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.




Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - November 29, 2013 Edition

> A terrific find, at Rebecca Skloot's website -- detailed, concise, and extremely practical and honest advice for those who want to build book reviewing into their writing life.

> At Bark, a discussion about being a writer, being an editor, day jobs and whether balance is possible or even desirable. 


> Pulitzer winner, novelist Paul Harding, has five great tips for fiction writers (and like most thoughtful writing advice, I think it applies across all genres), over at Publishers Weekly. I especially like # 6, and also this tip: "Don’t write your books for people who won’t like them. Give yourself wholly to the kind of book you want to write and don’t try to please readers who like something different."  Do read them all.


> For her site Handful of Stones, Satya Robyn is looking for short writing she calls "small stones". You'll understand when you read some of the examples and guidelines.


> Women on Writing has an interview with Linda Joy Meyers, Kate Farell, and Amber Lea Starfire about their experience creating the anthology The Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60s & 70s, (plus a give-away).


> If you don't already use Duotrope for researching journals, planning, and tracking your submissions, you might want to sign up today, when they're offering a free month with a one-year subscription.

> If Christi Craig's recent guest post here about her time at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat whetted your appetite for tropical writing forays, here's another post at Allyson Latta's blog from a writer who attended her Spice Isle Writing and Yoga Retreat on Grenada.

> Romance writers who are interested in typical advances and royalty rates paid by 30 traditional publishers will want to study this list compiled by Brenda Hiatt.


> If you're interested in my *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp in January 2014, you can save $30 by registering on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday (or Sunday!), or Cyber Monday.


> A few cool and low-cost gift ideas for the writers on your list; be sure to check out The Writers Circle's Story Magic Creativity Decks (cool, off-kilter, wildly imaginative prompts), for the young (or young at heart) writers in your world


> You have until midnight on Saturday, Nov. 30 to leave a comment on the interview with Kate Hopper for a chance to win her lovely memoir Ready for Air.


> I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving day yesterday. Here's a short essay over at Baristanet, about adjusting to my husband's holiday traditions, so different from the ones I grew up learning to love. 

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanks, Gratitude, and Other Stuff Related to Writing, Thanksgiving, and Holidays

Before we all slide into a post-meal coma, I would like to extend a warm and heartfelt Thank You to all who have been part of my writing life in 2013...editors, students, clients, readers, publishers, journal staffers, colleagues, critique partners, mentors, program directors, other coaches, and bloggers. And of course you, my fabulous blog readers, for visiting, reading, commenting, emailing, linking, liking, subscribing, recommending, and sharing!  Oh, and my family too (who don't complain when I write about them!).

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with goodness.

Here are a few previous posts from this blog, on the intersection of writing, gratitude, Thanksgiving, and holidays. Have a wonderful day!

+ When others offer to help, do you let them? Let them. You'll be the one saying Thanks, but the person who does you a favor also gets to feel good, and will likely be grateful to have made a contribution to someone else's goals, dreams, project, hopes.

+  A full house, a table load of relatives and friends? An especially fertile time to capture kindling for personal essays or memoir. While your observation antennae are primed, find a way to take notes.

+ If you write seasonal essays, think about investing some time now on rough drafts that you can stash, then revise, in time for submission next year

+ Take a minute now and make plans to do something soon that another writer will appreciate. A little bit of your time, energy, social media savvy, bookstore dollars, and network rustling helps support the authors you know.

+ And don't forget to express thanks to those who makes your writing life continue to go round!

This post is shared at the SMART Living 365 Gratitude Blog Hop, where you'll find links to more gratitude-related posts (not necessarily all about writing). 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Guest Blogger Christi Craig on a Writing Retreat, Place, Atmosphere, and a Nod from the Universe

I was linking to posts at writer Christi Craig's blog for a while before we officially connected, in several different ways over the last few years. Now, we're staff colleagues for the literary journal, Compose, where Christi is an editorial assistant (and I'm nonfiction editor).  When I heard that Christi was jetting off to a writing retreat/workshop on a sunny island last month, I was happy for her – and, you know, jealous!  From the first pictures she posted on Facebook of her adventure, I knew I wanted her to write about the experience here. Christi lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she works by day as a sign language interpreter. She has stories and essays forthcoming in Hippocampus and Deep South.

Please welcome Christi Craig

Long ago over coffee with a writing friend, I uttered a half-spoken prayer that all I needed was a week away from work and life’s day-to-day to focus solely on my novel.

I had no idea those words would carry me from Wisconsin to the Bahamas.

