Thursday, July 31, 2008

Guest in Progress: Kim Roberts

I don’t know how poet Kim Roberts even finds time to read—she’s busy with her own writing (check out her recent book The Kimnama); she edits the online poetry quarterly Beltway; and she is tireless in chronicling and promoting D.C.’s fascinating literary history (among her achievements here are coordinating the DC Celebrates Whitman Festival: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass, and in conjunction with D.C.’s recent Big Read of The Great Gatsby a tour of DC called “Jazz Age Stories of the Rich & Scandalous!”). Plus, she has written here for this blog about having been published in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet. And these are just the activities I know about!

Nevertheless, she found time to send in a report about a recent novel that caught her attention:

I just finished reading a novel I want to highly recommend: When Washington Was in Vogue: A Lost Novel of the Harlem Renaissance, by Edward Christopher Williams (Amistad, 2004).

The book takes place in DC in the fall and winter of 1922-23, and consists of a series of letters that Davy Carr, a veteran of WWI, writes to his friend Bob Fletcher (who is living in New York). The novel is a rare look at the vibrant African American middle class who lived in this city, with terrific characterizations, including a narrator who realizes he's in love long after we readers have figured it out. There is not a single white character in the book. Originally published anonymously in serial form in The Messenger (a socialist, African American magazine in New York), the book is a lively read.

And for those of us who live in Washington, DC, it's great to see a Harlem Renaissance tale that recognizes that not all the action was really in Harlem. Here is Davy Carr's description of Griffith Stadium (now the site of Howard University Hospital), during a game between rival university teams from Howard and Lincoln Universities:

"The scene was the American League Ball Park on Georgia Avenue, situated a short block from the center of colored Washington, on the edge of its best residential district, and on the road from that district to the University. The park seats, I am told, twenty-two thousand people. While I lay no claim to proficiency in estimating crowds, I should say there were about twelve thousand people present. However, it was not the size, but the average quality of the crowd which was interesting and significant. Almost everyone was well dressed, large numbers were richly dressed, and too many were overdressed. All the great centers of colored population were represented, from Atlanta to Boston, and from Chicago to Atlantic City. Most of the women came to show their clothes, and, with the exception of the students, and those who had bets on the game, the major part of the crowd paid little attention to the contest itself, for the people and not the game were the real center of interest for most of them. From the viewpoint of the majority of the spectators, it was a social function, and not an athletic contest.

"Hundreds of women, young women and mature women, were made up as if for a full-dress ball, and somehow 'makeup' does not look well at ten o'clock in the morning on a sunny day...The tickets to the game ran from two dollars to one dollar...I saw signs of prosperity on every hand. Outside on Georgia Avenue and the streets adjoining there were hundreds of automobiles parked."
~~Kim Roberts

About: Kim Roberts is the author of two books of poems, most recently The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007, She has published in literary journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet, and in anthologies with wide-ranging themes, including: animals, sensuality, family, physical trauma, spirituality, and politics. For a couple of years, she was poet-in-residence with a modern dance company (Jane Franklin Dance), and her poems have been set to music by a rock band and a classical composer. She co-edits the Delaware Poetry Review ( and for the past eight years has edited Beltway Poetry Quarterly (, which White Crane magazine calls "the repository of the brain of DC poetic history" and the Washington Post calls "a comfortable gathering place" for Washington poets that is "accessible, current, and inclusive." More information than you actually need about Kim Roberts can be found on her website:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How to Stay Out of the "No" Pile

C.M. Mayo (aka blogger Madam Mayo) is one of the readers for the entries in the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (for a story collection). Read here about the qualities that send manuscripts to the “no” pile, in her opinion.

And check out her own graceful story collection, Sky Over El Nido, which won this award a few years ago.

ISO Clothing Poems

If you saw my closet, you’d know why this call for submission caught my attention…"Ode to Cute New Black and White Capri Pants that I Bought on Sale” anyone?

Ragged Sky Press is looking for poems about clothing for a one-time anthology: outergarments, undergarments, shoes, accessories—anything that conceals...or reveals. Well-woven poems will be selected by the editors.

GUIDELINES: 1-3 poems (10 pages maximum), deadline: August 29, 2008.


Payment is one copy. We consider dual submissions and previously published work only if informed of this at time of submission. We do not pay reprint fees and it is author's responsibility to get needed permissions. We make final editorial submissions on all submitted manuscripts only after the submission deadline.

VCCA in France

What could be better than a residency at the wonderful arts colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA)? Perhaps only this, the chance to go off to France and study writing with a VCCA Fellow!

Narrative Workshop
September 19-25, 2008
Bruce Bauman, writing professor and author of the acclaimed novel And The Word Was, leads this intensive workshop for writers of fiction and non-fiction.

"I began writing my memoir in Bruce's UCLA class, and thanks to his guidance and inspiration, I am now publishing my book with St Martin's Press. I owe my new life as an author to him."
- Alison Singh Gee, The Peacock Cries for Rain

Classes are held in Le Moulin à Nef, the VCCA's historic studio center in the charming medieval village of Auvillar, located in the Gascony region of France, between Toulouse and Bordeaux. The workshops are open to writers of all levels and include much one-on-one time with the instructors. Fine dining and European-style accommodations are included in the package.

For more information: Email or call Sheila Pleasants (434) 946-7236.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Coffee, Tea, or a Copy of My Book?

Here’s a great new venue idea for author appearances: airport bookstores! Read what Austin S. Camacho has to say about his pleasant experiences signing books at various airport bookstores. (Link via Buzz, Balls & Hype.)

He notes: “At all 3 airports near me, the managers complained that nobody ever comes out to sign at their stores. Not only were they more willing than most stores to organize an event, but they all asked me to book a return visit at the end of the first one.”

You may remember Austin’s defense of genre fiction here on the blog. Now, he’s just released a new non-fiction book, Successfully Marketing Your Novel in the 21st Century. Details are here.

And if you’d like to meet Austin yourself, he has a bunch of signings scheduled, including one this Saturday in Old Town Alexandria, at Books-A-Million, 503 King Street, from 2 pm to 5 pm. More information about additional signings can be found here.

Win Big Bucks for Writing about the Most Important Day of Your Life

Here’s a contest with a big potential pay-off, in terms of $$ and audience…Real Simple magazine must have a circulation of a zillion or so:

Life Lessons Essay Contest: What Was the Most Important Day of Your Life?

Enter our first-ever Life Lessons essay contest and you could have your essay published in Real Simple. Perhaps it was the day of your high school graduation. The day you started your dream job — or left a nightmare workplace. Maybe it was a day noted for its poignancy or one that was downright hilarious. Whatever your memory of the most important day of your life is, share it.

Enter Real Simple’s first-ever Life Lessons essay contest and you could have your essay published in Real Simple, with a prize of $3,000. Contest entries should be a maximum of 1,500 words. E-mail your entries to, or mail them to Essay Contest, Real Simple, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, 9th floor, New York, NY 10020.

Deadline: Online entries must be received by 11:59 P.M. on September 9, 2008. Mailed entries must be postmarked by September 9, 2008, and received by September 16, 2008.

Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia, age 19 or older at time of entry. Void where prohibited by law. All entries become the property of Real Simple and will not be returned.

Details here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

By Jove, I've Got It!

My mail carrier holds onto my copy of The New Yorker to read it before delivering it to me (ha, ha), so I always get it late in the week. Consequently, I’m always a little behind on what’s going on in the magazine (by the time the Barack-Michele Obama cover issue arrived at my house, the news cycle had already moved on). But I would like to recommend the “The Eureka Hunt” by Jonah Lehrer in the July 28, 2008, issue. It’s about how the brain works to give us sudden insights, and much of the research seemed to me to be relevant to the creative process.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounious, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. ‘The relaxation phase is crucial,’ Jung-Beeman said. ‘That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.’ Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. …”

It’s all fascinating. For ages I’ve been solving writing problems in the shower or right when I wake up. Guess I’m not so special…just another typical biological specimen.

James Wood's How Fiction Works

There has been quite a bit of buzz about critic James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. Here and here are two takes that particularly interested me. And also here, Christopher Tilghman’s thoughtful review of the book in Sunday’s Washington Post Book World.

