Thursday, May 31, 2007

Guest in Progress: Joy Butler

Joy Butler is an entertainment attorney I met at a networking brunch. (Yes, another brunch, organized by the same group where I met Marty Figley, last week’s “guest in progress.” People interested in getting out of the house and meeting all these fascinating people should look into joining the Washington chapter of WNBA [Women's National Book Association]: there will be another brunch this fall!)

Anyway, Joy had brought along copy of her new book, The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Media and Entertainment Productions. I was especially interested to talk with her because in my class at the Writer’s Center, we recently had a discussion about getting permissions for various new world items like the phrasing off a google search or an amazon reader review. Joy was kind enough to offer her off-the-cuff opinion: google search, no copyright; amazon reader review, copyrighted.

It’s important for writers to be aware that when they quote song lyrics, poems, excerpts from other books, and other matter in their own work, they may need to get permission to do so. If I’m not mistaken, even the “Happy Birthday” song is still under copyright! (Check it out—in a book, you’ll read, “They sang as she blew out candles,” and in a movie, they’ll cut to a scene of the candles without the singing. But you rarely see people singing those exact lyrics that I don't dare write here lest I encounter legal troubles...)

I ran into problems with my own novel, A Year and a Day, when I wanted to quote from the play Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, and the estate wouldn’t allow it. Ugh. I had to rewrite the chapter in such a way that I didn’t use any of the lines from the play…even though my main character was playing Emily. So, my standard advice to writers is to be aware of copyright issues…and be wary of using other material in your own work unless you really, really have to.

Here’s an excerpt from Joy’s book, The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle, to help educate us on what questions we should consider before idly sticking those Rolling Stones lyrics into our short story:

Every media producer eventually faces questions concerning the permissible use of other people’s material. The material might be a quote, real-life event, photograph, celebrity name, or other element protected by copyright or similar laws. These are rights clearance issues and no media producer – whether his/her title be writer, filmmaker, musician, visual artist, website developer, or creative guru - is immune from them.

As used in the book, the term “production” encompasses books, newspapers, magazines, films, posters, paintings, CDs, websites, fine art, advertisements, and a host of other media through which people communicate and express themselves. What follows is an excerpt from the book’s discussion of determining if you need permission and evaluating the risks of not having permission.

For each item incorporated into your production, you should determine with which category of right you are dealing. It might be copyright, trademark, privacy, or other right. Often the same material triggers rights in several areas. The Clearance Checklist in Chapter 2 along with its references to applicable sections of this book provides initial guidance to help you identify the rights issues you must address.

Next, assess whether your contemplated use of the item re­quires permission. Several chapters of Part Two include a discus­sion of the circumstances in which permission may not be required for certain types of uses. However, remember that rights clearance issues are fact specific. No reference book can address the nuances of every rights situation you may encounter. If you are in doubt about the need for permission, consult an attorney experienced in rights clearance issues.

There may be legal justification for using someone’s material with­out permission. Realize that there is always some level of risk when you use someone’s proprietary material without permission. While the risk may sometimes be minimal, it is never zero. It is up to you to decide whether or not you can and want to accept the risk.

An attorney who reviews your production can offer an assess­ment of whether your use requires permission. However, in many cases, the lawyer’s opinion is only a risk analysis. It is not a guaran­tee. No attorney can assure you that an unauthorized use of mate­rial will not trigger legal action from the rights owner. An attorney can only evaluate the likelihood of a lawsuit and the likelihood of your winning the case in the event a rights owner sues you.

Before proceeding without permission, ask yourself some com­mon sense questions:

Would your use upset the typical rights owner? This is a reality check. Put yourself into the shoes of the rights owner. Would you be angry and want to take legal action if someone used your mate­rial without your permission in the way you want to use the rights owner’s material? If your answer is yes, it is likely the rights owner whose material you wish to use will respond in the same way.

Has the rights owner previously objected to similar uses of ma­terial? It is a good bet that rights owners who have been aggressive in protecting their rights in the past will continue to be aggressive in protecting their rights in the future.

Does the rights owner have the resources and knowledge to pur­sue an action against you - even if the action would be without merit? A well-established company with an in-house legal depart­ment can more easily make a fuss about your production than can an individual with more limited resources. Nevertheless, do not completely dismiss the cash-strapped smaller rights owner. If his claim is legitimate and offers the possibility of having the losing side pay attorneys’ fees, he can probably find an attorney to assist him on a contingency basis. See Section 3.1.3 for a discussion of right to attorneys’ fees in a copyright infringement lawsuit.

How much exposure will your production receive? Is your pro­duction a newsletter going to a hundred club members, is it a CD distributed to a few thousand, or is it a television program to be nationally televised? It makes a difference. The more exposure your production receives, the more likely it is that your unauthorized use of material will come to the attention of and spark an objec­tion from the rights owner.

Will your unauthorized use of material expose other people to risk? Rights owners filing lawsuits typically sue not only the pro­ducer but also the people and organizations involved in distribut­ing the production to the public. Potential targets include authors, publishers, record labels, advertising companies, broadcasters, and distributors. Some of these people and organizations may be your clients or people with whom you wish to develop extended business relationships. Dragging others into your rights clearance problems is not good for business. It can also be expensive. Distribution and other agreements include indemnification clauses in which you agree to reimburse the distributor for any losses it may suffer as a result of any rights violations in your production.

