Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing Wisdom: Anne Lamott

While I’m off in beautiful Spartanburg, SC, teaching in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program, I’m posting some of my favorite quotations about writing. I’m hoping I’ll be able to pop in from time to time with some updates—perhaps on the all-important food situation?—but I’m not sure how much time/energy I’ll have for dealing with the internet. I’ll be back to blogging around June 15ish.

This one scares me sometimes; I was always the one screaming, “Don’t go in there!” during the horror movies:

“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”
~~Anne Lamott

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Work in Progress: The Importance of Voice

As you may recall, this past semester I taught a class called “Voice in Modern Fiction” at Johns Hopkins, and thanks to my carefully-selected reading list (oops—who put all those really long books on there?), I, as much as (more than?) the students, spent the semester thinking about the important role of voice in fiction. I don’t know that I can articulate all my grand conclusions (you’ll have to take the class for that), but I did emerge from the experience with a new way of looking at my own work and some new—not always positive—thoughts about my own use of voice in fiction. Perhaps one doesn’t need a whole class to come to this point, but, honestly, of all the important aspects of good fiction, voice may surpass them all. As I told the class, every story there is has been told already (i.e. boy meets girl), so the magic has to be in the telling.

Here’s how I wrapped up the class, with this little “go forth” speech, which, frankly, was mostly for my own ears as I embark on my summer focused on writing:

This is my last plug for thinking about voice in your own work. In the workshop setting, it’s often easier and more convenient to focus on the simpler things, the basics: is the story’s pacing good, are the characters interesting, are there effective details? Every teacher has his/her own little areas they like to promote. As a teacher, you often feel that if you can just get everyone to listen to you on your two or three things, you’ve made headway.

But at a certain point, once the basics are taken care of, that’s when you as writers need to think about moving beyond those building blocks, and think more deeply about the choices you make as a writer: how the story is being told, how the point of view affects the novel you’re writing, how to make your story stand out. No one in a workshop—and no teacher, or few teachers—will read something and simply say, “This isn’t very interesting,” but honestly, that’s exactly what the problem is with a lot of stories and books. They’re just not interesting.

The reason no one will say that is because there’s no easy way to fix that problem: be a more interesting person? There may be plot and/or character issues that can be teased out and brought forward or writing that can be improved, but truly, even after those basics are fixed, often the problem is one of a lack of voice, a lack of compelling you-must-read-this-ness that good voice can bring to your work. There’s competency, but there’s no “there” there.

As we’ve seen in our reading, great voice will help you overcome a lot of flaws. Of course the idea is to write work without any flaws whatsoever, but we know that’s impossible. And, as we’ve seen, voice means more than merely a gimmick like second person—you can’t simply throw the second person into any story and expect suddenly to have a great “voice.” But if you are able to find great material—and do the work and make the choices that lead you to the perfect voice with which to tell it—you are thousands of steps ahead of the rest of them, the people who are spinning their wheels, working really hard at creating nice, competent work that meets all the requirements on some teacher’s checklist…so end up writing work that never really gets up and sings.

Of all the tools a writer has, voice may be the only one that’s absolutely impossible to explain and teach in a “how to” fashion. Like “more cowbell”—you know it when you see it, but you can’t say why. It’s the one element that seems the most mysterious—and therefore, in a life and world filled with mystery, the most essential.

[If you’re interested, here’s the reading list from the class.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How to Survive Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Rest

Going to a writing conference this summer? Poet Eduardo C. Corral has some good advice for you. His piece is geared toward Bread Loaf, but most of the suggestions apply anywhere:

--if you're a poet, introduce yourself to the fiction writers. and vice versa ...

--if you're a waiter or a scholar: be nice to everyone. don't look down on those who don't have the same financial aid package as you. i hate that shit. i walk away from those type of people at conferences. don't buy the hype. don't support hierarchies.

Read the rest here.

I might add a few items to his list:

--Don’t attend with grand expectations of how your writing life will change. It may change, but probably not in the way you expect, especially if what you’re expecting is that your faculty leader will read your manuscript, think you’re the most brilliant thing since sliced bread, call an agent who will send a limo to pick you up and whisk you to a meeting with high-level Knopf editors. That hardly ever happens.

--Don’t whine unnecessarily about the food. Honestly, it’s FINE, mainly because you are not cooking it yourself.

--Cute skirts and dresses are, of course, cute, but stiletto heels and elaborate gladiator boots just look silly on the top of a mountain. Think: you’ll be walking in a rustic area. WWJD? He’d wear flat sandals with his cute skirts and dresses.

