Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The New Yorker's Recent Fiction

I’ve been reading The New Yorker for ages, and have a love-hate relationship toward the fiction they publish. I’m excited when I love the story, and disappointed when it doesn’t do much for me or feels like nothing more than a novel excerpt by a famous writer.

But here are three recent stories that I especially liked:

--“The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht: about a story of a tiger in the narrator’s grandfather’s village (not online; this actually is an excerpt of a forthcoming novel, though it read almost like a story)

--“Idols” by Tim Gautreaux: about a man who inherits a grand old family mansion and tries to restore it

--Ziggurat by Stephen O’Connor: about, well, a Minotaur trapped in a labyrinth! (If you only read one of these, read this one; it was remarkable, though not tidily explained. And if you weren’t drawn in when you saw it, I recommend giving it another try.)

I read the Gautreaux story and thought it was compelling and well-done. Then, I checked in with the Perpetual Folly blog and learned that the characters in this story are actually characters from two different Flannery O’Connor stories: Julian is from “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and the handyman is from “Parker’s Back.” Now, I’m even more intrigued—and grateful for an excuse to be sent back to my Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

Clifford Garstang, the man behind the curtain of Perpetual Folly, reads and comments on virtually every short story in The New Yorker, so it’s a nice place to check if you’re like me, always interested in comparing your own opinions and observations with someone else’s.

Do You Need an Outside Editor?

The Editorial Ass blog offers a good discussion of the pros and cons of hiring an outside editor to review your manuscript.

Enticing excerpt: “Remember that in most cases, you can't submit to the same editor (or, before that, agent) twice. That means that, again, you MUST be honest with yourself. If you are the kind of author who needs outside professional help, try to figure that out BEFORE your agent submits your manuscript to every editor in history. Many agents start out with small, exclusive submissions so that if the general editorial feeling is that the manuscript needs more work, the author and agent can go back and try again before using up all their submissions options. So in many cases, you'll have time to consider and reconsider.”

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Co-existence of Day Jobs and Writing

Day job getting you down? Here are two excellent pieces that address the difficulties of balancing writing with the need for steady income:

First, from the Dr. Sue column from Buzz, Balls & Hype:

“Most writers, published or not, have day jobs, and my admittedly unscientific research suggests that about 35% actively loathe them and another 35% merely tolerate them. …

“There does not appear to be one particular type of work that suits writers as a group. However, most of the jobs that fall into the "loathed" category seem to entail wearing a suit and pretending to care about corporate goals. (If you actually support your company's mission, that is great, but writers in particular seem to find the pressure to project a false persona excruciating.)

“The jobs that range from "tolerable" to "great" vary according to the writer's personality and temperament. The three major divides seem to be: writing vs. not writing, solitude vs. company, and money and prestige vs. freedom….”

Read the rest here.

And, second, “How to Keep Your Day Job from Killing Your Writing Career,” is from a screenwriting blog by David Anaxagoras:

“Like most writers waiting for their big break, I have a day job. I have, in fact, had a day job for a long, long time1.

“There are many dangers inherent in leading this double life. It’s easy to lose focus and let writing take a back seat. This is because the day job is more immediate, though not necessarily more important. Plus, in a job you often have other people depending on you, whereas in the early stages of a writing career, the only person you’re likely to disappoint is yourself. And unlike the seemingly endless process of writing and rewriting, a day job often brings the immediate rewards of cash and a sense of accomplishment, of actually having done something.

“Not all jobs are satisfying in and of themselves. But even bad jobs become an excuse to not write. Because we’re tired, drained, or don’t have any time left over for ourselves.

“That’s why we have make a concentrated effort to make writing a priority in our lives. Writing is not the default behavior for the human animal. It’s way down the list on the hierarchy of needs, for one thing. If we want it to happen, we have to make it happen. On purpose.

“So I offer here a few humble suggestions for putting your writing at the center of your life….”

Read the rest here.

How an Independent Bookstore Survives

On Sunday, the Washington Post published a profile of local, independent bookstore Politics and Prose. The business side of it was interesting:

"P&P, which began in 1989, grossed $6.8 million last year, compared with $6.2 million for the average Barnes & Noble. …

"P&P's book business works like this: For every book they sell, they keep 42 percent of the sale price. Out of that 42 percent, P&P pays for payroll, rent, advertising, credit card commissions, utilities, cleaning, insurance, health-care benefits, a company car and even postage handling to get the books.

"They sell a lot of books. Of the $6.8 million in revenue last year, $3 million was in hardback sales, $2.2 million in paperback and $250,000 in bargain books.

"Christmas season accounts for 20 percent of annual sales; April has the least.

"After paying $3.9 million for books, $1.6 million for payroll and covering the rest of their expenses, the store earned $73,000 last year. The co-owners split $173,000 in salary and bonus."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Gatsby Week, Day 5: Take Note, Kennedy Center!

If this ever comes to DC, sign me up for two tickets. This is from a review of Gatz, in The Independent, October 3, 2008:

"At 3pm an actor enters a stage that is fastidiously designed like a 1980s office and sits at a desk. When his computer won't start, he rifles around the cluttered desk and happens across a copy of The Great Gatsby. He begins reading it aloud, in a flat tone: "In my younger and more vulnerable years..." At about half past 10 the same evening he reaches the book's immortal conclusion. The audience rises in appreciation – in one of the few ovations for which I have also unreservedly stood.

"This was Gatz, the epic production by the New York theatre company, Elevator Repair Service, which ran last week in the Dublin Theatre Festival. The show has been staged in America and around Europe to great acclaim, but a rights dispute meant it was only briefly staged at invitation-only performances in New York. The same problem currently precludes it from the London stage too.

"It lasts seven and a half hours, with two intervals and an hour-long dinner break – theatre as cricket match. Mercifully there was free espresso on hand, though barely a moment of the show flagged. Unsurprisingly, it was not a sell-out and the empty seats allowed one to comfortably stretch out."

Even more impressive, according to this review, the actor closes the book and for the last 30 mintues recites from memory.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gatsby Week, Day 4: Getting Personal

It amuses me that more people than you would think arrive at this blog by googling the phrase “I’ll be the man on the corner smoking two cigarettes.” This, of course, is spoken by Daisy before the group heads off to the Plaza Hotel, but I never thought of it as one of the famous Gatsby quotations. Why is everyone searching for that phrase?

