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.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Self-Editing Session Tonight in Montclair

This one is for locals: If you are a writer type who believes a fascinating Thursday night consists of discussing self-editing with other writers, then consider joining me tonight (Oct. 1) at the Montclair Library for an interactive session on editing one's own work.

The Montclair Public Library main branch is located at 50 South Fullerton Ave. The event is from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. and is free (sponsored by The Write Group). Bring a short piece or just listen. RSVP here.

Yeah, I know, Bruce Springsteen is at Giants Stadium tonight too. But where are your priorities?