Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Friday Clean Out: January 29 Edition

► Jordan Rosenfield interviews Hope Edelman about her editing process.

►Lorraine Duffy Merkl on being published, 50, and grateful. And always, busy promoting the book.

►Los Angeles's KCRW radio's Bookworm programs are archived here. Recent podcast additions are interviews with Barbara Kingsolver, A.S. Byatt, and Nicholson Baker.

► I got my first subscription to a writer's magazine at age 12, and it was Writer's Digest, which is marking its 90th year on the newsstand – not only a major achievement for any business, but a minor miracle in the current print magazine industry.

► R.I.P. Erich Segal, Robert Parker, and J.D. Salinger.

► Bad enough writers contend with some people's expectations that they don't actually need to be paid for their work. These writers, screwed by the Hollywood age police, took it to court, and won.

►Get right with rejections. James Chartrand explains in a recent post, "One excellent professional writer said that she made a goal to get at least ten rejection letters every month. That’s right. Her goal was to get rejection letters, not acceptance letters. Why? Because when she made that goal about rejections, they weren’t nearly as disappointing to receive. They were simply a mark of honor for having submitted at all."

► Speaking of rejections, many-times-published children's sports fiction writer Dan Gutman shares his road to rejection and eventual publication, with excerpts from the actual agent rejection letters.

►Hmm. Banning the dictionary from an elementary school because somewhere in its hundreds of pages lurks an accurate definition of a sexual act. Just another example of absurd modern kid-coddling. Lots more, plus common sense, over at Lenore Skenazy's intelligent blog, Free-Range Kids.

►And finally, the definitive guide to never again fearing the semi-colon.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Let's Review: Memoir. And oh yes, more memoir, please.

I love a good memoir, as anyone who's been here before knows. Recently, I reviewed a good one - Yarn: Remembering the Way Home, by Kyoko Mori. It was a pleasure to be trusted with responding to Mori's beautiful work, and I also enjoyed getting back to reviewing a book in the genre I so love.

Lately, I had been reviewing from other categories: novel, short story collection, even a cookbook and a diet book (the last two not consecutively, at least!). I like the diversity, but nonfiction is such a pleasure to read, I hoard every excuse to read more of it.

What are you reading (and/or reviewing) these days?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

One More Time: Writing Prompts Program Held Over for February

In January, I offered to send a daily writing prompt to all who signed up. Plenty of folks did. By request, and because I like dreaming up prompts each morning while trying to wake up over my cup of lousy instant decaf, I'm extending the program for the month of February. (But that's it; I have a big project to tackle in March.)

If you want to participate, just drop me an email with the word "Prompt" in the subject line and your name (first, last, or both) in the body of the email. You'll get an email every day with the prompt. That's it, from my end. You decide what to do next -- write in response to the prompt, file it for future inspiration-starved days, take a pass, delete, or work it into the first line of your next novel, story, essay, rant, poem, journal entry, blog post, tweet?

Here is my original post about why I like prompts and what I hope they might do for you, and here is an update about how some folks used the prompts last month.

Also during February, you'll see a few blog posts by the January participants.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Write. Count Words. Make Every Word Count. Repeat.

I love questions and observations from writers in my classes. They make me think, and what writer doesn’t like that? Lately, I’ve been thinking about word counts, because lately I've been dealing with: (1) Can I exceed the word count? and (2) It’s not possible to do this assignment within the stated word count. I get the same thing, regardless of the focus of the class, type of assignment, and whether it's a 300 or 2500 word limit.

The short answers are: (1) No, you can't; and (2) Yes, it is.

The longer answer is a bit more involved.

Word counts impose discipline. When we write, we make something. And sooner or late, like any other created “product” it needs to fit in a particular space. Writing with the goal of eventual publication means we come up against word counts imposed by editors and publishers, agents, and industry standards.

It’s true that word limits were more strictly enforced when everything was in print form, and that many online venues have more "space" and are more flexible. Yet I’ve found that even (and sometimes mostly) the most well-designed, heavily trafficked, best-edited sites adhere to word counts, too.

When you accept an assignment, or an editor accepts your submission, word count comes up. If the assignment is 700 words, you don’t write 900. If the column has room for 900 words, you don't submit 1200. If a literary journal's submissions guidelines say under 6000 words, you don’t send 7000. If you submit an unsolicited piece and an editor wants to buy/publish it, and it's 559 words, and you are asked to cut it to 500, you cut it. End of story.

