Thursday, December 24, 2009

Saying thanks. Because no one writes alone.

Whatever holiday one celebrates (or doesn't), approaching the end of a year seems a good time to think back over the past 12 months and say thanks to:

• everyone who read my work, in any form, at any time, and especially those who took the time to leave a comment at a published online essay, and who wrote me personal emails about how something I wrote affected them
• the editors and publishers who accepted and published my work, anywhere
• my terrific writer friends who offered to read my (awful) early drafts and (somewhat decent) later drafts, and who pointed out anything and everything I could do better
• all the writers who took my classes
• the institutions and organizations who invited, hired and allowed me to offer a writing class, seminar or presentation
• the book stores which invited me to read my work
• clients who hired me to edit a manuscript or to coach them, and understood that all the inked-in comments and suggestions, and all the prodding, prompting, and pestering meant I really did believe in the work, not the other way around
• colleagues who sent me prospective clients, recommended me for projects, and let me pick their brains
• my on-going clients, both long- or short-term, who kept the work coming
• my 11-year-old who helps me out of computer jams and makes it seem like fun
• my 15-year-old who makes sure I smile and laugh at least once a day (usually in the aftermath of my having first threatened to cancel all the various extra sports cable channels because of some real or seeming infraction)
• my husband, who learned long ago that "supporting" a writer means always saying something like, "Of course I read it and it's great," and never saying, "So, how much are you getting paid for that?"
• relatives and friends (and former friends) whose stories overlap with mine (often unwillingly and almost always unwittingly) and who appear in my nonfiction writing, and who rarely complain (much)
• all of those who belong to the various networking groups which sustain me, whether in-person, online or imagined (yeah, that's right, in my mind Joan Didion and I are buds and she thinks everything I write sparkles)
• the mentors, faculty members, and fellow graduates of my MFA program; even though I completed it a while ago, these folks seem to keep on giving
• all my blog readers, especially those who have subscribed, who leave comments, and otherwise have nice things to say
• all of the writers, editors, and other literary pros who allowed me to include their interviews and/or contributed guest posts here on the blog
• my fellow writing world bloggers who link back, post great content for me to link to, and who have put me on their blogrolls
• the members of my writers' networking group and of my post-MFA writing club, who keep me sane, offer very smart advice and continually convince me that it's always better to write than not to
• the editors who rejected my work (I learned something)
• the agents (just two) who decided to "pass" (I learned something)
• my oldest work-related friend, the fabulous and funny Deborah, who, over a monthly breakfast plate of the world's best bacon, always sees a way to turn even the most negative situation into a positive (I never stop learning something).

There, that ought to do it. And in case I forgot anyone, thank you too. In case you forgot anyone who helped you in your writing life this past year, "thanks" costs nothing and makes both the recipient and the giver feel rather rich.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

To submit or not? Writers, want to weigh in?

So here's the story. Something has been bugging me and as usual, I've written an essay about it – even though, the entire time I was writing, I doubted it would ever be published. It's an unpopular subject, one which I've noticed the media as a whole has been purposely steering away from. The piece is unlikely to find a home in any paying media venue – or for that matter, even in a non-paying but otherwise relevant literary outlet. I knew this as I wrote, and that was okay. Sometimes I just write not because I know it's going to sell, but because I can't NOT write it, and that's that.

And then along comes a notice on a message board about an essay collection in the works on this very subject. An erstwhile individual is willing, on their own time and not inconsiderable personal expense, to gather and self-publish material on this topic. He or she probably knows that the mainstream media will likely ignore (or possibly even make snarky comments about) the collection, and yet this person is forging ahead. The question is, do I submit?

On the one hand, I typically advocate contributing to projects based not on whether my piece will be showcased in some important venue, but on a melange of other factors. These usually pivot on whether the eventual published piece will deliver something which, as a writer, I feel is important at the moment – sure, sometimes it's the paycheck, but other times it's another reason, or a combination reasons: nailing a prestigious (or long coveted) clip; being involved in a project managed by people I like and admire; getting in on a project which offers an opportunity to interact with new and interesting colleagues I might not otherwise get to work with; supporting a project which a supportive writer-friend has asked me to participate in; achieving some other goal which would advance my career; and finally, sometimes saying yes just because of an indefinable personal meaning regardless of any other factors.

This final reason ought to be enough to go ahead and send in my essay, right? (And hey, there's no guarantee it will be accepted, so I may be ruminating about nothing!). Then again, I'm wondering. It's a self-published project. The proposed editor is neither a writer nor an editor. If it does get noticed by mainstream media, it might be in an unflattering light. Do I care? There's no way to determine the eventual quality of the book, so I'm grappling with the notion of little editorial judgment being applied in the selection, preparation, and eventual presentation of the essays. Then again, it might be kind of fun to have my say among other like-minded folks, no?

So, the question is, should I let this piece sit in a drawer or put it out into the world? Worry whether the rest of the collection may turn out to be subpar, or just take a leap? (Who knows, I could be pleasantly surprised…or disappointed...or...)

I'm curious if any of my blog readers have found themselves in a similar quandary? What did you decide to do? What would you do?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks: Part 14, and -- That's a Wrap.

While reorganizing my office a few months ago, I took a break to flip through the notebooks I filled during my MFA program. Rereading the notes I'd taken at faculty lectures, workshops, panels, visiting writer seminars, and graduating student presentation, I didn't want to stop. There was so much wisdom gleaned from so many talented individuals. I decided to leave the notebooks in a prominent place on my newly-neatened bookshelves, and every week or so, randomly select something to share here on the blog. As the year winds down, I'm concluding the Gold in Them Notebooks series with these random bits of advice I gathered:

• Beware the happy ending.
• When you
tell your readers, you are the only one involved in the quest. When you show them, they can participate in the quest along with you. Guess which they'd rather do?
• Memory is the mother of all muses.
• Write about what you cannot shut up about.
• When you write a story, you create a world, whether you plan to or not. So why not do it with intention?
• A sense of humor is a universal need for readers.
• At the pre-writing stage, two thoughts are usually sure signs you are on to a good thing:

1. I'd better write about that because it won't leave me alone. Or, even better: 2. Oh, I could never/should never write about that.
• When looking for prospective agents, always check the author's acknowledgements page in books that you like or that have a similar vibe to your manuscript. Authors almost always thank their agents by name.
• When writing a scene, think about the strip tease. One reveals

You can read the other 13 parts of the series here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: December 17 Edition

► Perhaps like me, you've seen this type of advice/encouragement before, in which we are reminded how often even the most successful writers get rejected. I don't get tired of hearing it.

►Every industry has its niche jobs of course, but international literary scouts? Who knew. Interesting, though less glamorous than it sounds.

► It's that time of year for lists: 50 great literature blogs.

► J. Robert Lennon, in the LA Times, takes a tongue-in-cheek look at how much of a writer's time is truly spent, you know, writing. Ann Patchett adopts a more serious tone in this Washington Post piece, and resolves to write more in 2010 by making one significant but often overlooked change: spending more time actually writing. Huh.

► An agent laments the "damage" Stephanie Meyer has done with her story behind how she wrote/sold Twilight, you know the one that goes, gee-I-didn't-really-plan-to-write-a-book, golly-it-just-came-to-me-in-a-dream-and-I-wrote-it-down, gosh- I-didn't-really-think-about-what-I-was-doing, yup-I-only-sent-it-to-one-agent, gee-whiz-aren't-I-lucky.

► The more realistic among us will probably get more useful advice from the group blog What Women Write, where six aspiring and soon-to-be-published authors tell the real story.

►Think you've seen some awful book titles? Think again.

►Yes, Virginia, you can sync up your Facebook and Twitter updates, and set up the equivalent of Google alerts on Twitter. Check the Twicks of the Twade.

► Interesting article on Lorrie Moore over at the Chicago Tribune.

This kid makes me think back to how I spent my free time while in college.

► And finally, every December on the last page, instead of the Lives column, the New York Times Sunday Magazine runs an illustrated list of selected patents granted during the year. On this year's gloriously assorted compilation are the hopeful-sounding "patient friendly stethoscope," the useful-to-some "visor with hair" (hey, baldies have rights too), and the probably useful-to-all "functional shoe." But what I like best are the more dubious items – such as "a method for making partially popped popcorn," the "combination handbag and towel," and especially the "human shaped toilet stationery organizer."