Book World ran an enticing excerpt from How Fiction Works--below. (Reading it reminds me of one of my favorite quotations by W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”)

“What is a character? I am thicketed in qualifications: if I say that a character seems connected to consciousness, to the use of a mind, the many superb examples of characters who seem to think very little, who are rarely seen thinking, bristle up (Gatsby, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, Widmerpool, Jean Brodie). If I refine the thought by repeating that a character at least has some essential connection to an interior life, to inwardness, is seen "from within," I am presented with the nicely opposing examples of those two adulterers, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest, the first of whom does a lot of reflection, and is seen internally as well as externally, the second of whom, in Theodor Fontane's eponymous novel, is seen almost entirely from the outside, with little space set aside for represented reflection. No one could say that Anna is more vivid than Effi simply because we see Anna doing more thinking.

“If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters -- round and flat characters -- and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.

“The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it. And the novelistic character is the very Houdini of that exceptionalism.”
-- James Wood

Ann Patchett Reading on Tuesday

DC-area fans of Ann Patchett, take note: she’ll be reading at Politics & Prose Bookstore on Tuesday. I haven’t read this new novel, but I’m a fan of Truth & Beauty, a fascinating glimpse into the creative process and the challenges of a friendship. Reading details here and below:

Ann Patchett
Tuesday, July 29, 7 p.m.
RUN (Harper Perennial, $14.95)
Now out in paperback, Patchett’s first novel since the acclaimed Bel Canto is set in Boston and concerns the Doyles, a father and his two adopted sons. When a car accident brings a woman named Tennessee and her daughter into the Doyles’ lives, the characters come to new understandings of family, race, and identity.

Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Guest in Progress: Sandra Beasley

I’m a big advocate of writers’ conferences…I’ve always returned home exhausted and inspired, with a load of signed books I’m dying to read and a group of fun, new writers I’ll promise I’ll keep in touch with—and actually do. My writing has taken dramatic, exciting turns because of workshops and teachers I’ve encountered in that intense environment. So, I offer this guest post by poet Sandra Beasley (author of Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe as the winner of the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize). She’s writing from the Sewanee Writers' Conference (which I’ve attended twice). Reading her postcard made me intensely envious (in a good way), and I suspect that I won’t be the only one to have this reaction:

Postcard from the Maelstrom: The 2008 Sewanee Writers’ Conference
By Sandra Beasley

Greetings from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I am attending this year's Sewanee Writers’ Conference. The campus is modeled on Oxford: sturdy but graceful academic buildings surfaced in rough, crumpled stone. A cathedral with a huge rose window; a cemetery where you can find the graves of poet Allen Tate and Father Flye of the James Agee letters. There are also some smaller bungalows with clapboard siding--Stirling Coffee House, where I like to go and hide out among the "normal" people here for the Music Camp, and the French House, where scholars, fellows and faculty gather most evenings for a later round of drinks and conversation. It's a small town, just a couple of stoplights and a market where most of the goods are canned. There's a Piggly-Wiggly in Monteagle. They sell t-shirts pronouncing, to the world, that you have been to the Piggly-Wiggly in Monteagle.

There's a definite Anglican atmosphere on campus, including the presence of a significant Theological seminary. Though it turns out that official mascot is the Tigers, I spent the first week hoping it was the Sewanee Angels (the "fighting" angels) because of their frequent appearances on bumpers, tote bags and neckties. There's a lovely walk down Tennessee Avenue that culminates in a 40-foot-tall cross, floodlit and looking out over the larger valley. I'm not a religious soul but I like the walk because of the luna moths, dozens of them, that are drawn to the looming white stone. There's a lot of wildlife here: a snapping turtle that lives by the coffeeshop, placid deer, curious bunnies, and great big beetles with black and gold-green carapaces. The citified writers are fascinated with the wildlife; the many writers from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky are fascinated by the cityfolk fascinated by the wildlife.

This conference is big, bigger than I had realized coming in. 18 faculty members, 19 Fellows, perhaps 120 people total with the Scholars and Contributors. They have us housed in three dorms, and I admit to being partial to mine, Humphreys, with its army of rocking chairs out front. One of the poems I read last Tuesday, "Vocation," uses this line: "All I want to do is sit on a veranda while a hard rain falls around me" Well, I've done that here. One of the other dorms, Benedict, is like a dingy Courtyard by Marriott--or Melrose Place without the pool. That's a snarky thing to say, and I admit I may just be jealous of their ownership of the lone ping-pong table.

I am here as a Fellow, a distinction--and full financial coverage--granted on the grounds of having my first book out. Upon arriving and meeting one Scholar whose book is coming out with Alice James, another who won the Bakeless Prize, another whose book is already out with Milkweed, I quickly realized it was a meaningless distinction in terms of talent. There's a bit of the inevitable grumbling about social divides, but I think people genuinely make an effort to support all events regardless of the reader's "tier." Sometimes the limits we come up against are driven by time and need for sleep, not lack of interest; I feel bad about missing the open mics, but I also have to worry about preparing to meet with those same poets for manuscript conferences. Some of the faculty members I've noticed to be particularly good at attending everything--even the staff readings at the ungodly hour of 9 AM, even the readings outside their genre--are Jill McCorkle, Margot Livesey, Andrew Hudgins and his wife Erin McGraw, and Mark Jarman. And Wyatt Prunty--good lord, Wyatt attends everything! And is always first in line with a welcoming comment afterwards. He reminds me of one of those hardy, mysterious bromeliad plants able to live on air alone.

A typical day's schedule is: 8-9 AM breakfast, 9 and 10 AM readings and panels, an 11 AM craft talk, lunch at 12:30, 1:45 PM workshops (each meets every other day, so there is theoretically "open" time embedded here), 4:15 faculty reading, 5:30 reception (sometimes a lavish spread, sometimes BYOB), dinner at 6:45, another big faculty reading at 8:15, receptions or open mics or socializing at the French House afterwards. This schedule rolls right through the weekend. Sometimes there are hikes at 7 AM. Whew, right? And you thought AWP was relentless! AWP is for sissies. We are Sewanee Writers, and we have livers of steel. And guts of--well, rapidly expanding guts. Theoretically the meals are supposed to be nutritionally balanced, and even themed according to different ethnic cuisines each day. But unless chips and guacamole have some pan-ethnic value I'm unaware of, there's a lot of default junk food. People feel guilty skipping meals because they want to be social; but in being social we're all eating, eating, eating to pace ourselves through conversations. Breakfast is the only thing I feel truly free to skip, after a disastrous attempt at slathering the South's version of a bagel (which had the consistency of WonderBread) with peanut butter (which was as sweet as CrackerJack and as smooth as toothpaste). Lunch is an endless variation on the salad bar--beets, beans, and limp greens. Sigh. I've heard the word "detox" used a half-dozen times in the past day alone.

While on the subject of detox: yes, there is drinking at Sewanee. In my case, a flask of scotch or, when they are available, a bloody mary (the staff makes a mean bloody mary). Coolers of Miller Lite and carafes of icy, sweet white wine are put out at the reading receptions starting from 5:30 on. But there actually isn't much to be seen in terms of drunkenness, and I haven't caught any embarrassing conversations fueled by alcohol. Perhaps it is because much of the faculty returns each year--there is institutional memory, a desire to not blackball oneself for down the road--or perhaps it is because of all the 9 and 10 AM events, but it's a remarkably moderate atmosphere, happily buzzed and no more than that. Of course, "moderate" is relative. A 1:30 AM turning-in is average. Being in bed before midnight is positively saintly.

The highlights? The drive down with Jehanne Dubrow, which held the deepest and most personal conversations I'll have in my time here. Mark Strand's craft lecture on Wallace Stevens. Claudia Emerson's reading, with Kent chiming in on his guitar at the end. The Fellows' readings--having an audience of 120 as the first reader on the first day, in my case--and terrific sets by Michael Dumanis, Eric McHenry, Dave Roby (a playwright who literally kicked his own ass! on stage!), and Jason Ockert (fiction), to name a few that stick out in my mind. Eric McHenry is my "fellow Fellow" in workshop with Mary Jo Salter and Brad Leithauser. If there is anyone I would want to team-teach with in my own workshop someday, it would be Eric. If you look at us on the page, we're coming from different aesthetics, but we both value humor and modesty in tone, and our comments dovetail nicely in the classroom. He's just about as damn smart and quirky a guy as you'll ever meet. The staff is also wonderful; I hope everyone is paying as much attention to them as I do. Kevin Wilson is one of the best short story writers here, period, Juliana Gray is one of the funniest people here, period, and Carrie Jerrell's first collection of poems--whenever it finally breaks into print--will break big. When I first arrived I had a note in my registration packet regarding my food allergies (a big challenge here in this land o'liquid margarine) from Erica Dawson. Is Erica in charge of food service? Yes. You know what she also is? The 2006 winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Do NOT underestimate the staff.

