Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Guest in Progress: Dan Elish

I am off to the annual AWP Conference in New York City (7,500 writers in one place—angst and gossip galore) and should be back to blogging on Tuesday. In the mean time, I’m sure you’ll love the following piece.


My dear friend Dan Elish is a man of many talents: children’s author, literary author, fabulous piano player, Broadway musical expert, NYC subway system expert, and in general, an all-around great guy. I met him way back when at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and though we lost touch for a short time, once we were reunited, again at Bread Loaf (thank you, Bread Loaf!), we became immediately, and firmly, rebonded for life. We’ve shared literary woes and literary gossip and dating woes and dating gossip. Fortunately, our personal lives have come to rest in calmer waters and don't require quite as many intense, late-night phone calls. (In that wonderful, what-we’re-looking-for way, not that dull way!)

Professionally, though, Dan is having a rollicking, roller coaster of a banner year. Not only did his new children’s novel, The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks, just come out to rave reviews (you can see for yourself here, from my hometown fave, the Washington Post), but his new adult novel, The Misadventures of Justin Hearnfeld, will be also published this year on April 15. (By adult novel, I mean novel for adults, not “adult novel”!) The book has already received some love here from Publisher’s Weekly.

So, how does one handle the varied demands of writing for those two very different audiences…I mean, without going totally crazy? Dan shares the scoop in this amusing essay:

When I started my career writing children's novels, I was perfectly happy to come up with stories that featured roller-skating apple pies and talking squirrels. But somewhere in my mid-thirties a friend suggested that I might be able to write a funny book about the New York single scene. That idea turned into Nine Wives, my first novel. Today, I'm doing both simultaneously. Sometimes it's strange to switch gears between the two genres. My latest children's novel, The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks, stars a group of New York City kids who save the Universe from a horde of giant frozen woodchucks. My forthcoming novel, The Misadventures of Justin Hearnfeld, tells the story of a hapless young man who is lured back to teach at the private school he attended as a student and hated. Both were fun to write. Both posed different problems. Here are four differences between writing for adults and kids.

1. Cursing. There is nothing more frustrating when writing for children than getting to the point where a character is really, really pissed off. More than anything, I want to type, "Fuck off, asshole!" Unfortunately, that has to get toned down to things like, "Good Grief!" or "That's insanity!" Perhaps it's the sign of a writer's skill to be able to express emotion without relying on obvious epithets, but sometimes an author simply has to be able to type the word, "Shit!"

2. Setting. Along with putting together a fun story with good characters, a children's writer has to create and populate entire imaginary worlds. After years of writing for kids, Nine Wives was a welcome break. The story follows a thirty-two year old writer in New York City who is desperate to get married. Though I maintain that the details of the book are made up (and they are), the backdrop of the story – the setting – came directly out of my life. For instance, the protagonist was trying to write a musical version of The Great Gatsby (I used to write musicals).* He also worked as a proofreader (so did I). In other words, I didn't have to make believable a world where polar bears could talk or make the reader care about who won a dessert contest. I could simply do my best to write a funny novel using what I knew. After years of avoiding adult fiction, it was a relief to feel that at least one aspect of the task was easier.

3. The blurbs. When Nine Wives was accepted for publication my editor was thrilled to discover that I had spent many years working at The Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. "We need you to call your author friends and get blurbs," he said. "We need you to do it now." So began the embarrassing quest to badger people I knew before they became well-known. A flurry of emails went out that generally started. "Hey, remember me?" and quickly led to a request to read and endorse my book. Some agreed and I thank them profusely. But all in all, it was torture. The good news is that kids' books don't generally rely on blurbs to sell. I have never once had to bug a friend or acquaintance to put aside moments from their busy lives to read two hundred pages about frozen woodchucks. I guess that's good. Now that it's published I can bug them to buy it.

4. How People React To You. I'm sorry to say it but there are people on this planet who just don't understand the skill and yes, talent, it takes to write a good children's fiction. Mention, "I write children's novels" at a cocktail party and one out of five people will be unintentionally insulting. I remember a reading I gave at Bread Loaf of my novel The Great Squirrel Uprising. First, I gave a detailed plot summary. I then informed the audience that I would be reading from chapter fourteen. The next day a woman stopped me on the way to lunch and said, "Oh, I loved your little picture book." Picture book!?! With fourteen chapters!?! One might accuse me of being overly sensitive. But it's still depressing to work hard and be misunderstood or worse, condescended to. Of course, most people have been incredibly nice about my kids' books. But the simple truth is that adult writers get more respect. Upon the publication of Nine Wives, more than one friend who should've known better asked me, "So how does it feel to finally be a published author?"

At such moments, I take a deep breath and try not to scream. ~~Dan Elish

About: Dan Elish is the author of novels for both kids and adults, most recently of The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks and the forthcoming The Misadventures of Justin Hearnfeld. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

*Editor’s Note: The book is incredibly funny, but this part is absolutely hilarious!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

C.M. Mayo Offers Workshop & Online Writing Exercises

C.M. Mayo, my friend and blogger extraordinaire (check out Madam Mayo), is offering a one day workshop on Literary Travel Writing at the Writers Center in Bethesda, MD, this February 10th. To register, go here.

Catherine was in my fabulous writing group for many years, and I learned a lot from her (among other things, she’s a master of evocative description), so I highly recommend any class she’s teaching. You can get a taste for her innovative approach to teaching through the series of five minute writing exercises she came up with, one for each day of the year. Check them out here and get inspired!

Richmond Event: Writer, Edit Thyself!

Here’s an interesting event down in Richmond, sponsored by James River Writers and the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The Writing Show: Writer, Edit Thyself!

Want to put your best word forward? Then you need to learn to be your own best editor. The January Writing Show features critically acclaimed authors Tom DeHaven, Dean King, and Andrew Corsello, representing fiction, nonfiction, and journalism, discussing their techniques, tricks, and disciplines for cleaning up their writing before anyone else sees it.

Meet Your Best Editor: You
Dean King, author of Skeletons on the Zahara
Tom DeHaven, author of It's Superman and other novels
Andrew Corsello, National Magazine Award-winning writer for GQ
Novelist David L. Robbins will moderate.

Thursday, January 31, 2008
The Eureka Theater
Science Museum of Virginia
6 PM JRW Member Reception
6:30 PM Writing Show Begins

$10 or $5 students with valid school ID
Register online at

Monday, January 28, 2008

Who Loves Short-Shorts?

Here’s another short-short fiction contest; I think these catch my eye because I’m so impressed with the idea that people (not me!) can write a compelling fiction that doesn't take 350 pages and five years to write (i.e. my current novel-in-endless-progress).

One of my favorite short-shorts is “Children of Strikers,” by Fred Chappell. I couldn’t find it online, but here’s a paragraph from the introduction to Chappell’s book, Moments of Light, written by Annie Dillard:

“In 'Children of Strikers,' Chappell makes manifest, vividly and subtly, the real and grave nature of human suffering. This is a brilliant story whose narrative gradually uncovers its own locus. We wake, as the children wake, to the import of what they have found by the roadside; but we know, as they do not, what it means about the world. The many layers of this story separate the reader from pain while forcing him, unaware, to seek it out at the center of the narrative riddle, and forcing him to find it, accidentally as it were, at the center of human experience.”

