Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Tech Tasks for Writers, Literary Roads not Taken, Poetry in NJ, Memoirs & More

This list, found at the 10,000 Words site (“where journalism and technology meet) is designed to keep recent journalism school graduates busy sharpening skills while job hunting. But I think it’s even better advice for anyone who graduated from J-school more than ten years ago (uh, that would be me). I groaned at some of the suggestions, but by tackling at least half, I’ll be more valuable to future editors and clients in any area of media or literary life. And I might add, it wouldn’t hurt any newly (or soon-to-be) published authors to try their hands at these skills for the sake of savvier do-it-yourself book marketing.

• Some rare literary insight over at Daily Finance: the career road not taken, tweaked for writer types.

• Working on a To Be Read list for summer? If memoirs are of interest, this list of 50 suggestions might be useful, from Library Journal, where I often find gems, and not just about libraries.

Crowd-sourcing a book. Hmm.

• I live in New Jersey. (Yes, not far at all from those hideous Bravo housewives, but please, hold the condolences.) When people ask where in New Jersey I live, I say Montclair. Not because it’s true, but because almost everyone has heard of Montclair, the urban-like suburb, known for its racial-, social-, cultural- and economic-diversity, the liberal little cityburb full of literary types, media elites, artists and low-key celebrities, a hip hamlet with a thriving downtown, nightlife, and direct 30-minute train service to Manhattan. The tiny obscure town where I live, which borders Montclair? None of the above. Now, it looks as if Montclair has a good chance to be the new home of the Dodge Poetry Festival (the largest poetry event in North America), which is vacating its usual venue some 20 miles west.

• Write Young Adult fiction? Eileen Cook’s blog will be of interest, and be sure to check out her link list to find more blogs of YA (and other) authors.

• Read these Five Common Flaws of Memoir Projects. Actually, it’s not all about you.

• If you are on Twitter (like me @LisaRomeo) and you are a magazine junkie (again, me), and you want to add some magazines to your Twitter feed, you might find want to check this out.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good News for Good Neighbors: Really Good Writing by a Good Writing Friend

I’m always pleased to get a note from one of my favorite creative nonfiction writers, Mimi Schwartz, letting me know what she’s up to writing- and teaching-wise. Mimi’s excellent memoir-in-essays, Thoughts From a Queen-Sized Bed, played a part in the critical research thesis I prepared as an MFA student, and when I contacted her with questions, instead of a return email, I received an invitation to visit and talk writing. I’ve been meaning to post something about her newest book, and am a little embarrassed not to have done so already.

So I’m going to pass Mimi’s most recent note on directly to my readers:
“I want to let you know that Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father's German Village is a winner of the ForeWord Book of the Year Award in Memoir for 2008. It will be coming out in paperback this November, complete with "Discussion Questions" for use in courses, book groups, etc.
If you know of teachers and book groups who are interested in issues of decency during Nazi times of hate--and the implications for us, as neighbors, today--please refer them to my website for more information about the book and me.”
I recommend a tour around her site, where I found, among other gems, these behind-the-book insights about her process and key decisions on the writing and craft aspects of Good Neighbors. This isn't surprising since Mimi also wrote Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. My suggestion: put her newest book on your list. Not the To Be Read (sometime) List, but the To Be Read SOON List.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When all Writers are Welcome. Then what?

I do the occasional gratis talk or presentation about creative writing at libraries, community centers, and other places. There is no money in it, the audience will be small (usually about a dozen folks), and it takes as much of my time and mental energy to prepare and present these talks as it does to do so for a (paid) class or seminar. But I have my reasons.

Recently, I gave a talk at my local library titled, Creative Writing: Making it Stick, and promised to talk about developing a writing habit, motivation, process, writers block, the art of rewriting and other topics which frequently derail the newer writer, the writer without benefit of a writing group, and the writer who is not sure whether what they are doing can even be called writing. Fourteen people registered and nine arrived on a rainy Monday morning for the 90 minute session.

