Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Constructing a Plot

Here’s an interesting class, offered by the Writer’s Center. (If you're not in the area and can't sign up, this looks like an amazing reading list that Sarah has compiled!)--

Working on a novel but feel you lack structure? Need a boost assembling a plot? Sarah Blake, author of the novels Grange House and The Postmistress, offers a reading workshop in which she'll dissect what makes a great plot great. Here's a description:

What's the Plot? How to Catch the Tale: A Reading Workshop

Plot--the armature of a story or novel, its narrative design--might be easily one of the most elusive yet essential elements in great fiction. Greater than merely what happens, a good plot works like the music of the spheres. This class is designed for serious writers who want to study great plots with their own struggles to construct plot in mind. Reading as writers, we will spend the first half of every class session discussing a novel or group of stories in an effort to detail and isolate how the plot is working and where you can see it doing its work. The second half of class will concentrate on each other's stories, or chapters, as seen through the lens of our discussion. Possible readings include: Aristotle; Peter Brook's Reading for the Plot; Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story; Joyce Carol Oates, Telling Stories; Alice Munro's "How I Met my Husband;" Deborah Eisenberg's Mermaids; Barbara Park's Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus; Louis Sacher's Holes; Ann Patchett's Bel Canto; Paula Fox's Desperate Characters; Joan Didion's Run River; Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Please note the new start date, May 1. 6 sessions.

For a complete listing of this and all our workshops, please visit our website at

Find a Home for Your Novella Here

Wondering what to do with your lovely, perfect novella that’s too short to send to an agent and too long to send to a literary journal? Here’s the contest for you!

The Cleveland State University Poetry Center is pleased to announce the fourth annual RuthanneWiley Memorial Novella Contest. One prize of $1000 and publication of the winning novella is offered for the best original novella submitted between April 1, 2008 and October 1, 2008.

MANUSCRIPT REQUIREMENTS: Manuscripts must contain a minimum of 60 and no more than 120 double-spaced manuscript pages, not including front matter. Manuscript pages should be numbered, and, if appropriate, include a table of contents. Include one title page with manuscript title, your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. The author’s name should not appear anywhere else on the manuscript. Include a second title page containing the manuscript title only. Clearly indicate on the outside of the mailing envelope “Novella Contest”. Do not include a cover letter or biographical information.

: Send multiple submissions in the same envelope, marked “Multiple;” entry fee must be included for each manuscript. Simultaneous submissions accepted; please notify us immediately if the manuscript is accepted elsewhere.

ELIGIBILITY: The Judge for the 2008 contest is Josip Novakovich. Intimate friends, relatives, current and former students of the Novella Contest judge (students in an academic degree-conferring program or its equivalent) are not eligible to enter the 2008 Novella contest. Manuscripts that have been previously published in their entirety, including self-published, are not eligible. Translations are not eligible.

Cleveland State University
Poetry Center – Novella Contest
Department of English
2121 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115-2214

$25.00 Check / money order payable to Cleveland State University.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: For notification of manuscript receipt, include a self-addressed, stamped postcard (optional). Manuscripts are not returned. Once submitted, manuscripts cannot be altered. Winners will be given a chance to revise works before publication. Announcement of winners will appear in theMay/June 2009 issue of Poets & Writers. For notification of contest results, include a self-addressed stamped envelope (optional). More details can be found on the web site.

The Dzanc Prize for a Work-in-Progress

Another contest, for writing AND community service:

The Dzanc Prize
Dzanc Books is pleased to announce the opening for submissions to the 2008 Dzanc Prize.

The Dzanc Prize provides monetary aid in the sum of $5,000, to a writer of literary fiction. All writers applying for the Dzanc Prize must have a work-in-progress they can submit for review, and present the judges with a Community Service Program they can facilitate. Such programs may include anything deemed "educational" in relation to writing. Examples would include: working with HIV patients to help them write their stories; doing a series of workshops at a drop-in youth homeless center; running writing programs in inner-city schools; or working with older citizens looking to write their memoirs. All community programs under the Dzanc Prize must run for a full year.

Last year, Dzanc Books awarded the inaugural Dzanc Prize to Laura van den Berg. Laura is currently in the middle of a series of workshops she’s running in the New England prison system. At the end of Laura's year, an anthology of work by the prisoners she is teaching will be compiled and published by Dzanc. Laura's story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All of the Water is Gone, will also be published by Dzanc Books in fall 2009.

Eligibility: The author must be working on literary fiction, and the community service must occur within the United States of America. All applicants must demonstrate that they are able to do the community service they are suggesting, and are not otherwise offering would-be ideas for consideration. Judging shall give equal weight to the caliber of writing and the Community Service.

Timing: The Dzanc Prize will be issued for the 2009 calendar year. We will accept submissions from authors from now through November 1, 2008. The announcement of the winning author will be made during the month of December 2008. The announcement will be made via email to the author, on the Dzanc website, as well as sent to trade (P&W, Publisher’s Weekly, Galleycat, etc.).

Submissions: Authors please send your current cv, a description of your Work in Progress, along with a ten page excerpt, and your planned Literary Community Service. These should be sent as MS Word Attachments in an email to

Dzanc Books will be selecting the author who will receive this $5,000 Prize based on a combination of the Work in Progress, and the intended Literary Community Service. It would probably benefit authors who are submitting to become familiar with Dzanc Books and the types of authors we publish, as well as the Educational Programs Dzanc Books sets up and runs.

The winner of the Dzanc Prize will receive a check for $2500 in the month of January 2009. The remaining $2500 will be paid once the Literary Community Service has been completed.

Dzanc Books will make no claims towards the winner and their Work in Progress. If at the time the author has completed the work, they wish to submit it to Dzanc Books, we will be delighted to have a look. Their manuscript will go through the same reading process every other submission goes through.

The submissions for the Dzanc Prize will be reviewed by, and the prize will be awarded by a panel of Steve Gillis, Dan Wickett, Steven Seighman, and Keith Taylor. All writers, including friends and associates of the panel, are eligible for the prize. The integrity and objectivity of Dzanc Books will not be compromised and, given our vast connections to so many great writers, exclusion of any kind would be impossible.

Any questions can be submitted to or you can check out the website.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Beloved Index Cards

I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the joy of index cards in the writing process before, and here are a few new ideas:

First, from writer Paula Whyman (who just redid her website; check it out!): “I’m having some success with the index cards, btw; I make notes on them, color-coded by character and yellow for ‘general.’ I ask important questions (how did Dawn die?), write down lines I think of that I don’t know where they’ll go yet. I even have a card with a list of songs the characters might listen to. It helps get me started when I sit down to work.”

And, second, this idea came to me a couple weeks ago when we did a visualization exercise in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins. We were working on building our scenes, and I had everyone close their eyes and imagine a scene they were having trouble with. Then I asked a series of questions (i.e. “Where is your character right now? Inside, outside? What colors are around him/her? What are five specific things he sees without turning his head? What is something your character might reach out and touch; what does that thing feel like? How does your character feel holding onto this item?” and so on).

My questions went on for about five minutes, and then everyone wrote down their impressions and notes about what they’d imagined. People came up with some good stuff (which, I was pleased to note, came into play in later chapter submissions!) and after the exercise, there were some jokes about having me come to their houses and read my questions when they were working.

So, I can’t do that—unless maybe there are really excellent snacks involved!—but it did occur to me that this is another job for index cards: Write out the questions that are most helpful for you*, one per index card, and every day as you’re about to write, flip through your cards, imagining the scene in your head as you read and mentally respond to the question. Or save this technique for when you’re feeling stuck, or for when you’re revising and looking to add more detail in the scene. In short, as always—do what works for you.

*I like questions that reach for emotional depth, sensual details, and just basic logistics (who’s there and where is everyone standing).

Everything You Wanted to Know About Publishing

I can’t recommend this from any personal experience, but if you’re interested in learning more about the publishing business, this program certainly seems worth further investigation. From the editors of Crazyhorse literary journal:

We wanted to let you know about an exciting opportunity for writers that Crazyhorse is undertaking again this summer with Tupelo Press. In June of 2008, the Second Annual Crazyhorse/Tupelo Press Publishing Institute will be held at The College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. The institute was founded in 2007 to meet the needs of writers by providing training in the theory and practice of literary publishing and editing in order to prepare them for successful careers as publishers and editors. This year's institute will run from June 3 - June 30.