All this in 4 pages or so. A remarkable story, and one that always provokes conversation in a writing class. More info here.

Now that you’re properly inspired, here’s the contest:

The 2008 Just Desserts Short-Short Fiction Prize
First Prize: $1000
Two Honorable Mentions
1000-word maximum
Entry Fee: $10 for up to two stories
Judge: Liza Wieland

Liza Wieland has published four works of fiction: two novels,The Names of the Lost, (Southern Methodist University Press,1992) and Bombshell (SMU, 2001), and two collections of short fiction, Discovering America (Random House,1994) and You Can Sleep While I Drive (SMU, 1999), as well as a volume of poems, Near Alcatraz (Cherry Grove Collections, 2005). She has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council.

Deadline: FEBRUARY 15, 2008

Send Submissions to:
Fiction Contests, Passages North
Northern Michigan University, Gries Hall
1401 Presque Isle Ave.
Marquette, MI 49855

All entrants receive contest issue. Send SASE for announcement of winners. Make checks payable to Northern Michigan University. More info here.

Congratulations to Paula Whyman!

Some good news: Paula Whyman, who has written memorably for the blog about wrestling with a novel in progress that wasn’t quite progressing (here) and attending the Tin House Writers’ Conference (here), has a new website, which you can check out here. (Don’t miss the fabulous photos of her home-baked bread and samples of her short fiction!)

And, even more exciting, she has shared with me the news that she just been awarded a (well-deserved!) 2008 Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Guest in Progress: Judy Leaver

I met Judy Leaver through the DC Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association (the first WNBA!), which is a fabulous networking group that has introduced me to a lot of wonderful people. (You can join, too—yes, men, too!—and start meeting some of these wonderful people as well. More info is here, and there are WNBA chapters in other cities if you don’t live in the DC area.) Do be sure to read Judy’s bio below: she has carved out for herself a remarkable and bold life of change and choice.

I am grateful that she has offered to debut here her poem about the writing process. What she alludes to is not always a pleasant part of the process, but one that for most of us, must be contended with. How do we ever get over that feeling of “not good enough”? Many writers think that publication will solve that problem: “If my book/story/poem is published, I’ll vanquish those fears.” In my experience, publication may nudge aside those fears momentarily, but it’s not really a solution.

In many ways, writing my second book (A Year and a Day) was made even more difficult because of the publication of my first (Pears on a Willow Tree). The mental anguish sounded like this: How can I live up to that novel? When will they realize it was a mistake to have published that book? I can never write anything like that again, can I? What if no one likes this one? And so on…no doubt you’re familiar with those dark-of-the-night thoughts that haunt so many writers, whether they come from ourselves or they're voices we've heard externally for all our lives.

Don’t get me wrong…having work published is very, very nice! It’s just that being a “published author” does not solve every issue in your life; whatever you have achieved, you will want more (even if you think you won’t, I’m pretty sure you will): writers in the Best American Short Stories collection want a National Book Award; writers with National Book Awards long for Pulitzers; writers with Pulitzers ache for a Nobel; and I suspect those Nobel winners want something too…immortality? To be Shakespeare? More readers? The only end is to accept as best you can that the reward must be in the process, in the writing: in the craft and art of what you are creating.

Here’s Judy’s thoughtful poem:

Hiding My Light

I hide my light
under a bushel of
relentless editor
chirping in my ear
in mean harmony with
critical-mother tapes
that grind holes in
my courage, and
clucking, head-shaking
drill-sergeant teachers
who think they know
I’ll not amount to much,
so they gnaw inside
my gut like rodents
plowing their way
through pink insulation
to let the cold seep in
and freeze my words.
~~Judy Leaver

About: Judy Leaver has been freelancing as a writer since September of 2000. Following a 20-year career in social work and human services, she traded pantyhose for sweats, deadly staff meetings for purring cats, and a predictable paycheck for one that is more elusive. She works from her light-filled living room overlooking Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill and writes almost anything people will pay her to write.

Her creative writing includes poetry, essays, short stories, and untold vignettes and snippets that still may morph into a great American novel. She has participated in a writing group that is twelve years strong, and in the spring of 2004 was selected to participate in the Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop at George Washington University, under the tutelage of poet Rick Barot. Her nonfiction has been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. More information on Judy can be found at her web site.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

More on the Beauty of Index Cards

I recently wrote this post about my fondness for index cards as a way to help focus my thoughts during the revision of my novel and wanted to pass along some additional ideas that were suggested.

Anna Leahy, who wrote about her work on her novel in progress here, reports, “I think I'll use your idea for my next round of revision, do a read-through of the whole manuscript with index cards handy for questions. Maybe I'll also send my ‘readers’ (my sister, a ‘real’ reader, is going to read the revision) a set of index cards. I can see how this would be good in drafting, too, when you're on a roll with a scene but can't think of a specific detail (the name of a movie, which day WWI was declared, whatever)--you could type XXX in the draft, jot the page number and question on an index card, and finish the scene.”

I like the idea of helping “real readers,” who may be unfamiliar with the workshop model, come up with a useful way to express their observations and questions. (And again, never underestimate the fun of office supplies during the writing process!)

Anna also reports that her partner, Douglas Dechow, is really taking the office supply idea to heart, thinking that “he may use index cards to jot down character backgrounds in conjunction with drafting--each character gets a different color index card; he'll write notes about each character's parentage, for instance, on one card and education on another; then, he can see parallels or tensions among his four most central characters; and of course, he'll have documentation without feeling pressure to include all of that in the draft.”

I’m totally inspired and will have to add a trip to Staples to this week’s list of errands!

Western Writers' Conference Competition for Emerging Writers

Maybe you’d like to go to a writer’s conference this summer. Here’s a chance to win a fellowship and go for free…even if you don’t already have eighty zillion publications!

Call for Summer Fellowships
Each year, Fishtrap, Inc. awards up to five Fellowships for Summer Fishtrap, held every July at Wallowa Lake, Oregon. Awards are made on the basis of writing submission only, and are not limited to or made because of the genre. In a given year, awards might all go to poets, or to fiction writers, or to non-fiction writers; in fact they go out in different combinations each year, based on the judge's selection of best writing.

Fellowships cover the cost of a workshop, registration for the Gathering, and food and lodging for the week. Awards are made on the basis of writing submission only, and are not limited to any one genre. Fellowships cover the cost of a workshop, registration for the Gathering, and food and lodging for the week. A small travel stipend is also included.

It is the goal of Fishtrap's Fellowship program to recognize and encourage emerging writers. Previous Fellows include novelists Kathleen Tyau and Michael FitzGerald, poets Charles Goodrich and Marilyn Johnston, short fiction writer Kelly Magee, and non-fiction writer Ellie Waterston.

Because we now receive a high volume of Fellowship applications, we are unable to acceptapplications that don't follow the guidelines stated below. PLEASE NOTE THAT WE DO NOT ACCEPT ELETRONIC SUBMISSIONS. Thanks for reading these guidelines carefully.

