Thursday, May 29, 2008

Work in Progress: "Don't Listen to Them"

Now that I’ve had some time to breathe after teaching throughout the semester while also going through my own massive collection of critiques and applying the wise suggestions and comments to my work-in-progress, I’ve had the chance to think a bit about the process of critiquing.

I’m sure this thought process is a work-in-progress in itself, so there’s a good chance that I will disavow these comments at some point, as I continue to ponder from the perspective of a critiquer and critiquee how to be most effective at guiding writers to improving their work.

First, let me note that in general, I think the standard workshop critique process works very well. (By standard, I mean: everyone reads a copy of the manuscript, writes notes on the margins, types up a 1-2 page commentary that covers what’s working in the piece and what’s not, and discusses these points in a constructive, well-managed situation; the author listens, takes notes, and at the end asks questions. Perhaps the writer goes home and downs some scotch to help take the edge off, but the class only gets the de rigueur, “Thanks. You’ve all been so helpful. I really appreciate all your comments.”)

Sometimes I’m the teacher, running the show—and one of my challenges there is reminding everyone that no single opinion is more important than the others. There’s a tendency for the voice of the “teacher” to rise above the others. While I recognize that I have more experience, we’re all a room of readers, and when your book is out there, that’s what you’re going to get: not a room of teachers (who wouldn’t agree on anything, anyway). Deep breath…art is subjective! (One of the great skills of attending a workshop is learning how to sort through the fifteen critiques to find what you need, what will actually help your book. More on that another day.)

In fact, I often find it interesting when people in the workshop disagree with my “teacherly” assessments. Actually, what challenges me the most is when I think something is great and others don’t see it the way I do; I want to take aside the writer and whisper, “Don’t listen to them.” But I’m sure that’s how they feel when I say that something isn’t working for me, and others feel they’re reading the best thing since sliced bread. What I enjoy most about the interplay in a good workshop is how generous and genuinely excited people are when we read something we like: I don’t know if I’m lucky, or if my “frosty look of death” quells the whiners, or maybe I teach at places that encourage exploration and the humility of learning, but I haven’t suffered through the workshop (or student) who complains about everything, tears stuff apart, and never has anything nice to say. (Note: If you’re ever in that situation, get out yourself out ASAP…or, if you can’t do that, really, don’t listen to them! I’ve met people who have stopped writing because of bad workshops.)

And sometimes I’m the one sitting in my fabulous writing group, listening to the critiques, taking home the stack of comments to wade through—after I’ve had my scotch to recover from the being-critiqued experience.

All this brings me to the question I’ve been pondering lately. For me, the best critiques tend to share these characteristics (and I recognize that others would have a different list):

--corrects anything that is factually wrong (even the most minor detail…I was told that the Rehoboth Beach restaurant is Grotto Pizza, not Grotto’s Pizza as I had written, and I was sincerely grateful to learn that).

--points out areas of confusion

--offers light suggestions for how to fix things. Ultimately, I may ignore that particular suggestion, but seeing how someone else would approach the problem of throwing the sisters together without being too coincidental is helpful for me; these solutions often lead me to my own.

--asks questions of any magnitude. I find this especially helpful in a novel-in-progress, where the writer is still shaping the story: How many years was the father with Barbara? Why is Nora so bitter?…whoops! Nora wasn’t supposed to seem bitter, which brings us to the following--

--and here’s the biggie: I need a good critique to help me see that I’m viewing things from an odd or skewed perspective…basically, from my own point of view. Obviously, always I’m seeing things from my point of view; we all are. But when several people tell me, “I think the father would be more frantic because his daughter is missing,” I listen, because I am NOT a father with a missing daughter, and because I don’t have children, I am very alert to clues that I may be missing some sort of "standard" parental behavior. This is assuming I want this father to be “normal”: in other cases, when people say, “The father should be more frantic here,” I note to myself that the exact point I’m making here is that the father ISN’T frantic when perhaps he should be, and so I, as the writer, need to work harder to show WHY the father is not following this “expected” behavior.

--Which brings me to an even bigger question I’ve been pondering about critiques, both the ones I write and the ones I get: In cases like that (“the father isn’t frantic enough”) are we responding to the work as ourselves? Or do we try to imagine how THIS CHARACTER—as drawn, as we’ve been experiencing him through the work—should respond? Which approach is more helpful to the writer? I often find it confusing when someone suggests a character act a certain way: in real life, yes, I know a “good” person would act that way. But would my character? Isn’t the point that he’s flawed and not “good” right now?

For me, this often comes up because I write about flawed parents, so yes, a mother “shouldn’t” kill herself and leave behind her two children (as in my novel A Year and a Day). So, I need the critiquers to understand that they have to accept that premise and move forward from there: She shouldn’t, but she did…so how would THAT WOMAN then respond in or react to or handle various situations? Not, What would you do? And, of course, not, What would I the writer do?

As you sort through that stack of critiques—or listen to the comments carom about in a lively workshop—try to remember that distinction. You are you, and your character is your character. (Sorry, Flaubert: you are NOT Madame Bovary!) Are the people offering advice and suggestions thinking as themselves…or thinking as your character? What would Jesus do?

No answers, only questions. I’m sure I’ll explore this topic further down the road, and I’m interested in any thoughts you might have. You can email me here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tales from the Writing Life

Here's an excerpt from a letter I received from a literary journal (that shall remain nameless) that runs a well-known annual contest:

“Dear Leslie: Congratulations! Your fiction submission, [THEY GIVE THE EXACT TITLE HERE], has been selected as a semi-finalist for the [CONTEST NAME]. While the semi-finalist designation does not include a cash prize or a reading by the final judge, we hope that your standing in the competition pleases you.

“You can be assured that your work was read by editors who wish that they could publish all the sincere and well-crafted work that is submitted to [JOURNAL TITLE]. Your manuscript was distinguished from 588 poetry submissions (emphasis mine) as a semi-finalist in the [CONTEST NAME], meaning that it was among the top 30 manuscripts. …”

Perhaps it was distinguished from the other 588 poetry submissions because the lines flowed all the way to the right edge of the paper. Or because it went on for 25 pages. Or because there was a plot. And lots of dialogue. And characters. A setting.

How unique to contain all those qualities. Or maybe not, considering my submission was a short story!!

The Jane Chord: Still Obsessed

I wrote here about the “Jane chord,” the (sometimes) magical juxtaposition of the first and last words of a novel that (sometimes) add up to a mystical and metaphorical summary of the entire book.

The blog that first alerted me to this phenomenon (About Last Night) has some interesting follow-up:

Here, CAAF writes, “I decided to look up the Jane chord of the original edition of Sylvia Plath's Ariel, which has the poems in the order Ted Hughes put them after Plath's death, and compare it to the Jane chord of the restored edition of Ariel, which came out in 2004 and ‘reinstates’ the order Plath had planned for the book.”

Her findings:
Ariel original edition (with "The Edge" as the final poem): ‘Love drag.’
"Ariel: The Restored Edition (with "Wintering" as the final poem): ‘Love spring.’"

Yikes! Do read the entire piece for added nuance.