I just googled “man standing on the corner smoking two cigarettes” and my site came up second, after a post comparing Leonard Cohen to a guy in the X Files.

Here’s my original post with the quote:

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

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

And just to make sure that from now on, my site beats out Leonard Cohen: man standing on the corner smoking two cigarettes, man standing on the corner smoking two cigarettes, man standing on the corner smoking two cigarettes. (No offense, Leonard!)

Guests in Progress: Kendra Gahagan & Stephanie Schragger

Are two heads better than one? I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to work with another writer—someone to share your misery when the words won’t come, and someone to share your joy when the contract arrives in the mail.

I met Kendra Gahagan at the Conversations & Connections conference in April. She was a model of how to make the most out of a conference: after my panel, she came up and asked a smart question, and was interested in my answer. She told me a bit about herself and her co-writer and their project, enough to leave me feeling interested, not overwhelmed. I said that I was intrigued at the thought of co-writing, and that that might be something interesting on my blog. She took a card….

…and she followed up, with a nice email message about the conference and asked my advice about something else. I tried to help her and again mentioned the blog idea….

…and she followed up! Lucky me, because now I have an interesting piece to share with you on what it’s like to work with another writer:

Picture this: two first-time novelists sit down to start writing their manuscript together. Well, not quite together, since they live in two different cities, and not just one story, but interwoven tales of two heroines living in New York and Washington.

However daunting it seemed, writing our work of commercial women’s fiction as a team was the best idea we could have had (second only to not making our characters vampires, since it seemed like we had seen that somewhere before…). Despite being the closest of friends, we knew that crafting every sentence of the novel together would either drive us clinically insane or make the release date of our book sometime circa 2050. Instead, we decided to write in tandem – with each chapter alternating between the plot lines and cities of our characters, Alex and Sophie. It let us juxtapose the two heroines’ adventures and also transport the reader in every other chapter from the vibrant, edgy buzz of New York to the quixotic, high-powered vibe of DC. The process kept us ferociously on deadline, since a new chapter by one of us couldn’t be tackled until the previous one was finished. Verizon in-network calling became our new best friend for edit sessions and we quickly realized how much fun it was to play “unsuspecting reader” for one another by withholding the twists and turns in each chapter. What better way to see if they actually worked?

After all of our review sessions – some by phone well past midnight, others sitting side-by-side in our one-bedroom apartments – we were shocked when the chapters came together sounding like one voice throughout the novel. We felt the planets must have aligned when friends and literary editors alike told us they would have never guessed that the novel had been written by more than one author. We could only conclude that either we do share a brain (equal halves, of course), we were separated at birth (our mothers are eerily similar), or our book was simply meant to be written. We’re going with option C…and are loving every minute of it along the way.

A few tips for co-authoring a novel:

-- Try to map out a way to divide the material easily and logically, versus truly co-writing every chapter (if you want to finish it this century).

-- Don't be a "friendly" editor to your friend. You and your co-author are each other's best critic, so when reading and editing, be brutally honest!

-- Set strict deadlines. It's amazing how the simple act of writing down chapter due dates on a calendar will jump start your productivity.

~Kendra Gahagan & Stephanie Schragger

About: Kendra Gahagan and Stephanie Schragger came up with the idea for their novel at a Starbucks in Manhattan back when they lived just a subway ride apart. Stephanie is a history teacher at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn and Kendra is a documentary producer in Washington, DC. They’ve been best friends since their freshman year in college.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gatsby Week, Day 3: Title Woes

Here’s an interesting essay about the evolution of The Great Gatsby’s iconic cover and various preliminary drawings—as well as a quick summary of the various titles Fitzgerald wanted for the book:

Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
[Perkins writes, “The weakness is in the words ‘Ash Heaps’ which do not seem to me to be a sufficiently definite and concrete expression of that part of the idea.”]

“On October 27 [1924], Fitzgerald writes that he is finally sending The Great Gatsby. (He offers as an alternate title Gold-hatted Gatsby.) He follows up a week or so later with a letter in which he says that he has decided to retain his original title:

“'Trimalchio in West Egg. The only other titles that seem to fit it are Trimalchio and On the Road to West Egg. I had two others Gold-hatted Gatsby and The High-bouncing Lover but they seemed too light.'

“On November 14th Perkins replies that none of his Scribner colleagues likes the Trimalchio title, and urges him to change it.”

Good call, Max…there’s a reason you're a legendary editor!

I didn’t realize the original cover artwork is owned by Princeton University.

Gatsby Week, Day 3: Quirky Fact of the Day

From yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac:

"Hunter S. Thompson wrote on a red IBM Selectric. One of his first jobs was as a copy boy for Time, and while he was supposed to be working, he used a typewriter and typed out, word for word, all of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, in order to learn something about writing style."

Rhymes with Quark, Snark, Dark, Lark

Perfect for summer…shark poems! (Extra points if your meter matches the Jaws theme music...)

Shark Summer Poetry Contest: Aquarium of the Pacific

The winner will have his or her poem posted on the Aquarium's website and published in the Aquarium's exclusive magazine Pacific Currents, along with passes to the Aquarium and a behind the scenes tour for four people. Entries will be accepted online or via mail through July 31, 2009. Poems must be no longer than 200 words. You must be 16 years old to enter. Only one entry per person.

All entries must be received by July 30, 2009. Upload your poem here
http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/sharksummer/poetry_contest/ or mail to:
Shark Poetry Contest
Aquarium of the Pacific
320 Golden Shore, Suite 150
Long Beach, CA 90808

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gatsby Week, Day 2: "A Curious Book"

Here’s the 1925 review from The New York Times of The Great Gatsby.

Enticing excerpt:
“With sensitive insight and keen psychological observation, Fitzgerald discloses in these people a meanness of spirit, carelessness and absence of loyalties. He cannot hate them, for they are dumb in their insensate selfishness, and only to be pitied. The philosopher of the flapper has escaped the mordant, but he has turned grave. A curious book, a mystical, glamourous story of today. It takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been enjoyed by Mr. Fitzgerald. He writes well--he always has--for he writes naturally, and his sense of form is becoming perfected.”

