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 clich├ęs. 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.


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