Thursday, February 25, 2010

Work in Progress: Tips for a Colony Visit

I’m thinking ahead to my March visit to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and decided to share my advice for people who might be attending a residency and don’t know what to expect. All this is subjective, of course—what works for me might not work for you; and I’m coming from a fiction writing perspective—and I must also admit that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to drive to every residency I’ve been on, which means, “if in doubt, throw it in the car.” Airplanes are less forgiving.

1. Bring something specific to work on. It doesn’t mean that you have to work on this while you’re there, but just as there’s something both exhilarating and terrifying about the blank screen, so too at the colony. Having something ready to go will help ease you in to your work.

2. Bring several types of specific work: a new idea, something half-finished, something to revise. It’s hard to predict how this interesting new environment may inspire you, so have several options. Surprisingly, I’ve found that I prefer generating new, rough material at a colony, though revising is typically my favorite part of the process. Even so, at a certain point, I start to feel tapped out and need a switch—that’s when the revising starts. And I tend to bring far more than I could ever possibly accomplish, just to ensure that I have a choice of what to work on.

3. I like to have an achievable—though rigorous—goal in mind, though others may not feel this way. Often it’s a daily page goal, especially if I’m writing new stuff. I can think in terms of 10 pages per day whereas I can’t quite get on board with something more vague like “finish novel.”

4. Be open to going where the muse may take you, even if it takes you into post-lunch naps, even if you’re not working on anything you brought, and even if your achievable goal has been shot to hell. Be good to your creative self—you’re not at boot camp!

5. Research counts! Bring those books that relate to your project—even if only tangentially—and bring some books on writing and craft. Bring all the scraps of scribbled notes about your novel. I often start the residency by reading through all of those and pulling some aside to ponder.

6. In fact, bring a variety of books, too. There are usually a bunch of books around most colonies, and it’s probably fun to let serendipity take over and read something unexpected that you come across, but I’ve never done that. I typically bring some poetry, some meaty book/s I’ve been wanting to read, a short story writer I’d like to study, and some lighter books for reading at night. (No, I don’t read them all!)

7. Bring some copies of your own books/stories in case you’d like to trade work with another writer, or give/lend/sell a copy to people you meet. You might think about bringing something to read publicly, as most colonies offer those sorts of opportunities.

8. Bring a pillow and a blanket. There will never be enough pillows—or the right kind—and somewhere, even in summer, you will be cold. It’s helpful if you have the kind of garish pillowcase that the housekeeping folks will not mistake as the colony’s and take to wash with the bed linen.

9. Bring a big fluffy towel. I have to confess that I would find a way to squeeze this in even if I were flying. I just can’t stand a single, skimpy towel after a shower. (I believe Chekhov shared this same quirk.)

10. I like office supplies, so I must have several fun or pretty pads for scribbling ideas and my favorite pens. I bring some pictures and desk talismans (stretchy horses anyone?) for inspiration, comfort, and distraction.

11. Flash drives will mean you can obsessively back up your work every night in several places. I don’t bring a printer, and plan my work accordingly. Usually someone has a printer—or there’s access to one—that you could use in a pinch, but if you need a lot of printed pages regularly, you probably should bring your own printer.

12. I know there’s food—and there are grocery stores—but I still bring along some snacks (that I keep in plastic bins, just in case there might be bugs or worse hanging around). Once I get going in my mode, going to the grocery store feels disruptive to the flow of my days. By “food,” I also mean “wine,” and by “snacks,” I also mean “scotch.”

13. A power strip and a small desk lamp are also helpful. Probably they’ll be provided, and adequate, but I’ve used each of these items on a number of occasions.

14. I’m sure there are more great ideas out there. Let me know what should be added to this list.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing Rules, and Writing RULES!

I love lists, and I love lists of writing “rules.” Taken with a grain of salt—(as one of my teachers used to say, “The only rule in writing is to be interesting”)—such pithy advice can offer guidance, open your mind, and sometimes speak exactly to a problem of the moment.

Here’s a great two-piece article in which Elmore Leonard offers his ten rules for writing, followed by more writers riffing on that list, adding their suggestions.

Just a quick sample of the range of advice:

Roddy Doyle: “Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.”

Anne Enright: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Richard Ford: “Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.”

(Thanks to Perpetual Folly for the link. And if these types of proscriptive lists make you crabby, you’ll be interested in the discussion over at The Elegant Variation.)

Dzanc Books Sponsors DC Workshop Hosted by Barrelhouse

From Dzanc Books:

Dzanc Books, the award-winning publishing house, is pleased to announce our latest project: DZANC DAY. Dzanc's new effort to expand our mission and bring the creative world to a national audience, DZANC DAY, takes its cue from the popularity of our Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions. On March 20, 2010, Dzanc will run over 30 creative writing workshops in 25 cities across the country. These workshops will be held in cities from Portland, OR to Orlando, FL, from New Haven, CT to Los Angeles, CA and points between.

“All monies raised from DZANC DAY will go toward supporting Dzanc's charitable programs which, in part, bring creative writing programs to students who could not otherwise afford the opportunity. Fantastic authors from across the country have volunteered their time, experience, and expertise to run these individual workshops.”

Here’s what’s going on in Washington, DC:

March 20, 2010
Location: Wonderland Ballroom, 2nd Floor
Instructors: Dan Brady, Dave Housley, Mike Ingram, Reb Livingston, Laura Ellen Scott
Time: 01:00pm-05:00

Barrelhouse will host an afternoon of craft lectures, readings, and workshop opportunities in Washington, DC. Focusing on elements of poetry, prose, and the new forms emerging from their overlap, this event will give hands-on feedback and insightful instruction to established and aspiring writers, all with Barrelhouse's patented pop culture sensibility and sense of humor.