Here's what to include in your Fellowship application:
A writing sample:
--Material can be published or unpublished but MUST be in manuscript form, typed or printed–double-spaced for prose.

--Writer's name MUST NOT appear anywhere on the manuscript.

--Prose –fiction or non-fiction– 2500 words maximum; poetry 8 pages maximum

--If the work is from a book-length manuscript, you may send a half-page introduction in additionto the 2500 word selection.

--DO NOT FOLD. Please use a 9' x 12' envelope to mail your manuscript flat.

--Brief author's bio:-The bio is not used in judging, but in publicizing winners.

--Self addressed stamped postcard. Please include if you'd like to be notified upon receipt of your manuscript.

--SASE if you want your manuscript returned to you. Make sure it has sufficient postage. If you do not provide a SASE with sufficient postage we'll dispose of the manuscript.

Fellowship applications must be postmarked no later than February 4, 2008. Awards will be made by March 15.

Mail your application to: Fishtrap, PO Box 38, Enterprise, OR 97828

All applications will be read by the preliminary judging panel of current and/or past members of the Fishtrap Board of Directors. Final judging will be done by 2008 faculty members. None of the judges will see any information about the applicant, only the manuscript.

More information here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Activist Poetry

Here are some items of interest about Split This Rock Poetry Festival. First, you can read some of the work of the featured activist poets in Washington’s premiere online poetry journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Save the date for some upcoming readings. And finally, the festival itself is open for registration. All the details are below:

From Beltway Poetry Quarterly:

We begin 2008 with a rousing new issue of the journal, celebrating political poetry "borne out of a hunger." The Split This Rock Issue features seventeen poets who are participating in the upcoming festival of the same name, either as organizers or readers.

As co-editor Regie Cabico writes in his introduction, these poets sing "about gentrification, pop culture, immigration, war, heritage, disability, history and American iconography" to create a home "in the gut of a government that should hear, swallow, and ingest verses of provocation and witness."

The Split This Rock Issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly features poems by the following authors:

Winona Addison * Naomi Ayala * Sarah Browning * Grace Cavalieri * Teri Ellen Cross * Heather Davis * Joel Dias-Porter * Yael Flusberg * Brian Gilmore * E. Ethelbert Miller * Princess of Controversy * Tanya Snyder * Susan Tichey * Melissa Tuckey * Dan Vera * Rosemary Winslow * Kathi Wolfe

The Split This Rock Issue (Volume 9, Number 1), is co-edited by Regie Cabico and Kim Roberts. The issue is available online now here.

Additionally, the following Beltway Poetry/Split This Rock Poetry readings are scheduled:

Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 6:00 pm
Split This Rock Poetry Festival Reading, sponsored by Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Featured readers: Brian Gilmore, Melissa Tuckey, Heather Davis, and Steve Rogers. Followed by open mic.

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

Sunday, March 16, 4:00 pm
Sunday Kind of Love Reading Series: Split This Rock Festival Reading sponsored by Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Featured readers: Winona Addison, Naomi Ayala, Teri Ellen Cross, Yael Flusberg, Tanya Snyder, Dan Vera, Rosemary Winslow, and Kathi Wolfe. Followed by open mic.

Busboys and Poets, 14th & V Streets, NW, DC. (202) 387-POET. Free Admission, although contributions are gratefully accepted. Guest hosts: Kim Roberts and Regie Cabico.

From Split This Rock Poetry Festival:

We are pleased to announce that registration for Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, is now open. Register online at:

Register by March 10 and save. Before March 10, registration will be $75 and $40 for students. After March 10, the fee will rise to $85, and $50 for students. Your registration fee will include admission to all festival activities including readings, workshops, panels, receptions, film screenings, and open mics. Walking tours of literary DC are also included, but you must sign up when you register. Each tour is limited to 25, first come, first served.

Please consider an additional gift to help others attend. Split This Rock is a grassroots event and we need everyone’s support to make it a success. We have sponsorship levels to fit every budget. See details and give a gift here:

Scholarships are available. Guidelines for application can be found online at:

SpaceShare – Split Your Car, Split Your Room, Go Green – Thanks to the generous partnership of SpaceShare, you can find a hotel roommate or a home stay arrangement, share space in your car, find a ride, or offer a room in your home. Just go to to sign up.

Register today! We look forward to seeing you in March at Split This Rock, the historic gathering of activist poets.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Check Out: Conference Scholarship, Publishing Opportunity, MFA Programs

AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) has sent along the following announcements about their award program for unpublished books, a scholarship competition for those wishing to attend a literary conference, and resources for people researching graduate writing programs:

Writers’ Conferences & Centers is conducting its annual competition to provide scholarships for writers who wish to attend a writers' conference, center, retreat, or residency. The scholarships will be applied to fees to attend any of the over 100 members of WC&C, an association of outstanding conferences, centers, retreats, and festivals for writers.

The deadline for the WC&C Competition is March 30, 2008. Two scholarships of $500 will be awarded. To enter the competition, please follow the guidelines listed on our web site.

The Award Series now welcomes submissions to AWP's annual book-length literary competition for the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the AWP Award for the Novel. Winning authors receive an honorarium from AWP and publication by a participating press.

Former students of an Award Series judge are not eligible to enter the competition in the genre that the judge (and former teacher) is evaluating. The postmark deadline for the 2008 Award Series is from January 1 to February 28. See our web site for a list of judges, presses, past winners, complete guidelines, and the required form for submitting your work.

We have launched our new online Guide to Writing Programs! Search for graduate or undergraduate creative writing programs by location, degrees offered, concentrations of study, current faculty and more. Details here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Guest in Progress: Paula Whyman

Of all the questions a novelist faces, perhaps the hardest is to know when to give up and when to keep going. Our minds are a swirl of conflicting thoughts: Push through…but it’s not working…fix it…give up…don’t be a quitter...should writing be such torture? And in this difficult moment, all we long for is a bit of clarity. Unfortunately, the advice we’re most frequently given is along the “you’ll know it when you see it” variety. Oh, gee, thanks…you’ve been SOOOO helpful! And we’re left pulling out our hair.

Paula Whyman recently finished her first novel, and here’s her take on the matter. (You can read Paula’s previous Guest in Progress piece, a report on the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, here.)

Are novels-in-progress like relationships? How do you know when you’ve reached a dead end?

A few years ago, I was in the middle of writing what I had come to refer to as the Incredible Shrinking Novel. I’d been working on it for about two years, not counting the year I spent researching it. I would routinely write 50 pages and then cut 30 of them. By the time I reached the stage of existential crisis, I’d probably written, cumulatively, 300 pages and kept only about 65 of them. I had lofty goals when I started that book: I wanted to demonstrate the decline of a human population that was mirrored by the decline of the natural world. I wanted to write a novel that played out theories of island biogeography which I thought (and still think) would have serious implications for how we manage the environment. I had all these characters and subplots set in motion, I had a story that took place over three generations, I had medicinal plants, mysterious deaths, long-lost half-siblings, and incest. I even had a chapter that was written from the point-of-view of a lizard. Seriously. But the more I wrote, the less I liked, and the less success I had figuring out what to do about it. It came to the point where, even though I knew there were things about the book that worked really well, I dreaded looking at it every morning. The working title of this novel was Captivity, and that came to be an apt description for my situation. I was held prisoner by the book; I felt like after all that time and effort, I wasn’t “allowed” to just stop. Wasn’t persistence supposed to be the key? Weren’t rough patches to be expected? Was this a rough patch or the San Andreas Fault?