The biggest surprise of the conference, for me, is the intensity of its formalist focus--not just in the older generation of teachers, but in the younger generation of students. I should have guessed it from the roster of poetry faculty, but perhaps I'm too used to thinking of West Chester as "the" formalist conference. When George Core of The Sewanee Review spoke on an editor's panel, he was explicit in seeking formal work; he derided the "casual" quality of much of today's poetry. I've heard from a few of the fiction fellows that there is a similar conservatism on the fiction side--an implicit favoring of traditional narrative styles. As a former student of Henry Taylor, and currently nursing a side-project of sestinas, I'm not a total fish out of water. But it has taken some getting used to. I can't remember my last workshop with so much discussion of spondees and quatrain choice and headless lines. But Aaron Baker, another fellow and another former UVA student, made a really good point: the terms for formal discussion can be quickly agreed upon in this limited time of a conference workshop, whereas the groundwork for a really meaningful dialogue on free verse has to be built over a long familiarity with each other's work. "Otherwise," he said, "it's just one big group therapy session." I think he has a point--I've seen most students happily come away with discrete feedback and grist for revision, and my ear is now better-tuned to the metrical finesse the sestinas have been missing. But a few students have slipped through the cracks; their poems needed to be interrogated with more "why," and less "how." Something to think about if I ever turn to teaching, which this conference (and this is a compliment to the conference) has me thinking I might do. Someday. Maybe. Eventually.

That's the scoop, at least until tomorrow--when I plan to commit a trio of scandals involving nudity, fireworks, and the otherwise innocent bystander of Jill McCorkle. Pity I'll have already sent my postcard out to you all, but so it goes. A conference must keep some of its secrets...
~~Sandra Beasley

About: Sandra Beasley won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize for her book Theories of Falling, selected by Marie Howe. Recent work has appeared in SLATE, The Believer, AGNI online, and The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. Awards for her poetry include the 2008 Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, and VCCA. She is an editor for The American Scholar in Washington, D.C. Her website is at; she also has a "Chicks Dig Poetry" blog at

For more information about the conference (it’s never too early to plan for next year!), please go here.

Obsession Alert: "Mad Men"

If you’ve been thinking about watching the second season of AMC’s "Mad Men" TV series, I say, DO! It’s great television: dark and complicated characters, intricate plot, strong setting, nuanced actions…bascially, everything a good story should be. The second season starts on Sunday night on AMC…the first season is available on DVD. Details are here!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Alice McDermott, from Start to Finish

I’ve been reading some literary journals lately and was pleased to come across an excellent interview that Shelagh Powers conducted with novelist Alice McDermott in the Spring 2008 issue of Folio, a journal published by American University. (Full disclosure: back in the day, when I was an MFA student, I was one of the founding editors of Folio. That first issue was, to put it kindly, something else, held together by staples and prayers. The MFA program has done a GREAT job of moving the journal forward from its salad days.) McDermott is the author of, among other books, the National Book Award-winning Charming Billy and, most recently, Child of My Heart.

The web site’s a little out of date, but for more information about Folio, go here. Unfortunately, the interview isn’t online, so here are some excerpts:

FOLIO: How do you go about beginning to write a story? Do you start with a character, an image? Do you tend to plot things out, or do you just begin writing and see where your characters take you?

AM: It intrigues me that this is the question I’m most often asked. I wonder if it doesn’t reflect some yearning we all have to figure out some shortcut to getting a story written. As in: if I can just find the right way to begin, all the rest will fall into place, maybe even be easy. Well, my experience is, you begin by writing, choosing the words that make up the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene, etc. Sometimes those words describe character or place or situation, sometimes they conjure a voice speaking into a reader’s ear. Sometimes you think you know what you’re doing, sometimes you just close your eyes and jump in. Every story begins differently because every story makes its own particular demands. The only thing that’s always true about beginning a story is that it’s never as easy as it seems.

FOLIO: When is one of your pieces “finished”? Specifically, how long is your editing process? Does it ever conflict with choosing to move on to your next project?

AM: I tend to work on at least two projects at a time, so there’s never that kind of conflict. I also edit as I go, constantly. A project is finished, I suppose, not when I’ve finished editing it, but when I believe that I have done the best I am capable of doing with this particular story, at this particular time in my career. The sense that I’ve used my best energies, such as they are or were, and brought the story to what seems the only conclusion possible, and now it’s out of my hands.

Writing Resources, for Good and for Evil

I’ve recently been alerted to two sites that are useful to writers, one of which you will use for good, and the other of which has a great deal of potential to be used for evil if you’re an obsessive type (like me).

First, the good:

If you’re like me, you find it difficult to pay attention to writing contest deadlines and keep your contest submissions organized so that you aren’t racing off to the post office at weird hours to get a thick envelope postmarked on deadline day. Here’s our solution: Check out this fabulous site, accurately called “Fiction Contests and Other Opportunities: A List of Well-Paying ($500 or Above with a Few Exceptions because of Prestige or Quality) Contests, Residencies and Fellowships.”

Mark, the blogger in charge, notes his reasons for starting the site: “I spend a lot of time each year compiling, then misplacing, information on the best-paying, most prestigious or otherwise interesting opportunities for the fiction writer. I resolved to keep a set of constantly updated links in one place. I've been storing it in a neverending gmail conversation with myself. I thought a few writers may appreciate it.”

I definitely appreciate that here, contests are nicely organized by monthly deadlines. Thank you, Mark!

And now for the evil—though I guess it’s evil only for obsessive types like me. But did you know there’s a site where you can see how many libraries in a given state—or country—have copies of a book? This is moderately interesting if you’re looking up, say, The Great Gatsby (99 libraries in Virginia have copies), but a bit obsessive and frightening and time-consuming and totally addictive if you’re using the site to look up, say, your OWN book (4 copies of Pears on a Willow Tree in Wyoming). Worse than amazon numbers.


The friend who knew of this site didn’t want to tell me about it for my own good. I had to beg her to get the link. Now that I’m hooked, I need to pass it on:

But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Writer's Center Fall Classes Announced

The Writer’s Center announces that registration is open for fall classes. Classes meet in Bethesda, Virginia, and even online, so there's something for everyone:

We are pleased to announce that our fall 2008 schedule of classes is now available online. To review the offerings, please click here.

We are happy to report that we've recruited some terrific new instructors. For nonfiction writers, Richard McCann (Mother of Sorrows) will teach a Creative Nonfiction Master Class. In fiction, O. Henry and Pushcart award-winner Richard Currey (Fatal Light, The Wars of Heaven) will teach an online workshop, Writing for Veterans. And though it is not yet posted at the site, poet Sue Ellen Thompson (The Leaving: New and Selected Poems) will also teach an online workshop, this one in poetry. Finally, Washington Post Book World reviewer Dennis Drabelle returns to teach a book reviewing workshop. This is only a small sampling of a fall program we're very pleased to offer you.

Visit our new website at:

I will be offering two classes this fall, both of which are new for me and that I’m looking forward to:

Set Yourself Free from Collage: A One-Night Workshop
Thursday, October 16, 7-10 pm

Get a fresh view on your fiction, memoir, and/or poetry through the imaginative use of collage and found objects. This hands-on, exercise-intensive, free-flowing, intimate workshop is appropriate for beginners looking for inspiration and for intermediate writers who might be feeling a bit stuck with their projectEnd everyone in-between! Participants should be prepared to do lots of writing—please bring a pen/pencil (unfortunately, a computer will not be effective here). Note: Due to the nature of this class, we must limit the class size to 15. You’ll be surprised at what you may discover in only one night! 1 session.
More info here.