Participants include Barrelhouse editors Dan Brady, Dave Housley, and Mike Ingram, as well as flash fiction writer Laura Ellen Scott and poet and publisher Reb Livingston. Each participant will receive a free copy of Barrelhouse.

Registration information is here.

And you can go here to see a list of other cities where workshops will be held.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mark Your Calendar: Laurie Strongin to Read on 3/7

Here’s your chance to meet Laurie Strongin, author of last week’s Guest in Progress piece*, when she reads from new book Saving Henry:

Politics & Prose
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Strongin’s powerful account of her son’s rare, usually fatal heart disease is a moving story of a family’s struggle to save a life and a strong argument for stem cell research. Strongin is the founder and executive director of the Hope for Henry foundation and a regular panelist on Clear Channel’s Sunday radio program "Women Talk."

Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Directions to the store
202-364-1919 • 800-722-0790

*If you didn’t read Laurie’s piece about her struggles with the publishing industry, you should check it out! I found it very inspiring.

My Writer's Center Class: Beginnings

There are still some spaces available in the second of my two winter classes at The Writer’s Center:

March 4: The First Pages: What Makes a Good Beginning?
Most writers know that they have to “hook” their reader from the start of the story or novel, but how exactly do we do this? What, in other words, are the elements that make a great beginning to a story or novel? You’ll find out in this workshop, as we explore ways to strengthen your opening pages. Everyone is invited to bring 20 copies of the first page of one of their stories/novels/essays/memoirs for some hands-on advice. 1 session.

More info here:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Salinger in the CIA?

Thank goodness we have the impeccable authority of Parade magazine (you know, that goofy-but-charming Sunday newspaper supplement) and “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade” to tell us here that J.D. Salinger was NOT in the C.I.A.:

"Q. Wasn't J.D. Salinger secretly in the C.I.A.?--A. Harris, Omaha, Neb.

"A. While some conspiracy theorists have speculated about a sinister, government-related connection between the late reclusive author and John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman--who was obsessed with Salinger's Catcher in the Rye--the idea, like most conspiracy theories, is full of holes. Salinger, who as a World War II infantryman helped Army Intelligence interrogate German prisoners, left the military behind once the war was over."

WNBA Program Rescheduled

Because of snow (naturally), this WNBA (Women's National Book Association) event has been rescheduled, so you have another chance to attend. Wish I wasn't teaching that night; sounds like an excellent panel:

Book Reviews in a Changing World
Arrive 6:30-7pm for check-in and light refreshments
7 - 8:40pm panel
8:40 - 9pm hobnob & clean up

PANELISTS: Washington Post's Book World Editor RACHEL HARTIGAN SHEA, Deputy Editor RON CHARLES and Publisher's Rep GENE TAFT.

WHERE: Gallery 101, Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, 17th & M St NW, Washington DC

METRO: Farragut East (Orange & Blue lines) & Farragut North (Red line); Street parking available after 6:30 pm.

COST: Free to WNBA members, non-members $10.00 at the door (cash or check).

Please contact Lorraine Morgan Scott at with any questions.

Poetry Editor Position Available

No salary, but what a great opportunity: Fence is searching for a new poetry editor. Job listing posted here. Applications accepted through February 28.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Guest in Progress: Laurie Strongin on "The Book I Wanted to Write"

I’m awfully pleased to present my sister, Susan Pietrzyk, who will introduce her friend Laurie Strongin, who has written a new book about her son that truly is a testament to love and courage:

I enjoy reading my big sister’s blog. When we were kids, I could tell Leslie had a creative process and all things literary in her. Now all these years later, I see through her blog the many ways that creative process has and continues to come to fruition. One’s creative process can be telling—telling of the nuts and the bolts of the process, as well as telling of the individual who has embarked on the process. Leslie asked a friend of mine, Laurie Strongin, to pen a Guest in Progress post. Laurie’s debut book is entitled Saving Henry: A Mother's Journey (Hyperion). Like Laurie, the book—along with her process to live it, write it, and get it published—spells out the definition of courageous. Now mind you, some twenty years ago I learned about Laurie’s courage and creative process when we lived well and laughed hard the way all twenty-somethings should.

But once we reached our thirties, I stood in awe as I saw Laurie and her husband Allen Goldberg believe in and fight for love and science. I also saw their amazing son, Henry, who, with a whole lot of Batman-like spunk, inherited his parent’s courage and left a lasting mark on how to be a superhero. Saving Henry tells an inspiring story about what life and love mean. Gaining a glimpse of why and how this book was written provides an affecting reminder to write what's in your heart. ..something that I suspect ultimately drives a lot of writers. ~Susan Pietrzyk

The Book I Wanted to Write
By Laurie Strongin

When I first started writing the book that became Saving Henry (Hyperion), I didn’t have to look far for information on how to get it published. From books to websites to blogs, nearly everyone said the same thing. Write a query letter and proposal, send it to a list of book agents, secure an agent, have the agent secure a publisher, negotiate a deal, get published.

Based on my research, I did a very logical thing. I wrote a query letter and proposal. I even perfected a sample chapter. Then I called all the authors I knew and asked if they would be willing to send my package to their agents. As friends are apt to do, they said ‘yes’. Unfortunately, their agents said ‘no.’ But they said ‘no’ so nicely. “It’s a compelling story. The writing is beautiful. But…it’s too sad.”