Meanwhile, there was an idea that had been nagging at me for a while, a character I was interested in who wasn’t in my book and wouldn’t belong anywhere in my book, because he already had his own story, or at least the makings of one, and he lived in the suburbs, not on a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t get this character and his story out of my mind, but I thought it was only because I was so frustrated with my novel and that I should press on and not let other ideas distract me. Then, I attended a lecture by the fabulous Alice McDermott at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in which she talked about just this issue. It turns out that she’s always working on two books at once. She was working on another project when she had the idea for her novel That Night. She finished That Night instead, and the rest, as they say, is history.

She’ll probably never know it, but Alice McDermott gave me the permission I needed. The next day, I set aside Captivity, and began to investigate the character whom I’d been so curious about. Who knows? Maybe at some point I’ll go back to the other book—I’m still intrigued by the idea behind it, and I’m still interested in the characters—but with this new book, things were very different. Of course there were difficult points where I wasn’t sure what direction to take (that’s always the hardest part for me, deciding which way to go when there are a hundred options), but on the other hand, I always knew where it was going in general, and I thought that if I stayed with it I could make it work. I encountered problems, but never the same kinds of problems I had with the other book.

Maybe this is an extreme example, but the question I’m left with, now that I’m considering new projects again, is how do you know when it’s right? How do you know when an idea is “worth” pursuing? Do you have to be 100 pages in (or more) before you can tell if it’s going to work? When are you giving up too easily, and when are you deluding yourself by pressing on? I wish I had a simple answer, a clear formula for figuring this out.

In my case, I think the problem I had was in starting with a theme, a sort of “high” concept, and then trying to construct a story that would serve that theme, rather than starting with a compelling character that could lead to the consideration of compelling questions. Without realizing it, I started with, “How can I show…?” rather than “What would happen if…? or “What would s/he do if…?”

In the end, what’s compelling to me in a story is not the grand idea, but the convincing characters who are doing things that are both inevitable and surprising. If a story keeps bugging me, if there’s something about it I want to figure out, then I think (hope!) I can make it across the fault lines and keep going.

But do you ever really know, until you KNOW? Please, can someone reveal the secret formula to me before I get stuck in Captivity again? ~~Paula Whyman

About: Paula Whyman’s award-winning story, “Driver’s Education,” will appear in the anthology, Writes of Passage: Coming-of-Age Stories and Memoirs from The Hudson Review (Spring 2008, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago). In the fall, she was awarded a fellowship to the VCCA. She has just finished writing her novel, and she is glad.

Note: I wrote a previous post exploring the issue of when to move forward with your work here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Ten Things"

A bit of self-indulgence: “Ten Things,” a story of mine that originally appeared in The Sun magazine, is featured in the “Favorites from the Archives” section of the web site. You can read it here.

How to Promote Your Book...Listen to the Experts!

I had the pleasure of meeting independent publicist Lauren Cerand on Monday night at a WNBA event about how to promote your book. There was a tremendous crowd, and she and fellow panelist Imal Wagner, patiently answered every last promotion-related question about literary fiction (Lauren) and non-fiction (Imal).

Since I write fiction, I was more interested in Lauren’s advice, though Imal’s presentation and expertise were also helpful. A few tidbits from the evening (paraphrased; I’m not a skilled enough note taker to get exact quotes!):

--Be aware of your “online presence” and take active steps to create the presence that makes sense for you. Basically, at a certain point, these days a writer MUST have a website. If you’re early in your career, a basic site is fine, but a web site gives you legitimacy and helps signal that you’re a professional. Many agents will google you if they’re interested in your query. If you have a book out, you really, really MUST have a website…and one that collects information from visitors (i.e. email addresses for future contact).

--Because the brave new world of social networking can be time-consuming (and overwhelming!) choose the site that makes the most sense for you and your audience and focus on that rather than trying to have a presence everywhere. Suggestions included GoodReads, Gather, and LibraryThing. Lauren noted that young adult writers should think about having a presence on Facebook or MySpace. (I linked to an excellent article about social networking for writers at the end of this previous post.)

--The goal of any publicity attempt is to try to make your message immediate and relevant. How can you make people pay attention NOW? This may be challenging when it comes to fiction, but both Lauren and Imal made it seem entirely possible!

I’ve never hired a professional publicist before, but in this day and age, when there is so much pressure for the writer to sell the books (along with writing them), and when poor sales may make it harder (or even impossible) to get a contract for the next book, I will seriously consider investing some money in a good publicist when my next novel comes out (fingers crossed!). In my humble opinion, both Lauren Cerand and Imal Wagner seemed like savvy publicists who know how to make things happen.

Maybe you’d like to see for yourself. I realize this class doesn’t take place for several months, but I thought I’d give you a heads-up. (No, that's not a typo on the cost...a bargain at $20!)Lauren Cerand offers the following:

TITLE: Innovative Publicity Basics for Authors (New and Hopeful!)

DATE: July 1 - 14, 2008

DESCRIPTION: New York-based independent publicist Lauren Cerand ( walks you through the fundamentals of literary publicity right up to the cutting-edge. This course consists of six instructor-led lectures, three open "Q & A" sessions dedicated to your topics, and three small but significant homework assignments. Content will be useful to authors in any genre and at any level of expertise.

COST: $20. Presented by Heart of Dixie, the North Alabama chapter of Romance Writers of America, which organizes online workshops as part of its educational programs. Open to all writers. For details and registration, visit

And here’s Lauren’s full bio:
Lauren Cerand ( is an independent public relations representative and consultant in New York. Her clients are a purposefully eclectic mix of creative professionals, and she specializes in generating initial buzz and building sustained attention for projects and individuals. She is often asked to share her innovative perspective on publicity and has spoken to audiences at Book Promotion 101, Mystery Writers of America, NYU's Center for Publishing, The (Downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, Penguin UK, Virginia Festival of the Book, Word of Mouth, Women's National Book Association, and the 20th Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair (December 2007). In 2004, The Village Voice included her in its "Best of New York" issue.

She is the vice chair of the board of directors of Girls Write Now, "a nonprofit volunteer mentoring organization that has been matching bright, creative teenage girls from New York City's public high schools with professional women writers in the community since 1998." A Cornell University graduate, Lauren compiles "The Smart Set," a weekly round-up of cultural happenings for, and writes about art, politics and style at

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fiction Writing Seminar: February 9

I am pleased to be participating in this upcoming event:

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

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

For more information, call WIW at 202-775-5150 or email To register for the seminar online, click here.

Early registration: Members $99, Non-members $159, and Students $59. After January 25th: Members $119, Non-members $189, and Students $79.

