Monday, September 24, 2007

Away Again

I've always wanted to say this: “Well, I’m off to Paris.” Steve and I are going on our belated honeymoon and celebrating a significant birthday (his), so I’ll be away from blogging until October 8ish. While I’m gone, please enjoy the wonderful essay below by Jesse Cohen and/or check out the archives for other fabulous Guests in Progress essays you may have missed.

P.S. Today is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Guest in Progress: Jesse Cohen

I grew up with a chemistry professor (my father), but that didn’t mean I knew much about science. On the contrary, what I remember most vividly about my year of high school chemistry was feeling perpetually lost from early October, mostly because I never could understand the very basic concept of what a mole is. (Still don’t: I was doing okay with this explanation until the equation showed up.)

Yet when doing a bit of research for my novel A Year and a Day (high school chemistry and biology teachers play important roles), I discovered a new interest in science…not in a science-class sort of way, but as a general reader. Corny but true: not only is science amazing, but it is beautiful and creative. (NOT the data, Father Chemistry Professor…the theories!) I was pleased that the ending I struggled to find for A Year and a Day hinged on a scientific fact that was also a lovely metaphor for the book. I was also pleased to find poetry in the Periodic Table of the Elements.

At best, I’m definitely a science dilettante: I’ve poked around Richard Feynman’s books; read Atul Gawande’s book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science; skimmed some general science “books of facts”; enjoyed Allegra Goodman’s excellent novel Intuition, which takes place in a research lab; and whole-heartedly love all planetariums. It seems to me that part of the difficulty scientists have is translating the fantastic things they know and are passionate about into a language people like me understand. Not that they have to; they can focus on writing for colleagues and other scientists, of course. But one of the reasons I’m looking forward to reading the 2007 edition of The Best American Science Writing, which has just been published, is because here is science that is smart and beautiful and interesting…and the writing is focused on readers like me.

Here, Jesse Cohen traces his history as the Best American Science Writing series editor, discusses effective science writing, and gives an enticing preview of the new edition. I met Jesse nearly ten (!!) years ago at the Sewanee Writers Conference and have stayed in touch through job changes, moves, marriages (one apiece), arrival of children, and the shifting fortunes—or dreary continued same fortunes!—of our hockey teams (Caps for me, Rangers for him). He’s a smart editor…and, as you will see, obviously much more than the “Xerox-and-skim” guy of the anthology world:

Way back in the fall of 1999, I found myself presented with an opportunity, the kind that comes in the form of the inquiry, “Would you know anyone who might be interested in …?” Of course, that kind of question is a code: you can say you do know someone (or don’t), which is a way of turning down an offer without offending anyone. Or you can say, “Well, golly, I’d be interested!”

It was exactly that form of question that was posed to me by the legendary Dan Halpern of Ecco, long a freestanding and worthy literary publishing house that is now part of the HarperCollins empire, when he needed a series editor of what he hoped would be an annual anthology of the year’s best science writing. At the time I was working at a small publishing company, where my role was to develop a series of short books on science. Seeing an opportunity, and seizing the opportunity, I told Dan, “Well, golly, I’d be interested.”

Anthologies are a little bit like “Saturday Night Live”—a show with a group of regulars, but with a different host each week. The series editor of an anthology gathers articles from many places (I’ve read one description of the role as the “Xerox-and-skim” guy), winnows them down to a manageable number, and then sends them to the guest editor for final selection. The guest editor, like the SNL host, changes with each edition, and publishers search for a marquee writer to bedazzle potential consumers. For that first volume, James Gleick had agreed to assume that role.

I have to admit that I was a little intimidated when I was told that I would be working with James Gleick. Partly this was because I am an easily intimidated person, but primarily it was because Gleick is a writer of such fierce exactness and penetration that I imagined he would see right through a mere amateur like myself and mop the floor with me.

I needn’t have worried. Gleick is exacting and penetrating, yes, but also, I learned, generous and professional, who from the first did me the honor of including me as a partner in the process, asking for my advice in questions of selection and making me feel like much more than the “Xerox-and-skim” guy.

But what I will cherish most from our time working together is the insight he gave me into what makes for good science writing. Of course, good science writing has the same elements as good writing in any genre: strong narrative, attention to language, a sense of suspense that is organic to the story and not imposed by the telling.

Science writing also has to fulfill that nearly impossible task of translating scientific knowledge into a language that the general reader can understand without—and here is the tricky part—dumbing down the science. But, when you think about it, just about every form of writing requires an act of translation, even if it is simply taking something that has personal meaning and making strangers care deeply about it.

Still, what Jim impressed upon me was the idea that good science writing has depth. “I don’t want articles that just say, ‘Here is what’s going on in this field right now,’” he told me. There are many fine articles that fit that description. But what he was looking for, and what I in turn learned to value most highly, was the kind of writing that went beyond mere reportage.

What that meant was writing that stressed, or prized, or never lost track of, the human element. While “the human element” is a cliché, perhaps even tautological in any discussion of good narrative writing—stories are, after all, about human beings—it is not something that can be taken for granted in science writing. The love of ideas, the fascination in data and observation, are part of the scientific adventure; the best science writing not only lets readers share this love and fascination, it allows us to glimpse the minds and the passions of the people who come up with the ideas, collect the data and make the observations.