--Unless you’re going to a conference that specifically tells you that you’ll be writing, expect that you won’t be getting much (any?) writing done, and that’s okay. You’ll come back home exhausted but inspired, and that’s when you’ll write up a storm.

--If you won’t have access to a car, quickly make friends with someone who does. You’ll want to escape the compound at least once. Pizza never seems as desirable as it does when you’re on a mountain at a writing conference.

--Be nice. To everyone. And yes, I mean everyone. It’s the right thing to do, but if you need practical incentive, remember that you never know where someone might end up. Of the top of my head, I could name two specific writers who were simply “one of the crowd” in my class who later wrote New York Times best-selling novels. You can’t be best friends with everyone, but you can at least be pleasant. People will definitely remember the big B-I-T-C-H…I certainly know I do!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hungry for Food Essays (couldn't resist!)

Obviously, I’m interested in this opportunity. I don’t like the reading fee, but at least there’s a subscription to an excellent journal included for $5 more:

Call for nonfiction on food: Creative Nonfiction
postmark deadline September 3, 2010

For an upcoming issue, we're seeking true stories that incorporate or involve food. Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with a significant element of research or information, and reach for some universal or deeper meaning in personal experiences. We’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice.

Creative Nonfiction editors will award $1000 for Best Essay and $500 for

Guidelines: Essays must be: unpublished, 5,000 words or less, postmarked by
September 3, 2010, and clearly marked “Food” on both the essay and the outside of the envelope. There is a $20 reading fee (or send a reading fee of $25 to include a 4-issue CNF subscription); multiple entries are welcome ($20/essay) as are entries from outside the U.S. (though subscription shipping costs do apply). Please send manuscript, accompanied by a cover letter with complete contact information (address, phone, and email), SASE and payment to:
Creative Nonfiction
Attn: Food
5501 Walnut Street, Suite 202
Pittsburgh, PA 15232

Monday, May 24, 2010

Artful Books

What’s in a book cover? Plenty, and you can get an eyeful at The Book Cover Archive, a site “for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design .” Warning: highly addictive! (Thanks for the link, Richard!)

Contest for Short Fiction and Poetry

South Carolina is on my mind as I get ready to head off to teach in the low-res MFA at Converse College in Spartanburg...thanks to Philip for sending along this call for submissions:

undefined magazine wants to publish you in our summer reader--deadline for submissions June 7

Would you like to see your words on the pages of South Carolina's premiere arts magazine? Of course you would. That's why undefined magazine is holding its first creative writing competition with awards for poetry, short stories, and flash fiction.

First, second and third place winners will be published in undefined's summer reader, coming out in July 2010.

Entrants may submit no more than one entry in each category, with the poetry category including poetry of up to six pages of text or six poems total. All entries should be previously unpublished in any form. Simultaneous submissions are accepted, but upon acceptance of manuscript in any other arena, undefined magazine must be notified by emailing

Deadline for submissions is June 7, 2010.

Short Story – Submit previously unpublished and double spaced Short Story manuscripts of no more than 2500 words electronically in word.doc format to Each submission should include a separate cover sheet containing the short story title, author’s name, address, email address, phone number and the category in which the submission should be entered. The actual manuscript should have no additional markings other than the title of the story.

Flash Fiction – Submit previously unpublished and double spaced Flash Fiction manuscripts of no more than 500 words electronically in word.doc format to Each submission should include a separate cover sheet containing the flash fiction title, author’s name, address, email address, phone number and the category in which the submission should be entered. The manuscript should have no markings other than the title.

Poetry – Submit up to six pages (six poems total) of previously unpublished poetry with each poem appearing on its own page, electronically in word.doc format to Each submission should include a separate cover sheet containing the titles or first lines of each poem, author’s name, address, email address, phone number and the category in which the submission should be entered. The manuscript should have no markings other than the title.

For more information go to

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Guest in Progress: A.H. Wald's Favorite Books by Ex-Pats

Here’s another post for writers with wanderlust—writer Annie Wald, who posted last week about what it’s like to be a writer living in a foreign country, today selects her favorite books about expatriates:

Being a writer in a foreign country has its challenges. A lack of English language books ranks high on my list. But perhaps the number one challenge has to do with the old adage “to write what you know.” I’ve been living in this country for ten years, and I've journalled thousands of words about the life and culture, and yet I still know the States infinitely better.

So when I’m asked if I’m writing about this country, I reply that although I’ve written a few short stories that take place here, for the most part I’m still filling my well. I am still absorbing culture and history and nuance and custom. I’m still acquiring the small but telling experiences that will help me create a rich fictional world.