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

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

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

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

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

Shawn Westfall covers the local literary scene for DCist,, part of the Gothamist media network, which operates the most popular network of city blogs on the internet today with approximately 1.8 million unique visitors a month. His writing and book reviews have appeared in the pages of the Honolulu Weekly and The San Antonio Express-News.

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

Richard McCann, the author of Mother of Sorrows, a work of fiction, and Ghost Letters, a collection of poems (1994 Beatrice Hawley Award, 1933 Capricorn Poetry Award). His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic, Ms., Esquire, Ploughshares, Tin House, and The Washington Post magazine, and in numerous anthologies.

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

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

Moderator: Louis Bayard is the author of The Pale Blue Eye (HarperCollins) and Mr. Timothy (Murray John Publisher).

Christina Bartolomeo is the author of three novels: Cupid and Diana, The Side of the Angels, and Snowed In.

Austin S. Camacho is the author of four detective novels in the Hannibal Jones series - Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, The Troubleshooter, and Damaged Goods, plus two action adventure novels, The Payback Assignment and The Orion Assignment.

Keith Donohue is the author of The Stolen Child (Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2006). Angels of Destruction, his second novel, is scheduled for publication by Shaye Areheart Books in spring 2009.

Alex MacLennan is the author of The Zookeeper (Alyson Books, 2006).

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

Moderator: Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Washington Post Book World, Smithsonian, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New Criterion, and Salon, among other places.

Josh Emmons, author of The Loss of Leon Meed. His second novel, Prescription for a Superior Existence, will be published by Scribner in June 2008.

Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Viking/Putnam).

Alix Ohlin is the author of Babylon and Other Stories and The Missing Person, a novel.

For more information about the conference, call WIW at 202-775-5150 or email To register for the seminar online, click here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Collecting Rejection Slips--Yes or No?

What do you do with your rejection slips? I used to save mine, filling up shoeboxes with them. Naturally, the ones with “real” handwriting, from a live person, got special attention--pored over and hyper-analyzed before being filed in a folder so I could send my work to the same editor by name, with my own “real” handwriting: “You suggested I try again.”

Then I started wondering why I was keeping all these rejection slips, and eventually I made the decision to throw them all away, even the ones with the handwriting. I’d like to say I instantly felt better, or that suddenly all the negative energy in my life disappeared, but I don’t think that was exactly the case. (Though I did free up space in my closet, which is always welcome.)

While I didn’t have a rush of joy at disposing of those boxes, I will note that receiving a rejection in the mail today is somehow slightly less emotionally fraught: I open the envelope, read the slip, and carry it straight to the trashcan, and think about what to do next. It feels like I’m giving myself a fresh start with the story; there’s no lingering baggage, no anchor on the story, no albatross around my neck.

And you know what? I’ve never once wished I could go back through those shoeboxes to find that rejection slip from 1995 from Prairie Schooner.

If you’re not sure what to do with your rejection slips, here's an excellent post on Buzz, Balls & Hype about the complexities of the situation, with some suggestions for how to shed your rejection baggage and why it's so difficult to toss those buggers.

Literary Jocks Do Exist

Clearly, I got involved in too much play-off football over the weekend. (Now that the Skins are out, it’s, “Go, Pack, go!” all the way. We even ate Wisconsin-style cheese spread and brats during the game.) Anyway, this caught my eye, so I thought I’d pass it along, bad football puns and all:


Called by some the greatest football player of all time, Bronko Nagurski, an old Chicago Bear, an original Midway Monster, would surely share his story with Sport Literate. A Chicago-based journal that’s been cracking literary skulls since 1995, Sport Literate (SL) is perhaps the nation’s lone literary magazine focusing on the creative nonfiction exploration of sports. There’s some poetry, too, but we want the truth. We can handle the truth. So consider sending us your football best. You may even make some money.

Football Contest: Nobody likes paying reading fees, but one person will enjoy winning a $300 first-place prize. Here are the simple rules: Send your creative nonfiction essay with a $15 contest fee. Put your name on the cover sheet only. The SL editors will comb through the selections before sending five finalists to special guest editor Lee Gutkind of Creative Nonfiction.

Timing: We are hoping our football issue will coincide with the kickoff of the 2008 season. Please have all entries postmarked by May 1, 2008. We’ll announce a winner sometime during the NFL training camps.

SL Poetry: Gives Ezra Pound a whole new meaning. Put on a cup for this one, Ditka, and send verse—metered or otherwise—that will make a grown fan cry.

Pigskin Best: We want this issue to be wall-to-wall football. So whether you’re in it for the contest, or just want to send a standard submission within the gridiron theme, consider strapping on the high top cleats, pounding out something artful on the Underwood, and running to SL daylight.

Interview: We’re also looking for good conversations with personalities from the game. In previous issues, we’ve talked to a couple of Chicago footballers (both Cardinal and Bear) from the near and recent past—Chris Zorich and Marshall Goldberg. Query with ideas for a chance to share your Q & A with a football hero.

Two ways to make the play by 5/1/08:
Go long with your submission by mailing a SASE and your reading fee.

Or cut inside with an e-mail Word attachment and the words “Football contest” and “[your name]” in the subject line.
Send to bill(at) (replace (at) with @).
Pay with Paypal at

Entries without reading fee will be whistled dead and automatically moved back to the standard submission pile.

Everything You Want to Know About Chapbooks, But Were Afraid to Ask

Here’s an event announcement from one of my favorite bookstores, Chop Suey Books, located in Richmond, Virginia:

Please join us on Sunday, January 20th from 1-5 at Chop Suey Books for a Chapbook Festival. Poet, teacher, and friend Liz Canfield has organized this event and has gathered a number of poets and fiction writers who will read from their chapbooks (a small, limited edition publication which is usually self-published or printed by a small press). This event seeks to celebrate independent publishing and to showcase authors who have published through this alternative process. A panel discussion will follow the reading and will include a conversation about how to get published, the benefits of working with small presses, DIY publishing, and how to start/run an independent press.

Authors will include Joshua Poteat, Allison Titus, Nathan Long, Susan Settlemyre Williams, Nan Byrne, Lee Capps, Dan Abergotti, and others.

This event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

January 20, 2008
1-5 PM
Chop Suey Books
1317 W. Cary St.
Richmond, VA 23220
For more information, check the web site.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Work in Progress: THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL!

I am a "put an idea on a scrap of paper” kind of writer—the most cursory of glances at my work area would confirm this. Even when I go to a blank slate environment such as an artist’s colony, with 24 hours, my pristine work area is filled with scraps of paper…all desperately important, all—at the time they’re written—the KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL!

I’ve tried to change this cluttery approach: The single notebook where everything gets written down…which works until I’m sitting on the Metro and have an idea I need to immediately jot down on the back of an Ann Taylor coupon in my purse. I suppose I could then transfer that to the notebook—or even stick it in the notebook—but I never do, and at best, the scraps of paper end up stacked on top of the notebook.

