Saturday, November 29, 2008

Winning & Writing

Now that it's all over, I can fess up.

I signed up, back in late October, for National Novel Writing Month - in which thousands of writers try to write an entire 50,000 word novel during the month of November - not because I wanted to write a novel, but in order to get some better traction on the memoir. I wanted mostly to increase my output, and decided that a commitment to write at least 1,800 new words a day was not a bad way to do it.

So I did it. I wrote 53, 576 new words in November. Some are, thankfully, memoir-bound. Others are the drafts of new essays. There is one short story in there (go figure), two poems, and pages and pages of what I think has been missing from other stalled works-in-progress.

I asked one of my writing buddies to make sure I reported in each night with the day's word count. She did. I skipped one day because I was sick, but wrote double the next. Six times, I thought about quitting. I didn't.

When I'm writing nonfiction at this pace, I notice that I tend to read only fiction, and so I was burning through short story collections like M&Ms. Which may explain why I wrote a (probably very bad) short story on the last day - today. My first. Or only?

I started out with a linear narrative in mind, but as usual, I wandered, from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, far from the mapped-out route. My nonfiction doesn't much like to stay inside the lines. About half-way through, I decided it didn't matter and I'd just keep writing. So I did.

I'm a little sad that it's over, if only because the power of a group and the pressure of a commitment are powerful productivity partners. So, I got my "winner's badge" (everyone who logs in 50K or more words in the month gets one) and to celebrate I'm taking some time off from writing.
That would be the rest of today.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Writers Judging (Their Own) Book Covers: Discuss

I know, you'd think – if, like me, your work has yet to appear between two hard covers with only your own name on the front – that once you get to the point when a publisher is running proposed cover designs by you, you would be so darned happy about having a firm upcoming publication date, you just might be in a pretty agreeable mood.

Or, not.

Ken Whyte, editor-in-chief of
MacLean's magazine, got into a cover art tug-of-war with Random House for his upcoming first book (Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst) and shares the brief mess in an earnest and ultimately self-chastising piece on his magazine's blog. An excerpt:

"I went on strike. I quit answering emails from my editor’s production staff and announced that I was no longer in a mood to promote the book upon publication.
A few days went by.
My agent called: “Are you an idiot?”"
Read the whole (short) story
here, and learn more about the book and Whyte's writing process in this interview.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out (Late. Again. Shrug.)

I must remember to post this on Fridays, because Saturday Fridge Clean-Out wouldn't be very alliterative, would it? Okay, here's my round-up of some of this week's web finds:

► GOOD magazine has a new blog Signature, about books.

► At the
Shifting Careers blog (on the NYTimes site), Michelle Goodman had a lot to say about working for free. Not that writers would know anything about that.

► Attention all grammar geeks: get thee to the
Times Topics Grammar page.

► And see what you think of
Jacket Copy, the book (and more) blog at the LA Times.

► I just (barely) am getting the hang of
Twitter. And now I'm told it's time to Plurk. Think I'll pass. Distractions are not a writer's friend.

Note: "Both!" -- The only way to answer when your 10-year-old asks, while at the library and holding up two books, "Which one should I get Mom?"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poetry Readings (or, how to test a marriage)

There's a line in one of my son's favorite movies, National Treasure, which goes like this: "Albuquerque. See, I can do it too. Snorkel." It's said by bumbling, wise-acre apprentice treasure-hunter Riley Poole (actor Justin Bartha) in response to the main character, Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage), who is deciphering heavily cloaked clues in a century-old series of codes and ciphers. Gates is spitting out answers in a rapid blitz, and while he's correct, it sounds random, like this: "Key. Stain. Silence. Iron. Pen. Prison." That's when a confused Poole cracks, "Albuquerque. See, I can do it too. Snorkel."

It's also what my husband sometimes says when he comes along to a reading where poetry is on the agenda as well as prose. After a poet has concluded a particularly sketchy poem, built on esoteric language and unusual phrasing, a range of seemingly disconnected images and what sound like disjointed word combinations, that's when my husband turns to me – all the while clapping and smiling – and says, "Albuquerque. Snorkel."