I rarely travel such a distance from home. My discretionary income is slotted mainly for blueberry muffins and coffee. I do not have vacation time at work. Then last August, my friend and author, Rebecca Rasmussen, suggested I apply to attend the Salt Cay Writers Retreat. I thought, Ha, funny!  Rebecca was serious, though. She knew I was working hard on a novel, she’d read my writing, and she thought this would be a great opportunity for me to work on my manuscript under the guidance of amazing professionals. At the same time, I learned of a private funding source for which I might qualify that would substantially lessen the financial blow.

I considered the location and how I didn’t have a passport, hadn’t traveled internationally since I was a teenager—and never alone. I studied the dates, which fell in the middle of my fall semester at work when no one dares to breathe a word of time off. I perused the list of faculty: Best-selling authors Jacquelyn Mitchard and Robert Goolrick, agents from Folio Literary Management, Executive Editor Chuck Adams from Algonquin Books. Amy Einhorn!

I thought of my husband, who would have to take on my responsibilities at home along with his own for a solid week.

Crazy, I said.

Then I remembered that conversation over coffee and my mantra for the year: Fearless Writing, which meant doing things that move my writing career forward, even when those things seem impossible or frightening.  


I filled out the application to Salt Cay and attached my writing sample; I applied for  funding. I took a deep breath and hit send. I thought at best someone might read my work and think it decent enough to file away for another year. I mentioned the retreat to my office mate at work in a “This will never happen,” kind of way.

Less than a week later—on my birthday—I learned two things: I was admitted to Salt Cay.  And, I'd gotten the funding.  The bulk of the retreat would be paid for. Now, all I had to do was get there.

What happened next still amazes me, down to the last tiny detail: my boss at work made negotiating time off easy; my husband didn’t balk at the expenses we would have to cover, nor a week of handling work and life with kids solo. I found my misplaced birth certificate needed for the passport, and paid for the passport fees at the post office with the last check in my book. Everything happened quickly, easily, and, when I held my passport in my hands, I understood how writing is about taking risks.  About having faith.

Two months later, I stepped out of the airport in Nassau and into the tropical sunshine, where a tall, official looking Bahamian man smiled and said, “This way, Beautiful.”

Those words—This way. Beautiful.—struck me with the same intensity as the sun and warmed my back, urging me forward.

When I climbed into the cab, I left the loose seatbelt hanging and the window open and settled in—to the winding roads and the roundabouts; the palm trees and warm breeze; the blue waters of the harbor and white sands of the beach.

I hadn’t participated in a writing conference before, but I’d read about them. I knew enough to worry how a fledgling writer like myself might fit in with the high caliber faculty and authors at Salt Cay. But the hosts from BACKSPACE, Karen Dionne and Chris Graham, designed a retreat where the typical dynamics of a conference fell to the wayside. We were not compressed in small conference rooms, nor herded in lines for one-on-one meetings; and I shared only a handful of my business cards. Networking was a big part of the retreat, yes, but it evolved in a less-structured way.

Most of the retreat events took place in an open shelter with a backdrop of palms and clear skies and ocean waters. There’s a shift in the way people relate when you’re all wearing flip-flops and swimsuits and beach hats, and the effects on me in Salt Cay were ease in conversation, plenty of laughter, and more time spent focused on the work instead of obsessing about my credentials.  


 I took notes in pictures and in pencil on everything: the wayward crab that clicked across the tile of the shelter in a zig-zag pattern, because he resembled me that first day, navigating the unfamiliar and the exciting; the dolphins, because they seemed so carefree and kept giving me the eye and hinted of a message I’d heard before, Relax. Take it easy. Do not struggle.

I soaked up discussions from panels and workshops. When Robert Goolrick spoke on opening pages, I wrote his words in caps: More important than clever plotting, confidence in your writing brings authenticity to your voice. Confidence and authenticity were two qualities sometimes missing in my manuscript.

On Dialogue and Sentence Structure, Michelle Brower, an agent from Folio, stressed that a good sentence—especially a good first sentence—has story written inside of it, where the who, the what, and the mood of the book are layered within a handful of words. Later, I met with Michelle for my one-on-one, and she showed me in my work where I do that well and where I could do it more. Michelle illustrated a quality of agents I hadn’t recognized before, that they know story as much as they know publishing, and they work hard to ensure an author’s manuscript reads at its best.

In daily break-out sessions, I sat with five other writers at a picnic table with Chuck Adams, who pointed out areas authors tend to ignore in first drafts and revisions, like character development. For my manuscript in particular, I’d neglected to make the antagonist relatable, and, as Chuck said, even a menacing character needs a redeemable quality. He was right, of course. 


During structured writing time, I put lessons into action, working on a character interview that probed background more than physical description, a natural course of inquiry with surprising insights that only come from loose structure and trust in the process.

By the end of the week, I did not go home with twenty more pages of my manuscript. But I left with a better understanding of the craft, with more direction, and with appreciation for the time spent with professionals I might not ordinarily meet, at least not at this stage in my career. I left with sand in my shoes and hope in my story.