Is there anyone involved in your production who has ample re­sources? People or organizations who have – or who are perceived to have – significant amounts of money make attractive targets for lawsuits. Even if you are cash poor, your distributor may not be.

Will you ever need anything from this rights owner? Relation­ships are important in the media industry. Will you need to return to the same rights owner to request rights for a future production? If yes, using the rights owner’s work without authorization – even if he takes no formal action against you – can sour your future nego­tiations for rights you may need from that owner at a later date. ~~Joy R. Butler

Joy R. Butler is an entertainment, intellectual property and business attorney . In her entertainment practice, she regularly advises clients on the permissible use of copyrighted and other protected materials. To learn more about Ms. Butler's practice, visit

About the Book: The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Entertainment and Media Productions. Authored by Joy R. Butler, Published by Sashay Communications, ISBN: 978-0-9672940-1-8, 408 pages, paperback. Available at bookstores and and from the publisher via the website or via toll-free order at 877-995-8645.

Copyright © 2007 by Joy R. Butler. Reproduced with permission. Any further reproduction or use of this excerpt requires the written permission of the author.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hey, Baby, What's Your Font?

Check out this article in Slate magazine in which writers discuss which font they write in. I was surprised by how many people chose Courier, which I find totally unattractive. Their reasoning is that they want to keep their draft as far from looking like a polished, published piece as possible so they can remain distant and editorial about it. Makes sense, but ugh. So ugly!

I prefer 12 point Palatino, though if I have to crunch more words in less space to make a page count, I may switch to Times Roman for printing. And some short stories just seem to be Arial/Helvetica, though I couldn’t define why. But I’d NEVER print out a novel in Helvetica. It seems as though I am supposed to be given a font choice on this blog, but no matter what I select, what you see is what shows up.

Recently, a friend suggested changing fonts when you revise to help see your work with fresh eyes.

And one of my favorite remarks about a font was from someone who was approaching a workshop critique with immense insecurity. She said, “I reread my story last night and it was terrible. I hated it. I even hated the font. Why, why, why did I choose that stupid font?”

It’s easy to obsess when one is a writer….

Reminder: "Talk the Talk"

I will be speaking about dialogue in Leesburg, Virginia, this Friday (June 1).

Event: Northern Virginia Writers First Friday
Date: Friday, June 1, 2007
Time: 7:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Place: Leesburg Town Hall, 25 W. Market St., Leesburg, VA 20176 (directions)
Cost: $4 for members of The Writer's Center and residents of Leesburg; $6 for the general public.

Click here for more information, or call 301.654.8664.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Master of the Universe

I was quite pleased to install—by myself!—features on this blog that will allow readers to subscribe to the content through email or via a feed. Those links are located under the blogroll and "about me" sections, on the left. This way, you’ll automatically get notified every time the site is updated. Of course, I have no idea if these features really work…or what a “feed” actually is…only that “all” the cool blogs have them, and that I am perhaps overly impressed that a non-technological person such as myself could have installed them. Feel free to enlighten me on their function and/or usefulness…and do let me know if there’s anything else all the other cool blogs have that I don’t. (Yes, yes, I know—photographs. Perhaps someday I’ll learn how all that works…probably about the same time some new technology has made it all obsolete.)

I will also confess that I had a bit of a “master of the universe” moment in my writing late last week, when I finished a revision of a chapter that had been plaguing me for several weeks. My big moment came when I was staring at the end, thinking, “How on earth does this wind up?” when a great last line came to me in a flash. I typed it in, stared at it for a moment, then typed in one additional word…and the line became even greater (though I hadn't imagined that was possible!).

Of course, I instantly realized that my immense attachment to the line meant I should cut it, thanks to the “kill your darlings” rule. In my defense, I offer the thoughts of one of my favorite writing teachers who advised us to “write until something surprises you. Then you know it’s good.” I was definitely surprised, and the line ends the chapter on the perfect note. (Can I confess to a quick welling up of tears? Am I the only one secretly excited by and embarrassed with tears over my own work?)

I’m keeping it for now. Let’s see what happens when my writing group reads it. I can count on them to be clear-headed, totally unfraid to kill my precious darlings for me.

Have Your Whole Novel Critiqued

Having your novel critiqued in a traditional workshop setting can be frustrating, especially if you’re done with the book and have to constantly “wait your turn” before showing your chapters to the rest of the group. Though I enjoy teaching workshops that focus on novels-in-progress, when you’re finished with a manuscript, you need one (or more) readers who can read the whole thing straight through. Here’s a nice option, run by Richard Peabody, a popular teacher/writer in the DC area:

Richard describes his class thusly:

Limited to 5 students. We meet every two weeks on Wednesday nights 7:30 until 10pm at my house in Arlington, Virginia. Four to five blocks from Virginia Square Metro station.

1. June 27
2. July 11
3. July 25
4. August 8
5. August 22
6. September 5
7. September 11 [Tuesday]

Cost is $500 to be paid before the first night. Due to people dropping the class at the last minute and forcing me to cancel the entire session I now require that $125 of this fee be non-refundable and paid before the class begins.