And in the future when I write a novel that takes place here, I suspect it will be more about ex-pats than locals, because that’s the life I’m living. To create authentic fiction requires a depth of knowledge that comes from being completely drenched in the situation. I think that’s why in most novels written by ex-pats, the round characters [as E.M. Forster calls them] are usually ex-pats and the thin characters are locals, and the focus is usually on the ex-pat experience. By contrast, novels by nationals are where you’ll discover the daily life of family and class and culture about a place. For example, the "Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell and the "Cairo Trilogy" by Naguib Mahfouz present two very different experiences of life in Egypt, just as Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Corruption present two perspectives on Morocco.

Having said that, I’ve enjoyed reading dozens of novels written by ex-pats, and here are seven of my favorites.

1. Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski: an American journalist investigates the murder of an American missionary by an American anthropologist in northern Thailand.

2. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul: an Indian shopkeeper during the breakdown of a country in Central Africa

3. Prague by Arthur Phillips: five Americans living in Budapest in the early 90s.

4. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: an English war hero falls in love with a young Australian in post-war Japan.

5. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida: an American woman travels to Lapland to search for her real father.

My last two recommendations are British authors who managed to write ex-pat novels about more than one country.

6. E.M. Forster
Room with a View: British tourists in Florence,
Passage to India: two British women want to experience the real India


7. Graham Greene who takes the ex-pat prize with novels set in at least 8 different countries. Here are the ones I’ve read [and recommend].

The Heart of the Matter: a British intelligence officer and his dying marriage in Sierra Leone
A Burnt Out Case: a famous architect takes refuge in a leper colony in Congo
The Quiet American: a British journalist meets an American idealist in Vietnam,
Travels with My Aunt: a retired bank manager and his aunt travel across Europe to Istanbul
The Power and the Glory: a priest flees government persecution in Mexico

And as a bonus-read about coming back to one’s home country, try Ignorance by Milan Kundera which tells the story a Czech ex-pat who returns home after twenty years and meets an old lover. ~~A.H. Wald

About: A.H. Wald’s work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including The Southern Review, North American Review and 580 Split. She is working on a novel that takes place in the US where she grew up. For the last ten years, she has lived in a foreign country which will be the subject of her next novel.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ISO Poems Honoring Langston Hughes

One of the first books of poetry I bought with my own allowance money way back when in ninth grade was The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, so this call for submissions caught my eye. (I think the purchase was inspired by a classroom reading of “A Raisin in the Sun,” that powerful play with the title drawn from Hughes’s “Harlem” [also known as “A Dream Deferred”], so thank you teachers, for working hard to open the minds of a bunch of kids in Iowa.)

Beltway Poetry Quarterly seeks poems for a special themed issue celebrating the legacy of Langston Hughes, co-edited by Katy Richey and Kim Roberts. We seek contemporary poems written about Hughes's life, in the style of Hughes, or on themes Hughes explored in his writing. We will be reading ONLY during the month of June.

To be eligible, authors must live or work in DC, MD, VA, WV, or DE. Poems may be previously published, but only if copyright has reverted to the author and the poem does not appear elsewhere on the web. Please read the guidelines carefully to ensure that your submission is not disqualified:

• Poems must be received between June 1 and June 30

• Only online submissions accepted; send to

• Up to 5 poems, any length, can be sent

• Poems must be sent in the body of your email; no attachments will be opened

• Poets must include full contact information (snail address, phones, e-address) and a one-paragraph bio

All poets will be notified by the end of July. The Langston Hughes Tribute issue will be Volume 12:1, published January 1, 2011. The issue will be published in conjunction with Hughes's 109th birthday, and the 87th anniversary of his move to Washington, DC.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

LitArtlantic: Story/Stereo with Alison Amend & William Archila

The Writer’s Center is holding an arts festival—LitArtlantic—this weekend (May 20-22). While there’s a host of amazing events to choose from, here’s the one I’ll be attending:

Thursday, May 20
8 pm: Reading
10 pm: Optional Happy Hour event.
hybrid literature/music event featuring poet William Archila of Los Angeles (The Art of Exile) and fiction writer Alison Amend of New York (Things That Pass for Love). Musical guest TBA.

William Archila was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador in 1968. At the age of twelve, he fled a civil war that tore his country apart and immigrated to the United States in 1980. He eventually became an English teacher and earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His poems have appeared in Agni, Blue Mesa Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Georgia Review, The Los Angeles Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry International and Poetry Daily among others. His first book is The Art of Exile.

Allison Amend was born in Chicago on a day when the Cubs beat the Mets 2-0. She graduated from Stanford University and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her IPPY Award-winning debut short story collection, Things That Pass for Love, was published in October 2008 by OV/Dzanc Books and a novel, Stations West, was published by Louisiana State University Press’s Yellow Shoe Fiction Series in March, 2010. Allison lives in New York. Visit her on the web at

You can see what else is on the schedule here.
All events are FREE, but a $5 donation is suggested per family per day of attendance.

