Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: February 26th Edition

I'm snowbound (16 inches, still falling), and the temptation to light a fire and read all day is strong. But first I'll prep for my next online creative nonfiction writing class which begins Monday, and then I will move to that couch, though on my lap will be an editing client's memoir. Still, I'll be reading. Sort of. Meanwhile, here are a few links I liked this week.

►If you're not a writer who makes peace with, and even collects rejections, you might not understand this guy, who counts five figures worth of rejections. Oh, and he's widely, and prestigiously, published too. As Eric at Pimp My Novel points out, unless you have a similarly sizable rejection collection, that wouldn't be the sound of you complaining, would it? Didn't think so.

►Memoir writers know the drill: first finish writing the book, then polish that manuscript, write a killer book proposal which includes a well-researched marketing section, and THEN seek an agent, right? Well, not always. Here's how one woman went the opposite way and how -- and why -- it all worked out.

►So you turn in your final book manuscript to the publisher and then what? Charles Stross knows – everything from copy editing, to scheduling, to ARCS, to physical production and distribution. You know, that sounds sort of dull, but it was an eye-opening and fun read.

► If you teach a online college course (about anything), or simply want to know more about how those who do approach course design and student interaction, you may want to read this longish and informative piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Off The Bookshelf is a newly launched site which aims to help authors connect with readers, via individual "bookstores" where writers can set prices and sell their own books, converse with readers, blog and other activities.

Interesting article at The Financial Times about the money side of ghostwriting books for famous business folks.

► This shouldn't happen to a creditable author with a dozen historic nonfiction books to his name. But it did. A source on whom Charles Pelligrino relied for recollections of substantial narrative passages in his new book, Last Train To Hiroshima, now says she lied, and experts seem to agree. A costly mistake the author and publisher are now correcting.

►And finally, Nicholas Kristof, the wonderful New York Times OpEd columnist, wrote a parody of how consumer news consumption might fare if it worked like the broken health care system.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Memoir Memory Triggers: Go Get Yourself One.

Yesterday, I wrote about the memory triggers we all encounter on a daily basis and, as a nonfiction writer, the importance of paying attention to them. Today, I'd like to share a list of memory triggers which can be a huge source of material. Often, these triggers cross our paths unbidden. Other times, perhaps when we are trying to access a stubborn memory, or just find ourselves in need of new ideas, we might want to go in search of a memory trigger. Take a look and consider….

People Watching
Smells * (studies say this is the MOST potent memory trigger)
Music * (2nd most)
Song lyrics
Watching kids / younger people
Old magazines, newspapers
Objects (memorabilia – vintage or antique store)
Online resources
TV – film – plays
Old neighborhoods
Journals, diary
Relatives' memories
Old greeting cards
Tests, exams, textbooks, report cards, transcript, diploma, certificate
Old business cards
Eavesdropping – strangers/friends - family gatherings – parties – public spaces
Specialty stores & catalogs
Basements – attics – closets – storage unit
Colors, patterns, decorations
Calendars, datebooks
Old legal documents – deed, bill of sale, contract
Cookbooks, recipes
Family videos
Radio talk shows (especially interview/magazine type, not political)
Events where you are an observer, but not a direct participant
Sections of the newspaper you don't normally read
Parades, public celebrations
Reunions (family, school, work- or hobby-related)
Books you've read and re-read

Did I miss anything?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Slow Down, Seed Memoir, with Memory Triggers

Yesterday, a local chapter of the American Association of University Women held a luncheon about memoir and asked me to speak on writing about personal experiences. Despite the snowy slush, rain and cold, 28 women filled the room with energy. They asked the greatest questions, and dug in to write moving, lovely, and unexpected responses to the two writing exercises.

We spent a while discussing how writers decide what to write about and how much of that decision is intention and how much seems to be out of the writer's hand; how often writers simply follow where instincts or (seemingly) random ideas help move memories from our minds and hearts onto the page. Sometimes we just see or hear or encounter something -- what I call a "memory trigger" -- and BAM, the next thing you know, we're writing about this or that.

I talked about how I've noticed that, by slowing down in my daily life, I’ve been better able to recognize and respond to these memory triggers -- sights, sounds, objects and so many other things which we encounter daily and which have the potential to help unlock memories IF we are not too distracted to notice. Or, when we do notice something, we don't allow ourselves to linger long enough to notice how it's affecting us.