Every participant turns in their complete novel and synopsis the first night along with 5 copies for everybody else and me. That way you get handwritten notes on everything from everybody. And you should feel free to recommend cuts, improvements, make suggestions, mark the manuscripts up at will. That's what this class is all about. By meeting every two weeks each participant should have plenty of time to complete their critiques.

If you can't attend every meeting (which I demand save for unforeseeable illness or death in the family as it's a question of fairness and honor) please don't bother signing up.

Why do I teach this class? Because you can go to your favorite bookshop and lift any number of contemporary novels off the shelf and read a few chapters only to discover that they fall apart at chapter four. Why? I’ve found that most MFA programs only critique the first three chapters of your manuscript. Plus, I’ve learned from the hands-on experience of teaching this course that a complete reading and critique is absolutely the best way (dare I say only way?) to go. What’s the advantage of a small class like this one? There’s nothing quite like having five people discuss your characters as though they were living people for 2 ½ hours. What sorts of novels are eligible? Generally I handle serious literary fiction (both realism and experimental works), but the class has included YA, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, and Romance novels.

If you are interested do please email me a chapter and a synopsis. I'm only considering completed novels in the 250-350 dbl. spaced page range. (That’s one-sided, double spaced, 12pt. in Courier font.) Anything longer than that is pretty much wishful thinking right now due to grim market economics and politics. Most first novels are 300 dbl. spaced pages which equals 200pp. in book form. Simply a fact of the biz. Second novels are frequently a different story.

Alumni from Peabody’s 22 years of university, Writer’s Center, and private classes with filmed screenplays, books in print (or forthcoming) include: TMark Baechtel, Doreen Baingana, Toby Barlow, Maggie Bartley, Jodi Bloom, Sean Brijbasi, Peter Brown, Robert Cullen, Priscilla Cummings,Katherine Davis, Lucinda Ebersole, Sandy Florian, Cara Haycak, Dave Housley, Catherine Kimrey, Adam Kulakow, Nathan Leslie, Redge Mahaffey, Charlotte Manning, Meena Nayak,Matthew Olshan, William Orem, Mary Overton, Saideh Pakravan, Carolyn Parkhurst, Sally Pfoutz, Nani Power, Carey Roberts, Lisa Schamess, Brenda Seabrooke, Julia Slavin, David Taylor, Lisa M. Tillman, Sharlie West, and Yolanda Young.

The class meets at Richard’s house in Arlington, near the Central Library on Quincy Street. For more information: (703) 525-9296; cell (703) 380-4893, or email, gargoyle AT

About: Richard Peabody wears many literary hats. He is editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976), has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited or co-edited fourteen anthologies including: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Mondo Marilyn, Mondo James Dean, Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis, and Wonderland, Sex & Chocolate: Tasty Morsels for Mind and Body, Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women and Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix. Electric Grace: Still More Fiction by Washington Area Women is forthcoming in November of 2007, to be followed by Stress City: A Big Book of Fiction by Fifty DC Guys in spring 2008. Peabody teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. You can find out more here or at

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Work in Progress: Marty Rhodes Figley

I first met Marty Rhodes Figley at a networking brunch during which everyone in the room gave a brief introduction about themselves. Two women mentioned that they had recently learned the secrets of making perfect piecrust from Marty; she had invited them over and they spent an afternoon in the kitchen making “real” pie. Since making perfect piecrust is one of my life goals, I knew I had to meet Marty myself. Within moments of introducing myself, she invited me over to make pie!

We had a great time, and the cherry pie “we” made was by far the best I have ever eaten, let alone participated in making. Having read every list of “helpful hints” for perfect piecrust, I was aghast that Marty didn’t actually measure the shortening, didn’t worry if her hands were cold, used water out of the faucet instead of ice water, and didn’t stress out during the rolling process. As I said, her piecrust was amazing, while mine continues to be…well, better than it used to be, though still not amazing. (See Chapter 8, “Pie,” in my book A Year and a Day for all the sordid details of my piecrust angst.)

Marty is a remarkable woman, gifted at creating pie (and other culinary treats) and gifted at bringing history alive to children with her lovely words. Generous and funny (be sure to read her Washington Post piece about her unique Phantom of the Opera diet—link below), she is one of my favorite people, and I think this essay describing her approach to writing captures her delightful personality:

Gambling is in my genes. I’ve been told that one night, long ago, blood streamed down my grandpa’s face when grandma bonked him with a tin dipper after he crept in with empty pockets from yet another night of poker at the local pool hall. It was the Depression and I guess Grandpa was looking to get lucky. After the bleeding stopped, Grandma and Grandpa had a long, quiet talk in the bedroom. He never visited the pool hall again.

When I was a teenager I was amazed when my dad took a gamble and after 16 years quit the telephone company. He became part owner of a cosmetic company with an imposing, white-bearded man from Chicago named Rudy. I remember the weekend when the building that housed the business burned down. We sifted through the ashes and tried to salvage bottles of astringent lotion and jars of mint masque to no avail. Later, dad’s luck changed. He switched from cosmetics to cable TV and ended up building systems in small towns throughout the Midwest.

My younger brother and I inherited this gambling tendency. One crazy weekend, when my kids were small, we drove to Atlantic City and played for hours against each other at the roulette tables. It was a heady experience but this particular brand of sibling rivalry proved expensive. Together we were double-trouble, two crazy clones of Grandpa. We ran though all our cash, and then had a flat tire on the way home. There was no spare in the trunk—that’s not hedging your bets. MasterCard saved us, and we never gambled against each other again.

