Thursday, February 28, 2008

Guest in Progress: Janice Erlbaum

Lauren Cerand, a wonderful independent publicist I’ve written about here, recently sent me a copy of the newly released memoir, HAVE YOU FOUND HER, by Janice Erlbaum. The book sounded intriguing, about a woman who lived in a homeless shelter as a teenager and now, twenty years later, after turning her life around, goes back to volunteer in a shelter where she meets a nineteen-year-old girl who has a profound impact on her life. I currently have a stack of at least a thousand books (okay, give or take) that I’m dying to read, but I opened up this one, just to check things out.

I was especially interested because Have You Found Her starts with a prologue, and the previous night, in my novel workshop, we’d had a discussion about prologues in general, with several people saying prologues seemed like unnecessary throat-clearing; “just start the book already,” someone said.

I come and go with prologues: some work, most don’t. (I say this knowing that my current work in progress, Prodigal Daughters, starts with a prologue…but I promise you, it’s the kind that works!) I’m afraid I start out feeling that it’s okay to skim the prologue, because as a reader, I suspect that it will make much more sense AFTER having finished the book—which doesn’t seem like a good invitation at the opening of a book, when you want to hook the reader. And, as they say, I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time I’ve advised someone with these exact words about their prologue: “Less (i.e. a paragraph or two) or more (i.e. a chapter).”

All this to say that I started reading this book with suspicion.

But I was hooked by the first paragraph. Here is a definite example of EXACTLY what a good prologue does: offers an incident that may not be integral to the action of the story, but that serves as a backdrop for the piece as a whole, introducing themes and concerns that the larger narrative carries through. I would call this a perfect prologue! I didn’t want less, I didn’t want more: it was “just right.”

So, even though I am unable to keep reading at this time and though, unfortunately, this book has to join the stack of books waiting for my full attention (jumping to the top), I went ahead and peeked at the first chapter. It opens with pretty much a perfect opening chapter paragraph, establishing character, tone, setting, scenario, with ease and authority. Here it is:

“It’s a Wednesday evening in late May, and I’m at the shelter for my weekly workshop, which is officially listed on the calendar as ‘Jewelry Making with Janice.’ This has been my shtick for the past two and a half years—every Wednesday evening, I come uptown to the shelter, and I sit around for a few hours with the girls of the Older Females Unit making beaded bracelets and necklaces and earrings. I am known, colloquially, as ‘Bead Lady,’ as in, ‘Bead Lady, you got more alphabet beads this week? ‘Cause last week you was runnin’ out of vowels.’”

And now that I’ve hooked you, I feel fortunate to share this essay by Janice Erlbaum in which she decides to accept “memoirist” as a title of honor.

Me, Myself, and Memoir

Now that I’ve published two memoirs, I’m starting to get used to the idea of people calling me a “memoirist.” It sort of feels like an unnecessary distinction – why not just call me a “writer”? – but I suppose I should look at it as an honor. “Poets” have their own special subclass, but most other writers don’t get a fancy title based on their genre. We don’t call Raymond Carver a “short storyist,” Stephen King is not a “horrorist,” and Nadine Gordimer may have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but she’s not a “fictionist;” she’s still just a “writer” (though I guess on good days, she’s a “Nobelist”).

So why are “memoirists” a whole category unto ourselves? Why separate us from the rank and file of plain old writers? I understand the rationale for segregating the poets – I mean, poets use crazy mixed-up language without proper punctuation! Who even knows what the hell they’re talking about half the time? (Between you and me, I hear most of them are taking drugs.) So you’re pretty much obligated to warn people when they’re dealing with a “poet” and not a regular “writer.”

As it is with “memoirists.” Because – let’s face it – we’re not real writers. We’re not using our imaginations and making stuff up (except for the few of us who are, JAMES); we’re not even doing the hard work the rest of our non-fiction-writing brethren do, with the painstaking research and the accountability and all that. No, memoirists just think about something that happened to them, and without any kind of due diligence at all, write about it from their own perspective. That’s it! How hard could that be? It’s, like, one step removed from writing the copy on your mattress tag.

Maybe there are some “journalists” who feel similarly ambivalent about their title – aren’t journalists writers, too? But “journalist” is a title to be assumed with pride; “journalists” have a long and noble history of serving the public interest. Whereas “memoirists” are a more recent and ignoble breed; we’re like “reality show contestants.” You couldn’t earn distinctions like ours until recent lapses in popular culture made them possible. And we’re about equal in the amount of respect we get – “memoirist” might get you a little bit more highbrow cred than “reality show contestant,” but I guarantee that Yau-Man* from Survivor gets a better table at the Ivy than I do.

But now I’d like to reclaim the word “memoirist,” much in the same way me and my second-and-a-half-wave feminist pals have tried to reclaim the word “bitch,” by embracing it. I do write about my own life from my own point of view, so there! It is often embarrassingly personal, totally cringeworthy stuff I’m writing about, and how! My books are totally for voyeurs, peepaholics, snoops, and anyone else who finds themselves morbidly curious about other peoples’ internal lives! I am a solipsist! Booyah!

So go ahead – call me a “memoirist” instead of a writer. I don’t mind. I’ll happily take my place next to Mary Carr, Joan Didion, Nick Flynn, and many of the other mind-blowingly brilliant wri…memoirists whom I admire. And then I’ll come home and open up my journal (or, worse, my blog), and write, “Someone called me a memoirist again today. And they were right.” ~~Janice Erlbaum

About: Janice Erlbaum is the author of GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard, March '06), and HAVE YOU FOUND HER: A Memoir (Villard, Feb. '08). She was a contributor to BUST magazine from 1994 through 2007. She lives in her native New York City with her domestic partner, Bill Scurry, and their three cats. For more information, please check her web site.

*Note: True confessions: One of my most beloved contestants ever!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Boats Against the Current"

It’s no secret that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books—and is the book that best taught me how to structure a novel. For anyone writing a novel, I highly recommend reading the book and writing up a plot summary of each of the nine chapters. It’s quite easy to see how the emotional storyline is beautifully intertwined with the action storyline, and to see that each chapter contains its own crisis point, all of which lead to the masterpiece—flaws and all—of a climactic chapter (Chapter 7).

I’ve had the pleasure of rereading the book in preparation for discussion tonight in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins and found myself sighing in admiration over countless passages of the book.

Here are two—and though they aren’t necessarily among the famously quoted sections of the book, these passages never fail to make me gasp at their utter perfection.

This is from the end of Chapter 3:

“I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and dusk.”

The other passage, almost at the end of the book, Chapter 9, seems to be a response to Nick’s previous observations about New York:

“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o-clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye…..

“When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

"That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and slight bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that….”

Steve—who loves the book perhaps more than I do, if possible—and I asked a dear friend to read that section at the beginning of our wedding in Chicago. The only thing that kept me from crying was knowing that the six layers of mascara on my eyelashes were not waterproof!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It's Called a "Pen"...and a "Stamp"

I’m happy to bring you this suggested list of the best collections of letters which first appeared on the blog Madam Mayo (always worth checking out!).

It was so sad when I moved in 2006 to come across boxes of old letters in the back of one of my closets…most of which I had to throw away, even knowing that the letter is a dying artform. (Do you really think they’ll be publishing Collected Emails of Michael Chabon?) After reading this piece, I vowed to check out some of these volumes…and to write a real, live letter or two!

Special thanks to the always-generous C.M. Mayo, writer and blogger extraordinaire, and to the author of this post, Richard Goodman, for permitting me to run this post.