It was sad. My son Henry – the subject of my book and among the most inspirational people I’ve had the good fortune to meet, let alone parent – had recently died. I wanted to share his incredible life with as many people as possible. I had several hopes in mind when I started writing the book. One was that his story would inspire hope and determination in others and lead to life-saving or quality-of-life-improving developments. The other was more personal. I wanted to document everything we did to try to reverse Henry’s fate so when our sons Jack and Joe got a little older they would know how hard we fought to ensure that their big brother would always be by their sides.

Henry’s death is devastating, but his life is inspiring. While I respect the opinion of those agents who passed on my book, I refused to take no for an answer.

My persistence paid off. I found an agent who was interested in my book, particularly because it humanized the stem cell debate which was – and continues to – rage. I worked with her to develop a full proposal and sample chapter, focusing on what it was like to be on the frontlines of a medical discovery that held the promise of saving Henry’s life. I wrote about how we, with the support of our doctors, navigated the political and ethical challenges that threatened to destroy the science we pursued and with it, our hope for Henry. I wrote about our decision to use genetic selection of embryos to get pregnant with a baby who would avoid the fatal gene that my husband and I unknowingly passed to Henry and who would be a perfectly-matched bone marrow donor for Henry and therefore be his savior. I wrote about the distinction between choosing an embryo based on life-or-death versus selection for cosmetic traits like eye color, hair color, or even hypothetically IQ or sports ability.

The more I focused exclusively on our medical quest, the less I was satisfied with the overall book. What we did to save Henry was only part of the story. I wanted to write about Henry and his optimism, courage, and sense of humor in the face of hardship, like when he was getting yet another IV placed into his bruised veins and he raised the plastic silver sword that my dad had given him and exclaimed, “Let’s just get it over with!” I wanted to write about how he negotiated a two-hour leave from Georgetown Hospital so he could attend his friend’s birthday party or when, at age five, he woke me up one morning dressed in his blue blazer and khakis and asked me to take him to buy flowers for his seven year-old girlfriend’s ballet recital. Yes, Henry’s story is about medical discovery, but it is also about a remarkable little boy who taught me and countless others what is important and what just doesn’t matter at all.

My agent wasn’t able to sell the book for the very same reasons that I had failed to interest other agents earlier on. “Laurie is a gifted writer, but it’s just too sad a story,” they said. My agent had exhausted her publishing contacts so we parted ways on a friendly basis.

I spent a few months thinking about my next move. I considered giving up on the book. By that time, Hope for Henry, the foundation my husband and I started to honor Henry’s legacy of living well in the face of serious illness, was thriving. We were throwing in-hospital birthday parties, superhero celebrations and summer carnivals for thousands of hospitalized kids; and giving them iPods and DVD players to entertain them during painful treatments and long periods of isolation from other children. This work allows me to spend a lot of time thinking about Henry and to share his positive, spirited approach to life with the people who would benefit most. While incredibly gratifying, my work with Hope for Henry did not diminish my need to write about Henry’s life.

“Write the book you want to write,” my wise friend David Martin, author of 12 books published by Simon and Schuster, advised. “Don’t worry about whether or not it will be published.”

I took David’s advice and ran with it. I wrote on my lunch hour and into the middle of the night. I wove together our quest to save Henry with stories of his relationship with his brothers Jack and Joe; accounts of his meeting the real Batman, Cal Ripken, and President Clinton; dates with his favorite nurse Suzanne; what it was like to ride on the Paratrooper at Funland in Rehoboth Beach, DE, with him; Henry’s proficiency at transitioning from the hospital to running a lemonade stand.

I finished drafting Saving Henry in the summer of 2008, nearly five years after I began writing it. Within weeks, it landed on the desk of Hyperion’s publisher. Actually it was hand delivered by a wonderful man with whom I was working to help improve the lives of very ill children at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC. No query letter or proposal, no agent, just a manuscript enthusiastically recommended by a friend.

Hyperion is publishing the book I wanted to write on March 2, 2010. ~~Laurie Strongin

[NOTE: You can read an excerpt of this extraordinary story here and see photos of Henry here.]

About: Laurie Strongin is the author of Saving Henry ( and founder and executive director of Hope for Henry Foundation (, which brings entertainment, laughter and smiles to seriously ill children. She also acts as a family advocate in the national discussion of ethics and genetics. She has participated as a panelist and guest lecturer in forums hosted by the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center. In 2006, Laurie joined Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to urge Congress to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. She is a regular panelist on Clear Channel’s Sunday radio program, “Women Talk,” and lives with her husband Allen Goldberg and sons Jack and Joe Goldberg in Washington, D.C.

About: Susan Pietrzyk, in addition to proudly being the younger sister of Leslie and friend of Laurie, is a PhD Candidate in cultural anthropology at Binghamton University. She is currently writing her dissertation based on two years of research in Harare, Zimbabwe. Her work focuses on the ways Zimbabwean literary and performative arts importantly enhance how HIV/AIDS is understood and addressed. She lives in Durham, NC, with her cat Besh by her side to make sure she writes every day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Joshua Ferris on Handling Backstory

When researching writer Joshua Ferris for my class discussion of the hilarious office novel Then We Came to the End, I came across this interesting interview that offered good advice about writing backstory for characters:

Dave: A massive cast, characters flitting in and out of the frame. It's still early in your book when the chair swapping gets out of hand; readers aren't yet so familiar with all of the characters. Marcia hasn't entirely become Marcia, if you know what I mean.