The institute offers you the chance to work closely with Crazyhorse Editors Carol Ann Davis and Garrett Doherty and Tupelo Press Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Levine. The institute will combine an intensive, four-week course that chronicles the choosing of the winner in the annual Tupelo Press First Book Prize (judged collaboratively by Crazyhorse editors and Tupelo Press editors) with opportunities to intern at Crazyhorse.

This year's institute has both for-credit and a non-credit options to meet the needs of participants who are in graduate school as well as those professionals who no longer need to earn graduate credit. Apply online, and get more information here or by emailing Carol Ann Davis at

Monday, April 28, 2008

New Ways to Procrastinate

Writer’s Digest magazine has announced its Top 101 Sites for Writers. Check them out here…but please don’t forget to come back to me and Work in Progress when you’re done perusing all the shiny new eye-candy!

Story Contest for Women

This is an interesting contest for women writers, sponsored by one individual who comments below that started the contest because she would have liked to receive such an award. Note that previously published submissions are acceptable and there is no reading fee:

THE FOURTH GLASS WOMAN PRIZE SUBMISSION PERIOD IS NOW IN EFFECT. It will be awarded for a work of short fiction or creative non-fiction (prose) written by a woman. Length: between 50 and 5,000 words. The top prize for the fourth Glass Woman Prize award is US $600 and possible (but not obligatory) online publication; I will also award two runner-up prizes of $100 each and possible (but not obligatory) online publication.

Subject is open, but must be of significance to women. My criterion is passion, excellence, andauthenticity in the woman´s writing voice. Previously published work and simultaneous submissions are OK. Copyright is retained by the author.

There is no reading fee.

Submission deadline: September 21, 2008 (receipt date; anything received after that date will beconsidered for a future prize).

Notification date: December 21, 2008. The winner will be announced on this web site. Submissions will not be returned, rejected, or otherwise acknowledged except for the winner announcement. I promise that every submission will be read with respect and with my commitment to the voices of women in this world.

One submission per person per prize submission period, by email, with "Glass Woman Prize Submission" in the subject line and the text pasted in the body of the email (no attachments!)

or in hard copy and via regular mail, to:
Beate Sigriddaughter
333 East 16th Avenue, #517
Denver, CO 80203

IMPORTANT: If submitting by email:
--"Glass Woman Prize" in subject line
--Text in body of email.
I will regretfully ignore submissions of anything other than specified above, for example: attachments, more than one piece of writing in a giving prize reading period, more than 5,000 words, poetry, or submissions without "Glass Woman Prize" in the subject line of an email.

Who judges the contest?
At the moment I am sole judge. If the prize grows, I hope to be able to invite other women writers to judge.

How is the prize funded?
he prize is funded with ten percent of my personal income. It therefore has a chance ofincreasing in the future.

Because this is something I would have liked to have received for myself. Since I haven´t, at least not recently, and in order to make things right with the world all the same, I feel I have to offer it to someone else.

Why the name Glass Woman Prize?
I´ve been playing with the glass woman concept for a while. I want women to be able to acknowledge, transparently, who we are, and that who we are is not trivial and unimportant, despite the fact that it is not typically rewarded in a man-made and money-motivated world.

Here´s my original description of a glass woman as I would depict her if I were a visual artist: a woman of glass, with a blood system and gut system visible inside her, pipes and veins, and in those there would be bits of poetry, newspapers, roses, sentimental things, baby´s teeth, locks of baby hair, all kinds of lace bits, birds, and foxes, ice-picks, wedding rings, veils, and wedding cake doves, graduation gowns, tarot cards, sacred stones, pressed flowers, and a whole lot of joy and a whole lot of sorrow. She´d have a flute and a piano key, an ankh, and a woman symbol, everything, anger and joy, hiking gear, rock climbing gear, motorcycle gear, dirt, fear, bras, lilacs, mirrors, underwear.

What about the brittleness of glass?
I would make it unbreakable glass, transparent, but shatter-proof.

Why no reading fee?
Because I absolutely hate the way every other journal or other entity nowadays uses readingfees for contests as fundraisers. I can see their point. I still hate it.

What am I trying to accomplish with this?
I want to help along the cause of women expressing themselves authentically and fearlessly and passionately. It has something to do with a contribution to justice and soul growing in the world.

One of my ex-husbands once said that women don't support each other. I want to either change that or prove it wrong. This is my small gesture of changing the world.

More details—including information about previous winners—here.

Flannery O'Connor Award Seeks Submissions

This is one of the most prestigious literary contests offered:

Each year the University of Georgia Press selects the winners of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Authors of winning manuscripts receive a cash award of $1,000, and their collections are subsequently published by The Press under a standard book contract. The Press may occasionally select more than two winners.

Selection process: in addition to series editor Nancy Zafris, there are three external judges. The manuscripts undergo blind review, meaning that the name of the author is stripped from the manuscript before judging begins. Each judge reads a third of the contest entries and makes a selection of 7-10 finalist manuscripts, which are then forwarded on to Nancy Zafris, who selects the two winning manuscripts from the group of 20-30 finalists.Website: here

The competition is open to writers in English, whether published or unpublished. Stories that have previously appeared in magazines or in anthologies may be included. Stories previously published in a book-length collection of the author's own work may not be included. Collections that include long stories or novellas are acceptable. Estimated length of a novella is between 50 and 150 pages. Novels or single novellas will not be considered.

Manuscripts must be typed, double-spaced, fall within the range of 50,000 to 75,000 words, and be numbered consecutively (hand-numbering is acceptable). All manuscripts should be printed in a 12-point type or larger. A standard font such as Times New Roman is recommended. Unusual or sans-serif fonts are hard to read.

This is a blind review process. Please include the author’s name, address, phone number, email address, and the title of the manuscript on the top cover sheet. On a second cover sheet, include only the title of the manuscript. The author’s name should not appear anywhere except on the top cover sheet. Any manuscript including the author’s name elsewhere (for example, at the top of each page) will be returned, and the entrant will be asked to submit a new copy of the manuscript without the name included.

No indication should be given about where a story was published, either at the start of the story or in the table of contents. All manuscripts must be accompanied by a $25 submission fee. Please make checks payable to the University of Georgia Press. Only checks drawn on a U.S. bank or international money orders in U.S. funds are acceptable.

Photocopies are acceptable if they are legible and printed on good quality white paper. Please check photocopies carefully to avoid having to send replacement pages or stories. Do not send manuscripts in binder notebooks or bulky containers. Use two rubber bands and mail in a padded envelope.Retain one copy of the manuscript for your files. Manuscripts submitted to the contest will not be returned.

Manuscripts must be submitted between April 1 and May 31. (Postmark should be no later than May 31.) Send manuscripts to:
The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction
The University of Georgia Press
330 Research Drive
Athens GA 30602-4901

Manuscripts under consideration for this competition may be submitted elsewhere at the same time. Please notify us immediately, however, if your manuscript is accepted by another publisher while it is under review with our press.Authors may submit more than one manuscript to the competition as long as each submission is accompanied by a $25 check, meets all eligibility requirements, and does not duplicate material submitted to us in another manuscript.

Contest results will be made public before the end of November. Entrants who have enclosed an SASE will receive a letter announcing the winning manuscripts.Authors of winning manuscripts will be expected to submit the manuscript on disk.

The University of Georgia is thoroughly committed to academic integrity in all of its endeavors.The University of Georgia Press adheres to all University of Georgia policies and procedures. To help ensure the integrity of the competition, manuscripts are judged through a blind review process. Judges in the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction competition are instructed to avoid conflicts of interest of all kinds.


Details are offered on the website.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Work in Progress: I'm Crabby, So You Get Granola

I’m too crabby to blog officially today because yesterday I severely pulled my calf muscle doing the dangerous and exciting activity of…stepping off a curb. Yes—one minute I’m walking on a little errand instead of driving there, perhaps whistling (okay, not really), congratulating myself for lessening my carbon footprint while at the same getting exercise and enjoying a lovely spring day—and next thing you know, I’m in the middle of the street in immense pain after stepping off the curb (not even a high curb).