So, in that first volume, The Best American Science Writing 2000, we had a few articles that were really memoirs, one by Oliver Sacks, who shared his first scientific love, the elements; and one by a jazz musician who shared his early, disastrous apprenticeship in chemistry. We had a stunning article by a relatively unknown Atul Gawande, ostensibly about medical mistakes, but which opened with an unforgettable first-person account of emergency surgery. We had scientists who talked about what it was like to study ants in the searing heat of the desert or to track neutrinos in the subfreezing temperatures of the Antarctic. We had a poet who explained the mechanisms behind brain damage—by reporting on how he struggled with his own.

Now, amazing to say, I am about to publish this series’ eighth installment, The Best American Science Writing 2007. This year’s guest editor, Gina Kolata, has selected many powerful and exciting stories. I would love to celebrate them all, but maybe a few previews will suffice. A splendid young writer, Tyler Cabot, writes about the latest uncertainty in physics, by really getting into the heads of the scientists, young and old, who are waiting for some kind of corroboration of their theories. It’s as though Cabot had taken us into a scientific dressing room moments before the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Sylvia Nasar (who wrote A Beautiful Mind) and David Gruber profile one of the most fascinating mathematicians in the world today—a man of such simplicity and humility that he has foregone the usual academic career and turned down lucrative honors. Matthew Chapman, a descendant of Charles Darwin, reports on the surreal experience of watching the Dover evolution trial—talk about having a unique perspective!

Those are but three of some twenty pieces, but I can say that all of them rise to the standards of the best science writing. None of them is merely a “here-is-what’s-going-on” article, as James Gleick would have put it. Every single one of them is well reported, well written, and well told. And every single one introduces us not only the wonder of science at the cutting edge, but the remarkable people who are taking us there. ~~Jesse Cohen

About: Jesse Cohen is a longtime book editor, now working as a consultant and book reviewer. He’s known Leslie for nearly ten years, since they met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and discovered they both shared a passion for ice hockey. He also has a blog of his own, devoted to literature and music: THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2007 goes on sale on September 18. For more information, check out the HarperCollins web site.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


I’ll be away from the blog until September 23…but check back then for an excellent “Guest in Progress” essay written by Jesse Cohen, the series editor of Best American Science Writing , in which he’ll share some interesting behind-the-scenes info about the new edition.

And please enjoy the Fitzgerald interview below.

Arrr...don't forget Wednesday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

"A Cracked Plate" or Genius?

Speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald—as I so often am; see below—the Guardian has posted an edited version of an interview with him by Michael Mok, published in the New York Post, on September 25, 1936. (Fitzgerald died in 1940; The Great Gatsby was published in 1925.)

Which is more sad, reading that during the course of the interview, Fitzgerald kept popping over for another nip from a “hidden” bottle of booze:

Physically he was suffering the aftermath of an accident eight weeks ago, when he broke his right shoulder in a dive from a 15- foot springboard. But whatever pain the fracture might still cause him, it did not account for his jittery jumping off and on to his bed, his restless pacing, his trembling hands, his twitching face with its pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child.
“Nor could it be held responsible for his frequent trips to a highboy, in a drawer of which lay a bottle. Each time he poured a drink into the measuring glass on his bedside table, he would look appealingly at the nurse and ask, "Just one ounce?"

Or this, his heartbreaking self-assessment, from an autobiographical article published in Esquire magazine prior to the interview in which:

“Fitzgerald described himself as "a cracked plate". “Sometimes, though," he wrote, "the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under the leftovers.”

So poignant to think he saw himself this way…

(Link via Bookslut.)

Bonus: Here’s a photo of Fitzgerald from 1937 in which he manages to look moderately hopeful. Photo source here.

Reminder: F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference

Just to remind you, here’s a conference I’ll be participating in, leading a class called “Make Your Novel Sparkle” (no, Windex is NOT involved!):

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc.
Honoring: William Kennedy, Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Rockville, MD

The 12th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference writing workshops cover many genres and topics, and feature leaders who represent an international consortium:

Making Your Novel Sparkle with Leslie Pietrzyk
The Writing Life with Sharmila Chauhan and Katharine Davis
Young Adult Fiction with Margaret Blair
Poetry with Carly Sachs
Street to Page…Hip Hop to Poetry with Courttia Newland
Creative Non-Fiction and Sports Writing with Larry Moffi
Screenwriting with Kerric Harvey
Breaking That Block with Mimi Ghez
Clues for Mystery Writers with Donna Andrews
Short Fiction with Alix Ohlin

Special guests and panelists include Jay Parini, Jackson Bryer, Susan Coll, Richard Allan Davidson, Suzanne Fisher, and Judy Hruz, to name only a few. The conference culminates with the presentation of the Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature to Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy. William Kennedy has been awarded with a National Book Critics Circle Award, a MacArthur Foundation grant and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has written novels, non-fiction, plays and children's fiction.

Registration: $85 per person. (discounts available for seniors, students, early registration)

For more information, please contact: or go here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sound Your Barbaric Yawp!