We've gone to the blogs, guys. But back in the days, they tossed off letters, some so soulful that they have been collected into books to treasure--- and to turn to for inspiration. Apropos of his forthcoming The Soul of Creative Writing, Richard Goodman, author of the cult-favorite travel memoir, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, and an astonishingly wide variey of articles and essays for the New York Times, Harvard Review, Vanity Fair, Saveur, Creative Nonfiction, and the Michigan Quarterly Review, among many others, offers his five favorite epistolary collections. ~~C.M. Mayo

#1. The Letters of Giuseppe Verdi
Alas! out of print, but available at At the conclusion of the 1972 New York Times review of these letters, the reviewer could only say, "What a man." And indeed, Verdi was. This is a book not only for music lovers, but for any artist, of any kind. Listen to Verdi berate his librettist: "You talk to me about 100 syllables!! And it's obvious that 100 syllables aren't enough when you take 25 to say the sun is setting!!!"

#2. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, vol. 1 and vol. 2
Wonderfully translated letters of the author of Madame Bovary. These books are just jammed with gems. For Flaubert, writing was agony, and he wrote about his search for the exact word so eloquently, "I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisher, who dives deep and comes up empty-handed and blue in the face."

#3. One Art: Letters, Selected and Edited, of Elizabeth Bishop
The letters of one of America's greatest poets. Reading them is a course in courage and ethics. It's worth getting the book just to see how she takes Robert Lowell to task for exposing the private lives of others in his poetry.

#4. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
(Check to see if you can get a good price on the three-volume Bulfinch set. It's got it all.)
Letters by this great artist who was, as it turns out, perhaps the best-read painter who ever lived. He loved books, and many of his letters are about the writers he admired. It's difficult to read these letters as they approach the inevitable end to his life. You feel the sad resignation of a man who knows he's drowning. Still, his passions stay with you.

#5. The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, vol. 1 and vol. 2It's amazing how he did it. What a hardscrabble life he led before he hit the big time. It seems like a quarter of the letters in the first volume are to his agent asking for twenty or thirty bucks so he can get his typewriter out of hock. But what resolve! ~~Richard Goodman

To read more of Madam Mayo’s guest blog posts, click here.

Mark Your Calendar: Writers Conference on April 5

Registration is now open for the second annual “Conversations and Connections” conference in Washington, DC, on April 5 at the D.C. branch of Johns Hopkins University (Dupont Circle). Along with a great keynote speaker, this one-day conference offers the opportunity for “speed dating” with various editors of literary journals as well as a wide variety of panels on craft and marketing.

Here’s the official announcement:

The Second Annual Conversations and Connections will help you get the connections and information you need to take your writing — and publishing — to the next level. This year’s keynote speaker is Mary Gaitskill, author of the novels Veronica and Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and the story collections Because They Wanted To and Bad Behavior.

Our panelists are experts in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for children, making connections, using the web, marketing, and everything in between. Over 30 literary magazines will be represented. Get the real deal straight from the editor’s mouth: your $45 registration fee includes the full day conference, plus face-to-face “speed dating” with literary magazine editors, a subscription to the lit mag of your choice, and a book by featured speakers.

Here’s the current list of participating journals, with more to come:

Baltimore Review
Beltway Poetry Journal
Chesapeake Reader
Columbia: A Literary Journal
Creative Nonfiction
Gettysburg Review
Lines and Stars
No Tell Motel
Painted Bride Quarterly
Potomac Review
Smartish Pace
St. Ann’s Review


Monday, February 25, 2008

Obsessed with All Things New York

While growing up, I seem to have read a number of children’s books set in New York City and was always intrigued by stickball, so this announcement caught my eye:

Spindle Magazine's 2008 "Play Ball" Writing Contest
$50 Honorarium and Publication
Final Judges: Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Lynne Procope & Fish Vargas


Spindle Magazine announces its 2008 "Play Ball" Writing Contest, recognizing the best baseball / stickball / cricket-related poetry, fiction and non-fiction from a New York City perspective. Whether it´s about the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers or Giants; cricket in the park; stickball on the street; running bases on the sidewalk; or whatever metaphorical angle you can come up with, we want to read it!

No entry or reading fee. All entries will be considered for publication. Simultaneous, previously published works (except for chapbooks) and works forthcoming elsewhere will not be considered. Email submissions according to guidlelines to:

Poetry: Any style; max 65 lines. Submit up to 3 poems (max) for consideration.
Micro-Fiction: Any style; max 1,000 words. Submit 1 complete story for consideration.
Non-fiction: First-person perspectives only; max 1,000 words.Submit 1 complete article for consideration.

Submit cover sheet in the body of submission email including your category, name, mailing address, phone number and email address. Do NOT submit a bio or resume!
Submit manuscripts as attachments only -- .DOC, .RTF or .TXT files -- not in the body of the email.
Manuscripts MUST be primarily in English.
Entrant's name must not appear anywhere on the manuscripts. It will be rendered ineligible.Submissions that do not follow these guidlelines will be rejected.

The selection of the winning poem, story or article is based solely on artistic excellence - the quality of work submitted - and decided by the judging panel.

All applicants will be notified by email of panel decisions by April 4, 2008. The payment of the $50 honorarium will be made via money order upon publication, tentatively scheduled for April 8, 2008.

Upon acceptance, Spindle licences (not acquires) non-exclusive electronic publication rights only. All accepted work will be archived on the site in perpetuity.

Spindle is an online literary magazine with a twist, featuring creative non-fiction, poetry and short fiction by, for and about New Yorkers -- literal and spiritual. Showcasing emerging writers, artists, musicians and other notable New Yorkers, it offers a multi-faceted look at New York City and the world beyond through the eyes of both those who love it and hate it, and in many cases, a peek inside the minds of the people themselves.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Guest in Progress: Austin S. Camacho

I confess: I don’t spend much time thinking about or worrying about genre fiction (i.e. mysteries, romances). I’m a literary writer, I’m an “artiste,” my role model is Shakespeare* (why not shoot for the stars?). I absolutely have nothing against genre fiction, but it isn’t what I write, so why contemplate it beyond a quick glance at the bestseller list? But in a convergence of events, I’ve decided that perhaps I might benefit by taking a closer look at what genre fiction.

First, we’ve been discussing plotting in my graduate novel workshop at Johns Hopkins University. “A novel is about ‘what happens next,’” I keep saying. “This is why people read novels, to find out what happens next. A novel is a series of linked events and scenes that have consequences that lead to more consequences.” Well, who better meets this requirement of creating suspense and tension than tightly paced, action-packed genre fiction? John Grisham’s readers are not going to hang around wading through aimless but lovely pages of prose.

Speaking of John Grisham, I came across this recent interview with him in which he calls himself an entertainer: “I don’t care if I’m remembered or not. It’s pure entertainment.” (Thanks to Buzz, Balls & Hype for the link.)

Yes…and even literary fiction needs to entertain in a certain sense. What happens to an Important Book that is slow and tedious? Unless we’ve been assigned to read it, it most likely will get closed and pushed aside. And why not? Life is short, and books—even when challenging—must be interesting and keep our attention. Calling that quality “entertaining” is not demeaning.

And then I met mystery/action writer Austin S. Camacho and heard his impassioned and thought-provoking speech in defense of genre fiction, which he has graciously agreed to share with us. While you may not agree with everything he says, I hope you’ll start thinking a bit more about the contributions genre fiction might offer in our greater, shared endeavor of how best to tell our stories. I know I have. (You can read more about my meeting with Austin in this recent post.)

* Note: Shakespeare may have been a genre writer in his time! Certainly he was considered "popular."

In Defense of Genre Fiction

My name is Austin S. Camacho, and I write detective novels and adventure thrillers. I am also an avid reader. I don’t want to come across as a reverse snob, but I really prefer good genre fiction to most literary fiction.

There is certainly lots of bad genre fiction out there, stuff that’s pointless explosions, sex or gore. There is also bad literary work, stuff that comes down to pointless navel-gazing, dull, overly academic and plot- free. Some might say this describes the majority of literary fiction.