And here’s a review of The Pat Hobby Stories, about a down-and-out Hollywood film writer, published as a collection in 1962, another of my favorite Fitzgerald works, though I haven’t read it for a long time. (Yes, it’s on the “favorite books shelf.”) The stories were first published in Esquire in 1940-1941, one after the other.

Enticing excerpt from the review:
“The seventeen stories in this volume are short-- their author was short-winded and hoarding his strength for his novel-- but they are the work of a master hand. The prose is lean, swift and deadly accurate. The tone is typical of Fitzgerald after his crack-up: utterly detached, stripped of all illusion, yet compassionate enough to win sympathy for a protagonist who is essentially a rat-- and reveals it in such stories as "Pay Hobby's Christmas Wish" (a foredoomed scheme to frame a producer) and "Pat Hobby's College Days" (a disastrous attempt to capture a campus prank in a scenario). Other stories, like "Pat Hobby's Secret" and "The Homes of the Stars" are agonizingly funny, and throughout the book the irony, the little curls of humor keep one smiling. If these aren't the greatest stories Fitzgerald ever wrote, they are important to an understanding of his career, and they belong to the small company of works that genuinely evoke Hollywood.

And here’s his New York Times obituary…rather chilling:

“…Roughly, his own career began and ended with the Nineteen Twenties. "This Side of Paradise," his first book, was published in the first year of that decade of skyscrapers and short skirts. Only six others came between it and his last, which, not without irony, he called "Taps at Reveille." That was published in 1935. Since then a few short stories, the script of a moving picture or two, were all that came from his typewriter. The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled….”

You can find even more about Fitzgerald at this helpful New York Times site.

P.S. Amusing Iowa connection from the obituary: After the war, “He went to work for the Barron Collier advertising agency, where he penned the slogan for a Muscatine, Iowa, laundry: ‘We keep you clean in Muscatine.’”

Dreaming of Office Supplies?

Upscale and droolworthy office supply company Levenger is having a big sale through July 13. As you may recall here, I’m now a fan of their fabulous index cards.

ISO Poems about Chopin

Anthology of Contemporary Poetry
Edited by Maja Trochimczyk

Forthcoming in March 2010 to honor the 200th Anniversary of Chopin’s Birth.
Moonrise Press www.moonrisepress.com

§ Original poetry about any aspect of music and life of Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849), Polish pianist and composer

§ Deadline – August 1, 2009

§ Language – English

§ Length – maximum 39 lines per poem, 3 poems

§ Format – email majat@verizon.net with the poem both in the body of the message and attachment in MS Word or rtf

§ Address and contact information of the author included in the body of the message

1. The book will be published by Moonrise Press, with an ISBN number.
2. The authors will retain individual copyright, granting permission to print in the anthology only.
3. The book will be distributed by online print-on-demand company and available through a network of partners, including Bowkers Books in Print, lulu.com, Amazon,etc.
4. The authors will receive an off-print of their submission, and a 30% discount onthe book price.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Gatsby Week" Starts...Now!

Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips, the two young women preceded us out onto a rose-colored porch, open toward the sunset, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind.

“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. ‘In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.’ She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”

“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly: “What do people plan?”

~~The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oops—the longest day of the year was yesterday, and I didn’t quite plan anything, but I didn’t exactly miss it as I brought a copy of the book to our picnic at Wolf Trap, where Steve and I went last night to hear bluesman Buddy Guy play. We read a few passages out loud as we drank martinis and ate the roast beef-bleu cheese-horseradish wraps I had made.

So, it wasn’t planned, but now my plan is to declare this “Gatsby Week” and drop in something Gatsby-related every day this week. Seems as though that’s the type of plan Daisy and Jordan could get behind.

Your Book's Marketing Budget

Author M.J. Rose used to work in the advertising business, and her thoughts on book marketing are always smart. Here’s her take on how she used a marketing budget to get the word out about her latest release, The Memoirist, and her suggestions about advertising in general (i.e. is paying for co-op in bookstores worth the $$?). Maybe her name is familiar—and maybe that’s because her novel Past Life has been developed into a TV series for the Fox network, debuting this fall in the lucky slot after American Idol!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Guest in Progress: Russell Atwood

I met Russell Atwood way back when, when I was in graduate school at American University and he was an undergraduate. We accepted one of his stories for our first edition of Folio, the literary journal I co-founded (with W.T. Pfefferle, still being published thank you very much). Of course being all brazen and overly impressed with myself—hey, I had just started a literary journal!—I had editorial suggestions for Russell…who took them in good spirit.

I loved his first novel, East of A, with its nourish underbelly views of the East Village and Lower East Side of New York City, and so I’m pleased to see the follow-up, Losers Live Longer due out in August.

Here’s what Ann Beattie said of East of A: “East of A presents quirky characters in an amusingly noriish, nouveau city mode. It’s New York—the essentiall Alphabet City of any good cynic’s lexicon—and the entanglements and entrapments are sometimes as surreal as they are suspenseful. I had a wonderful time reading Russell Atwood’s novel.”

And of Losers Live Longer, here’s some praise from Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Spies and The Last Spymaster: "In Losers Live Longer, Russell Atwood has created a riveting story so evocative you can smell the scent of New York City’s hot concrete, feel a pickpocket’s hand dip into your pocket. From his unforgettable characters to his lyrical use of language, Atwood proves he’s the new Master of Detective Noir."

Hello? Hollywood, what the heck are you waiting for?

How to Write in 5 Easy* Steps
By Russell Atwood

* (the definition of "Easy" expressed in the following article is the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the opinions or views of this blogsite. Any adverse effects resulting from the lexiconal interpretation expressed in this article is solely the responsibility of you the reader, cit. Court Ruling in Federal Case of Shit V. Fan: You're on your own).

I wrote this checklist back in the early eighties and kept it and it has helped me ever since. I couldn't find the original and it's just as well since the forces of Evil have refined their attack since then anyway and there's a need to adapt for survival.

But let me explain about Evil, if I may. Huh, how best to without scaring you, but here goes: there are forces trying to stop you from writing. Call it what you want, Irony, Bad Karma, Coincidence, Bad Luck, Inner Demons, Outer Demons--however your particular belief system categories this negative force out to negate you, fill in that blank. But whatever you call It, when you sit down to write, you get Its attention.

You are about to do something wonderful and beautiful and spectacular that will be printed on paper in ink and survive the centuries, maybe even be hoarded or kept in secret protected against a society which would see it destroyed. Whatever, It doesn't like that.