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing the Seasonal Essay: This Time Next Year

So it's December 16 and I'm working on holiday essays. Am I a little (or a lot) behind? Don't I know that magazines work months ahead, that even newspapers need more lead time, and that websites too, usually want seasonal material at least a few weeks in advance? I do. The thing is, I'm not late. I'm early. I'm writing these pieces not to sell now, but to market for publication next year.

Sure, I could write Christmas material in July, back-to-school pieces in May, Valentine's Day articles in October, and summer-themed item in March. I've often done that sort of thing (especially when I worked in PR), but frankly I don't like it. It was always a struggle to get in the mood for Frosty when I was melting myself.

At some point, I decided to just write the seasonal, timing-sensitive essays while right in the thick of things, when I was surrounded by the sights, sounds, and feelings of the particular occasion. I began churning out first drafts of holiday essays in December, essays about graduations or weddings in June, back-to-school in September, Thanksgiving in November. I put them aside for a few months – highly recommended of course for any first draft – and then tackle revisions and/or rewrites a few months later. Eventually, I make the submissions.

It doesn't always work. Sometimes, when I pull out a piece, I cannot believe I ever thought that topic would work. "Who cares?" I berate myself, and decide to skip it entirely. Other times (alas, not so frequent!), it works out pretty well: I am delightfully surprised at what I had forgotten I had already come up with a few months before.

Sometimes, one year's seasonal essays don't sell in time for the next. But then, that doesn't really matter, as the very nature of these kinds of pieces is their evergreen status. As I've said to myself on more than one occasion when what I truly wanted didn't materialize under the tree: There's always next year. Plus, having a small "inventory" of such pieces around is sort of like having a bit of money in the bank – so long as I remember to make the withdrawal at the right time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: My essay on Babble today

Someone once said, "Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is copy one day." A bit crass? Maybe, but the fact is, the not-so-great events in my life usually do show up in my writing -- from the serious literary essays about losing my father, to lighter pieces about the foibles of everyday life.

Today on Babble, one of those annoying everyday moments shows up in an essay of mine. Spurred by a school-yard incident -- in which I committed the apparent sin of speaking to another kid in a not-so-friendly voice -- I address the differences between publicly correcting someone else's child in the 1970s (when I was a kid), and today, when parents seem to regard other parents as, well, the enemy.

Click here to read the piece: Are Moms Allowed to Discipline Another’s Child? Past generations did; why can’t we?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: December 11 Edition

► Let's get the grim news over with first: Kirkus Reviews has folded.

Pictory is a new site combining – as its name implies -- excellent photos with story.

► I'm not much of a technophile, but this – sending an email directly from a print publication page -- sounds quite cool. Be sure to watch the short video.

► If you want to keep up-to-date on what's happening in the rapidly developing e-book
industry, you might want to check this new Mediabistro blog (and daily free email) on the topic.

►Some literary journals still insist on snail mail submissions, and if you don't own a postage scale, this handy new site will calculate the postage based on number of pages, envelope size – even if there are paper clips and a SASE.

►Save the date – April 24, 2010. Welcome Table Press will hold a day-long symposium, In Praise of the Essay: Practice and Form, at Fordham University (NYC). (More to come on this in a future post.)

►Nearly every writer has taken jobs that pay the rent. But working for the online writing mills probably shouldn't be one of them. What do you think?

►Debra Schubert discusses her journey to landing an agent over on MFA Confidential.

►Self-editing got you grumbling? The Crabbit Old Bat (a.k.a. British novelist Nicola Morgan) has some cheeky advice. Somehow I think anyone who calls herself a crabbit old bat finds it somehow satisfying and charming to talk about killing her darlings.

►Ever thought someone should invent a platform that hooks on a steering wheel so you can write in the (hopefully parked) car? Well, someone did and this somewhat alarming device, along with 19 other cool or kooky items, are on this list of gifts for journalists.

►If I were anywhere within reasonable commuting distance of northern Wisconsin, I'd seriously consider this February Mother Words Writing Retreat, organized by Kate Hopper.

► And finally, what has Twitter taught you? (Even if you don't actually tweet, you may enjoy this Simon Dumenco essay/rant.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Today's Writing Release Valve

When I'm completely immersed in a project, as I am today, barely lifting my head for coffee, I like to have a "release valve" handy for moments when I'm frustrated and think I can't concentrate another minute -- a funny or entertaining website to visit for a scant few minutes, that will instantly make me smile and go back on task feeling refreshed. No, it can't be Twitter, where one can get sucked into a vortex of endless procrastination. It has to be a site whose only reason for existence is the novelty of the one-minute visit.

I'll share mine with you today: Cheese or Font? Click on practice mode. Enjoy!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Club Crime: Failure to Read. Discuss.

The other day I overheard someone complain that two members of her book club habitually don't read the agreed-upon book -- and bluff their way through the club's discussions. It made me remember this funny Shouts & Murmurs piece in The New Yorker several months back, as much for its non-reader angle as those dreaded reader discussion questions so frequently found in the back of current books. Enjoy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: December 4 edition

A short list of links this week – hope you find something you like.

► Editorial cartoonist Steve Greenberg on his laid-off, forced-into-freelancing, one year crappy anniversary. Well done.

► Over at Nathan Bransford's blog, the agent is in the tables-turned position of having his own manuscript out on submission to publishers, and offers this advice for writers on responding to feedback from publishing house editors.

► Just discovered this site, with extensive listings of writing conferences and workshops. You can search by state, genre, or other criteria.

► Stephen Elliot on why he writes. No surprise, it's not for the big bucks! While on the Word Pirates blog, look around a while for some interesting posts and great links.

► And finally, did you know that there is already a 40-year-old hand-held, mobile reading device? Watch and grin.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Blogger Allison Gilbert on Research, Calendars, Deadlines, and oh yes, Writing the Darn Book

It's always a pleasure to spot Allison Gilbert across the room at a gathering of writing community friends – she's invariably smiling, eager to swap work stories, quick with an encouraging comment, and in good humor. Add to this her many accomplishments and awards (including an Emmy) and it's easy to see why I feel privileged to have her here on the blog today. Allison is deeply entrenched in finishing her next book, but agreed to take a small break to write this guest post.

Please welcome Allison Gilbert.

I'm WRITING a book.

As part of the research for that forthcoming book, Parentless Parents: How the Deaths of Our Mothers and Fathers Impact the Way We Parent Our Own Children, I’ve launched an online survey, constructed with the help of a research scientist. The results will provide unparalleled depth and analysis to my work. If you’re a mom or a dad, and have lost both your parents, you are invited to take the survey too.

In addition, I have also flown across the country conducting multiple focus groups, participated in dozens of one-on-one interviews, and spoken with numerous experts in various fields of research. My agent and editor are both thrilled with my progress. They believe I am right on schedule to deliver my finished manuscript on deadline – in April, 2010.

So then why am I so freaked out that I’ll wake up in April and realize I’ve forgotten to write the book? Why am I jerked awake by the same type of nightmare I used to have in college? I used to dream that I’d have to take a final exam for a class I’d registered for, but forgotten to attend, all semester. I have the same fear of failure about writing my book.

Sometimes I lay awake with clammy hands and dry mouth thinking about all the words I’ve yet to write, all the Microsoft Word documents I’ve left half-blank, and all the chapters I’ve written (I have two left to go) that are still littered with incomplete thoughts and sentences. I’ll get back to that part later, I think. But “later” will be here very soon. Later is coming.

Five months from now may seem like a long time, but to me, hearing “five more months” fills me with panic. The holidays will no doubt fill my days with endless distractions, and what about all
those snow days that will keep my kids out of school and under my feet?

For some writers, gathering information and checking facts is scary. It seems too big. Too daunting. Not to me. I’ve been a television news producer at ABC News, then NBC, and now CNN. I know who to call on every story and reach out to anyone without trepidation. My attitude is never, Why would this very-important-person talk to me? It’s, When can we schedule a time for this very-important-person-to-talk-to-me?

Research is my happy place. I could hide in research forever. So my fear is that I could very easily open my eyes one morning and realize I’ve done nothing but research, that I've forgotten to pull all those loose facts into a coherent narrative. I could wake up and realize I’ve forgotten to write the book.