Flex Your Creative Muscles
Sunday, October 26, 12:30 to 5:30

Spend the afternoon doing a series of intensive, guided exercises designed to shake up your brain and get your creative subconscious working for you. You can come with a project already in mind and focus your work toward a deeper understanding of that—or you can come as a blank slate (that will quickly fill up!). Fiction writers and memoirists of all levels are welcome. Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a computer with a fully charged battery. Note: This class will not repeat any of the instructor’s previous exercises, so feel free to attend even if you’ve taken one of her classes before! 1 session.
More info here.

Itchy Feet? Indulge Your Love of Travel

Since summer is the prime travel season, this call for submissions naturally caught my eye: invites you to enter our 2008 Travel Writing Contest with a first-place prize of $150 U.S. dollars.

2008 Theme: "Undiscovered America"
Deadline: October 31, 2008

Whether you are a freelancer, professional writer or just looking for an excuse to finally write about your travels, you are invited to submit a travel article to the 1st Annual 52 Perfect Days Travel Writing Contest.

Many of our readers are travelers looking for travel ideas which take them to areas outside of the tourist hubs and into the most interesting and less discovered parts of the United States. Do you know of an off-the-beaten-track area in the U.S.? We are looking for submissions written by authors who have firsthand knowledge of an undiscovered section of city, or a relatively unheard of town or experience.

Articles should appeal to those who enjoy U.S. travel and willing to get a bit adventurous. Whether you want to explore the ethnic foods in a certain section of town, backpacking in a remote location or know of a coastal town yet to be truly discovered we want to hear your story! Please offer engaging, descriptive pieces that really share the experience and not just a laundry list of things to do and where to go. We want the readers to be so excited reading your piece they can’t wait to visit themselves.

More info here, including detailed entry instructions (no fee).

Take Note, Essayists and Memoirists

Two announcements from the excellent literary journal, Creative Nonfiction, including the opportunity to take a class with the renowned Lee Gutkind, the man who popularized creative nonfiction:

We've been so busy these last couple of months here at CNF that we're now just getting around to doing our spring cleaning. And wow--now that we've taken a moment to look around the office, we see we're working in an avalanche zone--there are books and back issues stacked floor to ceiling. If we let this continue we'll never find our front door again!

So, instead of risking life and limb, we're hauling a ton of it out to our virtual front yard. For one week only (July 21-28), we will be offering up to 80% off back issues, books, subscriptions, merch, and more!

Stop by the CNF website from July 21-28 to take advantage of these one-time savings.


Just Announced: Washington, DC, Workshop!

Want to spend the day with the "Godfather behind creative nonfiction?" If so, then Turning Trauma into Treasure is your chance. This just-announced, all day writing workshop with CNF's own Lee Gutkind will present the art and craft of memoir writing, explaining how to capture your own traumatic stories in a way that touches and impacts other people.

So mark your calendar:
September 20, 2008
9:30 am to 4:30 pm
Washington Jewish Community Center
1529 16th Street
Washington, DC 20036

For more information or to enroll, check the website:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Round-Up: Amazon Rankings, People Power, Toxic Book Club Members, and Gatsby's Unlikely Admirer

Here are some items of note after a hot, hot, HOT weekend here in Virginia…as Martha Stewart would say, “Air conditioning is a good thing.”

--Authors and readers can become obsessed with the numbers and how a book ranks; authors even try to manipulate their numbers thought tricks like begging everyone to buy a copy on the same day at the same time so that their book can be in the top ten sellers, even if just for an hour. Does that work? What DO those numbers mean? Read more here on The Rejector.

--Slate has an interesting article about the “crowd curated” photography exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum: instead of having “experts” select the art to display, the public was invited to rank their favorite photographs from an online selection while also noting their level of artistic knowledge. How did the crowd do? Read more here. And do be sure to check out this painting, done in the early 1990s, as part of a satire. Americans were polled on their favorite attributes in a work of art—i.e. the color blue, an animal, a historical figure—and this is the result. It’s hilarious.

--Do you have a toxic book club member who you’d love to kick out of the group but you don’t know how to go about doing so? Not to worry: Slate’s advice columnist “Dear Prudence” gives you suggestions here (scroll down).

--The Writer’s Almanac reports that after gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was discharged from the Air Force, he “began writing for any small newspaper that would take him. In his spare time, he obsessively studied his favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, outlining it and rewriting passages. He said, ‘I wanted to teach my neurological system how it felt to write that kind of prose.’”

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Work in Progress: Take a Break

Creativity cannot be on call 24/7, and one of the things I like to do to take a break from the work of writing is to cook. There are things to do away from writing that help me come up with solutions to current writing problems (a long walk, riding the Metro [odd, but true], naps) but sometimes, I just want to be AWAY from writing, and for me, cooking—a creative act in itself—is my favorite escape.

So here’s one of the best new, easy recipes of my summer. It’s from Cooking Light magazine, and for those of you who are concerned about such things, there are 161 calories per serving. And if you’re the kind of person who’s nervous about chickpeas, don’t be. These are fantastic! However, if you don’t like cilantro, read no further. You’ll quickly see this is NOT the recipe for you. But I love cilantro, and I think this dressing would be great on a variety of vegetables or in chicken salad. It’s a winner!

Chickpea Salad with Cilantro Dressing

2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 garlic cloves [another won’t kill you]
2 pickled jalapeno pepper slices [I like spicy food, so I added more]
¼ cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth [you can freeze the leftover broth for later use]
½ cup chopped seeded peeled cucumbers
½ cup thinly sliced radishes
¼ cup chopped celery
2 (15 ½ ounce) cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
12 Boston lettuce leaves [I skipped this and ate the salad as is]

Combine the first 7 ingredients in a food processor or a blender; process until well blended. Add chicken broth; pulse until combined.

Combine cucumber, radishes, celery, and chickpeas in a large bowl. Drizzle with cilantro mixture; toss to coat.

[If you can, let the salad sit for an hour to allow the flavors to develop. As noted above, I skipped the lettuce, but here are the directions for that final step:]

Arrange lettuce leaves on a platter; spoon chickpea mixture over lettuce. Yield: 6 servings (serving size: about 2/3 cup bean mixture and 2 lettuce leaves).

Kay Ryan Named U.S. Poet Laureate

The Washington Post reports today that Kay Ryan will be named the new U.S. Poet Laureate. Here’s a profile, along with a sample of her work.

This sounds like an interesting way to approach difficult material:

“Back in California, still shying away from difficult themes "like heart," Ryan assigned herself a task: She would get out a pack of tarot cards, turn one card over every day and write a poem from it. "So I had to start dealing with these abstractions like love, death, the wheel of fortune."

And for those of us who take comfort in long struggles for recognition:

“It took her eight years to get a poem accepted at a serious poetry magazine and 10 more to get into the New Yorker.”

Follow-Up on Poems about Museums

Here are additional details about Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s call for submissions that I mentioned last week.

And don’t forget to check out the new issue. If you need something new to daydream about, check out the photo essay of DC writers’ homes and imagine YOUR house/building pictured there one day!


Beltway Poetry Quarterly, an online journal, seeks poems for a special themed issue celebrating museums. Poems should be about specific museums (of any kind, of any size, in any location) or specific items exhibited in museum collections. The issue will be co-edited by Kim Roberts and Maureen Thorson.

Only poets who live or work in DC, VA, MD, WV, or DE are eligible. Poems may be any length. Submit up to 4 poems by email only. Poems that have already appeared in print publications are acceptable if copyright has reverted to the author (and author secures any permissions for reprinting). Poems appearing elsewhere on the web are not eligible.

Submit poems in the body of a single email (no attachments, and please no multiple emails) to Include your full contact information (snail mail address, phone, email) and a one-paragraph bio. Incomplete entries and those made outside the one-month reading period will not be considered.

The issue will be published in January 2009. All entries must be received during the month of August 2008.

About the co-editors:

Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

Maureen Thorson is the author of two chapbooks, Novelty Act (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), and Mayport, winner of the Poetry Society of America's National Chapbook Fellowship for 2006. She is editor of Big Game Books, a literary small press specializing in collectible, limited edition, hand-made books.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Letters About Literature: Inspiring to Kids AND This Writer

This is a great program for kids and teens: Letters about Literature, sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, in partnership with Target Stores and in cooperation with affiliate state centers for the book. Readers in grades 4 through 12 are invited to enter Letters About Literature, a national reading-writing contest. To enter, readers write a personal letter to an author, living or dead, from any genre-- fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic, explaining how that author's work changed the student's way of thinking about the world or themselves.