I could blather on. Really.

My week at Salt Cay was a gift, an experience that would be difficult to replicate. In fact, I wouldn’t even try. Because, when it comes to personal success at a writing retreat/conference, place is as important as faculty; atmosphere as critical as the number of workshops. The notebook I carried all week has become a Bible of sorts, its pages full of revelations and action steps and even a few new characters. 

One half-spoken prayer, one nod from the Universe, a new perspective.


Note from Lisa:  You can connect with Christi on Facebook and be sure to follow her on Twitter. You won't be sorry!

All photos by Christi.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 22, 2013 Edition

A smaller list than usual, downsized for pre-Thanksgiving time-challenged writers out there (and over here). Enjoy!

> Love annual book lists? How about a list of book lists? Check out LargeHearted Boy's mega-post (warning: major rabbit hole!).

> Have you seen Modern Loss? An interesting new site for essay and memoir about the many contemporary ways of dealing with grief.


> Bestselling many-times-traditionally-published novelist Allison Winn Scotch's post about her decision to self-publish offers views on pragmatism, risk-taking, control, leaps of faith, hard-won experience, and (between the lines), the costs of going indie without sacrificing any of the power of the traditional marketing machine.

> Two angles on decoding rejection notes from literary journals, and what to do about it. Plus, news to me, and oh so interesting: a wiki listing hundreds of journals; when you click on one, up pops examples of their standard and personal rejections. Not sure whether each is up-to-date or accurate, but fascinating.


> I like discovering other writing blogs that also offer links on Friday, like this one, by a fellow NJ writer.

> Finally, for your entertainment pleasure, a "grumpy literary agent" offers SlushPile Hell. Can't believe people really write this stuff in their cover letters. Can't believe I spent an hour reading every single (very short) post going back two years. (Okay, I was stuck in a waiting room, but still.)  Very funny.


Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Author Interview: Kate Hopper on Writing, Craft, Motherhood, and Her Memoir, Ready For Air

(Update: giveaway extended to 11/30)

I usually remember how I first came into contact with a writer, but there are online writing friends who seem to have always been there. Was it Facebook? Mutual blog appreciation? Writing friends in common?  Were we fellow contributors to an anthology? In the case of Kate Hopper, all of the above – maybe more. No matter, I'm simply grateful our paths criss-cross, and like so many who value her writing, I made my way quickly, and with much admiration, through Kate's memoir Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood. Kate is also the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and she holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in BrevityPoets & Writersthe New York Times online, and Literary Mama, where she is an editor. Kate teaches online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

After a busy month of blog tour, events, and appearances to mark her memoir's debut, she agreed to answer my many questions.

Please welcome Kate Hopper.

Q:  How did the book begin? Did you know from the start it would be a book, or did that creep up on you as you accumulated material?

A.  In the early weeks/months of writing, I was just vomiting out images and memories and impressions to get them down on paper, which felt urgent to me and really helped me process our experience with prematurity and Stella’s hospitalization. But I knew I would be returning to graduate school the following fall to finish my MFA, and I knew I’d have to write a thesis, so I really began to think of it as a book pretty early on.

Q.  The book is in the present tense, almost exclusively except for flashbacks. Was that a careful decision in terms of craft, or did that just feel organically right for you, for this material?

A. Both actually. It felt organically right, but I was also really determined to keep it in present tense for the narrative urgency that present provides. But present tense can be tricky to maintain over the course of a book.  There is no “now” narrator looking back and making sense of what happened; there is no other voice, as Sue William Silverman writes in her essay “Innocence and Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction,” that is “reflecting back on the story and guiding the reader through the maze of the experience.” There is only the “you” experiencing it in the moment.

So early on in the writing of the book, I worried that the narrative would become episodic, that it would be plot and nothing more, that the book would exist only in the situation, on the “this happened and then this happened” level.

So as I was working on the book (which was over a number of years—I started writing it ten years ago) I had to make sure that I fleshed out my character, the “me” on the page, as a thinking, reflective person. So the reflection enters the narrative not as my now, writing self thinking back on the events, but instead as an in-the-moment version of myself who is reflecting and trying to make sense out of things as they are happening in the narrative.

Q.  In the book you write that you were almost wholly unable to take notes at the time, which was unusual for you. What, if any, written documentation helped with the writing – hospital charts, emails, calendar entries, etc?

A. I didn’t take notes while Stella was in the hospital, except for recording a few details (weight change, major changes in her status, etc.) on a baby calendar I’d been given before she was born. Everything was very fresh in my mind when I began writing a few months later, but as I got deeper into the writing process, I ordered all of our medical records and printed out the emails I’d sent and received during that time. I also did a ton of research to verify medical facts and better understand prematurity and the major risks that preemies face. And articles I read later about PTSD in preemie parents also made their way into the narrative.