All good fiction grows from interesting, well-developed characters. Fiction is, after all, little more than gossip – but gossip about people whose feelings we don’t have to worry about hurting since they aren’t real. The story is good when we care what happens to those people. One perceived difference between literary work and genre work is that literary fiction is primarily focused on the characters and their internal monologue. One could say that genre fiction is harder to write, because in mystery or thriller or romance novels one not only has to create good characters but they have to do something. The action is important, but it can’t be allowed to overshadow or overwhelm characterization. Sample any of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective novels for proof.

Another reason that writing genre fiction can be more challenging is that each genre has its own conventions that have to be recognized. To make a poetic analogy, literary fiction can be like free verse, whereas genre fiction is more like writing a sonnet or a haiku. Yet within that structure we have the freedom to do just about anything. Consider Louis L’Amour’s stories. Yes, they’re westerns and proud of it. But they are also almost all stories about people who learn to put their fears aside and leap into the unknown.

Those conventions empower genre fiction to attract a specific audience. Marketing people love that because when you submit a good horror, romance or science fiction novel they know what to do with it. In fact, I suspect that a lot of authors think they have a mainstream book on their hands until it reaches the marketing department or some agent explains the facts of publishing life to them. Sadly, if a book can’t be slotted into a category it’s twice as hard to bring it to market. So writing in a clear genre may increase your chances of being published.

Perhaps the biggest difference between literary and genre work is that generally speaking, genre fiction is written to be fun to read. Literary fiction often feels like work. It’s the stuff they make us swallow in school and, forgive me, but it’s the stuff that makes people stop reading when they get out of school. There’s a reason that genre is often referred to as “popular” fiction. It’s what people like. If we are to become a nation of readers again, it will have to be the future.

I thought about ending there, but I considered the recent words of my host, Leslie. She is right that all that I look for in good genre fiction can also be found in good literary fiction. John Updike’s Rabbit Run is certainly literary. It is also NOT dull or pompous or overly academic. It has a strong, rich plot and there’s lots of action. And I am saddened by my belief that if he entered the scene today as an unknown, that series of novels might not find a publisher. ~~Austin S. Camacho

About: Austin S. Camacho is the author of four detective novels in the Hannibal Jones series - Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, The Troubleshooter, and Damaged Goods, plus two action adventure novels, The Payback Assignment and The Orion Assignment. Active in several writers’ organizations, Camacho is a past president of the Maryland Writers Association, and teaches writing at Anne Arundel Community College. After a career as a military news reporter on the American Forces Network, Camacho is now a public affairs specialist for the Defense Department. Camacho lives in Springfield, Virginia with his lovely wife Denise and Princess the Wonder Cat. For more information, please check out his web site. You may read more at Austin’s blog.

Beyond Chick Lit

This list, from one of my favorite literary blogs, The Elegant Variation, is too funny not to pass along. First there was “chick lit,” followed by “dick lit” as the young men had their day. Could these categories be next?


The Independent's recent article christening yet another genre - Hic Lit (drinking memoirs) - got us thinking about what's left and what's to come, and we decided to get out ahead of as many remaining "lits" as possible:

Brick Lit - Back-breaking tomes. (See Infinite Jest, Rising Up and Rising Down.)

Schtick Lit - Footnotes, characters named for colors, and other look-at-me machinations. (See Special Topics in Calamity Physics and, again, Infinite Jest.)

Mick Lit - The literature of Ireland. (See Banville, John and Ruland, Jim.)

Slick Lit - Polite, correct fiction, polished to a high sheen. (See Bridge of Sighs.)

Hick Lit - The fiction of Richard Ford (See A Multitude of Sins)

Lick Lit - Sapphic fiction. (See Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.)

Nick Lit - Books stolen from other books. (See How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life)

Prick Lit - Novels written by (Insert the Angry Young Literary Man of your choice.) Also novels with unpleasant protagonists. (See Lolita and the fiction of Richard Ford.)

Sick Lit - Novels calculated to shock or revolt. (See Fight Club)

Thick Lit - Tales of the weight-challenged. (See She's Come Undone.)

Vick Lit - Novels of animal cruelty. (See Julius Winsome.)

Quick Lit - Novels turned out with alarming frequency. (See His Illegal Self, and Oates, Joyce Carol.)

The direct link is here; do check out the comments section, with some worthy additions to this fine list.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

James Jones: Novel Contest, Controversial Author

If you’re an unpublished novelist who doesn’t know about this contest, you should. The entry fee is a bit steep, but winning this, or even getting into the finals, is a great way to get some attention (i.e. agent) for your novel-in-progress. (And note that linked stories are acceptable, too.) The deadline is March 1, so better get cracking!

My manuscript for Pears on a Willow Tree made it to the round of finalists…but then it got accepted for publication, so I had to withdraw it from the competition…which was okay with me!

Vaguely related and possibly distracting side notes: Don’t you just have to love the beach scene from the movie of James Jones' novel, From Here to Eternity?! I read this in an interesting history of the making of the movie:

“At first, they kissed on the beach standing up, and it was Lancaster's idea for the love scene to be played horizontally in the surf. Their embrace was filmed at Halona Cove on the eastern end of Oahu and the location became a highlight of island tours for many years. The clinch has been endlessly parodied since its appearance. The MPAA banned photos of the kiss with the surf washing over Lancaster and Kerr as too erotic. Many prints had shortened versions of the scene because projectionists would cut out frames as souvenirs.”

Apparently, at the time, the novel was quite controversial in language and content, viewed as unfilmable. James Jones was more rugged than uber-rugged Norman Mailer! (same source):

“In paperback, Eternity is a densely packed 950 pages, much longer than any popular novel these days. It is not hard to understand why it was considered almost impossible to adapt. The writing is raw for its time, both in its language and the depiction of sex. There was a lot of squabbling with [editor Maxwell] Perkins over how many uses of the "f-" and "sh-" words could be permitted in the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s. Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, a combat novel, uses the curiously muted "fug" instead of the actual "f" word, used copiously in Eternity.”

Now that you’re totally revved up, here’s the contest announcement:

The 16th Annual James Jones First Novel Fellowship will be awarded to an American author of a first novel-in-progress, in 2008, by the James Jones Literary Society. Novellas and collections of closely linked short stories may also be considered for the competition.

The award is intended to honor the spirit of unblinking honesty, determination, and insight into modern culture exemplified by the late James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity and other prose narratives of distinction. Jones himself was the recipient of aid from many supporters as a young writer and his family, friends, and admirers have established this award of $10,000 to continue the tradition in his name. Two runner up awards of $750 each will also be given by the Jones Literary Society.

Judges: Kaylie Jones, his daughter and a novelist; J. Michael Lennon, one of his biographers; and Bonnie Culver, Director of Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Eligibility: The competition is open to United States citizens who have not previously published a novel. Manuscripts may be submitted for publication simultaneously, but the Society must be notified of acceptance elsewhere. Officers of the James Jones Society are not eligible for the award.

Entry Fee: A $25 check/money order, payable to Wilkes University, not to James Jones First Novel Fellowship, must accompany each entry.

Manuscript Guidelines: A two-page (maximum) outline of the entire novel and the first 50 pages of the novel-in-progress are to be submitted.

The manuscript must be typed and double-spaced; outline may be single-spaced. Name, address, telephone number and e-mail address (if available) should be on the title page, but nowhere else on the manuscript. Pages should be numbered.

If a manuscript is selected for the final round, the author will be asked to send another copy of the originally submitted first 50 pages plus pages 51-100. Submissions will be acknowledged only if accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped postcard. No manuscripts will be returned. Failure to comply with manuscript guidelines may disqualify entries.