My brother ended up with an M.B.A. and turned to the stock market for his gambling highs. He has done quite well.

I turned to writing . . . and then submitting my manuscripts. It’s a cheap but exhilarating game of chance. After I compose and polish what I’m convinced at that moment in time is the BEST THING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN, I put it in a big white envelope, or make it into a Word Attachment and send it out to be read. Even if I’m submitting to an editor I know, or a receptive publishing house, it’s still like rolling the dice . . . or picking red or black on that wicked roulette wheel.

I always have hope. This could be it! The big sale! The movie deal! The book that wins the prestigious award and garners massive public acclaim!

Most of the time, it’s not. Scar tissue is a fact of life with most writers I know. We have all experienced many, many rejections. But we are a hopeful tribe—and totally addicted to submitting.

I know I’ll keep writing and sending out my work. Preparation and continual honing of my craft may improve my odds—who knows? It’s still a game of chance. But I’ll risk it.

Emily Dickinson nails it as usual . . .
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches on the soul -
And sings the tune – without the words –
And never stops – at all –

~~Marty Rhodes Figley

About: Marty Rhodes Figley loves writing humor and history. She has published seven books for children, with two more in production. Titles include The Schoolchildren's Blizzard, Saving the Liberty Bell, and Washington Is Burning. She also enjoys writing for "grown-ups." Recently she published a humorous piece in the Washington Post and an academic article in the Emily Dickinson Journal. Marty is currently working on a humorous middle grade novel.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

RIP, Miss Snark

Just a quick note to mourn the passing of one of my favorite blogs, Miss Snark, the literary agent. Miss Snark has hung up her stilettos and, apparently, decided to focus on real life instead of her blog (boo-hoo). She wrote from the perspective of an anonymous literary agent who told the truth about the business side of the literary world…and with a delightfully snarky sense of humor. (Typical comment: “You need to be hit on the head with a clue stick.”)

She promises to leave her archives posted, and believe me, you can’t get a better picture of what writers need to know about agents and publishers anywhere else. But don’t start searching unless you have a lot of time…she’s addictive!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Afternoon at the Library

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Alexandria library, escaping some noisy work being done at my house (and, yes, the siren songs of email and internet). I’ve been to this library a couple of times, and I am always struck by how silent it is. The design is modern and open with vaulted ceilings, so it’s echoey—but I find it remarkable how little there is to echo. A cell phone going off—and quickly silenced—is like an explosion of sound. There was a crying baby, and a couple brief conversations, but mostly this library is like the libraries you might remember from the past, where “Shhh” was both a word and a way of life.

What’s also amazing to me is that this library usually is PACKED. If you arrive too late in the day, you can’t get a carrel, unless it’s a carrel that has no chair or no light or some other flaw. Maybe the city of Alexandria should have built a bigger building, but I like to think that this library is crowded because it is meeting its goal: usefully serving many purposes to many people. (I love the goofy “teen sanctuary” nook with paperbacks and bean bag chairs slouched on the floor…once or twice I’ve actually seen a real, live teen in there, though one guy was sleeping and another time a girl was listening to her iPod, no books or homework in sight.)

I guess that’s one thing about today’s libraries—though this one is as silent as the library I remember going to growing up back in the day, a large percentage of people are not there for the books. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even have a library card. We’re there because we want a quiet place to get work done (laptops abound in the carrels), or for wireless, or for the free, public access to the internet. In fact, when I arrived this morning, I was surprised that the parking lot was virtually deserted. Turns out the public computers had been scheduled to be down for an upgrade that morning…but once they were back up in the afternoon, the place filled up again. There is never an empty computer terminal, never. I presume everyone is researching important things like the man whose screen showed an image of a woman wearing a garter belt I passed by….as I said, many purposes to many people.

But I like the change of scenery. I think changing things up is important in the creative writing process. After I finished my work for the day, I stopped by the periodicals room (not as cozy as “teen sanctuary” but some comfy chairs) and skimmed an issue of The Writer magazine and came across these quotes in an interview with author Rick Moody. Both seemed very apt for my day spent in the library:

“I like to revise on the subway sometimes [in New York City]. I find the subway enormously conducive to correcting drafts of things.”

I often find answers to tough writing problems while I’m staring out the metro window, but I never thought about actually revising while riding public transportation. I’m intrigued by the thought….

And this, also from Rick Moody, reminding us of what it’s all about:

“Tenacity and talent are important in equal measure. I have seen truly great aspiring writers lose heart along the way, and that’s to the detriment of literature as a whole. So stick to it, do the work, and make the practice of the craft your goal. The practice of it will never disappoint you, though the market will come and go.”

The practice of it will never disappoint you. So true.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Upcoming Event: "Talk the Talk"

I will be speaking about dialogue (one of my favorite writing topics) in Leesburg, Virginia, as part of the “First Friday” series on June 1. During this presentation, I promise to reveal my famous trick that totally changed my dialogue. I’ve got a few other tricks up my sleeves, too…should be a good event.