Word counts are something writers engage with over an entire career, a language a writer needs to be fluent at, a universal code among those who write, edit and publish. Many media venues still pay according to word count, and whether that's a dime or two bucks a word, you need to do the math before deciding if you want to spend your time on the piece.

Write a book manuscript and you will have to speak of it in terms of word count – to agents, editors, even other writers. You’ll need to know that most X-type of books fall in the Y word count range, for example.

Some writers insist they are creatively inhibited by word counts, or that it makes the writing process feel too technical. Well, some parts of writing are technical. Sorry. Others want to write freely without thinking of word counts. That’s great, I say. Do that – write until your fingertips fall off. And then, cull and revise the words which make the finest 400-word dialogue exchange, the most sparkling 1500 word essay.

Sure, I have turned in 711 words when the limit was 700 (but I wouldn't send 725). Editors do have a small window of “more or less” which they will accept without hitting the roof; a skilled editor can so deftly delete such a small overage, within minutes and without harming, and usually improving, the piece.

Once, to my horror, when I had three personal essays due to three different venues the same week (may the freelance Gods so bless me again some day!), I mixed up word counts. Editors A and B wanted 1,000 words each, and Editor C asked for 1,500. I sent everything off, only to discover that Editor B was more than a bit put out at having received 1500 words instead of 1000, and Editor C wanted to know why the piece was one-third shorter than we had discussed. Needless to say, it was easier to add 500 words to the too-short piece than to excise from the bloated one. It was no fun being me that week.

Practical considerations aside, word counts also impact craft. Mark Twain was famously credited with paraphrasing Blaise Pascal about a wordy missive: I’m sorry it’s so long. If I had more time, I would have written a shorter one. The implication is that crafting a finely honed succinct piece of writing takes time – and skill, craft, patience, and revision. Being verbose on the page is easy.

Another reason I insist on firm word counts is because at the root of many writing problems is not writing tight. Adjectives proliferate. Adverbs abound. (Don’t even get me started on my kill-all-the-adverbs rant.) Descriptions which should take one sentence go on for paragraphs. Dialogue is bloated. Writers spend entire opening pages clearing their throats. A rigid word count will make thinking writers question everything in their prose. Is this necessary? What about that? Can’t I condense here, or maybe there?

In writing, as in life, the answer so often is: Cut. Three cookies and six hungry toddlers? Cut. An appetite for designer shoes and a small paycheck? Cut. Another rejection, nosy in-laws, and a fight with your spouse? Cut (your hair or, the leftover cheesecake). Word counts will force a writer to make cuts, often painful ones; which will turn out, in most cases, to be the ones which propel better drafts, successful revisions, more focused final versions.

I’ve rarely had the experience, after having to trim a piece, of thinking it was better in the original longer version. But I often have the opposite experience, of a piece turning out so much better once I lop off a bunch of words (along, sometimes, with my own puffed-up idea of how wonderful my original prose was.)

Write tight, fellow writers. And yes, those who teach and coach writers do have another reason for sticking to word counts. We’ve got other stuff to read. Like all those concise Twitter updates (140 character limit!) and wonderfully brief Six Word Memoirs.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out: January 22 Edition

► The journal Creative Nonfiction is launching a complete redesign with its next issue. To celebrate, there will be free launch parties in Pittsburgh (where CNF is published), Bethesda, MD, and Denver. A special subscription price is also being offered. All the details are here.

►If you have not already read it, grab a cup of whatever, scroll down or click to the previous post, and settle in for a good long soak in the waters of book PR. Vicki Forman, who did a stellar job garnering coverage for her memoir, This Love Life, gives the (detailed) low-down on what a first-time author should know and do to promote a book, beginning a year before publication.

►Information on my intensive, online four-week creative nonfiction classes for March and April can be found here. By request, I’m also setting up a less-structured online workshop exchange for February – limited to 4 writers. Email me for details.

►Check out Pimp My Novel, a blog by an anonymous (and often very witty) someone who works on the sales side of publishing and knows what happens to a book once it's acquired.

►Paige Williams's article, Finding Dolly Freed, is an interesting experiment in independent (by default), online, reader-supported literary journalism. Enjoy the piece, and be sure to click on "about this story".

►Late in 2009, Kirkus Reviews folded, as did Editor and Publisher. E&P is coming back, and now Kirkus too may be revived. Now, about those authors, book critics and media columnists who were quick to write jubilantly snippy columns and blog posts about how glad they were that Kirkus had died, because it was not so great anyway....well, let's hope none of them have a book coming out anytime soon.

