writing, as in writing-as-an-act, not writing as work, or writing as prelude to a product.

It's a useful reminder, and I get it. I do.

I still want those school newspapers, damn it.

I could send an email to the newspaper's faculty advisor. I could. With tremendous restraint, I don't.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dad, Writing -- and Writing About Dad

Father's Day. It may be that on this day, those who have lost our fathers feel an even keener need to honor them. After my father died, I wrote several nonfiction narratives and essays about him, about us,about the distance and the connection between us. A few have been published, others are making the rounds, still more are in the memoir manuscript draft, and the to-be-finished file. Other to-be-written Dad-related material is lurking in notebooks.

Why? I have some ideas, but really I'm not completely sure; that's part of what makes it so interesting to write this stuff.

My parents retired to Las Vegas in the early 1980s, and when he died, nearly five years ago and I flew out there, I wrote Two Weeks in Vegas. Later, when I thought back on his decline, I wrote Tip Not Included. Two poems are in the pipeline, with publication upcoming.

I don't know if I'll ever be done writing about Dad, which makes sense, since it was he who showed me what it was like to read with a constant, daily, insatiable hunger. For him, I think it was because formal education was taken away at an early age; for me, well, I suppose I just wanted to be like Dad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, June 17, 2011 Edition

►Like to muck around with metaphor? Head over to The Economist magazine's language blog for some news, and further links. (Who knew The Economist had a Language blog, huh?)

►What are you writing? Do you know what it's going to be, when you first start on a new piece? Short story? Poem? Novel? Personal narrative? Erika Dreifus considers.

►A few times a year, for six weeks or so, I send out daily writing prompts, and while that program is on hiatus for now, I found this great resource where creative writers can get a prompt fix.

►If you haven't already read Dani Shapiro's brilliant essay in n+1 about the intersection of her writing life and internet distraction, then you haven't….well gee, maybe you've been writing and not been sufficiently distracted on the internet.

►I should no longer be shocked by tales told by former web content slaves. But I'm still disturbed, mostly by statements like this, which I think are mostly, and sadly, true: "The Internet has created more readers than ever before in the history of the world. And yet, perversely, the actual writer is more undervalued than ever before. .. In the age of Internet news, Google 'keywords' matter…Regular old words, not so much."

►Let's see if I can write the following sentence without smirking. James Franco is busy doing The Thing. Not that thing. This thing – The Thing – is a sort-of "quarterly publication". Take a look and decide for yourself.

The Writer Magazine is now available on Nook and via an iPad app.

►Not every author can go this far, but when the last independent bookstore in her area closed, novelist Anne Patchett had enough, and announced plans to open one herself.

►Poetry. Songwriting. One late summer week. The Cotwsolds region of England. Paul Muldoon. The home and gardens of T.S. Elliot. Enticing, no?

►Finally, do some folks take The Onion seriously? Apparently they do, and then post their hilariously inappropriate responses. (hat tip RexBlog)

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Writer's Guide to More Writing Time. You may not like it.

In the past few months, I have advised several writers with whom I'm working as a writing coach to lie, to cheat and to steal. Oh, we've also talked about other things – developing a submission tracking spreadsheet, choosing a writing conference, preparing critiques for an upcoming workshop, trying new structure ideas for a memoir.

Yet, some of the most interesting conversations have focused on treachery – the questionable things we are sometimes forced to do, in order to have the time to write. While it would be just dandy if into every writer's daily life, some sizable chunk of uninterrupted time were to magically appear, free of day job tasks, child rearing, commuting, household duties, pet care, spousal maintenance and meal preparation.

But since that's a fantasy, most writers need to instead wrestle time for their writing. When one has exhausted strategies for squeezing more time from the same 24 hours – getting up earlier, writing during the (public transit) commute or on lunch hours – it's time to get serious about getting a little bit (or maybe a lot) more cunning. Even deceitful.

When my first son was an infant, I had access to free daytime child care but only if it was for an "important reason," which I quickly understood to be exactly two things: bonafide paid work or a medical appointment. A walk in the park or a haircut to refresh my colic-baby brain and remind myself I was still human? Nope. Lunch and adult conversation with a friend? Not a chance. Writing creative work which had no sure market value? Are you daft?

So I lied.

I didn't go to the dentist. I went to my writing group.

I cheated.

I said I had to work for 4 hours, knowing the brochure I was finishing for a client would take only two hours.

I stole.

I did paid work late at night for two solid weeks and used the daytime child care time for my own writing instead.

Lately I find myself advising others to take similarly drastic action. Why?