For a copy of the press release on the winners, please submit a SASE (to the address listed in the next paragraph) marked "Winners 2008 Contest." The press release will be available in late Fall 2008.

Timetable: Entries are to be sent to the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, c/o M.A./M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Wilkes University, 84 West South Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766, and postmarked no later than March 1, 2008.

The winner will be notified on or about September 1, 2008. The first-prize winner must accept the award at the James Jones Literary Society Conference held each fall, usually in early November. Transportation funding will be provided. An excerpt from the winning manuscript will be published in Provincetown Arts (July 2009.)

For more info:

Must-See Events for Poets, Readers, and Agent-Seekers

Here are some upcoming events of interest, in the DC area and down the road in Richmond:

Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008, 7:00 pm
A Space Inside Reading Series: Vrzhu Press reading, featuring Kim Roberts and Hiram Larew reading from their new books
Riverby Books, 417 E. Capitol St. NE, DC. (202) 543-4342.
Hosted by Monica Jacobe - Free Admission


Wednesday, February 27, 6:30-9:00 pm
Hosted by the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), Washington Chapter

Come and hear about “What Washington Is Reading.” If you have ever wondered how “bestseller” lists get born, or why The Washington Post's current “must-reads” aren't quite the same as what's on The New York Times' book list, or you’re just looking for your next read, this will be a fun and informative program.

Panelists will be Debra Bruno, a book reviewer for The Chicago Sun-Times; Barbara Drummond Mead, president of Reading Group Choices; and Candida Menozzi, owner of independent bookstore Candida's World of Books.

Whether you'd like to throw the book at the last “bestseller” you read or you're searching for a gem that hasn't made it to any public lists, plan on coming to Olsson's in Penn Quarter for this fun program. And bring friends! This program is free for all attendees, not just members.

WHEN: February 27; 6:30-9:00 pm
WHERE: 418 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004
(between D and E Streets; parking available on 8th Street)
(Metro: Gallery Place or National Archives; Red, Green, and Yellow lines)

RSVP: By Friday, February 22, to
Thursday, February 28, 2008
The Writing Show: Agent please(ing)

What will kill your query letter? What's sure to make your manuscript a turnoff from page one? How do you know you're pitching to the right agent? When it comes to finding an agent for your manuscript, Lori Perkins wrote the book. Literally. Come meet the author of Insider's Guide to Getting an Agent and learn the most common mistakes authors make.

How NOT to Get an Agent: featuring literary agent Lori Perkins

Thursday, February 28, 2008
The Eureka Theater
Science Museum of Virginia
6 PM JRW Member Reception
6:30 PM Writing Show Begins
$10 / $5 students with valid school ID

Register online at

The Writing Show is brought to you by James River Writers and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Sunday, March 9, 2008, 6:00 pm
Iota Poetry Series: Kim Roberts and Regie Cabico guest-host a Split This Rock Poetry Reading, sponsored by Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and presented in conjunction with the Split This Rock Poetry Festival special issue of the journal (Vol 9:1, published January 2008).

Featured readers Brian Gilmore, Melissa Tuckey, Heather Davis, and Steve Rogers, followed by open mic.

Iota Bar and Restaurant, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Clarendon neighborhood, Arlington, VA. (703) 522-8340.
Series hosted by Miles David Moore - Free Admission.

Sunday, March 16, 2008, 4:00 pm
Sunday Kind of Love Series: Kim Roberts and Regie Cabico guest host a Split This Rock Poetry Reading, sponsored by Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

Featured readers Winona Addison, Teri Ellen Cross, Yael Flusberg, Tanya Snyder, Dan Vera, Rosemary Winslow, and Kathi Wolfe, followed by open mic.

Busboys and Poets, 14th and V Streets NW, DC (202) 387-POET.
Series hosted by Sarah Browning - Free Admission, but donations collected.

March 20 through 23, 2008
Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

Readings, panels, guided walking tours, films, and more. Featured readers include Jimmy Santiago Baca, Princess of Controversy, Robert Bly, Kenneth Carroll, Grace Cavalieri, Lucille Clifton, Joel Dias-Porter, Mark Doty, Martin Espada, Carolyn Forche, Brian Gilmore, Galway Kinnell, E. Ethelbert Miller, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Susan Tichy, Belle Waring. Fee: $75, $40 for students; some scholarships available. Co-sponsoring organizations include Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

More info:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Writers@Work Competition

I entered this contest many times and never won, so now I’m passing on the torch. I’ve heard this is an excellent conference. So, someone, please win! If it can’t be me, it should be you!

Here’s the announcement:

Writers @ Work offers an annual Fellowship Competition for emerging writers in the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry genres. Winners are honored with cash prizes and publication in Quarterly West, and a consultation with prominent editor or agent.

Go to for submission guidelines and online entry instructions

2008 Judges
Fiction : Steve Almond
Nonfiction : Abigail Thomas
Poetry : Kim Addonizio

Prizes: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry
First Prize in each category: $1,500, publication in Quarterly West (subject to editorial guidelines), a featured reading at the Conference, full Conference tuition - morning workshops and afternoon sessions, a manuscript consultation during the Conference with one of the visiting editors or agents, and free housing.
Honorable Mention in each category: tuition for free afternoon session package (value can be applied towards the full Conference tuition), and a manuscript consultation during the conference with one of the visiting editors or agents.

Writers who have not yet published a book-length volume of original work with a national press in the genre in which they submit a manuscript may submit work for the fellowship competition. Only unpublished work may be submitted. Work will be considered published if it has appeared in any print journal or literary magazine or has appeared in an electronic magazine or journal. Posting work on personal websites is not considered publishing. Please do not submit work from chapbooks or work published by a vanity press. Self-published work (such as a collection of stories, poems, essays, or novel that you print for limited distribution) is acceptable.

Current or former students who have studied with judges in an accredited degree-granting program or institution are not eligible for the competition. Previous winners are not eligible in the genre in which they have won. Board members are prohibited from submitting manuscripts during their tenure on the board.

Judging is done blind. Names are removed from submissions before they are screened so the screeners and judges have no idea of the author and judge on the quality of the manuscript alone.

Entries must be postmarked or e-mailed no later than March 1, 2008. Results will be announced May 1, 2008. Manuscripts will not be returned.

Go to for submission guidelines and online entry instructions

ISO Political Poetry & Prose

Does the election year have you hot and bothered? Are you looking for a place where people will appreciate your insightful, artful observations about the political scene? Then this call for submissions might be for you (I like that they will consider previously published work):

The November Third Club, an online literary journal seeking to "up the ante" of literary political writing, wants poetry and prose that resonates with a political message and rises above mere rhetoric and rant. Our emphasis is political literature, unabashedly left-wing.

The poetry submissions pile is presently anemic, so please check our latest issue,, which includes poets such as Rita Dove, Sam Hamill, Marty McConnell, Sherman Pearl, Arthur Sze and Shole Wolpe, then send YOUR best work.

Deadline is March 15—earlier is even better.

Guidelines for all genre submissions:

Previously published material is fine as long as the original publisher is acknowledged and the author retains the copyright. Unless directly solicited by the editors, previously published material is, however, given less of a priority than unpublished submissions. (Although really, if we love it, we'll probably publish it.) Copyright reverts to the author upon publication. Please acknowledge The November Third Club if material it published first is reprinted elsewhere.

Unsolicited submissions will only be accepted via e-mail:
Please note whether the submission is poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction in the subject line of the e-mail. Unmarked submissions may be deleted unread. Please submit no more than three to five poems, or ten pages of prose.