Here’s a call for action for poets (and other interested parties) in the DC area:

"Are you frustrated by the state of the nation? Would you like to be part of a visionary new arts movement for peace and justice? If the answer is yes, please lend your time to Split This Rock Poetry Festival, and event that will celebrate our great tradition of poetry of witness and resistance.

"The festival will take place in Washington, D.C. in March 2008 and has two goals:
1) To celebrate the poetry of witness and provocation being written, published, and performed in the United States today, and
2) To call poets to a greater role in public life and to equip them with the tools they need to be effective advocates in their communities and in the nation.

“The festival will feature readings, workshops, panel discussions on poetry and social change, youth programming, films, parties, walking tours, and activism. Featured poets will include Jimmy Santiago Baca, Grace Cavalieri, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Joy Harjo, Galway Kinnell, Naomi Shihab Nye, Alix Olson, Alicia Ostriker, Sonia Sanchez, Patricia Smith, Susan Tichy, Pamela Uschuk, and Belle Waring, among others.

“We need volunteers ASAP to fill a variety of roles in planning and administering the event: fundraising, promotions, media, sponsorships, programming, and more. This is a great chance to meet other writers/poets/activists and be involved in arts for social change.

“For more information, please check this web site, email, or contact Heather Davis at Look on the website for an announcement about our first volunteer gathering to be held in the coming month.”

Reminder: James River Writers Conference in Richmond

The James River Writers Conference is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, September 28 & 29 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. From their announcement:

“A limited number of seats remain available for Conference 2007, where we'll be rubbing elbows with agents, editors, and authors. We have best-selling writers. We have prize-winning poets. We have the always edifying and exciting First Pages critique. We have the insiders' scoop on the art and the business of the writing life.”

Conference information

Online registration: $155.

One-day tickets go on sale September 21 only if any seats remain unsold. Purchase by mail (deadline September 20--payment and registration will be returned if the Conference is filled): Download the printable conference registration form at, indicate whether you are registering for Friday or Saturday, include e-mail for confirmation of one-day registration, and send with check for $85 to:

James River Writers
Plant Zero Studio 24
Zero East 4th Street
Richmond, VA 23224

To purchase by check at the door at the Library of Virginia on Friday or Saturday of the Conference: $85

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ahoy, Matey!

Lest anyone thing we’re too serious around here—all “literary this” and “art that,” blah, blah, blah—here’s an important day we’re planning to celebrate:

International Talk Like a Pirate Day
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I’ll be flying to Atlanta on that day, so the combination of the two events should be interesting:
Flight attendant: “What would you like to drink?”
Me: “Aarrr-um and Coke.

Passenger in middle seat: “Excuse me, but is that a parrot on your shoulder?”
Me, lifting my black eye patch to glare: “Aarrr.”

To whet your appetite and illustrate the importance of this big day, here’s an excerpt from the official International Talk Like a Pirate Day web site:

Q. Have you heard the one about the pirate who walks into a bar ...

A. Yes.

As Cap'n Slappy says: Thar be only three pirate jokes in the world. The biggest one is the one that ends with someone usin' "Arrr" in the punchline. Oh, sure, thar be plenty o' these, but they're all the same damn joke.

"What's the pirate movie rated? - Arrr!"
"What kind o' socks does a pirate wear? - Arrrrgyle!"
"What's the problem with the way a pirate speaks? - Arrrrticulation!"

...and so forth.*

The second joke is the one where the pirate walks into the bar with a ships wheel attached to the front o' his trousers. The bartender asks, "What the hell is that ships wheel for?" The pirate says, "I don't know, but it's drivin' me nuts!"

And finally. A little boy is trick or treatin' on Halloween by himself. He is dressed as a pirate. At one house, a friendly man asks him, "Where are your buccaneers?" The little boy responds, "On either side o' me 'buccan' head!"

And there ye have it. A symposium on pirate humor that'll last ye a lifetime - so long as life is violent and short.

More details here!

*Warning: This can be highly addictive! What would the pirate be if he weren’t a pirate? An arrr-tist.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Work in Progress: Why Do Workshops Hate Flashbacks?

People in my classes are always wondering about how to write good flashbacks…probably because in workshops, readers immediately pounce on a flashback that goes on too long: “You’re taking us out of the action of the story here.” And these same readers are equally adept—or so it seems—at immediately noticing a perceived lack of information: “Where did your character go to college? I need more information about her family. You didn’t tell us how he met his girlfriend.” So it’s no wonder that writers are edgy when it comes to the subject of flashbacks and how to achieve that perfect balance of enough but not too much.

Now, thanks to our screenwriting friends, we also hear the word “backstory” a lot more now. It seems to me that there’s a difference between the two: to me, a flashback implies more of a dramatic scene or moment, whereas backstory in fiction might be more of a summary of events that have preceded the action—the way The Great Gatsby starts out. (For examples, I almost always turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—the world’s most nearly-perfectly-written book!*) So, in the beginning we get a little bit about where Nick is from and how he decided to come to Long Island for this summer. It’s not long, it’s not intrusive, and, as we discover later, it’s actually vitally important to our full understanding of Nick—though it may not seem that vital as we’re reading those opening pages. A flashback, to me, feels as though it’s more of a scene—there are characters and thought and action in a flashback. The backstory fills in facts that the author thinks we need to know. The flashback offers information we need to know, but in a dramatic way—scene, memory, story told by the narrator. Backstory might be, “Tom graduated first in his class at Yale.” Flashback might be, “Tom thought back on his days at Yale when he….”