Ferris: One breakthrough for me, in terms of the writing, was that I ditched backstory prior to starting the action.

I had a key of sorts for the characters. When something would happen or description would apply to someone, I started off by looking at the key and filling it in, determining who these characters were by the accretion of details.

In the beginning, the characters were as new to me as they were to the reader. I became more familiar with them as I went along.

Dave: How much did you backfill? Once you'd reached the end, did you go back and edit significantly, or did the material come out close to finished the first time?

Ferris: Ninety-nine percent of it was done by the time that I reached the end.
I had spent a long time trying to figure out how to work the first person plural — and screwing up repeatedly. I spent probably two years in a state of constant anxiety about it. I set it aside and sort of thought, This is the book I tried to cut my teeth on. It'll never see the light of day.

Then about a year and a half later I got the voice. I got the first two or three sentences in my head, and I just knew that I could write it. I knew how to balance the we so it wasn't always just griping about work; it was balanced with what is enjoyable and meaningful about work. I knew then that I could do it.

Because I had spent those two years failing at it, I knew the story very well. I knew that someone had a daughter that had been abducted. I knew somebody was always bullied for being the middle manager. I knew a central boss character might or might not have cancer.

Once I had the voice in my head, it became a very easy back and forth — I would write on the book for as long as the voice was entertaining, and when the voice got long in the tooth I would switch to the plot and specific events. I just carried that through. Because I had done all that preparatory work, I wrote the book in about fourteen weeks. It was very fast.

Read the rest of the interview here:

2/22 Deadline for Wichita State Writer-in-Residence Jobs

Act fast: the deadline for these applications is February 22. I was the fiction Writer-in-Residence one autumn and thought it was a great experience (and, yes, I enjoyed some wonderful food at the best-named restaurant ever Scotch & Sirloin and Stroud’s [pan fried chicken!]):

Wichita State University. Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for Fall 2010. Temporary one-month position for a writer of fiction to teach a tutorial course to approximately 15 graduate & advanced undergraduate fiction writing students. Appointment for the fall 2010 semester.

Qualifications: extensive high quality publications in national or regional periodicals; high quality novels or collections of short stories; awards & fellowships. Salary $9000 for the month. Previous applicants must re-apply in order to be considered. Send letters of application, professional vita, & writing sample to: Donald Wineke, Chair, Department of English, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS 67260-0014. Telephone: (316) 978-6763. Deadline for receipt of applications is February 22, 2010. AA/EOE.

Wichita State University. Distinguished Poet-in-Residence for Spring 2011. Temporary one-month position for a writer of poetry to teach a tutorial course to approximately 15 graduate & advanced undergraduate poetry writing students. Appointment for the spring 2011 semester.

Qualifications: extensive high quality publications in national or regional periodicals; high quality collections of poems; awards & fellowships. Salary $9000 for the month. Previous applicants must re-apply in order to be considered. Send letters of application, professional vita, & writing sample to: Donald Wineke, Chair, Department of English, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS 67260-0014. Telephone: (316) 978-6763. Deadline for receipt of applications is February 22, 2010. AA/EOE.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Writing/Teaching Job in Tennessee

Here’s an intriguing job:

Independent Day School seeks both visual and non-visual Artists in Residence. Enthusiastic working artists (authors, musicians, actors, directors, etc.) sought for creative position working with students half time and producing own work half time during 5 week on-campus residency. Flexible personality, able and willing to provide K-12 students access to his/her own artistic thoughts and processes, as well as ability to help students with their own artistic growth required. Stipend, housing, travel and public workspace provided.

Application Deadline: March 1, 2010.

Send: letter of interest/intent, resume, list of references and phone numbers, examples of one's own work (images, manuscripts, CD's, DVD's, etc.) and SASE for return of examples to: Todd Johnson, c/o Webb School, 9800 Webb School Drive, Knoxville, TN 37923

Further questions, e-mail

Fiction Contest Accepts Previously Published Work

Here’s a contest that is willing to consider published and unpublished stories:

The 2010 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize

Del Sol Press announces the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize for the best short story, either published (in a periodical) or unpublished, 2000-8000 words. We invite contest submissions from both emerging and established writers. In keeping with the philosophy of Web del Sol, we are only interested in the very best fiction, regardless of source or type.

Our judge for the 2010 year of the competition will be Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler.

The winning story and ten finalists will be published in book form in Summer 2010.

Winner receives a $1,200 honorarium, paid in June 2010, publication in a Fall 2010 Del Sol Press anthology, and 20 copies of the anthology that features their story.

--Writers who are at least 18 years of age and who live inside or outside the United States.
--Translations are not eligible; stories must be in English.
--Simultaneous submissions are acceptable (as long as you let us know immediately if the manuscript is accepted for publication elsewhere, in which case it must be withdrawn unless it will be published before April 2009).
--Multiple submissions are accepted; include a separate reading fee with each.
--Employees, volunteers and board members of Web del Sol, or their partners or spouses, or their immediate families, or immediate family of the judge are not eligible.

Competition Guidelines
--Deadline (postmark): March 1, 2010
--Stories must be between 2000 and 8000 words.
--$16.00 contest fee for the first story and $5.00 for each additional story. Please make checks out to Web Del Sol.
--Include two cover pages: one with your contact information (phone, email, address, where the story has been published if it has been previously published), and one with the title of your submission (minus your name). Your name should not appear on the manuscript itself.
--Manuscripts are read anonymously.
--Type or word-process on standard white paper, on one side of the page only.
--Paginate consecutively.
--Staple or paper clip/binder clip, or put it in a separate folder with your name on the outside of the folder.
--We will consider unpublished stories as well as stories that have appeared in periodicals (not if they have appeared as part of a story collection, however), provided that the author can obtain reprint rights.
--Include a stamped, self-addressed postcard for notification of receipt of manuscript if you want notification.
--Manuscripts not selected for publication will be recycled.