►Local folks can join me on Thursday evening, February 4 (at 7 pm) at the Montclair Library, for Reject Revamp – you bring in what editors have said “no thanks” to (cover letter and the piece), and we try to troubleshoot what might be needed before submitting elsewhere. Sponsored by The Write Group; no charge, but do RSVP.

►Now here's an idea: The Squam Art Workshop Reader's Retreat, where the purpose is to read. For five days! Not to write, not to network, or participate in a workshop. Just reading, glorious reading, a little talking about books, and a few notable author drop-ins.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Author Interview: Memoirist Vicki Forman on book publicity, and what a first-time author can expect – and expect to do.

Vicki Forman's fabulous memoir, This Lovely Life, winner of the Bakeless Prize, was published last summer to terrific reviews, and suddenly Vicki and her book were popping up everywhere. In the interview which follows, Vicki discusses what a first-time author can expect in terms of book promotion, her own personal commitment to marketing her book, what that required.

LR: In the guest post you did here last winter, you discussed final pre-publication edits. Now, you're seven months post-publication. What's the view from here? Any surprises?

VF: It surprised me to find out just how challenging it is to sell a book. After all the hard work of writing a book, and persevering until the book found a home, once the book came out I was prepared for promotion to take over my life, but I had not anticipated the real work of hand-selling a book, essentially one reader at a time.

I am so very grateful to the loyal readers who lined up and bought the book, either at readings or from their local bookstores or from online retailers. But it is definitely the case that this a tough market for writers. One bookseller I spoke with confessed to me that he would typically have 20 to 25 sales from a reading with a good turnout. Now those sales were more like 5 to 10 books. That's sobering news for a writer, certainly.

LR: How far in advance of the publication date did you begin your personal effort at publicity? What did you do first?

VF: Once I had settled on a title for the book, the first thing I did was register that URL. I knew I would want readers to find an online presence for the book, so that was most important in my mind. I registered the URL a year before the book was published.

As I moved forward in the production process, I used my personal blog and Facebook status to keep my immediate friends and audience abreast of steps. I posted pictures of galleys and ARC's as they became available. By that point, we were about four months away from publication. As soon as the book was available for pre-order, I started up the book's website and a Facebook group for the book. In my opinion, as soon as you have approved cover art, book publicity can begin.

In May, first reviews came out. The book was published in July, but by June I had a fleshed out website with reviews, excerpts, appearance schedule, an author Q&A and contact information. It's important to remember that a lot of publicity happens ahead of publication, so you want to be ready with your online presence in particular. Think of what your potential readers or reviewers might want to know about you, and put all that up on your website in an organized fashion.

LR: Can you give a quickie breakdown of the different avenues of publicity you undertook, and your gut reaction to how each of those efforts worked out?

VF: The website was always going to be important, for the reasons I list above, and, even more important, because it costs so little. A book or author website is probably the most necessary promotional tool you can have.

Author appearances have a significant, yet intangible importance. As I mentioned before, this was a tough market in which to sell books. However, if a bookstore was willing to have me come and read, I did. I was careful not to sign too much stock (the booksellers seemed to appreciate this gesture) and I was happy no matter how many copies I sold. I can't say enough about the value of face-to-face contact with an audience. Even if I felt like the appearance had a small turnout, I almost always saw an uptick in visits to the book's website afterwards. You also get to hear first hand what readers like about your book, and you get to meet the bookstore folks and develop relationships with them.

I attended several conferences, which had a different, but equally important value. Here I could meet the professionals who might then go back to their organizations and talk about the book. I think there is great reward in being a speaker on a panel at a large conference. You may not sell any books while you're there, but you are getting terrific exposure for your work and your name. You also gain experience in meeting and talking to very different people than you might encounter at a reading. I learned so much from the professionals I met at the conferences I attended, and all that knowledge helped me develop more expertise.

Finally, I did several student classroom and book club visits, both in person and on Skype. Of all my efforts, these were the most rewarding moments, honestly, because I could talk at leisure about the book and the process, and really get to listen to the readers and what interested them.

It would be nice if there were a formula for rates of return on each promotional effort, but I haven't been able to come up with one that I could justify with real numbers. Rule #1 for me has always been, "say yes" and figure out how to make it happen. I did anything anyone asked me to do. I did readings and appearances; I spoke on panels at conferences, I did print, radio and TV interviews. And yes, guest blog posts. All of it.

LR: Were you following a plan or was it more a matter of gut feel?