The battle really being waged in the Universe--again whatever your belief systems, fill in the blank--doesn't make itself visible to us until we set out to make a difference, it only manifests itself in order to stop us. But anyway, skip the C. S. Lewis explanation and only take away this:
Some THING is trying to stop you from writing. You must fight it as if it were a war and martial law has been enacted. So grow some!

Step #1. Unplug the phone. You may never ever get phone calls, but the moment you set out to write, it'll happen. One of the goals of this is to keep the voice in your mind the loudest voice you hear, so don't speak, and avoid listening to any other voice but that voice you're going to write in, it needs to predominate.

This used to be a very simple step to enact when I first wrote it. All I had to do back in the 1980s was unplug a phone cord from the wall and I was unreachable by the outside world. I reduced the battlefield against this FORCE trying to reach out from Its pit and stop me, to my apartment, my room, my space--unless they knocked on my door or rang my doorbell, it couldn't get in. But SEE! It adjusted--you no longer can just "unplug the phone." There are other phones now, and maybe even most insidious of all, the tool which we now set out to write upon, is itself a PHONE, the enemy within.

Now people, do I really need to offer more proof that you as a writer are under attack by a FORCE trying to stop you from creating ART. So attack it. Take drastic measures to insulate yourself from intrusion, distraction, delights and dissatisfaction. You need to reduce your threats of interruption down to neutral.

Step #2. Unplug the TV. Unplug the radio.
Again, hard to do now that people's writing tools are our computers and now also our TVs and radios (it is diabolical). The most direct, drastic measure is to STOP WRITING ON YOUR COMPUTER. Unplug the computer. Don't just turn it off. UNPLUG it from the wall.

REMOVE your laptop's battery and place it someplace apart from the computer (sock drawer if you gotta 'em). Write on a pad of paper with a pen.

Okay, and if you don't want to go that drastic in your approach, a simpler, but still direct step is buy a pair of SOFT FOAM EAR PLUGS, with a noise-reduction rate of at least 30 dB. So this way you aren't reduced to crawling around ripping appliances out of the wall (though I nonetheless highly recommended that exercise in exorcism, but it's up to you).

Step #3. Remove your shoes.
I can't stress this enough, people. Take your shoes off. YOU AREN'T GOING ANYWHERE, for the next three hours. And also you aren't taking a test in school, relax, you make yourself as comfortable as you possibly can without falling asleep. You aren't going anywhere.

Step #4. Make a pot of tea. Pour it in a big cup, bring it back to where you are going to write and sit.

Fill in the blank for your own favorite light beverage. Stay hydrated I guess is the rule here, so whatever you want to drink drink it.

Step #5. Sit for three hours and think of a sentence. Don't get up. Stare at a blank page with a good pen in your hand, or typewriter keys below your fingers. Think of a sentence and write it down. Write a sentence that comes after that sentence. Don't get up. Stare at those two sentences. Rinse and repeat.

If you can't think of a sentence, just stare at the page. You'll get bored. You'll get bored out of your skull. You aren't going anywhere. You've got three hours of this and the TV's unplugged and the phone is unplugged and you uninstalled Solitaire yesterday, so there's nothing else to do, but stare at the blank page, or that blank screen, that flashing, intermittent vertical cursor like a disappearing/reappearing wall I have to penetrate in some never-ending rudimentary PONG-like video game. Chase the cursor, penetrate the defenses.

Why three hours? I find that's as productive as I ever get, so maybe it's just a case specific demarkation. In my case, I get up early. Six is great. Seven will do, as long as I'm in position long before eight, I can work productively through eleven o'clock and then I peter out around noontime or one o'clock on a good day, and if I try to force it it all sucks anyway, so why bother? And it's always good to end on a cliffhanger, or the first few sentences of a new thing that your subconscious can sort of kick around until you get up then next morning and start steps 1-5 again. And again. And again. And again. But take weekends off---or just the opposite if you have a real job. In this case, you have to condense this down to your Saturday and Sunday, and then have one or two shorter sessions during the week before you go to work.

I can't offer all the permutations here. You'll have to fill in the blank. If you are surrounded by a family which starts its day at 7 A.M. and doesn't stop the rest of the day, you'll have to start getting up at 4:30 A.M. and getting your three hours in until 7:30 A.M.

Again, why three hours? I like this because it is longer than it would take to watch a movie, so sitting still for that long feels different. You must train yourself to sit still for that long, and to concentrate until your bladder is ready to burst from all that tea, and then still write on because you just want to get in one more sentence, so you hold it.

It is hard to sit for three hours, even without interruptions from the outside forces trying to stop you. You have to train. Practice by reading a very quick book in one sitting, from beginning to end without budging from your seat. Hemingway is good for this. SUN ALSO RISES. OLD MAN IN THE SEA. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY. Hammett's RED HARVEST. Chandler's LITTLE SISTER. Ross Thomas' CAST A YELLOW SHADOW. J. D. Salinger's FRANNY AND ZOOEY. anything early by Agatha Christie, OF MICE AND MEN. Sit down and read these in a single sitting, to synchronize your body and mind with motionless concentration.

Somehow you need to carve out three hours from your life in at least a three day succession to tackle something big. It's a challenge, it's a battle, you're fighting it, and It is fighting you. Never forget that. Whether its inside you or outside you, something is going to try and stop you from writing. And it'll happen so subtly and innocently--I just want to check my e-mail, or I need to see if...(fill in the blank)--and will be cloaked in good deeds done, but no writing done. This will happen to you if you really try, and when it does don't despair, instead marvel at it, and say wow, something is really trying to stop me. What I'm doing must be real important if something is trying to stop me from succeeding. And the battle begun, never ending.

About: Russell Atwood submitted his first short story for publication when he was 14. In college, he co-founded and edited his campus literary magazine at American University in Washington, D.C. After graduation, he moved to New York City and went to work for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as an assistant editor. After leaving as its managing editor in 1996 to concentrate on his own writing, the magazine published his first story to feature private eye Payton Sherwood in 1997. His first novel-length mystery, EAST OF A, was published in hardcover by Ballantine Books in 1999. His new novel is LOSERS LIVE LONGER (Hard Case Crime, publication date August 25, 2009). For more details, including purchasing info: Russell Atwood’s website and publisher Hard Case Crime website.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why Reading This Blog Is Important: Reason #984

Congratulations to poet Anna Leahy who read this contest announcement on the blog and entered…and is now one of two winners selected to see her work presented as a lovely broadside. Yay, Anna!

