Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Invisible Prejudice"

You must read this: Juliana Baggott in the Washington Post on the “invisible prejudice” favoring male writing over female writing—

“I could understand Publishers Weekly's phallocratic list if women were writing only a third of the books published or if women didn't float the industry as book buyers or if the list were an anomaly. In fact, Publishers Weekly is in sync with Pulitzer Prize statistics. In the past 30 years, only 11 prizes have gone to women. Amazon recently announced its 100 best books of 2009 -- in the top 10, there are two women. Top 20? Four. Poets & Writers shared a list of 50 of the most inspiring writers in the world this month; women made up only 36 percent.”

Read the rest here. (Thanks for the link, Annie!)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Two feet of snow, husband on vacation, holiday cookies begging to be baked, champagne chilling, books to read…it’s clear that there won’t be much blogging going on around here for a while. So I’ll sign off for the next week or so, and send along my wishes for wonderful holidays and a happy, healthy, rejection-free 2010!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Work in Progress: Keep Yourself Honest with a Writing Buddy

I’ve written about my writing group; I love reading the musings of the community of writers on Facebook (fill-in-your-own-favorite-social-networking-site); I try to get to several writing conferences each year; I belong to a couple of networking groups, including WNBA; I go to readings; and, obviously, I’m always up for dinner or drinks with a writer friend. Community is important, especially when most of the writing life involves sitting alone staring into space for endless hours.

And now I’m adding the concept of the writing buddy into my mix.

I first heard about the concept of a “writing buddy” at a conference (this is why you need to go to them!). The writer on the panel suggested finding a person to whom you will feel responsible and arrange to check in with each other on a pre-determined, periodic basis—once a day, once a week. Whatever works for the two of you.

In the ideal world, this person would also be a writer or some sort of artist, but I don’t think that is absolutely necessary as long as they have ongoing projects that require self-motivation. The point is that the two of you check in—phone, email—with your goals and accomplishments, each keeping the other honest, so to speak. You might write in on Monday morning: “This week I plan to work on chapter 3 of my novel on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoons. I hope to finish up the rough draft of that chapter.” Then, off to work you go.

On Friday, you check in with your writing buddy—and this is where you see the beauty of the system. If you blew off working on your chapter all week, you’re going to feel funny writing up this report: “On Monday afternoon, I cleaned closets instead of writing. On Tuesday afternoon, I went to lunch and drank too much wine. On Thursday afternoon, I played computer solitaire for three hours.” And of course you’re a good person who wouldn’t dream of lying.

Shame and embarrassment…not negative feelings, but your motivating pals! To avoid them, you will work on that Chapter 3.

Did I mention that the writer on the panel also suggested choosing as a writing buddy someone who scares you just a little bit?

So, I haven’t found an official writing buddy yet, but recently I did see firsthand the beauty of the arrangement. A friend emailed that she was writing an essay about a specific, food-related topic for an anthology. I was intrigued by the topic, and later that night, had a great idea about what I might write if I were writing an essay for the anthology. I told her my idea, and she thought it sounded interesting. Almost casually, she said, “I’d love to see the essay when it’s finished.”


So I ignored other, less enticing projects, and started the essay. After all, she wanted to read it; she had inspired me; shame and embarrassment would be mine if I didn’t follow through. Then she sent me her essay, which was funny and beautiful and thoughtful—more inspiration.

I finished a very rough draft, and thought, “Well, that’s that,” invoking the whiny “it’s the holidays” excuse to let it rest.

Another email, concluding with a sweet, “Can’t wait to read your essay!”

Pushed more stuff aside, and cleaned up my draft. The piece wasn’t done-done, but it was ready to be read. I was delighted to send it to her…and maybe just a little bit scared not to.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tickner Writing Fellowship in Baltimore

Sounds like a good job for the right person; Baltimore is a great city! (Best crabcakes are found here at Faidley's; mail order available if the picture makes you hungry.)

Gilman School, an independent boys’ school in Baltimore, announces its search to award the fifteenth Tickner Writing Fellowship to a writer in fiction, poetry, playwriting, or creative non-fiction. Responsibilities include teaching one senior elective in creative writing each semester, organizing a series of readings, advising the literary magazine, & working one-to-one with students in the Tickner Writing Center. Salary: $30,000, plus full benefits package.

To apply: Send CV, cover letter, three confidential letters of recommendation, & a writing sample consisting of either 10 published poems or up to 30 pages of published prose to: Mr. Patrick Hastings, Director of the Tickner Writing Center, Gilman School, 5407 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21210. Firm deadline for receipt of all materials is January 8, 2010.

Contests for High School and College Student Writers

Never too early to get going!

2009-2010 High School Poetry Contests
Sponsored by Gannon University and the Erie County Poet Laureate Initiative

Two contests: one for students in grades 9 through 12 who live outside of Erie County, Pennsylvania, and one for students in grades 9 through 12 who live inErie County, Pennsylvania.

• Each student may enter up to 3 poems, totaling no more than 6 pages.
• Poems may be about any topic and in any form and must be the original work of the student.
• Poems must be typed.
• The student’s name, address (including county), phone number, and grade in school must appear in the top left corner of each poem.
• The student’s school, school’s address, school’s phone number, and teacher’s name must appear in the top right corner.
• Poems will not be returned; students should not send their only copies.
• Poems must be postmarked by February 1, 2010.

Students who live outside of Erie County, Pennsylvania, should mail their poems to:
Berwyn Moore, Associate Professor of English
Attn: Gannon University High School Poetry Contest
Gannon University
109 University Square
Erie, PA 16541

Students who live in Erie County, Pennsylvania, should mail their poems to:
Berwyn Moore, Associate Professor of English
Attn: Erie County High School Poetry Contest
Gannon University
109 University Square
Erie, PA 16541


The Florida Review

2nd Annual Young Voices Award for High School students

$250 Award and Publication Submission Guidelines:
• Entry fee of $15 includes a free year’s subscription
• Each entry limited to group of 5 poems or one story or essay
• Only the title should appear on the manuscript—this is a blind reading
• Provide a cover sheet that specifies writer’s name & contact information, high school name & advisor/teacher contact info, and title of manuscript
• Work must be previously unpublished (outside of school paper or literary journal)
• Include a SASE for notification of the contest results
• First-place manuscript will appear on the FR website, and also in the print journal if the quality merits

Postmark DEADLINE: January 15, 2010

Submit to:
The Florida Review
Young Voices Prize (Indicate Genre)
Department of English MFA Program
PO Box 161346
University of Central Florida
Orlando, Florida 32816-1346

Please visit our website at:

2010 Sylvia K. Burack Scholarship competition is now open

Award $500 and a year's subscription to The Writer
Judges: The Writer editors
Deadline: March 1, 2010

Description: The Sylvia K. Burack Scholarship is a writing contest for full-time college students. The award is made in memory of Sylvia K. Burack, longtime editor-in-chief and publisher of The Writer. Burack was known for her dedication to helping writers and editors.

Requirements: You must be 18 or older and a full-time undergraduate student at a university or college in the U.S. or Canada at the time of entry. The winner will be asked to provide proof of enrollment.

• Submit 2 copies of a previously unpublished 600- to 800-word personal essay in English on the following topic: "Select a work of fiction or poetry that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and explain how it affected you."

• Entries will be judged on the quality of the writing, including grammar, punctuation and expression of ideas. Only essays written onthe specified topic (see rule 1) will be considered.

• Include a cover page with the essay title and word count, as well as your name, address, phone number and e-mail address. Contact information must be valid through July 2010. (See below) Also include ethe name and address of your school. Place only the title (not your name) at the top of each page of the essay. Entries must be typed and double-spaced on standard letter-size paper. Number each page. Paperclip the pages together.

• The award is open to students in the U.S. and Canada enrolled fulltime in an undergraduate college or university at the time of entry.(Do not send transcripts with entries.) Employees of Kalmbach Publishing Co. are not eligible to participate.

• Only one entry per student will be accepted.

• Send entries to:
Sylvia K. Burack Scholarship, The Writer, 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612.

• Entries must be postmarked by March 1, 2010.

• Entries will not be returned. Do not send originals.

• If the winning entrant cannot be reached by July 1, 2010, the runner-up will be awarded the scholarship.

• The winner will be announced in July 2010 and will receive $500 and a year's subscription to The Writer.

Questions? Contact us at

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Books Received: "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women"

Admit it: if you’re a woman reading this writing-related blog, at some point in your life, you wanted to be Little Women's Jo March. I think she may have been one of the first women writer role models I encountered in the wide swath of my childhood reading. While I may have been disappointed by her choice in men (Professor Bauer? Really?)—and Jo’s ultimate decision to spend her life running a boys’ school (in Little Men), I was delighted to see a woman writing and getting published. Even if she didn’t value her “scribbling,” I did, and I’m pretty sure I never could have forgiven Amy for burning my manuscript in an act of revenge.