VF: I was very fortunate to be mentored by a great friend who is also a fantastic writer and an absolute maven in promotional efforts. I asked her a lot of questions, listened to everything she said, asked again if something didn't make sense, and, most importantly, followed every last bit of her advice. Then I bought copies of her book for my friends, by way of support. I cannot say enough about getting advice from someone who has done it already. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel, and you should learn from someone who has done it well.

LR: Were you shocked at the amount of time you needed to personally spend on PR?

VF: I wasn't shocked by the amount of time (anything will take up however much time you give it, whether it's book promotion or cleaning your cutlery) but I was surprised by how distracting it was. I don’t know how anyone writes while doing publicity. There is no routine, no rhythm to your days, no end to the tasks. I loved every interview and bookstore appearance, but I did find it daunting to be out on the road, being "on" and being ready to answer any and all questions, to give long readings (in some cases) or tough ones.

You've worked so hard to even have a book, you have to give it your all on the follow through. Especially with a first book, you want to show publishers and booksellers that you've really done your job. While it's hard to know what efforts directly translate into sales, it is important to try everything and see what sticks.

Book promotion is a part-time job in the two months leading up to publication, a full-time job in the six months after publication, and then a part-time job again for a final two to three months. I have appearances scheduled up through May. By then, the book will have been out for nearly a year.

LR: Was it difficult to know where to put your efforts, whether you were using your time and energy wisely?

VF: The main goal in book promotion, to my mind, is momentum. You want to do whatever it takes to keep the momentum going. Update the website, schedule readings, send out complimentary copies of the book, all of it. I would not worry about coming up with a formula, because all publicity is good publicity. I felt everything was a good use of my time and attention.

LR: At any point, did you consider hiring a PR person?

VF: I had offers from people to write up plans, but I declined. It seemed like if I had a "to do" list and didn’t do everything, I'd feel like I'd failed. I preferred to focus on the traditional promotion I knew (readings and appearances) approached the media contacts I already had to see what they might want to do (interviews, etc.) and then followed the "say yes" rule. It worked out fine for me not to have a strict plan. Ultimately, the best spokesperson for the book is you, the writer.

A friend in publicity told me at the start that she didn’t ever look at sales of books she was promoting because she would just get depressed. You simply can't know how effort will translate into sales, or if it will.

However, like any effort, I do think it's important to have goals, and for them to be reasonable. That way, you can feel good about your accomplishments. I set a goal at the start, and that was to sell out the first print-run. If I could achieve that goal, I would allow myself to feel good about my efforts. Four months after the book was published, I sold out my first print run. I let out a deep breath then, knowing that if I felt like I had to stop right then, I could. I didn't stop, and I haven't, but I have learned how to pace myself a lot in the process.

The most important thing to remember is that if you're lucky and your publisher keeps your book in print, the book will go on selling long after you've done all your hard work. It's also important to know that (hopefully) this is not the only book you'll write (or promote). This is a first step in a lifelong career.

LR: What did the publisher do to help promote the book?

VF: The publicity manager was fantastic. She was responsive, got me a TV interview, worked hard at keeping the book alive and in front of people. But I also made it clear to her that I intended to do everything I could myself on the book's behalf as well. I would say we worked as a team when it mattered, and we worked individually when it mattered.

I was very fortunate. My publicity manager was a treasure. She had wonderful things to say about my book, and with every mention told me she was thrilled the book was "getting the attention it deserved." That being said, it's important to be realistic about what to expect. Have a good, long conversation at the start about what is reasonable, what the publisher will do and what you should plan to do on our own. I would never expect the publicity manager to arrange readings, for example, unless I couldn't get them on my own. Her time is much better served on the things she can do that I can't, like reaching a magazine editor or radio show for an interview. That being said, she was more than willing to do so, and sometimes, if a bookstore turned me down, I would ask her to step in.

LR: Any little tricks you found helpful?

VF: Two gems of advice: first, don’t buy author copies (they don't count towards sales). Buy copies yourself, discounted if you have to. Second, send everyone who asks for it a copy of your book, with a nice note, of course. I don't mean family members, but professionals or reviewers or bookstore folks. I probably sent out 50 copies on my own, book rate. I don't regret a single one.

LR: For your next book, what will you do differently in terms of PR?

VF: I'd love to have someone else maintain my website, and I'd make sure I have my own photos from all my events. I fell down on the job on that one, and I wish I hadn't. I would have liked for the website to be more current or updated more often, but with travel and all else I didn't get to do that as often as I'd like.