Last week, for example, the receptionist at my dentist's office was wearing a blouse which reminded me of one I selected during the wardrobe shopping spree my mother took me on before starting my first real job in 1982…which made me wistful for shopping with Mom, who lives 2,700 miles away…and it also got me thinking about how working 80 hours a week permanently changed the way I thought about career…which also brought up how much I miss working in Manhattan, which led to...well, you see where I’m going. Sometimes I don't feel any energy behind these memory triggers and so I let them go. But other times, as it did last week, they don't feel so much like stray thoughts as an urgent mandate, or an itch which, if I don't scratch it, will certainly drive me right over the edge.

A memory trigger can set off a torrent of thoughts which may (or may not) lead to a future piece of writing. However, we often stop there and don't take the time to translate that memory scrap into some form we might use in our writing. As for me, forget about waiting until I get back home to do something about it – by then, I'd be far too distracted by, well, anything – the Novocain wearing off, the size of the dental bill, whether there's anything soft in the house to eat for dinner, all the emails which arrived while I was out.…

Of course, the best thing would have been to sit right down in the waiting room and write, but I knew I'd be called in too soon for that. So what I did instead was to make a quick list of all of thoughts, using the small notebook I carry in my purse. At the memoir writing talk yesterday, we brainstormed other options -- I could have tapped out a text to myself; stepped into the hall to call home and leave a voice mail for myself; draw a picture of the blouse in my small notebook. I could have written a quick note to myself and then after the dentist, spent some time in my car or the coffee shop across the street, writing out some thoughts before heading home. What the heck, the emails can wait and the numbness will wear off just as slowly whether I'm sipping my tea at home or at the coffee shop.

The thing is, had I been rushing to get the dental receptionist check-in process over quickly so I could sit down and text my friend, or watch the too-loud banal talk show on the waiting room television, I might not have even noticed the blouse. Slowing down means the memory triggers have a chance to catch my attention. I have no idea of course if any of what I jotted down will find its way into a piece of writing. Eighty percent of it probably won't. But then again, I probably only use about 20 percent of anything I generate in the very early brainstorming / brain dump / rough draft stage either.

Sometimes, instead of noticing when a memory trigger comes our way, we instead need to go in search of a memory trigger to help pry loose a memory we're having trouble accessing. Tomorrow, I'm going to post an extensive list of the places, objects, and situations which make excellent memory triggers.

Meanwhile, slow down today and see what crosses your path.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Prompted: from Prose to Poetry

If you stop by here regularly, you may know about the Prompts Projects. During January and February, about 60 writers signed on to receive a daily writing prompt via email. Along the way, some let me know how they were using the prompts to invigorate writing routines. Susan, a prose writer, found that one day's prompt, "Required Reading," lead her to poetry.

Susan writes, "I don’t usually write poetry, but by taking a different path for this prompt, I was reminded how much story could be told in a few carefully chosen words."

Here is Susan's prompted poem, inspired, on January 24, by the Haiti news coverage.

Required reading
Bodies bleeding
People pleading

Required reading
Children needing
Love and feeding

Required reading
Hope receding
Helpful heeding

Required reading
Some still breathing
Not conceding

Required reading
Plans proceeding
Time impeding

Required reading
New news leading

Susan even kept another blog, SFD (S*#ty First Drafts), to chronicle her prompt writing experience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: February 19th Edition

Brevity's new issue is up. If you aren't familiar with this excellent online journal of sparsely rich nonfiction (essays are all under 750 words), you're missing something.

►In this two-minute video, two editors at the Associated Press advise PR folks about pitching their clients' stories. However, everything they say is equally relevant for writers interested in querying an AP editor with a story proposal. In fact, I'd watch this before calling or writing an email to any editor.

►RIP Dick Francis. As a horse-obsessed teenager, I was excited to discover Francis's grown-up thrillers about horses and British jockeys; a decade later, as I drove long distances to compete in and report on horse shows, I listened to his audio books. Many were narrated by The Mentalist's Simon Baker, in his native Brit accent, and they went down easy.

►RIP Lucille Clifton. Long ago, when I didn't think much of poetry (alas, sorry!), it was individual poets whose work I began to notice and like, which convinced me of my folly. Clifton was one of them. Nowadays when someone complains, "I just can't get into reading poetry," I always answer: "Forget poetry. Find a poet to like."