He's not being snide. Any spouse who takes over parenting and household duties for weeks so his partner can attend an MFA residency, or spend weeks at an artists' colony, is never snide (at least in their spouse's presence) about creative writing. The thing is, there are poets and poems which I still find it difficult to listen to aloud. Even two years ago, when I first began to write some poetry, it still puzzled me. And, it often still does, though I no longer think it's a matter of tossing any old eclectic combinations of words on the page. (Now abstract painting, that's another matter….)

Maybe I hope that at some reading, some time, some poem will strike him as interesting and compelling not because it's "strange," but because it's good – to his ears. Not that I think I will be the one whose poem will transform my husband from poetry skeptic to poetry lover. Ha!

But this weekend, when I'll be
reading my poetry in public for the first time, he won't be in the audience. I'll miss sitting next to him as others read their poems, so that I can lean my ear in close (during the applause, so others won't overhear): "I could do that. Albuquerque. Snorkel."

I'm sometimes tempted to say, "If you think it's so simple, go ahead and try." Then I remember that's what someone said to me a few years ago when I was a nonfiction-only snob who would never write poetry. Ever. See where that got me?

Anyway, he can't come because he'll be with the Cub scouts touring the
Old Dutch Church and Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Shall I tell him Washington Irving also wrote poetry? Nah.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rights, Schmights...Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

I've seen all kinds of contracts, from the good to the grotesque, and often the worst are for online venues. This one, however, really got me thinking: Why even bother with a contract? Why not just say something like (cue TV pitchman voice): "write it, send it, then forget it"?

OK, here it is – bold, italics and colored type is mine, just so that you don't miss a single miserable rights-grabbing word. The offending offal-eating "publisher" shall remain nameless, not because I think such media world menaces should not be publicly uncloaked, but because frankly, I don't want to deal with them again. Anymore. Ever.

"Rights. You shall retain all of your ownership rights... However…you hereby grant ___and its affiliates a worldwide, non-exclusive, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, sublicenseable, and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works of, display, perform, and otherwise exploit your..submission in connection with ____ and ____'s (and its successor's) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the ____ site (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels now known or hereafter discovered. You grant _____ and its affiliates and sublicensees the right to use the name that you submit … if they choose. You also agree to irrevocably waive (and cause to be waived) any claims and assertions of moral rights or attribution with respect to your..submission. You also hereby grant to each user of the ____ site a non-exclusive license to access your submission, and to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform …. "

I think what really put me over the top on this one – even though it's horrible throughout – is that someone really thought it would go over well with creative contributors to use the word "exploit" in a rights contract.

Yup, I really want to write for them.

Writer Home Alone. Uh-oh.

Things to DO when you have the house to yourself for two days and you could really use those hours to write and bulldoze your desk: Screen calls, banish email, ignore the Tweets, hide the TV remote, forget the laundry, order dinner in, leave the Times in the driveway, set the alarm, put on clothes too decrepit to wear out of the house, order dinner in, rent only one DVD your spouse would refuse to watch if he/she were there, tell no close friends or relatives you are alone so they won't do the kind thing and invite you for dinner, and certainly do not contemplate reading even the first page of that thick shiny new book on the night table.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Essays: Personal, and Paid

This is a quickie. I just noticed that over on my friend Erika's blog, she's giving away several copies of her new e-book, Directory of Paying Essay Markets.

Check it out here. While the give-away ends on Nov. 17, the e-book is a smart purchase anyway.

And if you are one of the students in my "Writing Your Personal Stories" classes -- you know, the ones whose recent assignment included finding outlets for essays -- well, you know what to do.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Write or sleep. Write or Die. Hmmm.

In case you have what some people insist on calling writer's block, also known as extreme procrastination, staring-at-screen-but-not-writing syndrome, or the condition known as I-get-way too-distracted-by-Twitter-email-Solitaire, or even the cyclical depressive episode recently identified as I'm a lousy writer, so why bother, then consider this: Write or Die.

Amusing and perhaps, effective.

Or, if you are a born nocturnal creature who manages to rise by 7:00 a.m. on weekdays only because children must be driven to school by a legal adult, then simply tell an early-riser spouse (mine is up at 5:45) that you would like him to help you wake up along with him for the entire month of November in order to write 2,000 more words than usual.

Warning: Consider canceling large-death-benefit life insurance policy on said husband first.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When the Bee Stings, Nonfiction Writers (of Course) Must Write It

My new friends at a new online journal, Ozone Park, have kindly asked me to be part of their launch today, so I'll be reading at Queens College this evening, along with others whose work is showcased in the inaugural Fall issue.

