Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Writing Process, Animals as Authors, Exclamations and More

• Interesting interview with rarely-interviewed author S.E.Hinton over at literary agent Nathan Bransford's always enlightening blog. One gem:

(Bransford): What is your writing process? Do you get it on the page and revise later? Outline? Plan ahead? Let the writing go where it goes?
(Hinton): I think I've tried every writing process there is, trying to find an easy way to write a novel. If I do find it, I'll publish it and retire. Sometimes I revise as I go. Once I used an outline. One time I thought in terms of movies and wrote scenes out of order, as they occurred to me, and stitched them together later. I wrote That Was Then, This Is Now, two pages a day and did almost no revision. I originally wrote Rumble Fish as a short story, did the novel, and threw that one away because it was too easy, and wrote it again with Rusty James as the narrator, which was not easy at all. The Outsiders was forty pages long, single-spaced, typed, in its first draft. The third draft was the one Marilyn saw. The only thing I am sure of in my "process" is that it involves a lot of staring out the window.
Read the entire interview here.

• Ahem. A web-based media internship going to the highest bidder? Nah, that just seems wrong, right? Wrong. The folks at the Huffington Post think it's okay, because it's for charity. What's next for HuffPo? Asking their (unpaid) bloggers to pay them for space?

• I don't have cats or dogs. I did have horses (five of them over 15 years), and although I'll admit I was smitten with Mr. Ed when I was a kid, I never really thought about writing anything in the voice of a pet. But apparently, many writers do. A student in one of my recent workshops, writing in the voice of her cat, got me thinking about it, and then I stumbled over the Pets and Their Authors blog, where pets "interview" their humans, who happen to be writers.

• If Elmore Leonard really meant it about exclamation points when he said, "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose," then imagine what he'd think about this Guardian article and the (no, say it ain't so) resurrection of that questionable punctuation mark.

• Finally, one more item from across the pond. Britain crowns its first female poet laureate. Hear her roar.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How are literary journals like other magazines?

One of my freelance editorial jobs is to gather and analyze news about the magazine industry for a trade newsletter, so I'm very familiar with (actually too familiar, more like overwhelmed and saddened by) the precarious state of magazines in the U.S. right now. Major titles have folded, more certainly will follow, and many publishers are instituting employee furloughs, shortened workweeks, pay cuts, and making severe reductions to editorial and sales staffs.

It's not quite as simple as online killing print (although of course that's part of it), but a much more complex set of circumstances – too many magazines chasing finite ad dollars; spiraling paper, printing and delivery costs; too-cheap subscriptions; low newsstand sales vs. high print runs; and many other factors. Bottom line, magazines need to find a better business model.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised to hear that the excellent literary journal The New England Review, published by Middlebury College, is facing the possibility of folding unless the journal can figure out a new way to fund their existence. We expect our literary journals to be more or less protected from the pressures consumer magazines face, but the recession isn't playing favorites.

Most lit journals are almost wholly dependent on university funding and/or grant support, and colleges are apparently now taking a harder look at their journals. Are they seeing only numbers rather than the value these books add to the literary world at large (and in many cases, to the prestige of their graduate writing programs)? For more about the NER's plight and that journal's intrinsic worth to Middlebury, see this thoughtful article in Inside Higher Ed.

I have subscriptions to only five literary journals – three of which exclusively publish creative nonfiction. Since I'd like to help support other journals, I've made it a practice to buy a copy of any issue in which a writer friend is published. It's not enough, but it's what I can afford and it assures that a supply of quality literary work moves through my house on a fairly regular basis.

I don't have any answers really for how literary journals can pay their own way. Publishing online only? Aggressively seeking private philanthropic underwriting? Throwing a rent party? Who knows. Perhaps, like in the consumer magazine market, there are just too many journals…or, maybe not enough. Maybe some new business model will emerge. I only know that eventually, it's readers, and supporters of the arts of all kind, and not only writers, who will suffer if titles like the New England Review don't survive.