► Maybe by now you've read this rant/lament/observation about the difficulty of building a writing career (as in one that pays). While I agree that it's tougher now than ever, I feel as if I've been reading these kinds of pieces since I was a teenager. And still, people write. Good.

► Find some time to read the new piece in Esquire about ailing film critic Roger Ebert (who can no longer speak or eat), and then Ebert's reaction to showing the world his current life – and face – as he deals with the aftermath of extensive jaw and neck surgery.

►A agent-finding trick that's oh-so-obvious once you know it, as soon-to-be nonfiction author David K. Randall, discovered.

► If you have lots of time, or a book to market, here's an extensive list of book reviewers on Twitter

►And finally, for typography geeks only – check out Show Us Your Type, an occasional online collection of type art, each time revolving around one particular city. Now up: NYC.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In which the writing teacher gets reviewed.

Liz Sheffield, one of the hard working and talented writers who participated in one of my recent Online Memoir and Personal Essay Four by Four classes (we tackle one key topic each week for four weeks) put up a series of posts about her experience in the class. One is about the lesson on Beginnings and Endings, in which Liz observes why writers often "write past the ending." You can read what Liz has to say on her blog here. She also chronicled what she took away from two of the other weeks in the class, in posts here (about the "I" narrator) and here (about dialogue).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Do writers really need support? Discuss.

Yesterday I had a telephone conversation with a writer who has been accepted for a demanding writing workshop. Before I could say congratulations, he confessed that he was wavering because before he signs on he wants to be sure he's going to have the support he needs at home.


I hope I got across my feeling on this, which is: writers must manage to keep writing, support or no support. Despite what those around us think or do or say. Truth is, even the most well-meaning friend, spouse or other relative, who thinks they are being "supportive" will often say or do or imply just the very thing which derails us.

So why let a thing like support get in the way? As for unsupportive folks, please ignore them and carry on.

And, I also recalled that I had posted something about this very thing last year. I thought it could use repeating. You can find that post: Writers' Complaint Department: Stress and the Support System, here.

My Review of The Diet Joke

I've gained and lost a lot of weight in my life and there's not really anything too funny about it. But a diet book that's funny? Well, I'll give that a whirl. Comic actor Lisa Pedace's The Diet Joke was fun to read. My review is up now over at ForeWord Reviews.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Today's writing diversion: song lyrics. Muse or madness?

For a little while yesterday, while northern New Jersey turned white and my husband and sons ran the snow blower and shoveled, I took a break and cracked open a book I picked up, sort of on a whim – The Art of Writing Great Lyrics by Pamela Phillips Oland.

Did I mention that, when I was 16, my piano teacher asked my mother to let me stop lessons? That my husband – who has a lovely voice and once sang in a major choir – thinks I'm tone deaf? That when I watch American Idol I have no idea weather the contestants are pitchy? (I wait for the judges to weigh in and then just nod sagely.)

And yet, I bought the book. Song lyrics intrigue me. I love the condensed nature of the storytelling. When I hear what I think of as a great narrative lyric, I want to ask, "Hey, how'd they do that?"

I am completely aware that most lyricists have musical gifts; indeed that perhaps the best lyricists are also songwriters and trained musicians.


Halfway through the first chapter, I was excited to learn that there is a means to differentiate poetry from lyrics, that purchasing a rhyming dictionary only sounds childish, that a chunk of what I understand about prose narratives is directly related to lyric writing, while the little I thought I knew about lyric writing is completely off the mark.

If I never write a single line of lyrics, I know already that I'm going to enjoy this book and any lyric "writing" I attempt. I seem, periodically, to need some form of literary craft experience from way outside my writing comfort zone, to shake me up and re-energize my writing – or perhaps I should say my feelings about writing. Last fall, I took a four-week online fiction writing class. Yes, it taught me a lot about setting scenes, building backstory, and dialogue, all of which carries over to nonfiction, but more importantly, it seemed to challenge me: Oh, you think you can write? Well here, try this! I did try. I may never publish a short story, but something shifted.

Now a few chapters into the lyrics book, I'm getting that buzz writers get when we discover something new about words or language or syntax or vocabulary or rhythm (prose-wise, not music-wise!). Plus, I'm coming across some great tips about writing titles, uncovering hidden hooks, and other writing advice that cuts across genres.

Chances are, I'll probably never write lyrics that get set to any music, except maybe for the notes I hear in my head (which are likely out of tune anyway). That's okay. We writers are such a strange species. We persist in places we have no business. We go down dark alleys. We waste time on things which seem to come from nowhere and don't promise any payoff. But something leads us. Lately, I just follow.