So naturally, I was delighted to get a copy of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but this blurb is quite promising, especially coming at this book as I do—a person who doesn’t typically pick up biographies:

“This juicy bio is a page-turner.” ~ Good Housekeeping

And, from another, very different source, another promise that my initial interest in Jo March is not misguided:

“As Harriet Reisen’s enchanting biography reminds us, Alcott patterned the March family on her own and Jo on herself…[Her life] is richly examined in Ms. Reisen’s full and vivid portrait.” ~ Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal

Like any good book, a random page flip should reveal something of interest, and I ended up in a boatload of conflict on page 203, with Louisa returning from a trip to Europe to discover that her family in dire financial straits:

“Orchard House [the family home] was no doubt home to a large pile of unpaid bills. On top of their usual indigence, Louisa was unpleasantly surprised to discover that her parents had lied about the five hundred dollars that had underwritten her eight weeks’ independent exploration of Europe. She should have known there was no four-hundred-dollar windfall from Bronson’s speaking tour; actually there was a three-hundred-dollar loan he was unlikely to pay back without her help. Within the week she was churning out stories to patch the hold in the family coffers.

Hating “debt more than the devil,” at a speed perhaps only Trollope would match, Louisa turned out two stories for Frank Leslie at one hundred dollars per, and supplied James Elliott of the Flag of Our Union with a novella and one of her best thrillers. ‘Behind a Mask or A Woman’s Power’ was a subversive variation on Jane Eyre

“Louisa kept up a phenomenal pace for six months, writing up to fourteen hours a day.”

And just to show us that Louisa May Alcott was human and was a writer through and through, here’s this tidbit about Little Women from page 1: Alcott thought that the book was “lifeless and flat as she was writing it.”

Author Harriet Reisen also wrote the PBS American Masters film about Alcott, which will be aired on December 28, 2009. Details here.

You can read the first chapter of the book here.

Also, check out the preface, where Reisen talks about her love of Alcott’s work and the tense negotiations over gaining access to some long-lost Alcott papers.

And, of course, information on buying the book is here.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: I received a copy of this book from the publishers. But, obviously, given my love of Little Women, I jumped at the chance and am pretty sure anyone else would.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ann Patchett's New Year's Resolution to Make Time for Writing

Ann Patchett on a simple New Year’s resolution that will help you focus on your writing:

“I have long tried to fit my work in around all the other obligations in my life, and many days the work finds itself low on the list of things to do, way below laundry and replying to e-mail. Was it possible that by giving my art the same amount of time and attention that I gave to, say, meal preparation, my art might be more likely to flourish?”

Read her solution here, in the Washington Post’s special issue of BookWorld.

Editoral Resident Scholar Position Open at the Southern Review

An interesting job for the right person. I'm curious about the requirement to be willing to work on holidays..."you must read this stack of mansuscripts on Christmas Day, Ms. Cratchett!" Anyway, here's the info:

Postdoctoral Researcher/Resident Scholar, The Southern Review, Louisiana State University. This is a two-year non-renewable twelve-month appointment & carries a salary of $32,000 & benefits (Pending final administrative approval). Preferred start date is August 1, 2010. The Scholar will commit 20 hours per week to editorial duties at The Southern Review & teach one class per regular semester in the English Department (courses assigned by departmental need and/or Fellow's expertise).

Required Qualifications: Terminal degree (MFA, PhD or equivalent); one year editorial experience on the staff of an established literary journal.

Additional Qualifications Desired: Ability to demonstrate the following: editorial expertise with fiction, nonfiction, & poetry; a broad knowledge of literature, especially contemporary; basic computer skills; a solid understanding of publishing, especially small presses & literary magazines.

Special Requirements: All candidates must be eligible to work in the United States; ability & willingness to work some holidays. Flexible scheduling of hours may be available.

Responsibilities: handles manuscript review & selection, proofreading, circulation development, fundraising support & conference participation; teaches one class per regular semester for the English Department; produces new works of prose or poetry culminating in a public presentation the final semester of the residency. An offer of employment is contingent on a satisfactory pre-employment background check. Application deadline is January 4, 2010 or until a candidate is selected. Apply online at: Position #034688. AA/EOE

My Kind of Town: ISO Chicago Authors

ACM is at work on an issue called "Another Chicago Issue." It's our 50th issue, so we're celebrating that nice, round number. It's also a playful jab at Granta since they didn't exactly publish a lot of Chicago writers in their Chicago issue. We really want to try to give a comprehensive overview of what kind of writing is being produced here in Chicago. The writer must be based in Chicago, but the work needn't be about Chicago (of course, it's even lovelier if it is).

Deadline: January 5, 2010

Mail work to:
Another Chicago Magazine
Jacob S. Knabb
2608 W. Diversey #202
Chicago, IL - 60647

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Guest in Progress: Kate Kimbro & Low-Residency MFA Programs

I teach in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College, in Spartanburg, SC. In January, I’ll be in residency for a couple weeks at the campus (hello, Converse cafeteria and your Blue Cheese Wedge Bar!), so it’s fitting that today’s post is by a poet in the program, Kate Kimbro.

If you’re unfamiliar with low-residency programs, the semester is divided into two periods, the residency and the mentoring program. During the residency, all students gather for ten intense days of workshops, readings, panels, meetings, and lectures. Through the rest of the semester—the mentoring component—students are back home, working and communicating with their mentor, who is reviewing their writing and their reading projects. There’s no way that these types of programs are “easy,” but their non-traditional structure are great for people who have jobs and/or families they can’t leave for the years necessary to get a traditional MFA. There’s a lot of individual attention, needless to say, which can result in great leaps and bounds forward in the work. (More details here.)

Anyway…this is all to lead to the fact that I met Kate during our summer residency. At the student reading, she read a poem that I thought delightfully captures the creative urge. She has kindly allowed me to post the poem here:

Paradigm Shift

I will dash—I will dash—I will dash—
I will write my college papers
Emily Dickinson style
With no titles or proper punctuation.
My stanzas
Will be short and clipped
Like classifieds ads
To which all publishers shall speedily respond.

I’ll compress to the max
Your very favorite day—
So you can keep it forever.

The best—your best
Distilled into an eternal moment—
Think of it!

But, if you hear the editors sour,
“These dashes are in all the wrong places,”

Please tell me—
Because then I’ll head to Tahiti—
And paint pictures of naked men.
~~Kate Kimbro

When I asked Kate for a bio to run with the post, she ended up sending me much more than the usual list of accomplishments, so I wanted to include everything she wrote, especially since she talks about her experience in the program and that universal desire to find a writing community. And following this piece is another poem she sent, the poem she refers to in the third paragraph here.

About: Kate Kimbro

I serve as a volunteer peer-counselor for women in a domestic violence shelter. We provide short and long-term guidance including immediate needs, resume` help, professional clothing for job interviews, cell phones, child care issues, and help writing applications.

I also work as an adjunct for a Community College and get contracted out to the Department of Defense at Patrick Air Force Base. I’m the writing coordinator for an inter-service management institute for the Military where selected Military members train to become Equal Opportunity Advisors in their service specific branches. This is a short writing refresher course as one component of their larger program of study. We explore, research, and write on topics of race, prejudice, ethnicity, sexism, gender, class, sexual harassment and assault, extremism, and religious and cultural diversity. They become first-line change agents in the field. Empathy is a large part of their approach.

And my hope is that empathy informs my writing. I work with tough subjects and usually write poetry of witness like “Gentle Lavinia” [see below] but wrote “Paradigm Shift” for fun.

I’m working on a Poetry focused MFA from Converse College in Spartanburg S.C. This low-residency program allows one with a job to continue working and earn a higher degree. Better than impersonal on-line classes, students have real human mentors to talk with. Professors work with you during the brief residency and through the semester. I don’t have a writing group at home, nor had I ever been a part of a workshop, so at first I felt out in left field. That community has a huge network of writer’s groups. Who am I to comment on someone else’s poem? I arrived after several family tragedies in a row and unsure of my worth there. That took awhile to get over.

Several students in the workshops have already been published and received various awards. Their comments were a great help to me. The faculty is top-notch and all award-winners. I had Denise Duhamel and R.T. Smith. Albert Goldbarth was guest lecturer. Duhamel and Goldbarth are both featured in The Best American Poetry 2009!

The first thing, Smith taught me to simplify alliteration. I’m older, and my British grandfather raised us on Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins. So my brain is ingrained with alliteration and Emily Dickinson dashes. Smith cringed and crossed out lots of stuff on my papers and I had to laugh. Consonants flew off the page and out the window, but heeding the process tightens and strengthens writing. During revisions, I “de-alliterated and de-dashed.”