Speaking of literary journals, two years ago, I had a really terrific Saturday in Manhattan meeting up with a visiting Canadian writer friend, on a gorgeous early summer day. We attended a group reading by editors and authors from a varied group of lit journals at the main branch of the NYC library (and then talked over a tasty lunch outdoors in adjacent Bryant Park).

The occasion was the Annual Lit Mag Marathon Weekend, which is scheduled this year for June 9 and 10. There will be numerous readings at the library, and for those who have never been inside this amazingly beautiful building, it's worth the trip just to walk through it -- slowly. Rounding out the event is a Literary Magazine Fair downtown at Housing Works Used Book Café, where it's going to be possible to leave with bulging bags of lit mags (price tag: $2 each) and still have money left over for a New York City-priced meal. Many editors will be hanging about at the shop, too, ready to chat.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Get Your Ghost(writing) Game On

Here's something of possible interest to out-of-work journalists, experienced freelance writers facing a recession-fueled lull, and writers who simply want another arrow in their editorial services quiver.

My friend Ellen Neuborne, an experienced ghostwriter or co-author of 11 books, is offering an online class, The Writer’s Guide to Ghosting. It's reasonably priced, and I know anyone who works with Ellen will be in good hands – she's disciplined, has a good sense of humor, and most importantly, knows her specialty -- period. Plus, she's a seasoned teacher and writing coach, former magazine editor, and well-published freelance writer.

Here's her nutshell description: The Writer's Guide to Ghosting is an online class designed for professional writers interested in breaking into this profitable specialty. Topics covered include breaking into the business, the mechanics of ghost writing a book, marketing yourself as a ghostwriter, contract and payment issues, and building a ghost writing pipeline.

The class begins June 1. For more info, email Ellen: eneuborne (at)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Quindlen Quits, Conferences & PR for Writers, & Something I Wrote

• If I were a self-published author, I would check out the Self Publishing Online Conference, May 13-15, where all the basic sessions are free on the web, including a full day (Friday) devoted to marketing and publicity. In fact, even if I were a traditionally-published author (or soon to be one), I might drop in on Friday anyway, since publishing house PR budgets have been drastically slashed, and much of a book's success today depends on what authors can do independently to market their books and themselves.

Anna Quindlen – essayist, Pulitzer Prize winner in the commentary division, former New York Times' Hers and Life in the 30s columnist and OpEd writer, and most recently, regular Newsweek columnist – was one of the reasons I first became interested in writing personal nonfiction. So I was understandably dismayed when she gave up her Newsweek column last week, citing a need to move aside for a younger generation of journalists.

Quindlen is only 56, and I for one, don't see her as anywhere near ready for retirement. Yes, she'll continue to write novels (she has several best-sellers on the shelf already), and undoubtedly she'll turn up on another major media venue before too long. I only wish she hadn't mentioned the age issue. Or maybe I am, as it puts a spotlight on the ageism issue in journalism and literary matters. And maybe her departure is not as voluntary as it first seemed, as this piece suggests, noting that the magazine is moving in a new (read: younger demographic) direction.

As for me, I'm solidly with Joanne123, a commenter at Newsweek who wrote: "Something is deeply wrong when the voices of one class of people must be silenced in order to make room for another." And I agree with AnnSent, who said, "Move on -- to greener pastures -- if you wish. Quit because the magazine makeover doesn't fit with your philosophy or goals. Quit because you're tired of bad news and brutal deadlines. Or brutal news and bad deadlines. Or the relentlessness of both. Or quit because you can. Because you want to write another novel. But not because you were eight years old when JFK was inaugurated."

• Novelists and short story writers in the Manhattan vicinity might want to consider the one-day 2009 Center for Fiction Writers Conference at the Mercantile Library on June 27. For the relatively low fee, you also get a space for one-month at the Center’s Writers’ Studio on East 47th Street.

• Writing about family is tricky; very often it's both the wheat and the chaff for the nonfiction writer attempting to craft interesting memoir and moving personal essays. It is for me. My memoir-in-progress, and most of my personal essays, would fall apart without the on-page characters to whom I am related off-the-page. They did not ask to be there, and yet as part of my life, they are part of my story, although my story of course is never their story.