And here, OGIC writes about Henry James and some other classic authors, hoping to add a word if the word given is an article:

The Turn of the Screw: ‘The story stopped.’"


“E. M. Forster's epigraph to Howards End famously tells us to ‘Only connect’; his Jane Chord underlines the sentiment with ‘One never.’"

Note: I am reading over my entire novel-in-progress, and I didn't want to revise the first line because I didn't want to wreck my Jane chord, "The unison." This obsession has gone too far....

Sydney Pollack: "Try to Be Both"

In today’s Washington Post, I read this appreciation of film director Sydney Pollack and thought he offered some excellent advice for all writers:

“Each time I make a movie . . . there's an argument between these people that I don't necessarily have an answer to. Or if I do, I try to make both sides equal, and I try to be the woman and the man. Try to be both. Who's right here?"

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is a Return to the Heartland Ever Heart-Healthy?

Had a lovely visit to Fitzgerald’s “Middle West,” with a visit to Iowa to see my parents. Not only did we tour the University of Iowa's Hawkeye Sports Hall of Fame, an antique automotive museum (where we saw a car with wooden axles and wheels!), taste wine at an Iowa winery (yes, they exist; yes, there were some nice selections), but we also managed to squeeze in a few meals. Some highlights:

--beloved Pagliai's Pizza, now mysteriously renamed A & A Pagliai’s, which makes it hard to find in the phone book

--a German farm-family feast at the Ronneburg Restaurant in the Amana Colonies. Best pickled beets ever! Amazing strawberry-rhubarb pie!

--a pork tenderloin as big as my face at Joensy’s in Solon, Iowa…literally, this thing was ten inches across. If you don’t know what a pork tenderloin is (you poor creature), go here immediately—Joensy’s is about halfway down, “tenderloin #6”…you’ll know it when you see it. It’s gigantic!

--homemade rhubarb-cream pie made by my fabulous high school friend who, with her husband, has also made FROM SCRATCH a turducken (once). If you don’t know what a turducken is, you can read more here; basically, it’s a deboned turkey stuffed with a deboned duck stuffed with a deboned chicken…with layers of stuffing between each! Yes, she and her husband made this FROM SCRATCH! No wonder I always happily and immediately accept any invitation to dinner at their house.

"Book World" Highlights

Here's an interesting article from Washington Post Book World about a couple who survived writing separate books due to the same publisher, same editor at about the same time. Yikes. My opinion: one writer per family is more than enough!

Her view:
“I had to force myself to block out the sound of his relentlessly efficient typing as I struggled (far longer than he did, it seemed) to find my next insight. He didn't have to cultivate discipline; it came naturally. Writing is all he does, while I divide my time between writing and seeing patients, so I constantly had to change gears, while he always seemed to be in the groove. His task was easier, too; everybody he writes about has been dead for 200 years, and none of them is related to him.”

His view:
“Despite her professional empathy as a psychoanalyst, my wife makes one calumnious statement, arising from her living room perspective. It is not easier to write about long-dead strangers, only differently difficult. We approach them from a greater emotional distance than we do our deceased parents, but knowing them requires more research. She did not have to decipher wavy letters by her subjects on Library of Congress Web sites or try to understand their lives by hunting down books on colonial tobacco culture and 18th-century battlefield drill.”


And Mary Karr’s “Poet’s Choice” column printed some baseball haiku. Here’s my favorite:

empty baseball field
a dandelion seed floats through
the strike zone
~~George Swede

More here.

Rushdie Gossip and Insight

I confess I only read this article in the Sunday New York Times searching for gossipy tidbits about Salman Rushdie’s (still startling to me) former marriage to the glamorous and crush-worthy Padma Lakshmi, host of my beloved Top Chef TV show. (Gossips, take note: she dumped him via email!)

But beyond the gossip, I thought this was an interesting comment about writing (his comment, not hers):

"Regardless of whether he is writing about politics, Mr. Rushdie said he finds writing both scary ('Are you going to be able to sustain it all the way to the end?') and exhilarating.

“'There’s a writing self which is not quite your ordinary social self and which you don’t really have access to except at the moment when you’re writing, and certainly in my view, I think of that as my best self,' he said. 'To be able to be that person feels good; it feels better than anything else.'”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blogging Vacation

I will be out of town and away from blogging until the Tuesday after Memorial Day. I had thought I might post some concise yet flashy words of wisdom before heading out, but I spent much of the day dealing with my new computer. Some people might find this a joyful activity, but I am not one of those people.

My current computer—yes, the one that contains the whole manuscript of my BOOK—was purchased in, oh, 2000 or so, so basically it’s an antique. Seriously, I can’t even write on CDs. DVDs—fuggaboutit. Luckily, I discovered that yes, even in 2000 there were slots for zip drives, so that’s how I’ve been nervously transferring data. (Please don’t now tell me about the much easier way to achieve this transfer.)

I did have a magical moment of achievement when I plugged in my cable modem to the new computer and was cheerfully informed by some "wizard" that I needed some software…huh? “Cable guys” installed the modem in the first place. And yet…what’s in this untouched pile of crud they left behind? A CD that seemed to be the software that got me hooked up!

Yes, my old computer has a monitor the size of a mini-fridge.

Yes, I managed to buy a new computer with good old reliable XP instead of switching over to scary Vista.

No, I didn’t know that somehow Word has changed into some unrecognizable format that I’m sure is called “easier”...I just bet.

No, I will not miss the increasingly scary groaning and grinding my old computer has been making.

I’m still on the old computer for the moment…but next week I should make the full switch. Expect cursing.

Master Artists-in-Residence Program

I’ve always been intrigued by this residency program because it combines time to work with a focused workshop setting. Usually, the times I’m available to apply do not coordinate with artists-in-residence who are writers instead of visual artists (drawing: NOT part of my skill set).

Now’s the time to apply if you’d like to work with one of these writers. (Be sure to investigate the website carefully; each writer has a different focus and different application requirements.)


KELLY CHERRY, fiction/poetry
HONOR MOORE, non-fiction/poetry

October 13 – November 2
Application Deadline: May 23, 2008 (postmark)

Since 1982, Atlantic Center's residency program has provided artists from all artistic disciplines with spaces to live, work, and collaborate during three-week residencies. Located just four miles from the east coast beaches of central Florida, the pine and palmetto wooded environment contains award-winning studios that include a resource library, painting studio, sculpture studio, music studio, dance studio, black box theater, writers' studio, and digital computer lab. Each residency session includes three master artists of different disciplines. The master artists each personally select a group of associates - talented, emerging and midcareer artists - through an application process administered by ACA. During the residency, artists participate in informal sessions with their group, collaborate on projects, and work independently on their own projects. The relaxed atmosphere and unstructured program provide considerable time for artistic regeneration and creation. Atlantic Center for the Arts provides housing (private room/bath with work desk), weekday meals (provided by ACA chef) and 24 hour access to shared studio space. Financial Aid is available to qualified applicants.

For more information on how to apply, please telephone (386) 427-6975 or (800) 393-6975 (domestic US only) or visit or email us at

* All applications must be postmarked by the application deadline date.