While most of us in the Northeast will welcome the eventual thaw that will follow the coming winter months, I’ll be dreading it. I welcome the burrowing impact of winter. I welcome snow and ice and anything that will keep me inside my house (without guilt) so that I may hibernate and finish this book.

Joe Nocera, a writer for the New York Times, spelled out this need in a recent column announcing his leave of absence from the paper. He said he’s taking a break from the paper until he finishes his book, also due, coincidentally, this spring. “There comes a time in the life of every book writer when he or she has to stop procrastinating and write the darn book.” Nocera ends his column by adding, “See you in the spring.”

While I haven’t been procrastinating, maybe I have been making myself a little too busy with research. So, like Joe, I’ll see you in the spring… after I write my darn book.

Note from Lisa: Hop over to the Huffington Post to read Allison's excellent recent piece there about her forthcoming book, including some of the important insights she's gathered from her surveys. And check out her 2006 book, the lovely Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Review this book, if you dare. Hernia prevention and weight-loss program advised.

In the past, I've written reviews of memoirs and novels, writing craft books, and even a history of Olympic equestrian sports. Not, however, of cookbooks. But this past July, when an editor asked if I was interested in reviewing a "major new Italian cookbook," I said yes faster than I do to most assignments. Hey, I love to cook, and I cook pretty well. I have shelves of cookbooks and know more about Top Chef than is entirely appropriate. I cook a lot of Italian food. Heck, I am Italian. How hard could it be?

I had no idea the book would turn out to be a 980-page, five-pound, 50-years in the making tome from the high lords of Italian cuisine. My review of La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy is in the current issue of Foreword magazine. It begins like this:

In New Jersey, where the Turnpike vertically dissects the state, one asks “Which exit?” to pinpoint where someone lives; in Italy, knowing if one puts raisins or pignoli nuts in meatballs will do the same. In Italy, it’s all about the regions—and no two cook alike...
You can read the rest here. Mangia!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Everything But the Turkey

► A really wonderful collection of essays on the craft of nonfiction resides over at Narrative Digest, from the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

Interesting piece at Salon about Ben Yagoda's new book, Memoir: A History, and how and why memoir has apparently taken over the literary world.

►Nancy Rawlinson had a recent post listing a bunch of useful links for those contemplating, enrolled in, or just curious about the value of, an MFA program.

The Poetry of Food is a new place on the web to read and write about food, and don't let the name fool you; there's plenty of prose there too.

► At Stacked Up, successful writers show off and talk about their personal bookshelves.

► And finally, if you like Twitter and the avatars that live there, try this quiz.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Can your writing be seen? As in "scene"?

I'll likely never write a screenplay, but lately I find myself thinking more about visual matters when I write. Thinking visually, challenging myself to be sure that the prose is not just polished, but that it has legs – that it can leap off the page and play out across the little screens readers carry around in their heads. After all, this is the place where we hope our stories live, at least for a little while.

I didn't used to think about this so much until a few years ago at a conference, when I heard an author talk about the need for writers to think more about scenes – not just that we need to write more scenes when appropriate, but that the thinking process we use when we sit to write -- especially when we are having a little trouble figuring out where to start – should hew closer to where the screenwriter (or maybe even the playwright) begins. That is, with a visual scene in mind, that it's both helpful and vital to think about what we want the reader to visualize first, and then what should that reader "see" next and next, and so on, one visually relevant scene after another. Scenes in which something happens, the story moves along.

He talked about the need to think in terms of how we'd write it if in fact it were going to be an actual film scene. How does it open? Where is the camera? Which character moves where and when? Who will say what and what's the reaction? What does the setting look like, sound like? What colors are involved? How will the characters show what they are thinking and feeling? When does the scene end and how? Does the new scene grow out of this one, or will it take place somewhere else -- physically, emotionally, chronologically?

At another gathering of writers, I heard a different writer say that before he writes, he thinks about what the movie trailer of his story might look like, and this gives him the rough outline of his narrative arc.

At first I thought this was a lot more applicable to fiction than nonfiction, but now I'm convinced that it's just as important. Sure, some forms aren't as responsive to this technique – the meditative or lyric essay, maybe – and certainly we want to allow for reflection and the narrator's interior landscape to act as bridges between actual scenes. Still, there is probably a lot of value in thinking about how a reader will (or won't) be able to translate our words into a mental picture.

Lately, when I revise my writing, I find myself scribbling "scene?" in the margins more and more frequently. Also, "need visual details" and "what's it look like?" And in other margin notes to myself I am noticing missing elements that might be prohibiting a reader from getting that vision in their head, and I note things like: Add weather! Describe her dress! Show how big the park is! Talk about the color of the horse! How does this new character arrive?

The reward seems to be when a reader says, "Oh, I can really picture that."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Local NJ Writers: Your 2010 Procrastination Meds are In

The other day I posted information about my online memoir and personal essay class offered in early 2010. Now, here are details about the in-person class for local northern NJ folks who want (need?) a firm push to get a writing project(s) and/or routine in gear in 2010.

Filling the Blank Page: Creative Writing Boot Camp
for Procrastinators and Busy People

Does a procrastinating writer live at your desk? Someone who promised to start, revise, edit, or finish a writing project (or two)...when you have time, on Monday, in the new year? I'll help you find ways to create the time, develop and maintain a regular writing habit, find confidence, deal with mental clutter and stumbling blocks, enhance craft -- and enjoy the process, too. Class combines instruction, discussion, examples, in-class exercises, weekly assignments, and opportunities for feedback on your writing. This one is open to fiction and nonfiction writers.

Four Monday mornings, 9:30 - 11:30; Jan. 11, 25, Feb. 1, 15. $110. We meet in Cedar Grove.
For more information and/or to register, email me using the link on the left column, or: LisaRomeoWrites (at) gmail (dot) com.

For NJ nonfiction writers who want a more intense class focusing on craft, check out my Memoir & Creative Nonfiction class in the Rutgers continuing education program. Designed as a hybrid, you only need to be on the New Brunswick campus three Saturday mornings over 8 weeks, and we do the rest online. Begins Jan. 9.

Tomorrow, I'll get back to regular posts. Thanks for putting up with the promotion of my teaching activities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Story Behind the Essay

So where did that essay come from, what craft decisions were made along the way, and how did its eventual form evolve? These were the questions I attempted to answer yesterday in a guest post on Erika Dreifus's writing blog. The essay I wrote was "42 Lies About My Child," which was a winner recently in the 31 Hours Contest. The essay's form is unusual, and begins like this:

But he's such a good baby. But he's floppy and never comfortable.
He's developing at his own pace. He's lagging behind.
Stop reading books. Books are often right.
So what if he doesn't point? Pointing is a developmental milestone.

To read the rest of the piece on the contest site, click here. And to get my take on the story behind the essay, click here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Guest Blogger: Susan Kushner Resnick on Putting Procrastination in its Place

Ten years ago, emerging from a second round of postpartum depression, I stumbled across Susan Kushner Resnick's memoir, Sleepless Days: One Woman's Journey Through Postpartum Depression. When I closed the book, I has one of those moments of realization that are incredibly clear and also painful -- I had to dramatically revamp my writing life.

The author's note said Susan was a fellow alumna of the journalism program at Syracuse University, so I emailed her, and in the course of a few exchanges (though I really had no right to do so) I unloaded my anxiety and frustration about not doing the kind of writing I really wanted to do. Susan wrote me back with a bunch of really good advice, but for me it all boiled down to one sentence: look into a
low-residency MFA in creative nonfiction, and do it right away. I had never heard these terms before, but I printed out her email and kept it on my desk -- for another two years. But finally, I leaped.

A final requirement for my MFA was to write an Artist's Statement, which contains this important line: "As with everything in my life, it began with a book." Susan's book. We recently reconnected. I can't remember exactly why or how, but it doesn't really matter because all of that time I never really felt disconnected.

Please welcome Susan Kushner Resnick.

Here’s what I’ve learned about working on more than one book project at a time: it enhances the craft of procrastination. Even if you thought you were impressively skilled at putting your writing last, as I did – you should see my clear kitchen counters, my every washed and folded towel, my tidy car interior – this talent can be honed by adding additional writing projects.