Please put your name and e-mail address in the body of the e-mail. Please also include a short bio, no more than 200 words, in the body of the e-mail. The submissions themselves can be either in the body of the e-mail or in an attached Word file. No other formats will be considered. The deadline for the next quarterly issue is March 15th. We cannot pay anyone for their work as of this time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Lure of the Green Light

Okay, the promised (threatened?) Gatsby references are rolling already! Here's an interesting article from Sunday’s New York Times about how the children of immigrants are responding to reading The Great Gatsby in their classes at school. Is the American dream possible? What is the American dream?

Let’s not forget that while Gatsby achieved what seemed to be the “dream,” it wasn’t what he actually wanted. That, he could never get.

Still, you have to love some of these comments from the students who are instantly able to see that true literature is universal and timeless:

“I see Tom as this really mean jock,” said Vimin Lo, a 15-year-old Boston Latin sophomore who is in Kay Moon’s American literature class. “When he was in high school, he was king of the hill. He had it all. He was higher than everyone, even the teachers.”

As for Daisy, in Vimin’s view: “She’s turned into an empty person. Like Paris Hilton.”

Yes, yes, yes. By the book’s end, I can totally see Daisy carrying around a tiny dog in a purse.

Writers at the Beach Conference: See You There!

I am honored to have been part of the Writers at the Beach, Sea Glass conference since its beginning in 2005. Held annually, it’s a gathering of writers, editors, and agents at the Delaware beach. But it’s more than that: it’s a weekend to delve into your writing, to meet new people, to ponder the vastness of the ocean, to eat some crabcakes, to shop tax-free at outlet malls, and to raise money to help research a cure for an awful—and overlooked—genetic disease, Mitochondrial Disease. Sadly, conference organizer Maribeth Fischer’s two young nephews have died of this terrible disease.

I wouldn’t think of missing this conference.

Registration is filling up fast, but I urge you to check things out and see if this is right for you. (As far as I’m concerned, WRITING + BEACH = PERFECTION.)

Writers at the Beach, Sea Glass conference
Friday, March 14 – Sunday, March 16
Featuring: Workshops, panel discussions, readings, manuscript review, and social networking

Atlantic Sands Hotel & Conference Center
101 North Boardwalk
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware 19971

Among the many writers, editors, and agents attending:
Fiction writers
Robert Bausch
Liam Callanan
Maribeth Fischer
Jacquelyn Michard
Carolyn Parkhurst
Leslie Pietrzyk
Sheri Reynolds
Mary Kay Zuravleff

Erin Murphy
Dave Smith

Nonfiction writers
Mark Drew
Marian Fontana
Erik Hedegaard
Tom Horton
Bonnie Neubauer

Agents & Editors
Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord Literary Agency
Candice Fuhrman, Candice Fuhrman Literary Agency
Mark Gompertz, Senior Editor, Simon and Schuster
Lauren Mosko, Writers Digest
Bill O'Sullivan, Senior Managing Editor, Washingtonian
Doug Stewart, Sterling Lord Literary Agency

Khris Baxter

My workshops & panels:

The first pages: Leslie Pietrzyk, Instructor
Most writers know that they have to "hook" their reader from the start of the story or novel, but how exactly do we do this? What, in other words, are the elements that make a great beginning to a story or novel? In this workshop, explore ways to strengthen your opening pages so that they are, as writer John Dufresne says in The Lie That Tells the Truth, "full of intimation and assurance, the intimation being that here are characters who have something remarkable to tell us-you've never met people quite like these-the assurance that something surprising and unusual, something you just won't believe, is about to happen. Beginning/Intermediate

Marketing Boot Camp
With Louise Crawford, Franklin Parrish, Richard LaMotte, Leslie Pietrzyk, and Lauren Mosko, moderator
195,000 books are published each year, only about 1700 get reviewed (a number that is growing smaller), and most books have a shelf life that is, as one editor commented, shorter than the shelf life of milk. Getting publicity for your work is often the most difficult and discouraging thing a writer has to do. Whether you are self-published, published by a large commercial press, or about to be published, you must, as a writer, know how to market your own work. This involves much more than giving readings or making oneself available for book signings. Marketing your book often being begins with marketing yourself and starts long before the release date. It involves such things as creating a "brand," having a website, blogging, sending out mailings, designing your own advertising, writing press releases and more. In this workshop learn what you must do in order to survive in the publishing world.

Juxtaposition: Writing and Collage ~ Leslie Pietrzyk, Instructor
Get a fresh view on your fiction and/or creative non-fiction through the imaginative use of collage and found objects. This hands-on, exercise-intensive workshop is appropriate for beginners looking for inspiration and for intermediate writers who might be feeling a bit stuck with their project...and everyone in-between! Participants are requested to bring lots of paper/pen AND one small object from their favorite room in their house/apartment.

The Short and the Long of it: Flash Fiction, Short Stories and Novels
with Nathan Leslie, Leslie Pietrzyk, Marisa de los Santos, Anne Colwell
What is the difference between the above categories beyond the number of words and pages? How does the writer determine if his story is really a novel, his novel really a story, his story better told as flash fiction? Is character development less important in flash fiction? Page-turning tension not as crucial in the short story? What stylistically changes when the writer is working on flash fiction verses when she is working on a novel? In this conversation the writers will discuss these questions as well as share the way they approach these various writing tasks.

Honestly, this is just a teeny-tiny sample of what’s available. Here’s the web site so you can check it out for yourself. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Guest in Progress: Kim Roberts

I never fail to be impressed by the scope of poet Kim Roberts. She seems to know everyone, read everywhere, set up readings for others everywhere, organize and sponsor all sorts of poetry-related and literary events (see yesterday’s post for a sample). I consider her an expert in Walt Whitman, with a focus on Whitman’s days spent in DC. She’s been to zillions of arts colonies. She’s the creator and editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly (whose website also offers a comprehensive and up-to-date resource list of area poetry readings and arts colonies). Her new book of poetry came out in 2007, and her first book, The Wishbone Galaxy, is one of my favorite books of poetry.

I suspect I’m leaving out several other accomplishments and interests.

Luckily, she’s also a wonderful, funny, down-to-earth person…otherwise, you know, she might make me feel sort of unmotivated. Which, actually, is how I felt after reading this charming piece about her approach to setting publication “goals”:

I have been published in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet.

When I first started publishing in journals, I made a game out of it. A goal of full alphabetic coverage made the whole enterprise seem more approachable somehow. Because let's face it, sending submissions to journals can be a slog. The cover letter, the photocopies, the self-addressed stamped envelopes. Now many journals allow electronic submissions, which helps--but it's still work. I wanted something fun, a challenge to keep me engaged in the process.

Other writer friends sometimes cringe when I tell them. Twice, well-meaning writers have actually taken me aside to lecture me about my lack of seriousness, how this "alphabet thing" is not a good criterion to use to select potential publishers. So I have heard the arguments already, thank you.

To them I say, stop being snobbish! I know they think I was selling myself short by sending poems to smaller magazines simply based on the letters I was missing. But I think a healthy range of publication credits (small, midsize, and large) is worth cultivating.

More importantly, I think writers need more fun. Poets tend to be a deadly serious lot, especially those who (like me) come out of academic backgrounds. Seriousness can too easily turn into self-importance, which can too easily lead to pompousness.

So now that I've conquered the alphabet, I am trying for full American geographic coverage: publications in all 50 states. I only have five to go!

This might take some doing, though. I know of only one journal in North Dakota, for instance, and they've rejected me six times. Unless someone else starts publishing in that state, I'm probably doomed. My other missing states are Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont. There are a lot of journals in Vermont! Believe me, I've tried all of them. Vermont may be like the letter "D." I had many of the weirder letters--E, I, U, even X and Z--long before I got my D.