In Our Own Backyard

Poet Kim Roberts sends this along:

Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Split This Rock present: "GLBT Poets of Washington," a guided walking tour of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, June 21, 10:30 am to Noon. Led by Dan Vera, the tour costs $5 and advance reservations are required.

Celebrate Gay Pride Month and learn how gay literary culture has flourished from the 1970s to the present in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, with the influence of such writers as Essex Hemphill, Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos, Michael Lally, Lee Lally, Richard McCann, Andrew Holleran, and many others. Stops include Dupont Park, Lambda Rising Bookstore, the site of the Community Bookshop, and writer's homes. This is an expanded version of the tour first developed for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in March 2008.

The tour takes approximately 1.5 hours and will run rain or shine. Limited to 25 participants. Please wear comfortable walking shoes and carry water. The tour starts outside the Starbucks Coffee where Connecticut Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue intersect with the northern part of Dupont Circle.

Dan Vera is Managing Editor of White Crane, a gay men's quarterly magazine, and co-publisher of Vrzhu Press, which publishes books of fine poetry. He co-curates two monthly public reading series, the Brookland Reading Series, and the OutWrite Series. He blogs at "Wondermachine":

To register, please send your name, email, and phone to

Monday, May 19, 2008

Three Ways to Procrastinate

Not that I would ever procrastinate what with this novel to finish….

1. Check out Slate magazine’s special "procrastination week" articles. I especially enjoyed the articles about why computer solitaire is so popular (not that I know anything about this personally)—Solitaire-y Confinement—and an exploration of whether Ralph Ellison and Truman Capote, two literary geniuses, left behind unfinished masterworks because they were blocked or because they were procrastinating: "It's All in My Head."

2. Brevity magazine is always fun and evocative: quick snippets of creative nonfiction.

3. Beltway magazine will give you a wonderful poetry fix; here's the new spring issue.

So Sorry To Miss This Reading

Unfortunately, I'll be out-of-town, but do think about checking out this reading:

Mark Sarvas, author of the newly released novel Harry, Revised, and one of my favorite literary bloggers (The Elegant Variation) will be reading in Washington on Wednesday, May 21 at Olsson’s Books & Records.

Time: 7:00 p.m.
Location: Olsson's Books & Records
1307 19th St NW
Washington, DC 20036

Additional details are here.

Here’s a description of the novel: “Harry, Revised is the story of Harry Rent, a guilt-ridden, down-on-his-luck widower, who tries to reinvent himself following his wife's untimely death. His emotional journey takes him from his own solipsistic and outrageously misdirected fantasies about an obsidian-haired, twenty-two-year-old waitress at his local greasy spoon, to the tenuous beginnings of an actual, personal transformation.” And you can read more about the book here.

Writers Over 50: Send Your Work Here!

I’ve recently posted a number of calls for submissions for younger writers, so here’s equal opportunity for the more mature writer:

Passager OPEN ISSUE for Writers over 50

Submit work: June 1 - September 15 (postmarked date)
Results announced (projected date): November, 2008
No reading fee for Open Issue submissions
--3-5 poems, 50 lines max. per poem, or
--Short fiction, all stories totaling no more than 4,000 words or,
--one Memoir, or a series, 4,000 words max. in total

Include cover letter and brief bio. Include name and address on all pages. All work must be accompanied by a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE) with sufficient postage for reply/work return. No previously published work. Simultaneous submissions to other journals are okay, but please notify us if the work is accepted elsewhere. No email submissions, inquiries only.

If you need more information, email: or call: 410.837.6047 or check the website.

Send all submissions to:
1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-5779

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Guest in Progress: Maribeth Fischer

One of my favorite writing events is the annual Writers at the Beach conference, held in the early spring at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to teach there since its inception four years ago, and have been awed at how the conference has expanded in terms of scope, attendance, and ambition. Originally a single day of workshops and readings, writers now flock to the beach for a full Friday-through-Sunday experience of music, socializing, panel discussions, workshops, classes, meetings with agents, readings, and more.

Undoubtedly she would deny this, but most would agree with me: this vision and transformation is the result of one amazing woman, writer Maribeth Fischer. She’s an inspiring teacher; the author of two powerful and mesmerizing novels; an award-winning essayist; and an aunt. This last fact is the one that has spurred Maribeth to take on the mammoth undertaking of organizing a conference like this one: two of her young nephews died of genetic mitochondrial disease, and all of the proceeds from the conference go to help fund the research of those looking for a cure for this terrible disease.

As you can see from the opening conference remarks that Maribeth has graciously allowed me to reprint (okay, after my incessant begging her to let me!), she is quick to offer thanks to others. But she is the one who deserves our thanks: for creating the heartfelt community and lovely vibe that swirls around every Writers at the Beach conference; for involving so many people in her battle and helping us feel as if we’re playing an important role; for raising our awareness of a tragic genetic disease; for never shying away from the darker shadows that haunt everyone’s lives; and, most importantly, for reminding us that while individually we may not be able to change the whole world, with some small bit of effort, surely we can all make it a better place. I hope you enjoy this lovely piece about the power of words:

Opening Remarks
by Maribeth Fischer

In her poem, “Not Only the Eskimo’s” the poet, Lisel Mueller writes, “we have only one noun but as many different kinds” and she goes on to list the different types of snow…"snow that blows in like the lone ranger, riding hard out of the west,” and “paper snow, cut and taped to the inside of windows.” Elsewhere I read that in the Russian language there are different words for the different permutations of love, so for example, there is a specific word for the feeling one has for someone that she once loved but no longer does in the same way.

More than ever, when I stand up here each year, I want it to be like this for the word thank you. I want there to be hundreds of different words to denote the hundreds of different kindnesses and acts of generosity for which I feel an enormous debt of gratitude.

I actually found a website that listed how thank you is said in 465 different languages. I learned that in Mali, the word men use for “thank you” is different from the word women use, that in Cantonese the word you use to thank someone for a gift is different from the word you use to thank them for a service. In Japanese, there is one word used when the act of thanking the person has ended, and another word when the feeling of gratitude continues on and on (as my own feelings of gratitude will long long after this conference is over). In Lithuanian there is a “thank you” that is very sincere and one that is...not sincere? In the Mongolian language there is a word to thank someone for hospitality and a whole different word to thank someone for help. There are many languages that have both formal and informal ways to say thank you, many languages that have one word for “thank you” and another for “thank you very much,” many languages that distinguish between saying thank you to one person and thank you to a group.

For me, in regards to this event, there truly are as many kinds of ”thank yous” as there are kinds of snow-there is the “thank you” to the strangers, people I’ve never met, who are at this conference for the first time, who added ten and twenty and fifty dollars to their registration fee to be donated to mitochondrial disease research . There is the “thank you” to the woman who has come to the conference twice before and who wrote in an email to me when she first looked at this year’s website… “When I saw that we lost Zachary.”


I wrote her back and I told her how much that “we” meant to me and she wrote again to say, Maribeth, the "we" was intentional indeed--from the first time I heard you speak, I knew I was right then and there "joining" your family.”

Another woman wrote to tell me, “I firmly believe that Sam and Zachary are zipping all over heaven in Angel Man outfits--” I pass these emails on to my sister and I cannot tell you what it means to her, to know that her boys, whom none of you have ever met, are mourned and remembered.