Q. How much of an effect did your being a creative nonfiction student in an MFA program have on your ability to mine the experience as it unfolded?  Did you find yourself "essaying" events as they happened, even just in your own head, sort of storing it away for future? 

A. During those early days in the NICU, I wasn’t consciously storing away the experience—I was simply too overwhelmed. But as Stella stabilized and we settled into a routine, I definitely remember writing the events in my head. And I experienced many of those “remember this” moments. So I’m sure that being immersed in the writing life prior to Stella’s birth had an impact on how I was experiencing those events.

Q. Continuing on that idea, was your sense of observing life influenced by so much memoir and personal narratives in your reading and teaching?  Perhaps a feeling of "I may write about this one day, so I'd better pay attention"?

A. Absolutely. I think it’s difficult not to do that as a writer—we’re always on the lookout for material. One of my favorite things about being a writer is the way it makes me pay attention and slow down. I remember one day early in my writing days when I was devouring a bowl of strawberries and I thought, hey, slow down. How would I describe the taste and texture of these strawberries if I had to write them? Whenever I find myself rushing through life, I remind myself of that moment. Stop, look around, describe.

Q.  Can you talk about the way you used details and objects, such as the Pee Jug, the rice sock, and the foaming antibacterial (among others), to evoke and heighten the narrator's experience?

A.  I always tell my students to focus on concrete details as they’re crafting their scenes, so during the writing of Ready for Air I often heard my teacher self asking my writer self if I’d done the same. I know that some of my readers will be intimately familiar with the NICU, but most of them won’t be, so it was really important for me to focus in on those details in order to put readers in my shoes. In the rewriting and revision process I tried to push that even further and ask how certain objects and details might work on a metaphorical level.

Q.  It seemed the lack of much backstory in the early pages helps amp up the immediacy and sense of urgency for the reader from the start. How much thought and/or revision was involved in crafting that in-the-middle-of-things opening?

A.  Lots of thought! That was actually always where the book began for me, but I played with starting in different places, and none of those alternate openings worked for me—I always came back to that doctor’s appointment in which I learned I might be developing preeclampsia. Those early chapters are partly about loss of innocence and adjusting expectations (and also about denial). But I also want readers to get to know Donny and me before Stella is born, so there is quite a bit of writing about our relationship and how we work together as a couple.

In a later draft, I did cut back on back-story (condensing what had been chapters 4 and 5 into two paragraphs). My inclination is to include too much back-story, so I try to always go back to the question What is this book really about? If the back-story I’ve included doesn’t serve the book’s purpose, I cut or seriously condensed it.

Q.  When in an MFA program, I wrote a research thesis on how women memoir writers navigate representing their spouses on the page. I'm curious about how much you included your husband Donny in that process. Did he read early drafts?  Was there an agreement about how much he'd feel comfortable with you revealing about your marital relationship? Any other ground rules, practices, etc.?

A. He didn’t read early drafts. In those, I was still trying to get us both down on the page honestly and in a way that felt three dimensional, so it didn’t make sense to have him weigh in at that point. My husband’s a private person, but he’s also very willing to let me write about our lives. He read later versions and he knew that if anything made him uncomfortable, we could talk about it. He’s my biggest supporter, so I wouldn’t put stuff out there if he wasn’t okay with it. And he had veto power over anything I wrote about his family. Interestingly, he only suggested one small change in the whole book. We had remembered a detail differently, and changing it didn’t alter the emotional reality of the scene for me, so I changed it. It was the least I could do.

Q. I was curious to learn that "ready for air" refers to when a preemie is ready to breathe normal room air on his/her own.  I also noticed many references throughout the book about breathing, air, feeling short of breath (physically and metaphorically), and claustrophobia.  

A. For me, “ready for air” is both about a preemie’s lungs and about me feeling stifled and overwhelmed in my role as an isolated new mother. The title was pulled from the line in the book that referenced Stella’s lungs, but I really wanted it to reverberate through the whole narrative on a metaphorical level.

Q.  I read your book during a week when I was teaching a memoir class in which a few students were struggling with too many secondary characters in their stories, and I noticed your book's author's note includes, "…I occasionally omitted a person from a scene as long as that omission did not compromise the veracity or substance of the story." This crystallizes a powerful but hard to learn aspect of memoir craft – knowing what to leave out and why. Did you realize instinctively that you'd have to make these omission decisions, or did they reveal themselves to you in the writing and/or revision process?

A. They revealed themselves to me in the writing and revision processes. Sometimes I realized that introducing a new and sometimes periphery character in a scene would just bog it down. Those were the cases in which I just left that person out, as long is it didn’t compromise the emotional truth of the scene. It’s so tricky to learn that, and for me I had to be in the thick of writing before it made sense.