Mail entries to:
Katie Jean Shinkle, Contest Coordinator
Robert Olen Butler Short Fiction Prize 2010
PO Box 1550
Tuscaloosa, AL 35403

Queries to Katie Jean Shinkle:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Guest in Progress: Russell Atwood, on Adding Action to the First Person POV

I’m ignoring the piles of snow (and dripping icicles that threaten to leak into the house through the aptly named “ice damns”) and am turning my attention to matters of writing. Russell Atwood is here to remind us that:

A) Writing well requires study of those who have gone before us
B) Studying the masters benefits our work immensely.

You can learn more about A below, and I can personally vouch for B: I loved Russell’s new book, Losers Live Longer, which is a rapidly paced, twisty-turny trip through the Lower East Side of New York City, led by a master storyteller who can also make this reader laugh out loud.

(Russell previously wrote on the blog here: “How to Write in 5 Easy* Steps. And you can read a sample chapter of Losers Live Longer here.)

Essence d' Eye Private
By Russell Atwood

Over the course of writing my private eye novel, LOSERS LIVE LONGER, I read and studied the work of much better authors in the field, trying to learn some of the nuances of their craft. Specifically I read authors who wrote in the first-person voice made most famous by Raymond Chandler. One of these authors, a latter-day successor to Chandler and Hammett, was Dennis Lynds, who wrote a mystery series under the name Michael Collins, about a one-armed Manhattan private eye named Dan Fortune (formerly Fortunowski, but changed when his family came to the "new country" from Poland a generation back).

I did an experiment while reading one of the Dan Fortune novels, THE SILENT SCREAM, jotting down the first occurrences of action verbs in the book, as a way of making myself more aware of how a first-person narrator can "act" in a novel. (I found myself too often weakly saying things in my own writing like, "I was walking down the street, when..." or "I thought I better answer the door before he beat it down..." rather than more powerful and potent direct verbs. "I sprang forward," for instance.)

It was an interesting exercise, and very useful. I might've forgotten all about doing it though, except recently I came across the sheet of notepaper marking a page in a book. What struck me on rediscovering and rereading the result, is how strong just this ersatz-rendering stands out. Whether by instinct or design, Dennis Lynds really knew what he was about. It shows how something as subtle as the choice and order-of-use of words in a book can create a sublime dramatic build-up. In many ways this extract represents the distilled essence of "private eye." One person who has read it suggested it is a bit of "found poetry," while another felt it was like an entire novel all in a capsule. All I can say about it for sure is, whether read for lesson or leisure, it's powerful. Enjoy.

"From Dennis Lynds"

I used
I opened
I sat
I ran
I dialed
I watched
I ordered
I put
I nodded
I took
I picked
I waited
I left
I hid
I followed
I headed
I went
I held
I ignored
I gave
I heard
I got up
I checked
I smelled
I tried
I shook
I leaned
I knocked
I dropped
I tackled
I knew.

[Note: Read more about Russell’s examination of Freak, by Collins/Lynds:]

About: Russell Atwood is the author of two mystery novels about NYC private investigator Payton Sherwood, 1999's EAST OF A and the recent Hard Case Crime paperback LOSERS LIVE LONGER (both now available in Kindle editions). He's worked as Managing Editor of ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and staff writer and assistant editor for BIOGRAPHY magazine. In addition to serving for a time as a house manager in several off-Broadway theaters, for two years he also worked at the award-winning independent bookstore, The Black Orchid Bookshop before its closing in 2008. Currently he is unemployed and taking freelance work while writing his new novel, a horror/ghost story. His most recent fiction is also an adult horror novel, published under a pen-name and currently only available (for under a dollar) as a Kindle eBook: "eRoTiKiLL" by Nikola Lecter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dreaming of Distant Lands....

Yes, it's snowing again. Yes, the fifty-yard cul de sac road that we live on is coated in a lovely but 8 inch thick blanket of snow. No, the city won't plow it. Yes, we live at the very end of this drive. No, there's nowhere left to pile up snow.

Could be worse: we still have booze and power.

And there's always hope for a future that does not involve snow or shoveling:


Art Factory Bialystok is an international artist/writer’s residence program in the beautiful town of Białystok, located in the northeast of Poland. The Art Factory Białystok Writer’s Residence is open to all writers– published and beginning writers seriously committed to their craft – from any countries, writing in English. The residence will take place June 1-30, 2010.

The aim of the residence is to provide the time to develop a body of work, hone that work during workshop-style meetings with the other participants, as well as public readings. Moreover, the program will be enriched by several inspiring day trips to nearby towns, showcasing the cultural and gastronomical diversity [I sure like the sound of this!] of the region. Cost: 850 PLN (approx. US$300, €200, £190) This includes accomodation, a monthly bus pass for transportation within Białystok, a historic/architectural tour of Białystok with an English-speaking guide, as well as transportation and entrance fees for trips.

Accomodation will be provided in student dormitories with internet access and a shared kitchen.