There is another kind of “thank you” for the authors who were at the first conference three years ago, and have been to every one since. I needed you all here at this one. Thank you.

There is also the “thank you” for the writers who are here for the first time, many of whom, before I could finish explaining what the conference was about and that I couldn’t pay them, stopped me, mid-sentence, and said, “Don’t say another word. I’m there.” There is the thank you to the writer, who when I apologized to him because the amount of time for each author to read is so small, responded: “I’m happy to read for just a few minutes. This isn’t about me,” But of course it is about these writers. They are why we are here, why you are here.

There is the thank you to the participants who are here for the first time, who want to write but perhaps haven’t in a years, and are hoping that maybe this conference can be the push they need. There are so many conferences, and I am grateful that they’ve come to this to get the inspiration and motivation that I know they will. There is the “thank you” to the woman, again, whom I barely know, who spent hours making copies of the different handouts, a “thank you” to the members of the Rehoboth Beach Writers guild an to my friends and my family. And of course, there is a “thank you” to Sam and Zachary, who are the reason behind all of this.

When my nephew Sam was 3 or 4, he couldn’t say my name. He called me Me BETH. And for a while his different teachers and therapists and nurses that I got to know called me Me beth as well. I loved MeBeth. MeBeth had nothing to do with being a writer or teacher or anything except being Sam’s aunt. As the poet Linda Hogan writes, “In so many ways, we are creations of language, the things people have said to us, the they things they tell us we are.” I became someone different and it’s almost, I used to think, as if Sam named the new person I became into being.

Eventually, Sam learned to call me MAURY BETH. The first few times, it made me ache a little. I missed being Me Beth, but it was okay, because Maury Beth was still Sam’s. Of course this changed too. Sam realized at some point that he said my name differently than his brother and sisters did and so for awhile I became HER. “Who do you want to wake you from your nap?” my sister would ask, and Sam would look at me and say “Her.” “Who?” my sister would press, and he’d just say it louder. “HER.”

The last time I saw Sam, the Thanksgiving before he died, he greeted me as soon as I walked into his house, “Hi Aunt Maribeth,” he said, and then, “I can say your name just like the big kids." And he did. He said it all weekend, over and over and over again. Aunt Maribeth.

I think of that, of how important it was for him to get my name exactly right and what a gift he was giving me, and how proud he was, and I think that this is what both love and writing are all about. That care, that absolute care with the words we use and the names we give to things.

One more story, this one also about words, and about my nephew Zachary….and I’m actually going to read a paragraph from an essay I wrote a few years ago called “Words.”

I think of my seven-year-old nephew, Zachary, who grows increasingly weak from a prolonged and incurable disease. He can no longer eat by mouth, but is fed intravenously each night. In the mornings, he shuffles through the kitchen, pulling the metal I.V. pole, tubes and plastic bags dangling beneath his pajama shirt. On the kitchen counter, the syringes, five of them, are filled with the medications my sister will inject into his central line. I think of him because the last time I visited my sister and her family, someone—Zach’s dad probably—asked the kids: If you were an animal—not the animal you like the best, but the one most like you—what would you be? Without hesitation, Zach shouted, “I’m a cheetah!” His sisters laughed at him, told him no way, he was a goldfish, a robin, something delicate and small, but he became indignant and bellowed, “I AM A CHEETAH!” and I thought then, as I do now, that nothing is more wonderful, more amazing than this: the magic of a single word and the story it tells—about hope and belief and who we are versus who we long to be.

This is what I want for all of you, to come away from this weekend, believing more fully in the magic and truth and necessity of your own words. I want you to remember that a single word, chosen carefully, used exactly, truly is a gift. This conference, which is in many ways, just another story that you are helping me to write, has truly taught me that as the poet Inez Peterson writes in “Missing you,” Miracles do happen in language. ~~Maribeth Fischer

About: Maribeth Fischer founded the annual “Writers at the Beach: Pure Sea Glass” writing conference in 2005 to raise awareness of mitochondrial disease, which took the lives of her nephews (Sam, age 7, and Zachary, age 15). 100% of the net proceeds from this event are donated to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation in her nephews' memories. Fischer is also the author of two novels, The Language of Good-bye (Dutton 2002) which won Virginia Commonwealth University’s award for first novel of 2002, and The Life You Longed For (Simon & Schuster 2007), which has been translated into five languages and was named a BookSense Notable Book in April 2007. Currently Fischer lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where she serves as president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild and Executive Director of “Writers at the Beach.” She teaches fiction and memoir writing and is currently writing her third novel. Please visit her website for more information.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Title Update

No news to report, just a couple new ways to obsess about my lack of the “perfect” title for my novel-in-progress:

1. Writer/friend Robin Gaines suggests that if I write out my title options in a different font I might see them in a new light…and perhaps discover they’re more brilliant than I’d imagined. This reminds me of another excellent tip: when you’re revising your manuscript, put it in a different font than your “first draft font” to trick yourself into seeing it differently.

2. While going crazy with google, looking for architecture terms and archeology terms, I found a fabulous site of odd dictionaries: I found myself in the history dictionaries, where there were many to choose from, but my favorites were
--the Canting Dictionary (thieves’ slang from 1736)
--Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (from 1848)
--and the Grandiloquent Dictionary, “the result of an ongoing project to collect and distribute the most obscure and rare words in the English language.” (Example: galeanthropy - The delusion that one is a cat.)

No titles…but so much fun that I forgot how stressed out and crazed I’ve been about my lack of a title!

If I Were a Poet...

…I’d probably be obsessed with form, particularly the villanelle, which I imagine must be incredibly difficult to write. And yet a great villanelle, especially read out loud, can be AMAZING.

For those more talented than I, here’s a contest for villanelles. And for those unfamiliar with or fuzzy on the details of the form, you can read more here, and skip to the bottom of this post for an example of a lovely villanelle.

Trellis Magazine Contests

Trellis Magazine invites writers of all ages and skill levels to enter our Villanelle Contest! Instructions on writing a Villanelle, and example poems, are given here. Please read the complete contest guidelines before submitting your poetry. Guidelines and entry form at

First Place Passerat Villanelle Prize: $50 Gift Certificate, and featured publication in Trellis Magazine.
Second Place Passerat Villanelle Prize: $35 Gift Certificate, and featured publication in Trellis Magazine.
Third Place Prize: $25 Gift Certificate, and featured publication in Trellis Magazine.
Book Prize (for students only): $25 Barnes & Noble Gift Card, featured publication in Trellis Magazine, and one free print magazine.
Honorable Mention Awards: Featured publication in Trellis Magazine.
Young Poet’s Showcase Awards: Publication in the magazine’s online section for selected student poetry in poetic form.

You must include a Contest Submission Form along with your Villanelle poem. Villanelle Contest Submission Form is at

By email, send your entry to: Send text submissions in the body of the email or as an attached Word document (only .doc or .txt files will be accepted).

By mail, send your entry to:
Trellis Magazine Contest
PO Box 32265
Raleigh, NC 27622.