Because otherwise no writing will occur. Because significant others who say they want to be "supportive" -- aren't. Because children who are old enough to make their own meals -- don't. Because bosses keep making unreasonable (and uncompensated) "requests" for ever more time. Because house guests keep wanting to arrive, or stay. Because the volunteer committee to whom one has always said "yes" just won't hear "no". Because a relative thinks writing falls into the same category as watching reality TV in the middle of the day.

Because in some homes a closed door, a person hunched over the keyboard writing (and not on Facebook), and/or a request for "some writing time" is the same as announcing to those within earshot (and everyone else who has your phone number or address): "Please interrupt me as often as possible for the most mundane, trivial reasons and then after I answer your silly question, by all means, please keep hanging around."

So toss your gym bag in the car, but head to the cafe next to the gym to write instead. Keep the sitter an extra hour (or two). Leave for that appointment 30 minutes early (traffic, you know?). Send the spouse and kids out so you can "rest."

Lie. Cheat. Steal. Get your writing time.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, June 10, 2011 Edition

►As the Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75, here's a peek inside, and what's new, what's better and what not to do there (think social media).

►Library Journal offers a roundup of links to posts with takeaways from Book Expo America, which was held in New York late last month.

►Do you spend big chunks of time quietly writing in an elegantly furnished room of your own, a lovely lakeside retreat, the lobby of a 4-star hotel? Nah, me either. And Nicole Cooley thinks it's better that way, and explains it all "In Praise of Ugly Writing Spaces."

►Two upstart site concepts: Freelancers are chattering about eByline and writers in search of agents and publishers are checking out Storiad. At both, writers post expertise and content, editors/publishers post needs/wants, and the two are meant skim one another's listings in the pursuit of assignments, sales and finding new projects/talent.

►This long piece -- featuring practical writing tips from 23 authors --is (mostly) in list form, so it's not such a long read.

►See if you can spot all the fat in the excerpt Michelle Seaton uses to show how much can be trimmed in her post about line editing, at the blog of Grub Street, Boston's wonderful writing center.

►Finally, I often feel like the only writer around who is not a yoga practitioner, but even I could appreciate yoga poses for writers, such as: "Cash-Your-Huge-Royalty-Check-Asana: This pose is actually for advanced yogis and I don’t really know how it’s done. You might try standing on your head."

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When a Big Editorial Project Ends


Satisfaction. Letdown. Relief. Pride. And, eventually panic.

These are just some of the emotions I rotate through at a time like this, the day after I have finished a major, long-term client editorial project. And by finished, I mean definitely finished, for sure; not like last month when it felt just about finished. Now, the client's book has been sent off to the printer by the publisher, and that's it. The end of 19 months of hard work, collegial collaboration, laughs, and occasionally, disagreements and promises to myself (never again!).

Yesterday, I did a few quick edits on the second version of the foreword, gave an opinion on some cover text, and without even realizing it at the moment, the project came to a quiet end.

More than a year and a half ago, one of the co-authors called. Demanding schedules and commitments created a need for editorial help in order to complete the manuscript the two authors had proposed, sold and committed to delivering to a respected, established academic and professional press.

Over the many months we worked together, my role took on a fluidity that at times unnerved me, challenged my patience as well as my skills, and had me wondering why I'd agreed to the project in the first place and at the same time thinking, I'd like some more, please.

For 19 months, I revised, advised, edited, wrote, rewrote, brainstormed, ghostwrote, restructured, consulted, coached, proofread -- and revised again and edited some more.

And today, when I know for sure that, at least for this particular book project, there will be no more urgent emails or late night phone calls asking me to drop everything and take another look at a client-revised chapter, that all of the structuring decisions are final, that nothing else requires "just one more pass," I'm glad to let it go. And, a little sad too.

But mostly – as everyone who makes a living as a freelancer will likely admit – I'm wondering how and when I'll replace that completed project with another income-producing project.

And then there's that little voice, a temptress, urging, on second thought…. As I moved all of the files from the completed project off my desk, put them far out of arm's reach, glanced at my calendar now free of weekly project-related deadlines, and noticed that clean swatch of uncluttered space on my desk, beckoning, teasing – I hesitated, and thought about what it might be like…

"I know!" I mused. "I won't take on another big project. Instead, I'll use those big chunks (instead of small pieces) of time, to work on my own book."

Then I snapped out of it, slapped my forehead, and reminded myself that the tuition bill, the now higher property taxes, the summer camp fees, and oh yes, the mortgage, are a lot more related to my securing more paid client work than producing a book spine with my name on it.