Event: Northern Virginia Writers First Friday
Date: June 1, 2007
Time: 7:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Place: Leesburg Town Hall, 25 W. Market St., Leesburg,VA 20176 (directions)

Talk the Talk: Focus on Dialogue
Dialogue seems as though it should be easy—we all talk! But written dialogue has precision and heft that reverberate beyond the sounds of simple, everyday conversation. Good dialogue serves several purposes: It reveals character, moves the story forward and supports your setting. Find out how to accomplish this in your own fiction and memoir.

Cost: $4 for members of The Writer's Center and residents of Leesburg; $6 for the general public.

Click here for more information, and here for directions, or call 301.654.8664.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Work in Progress: Ann McLaughlin

I met my dear friend Ann McLaughlin in 1998, at a writing group, and this group has been meeting ever since. People come and go from the group, but Ann and I have stayed. She read (and commented on) my A Year and a Day in draft form, and I read (and commented on) her novels, The House on Q Street and A Trial in Summer, currently out on submission. In the group, Ann is known for one of her favorite words: “shape.” She is skilled at shaping a story into a novel, at creating a pleasing whole, a beautiful arc, at taking the reader through a lovely journey. Here, she offers some thoughts on writers keeping journals, and I’m sure that if we were to be privy to these contents what would emerge would be another beautiful arc, the arc of a life well lived:

Virginia Woolf once said that an unrecorded day felt to her like a faucet left running. I know that feeling for I am a Journal Junkie and have kept journals most of my long life.

There are many kinds of journals and the reasons for writing them are as numerous as the people who keep them. Journal writing can be especially important to writers; writing in your journal can limber up the writing muscles, much as playing scales on the piano limbers the fingers. Journal writing can open a way around writing blocks and can provide you with material you may use later in published form. I was twelve when my family moved to Washington in World War II and kept a “war journal.” I pasted in pictures of FDR and Churchill, the British princesses in their Girl Guide uniforms and drew a diagram of an a Consolidated B-24 bomber.* When I wrote my novel, The House on Q Street, (John Daniel & Co., 2002), I returned to the material of that journal and to its serious, self-important mood.

The journal can also be a place where you write out immediate and/or troubling events. Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand short story writer, referred to her journals as “my huge complaining diaries.” The fact is that journals are often gloomy reading, for journal writers are more likely to write during periods of trouble and confusion than in times of ease. But the process of writing out worries and indecisons often proves clarifying.

The need for privacy with your journal is real. You can buy journals that have locks and keys or just get in the habit of putting your journal in a safe place and making sure that the people you live with know that you will share your journal with them only when you are ready.

You can keep journals in many forms: spiral notebooks can be good for travel or bound notebooks. Many bookstores sell attractive journals. I keep my journal on my computer.

It is yours alone; no grades are given, no suggestions will come from pushy agents or critical colleagues. The journal is your intimate friend and can be with you wherever you go.
~~Ann McLaughlin

*Note from me: When I saw Ann give a reading from this book, she brought along this journal and passed it around to the crowd. An amazing document; I could have spent hours perusing the pages, but alas, the woman next to me had her grubby hand out, pushing for her turn.

About Ann McLaughlin: Ann McLaughlin, Ph.D., has published five novels: Lightning in July, The Balancing Pole, Sunset at Rosalie, Maiden Voyage, and The House on Q Street (all available through John Daniel & Company). She also reviews for several local publications and teaches at the Writer’s Center.

Reading for Inaugural National Award for Arts Writing

Poet Kim Roberts has brought the following event to our attention:

Reading (with music) by Scott Reynolds Nelson, winner of the Arts Club of Washington’s inaugural National Award for Arts Writing for Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press).

Tuesday, May 22, 7 pm
Arts Club of Washington
2017 I Street, NW
Washington, DC
Farragut West and Farragut North Metro
For more information:, 202-331-7282 x 15.

The National Award for Arts Writing is given annually by the Arts Club of Washington in recognition of excellence in writing about the arts for a broad audience. The substantial Award of $15,000 is the only one of its kind the country.

The ballad “John Henry” is the most recorded folk song in American history and John Henry –the mighty railroad man who could blast through rock faster than a steam drill – is a towering figure in our culture. In Steel Drivin’ Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson masterfully captures the life of the ballad, tracing the song’s evolution from work song through the blues to its place as the premiere American folk song; from the first printed score by blues legend W. C. Handy, to Carl Sandburg’s use of the ballad to become the first “folk singer,” to the upbeat version by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Scott Reynolds Nelson is Legum Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. The author of Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction, and coauthor, with Carol Sheriff, of A People At War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, he served as a consultant on the forthcoming PBS documentary on John Henry. Steel Drivin’ Man has also received two other awards: a 2007 Merle Curti Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction, an award that recognizes books on race and culture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


One of my secret obsessions is Found magazine, published by author Davy Rothbart. You know all those scraps of paper that you see blowing around various alleys, or scrawls pinned to bulletin boards, or crumpled lists in the bottom of your grocery carts? It turns out that often there are very interesting things written on that detritus…all collected by Found magazine.

The published volumes are excellent, but I prefer the randomness of the website, where you can check out the “find of the day” and then head off in infinite directions, exploring all the finds. And the comment trails can be equally interesting. Here are two of my absolute favorites.

And here’s info on the magazines and books.

