Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: April 23rd Edition

► Interesting interview with novelist J.A. Konrath, who is apparently making a tidy living from selling his books almost exclusively on the Kindle: “I've sold 40,000 ebooks since last April. At first, I was amused to be paying my mortgage with Kindle earnings. But now it's turning into serious money.” Indeed.

Good tips over on Women’s Memoirs, on how the words we remember loved ones saying, and the way we remember their being spoken, can impact our memoir writing.

►The Rejectionist (an assistant to a literary agent), takes aim at the submissions by MFA graduates (mostly fiction).

► Hey, I may never get to Hawaii, but I like the tours and reviews of the state’s libraries over at the Hawaii Book Blog. I don’t know of any other sites that do this for libraries, do you?

►Every freelance writer has seen their share of lousy fee offers. Now, Forbes wants some of the contributors to its website to work for free because “your posts would be available to millions of Forbes readers.” Gee, swell. Wonder if any of them will offer to pay the writers’ rent. And by the way, we’re not talking “citizen journalist” bloggers here. Apparently, the magazine/site – dedicated to helping its readers increase their financial position – is making the offer to established financial journalists.

► Narrative magazine is coming to the iPad, and they’re holding a contest to help kick off the new free app.

► Writers in the San Mateo County, California area have a few days left to enter the nonfiction contest about a special horse, sponsored by local resident Verna Dreisbach, editor of Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horse in Their Lives, which, if you haven’t been reading this blog much, is just out from Seal Press (and I am one of the contributors).

► One of my online students published this fun little piece, which she worked on during a week we focused on humor. It’s up over at The Writing Mamas – a nifty site for those who write and mother.

►Finally, when I want a quick laugh, I sometimes head over to Dr. Grumpy’s blog, written by a fed-up anonymous neurologist. It has nothing to do with writing, usually. Except for the other day, when I was working on a future lesson about comic dialogue for my online classes and came across this:
Dr. Grumpy: "What time was your seizure last night?"
Mrs. Etoh: "Around 10:00, as we were leaving the bar."
Dr. Grumpy: "I thought you'd stopped drinking?"
Mrs. Etoh: "I did, but last night we had a round after our AA meeting."

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A writer's notes. Just the notes.

I make short notes and jot ideas for future blog posts all the time. This week, I'm probably not going to develop any of them into a full post. So here are the notes, just the notes.

> It's nearly impossible to write good nonfiction unless one reads and thinks a lot about good fiction. On second thought it's not nearly impossible, it's just not possible.

> Airports are great places to write. Plenty of dull background noise, people watching opportunities abound, the food is too expensive to be a distraction, and no one expects you to get out of there quickly anyway.

> Try writing about one thing without at least considering its opposite, and you are in the weeds. Probably, one also has to write about the opposite too, at least in the early draft(s).

> It's possible to think we know something so well, and still be mistaken. For 54 years, until the day my father died, my parents celebrated their anniversary on a particular day in April. While looking through documents after his death, my mother found their marriage license. They married one day earlier than they had always celebrated. Not long ago, I was absolutely, completely certain of something an important person in my life had once written to me in a letter two decades ago, and I was including it in a segment of my memoir manuscript. Until I found the letter and read his words again. They were different. I hadn't been wrong exactly, and who knows, maybe only I could see the nuanced difference. But I wasn't right either. In my initial recollections, I may have conflated what he once said to me verbally one year, with what he had written in that letter about a year later. Or maybe not. Whoever tells you memoir is "true" is lying. It's only as truthful as what our memories, and when possible, those dusty old trunks in the attic, reveal.

> When a family member buys a copy of a book in which your work appears the first week it is available, and then gives it to you, and your first instinct is to be insulted that she didn't want to keep it on her own bookshelf, your second instinct – to say thank you – is probably your better choice. I was insulted at first, and then I said thank you.

> A 12-inch stack of not-yet-read copies of the New York Times is clutter to some people, but not to me. To me, it's comfort food.

>A crappy contract is a crappy contract is a crappy contract. "Exposure," "links," "the poor economy" and "a completely new media landscape" be damned.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: April 16th Edition

► One of the many nonfiction writers I admire is Susan Orlean. She’s sending out an occasional e-newsletter detailing progress on her next book about of all (non)things, Rin Tin Tin.

►January Magazine has an interesting blog.

► This Mediabistro summary has links to several items examining 2009 publishing stats, including an eye-opening report which found that NONtraditional books outnumbered traditionally published ones by nearly three to one, and that 74 percent of traditionally published books were the product of only 10 publishing houses.

►Speaking of self-published books, a new MediaShift piece examines the many pitfalls.

►Essayists in or near Manhattan -- on April 24, get thee to: In Praise of the Essay: Practice and Form - First Annual Symposium, co-sponsored by Welcome Table Press and Fordham University’s English Department and Creative Writing Program.

► How much do I love writing prompts? A lot. Over at Write it Sideways, there are 50 new prompts perfect for creative nonfiction writers, including several I’ve never seen before.

►My web wanderings often take me to these sites, and if I had more time, I’d read every single word at Narrative Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, Narrative Digest at the Nieman Foundation for Narrative Journalism at Harvard, and Brevity Journal.