Indirectly, Goldbarth helped me to toughen up. In The Best American Poetry 2009, he says, “I don’t believe in backgrounding the poem with extraneous material. The poem is here to speak on its own behalf, and I hope some people like it” (163). That’s the best advice for gaining confidence. Some will like you and your work, and some won’t. It does not mean, however, that your voice is not worthy.

Gentle Lavinia
“Thou hast no hands to wipe away thy tears,
Nor tongue to tell me who hath martyred thee” (Titus Andronicus: 3 .1).

Year: 1999 -- Men meet half a world away installed in village kangaroo courts;
one-half the population decides all rules for the other half.
Girl-maiming mars the tongue.
A man rapes a neighbor’s daughter – she is 14 years-old;
the men declare the girl-victim guilty
for having unlawful sex.
Girl-maiming spoils the un-painted canvas.
Is her mother outraged?
How to brace daughters against dungeoned lives?
Do we sanction domestic shelters for a whole country?
Writing these words – do they help?
Because of their civil law, the mother should not wear lipstick;
Men razor-blade her lips; they withhold food; then,
her 14 year-old receives 50 blows with
a toughened bamboo cane. She collapses after 30.
‘Kick ‘em when they’re down,” they say.

Year: 2009 – NPR announces that a foreign leader now prohibits women receiving
higher education. He bans poets, writers, musicians, singers, artists –
outlaws all.
I wonder about our planet’s women -- about the loss of women’s art.
She cannot think about art when she is hungry;
if they take her lips is she voiceless?
She cannot think about art when she tries to get up
and the thick leather shoe smacks her in the face again.
Girl-maiming mutilates the inner ear.
She’s already down. “Keep kicking,” they say.

~~Kate Kimbro

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nancy Drew's Guide to Life

I received as a gift a copy of one of those tiny books that are often placed at the cash register, designed to be purchased in a moment of weakness after you’ve loaded up your arms with a stack of “important” books…but this book is very important in its own right, and is perfect, both as tiny book format and as a gift for me. (Thank you, Ting!) I’m referring to Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life by Jennifer Worick.

From the intro:

“Role model? Definitely. Genius? Oh, yeah. Goddess? Probably….Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life is a loving tribute to the young gumshoe and the wisdom she imparted to us. We would never have thought of reviving someone with our purse-sized vial of Chanel No. 19. And who would have suspected that it isn’t wise to buy stock from a door-to-door saleswoman? Nancy, that’s who.”

The book is divided into sections with topics such as “Dating: A Primer,” “Sleuthing 101,” and “The Delicate Art of Etiquette.” In each section are relevant bits of advice gleaned from various Nancy Drew books. They’re hilarious and oddly wise:

“Being able to throw your voice can get your unskilled assistants out of tight jams.” ~ The Ringmaster’s Secret

“A mysterious expression will add a lovely sheen to your complexion.” ~ The Clue of the Velvet Mask

“If tied up by a culprit, note whether they used any fancy nautical knots. It might be a valuable clue.” ~ The Clue in the Old Stagecoach

If you spent hours immersed with the titian-haired goddess, longing for a roadster of your own, this book is totally for you. The picture on the Amazon site doesn’t show the best part: a ribbon bookmark with a tiny magnifying glass hanging on the end!

Note to the FTC Overlords: I received this book as a Christmas gift. Yes, I feel slightly guilty for not waiting until December 25 to open it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Prairie Lights Bookstore Online

Prairie Lights Bookstore, in my hometown Iowa City, is a legendary independent bookstore, with an enormous selection of books, an enthusiastic and smart staff, and an enviable reading series of up and comers and the well-established. (Now the store even has a wine bar!)

Though it’s not the same as stopping by the store, you can listen to a remarkable archive of readings by going here:

And if you’re looking for reading recommendations, nothing compares to “Paul’s Corner,” a blog and videos with book buyer Paul Ingram. I can’t speak to the cyber experience, but I promise you that a single in-person conversation with Paul results in an armload of books you didn’t know that you absolutely have to read. His passion for good books is infectious.

(And, if you happen to be in downtown Iowa City, might as well take a little side trip over to Hamburg Inn, the best burger and milkshakes around. God, how I want one of those burgers right now….)

P.S. You can support the store by buying books online.

Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop: Apps Due by January 5

I don’t know why on earth the George Washington University won’t set up a website for the Jenny McKean Moore community workshops…but there isn’t one, so here’s the info, typed by my own fingers:

Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop: Poetry
George Washington University
7 pm
Mondays, January 11-May 10

Workshop will be led by Ed Skoog, author of Mister Skylight

To apply, you d not need academic qualifications or publications. There are no fees to participate in the class, but you will be responsible for making enough copies of your poems. Students at Consortium schools (including GWU) are not eligible. The Workshop is not open to those who have participated in more than one Jenny McKean Moore Free community Workshop.

Space is limited. To apply, please submit a letter of interest and a 5-10 page sample of your writing. Make sure you include your name, address, home and work telephone numbers, and email address. If you wish to have your sample returned, please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Applications must be received at the following address by close of business on Tuesday, January 5, 2010.

JMM Poetry Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801 22nd Street NW, #760
Washington, DC 20052

Monday, December 7, 2009

Interviews with Dylan Landis & Editor

The Writer’s Center blog has posted some great interviews recently. This interview with Dylan Landis, author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, was inspiring and made me want to get back work on my novel right away:

Did you start off this project knowing you wanted to write a novel-in-stories, or were they separate short stories that began to come together, or were you planning on a novel or something else entirely?

I didn't mean to write this book at all! I was trying to fix a novel about my main character, Leah, at age 22, called Floorwork, which looked at one time like it might sail through the stratosphere. Four agents wanted it, but when it didn't find a publisher I realized I needed a deeper grasp of Leah's past--her adolescence, her family, her yearnings and motivation, the seeds of her sexuality.

I'd just started writing short stories—about Leah, to know her better—so that's how I researched her, and her mother. I wrote her at twelve, thirteen, fifteen. The stories got published; some won prizes. At some point I realized: here's half a book. And with every story I tried a new assignment. Write in third person. Write in past tense! That was weirdly scary. Write about Leah's mother. Write about sex, death or God without using clichés. Write about a man—that was the final story.

And I’m always interested in what lit journal editors have to say, so I enjoyed this interview with the editor of, an online magazine:

What would you like our readers, members and the world to know about And since you'll inevitably be getting submissions -- at least one or two -- from our writers, what are you looking for in a story?

Again, I think you would get a different answer from each of my fb colleagues, whether it be from Andy Day the co-publisher of the mag, or from our section editors. I used to say we were looking for character-driven fiction where something actually happens – but with a decade under our belt, and the changing of section editors, I think the one constant editorial slant is that we seek that which is at once original and personal -- something that could only come from you.

This Secret Santa Sends Books!

HTML Giant is organizing a secret Santa program again this year. Sign up, and you will be responsible for sending your recipient a subscription to a literary journal or a book from a small/independent press…and you’ll get the same in return! There’s something sort of exciting about getting a gift that’s truly a surprise (while supporting independent literature, of course). And if you’re cynical and not interested in buying part of the Brooklyn Bridge, you should know that I have heard from trusted people who participated in the program last year: it’s for real.

Details are here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest in Progress: Becky Wolsk on Endings

I met Becky Wolsk in one of my workshops at the Writer’s Center, where we read chapters of an early version of her novel-in-progress…which continued to progress nicely after the class ended. I have no doubt that Becky will be a published novelist in the future—along with her talent and skill, she has shown herself to be an incredibly hard worker and a great student of the craft of writing, as you will see by her guest essay about how to write effective chapter endings.

You can also read Becky’s very popular post about resources for the agent search here.

All’s Well that Ends Well
by Becky Wolsk

For the past two years I have written and revised my second novel, Six Words. I documented this experience in a writing journal so I could absorb and keep track of failed experiments and victories.

This guest-blog entry distills what I learned about scene and chapter endings, including lessons I learned from Leslie’s novel A Year and a Day*:

In the summer of 2009, a critique reader suggested I improve my chapter endings. Since my novel is called Six Words, I came up with this six-word goal:

Provide cliffhangers without braking too abruptly.

I decided to study both scene endings and chapter endings. I chose four very different books, not only for variety’s sake, but also because they are unputdownable reads.

1) Nevil Shute’s Ordeal (Also published under title What Happened to the Corbetts)-- A thriller about a British family’s struggle to survive the World War II bombing of Southampton, England.

2) Grace Metalious’s Return to Peyton Place -- A potboiler about secrets in small town New England.