Writers seeking inspiration or exercise prompts: I suspect it’s impossible not to come up with ideas after spending time here.

(No, I’ve never found anything good enough to send in…though now I pick up crumpled pieces of paper and read them. Usually just a boring old grocery list, though.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Make It Quick

I admire the short and sweet…probably because these days my “short” stories all balloon to 30+ pages, and pagewise, my novel continues to billow out of control. So I enjoy the online journal Brevity, which is published 2-3 times a year and contains a selection of brief pieces of creative nonfiction (no more than 750 words). Check out the new issue and/or sign up for a free subscription.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Where Poetry and Politics Intersect

Is writing inseparable from politics? If you say yes, check out The New Verse News, an online journal of political poems about current issues.

And if you’d like to throw in your two cents, submit your work. They’re actively looking for submissions:

THE NEW VERSE NEWS covers the news and public affairs with timely poems on issues, large and small, international and local. It relies on the submission of poems (especially those of a politically progressive bent) by writers from all over the world. Poems on topics as current asthe day's headlines are especially desired.The editors update the website every day with the best work received.See the web site for guidelines and for examples of the kinds of poems THE NEW VERSE NEWS publishes. Then paste your submission and a brief bio in the text of an email (no attachments, please) to editor AT Write “Verse News Submission” in the subject line of your email.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Work in Progress: Prodigal Daughters

I’m leading a novel writing workshop at the Writer’s Center, and recently we were talking about characters. The best characters are complicated and complex, I said, they are neither all good nor all bad. I like the succinct sound of this saying: Fiction is about good people doing bad things or bad people doing good things. And my friend Ginny sent me a great quote that I immediately stole: author Colin Channer said, “For me [the story idea] comes down to this, an interesting person who wants an interesting thing for an interesting reason.”

People in the class are at varying points in their novels-in-progress, so we talked about how writing the first draft of a novel is often the way the writer discovers the story and the characters, and one woman wanted to know more about what it means to discover your characters.

Plenty of teachers and writing books advocate character sketches and other sorts of creative tricks: scrapbooks for the character, photos from magazines, lists of important dates, a questionnaire of events in the character’s life, a checklist of thought-provoking questions (i.e. what is this character’s recurring nightmare?). I’ve used some of these tricks to good effect—for my current project, one character has a knack for wearing vintage clothing (I don’t) and is a big clothes person (I’m not), so early in the process I ripped out pictures from several Vogue magazines of outfits she might wear, thinking I would leaf through the file when I needed to describe her attire. I felt vindicated recently when I looked through the folder and discovered that inadvertently I had ripped out the same outfit twice, once in a Vogue feature, once in an ad, which I took to mean that I “knew” my character well enough to know (twice!) that this outfit was something she would like. (She wears it to the big Thanksgiving dinner at dad’s house.)

Someone in the class offered a great idea that was a new twist for me: put your characters in situations you were recently in, even (especially?) the mundane ones: if you were at the dentist, send your characters to the dentist, he suggested, what kind of gums do they have? Do they get chastised for not flossing (as I do)?

I often write a short story or two with novel characters I’m interested in before I commit to them. ("Men Who Have Seen the Ocean" is a study for A Year and a Day.)

So I like those tricks. And they can help.

But they also distract.

I believe the best way to discover your characters is to throw them into action. Get them moving. All the lists and ripped-out magazine pages in the world won’t tell you as much as a single scene that you write out, not knowing for sure how your character will react. You can imagine that your pregnant, 13-year-old daughter character will be keeping her baby…until you get her arguing with her mother and suddenly she’s shouting that she’s going to give that baby up for adoption to a “real family.” In creative writing, you just can’t plan out everything.

I re-taught myself this lesson in the last month. There is one fairly major thing I have not worked out with the plotting of Prodigal Daughters, and I’m fast approaching that chapter. While I was traveling and away from my writing, I had the opportunity to spend time thinking about how to resolve this plotting issue. I sat and thought and thought and sat. I brainstormed. I wrote pages of notes. I doodled. I sat and thought some more. (Long airplane ride, lots of sitting in a car.) Finally, I worked out what I thought was a very good solution. I carefully guarded my little notebook with all my ideas (carry-on luggage, thank you very much!).

Two weeks later, I finally had the opportunity to get back to actual writing, and I re-immersed myself with my characters. Three days after that, I woke up one morning and saw the real way to resolve that plotting issue, and it had little to do with all the notes I’d carefully written and everything to do with the fact that I was actually writing, actually back in the book, actually with my characters, actually seeing them in action.

Thinking and planning are worthy activities.

But in my experience, the way to discover your characters and your story is to sit down and write, trusting that something will come. It always does…eventually.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Scoop on the WIW Conference

If you’re a writer in the Washington area ISO motivation and/or marketing advice, check out the 2007 Washington Writers Conference, sponsored by Washington Independent Writers: "Living On Words: Get Inspired, Get Writing, Get Published!" The date is Saturday, June 9, 2007, at the Cafritz Center at George Washington University. Go here for more information and registration details.

I’ll be moderating a panel called "Fiction Writing Tool Kit: 12+ Ideas to Use Tomorrow to Improve Your Writing," with novelists/short story writers Doreen Baingana, Amy Stolls, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

Writer C.M. Mayo (proprietress of the wonderful Madame Mayo blog) has also put together a great line-up for a panel on travel writing.