Q. Near the end of the book, you explain how, during your child's first year or so, you began to build a writing routine into your new life as a mother, which, premature birth aside, is one of the most challenging times for a woman to continue writing. If I'm remembering right, you began with one morning a week, then built up to four mornings a week, cobbling together relatives pitching in, paid childcare help, and daycare. Since you've also teach classes and have written a book about writing through motherhood, can you talk about this a bit?

A. It’s challenging to balance writing and motherhood. It’s even more difficult if on top of being a mother you have to pay bills and juggle paying work with creative work (which is usually unpaid, at least at first). My students are always struggling to find a balance that works. I always ask them to think about what’s realistic in terms of a writing schedule. (Don’t say you’re going to write three days a week if that’s not feasible.) I make them write down their schedule, and then I stress that writing needs to be a priority if they really want to write. It doesn’t need to be #1 on the list, of course—that’s unlikely—but at least it needs to be on the list.

I can’t imagine motherhood without writing or writing without motherhood. Before Stella was born, I actually didn’t write very much. Clearly I wrote enough to get into an MFA program, and I did my assignments, but I also spent a great deal of time procrastinating, waiting for inspiration and generally wasting time.

But motherhood—and the need I felt to reflect on the larger issues that came up in my life as a result of me becoming a mother (isolation, marriage, writing itself)—made me into the writer I am today. And now, if I have two hours, I write for two hours. I no longer have time to wait for the muse to shine her light on me (and she’s incredibly unreliable anyway).

Flexibility is also important, though. Over the last couple of years (when I was working full time in addition to teaching and leading retreats, etc.), I wrote very little. And I just had to be okay with that. I knew I’d get back to a schedule in which writing would be possible, and I finally have.

Notes from Lisa:  Kate would love to answer your questions! Leave them here in comments, and she'll stop by a few times over the next couple of days to answer.  Kate will also give away a signed copy of Ready for Air to one commenter, chosen at random (whether you ask a question or not). Leave your comment before midnight on Monday, November 25 Sunday, November 30 to enter (must have a U.S. postal address).  To follow Kate's blog, go here.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - November 15, 2013 Edition (And, this one's OFFICIAL!)

Here I thought I was toiling alone on Fridays, clearing out my bloggy fridge. But then I learn (why did it take me six years to learn this?) that there's a official day named after this activity -- and, it is today. Yes, today is National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, started I don't know when by who knows who (though some say it was Whirlpool in 1995.) So let's get those rubber gloves on and get to it!

> The Virginia Quarterly Review has begun a new series, "Writer Dad," the counterbalance perhaps to the mountains of words on how women writers juggle. The first, now up, features Tobias Buckell

> I'm a big fan of Roger Rosenblatt's nonfiction, so I loved this PBS interview with Judy Woodruff, in which he discussed the slightly different way in which he views memoir writing and memory (see especially the final 3 minutes).


> When I was a kid, my father gave me tips on how to ask for something from "higher ups" -- make eye contact, shake hands, etc. Today, we writers need to know how to ask for things (blurbs, an agent referral, an introduction to an editor) via email.

> Memoirist Constance Adler -- and her publisher, a reputable university press -- were nearly duped by a scam "book festival awards program". Rather than shrug and move on, Adler went into investigative reporting mode, named names, and emerged with a fine piece of nonfiction narrative, now up at Blackbird.


> From one bloomer boomer to another, thanks Kim Triedman for "Writing Out of Middle Age," over at Beyond the Margins.


> Maybe you've already seen Diane Lockward's post about the specific upside to some of her rejections, as it's been linked to a lot this week, but I think it's worth a little more passing  on. 


> On Small Business Saturday (two days after Thanksgiving), the workforce will grow at more than 100 independent bookstores, when authors will be hand-selling books to customers. The effort began with a challenge from Sherman Alexie in September, and by now, hundreds of authors have signed on. Indiebound has maps, lists, etc; in some stores, a half-dozen authors are volunteering, including a slew of meganames (including Cheryl Strayed, Margot Livesey, Richard Russo, Dave Barry, and Alexie), all interacting and recommending books based on shoppers' interests.


> Canadian author J. Kent Messum has some important words about something wonderful every writer needs:  tough love.


> Finally, in case you're interested in doing the hygiene deed, here are some no-nonsense, no-kidding tips for a healthy fridge cleanse (the real kind).