Ozone Park Journal is a project of the newish
MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, part of the City University of New York system. The launch party, open to the public, takes place from six to eight at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum.

For reasons I still do not quite understand, I enjoy reading in public. (The thought of it beforehand, however, is nauseating.) Maybe, when I finally get up there, it reminds me of when my cousins and I wrote silly plays and performed them for our tired parents at the end of long family barbecues, or the time I narrated a school play (after much prodding from Sister Judith Ann). Had I only known then how comfortable I would one day become in the role of narrator…

Or maybe what I like about a reading – specifically one for which you are asked (told) to trim your piece to fit into way-too-short-a-time-segment, is that the preparation and editing forces you to find the heart of a story, making it a gift to the audience, like offering a lovingly crafted sample: Here – if you like this, there's more. (Okay, it's not anything like the samples at the Godiva counter, which I like much better, but still.)

If you can't come for the sample, find the whole, much longer version of my nonfiction narrative, When the Bee Stings,

It's about sisters and being Italian-American in 1960s suburban New Jersey, and generations and lifelong bonds and...what is that line from an old Andrews Sisters song..."God help the sister who comes between me and my mister." No, I'm not that old, I just like old movies.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out

….in which,on those frantic Friday catch-up days, I occasionally suggest, check this out:

►The American Society of Journalists & Authors (ASJA) has a worthwhile free monthly e-newsletter .

►Happened upon this new-to-me online portion of the journal Etude, which publishes, "new and emerging voices in literary nonfiction as well as author interviews, book reviews and columns on the art and craft of writing."

►I tend to follow the careers of editors and journalists who start new ventures on the web, so I've been checking in on The Daily Beast from time to time, creation of Tina Brown. Claims to "curate the news," but to me, it reads and feels a bit more like a magazine, which I like.

►There's fiction and "faction" by new and emerging writers over at VerbSap, whose tagline reads, "Concise prose. Enough said." I'm especially liking the Editor's Notebook.

And for completely-off-topic fun, these:

►Every once in a while when I need a short screen distraction and don't mind if it's a little bit silly, or a lot provocative, I click on TrendHunter, which rounds up the newest (and often, strangest) in marketing, advertising, art and ephemera from around the globe. Just remember, as you do when watching those World's Strangest/Funniest/Sexiest TV Commercials shows at 2:00 a.m., much of this stuff comes from outside the U.S., where standards are, shall we say, more relaxed.

►For my diet-, weight-, eating-challenged friends out there (uh, is that everyone?), there's this: The OCD Diet's Rhyming Dining Five Day Plan. It's hilarious British fun, in the vein of Bridget Jones meets bad but very funny poetry meets every terrible diet idea ever heard.

And with that, the fridge is now empty.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

So what do editors really do with a pile of submissions?

A discussion rose up on a listserv about a piece by Peter Selgin, co-editor of the literary journal, Alimentum: The Literature of Food, in which he recounts his ruthless, subjective and occasionally random process of reviewing work submitted to his journal.

Selgin's clearly trying to be helpful (as well as entertaining); trying I think, to paint for writers an authentic portrait of what the submission system really looks like, and how it functions, at editor eye level. He rants that much of what comes in is boring, badly crafted, and off-target, which is nothing new really – editors and agents of all kinds have said so for decades. He adds, perhaps a little too gleefully, that sometimes rejecting is fun, though he backs it up with examples of writing so clearly in need of rejection, it's hard to quibble.

An offshoot discussion on the listserv veered into another conversation about journals that do not pay their writers. Sandra McDonald, a published novelist (and fellow Stonecoast MFA graduate), notes:

"The article was very funny! But I did notice that this appears to be another non-paying market. It's funny how often printers get paid, the postman gets paid, but the content providers do not. I have heard, and understand, the argument that literary journals are all about carrying on a conversation, and about being part of a community that values words, and how literary journals can't afford to pay their writers and often not even their staff. This is all lofty and lovely, and a lot of time, crap. A publisher who can pay postage, pay for the paper and printing, and give interviews on how hard his or her job is (while bemoaning the slush) can surely find a token payment of five or ten dollars for an author's work."

Yes, Sandra. And apparently, no.