Other events include plenary speaker Peter Bowerman, author and self-publisher, who is known for his books The Well-Fed Writer and the The Well-Fed Editor. In addition to the opening speech, Peter will lead a workshop based on his books and will provide practical steps and tips on marketing and selling your writing.

The keynote speaker is Francine Prose, award-winning author of 11 novels, including Blue Angel, a finalist for the National Book Award. Her latest book is Reading Like A Writer. She has also written four children's books and co-translated three volumes of fiction. Prose is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and writes regularly on art for The Wall Street Journal.

Fourteen different sessions throughout the day cover everything from the practical aspects of writing to the creative process. Attendees will also have the opportunity to meet with agents (both fiction and non-fiction) and network. More info.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Do You Have Friends in Low Places?

Dredge up your memories of and stories about your favorite dive bar…rather, the memories you actually remember and the stories you actually share. This from the literary journal Barrelhouse:

Barrelhouse is searching for non-fiction about your favorite dive bar, your best or worst dive bar story, the "I never thought these letters were true until I wound up shirtless drinking shots of Black House with three old men on a Sunday afternoon" kind of dive bar story. It's not really a contest,but the ones we like best will be published in a special section of our next print issue.What's a dive bar you might ask? That's up to you. But our definition might include BARRELHOUSES, roadhouses, private clubs gone bad, corner joints, speakeasies, Schlitz taverns, rathskellers, pool halls, and any other incarnation of dive bars.

Our special section of dive bar non-fiction, guest edited by Steve Kistulentz, is looking for narrative non-fiction on any aspect of the dive bar experience. We'll admit we're partial to the following: a propulsive narrative, brevity (anything more than 2,000 words doesn't stand a chance), and pieces that somehow communicate more than just a laundry list of the qualities that make up the perfect dive bar (though hopefully you might have some ideas about that, too).

The submission deadline has been extended to May 30. Decisions in late June.

Submit online by visiting our schmancy online submissions center. Be sure to select DIVE BARS as the genre for your entry. [Note: No special stamps needed! Take that, US Postal Service!]

Monday, May 7, 2007

Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

The U.S. Postal Service has become creative with its new postage rates (effective May 14, 2007). You probably already know about the new “forever” stamp that’s valid for first-class, 1-ounce letters forever. (Avoid lines at the post office and order some online here.) This is a brilliant idea for writers: now we can use this on our SASE and never worry about getting our rejections even if a journal holds onto our submissions for a year. Financial types are welcome to calculate the savings possible by stocking up on the stamps now—at the new, 41 cent rate—and holding onto them as postage rates inevitably rise—let us know what you determine.

Less publicized is the new (less brilliant) plan that entails basing postage costs on envelope size. Under the new plan, apparently you can shove a wad of papers into a standard envelope and it will still be only 41 cents. (Okay, up to 3.5 ounces…but that’s like 12 pieces of paper; good luck cramming all that in.)

What the post office now calls a “large” envelope is 80 cents for the first ounce, and 17 cents for additional ounces. If you’re like me, hoarding stamps in odd denominations to cobble together my own exact postage--anything to avoid post office lines!—undoubtedly this sounds confusing and troublesome. For example, why isn’t the rate the same as two stamps (82 cents)? Now I have to go buy a bunch of 80-cent stamps? And how large is large? What about 5x7ish envelopes—are they large or a letter? Don’t even get started on those cute square envelopes.

Inquiring minds want to know. But I spent a few minutes searching the postal service web site and couldn’t find any information on the new rates. Thank goodness I had picked up a brochure announcing the new rates…while I was waiting in line at the post office!

I suppose we’ll all survive…but it’s no wonder I find myself sending my work more and more to journals that accept online submissions.

Special note to stamp geeks: Don’t forget the new Star Wars stamps are out on May 25!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Work in Progress: Jim Haverkamp

Call it destiny, call it coincidence, call it luck, call it “God working in mysterious ways.” In October 2005, I published an essay, “Heart of Darkness,” in The Sun magazine (one of my favorite magazines). The contributor’s note included my website, and a man in North Carolina did what every writer with a website dreams of: he liked my essay so much that looked up my website to find out more about my work and ended up getting a copy of A Year and a Day. Then he read it. The book resonated with him, so he emailed me: about the original essay and the novel.

It turns out this man, Jim Haverkamp, grew up in Iowa City, which is where I grew up. Not only that, he grew up about two blocks away from me and also went to Robert Lucas Elementary School, which was up the hill from where we lived. In fact, he remembered my younger sister. Even now, still in Iowa City, his father and step-mother attend a bridge group with my parents.

It also turns out that Jim is an independent filmmaker who decided that he would very much like to adapt my novel, A Year and a Day, into his first feature film.

Lawyers, agents, contracts, blah, blah, blah: the deal. I am thrilled and honored and humbled by this beautiful outcome of my essay appearing in The Sun.