So, sports fans, here are my current stats. They are not unimpressive, I think:
21 A's, 13 B's, 12 C's, 4 D's (once I finally broke the D barrier), 5 E's, 8 F's, 7 G's, 4 H's (for you farm boys and girls), 5 I's, one lonely J, 2 K's, 3 L's, 5 M's, 5 N's, 6 O's, 14 P's, one Q (also late in coming), 4 R's, 18 S's, 6 T's, 2 U's, 2 V's, 8 W's, and one each X, Y, and Z. ~~Kim Roberts

NOTE: Kim reports that she’s eager to learn of journals in Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Vermont: “Maybe I've missed some who actually WOULD publish me! I am open to all suggestions.” You can contact her directly through her web site.

About: Kim Roberts is a poet and freelance writer whose most recent book is The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007, She edits the acclaimed online journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly , which The Washington Post calls "a tasty verse morsel, just a mouse click away" and White Crane Journal calls "the repository of the brain of DC poetic history." With four others, she also edits the newer online journal Delaware Poetry Review ( She has been a writer-in-residence at eleven artist colonies and published in literary journals in the US, Canada, Ireland, France, and Brazil. Her web site can be found here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"In my younger and more vulnerable years..."

As always, I’m thrilled to make any sort of announcement or offer even a scrap of commentary that involves one of my favorite books, The Great Gatsby, which I believe is the (almost) perfect novel. It’s the novel I studied when I was trying to learn how to put together a novel, and it’s the novel I most love to force my students to read. (Not sure how they feel about this, but, oh, well.)

Be forewarned: my current novel workshop at Johns Hopkins is reading the book for an upcoming class, and I’ll be rereading again, along with them. Expect some (many?) "Gatsby is perfection" posts in the near future!

Anyway…on to the news, which is passed along courtesy of poet Kim Roberts
and Beltway Poetry Quarterly:

Beltway Poetry Quarterly invites you to BE PART OF THE STORY – Volunteer for THE BIG READ –D.C.

Learn more: Saturday, March 8 at 2 PM, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G Street, NW

Your can be part of the story for the city read of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The month-long BIG READ – D.C. event kicks off April 24th with a celebration and continues through May 24, 2008. Kim Roberts, editor of Beltway Poetry, has compiled the walking tour of the Dupont/Kalorama neighborhoods, "Jazz Age Stories of the Rich and Scandalous!" The tour will be offered as a brochure (which you can download from the Humanities Council site beginning in April, and take on your own), as well as two guided tours that Kim will lead on Saturday, April 26 and Saturday, May 10, from 10:30 am to noon. These popular guided tour programs are free but reservations are needed (since we limit the number of participants); reservations will be taken beginning in mid-April. The tours are just one of over 40 Big Read – D.C. activities, which will also include book readings, discussions, films, parties, and dance lessons.

For more information, call 202-387-8391 or email

The Big Read – D.C. is presented by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in collaboration with local community partners as part of The Big Read, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Arts Midwest. For more information about the national Big Read visit

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hooray for the Washington Post and Its Fiction Contest!

As a regular (perhaps obsessive) newspaper reader, I generally say “hooray” for the Washington Post anyway. But I’m especially pleased that they annually feature fiction in their Sunday Magazine section.

Sunday’s paper brought us the juicy Valentine’s Day fiction issue, found online here, with love stories by Stuart Dybek, Julie Orringer, Julia Alvarez, and Walter Kirn. As a twist, each author was sent a photograph and was asked to create a story based on that image. I was especially taken with Julie Orringer’s “Ask for Pain.” (Never the cheerful ones for me, eh?)

The Post also conducts an annual contest, again for a story based on a photo. To see the photo, and find out the (easy) rules for the next contest, you can go here. (I do mean easy: 1500 words or less; you have until May 1 to enter; and you don’t even need a stamp….so get busy already!)

The winning story from the last competition was published here: “Love Is Kryptonite,” by Dean Hebert, and I loved it. It’s a short-short (no more than 1500 words), and I was impressed at the complicated poignancy expressed so beautifully in such a small landscape. Here’s a taste to get you to click over and read the piece:

“So, what do you do if you’re Superman,* and you love Lois, but she’s already found herself a great guy and married him? The smart thing would be to keep your mouth shut. I wasn’t that smart. I told her that I loved her.”

*Note: The narrator is speaking metaphorically here…this story isn’t literally about Superman…whew!

If you’re more patient than I am, after you've read the story, please register and leave a comment for the writer…I thought some of those nitwits commenting on the piece seemed like they wouldn't know a story from a starfish. Alas, it’s a cumbersome process just to register to comment, and I couldn’t deal with it. I guess I’m hoping the author comes across my admiring comments during a bout of late-night self-googling!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Action Is Character: In Fiction, In Life

I had a great time at the WIW/AU Fiction Writing Seminar on Saturday, and met some new people, including mystery writer Austin S. Camacho, who offered to the group some useful comments about genre writing. There are quite a few lessons literary writers can learn from our friends in the various genres, and I’m hoping to persuade Austin to write a piece for us about that.

What comes to my mind first is to remember that even in a literary novel, THINGS NEED TO HAPPEN. Readers are reading to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. You can’t spend all your time describing funny, quirky characters…your funny, quirky characters need to DO SOMETHING. And by DO SOMETHING, I don’t mean sit around a table at your quirky restaurant talking about themselves! Action is character, said Fitzgerald. Get your people moving! I truly think that’s the biggest hurdle writers trained in the short story workshop paradigm face when making the jump to writing a novel, realizing how vast a novel is and how so much more needs to happen to pull a reader through those 300 pages. More about that topic at some point, for sure!

And if “action is character,” Austin, author of six (!) books, is most definitely a man of character: after a full day at the conference, he headed off to Largo for two hours of book-signing…with more book signings scheduled in the future. He runs a blog about writing (with input from his wife about the demands of being a writer’s spouse!; check that out here). And his upcoming class about the new self-publishing option of print-on-demand (POD) sounds great. Here’s his announcement:

I will be teaching my class on Print-On-Demand Publishing Basics at Anne Arundel Community College from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. If you're interested in this form of self-publishing you can still sign up. Just contact AACC and tell them you want to be in course WRG-354.
Get the course details here.

Pittsburgh: Food Journey through a Literary Landscape

I was in Pittsburgh for a wedding a few weeks ago (yes, Pittsburgh in January; yes, it snowed!). While there, I had the chance to take a quick visit to the old market area, the Strip District. After we ate at Pittsburgh’s famous (since the 1920s) Primanti Brothers (where the French fries are served ON your sandwich; yum!) we checked out the market area, popping into sausage shops, Italian food stores, Greek food stores, bakeries, a candy store, and a grocery store with a man playing an accordion outside the door. After I asked him if he would switch to a polka, everyone who came by literally danced through the electric doors, instead of walking. After we, too, danced through the doors, we bought some great natural-casing hot dogs to take home and a giant jar of my favorite brand of Polish sauerkraut. On our way back to the car, we stopped at the Polish Catholic church to buy some homemade prune pierogis (my grandmother’s favorite) from two ladies at a card table, one Polish-American, one a Filipino woman who, we were told, “is practically Polish.” She showed off the results of her Polish language lessons…pretty impressive, at least to me, who speaks not a word of Polish despite my exciting last name with the challenging Z.

In the midst of this neighborhoods were nightclubs and fancier restaurants featuring “small plates” and so on. Clearly this neighborhood is in flux—which is the way healthy, vibrant cities are, always dynamic and changing. Even so, I felt as though we had stumbled into a glimpse of the past that you just don’t get at a suburban mall.