What about you? Are you going in any new writing direction lately you never anticipated? How's that working out?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Once Prompted, They Wrote

Food and whine.
That was the prompt I sent out to some five dozen writers one day last month. This month, a few folks have agreed to let me post what they wrote in response to the daily prompts – without any editing or revisions; just what ended up on the page at first stroke, based on the prompt. (How many of us are so brave?)

Here is Todd Glasscock's:

“I don’t like . . .”

Name it and my youngest stepdaughter doesn’t like to eat it. Unless she does. She liked Hamburger Helper when she ate it with her little friend at church one Wednesday. She snubs it at home, just eating the side of corn on her plate, or not eating at all and strutting to her room in a huff.

Two months ago she ate the tacos her mother made sans refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. (I have to admit, I don’t like tomatoes, but that’s another story . . .). Two weeks ago, as the meat browns on the stove, she says, “I don’t like tacos.”

“Last time you liked them,” I say. I try to hide my irritation by restraining my tone to Ward Cleaver-gentle.

“We just stopped liking them,” her older sister says.

Unless, I suppose, it’s Taco Bell. I think I remember hearing the youngest at some point go on about how she likes tacos from Taco Bell. No other. “No offense,” she says, in case those who cook for her find offense in her tastes, her preference for fast food tacos over homemade tacos.

No offense. Irritation, yes. Because eating is almost a daily battle with these two.

Yesterday, I drove to the store to pick up a twelve-pack of Cokes and some “snacky stuff,” as their mom had requested. I hate trying to find “snacky stuff” for the kids, because one or both of them will whine about it.

I lurk down the convenience store aisles. Ice cream. I see the Blue Bell freezer and stacks of pints. What flavor do they like? One of them likes chocolate. One chocolate left. Doesn’t the other like strawberry? And you can’t go wrong with vanilla. Can you? Two pints of vanilla. Their mother will like the vanilla. She can make a Coke float.

On the drive home I imagine a dialogue with the youngest: I don’t like strawberry, she says. No one ever gets anything I like. I say, You don’t like strawberry? I thought you liked strawberry. What do you like? Do you like anything? Is there anything you like to eat?

Todd adds: "I'm finding the prompts useful, especially on those days when it's really hard to make myself do some writing. This one elicited the best flow...a little more than rambling, and a few more details than the average sketch."

You can find Todd online at his blog.

If you want to receive a daily prompt during February, email me.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Enduring Influence of One Truly Great Writing Teacher

I hope every writer has at least one teacher or mentor about whom he or she can say this many good things as did one writer, about her one-time teacher, all-time mentor, Liz Christman.

That is all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: February 5 Edition

Having a busy week, and one deadline still ahead. Here are a few quick links for your weekend. Me, I'll be snowed in, which I will love. What reader wouldn't?

► Oh, boy has this condemnation of the memoir got people talking. Mostly nonfiction people. Mostly about how wrong this writer is. You decide.

►Check out this terrific interview with Dani Shapiro, whose new memoir, Devotion, is just out.

► Read Steve Almond's take on self-publishing, publishing paradigm shifts, and how he didn't really self-publish but he sort of did. And, how and why he's enjoying the process of producing and selling his own book, his way.

► Taking the "free" out of freelancer, as this post advocates – as in not agreeing to work for free – is certainly a worthy goal, but not always feasible for new writers when dozens of others are willing to do so.

►The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival will live again, this time in Newark, NJ (or, in the local parlance, just a few exits away).

►Proofreading and copy editing geeks may like this error-showcasing blog.

►And finally, just for fun: I had no idea what a "literal version" of a music video was until I saw this clever send-up of the classic, Billie Jean.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Me? I'm Bookless. How about you?


"I don’t have a book. There, I said it.

Oh, I own books. Thousands. They line my living room, accumulate in my bathroom, peek out from my purse. But none of them have my name along the spine. That’s right, I am a writer but I don’t have a published book. It’s not that my words have never appeared in a book; I’ve written for several published essay collections. But this, it appears, doesn’t count..."