3) Augusten Burrough’s Dry – A memoir about alcoholism.

4) Leslie’s A Year and a Day -- A literary novel about a fifteen-year-old girl’s grief and recovery after her mother’s suicide.

These authors create endings that serve four functions:

1) Provide foreboding and suspense.

The third chapter of Metalious’s Return to Peyton Place ends with a punch after seemingly happy newlyweds exchange dull remarks~~

“Hurry, darling,” said Ted Carter to the girl whose arm he held. “I don’t want my wife to freeze to death during her very first winter in Peyton Place.”

"The girl laughed up at him. “Remind me to buy a pair of flat-heeled shoes tomorrow. I can’t keep up with those long legs of yours when I’m wearing high heels. I saw a shop back there—Thrifty something—I’ll go there tomorrow.”

"Ted Carter did not laugh with his wife and his steps grew even more hurried.

“They don’t sell shoes at the Thrifty Corner,” he said, and holding tightly onto his wife’s arm, he tried desperately not to think of Selena."~~

At the end of the fifth chapter, Metalious kicks up the drama, then uses the last sentence to kick it a notch higher, like Emeril Lagasse getting carried away with jiggers of hot sauce~~

"She picked [a notebook] up and began to leaf through it, and her face paled as she read. Roberta had mapped out a plan for murder. A plan so simple and stupid that it might just work for those very reasons. Jennifer’s heart pumped hard and fast as she read, and it was not until she heard a car stop outside that she raised her head. They were back.

"In a flash, Jennifer locked the desk and ran upstairs. She buried the key ring deep in the box of soap flakes and ran to her room. Before she got back into bed, she looked out the window and was just in time to see Roberta coming up the walk. You sly old bitch, she thought. You jealous old bitch. What a surprise you have in store for you!

"Lying in bed, listening to Ted’s footsteps coming up the stairs, Jennifer thought, This is going to be a memorable Thanksgiving Day.

"Robert had scheduled her murder for tomorrow."~~

2) Introduce the next plot twist.

At the end of the second chapter in Nevil Shute’s Ordeal, the residents of Southampton are reeling from their new normal (bombings and food shortages), when another unforeseen and scarily exotic catastrophe hits.

The chapter ends as Mr. Corbett says goodbye to his wife for the morning~~

“You can leave the washing up—I’ll do that.” He had no thought of going to his office.

"He went out his front door. In the street he met Mr. Littlejohn returning to his house, grey and troubled. He said, “You’ve heard the news?”

“No,” said Corbett.

“Cholera,” said Mr. Littlejohn.

"Corbett stared at him, wide-eyed.

“There’s been an outbreak of cholera down Northam way. Over seventy cases, so they say. They’ve got patrols on all the roads. Nobody’s to leave the city till he’s been inoculated.”~~

3) Show protagonists struggling and discovering epiphanies that benefit both the novel’s characters and readers.

At the end of Chapter 2 from Dry, Augusten Burroughs feels good about surviving an intervention at work. He has agreed to go to rehab, but isn’t sure he will follow through. He views the forced leave of absence as a vacation, and can’t wait to get drunk that evening since he won’t have to show up for work the next morning~~

"What I really like to do is get drunk at home so I don’t feel so nervous and inhibited, then go out to some dive bar and talk to guys. You never know who you’ll meet or where you’ll end up. It’s like this fucking incredible vortex of possibility. Anything can happen at a bar. Unlike Greer, I like options, I like to not really know what’s going to happen next. Resolutions can be very dull.

"Then it hits me. An awful glitch. Something so unfathomable that it dawns on me with a slow blackness that makes me feel hollow.

"In order to get away with this, I may actually have to do something so horrifying that I can barely admit it to myself.

"I may actually have to go to rehab."~~

In Leslie Pietrzyk’s A Year and a Day, the protagonist is fifteen-year-old Alice, who questions everything in the wake of her mother’s suicide. When Alice finds out a secret about her brother, it softens her outlook. Her epiphany appears at the end of a scene, which makes the epiphany more noticeable and ends the scene on a strong note~~

"Will wasn’t supposed to do things like that. Not Will, not my brother. He hadn’t cried at Mama’s funeral, and I had thought that was so brave and strong of him, so perfect. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just…lonely." ~~

4) Provide contingent conclusions to increase the final conclusion’s payoff.

From Augusten Burroughs’s Dry~~

“A Diet Coke,” I say after a long pause.

"The bartender looks at me for just an instant longer. It’s as if he has been able to read my mind, knows what’s going on inside of me. And it occurs to me that he’s probably seen this many times before: the demons wrestling.

"When he sets my Diet Coke on the bar he says, “Enjoy.”

"I suck through the thin straw. I suck until only the ice is left." ~~

This ending is superficially conclusive, like ice on a winter pond. It glazes the surface but can’t support a skater’s weight yet.

In Burroughs’s case, when he orders the Diet Coke, he is far enough into his recovery to ask for something benign in a bar. But in the last two sentences of the chapter, his tone reveals he is white-knuckling his sobriety. He made the right decision this time, for now, but will he relapse and when? We’ll have to read on to find out.

The final chapter’s ending in Dry pays off the tension from the “Diet Coke” ending. I don’t want to quote it so I won’t give the brilliance of the ending away, but the gist is that Burroughs is no longer a lonely guy sipping soda in a bar.

At the end of chapter one in A Year and a Day, Alice makes a tentative conclusion~~

"…that’s all I wanted now, answers to questions. Not voices in my head. Not more secrets. Just facts and truth. Maybe everything would end up being as simple as orange Kool-Aid."~~

In this chapter-ender, Alice explicitly states what is at stake for her, and by extension, what the whole novel will be about. Tension throughout the whole first chapter leads Alice to make this point. She is rebelling against her mother, who had frustrated Alice by scoffing~~

“Anyone can look up in a book facts about slugs. But a bunch of facts won’t tell you anything worth knowing.”~~

The goal of chapter one’s ending is to promise a book full of secrets and revelations to the reader.
The final chapter’s ending fulfills this promise made in chapter one. Alice has a new female role model in her life, Mrs. Lane, her biology teacher. Alice confides in her because she is still looking for answers, and at first Mrs. Lane’s answer seems disappointingly cryptic and clinical, like the facts that Alice’s mother scorned in the novel’s first chapter. But then Mrs. Lane transforms a scientific fact into a truth that is interpersonal, rich, and enlightening.

About: Becky Wolsk is a write-at-home mother and quilter. Her writing has appeared in Cookie Magazine, Flashquake (where her story was an editor’s pick), Literary Mama,, What If?, Glass Quarterly, Brain Child, Imperfect Parent, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and in arts and humanities databases. Her second novel, Six Words, is about sustainable living and unsustainable lying. The protagonist, Sophia Green, is a curriculum designer and scavenger huntress. She works for the fictitious George Washington Carver Public Charter School in Washington DC, where most lessons spiral around the school garden. Becky's website is

*Ed. note: Extremely flattering, Becky…thank you!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is "Write about What You Know" Good Advice?

Josh Henkin in the Glimmer Train bulletin:

“Every writer is faced with the same question: do you write about what you know or what you don't know? Some of my writing students, particularly my undergraduates, err to one extreme or the other. They write simply what they know, which is a transcript of Friday night's keg party, or simply what they don't know, which is Martians. What they need to do—and here I'm quoting a former writing teacher of mine—is write what they know about what they don't know or what they don't know about what they know. In other words, they want the advantages of both closeness and distance.”

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Books Received: Susan Tekulve and R.T. Smith

I teach with some very distinguished colleagues at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program, and I’m pleased to mention two new collections of short stories that will prove my point.

Savage Pilgrims
By Susan Tekulve

Published by Serving House Books

From the publisher: “Fired from his sales job, a middle-aged Ohio man becomes a full-time Civil War re-enactor. A faithless Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Poland leads a group of elderly Catholic women on a pilgrimage to the shrine of a Black Madonna. After learning of her husband's ocular disease, a wife takes him on an urgent quest to Scotland to see the sights she believes he will miss after he is blind. Regardless of their circumstances, these characters all wrestle with the complex disappointments and hopes that keep them searching for savage truths about themselves and others as they take off-kilter paths toward healing, love, grace and solace.”

I found these linked stories to be the perfect book to dip into before bedtime, filling my mind with their rich prose and the familiar exoticism of the Midwest. I was transported absolutely—into a troubled family, into the mystifying world of teenage girls—and farther afield—to Poland, to Scotland, learning about the Black Madonna and falcons. I admire the vision, skill, and intelligence in these stories, and the only drawback to this book is that I longed for more (98 pages, with five stories and five poems; I definitely wanted to keep reading).