Being from Iowa, a stoic place, I continued on my errand, which wasn’t a good plan. (Stoicism can be so over-rated.)

Now, I’m lurching/hobbling around like Frankenstein with a peg leg. That was a fun way to ride the metro last night at rush hour, let me tell you; those hordes pause for nothing! To top it off, I’m supposed to go out to dinner on Saturday AND Sunday, and now I can’t wear my cute new shoes.

A moment, please, as we contemplate how tragically difficult my life is.

So, no writing about writing today. Instead, I’ll pass along a recipe, and since the last recipe I shared was for stuffing (mmm), here’s something that sounds more healthful though it probably isn’t; granola is tricky that way. I think this might be from Better Homes and Garden magazine, but I’m not sure; I’ve been making it for quite a while. Don’t be afraid: it’s easy.


4 cups old-fashioned oats (NOT the one minute kind; NOT instant)
1 ½ cups sliced almonds
½ cup packed light brown sugar (I actually like the new, loose brown sugar for this if you can find it)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup cooking oil (i.e. canola, vegetable)
¼ cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups raisins or dried cranberries (a half-and-half mix is nice, too)

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a bowl, mix the oats, almonds, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon. In a saucepan warm the oil and honey. Whisk or stir in vanilla. Carefully pour liquid over oat mixture. Stir gently with a wooden spoon; finish mixing by hand.

2. Spread granola in a 15x10x1 inch baking pan. (I suppose two regular cookie sheets would work also, as long as they have a rim; also, I spray the baking sheet with Pam to keep the granola from sticking.) Bake 40 minutes, stirring carefully every 10 minutes. Transfer granola-filled pan to a rack; cool completely. Stir in raisins/cranberries. Seal granola in an airtight container or self-sealing plastic bags. Store at room temperature for 1 week or in freezer for 3 months. Makes 9 cups (24 servings). 186 calories/serving

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Upcoming Reading with Matthew Klam and the Spirit of F. Scott

Speaking of the “Big Read”—see below—here are some additional details about the reading I’ll be doing in conjunction with the DC celebration:

Flirting with the Masters: Fiction Writers on F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
7 p.m.

On Tuesday, May 6, the Arts Club of Washington will host acclaimed fiction writers LESLIE PIETRZYK and MATTHEW KLAM as they talk about the personal impact of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, then share selections from their own work. This event is affiliated with the 2008 NEA “Big Read.” Free and open to the public, reception to follow.

LESLIE PIETRZYK is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day, which was selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club and was featured in the Borders Bookstores “Original Voices” series. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and has received awards from Shenandoah, Columbia, Descant, and other journals. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.

MATTHEW KLAM is the author of Sam the Cat, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O'Henry Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, and a PEN/Robert Bingham Award, and has received grants from the NEA and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He is a contributing writer to GQ Magazine, and has taught creative writing in many places including University of Michigan and American University, and is a Visiting Professor at Southampton College in New York.

Big Read - D.C. is a literacy event presented by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. DC is reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald from April 24 - May 24, 2008, 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 a calendar specific to DC-area events, visit

The Arts Club of Washington is at 2017 I Street NW, near Foggy Bottom/GWU and Farragut West metro. Headquartered in the James Monroe House, a National Historic Landmark, the Club was founded in 1916 and is the oldest non-profit arts organization in the city. The Club mission is to generate public appreciation for and participation in the arts in the Nation’s capital, through ongoing educational programs that include literary events, art exhibitions, and musical and theatrical performances.

For more information on the Arts Club, visit

Celebrate The Great Gatsby!

Poet Kim Roberts (and guest blogger, here) shares the exciting details about DC’s “Big Read” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

We'll be celebrating F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece of American literature, The Great Gatsby, from April 24 through May 24, 2008. Please join us by reading (or re-reading) the book. The program, part of a national initiative spearheaded by the NEA, is designed to revitalize the role of reading for pleasure in American popular culture. Festivities in DC will include: book discussions, films, performances, art deco architecture tours, Charleston dance lessons, storytelling for adults, a student essay competition, an exhibition at the MLK Library, and a reading by area novelists influenced by the book. A full schedule of events can be found here.

There's one part of the festivities I am particularly proud of: I have written a tour called "Jazz Age Stories of the Rich and Scandalous" that leads you through the Dupont and Kalorama neighborhoods. The tour gives a glimpse of the world F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in and chronicled in The Great Gatsby, with stops at great houses of the very rich, a Prohibition speakeasy, houses connected to political scandals such as the Red Scare and Teapot Dome, and much more. (For more information, read my entry on The Big Read DC blog about researching Prohibition and speakeasies in DC.)

You can take the tour on your own, using the downloadable brochure that is available as a PDF file here on the website of the Humanities Council of Washington. The tour takes an hour and a half to two hours if viewing only the exterior of buildings, more if you decide to take museum tours.

I will also be leading two guided tours on Saturday, April 26 and Saturday, May 10. The guided tours start at 10:30 am and last approximately two hours. The tour begins upstairs in the atrium of the Mayflower Hotel at 1127 Connecticut Avenue NW (Farragut North Metro). Please note that the tour route will involve climbing stairs. The tour is limited to 30 persons and advance reservations are required. You can reserve your spot by emailing or by calling (202) 387-8391. Spaces are still available!

And finally, please consider joining us for the Big Read Kick-Off event on April 24 at 6:00 pm at the Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Use the D Street entrance; the party's in the Atrium. We'll have a Mayoral Proclamation, live jazz, flapper fashions, a reading of an excerpt of The Great Gatsby by actor Clayton LeBouef ("Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire") and a hip-hop version of the story presented by DC Writers Corps. Admission is free.

For more information about the program, and to see a complete schedule of events, go here.

Judging a Book Only by Its Cover

As you may recall, I’ve been trying on novel titles and rejecting them at an impressively alarming rate. Where better to put this new skill to work for others than on Rate My Book Cover, a site where small press publishers can post their tentative book covers and see what “the world” (i.e. disgruntled, procrastinating writers and designers) thinks?

It’s fun…in that aggressive, anonymous way.

I read about this on someone else’s blog, but because my head is so stuffed with inappropriate novel titles, I can’t remember which blog I read it on.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Amanda Davis Award for Young Women Writers

With a May 1 deadline, you’d better hurry on this one! I met Amanda Davis when we were both at Bread Loaf, and though we weren’t close friends, her sad and untimely death affected me. So I was pleased to discover this award from McSweeney’s in her honor. From the McSweeney’s website:

The Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award is a $2,500 grant given in memory of Amanda Davis. Amanda Davis was a very gifted writer and close friend of ours who passed away in March of 2003, at the age of 32. She was an irreplaceable person, one who created and nurtured communities wherever she went. She loved to write, loved being a writer, loved to read, loved the existence of books, and wanted happiness—personal, professional, spiritual, shoe-related—for everyone. She really did.

This memorial award is intended to aid a woman writer of 32 years or younger who both embodies Amanda's personal strengths—warmth, generosity, a passion for community—and who needs some time to finish a book in progress. The book in progress needn't be thematically or stylistically close to Amanda's work, but we would be lying if we said we weren't looking to support another writer of Amanda's outrageous lyricism and heart.

Requirements and Guidelines
Applicants should send a work in progress, between 5,000 and 40,000 words, and a statement of their financial situation. You may list any and all ridiculous jobs performed to facilitate your writing, and you may include two other short pieces, published or otherwise, if you feel they would help in the understanding of your work generally. The reading group will consist of McSweeney's editors and a handful of writers and readers close to Amanda. The award will be given in one lump-sum grant, with no strings attached. The deadline is May 1, 2008. Winners will be notified by September 1, 2008.

Send materials, with SASE, to:

The Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award
849 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
- - - -
2006 Winner: Hannah Pittard
2004 Winner: Jessica Anthony

Further Inspiration

Speaking of inspiration (and aren’t we always?), writer/teacher/friend Cheryl Somers Aubin offers this suggestion: “I was at an antique store a while ago and went through a whole box of old postcards and pictures. I ended up buying many of them because I thought the stories behind them would be so interesting to imagine and to write.…”

And she shares “the red dress theory,” which she first read about in a Writer’s Digest article: “Basically what this writer [of the article] said is that when you go to a fancy party, many women are dressed in black, but there are always one or two that are dressed in red and you notice them right away. So, for the days when you have so many ideas, look for the one that is wearing the red dress.…” I like this…especially since, yes, I actually do have a red cocktail dress!