There are three competition levels: Level I for children in grades 4 through 6; Level II for grades 7 and 8, and Level III, grades 9 - 12. Winners, announced in the spring of each year, receive cash awards at the national and state levels. For information contact the LAL Project Director at, phone/fax: 570-675-3305. Or you can check this web site for details.

One of the most touching things I found on a self-Google (oops, caught me!) was that Rhode Island eighth grader Jami Longo had entered the contest and written a letter to ME about A Year and a Day! If you’re interested, you can access the letter in a Word file on this site. (Scroll down to "semi-finalists".) Jami, IMHO you should have won!!

Finding Yourself as a Writer

Here’s an interesting piece from Glimmer Train writer (and contest winner) Terrence Chang, who writes about the difficulty in following in the footsteps of the great writers who have gone before us.

An excerpt:

“In graduate school I went through phases. I had my Cormac McCarthy phase, my Don DeLillo phase, my Tim O'Brien phase. Like a young athlete emulating his heroes, I paid homage to mine by copying their prosaic technique, voice, and style. McCarthy's sweeping vision, and long, stark, near-Biblical sentences; DeLillo's twisting language and genius sensibility; O'Brien's subtle potency, the conveyance of confusion, tragedy, and strange beauty in war. Story after story I tried to incorporate these traits and elements into my own work, until my advisor told me, "You're not Cormac McCarthy. Or DeLillo. Or Tim O'Brien. Just be you."

“The problem was that I didn't know who I was.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hero Worship: Stuart Dybek

The stack of literary journals I’ve been meaning to get to has grown to an alarming rate, so I finally started cracking open some issues. The Summer 2008 issue of The Missouri Review has an excellent interview with one of my favorite short story writers, Stuart Dybek*. (His story “Pet Milk” never fails to put a melancholy lump in my throat; see below.)

There’s only a tiny snip of the interview on the MR web site, so here’s an excerpt that I hope will inspire you to order the issue (which the web site seems to insist is called the “Spring” issue, even though I see the word “Summer” all over my print edition):

Pearce: Why do you write to music?

Dybek: Music is pretty much what I have in place of conventional religious experience. It opens the censors to the imagination. Given fundamentalist religion’s leaning toward repression, we worry, as we should, about First Amendment censorship, but each of us has his own personal level of censorship going on. For all the lip service paid to the imagination, getting to it isn’t always easy. The imagination can be a very subversive force, and both society and the individual can be wary of that. Music helps me overcome the personal censors. It connects emotion and thought. It’s the only drug I’d think of writing on.

Pearce: If music’s a drug high, it sounds like something of an escape.

Dybek: Nothing wrong with escape if you’re in prison. A lot of my characters are looking to escape the limitations of their lives, so they find “doorways” to step through. Doorways can be drink, drugs, religion, dreams, sex, violence, etc. Music is one. Music changes perception. John Gardner talking about POV has an exercise that asks you to imagine a character looking out a window into a landscape and them imagining how that look out the window changes if the character has just received terrible news. Think of a character looking out a window listening to hip-hop and a character looking out listening to Ravel. I have a story called “The Wake,” in which one of the characters says something like how she’d like to live her life to music because, depending on what’s playing, it changes how one is living.

Here are the opening paragraphs to “Pet Milk”; unfortunately, the New Yorker, where the story first appeared, doesn’t have the entire story online, and the abstract is technically accurate, but ridiculously reductive.

"Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable — compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.

"There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street."

~~From “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek, available in the short story collection, The Coast of Chicago

About Stuart Dybek (from the bio provided by The Missouri Reivew): Stuart Dybek is the author of three books of fiction and two books of poetry. His stories and poems, noted for their intense lyricism, have been reprinted in the Best American series and often deal with the hardships of growing up in the rugged South Side of postwar Chicago. In September 2007, Dybek received the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story, just a day after being awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. He is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I Prefer Index Cards Myself

From an interview with mega-selling novelist Jodi Picoult in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Are characters and stories on your mind all the time?

"When you’re a novelist, you carry your office between your ears. You have their voices with you, they talk to you all the time. I end up writing on my hands if I’m in the car…I used to write on my children, but not anymore, because now they’re older, and bigger than I am. I would lose paper, but I never lost them."

Speaking of index cards and my obsession with office supplies, I’ve been meaning to pass along this recommendation by Rebecca Thomas: “Have you seen all the great products Levenger's ( has for using, storing, etc. index cards? Some great stuff!”

Do You Sell Seashells by the Seashore? Write about It!

Call for submissions: SEA STORIES online journal:

SEA STORIES, an international quarterly online journal, publishes memoir, poetry, and artwork about the sea, coast, and sea-life. Our contributors represent a range of backgrounds and writing levels, from noted writers such as Billy Collins, Charles Fishman, Barbara Crooker, and Tara Masih to fisherwomen from Alaska and students from Seychelles. We're looking for depth and diversity of experience as well as quality of expression. Check out current and back issues at

For full submission information, go to the Submit section of our website. Join us in celebrating all things oceanic!

The Sea Stories Project
Blue Ocean Institute, Chelsea Mansion, 34 Muttontown Lane
P.O. Box 250
East Norwich, NY 11732

Questions: email

Essay Contest for College Students

This $1000 prize could put a small dent in that hefty textbook bill:

How do you define success? Your answer could be worth $1,000! Houghton Mifflin Company invites you to enter the 2009 College Survival Scholarship Essay Contest. Three national winners will be chosen from the United States to receive awards of $1,000 each. Winners will be chosen by Linda Wong, author of Essential Study Skills 6th edition.

How to Apply:

Write an essay answering the question "How Do You Define Success?" This essay should not exceed 750 words.

Submit your essay at

No hard copy submissions will be accepted.

Submit materials no later than December 15, 2008

Three national winners will be announced in Spring 2009.

Questions? Email the Editors at:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Work in Progress: Patience, Grasshopper

I’ve been taking a break from writing, using the time to read a lot of novels and start researching my next novel. But, at a certain point, enough is enough. So this week I decided to get back to real writing.

Now, keep in mind that I’ve been away from serious writing for about a month. And before that, I had spent a year or so purely revising, which is “writing,” of course, but which is very different than coming up with new material, that first draft writing. For me revising is my favorite part of the process, and the first draft part the most torturous (“it’s all so crappy”—yes, because it’s not DONE yet, because it’s always crappy at this point, because you need to REVISE it, because it's a FIRST DRAFT).

So, how would one approach a return to the computer in this case?

Here’s how NOT to approach a return to the computer in this case: I decided to write a personal essay. I had what I thought was a good idea and it seemed like it might be fun to write something different. I forgot that I’ve written, what, maybe three personal essays in my life. They are fun—but also a VERY different form, and it’s a form that doesn’t always come naturally to me. (What do you mean, I can’t make up a character? What do you mean I have to reveal deep personal embarrassing things that actually happened to me, that everyone will know about?)

I spent an hour or so slopping through my good idea and ended up with several pages of a sentimental, tedious, irrelevant college reminiscence that would be of interest to an audience of, oh, let’s say ONE: me. Ugh.

After some back-and-forth in my head about whether I should just push through, and a fair amount of time berating myself for giving up just because things were a little “hard,” I decided to switch over to fiction. Instead of working on some nice little story that I’d had in mind for a while, I decided to leap into an intricately structured, semi-gimmicky, experimental story that would require an iron hand and a perfectly wrought tone if there were any hope of carrying it off.

Hmmm…when one is rusty, it’s kind of hard to latch into that perfectly wrought tone. This I gave about 45 minutes, and the result wasn’t even of interest to me.

Feeling frantic, I abandoned that and started wondering if I’d ever write a word again. Should I become an accountant? A web designer? Darn that Starbucks for closing 600 shops…now the barista option also was suddenly more difficult.