Participants must cover the cost of transportation to and from Bialystok and food.

letter of application – stating what you would like to work on during the residence, what you will bring to the residence (personality-wise, work-wise, etc), if you’d ever participated in any sort of residency before, why this residence in particular interests you, current projects, work habits, etc.
bio – information about you, education, achievements, etc.
min. 10 page writing sample in ENGLISH

Applications are accepted by EMAIL:
More information:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cabin Fever: Feeling Surly about Salinger

We are still in a state of shock anticipating ANOTHER incoming blizzard, bringing ANOTHER 16 inches of snow. Is this the cruelest and earliest April Fool’s joke ever?

The other side of Salinger’s reclusiveness (from Salon):

“But I think there is another, more insidious reason that the literary establishment is so invested in the fictional, reclusive Salinger. It is a convenient cudgel with which to silence any discussion of Salinger's personal life, particularly any revelation of unsavory truths about one of America's most revered authors. Both Joyce Maynard and Salinger's daughter Margaret were vilified for violating the great man's privacy when they wrote about their own experiences with him and exposed his predatory, controlling relationships with women. Instead of exploring the insights these revelations might bring to readings of Salinger's work (not to mention the women's right to tell their own stories), critics dismissed their books as exploitative, attention-seeking stunts.”

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


And Wednesday's anticipated reading in DC by Dylan Landis and Joanna Smith Rakoff, that I mentioned here, has been postponed. Will spring ever come again?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snowed In: Wintery Reading

This massive snowstorm—with more to come tomorrow—puts me in the mind of wintery reading, and my old-time favorite is, of course, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read it over and over and over, and still have that very same (tattered) edition, complete with my name and phone number printed and cursived on the endpapers. The agony when Pa couldn’t play the fiddle! The horror of hearing the train wouldn’t be running for the rest of the winter! Almanzo and Cap’s lowkey heroism! The constant grind of the little coffee mill!

Though there’s not the same happy ending, I also recommend The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin, a nonfiction account of an unexpected blizzard that swept the plains in 1888 (I’m guessing this might be the same year as the events in The Long Winter). After reading some of these survivors’ stories, you will never complain about being cold again. Interestingly, this event gave rise to meteorology and weather predictions.

The specifics are fuzzy, but I also long ago spent a delightfully cozy afternoon reading Winter by Rick Bass, a memoir of a winter in the Yaak Valley of Montana (no electricity!).

Here are some other wintery reading suggestions that were offered up on my Facebook page (thank you Caroline, Marilyn, John, NC, Diane, and Keith):

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
“Nebraska” by Ron Hansen
Giants in the Earth by Old Rolvaag
Rick Bass short stories
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrad (polar exploration)

Happy reading…and shoveling!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Work in Progress: Joanna Smith Rakoff on "The Book Tour"

Fantasies of “the book tour” fill many an afternoon when the writing isn’t going well, usually involving images of stacks of books and crowds hanging adoringly on every word. The reality? Let Joanna Smith Rakoff tell you a little bit about her book tour.

But first, let me tell you a little bit about Joanna: her first novel, A Fortunate Age, is about six Oberlin twenty-somethings, and takes off from Mary McCarthy’s The Group. You can read some very lovely reviews of it here in the New York Times Book Review and here in the Los Angeles Times. She also has a great piece on Slate about answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail when she worked at the Harold Ober Associates (Salinger’s literary agency).

And, best of all for DC area folks, she and my friend Dylan Landis will be reading here next week on Wednesday, February 10, at THE ARTS CLUB OF WASHINGTON, at 2017 I Street NW, near Foggy Bottom/GWU and Farragut West metro. Details for that reading are here (scroll down). The reading is free and features a light reception following the event. This should be an excellent reading and conversation (see below!), so let’s hope the incoming weekend snow will have melted into a memory by then.


On a cool evening last summer, I packed my family—husband, four-year-old, six-month-old—into our rented car and drove from a hotel in San Jose, near my parents’ house, to an affluent town about 90 minutes north, in the gorgeous countryside above San Francisco. We were early, as is my tendency, and so we went into the bookstore and introduced ourselves, and ordered sandwiches at the shop’s café. The idea had been for my husband, Evan, and the kids to come to the reading, but it became clear that this simply wouldn’t work. Coleman wouldn’t be able to sit still or keep quiet. So Evan took the children on a walk and I walked off with the shop’s manager who came to find me. There were two readings that night, he explained. The other writer lived in the area and had written a book about vegetables. He would be reading in the main part of the store. I’d be reading in the annex, across the breezeway. He led me to a lovely, light-filled room, and seated me at a table, across from several rows of chairs. “We never have any idea if anyone is going to come,” the manager told me. “Sometimes we have thirty people. Sometimes we have none.”

“None?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said, shrugging good-naturedly. “We never know what’s going to happen. We can have someone really famous and ten people come. And then we can have someone who wrote a book about wicker baskets and a hundred people come. You never know.”

A moment later, four people walked in the door: a pretty woman of about my age; a couple in their sixties; and a vivacious woman in her seventies, whom I suspected of being a regular attendee of this bookstore’s events. I knew none of them, an unusual phenomenon for a writer of the non-famous variety, like myself. This is great, I thought. Four people already.

Except that no one else came. The six of us sat there for five minutes, then ten, until the manager—a former actor who seriously knows how to work a crowd (or lack thereof)—diplomatically said, “Okay, this is going to be a lovely, intimate evening. Why doesn’t everyone come sit closer and we can just talk.” And the fact is that he was right. It was a lovely evening. None of those four people had read my novel. They’d come for different reasons, attracted by different things, though they shared a common interest in New York, the setting for A Fortunate Age, but also, in a way, its subject (or, as some have said, a character unto itself). And they began asking me about New York, about how I’d approached writing about September 11, about neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We had a lively, great conversation, one that I was glad to have, and when I signed their copies of the novel, I was more than able to write more personal notes than is the norm. But still, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d dragged my family all the way from the bottom to the top of the Bay Area for no reason. I felt a bit silly.