All events are held at The Writer’s Center, 4508 WALSH STREET, BETHESDA, MD 20815.

On the Metro's Red Line: Just get off at the Bethesda stop and walk south on Wisconsin Avenue until you come to Walsh Street.
Questions? Call 301.654.8664.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ray Bradbury: The Power of Nouns and Libraries

Since my post last week, I did some more reading in the new issue of The Paris Review and would also recommend the interview with writer Ray Bradbury.

There’s an excerpt here, including one of my favorite sections where Bradbury calls himself “completely library educated. I’ve never been to college” and then goes on to note “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? … The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”

I was also interested in this information about his writing process:

“Interviewer: In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this?

“Bradbury: Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Think how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you being to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people. Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.”

Reading this, I was reminded of my own forays into word collage, something I plan to explore more fully this summer.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: No bogus shilling here…I’m a paying subscriber of The Paris Review.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Guest in Progress: A.H. Wald on "Having New Eyes"

One of the many reasons I love going to a residency at VCCA is that you meet the most interesting people: novelists, poets, visual artists, playwrights, composers. It’s a constant flow of someone new who can tell fascinating stories over dinner. Unfortunately, sometimes the overlap with one of those fascinating story-tellers is only a day or two, and they're thinking of life back home just as you’re settling in to shed your old life. Still, a couple days can be enough time to make you know you want to hear more, and such was the case when I briefly met writer Annie Wald. One quick conversation at breakfast told me there were a lot of stories…and until we meet up again at VCCA, or until I get to read her completed novel-in-progress, these two blog posts—one today, one next week—will have to suffice. [BTW: The quote at the end of the first paragraph of this piece was me!]

Ten years ago, I left an idyllic home in New Jersey [the Garden State part] and moved to a developing country in Africa. Since then, I have found that living overseas is like a snazzy sports car, something greatly admired by friends and strangers. When I answer the casually-asked question about where I live, the other person usually responds with, “Oh, how exciting, how exotic.”

I don’t argue with them too much. Life here can be exotic and creatively stimulating. "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Henry James said, after leaving the States to live in France, and then England, with frequent trips to Italy. A large part of writing takes place in a room of one's own. But it also includes going out to observe, and moving to a foreign country is a surefire way to keep one’s eyes open.

For the first seven or eight years here, little was lost on me, and I have the journals to prove it. Most months, I was generating 20,000 words--the equivalent of a book a year--as I chronicled bread and hats and market stalls and bargaining and tiles and desert dunes and waves and lanterns and shepherds and sowing seed in a field by hand and left turns from the right lane and beggars without legs or arms and men going through the trash barrel to find something to eat and friends who don’t know how to read their address book. It didn’t seem possible that I would ever run out of new things to observe. And I had the time to write it all down too, with fewer unproductive distractions to tempt me away from my desk. Here, life is simple. The pace is slow. People go to bed early.

But it’s not necessary to travel far. My first cross-cultural experience was right out of college when I moved from a Boston suburb to a small second-generation immigrant community in rural Ohio. Even when I was living my New Jersey idyll, I could go to a dying city ten miles away and enter a completely different world. To be a person on whom nothing is lost I don’t need a passport. I only need to pay attention.

And that’s my current problem in this exotic location. After ten years, I’ve become very settled. My journal output has dwindled as the foreign has become familiar. Donkeys on a main road? Seen that. Cows grazing at the end of the block? Seen that. A family of four on a scooter without helmets? Seen that. A bus passing a gas truck going up hill on a curve? Seen that [well, not exactly--my eyes were closed in horror].

I find what captures my attention these days is what I see when I go back to the States for a visit. I come through customs into the terminal, and feel like a kid in a candy store. The most mundane, ordinary experiences have become utterly fascinating to me. Riding the subway, driving on a six lane highway for five hours, swiping a credit card [and for a three dollar purchase no less], making a joke with a store clerk and being understood, walking down the street without anyone looking at me or hassling me, eating gigantic restaurant portions and bagels and sweet corn on the cob, browsing through libraries and bookstores filled with books written in English.

Anything can become commonplace. Anything can be exotic. It’s only a matter of my eyes being wide open or half shut. As Proust put it: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~A.H. Wald

About: A.H. Wald’s work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including The Southern Review, North American Review and 580 Split. She is working on a novel that takes place in the US where she grew up. For the last ten years, she has lived in a foreign country which will be the subject of her next novel.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

John McPhee on William Shawn: Paris Review Interview

I’m starting to reap the benefits of all those literary journals I subscribed to at AWP as the mailbox is filling up, and I’ve been poking around new issue of The Paris Review.