LR: Because you wrote about very personal matters, did you avoid certain publicity to shield your family?

VF: For one article, a magazine wanted to send a photographer to shoot us as a family. I asked my husband and he said yes, and that was that. I told him he could say no and I would have been willing to tell the magazine they couldn't have family photos. So while I was prepared to protect my family, it turned out not to be an issue, thanks to my husband.

Otherwise, I actually had to work very hard to ease fears in some audiences that they should feel free to ask me any and all questions. It felt important to me to acknowledge that while the subject matter was tough, I was coming out to talk about the book, and that meant I was approachable and open to any topic or discussion.

LR: What about costs – you traveled for some PR activities; were you able to share those with the publisher?

VF: Sadly, there was no real "budget" for travel. I took some money from my advance and used that to fund the publicity. I made sure to do as much as I could wherever I went (scheduling readings when I was in a city for a conference, for example). I booked hotels on Priceline, or stayed with family members. I don't regret any expense I incurred. It was all 100% worthwhile.

LR: What were the most enjoyable, and the most miserable, aspects of promoting your book?

VF: I loved being out and talking about the book, writing, and the issues the book raised. I hated worrying about sales, although I worried anyway.

LR: What do you know now that wish you knew at the time of publication?

VF: How much work it is to promote a book. I feel so much better informed, and ready for the next time around. Other than that, I feel everything I did was in service of the book. I had planned a flyer and a mailing and wish I'd had the time and resources to do it, but I'm not kicking myself that it didn't happen. I wish I'd had more opportunities for book clubs. Those can be hard to arrange but so satisfying.

LR: It's interesting to see how certain publicity opportunities happen. You had a review in the Yale Alumni Magazine; did you contact them directly, or did they respond to information from the publisher? The excerpt in The UK Guardian?

VF: Typically a publisher will ask a writer to fill out an "author questionnaire," which is essentially a very extensive checklist of avenues for promotion, including any and all press contacts, alumni associations, etc. These questionnaires are both daunting and important. In my case, I discovered I had avenues of promotion I had not considered, and those included several alumni associations as well as the pubic affairs offices of schools where I taught. Some of these I contacted directly, some contact came from the publisher. In some cases, good national publicity -- a mention in Elle Magazine, an interview on Salon -- brought in further interest, like the excerpt in the Guardian UK.

LR: In an article in the New York Times science section about the trauma parents endure when their newborn is in neonatal intensive care, your book is mentioned. How did that come about? It seems like such enviable exposure, and yet it doesn't appear to have come through normal book publicity channels.

VF: That contact was so fortuitous. I had an old college friend who became a huge champion of the book. She mentioned it in a Facebook post. One of her friends is a writer for the Times and saw the mention. She contacted my friend, who put us in touch. The rest was the kind of kismet a writer dreams about.

LR: Your book won the prestigious Bakeless Literary Prize. How much did that, and its association with Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, help with PR efforts?

VF: The best part of winning the Bakeless Prize (second to publication, obviously) was the opportunity to attend the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference last summer. The book had already appeared, and I was able to be part of a prestigious conference, as a published author. Of course Bread Loaf and the Bakeless bring attention in and of themselves, and being associated with a prize brings a level of gravitas to a book one can't manufacture.

LR: How much do you think it helped that you already had web presence – a blog, active in social networking, a long-running column at Literary Mama?

VF: Every agent and publisher will tell you the importance of having a platform. For me, the audience I'd discovered for the blog and column helped enormously, but not just in terms of bottom line sales. Over the years I've written my blog and column, I learned which parts of my story resonated, how to tell them, and how to talk about them. This is great training for a writer out on a promotional jaunt, because you want to be able to convey your message clearly and effectively. You want to have answers to potential questions, and you need to be able to talk to anyone and everyone (strangers and friends) about your story. The blog and the column helped me learn how to do this. These outlets help you attain a level of professionalism in terms of your work and your career that's absolutely essential.

Yet, in my opinion, there is a fine line between being visible on the web and in other arenas, there is also a fine line between being not visible enough and too visible. I've begun to think writers can wear themselves thin, and that the public only wants so much. This is true in terms of a web presence or any self-promotion. I was telling a friend the other day that I thought too much exposure could damage a writer. In the past, we didn't know all the details of a writer's life, and in essence we read that writer's work in order to learn more. Now, we might just know too much.