I asked participants to talk about what they were working on and what was holding them back in their writing endeavors.

Participants one and two: a 40-years-married couple, recently retired.
Husband: At my brother's funeral, everyone was laughing their heads off during the eulogies because my brother was such a funny guy. I thought, I should write this stuff down, maybe write a book of stories about all the funny things he did and said.
Wife: We started working on it together and it's fun. He dictates and I record it, then we go over it together.
They asked great questions which opened up a lively and rich discussion: "How can I make sure anyone will want to read about someone else's life? What makes a personal story interesting to others?" They took notes. They stayed after the session ended and asked more questions. I got a terrific sense that this was not going to be one of those retired couples who drive one another around the bend. On the way out, they checked out a book about writing and a memoir of short humorous essays. I saw them holding hands on the way to their car.

Participant three: Retired paralegal with decades years of hilariously unlikely observations about life in that otherwise stuffy industry. She needs organizational help, wants to shed her tendency to write it right the first time, and thinks she hasn't got time to write an entire book anyway. She's visibly intrigued over a few relatively routine writing suggestions I make about how to get a first draft down on paper (and why it's okay for it to be so awful her former attorney boss would have fired her for producing anything quite so crappy), how to turn some of her otherwise off-limits time into writing time, and my suggestion that she group her stories according to theme or decade or situation. Few things measure up to the feeling of seeing light bulbs go on in the eyes of anyone who has come to you for help.

Participant four: Someone who took one of my creative nonfiction classes last Fall. She has the personal essayist's quiet gift for the telling detail. Her short pieces about life in the 1940s, and today, are exquisite charms. I've encouraged her to write more. She arrives with a bulging notebook, questions about revision, and that look. You know that look? The one which says, everything I take in, everything I see, think about and observe, is getting filed away and may show up somewhere, sometime, on the page. That look which says I'm listening, but I’m also already somewhere else, way inside my head, working with words, playing with phrases, intrigued by ideas. I love that look in a writer. One day I feel certain I will be reading her pieces somewhere other than at the library. Or maybe not; she is not so much interested in publication, as much as she is excited about working on her craft (huzzah!).

I like to think I helped at least that particular group of writers that morning. But maybe not Participants Five, Six and Seven, though: the grumbling old gentleman who wanted to talk (and talk and talk) about his poetry (any why he refuses to write it down); the woman who writes archly conservative political rants and felt ill treated when submitting to newspaper editors; and the self-published author of four romance novels hoping I could to interest an agent.

It had said on the flyer for the class, all writers welcome. And while it was fleetingly tempting to pass over the demands of this second group, I take it as a challenge to find something to offer everyone. So at the end of the session, I invited the elderly man to recite one poem – and he had us all laughing and nodding. I suggested to the political writer that she research right-leaning websites and tossed out the names of two to get her started. As for the romance writer, I directed her to a few agent resource sites and advised against sending copies of all four books along with her cover letter.

Sometimes, even weeks or months later, I hear from participants, which is almost always terrific (except when they ask me to edit 50 pages for free). But mostly, silence is okay too. I just take it to mean they are all busy writing. That may be just an illusion I use to keep myself going. That's okay too.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Memoir Pitfalls, Literati Write the News, Your Summer Submission Schedule, and a bit 'o fun

Welcome to all my new readers!

It's the end of the week (okay, technically it's already Saturday, but humor me) and that means Friday Fridge Clean-Out. Unfamiliar with the term? It's what I call "dinner" when I manage to pull together a meal of sorts from a refrigerator overloaded with leftovers (home cooked or take out), scraps, tidbits, and, if I’m lucky, a few delicious but overlooked fresh items hiding behind the ketchup. On the blog, Fridge Clean-Out means it's time to pass along a selection of what I found of interest around the web recently, and hope you find a few gems along the buffet line.