Have a great weekend.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Guest Blogger Ruth Foley on: Poem Series That Take You Hostage, and Three Possible Escape Routes

I didn't know any poets before pursuing my MFA degree, but at Stonecoast, I quickly got to know many. It was through poets – individuals I liked and listened to, talking about their craft – that I learned to appreciate poetry; so much so that I now begin every nonfiction class I teach with a poem. Ruth Foley was at Stonecoast while I was there, but I really got to "know" Ruth after the MFA, connecting on social media, through mutual writing friends, and alumni updates. (I think I developed a little crush on her with her series of posts about weight loss at her blog Five Things,) Ruth is managing editor at Cider Press Review, a member of the writing faculty at Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and teaches workshops at The Barred Owl Retreat. Her poems appear in many places, including Rattle, River Styx, The Bellingham Review, Sweet, and Bluestem, and her new chapbook, Dear Turquoise, is available from Dancing Girl Press.


Please welcome Ruth Foley.    


I have never intentionally begun work on a series of linked poems, but three times, they have begun work on me.  Each time, I found the experience to be a little like possession—I stare off into space a lot, have trouble getting my other work done, and babble endlessly without making much sense.

As a poet, I'm used to brief possessions, a poem taking me over until it's finished with me, but when it becomes clear that I'm working on not a single poem but a series, I've learned to go along for the ride. A friend told me recently that he's begun to apply a rule he learned in aikido: it is best not to try to stop a powerful force. If you're lucky, you might be able to direct it, but if you try to get in its way, you're in for a flattening.

An individual poem is, in some ways, easy to handle. It's almost always small enough for me to keep in my head, for one thing, which means I can walk away from it once I have a workable draft. I'll go make dinner, walk the dogs, go for a run, take a shower—almost any activity will suffice—all the while turning the possibilities over in my mind. I'll make a mental list of rhyming words; I'll spend some time trying to figure out the right texture of an object I'm describing, the qualities of a specific tone I'm looking to capture, or looking up variations of color names; I'll test out rhythms and line breaks; I'll work out the details of a metaphor. Any aspect of a single poem is available to me at this point, largely because the form is compact, easily contained.

A series, however, isn't so compliant. The poems in a series are likely to take on multiple angles. Some of them might be free-verse, while others are in a received or nonce form. They can use different perspectives and speakers, different language, different tones. Though related in theme, their specific topics often vary. Writing a series is an opportunity to explore a topic in depth, and because of that, there's often no time at all between my finishing a draft of one poem and beginning work on a brand new one. Sometimes, I finish a draft and believe—rightly or wrongly—that I've made it through the generative stage of the series-writing process. Sometimes, I finish a draft knowing there are three more poems lined up behind it, and maybe more behind those.

When a series takes me hostage, often I can do nothing else. I spend all of my free time—and some time that isn't technically free—mulling ideas, thinking about the last poem or the next, wondering when it will be finished with me. I know that eventually I'll have to sort through what I've written, discard the redundant poems in favor of ones that handle their particular aspect of the topic more successfully, and revise the promising poems, but when the series is in control, there's no point in worrying about any of those tasks.

Thus, my advice for living with the creative stage of a series: just go with it.

As with individual poems, when a series is finished with me, I know it. When this happens, I often find myself taking a brief break from poetry, sometimes from literary endeavor altogether—I'll read a crime novel, maybe, or watch some terrible television. Eventually, I start to wonder, What exactly am I going to do with all these poems I just wrote?

While one of poetry's sad realities is its limited market, that is also one of its advantages, as poets can choose between submitting a series of poems individually or together to traditional print literary journals, to online journals and poetry websites, and as part of a longer collection; and we also sometimes have the option of self-publishing, be it online or in chapbook form (though publishing a full-length collection through a vanity press still carries a stigma, and often rightly so). This means that any of my series could appear as individual pieces in journals, as chapbooks, or as part of a larger collection.

For me, the right method of publication for each series I have written so far has been different. The first is a set of what I came to call "the infidelity poems"—they felt personal and real despite being fictional. While they might have made a good chapbook, they also risked becoming overwhelming when read as a whole. For that reason, I decided to send them out individually, where most of them eventually found homes in journals.

The second is a series of poems inspired by the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and '40s. I became obsessed for a time with the archetypes—the mad scientist, the specific visions of some of the monsters, the villagers—developed in those films, and with the actors who helped create them. This is, in some ways, the most complicated of my series, because it's most at risk for misinterpretation. They're not monster poems or Halloween poems, but poems about what it means to be human; and for two years I was unable to decide what to do with them. Some ended up in journals, but because so many of them seem to belong surrounded by others in the series, I eventually decided to put them together myself into a chapbook called Creature Feature, a process I'm undertaking right now.

The final series is difficult for other reasons. Styled as a series of letters written to my cousin Turquoise after it became clear she would not win her battle with liver cancer, these poems are deeply personal. While I've included a small handful of them in the chapbook  Dear Turquoise (from Dancing Girl Press), it felt to me that collecting them as a whole might become overwhelming for a reader. In fact, I was reluctant to send them to journals, even in small batches. There is no gap in these poems between the "speaker" and the poet—both are very clearly me, the poet, and the subject is very clearly my grief. It was important to me that I find the perfect way of putting these poems out into the world—I kept saying that I needed to do right by these poems, because publishing them in the wrong way would cheapen them.