As usual, there really aren’t any rules to guide us—no formula of “16 lines of flashback allowed per every 3 pages of ms.” I asked one of my friends how she handled flashbacks and backstory, and though she was talking about short stories instead of novels, I thought her simple advice was useful: “Wait as long as possible before putting them in.” That struck me because it implied what I think is true—that overall, we need to remember that readers are reading to find out what happens—not what happened. That your characters and stories are, for the most part, revealed through their action—through what they’re doing in the here and now. That showing WHY someone is that way isn’t as important as seeing the way they are now…as long as we believe their actions. And that’s where flashbacks tempt us and come in handy, I think—that a flashback is a quick and easy way for us to SHOW the reader (because aren’t workshops just so fond of saying, "Show, don’t tell"?) that the actions of the character are believable—see, this action happened in their past and so that’s why they’re acting this way now, so you need to believe me. Or, here’s something that happened a long time ago, and now I, the author, think it’s the right time to reveal this to you because now it’s important to what’s going on in the present. There’s no denying that in real life the past informs our present every single minute. Yet—must we as writers PROVE that at every given opportunity? Or can the present speak for itself more than we assume?

First, it’s important to think about why we might be turning to flashbacks: most often it’s because we, the writer, have questions about the character that we need answered. How did soccer mom Sally get this way—how did she become the kind of mother who smacks her child in a grocery store parking lot? She got this way because…hmmm…oh, her mother used to beat her and I’ll show that in a flashback here. And you, the writer, didn’t know that bit of information about Sally until right at that very moment when you wrote that flashback and figured it out. So flashbacks are often needed by the writer…the question becomes, are they also needed for the reader? That is, if you had been doing your job correctly, does the reader already believe Sally would hit her kid in a parking lot because you’ve set up other hints and foreshadowing that lead up to Sally’s action? So, ask yourself as you’re reaching for that flashback, Am I only using this bit from the past to explain present actions? Or am I truly providing important information that the reader needs, that the reader wouldn’t get in any other way?

The next question might be the placement of a flashback. Let's say we're reading along, and Sally’s in the parking lot and her twins are throwing a fit and she’s about to lift her hand...but suddenly we’re yanked away from that and into a scene of Sally’s mother and Sally’s past…is that the right place for that information? As a reader, aren’t we right there with the uplifted hand, dying to see what will happen? However, if the story opened with a memory that Sally had of her treatment by her mother, a vivid, concrete memory, a scene…and then later, we see Sally in the parking lot about to hit her kids, we’re totally engrossed—is she going to do it, is she going to be like her mother—that might be a successful placement of a flashback. (Or it might not—it’s always a bit tricky to start in the past. I like to think of things in a book or story as beginning in the middle of the action.) So look to see what your flashback is interrupting—what are you taking the reader away from? You’re like a magician, moving the reader’s attention from one thing to another, leading up to the big moment where you pull a rabbit from your hat and the reader totally buys it. So, ask yourself, Why is this flashback HERE? What are you gaining, what are you losing? How is shifting the chronology of your story serving your purpose?

One thing I’ve noticed about flashbacks is that often they raise more questions than they answer. That is, they bring up some bit about the character’s past that suddenly brings it to our attention that we don’t know other facts about his past. If we’re told he went to Harvard, suddenly we feel a need to know if his family was rich. If we’re told his family was rich, we need to know if it was new money or old money and how everyone got along. By opening that door to the past, it’s hard for readers not to want to know more, more, more…things that are not necessarily relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. If the book isn’t about class struggles/issues, do we need to know the financial pedigree of the family? Often this problem of raising questions occurs when a writer tries to give too much summary in a flashback instead of relying on a concrete scene.

I think that when readers are saying they need more information about a character’s past, perhaps what they really mean is that the writer isn’t doing a good enough job of showing who the character is, right here and now on the page. To return to The Great Gatsby, did we want to know more about Nick’s family—did we wonder if he had brothers or sisters? Did we want to know what his mother was like? Did we want to know more about that school he had gone to, when he was coming back west for Christmas in that lovely scene? Or is Nick so fully realized that all that information feels unnecessary, or is implied through the way we see Nick on the page now?

This isn’t exactly a flashback, but it’s a good illustration of what I’m saying. When I was trying to finish A Year and a Day, my vision of the last chapter was that it would show Alice in the present time, turning the same age as her mother was when she died, and would wrap up what had happened. So I dutifully mentioned a husband, three little boys, where she was living, and so on. And every single person who read that draft said, “I want more about how Alice got to that point.” And I realized that that wasn’t what the book—or the ending was about—how Alice reached that point. That was like creating a whole different character, a different journey. The story was Alice in the year after her mother’s death. So I changed my vision and wrote a brief scene that suggests everything the reader needs to know (I think) about how Alice “ended up” with specific, concrete action instead of a summary of her life. And no one has ever said, “I need more about how Alice ended up”—because they essentially knew with just this one suggestive scene. By putting Alice in action, I was able to show how she ended up.