None of this is a new story. Every writer has their tales of traveling to far-flung places and reading to a sea of folding chairs. And yet—and yet—when it happens to you, particularly for the first time, you still feel sort of strange and terrible, you still feel rather like a failure, even if the events coordinator reminds you that it’s Good Friday (as it was the night of my first reading, in Brooklyn, at a store I love) or the last night of the Super Bowl and a transit strike has sent the city into chaos (as was the case on one of the evenings I read in Philadelphia), because for every reading that seems to fail for outward reasons, there’s one that succeeds despite being the day before Christmas or the day after July Fourth (mine, in Los Angeles, which was mobbed).

I was able, in a way, to shrug off that Marin County reading, as I don’t know anyone in the immediate area—and a friend, who gathers huge crowds in New York, had told me only two people showed up for her last reading at this particular store—but I was less able to suffer the low attendance at my other Bay Area readings, at stores closer to my extended family or near the neighborhoods in which friends live.

A couple of weeks later, the four of us sat in the overgrown backyard of my friend Emily Chenoweth’s Portland house, eating hot dogs and fat local berries. Emily’s husband, Jon Raymond, is from Portland and is rather famous in the Pacific Northwest. His story collection, Livability, seemed to be right at the front of every bookstore we visited in the area. So I was shocked and comforted to hear him say, laughing, that he’d just had his first reading at which no one showed up. “What did you do?” I asked. He explained that he’d brought a friend along, so he and the friend simply left and had dinner. It was kind of a relief, he said.

I nodded, for it had been a kind of relief, that reading at which I’d just sat and talked, in part because my worst fears had been realized, and the world hadn’t ended. In part, because it was pleasant to sit and talk with smart strangers, even if it didn’t lead to the thing my publisher kept (and keeps) on talking about: sales and more sales. Over the months that have followed, I’ve had readings big and small, but I’ve tried, as much as I can, to steer them toward conversations. So that, regardless of anything else, at the very least I’d spent an hour getting to know some interesting people.

A couple of weeks after we returned to New York, I found a letter in our mailbox with a California return address. The older woman had read my novel and, she said, loved it so much she felt she had to write. She’d sent a copy to her daughter, she explained, who was closer in age to my characters and might enjoy it even more. The next time I was in the Bay Area, she said, she hoped she could take my whole family out for ice cream. She had seen them, reading books in the store’s kids’ section, and she knew that it hadn’t been easy for me to spend that evening talking with her and the others. A month or so later, an email arrived from the daughter, saying how much she’d loved it. . If I would be reading in Philadelphia, she told me, I had to let her know so she could come. She’d related to the characters so strongly and had hated to say goodbye to them at the end of the novel. Which was, I thought, roughly how I’d felt about the various people I’d met on tour. ~~Joanna Smith Rakoff

About: Joanna Smith Rakoff's novel, A Fortunate Age, was one of Booklist's Top Ten Debut Novels of 2009 and a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Too Many Books, Too Many Books!

I have very little time for reading books that aren’t on my class list, and yet I’m terribly tempted by a number of new releases:

This New York Times Book Review review of Robert Stone’s new book of short stories made me want to run out and get a copy immediately: "It’s true you might resist wanting to know the people in Fun With Problems or, maybe more tellingly, seeing yourself in them. You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages. But a genuine coming-of-age story demands that its subject resist the experience. No book is for everyone, but some books can be fully taken in only when the reader is ready. Fun With Problems is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer. "

The Washington Post’s Ron Charles—always a thoughtful, trusted reviewer—today brought my attention to the new novel by Louise Erdrich: “Erdrich has done what so many writers can't or won't do in this age of self-exposure: transform her own wrenching experience into a captivating work of fiction that says far more about the universal tragedy of spoiled love than it reveals about her private life.”

Lionel Shriver, one of my absolute most favorite writers, is coming out with a new novel: From New York Times bestselling author Lionel Shriver (The Post-Birthday World, We Need to Talk About Kevin), comes a searing, deeply humane novel about a crumbling marriage resurrected in the face of illness, and a family’s struggle to come to terms with disease, dying, and the obscene cost of medical care in modern America.

And, here, Paula Whyman writes about the new book of linked stories by our former teacher, Kermit Moyer: In The Chester Chronicles, Chester "Chet" Patterson describes what life is like as an Army brat growing up in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s. His mother is a seductress and a lush, and his father is an Army officer whom Chet both resents and admires. Moving every two or three years, Chester is a perennial new kid as well as a bookish and movie-obsessed romantic. At the age of thirteen, he falls in love, he thinks, with his own first cousin. Each chapter could stand alone as a story about a pivotal moment, but taken together, the reader gets the whole of Chester's life.

I’ve also dipped into a great book of short stories--Downriver by Jeanne Leiby, published by Carolina Wren Press—that is not entirely new but that is new to me. I’m fascinated by the Detroit area, 1970ish setting, and the writing is gorgeous and dangerous: “I love the sharp edges of Jeanne Leiby's tightly packed stories, and how she brings out the dignity of these hard lives without romanticizing or sentimentalizing her characters. Nothing is free or easy in these stories, but there is no self-pity. There is only survival in a working-class world of seen and unseen boundaries. Bargains are struck, compromises are made, secrets are kept, all in the name of survival. All over America, communities 'Down River' struggle to carry on. They are driven past, ignored by everyone who doesn¹t live there. But we can all learn a lot about getting by from the gritty characters populating the community of this rich, unforgettable collection.~JIM DANIELS”

Sigh. All I want to do today is tuck up somewhere cozy and read, read, READ!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Box of Journals Goes To....