These Weren't in My Sixth Grade Vocabulary

One of the odd things I remember from grade school is learning during the “newspaper unit” (two words from the wayback machine, for sure!) that newspapers were written for a sixth grade vocabulary. Here, then, are the 50 words that the New York Times uses that readers most often have to look up online. “Sui generis” leads the list.

Hey, if you don’t know, look it up! (Okay: “constituting a class alone.”)

Thanks to About Last Night for the link.

Being a Grown Up Could Pay Off

Here’s the Real Simple essay contest announcement (note the big bucks prize!):

When did you realize that you had become a grown-up? Perhaps it was when you first paid taxes or met your son’s first girlfriend. Whether the experience was difficult, funny, easy, or bittersweet, share your lesson and you could win. Enter Real Simple’s second-annual Life Lessons essay contest and you could have your essay published in Real Simple; win round-trip tickets for two to New York City, hotel accommodations for two nights, tickets to a Broadway play, and a lunch with Real Simple editors; and receive a prize of $3,000.

For entry instructions, go tohttp://www.realsimple.com/work-life/life-strategies/inspiration-motivation/second-annual-life-lessons-essay-contest-00000000013682/=

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 16 = Bloomsday

Happy Bloomsday! (Perhaps the one holiday Hallmark has missed--??) If one can believe Wikipedia, poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on Bloomsday. Back in my ambitious youth, I signed up for a college class specifically because it would require reading Ulysses and then I spent the summer before the class reading The Odyssey. (Still didn't get an A in the course, though.)

You can find Molly’s lovely soliloquy here, and because everyone should be exposed to at least a little bit of Joyce today, here’s my favorite part, which I once had memorized:

O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Art as Inspiration

Here’s an interesting call for submissions:

Art from Art Anthology
deadline 7/31/09
Details: http://www.modernistpress.com/

This collection of short fiction by literary writers aims to feature stories that are connected directly to—or inspired by—a work of art. It could be a song, a painting, a museum, an architectural monument, a blueprint, a piece of writing—a play, novel, poem, letter, etc. The art in question needs to be a major component of the story—a character—within the fabric of the story. Perhaps the idea will be inspired by an event from life or maybe it will be something completely fabricated.

All genres welcome. ART from ART will bring new and established voices and ideas to a fine collection of fiction. I aim to have the art featured on a page either at the beginning or the end of each story—a visual correlative that will enhance the experience. Please follow standard submission guidelines (Microsoft Word Document with 12-point font).

Payscale for this project is $100 for the right to publish each author’s story in the anthology, and two copies of the finished book. I’m finding that stories between 2000-5000 words are working best. I’m really looking for a story with a completely developed narrative and with finely drawn characters. I’m not looking for a brief 2-page piece, and I’m not open to poetry at this time.



New Online Journal Seeks Submissions and Book Reviewers

Here’s an announcement about a new online journal:

Dzanc Books is pleased to announce its newest venture: an online journal called The Collagist. Intent on continuing the Dzanc tradition of bringing extraordinary writing to a wide audience, the first issue of The Collagist will be published on August 15th, 2009, and appear subsequently each month thereafter at www.thecollagist.com.

The Collagist is edited by Matt Bell, with Matthew Olzmann as Poetry Editor. Each month, The Collagist will deliver outstanding new short stories, poems, and essays from both emerging and established writers, as well as an exclusive excerpt from a forthcoming novel. Early excerpts will include works from the standard bearers of independent publishing, including Coffee House, Two Dollar Radio, and Unbridled Books. The Collagist will also publish several new book reviews in every issue. The Collagist is immediately open for submissions in all categories. As you might assume, we suggest you read the books Dzanc and its imprints publish to get a flavor of what writing gets us most excited. Submissions guidelines can be found at www.thecollagist.com/submissions.html and below.

The Collagist Submissions
Fiction: The Collagist will include four short stories in each monthly issue. We will consider all lengths of short fiction, from flash through novella. Send to fiction@thecollagist.com and list "The Collagist - Fiction submission" in the subject line.

Poetry: The Collagist will include work from four poets in each monthly issue, publishing between 1 an d 3 poems per poet. We will consider all types of poetry. Send to poetry@thecollagist.com and list "The Collagist - Poetry submission" in the subject line.

Non-Fiction: The Collagist will include between one and three essays in each monthly issue, ranging from personal essays to literary criticism. Send to nonfiction@thecollagist.com and list "The Collagist - Non-fiction submission" in the subject line.

Book Reviews: The Collagist will include two or three book reviews in each monthly issue. We will arrange for these in advance. If you would like to become a book reviewer for The Collagist, please email Dan Wickett at dan@dzancbooks.org. Include in your email two or three of your past reviews, and if there are any specific books you'd like to review, please include those titles as well.

Novel Excerpts: The Collagist will include one novel excerpt per issue. This will be from a novel due to be published within the next three months. The Collagist will be working with numerous publishers well ahead of time on these. If a publisher would like to suggest a particular title they are publishing, please email Dan Wickett at dan@dzancbooks.org to do so. Please try to do so between six and nine months prior to the book's publication date to have it have a chance of working into our schedule.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Day at the Beach with a Fictional Character

"Book World" showed up in the Washington Post on Sunday, and along with the reviews there was an amusing feature that offered authors’ thoughts on which fictional character they would choose to accompany them at a day at the beach.

Of course I had to think about who I might choose. My immediate choice was Rhett Butler, who, since it’s my fantasy day at the beach, would have to spend the day gazing at me the way he gazed at Scarlett the first time he saw her coming down the staircase.

Or, it might be fun to invite Winnie-the-Pooh along, since his need for snacks and “a spot of something” would ensure that I’d have a companion while eating my Thrasher’s fries and Grotto pizza (I guess I’m at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware).

Nancy Drew could drive us over that scary Chesapeake Bay Bridge in her roadster, and though she might be a little annoying for a whole day, it would be fun to solve a real mystery: The Missing Salt Water Taffy Stand Clerk.

Heathcliff could be sort of sexy, but he’d natter on about Cathy all day, and who needs that?