I’m sure Cheryl will be sharing more of her wisdom at this upcoming event, “Honoring Our Lives by Telling Our Stories,” where she and others will be teaching.

Once Upon a Time, in a Little Log Cabin...

Here’s an intriguing call for submissions for the Abraham Lincoln “Better Angels” Issue:

Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program are pleased to announce a call for submissions for a special issue devoted to the literary essence of Abraham Lincoln. Quiddity is seeking submissions of original creative work (poetry, prose, and artwork) inspired by the life, work, and works of Lincoln.

“Better Angels,” the Fall/Winter 2008-09 issue, will publish the best creative work inspired by the quiddity of Lincoln as president, statesman, politician, poet; by the essence of Lincoln’s life; and by his essence as crafter of language. Quiddity is looking for creative work that stirs the marrow in our bone-centers and is devoted also to the eloquent writing and exquisite essence of a man rough-hewn.

Like Shakespeare, whom the sixteenth president greatly admired, Lincoln shaped language to fit his thought as opposed to forcing his thought to fit language’s conventional mold. The term quiddity denotes, by OED definition, “the real nature or essence of a thing; that which makes a thing what it is.”

Quiddity will publish and broadcast exceptional works of poetry and prose, paying tribute to Lincoln’s quintessence via an issue devoted to original, contemporary work both inspired by Lincoln’s essence and that seeks to capture it in creative work. Individuals whose work is selected for publication may be invited to read their work aloud for Quiddity’s companion public-radio program on WUIS/WIPA, NPR member and PRI affiliate.

● Prose: one work (no more than 5,000 words)—Please note that we are NOT seeking essays. Poetry: up to five poems (no more than ten pages total) Artwork: up to five images—Query first with hardcopy images of the work(s) before sending digital images.

● Include complete contact information in the cover letter; bios are appreciated.

● Please be sure your name is listed on each page of the work. You may list contact information on each page as well, if you wish.

● U.S. submissions should include both an email address and a self-addressed, business-size (#10), stamped envelope.

● International submissions should include an email address to which an electronic reply may be sent.

● Work must be previously unpublished. All manuscripts will be recycled.

Please ensure that your submission fits the guidelines listed above. Submissions should be addressed to:

Springfield College-Benedictine University
1500 North Fifth Street
Springfield , IL 62702

Submissions will be accepted from April 8th through August 8th, 2008 (postmark deadline). Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, but we require notification immediately if the work is accepted elsewhere. For more info, please go to the website.

(If you’re interested, I posted about The Gettysburg Address here.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

My Upcoming Writer's Center Class

Spread the word to any interested parties! Here’s my next class at Bethesda’s Writer’s Center; it’s perfect for beginners and people looking to sharpen their writing skills. I've taught this several times, and it's always fun.

Finding Your Voice: Creating Memorable Fiction and Memoir
A One-Day Workshop

Have you always wanted to write but couldn’t quite find the courage to pick up a pencil? Or perhaps you’re a secret writer, scribbling stories in private notebooks, compulsively filling the pages of your journal? This supportive, hands-on workshop will give you courage to write and direction about how to proceed. Through discussion and writing exercises, participants will learn some basic techniques of fiction/memoir writing. The goal is to leave with several promising pieces to finish at home. Bring a pen and lots of paper or your laptop!

Saturday, May 10, 2008
10 am – 4 pm with an hour break for lunch

The Writer's Center
4508 Walsh Street
Bethesda, MD 20815
Phone: 301 654-8664

Details and registration information can be found at the Writer’s Center site.

Poetry Round-Up

In honor of National Poetry Month:

--On Slate magazine, poet Robert Pinksy expresses his irritation with people who don’t “get” poetry.

--In Washington Post’s Book World, poet Edward Hirsch compares writing poetry to taking a walk: “Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry -- a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language -- and walking seems to bring a different sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.”

--Also in Book World, Li-Young Lee’s poem “To Hold” is a gem (scroll down):
“So we’re dust. In the meantime, my wife and I
make the bed. …”

--Mark Strand, one of my favorite poets, will be reading at the Library of Congress on Thursday, April 24, at 6:45 P.M.:
Poets Mark Strand, author of the new collection Man and Camel, and Charles Wright, author of Scar Tissue and the forthcoming Littlefoot: A Poem, read from their work at the Library of Congress, James Madison Bldg., Montpeilier Room, 101 Independence Ave. SE, 202-707-5394.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Work in Progress: Inspiration

Everyone always wants to know where the ideas come from. For me, that’s not often a problem: the problem is having too many ideas, too much to want to write about. Where does this bounty come from? And what if you’re feeling blocked, or disinterested in your usual sources of ideas, or looking to shake things up by trying something new (a good thing to do periodically, I think: SHAKE IT UP!)

Here are some tried and true sources I turn to for inspiration or to shake up the way I look at the world:

--First, I’m not shy about looking through writing exercise books. There are zillions out there, and usually you can tell by glancing through the pages if one speaks to you or not. Here are two that I particularly enjoy: Writing Without the Muse and What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers (both available used and worth extra effort to seek out).

--Art. Look at a painting or photograph and imagine the lives behind it. I collect pictures from magazines of people and places that seem interesting to me for whatever reason. I love to leaf through that file and see what rises to the surface.

--People on the metro or at a party (or anywhere). Who are they? Where are they going? What’s happening in their lives? I especially enjoy this activity when I feel that “real life” has been taking me away from my writing; here’s a way to spin through some stories when I don’t have enough time to sit at the computer…spin them in your head as you wait in line at the grocery store, instead.

--Overheard conversations. Eavesdrop and include the dialogue you hear into a story. I expanded on this idea in this post about dialogue.

--Childhood memories. Think about your favorite summer, your best birthday present—or your worst summer, worst birthday present. Holidays and family are very fertile places to look for ideas. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has a lifetime worth of material to write about. I agree! What do you remember about your childhood? Often choosing a very specific, very concrete memory—and then taking off from there—will result in a wonderful story or personal essay.

--Science or history (or some field you don’t know much about). The world is full of amazing facts that cry for stories. You can do a bit of research about something that interests you in a book or on the internet. Say, lightning. Before you know it, you’ve found a site for people who have survived lightning strikes. How can anyone not want to write something about that? The solution to the end of my novel A Year and a Day came from reading a book of science “factoids”: “Sound travels faster in water than in air and even faster in iron and steel. Sounds traveling a mile in 5 seconds in air, will travel the same distance in 1 second underwater and travel 1/3 of a second in steel.”* Who knew? (Okay, probably countless scientists.) *From The Handy Science Answer Book, complied by the Science and Technology Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

--Same with the newspaper. According to declining newspaper circulation statistics, I may be in the minority here, but I can’t imagine not reading a newspaper every day. Not only to hear what’s going on in the world, but, more importantly, to get material for writing. That filler about the cabbage shaped like Nixon’s head? That goes in my file. The story about the man who was a model citizen and then one day robbed a bank…any writer would have to ask: Why? Writing the story is the best (only?) way to find out.

--Another one of my favorite ways to start writing something—or to think about writing in a new way—is to take three objects that seem unrelated and try to put them together in a story. Or, even better, three things that have happened to me recently—for example, I saw a car hit a squirrel on the same day that a woman who’s an acquaintance told me she was moving to a retirement community and selling her house of 32 years. Immediately, those things felt somehow connected.

In the end, what matters most is not that you do the things on this list or any list, but that you search for ways that make YOU feel connected to your creative side—whatever those things might be. Take classes at the Writer’s Center, go to readings, meet a friend after work or at a coffee shop and do exercises together, read-read-read, and write-write-write. Walk through a park, sprawl in the grass. Eat your ice cream with your eyes closed. Whatever it takes! The creative side is like a muscle and needs a pattern of exercise…don’t ever neglect the poor thing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Thursday Is "Poem in Your Pocket Day"

Poet Anna Leahy (who posted here and here) has reported to me that tomorrow, April 17, is “Poem in Your Pocket Day.”