Action…if there is a writing formula, maybe it can be found once again with Fitzgerald: "Action is character."

*Bonus: Go here to read the original review of The Great Gatsby in the New York Times (April 19, 1925).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It's Not The Sopranos*...

…but I am enjoying AMC’s new show, Mad Men, which takes place in 1960 New York in the brave new world of the Madison Avenue advertising business. It’s surprising how exotic this setting seems to the contemporary eye:

They all smoke! In their offices!
They all drink like fish! In their offices!
No worries about sexual harassment suits since they’re all flirting like rabbits! In their offices and in 1960s era bars like P.J. Clarke's (still around in NY, boasting a noteworthy hamburger).

As horrible as it was to see this, it was almost other-worldly that Betty’s psychiatrist called her husband to report to HIM on Betty’s progress. We’ve come a long way baby…. (The diagnosis, unsurprisingly, was that she wasn’t very “forthcoming.” Hmm…might she have a hard time TRUSTING him since he’s telling her husband everything???)

The Jackie Kennedy-style women’s clothes are well-chosen, and despite the fact that most of the female characters are either secretaries or wives, they are as complicated as the male characters, with their own struggles to find/hold power. The storylines have become increasingly subtle and intertwined lately, and anti-hero Don Draper is a dark, brooding lone wolf-type with interesting secrets that suggest some major issues, and this before the phrase "major issues" was invented. There’s a subtlety to the plotting that suggests a novelistic approach, which I find is common to many of the shows I am religious about watching (The Wire, The Sopranos).

There’s a good mix of personal and work life, though I could always go for more work life in art; I wish there were more, great books about work, especially since that’s where most people spend most of their waking hours. Why does the poor office get such short shrift? The focus on work is one of the reasons I enjoyed Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, Intuition by Allegra Goodman, and Bombardiers by Po Bronson. Richard Ford’s Independence Day had a good bit about the life of a real estate agent. But I find the workplace is often missing in modern fiction. Honestly, I may sound like a shallow, grubbing Washingtonian, but one of my first questions about a character is always, What does he/she do for a living?

Go here for more info about Mad Men (which airs on Thursdays at 10 pm on AMC).

For an interesting take on the realities of that era in advertising, go here.

*Though the executive producer/writer did work on The Sopranos.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Life Beyond New York City

The current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine has a good feature on independent presses. There’s more to publishing life than the NY conglomerate (God love them), so for people looking to expand their universe of publishing options, here are twelve established independent presses that are still accepting unsolicited submissions. By no means is this list exhaustive; for more information, check out the full article in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers (alas, no link; you’ll need the print edition).

When submitting to independent presses, the usual rules apply: do your research. Don’t waste time sending your mystery novel to a poetry press. Follow all format and submission guidelines. And please buy some books; support the small presses!

Beacon Press

BOA Editions

Curbstone Press

Soho Press

Graywolf Press

Milkweed Editions

New Rivers Press

Cinco Puntos Press


Copper Canyon Press

Future Tense Books

San Diego Works Press

The Literary Landscape of Mexico

D.C. writer C.M. Mayo will be speaking at at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute on
Monday, September 17th:

"Many Mexicos: A Literary Landscape": A talk with author and literary translator C.M. Mayo about her widely-lauded memoir of Baja California, Miraculous Air, and anthology Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, a collection of fiction and literary prose by some of Mexico's most outstanding writers.

Monday, Sept 17th from 4:00-5:30 pm
Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004-3027
4th floor conference room

RSVP to Diana Rodriguez at or call 202-691-4399

The event is free.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Junot Diaz Reading Report

I attended Junot Diaz’s reading in Virginia on Friday night and have to say I left totally excited to read his new book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I had admired the excerpt that had appeared in The New Yorker sometime this last year, so I was pleased that this was one of the two segments he read. (Before reading that section, he talked about how hard it is to write in the second person, saying that he still liked to experiment with that point of view; in my opinion, that chapter was definitely a successful second person experiment. The main character’s teenage sister [I believe] is asked to confirm that her mother has a lump in her breast: seems to me that the distance of the second person pov was a useful device to mirror the embarrassment and horror of the moment.)

I should have taken more notes, but I thought I was geeky enough for sitting myself plop in the front row. One thing that struck me (out of a dozen other things that struck me) was when someone asked about how he knew what to keep in the book and when he was done. He went on a fascinating riff about the difference between the unconscious—which is providing the raw material—and the conscious, which is, essentially, translating the material into words. Two different sides are needed for the process. And yet writers typically have a charming creation myth about why they become a writer, why they’re a creative person (i.e. found escape in books, felt silenced as a child and now found a voice) without ever thinking about the other side, the critical self and the myth of where that might have come from. So he thought it was important to examine that side of ourselves as well, as difficult as it might be: What are the components of the critical self? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your critical self? What are the influences behind that side of yourself? That’s how to come to terms with the duality of the unconscious and the conscious sides of writing.

Ugh…he said it better. My advice: if he’s reading in your area, make an effort to attend. And for God’s sake, if you ever have a chance to study with him, do so. I bet he’s a fantastic teacher! And if you’re in New York City, check out his recent article in Gourmet about where to get the best Dominican food! (Alas, no link, but here's the issue info.)