I have become a lot more careful on Twitter and Facebook, for example, in terms of how often I post, or what I post. I take my cue from some writers (who shall remain nameless), whom I feel I "hear from" far too often. If you're a writer, don't tell me about your trip to the vet with your cat. Tell me about a breakthrough writing moment. And don’t tell me five times a day. There's a chance I might not buy your book if I'm already weary of you and your words.

LR: Thank you, Vicki. I cannot imagine wearying of your words.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out: January 15 Edition

• In a 1969 interview with E.B. White on the art of the essay from the archives of The Paris Review: I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.”

•Kudos to fellow Stonecoast MFA alumna Kim Dana Kupperman, whose essay collection, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence, won the 2009 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction, and will be published this summer by Graywolf Press

GalleyCat, the popular publishing industry news blog at Mediabistro, will begin posting book reviews.

•You labor for years, writing, writing, writing. Finally a book's success brings in some decent money...and then do you give most of it away to charity, while inspiring others to make contributions too? Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, did. "I thought, 'I've been poor my whole life,'" he recounted. "'I might as well be poor for a good reason.'" His story here.

•I liked memoirist Dani Shapiro’s post about publication anxieties. I like her whole blog, too.

The slush pile is dead. I think most people pretty much know this already, but apparently the Wall Street Journal just got the memo. Still, it was sobering to read (yet again) about the marketing-over-literary value judgments in today’s publishing industry:

A primary aim of the slush pile used to be to discover unpublished voices. But today, writing talent isn't necessarily enough. It helps to have a big-media affiliation, or be effective on TV. "We are being more selective in taking on clients because the publishers are demanding much more from the authors than ever before," says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group and now an agent.

"From a publisher's standpoint, the marketing considerations, especially on non-fiction, now often outweigh the editorial ones. "These days, you need to deliver not just the manuscript but the audience," says Mr. (Jim) Levine (of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency). "More and more, the mantra in publishing is 'Ask not what your publisher can do for you, ask what you can do for your publisher."

•Check out this meaty interview with novelist Tayari Jones.

•Not sure what wiki wart, mobile necking, and blog dodger mean? Get the deets on these and the rest of the latest social media buzzwords here.

•One writer’s take on the problem with the marriage memoir.

•Joyce Carol Oates, author of some 80 novels and short story collections, is to publish her first memoir. An article at WSJ Online, notes the book will cover, the aftermath of her husband Raymond Smith's death in February 2008. She describes the book, "A Widow's Memoir," as practical and darkly funny (Ms. Oates says she plans to include a "widow's handbook" with advice on fundamentals such as how to pick out a grave plot).” Oates is legendary for her self-editing, the article explains: "She's an obsessive self-editor. She has rewritten short stories and revised a novel after publication for anthologies or updated editions of her books. She had a finished manuscript of her recent novel, "Little Bird of Heaven," but held onto it and rewrote it after her husband's death, in part to keep herself occupied, she said. During a reading in the fall at Barnes and Noble in New York, Ms. Oates told the audience that "Little Bird of Heaven" was "a life line" after her husband died, and the only thing that got her out of bed.”

•A Room of Her Own Foundation now has an online book club and blog.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion, or: Writing About What Matters

Yesterday on Twitter I wrote that I had postpartum "before it was popular." I was criticized a bit for using the word popular, perhaps rightly so. But I wasn't being intentionally flip. I know that PPD is dreadful. My first bout was severe, the second time around a more moderate case.

My point was that PPD is now well-known, widely recognized as a true medical crisis. Getting treatment is no longer steeped in shame and guilt. Some states fund screening measures, doctors are better educated to notice the signs, and new mothers suffering from PPD today are rarely told, as I once was, to "snap out of it."

In the newest edition of Sweet: A Literary Confection, an online literary journal, I have an essay about what it was like to live with, and eventually move past PPD in the early 1990s -- before Brooke Shields and Princess Diana spoke about it openly. Mostly though my piece is about what it's like, even today, when my oldest is about to drive, to be a mother still profoundly affected by the experience.

It begins like this:

One winter evening not long ago, my teenager stacked logs in our living room fireplace, the same fireplace into which I once fantasized about tossing him when he was a newborn. I wondered what this cheerful and sensitive young man might say if I told him. What might he think, what might anyone think, if I said that the slate patio we shoveled together a few hours before, was where I once contemplated dropping him from his second floor bedroom window, flinging him out past the curtains with the yellow and green cows?