I figured this out as I began to corral hundreds of tiny yellow airsoft gun pellets from far under my couch. My son’s obsession of the month involved assaulting empty soda cans in our yard, then trailing the ammunition throughout the house. For a long time, I thought the sunny little balls were candy so I threw them away. But when my son requested a ride to the creepy hunting store to restock, I realized that I’d been tossing the arsenal. I decided to collect the strays instead. After all, a trip to buy new ones would take a lot of time away from my writing!

I flattened myself onto my belly and lifted the couch skirt. This was supposed to be the last of many “straightening up” tasks I’d been at that morning, despite having free time and the word WORK written in my datebook. As I reached under the couch and through the dust, I saw that I had reached the pinnacle of avoidance. Pathetic.

How had I fallen so far? I have rules and strategies designed to prevent time burning. I’ve followed them for years and they’ve allowed me to maintain a writing career while raising two relatively sane teenagers (the gun is a phase!), staying married, and occasionally seeing friends.
How could I have forgotten?

In this case, I blame paralyzation. Somehow, I’d gotten myself involved in three book projects at the same time. This was a very good thing for my identity (I guess I really am a writer if I’m straddling projects), but not so good for time management. When I wrote WORK in my datebook, I didn’t specify which work.

Do I plunge into Project Past, getting my 10-year-old book on postpartum depression reprinted to coincide with my testimony to the state legislature about the need for mandated postpartum care?

Do I stick with Project Present, a marketing plan I’ve created for my second book, which comes out in January?

Or do I take notes for/organize research for/manage translators for Project Future, my third book, which really isn’t a book at all yet, but just a big box of notes?

Or, do I clean up airsoft pellets?

We all know the default answer. We know that it’s easier to clean or shop or cook or rake than it is to open the proverbial vein and write. Writing is complex and fraught. Housework is simple and straightforward, not to mention immediately rewarding. With housework you aren’t digging into yourself. It’s literally a surface activity. And if it gets interrupted by an actual crisis – big or small – who cares? When writing gets interrupted, when we have to cauterize that vein that took so much effort to open, it hurts.

Still. We aren’t in this business to avoid pain. We writers woo pain. It’s part of the fun and most of the challenge. So I will forgive myself for getting daunted by multiple projects. And I will remind myself of the rules.

*Set Deadlines: As a freelance writer, I struggled when I didn’t have a professor or editor waiting for my work. Then I realized I could fill that disciplinary role myself. Since I was trained to never miss a deadline, it works. I usually set my goals according to season: I’ll have this chapter done by the end of summer, I’ll begin that outline before Thanksgiving break, etc.

*Remember Your Long Term Goal: Everyone’s long term goal is different. I’m committed to being a role model for both of my kids, but especially for my daughter. I don’t want her to remember me as a woman who sacrificed her passion to take care of others, or to think that’s her fate.

*Think About Your Deathbed: I know, it’s a cliché. But do you want to lie there and realize you didn’t reach your writing goals because you wasted time cleaning? Or do you want to die knowing that you really tried your hardest, no matter how it turned out?

*Don’t Look Under the Couch: Just don’t. Look into your stubborn writer’s heart instead.

Susan's forthcoming book is Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, an account of the 1943 Smith Coal Mine disaster in Bearcreek, Montana. It's available for pre-order from University of Nebraska Press.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Writing Prompts on Special Today. Help Yourself.

Writing prompts – what do you think of them? Useful? A helpful way to stretch the writing muscle and bust through a writing obstruction (notice how I didn't say block?). Fun diversion? Annoying distraction? All of the above?

The thing I like about a writing prompt is that I can interpret it any darn way I want to, depending on my mood, interests, and levels of ambition or curiosity that day. For the past seven weeks, I've been sending out a daily writing prompt to those enrolled in two of my writing classes. Except for an occasional mini-assignment based on one prompt per week, for the most part, they are free to ignore the prompt or to use it, to post the results or not, to email it to me or to keep it to themselves.

It's been great fun to see in how many different ways the same prompt can be interpreted and where some of the prompts have taken the writing. The same prompts also seem to work equally well for nonfiction and fiction writers.

Of course any writer can provide their own prompts, a dozen or more a day, by simply looking out the window, in a magazine, across the room. But let's face it, we usually never get around to it for ourselves. So, here is a sampling of those I've used lately. Help yourself.

Waking up.
What we leave behind, what we keep.
Arriving late to the party.
The calendar.
The big game.
A letter to my younger self.
Food for thoughts.
Tick tock.
The way life should be.
Change of heart.
Bank on it.

Another interesting, counterintuitive thing I've noticed. While cloying clichés and tired, overused expressions are verboten in good prose, sometimes that same old worn-out phrase makes a pretty terrific writing prompt. Yep, wonders never cease to amaze me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: The Back-on-Schedule Edition

►The FreshYarn site is back up, featuring a new personal essay each week.

► The Literary Writers Conference is being held in Manhattan next weekend.

► Those who write opinion pieces might want to know about this development at AOL (This links to a note intended for PR folks, but the editorial contact information is still helpful for writers wanting to market their op-ed essays.)

► It looks as if this hybrid online/print-on-demand literary journal project has potential.

►And finally, for anyone who finds themselves dealing with, shall we say, uninspired academic writing, this fun little site makes a handy comic diversion.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing and Kids: Not so mutually exclusive

Just the other day I was passing along tips to some writing class students who have school-age children and were explaining (that is, complaining) how little time this leaves them to write. Then today I came across this tough-love guest post, by Louise DeSalvo, over on my friend Christina Baker Kline’s excellent writing-advice blog. If you write and have kids, please go read DeSalvo’s post. To her advice, I’ll just add a few of my own tips; some are different, and some amplify what she advises:

NO (more) volunteering for school activities that take more than an hour or two a month. Or how about just: NO.

Accept that you will have a dirtier (or at least a messier) house than you probably would like – OR hire someone to clean it.

Write anywhere. A lot of my stuff has been rough-drafted on the bleachers at baseball games, in the car waiting for kids to finish up at an activity, on the patio while the kids (when little) were playing nearby, even in the ladies room at insufferably long school and family functions!

Decide what you can slice out of your mom life in order to get a writing life. Five years ago, when my youngest was in first grade, I decided I could do without the daily chats with other moms while waiting for our kids at pick-up time after school. I still had to arrive 15 minutes before the bell rang to get a parking space, but I decided to sit in my car and write – bingo, an extra hour or so a week.

As DeSalvo says, ALWAYS call it "work." I realized this important distinction when asking a non-writing relative to watch the kids; and get the kids used to that terminology too. Mom’s working. Period.

Break free of the idea that you always have to the keyboard, in your office, seated in that great armchair, with your favorite pen.

Get a writing accountability buddy – another parent writer who will exchange daily emails consisting of just one line about how many words or pages you each wrote that day; no venting allowed.

Now - what are you still doing here?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: No, it's not late. No, it's not. It's not.

In 30-plus years of writing, I have never missed a deadline, not a real deadline anyway, not one set by an editor, a contract, a publisher. But the thing is, Friday Fridge Clean-Out does not actually have a deadline, not really. So if I feel like it's still (or finally) Friday, when in fact it's already Saturday, well that's okay because you know what, in this case I'm the publisher. (Gee I've always wanted to say that.)

Please enjoy these links for your weekend reading.

►Oh, so that’s how you write a huge novel. Literally, how novelists write, that is, physically.

►Library Journal, would you please stop with the excellent lists of memoirs to be published soon? Don’t you know I already have an overflowing shelf of to-be-reads?

►You can read this in case you were wondering what effect the recession is having on the literary culture of New York City (in case you've run out of other things to wonder about).

Mira's List is a terrific resource for grants, residencies, fellowships and similar opportunities. The list's keeper is also interviewed here.

►And finally, this one is strictly for fun, for those among us who can laugh at our own bad writing, or for those of us who never write anything bad. I mean write badly. I mean….

Have a great weekend.

Mimi Schwartz to read locally on Monday

Mimi Schwartz, of Princeton, will be reading from and talking about her memoir, Good Neighbors, Bad Times--Echoes of My Father's German Village, in Short Hills on Monday, November 9.

The focus will be on her "quest for small stories of decency often lost in the larger narratives of history, and how I found them in one tiny Black Forest village before, during and after Nazi times."

Her book won both a 2008 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in memoir and the NHLW Outstanding Nonfiction Award and will be out in paperback this December. Mimi is also the author of the memoir Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction.