Then I remembered a story idea I’d had sometime last year, a full, developed story that I’d imagined in my head as I was sitting alone in a Chinese restaurant. Scrabbling around on my desk for the scrap of paper where I’d written my extensive notes on this “perfect” story, I found that, unfortunately, the extensive notes consisted of one line, the opening. The beautiful story in my mind was pouf-gone, but the opening line was evocative, so I started with that.

Immediately, I felt better. It wasn’t easy to write this story—and things quickly and definitely deviated from the forgotten “perfect” story I’d imagined—and I could tell that I’d have to clean up a lot of crud later—and I wasn’t sure which tangents would pay off and which would have to be cut…but this was something I could actually do. I was not asking too much of myself on my first time out. I had given up on the grand ideas, on forcing myself to produce something remarkable and startling. I was easing back into the process, not expecting the (alleged) perfection of revision, but simply letting myself flow into the writing, with patience for myself and above all, kindness.

Whatever happens with this story ultimately, at least it has gotten me going and reminded me of why I write. And it’s staved off the CPA classes for now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pietrzyk: What's in a Name?

As you may recall, I’ve started working with a stubborn new computer that may have a stronger will than my own…though slowly I am breaking it. Yesterday I did my first spell-check in a document that contained my last name, and was pleased to see that the only alternate, “change to” spelling that was offered for “Pietrzyk” was “poetry.” My heart melted, and I momentarily stopped cursing the computer for continuing to reject my printer.

Happy Birthday, Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables is turning 100. In Slate, Meghan O’Rourke explores the quietly subversive appeal of this enduring heroine:

"Unlike many other 20th-century children's heroines—Jo of Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, even Nancy Drew—Anne is not just a sensibility incarnate; she has an irreducible human soul. Her inner spiritual life exists utterly apart from the domains of domesticity and romance. She may be capable of telling her best friend, Diana, "I'd rather be pretty than clever," but she is also organically indifferent to the courtship tactics of the popular Gilbert, whose smooth brown eyes wholly disarm the other girls. The immunity of the questing self to the distracting temptations of the flesh is most often an attribute of heroic men, from the hardboiled detectives who pass up luscious blonds to Greek warriors who heed not the sirens. Anne, with her endless wealth of subjectivity, is nobody's object but her own. And she takes the prerogatives of the questing self to be her own. She may enjoy male company—especially as she ages and befriends Gilbert—but the pursuit of it hardly deflects her emotional course.

"As if in reverence for Anne's independence, Montgomery often shows her to the reader in hovering tracking shots. In Anne of the Island, the third volume, Montgomery has Anne looking out a window in one of her lofty moods. "In imagination she sailed over storied seas that wash the distant shining shores of 'faery lands forlorn …' And she was richer in those dreams than in realities; for things seen pass away, but the things that are unseen are eternal." That last idea—that there's no place like the imagination (sorry, Dorothy)—could be the series' credo. (It's also the opposite, it turns out, of L. Frank Baum's more dismal message to Emerald City-infatuated young girls, who are forced to admit that reality consists of a dusty Kansas homestead.) It's unusual for a book about a girl to champion fantasy over the facts of life, such as they were ordinarily defined. This doesn't make Anne an ethereal sprite herself, though. Later in the series, she does grow up. She goes to college, develops her writing, marries Gilbert (but only after he almost dies, and out of abiding friendship, not fear of loneliness), and becomes the mother of six children. Still, the result is a sort of blended family. Her physical offspring have to share the house with her fertile imagination.”

Fall Conference in Richmond

Mark your calendar for this popular conference in Richmond:

JRW Conference 2008: Getting it Write

You know where to go for the inside story on the art, the craft, and the business of writing. James River Writers' Sixth Annual Writers Conference brings together critically-lauded and bestselling authors along with some of the writing world's best editors, agents, and more, all in an intimate setting at the Library of Virginia.

Friday - Saturday, October 10 & 11, 2008
The Library of Virginia
800 East Broad Street

David Baldacci, New York Times Bestselling Author
Adriana Trigiani, Big Stone Gap
Diane Mott Davidson, bestselling author of culinary mysteries
Claudia Emerson, Pulitzer Prize winning poet
Kate Jacobs, author of New York Times best-seller The Friday Night Knitting Club
Kirk Ellis, screenplay, HBO's John Adams
Shannon Ravenel, editor, Algonquin Books
Chuck Adams, editor, Agonquin Books

First Pages Critique
One-on-One with an Agent
One-on-One with a PR team

JRW Member Priority Registration through July 31: $140
General Registration, August 1 through September 1: $140
After September 1: $155
After October 1: one-day tickets, $85/day if seats remain available.

More information and online reservation


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Buyer Beware...But an Intriguing Contest

Of course, we don’t know what kind of promised free “critique” one will get by entering this contest, but still, there’s something enticing about hearing something, anything, beyond the tiny piece of paper that starts, “We appreciate having had the opportunity to read your work….”

Plus, I generally avoid contest with a fee that don’t offer either prestige, a copy of something, or the potential for big bucks.

So, if I haven’t scared you away, do read on. And if you enter, I’d be curious to hear about the outcome, so please keep us posted. (And get cracking—the deadline is July 31.)

Amazing Story Fiction Contest

What do we mean by "Amazing Story," you ask? A story which grabs us by the throat, demanding we pay attention. A story that tugs at our heart strings. Beautiful words with a lyrical quality. A well-written tale, showing the author is a master storyteller. These are some of the elements we're looking for in an Amazing Story.


Every entry will receive a free critique! (Optional: To receive a thorough line edit, enclose an additional $5 per story, plus 9 X 12 SASE with enough postage for returning your story. If entering online, click on one of the options at the bottom of the page.)

DEADLINE: Postmarked by July 31, 2008.

ENTRY FEE: $5 per entry, maximum of three entries.
Checks payable to: The Write Helper. Submissions without entry fee or inadequate fee will be returned to contestant if SASE is provided.

1st Place $100
2nd Place $50
3rd Place $25

RULES:Open subject, open genre. (No erotica or gratuitous violence.)

Unpublished at time of submission, original work of contestant.

Standard manuscript form: 81/2 x 11 paper, typed and double-spaced, pages numbered, 12 point Times New Roman.

No more than 2,000 words, excluding title. Paper clip your story, no staples. Cover sheet for each story, with contestant’s name, address, phone number, email (if you have one), and title of entry. (Name may only appear on cover sheet, not manuscript.)

Postmarked no later than July 31, 2008. DO NOT SEND BY CERTIFIED MAIL!

Mail in 9X12 or large envelope with sufficient postage to:
Amazing Story Contest
c/o Amy Harke-Moore
104 Harke Lane
Old Monroe, MO 63369

Checks payable to: The Write Helper. For electronic submission instructions, go here.

For free critique, enclose either a business-sized SASE or email address so we can get your critique to you. For optional $5 line edit, enclose 9 X 12 SASE with enough postage to return your story.Contest is open to everyone. For a list of winners, check our website: after September 1, 2008.Decision of the judges is final. Not responsible for lost or misdirected entries. Winning entry has the opportunity to be published on our website. Manuscripts will not be returned (unless additional line edit was purchased).

Zoetrope Contest

On the other hand, here’s a contest that is prestigious with a big payout that I recommend looking into. Of course, it’s quite competitive…but someone has to win, right?

Judged by: Elizabeth McCracken

First Prize: $1,000
Second Prize: $500
Third Prize: $250

The winners and seven finalists will be considered for representation by the William Morris Agency, ICM, Regal Literary, the Elaine Markson Literary Agency, Inkwell Management, Sterling Lord Literistic, and the Georges Borchardt Literary Agency.

The deadline is October 1, 2008. The winners and finalists will be announced at this website December 1, 2008, and in the Spring 2009 issue of Zoetrope: All-Story.

Complete Contest Guidelines: We accept all genres of literary fiction. Entries must be: unpublished; strictly 5,000 words or less; postmarked by October 1, 2008; clearly marked "Short Fiction Contest" on both the story and the outside of the envelope; accompanied by a $15 entry fee per story (make checks payable to AZX Publications).

Please include name and address on first page or cover letter only.

There are no formatting restrictions; please ensure only that the story is legible.

We welcome multiple entries ($15/story) and entries from outside the U.S.; please send entry fee in U.S. currency or money order.

While we cannot return manuscripts, we will forward a list of the winning stories to any entrant who includes an SASE; as well, we will e-mail contest updates to anyone who provides an active e-mail address.