► The great part about pre-ordering a book months before publication is that when it finally arrives, it’s the nicest surprise. That’s what happened when my friend Kathy Briccetti’s first memoir, Blood Strangers, arrived the other day. Even though I read the final draft, the book is now calling to me.

► Finally, although I’m on a conference-diet this year, the Writers Conference at Marymount Manhattan College on June 3 is mighty tempting. Were I to go – and I’m not, not, NOT going – I’d opt for the panels on humor, small presses, agents and nonfiction editors.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Don't write for geniuses. Write for readers.

I like a reading challenge once in a while. And I like helping my kids (a little) with their English, writing, reading and literature assignments. But I wasn't prepared for this.

My high school sophomore asked me to read – or more precisely, to help him comprehend -- a 10-page scholarly literary essay he was assigned to read about The Catcher in the Rye. I barely made it through three pages. In those first three pages, I found nearly a dozen words I have never seen. That’s okay, I enjoy learning new words. But what bothered me was that I couldn’t even begin to guess at their meaning – not even a little bit from context, and not from the word itself, not a clue, not even a hint of a common Latin root.

The author had also included no less than 10 literary, film and cultural references in those three pages – I knew and could explain only five, and the other five had us running to the dictionary, the web and my 84-year-old mother who knows the complete script of most 1940s movies. Don’t get me started on the overlong sentence lengths and foreign spellings. And did I mention the proliferation of dashes, colons, semi-colons, and parentheses?

In between all of this scurrying about, scratching our heads and sighs of frustration, I wondered: what was the writer thinking? When a piece of writing – especially one which is supposed to help shed light on something, to help people understand a text which may be confusing -- is itself so obscure, so overwrought with $25 words, so clearly intended to showcase nothing but the writer’s overinflated sense of superiority, then who is it serving? Certainly not the reader. My son told me his chemistry teacher once said: The only reason to design a test a genius can’t pass is to prove you can design a test that a genius can’t pass. Or, as Holden might have put it: "What a phony."

Writers, let’s all take note and vow to keep it simple. Or at least comprehensible.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writing class is now in session. Moms Optional.

In the margins, the writing teacher wrote: “Cute story so far, but where’s the conflict? C-”

The writer was my 11 year old, who had, during a timed fiction writing exercise, crafted a solid if derivative little tale of waking up one special morning to find it was his day to enter wizard school. He had details, description, authentic-sounding dialogue, two distinct characters, and a linear narrative arc that made sense. (No I didn’t help.) Alas, no “conflict.” Everything had gone right for his protagonist, who was able to read and understand the letter, find the supply store without knowing where it was, purchase his supplies and make it through the magical wall unscathed and just in time.

My little writer was glum.

“Why does there have to be a BIG conflict?” he asked.

I offered that conflict could be just another word for problem, obstacle, challenge or frustration and that perhaps it didn’t have to be huge – maybe the store could be closed, or he misjudges the place to jump through the wall and gets bruised, or his mother loses the letter right after it arrives…

“Oh, you mean like he wants to do something, but can’t! Or he tries something but it doesn’t work?” the kid said, grinning. “And then he has to figure something else out.”


“Okay, I get it now.”

All writing problems should be so easy to solve.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writing, Research, and Calling it a Day

A few months ago, I started work on a new writing project which is taking me far outside my current comfort zone. Instead of memoir or personal essay, it looks like it’s going to be a piece of literary journalism, focusing on someone else. I still don’t know exactly why this person and situation grabbed my attention, and until that happened, I knew very little about him and the events that have intrigued me. Now, I know almost too much, having spent perhaps just a tad too much time in research-land. Now, I’m in that in-between zone in which I either never want to hear another blasted thing about him, or want to go on tour to give lectures about the guy.

Do you know that feeling? Of being maybe just a little bit too full, and wanting either to purge and/or never eat another bite? If I recall correctly from the days when I wrote research-heavy business features and personality profiles for magazines, that was the signal that I’d done enough research already, and it was time to write the darned piece.

Recently, when I began tracking down the same obscure factoid in yet another rare source, and when I started to know what an expert was going to say just before she said it, I realized it was time to stop accumulating and start articulating. The allure however, of staying in research mode for just a little longer, is strong. It’s fun, it’s safe, and it feels like working. It also reeks of procrastination and the fear associated with beginning the hard part of this project. You know, the writing. Wish me luck.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: April 9th Edition

► Do you have a daily word or page count, or something similarly concrete to take you from concept to finished manuscript over the course of a set number of days, weeks, months? Allison Winn Scotch shares her “brick by brick” strategy over at Writer Unboxed.

► Literary Mama is running an interview with Jennifer Graf Groneberg, whose memoir, Road Map to Holland, traces her family’s first two years raising a son with Down’s Syndrome. Here is how she got the book done, when her three children were preschool age: “When I was working on the bulk of the book, which took about 50 weeks, I wrote on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We had converted part of our garage to a little office, and I'd go down the hill to the garage/office in the dark of the morning, before the kids were even awake. I'd work very long hours, into the night. On those two days each week, I was completely gone from family life, and I missed it terribly. Even knowing the kids were with Tom, who was not `babysitting’ but on fatherhood duty, I still felt very torn. But that was what seemed to work best for our family, at the time.”