A few months ago, I realized that the poems could serve as thematic anchors for a longer collection, so although they could certainly fill a dedicated section of my book-length manuscript, I've chosen to weave them throughout as guideposts along a larger route through the book. There, they feel settled, at home, honored. Will a wise editor agree with me? That remains to be seen.

I'm comfortable with my decisions about the three series that so far have come to me. Working with a series—both the writing and the publishing options—can teach us more about who we are as poets and the place we want our work to take readers.

 Note from Lisa:  You can watch a video of Ruth reading one of the Dear Turquoise poems (and 2 others) at the Extract(s) site. Two of her monster movie poems ("Dear Dr. Griffin" and "Dear Ardath Bey") are up at Forge.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 8, 2013 Edition

> Here's a beautifully succinct, but substantial piece, by Stephanie G'Schwind at Essay Daily, on parallel narratives in essay, with links to illustrative essays in the Colorado Review (hat tip - Brevity blog).

> Like podcasts about writing, book publishing, and marketing? Thanks to Marion Roach Smith (who has a terrific blog on memoir writing), for alerting me to this trove of more than 160 podcasts by Joanna Penn over at her Creative Penn site, also a vital resource. 

> On YouTube, coach Debbie Reber is compiling a series of (mostly-under three minute) answers to commonly asked questions, such as the importance of the title of a book, what permissions are needed, the difference between royalties and an advance, when book promotion should begin.

> Very cool Tumblr -- self-pics of writers at work at Every Day I Write The Books. No carefully made-up, staged shots here, just regular folks cranking out the words, wherever, whenever. Any writer can send in their own photo.


> Wooden Horse Publishing asks an intellectual law attorney to explain the intersection of copyright and the web (and whether everything on Facebook is up for grabs).


> Not new, but helpful: Jane Friedman with a comprehensive, clear breakdown to help you "Understand the Key Book Publishing Paths" (pdf) -- traditional, partnership, fully assisted, DIY plus distributor, and DIY direct. Plus "special and hard to classify cases."


> A few months ago, Vela Blog posted an "Unlisted List" of women writers (dozens and dozens of them, with links to their work!): 
"A list of women writers of various forms of creative nonfiction that future list-makers and anthologists, should they notice that their inclusion of women is on the paltry side, might peruse and thereby make their “bests” and “greats” better and greater, their collections more representative of the world we live in, rather than reminiscent still of those dead white guys we were raised up on..." Plus, lots of additional suggestions in the many comments.

> Still mystified by Twitter, or just a late adopter?  The New York Times' Personal Tech blog breaks it down

> Finally, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad business of being a successful best-selling author. Yes, lots of non-writing tasks are required. Yes, those activities squeeze out writing time. But, seriously?


Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Every Writer Can Get Something Out of NaNo -- Whether Signed Up or Not

NaNo-ing or not?

Are you one of the 287,052 writers participating in National Novel Writing Month

I'm not, lots of writers I know are, but either way, signed up or not, there's a lot about NaNo that can help a writer.

And not only novelists, either. Plenty of NaNo writers are working on memoirs, poetry, children's books, essays collections, general nonfiction, plays. And writers of all kinds can learn something from how NaNo is designed.

The concept travels well across the literary landscape:  You commit to banishing your inner critic, to keep moving forward without dropping back to revise or edit; you commit to keep track of your word counts, to be accountable, and at the end of a month, you have at least 50,000 words (do-able at a daily rate of  about 1667 words).

You get to say I Did It!

That alone is a good thing, because writers so often say the opposite:  I never got around to finishing X.  I planned to write Y but life got in the way. I can't seem to get going (or keep going) with Z.

I completed the NaNo sprint twice in the last five years, but instead of expecting to end the month with a draft of a book manuscript, I used the motivation and group peer pressure, the sweep of public let's-all-get-it-written, and the external productivity and accountability tools to carry me along toward private goals, accumulating pages that would feed several projects.

Whether you're "doing NaNo" or not this year, you can still benefit from the wave of NaNo mania that is certainly showing up in your social media stream. Maybe you don't want to write 50,000 words in a month (there are good reasons NOT to!), or your writing goals and projects are in different stages right now than would benefit from such a blitz.

But you can take the time now, while many writers around you are re-dedicating themselves to meeting daily word counts, to ask yourself if you're meeting your daily word or page or time-in-writing-chair goals. Is your manuscript draft humming along?  Are you visiting it often enough? 

In less than two months, you'll be asking yourself what you got done as a writer this year. Maybe November – NaNo or not – is a great time to begin taking stock, while there's still time to do something about it.