Here’s one of my favorite villanelles, from Try reading it out loud.

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster

Why Bill Gates Hasn't Infiltrated Picture Books

As I’m rewriting parts of my novel to return my story to the technology levels of the year 2000 (FaceBook was just a twinkle in someone’s eye way back then!), it was interesting to see that children’s picture books are about as techno-unsavvy as I am in my real life. Check out Erica Perl's article in Slate, “I’m Talking to You Corded” to learn why so few bear families email each other!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Let's Celebrate The Great Gatsby!

As you may recall, I recently gave a reading as part of Washington, DC's celebration of the Big Read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great of my favorite books. So, imagining that there may be one or two writers out there I haven't personally badgered into (re)reading the novel, I thought I'd post my comments in my effort to get every writer (and reader) to love this book as much as I do:

You might say I have a relationship with The Great Gatsby, both personal and professional. I first read the book on my own as a high school student, and then later, again, with more appreciation on my own as a college student (what a lame education I had that no teacher ever assigned the book!), and then even later, as an adult, gaining even more appreciation, and finally, as a writer, which is when I fully saw the book for the masterwork that I believe it is. Now, I’m happy to report that I’m the teacher assigning the book whenever I can to writing students…and certainly bringing it up as many times as possible to classes, some of which have nothing to do with novels at all.

I like to say that The Great Gatsby is the perfect novel—and though I know it’s not actually altogether perfect, its imperfections add to its perfection, if that makes sense; they’re quality imperfections, that help me see that you can make things work if you have to (how, exactly, did first-person narrator Nick find out what went on in Wilson’s garage when he wasn’t there? A report from an inquest…awfully convenient, Mr. Fitzgerald). But mostly, it’s a perfect book for a writer to study, When I assign the book to a novel workshop, I know that any question that anyone asks, I can find the answer in Gatsby: Dialogue issues, creating complex characters, evocative setting, point of view, internal and external story line, tension in plotting, where to begin—like the great and powerful Oz, The Great Gatsby holds all answers. “Let’s think about how Fitzgerald did that,” is one of my favorite comments to make in a classroom.

So I appreciate The Great Gatsby as a model for my novel workshops. But it’s outside the classroom where the book has really changed my writing life. Whatever I’ve learned about how to structure a novel comes directly from these 184 pages, these nine compact chapters. On my own, I took apart The Great Gatsby and wrote a chapter-by-chapter summary of each chapter. What were the plot points? What was established in the chapter’s scenes? What was foreshadowed? Sure, I could have read the Cliffs notes, but that wouldn’t be the same as actually going through the book MYSELF to figure out how he did it. So I wrote down on a piece of paper (that I still have) to see for myself exactly how Fitzgerald develops his story and themes, bit by bit, setting up information we need to know without seeming obvious, increasing the tension until we get to climactic trip to New York on the hottest day of the year and the car crash, which brings together all the characters and themes in a horrific climax, leading to Gatsby’s surprising yet inevitable death and Nick’s return to the middle west.

To chart it out in this detailed way is to see exactly what a classically structured novel is, to see for oneself the Fichtean curve that famed writing teacher John Gardner advocated, the triangle of rising action and obstacles, the climax, and falling action or denouement that every writing teacher and student has come across somewhere or another. To see that each of the nine chapters of Gatsby follows this pattern within the chapter itself; to see that the book as a whole follows the pattern. And, for me, as a writer it was the act of charting out this book that led me to see that my work-in-progress did NOT follow that pattern—that, indeed, there were chapters that seemed to have no tension at all, no climax. Or a climax that occurred in the first three pages out of 30. Or four major events occurring within six pages. As a writer, I am humbled and awed to learn from a master—long dead and afraid he’d been forgotten. There are a thousand different lessons for me in this single book—besides, oh, you know, simply being a vast and timeless great story—and I trust that I haven’t come close to learning them all. The Great Gatsby is truly my favorite writing teacher.

And you may remember that I said I also had a personal relationship with The Great Gatsby. Shortly after I first met my current husband, we were making arrangements to meet somewhere, and he said, “I’ll be the man on the corner smoking two cigarettes,” and I said, “Huh?” He said, “That’s from Gatsby.” I was pleased that he alluded to The Great Gatsby, of course, but showing my know-it-all tendencies that perhaps should have warned him away, I said, “No it’s not. Who said that? Where?” and so on. Within half an hour, he faxed an excerpt to me complete with citation: Page 132, during the discussion that leads the group to ending up at the Plaza Hotel on that fateful day, Daisy jokes, “We’ll meet you on some corner. I’ll be the man smoking two cigarettes.”

I never doubted him again…about Gatsby, at least, and together we’ve since watched the movie many times, watched various TV specials, forwarded links about Fitzgerald, examined Trimalchio—the published early draft of The Great Gatsby, driven to Rockville to look at Fitzgerald’s grave, stood in front of Fitzgerald’s childhood home in St. Paul, asked a friend to read the section where Nick talks about traveling through Chicago at our Chicago wedding, and, of course, endlessly debated and discussed the book, which we both read every year or so. Honestly, about the only thing we haven’t done is buy him a pink suit like Gatsby’s! But that might be a little obsessive.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Writing Prompts: No Excuses

I had an excellent class at the Writer’s Center on Saturday; I was especially gratified to learn that many of the attendees had never taken a writing class before. I think we all left at the end of the day revved up to write...I know I did!

To that end, I thought I’d remind everyone of C.M. Mayo's (aka Madam Mayo) wonderful writing prompts: “Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More 5 Minute Writing Exercises.” There’s a different prompt for every day of the year…each only takes a mere 5 minutes and all are free and waiting for you here.

Act Fast...Really Fast!

Emerging poets, take note:

Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize

Lake Forest College, in conjunction with the &NOW Festival, invites applications for an emerging poet under forty years old, with no major book publication to spend two months (February-March or March-April 2009)* in residence at our campus in Chicago’s northern suburbs on the shore of Lake Michigan. There are no formal teaching duties attached to the residency. Time is to be spent completing a manuscript, participating in the Lake Forest Literary Festival, and offering two public presentations. The completed manuscript will be published (upon approval) by the new Lake Forest College Press &NOW Books imprint. The stipend is $10,000, with a housing suite and campus meals provided by the college.

Send curriculum vita, manuscript in progress, and a statement of plans for the completion of the manuscript to Plonsker Residency, Department of English, Lake Forest College, Box A16, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. Review of manuscripts by judges Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey will begin May 15, 2008 and continue until the position is filled.

Note: As someone who spent four winters during college in the Chicago area, I recommend choosing the March-April option! Given a choice, ALWAYS avoid February in Chicago!

A Tiny Announcement

I’m so happy to announce that I recently received the 2008 Award for Teaching Excellence from the Johns Hopkins University Master of Arts in Writing Program.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Work in Progress: Richard Goodman

A lovely reminder for writers everywhere to be mindful of our readers. They are giving us their time, energy, and even money…which can be humbling to contemplate, as Richard Goodman points out in this beautiful piece.

As you may recall, Richard Goodman has written here about a variety of topics: titles, collections of letters, and the “audacity” of writing a writing book. For sure he deserves MY thirty-five dollars and then some!