> First up is this piece in the Los Angeles Times' Books section, by Marion Winik, aptly titled, "The pitfalls of one's recall," and addresses the thorny issue of the other characters in memoir; the relatives, spouses, friends, former lovers, ex-friends, and others who find their way into a memoir, and who may or may not like it. One of Winik's many excellent points is:

"This was the beginning of my understanding of the most serious moral principle of memoir: The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about."

> Can a website thrive by making "handpicked book recommendations"? The folks at Flashlight Worthy Books think so. Looks interesting.

> What happens when the daily newspaper is reported, written, and edited by novelists, memoirists, and poets? Check this report in The Forward on the June 10 experiment by an Israeli newspaper. While there was solid, traditional reporting, there was also, perhaps predictably, this:

"…the stock market summary by author Avri Herling. It went like this: Everything’s okay. Everything’s like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything’s okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place… Dow Jones traded steadily and closed with 8,761 points …The guy from the shakshuka [an Israeli egg-and-tomato dish] shop raised his prices again…."

But also this:

"…79-year-old author Yoram Kaniuk, whose novel “Adam Resurrected” was recently adapted for a movie starring Jeff Goldblum and Ayelet Zurer. He went into the field to write about couples in the hospital cancer ward. The thing is, he’s a cancer patient, too. “A woman walking with a cane brings her partner a cup of coffee with a trembling hand. The looks they exchange are sexier than any performance by Madonna and cost a good deal less,” Kaniuk wrote. “I think about what would happen if I were to get better…how I would live without the human delicacy to which I am witness?”

“I got more telephone calls today than I have in years past,” Kaniuk said in a phone interview. “People were very moved, because I wrote it like a writer and not like a journalist. If you see something beautiful and touching, why not write it?”
> At her blog, Sara in Vermont, author Sara J. Henry asks, what's the deal with MFA students who thinks it makes sense to draw dividing lines between the merits of their peers based on who is a "literary writer" and a "commercial writer"? I find this especially destructive because most writers who do become at least moderately successful at earning a partial living from their words, will find it necessary to straddle the line at some point. Enough said

> Pamela Redmond Satran has a new book due out soon titled after her hilarious blog, How Not to Act Old. An excerpt also appears in the current issue of More magazine. Pam is also, by the way, the author of "Maya Angelou's best poem ever." Really.

> On her blog, Poet Diane Lockward lists Journals That Read in the Summer, parts One, Two and Three. There, that ought to keep you out of the hammock.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writing in Text

A little linguistic fun for a dull grey day.

I don't pretend to know all the abbreviations, acronyms, and other texting tricks, but I can get my digital point across. Deciphering what others write in a text is not always so simple, though maybe writers have an edge when trying to puzzle it all out.

Need some practice? Try this, from McSweeneys: God Texts the Ten Commandments by Jamie Quatro.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Can putting more book content online drive print book sales?

In the current (June) print issue of Wired magazine, columnist Clive Thompson makes a compelling case for putting more free book content online - sometimes. He posits that once a book's text is open for discussion online, the resulting community which grows up around that conversation will support the print product.

Thompson writes, in part:

"You're far more likely to hear about a book if a friend has highlighted a couple brilliant sentences in a Facebook update—and if you hear about it, you're far more likely to buy it in print. Yes, in print: The few authors who have experimented with giving away digital copies (mostly in sci-fi) have found that they end up selling more print copies, because their books are discovered by more people."

The "mostly in sci-fi" qualifier may make for some skepticism, but there's not much reason to doubt why it couldn't happen across all the genres and in literary publishing as well. He notes:

"Every other form of media that's gone digital has been transformed by its audience. Whenever a newspaper story or TV clip or blog post or white paper goes online, readers and viewers begin commenting about it on blogs, snipping their favorite sections, passing them along. The only reason the same thing doesn't happen to books is that they're locked into ink on paper."

What do you think?