From the web site:

“Celebrate the first national Poem In Your Pocket Day! The idea is simple: select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends on April 17. Poems from pockets will be unfolded throughout the day with events in parks, libraries, schools, workplaces, and bookstores.”

The site offers poems to download that are short enough for your pocket (or purse). And in the D.C. area, you can go to this special event to read the poem in YOUR pocket:

The "Poetry at Noon" series at the Library of Congress hosts Poem in Your Pocket Day, the chance for those attending to read a selection of verse if they can show a published poem (not your own) at the door of the Pickford Theater, James Madison Bldg., 101 Independence Ave. SE. This event is part of the Academy of American Poets' National Poetry Month celebration. Call 202-707-5394 for details. Thursday, April 17, 2008, noon.

Here’s the poem I’m going to carry around:

“Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer” by Jane Kenyon

We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done—the unpacking, the mail
and papers…the grass needed mowing….
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.

And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

(Note: I read this to Steve at our wedding…awwww.)

My Gatsby Reading

In conjunction with DC’s Big Read of The Great Gatsby, short story writer Matthew Klam and I will be discussing the influence of that book on our writing and reading from our new work.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
7 p.m.
Arts Club of Washington
2017 I St., NWWashington, DC 20006

Publication Congratulations

I’m so pleased to report that one of my former Johns Hopkins students, Richard Patrick, has published a satirical short story in The November 3rd Club after reading about the online political magazine on this blog!

Here's the direct link to his story.

Tired of Writing Alone?

Then try this new collaborative approach to writing on the new site WEbook, as reported here in BusinessWeek:

“It works for Wikipedia, but can the power of the crowd extend to writing books? A new startup called WEbook is tackling that very question with a new service that's open to anyone who wants to help write a book. Like the open-source software movement and Wikipedia's collaborative encyclopedia entries, WEbook is betting that the "all contributors welcome" approach can bring more creativity and innovation to a book project than an individual or a small group of experts. …

“Community members will propose the projects, submit chapters to different books, vote on the chapters, and then review and rate the finished books. WEbook plans to publish the highest-rated of its books digitally and in print, sharing a percentage of the royalties with the major contributors.”

This would be fine…except that many writers ARE writers because they enjoy exercising, you know, TOTAL SUPERPOWER CONTROL over their characters and world!

Thanks to writer Paula Whyman for the link.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Remembering a Teacher

I read at The Elegant Variation that one of my early creative writing teachers died. Arturo Vivante was a visiting writer at Northwestern University a million years ago when I took his fiction workshop. To be honest, I can’t remember anything specific that I learned from him—anything specific that I wrote or read—or anyone else from that class—or much about him at all, except that we were all so very impressed because he published short stories in The New Yorker. (More than 70, according to this obituary in the New York Times.)

Here’s what I do remember: One day, after class, as I was reading over his comments at the end of my story that had been workshopped, I saw that he had written, “You should send this to The New Yorker. Here’s the name of my editor, and tell her I suggested you send this to her.”


Frankly, this story had no business being in The New Yorker—as the editor graciously and kindly wrote back to say—but I will always be grateful to Mr. Vivante (I can’t even remember if we called him that or Arturo) for taking notice of a striving undergraduate and giving her a little bit of hope and attention when it was needed.

No story of mine has appeared in The New Yorker (yet!)…but today, remembering this long ago teacher, it’s nice to think that there was one person in the world who thought that maybe one of them could have been there.

This Book Is Hilarious

Dan Elish, who offered his thoughts here about the differences between writing for children and adult, has a new book out (for adults): THE MISADVENTURES OF JUSTIN HEARNFELD. Kirkus Reviews calls it, "Goodbye Mr. Chips meets Portnoy's Complaint meets the 40 Year Old Virgin in contemporary Manhattan." Publisher's Weekly writes it's "an amusing tale of an insecure college grad who wants nothing more than to drop a few pounds,write the great American novel, and lose his virginity." Writer Allison Burnett says, "What Herman Melville does for white whales, Dan Elish does for blue balls."

Dan’s a funny guy, and this is a very funny book. For more information, go here, or to read an excerpt, you can check out this link on Dan’s web site.

Plot Problems? Here's Help!

Another great-sounding event down in Richmond, about a topic so many of us struggle with—plotting:

The Writing Show: Hot Plots How-To

You know how your story starts, but how does it end? And what about all the ground in between? Learn how three master storytellers plot their fiction using three very different approaches: when to outline, when to surprise yourself, how to invent events, and more!


Featuring authors:
Ed Falco, WolfPoint (Unbridled Books, 2005)
Gigi Amateau, Chancey of The Maury River (Candlewick, 2008)
David L. Robbins, The Betrayal Game (Bantam, 2008)

And your host, JRW board member and novelist Susann Cokal

Thursday, April 24, 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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Titling Angst, Part 10,018

Thanks to those who responded to my title angst (still ongoing, alas). Writer Richard Goodman (who wrote for the blog here) was kind enough to send along “Finding a Great Title,” the chapter from his new writing book, The Soul of Creative Writing, that is all about titles! Needless to say I pounced on that, especially the part where he advocated being obsessive (okay, not in those exact words—more like, it’s perfectly fine—and necessary—to spend time to think about your title in a thorough manner…so I’m not “obsessive” anymore, I’m “thorough!”).

And I thought the following story about how he approached the task of coming up with a title for his book, French Dirt, was amusing, instructive, and dare I say calming?

Here’s what he wrote:

When I was trying to come up with a title for my own book, I presented myself with three main goals. I didn’t think it was right, or possible, to try for more. That, I reasoned, would simply weaken any title as it tried to satisfy more and more requirements, like a decision made by committee. My book is about living in a small village in the South of France and about having a vegetable garden there. The garden helped me connect to the villagers, and to the village, and to the land of Provence. What I told myself I should accomplish with my title was

1. To let people know the book was about France.
2. To give them some idea that it was about the land.
3. That the title be brief, and strong.

And, it goes without saying, I wanted it to be unforgettable.

I spent three days working on this. It was a wonderful time. I was house-sitting for a friend. No one knew where I was. I had hours of uninterrupted time in which to concentrate. My book was finished (or so I thought at the time). A year’s good hard work was behind me. I was done. Now, all I had to do was to write the title.

All the while I was trying to think up a title, I tried to keep the spirit, the soul, of my book within me, close at hand. I let that guide me. I came up with two words: French Dirt. To me, those two words accomplished what it was I had set out to do. I stopped there.

My agent hated it, and so did my editor. I was completely thrown off by this. My agent even went so far as to say, “My mother hated that title, and she’s never wrong.” They were so certain it was bad, that I began to have my doubts. To appease my editor, I tried to write other titles. She didn’t like any of them, and neither did I. So, we temporarily dropped the matter. The title didn’t have to be decided on right away, and so all of us, gratefully, put that issue aside. Some four months later, as the time neared for the manuscript to go to press, I reluctantly brought the title question up again.

“Uh, what about the title?” I asked my editor.

In her singy Southern voice she said, “Oh, hell, you might as well call it French Dirt. That’s what everyone down here is calling it anyway!” What I hadn’t realized was that as the manuscript circulated amongst the staff at my publisher’s, the people who looked at it had to call it something. Since the only name it ever had was French Dirt, that’s what they called it. I guess after a few months, it didn’t sound that bad to my editor. “You have to give me a subtitle though!” she ordered. “Otherwise, people will think it’s an erotic novel, or some damn thing.” And that’s how the book ended up being titled French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

~~From The Soul of Creative Writing by Richard Goodman

If You Need More Fun in Your Life

One of my secret obsessions is the group Improv Everywhere, a loosely organized organization that plans and executes clever, guerilla-type improvisational events in various cities, usually New York. For example, at a given time all the “agents” in on the “mission” remove their pants while riding the subway, acting as though nothing is wrong. (More info here.) Or another one I liked: several people brought giant, early 1990s computers into a Starbucks and proceeded to set up and work on them, the way people do on their laptops. (Details here.)

Their latest mission is funny and charming and just a little bit heart-warming: they picked a Little League game and “agents” attended it as if it were a major league event, going so far as to pull some strings to get the Goodyear Blimp to sail by, flashing the names of the two teams! Naturally, the kids were crazy with excitement.