By Richard Goodman

I wish my new book, The Soul of Creative Writing, were cheaper, but it isn't. It costs thirty-five dollars—more with tax or shipping. That's a lot of money for a book, especially such a slim volume (132 pages, with index) as mine. So it was very moving and humbling when I was at the Alabama Book Festival recently to see high school teachers buy my book.

We all know teachers don't make a lot of money. We also know, especially those of us who have taught, that teachers will often spend their own money on things the school doesn't provide for their students—leaving them with even less money. Thirty-five dollars! Would I pay thirty-five dollars for a book? I'm not so sure I would, I’m ashamed to confess.

During the book festival, which was held in Montgomery and was a wonderful affair, I went to a lecture that was attended by many high school teachers from around the state. I saw that some of them had bought my book, which was for sale, along with the books of the other presenters, at the conference. A sudden wave of apprehension swept through me. It was a kind of chill, a sense of potential shame, and with it came a self-imposed inquisition. "Did I work hard enough on this book?” I questioned myself. “Is it worth these peoples' hard-earned money?" I wondered what else they could do with the thirty-five dollars they paid for the book. Buy a tank—or part of a tank—of gas? Pay a phone or electric bill? Buy some groceries? Get their child a new pair of jeans? Do I have the right to ask them to forgo those things to buy my book?

I tell you, a very direct and clear reality faces you in this situation when you literally look the reader in the eye. This is no idle intellectual speculation. Am I, I worried, hoodwinking them with a catchy title, only to disappoint them with what’s within the covers? Have I given them their money’s worth? Did I try hard enough? Did I push myself to the limit? I hope so. I hope when they take the book home, they’re not disappointed. It’s these people whom I feel most beholden to. People who, buying the book on blind faith, believe they will get a fair exchange for their money.

And it’s going to places like Montgomery, Alabama where you encounter the reality of the pact you make with the reader, which is this: You give me your money, and I promise I’ll give you the best I’ve got. Anything less, I would have trouble looking you in the eye. ~~Richard Goodman

About: Richard Goodman is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing and French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. He has written for the New York Times, Harvard Review, Creative Nonfiction, Saveur, Vanity Fair, Commonweal, Ascent, Louisville Review and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He teaches creative nonfiction at Spalding University's Brief Residency MFA in Writing program. Please see his web site for more information.

Historical Research: You Really Can Find Out Anything!

If you’re working on historical fiction (or researching for some other reason), you chould check out this post at Madam Mayo: Guest-blogger Sanda Gulland's 5 Top Research Sites for Historical Novelists.

And writer/friend/former student/fellow former Iowan Dan Ryan offers a helpful solution to my recent, more modern research conundrum (i.e. the year 2000 vs. 2005, especially in terms of technocolgy) with these fabulous recommendations:

Here's a web site that lets you view what the Internet was like in the past:

You enter a web site, and you get a list of dates from which to choose. For example, if you choose, you get the following page:*/

If you have any baseball in your novel**, this site is amazing:

For example, here are the box scores for May 7th, 2005:

**As I so often do, though, alas, not in this present work-in-progress.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A New Obsession

As if I needed a new obsession. But I read about this on the excellent arts blog, About Last Night. Take the very first word of your novel and the very last word of your novel—and often, the “sentence” formed will create a picture of the manuscript as a whole:

“The Jane Chord, to which Bill Buckley introduced us years ago, is a concept originally promulgated by Hugh Kenner. The idea is that if you make a two-word sentence out of the first and last words of a book, it will tell you something revealing about the book in question. Or not: the Jane Chord of Pride and Prejudice is It/them. But every once in a while you run across a Jane Chord so resonant that it makes the room shiver--the chord for Death Comes for the Archbishop is One/built--and even when a famous book yields up nonsense, it's still a good game to play.”

Of course I had to race off to my (still untitled) work-in-progress: “The/unison.” I’m not sure about the grammatical soundness there, but I have to say that the phrase does sum up the whole book concisely, which is about an estranged family.

As for The Great Gatsby: “In/past.” Yes! More evidence that this IS the perfect novel!

Contest for Young Reviewers

Here’s an interesting announcement from Virginia Quarterly Review about an admirable project. Helping to develop effective critical voices is truly an investment in our collective literary future. (But remember you read about this here first, and please be kind to my books, guys!)--

Young Reviewers Contest

Come September, we’re holding a competition to cultivate young critics under the age of thirty. The winning review will be published in VQR, and the winner will receive a $1,000 prize and a publishing contract to write another three reviews for us (worth $3,000). For more information, see our Young Reviewers Contest webpage.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Work in Progress: [Insert Swear Word Here]

I’ve been revising my novel, and now that my class at Johns Hopkins has ended for the semester, I’m able to get serious. I’m working through the manuscript chapter by chapter then planning to read the whole thing in one last swoop to take care of details.

One BIG detail that I can’t ignore is that I have to decide when this book takes place. Kids, this is the danger of taking f-o-r-e-v-e-r to write a book…when I started, I did all the math so that everyone would be the ages they are and the book would take place in 2005 (for example, the first chapter opens at Nora’s surprise party for her 40th birthday, so she was born in 1965).

Now, however, as time marches on, it seems odd and random that the book would be set in 2005. Remember, that even if I were to sell my book tomorrow, it would still take a year to show up in the stores…and that’s if everything goes perfectly, which it never does. So the book would be out in 2009 at the absolute earliest.

Because the novel is about family estrangement, I thought it might be interesting to set it in 2000, so the specter of September 11 looms ahead in the reader’s mind. Good idea…but I can’t begin to tell you what that simple-seeming adjustment has wrought! How can Nora be having her 40th birthday in 2000 IF Callie also has to be going through her “punk” phase as a teenager in the early 1980s WHEN the mother, who grew up loving the Beach Boys (first big, big album in 1964) dies? As it turns out, the solution requires that Nora be born to a 12-year-old mother…and obviously, that’s no solution at all!

This doesn’t even get into the odd bits of research required to discover whether people were using Facebook in 2000 and if cell phones took photos back then. All that versus the stress of wondering whether the average reader will think, “Wait: she took a picture with her cell phone and that technology wasn’t in popular use until 2002! I better immediately send a nasty email to the author!”

My advice: historical fiction! 1907 sounds good for the next novel, don’t you think?

No-Fee Novel Contest

Though you have to have published one book already to enter this contest, the press is also looking for other original fiction (scroll to the end of the post).

Michigan Literary Fiction Awards

Please note: as of 2007 the Michigan Literary Fiction Awards will be for novels only.

Who may enter? To qualify, contestants must have previously published at least one literary novel or story collection in English.

Why an award such as this? As major publishers become more and more driven by the bottom line, they are willing to take fewer and fewer risks. For many writers of literary fiction, this means they get only one chance. When a first book doesn't sell in the tens of thousands of copies, further book submissions often will get immediately consigned to the reject pile. We expect and desire to attract the work of writers of literary fiction looking for, and deserving, another chance. And because manuscripts are read blindly, our judges enjoy the freedom of being able to pick the best work they can find, regardless of who the author may be.