You can read the entire (brief) Wired column, "The Future of Reading," here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Will Edit for Money (but compliments work too)

The editing and writing coaching parts of my freelance business have been expanding of late, which makes me happy -- it's good for the budget, of course, but it's also work I love and it brings me into relationships with such interesting and hard-working writers, all of whom (at least so far) are people I happen to like as well. I also love the variety of the material; lately I've worked on memoir, comic fiction, a coffee-table photography book, and even a dissertation.

Last month, one of the writers I worked with won a regional personal essay contest. The sound of her voice on the telephone -- after she returned from the award luncheon where she read her work to an audience for the first time -- was indescribably satisfying.

Last night I emailed a new client a summary of developmental editing comments for a chapter of her memoir-in-progress. When I opened my inbox this morning, I found this from her: "Wow! Best money I ever spent."

I don't think I can improve on that, so I won't even try, except to say that what was wonderful was not only did she feel her money had been well spent, but that I had delivered something of value to a fellow writer, something which may move her toward a richer, more nuanced next draft.

Getting confirmation that I have something to contribute matters, and on days when my own writing is not going so well, on days when the rest of life seems to usurp all my creative energy and figuring out how to slice up the freelance pie seems impossible, I can think about that happy client email. I've already printed it out and posted it just above the computer.

Now, end of self-promotion blather, and back to work, because it's still a Monday...

Friday, June 5, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Of author blogs, writing contests, jilted journalists, and a J-school's flub

The fridge is overloaded, links are threatening to leak all over. Here goes:

Follow along as (my friend) novelist Christina Baker Kline chronicles the year ahead as she writes a new historical novel, Orphan Train. Along the way, her upcoming novel Bird in Hand will hit the market, she'll teach in London and at Fordham's MFA program, and otherwise be her amazing self. She's a first-time (and already a first-rate) blogger. So go, visit!

• Gotham Writers' Workshop is holding a two day writing weekend, June 20-21, in Manhattan, at a very reasonable fee.

• Here's a thoughtful piece on writing contests, and oh yes, those contest fees.

• One estimate has it that nearly 15,000 folks have already been laid off, downsized, terminated, bought out, or otherwise thrown from the media train in the last year. This new site's title says it all: Jilted Journalist.

• I have "met" so many interesting writers and other literary types over on Twitter, many of whom have terrific blogs which I never would have found otherwise. I’m going to try to list at least one here each week, and I'll start with Blog of Innocence, where Lethe Bashar (find him on Twitter @blogofinnocence) shares "essays and meditations on social technology, science, writing, art, and life."

• I got my journalism degree at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, and have always been proud of that. But this week I couldn't agree more with Simon Dumenco's AdAge column drubbing the (relatively new) Dean of Newhouse for presenting the University's Lifetime Achievement Mirror Award to….wait for it…Arianna Huffington.

Yes, the same Arianna whose Huffington Post refuses to pay writers, who says that's "not our business model," and who instead insists that "visibility, promotion and distribution" are compensation enough.

If I were a parent paying $40,000 a year for an SU journalism education I'd want to ask: Why is my child's journalism school Dean more or less affirming the Huffington "business model" of not paying writers, by honoring its founder? And if I were a student there now, I'd want to know: Why is SU condoning the decimation of the very profession it is preparing me to enter?

• Since it is Friday, and I don't want to end on a sour note, here's another blog about a forthcoming memoir which pivots on the popular what-I-did-for-a-year theme. This one's The Happiness Project. The question is, can one woman get happy by following all the theories, suggestions, and advice out there?

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Writing Go-Round: Getting On, Getting Off, Getting Dizzy

Sometimes one needs a break. Even from something pleasurable. And sometimes a break is forced upon one. I knew I needed a break -- from chasing work, from the blog, from networking, networking groups, project proposals, the submissions carousel (and tracking & inventory management), conferences, all of it; all the external interactions and machinations which, while necessary and vital and even enjoyable in order to sustain a writing life, were also, it seemed, sucking me into a vortex where productivity was paramount, but without passion.