So, how does this relate to anything? All the while, I was thinking about what a great setting Pittsburgh would be for a literary work (or a TV show or a movie). I longed to know more about the area so I could write about it, though I recognized that it’s definitely the kind of place where you don’t just show up and think you know everything about it. It seemed like a city where people’s roots run deep, where there are secrets and secret ways that people from the outside wouldn’t guess. (For example, at the wedding, there was a traditional Pittsburgh “cookie table”: friends and relatives of the bride bring homemade cookies that are set up on a huge table…guests can nibble during cocktails, during dinner, and if there are any left, during dessert!)

I’m not the only one who suspects that Pittsburgh offers great potential for literary exploration. Here’s a call for submissions that I wish I could follow up on! Maybe I could write about my fascination with the cookie table??

Call for Submissions: Pittsburgh in Words

Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays about Pittsburgh, its people, its heritage and its potential. These essays will be published online and in print in fall 2008 as part of “Pittsburghin Words,” a celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary.

Essays will be selected through a competitive process. The deadline for submissions is March 15, 2008. Please send a one-page abstract of the proposed essay, accompanied by a writing sample of no more than ten (10) pages and a cover letter with complete contact information to:
Creative Nonfiction
Attn: Pittsburgh in Words
5501 Walnut Street, Suite 202
Pittsburgh, PA 15232
Electronic submissions may be sent to

In addition to publication, writers whose essays are selected will receive mentoring from Creative Nonfiction editors and a scholarship for a Creative Nonfiction Writing Institute in fall 2008.

Examples of the type of work that will be selected for “Pittsburgh in Words” may be found in Creative Nonfiction Issue #15: “Lessons in Persuasion,” which included essays by well-known Pittsburgh writers such as Peter S. Beagle, Diane Ackerman and Hilary Masters. Other examples might include excerpts from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots, and Gerald Stern’s What I Can’t Bear Losing: Notes from a Life.

Please email any questions to

Creative Nonfiction is an internationally distributed literary journal based in Pittsburgh, PA, and edited by the award-winning author Lee Gutkind. Creative Nonfiction publishes personal essays,memoir, and literary journalism by established authors such as Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard and John McPhee, as well as showcasing emerging talent. Each issue wraps itself around a meaningful topic, resulting in thought-provoking, high quality, accessible prose.

“Pittsburgh in Words” is generously supported by the Heinz Endowments.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Guest in Progress: Katharine Davis

I always tell students in my class that there is no down time when you’re a writer: you can always be working, whether it’s observing people in line at the pharmacy and thinking about how you would describe them or imagining the main character of your novel at the dull party you’re currently trapped in. This quality can be a good thing, stretching your imagination in interesting ways…or a bad thing, when you just want to relax and “be.” Is there ever a break in the writing and creative life when one can escape the pressure of, well, writing and creating?

This pressure can seem especially daunting when one has just finished a major project. That Puritan background may make it hard to say to yourself, “You know, I need—and deserve—a break.” The clock is ticking for all of us, so isn’t time NOT writing wasted? But after three-four-five draining years writing a novel that wrung everything out of you, you may not feel like launching into another novel right away.

Here’s how novelist Katharine Davis handled that tricky period between writing projects. (You can read more about Katharine here, in her interesting piece about the intersection between visual art and writing as experienced in Maine.)

Betwixt and Between

Writers talk about knowing when they have come to the end of their novels. Maybe it’s been three drafts, maybe thirty, or maybe they are so completely sick of their story they can’t bear to write one more sentence. Or, perhaps bells go off in their heads, angels swoop down, and tears of joy stream down their cheeks. They know their novel is finished and it is time to begin something new.

After writing my first novel, CAPTURING PARIS (St, Martin’s 2006), and having sent it off to my agent and began the wait for the right editor to bite, I immediately started my second novel, EAST HOPE, a story set in Maine. The characters and story line kept interrupting my revisions at the end of the Paris book –possibly another sign that a book is completed is when another starts to overtake your head. At the time, I wanted to keep my mind off the waiting, and jumped right into the new story without a break.

However, when I sent EAST HOPE out into the world in early September I felt like I needed to pause for a bit. I had an idea for a third novel, set in Italy this time, (forget “write what you know,” I love writing where you want to be), but I didn’t feel the tickle of excitement to spur me on to this new project. Yet, if I were to claim myself a writer, I certainly had to write! How to fill the time before launching into the new novel?

Desk cleaning is a useful diversion when you feel like procrastinating and while attacking old files I came upon some short stories I had started in 2002. The previous summer I had enjoyed Ron Carlson’s wonderful small book, RON CARLSON WRITES A STORY (Graywolf Press 2007). His intimate account of how he brought one particular story to the page made me want to try writing stories again. I selected two stories from my early writing days that seemed worthy of revision and set to work.

I quickly discovered that writing short stories is daunting. What to add? What to cut? Every word made a difference. I was out of practice, and it felt like I was working an entirely new set of muscles.

At the same time, driven by the love of language, and wanting to push my creative brain, I signed up for an introduction to poetry class taught by Nan Fry at The Writers’ Center. Nan is an excellent teacher and my literary muscles felt wobblier than ever as I sought to write in the “highest” of art forms. It was exciting, and scary, too.

Every day during my writing time I tried to write poems and I revised my old stories. While I enjoyed these pursuits, I didn’t wake up longing to get back to my revisions, nor wanting to start a new poem.

I learned that I was a novelist at heart. Yet oddly, the Italian novel was not calling me. My folder with character sketches and idea notes remained alarmingly thin.

Later in the fall I met a woman with a disabling form of dementia that had struck in her early fifties. This rare disease was devastating both to her and her family. For the next few days this woman and her plight haunted me. I began to think about how this affected her family, her friends. All of a sudden I had a story, a story I couldn’t get out of my mind. My new novel was born.

I came away from this experience having learned that you never know where you’ll find an idea, but also that dipping into other genres, trying new things, and just being out in the world might be just what is needed to move you forward into new literary terrain. And, in the middle of these endeavors I received the good news that an editor wanted to buy EAST HOPE and that it will be published in the winter of 2009 by New American Library Accent. All kinds of good things can happen when you are a writer caught betwixt and between. ~~Katharine Davis

About: Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris (St. Martin’s Press, May 2006) is her first novel. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, the novel was also included in The New York Times (8-8-06) suggestions for fiction set in Paris. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review. Katharine recently completed her second novel that takes place on the coast of Maine; it will be published in 2009. She can be reached through her web site.

Fiction Seminar on Saturday!

Just a quick reminder about this weekend’s fiction writing seminar. It looks like a great line-up!

Fiction Writing All-Day Seminar
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Sponsored jointly by American University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program and Washington Independent Writers (WIW)

American University
The Atrium, First floor of Battelle Building
4400 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20016-8047

To register for the seminar online or for more information, click here.

My Panel: Writers’ Blogs, A New Literary Genre
Writers' Blogs: are they as necessary an appendage to a Web site as a Web site is to a book? Are they just a whiz-bang book PR tool, or a new literary genre with magnificent potential--or both? Who is doing what? What works, what doesn't?

Moderator: C.M. Mayo, blogging as "Madam Mayo," is the author of Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (Milkweed Editions), and Sky Over El Nido (University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her blog is and her website is

Deborah Ager, publisher of 32 Poems, has received the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and fellowships and residencies from the MacDowell Colony, Casa Libre en la Solana, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Poems from her forthcoming collection, Midnight Voices, have appeared in Best New Poets 2006, Tigertail: A South Florida Anthology, The Georgia Review, New Letters, New England Review, and the Writing Poems textbook. Her blog is

Wendi Kaufman is the creator and editor of The Happy Booker ( a Washington DC-based literary blog that covers readings and literary events (primarily in the Washington, D.C., area) with a smattering of book reviews, author visits, and literary interviews. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Fiction, New York Stories and other literary journals.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels: A Year and a Day (William Morrow) and Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon Books). Her short fiction has appeared in many journals, including The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, and The New England Review. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers' Conferences as well as from the KHN Center for the Arts and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Writer's Center. She has been writing the blog Work in Progress since March 2007.