Last night, I read the interview with nonfiction writer John McPhee, part of the journal’s famed interview series. I’m always a sucker for old-school New Yorker tidbits, so I found this amusing, about McPhee’s early days as a staff writer at the magazine:

“Interviewer: Was it hard to come up with things to write about?

“McPhee: I was really quite at sea about that. Let’s say I wanted to write about clams. I’d go to [William] Shawn [the magazine’s second legendary editor] with that idea, and he would say, Oh no, no. That’s reserved in a general way for another writer That’s reserved in a general way. Isn’t that amazing? Shawn never mentioned one writer to another. Shawn operated at the hub of an old-fashioned wheel, with the spokes going out all over the place, and the spokes were the writers and no one every touched another. He kept this amazing thing going. He had thought beforehand about an amazing number of subjects, so the odds were if you brought something up, Shawn had pondered it in some context before. He always knew what he thought immediately. Sometimes he said that it was reserved for another writer, and sometimes he just wasn’t interested. If that was the case, he’d say, Oh no, that’s not for us.

“At any rate, that first month, January of 1965, I go in there and we’re having this conversation—Oh no, that’s not for us. Again and again. And then finally I said, Well I have another idea. It’s a piece about oranges. That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges.

Oh yes! Oh yes! he says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”

Eventually, McPhee wrote an entire book about oranges.

Also amusing: Shawn wouldn’t let McPhee write about Alaska:

“Oh no, he said, that’s not for us. I discovered later that the reason it was not for us was because it’s cold there. It wasn’t reserved for another writer in a general way, it was reserved for no writer in a specific way, because it’s cold there. He didn’t want to read about cold places. Another time I tried to get him to agree that I write about Newfoundland. And he said, right back, Is it cold there?”

You can read an interesting (and helpful) explanation of McPhee’s writing process in an excerpt from the interview here. Totally worth reading: my beloved index cards are involved! Though he’s talking about structuring a long nonfiction piece, I think his ideas could translate to structuring a novel.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: Paid for this subscription with my own cash, though the AWP price was a sweet deal indeed.

Tips for Guest Blogging Courtesy of C.M. Mayo

Full disclosure: before spiraling out of control, yesterday’s post was actually intended merely to be a short introduction linking to this excellent post by C.M. Mayo about the whys and hows of guest blogging as a form of (artful!) promotion, including a list of ideas of things to blog about.

Of course I especially like this suggestion:

“2. Think about food: any recipes from the book? Any recipes your characters might concoct?”

I’m often looking for guest posts for this blog. Please email me if you might be interested in writing a guest post and let’s see if we can make it work!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Art of Shameless Self-Promotion

In this day of publishers’ itsy-bitsy budgets to market new writers (oops, did I say “itsy-bitsy”…actually, I meant non-existent), writers have to find ways to get the word out about their books. It’s hard to do, when many (most?) writers are the type of people whose idea of fun is sitting at a desk tapping at a computer—uninterrupted!—for several hours—alone!

The old model of showing up at a bookstore and hoping to sell a bunch of books is not necessarily translating well in our brave new world (unless you’re selling that bunch of books to friends you’ve roped into the bookstore by promising a party). So many writers and publicists are looking to blogs and social networking to fill this marketing gap.

But there’s an art to that, too. First, while it’s VERY easy to start a blog (simply click on that little link on the upper right of this screen that says “create blog” and voila, you’ve got a blog), it’s less easy to find readers for your blog…I mean, beyond the friends who buy the book at the bookstore reading anyway. Second, it’s very hard to write something on your blog worth reading Every. Single. Day. (Exhibit A: See this fabulous recipe I posted yesterday because I couldn’t think of anything else to write.)

Finally, the biggest problem with this new model is one that people don’t think about: there’s an art to shameless self-promotion. Just as you don’t walk into a party with a bunch of people you don’t know and start talking about how great you and your kids are, you shouldn’t start writing a blog that only talks about you-you-you and how amazingly wonderful you-you-you are and how great-great-great your book is. Or the Facebooking/Twitter equivalent. Who wants to read that?

Maybe I’m from the nice humble Midwest (okay, not maybe: I am), but I often find some of this shameless self-promotion appalling. I don’t mind artful self-promotion—heck, I admire it!—but what about these examples:

--From Facebook, someone asked on a post, “What’s the quickest way to be defriended? Beg me to friend you, then when I do, slap links about your new book all over my wall.”