Journals that do not pay will always exist and quality writers will continue to submit. That's because there are so very many writers (or as Sandra observes, 'content providers') willing to swap work for exposure, publishing credits, CV lines. And I say this as someone who occasionally does so, for reasons that always seem sensible to me at the time. If every even halfway good writer (or every writer, period) stopped submitting to non-paying journals, would that force payments into existence? Or just thin the journal ranks?

I used to get upset about this, but I don't anymore. Editors would do something about the financial structure if they could, if only because many of them submit to, and have their work published in, other (often non-paying) journals too.

In his article, Selgin notes that:

"…despite being a brand new journal, already Alimentum is averaging over three hundred submissions a month. That’s seventy-five a week, or ten a day: two hours’ work, potentially. That’s on top of all the other unpaid responsibilities that come with running a literary magazine: filling out orders, doing mailings, planning events and promotions—let alone the time needed to design, assemble, and proofread an issue, and handle the thousand-and-one other details that rear their prickly heads in the middle of our insomnia. And that’s on top of whatever else we do to make a living. All of which is to say that, like our brethren at the big publishing houses, we editors at little magazines are a harried lot…"

I know a few lit journal editors, and I think I understand Selgin's perspective as much as anyone on the outside can. Personally, I have work pending publication at a few non-paying literary journals, and I'm happy about each one, and while one essay earned some contest dollars, of course paychecks from all of them would be better. But I knew the score when I submitted, and frankly, I have gotten so tired of the entire pay/no-pay conversation, that I ignore it until something like this listserv discussion comes along.

Then I get a little upset. In the case of lit journals, or so we are meant to believe, editorial payments are dictated by tiny budgets, nonexistent budgets, severely strained budgets. These journals are, for reasons varying in validity, positioned as "labors of literary love," published not by media executives but by lovers of craft. As Sandra correctly points out however, somehow these entities manage to pay other providers and vendors, because there's no chance on earth that any printer, or utility company, or delivery service, or paper supplier, or furniture retailer, or internet service provider, is going to work or supply service in exchange for "copies."

So I make some new resolution – again – to limit my literary journal submissions to paying markets. Until I read some journal, fall in love with it, and decide it would make the perfect home for something I'm working on. Or I spy the prestigious and non-paying journal I've longed to be published by, still on my bookshelf, beckoning, teasing. Or I hear about a new journal that sounds particularly good. Or a writing contact with a new gig as a lit journal editor asks me to submit. And I do. And I always hope, because I also write for magazines and newspapers and websites and popular anthologies, that at the end of the year, the paying pieces outnumber the rest.

You know, so I can pay myself.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reading: No Shoulds Allowed. Well, maybe a few.

Lately, I get this question.

"Oh, you're a writer. Tell me, what should I read?"

Oh, boy.

What I'd really like to say: Sorry, but I cannot tell you what you should read. I have no idea. Anyway, in my experience, the surest way to turn someone off reading something – even if it's the greatest piece of literature ever written – is to say, "You should read this."

For example, for years I resisted reading
Annie Dillard, I think because for years whenever I admitted to not knowing her work, everyone, it seemed, in an appalled voice, told me I should read her. And so I did, because finally, because I was assigned to read and annotate several of her books and excerpts during my MFA program. I learned a lot from reading her, and as I begin to teach, I'm finding myself looking back over some passages – and yet: I still never pick up one of her books for pleasure, and I'm not really sure if that's because the shoulds still overshadow her work, or if she's just not my particular cup of literary tea.

So, when folks ask me what to read, I'll probably change the subject. If I can't, they get my much longer answer (remember, the person asked) which involves my asking a lot of questions, trying to get to know the person a little better, finding out at least a little of what makes him/her tick. Then, I might make a few suggestions, which I try to tailor for each individual. If I can determine what they are reading for – information, entertainment, comfort, escape, knowledge, fun – then I could probably name some books and writers who I think fill those niches nicely.

If the person wants to know what books to read in order to improve his/her own writing, then I like to spend some time talking about their writing and maybe I even read some (or a lot) of it, and then I might be able to recommend some great books and authors which, if read slowly and deliberately, could speak to that need/desire. Maybe.

If someone merely wants to know what books are in the news, which ones are popular, which books to read so that at parties the small talk is not too excruciating, I can probably reel off some, but more likely, I'll suggest checking the
New York Times.