I asked Steve who he would invite, and he thought Huck Finn might be fun (though I suspect he’d probably run off to scam tourists on the boardwalk), or that it might be interesting to hear Johnny Tremain’s Revolutionary War stories. Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea would be an inspired choice, although we worried about the language barrier. (In a side conversation, Steve thought Hemingway’s Nick Adams would clearly be the best choice to come along with you at summer camp.) In the end, though, he decided on Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby (his secret crush)

And in the end, I settled on any of the characters from a Laurie Colwin novel: they are a smart, funny, New Yorky crew, and they’re always eating great food, so I assume they’d pack along a fabulous picnic with some good wine, and still be willing to check out the food on the boardwalk. Their problems are mostly relationship-based and domestic, the kind you can work over peacefully, while lounging away the day under umbrellas, making witty remarks about the passing scene, all the while knowing there is no better place to be than where you are right now. Plus, after having such a lovely day with me, I’m sure they’d invite me to visit them in New York City!

Tempting Book

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert looks good. The review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review opens this way: “Nearly everything about Kate Walbert’s new novel is wickedly smart….”

Here’s more: “Like [Walbert’s] last novel, Our Kind,” which was a National Book Award finalist, “A Short History of Women” consists of linked stories: in this case, 15 lean, concentrated chapters that hopscotch through time and alternate among the lives of Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a British suffragist, and a handful of her descendants. Several of the stories have been previously published; most could stand alone. Yet together they coalesce into more than the sum of their parts. It is Walbert’s conceit that while the oldest and youngest generations never meet, they share a legacy of echoes: objects and phrases that repeat mysteriously, and with increasing significance, across the decades. This spare novel manages, improbably, to live up to its title: it delivers what feels like a reasonably representative history of women — at least of white, Anglo-Saxon women, over the past hundred-odd years.”

I loved Our Kind, which is a great example of linked stories as well as a great example of the collective first person (“we”) as narrator.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Guest in Progress: Sparrow

Sparrow is…well, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. He’s a thinker and poet, an American original, a man with an infectious and joyful laugh, a delight in every sense of the word. He was at the Sun magazine conference that I recently attended in May, sitting with us on the panels, nodding thoughtfully as the rest of us answered questions off the cuff.

When the microphone came his way, he pulled out a sheaf of brief, written answers that were exactly on-target while also being fascinating and exhilarating non sequiturs. Off the cuff, he took a question about how to find a writing group that would help focus the writer’s work, and then leapt up in excitement to spin a long and true story about the Grateful Dead…and then masterfully (and impossibly) wound back the story into the absolutely perfect answer to the question, and the benefits of “wasting time.”

I asked if I could share the piece he wrote in response to the last panel of the gathering. The panel was described this way:

"Digging the Well: The authors will discuss their individual writing practices and share ideas for stimulating creativity and inspiration or just developing the discipline to sit down with pen and paper or laptop. What methods word best for getting started and staying the course? How can you avoid distraction and manage your time?"

And here is Sparrow’s insightful response:

My mornings are given to thought. "Thought" is the word I use. It describes me lying in bed with the my eyes closed, remembering my dreams, then forgetting my dreams, then pursuing words which occasionally arrive in my mind. These words arrange themselves into little poems, at times. Here is an example:


I am
smoking --
not a cigar,
or pipe --

It is one of the four poems I wrote this morning. When I must urinate, I leave bed, visit the toilet, then turn on my computer and begin speaking to it. I have carpal tunnel syndrome, so I use a voice-activated computer. I am a "thinker" and "talker," not a "writer." Writing is dead, anyway. It will be replaced by iPods, iPhones and video games, within 30 years. But I will be ready, because thinking and talking will survive.

After speaking my poems, I pursue other types of thinking, back in bed. Sometimes I'll give a long discourse to someone I met the day before, a good-looking woman on the bus. After listening to my own speech, in my imagination, I may have the urge to preserve three or four lines. So I return to my computer and say:

Wouldn't it be nice if mammals flowered? Why should colored ornaments only be on plants? I'd love to see a flowering hippopotamus.

Without criticism or pause, my voice-activated computer (whose name is Dragon) transcribes my thoughts. ~~Sparrow

About: Sparrow is "no doubt the greatest avant-garde ocarina player in northern New Jersey," according to Drownbeat magazine. (He lives in Teaneck.) His longest recorded solo is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnocAuEquq8&feature=related

And watch him run for President on: www.sparrowforprez.com

If you’d like to read more, here’s his essay “Bathifying” in The Sun’s archives.

Enticing excerpt: “Americans prefer showers because showering is a kind of job — you stand, you scrub, you shampoo. In comparison, bathing is inactive. You lie in a bathtub, your eyes closed. You accomplish nothing. By the end of a long bath, you’re slightly older and slightly cleaner.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AIW Conference on Saturday, June 13

Where I’ll be on Saturday:

The 30th AIW Writers Conference
Sponsored by American Independent Writers
The George Washington University
Cafritz Conference Center
Marvin Center Building
800 21st St. N.W.Washington, D.C., 20052
Saturday, June 13, 2009
More information here.

There are tons of great-sounding panels and sessions; here's what I'll be talking about:

EXPLODING A SCENE: ADDING DETAIL, DEPTH, AND SURPRISE TO YOUR FICTION What makes one scene feel alive and another fall flat? How can your scenes work harder? What constitutes a good scene, anyway? This discussion (with handouts and audience participation) will show you how to wring the most from your scenes through thoughtfully-chosen details, as well as weave in the nuance that will lead you—and your characters—to exciting new discoveries. It would be helpful, but not necessary, if you were to bring with you a few pages of a scene you’ve written.

Mark Farrington is a coordinator and the faculty fiction advisor for the M.A. in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins. He has an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from George Mason University and a B.A. from Colby College. He has published short stories in The New Virginia Review, The Louisville Review, The Potomac Review, and other journals, and he has served as editor-in-chief of Phoebe: The George Mason Review. He also has published numerous articles on the teaching of writing. In 2003 and 2008 he received the Johns Hopkins Writing Program's Outstanding Teaching Award, and in 2004 he received the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Advanced Academic Programs at Hopkins.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon Books) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow). Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and magazines, including The Iowa Review, New England Review, The Sun, TriQuarterly, and Shenandoah.