That's how my essay begins in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreword Reviews magazine, where I've also been regularly reviewing books. In the print copy of the magazine, it's running on the back page, in the Afterword column. Or, you can read the entire (very short) piece here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Writers and Writers Conferences: Perfect Together

No matter what, I usually manage to budget for at least one writers conference a year. I love a good writers conference. I even love a not-so-great one. Even if the seminars and panels and readings don't do it for me, the other writers in attendance make it worthwhile. Usually the seminars, panels and readings are outstanding (or some of them anyway). I get to be away from my everyday routine, immerse myself in a community of like-minded folks, and let my mind wander….to plan and dream, and make endless lists of what I’m going to write, rewrite, submit, read, do, and stop doing.

But this year I’ve decided I’m not going -- anywhere.

It’s about money. This year, every extra penny is going to pay off the MFA student loans, in full. The 10-year pay-off plan is only attractive if you don’t have a child heading to college in less than three. I want these loans to disappear. Other writers I know with budget concerns are also holding off on conference reservations.

And then there’s the friend who is taking a pass on conferences for an entirely different reason. She says she won’t go to another until she can say she has an agent. Another friend who has an agent says she’s going to steer clear until she can announce that the book has sold. Still another acquaintance says now that he’s published a book, he won’t go to a conference unless he’s on a panel or invited to read.

I dunno.

Although I’d love to announce fabulous news next time I do attend a conference, and it would be terrific to be invited to present, I hope I don’t get to the point where I stay away if I can't or don’t.

Meanwhile, any of my readers who are attending -- or presenting at or reading at or organizing -- a writers conference in 2010: How about writing a guest post for me on your experience? That way, I and the blog readers can get a vicarious almost-as-good-as-being-there thrill. Drop me an email, tell me where you are going and get on the schedule!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Less Time, More Words. A Writing Conundrum.

Recently I realized something I think I've known for a long time, but wanted to avoid admitting. Here it is: I get more writing done when I have less time to do it.

I suspected as much, but the other day while cleaning out a desk drawer, I came across months of calendar pages from 2006 and 2007 filled with appointments and to-do-lists, it occurred to me that back then I was generating a lot more words a lot more frequently AND had far less time to devote to writing. (Here, by the way, I'm talking about writing new material, writing that is not connected to a freelance assignment or client-contracted work.)

Now that I know this, I'm starting to figure out what to do about it. First up is spending less time at my desk, physically. Yes, Virginia, it's great to have a room of my own, but the truth is, the more I think desk/work, the less I want to write. (Edit, yes; critique student work, yes; handle submissions and marketing tasks, sure. Write? Not so much).

Looking over a bunch of my published work from the last few years, I recall how many of those essays and memoir pieces started with rough first drafts scribbled while I was on the bleachers at my kids' baseball game, in the car waiting for school to let out, in doctors' waiting rooms (my mother), on airplanes, in hospital coffee shops (my father).

I recall getting the bones of one piece down while in the tennis courts locker room because I'd inadvertently arrived early for a lesson. (Or maybe I was early on purpose?) Another piece started to come together in the ladies room during a sporting event I could have skipped were it not for the happy grins on the faces of my husband and sons when they asked me to go along. Still another I wrote under the shade of a lovely oak during a two-week run of soccer camp for 7 year-olds. (Yes, I do carry a notebook absolutely everywhere. Doesn't every writer?)

While I've always more or less believed, "When you need something done, ask a busy person," it didn't really sink in that this applied to my writing as well. Seems the more time I clear in my schedule for "writing time," and the more low level obligations I try to wiggle out of in order to write, the lower the word count at the end of the day. Partly, this is plain old fashioned procrastination. But it's also partly – or perhaps mainly – the way I operate as a writer. There's something about the perception that I'd better write it now or I won't have time later, which I think fuels my process.

So, if you'll excuse me, I'm going out now to do something that has nothing to do with writing, and I’m planning to get busy with a few other things that also have nothing to do with writing. I'm putting things back on my schedule I thought I should toss out in order to write.

Know what? I think I'll live a little. That way, being a nonfiction writer, I may actually have something to write about.

Monday, February 1, 2010

It Only Takes One: One writer's I-got-an-agent story

How do you get an agent? How many should you query at once? What to do when two different agents ask for an exclusive? What happens when an agent makes an offer?

These and other questions are answered, at least in one case, by my friend Linda K. Sienkiewicz, in two blog posts about her recent journey while seeking an agent for her novel - you can read them here and here.

And as @laurieabkemeier, an agent, said recently on Twitter: At the end of the day, it only takes one agent, one editor, one publisher, who believes in the book.