Entrants retain all rights to their stories.

Mail entries to:
Zoetrope: All-Story
Attn: Short Fiction Contest
916 Kearny Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

Please e-mail us at with further questions.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Articles of Note

Here, in the Washington Post Book World, Ron Charles reviews Roxanna Robinson’s new novel, Cost, which I read earlier this summer and admired: “With such fierce moments of anxiety and grief, this is, frankly, a challenging novel to read, but Robinson's insight makes it impossible to break away. She has crept into corners of human experience each of us is terrified to approach: the loss of our children, our parents, our minds, the implacable tragedies that shred our sense of how the world should work. Toward the end, Robinson writes, ‘There was now a great silent ringing where the sky had been.’ Like every moment in this novel, that sounds chillingly right.”


My husband Steve gets credit for pointing out this interesting article by novelist Dinaw Mengestu in the Wall Street Journal, about being an expat writer in Paris nowadays, vs. the glory days when Ernest Hemingway and the others were hanging out, working, drinking, shooting the breeze at the cafes: “It's hard if not inevitable now to think of that previous generation of writers and not romanticize them and their lives here a bit: to think of yourself sitting under a bright light at a table in the back of the elegant Café de Flore, in shouting distance of Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, or to have been on the terrace at the neighboring Les Deux Magots when James Baldwin and Richard Wright reportedly had a heated argument about an essay Baldwin had written excoriating Wright's ‘Native Son.’ … If Baldwin and Wright were to sit down today to two cups of coffee on the terrace of Les Deux Magots to argue about an essay, their bill, without tip, would be almost $15.”

Title Trivia

Did you know this about the title of Walt Whitman’s masterwork? I didn’t:

“On [July 4] in 1855, the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was printed. It consisted of 12 poems and a preface. The printers were friends of his, and they did not charge Whitman for their work. He helped set some of the type himself. "Grass" is a printer's term; it refers to a casual job that can be set up between busy times.”

Thanks, Writer’s Almanac, for the info!

Beltway: New Issue & ISO Poems About Museums

The online poetry journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly has a new issue online and ready for your attention and admiration, found right here.

The Forebears Issue includes essays that celebrate individuals and locations important to their writing:

a photo essay on DC AUTHORS' HOUSES by Kim Roberts and Dan Vera
Taquiena Boston and Vera J. Katz on OWEN DODSON
M.A. Schaffner on AMBROSE BIERCE
Grace Cavalieri on ANN DARR
Kathi Morrison-Taylor on JOAQUIN MILLER
Merrill Leffler on GABRIELLE EDGCOMB
Elisavietta Ritchie on JOHN PAUKER

This issue is the third in a series documenting the rich literary history of Washington, DC.

Call for submissions:
Additionally, Beltway is happy to announce that Maureen Thorson has agreed to co-edit a new themed issue of the journal, on the subject of museums. We invite poems on the theme from any poets currently living in DC, MD, VA, WV, or DE, and will be reading entries throughout the month of August. Full guidelines can be found here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Guest in Progress: Justin Nicholes

Once you finish the book, what to do with it? It’s important to remember that a book can take many paths, and the “high-powered New York agent” path is only one choice of many, and perhaps not even the best path. Here’s a discussion of the benefits of taking another approach to sending your precious novel out into the world.

Justin Nicholes was the very first guest essayist on Work-in-Progress; you can read his earlier piece here, where you’ll learn that place has exerted a strong pull on his writing. So it’s no surprise that he has ended up teaching in China, the second of the MFA students I worked with in my visiting writer position at Wichita State University who has done so (the first has written of his experiences here). Something in the air, perhaps?

Underground Intrigue, and Forwarders of the Craft: Going with a Small Press for a Debut Novel
by Justin Nicholes

When Another Sky Press sent me an email last year saying they loved my debut novel and wanted to publish it, I didn’t hesitate. The advantages of going with a small press weren’t all clear to me then, but what was clear was the enthusiasm the people at this press were showing. Communicating with the press through the Internet while I was in China (teaching for several months in Xinzheng City and just living and writing in bustling Beijing), I worked through more than ten additional revisions of the entire novel (at the word, sentence, and sometimes organizational levels) before Ash Dogs was published on June 15th, 2008, and this was after spending four years of writing several drafts, three of which happened with the help of writers at Wichita State’s MFA program. In general, if this press is representative, small presses have something unique at stake with each release, put unheard of energy into the production of novels, and get writers in touch with other dedicated artists hungry for recognition.

Small presses care a lot about engaging the writer in the process of putting out a novel. For me, this harmonized with my concept of the kind of writer and editor I’ve decided to be. The online literary journal I’m a fiction editor for, Our Stories, interviewed T.C. Boyle this year, and when asked what he thought of the Our Stories mission of commenting on every single story submitted to us, part of Boyle’s response was, “How do you find the time?” It’s true that commenting on every writer’s story takes time, and no other journal I know of does it, but the reason we do this is the same reason small presses like Another Sky do what they do: it’s exhilarating to encourage writers to revise. As anyone can imagine, we get many email messages thanking us for taking the time to read stories carefully and comment on them. Another Sky gave my manuscript to several readers, and on many mornings I would start up my computer, placed on a desk by a window overlooking part of Beijing’s cityscape, and sharpen sentences or paragraphs, or not, according to readers’ suggestions.

Yet what a small press can do for a writer, especially, perhaps, writers just out of an MFA looking to place their debut novels, isn’t unprecedented. Some of the most admired writers I know of are admired partly because of the energy they’ve shown to others. It’s easy in almost every area of life to compete instead of cooperate. Leslie Pietrzyk, who visited Wichita State in 2005, inspired me and my classmates to nod and agree for at least a year after she finished that here was the kind of writing teacher worth modeling ourselves after.* Think also of the legend of John Gardner, just as recognized for his fiction as for his books on craft as well as the time he spent with his students. Coincidentally, I was lucky to find at Wichita State one of Gardner’s students, Richard Spilman, and I suspect it’s no accident that he had the passion to read and comment on approximately 1,000 pages worth of drafts and revisions of Ash Dogs while I was there, sometimes meeting with me in the summer on his own time.

And let’s not underestimate the way small presses bring together hungry artists with an intimacy that seems unique. I was in touch with the cover artist, Mike McGovern, for my debut, as well as with writers already published by Another Sky. Then there are the reviewers online whose magazines and blogs get numbers of hits that publishers, big and small, can’t deny. Also the fact that I was able to submit my manuscript online from China helps show how the Internet has become an efficient and powerful networking tool for the serious artist.

In the end, and most important, going with a small press absolutely should not seem like a compromise because you’ll still find people dedicated principally to craft at these presses. The goal should be to find dedicated, serious people wherever you look to place your work. For my debut novel, I found these people at a small press. ~~Justin Nicholes

About: Justin Nicholes, from Ashtabula County, Ohio, has appeared in American Poets Abroad, Mikrokosmos, and Karamu. He got his MFA from Wichita State and is a fiction editor with the literary journal Our Stories. His debut novel, Ash Dogs, was released through Another Sky Press (June 15th, 2008). He currently teaches writing in Xinzheng City, in the Henan Province of China.

*Editor’s Note: I did NOT insert this! I certainly appreciate the wonderful compliment.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Work in Progress: Calm Down!

As you may recall, I finished up my revisions on THE ARRIVAL and am now waiting (calmly—ha, ha!) to hear from my agent. To distract myself, I decided to start doing some research on the novel idea I’ve had for about a year, so I’ll be ready when it’s time to launch into that one. Plus, research has the added benefit of feeling useful while also allowing one to take a break from actual writing.

So far, the research has been mostly fun: The novel I’m thinking about tackling will be set in 1900, so I’ve been learning a whole patch of history that my fine education glossed over (Spanish-American War—what’s that? Invasion of the Philippines—huh? Labor unrest—back then?).

Along with history, I’m pondering the multitude of Grand Themes of my novel: man vs. nature, life and death, war and peace, and so on. It’s the most wonderful time of the process because everything sounds possible (in my mind, which is why I’m being vague about specifics), and the unformed book feels as though it could be brilliant. Plenty of time later for me to realize my personal flaws and the difficulty of what I’m trying to do. For now, this is the best book about to be written!