Congratulations to Lisa in New York who was randomly selected to receive the big box of journals offered in last week’s giveaway. And thank you to all who entered.

Writing the Future Conference on March 20

The Writer's Center is pleased to announce a special new event to take place on March 20:

WRITING THE FUTURE, a one-day, information-packed conference for writers in all genres and media, reporters, editors, and publishers will explore and explain the transitions and innovations taking place in the literary and publishing worlds. Panelists and presenters will address technological advancements affecting the ways information is delivered to readers, how the content itself will change, and what writers will need to know to remain relevant in the second decade of the 21st Century--and beyond.

Featured guests include:
Nick Bilton, NY Times technology reporter;
Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press, social visionary, and founder of Cursor;
Peter Ginna, senior editor of Bloomsbury Press USA;
Jack Sallay, VP of marketing for;
Carolyn Forche, poet and essayist;
Jeff Kleinman, literary agent, Folio Literary Management;
Sandra Beasley, poet, essayist;
Tom Shroder, former writer and editor, The Washington Post;
Dan Sarewitz, Director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes;
Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, and author of Almost Human: Making Robots Think.

When: March 20, 8:00-5:00 p.m.
Where: The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
Admission: $90. Admission price includes a FREE one-year subscription to the revamped Creative Nonfiction Magazine AND a FREE one-year membership to The Writer's Center. Register today!

5:00-7:00 p.m. Creative Nonfiction Relaunch Party
Following the day's events there will be a launch party for Creative Nonfiction Magazine! Stay and join Creative Nonfiction and The Writer's Center for this free evening event featuring readings by today's best nonfiction writers, free copies of the new magazine, free food and drink, and a chance to talk with Creative Nonfiction's editors.

For a complete schedule for Writing the Future and to register, please visit our web site:

Ian McEwan to Read in DC

A new event has been added to the PEN/Faulkner reading series. This is sure to sell out, so plan accordingly.

Wednesday April 7, 2010
Special Event: An Evening with Ian McEwan
PEN/Faulkner will host an exclusive reading with Ian McEwan on Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. Mr. McEwan will read from his forthcoming novel, Solar in one of only four readings he will give in the U.S.! The reading will take place at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol Street, SE in Washington, DC.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

My Autographed Copy of Catcher in the Rye

I doubt that anything I could write could add much to the many words spilled out since J.D. Salinger died last week (this Wall Street Journal article was good, as was this Washington Post piece about a failed book deal with Salinger; and Slate has a number of excellent pieces). But Salinger was my first literary idol, so while his death was unsurprising (I had his birthdate memorized so noticed on January 1 that he was getting pretty old), it still hit me hard.

I read The Catcher in the Rye first when I was 13ish, and thought it was fine, though I believe I was disappointed because it wasn’t “dirtier.” Then I read it again in high school and was, of course, knocked out. In the years after, I became insufferable.

“I think everyone should read The Catcher in the Rye at least once a year,” I would declare. (Guess I’m still insufferable as I hear myself saying the same thing now about The Great Gatsby.)

“I couldn’t date anyone if he didn’t absolutely love The Catcher in the Rye.” (I think I picked up this philosophy from one of the characters in Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, but it seemed smart to me.) So, I forced Salinger onto several boys, all of whom claimed to “absolutely love” the book. Phonies!

I grew up—a bit—and, ironically, while the man I married did read Salinger for me, he didn’t absolutely love it (he may have called Holden self-absorbed—!!), but I loved him anyway, and that was probably the beginning of my (finally) growing up.

But quite a bit before that, one summer, I maintained a deep flirtation with one of the boys who worked at the movie theatres I was filling in at; he was an usher, and I sold popcorn, and back then, there was only one movie playing at a time so while the movie played, there was a lot of time for talk and teasing. He wasn’t anyone I thought I could ever be serious about—he was in a fraternity, which both intrigued and disgusted me—and he wasn’t especially ambitious or intellectual. He didn’t read much. But he was cute, and, as I said, there was a lot of time to talk.

I had brought in my paperback of The Catcher in the Rye to read one slow afternoon, and after some inciting incident or another, it turned out that the other usher scribbled all over the pages. I was not blameless in this in incident—it involved language like “you wouldn’t dare” as a pencil hovered over a page, “okay, I dare you”—but I was still angry that my book had been defaced.

The next day, my boy brought me a brand new copy of the book (the edition with the reddish cover and the yellow typeface on front and back). I thanked him profusely, and then he said, “Look inside.” And there, on the title page, where an author actually would sign a book, he had written in surprisingly polished handwriting: “To Leslie, H. Caulfield.” Yes, he even got the comma!

I still have this book.

In the end, I guess I’m just as “self-absorbed” as Holden, as this anecdote has little to do with Salinger and more to do with me…and yet, without Holden, without Franny and Zooey and Teddy and Esme and all those crazy Glasses and the dusty copies of The New Yorker that I paged through and all the “S” sections of used book stores I searched, vainly hoping for an overlooked first edition—and that Iowa boy who saw me, truly, briefly, perfectly—without all that, I’m not entirely sure who I would have become.

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”


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