Because I can’t even begin to imagine what it takes to put together a movie, or adapt a book to a screenplay, I asked Jim if he would write a short piece about his creative process. After reading it, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that my novel has found a good home. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to discard the word “destiny”:

Movies, the 800-pound gorilla of pop culture, have mangled and mutilated many a fine novel. For every Housekeeping, it seems, there are fifty or more Bonfire of the Vanities. And it’s not the most horrid adaptations that hurt the most (spectacularly bad can still be spectacular, as those low budget Edgar Allan Poe flicks with Vincent Price can attest). It’s much more common to experience that crushing ache at seeing a sublime novel rendered completely pedestrian on screen—A Death in the Family or The English Patient spring to mind for me.

So it was with some trepidation, then, that I decided to try adapting a novel into a screenplay (and, hopefully one day, a film). Hippocrates is my writing coach, sternly whispering in my ear every time I sit down, “First, do no harm. Remember Cold Mountain.”

I don’t know how ideas present themselves to novel writers, but for me, a film always begins with an emotion that triggers pictures. Sometimes it’s caused by a piece of music, or a phrase, or seeing the light hit something a certain way. It might be something inconsequential. But that feeling and an image are enough to start building.

In the case of this novel, I started writing the screenplay—that is, seeing images—from the moment I started reading it. And that was definitely a rare occurrence. To be sure, I have been moved by novels many times, felt completely absorbed by them, had them change my life radically, but rarely have I been so enraptured by a novel that I made a movie the whole time as I read it. Obviously the feelings, ideas, and story of the book deeply resonated with me. So, after contacting the author out of the blue and some great good fortune, I’ve got a chance to try and drawn down that mental screenplay onto paper. How completely exciting, and how completely terrifying.

It puts you in an odd position, this type of writing, as it feels like trying to keep one eye on the novel, one eye on the screen, and one eye on the page in front of you. I’m trying to remain reverent but not dully slavish to the structure and events in the book, as obviously the film can’t be a literal translation. I’ve noticed that the few things I have added thus far are “character moments,” things that can be covered quite nicely with a few sentences in a novel, but are naggingly difficult to pull off elegantly on screen. The novel is in some sense about unspoken things, how people get in the habit of not talking about what really matters, and the toll that takes. This adds an extra layer of difficulty at the writing phase, because I have to constantly remind myself that these words I’m jotting down are meant to be spoken and acted by talented people, and that their true meaning, the hidden meaning, will be drawn out by the actors’ tone of voice, the flicker of emotion behind their eyes, the awkwardness between two flesh and blood human beings, in other words, the actual unspoken words between them.

Screenwriting books will tell you that screenplays are simply blueprints for films, things that will be changed by a thousand different factors once the circus tent of a movie shoot is erected and the resulting chaos ensues. That makes sense, and yet at this phase it all seems so delicate. I have to think about the house this blueprint is meant to build, including the cost of various additions and rooms and such, and yet I also have to keep that all out of my mind as well, and concentrate on trying to get something real, something akin to the original emotion I felt while reading the book, onto the page. It’s obviously there in the source material, but is there a way to make that same alchemy work in script form? Can I tell this story as a film simply and truthfully, and, more importantly, without easy sentimentality? This, as always, is the rub.

I can’t promise The Godfather, Hippocrates, but I’m going to try like hell not to pull A Scanner Darkly, either. ~~Jim Haverkamp

About Jim Haverkamp: Jim Haverkamp is an Iowa-born filmmaker and freelance editor who resides in Durham, NC. His credits include co-producing and co-editing the documentary feature Monster Road with Brett Ingram, which is currently showing on the Sundance Channel. He has also made several short narrative and documentary films that have screened at more than 100 film festivals around the world.

In addition to freelance work, he teaches a production class in the Continuing Studies Department of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. He has also served on the selection committee of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for several years, is a board member of the Southern Documentary Fund, and is a former organizer of the Flicker Film Festival in Chapel Hill. He was awarded a Filmmaking Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2000.

Lately, he and his wife have been changing a lot of diapers and dreaming of three continuous hours of sleep.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Cruel and Unusual

Writer Stephen Elliott spent a month off the Internet and away from email. How does one survive?? Find out here, in this article from Poets & Writers magazine.

Incidentally, Stephen Elliott is the author of an amazing—and amazingly disturbing—novel in stories called Happy Baby. If you’re working on linked stories, I think this book is a great model to examine. The form is crucial to the outcome and the end result doesn’t feel like a bunch of stories jammed together by the writer or an ambitious agent and deemed “linked.” (But beware: the book is quite graphic…and the title is highly ironic!)

No Excuse...

…not to leave the house, not with this comprehensive list of upcoming poetry readings and doings. Or, if you’re agoraphobic and can’t leave the house, check out the contests and reading deadlines (mostly poetry-oriented) and send your work out of the house instead!

Hooray for Kim Roberts (editor of the online poetry journal Beltway), who keeps the DC literary community so organized and pulled together.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

See the World, Get Paid (A Little)

If you’re interested in travel writing, check out this post on Madam Mayo, C.M. Mayo’s blog. After reading travel writer Sally Shivan’s top ten tips for publishing your travel writing in newspapers, you’ll be packing a suitcase and grabbing your laptop!

Continued Title Woes

Mysteriously, the months of the archives have translated themselves into a foreign language. And I am still planning on figuring out how to put up the title of this blog, Work-in-Progress. Apparently, I am just not a title person.

Update: Honestly, they really, truly were in another language! Through no effort of my own, they have translated back to English. This is my solution to most computer woes...wait it out. Or unplug it.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.