Location for the talk is Temple B'nai Jeshurum, 1025 South Orange Ave, Short Hills, at 7:00 p.m., free.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Author Interview: Leslea Newman

One particular group of writers has always especially interested me: Those with full time careers revolving around a constantly changing combination of writing, teaching, and editing projects. In other words, those who make a living with words, but are not on staff full time at a university or media enterprise. The ultimate freelancer, if you will. It is the writers who write and publish, teach and give seminars, edit and consult with other writers, whose careers I study and try to learn from.

An excellent example is Leslea Newman, who has published nearly 60 books -- children's books, poetry, personal essay, short stories, novels, young adult fiction, middle grade novels, and books on writing craft. During my MFA program, I was fortunate enough to participate in a writing workshop under Leslea's direction, and to attend many of her presentations on writing craft and publishing. I'm so pleased that she agreed to a rather lengthy question-and-answer interview.

Lisa Romeo: When you wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1988, you co-published it with a friend who owned a small desktop publishing business. Now here you are on the eve of the 20th anniversary edition. Can you talk about your original decision and the journey you've been on with that book ever since?

Leslea Newman: Heather Has Two Mommies started as a grass roots project. I was asked by a woman to write a children’s book that showed a family like hers (two moms and their daughter). No established publisher would touch the book, so a friend of mine, Tzivia Gover, who at the time was a lesbian mom with a small desktop publishing business, and I decided to publish the book together. We raised $4,000 in $10 donations, found an illustrator, and printed the book. Six months later, Alyson Books took over. And the rest is history! I’m very proud of the fact that the book is still in print 20 years later (and the new edition has wonderful illustrations in full color). It’s been challenged many times, but the message of the book remains the same: the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.

LR: You work in many genres and forms. How do your varied endeavors nurture one another?

LN: Each genre informs the others. For example, I believe that being a poet has made my fiction more lyrical; being a fiction writer has helped me write narrative poems. I always encourage writers to think of themselves expansively—there’s no limit to one’s imagination!

LR: How do you approach your work time and make decisions about what to work on next? Do you make long-range plans, or do you tend to respond more or less organically to the material which is calling out to you most strongly?

LN: I try to write every morning, though sometimes that is not possible because of travel plans, deadlines, and other responsibilities. I never plan ahead; when I sit down to write, I stare at a blank page and pray some words will come along to fill it. If I see a trend develop, for example, if I seem to be working on poems over a period of time, I’ll consciously say, “Oh, I’m working on a new poetry collection.” But the work is the boss; it tells me what to do, not the other way around.

LR: What about saleability and concerns of the literary marketplace?

LN: I never write to sell. Well, I take that back. Once I wrote a romance novel with the intent of selling it and perhaps making some money. It is the only book I have never been able to sell (though it did come close at several presses). Oh well. You can’t blame a girl for trying.

LR: I know you are a big believer in writing every day. Can you explain why you feel that way, how it fits in to your own writing regimen, and make suggestions for others who may be finding it challenging to find either the time or the mental commitment to write every single day?

LN: I do think one gets better the more one writes. It’s like anything else, playing an instrument, playing a sport. And you never know what you’re going to write on any given day. The only thing that’s a guarantee is that if you don’t pick up your pen (or turn on your computer) nothing will happen on the page that day. Often—more often than I’d care to admit—I scribble and scribble and nothing interesting happens on the page. This can go on for days, sometimes weeks. Then one day something interesting will emerge. If that happens on day #42, I know the 41 days that preceded that writing were absolutely necessary. It’s all part of the process.

LR: You are one of the most hard-working writers I've ever met, and yet I don't think I'd call you a workaholic; it's more that I get the feeling you both treat writing as a job, and yet also retain all the joy and love of writing that occasionally gets lost over a long writing career. What do you think helps you achieve this kind of love/work relationship with your writing career?

LN: All I know is that I’m happier writing than not writing (even when the work isn’t going well). I think the reason I still love writing and being a writer is that I’m really in love with language. Nothing pleases me more than coming up with a phrase or image that moves me in some way, whether it makes me laugh, cry, or just impresses me with its rhyme, meter, or originality. This is what I live for, the joy of discovery, or what a writer friend of mine calls the daily miracle.

LR: In one memorable seminar, you brought in a stack of manila envelopes which contained the 17 drafts of Jailbait, the young adult novel you published in 2005. You went on to trace the changes, share your reactions to the editorial suggestions of your agent and publishing house editor, and emphasize the importance of being willing to try new things on the page. You even agreed to refocus the original novel manuscript into a young adult novel – a huge shift. I was so impressed with your professionalism (and willingness to let others inside the process). What do you want not-yet-published writers to take from your experience?

LN: It’s important to realize that more often than not you are not the best judge of your own work. You have a whole head full of other information about your book—information about the characters, the setting, the plot—that is not on the page. Your reader does not have that. Your reader only has the words that appear on the page. That’s important to remember. Also, you have to realize that you and your editor want the same thing: to make your book the best it can be, both for artistic merit and for success in the marketplace. Editors edit—that’s their job. Your relationship with your editor is like any other relationship; it demands mutual respect, an open mind, the ability to listen, and the willingness to compromise. When an editor makes a suggestion, I’m always willing to try it. I may not always do what my editor says, but I am always willing to consider her or his suggestions and see what happens.

LR: When writing across genres, writers often wonder how and when to best showcase the material. Do you ever rewrite a published poem as a piece of nonfiction or use it as a basis for a short story or novel – or vice versa? For example, the poem, “When My Father Stopped Tucking Me” In, from your latest poetry book, Nobody's Mother, has all the markings of morphing into a compelling personal essay or short memoir piece. (And there are so many other examples.) How do you know if that is do-able? Is it a matter of forging ahead and seeing what eventually works out? Or do you try to always begin fresh with each new project?

LN: It is sometimes said that writers really only have two or three stories to tell. I’m not sure if that’s true, but there are definitely themes that come up in my work over and over again. For example, I’ve written so much about mothers and daughters, and do so again in a forthcoming children’s book called Just Like Mama (Abrams, spring 2010), in many poems in both Signs of Love and Nobody's Mother, and in my latest novel, The Reluctant Daughter. When I had various friends dying of AIDS, I wrote the poetry book, Still Live with Buddy, the children’s book, Too Far Away to Touch, and the short story, “What Ever Happened to Baby Fane?” (in Girls Will be Girls) etc. I write whatever compels me, whatever I care passionately about, in whatever form it takes.

LR: Your middle grade novel, Hachiko Waits, based on the legendary dog who waited 10 years for the return of his deceased Japanese owner – will likely get new attention once the Richard Gere film of the story is released. Are you doing anything to prepare for that?

LN: You bet! I have been contacted by several bookstores and organizations, including the Animal Cancer Foundation to do booksignings once the movie is released. I’m very eager to see this new reinterpretation of Hachiko’s story. The new movie is based on the Japanese film which was made in the 1980’s and was very beautiful.

LR: As a writing teacher, what big mistakes do you see not-yet-published writers making, not in terms of technical writing issues, but in terms of the trajectory of their writing careers and development?

LN: Many beginning writers don’t understand that writing is a business, as well as an art, and one has to treat it like any other business. One has to be professional. One has to network. One has to be willing to take risks. One has to give one’s all, 100% of the time. One has to accept failure as well as success. One has to be in it for the long haul. One must be humble. And of course, one has to do one’s best writing. One has to, as Jerry Garcia famously said, “Accept every assignment. Build your fan base one person at a time.” At least that is my philosophy.

I find, much to my surprise, that many writers who have yet to publish have an attitude of arrogance, and only want to be published in the most prestigious publications around. For example, I know a poet who will not send his work anywhere except The New Yorker. And he has yet to be published. I have made a career of publishing with small presses, many of whom published my work when they were just starting out. And it has not hurt me. I still publish with small, as well as large presses. A friend of mine who is a folk singer has a motto: Go where you’re wanted. I think that’s solid advice.

LR: I've used your craft book, Write From the Heart, when teaching, especially the writing exercises. Are there other books on writing craft do you recommend?

LN: To tell you the truth, I find reading beautifully written books of fiction and poetry a lot more useful than reading books on writing. One learns about craft by reading well-crafted books and absorbing technique on a cellular level. However there is one book I absolutely love: The Art of Writing by Lu Chi, translated by Sam Hamill. It was written in the third century, and it is still relevant today. I also like If You Want to Write by Barbara Ueland. And On Writer's Block by Victoria Nelson.