Are there any restrictions? Current students, faculty, and staff of the University of Michigan may not enter. The contest is also closed to all graduates of the UM Department of English Language and Literature Creative Writing Program. Present and past faculty or staff of the UM Department of English Language and Literature may not enter.

Simultaneous submissions are allowed, but let us know immediately if a manuscript has been accepted elsewhere. Only one submission per author per year.

How? We accept manuscript submissions between February 1 and July 1. Make sure the manuscript is word-processed, double-spaced and single-sided, the pages consecutively numbered. The title of the manuscript must appear on every page. Please remove your name from the manuscript, but identify yourself and the title of your manuscript in a cover letter. There's no need to include publishing credentials.

Is there an entry fee? No entry fee. But, along with your manuscript and cover letter, you must submit one copy of a previous book of literary fiction that you have published. Without it, we will not consider your manuscript. The book will not be returned.

What sort of books will be considered? Literary fiction. Ultimately, it will be up to the judges to determine what is, and what is not “literary," but it's safe to say that genre fiction, such as mystery, science fiction, romance, children's fiction etc., won't qualify.

Are there length limitations? We're unlikely to be able to publish anything under 100 pages, but otherwise there are no length limitations.

When will we know who won? Each year's winners will be announced in November. See this link for information on past winners.

What is the winner awarded? The winner will receive a $1,000 advance, and the book will be published by The University of Michigan Press in the following fall season.

Sending us the manuscript: Due to new USPS safety regulations requiring that packages over 16 oz. be hand delivered directly to a post office worker, we are unable to return manuscripts, even with an SASE. Because we receive so many manuscripts, we're unable to acknowledge receipt. If you desire proof of receipt, please send the manuscript using Registered Mail or Delivery Confirmation services from the post office. Be sure to include a letter-sized SASE for announcement of winners.

Send submissions to:
Michigan Literary Fiction Awards
University of Michigan Press
839 Greene St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-3209

NOTE: The University of Michigan Press is seeking other original fiction too. To learn more, see our guidelines and instructions at our website.

Questions? E-mail:

Monday, May 5, 2008

Blogging Dos and Don'ts

If you’re thinking of entering the blog waters (please do; it’s fun!), Madam Mayo offers a wonderful and comprehensive list of suggestions, resources, and links that will make blogging seem easy as pie. Run, don’t walk, here to read for yourself!

Yes, yes…I’m guilty of a few “don’ts” since there are about a zillion people with this exact same blogger template (but isn’t it nice?). I’ll file this chore under the mile-long list of “things to address once I finish the darn novel.”

Note: Dear friend Madam Mayo is the one who convinced me to get into blogging, so I guess I have to note that she’s my blogging guru.

How Do You Jump-Start Your Creative Process?

Paula Whyman is running a fun contest over on her website asking for suggestions about how you jump-start your creative process. Winner gets a free beginning bread baking book! (Read more about Paula’s fabulous bread-baking here in the Washington Post).

Make Your Arts-Supporting Voice Heard

This news is from the AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs):


In February, President Bush sent his FY 2009 budget request to Congress, beginning the yearly appropriations process for the nation's cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Department of Education¹s Arts in Education programs. The proposal cuts $16.3 million from the National Endowment for the Arts budget. Please go to Americans for the Arts website for more information and links to contact your elected officials.

If What You Want to Do On Your Summer Vacation...

…is go to a writers’ conference, here’s a great resource to help you find the right one for you: The Writers’ Conferences and Centers website offers information about 120 conferences, retreats, festivals, and various literary to-dos held throughout the country and the world. You can get details regarding application deadlines and procedures, conference faculty, tuition, scholarships, complete program descriptions, and much more.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Guest in Progress: Rebecca Flowers

I’ll be brief, the quicker to get you to this wonderful piece by novelist Rebecca Flowers, author of the newly released novel Nice to Come Home To. Special thanks to my pal/former student Carollyne Hutter for alerting me to this book—which I just added to my amazon list—and for hooking me up with Rebecca, who proves below that she is funny AND smart (with allusions to “Project Runway,” The Great Gatsby [!!], and one of my husband’s secret obsessions, the movie The Karate Kid.).

Here’s the description of Nice to Come Home To, which takes as inspiration Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility:

“Everyone around Prudence Whistler, thirty-six, seems to be settling down. Her girlfriends have married and had babies. Her gay best friend is discussing marriage with his partner. Even her irresponsible younger sister, Patsy, is the single mother of a two-year-old. But when Pru panics at losing her mediocre boyfriend of two years-and begins to see the door to her traditional family life closing-she accidentally finds something even better: a new definition of family and happiness.”

DC-area residents take note: Nice to Come Home To is set in Adams-Morgan!

By Rebecca Flowers

I went to a good writing school, got an M.F.A., then spent the next dozen years or so trying to unlearn what I'd learned there. An M.F.A. doesn't tell you how, I'm sorry to report, to write a book and get it published. It does teach you how to defend and protect your ego, and how to write for certain audiences (like other writing students and writing teachers). But it does not (necessarily) teach you how to get into that space where you can bang out a 300+ draft, then do it over and over again until it's just right, not losing your perspective or your patience or your self-esteem in the whole process. Here, then, are some notes on things I un-learned, while writing my first novel and getting it published, after graduate school.

1. Just Keep Swimming. A friend of mine describes writing as some of the happiest moments of her life. If we are to believe her, this writer – who, incidentally, is selling scads of books, in hardcover, right this very second – sits in front of her computer, places her long, tapered fingers on the keyboard, and magic happens. She moves from the first word to the last in a happy little spasm of poetic wonderfulness, loving her characters, charmed by them, moving them effortlessly from place to place. She does not move on from a sentence, paragraph, or chapter until it has achieved perfection. Her editor never asks for revisions. Writing, for my friend, is basically like sex. Like the best sex you ever had. Like honeymoon sex. Like second-week-into-the-relationship-all-morning-in-bed-on-a-Saturday-in-springtime sex. The kind of thing you really should keep to yourself, in other words.

Writing, for me, is not like this. It is not like sex, unless that sex is strained, laborious, and riddled with angst, doubt, insecurity and conflict. Unless it is bad sex.

Recently I described my writing life to another, less freakish friend this way: On the good days, it's okay. On the bad days, it's like being locked in a room with someone who knows me very well ... and hates me.

On those days, I'm fighting myself every step of the way. Myself goes something like this: You wrote THAT? Are you SERIOUS? God, no wonder you never had a boyfriend in high school. Why are you even BOTHERING? What makes you think you can even do this? Look, look at your friend selling scads of books – in hardcover – right this very second! Is she having to fight herself like this, just to write a decent paragraph? No she is not! She's probably written a whole perfect page, by now! Maybe you should just give this up, and go clean the kitchen. At least you'd have a clean kitchen to show for this day, instead of butt nothing.

See, the mind can play tricky games with you. It doesn't necessarily want to be doing what you're asking it to do. It would rather be solving some other, less thorny problem, or checking the email to see if anyone's written in to say how clever it is. Something, anyway, that would contribute more materially to the glory of the self. Or, at the very least, something that would numb us both out to how f'in hard it is to f'in write an f'in book.