Of course, it’s not all intellectual pursuit and great ponderings. While reading musty library books and taking notes on, yes, my beloved index cards, I also keep part of my mind floating around in the world of my characters: Who are they? What do they want? What might their names be? What do they look like? Where do they live?

So I was feeling pretty good, thinking I have this early process “under control” (when will I learn that nothing writing-related is “under control”?), when I read this must-read post about plotting on agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. (Thanks to Just Like the Nut for steering me here.)

I knew I’d forgotten something: the PLOT! Great themes, interesting history, and characters with names are not enough…there must be action! People must be doing something! You've got to have an arc!

I shoved aside the musty library books and dove into the writing books with one thought in mind: “Must find plot.” You may be surprised to hear that while it’s always helpful to read through some good writing books, they don’t really tell you what your plot should be…at least not in the helpful, “here it is, Leslie,” outline form I was looking for.

Despair. I was ready to give up on my new idea. How far could I get with no action?

What I forgot was at this stage of the process, everything is working even when you don’t see it…in fact, that’s the best work of all, the way your subconscious mind is not “under control.” But it’s there, quietly helping your search, if you simply allow enough time and space to let it do its thing.

Several days later, I randomly opened a small notebook in my purse and came across a single sentence that I had written about this book idea maybe six months ago. Right then, an idea literally popped into my head. Okay, it’s not a handy plot in an outline form that I can plunk my Grand Themes into. But it was an action I hadn’t imagined, and it surprised me with its exact rightness.

Back to the musty library books. Back to the lesson I learn again and again: faith is perhaps the most important aspect of writing…faith in yourself, and above all, faith in the process.

Gettysburg--the Battle, Not the Review

The Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1 in 1863, later inspiring what I consider to be the most brilliant and perfect speech in American history. Read more here.

And, while we're on the subject, The Gettysburg Review is a darn good journal, too!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Flash Fiction Class Offered

Here’s a class that’s sure to be excellent: C. M. Mayo's one day only “Flash Fiction” workshop at the Writer’s Center.

Description: Flash, or micro-fictions are stories as short as six and as long as, say, 1,000 words. Though a genre with a distinguished tradition, flash fiction is perfectly suited for blogging and podcasting. For both beginning and advanced writers, this workshop will focus on improving your fiction-writing craft and generating new material. Suggested reading prior to the workshop: Dinty W. Moore, ed., Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Miniscule Fiction.

Saturday, July 26th, 1 PM – 4 PM
Details and registration information are here.

About C.M. Mayo: C.M. Mayo is the author of the forthcoming novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books); Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (Milkweed Editions), and Sky Over El Nido (University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her many other awards include three Lowell Thomas Awards for travel writing, three Washington Writing Prizes, and numerous fellowships, among them, to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her work has appeared in many outstanding literary journals, among them, Chelsea, Creative Nonfiction, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Paris Review, and Tin House. An avid translator of contemporary Mexican literature, she is also founding editor of Tameme and editor of Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. For more about C.M. Mayo and her work, visit

She is also the author of "Giant Golden Buddha" & 364 More 5 Minute Writing Exercises, which are free, "get you moving writing exercises," found on-line right here

"Stress City" Launch Set for July 25

Mark your calendar for this “can’t miss” reading:

Editor Richard Peabody invites you to the Launch of Stress City: A Big Book of Fiction by 51 DC Guys at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, on Friday, July 25th at 7pm.

Join us and celebrate with a panel discussion about writing fiction in this particular time and place, featuring eight of the contributors: R. R. Angell, Juan H. Gaddis, Brian Gilmore, Dave Housley, Charles R. Larson, Alex MacLennan, Richard McCann, and David Nicholson.
Moderators: Rose Solari and Jim Patterson

About the anthology:“The dean of D.C.’s alternative press has compiled a vast compendium of excellence, wildness, and wonder. Perhaps somewhat predictably, I was drawn to the tales of predatory female werewolves and homicidal dogs preaching Lutheran gospel, but pretty much everybody else is here too: the downtown shrimp shack hostesses, the suburban minimum security prison escapees and the closeted death metal deacons. Nixon even wanders through, walking along the beach on his way to reincarnation. There are Vietnamese charades, hippie narcs, monkish visions of Buddhist clarity, and one loser babysitter who brings the kid along to the strip club. Sometimes surreal, often moving, and even more often perfectly hilarious, the work collected here makes D.C.’s literary presence a force to be reckoned with. It’s as powerful as John Riggins’s shoulders, as strong as a shot at Millie and Al’s, and as fun as watching the pandas get it on at the National Zoo. Well done guys.” – Toby Barlow, author of Sharp Teeth

Stress City is a core sample of the D.C. male psyche, a tube that comes out striated with the compacted layers of what's on these guys' minds: death, race, sex, death, race, sex, death, traffic, sex.... makes me feel like I never left. Recommended for Washingtonians past and present." – Jordan Ellenberg, author of The Grasshopper King

"Werewolves, installation artists taking over Arlington, jilted Hare Krishnas out for murderous revenge...this isn't George Bush's Washington. In Stress City, D.C.'s small press conscience Richard Peabody has assembled a monument to the underdogs of the nation's capitol. This anthology is as poignant and truth telling as any 'official' history and way way more fun." – Hal Niedzviecki, author of Hello, I’m Special and The Program

A Complete List of Authors included in this 500pp monster of a book:
R. R. Angell, Scott W. Berg, Sean Brijbasi, Peter Brown, Kenneth Carroll, Theodore Carter, Christopher Colston, Richard Currey, Kevin Downs, David Everett, Mark Farrington, Juan H. Gaddis, William E. Garrison, Frank Gatling, Brian Gilmore, John Guernsey, James Harper, Dave Housley, Bill Jackson, Dennis Jones, Matthew Kirkpatrick, Len Kruger, Robert Lang, Charles R. Larson, Nathan Leslie, Peter Levine, Greg Lipscomb, Eric Lotke, Alex MacLennan, Joe Martin, James Mathews, Richard McCann, Matthew L. Moffett, Richard Morris, Kermit Moyer, Terence M. Mulligan, Andrew Nachison, David Nicholson, Jim Patterson, Jim Reed, Jeff Richards, B. B. Riefner, Lewis K. Schrager, Matthew Summers-Sparks, D. A. Taylor, Ross Taylor, Robichaud S. Thorstensen, Tim Wendel, Jim Williamson, Terence Winch, and James Zug.

Reading details:
Friday, July 25, 2008
7 p.m.
Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20008
Directions on their site at:

Does Entering Your Kid Make You a "Page Mother"?

Hey, kids—get your start in the exciting whirlwind of life as a Real Writer!

Contest for Young Writers Ages 10 to 18*
Deadline:August 15, 2008
Entry Fee: NONE

Prizes:1st, 2nd, 3rd Place, and Honorable Mentions will be selected for Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, and Poetry in each category; First place winners will be published in the November Delaware Beach Life magazine.

Categories: Middle School Students, ages 10 to 13
High School Students, ages 14 to 18

* writers do not have to be Delaware residents

Contest Rules: Each story or essay must be 1,500 words or less. Up to 3 poems per entry or 150 lines.Type the entry title on a separate cover sheet with your name, address, age you will be on June 15, 2007, name of school, home phone number and email address. Indicate whether the entry is FICTION or CREATIVE NONFICTION or POETRY and the number of words or lines.

Age category will be determined by age of author on June 15, 2008.

There is no entry fee for this contest. Enter as often as you wish, but mail each entry separately.

All entries must be typed in 12-point font. They must be original, unpublished, and not submitted elsewhere until the winners are announced.

No email entries. Submit entry via regular mail on single-sided 8-1/2 x 11 white paper. Entries will not be returned. All entries must be postmarked by August 15, 2008.

Winners will be notified by September 30, 2008. If you have not been contacted by this date, you may assume that your entry is not a finalist. First-place winners in each category will be published in the November issue of Delaware Beach Life. Other submissions may be published in local newspapers. Winners' names and story titles will appear on our web site by September 30, 2008.

MAIL ENTRIES TO: Rehoboth Beach Writer's Guild Young Writers Contest
PO Box 1326
Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971

Reading and reception will be held in November for all participants, their parents, and teachers.


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