LR: Tell us a little about your newest novel, The Reluctant Daughter.

LN: The Reluctant Daughter is a novel about a woman who can’t decide whether or not she wants to be a mother until she decides whether or not she wants to be a daughter. Lydia Pinkowitz seemingly has it all: a successful career as a Professor of Women’s Studies, a loving spouse named Ali, and many friends. What she doesn’t have is a close relationship with her mother, which is what she yearns for. Lydia and her mother are at constant odds with one another; after a particularly painful encounter, Lydia decides to cut off communication with her family of origin. Then she gets a call from her father: her mother is in intensive care. Will Lydia fly 3,000 miles cross country to try and make peace with her mother, or simply let the woman go? I’ve gotten many letters from women who say the book has moved them enormously and that has been very gratifying. I haven’t met a woman yet who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with her mother!

LR: What's on tap for you next?

LN: I am very excited to have four children’s books coming out in the next two years. Just Like Mama is a sweet book about the special relationship between a mother daughter, which is being released for Mother’s Day 2010. Miss Tutu's Star is a book about a clumsy little girl who wants to be a ballerina, and will be published in fall 2010.

I will be the keynote speaker at the Write Angles Conference in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 21st, and teaching at The Frost Place in June 2010. I’m also participating in the 30 poems in 30 days project that I initiated as poet laureate in Northampton, Mass., to raise money for the Family Literacy Project of the Center for New Americans. And I continue to work as a mentor with private students in all genres -- fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Writing Links for Weekend Reading

►In an interview, writer and northern New Jersey neighbor Alice Elliot Dark talks about the writing process for her essay, The Quiet, which appears in the new collection, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives. Her essay is about George Harrison and Meet the Beatles!

►The Fall issue of Mississippi Review Online is all nonfiction.

►Copy editors, fact checkers, and proofreaders save writers more often than they torture us. I loved this behind-the-scenes interview with Mary Norris about copy editing at the New Yorker.

Printers Row is the Chicago Tribune's blog about "readers, writers and books," and also lists Chicagoland literary events.

►Wonder what a conversation might be like between editors of a literary journal who passed on, but really liked, a particular piece of work, and the writer who submitted it? I give you the Potomac Review's blog experiment, The Maybe Dialogue. Reading the four-part series is a combination of eavesdropping on an excellent workshop exchange and an intimate writer-editor conversation. In order, you can find parts one, two, three and four.

►A generous-minded writer shares royalty statements from his traditional print publisher and Kindle, and how they translate into actual profits. In a side-by-side comparison, the results are eye-opening.

►If you've ever had a writing teacher make a huge impression on you and, in turn, a big impact on your work (and I sincerely hope you have had this wonderful, and often upsetting, experience), then like me, you may also love Alexander Chee's piece about studying with Annie Dillard.

► I heard Jack Wiler read a few times and always found his work interesting, unusual, and a more than a little in-your-face. The New Jersey poet died last week.

►If you are a mother and teach in higher education (and, for that matter even if you’re not), check out the Mama PhD blog over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

►Beauty salons and books. Hey, the Pulpwood Queen may be on to something. Whatever keeps America reading.

►For your weekly dose of writer envy -- publishing deals scored by recent Iowa Writers Workshop grads.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 13. Nothing unlucky here.

In this series, I'm passing on good writing advice which I recorded in notebooks while I was an MFA student.

From a nonfiction workshop:

Narrative is a compendium of modules, not necessarily just a beginning, middle, and end. It's an assembly of parts – scenes, reflection, expository, dialogue; not a chronology. You assemble them as building blocks. When considering your next revision, look for what's not on the page, where are the holes for missing blocks? And figure out, what is my comfortable length for a block – how many words or pages?

- Baron Wormser, former poet laureate of Maine, author of seven books of poetry, a memoir, and a short story collection. Baron also noted that his memoir, The Road Washes Out in Spring, was an assemblage of some 80-plus such parts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Writing Time-Out: Movies, Milk-Duds, and MJ

"I don't care what they say. Ain't nobody's business..."

In some shots it's a body double. The production company is milking a dead man's profit-generating popularity. Parts of some songs are dubbed with old tracks. Too much movie-making craft obscuring the real story. It's all a hoax, he's living in an Eastern European castle, pulling everyone's strings. All hype, no history.

Say what you like (and the Internet is saying everything possible), I'm still going to see This it It, the Michael Jackson documentary film made from concert rehearsal footage. I'm fascinated by creativity, by the energy and process behind a multi-talented artist, by what occurs behind the scenes of any major event, and by film-making in general.

I don't think, as the conspiracy-theorists do, that it's a convenient coincidence there was so much high-quality rehearsal footage available, for the same reason I'm no longer shocked to discover that an author's 350-page award-winning novel has a backstory involving an unused 100,000 words, 4,000 pages, and 18 drafts.

To my mind, it's not so much about the "real story" of the run-up to Jackson's cancelled London concerts, but an opportunity to glimpse how the work of so many artists -- including musicians, choreographers, lighting technicians, dancers, etc. -- comes together to transform the original creative impulses of the singer/songwriter into a carefully intended experience for a particular audience.

Because isn't that what writers try to do every day (okay, maybe without pyrotechnics) -- to leave an audience (of readers) feeling differently than before?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writers Block. Writing Building Blocks.

During the period of time before a new class begins – like now, while prepping for my creative writing boot camp next week -- I notice that prospective students often ask if we are going to address "writers block".


This, I say, is what every writer addresses each time a keyboard is opened, a pen is uncapped. I don't mean to be flippant and say there is no such thing as writers block (though at times I do believe that), and I also don't mean to suggest that every writer feels this way about the writing process (thought many days, I do).

What I want to get across is that frustration, not knowing precisely what one wants to write, wrestling with first (or 31st) drafts, feeling lost in the text, unsure of an entry point, struggling to choose a meaningful topic, and facing down the this-needs-to-be-completely-rewritten-and-I-don't-feel-like-it monster, are all normal and probably in some way, necessary components to writing.

On the other hand, sometimes a writer who feels blocked needs to channel the not-writing-but-I-should-be-writing energy, and sometimes, simply moving the pen or cursor helps. Many writers have discovered that writing around their topic and/or writing something that doesn't necessarily feel or look like WRITING, also helps.

Here's what I mean. Instead of forcing oneself to write that essay, story, poem, article, chapter, memoir piece, or other prose entity that's giving you trouble, try writing in and around your topic, via some other form of communication, either about a character or narrator, or that is in some other way connected to the story, such as a:

• letter
• memo
• shopping list
• recipe
• report card
• email
• news account
• song lyrics
• margin notes to as-yet-unwritten text
• footnotes
• angry / appreciative response to the "finished" piece from a reader
• review
• application
• repair-person's recommendation
• police report
• resume
• evaluation
• cease & desist order
• list of complaints
• list of compliments

One could also, I suppose, write out all the reasons why one is not writing. If the pen is moving, or the fingers are dancing across the keys, at least part of the process is thus unblocked. And who knows, from this not-writing kind of writing, could emerge perfectly usable writing building blocks.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Department of Shameless Self Promotion: One savvy author, one of my essays. It's a win-win..

A short, nontraditional piece I wrote is one of five winners in the 31 Hours Contest, featuring essays about parental intuition. The pieces are featured on the website of author Masha Hamilton, who ran the contest in connection with her new novel, 31 Hours, which traces a mother's deep intuition about her son through a compelling story of compassion and complications. You can read the contest winners, including my piece, 43 Lies About My Child, here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My name is Lisa and I am a magazine junkie.

Confession: I’ve been a magazine junkie since my mother subscribed to five different movie star fan magazines in the 1960s (anyone remember Photoplay?). My tastes have changed, but I still feel the same about magazines in general: I want to read them all, or at least look at them all. Leave me alone at an airport magazine newsstand and I may miss my flight. I earn some freelance income by researching the magazine industry for a media newsletter/database. I get paid to write for magazines, and to help others learn to write for them. So I have personal and professional interests in seeing the print media industry survive. I hate that the industry is so challenged lately that many magazines are currently offering subscriptions for $5 a year.