By now, the person has more than likely lost interest. And the truth is, as much as I love to talk about books, it's sometimes a relief. Except for the person whose real question all along was not what really what he/she should read, but what am I reading.

But here's the thing. What I’m reading more than likely has nothing to do with what that person will want to read. Reading, I think, is highly personal, idiosyncratic, often unpredictable. Oh it's great social fun when someone has read the same books and bam – you're off on a great conversational tear with someone new who immediately feels like an old friend. But I have no illusions that simply because I write that what I read is any better or more interesting or more valuable than what the next person reads.

Maybe because I am exposed to a wider range of authors and books on the upper end of the literary scale, my picks may include a higher percentage of well-written books (not always). But that often translates to a lot of books which most people have never heard of and are probably not interested in hunting down. In any case, that does not make them better books, for anyone else's reading diet but my own. Every day, it seems, I learn of another book which interests me, another writer whom I add to the "to be read" list – and that information comes to me from non-writers, too.

So, back to the original question, which I think in most cases, really does boil down to what are you reading?

I'm always in the middle of at least one memoir which I believe, even before I open the cover, will be well-written, either because I'm familiar with the author, I've read a review, or it's been recommended by a writer friend or an author I know or admire. If it delivers, terrific. If not, I put it aside, often sadly, but lately with alarming speed. Life is too short to read books that don't hook me. (And since no one is assigning them these days, my "never mind" pile can get as high as I want.)

The good ones I tend to talk about, write about, recommend, lend out, re-read. Often, I email the author (whether or not I know him/her) and express my interest/gratitude. Every writer likes positive reader reactions. Over the last few weeks, the good memoirs have included
The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere (Debra Marquart); Epilogue (Anne Roiphe); and Safekeeping (Abigail Thomas) – a re-read, because I'm trying to learn something about shorter segments. There were two clunkers I abandoned, one on page 10, the other nearly 1/3 of the way through. It happens.

As for novels, I often have one or more going if they are long; one at a time if shorter. I have a much less predictable pattern when it comes to choosing novels; beyond reviews and those by authors I already know I like, I tend to pick fiction (novels and short story collections, too) for the most insignificant, non-literary reasons – I like the title, the cover illustration or design, I overhear someone somewhere say something interesting about it, the collection editor is someone I admire, it's on the bargain book table at my local bookstore. With all that in mind, make what you will of my fiction list from the last few weeks:

She's Come Undone (Wally Lamb) – a re-read because how does he stay in that other-gender voice for 465 pages? Horseplay (Judy Reene Singer) – chosen for a laid-up-in-bed-with-a-sore-back-for-a-morning read; a horsey frolic. Most of the stories in High 5ive: An Anthology of Fiction from 10 Years of Five Points (Ed. Megan Sexton) – each story the perfect length while waiting for my kid in the car pick up line after school.

Then there are the essay collections and anthologies – usually three or four, on end tables, the arms of couches, and desk corners throughout the house. Right now, I'm working through, slowly, randomly:
About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror (Ed. Anne Burt & Christina Baker Kline); they threw a fun reading/panel discussion/party last month nearby. The Slate Diaries (intro. Michael Kinsley); I guess I wasn't really paying attention to Slate back in 1997, so I’m catching up. And, Best American Essays 2003 (ed. Anne Fadiman); why that year? Beats me.

I'm also a magazine junkie, a (physical, in my hands, print edition) newspaper addict, and I love to graze the web in search of good literary grub; it's great fun to find an online literary journal that will keep me reading, onscreen – which my eyes generally dislike – a 3,000 word piece of nonfiction narrative or short fiction.

Oh, and I usually have one poetry book going too – right now it's
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998. Why? Frankly, because I listened to her read a poem on a web video link someone sent me a few months ago, which reminded me of the poem she wrote for, and read, on the televised memorial service for the Virginia Tech students last year, and then last month, I went to a local book store to special-order (at full price) an obscure out-of-print memoir I had never read, but somehow felt I "should" read, only to find it wasn't available, and on the way out, I spotted a friend and when I went over to say hello, I knocked Giovanni's book off a shelf with my purse.

Which should only reinforce – if I haven't already – that if someone is inclined to ask me what books they should read, they'd better have some time on their hands.