Or the computer file approach: “Ideas,” is the hopeful new file name, and for a few days I remember to type out my thoughts in neat little bullet points. The problem is that all those thoughts blend together and blur visually; I’m much more prone to think, “Where’s that line I wrote on the Ann Taylor coupon; that’s the KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL! and I must find that piece of paper,” rather than calmly scroll through all those bland-looking bullet points.

At the colonies, there are people who happily pin these notes to a bulletin board or tape them to the wall, and I suppose I could put up a bulletin board or wreck my wall paint. But even at the colony, with the bulletin board and tacks, something in me resists. I’m not sure I want to see all those notes splayed out there, as if left hanging out to dry. They are vulnerable, these special scraps of paper, and they seem to me to like to gather in quiet herds, to stay tucked away on the desk. Seeing too many of them spread out might make me realize…some of them are misguided and not at all THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL! (Not that I would throw anything away, because we know what happens as soon as you do…"I must have that scrap of paper that I thought was dumb but now is THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL!")

So, clearly I’m not able to change this aspect of my writing personality. But it’s obvious that over the course of a novel, this “system” will result in too much paper and too much disorganization, even for me with my high tolerance for clutter.

I’m pleased to announce that in the process of working on this novel, I have accidentally come upon the perfect solution: Index cards. (I always trust office supplies to solve any major writing problem…some day I’ll have to write about the perfect pen I swear by.)

Yes, the simple “obvious solution” would be to carry around index cards in my purse and to buy a cute little file box and color code everything and flip through them like a 1960s librarian…but when I say “index cards” I actually mean that I’ve found a way to cut to THE KEY TO MY WHOLE NOVEL! problem.

I haven’t given up the scraps of paper system, which in its chaos is oddly comforting to me. (Maybe the accumulation of paper makes me feel as though I’m accomplishing something?) But every so often when I read over the entire manuscript (after a break in writing, say, or at key planning moments), I pull out my index cards and one of those perfect pens and I write questions on my index cards—one question per card.

These are deep, hard questions, not questions like, “What color is Nora’s dress at the surprise party?” More like, “Why does Callie return home after 18 years?” These are questions that usually I have no answer to but that any reader might wonder and expect would be addressedd in the course of the book. Depending on where I am in the process, I write up at least a dozen or more of these questions. Then, feeling daunted and vaguely depressed, I pack up my little index cards and rubber band them and stick them in a large plastic envelope (another perfect office supply) and leave them behind.

The next day, I write. And write some more. And write some more. Soon enough, I reach a point where it’s time to read over everything and write up more index cards. At that point, I also read back over the cards I’ve previously written.

It’s a miracle! In the work I’ve done, I’ve answered some of those questions! Even more miraculous—some of the questions have shifted in interesting ways thanks to the writing and exploring I’ve been doing. And best of all, I find new, challenging questions to write on the index cards. I shuffle the new and unanswered questions to the top of the stack, let the answered questions pile up at the bottom, and pack away the cards and get back to writing.

The questions also help whenever you reach a point where you’re stuck. They remind you of what’s important, what loose ends you need to address. That little pack of cards is like a road map leading to my destination, and I love the paradox that in the questions are the answers.

To me, the most valuable thing one can do with a novel in progress is to ask questions. Why and how? Those questions—and how the writer chooses to address them; not all answers are direct, of course—truly are THE KEY TO THE WHOLE NOVEL. And just as it’s pleasing to see masses of scraps of paper that make you think you’ve been working hard all these years, it’s even more pleasing to follow the trail of questions that led you to this magical point: where you know your characters, you know your story, and dare you say it: maybe you even know what you’re doing with this book!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Stephen Elliott Class for Californians

I just read about this class on the MFA Weblog and had to mention it to anyone in the San Francisco Bay area…I’ve never had Stephen Elliott as a teacher, but his book Happy Baby is one of the most memorable (and darkest) books I’ve ever read. I would love the opportunity to have a class with him! Much of his work is based on his experiences growing up in the foster care system in Chicago, so this class topic seems especially apt. (And a bargain price, for sure.)


Instructor: Stephen Elliott
More info:
Number of sessions: 1
Meeting times: Thursday, January 17, 2008; 6 to 8 pm
Course fee: $45

Your experiences, and how you process them, are what make you unique as an individual. They're also the most valuable things we can offer readers. We'll talk about writing from experience in fiction and non-fiction, and how to use our lives as jumping off points and framing devices for the stories we tell about others. We'll also talk about the dangers of writing from experience and overcoming the blocks set in place (often unnecessarily) by our fears of exposure. We'll look at strategies for getting past those fears and for dealing with friends and relatives whose memories might be different from our own. Finally, we'll focus on unlocking our lives and the joy and value of integrating the worlds we know with the worlds we create.

This is a one-time seminar with limited enrollment. To reserve your space please send a check in the amount of the course fee (made out to Stephen Elliott) to Stephen Elliot, c/o SF Writers Grotto, 490 Second Street, Ste. 200, San Francisco, CA, 94107, or pay online with paypal to the email address

Instructor bio:
Stephen Elliott is the author of four novels including Happy Baby, which was a best book of the year in Salon, The Village Voice, Newsday, The Journal Gazzette, and Chicago New City as well as a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lion's Award and a California Book Award. He is also the author of a book of erotica, a non-fiction memoir of the 2004 presidential campaign, and the editor of three acclaimed anthologies. He was a Stanford University Stegner Fellow. His fiction and non-fiction has been published in The New York Times, Esquire, GQ, McSweeney's, Tin House, The Sun, and many anthologies.

Reminder: Learn to Promote Your Book Event

I will be avidly taking copious notes at this event...hope to see you there!

These days, almost every writer needs to be a publicist as well. Rather than rely solely on your publisher to promote your work, come learn how to get your book noticed in print, on the air, and in libraries. (These skills are all the more important if you’re a self-publisher, because you ARE the publisher.)

The panelists at our program will be public relations professionals Lauren Cerand and Imal Wagner. Lauren has spoken at such venues as The Virginia Festival of the Book and NYU’s Center for Publishing, and she specializes in attracting and keeping attention on her clients. Imal’s clients include best-selling authors in a variety of genres and she’s made placements in media from print to the Internet. For more information on both presenters, go here.

Whether you’re working on a first book or have several in print, or you have other projects that would benefit from a knowledge of publicity, or you’re just interested in the business of books, please join us at the Sumner School to gain a wealth of tips on increasing your work’s visibility.

Panel Discussion on Book Publicity and Promotion Today
sponsored by the Women's National Book Association, Washington Chapter
Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives
1201 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036
(Across from National Geographic Society and two blocks north of Farragut North (Red Line) and Farragut West (Orange and Blue Lines) Metro Stations)
MONDAY, January 14, 2008, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
(Snow date: January 22)

Free to WNBA members; $10 for nonmembers
Includes light refreshments, panelists’ handouts, and opportunities for networking

Some street parking after 6:30 p.m.$5 garage parking on M St between 16th & 17th after 6 p.m.

By Friday, January 11, to

Check Out the Writer's Center at the Open House

The Writer’s Center invites all to the Open House, this Saturday, January 12, 2008 from noon to 3 p.m. Meet workshop leaders, board members, staff, and other writers; join us for light refreshments, a raffle, and good conversation.