When Brevity Is Not an Option

Here’s a contest announcement that is designed for writers—like me!—who need loooots of pages for their short stories:

THE LONG STORY CONTEST, International (formerly The Long Fiction Contest, International), now in its 15th year, has become the premier competition for writers of stories that don't fit the conventional limits imposed by the economics of small press publishing. Named for A. E. Coppard, one of the leading British writers of the 1920's, whose first story was rejected only because it was too long--12,000 words--the contest attracts writers from all over the world. In order to acknowledge and encourage entries from outside the United States, the word International has been added to the title. All submissions must be in English and entry fee in U.S. dollars.

Contest Rules
Manuscript Length: 8,000-14,000 words (30-50 pages double spaced).
Manuscript Genre: Single story (may have multi- parts or be a self-contained novel segment)
Deadline: December 15, 2007 postmark. Winner announced by May 30, 2008.
Award: 2008 A. E. Coppard Prize for Fiction.
Winner--$1000. and 25 copies, plus 10 press kits to news sources of choice.
*** All entrants receive a copy of the prize chapbook.***
Entry Fee: $15. US funds. Additional MSS in same envelope $10. US each. Check made out to WECSP. Entry fee is not refundable.

Format: Cover Page with Title, Name, Address, Phone, E-mail. Second Title Page, no name. No name on MS. Easy to read type or print, double spaced. Do not bind MS.

Judging: Blind judging. All stories coded before judging.
Judge: TBA
SASE for announcement only. Use #10 envelope. No manuscripts can be returned. They will be recycled.
Simultaneous Submissions OK. Multiple submissions are not a problem. Please let us know if story accepted elsewhere.
Unpublished (Previous publication of small parts of ms. OK with acknowledgments). Published on the Internet is "published" and cannot be considered.

NO Restrictions on style, method, or subject matter. We respect the full range of literary writing.

Mail to:
Long Story Contest, International
White Eagle Coffee Store Press
P.O. Box 383
Fox River Grove IL 60021

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Work in Progress: Critiquing a Novel-in-Progress

I was planning to offer my suggestions about how participants can get the best experience from their workshop. Then yesterday—while sitting in the library surrounded with the mountain of paper that is my writing group’s suggestions on my novel’s Chapter Two, which I’ve just started revising—I had the brilliant idea to write instead about the differences between critiquing a novel-in-progress and a short story. There are plenty of teachers and writers who think a novel can’t work in the traditional workshop format—I happen to disagree, though clearly the process is somewhat different.

Then, as if karma were on my side for a change, while looking through my computer files for something else (which I never found), I came across this, my talk on an AWP panel several years ago about strategies for critiquing a novel-in-progress! I’ve updated a few of the references, but my feelings on the matter have remained unchanged:

Writers need and crave editorial input—and the MFA “short story” workshop is the model most of us are familiar with. But can that model be effective on the messy hunks of a novel? How does critiquing a novel-in-progress differ from critiquing a short story? Does it even make sense for writers to seek input on novels-in-progress?

I wrote four novels before finally getting that “first novel” published [#4, Pears on a Willow Tree]—and had no input while working on them. Sine then, I’ve been showing my novels-in-progress to a writing group, and despite my initial concerns I believe novels-in-progress can be effectively “workshopped.”

Novels do present difficulties in a workshop setting: the writer is showing bits and pieces of a work that will likely take months—okay, let’s be real, years—to reach any sort of conclusion. Imagine reading your favorite novel one chapter at a time over a period of a year, and you quickly see the challenge. It’s hard for readers to keep track of characters and plot, let alone thematic concerns. And a question like, “Where is this going?” while legitimate, is bound to terrify the novelist-in-progress who most likely isn’t sure where he or she is going and doesn’t especially want to discover this is evident.

On the other hand, think about what many of us are told to do with novels: write in total isolation, not sharing our work until it’s finished. Then you round up your trusted readers, beg them to read your 300-plus pages…and you get back nicely-phrased but devastating comments like, “I’m actually more interested in the story about the neighbor, not the farmer; the farmer seems sort of passive and bland, but the neighbor...there’s a story!” You suddenly see that your readers are absolutely right; how had you missed all those possibilities with the neighbor—but might that have been more helpful to hear early on, before you’d written 300 pages about the passive, bland farmer? (This happened to me, with one of my early novels that [coincidentally?] did not get published.)

Since 1998, I’ve belonged to a writing group composed of six women. At the moment, five of us are working on novels. We’ve learned a lot about critiquing novels-in-progress, both as readers and writers. These are some of the things I’ve found useful to remember when approaching a novel-in-progress or when letting others read your novel-in-progress:

First, we try not to fall into the common short story critique pattern of talking about “what’s working” and “what’s not working.” Without reading the ending (in many cases the writer doesn’t even know the ending), how can we comment on what’s working or not? I’ve found the better approach is to ask lots of questions and make lots of observations.