And yet, I’m also a consumer with kids and a house and tuition bills, and after all, who can afford to subscribe to all the magazines, newspapers, and journals one wants? But no writer can go cold turkey either. As for mainstream media, I subscribe to the New Yorker (at a discounted rate), to the Sunday New York Times (where they’ve never heard of a discount for loyal 20-plus year subscribers), to More and O-The Oprah Magazine (discount again, and because of the good quality of nonfiction, memoir/essay pieces each month). For the sports fanatic son, I keep Sports Illustrated on automatic renewal, as well as Wired, for the tech-loving son. My mother renews Consumer Reports for us every December.

Then, each year for the last ten, I’ve used up a few hundred of the thousands of accumulated miles on an airline I will never fly again, to order one-year subs, alternating between The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Gourmet (alas, I was as sad as every other foodie magazine lover when it died a few weeks ago), Newsweek or Time, Discover, Self, Redbook, Real Simple, New York, New Jersey Monthly, ESPN The Magazine, occasionally People, and anything else which looks good to me at the moment. When I pay my dues, I get The AWP Writer’s Chronicle, and I subscribe to Poets & Writers.

When it comes to literary journals, I alternate subscribing to one or two of the major nonfiction-only titles – Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, or River Teeth. If I enter a writing contest sponsored by a quality journal, I’m always glad when the entry fee entitles me to an annual subscription, or even a single issue. As for all the other fine literary journals I’ve love to see in my living room: If I can do so through the journal’s website, I buy a single copy when a piece by a writing friend appears in its pages (sometimes I’m a bit late, like this morning, when I ordered the Summer 2008 issue of Alimentum because my friend Penelope Schwartz Robinson’s essay there was just included as a notable essay in 2008 Best American Essays). And I take a one-year subscription to any journal which publishes my work (okay, a decidedly small sample, but there you go). It’s not a scientific method, but I like to think that in this way, I’m doing my part to support literary journals.

When I’m finished with a big pile of magazines, I tote some down to the free bin at my local library. I pass some on to relatives, and the writing-related ones along to students. My approach may take my budget into account, but still outstrips my ability to actually read everything that arrives; and so, my house ends up looking the overflow room of a magazine printing factory. This was helpful when my kids were younger and needed to cut pictures out of magazines for school projects, but not so much anymore. No matter how many clever ways I find to stash, store, or stack them, they keep eating up space. I’m thinking of finding a way to artfully pile them up in front of the drafty windows everywhere in my old house and cut our heating bills.

I’m curious what others do about magazines and journals. Are they accumulating in every room of your house too? How do you budget for magazines and journals? As for books, don't get me started.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Writers know that criticism hurts. Except when it helps.

Therese Walsh's debut novel, the Last Will of Moira Leahy, is generating a lot of buzz. The Women on Writing blog has an interesting interview with her, in which I found the following gem about receiving criticism. To understand her advice in context, know that when Walsh submitted her first complete novel manuscript seven years ago, an agent she trusted advised her to do a complete rewrite, in a new genre. Walsh took the advice.

"WOW: Any advice for writers about how to decide what is helpful criticism and what is just the whim of some agent or editor?

Therese: I think it’s important to be wide open to criticism. That can be hard, because as writers who hone in on emotional truths, we can be thin-skinned
peeps. Criticism can hurt. But it’s what we need, in part, to become better writers. You have to put yourself in a Zen place to accept critique—assume that others have your story’s best interests at heart when you hear what they have to say, then think deeply about what they’ve offered you. If you’ve successfully set aside your pride, your gut will tell you if that person is right or wrong.If you’re still in doubt, bounce professional advice around with your critique group. What do they think? Pay attention if you’re hearing the same criticism from more than one source."

You can read the entire interview, and see a list of other blogs at which Walsh will be talking about her book over the next month, here. And if you're quick -- meaning if you do it today -- you can leave a comment at the WOW blog where they are giving away a copy of the book.
Walsh is also the founder of the Writer Unboxed group blog, an excellent resource on genre fiction.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Linkety-Link for Writers

►Go to grad school, get stuck on bed rest, wind up on a bad weather vacation with people you don't like, or get a job as a book reviewer, and you too will learn to read a book a day, maybe even for a week straight. But a book a day for a year? That's what this blogger is doing, and she's nearing the end.

►Poets & Writers now has an MFA database, with a list of all U.S. program, as well as the top 50 (traditional) programs, and other MFA-related resources.

►Noah Lukeman, literary agent and author of The First Five Pages, has an interesting take on whether it makes sense to accept an offer from a small press to publish one's first book (via Backspace).

►Per writing nonfiction in which loved ones appear, I was glad to be reminded recently of this insight from Scott Rosenberg's book Say Everything: "Writers who tell stories about themselves, their families, and friends always walk a tightrope: you fall off one side if you stop telling the truth; you fall off the other if you hurt people you care about, or use them as fodder for your career. Dishonesty to the left, selfishness to the right." (via The Daily Rumpus)

►No, I won't be writing a novel, but I've signed on again for November's National Novel Writing Month. Last year, my goal was to write an average of 1800 new words each day, and by the end of the month, I did have 53,000 words of new memoir material. This year I have a slightly different project in mind, but the idea is the same – accountability and a shove. If you are having trouble sticking to a writing routine, need an outside deadline/accountability partner (or, say 15,000 of them – that's how many completed the program last year), or if you simply want to boost productivity, it may be worth considering.

►We writers are such strange creatures, no? For example, yesterday my day was made (really, I was dancing in my office) when I received what is probably the best personalized REJECTION email of my career, from an editor I admire, at a publication I love, for a column I'm dying to crack, only the day after I sent in an essay submission. Like I said, strange.

►How do you define a prose poem -- and know when it is a prose poem you are writing and not an essay? Know any good resources on the topic of prose poetry? Weigh in on this and other genre-splitting questions (and read the excellent comments/advice) over the Practicing Writing blog.

►Beginning poets might want to consider signing up for Sage Cohen's free monthly e-newsletter.

►The work of two of my writing buddies is featured over at the More magazine website –Dionne Ford's piece is about swimming with her Grandmother, in A Five Generation Vacation, and Sari Botton's essay covers Finding Forgiveness on Facebook.

►Blog reminder – tomorrow (Sat., 10/17) is the last day to leave a comment and become eligible to win a one-year (four-issue) subscription to Prairie Schooner, a wonderful literary journal.

►This terrific New Yorker piece, a parody/rant about the way publishers now expect their authors to do practically all of their own book promotion, would be truly hilarious if it were true. Oh, wait, what's that you say?

►From the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: This blog was listed among the Top 100 Writing Blogs by the Daily Reviewer; the list is worth a look for the many other great blogs included.

And, finally, if you're not already reading literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog (and in that case, we really must talk), or The Rejectionist, then you missed this great post about the publishing industry. Whoa.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Self Promotion Dept: Back in the Saddle Again

The first piece of my writing ever published (beyond the Neighborhood News which I wrote and sold for a nickel when I was 10, and which lasted exactly two issues, until my parents found out I was hawking it to the neighbors), was a short humor essay for the magazine Horse, Of Course (thankfully now out of print), when I was 12 years old.

For a few years after college, while competing on the horse show circuit, I supported myself (no, not the horses, that was Dad’s wallet) by covering horse sports and top equestrian athletes for dozens of equestrian publications. Next, I spent a few years doing public relations for horse-related businesses.

Many years, and an awful lot of NON-horse related work have intervened, but lately, on occasion, I’m once again writing about horses. One of my essays will be included in the forthcoming collection, Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives, to be published next spring by Seal Press. It’s edited by Verna Dreisbach, with a foreword by Jane Smiley. Here’s a glimpse of the wonderful cover.

Update: I just found out the book is now available for pre-order through Amazon.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Today I'm thinking about why I write. Father did know best.

My father was a major reason I fell in love with words. Each night, he read two newspapers. From the time I was first able to read, he pointed out interesting articles. He wrote short stories, allegorical fables, and letters to the editor which he never mailed. He kept them all in a drawer. He wrote some really terrible poetry, and some pretty darn good poems, and sent them to everyone he loved. He loved books, and he knew the difference between writers and authors. He was philosophical and corny, naturally intelligent but formally uneducated. And, he innately knew, when it came to a piece of writing, that shorter was better than long.

He died three years ago today.