--How many times can one post various reviews of the movie (the movie!) made from your book? (Note: this was a major movie, not some sweet indie film that could use a boost.) I don’t know the answer because I got sick of the barrage and hid this annoying person until the movie safely moved off to the world of On Demand and Netflix.

Artful is this:

--Mentioning during a reading that your work will be included in the forthcoming Best American series, then telling a very funny and self-deprecating story about contacting the guest editor of the series. We were all definitely impressed by the credit, and we were also impressed by the good humor and realization that at a certain point, there’s a lot of the crapshoot involved in every good thing.

--Writing on your blog about someone else’s book/story/poem that you admire…extra points if this writer is not dead and in whichever canon you ascribe to, and extra-extra points if this writer is someone you DON’T know and DON’T want a blurb from.

--Remembering that at a party, people are not really there to hear you blather on about your book. They are there to blather on about something of equal importance in their own lives…let them get a word in. Ask some questions. Make them feel special.

--Passing out a card or book postcard should never be done within the first two seconds of meeting someone. Ideally, you might want to preface the handover with this: “May I give you a card?” No one’s going to scream, “NO!” so you’ll get your card out there in the world, but in a nice, polite, respectful way.

--The most important aspect of artfully promoting yourself is something I learned while I worked at a Chamber of Commerce, where networking is as prevalent as oxygen. The people who were the best, the people who got the job-sale-recommendation-whatever, were the people who built relationships, not the people who immediately asked for what they wanted. The people who were the best, knew that you need to GIVE before you can GET. People who believed in generosity.

Instead of trying to think about how a person can help you, think first about how you can help them. For example, in conversation, you think that their work sounds good for that new literary journal you heard about that’s looking for stories. So you make the offer: Do you know about XYZ Journal? Your work sounds perfect. Then you lock it in: Let me give you my card—if you email me, I’ll send you the address. And of course, follow-up and promptly email the address. See? Now here’s someone disposed to think of you favorably.

Was that so hard?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Strawberry Rhubarb Pudding Cake: Easier than Pie!

I haven’t posted a recipe for quite a while, so here’s one I’ve made twice already in the past three weeks, taking advantage of rhubarb and strawberry season. Even if you think you can’t make cake, you can definitely make this cake. It’s super-easy, super-fast, and super-delicious. (After the fresh strawberries and rhubarb have marched on into happy memories, the cake can be made with blueberries, peaches, raspberries: “Any ripe, luscious fruit.”)

From Gourmet Today, edited by Ruth Reichel.
(Check out the mouth-watering picture here.)

Rhubarb Strawberry Pudding Cake
Serves 6 to 8 (breakfast or dessert)

1/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar
2 cups chopped fresh rhubarb stalks (10 oz)
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries (5 oz)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk [I used a mix of half-and-half and skim milk]
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish. [I used Pam.]

Stir together water, cornstarch, and 1/3 cup sugar in a small saucepan, then stir in rhubarb. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in strawberries.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.

Whisk together egg, milk, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined.

Reserve 1/2 cup fruit mixture, then add remainder to baking dish and pour batter over it, spreading evenly. Drizzle reserved 1/2 cup fruit mixture over batter. Bake until a wooden pick inserted into center of cake portion comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes before serving.

Here are directions for blueberries (which I haven’t yet tried): Substitute 2 cups (10 oz) blueberries for the rhubarb and strawberries. Reduce the cornstarch to 1 teaspoon and add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice to the cornstarch mixture.

Sigh. I still miss Gourmet magazine....

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guest in Progress: Rachel Hall's Recommended Collections of Letters

For the past two Thursdays, Rachel Hall has been sharing the joy of using personal letters as source material in fiction writing. (If you missed her essay, you can find it here and here.)

This is all well and good if we (like Rachel) happen to have a bundle of letters written by some interesting relatives who did interesting things during interesting times. But what if everyone we know was boring!? Or, more likely, simply didn’t write things down? Or, even more likely, didn’t save their letters?

Here’s a wide-ranging list of books of collected letters that Rachel recommends, sure to spark the creative fire and/or add some insight to a current time/place in your own work.

Books of Collected Letters
Compiledby Rachel Hall

Raising a Baby the Government Way: Mothers’ Letters to the Children’s Bureau 1915-1932, ed. Molly Ladd-Taylor

Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present
, ed. Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler

Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999, ed. Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler

Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front, ed. Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith

An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864, ed. Lauren Cook Burgess

Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African-American Love Letters, ed. Pamela Newkirk

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters to Eleanor Roosevelt Through Depression and War, ed. Cathy D. Knepper Ph.D.