I know (no, I hope and pray) another interesting project will come along, but also worry that it will happen later rather than sooner. That's where the panic comes in, staring at that blank calendar and knowing those pesky, annoying, wonderful – and missing – project-related deadlines need to appear there. With luck, I'll have another project to (sometimes) complain about and to love, and I'll be grateful, and I will get busy, and I will learn something new and feel proud of what I can help a client accomplish on the page.

Many days, that's enough.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: NYTimes blog rant

Today, over on one of the New York Times' blogs, I sound off on a little pet peeve of mine, "A Report Card Ritual, Destroyed." I hope you'll take a minute to read it, and if you're inclined (pro or con), leave a comment over there.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, June 3, 2011 Edition

► Some interesting posts and interviews lately over on the blog of the Denver Independent Creative Writing Program, like this one by Robin Black, which discusses, in part, one of my favorite craft topics – writing beginnings.

►As always, Dani Shapiro nails it with this post about the grit (not glitter) of the writer's life.

►Poynter offers this round-up of links to an interview series with prominent food writers, about the current status, impact and future of food writing.

►Lisa Tener ran a terrific interview about writing memoir, with one of my favorite writers (and mentors), Richard Hoffman, memoirist and poet.

►Want to make sure your book will be a formatter's nightmare if it goes on the Kindle? Just follow the advice of Garth Risk Hallberg's Seven Steps to Kindle-Proof Your Book at The Millions. You will be in dubiously fabulous company, by the way.

►Editors and other staffers of the New York Times Sunday Magazine publish a blog, The 6th Floor.

►Finally if, like me, you find the disclaimers/authors' notes at the front of many modern memoirs of interest, you'll love this mash-up by Marty Kihn, which combines not just new, but older and unexpected ones as well.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Submissions, Writing Seasonal Essays, Karma, Editors and Luck

Two things I've mentioned here before in the way of tips and insight for the submission process have just recently cropped up again in my own freelance writing life. I love when that happens, when I follow my own advice; and I love when on occasion something circles back in a positive way because of something I've done right in the past.

The first instance centers on how I go about writing and submitting seasonal essays, which I've noted before. Two years ago, on the day after a particular springtime holiday, I wrote an essay about it. Then I put the piece in a drawer for 8 months and made a reminder note in my calendar. When that date rolled around, I pulled the essay out, polished it up, added updated information, and began submitting.

A web editor I had worked with liked it—at first – then didn't, but by then it was too late to submit elsewhere. Back in the drawer it went, until…this past winter, when out it came again. I edited in a few new thoughts, updated (again), and made a new list of places to submit. One was the same website where the editor who had once liked and then rejected the piece, had moved on. The new editor accepted and published it.

Here's what I took from this: A. My carousel approach to seasonal essays continues to deliver. B. A new editor may have a different perspective and range of likes and dislikes than his/her predecessor; so it's worth a (re)try even there. C. If the piece involves kids, and their exact ages or grades are not relevant, leave those details out, which makes updating a bit easier. "The high-schooler" and "my tween son" will stand for a few years, while "the high school freshman" and "the 12-year-old" will not.

My second bit of recent good Karma concerned an opinion piece I wrote and submitted to a newspaper about a year ago. While not exactly seasonal, it would be best received if run at the end of the school year. As is typically the case with newspaper submissions, I did not hear back in the affirmative within two weeks, which usually means, "Thanks but no thanks."

But not always.

In this case, unknown to me, the silence meant a shuffle in the editorial job tree, a swath of submissions put on hold, and a newly editor assigned, who needed time to wade through the pile the departing editor had marked "maybe". Turns out, this newly assigned editor was one I'd written for twice before; she noticed my name, pulled out my piece and liked it enough to call (yes, on the telephone) and ask if the essay was still available, and did I have time – that afternoon – to do some updating and minor revisions?

Yes. And, yes.

The piece was still available mostly because I had written it so carefully to that particular column's specs, and wasn't enthusiastic about reworking it for another venue; I figured I'd do that the following year. And then between that time and now, I frankly lost track of the thing when merging an old Excel Submission Tracker spreadsheet with a new one. On one hand, this was a case of my not following two good pieces of my own advice -- Keep submitting to new venues until it sells! and, Be meticulous with submissions record-keeping. I guess I just got lucky.

I learned some new lessons, too: A. Unless you've received a firm "no," a submission could still be in play (rare, perhaps, but obviously possible). B. Every editor you ever work is also an editor you may one day want to work with again. Make friends. C. Be limber enough to turn something around fast. D. Try not to change your telephone number.

Wishing you some good writing life Karma, too!