Are the chapters moldering?  Are you watching reruns instead of revising?  Have your submissions slacked off? 

For many smart writers who don't expect to come out of NaNo with anything other than a stack of pages that need an awful lot of work, the real reason we all need a productivity boost once in a while is just that: You emerge with pages that need work, pages that you can work on, revise, edit. And isn't that the goal of every writer, every day, every month anyway? To end up with pages filled with words? Because you know what you can't do with a blank page, right?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Looking Inside: Creative Nonfiction in the Fall Issue of Compose

Excuse me for kvelling just a little. (Can an Italian Catholic girl kvell? Nevermind.) I'll just say the Fall 2013 issue of Compose journal is now live and it's lovely. I began as creative nonfiction editor this spring and from the start I knew that founder/managing editor Suzannah Windsor (I interviewed her here), would make sure every aspect of it was excellent, and I've loved being part of a group of editors who are interesting folks.

It's been fun, instructive, challenging, frustrating, and surprising to be involved in my first issue from start to finish – soliciting, reading, selecting (and yes, declining – that's the frustrating part), and editing. I'm proud of the CNF pieces which appear, and working directly with the writers of each piece was one of the most gratifying things I've ever done – and I'm jazzed that I get to do it again for the Spring 2014 issue, and again.

Here's a little tour of the creative nonfiction section.

Because it's likely to make you a little sad in a very good way, depending on the type of person/reader you are, either begin or end with Eliana Ramage's lovely short essay of remembrance, 26 Tea Lights.

Then turn to Lori Horvitz's Little Pink Hatchling, a tale of a college coupling and the messy ways it continues, and doesn't, and does, and ends. Plus, a side of Italian ice.

If you've ever inherited something from a loved one – and then that treasured item was lost from your life  – you will understand the heart of Milena Nigam's Stolen Family Jewelry, and Other Gifts. Actually, I take back the part about inheritance. Anyone who has loved and lost – anything – will find her/himself in Milena's story.

I love a piece of prose that feels like poetry, but is also very clearly creative nonfiction, a piece with brevity and verve, snap and grit, a little mystery and moxie, and that's what Lita Kurth brings to Red on White. Hard to describe, so I won't:  Read it and you'll get it, and be glad you did.

Finally, listen in on Ana Consuelo Matiella as she muses on a certain aunt from her Mexican childhood, an image on a bottle of tequila, and a sudden midlife shift, in La Viuda-The Widow. The turn at the end is delicious.

There's fine fiction and poetry and artwork on offer too, as well as features and craft pieces to feed the writer, from three favorite nonfiction writers/teachers: Marion Roach Smith on Time Management;  Beth Kephart with an excerpt from her new memoir writing book; and Katrina Kenison on the value she found in a reader's nasty email.

Take a look. Read. Maybe submit something to Compose for the next issue. Or submit anywhere.


Many people have said this, and I always wanted to believe though had my doubts, but now I know it's true:  Editors everywhere, at every journal – are waiting, hoping to find something great, something unexpected in the submissions inbox. Surprise one of them.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - November 1, 2013 Edition

> Have I ever mentioned how much I love the How We Spend Our Days series over at Cynthia Newberry Martin's terrific Catching Days blog?  Well I do. In the newest one, novelist Rebecca Makkei explains how she gets the writing done in between the 70 other demands on her time -- and why a time out is a blessing.

> Good Housekeeping magazine is launching SheBooks, an ebook publishing venture, and they're on the lookout for memoir pieces on aspects of mothering, in the 3000 - 7500 word range.

> If you're writing about 1850 words a day during November  -- whether officially participating in NaNoWriMo or like me, doing your own variation on it (writing 50K words in a month on several projects) -- here's a simple word count meter you can slap up on your blog, tumbler or website. 

> Not a new list, but a potentially helpful one: Literary Magazines That Pay.

> So Amazon has published its first...literary journal, titled Day One, available by subscription in digital formats. Here's the spin  official info. Some cursory digging didn't yield an answer to whether it belongs on a list like the one mentioned just above. 

> Preserving writing time vs. building a social media presence. Laura Harrington weighs in on the modern author's struggle.

> Being interviewed (or conducting one), or recording a podcast over Skype? Mystery novelist Elizabeth Craig offers a checklist

> You know I love writing prompts. Here are enough to get you through a month.

> Finally: Before my husband and kids surprised me with a Nook HD+ (which I love!), I resisted an e-reader for reasons I no longer remember. Now, I keep trying to explain why I don't want, won't get, and enjoy not having, an iPhone. And while I do have a semi-smart phone (I can check email but that's about it), I still mostly agree with Mary McGrath's reasons for resisting. (But check back after Santa has his way with me.)

Have a great weekend!