Letters of a German American Farmer: Juernjakob Swehn Travels to America, ed. Johannes Gillhoff

To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839, ed. Gaul, Theresa Strouth

Dear Helen: Wartime Letters from a Londoner to Her American Pen Pal, ed. Russell M. Jones and John H. Swanson

Remembering the Boys: A Collection of Letters, a Gathering of Memories, ed.Lynna Piekutowski

Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family’s Letters
, ed. Elisabeth Petry and Farah Jasmine Griffin

Letters From the Great Blasket by EibhlísNíShúilleabháin

The GI's Rabbi: World War II Letters Of David Max Eichhorn, ed.David Max Eichhorn, Greg Palmer, Mark S. Zaid, and Doris L. Bergen

Dispatches From the Heart: Love Letters From the Front Line, ed. Max Arthur

Your Fondest Annie: Letters from Annie O'Donnell to James P. Phelan 1901-1904, ed. Maureen Murphy

Between Ourselves: Letters Between Mothers and Daughters 1750-1982, ed. Karen Payne

Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, ed. Robert McElvaine

In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants, ed. Solveig Zempel

Letters from the Trenches: A Soldier of the Great War, ed. Bill Lamin

Talking on Paper: an Anthology of Oregon Letters and Diaries, ed. Shannon Applegate

Dear America: Letters Home from Viet Nam,
ed. Bernard Edelman

Remembering Georgy: Letters from the House of Izieu, ed. Serge Klarsfeld

About: Rachel Hall's work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone, and New Letters ,which awarded her their Cappon Prize in fiction. She is at work on a collection of linked stories entitled HEIRLOOMS, which follows a French Jewish family from the eve of WWII to America where they settle after the war. She teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

You can listen to an audio version of her story that won the Lilith contest:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest Accepting Entries

The 15th annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference will be held on October 16, 2010, in Rockville, Maryland, and the conference has just opened its short story contest to entries.

On the plus side:
This contest is open only to residents of Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC, which means there’s a smaller pool of competition.

On the down side:
The entry fee is $25, which I personally find a bit steep.

But again, on the plus side:
--The fees go to support this wonderful conference.
--The fee is waived if you’re a member of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society ($30 for general membership).
--If you win, not only will you get $1000 and publication in The Potomac Review, but you’ll also have an exceptionally awesome line for your resume/c.v.: “Winner of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest”…any link between your name and Scott’s is all good!

Here’s the scoop from the website:

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc. is sponsoring its 15th annual Short Story Contest. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest is open to residents of Maryland, Washington D. C. and Virginia. The contest is divided into two sections: the Adult and Student contest.

Cover sheets are removed upon receipt at Rockville City Hall, and each entry is assigned a number before it is sent to the judges. All entries are assigned for judging. All entries must follow the above-mentioned format. Judging is done by the Editors of Potomac Review, and the final judge is Richard Peabody, Editor of Gargoyle Magazine and founder of Paycock Press.

Adult Short Story Contest
Writers should send in unpublished stories of no more than 3,000 words. First prize includes $1,000, an invitation to read at the 15th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, and publication in Potomac Review. Three runner-ups will receive $200 each. There is a $25 entry fee, and the deadline to enter is July 16, 2010.

Please follow the rules for contest entries carefully:
--Entries must be typed, 10 point or 12 point sized font, double spaced, no more than 26 lines per page, one-inch margins and numbered pages.
--All entries must include a cover sheet that includes writer’s name, address and telephone number.
--Staple or paper clip story in the upper left-hand corner.
--Writer’s name should not appear on the short story. Place a title on the first page.
--Entries must be postmarked no later than July 16, 2010.
--Entries will not be returned.
--Only winners will be notified.
--The entry fee is $25 per entry.
--Pseudonyms are not allowed. We need to match the entry fee with the submission to verify all submissions, so we need real names.

If you are submitting your submission through snail mail, please make the check payable to: F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc. (This entry fee is waived if you are a FSF member.)

Entries and check should be sent to:
F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Contest
c/o Rockville City Hall
111 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, MD 20850

To submit for the Short Story Adult Contest online:
Pay the entry fee on CCNow.

Submit your story to Potomac Review online submission manager. When submitting, remember to mark the genre as “contest” in the genre drop-down field to ensure the submission is received correctly and place all contact info in the fields and nowhere on the manuscript.

Student Short Story Contest
The Contest is open to high school students who reside in or attend school within the corporate limits of Montgomery County. Follow the directions below to submit for the Student Short Story Contest:
--Entries must be typed, double spaced, between 1,500 and 3,000 words, and unpublished.
--All entries must include a cover sheet that includes the writer’s name, address and telephone number, as well as the writer’s school, grade and teacher’s name. The writer’s name should NOT appear on any pages of the short story.
--Entries must be postmarked no later than July 17, 2010.
--There is no entry fee.
--Entries will not be returned.
--First prize will be $250 plus an invitation to speak briefly about the story at the Fifteenth Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award Ceremony.
--Three runner-up prizes of $100 each will be awarded.
--Only winners will be notified.