My father detested cold weather and moved to Las Vegas as soon as I graduated from college. But four years or so before that, he accompanied me on a tour of Syracuse University, on a winter day when the temperature barely reached 15 degrees. When we exited the journalism school complex, a blast of frigid wind slammed into us, and he handed me $20 for cab fare and went back to the hotel (where I'm sure he read all the local newspapers.) A few months later, he wrote the first of many tuition checks.

Three years ago tonight, on an airplane heading west through darkness to a too-bright Las Vegas morning, I wrote a eulogy. It took me two hours. It was too long. And, it's never finished.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Of marinades, mind dumps, and other ways to say: I'm getting to it!

Last week a writer in a nonfiction class asked a really good question about how to move the writing from her head onto the page. In the course of that discussion, I asked others if they noticed themselves "pre-writing" -- did ideas, personal essay themes, or memoir passages tend to bounce around in their brains for a while, percolating, marinating?

As for me, the more I write, the more I discover that the amount of time a piece of writing spends "marinating" – which I define as hanging out in my head before a word goes on the page – is almost totally out of my control. The rough material seems to have a mind of its own and will migrate to the page when ready. I'm talking here about substantial long essays or memoir pieces, or even book reviews and shorter pieces with some depth to them.

I've learned to trust my gut more when it comes to this stage. Certainly that doesn't mean I don't get frustrated, though lately I also notice that when I move too quickly from idea to first draft, I get just as frustrated, but for different reasons. And yet I'm not the type of writer who believes I must know precisely what I plan to write or where I stand on every facet before writing; very often I've discovered interesting nuances in my own thinking as I write.

I don't always have the luxury to let an idea marinate till the desired state of doneness, nor can I always trust that my thinking/composing/pre-writing process is working in my best interest. Whenever a deadline is involved, or when I think that the marinating process is morphing into procrastination, or when one of my *accountability* writing friends reminds me that it's been a bit too long since I've made any tangible progress on an idea, then I sit my big butt down and get words on the page.

I may not necessarily write the first draft, but I'll make notes, write bits of dialogue, record key phrases, images or details, make lists of important things to include, and even, very occasionally, make a rough outline (shh – I wouldn't want that last bit to get around). Or I'll do what I call a "mind dump" (or the pre-first-draft) – randomly pouring out everything I think I may ever want to say on the issue, but without any regard to how it reads (an activity more like typing or transcribing than writing).

Lately I kind of like the phase when a piece is bouncing around my head but not yet on the page. Used to be, it drove me a little bit insane, because it was usually accompanied by a finger-waving Greek chorus chanting: You're so lazy!...or…It's not going to write itself!...and my personal favorite line of self-recrimination: Anyone can write in their head!

These days, however, I holler back to that chorus: Shut up already!* And, by the way: A. Lazy people don't think about what they are going to write; they sit around thinking they could write. B. Actually yes, if I do think about it carefully and for just the right amount of time, the first draft will more or less write itself. and C. No, in reality everyone CAN'T write in their heads.

Now, the right length of time to marinate? Oh what say you, gods of prose?

*(And, yes, that just about uses up my quota of exclamation marks for the balance of 2009.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: October 10th Edition

Let's get right to the Friday links.

► Peter Selgin, novelist, essayist, editor of the food-themed literary journal Alimentum, and writing teacher extraordinaire, offers a free critique on a first page of a work in progress. Though posted anonymously, it does go up on his blog, so others can learn too. Or maybe you'd rather just sign up for Peter's weeklong workshop in Vitorchiano, Italy instead? Yeah, me too.

► Anyone interested in poetry in New Jersey, will want to bookmark the New Jersey Poets & Poetry Blog, where Anthony Buccino (also known as the man who clearly never sleeps), lists readings, festivals, open mics, classes, new books by NJ poets – and all other news a Garden State poet or poetry lover might need.

► When you have a few minutes (you know, in between your day job and your writing time), read Emily St. John Mandel's pragmatic and elegant essay over at The Millions, so aptly titled, Working the Double Shift.

Women's Memoirs is a site I just discovered. And it's of interest to, well, women who are writing memoirs.

► The Southern Festival of Books starts today and runs through Sunday in Nashville. A few writers I'd want to hear from who are on the huge agenda: Jacquelyn Mitchard, Dr. Peri Klass, Rick Bragg, Karen McElmurray, Jill McCorkle. At the Festival's website, author podcasts are also available from previous years (scroll down a bit on the page for the link).

► New Englanders, the Boston Book Festival is October 24. As of now, there are still spots in the free morning Jump Start Your Writing session, sponsored by Grub Street.

► While I haven't researched it deeply, this listing of 50 online courses – many free, and some listed at major universities -- may be a good resource for those who need to learn to write for the web.

► I haven't had much time this week to explore it, but I'm eager to see what folks think about the Huffington Post's new Books News and Opinion section (or, to call it by its webby name: the HuffPo's book vertical…which means, uh, book section). Check it out.

► Hofstra University has a reading series, open to the public. And Patricia Hampl is in town next week. Who knew?

Lit Drift. Good posts. Every single day.

►And finally, Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. Population: 1,500. Bookstores: 30. Really

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 12: Scriptwriting Tips for Prose Writers

One of the most spirited visiting writer seminars during my MFA was titled Scriptwriting Techniques, with a subtitle something along the lines of: what prose writers can learn from writing for visual media.

Some of the take-away were these questions to ask, particularly at the revision stage and/or when something seems fundamentally wrong about a piece, but the writer can't put a finger on just what it is:
- Did I avoid the climactic moment? Did I avoid all the chaos it would wreak so that I would not have to try to write my way out from there?
- Have I let my characters do unforgivable, wild, unpredictable things?
- Have I plucked out an ugly duckling (a segment of the piece that may at first seem off) instead of leaving it there and seeing what happens? Seeing if it
turns into a swan?
- Have I shown that all of my characters are flawed in some way? (They should be.)
- Is it very clear what the main character wants?

-Jamie Cat Callan, author of The Writer's Toolbox, and French Women Don't Sleep Alone
You can read the other 11 posts featuring the greatest tips, advice, and inspiration I accumulated in my MFA Notebooks, here.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Belated. Blame it on The Boss

Friday links coming at you on Saturday. Blame it on The Boss. Apparently, I am incapable of attending a Bruce Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium (down the road from my hometown), and also putting up a blog post all on the same day.

►Poet (and memoirist) Mark Doty will read and lead discussions and workshops at Centenary College of New Jersey on October 19 and 20. The events are free and open to the public. Since this is practically in my backyard, I'm hoping to attend at least a portion of the proceedings on the gorgeous rural campus.

►Those familiar with Julia Cameron's books, beginning with The Artist's Way -- whether faithful followers of her suggestions to enhance creative flow, such as Morning Pages, or interested in learning more about the advice thousands of successful artists heed -- you will want to watch some or all of these six video interviews.

►For authors who find they must do all or most of their own book publicity (um, I think that means just about every author these days), I hear this online course, taught by Sandra Beckwith, is excellent, and it's certainly very affordable. The next session begins Monday Oct. 5, but explore her Build Book Buzz site for newsletter sign-up, and additional dates and learning opportunities.

►Speaking of self-promotion, Kelly Corrigan, author of The Middle Place, a memoir, took matters into her own (apparently quite capable) hands, with enviable results.

► Last week was Banned Books Week, when a concerted effort was made nationwide to fight against this obnoxious concept. Like all such good causes however, it's worth remember every week.

► A literary journal outselling the looming symbol of bestsellerdom? Well, it may be only one bookstore, but I really like knowing that in one little corner of the literary world, things are as they should be.

►And finally, please take a minute to entertain yourself with this clever Seussian ditty by Jim C. Hines, which begins, "I read slush. Slush I read…." and gets better and better with every line. (thanks to Nathan Bransford's blog for pointing me to this).

Have a great (rest of the) weekend. As for me, I'll just be sitting here thinking about glory days…Don't anyone tell me that the great lyricists are not also poets.
Or, that my husband, who is not a big Springsteen fan (yeah I know, but he has other qualities), didn't just earn himself nearly a complete nag-free year by: buying tickets in good seats, for more than we budget for an entire six months of entertainment, for one of Bruce's last concerts ever in Giants Stadium, on the night of my birthday, four months in advance, keeping it secret until a week ago, outsourcing the children, then cheering even louder (I think) than me, and arranging for the rain to hold off till the final half-hour. See? Other qualities.