Registration info here.

Savannah Residency

A semester writing in Savannah sounds great… This email from Emma Lunbeck, the Writing Program Director for Edgewood Arts, a non-profit organization located in Savannah, GA, was forwarded to me by American University:

Our program invites two writers to live in the Edgewood house, a spacious home across from one of Savannah’s famous parks. Together with our program directors, these writers hold weekly group critiques, supporting and inspiring one another. We also ask our residents to participate as teachers in our Storyboard program, an arts education initiative aimed at Savannah middle school students. Edgewood Arts provides teacher training and tested curricula, so no teaching experience is necessary. The goal of our organization is to encourage young writers to involve themselves in their communities. Our residents become part of the Edgewood collective and they also hone their craft by teaching it to the next generation.

Our Fall Session runs from September 4th to December 18th. We welcome applications in poetry, fiction, screenwriting, playwriting, and creative nonfiction. Our application deadline is July 3rd, 2009. More information and application materials are available on our website at www.edgewoodarts.org.

Novella Contest

The novella is one of the most difficult forms to publish. Here’s a contest of interest to novella writers (there’s a fee, but at least entrants get a copy of the winning novella):

Miami University Novella Contest

The novella form has had a long and distinguished place in American literature, and has triumphed in the hands of Herman Melville, Henry James, Katherine Anne Porter, Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Gass, John Gardner, Andrea Barrett and Tobias Wolff, to name just a few.

As commercial publishers are driven more and more by marketplace concerns, novellas, by nature of their length, often fall between the cracks of short story collections and novels and wind up being published—if at all—not as individual volumes but as part of a collection of stories. Because the form is such a pleasure for readers and writers alike—short enough to be read at a single sustained sitting, but long enough to allow the writer greater freedom in character and plot development than does the short story—we are happy to present a rare venue for publishing individual novellas as stand-alone volumes.

Manuscripts submitted for the award will be read and evaluated by our creative writing faculty, all of whom are active publishing writers. The manuscripts will be read “blind;” in other words, all identifiers will be stripped from the pages before the manuscripts are read, and the author’s history of previous publication will not be available to readers. Each year a different member of our faculty will serve as the final judge and will decide from among the list of finalists submitted by the other readers. Students, former students, faculty, former faculty, or anyone connected to Miami University will not be considered for the award. Though we believe strongly in the talent of those we have worked with and taught, we will do everything we can to assure that this prize is administered impartially, fairly, and without regard to association.

Miami University Press is a non-profit organization. Though we are requiring an entrance fee (currently $25), we wish to make it clear that this money will be used to pay for the administrative costs of the contest, to help with the costs of publishing a book of high quality, and to allow each entrant to receive a copy of the winning volume. We want that book to be a pleasure to hold in the hands and to read. The winning volume will be distributed nationwide.

Submission rules and guidelines:
--Entries for the 2009 contest must be postmarked by October 2, 2009.
--Submit manuscripts, 18,000–40,000 words, with two title pages: one with author’s name, address and phone number, one without. Author’s name must not appear elsewhere. Word count must be included on title page.
--Reading fee U.S. $25, payable to Miami University Press (check or money order; no cash or credit cards).
--Winning entry receives $1,000 and book publication.
--All entrants receive copy of winning book.

Mail to:
MU Press Novella Prize
English Department
356 Bachelor Hall
Miami University
Oxford, OH 45056

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Just One of the Official Converse MFA Mac and Cheese Recipes"

Susan Tekulve was kind enough to share what she calls “just one of the official Converse MFA Mac and Cheese Recipes.” Susan, who will be teaching nonfiction in the Converse College MFA program in January, also writes wonderful short stories (one is forthcoming in the next issue of Shenandoah). She’s also a dear friend, always willing to go above and beyond, as you'll be able to see when you read her “additional instructions.”

It’s also important to note that the word “Velveeta” came up many, many times when I inquired further about these Thanksgiving macaroni and cheese recipes, so don’t be afraid! Obviously, it’s a critical ingredient.

Susan Tekulve’s “Official Converse MFA Mac and Cheese”

1 cup macaroni
2 tbls. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 lb. Velveta cheese
2 tbls. butter
1 1/2 c. milk
1/8 tsp. pepper
1/2 c. buttered bread crumbs

Cook macaroni, drain. In a separate pan, melt butter. Add flour, salt and pepper. Add milk. Cook until thick. Cut cheese into squares. Add to mix and melt. Pour over macaroni. Pour into greased 2 quart casserole dish and top with buttered bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Additional instructions...
Eat 1- 3 helpings. (Eating the baked and buttered bread crumbs doesn't count as a helping) Then, go to the beauty counter at local department store for a makeover. Repeat this routine as often as you need it.

Job Opening at Sarabande Books

This is surely a dream job for someone:

Sarabande Books, an independent, nonprofit, literary press established in 1994, is seeking a Marketing Director/Development Assistant. We are looking for an individual with a strong commitment to contemporary poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction, as well as superior organizational and public relations skills. Minimum BA, MFA, and /or experience desirable. Candidates must be self-starters and highly attentive to details and deadlines.

Job responsibilities include marketing and publicity for each of ten annual titles, attendance at three annual book conferences, and twice yearly visits to NYC book reviewers. Some fundraising activity is also involved, depending upon need: assisting Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gorham with letter campaigns, tracking donors, and two-to-three small local parties.

The position includes full-time salary, health, dental, and retirement benefits, private office equipped with a Mac, and ample marketing budget.

Sarabande's work atmosphere is busy, but friendly. Vacations are generous and staff turnover is extremely rare. Louisville is an affordable, culturally rich, medium-sized city.

Please send letter, resume, three phone references, and a list of your top fifteen favorite contemporary poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction titles, by June 15 to: Sarah Gorham, sgorham@sarabandebooks.org.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Highlights of Spartanburg and the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program

The inaugural residency period of Converse College’s Low-Residency MFA Program—and my stay in Spartanburg—contained so many highlights, that I’m sure I’ll forget several, but here’s what sticks out for me right now:

--Sleeping in a dorm room once again. When I saw the cot that passed for a bed, I didn’t think this would be a highlight, but in the end, I enjoyed my 10-day stay in the dorm (despite the eerie yellow-green glow from all the lights) because I immediately found myself falling back into my messy college-student ways and it was a guilty pleasure to leave cosmetics and papers strewn all about. Also, the air-conditioning was at a level just above iciness, which is my favorite way to sleep.