Shawn Westfall covers the local literary scene for DCist,, part of the Gothamist media network, which operates the most popular network of city blogs on the internet today with approximately 1.8 million unique visitors a month. His writing and book reviews have appeared in the pages of the Honolulu Weekly and The San Antonio Express-News. By day Shawn works as a copywriter for the Washington Speakers Bureau, and also teaches classes in improvisational comedy at the DC Improv.

Speakers include:
Susan Richards Shreve, who has published thirteen novels, most recently A Student of Living Things. She also recently published the memoir Warm Springs. She is a professor of English at George Mason University and formerly co-chair and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her first novel won the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of the Arts and also the James Jones First Novel Award.

Renowned poet E. Ethelbert Miller interviews Edward P. Jones. Jones was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and recipient of the Lannan Foundation Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Jones was educated at Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia. He has been a professor of fiction writing at a range of universities, including Princeton. His first book, Lost in the City, was short listed for the National Book Award. His novel The Known World was awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Price for Fiction.

Additional Panels:
“If Rodney Dangerfield Were an Author . . .” Genre writers may get readership, but they don't always get much respect from the critical community. Are these literary specialists able to transcend the "limitations" of their chosen forms? Or are those limitations a source of strength? Some of the Washington area's leading writers -- in genres ranging from chick lit to gay lit to fantasy to mystery -- argue the merits of their craft and discuss the best ways to make it in the genre market. With Louis Bayard, Christina Bartolomeo, Austin S. Camacho, Keith Donohue, and Alex MacLennan.

Fiction Under Forty
The panel will explore various issues related to craft and subject matter concerning the young fiction writer at work today. Why is it that more and more writers are finding their voices at an earlier age? Are their perspectives on place, identity, ethnicity, and other subjects different from those of older writers? What are the particular challenges the young fiction writer faces today? With Sudip Bose, Josh Emmons, Olga Grushin, and Alix Ohlin.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

For Me, It's Always 4 AM

As someone who often wakes up in the night, abruptly unable to sleep, today’s poem from The Writer's Almanac hits home in the uncomfortable way poetry that should startle and unsettle:


by Fleur Adcock, from Selected Poems © Oxford University Press, 1986.

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

The Man: Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman fans, take note of the following event and group. And if you’re not a Walt Whitman fan…well, honestly, you really should be! To quickly convince you of his mastery and passion, read my favorite part of “Song of Myself,” the glorious ending:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of the day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

And here’s the upcoming event:

Please join the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman for a special afternoon of poetry and painting on Sunday, February 10, from 2 pm to 4 pm. Richard Claude is hosting a private viewing for us of his collection of paintings of Georgetown, including a delightful depiction of Walt on Potomac's shores. We'll intersperse our appreciation of Richard's work with appropriate readings of Walt's poetry and prose.

We will meet at Richard's apartment in Georgetown. Paid parking is available at the Georgetown Park mall nearby. For specific location details, please email Martin Murray at

Richard is a retired professor of Law and Politics at the University of Maryland, who took up painting to celebrate a return of his vision after an effective treatment for his macular degeneration was found. Later this winter, Richard will donate his collection to the Georgetown Library, which intends to auction it off to benefit its restoration project following last year’s tragic fire.

RSVP with Martin at

NOTE: The next Washington Friends of Walt Whitman event will be a tour of the US Treasury Building on Saturday, March 1, at 11:15 am. To stay informed about Whitman-related events, please join the Yahoo list serve at CyberWalt: The web site includes upcoming events, links, and photos.

"Writing, Like, a Kid"

Apropos of Dan Elish’s wonderful essay about the differences between writing fiction for the children’s market and for adults, here’s an upcoming class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda:

Writing, Like, a Kid: a workshop for writing for 8 to 12 year olds, with Erica Perl
It has never been a better time to write for young readers, and you don’t have to be J.K. Rowling to do it! In this workshop, we’ll explore the wide range of fiction being written for and read by "middle grade" audiences and work on advancing our own projects. Short lectures with discussion and in-class writing prompts will be followed by critiques of participants' work. Among topics to be discussed are those central to writing a novel (character development, setting, narrative structure, conflict) and those specific to writing a middle grade novel (importance of voice, vocabulary/slang, gender differences, pacing, use/avoidance of technology and "taboo" topics). We will also discuss publishing and marketing issues concerning middle grade books. 8 sessions. Workshop meets Wednesday evenings, 7:30 to 10 p.m. and starts on February 13.

Erica reports that, “Although the course is open to folks who are new to children’s book writing, several of the currently enrolled students seem to have book projects underway. So, I’m excited that we may have an enthusiastic group with a good range of experience (and lively discussions, as a result).”

For more information and/or to register, go here, or email Erica directly:

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

AWP Menu & Call for Embarrassing Writing Stories

I am still recovering from the AWP Conference and my long weekend in New York City…I feel as though I need at least a week to sort through all the interesting new literary journals I picked up and to absorb all the passionate conversations I had about writing. Spending three days with 7,500 writers makes for an intense experience.

Favorite oddball tidbit: the character of Elaine Bennes on Seinfeld was based on legendary writer Richard Yates’s daughter!!

As for the other important part of the trip: New York food highlights include scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon, and onions at Barney Greengrass (“The Sturgeon King”); about the best hamburger I’ve ever had at the burger joint in (of all places) a hole-in-the-wall hidden deep in the Le Parker Meridien hotel; and a Brazilian shrimp stew at Via Brasil. Oh, and I found a coal oven pizza place in midtown that was excellent (Angelo’s). Goodness…I almost forgot the fabulous Nantucket scallops at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station! And the corned beef sandwich at Carnegie Deli! There’s even more but I’ll seem like a pig if I keep going….

So, more substantial items as the week proceeds, but for now, this call for submissions from The Writer magazine looks fun:

Writing is serious business. But funny things do happen. We all make silly mistakes, some more humiliating than others. At the time, your blunder probably seemed unbearably embarrassing, but looking back on it ... it was pretty funny.

Here's a chance to show your sense of humor by sharing a favorite faux pas from your writing career. Send us your story in 50 to 250 words by May 31, 2008, and we'll publish the most entertaining entries in a future issue of The Writer and/or online at

We will read all submissions and notify you if your work is selected for publication. Selected works will be edited. If your piece is published, you will receive $50 and a year's subscription to The Writer.

Send entries as Word attachments to Submissions must be e-mailed no later than May 31, 2008.

Sorry, we are unable to critique or return your work. Be sure your manuscript is clearly identified with your name, address, phone number and e-mail address.

We're all human. Don't be shy--share it with the rest of us!

Contest for Under-30 Writers

This ship will sail without me, but if you're under 30 years old, The Kenyon Review has a contest just for you:

We are pleased and excited to announce the first annual Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, for writers under the age of thirty. Alice Hoffman will be the final judge. Submissions will be accepted February 1st-February 15th, with the winner announced in late spring. Submissions must be 1200 words or less. There is no entry fee. More info:

The Kenyon Review will publish the winning short story, and the author will be awarded a scholarship to attend the 2008 Writers Workshop, June 14th to the 21st, in beautiful Gambier, Ohio.

--Writers must 30 years of age or younger at the time of submission.
--Stories must be no more 1200 words in length.
--Please do not simultaneously submit your contest entry to another magazine or contest.
--The submissions link will be active February 1st to February 15th. All work must be submitted through our electronic system. We cannot accept paper submissions. Go to to enter your story.
--Winners will be announced in the late spring. You will receive an e-mail notifying you of any decisions regarding your work.
--The final judge will be Alice Hoffman, acclaimed author of The Skylight Confessions.


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