Free admission. Details here.

While at the open house check out these among the many other workshops coming up at the Center very soon!

Going to School on Great Fiction, a workshop with Robert Bausch, meets on Monday evenings, 7 to 9:30 p.m., starting January 14.

This workshop will examine 12 to 16 of the finest short stories ever written to see what can be learned by applying workshop methods for the exemplary work of some of the greatest modern practitioners of the short story. Robert Bausch's fourth novel, A Hole in the Earth, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Washington Post Favorite Book of the Year. He has been awarded the Fellowship of Southern Writers award for fiction for his fifth novel, The Gypsy Man. His most recent novel, Out of Season, was published in the fall of 2005.

Getting Your Nonfiction Articles Into Print, a workshop with Ellen Ryan, meets on Thursday evenings, 7:30 to 10 p.m. starting January 24.

Learn and practice the skills you need to get your nonfiction articles published. Taught by a longtime freelance writer and managing editor of Washingtonian magazine, this course covers finding the right markets for your ideas, attracting editors' attention, getting published and paid, researching, reselling, networking, understanding contracts, and keeping correct records for tax purposes.

Please visit our website for details on these and other workshops.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Selected Shorts Contest

This looks like a good contest. And I like the writing prompt, "Are we there yet?" I may have to steal that one for future classes!

2008 Selected Shorts Writing Contest Selected Shorts
The 2008 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize
with guest judge Amy Hempel

The winning submission, selected by Amy Hempel, will be read as part of the Selected Shorts performance at Symphony Space on May 21, 2008. The story will be recorded for possible later broadcast as part of the public radio series. The winner will receive $1000.

Story requirements
Submit a single short story that addresses the question or the general theme, Are We There Yet? You may interpret this question however you please. Note that the other stories in the Selected Shorts program on May 21, 2008 are all stories that take place in transit - in cars on road trips, on planes and trains, or walking from one place to another - but we also welcome submissions that use the theme of the evening, "are we there yet?," as a diving board into other literary territory.

Your story must have a title.

Make sure your name and contact information appear on the first page of your story. If you are submitting by email, this information needs to appear on the first page of the attached Word document. Include page numbers.

Your story must be no more than 4 double-spaced typed pages in length (we recommend 12 pt, Times New Roman font).

All submissions must be received by March 14, 2008.

To be specific, email submissions must be received by 5pm Eastern Standard Time. Mailed submissions must arrive with the day's mail.

Where to submit your story
Email your submission as a Word attachment, with "CONTEST" in the subject line of the email, toshorts(at) (replace (at) with @)
Mail to
CONTEST, Selected Shorts
Symphony Space
2537 Broadway
New York, NY 10025.

Please do not send duplicate copies (email or snail-mail is sufficient). We cannot allow revisions to your story once we have received it. Due to the high volume of submissions and the small size of our office, we will not be able to notify you when we receive your story. The winner will be selected by Amy Hempel and notified by mid-May. As soon as the winner is selected, his or her name will be posted to this page. More details here.

Contestants who submit by email or provide their email address will be added to the Selected Shorts email list - please let us know if you do not wish to receive email about upcoming programs.

The Prize
$1000 and two tickets to the May 21st closing night of the Selected Shorts series at Symphony Space, when the prizewinning story will be read.

About this year's guest judge
Amy Hempel is the author of four collections of short stories: Reasons To Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home and The Dog of the Marriage. Her fiction has appeared in Harper's, Vanity Fair, GQ and The Yale Review and has been included in The Best American Short Stories and The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. A former Guggenheim Fellow, she has also served as a judge for the National Book Award, The PEN/Revson Award, The PEN/Hemingway Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her first published story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," has been translated into 18 languages. Her most recent publication is The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. She is currently a faculty member in the graduate writing programs of Bennington College and The New School University.

Monday, January 7, 2008

I'm Terribly Jealous...

…that literary blogger Maud Newton got to attend the Baltimore premiere party for the new season of The Wire (one of the best TV shows ever). Fans should check out her post to get the links to see how the Baltimore Sun is reacting to being put under the microscope (hint: unbiasedly but unhappily).

My opinion of last night’s episode: Eased us in nicely to the conflicts facing the characters while touching on past events to remind forgetful viewers of what happened in the past. Nice parallels: all are facing difficulties with their personnel—dealers, editors, cops—and having to “do more with less.” Masterful introduction to the character of the new metro editor: we see what makes him tick, his passions, his flaws, who he is...and feel connected to him after one episode.

Prediction: Something bad is going to happen to cute Bug, Michael’s beloved little brother.

Comments from a Guest Who Can't Be Refused

Hi's a different Pietrzyk here. Specifically, Susan Pietrzyk (Leslie's sister) wanting to put my two cents out there. Most of the time, Leslie is the literary genius in the family, but every once in a blue moon, I, too, speak up on “all things literary.”

I want to recommend a beautiful novel — Teahouse Fire (Riverhead Books) by Ellis Avery. Set in the decades during which Japan opened up its borders and culture to the “modern” West, this is a story with characters of immense depth. It’s a novel inspired by history and cultural transitions, with stunning writing nothing short of artful lush detail.

AND the author is giving a reading in the Washington, DC area this month…AND there’s a tea ceremony.

You can’t go wrong. Make the trip to Borders and you’ll find yourself immersed in 19th century Japan and mesmerized by the powerful story of two women who live, love, and change the course of tea ceremony in Japan.

Here are the details about the reading:

Friday January 18, 2008
7:00 PM -- A Reading and Tea Ceremony
Borders -- Crossroads Center
5871 Crossroads Center Way
Baileys Crossroads
Falls Church, VA 22041
Phone: 703.998.0404
Directions and more info

~~Susan Pietrzyk

(Editor’s bragging note: Susan [Fulbright Scholar!] is headed back to Africa, to Zimbabwe, in the next few days to continue her research for her PhD dissertation in anthropology. She’s a brave and remarkable woman…and a fabulous sister!)

Get Your Whole Novel Ms. Critiqued

Renowned writer/teacher Richard Peabody is offering his highly-regarded novel workshop this spring. This is a great chance to have your whole novel read and critiqued in one fell swoop (vs. the frustrating experience of handing in a few chapters in a workshop). For more information, please contact him directly:

Here’s the announcement:

Critique Your Complete Novel, Not Just a Couple of Chapters: Peabody's Novel Class

Limited to 5 students. We meet every two weeks on Thursday nights 7:30 until 10pm at my house in Arlington, Virginia. Four to five blocks from Virginia Square Metro station.

February 28
March 13
March 27
April 10
April 24
May 8
May 15

Cost is $500 to be paid before the first night. Due to people dropping the class at the last minute and forcing me to cancel the entire session I now require that $125 of this fee be non-refundable and paid before the class begins.

Every participant turns in their complete novel and synopsis the first night along with 5 copies for everybody else and me. That way you get handwritten notes on everything from everybody. And you should feel free to recommend cuts, improvements, make suggestions, mark the manuscripts up at will. That's what this class is all about. By meeting every two weeks each participant should have plenty of time to complete their critiques.