If you’d like a smile, read more about the group here and this particular mission here.

Now We Have to Draw, Too?

Interested in graphic novels, the new new thing? Check out this panel discussion and/or the workshop, both at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

Tuesday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. we're offering a special multi-media panel discussion on writing for comics and graphic novels. Matt Dembicki, Chris Pier, Jason Rodriguez and Carlton Stoiber will discuss several aspects of this burgeoning field. Please note that the program, and the workshop that begins April 22, are geared toward writers - you don't need to know how to draw. (Ed. Note: Whew!) Free admission. Our program for writing for comics and graphic novels is being funded by a generous grant from the Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation. For more information, please go to the Writer’s Center web site.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Work in Progress: Titling Woes, Part 10,017

I have alluded several times to my difficulties in titling (here and here), which are especially apparent with this novel-in-progress (currently called Prodigal Daughters). Things are getting especially anxious (i.e. desperate) now, as there is a tiny glimmer of light at the end of my revision tunnel. Also, to be truthful, I think that as torturous as thinking about titles is, it may be slightly less torturous than doing the revising work—in short, obsessing about titles can be a nice procrastination technique. I’ve successfully banned myself from thinking about titles for the past month or so, but for some reason, I’ve delved back into my obsession. Here’s how I know I’ve truly gone over the deep end on this topic:

1. I spent several hours one afternoon reading the Bible. It’s said (by whom, I don’t know) that many of the best titles come from the Bible. (And, my book IS loosely based on the parable of the prodigal son, so there is a link.) The only problem is that the Bible is a VERY LONG BOOK. Where, I wondered, is the “good titles section”? I went through Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the psalms. Some very lovely writing—some excellent titles that have already been taken (House of Mirth, Inherit the Wind—who knew?)—and a number of phrases I added to my list that now seem stupid. Perhaps this afternoon with the Bible will be my ticket into Heaven…but it wasn’t the “ah-ha” moment I’ve been desperately seeking.

2. Sadly, my knowledge of Shakespeare is primarily from college, way-back-when. But I hear he’s “pretty good” and that many titles have come from his work. So, another hour or so reading through various Shakespearean quotes web site (who has time to organize these things…whoever you are, THANK YOU!). Anyway, yes, it’s remarkable to see all the “clich├ęs” he coined for the first time, and I added some potential titles to my list, though nothing was “ah-ha.”

3. I’m so desperate that my husband takes pity on me and lets me ramble on endlessly about my pages of title options. In an attempt to help (or shut me up), he mentions a childhood game that he used to play. I seize upon its (perceived) immense metaphorical possibilities and write up a small scene that explores this childhood game. To include this scene as written would actually significantly change the structure of the ENTIRE NOVEL. Yet, I’m not discounting this possibility.

4. We go to the Arena Stage to see an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s masterwork Death of a Salesman. What does my mind linger on—the wonderful performance by the actress who played the wife, a difficult role? The hauntingly empty picture frames used evocatively in the set? Willy Loman’s universality, still, all these years later? The complexity of the characters? The taut writing? No: I focus on the program notes, telling us that the original producer thought the title was “Too morbid and insisted it would drive away audiences.” So, they took a survey, and as Miller remembered, when asked”…if they would go to a play with my title…98 percent said absolutely not.” The producer advocated the title Free and Clear, which references a line late in the play where wife Linda tells dead Willy that the mortgage is paid off and they own the house “free and clear.” Luckily, director Elia Kazan demanded that they stick with the title (actually, Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem) or he’d walk.

5. And is this a coincidence? Here’s the entry from today’s Writer's Almanac: “It was on this day in 1925 that F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby was published… Fitzgerald worked on the novel every day that summer, writing in pencil, drinking Coca-Cola and gin, and reading Keats whenever he needed inspiration. He struggled with the title and considered calling it Under the Red, White and Blue, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and The High-Bouncing Lover. When he sent the first draft to his editor Maxwell Perkins, just five months after he'd started writing, he thought it should be called Trimalchio in West Egg or just Trimalchio. Perkins suggested The Great Gatsby.

6. Finally, hoping for a magical “ah-ha” moment that would make for a great anecdote on the promotion circuit, I typed “novel title” into Google…as if the perfect title might actually show up!! (Google is pretty amazing….) Instead, adding to my woes, I got the Lulu Titlescorer, an addictive, scientifically-based, analytical program that claims to tell you what chance your book has of becoming a best-seller based on the title alone. Prodigal Daughters puts me at 41.4 percent, whereas The Place Beneath, from The Merchant of Venice, give me only 26.5 percent. Greater Matters (from Antony and Cleopatra) is mopping up with 69 percent.

The Bottom Line

So, the bottom line is that right now I have a “final” list of 31 possible titles. (Down from 150 or so.)

--My offer of $25 (and eternal gratitude) to anyone who comes up with the title I use on the final book still stands. (Details here. Yes, I’m serious.)

--Or, if you’d like to check out the current crop of titles, and offer comments, I’m game. Send me an email, and I’ll send you the list. I view this not as desperation, but being smart: Look how helpful Maxwell Perkins and Elia Kazan were!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's Still a Dark and Stormy Night!

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Can you do better—well, worse—than this? Yes…it’s that time! Now’s your chance to enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest for the world’s worst novel opening. Deadline is April 15; rules are here; and previous “winners” are here.

Have fun!

Program on Copyright Issues

The Washington, DC, chapter of Women’s National Book Association (a networking group I belong to and highly recommend) is presenting the following program with speaker Joy Butler (who wrote for the blog about copyright issues here):

The Ins and Outs of Copyright

Confused about what is--and isn’t--covered by copyright? Wondering whether you need to file for copyright to protect something you’ve created? Then our April program on “The Ins and Outs of Copyright” is for you! You’ll learn about current copyright law, what rights you might need to clear for your work, and when it’s okay to use copyrighted material without getting permission.

Our program panelist is member Joy Butler, an entertainment, intellectual property, and business attorney, who appeared at our well-received October program on self-publishing. Joy’s recent work for media clients includes negotiating literary agency agreements, book publishing contracts, television series deals, script sales, talent agreements, and database licensing agreements.

Whether you’re writing a cookbook, screenplay, poem, daily blog, or the great American novel, you’ll want to come to Sumner School once again to gain a wealth of tips on copyright. The program is scheduled for April 24 and is, as usual, free to WNBA/Washington members and $10 for non-members.

The Ins and Outs of Copyright
Thursday, April 24, 2008
6:30 to 9 p.m.
Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives
1201 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036
(Across from National Geographic Society, two blocks north of Farragut North (Red Line) and Farragut West (Orange and Blue Lines) Metro Stations

Free to WNBA members; $10 for non-members
Light refreshments, opportunities to purchase speaker’s book.
Cash or check--sorry, no credit cards
Some street parking after 6:30 p.m.; $5 garage parking on M St between 16th & 17th after 6 p.m.
RSVP: By Monday, April 21, to, or to

About the speaker: Joy R. Butler’s private practice focuses on entertainment, intellectual property, and business law. Her publications include The Permission Seeker's Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Entertainment and Media Productions and a forthcoming book on internet law issues. She also blogs on media and intellectual property law issues at Joy earned her law degree at Harvard Law School and a B.A. in economics at Harvard College. For more info, please see her web site.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Pulitzers, Continued

Just a clarification: I’m not suggesting that women automatically be awarded 50% of all literary prizes. (Though, "Isn't it pretty to think so?") What I do wonder is whether there is some bias against the subject matter that women writers may choose, so that domestic books or books about tangled relationships (you know, like Pride and Prejudice) are given short shrift in favor of big, giant books about “important” topics like war. Francine Prose says it so much better than I do, in her Harper’s essay, “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” found here.

And, on a more pleasant note, I was happy to see that Washington Post author Gene Weingarten was awarded the Pulitzer in feature writing for a memorable article he wrote for the Washington Post Magazine in which highly-acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell played his $3.5 million Stradivarius at the Metro station. How much money was dropped into his violin case? Did anyone recognize that, hey, this guy might be, you know, just a little better than the average street musician? The article, which I linked to last year in this post, is thought-provoking. I highly recommend checking it out!