These menacingly dangerous thoughts lived in my mind, vivid and sharp, moving across my internal movie screen in colorful detail: The baby in the microwave, his nostrils imploding. The baby rolling, bumping down the basement stairs like a pale soft log. I loved my son. I hated being his mother. I wanted to disappear. I wanted him to disappear.
I knew I would never hurt him.

You can read the entire essay here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Which I Find Out What Happens to All (well, some) of Those Writing Prompts.

I've been getting some inspiring feedback from the January Prompt-a-Day project, in which I'm emailing a daily writing prompt to anyone who wants to participate.

One writer tells me it spurred her to start a fat new writer's notebook and buy some of the special pens she likes but ran out of a while ago.

Another is going back to writing longhand for part of her writing day.

Another is lopping 15 minutes off her obsessive television news-watching time (hey, sounds like a good idea whether you write or not).

Someone else is using the prompts to try writing small snippets of fiction, after a lifetime of writing nonfiction.

A poet is using each one as a title to a poem she's writing during her commute to work (hope she's on public transportation and not tapping it out on her Blackberry while driving).

And yet another writer has even started a new blog, where's she's posting some of the writing she's generating in response to the prompts. She's titled the blog SFD (in honor of Anne Lamott's advice in Bird by Bird, that's it's perfectly okay to write "shitty first drafts").

Well. When I decided to let blog readers sign up for the prompts – which I send out daily to students in any of my classes -- I didn't know if I'd ever find out what was happening at the other end. So it's been truly gratifying and fun to get these small glimpses.

As for me, at first I thought I'd write to most of the prompts right along with everyone else. But being the one to dream them up means the exercise doesn't have the same kind of serendipitous impact as it does for someone opening an email not knowing what might be inside.

Still, it's making an internal impact. The other day's prompt for example, The kids' table, had me remembering why, when I became a parent, I insisted my kids always sit at the main table (oh yes, several relatives found me rather irritating on this, and I'm sure many other, points)…which made me think about all the kids' tables I sat at as a child (and teenager and young adult)…which reminded that I wanted to work more on an essay-in-development about all of those 1960s and 70s New Jersey Italian-American weddings….

Meanwhile, I've decided to extend the project through February, but with a definite twist. (Details to come at the end of the month). You can still get in on the January action here.

And now, I promise not to mention this again until the end of the month. Probably.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: January 8 Edition

► Roger Ebert, film critic legend, whose surgeries have destroyed his ability to speak or eat, wrote a compelling blog post on the subject.

►I’m planning to get the new collection, Interference and Other Stories, by Richard Hoffman, a key faculty member in my MFA program, from whom I learned a great deal. As for his work, I like the way one reviewer put it: "In the case of author Richard Hoffman, you may well finish his stories only to find that they're not finished with you."

►Hey, here's an idea: "Encourage others to respect your writing time. This starts with you respecting your writing time." Nine other tips for liberating more time to write – plus lots of other interesting posts -- are over at AuthorCulture.

► Have an opinion about, well, anything you can express with the opening line: "There are two kinds of people in the world…."? Then head on over to the fun Two Kinds of People blog for an essay guest post contest, where Susan Bearman has been posting – seriously, comically, engagingly -- about dichotomous folks and their interests/likes/dislikes for quite a while.

►I'm not sure there was anything Elizabeth Gilbert could write as a follow-up to her wildly profitable memoir Eat, Pray, Love (5 million copies in print, Julia Roberts film in production) that would please critics. Her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage was bound to generate mixed reviews. Hey, Gilbert's a Jersey girl now, so I'm in her corner!

►A rerun of the October interview with Julie Metz, author of the memoir Perfection, will air on Oprah today.

►From the Department of Shameless Self-promotion: I was honored to be included in the latest round-up of accomplishments by members of the Emerging Writers Network, which does so much good on behalf of so many writers.

► From the let's-hope-it's-not-really-that-bad department: From a literary agent: Statistics to Torture Yourself With in 2010. From the Los Angeles Times: Freelancing Writing's Unfortunate New Model. Let me know when you start having fun.

►Finally, if after reading those, you still want to write, consider siging up for (free) my Prompt-a-Day project for January here.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Time and the Writer; Time and the Writing Project: Slicing the slices of the pie

"How much time do you spend writing?"

It seemed such an innocent question, posed by a well-meaning relative who had no idea the worms she'd just unleashed. Whenever I hear it I cringe because I always think it's a trick question. A non-writer usually wants to puzzle out if writing really is work at all, and if the question comes from another writer, I worry that whatever I say will be wrong.