One of my pieces, titled "Tip Not Included" (second place in the essay category of the Charles Simic Graduate Student Writing Contest a year or so ago), appears in the current edition of the journal Barnstorm. It's mostly about my father, and while he cannot let me know what he thinks, in my story, he approves.

Have a great weekend.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Self-Promotion 101 for Writers: Point Readers to Your Work. Check.

Time for a bit of shameless self-promotion. Since I do it rarely on the blog, I don't feel guilty about it one bit.

One of my personal essays is running in Skirt, a print and online magazine. This one's especially dear to me. Although it recalls a time in my life that was particularly painful, by looking at that period through a particular lens, I came to an understanding of an elemental truth beyond the current misery.

Here's the opening.....

When my first child, Sean, was nine months-old, I regarded myself as a failure at motherhood. My husband, Frank, would come in from work each day to find me at the kitchen table, sobbing. I would explain it all again: I am miserable. I am no good at this. I do not know how to be a mother.
I needed to know I could do something right. A quilt seemed like a worthy project. Systematic. Sequential. One square after another...
You can read the complete essay here on the Skirt! site.

Tomorrow, we shall return to our regularly scheduled (non self-promoting) programming. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Seven Habits of (Not Necessarily Highly) Effective Writers

So, I am preparing notes for a seminar this week on the subject of overcoming common obstacles to creating and maintaining a writing routine. As I look over my topic headings, I'm tempted to take a short-hand, back-handed approach. For example:

Finding Time to Write: If you can find time to do the laundry, watch TV, gossip, browse YouTube, and talk about how much you really do want to write, you can find time to write.

Writer's Block: Ever heard of plumber's block? Accountant's block? Knitter's block? Playoff-watching block? Golfer's block? Get over it. How? You write.

Quieting Your Self Censor: Find a fellow writer working in the same genre, someone more experienced, who will read your work and when necessary, use the word bullshit a lot. Listen. Rewrite.

Getting Support: Might not happen with those you want it from the most. Write anyway. Look elsewhere for support. Don't wait to find it.

Improving Your Writing: Write. Read. Write. Read. Write. Get instruction. Get feedback. Rewrite. Read. Rewrite. Read. Rewrite. Repeat as necessary.

Getting From Idea to the Page: Write the idea(s) down. Any time, any place, any idea. On a piece of paper. Or a screen. Voila.

Establishing a Writing Routine: Write, beginning today. Repeat tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. See a pattern here?

I don't mean to sound flippant. And of course, I won't say these things to anyone who is interested enough in writing to come to a seminar about forging a creative writing habit. It's not as if I think the answers to these real writing dilemmas are quite so simple or obvious. They're not. Each and every writer, or would-be writer, or wannabe writer, or tentative writer, has to figure much of it out solo. Writing is the ultimate in on-the-"job" training. For the new writer, of course, there is a lot of value in listening to advice from those a bit, or a lot, further down the road. So I'm planning to offer lots of ideas, options, suggestions, tips and alternatives. I want to help as many people who want to write, to get writing.

Still, I find myself thinking that what I really want to say – and maybe I can find a diplomatic, encouraging way to do so – is, don't make more of this than it is. Don't romanticize writing. Or put it in the category of some mystical communion that only happens between muse and channel, some mysterious other-wordly thing to which only select individuals have access. Of course there is some of that. But only a very little of that. And only sometimes. And mostly, not when you desperately want it to materialize. Mostly the recipe is this: Read. Write. Learn the craft. Repeat. That recipe won't necessarily make you a great writer. But if your "problem" is that you can't get started, or feel blocked, or wonder if can write anything at all, the recipe holds up.

I'll have lots of handouts and will talk for an hour about creating the time and the mental and physical space to write. About finding writing organizations and conferences and online resources. About writing prompts and writing exercises and books for writers. About the value of writing groups and attending readings and getting feedback. About some routines, habits, and tricks that work for accomplished writers when they have trouble putting words on the page. I hope it all helps.

But then I wonder if I should tell the attendees: You can go home and think about all of it and read all of the handouts for an hour. Or you can write for an hour.