What you must learn as a writer is to ignore all this, and just keep swimming. Sometimes writing just isn't fun. Sometimes you're called up to describe a scene or a person or just get your readers from one place to another in a non-clever way. You can't have a book chock full of cleverness, in every single word. And some days, you just won't feel clever. It's important to let that be okay. Writing a novel will take months, even years. You have to pace yourself. You have to slog through whatever weather the mind throws you – the pleasant and carefree, the wild and woolly, the ferocious and threatening. Your first job as a writer:

Just keep swimming.

2. Don't reinvent the wheel. This is not my original advice; it's the advice of some writer, some bigwig, whose name I've long forgotten. But the gist is this: especially for your first novel, don't start from scratch. You have many lessons to learn, Ralph Macchio, so give yourself a fighting chance by taking a book you know and love and using its basic structure. You'll hang your own clothes on it, don't worry. But it's really helpful to have a little roadmap to show you the way. For my first book, I chose to update Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. So while I battled my insecurities and desperate longing to have a clean house with 90 percent of my brain, the other 5 percent could concentrate on Austen's storyline and what I needed to do next. (I know that's only 95 percent; 5 percent of my brain is always off screwing around someplace.)

3. SHOW and TELL. I mean, what are you going to do with all that junk, all that junk inside your trunk? You're writing for an audience, so SHOW IT TO OTHERS. I know so many people who refuse to let anyone see what they're working on, ever. You have to open up to the people around you, those who care about you. You need readers, a sangha, for support. You need to hear good things about your work, and you need to know about the not-so-great things either.

But timing is important. Too early, and you may get discouraged. Too late, you're so sick of the damn thing that it would be sheer torture to go back in and correct a typo. If you can envision the end of your book, if you've had a chance to re-read the early chapters and you're pretty sure you've written for keepsies, go ahead and ask a few of your peeps to take one. A peep, that is.

Oh, you also have to TELL people you're writing a book. It's akin to holding hands in study hall – a public commitment. With all these people watching you, there's a better chance you'll actually stick it out. Again, choose your moment. I started telling people that I was writing a book when I had a few chapters under my belt and sort of knew where I was heading with it. Of course, I materially rewrote the book, but by then I was committed to the project.

Also, it will help people understand why you are walking around talking to yourself and weeping all the time.

4. Read a CRAPLOAD of books while you're working. It was so much easier to sit down and write if I spent an hour or so, last thing at night and first thing in the morning, immersed in a book. The language flows from the book to your brain, somehow, and you're absorbing the rhythm of good plot, solid structure. There's so much to pilfer out there! Read everything – read the stuff you're trying to emulate, as well as the stuff you might not otherwise. There is something to be learned from every book and every writer out there. It's now your job to read, as many books as you can. I myself stayed away from books about writing. I was worried about worrying about whether or not I was doing it “right.” Be your own judge here – if you can read these books while maintaining your authorial voice, then by all means. But if you, like me, can be unduly influenced by a chickpea looking at you sideways, then maybe it's better to skip them.

5. Use it or lose it. This comes, I believe, from Joan Didion. Or Annie Dillard. I confuse the two for absolutely no good reason. Anyway, the idea is this: Use it. Right here, right now. Don't save anything for a future book. There are no future books, there's this one, right in front of you, and some day 300+ pages is going to seem like a holy heck of a lot, if it doesn't already. I didn't really understand this until I practiced it myself, and I don't think Didion/Dillard was talking just about emotional states. The funny thing someone said this morning, use the profound insight you acquired from making your lunch, the relationship you suddenly find interesting – maybe the universe is trying to tell you something. This will help fill up those pages but also make your writing fresh and relevant. If it doesn't work later, ok, you can take it out. But I think part of the invention process requires us to make it work, as "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn likes to say. Finding ways to infuse your book with what is meaningful to you now, at this very moment, is what makes words lift off the page for your readers.

6. Here I would like to say something like what my friend Pimone said to me once about writing: It's bigger than God, it's bigger than the universe, it's bigger than YOU. By which I think she meant, in the service of your writing, be prepared to make sacrifices. Your safety, your security, your peace of mind – be prepared to give it all up, baby.

And I get this, to a large degree. But what I want to say is something more like, find your love, and write with it. A lot of my early writing was ANGRY. I was PISSED OFF. For the right reasons, as a lot of people in their younger days are pissed off for the right reasons. But I couldn't sustain that over 300+ pages, not so's you'd want to read it, anyway. So the big challenge for me, when I decided I wanted to write a book that others would read, was this: To find what I loved, who I loved, and work with that. I was absolutely terrified at first that the people I loved would think I was writing about them. I was afraid they would feel betrayed. And if it meant I was never going to be very relevant, I decided I wouldn't hurt anybody intentionally, if I could help it. I'm a nice girl from the Midwest. I can't use somebody's pain for fodder.

What that did mean though was to really dig deep into what I care about. That's not actually easy, in my experienced, but it's something to be cultivated. And, again, it's what lifts your words off the page.

Swallow your pride and learn a little marketing. I know, I know, but no one is going to do this for you, until you become Somebody. Meanwhile, suck it up, and write a killer (marketing people say things like “killer”) cover letter. Because unless you already have the gonnegshuns, baby, it's the only way out of the slush pile.

Pretend you are writing about somebody else. You wouldn't undersell them, and you wouldn't gush. In your cover letter you will want to describe your book, and give the agent you're submitting it to an idea of the book's selling points. In my cover letter for my first book, NICE TO COME HOME TO, I pointed out that it's based on a Jane Austen novel, that I had some creds, and I gave a plot outline that would suffice on the back of the book jacket. You want to create interest, so spend some time thinking about the selling points, or ask a friend whose opinion you trust.

I know it's not the funnest part of the job, but it's not the worst, either. I actually rather enjoyed thinking of myself as my close friend, the writer, to whom I am absolutely devoted and in whom I completely believe. It's not my usual M.O., if you get me.

7. Learn to meditate. If you can sit still for forty minutes and focus on your breathing, you can write a book.

Meditating helps you focus. It helps you cultivate patience, and fortitude. It opens the inner workings of your mind and heart for you. It gives you a calm, balanced mind. It helps you get in touch with your love, which is of course underlying everything that makes you angry. It keeps you sane. It helps you understand that bad thoughts and emotions (such as I WILL NEVER EVER BE A WRITER) are just like the passing clouds. Just weather.

Forty minutes a day, sit and watch yourself breathe. When you get lost in thought – which everybody does, which you will certainly do – don't get frustrated or annoyed, but return to the breath. You may have to do that a million times in forty minutes. Or ten minutes. Whatever you can do. Give your mind a little room, a little nourishment. You're asking it to do one of the hardest things a brain can ever do, after all.

Please feel free to email me. I'd love to hear from you –
~~Rebecca Flowers

About: Rebecca Flowers is a writer living in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. Her commentaries have appeared on NPR's "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day." Her first novel, NICE TO COME HOME TO (Riverhead Books) is currently available in bookstores everywhere. She blogs at and loves email:

Note: Rebecca will be reading at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC on Saturday, May 17, at 6 p.m.


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