But lately I've been asking it of myself, in a slightly different form:

How much time should I spend writing X vs. Y?

I've been wondering whether I’m spending the right amount of time on each part of my writing life (and this doesn't even include time spent teaching, editing, coaching or consulting). That is, am I apportioning the proper amounts of writing time to: personal essays and freelance articles for well-paying commercial media vs. memoir pieces and essays for (non- or low-paying) literary outlets vs. the memoir-in-progress manuscript vs. book reviews vs. paid blog posts vs. a nonfiction book proposal.….and more to the point, do I drop one or more of the above in order to focus more keenly on one of the others, or…well, you can see how this kind of ruminating can quickly lead to a desire to pitch it all for a job at Payless (no, not Starbucks even with their part-timer benefits; I love shoes, not coffee).

I'm not one for firm resolutions when it comes to creative endeavors, although I do try to set annual goals and projections in terms of income, education, growth. This year, I did make one resolution in terms of writing however, and that was to write more of what I truly want to write, especially (and maybe exactly) the things I'm often worried others will find off-putting, unusual, out-of-character. I want to shake things up a bit, not be so pleasing and acceptable and reliable on the page. Accomplishing that – overturning the nice, steady, not-at-all-provocative stance I gravitate towards, in favor of – what? – probably will take more time. Time taken from where?

I haven't got this figured out, of course, and I don't expect to have one of those neat epiphanies some writers experience, which transforms their writing life in one quick swoop, after which they know exactly how to dice up their time writing, and do.

I keep working through this daily and although I tend to glibly say, "Oh I just keep juggling!" what this really amounts to is that on many days what I prioritize is more intuitive than planned. But lately that sort of juggle/feel-my-way-through approach feels like shaky ground. I find myself wanting a more deliberate game plan (or should that be game clock?).

Mind you, I never miss deadlines and this isn't about discipline; I've been working at home for 19 years and can kick my own butt quite well; the question is kick it toward what? As an editor and writing coach, I'm skilled at outlining for others just what needs to be done and why. But note: …for others.

I'd love to know how different writers work out slicing up their writing pie. I don't mean how to fit in and prioritize writing within a fuller working life, but how, within the slice that already says "writing," do you make distinctions between which writing projects to push ahead with, and which to put aside for a while? Choose one major project (the book manuscript) and get it done above all else? Keep going on all fronts because the unpredictable economy suggests maintaining flexibility? Write what you love and hope everything else follows?

Readers, thoughts?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A January gift for writers. Nope, not late at all.

UPDATE: I'm extending the prompts project through February. See below for email link to sign up.

It may be January, but one more gift is coming your way…if you want it.

Writers in any of my classes receive a daily writing prompt via email. It's simply there for the taking (or leaving). No one is required to write anything in response to a prompt…but along the way, many writers have found the prompts to be excellent daily reminders to write.

If one is struggling or stuck or needs a break from a current work-in-progress, the writing prompt is often a welcome or fun way to write about something new for ten (or 30 or more) minutes – writing perhaps that might otherwise not get done that day (or any day). Sometimes, others find a way to incorporate what they write into current drafts.

For the month of January only, I'm opening up the daily writing prompts to any blog reader who might like to receive them. Just send me an email, putting "Prompts" in the subject line, and your name in the body of the email. You will get a prompt daily from the day you sign up until January 31.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: New Year's Day Edition

Protagonize is a new online writing community based on collaboration, where writers can create, post, critique, discuss, and enter site contests and challenges.

Chronicles of New York is a new blog featuring short stories (max. 2,500 words) about the Big Apple and its people.

► Staying with the short story theme for another item, this Gary Vanyerchuk interview challenges short story writers and publishers to monetize. (How I wish the word monetize would disappear; but he makes a valid, though obvious, point.)

► Alan Rinzler has posted an interview with Jay Shaefer, an editor-at-large with Workman Publishing/Algonquin Books, who is always on the lookout for "insanely good debut novelists."

► Do we all need a "slow word movement"?

► Published a year ago, this just came to my attention – a book which compiles writing instruction and advice from the outstanding faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. You can read an excerpt from the preface by David Jauss and see the table of contents here.

► And finally, for magazine and/or design geeks: And excellent discussion and visual tour appeared on a design blog last week with those responsible for the June 2009 redesign of the print New York Times Magazine. I was particularly struck by how much thought and experimentation went into every detail, no matter how small -- like the connection between the dot on the i and the final dingbat at the end of each article.

Have a great weekend and all good wishes for a prosperous 2010.