--That great cheeseburger I mentioned having at the Nu-Way; it was named best cheeseburger in South Carolina by the Food Network—check out this photo! (And if you missed my BBQ wrap-up, here’s the link to that previous post.)

--My trip to the fabulous Beacon Drive-In. Instead of a Chili Cheese A’Plenty, advance scouts had recommended the Fried Pimento Cheese A’Plenty, which was amazing. It was really more like a grilled pimento cheese sandwich, though that name doesn’t make the blood rush as much as the word “fried” does. True to form, the man adding the “a’plenty” part had large hands, all the better for scooping out the GIANT handful of French fries and of onion rings. By the time he was done, there was easily 5 inches of fried stuff burying my sandwich. Having wised up, I shared the “a’plenty” with my friend, and we threw away about 2 inches of it. That plan meant that I didn’t get sick afterwards. (Would’ve been worth it even if I had.)

--Luncheon at the Beacon was followed by—of course! A day of beauty! My friend took me to a local department store, where we both enjoyed a delightful makeover at the Estee Lauder counter, accompanied by the usual and effusive compliments about our lovely skin and how beautiful we were. Good salespeople know just what to say…and if we reeked of onion rings and grease, no one mentioned it.

--There were so many excellent readings by the faculty that I hesitate to pick out any single writer. As usual, I ended up with a load of new books to add to the “to be read” stack. I’ll just give a special mention to my fiction colleague, Robert Olmstead, who read from his new novel, Far Bright Star, which is getting some great reviews (including this one from the Washington Post). I read from my novel in progress. This is the second chapter I’ve read at Converse, having read the opening section when I was there in January. No one there will need to buy the book if I keep going back and reading it by installments.

--The student readings were especially strong, and it was nice to feel that I’ll be able to say “I was there when” for several of these future writers.

--Sadly, the dining hall offered limited service this time around, so we didn’t have any “hot dog bars” and such, as I’d previously experienced. Still, a lot to like about what we were served, including some great bread pudding, some AMAZING yeast rolls, and some yummy stuffing (aka “dressing” down south). Notice any trends?

--The campus was empty, except for a skeleton crew of workers and the writing students and faculty, so it was nice to walk along the pretty brick walkways and find secret nooks for quiet reflection. There was a table placed on a patio underneath a giant oak-like tree with massive branches, great for staring up into, and I also enjoyed the semi-private porch swing with the pleasantly squeaky chain.

--Not to belabor the food element, but I was startled to discover one night that that I was sitting at a table of 8 people who ALL served macaroni & cheese on Thanksgiving (along with the turkey etc.) and thought I was the peculiar one for not doing so. Since I’m usually in charge of the Thanksgiving menu around here, I guess you can imagine what I’ll be dishing up in November….

--One panel featured the editors of Shenandoah (R.T. Smith) and The Atlantic fiction issue (C. Michael Curtis), and we got helpful information and some sobering facts: Shenandoah receives 15,000 poems per year and publishes 100; the journal receives 5000-7000 stories per year, and accepts about 17. As for the Atlantic, Mr. Curtis said they get about 5000 stories a year and will accept about 8.

--Speaking of Shenandoah, editor R.T. Smith is talking up the forthcoming (in 2010) Flannery O’Connor issue, which I’m sure will be fantastic.

All in all, it was an amazing 10 days—that felt like 100 days. I arrived home exhausted, overwhelmed, and inspired. For another side of the story, check out student Sarah Gray’s blog.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Work in Progress: From the Favorite Books Bookshelf: #5, and Answers!

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints or Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my sprits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.


New York, a writer…two of my major interests, so of course I’ll keep reading. But also, notice the fact that we have a narrator with perspective on the story and extraordinary perception (“red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train”) and anyone would have to see that this is a voice to trust and follow.

It was instructive not only to reread some of the passages of these beloved books, but also to type them out. That’s the way to really take some time to examine what the writer is doing—why a comma there, why this word instead of that, why such-and-such phrasing.

When I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference one summer, workshop leader Tim O’Brien made us copy by hand three pages of one of Joseph Conrad’s novels (not Heart of Darkness, but I can’t remember which). I remember being very bitter about what a waste of time it was…except that it wasn’t. I could see the writing in a way that I hadn’t before.

Handwriting is probably better than typing on a computer. See for yourself: take one of your favorite books off the shelf, and start writing or typing. It’s amazing to see how things are pieced together—and to think that fingers just like yours created magic like that.

1 = The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
2 = To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
3 = The Spy Who Came Into the Cold by John LeCarre
4 = The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
5 = Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

From the Favorite Books Bookshelf: #4

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.


There was no way I was going to stop there: “when the trouble began” is catnip to any reader! And the matter-off-fact response of the EMS guy is troubling…what’s really going on here?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

From the Favorite Books Bookshelf--#3

The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”

Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.

“You can’t wait for ever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.”

“No,” said Leamas, “it’s nearly dark now.”

“But you can’t wait for ever; he’s nine hours over schedule.”

“If you want to go, go. You’ve been very good,” Leamas added. “I’ll tell Kramer you’ve been damn good.”

“But how long will you wait?”

“Until he comes.” Leamas walked to the observation window and stood between the two motionless policemen. Their binoculars were trained on the Eastern checkpoint.


It’s hard to jump into a book or story with only dialogue, but this is tight, terse dialogue--and because we immediately see that we’re in a tense situation, we keep reading. Right from the start we know fthat this is a man who does his job, who sticks to the plan. What usually happens to those people in the end?

Monday, June 1, 2009

From the Favorite Books Bookshelf: #2

Just a reminder that while I'm away, I'm posting some excerpts from book on my "favorite books bookshelf." Answers will be posted on Thursday...though I suspect more than a few people will recognize this one:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it headed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.


Another easy one. Sometimes I look at the spine of this book and wonder if it really should stay on the “favorites shelf”; maybe if I were to reread it, this book wouldn’t now seem as good and as complicated as I remember it being. But when I typed out that passage, I admired how in three paragraphs the reader is drawn in, wondering about these dramatic events, and even more masterful, how the book’s themes of justice and what is “right” are telegraphed so perfectly.


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