Excerpt from “The Worst Thing I’ll Ever Do to You,” my favorite story:
Although I’d given birth three days before, my mother wanted to tell me about her stillborn children.

“It felt like someone had tied my insides together with a rope,” she said. “Then they tied the other end to a horse and slapped the horse on the rear.”

“I can’t listen to this right now,” I said.

Buy the book on
Read Susan Tekulve’s guest blog piece about travel writing.
Learn more about Susan Tekulve.
Read Wash Day, Susan’s web chapbook of fiction, here.


I’ve not yet had the chance to delve into The Calaboose Epistles by R.T. Smith, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity. I’ve read and admired Rod’s beautiful poetry (here’s a stunning poem that recently appeared on Poetry Daily), and so I know these stories will be equally powerful.

The Calaboose Epistles
By R.T. Smith
Published by Iris Press

From the publisher: “Set in the southern Appalachians, R. T. Smith’s third collection of stories also inhabits that allegorical realm where the patterns of human travail are dramatized and played out endlessly. Whether incarcerated in penal institutions or imprisoned by their own obsessions and transgressions, the bear hunters, cockfighters, con artists, ginseng diggers and school teachers of these inventive narratives demonstrate that tragedy, comedy and travesty are seldom as distinct as we want to believe.”

Excerpt from “Wishing”:
You were not safe anywhere: Della Moxley Medlock knew it to be so. The weather channel said it was ninety degrees up in New York City that minute, a quarter past midnight. Old folks were in danger of heat stroke, infants fevered in their cribs. Japan had floods and typhoons, while in Colorado, record-breaking wildfires raged. Locally, the corn silk was all a nasty brown and the cobs were ugly nubbins. The yard flowers leaned over, thirsty, even with the gleety dishwater splashed across them daily, and neither the leftover drips and dribbles of Coke nor the beer dregs thrown out on the brittle lawn perked it up. Above the air conditioner’s straining breath, the cicadas jittered like sleigh bells, and the half moon beyond the double-glazed pan was red as a tomato.

Buy the book on
Learn more about R.T. Smith here.

“Necessary” disclosure per the FTC overlords: I received these books as gifts, but only because the authors ignored my entreaties to let me buy a copy. I would happily spend my own money on these books.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Animate Your Words

I’m still not up to speed on book trailers—maybe because I don’t quite understand their purpose, or maybe simply because I’m too lazy to investigate. But here’s a good place to start: in anticipation of a forthcoming memoir, poet Sandra Beasley started thinking about book trailers, which led her to decide to learn how to animate some of her poems. The process as she describes it feels doable, and the results (now on YouTube) are admirable.

As Sandra notes, “Why do this? These videos will never supplant the poems themselves. I don't expect to monetize them. Enjambment tends to get lost, unfortunately, which means in some ways you have to compromise the poem to make this work.

“But anything that gets your poems to a ‘slightly’ different audience than before intrigues me. It's the same reason we put poems on buses and subway cars--and in that spirit, try to choose poems that translate to a public and attention-span-challenged space.”

Start here with Part 1 of Sandra’s posts (links to subsequent posts are at the end of Part 1; Part 2 is where you can read the nitty-gritty about how to put together your own video).

And be sure to check out Sandra’s poem “Vocation” here:

Contest for Long Short Stories

A contest for those who—like me—can’t keep it short:

THE LONG STORY CONTEST, International (formerly The Long Fiction Contest, International), now in its 17th year, has become the premier competition for writers of stories that don't fit the conventional limits imposed by the economics of small press publishing. Named for A. E. Coppard, one of the leading British writers of the 1920's, whose first story was rejected only because it was too long--12,000 words--the contest attracts writers from all over the world. In order to acknowledge and encourage entries from outside the United States, the word International has been added to the title. All submissions must be in English and entry fee in U.S. dollars.

Manuscript Length: 8,000-14,000 words (30-50 pages double spaced).
Manuscript Genre: Single story (may have multi- parts or be a self-contained novel segment)Deadline: December 15, 2009 postmark. Winner announced by late Spring 2010.

Award: 2010 A. E. Coppard Prize for Fiction. Winner--$1000. and 25 copies, plus 10 press kits to news sources of choice. All entrants receive a copy of the prize chapbook.

Entry Fee: $15. US funds. Additional MSS in same envelope $10. US each. Check made out to WECSP. Entry fee is not refundable.

Format: Cover Page with Title, Name, Address, Phone, E-mail. Second Title Page, no name. No name on MS. Easy to read type or print, double spaced. Do not bind MS.

Judging: Blind judging. All stories coded before judging. Judge: Tom Smith, The Christmas Shopper

SASE for announcement only. Use #10 envelope. No manuscripts can be returned. They will be recycled.

Simultaneous Submissions OK. Multiple submissions are not a problem. Please let us know if story accepted elsewhere. Unpublished (Previous publication of small parts of ms. OK with acknowledgments). Published on the Internet is Published and cannot be considered.

NO Restrictions on style, method, or subject matter. We respect the full range of literary writing.

Mail to:
Long Story Contest, International
White Eagle Coffee Store Press
P.O. Box 383
Fox River Grove IL 60021
Use USPS First Class Mail. More information:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all! Here’s what we’ll be cooking/eating tomorrow, if all goes as planned~~

Spiced Nuts
Crudités & Green Goddess Spinach Dip
Pimento Cheese
The Classic Martini
The Robert Burns*

Breast of Turkey & Roulade**
Cornbread Stuffing
Classic Cranberry Sauce
Mashed Potatoes & Gravy
Gratineed Mustard Creamed Onions
Maple-Pecan Sweet Potatoes***
Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne****

Pumpkin Pie
Coffee & Tea

*Yes, how literary. Steve is in charge of cocktail and wine selection. Here’s some background, and a recipe, though our recipe calls for Drambuie instead of absinthe.

**Prepped by the fabulous Butcher’s Block shop in Alexandria, NOT by me! Gravy, too, in a hopeful attempt to create a stress-free kitchen for a change, though the turkey directions are a little on the vague side, stressing me out already (i.e. “cook for 1.5 to 3 hours”).

***With marshmallows this year, at Steve’s request. Last time we did the marshmallows, they caught on fire…oops!

****From The Joy of Cooking; “cockaigne” is the name they give to their most special recipes…I think I’m remembering it was the name of their family house or something? This is one of the few recipes that make brussel sprouts taste good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More on Hollywood in the Thirties

Poet John Guzlowski emailed these reading suggestions as follow-up to my post about Fitzgerald in Hollywood:

“Several years ago there was a great book on Writers and Hollywood by Tom Dardis: Some Time in the Sun: The Hollywood Years of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Aldous Huxley and James Agee.

“Dardis is wonderful, smart and interesting. He also wrote a great book on drinking and American writers in the 20th cent called The Thirsty Muse. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor.

“By the way have you read, Fitzgerald's stories about being a writer?* They are collected in his Pat Hobby Stories. They are very good.

“I was crazy about Fitzgerald for a long time and read much about him. Budd Schulberg (who wrote "On the Water Front") worked with Fitzgerald and wrote a very good novel about going on an assignment with him to write a script about a winter carnival at Dartmouth! It's called The Disenchanted. A sad, sad novel.”

*Yes, I love The Pat Hobby Stories, which are on my “favorite books bookshelf.” From the back of my old Scribner’s paperback: “…Fitzgerald was able to satirize not only the vulgar, hallucinatory climate of Hollywood in the late thirties but also his own bitter captivity inside it.” I just reread the first story, where down-on-his-luck Pat thinks he has a way out, only to discover he's more down on his luck and expendable than he had imagined.

From the end of "Pat Hobby's Christmas Wish," the big boss says,

"Like someone should have cracked down on you, Pat. But you were an amusing guy in those days, and besides we were all too busy."

Pat sniffed suddenly.

"I've been cracked down on," he said. "Plenty."

"But too late," said Gooddorf...

Lee Gutkind to Lead Master Workshop at Writer's Center

This is a great opportunity to learn from a true master:

The Writer's Center is pleased to announce that one of the leading figures of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind, will lead a master workshop this winter at The Writer's Center.

7 - 9:30 p.m. Monday, Feb 8, Tuesday, Feb. 9, Thursday, Feb. 11, and Friday, Feb. 12
Fee: $300 for members; $350 for nonmembers

Whether you are writing memoir or writing about science, business, or history, the writer, to be successful, must find a way to communicate interesting and vital information along with his or her ideas and feelings--through scene or narrative.

Those are the first two challenges in creative nonfiction: Style or story blended with substance or fact. And then there's focus/theme--the awesome final challenge: What does all of this information plus narrative mean to the reader, to the writer, and to the world? What do we want our readers to think or do after they read our essay or our book?