►Big news for Erika Dreifus, of the writer-friendly blog Practicing Writing (and a friend), who learned her short story collection, Quiet Americans, will be published in early 2011. Many congratulations to Erika, whose blog and monthly newsletter are so enormously helpful to writers of all genres. Today she’s posted an interview with Kim Wright, who wrote nonfiction for 25 years and has just published her first novel, Love in Mid Air.

► I love Steve Almond for a lot of reasons, and now I have a new one. Read this exchange between the writer and an anthology editor who tries to justify collecting a sizable advance and then not paying contributors. Thanks, Steve. You speak for us all.

►And finally, if you must, get your Eat, Pray, Love jewelry here.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: April 2nd Edition

► Patrick Madden's new collection of essays, Quotidiana, was just recently released and I hear it's terrific. I'm sure it is because I've read several of Patrick's essays in literary journals over the last few years, and heard him speak about the form he most likes to write. Over at the Huffington Post, he takes a look at the essay and asks if it's still relevant in 2010.

►Here's a handy list of meanings for a bunch of publishing industry abbreviations.

►Anna Quindlen ruminates on the future of reading, the book, e-readers, tech literacy and literary snobs.

►Mothers of young children who are also trying to cobble together a writing life might be interested in Christina Katz's new e-book, Author Mama. There's a sweet incentive for those who purchase the Beta edition this month.

►Anyone a member of Backspace? I'm considering joining and would love to hear how you make use of your membership.

►Pamela Redmond Satran is a novelist, magazine freelancer, essayist, and the New York Times-best selling author of a book based on her blog. Now, she's writing a novel online at her cool site HoSprings. Over at our mutual friend Christina Baker Kline's blog, Pam talks about why she decided on this form, what it was like to get it going, and how she's enjoying it.

► I'm curious. How do other writers – or anyone who works at home for that matter – deal with the disruptions of visiting houseguests, children home on school vacations, holidays, and other changes in household routine and rhythms? Let me know (PLEASE let me know!) in comments.

►And finally, I'm told that the rapper Jay-Z once advised fledgling hip hop artists that reading more would make them better songwriters and better rappers. The reason I know this? A college writing student who interviewed me recently compared one of the pieces of advice I gave – that reading more will always make one a better writer – to what Jay-Z said. So, there.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Assume a habit though you have it not. Shakespeare knew something about writing.

Okay, so Shakespeare actually wrote "Assume a virtue, if you have it not" (Hamlet). As a master of the appropriated phrase however, I think he'd give me a pass.

Recently I was talking to new writers about developing a writing habit / routine. Unless one writes, and pretty much only writes, on a full time basis, I'm not an adherent of the you absolutely must write something every single day camp – unless of course that's what works for you. But I do think every writer needs a routine, a habit, a regularly occurring method -- and, the good sense to change it up when it's not working.

Here are a few things I know about my own current writing routine:

- I write most happily in huge spurts, for several hours a day, a few days a week.

- I keep a notebook next to the bed and at least a few mornings a week, it's where I go first.

- When I have a new idea, I try to write about 500 or so new words a day on that topic for several days, without looking back.

- I've been known to get up earlier than usual each morning for a full month to write about 2,000 new words each day on one particular theme. This is wildly counter-intuitive because I am by far the world's worst morning person. But I have learned that it is the ONLY time when I can be assured of no interruptions and no appealing distractions (for example, even though I am wide awake at 1:00 a.m., and often do work then, I also love late-night TV).

- For me, a long, involved, emotionally rich literary piece usually begins in short, unorganized, random bits and pieces, in longhand, in my notebook, at a time when I least expect it. So I make it a habit to "visit" that notebook several times a week to see what happens. I also tend to keep it nearby when I'm watching old movies late at night when everyone is asleep – I found I get a lot of ideas when the house is dark and quiet and someone or something else (the film maker, the actors, the music) is doing some of the pointing and suggesting for me.

- For a short (under 1000 word) essay intended for mainstream media, once I have a topic, I head straight for the computer keyboard and do a (rough and maybe bad) first draft from beginning to end.

- I need at least three (large) notebooks going at the same time (not counting the tiny ones in my purse, car, bathroom, laundry room, etc.). One is for rambling free writes – this one is next to my bed. One is for passages of future pieces that are still only ideas as of yet. This one is on my desk, and I often take it along when I'm making progress and I know I'll have down time somewhere. The third is for my (developing but nascent) tries at poetry and my (quite awkward) attempts at fiction, which I keep it on a shelf near my desk and often grab it when I'm particularly stuck on something or a little rebellious.

-Yes, I have a favorite pen, room in the house, background music and all of that. But I’m also quite content to write on a train, in the car (while waiting for someone, not driving), poolside (when I'm lucky), and on one occasion, in the lovely lobby of a grand old hotel.

I'd love to hear of your routines and habits, especially the odd ones, in comments.