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.