"Honoring Our Lives by Telling Our Stories"

Cheryl Somers Aubin passes along information about this interesting symposium. She’s a wonderful teacher, and I can certainly vouch for how powerful Maribeth Fischer is as a writer and speaker; she’s the organizer of the fabulous Writers at the Beach conference. Definitely keep this upcoming event in mind!

Honoring Our Lives by Telling Our Stories
The Eighth Annual Writing Your Personal History Symposium
Thursday, May 1, 2008
10:00 am – 2:00 pm
Vienna Community Center
120 Cherry Street
Vienna, VA
(703) 255-6360

Keynote Speaker Maribeth Fischer and a distinguished group of writing professionals will address all aspects of personal history writing for new and more seasoned writers. We will engage in writing activities, learn more about places to publish, network with other like-minded writers and leave the symposium ready to “honor our lives by telling our stories.”

Scheduled speakers and sessions:

Maribeth Fischer, author: “The Importance of Telling Our Stories”
Cheryl Somers Aubin, writing instructor: “Writing Exercises”
Dianne Hennessy King, writer and former editor-in-chief for Pillsbury Publications: “When is a Shoe Just a Shoe? How We Create Meaning in Everyday Objects”
Mary Azreal, author, co-editor of Passager Books and the literary journal Passager: “The Joy of Sharing Our Stories with Others”
Brent Sampson, author, President and CEO Outskirts Press: “Publishing Options for Your Finished Memoir”

Fees: $20 for symposium, and $6.00 for lunchbox.

Register at The course number is: 442484-A1 for the symposium and 442484-B1 for the optional turkey sandwich lunchbox lunch.

Baltimore CityLit Festival Set for April 19

I’ve never been, but this sounds like fun. A trip up to Baltimore--perhaps also involving crabcakes at Faidley's--is always worthwhile!

Baltimore CityLit Festival
Saturday, April 19, 2008
10 am – 5 pm
Enoch Pratt Free Library
400 Cathedral Street
Baltimore, MD 21201

For information: 410-274-5691 or

The fifth edition of this popular festival takes place on Saturday, April 19, 2008, from 10am to 5pm at Enoch Pratt Free Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Among the highlights, three of Baltimore’s most prominent literati share their brand new books at 1:00 in Pratt Library’s Wheeler Auditorium. Tom Hall, Culture Editor for WYPR’s “Maryland Morning,” talks with Dan Fesperman, The Amateur Spy; Laura Lippman, Another Thing to Fall; and Manil Suri, The Age of Shiva.

Dr. Ben Carson, world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, shares his insight and advice from Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk. Dr. Carson presents at 3:00. The Maryland Humanities Council’s Maryland Center for the Book honors its “Letters About Literature” contest winners from around the state at 11:00 with special guest children’s chapter book author Margaret Meacham. S. James Guitard and Victoria Christopher Murray read from and discuss their latest novels, and sports writer John Eisenberg revisits the Barbaro story in his new book. Michael Olesker, Tonight at Six; Diane Scharper, Reading Lips; and contributors to a new anthology based on writing from the popular “Write Here, Write Now” workshops all present special pre-publication previews of their new books. For families, Caldecott Honoree and New York Times bestselling children’s book author Carole Boston Weatherford shares her latest book, Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins.

Poetry is never in short supply at CityLit Festival. Reggie Harris returns to host “Poetry by Place,” a spoken word tour de force featuring poets who appear at various venues around Baltimore. Poets Ink is back again conducting a workshop and reading.

Programs take place throughout the library. A complete schedule of times and locations is available at Attendees are also encouraged to browse and buy at the Literary Marketplace, featuring more than fifty authors, editors, literary journals, presses and organizations.

CityLit Festival is made possible with the support of the Maryland State Arts Council and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and The Arts.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Call Me Obsessed...Again

The Pulitzers were just announced. Nothing against any of the winners in the creative writing field…but not ONE woman?

And works by how many women were named as a finalist? Two. This is out of six categories, with three citations in each: two out of eighteen slots.

Come on, people!

You can read more about my obsession with the lack of “official” recognition for books by women here, which includes a link to Francine Prose’s infamous essay in Harper’s magazine about this topic.

Mary Gaitskill on How a Writer Survives

I had the opportunity to hear novelist/short story writer Mary Gaitskill’s keynote speech at Saturday’s Conversations and Connections conference at Johns Hopkins. Her topic was, loosely, how to get published (which was the focus of the conference), but she moved well beyond the usual “here’s how to get an agent” advice to offer some actual wisdom about what can be a daunting process. Her path to publication was anything but easy, and the crowd of nearly 200 writers seemed to appreciate her insight and her honesty.

So, paraphrased from my scribbled notes, here are the qualities she suggested were necessary for a writer to survive (and, hopefully, prevail):

1. She noted that a writer is “alone in the dark”—a metaphorical darkness, of course, where we are trying to piece together the story-poem-novel, trying to figure out the art of what we’re doing while being unable to see exactly how to do so. We’re constantly feeling our way. So—a writer needs to have an ability to be in that darkness.

2. Persistence. She talked about the many, many, many years where no one was publishing her stories…and the many “friends” who suggested that perhaps she should give up.

3. Courage. See above!

4. So why didn’t she give up? Because to the writer, writing must be so important to you that you can’t stop. Yes, talent is necessary, but there must be so much more. See numbers 2 and 3.

5. She talked about having to let go of the idea of “success” and to relax. She said there came a point where she realized that “I’m doing what I’m doing whether it works or not.”

6. Finally, the writer should have humility, openness, and curiosity. (I would add that it’s my feeling that humility is about the only way to survive that process she so aptly describes as being alone in the dark; art is constantly humbling.)

To put it mildly, things seem to be working out for her now. If you’re not familiar with her darkly beautiful, beautifully disturbing work, check out this impressive bio:

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica, which was nominated for a National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, as well as the story collections Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner in 1998. Her story “Secretary” was the basis for the feature film of the same name.

She has taught creative writing at the University of California, the University of Houston, New York University, Brown University, and Syracuse University.

Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2002 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction.

Never Too Late!

If you’re feeling that life is passing you by, you might look to these three local children’s book authors for inspiration: all grabbed hold of their dreams at a later point in life…and, now, all have recently published children’s books. Meet these impressive women at this upcoming event:

Late Bloomers
Children’s book authors Jacqueline Jules, Moira Rose Donahue (who wrote for the blog here), and Marty Rhodes Figley (who wrote this amusing piece) all have new children's books. In the process of coordinating a book signing at a local bookstore, they realized that they all entered the publishing field rather late in life. Jackie was 40 when she published her first book, Marty was 45, and Moira was 51!

Jackie went back to school in her forties and got her masters in Library Science. Moira practiced law for twenty years before pursuing her dream to write children’s books. Marty graduated from Mount Holyoke College at age 53 with a Bachelor's degree in American Studies--and lived for two years in the dorm with the undergraduates.

These “Late Bloomers” are proof that creativity is not only for the young. Age hasn't been an obstacle for these three. On Sunday, April 13, 2008, at 2:00 p.m., you’re invited to meet Jacqueline, Moira, and Marty at Aladdin’s Lamp Children’s Bookstore, 2499 N. Harrison Street, Lower Level, Suite 10, Arlington, VA. For more information: 703-241-8281

Richard Price and Tobias Wolff Readings

Two upcoming readings of note at Politics and Prose bookstore:

Tuesday, April 8, 7 p.m.
A master of American urban crime fiction here turns to Manhattan's Lower East Side, where bartender Ike Marcus is shot dead. Marcus’s friend Eric Cash is the prime suspect, but his version of events implicates two neighborhood teenagers. Price (who also writes for HBO's The Wire) presents a tight and exciting crime drama, with fully realized characters.

Friday, April 11, 7 p.m.
Wolff's first collection in more than a decade contains ten new stories and 21 classic pieces of earlier work. In each, Wolff extracts the essential richness from everyday experience, whether it’s a career soldier experiencing a self-revelation on a rainy night; a teacher threatened by the parent of a failing student; an American businessman in Rome first foiling, then relating to, a would-be pickpocket; a retired Marine returning to school while her son trains to go to Iraq.

Both readings are at
Politics and Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Work in Progress: Talking the Talk

We were talking about dialogue in my novel workshop at Johns Hopkins last night, and I thought I’d pass along a few of my suggestions for how to hone your dialogue skills.