If you can't attend every meeting (which I demand save for unforeseeable illness or death in the family as it's a question of fairness and honor) please don't bother signing up.

Why do I teach this class? Because you can go to your favorite bookshop and lift any number of contemporary novels off the shelf and read a few chapters only to discover that they fall apart at chapter four. Why? I've found that most MFA programs only critique the first three chapters of your manuscript. Plus, I've learned from the hands-on experience of teaching this course that a complete reading and critique is absolutely the best way (dare I say only way) to go. What's the advantage of a small class like this one? There's nothing quite like having five people discuss your characters as though they were living people for 2 ½ hours. What sorts of novels are eligible? Generally I handle serious literary fiction (both realism and experimental works), but the class has included YA , Sci-Fi, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, and Romance novels.

If you are interested do please email me a chapter and a synopsis. I'm only considering completed novels in the 250-350 dbl. spaced page range. (That's one-sided, double spaced, 12pt. in Courier font.) Anything longer than that is pretty much wishful thinking right now due to grim market economics and politics. Most first novels are 300 dbl. spaced pages which equals 200pp. in book form. Simply a fact of the biz. Second novels are frequently a different story.

Alumni from Peabody's 22 years of university, Writer's Center, and private classes with filmed screenplays and/or books in print (or forthcoming) include: Mark Baechtel, Doreen Baingana, Toby Barlow, Maggie Bartley, Jodi Bloom, Sean Brijbasi, Peter Brown, Robert Cullen, Priscilla Cummings, Katherine Davis, Lucinda Ebersole, Sandy Florian, Cara Haycak, Dave Housley, Catherine Kimrey, Rachel King, Adam Kulakow, Nathan Leslie, Redge Mahaffey, Charlotte Manning, Meena Nayak, Matthew Olshan, William Orem, Mary Overton, Saideh Pakravan, Carolyn Parkhurst, Sally Pfoutz, Nani Power, Carey Roberts, Lisa Schamess, Brenda Seabrooke, Julia Slavin, David Taylor, Lisa M. Tillman, Sharlie West, and Yolanda Young.

Richard Peabody wears many literary hats. He is editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976), has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited or co-edited fourteen anthologies including: Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Mondo Marilyn, Mondo James Dean, Coming to Terms: A Literary Response to Abortion, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women, Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis, and Wonderland, Sex & Chocolate: Tasty Morsels for Mind and Body, Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women, Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix and Electric Grace: Still More Fiction by Washington Area Women. Stress City: A Big Book of Fiction by Fifty DC Guys is forthcoming in spring 2008. Peabody teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program and the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. You can find out more at and/or Email:

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Work in Progress: Titles

See? I can’t even come up with a good title for this post. I am TERRIBLE at titles. Some people are naturals (I’ve noticed that many poets are excellent at titles; I knew someone who claimed to have a thick file of titles just waiting for a poem). Not me. I have written down a few titles that I thought might make appropriate story titles, but they’re really not all that good either. Plus, that was way back when when it seemed like a good idea to spend my time and energy concocting a 20-page story around a catchy phrase. (Okay, I confess to a certain fondness for the title—though not the resulting story—that came from one such experiment: “In the Desert Heat, I Burn for You, Burn for You.”)

Ever since I started this third novel, the working title has been Prodigal Daughters, because, well, the book is loosely based upon the parable of the prodigal son except with daughters. (Perhaps this overly literal mind is part of the titling problem?)

Now that the reality seems to be that I’ll actually one day finish this book, I seem to have latched onto my title as a new obsession (replacing the “no one will like my book” fears that are far more terrifying and unmanageable). I have at least a hundred new options, most of them significantly worse than Prodigal Daughters. My husband has learned to run from the room when I get that certain look in my eye and start a sentence with, “How about….?” (He has found the title he likes and is sticking with it, responding to all my queries with a shake of his head: “Still not as good as my idea.”)

To find all these title options, in the past few weeks I have googled: Scottish quotations and folktales; Chamber of Commerce slogans; quotations about forgiveness, estrangement, point of view, and the past; Robert Burns; and Abraham Lincoln. I have skimmed a book of science factoids; read the box of a fancy single-malt scotch; examined the song lyrics of the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads, Pet Sounds, and “Begin the Beguine”; offered my writing group $25 cash to anyone who comes up with the title; offered my husband $25 cash if he comes up with a title; and spent all hours of insomnia keeping myself awake longer by obsessively running through title options in my head.

I even had a dream in which I was worried about what to name a new food blog I dreamed I was starting. When I woke up, my first thought was, “High on the Hog,” which, yes, would be an absolutely delightful title for a food blog but which has no relevance to my novel. (Just my subconscious getting back at me for calling it surly back here.)

I know this is the point where I am supposed to offer some pithy tips about how to come up with titles and reveal that I have now come up with the perfect title and rewarded myself with the $25 cash.

Alas, no.

Instead, when I was in New York, we went to see Jack Kerouac’s original scroll of On the Road (very cool) and I read that he had come up with his own obsessive list of 100 titles before coming up with On the Road (which seems so obvious and perfect). And last night when I was reading the new issue of the AWP Chronicle, I came across this in an interview with Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires. The title of his recent novel, The Stone that the Builder Refused, comes up and Bell says, “There was a feeling that the title was too long, which I shared to some extent, and my agent and my editor and I set out to find something better if we could. We got into a three-way discussion—all well-intentioned people—that went on for weeks, and we were coming up with the most terrible titles for this book. They were just awful…Beth [poet Elizabeth Spires, Bell’s wife] encouraged me to stand up for my original title, which was better in her eyes than anything the ad-hoc committee had come up with.”

So, I suffer, but I do not suffer alone. I’ll keep you posted. And the $25 cash offer is still on the table, BTW.

(Okay—now that you’re depressed and doubting your own [undoubtedly perfectly fine] ability to title, here's a previous post about my titling angst, with a helpful link written by someone who DOES know how to title.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2008! (Every year that passes seems to require more training on my part to make that shift from writing the old year to the new year, so expect to see me type out “2008” early and often!)

For those who are resolution-minded, here are my New Year’s resolutions for writers, posted back in November. You can add on with this great post at poet Deborah Ager’s blog, 32 Poems, “Do You Make These Mistakes in Poetry?” which also apply to fiction—i.e. “2. Writing a poem about an Edward Hopper painting.” I’ve never written a story based on an Edward Hopper painting, but I will confess to having thought seriously about doing so. (Okay…full confession: about the girl in the movie theatre—but I tell myself that would be okay because I actually WORKED in a movie theatre way back when!)

And if one of your resolutions is to promote your work more or to get up to date on how the brave new world of technology can work for you, Deborah also has written up a helpful—if slightly intimidating—guide on how to use Facebook for networking purposes. I’m still a bit scared of the whole thing…and can’t decide which is more frightening, asking someone to “be my friend” or using “friend” as a verb, as in, “please friend me”? But she offers good, solid advice for those ready to jump into the Facebook waters.

2008. I have a good feeling. Happy writing!


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