These are the three challenges facing the nonfiction writer today--often the vital prerequisites of publication and communication.

In this workshop, Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the landmark magazine Creative Nonfiction, will lead you through the creative nonfiction writing process from beginning to end. He will demonstrate the writer's pitfalls and the ways in which the writer might fulfill the creative nonfiction triple challenge.

In the first class, Gutkind will discuss and demonstrate the classic structure of creative nonfiction--how style and substance come together. In the second class, Gutkind will be joined by his colleague, Dan Sarewitz, a columnist for the journal Nature, and co-director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes. Sarewitz and Gutkind will focus on perhaps the most difficult of the three challenges: finding meaning in your work. For the third and fourth sessions students will be asked to write a short narrative that combines style, substance, and meaning--and share their work with the class.

This is a master workshop. To apply, you must submit 5 hard copy pages of a creative nonfiction piece (it can be an excerpt from a longer work). Please do not register for this workshop before you are admitted. Submission deadline for this workshop is January 4. Check the website for details.

To learn more about Lee Gutkind, please visit him at

Monday, November 23, 2009

Stephen Elliott: How to Write about Your Family

DC writer Paula Whyman organized an amazing event on Friday, hosting Stephen Elliott at a packed reading at Teaism. Stephen, who is on a wild, self-organized, nationwide tour of reading in people’s houses and at venues beyond the typical bookstore, read from his new book, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder. He told us he was reading different parts of the book at each event (a nice trick, considering he will have been on the road for more than three months when the tour winds up). He’ll be touring until December 18, and if you have the chance to see him read, I call this a "must see."

If you’ve ever read his work, you know that it is incredibly intense and dark and honest: reading his autobiographical novel Happy Baby was a memorably wrenching experience (one of the most powerful books I've read, though I recommend it's that brutal). So I had to ask his advice on something that often comes up in my classes (okay, and in my own life, too), worrying about the reaction of family/friends when they read certain stories.

He gave a great answer, which I’ll paraphrase, since I was too mesmerized to think of taking notes:

First, don’t even worry about anyone’s reactions until the piece is going to be published. This is simply the wisest comment on the whole subject—obviously, the story can change in progress or not get written or be written but live only in a file drawer. He also noted that you shouldn’t imagine that the person you don’t want to read the piece won’t find it…they always, always do.

Disguise characters so that it’s not obvious who you’re writing about.

Then, he suggested that you let the pertinent person/people read it before the work is being published, rather than after publication. Inevitably, people will react in one way or another, but he said that people will not want to be the one who “stops” a book/story from being published. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but sure: who will come out and demand that you rip up that contract?

Writers need to own the story and own their actions. As he said, “I’m a writer, and this is what I do.” We write stories, and sometimes they’re not pretty and sometimes they involve people we know.

Finally, he noted that if you’re going to go into this sort of territory, you need to go in all the way. You can’t create art by going only halfway. That is, if you’re going to write the story about your father, write the truth of that whole story: don’t hold back.

Great, great advice…I plan to steal this all next time the subject comes up in one of my classes.

And here’s my fun fact about Stephen Elliott: this artsy writer exploring with bare honesty the dark, wrenching, difficult corners of his life, has a fantasy football team. !!! My mouth literally dropped open when I heard this, and I was even more charmed and mesmerized than I had been before (even though his quarterback is the annoying Tony Romo, from DC’s archrival Dallas Cowboys).

You can read more about the event and see some photos at Paula Whyman’s blog.

Stephen Elliott's essay "Why I Write."

C.M. Mayo's "Spellbinding, Heartbreaking Tale"

Congratulations to C.M. Mayo, friend and guest blogger, whose new novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire was named to Library Journal’s list of “best books of 2009.” Catherine was in my writing group for many years, so I know how hard she worked on this lovely book and how much she deserves this honor!

From Library Journal:

“Once upon a time, there was a little half-American boy who briefly became heir to the Mexican throne—until his distraught parents sued the doomed Emperor Maximilian for his return. As in the best historical fiction, Mayo's sparkling first novel transforms a forgotten historical footnote into a spellbinding, heartbreaking tale filled with drama and fascinating characters.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Guest in Progress: Katharine Davis

It’s one of the trickiest questions writers have to face: When is it done? (This is also a tricky question with regard to Thanksgiving turkeys, but I digress…) Here, my dear friend and former writing group member Katharine (Kitty) Davis wrestles with the ramifications of saying "the end."

(Also check out her previous posts for this blog, “Betwixt and Between,” about filling time between projects; and this New Yorker-style “Letter from Maine.” And here’s her yummy recipe for fish chowder, inspired by her second novel, East Hope…perfect for these dark winter evenings.)

Letting Go of Your Novel
Katharine Davis

Writing a novel is a long journey. From the simple physical endurance of turning out all those pages to the emotional ups and downs of the creative act—it’s an enormous endeavor, consuming one’s life for years at a time.

Writers often talk about the difficulty of getting started. How do you find the voice, where to begin, which point of view, the time frame, the setting? There are thousands of questions to consider, big and small.

Then, there is the problem of sticking to it, finding the time to write, getting blocked. Oh, the agony of finally understanding a character in the thirteenth chapter and having to re-write the previous 200 pages. How painful it is to discover you’ve gone off on a tangent, another 60 pages. You love every word, but you have to take them all out.

Eventually, you do the tedious revisions. Sentence by sentence, word by word, the work of getting the prose just right. Some days it’s nothing but a pleasure to revise, working on the rhythm, having the perfect metaphor seem to land in your lap. You might experience the thrill of coming up with that one word that changes everything. But, the countless hours spent on dialogue that clunks along like the rattle in your car that the mechanic can’t fix, or the flashback that’s brought your narrative drive to a halt--these trials are part of the process too.

Yet to me, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is letting it go. You type ‘the end’ in all caps. You send it out. You want to celebrate, drink champagne, eat an enormous chocolate cupcake and tell all your friends, “I did it. I’m done. It’s the best ever. Yay!” And then, wham. What have I written? I didn’t get deeply enough into that character’s head. Did I tell enough about the mother? Oh God. That part’s too sappy. I should have made it better. These thoughts come at 3 AM, thanks to the champagne, the cupcake, or both. At that moment, the initial thrill of finding the story, and the enthusiasm of bringing it to the page is like some prehistoric event.

The next day, I feel somewhat better. There’s that scene where . . . and, remember when . . . , and the ending that can still make me cry. I find a paragraph I truly love. When did I write that? The next few weeks bring a combination of highs and lows.

Letting go of a novel is like sending children off to college. They’ve spent the last few years of high school driving you crazy, but also bringing you joy and delight. You experience the relief of getting them out from under your roof, to deep sadness. You miss them. You want your child to have his own life, to succeed. But it’s no longer up to you. Your baby if gone. Still, you’ve created something with love and hard work. Hopefully, the sense of pride and satisfaction will be long lasting.

This morning I pressed “send” and heard that final electronic click. I sent my novel, A SLENDER THREAD to my editor. The champagne is in the fridge. I plan to go to Magnolia Bakery this afternoon. Best cupcakes in New York.

About: Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris (St. Martin’s Press, 2006) was her first novel. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, the novel was also included in the New York Times' suggestions for fiction set in Paris. Her second novel, East Hope, was published by New American Library in 2009. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review. She can be reached at (Be sure to check out her fabulous Maine and Paris travel tips!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fitzgerald in Hollywood

It wasn’t until I opened my November 16, 2009, issue of The New Yorker on the plane to Austin that I saw this article about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his struggles in Hollywood. It was an excellent piece—written by Arthur Krystal, who’s working on a book on the topic—and it’s well worth searching out a print copy of the magazine. (The web site offers only an abstract.)

Krystal had access to Fitzgerald’s papers from a forgotten corner of the M-G-M archives, and it seems that our friend Scott really, really, REALLY wanted to come up with a great movie. And so why didn’t he succeed? Not hard to figure out, acutally, based on Krystal's research.

Krystal writes that while examining the papers,

“…I discovered just how hard he had worked at his craft. Fitzgerald approached each assignment with an intensity that must have puzzled his superiors. Given a script to revise, he would break it down, backstory it, advise the producers of its potential, and then start to add layers. ‘A Yank at Oxford’ couldn’t be just an innocent romance’ it had to prove the connection between language and mores. ‘Madame Curie’ couldn’t be just the story of a woman overcoming the odds; it had to reveal the intricacies of a marriage between equals. Naturally, he became emotionally invested in the work, making it difficult to cede control, and, like the British colonel in ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ he forgot that what he was building didn’t belong to him, and, consequently, felt dismayed at its destruction.”