1. Eavesdrop. Listen to people talking in coffee shops, in lines, in restaurants, on the metro, everywhere. Listen for content, yes, but also the rhythms of speech. How do people express themselves? What words, what patterns of speech? Steve and I were at a restaurant in Baltimore and overheard a scruffy man at the bar say to another, “I ate horsemeat in France.” We spent at least half an hour talking about where one might go with that story! There’s a great website for overheard information, Overheard in New York (I know, what better city for eavesdropping?), that has all these great—supposedly true—comments that were overheard in the streets of New York. The best have been compiled into a book now.

2. Try writing a screenplay or a play—or even just a few scenes—where everything must be conveyed ONLY through spoken dialogue and action. This is tough and eye-opening. No description, no interior thought, no narrator…your mind focuses on dialogue pretty quickly. I wrote a screenplay several years ago, and though nothing ever happened with it as a movie, afterwards, dialogue in my fiction improved immensely.

3. Tape a long conversation between you and a friend/spouse and then transcribe it, starting after about ten minutes in when you’ve settled into the flow of talking. See for yourself what the rhythms of speech look like on paper. See how distinct your style and pattern of speech is from your friend. It’s great, especially, if you can choose someone of a different gender. Men and women often speak differently—examine these differences. (For example, men don’t use words like “really” as often—“he’s really busy.” Men may be more direct: “I was wondering if you’d mind keeping your dog inside?” vs. “Can you keep your dog inside?” Maybe even, “Keep your dog inside.”) Take your transcript and edit it—tighten it up and make it interesting; how can you cut through the tedious parts to get to the heart of the matter? Of course, if you really have no qualms, tape two people who don’t know you’re taping them…you’ll probably get something even more natural sounding!

4. Copy out (literally, by hand) the dialogue from a book/writer you admire who writes good dialogue. Study how the writer makes that dialogue work. Are there patterns of speech? What does it sound like if you read it out loud? How do the characters interact? Where did the writer shortcut through information?

5. Speaking of reading out loud, I think that’s one of the best self-editing tools around—reading your work out loud—and this is especially true of dialogue. Your ears will catch things your eye won’t; your voice will feel clunky and awkward if your dialogue is clunky and awkward and not like spoken language. I always read everything out loud at least once and wouldn’t consider my work finished until I have.

6. Write practice monologues of your characters explaining their actions: you’ll get a feel for how they think. Once you know how someone thinks and how they explain themselves, you’ll have a better feel for who they are as people…therefore, how they express themselves in their own words. What are those words? I was having a hard time getting a feel for one of my characters in my novel in progress, Prodigal Daughters, so I wrote a monologue in her voice. Very helpful!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Few of My Favorite Things

As you may recall, I recently celebrated my first anniversary as a blogger here, with a list of my favorite posts. But what I’ve enjoyed most about writing this blog is the variety of guest posts I’ve had the honor of featuring. Though I suppose it’s like choosing between children, I have also selected a list of my favorite guest posts from the first year, which dear friend C.M. Mayo is including today as a guest post on her blog, Madam Mayo. (Yes, guest posts about guest posts IS like trying to stare into a room lined with mirrors!)

Please take a look to make sure you’ve read all these amazing words of wisdom, and thanks to all who have contributed their thoughts in the past. The direct link can be found here.

Web Site 101

My web site needs a major overhaul, which I’ve been postponing until after I finish this (ENDLESS) novel I’ve been working on (FOREVER). But I’ve started thinking about what makes a good web site and doing a bit of reading and research on the topic. On Buzz, Balls & Hype, I found an excellent discussion of what authors should (and should not) do on their web sites, with helpful examples. (It’s the second part of a two-part post; part one is here.)

To whet your appetite:

“As novelists, we tend to be… well… wordy. We want to put all our thoughts out there for the world to see. Good design is the opposite. It focuses the eye to the most important, salient image.

“Good advertising copy uses the same principle. Compare this:

You really should get out there and go jogging; I know your knees kind of hurt and you’re probably still hung over from those two glasses of wine last night, and boy it’s chilly this morning, probably low 50’s if you take into account the wind chill, but exercise is good for your heart, and you’ve been meaning to lose those last 15 pounds, haven’t you?

“to this:

Just do it.”

Okay--I, for one, am absolutely convinced this guy knows what he’s talking about!

What's a Literary Journal Worth?

I’m always interested in A) New ideas; and B) Saving money; and C) Great writing. Not that I want to be all cheapskate-ish with a literary journal, but this is A) A great idea that B) Will help make an excellent literary journal more affordable for financially struggling writers who appreciate C) Great writing. Check out this announcement from Fence*:

"We at Fence love Radiohead, and so jumped at the chance to buy their newest album (I'm so old I call it an "album") at the price of our choosing. One of us paid $1 for it; another of us paid $17 for it; these seemed like fair prices. We have heard some paid two months' salary.

"And now we're offering a similar opportunity for you to choose your own price for subscribing to Fence (or re-upping your current subscription). It's very important to us that Fence have readers--that the work inside Fence have readers, really--and so we want you to pay us whatever you want for your year's subscription.All you have to do is go here and click on "donate," then choose your level. Payments are processed by PayPal (it's free and easy to set up an account if you don't already have one: Anyone who chooses to pay $300 or more, god bless you, will, as always, become a lifetime subscriber, and receive a receipt for your tax-deductible donation.

"This offer will be good from now through April 30th. If you take us up on it you will receive your brand new Spring/Summer 2008 issue of Fence sometime in May."

*Note: Here’s what our friends at Wikipedia say about Fence: “Fence magazine is a print and online literary publication containing both original work and critical and journalistic coverage of what may be largely termed "experimental" or "avant garde" material. Conceived by Rebecca Wolff in 1997 [1] and first printed in 1998 (receiving coverage from Poets and Writers [2]), its editors have included Jonathan Lethem and Ben Marcus (fiction), Matthew Rohrer and Caroline Crumpacker (poetry), and Frances Richard (non-fiction).”

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Day One: National Poetry Month

Today is the beginning of National Poetry Month, and if you’d like to see more poetry in your life, here are two great options.

1. First, from Knopf, the publishing company:

Ten years ago we began a Knopf tradition. To celebrate National Poetry Month, we sent a poem a day by e-mail for 30 days to anyone who asked to receive them. Now, with over 35,000 subscribers, we are proud to continue with a whole new series of daily poems. Each day during the month of April you will receive a poem from some of the best poets in the world including Mark Strand, Mary Jo Salter, Julia Hartwig, and Richard Kenney, as well as classics from Frank O'Hara, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Koch and more. This year, we'll also be featuring special podcasts, gorgeous printable broadsides, signed books and more.If you know of someone who might like to join the Poem-a-Day party, they may visit to sign up.


2. And if poetry for 30 days isn’t nearly enough for you, I suggest signing up for Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, from American Public Media, so you can get a poem (and related historical and literary events of interest) emailed to you every day all year long. Register for this free service here.

Cross-Dressing, Cross-Writing

Janice Erlbaum wrote a great piece here a couple weeks ago, and I was delighted to come across this recent essay that Janice wrote for “Persephone Speaks,” a blog maintained by small publisher Kore Press. She describes her experiences trying to “be” a man, and then, later, writing from a male point of view:

“It was terrific fun, writing as a guy. I felt at liberty to pontificate about everything, to stop the action and just blow hard about meaningless details, to unabashedly quote movies in the middle of scenes. My character never had to think about what he was doing; he just acted, often in a manner that was inconsistent with his goals. Through his eyes, I was merciless with my female characters – ‘We hate the girlfriend,’ said my (all-female) writers’ group, unanimously. ‘She’s so unlikeable.’

“'I know,’ I gloated. ‘She’s based on me.’”

Writer's Center News

The Writer’s Center is hosting an Open House on Saturday, April 5, from noon to 3 pm. This is your chance to meet Writer’s Center workshop leaders and staff . You can learn more about spring classes and workshops as you enjoy light refreshments, good conversation, and the excitement of a raffle! For more information, please go here. Free admission.

Also: I will be teaching my favorite Writer’s Center one-day class on Saturday, May 10: Finding Your Creative Voice. Details and registration information can be found here.


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