Since a novel-in-progress likely has no determined path, I find it fascinating to hear what people see being set up. In my writing group, we get (and give) lots of comments like, “I see sexual tension between Jane and Paul.” Perhaps this is intended and the writer is pleased to see that the sexual tension has been noticed. Or, perhaps this is news to the writer…and Jane and Paul suddenly end up in bed in the next chapter, or things get toned down. Reporting what is on the page is helpful to the struggling writer, more so than with a short story. If you think of the text of a novel as a puzzle for the writer to solve, the early reader is there to point out clues. The most helpful comments for me are those that describe what the reader is seeing in the story thus far. My second novel, A Year and a Day, took a totally different turn—one I can’t imagine it now not taking—thanks to one very simple observation by a member of my writing group.

I think a novel-in-progress also benefits from more questions than the short story. For example, why is this character acting this way? Why doesn’t she get mad in that scene when her boyfriend’s a jerk? In early novel drafts, writers are exploring who their characters are, and questions are invaluable, offering insight to ghostly figures and ideas that need to be fleshed out. These questions should not be posed negatively, as a challenge (as in, I don’t believe this) except in the sense of challenging the writer to dig deeper.

I have learned to keep an open mind about suggestions. While many writers bristle at suggestions from readers and resent the feeling that someone is “taking over” their work, a well-phrased suggestion for the novel-in-progress may help you see a new avenue for your characters or spark a different way of looking at something. Remember, it’s called novel-IN-PROGRESS. Nothing is written in stone, and my writing group encourages thoughtful, well-meaning suggestions that are designed to help the writer see new possibilities.

A novel-in-progress does not benefit from line-editing as a short story does. Because a novel is so fluid, the crucial scene you’re reading may be gone in a later draft, so it doesn’t matter that a sentence is awkward. A novel has a long road ahead—these “awks” will be revised into new “awks” and on and on, getting taken care of eventually. Too much red ink on an early draft can bog down the writer and send him or her backwards—instead of writing forward to see what happens next, it’s off to polishing and revising sentences that may not be in the final draft. So if compulsive readers give you line-edits on your novel-in-progress, feel free to ignore them (or at least set them aside).

When reading a novel-in-progress, it’s hard for a reader to make sense of the larger picture of the book. Unfortunately, that’s often the most fragile part of the writer’s vision and perhaps the thing that most needs encouragement. How to resolve this dilemma? The writer has to accept that readers at this stage, reading in bits and pieces as chapters are completed, cannot possibly see how the threads are going to come together into dramatic wholeness. It is hard to accept this feeling that readers aren’t “getting” the point of your book. But they’re not. It’s impossible to see at this early “in progress” stage. (Even the writer probably can’t see the whole thing.) Short stories don’t suffer from this dilemma—everything is right there on the page and readers who miss it are either stupid or, worse, right. So if people are critiquing your novel-in-progress, you as the writer have to swallow hard and accept that much of your grand vision, craft, and sweat are going unnoticed right now. Personally, I’m torn between having a writer announce early on, “This book is about learning to forgive”—because while I now see the grand vision, I also feel my comments working to reinforce that picture rather than helping the writer discover what’s actually on the page. A good solution is to find a different set of trusted readers to read the entire manuscript when it’s done—then you can get an accurate idea of how the book ties together thematically.

Whether in a writing group or a class, it’s helpful to talk with other novelists about the struggles they’re having with their own books. Much more than writing stories, novels exact an immense toll of energy, faith, time, and discipline. How nice to hear that others are suffering as well! And even better to discuss bigger issues like point-of-view with other novelists and commiserate with people who understand exactly the unique torture and intricacies of what you’re going through.

By far, the best benefit to showing your novel-in-progress to others is for those moments when someone says, “I’m dying to know what happens next.” That’s when you smile your Mona Lisa smile, congratulate yourself on achieving the highest goal—hooking a reader into your world—and think to yourself, “God, if only I knew!”

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name...Except Edsel

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post yesterday about the Edsel and why the car failed. Personally, I thought it looked pretty snazzy, but maybe that’s just because today’s cars are so uniformly dull. With the Edsel, though, the company manufactured so much hype that it seemed inevitable that no product could possibly live up to all that.

Ford’s director of planning, David Wallace, was so eager to find the “perfect” name for the new car that at one point he wrote to poet Marianne Moore and asked her to suggest names. Here’s what she came up with:

Intelligent Whale
Intelligent Bullet
Bullet Cloisonne
Ford Faberge
Mongoose Civique
Utopian Turtletop

None of those seemed to be quite right—!!—so after much more angst and consultation (at one point the list of possibilities included 18,000 options), Ernest Breech, Chairman of the Board, in an effort to suck up, said, “Why don’t we just call it Edsel?”, after the deceased son of Henry Ford, the founder of the company.

The public relations director sent a memo to the man in charge of the project: “We have just lost 200,000 sales.”

Not to put any pressure on anyone, but what’s your book title again? Better think long and hard!

Junot Diaz Reading

I’m hoping to attend this reading:

Friday, September 7, 2007
7:30 p.m.
Junot Diaz, author of the story collection, Drown, and the new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Woo
Borders Books—Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia
More info

(Also, Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty will be reading from her new novel at this store on October 1.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

"Rolled It Out on the Floor and It Looks Like a Road"

My husband Steve read the recent review of the newly released edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: The Original Scroll, the version Kerouac wrote in three weeks in 1951 on the infamous “scroll,” and while we were at a bookstore this weekend, he picked up a copy.