Here’s a brief bit from one of Fitztgerald's screenplays, “Cosmopolitan,” based on his short story “Babylon Revisited”:

Krystal notes: “Now follows a much longer, prosy summation of Marion Petrie’s character and attitudes, all of which could be expressed in a few lines of dialogue instead of lengthy paragraphs:

“[Fitzgerald wrote:] His wife Marion…is an extremely pretty American woman of thirty-two who must have hoped for a better match. She is now in a state of great emotion—barely controlled. She is agitated almost to the breaking point by the news of her sister’s suicide, which reached her last night in Paris. Always before this she has felt a certain secret jealously of her sister, who has great wealth and luxury.”

Sounds like a pureborn novelist to me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Austin Wrap-Up

We spent the weekend in Austin, Texas, and despite being tied down by business functions, were able to get in some good eating (shock):

--We had a wonderful lunch at Manuel’s, upscale Mexican food, with very refreshing (and potent) margaritas…nice tequila list. I had the chile relleno en nogada, a chile stuffed with pork, almonds and raisins with a walnut-brandy sauce, and Steve had the mole enchilada. We were totally stuffed after that, but bravely headed to the business event that night, dinner at:

--Threadgill’s, the music venue where Janis Joplin got her start (Austin bills itself as the live music capital of the world). We had chicken fried chicken breast (which is different than fried chicken!), and two sides: garlic cheese grits, and I went for the “light” fried okra, while Steve headed for “San Antonio squash.” I don’t know the exact recipe, but I’m pretty sure it involves a few slices of summer squash, corn, canned chiles, and lots of Velveeta. Who couldn’t like vegetables with all that camouflage? My peach cobbler was good, but Steve’s pecan pie was AMAZING.

--Fonda San Miguel had been recommended by us with such enthusiasm (thanks, LLD!) that we had to hop in a cab and try a late Sunday brunch. I’m not much of a brunch person, due to the tendency to eat like a pig with all that food spread out, but this was our only chance to get here, and it was nice to try so many wonderful Mexican dishes, including a deep-dark mole, and a spicy chicken with crema sauce. It was fun to try cactus salad, and there was a corn dish, sort of like a spoon bread that was so sweet and yummy that I added a second helping of it to my dessert plate. Steve was all over the tres leches cake. We waddled out of there and collapsed for a good long while.

--Later that night, we had the chance to sit in the beautiful western bar of the historic Driskill Hotel, built in 1886 by a cattle baron. I love historic hotels, and this is one of the most stunning ones I’ve ever been in. (You can find some great photos here.)

--We stumbled onto FRANK after we had already eaten lunch. But FRANK, with its hipster vibe and promise of housemade sausages and hot dogs lured us in, and we were not disappointed. In fact, we were in awe! We only had half an hour or so before having to leave for the airport, so we promised ourselves that we would share a quick dog and get out. Oh, haha. Our second “light” lunch began with a Manhattan made with bacon-infused Maker’s Mark, a drink called “redheaded stranger” that was a bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka garnished with a pepperocini, a jalapeno stuffed olive, a chunk of cheddar, and a strip of bacon (!!), and a half black pepper, half celery salt crusted rim (in a nod to common sense, I got the small version). Steve had the jalapeno cheese dog, which featured a homemade dog with flecks of jalapeno inside the meat (as well as scattered liberally on top) and I had one of the day’s specials: chicken fried hot dog. I defy anyone to pass this up; even one of the vegetarian servers claimed that this dish is what makes him think about going back to meat. It was AWESOME! An incredible, clean and natural-tasting hot dog deep fried in a very light batter, covered with cream gravy. Mmmmm…. It was beyond my expectations. (Oh, and I’m not crazy—I kept things light by not eating the bun.) We bought our bacon-chocolate chip cookies to go. If you’re anywhere remotely close to Texas, it’s so worth your while to make a beeline to this heavenly place.

--There was more than food, and some of the non-food highlights included the “spouse trolley tour”(hi, Jenny!) that showed me parts of Austin beyond the downtown area, including some mansions from old-time Austin, a too-quick visit to the Lyndon Johnson presidential library (he had huge, goofy ears as a baby!), and a good view of the GIGANTIC Jumbotron at the UT football stadium. And Steve and I found a fun, artsy music store called Wild About Music where we bought some Austin CDs. And if either Western Ghost House or The Sideshow Tragedy ever collect a Grammy…well, we saw them play live in Austin at The Ghost Room!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Someone Else's Titling Woes

This interview with Michelle Huneven, author of a new novel called Blame, is interesting (and the book sounds great!), but I was particularly intrigued by this (sadly familiar) tale of titling woes:

OLIVAS: Choosing a title for a novel can be both exhilarating and exasperating. The one word title of your novel is unflinching, almost accusatory. How did you decide upon it? Can you share with us some titles that didn’t make it?

HUNEVEN: This was the hardest title to find!

I started writing the book thinking that one of the key characters would have a part time job giving scrapbooking workshops and selling scrapbooking supplies—such people are sometimes called “memory consultants.” So the original title was, The Memory Consultant. But then the character never became a scrapbooker, and I didn’t have a title.

When I finished the draft I sent to my agent, I had the most spineless title—After All, I think. I don’t really remember. I knew it was terrible, but wanted something on the title page. My agent, who has since retired, suggested Patsy’s Fault, which had resonance, but I found a little too jaunty for the book. A close friend, also a novelist, suggested Blame, and that’s how the book went out to publishers. After she bought the book, my editor Sarah Crichton wanted a title that was a little less thematically pointed. We looked long and hard for something else. I had all my friends helping, or trying to. For All She Knew was one contender, but I could never remember it, and if I couldn’t remember the title of my own book, how would other people recall it long enough to get to the bookstore? Another contender was Patsy MacLemoore, but to me it was a little too Olive Kitteridge-ish—same syllabic count. Blame was memorable. It may not be the very best title for this book, but after months of searching (and I paged through the Bible, most of Shakespeare, not to mention Yeats, Stevens, Bishop, and Rumi...) and boring my friends to death, I came up empty handed. By then, my editor had decided that Blame was the best and only title for the book.

Read on here.

Split This Rock Poetry Contest

I just got the info on this year's Split This Rock poetry contest:

$1,000 awarded for poems of provocation & witness
Chris Abani, Judge

Benefits Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Washington, DC, March 10-13, 2010

Prizes: First place $500; 2nd and 3rd place, $250 each. Winners will receive free festival registration, and the 1st-place winner will be invited to read the winning poem at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2010. Winning poems will be published on

Deadline: January 4, 2010 (postmark)

Reading Fee: $25, which supports Split This Rock Poetry Festival

Details: Submissions should be in the spirit of Split This Rock: socially engaged poems, poems that reach beyond the self to connect with the larger community or world; poems of provocation and witness. This theme can be interpreted broadly and may include but is not limited to work addressing politics, economics, government, war, leadership; issues of identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, body image, immigration, heritage, etc.); community, civic engagement, education, activism; and poems about history, Americana, cultural icons.

Split This Rock subscribes to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses Contest Code of Ethics.

Submission Guidelines: Send up to 3 unpublished poems, no more than 6 pages total, in any style, in the spirit of Split This Rock (see above).

Postmark deadline: January 4, 2010

Include one cover page containing your name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your poems. This is the only part of the submission that should contain your name.

Enclose a check or money order for $25 (made out to "Split This Rock") to:

Split This Rock Poetry Contest
1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036

Simultaneous submissions OK, but please notify us immediately if the poem is accepted elsewhere. For more information,

2010 Poetry Contest Judge

Chris Abani will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2010. His poetry collections are Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne's Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). His prose includes Song For Night (Akashic, 2007), The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), and Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006). He is a professor at the University of California-Riverside and the recipient of many awards, including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, and a Guggenheim Award.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guest in Progress: Susan Tekulve

I have been begging Susan Tekulve for years to write something for this blog, and I’m thrilled to report that my nagging has finally paid off. Susan is a wonderful writer (see below for information about her exciting new collection of stories, Savage Pilgrims), a dedicated and superb teacher (at Converse College and in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program), and a dear friend. You may recall the fried pimento cheese sandwich in Spartanburg…she was right there with me! And the day of beauty at the Estee Lauder counter…totally her idea!