I needed the time-out for what I might call a mental writing realignment, a time to tie up loose ends and then reposition myself at a psychic level. I needed to figure out how to allot my time and creative energy over the next six months-to-a-year. Among tangible tasks, I wanted to finish a stalled book proposal, revisit the sputtering college teaching job search, plan out what private writing workshops and classes to offer in the fall, and bring a bit of order to my office. At the more conceptual level, I hoped to think about which essays-in-progress were worth revising or rewriting, to plan new creative nonfiction work, and to take a long look at the memoir-in-progress to see where it's going (ahem, if anywhere).

I wanted to ask myself where am I as a writer and where do I need to go?

Yet while I was procrastinating about whether or not to take this break, as often happens, life intervened – or should I say asserted itself. First, more paid work came in the door – an editing assignment, an editorial research project, a new author client for book publicity coaching. Absolutely no complaints, of course. I'm thrilled to have the work, happy that people trust me with their words, their editorial space, their marketing needs.

So, I'd get through this batch of work, I told myself, and then take that centering break. Instead, family "events" pulled me even further out of my head and nearly all at once wiped every appointment from both my work and personal calendar. Among other things, one of my kids had an accident (think blood, stitches, cast, crutches, me in Mom-on-call mode).

Put it all together and, well, I got a break. But it certainly has not been the break I wanted or needed. I've been doing client work at the dining room table -- when not been bandaging, following a teetering kid around, supervising said child's backed-up schoolwork, cooking for extended family, or getting a teenager through finals and settled into his first summer job. (There's more, but you get the picture.)

That mental re-alignment? It's still on the schedule, absolutely. I'm not sure how I'll fit it in. Can I say no to paid work in order to take it? Absolutely not. Hire someone to take over some home front duties so I can concentrate on the memoir, the essays, revamping the CV? I could. But I won't. I have this weird quirk about hands-on mothering (I know, I know, but I can't help it). I'm going to have to, I suppose, take that break, not in one gulp as I want to, but instead in sips, and I'm setting aside an hour or so each day for the rest of the month. I have my doubts about how that's going to work out: I'm the sort who likes to do things all at once, with a concentrated narrow, forget-everything-else focus.

Funny that I still think this way, when most of my career has been about successfully and simultaneously juggling -- multiple freelance writing assignments, assorted client expectations and media demands when I worked in PR, the progress and goals of several writing students, the varying requests and deadlines of editorial clients and private writing students. And, of course a few things in my life have been trying for years to disabuse me of this notion of sprints versus marathons, namely: navigating motherhood, a long marriage, mortgages, and midlife.

Not long ago, I helped edit a first novel and its agent letter and synopsis, for a local writer, who complained about the almost impossible dilemma of finding the time to research agents and submit, all while caring for two young children, working part time, pinch-hitting for a husband who works killer hours, and volunteering. I said something at the time, rather too blithely I now recall, "Just say no to some of it. Figure out a way to slice up the pie. And by the way, welcome to the writer's life."

Welcome to the writer's life.

A life in which that which intervenes – kids, aging parents, household disasters, health concerns, logistics – is often absorbed and accommodated at the expense of writing. The page counts dwindle, contacts made but not followed up on begin to yellow with age, enthusiasm wanes and resentment sometimes creeps in. A life in which what we get paid to write/edit is not always what we envision spending our best writing time on: the not-sure-where-it's-going project, the let's-take-a-chance book proposal, the never-wrote-this-genre-but-why-not-take-a-plunge draft, the book-in-progress-that's-not-under-contract.

For me, over the last six months or so, it's not been a question of finding time to write, but of finding the time and mental space to write with freedom -- to write something new, something daring, something that's not expected to land on someone's desk by X deadline.

I'm still working on finding the best way to slice the pie myself. And I'm not whining. At one time, someone must have said to me, "welcome to the writer's life," and I stayed. I’m not going anywhere. But maybe I can see about getting a bigger pie.