I read On the Road back when I suppose many (most?) people read it, when I was in college. I remember thinking it was poetic and manic and crazy and perhaps a tad overly-long (no…not Mexico too!)…and worth reading, in the end, though I didn’t leap up and race out to I-80 to head west. (A mistake? Who knows?) And I was pleased that Iowa—where I grew up—was mentioned prominently and nicely. (I believe there’s a line in there that goes something like this: “The most beautiful girls in the world are in Des Moines.” Might I suggest he should have tested his theory by stopping in Iowa City to check out us?)

Anyway…I skimmed some of Howard Cunnell’s introductory essay in the scroll version, enough to learn that while, yes, Kerouac did type up that first draft in a buzzed-up three week period (on regular paper that he later taped together into the continuous “scroll”), he did a lot of editing to the final version that was published in 1957: editing he initiated, and editing based on the suggestions of various editors. Which makes sense: for most of us, the first draft is the spilling out, and the subsequent drafts are the shaped story, and even this story was shaped. (He also toned down the sexuality.)

No paragraphs in this version, and yet the flow is such that as I read the first 20 pages or so, I didn’t have any problems following; in fact, I rather enjoyed giving into the exuberant flow. And, happily, there is punctuation in the scroll. Apparently, Kerouac was an amazing typist. I loved this description of his writing process during the time he was working on this (from an account by Philip Whalen):

“He would sit—at a typewriter, and he had all these pocket notebooks, and the pocket notebooks would be open at his left-hand side on the typing table—and he’d be typing. He could type faster than any human being you ever saw. The most noise that you heard while he was typing was the carriage return, slamming back again and again. The little bell would bing-bang, bing-bang, bing-bang! Just incredibly fast, faster than a teletype… Then he’d make a mistake, and this would lead him off into a possible part of a new paragraph, into a funny riff of some kind that he’d add while he was in the process of copying. Then, maybe he’d turn a page of the notebook and he’d look at that page and realize it was not good and he’d X it out, or maybe part of that page. And then he’d type a little bit and turn another page, and type the whole thing, and another page, and he’d type from that. And then something would—again, he would exclaim and laugh and carry on and have a big time doing it.”

I went to the final sentence, which I think is one of the most perfect endings of any American novel (don’t worry, reading the end doesn’t give away any plot points!). Here’s the scroll version…though there’s a note that says the last few feet of the original scroll were eaten by a dog—!!!—so this what the editor has pieced together as the original version:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and fold the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady*, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.”

*Kerouac used everyone’s real names in the scroll.

That is simply beautiful, and in the published version, there are a few tiny changes, but not many. And frankly, I’m not sure they’re for the better. Sometimes the writer needs to trust the culmination of the three-week buzz! So here’s the published version, where the changes come in, in caps, with deletions indicated with an X:

“…and in Iowa I know by now THE CHILDREN MUST BE CRYING IN THE LAND WHERE THEY LET THE CHILDREN CRY, AND TONIGHT THE STARS’LL BE OUT, AND DON’T YOU KNOW THAT GOD IS POOH BEAR? the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks AND FOLDS THE final shore in, and nobody, XXXX nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of DEAN MORIARTY, I even think of Old DEAN MORIARTY the father we never found, I think of DEAN MORIARTY. XXXXXXXXXX.”

An interesting book that shows the other side of the Beats, the female side, is Joyce Johnson’s excellent memoir, Minor Characters, which explores her relationship with Jack Kerouac.

And be sure to check out the Amazon site here and scroll (ha, ha) to see an awesome photo of Kerouac holding one of his later scrolls, probably The Dharma Bums.

Monday, September 3, 2007

"Candles" by Carl Dennis

Here's a lovely poem I read in today's Writer's Almanac:

by Carl Dennis

If on your grandmother's birthday you burn a candle
To honor her memory, you might think of burning an extra
To honor the memory of someone who never met her,
A man who may have come to the town she lived in
Looking for work and never found it.
Picture him taking a stroll one morning,
After a month of grief with the want ads,
To refresh himself in the park before moving on.
Suppose he notices on the gravel path the shards
Of a green glass bottle that your grandmother,
Then still a girl, will be destined to step on
When she wanders barefoot away from her school picnic
If he doesn't stoop down and scoop the mess up
With the want-ad section and carry it to a trash can.
For you to burn a candle for him
You needn't suppose the cut would be a deep one,
Just deep enough to keep her at home
The night of the hay ride when she meets Helen,
Who is soon to become her dearest friend,
Whose brother George, thirty years later,
Helps your grandfather with a loan so his shoe store
Doesn't go under in the Great Depression
And his son, your father, is able to stay in school
Where his love of learning is fanned into flames,
A love he labors, later, to kindle in you.
How grateful you are for your father's efforts
Is shown by the candles you've burned for him.
But today, for a change, why not a candle
For the man whose name is unknown to you?
Take a moment to wonder whether he died at home
With friends and family or alone on the road,
On the look-out for no one to sit at his bedside
And hold his hand, the very hand
It's time for you to imagine holding.

from New and Selected Poems 1974-2004. © Penguin Books, 2007.


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