I would need 1000 dictionaries to find enough nice words to say about her and about her work, so I'll just have to randomly pick one: fabulous! I am truly excited to be able to share with you one of her favorite writing exercises, and I’m looking forward to trying it myself:

At Home In the World: Using Travel to Produce Autobiographical Writing
By Susan Tekulve

In her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty states, “Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their destinations.” She argues that like travelers, writers are preoccupied with discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life as well as in the lives of others. The following writing exercise relies on the principle that most people carry their earliest, most sacred memories of home with them into adulthood. These memories are often hidden in the past, but the experience of travel to a new place sometimes will trigger a familiar emotion and unlock these early, forgotten experiences. The travel experience also allows you to gain the distance and perspective on your early memories of home that is needed to create structured memoirs and literary travel essays. I use this writing exercise in my creative nonfiction travel/study courses, but I swear by using this approach while I am traveling and writing about my travels both in the States and abroad.

1) Preparation: Before beginning this exercise, read memoirist Patricia Hampl’s essay, “Umbrian Spring.” In this essay, Hampl combines her memories of the Catholic convent school she attended as a girl with her travels to the convents and monasteries “offering hospitality” in the little hill towns of Umbria. You can see how Hampl’s journey through the Italian monasteries allows her to gain perspective on her childhood memory of the convent school and to contemplate the meaning of hospitality, one of the oldest missions of monastic life.

2) Draw a map of your earliest remembered neighborhood and include as much detail as you can. Who lived there? What were the secret places? Where did your friends live? Where were the off-limit places? Once you’ve made your map, it’s time to write. Tell a story from one of the places you have drawn on your map. Do not edit yourself yet. Keep writing until you’ve finished the story.

3) Go for a walk around the foreign city that you are visiting. Choose a building, fountain, door, sculpture or any other feature that you have seen in your wandering that speaks to you. Give it a name that has meaning for you. Draw or sketch your own map, (primitive, rudimentary or detailed), of the route that has led you to this spot. If on that route there are other significant spots, mark them too and give them a name. Retrace your steps to your destination. Sit down, study the map of the place you have named and free write for ten minutes, focusing on sensations, objects, in random order, of your tour. What is it about this place speaks to you or seems familiar? How did it make you feel? Why did it make you feel this way?

4) Compare the map from your journey with the map from your earliest memory. What do these two maps have in common? How has the journey experience helped you to understand your early, childhood memory? What questions, if any, has the travel experience answered for you. Using Hampl’s essay as a model, write a personal experience essay in which you connect the story from your childhood with the story from your journey.

Additional notes on using this exercise in a class:

When I use this exercise with students, I am usually teaching abroad in a workshop situation or in a travel study program, though I think this exercise can be adapted easily to a city in the States or to your own personal travels. First, I have the students read the Hampl essay before coming to our class session so that we can discuss its meaning and structure together. Then, I have them draw the childhood map and free write about one of their childhood experiences while we are all together in class. After the students have completed their maps and "memory" free writing, I send them off to explore the town or city that we are in, giving the students a set time frame, (about one hour), to find their "travel destination" and draw their second maps. This gives the students enough time to find a place and record their impressions; however, it also ensures that they don't wander off too far or get lost. Finally, because students need time to ponder, I suggest that they write the actual draft of their essay when they are back in their living quarters, possibly revisiting their chosen "travel site" on their own.

About: Susan Tekulve is the author of two story collections, My Mother’s War Stories (Winnow Press) and Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books; available for purchase here: Her chapbook, Wash Day, is forthcoming on the Webdelsol "World Voices Series." Her nonfiction, stories and poems have appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Best New Writing 2007, The Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Fiction Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Literary Review, Webdelsol, Black Warrior Review and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Sewanee Writers Conference. An associate professor of English at Converse College in South Carolina, she is completing a novel.

You can read more of her work here:

~“Second Shift” (essay) from Writers on the Job,

~“A Dance of Words: A Conversation with Beth Kephart” (writer interview),

~“The Way of Stories: An Interview With Jean Thompson (writer interview), Webdelsol,

~“Real cities With Imaginary Prose About Them; An Inerview with Thomas E. Kennedy” (writer interview), from The Literary Review,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Best American Short Stories 2009

Lately, I’ve been dipping in and out of the new edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Alice Sebold, and I’ve found some excellent stories by some unfamiliar writers. (In fact, that’s the reason I faithfully buy this book year after year, looking for writers—and journals—I haven’t read much or ever.)

I didn’t discover any new journals, but I did find some great new (to me) writers and stories. Here are some of my favorites:

“Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash, set in the mountainous South, is a tight and tragic story about the loss of land and a way of life, all the more chilling because we know the inevitable outcome.

First paragraph:
“His great-aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you to the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.”

The author notes that the story “came to me first as an image. A man was running from something. He was too old to be running, yet he was running nevertheless.”

“Rubiaux Rising” by Steve de Jarnatt, is set during Hurricane Katrina, about a war veteran whose aunt has locked him up in the attic as a homestyle method of drug withdrawal. The aunt has gone to town before the storm saying she’d be back…but hasn’t returned.

From the beginning:
“This early morning, as Rubiaux rouses, it is long-dead quiet. Like wads of chawed paper stuck flush back up against eardrums. Just blood rushing nothing in his head. Then blood rushing nothing in his head. Then blood simmers down, and he can hear gulls squawking on the wind somewhere. He sees gray light squeezing through rippage in the curling tarpaper lining the inside of this well-built roof. Wood is bare, creosoted here and there, but no paint. He has tried to steal an hour of sleep after an unholy night of ceaseless howl and shredding from the fiercest storm this parish has ever seen. How the roof stayed on was miracle indeed, testament to his late Uncle Zachary’s carpentry skill. The extra nail he’d always pound, just to be sure. But that craftsmanship has also imprisoned poor Rubiaux here in dire predicament. All night, as the din of the tempest crescendoed again and again, he thought it surely must be the Rapture. But here he is at dawn—left behind—not risen to heaven.”

This is the author’s first piece of fiction he ever sent out, and his first published story. (!!!) He notes, “The tale was spawned from an exercise given to me: write about a man in a room with a plant.” [Note: This is why writing teachers like to assign exercises!]

“Sagittarius” by Greg Hrbek, is about an unusual baby born to a couple…think centaur. "Fix" the baby, or not?

From the beginning:
“…While they were arguing (again) about the surgery, the baby vaulted over the rail of the playpen, as if it were a hurdle to be cleared. They heard his hooves scrabbling on the rubber mat, but were too late to see him jump: tucking his forelegs up, hind legs flexing and thrusting, body tracing a parabola through the air; then the earthward reach of the forelegs, the tucking up of the rear hooves, the landing. They shouted his name in unison. When they reached the sunroom, they saw him bounding out the door. Upper half, human half, twisted in their direction; a look of joy and terror in the infant’s eyes. But the equine part would not stop…”

And I’m always interested to hear stories like this one, from the author’s note: “The first version of the story was rejected by about fifteen magazines and journals. I later rewrote it, adding the older brother and his point of view, and his character led me to the idea of the car crash. I’m thankful now for the failure of the first version, because this final one is much better.”

Enough teasing…get your own copy!

(Note to FTC Overlords: I bought this book with my own money. No freebies to report.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More on Stephen Elliott and Discoveries in Writing

Speaking of Stephen Elliott—as I was yesterday, getting ramped up for his DC reading on November 20Maud Newton’s blog featured an interesting interview with Elliott. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are a few tidbits I found especially interesting:

“But when I started writing The Adderall Diaries I had no idea the book would have anything to do with my relationship with my father. I think you do come to conclusions if you’re honestly exploring your motivations, but they’re not the ones you think….So yes, that’s the wonderful thing about writing (because it isn’t the money), that you achieve moments of insight and you realize things that are important, that you might not have known were important to you and who you are.”


“People say you can write about them. They encourage you to be honest, and what they mean is you can write about their good side and their bad side, but not about a side they didn’t know they had. People don’t see us as we see ourselves. I think Janet Malcolm put it best, that being written about is like failing a test you didn’t know you were taking.”

Read the rest here…and come to the reading on November 20!

Play Scrabble with the "Word Freak" Himself

This event that combines Scrabble and books was tucked away in the recent Politics and Prose bookstore newsletter:

Saturday, November 14, 8 p.m.
We will host a Scrabble tournament led by Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak. Come early and enter the drawing for a chance to play Stefan one-on-one, get a signed book, and learn from D.C.’s resident Scrabble expert. Email Conor Moran for more information.

I’m not much of a player, but I know you Scrabble fiends are out there!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thanksgiving Stuffing Follow-Up

I posted my favorite Thanksgiving stuffing recipe last week, noting that the original recipe called for sausage that I omitted. I’ve had a few questions about that missing sausage, so if you’re interested in the sausage (and, honestly, when has sausage ever made anything worse?), the recipe calls for “3/4 lb bulk pork sausage” that you brown in a skillet. Remove it from the pan—leaving the fat—and proceed with cooking the onions, etc. in that same skillet. Add the sausage to the stuffing at the end, when you combine the cornbread and scallion with the onion mixture.


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