If you are submitting via snail mail, entries should be sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald Student Short Story Contest, c/o Rockville City Hall, 111 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD 20850.

To submit for the Short Story Student Contest online:
Submit your story to Potomac Review online submission manager. When submitting, remember to mark the genre as “contest” in the genre drop-down field to ensure the submission is received correctly and place all contact info in the fields and nowhere on the manuscript. In the comments sections of the online submission manager, students need to include writer’s school, grade and teacher’s name.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ann McLaughlin: Leaving Bayberry House

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my friend Ann McLaughlin’s SIXTH novel: Leaving Bayberry House. Ann was in my fabulous writing group, and I had the opportunity to read these chapters in early drafts. It’s a thrill for me to have watched this book unfold in progress, and to witness the work and care Ann took as she shaped, revised, and honed her words into this lovely novel.

Here’s a bit about the book:
Two sisters, Liz and Angie, meet for a week at their deceased parents’ country house in Massachusetts to prepare it for sale. The sisters have different lifestyles and are not close: Liz, the older sister, is a Farsi translator who travels often to the Middle East, while Angie is a potter married to a professor and has two teenage children. They are besieged by memories in the house, where their father, a charismatic Unitarian minister, committed suicide. Angie, who was in the house at the time, has not returned in the twenty-eight years since it happened. She suffered a breakdown and Liz worries that her illness could return. As the week passes, the sisters talk about their shared lives, trying to make sense of their memories.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

“It is the summer of 1973 and the Carlson sisters are finishing breakfast on the front porch. Liz lists the cleaning jobs, the sorting and packing they must do, but Angie is listening to the insects singing in the unmown grass. She glances at the door to the big room and shivers, dreading the memories that could flood out. A distant plane hums, coming in over the sea. Beyond the lawn is the marsh, and beyond it, Plum Island, a dark green streak with the ocean beside it, gleaming in the morning sun. The beach will soon be dotted with vacationers, Angie thinks, who have made the hour’s drive up from Boston to lie in the sand and splash in the cold salt water one last time before the fall.

“Angie stares at the shiny leaves of a bayberry bush, but sees her fifteen-year-old self, strapped to a hospital gurney, rigid with fear as a white-coated doctor fastens electrodes to her head. The police had questioned her first; later the doctors had. No wonder she has not been back here in twenty-eight years. The must sell this place; that’s why she’s come.”

Ann will be reading from and signing Leaving Bayberry House on these dates:

Sunday, May 16
2 pm
The Writer's Center, Bethesda [you’ll find me in the front row!]

Sunday, May 23
1 pm
Politics and Prose Bookstore

Tuesday, June 15
7 pm
American University Library
Reading details here.

And here’s some info about Ann:
Ann McLaughlin grew up in Cambridge., MA and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1952. She received her Ph.D. in Literature and Philosophy from American University in 1978. She has taught for twenty-five years at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, where she is on the board of directors. She has published five novels with John Daniel & Co. Her sixth novel, Leaving Bayberry House, will appear in May, 2010 and the seventh, Summer Trials, in May, 2011. Read more at

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing Tips: Organization & Coincidence

C.M. Mayo—author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, recently out in paperback—has posted on Madame Mayo a wonderful compilation of writing wisdom. It’s actually a handout from her recent talk called “Staying Focused: Researching and Writing the Longer Book Project,” but this document encompasses so much more, including tips for making the most out of a visit to a historical archive and a list of useful office supplies to keep yourself organized (yes, my trusted index cards are included!).

Here’s a bit of good advice for the writing process:

“# 7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer, the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners.

“This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n'est-ce pas? It's not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you've left the phone on and your facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.”

Read the whole piece here.


And Susann Cokal, author of the novels Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, offers some good advice about the art of working coincidence into your narrative:

“Second, there's the light of open acknowledgment. Some of the cleverest authors don't strain to hide the fact that there's an odd chord striking in the music of the spheres; they point out the crazy ways our lives are connected. Having a character remark on the unbelievability actually makes it more plausible, as when E. M. Forster explains (in A Room with a View) that it's both strange and natural for a group of genteel English people to cross paths first in Italy and then in an English village—it's because they all love Italian art. The acknowledgment of implausibility breaks that sense of too much order and lets chaotic "real" life creep back into the story, even if the coincidence is easily explained away.”

From an essay in the Glimmer Train newsletter; read the rest here.


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