Saturday, September 29, 2012

Blog Vacation

Congratulations to Austin, who will be channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald in her Tigers Princeton T-shirt!  Thanks to everyone for entering.

And speaking of channeling…I’ll be channeling the two quarters of French class I took in college while I’m off visiting Quebec.  Back then it seemed like it would be fun to learn French, and it was…until I got to the irregular verbs, when I thought, “Why am I doing this again?”  Plus, it was a class that met every single day—and the language lab was dirty and disgusting....  Oh, youth!  So if I end up ordering “brains” on a menu by accident, it will be no one’s fault but my own!  (In Paris, I almost accidentally ordered “head cheese” because I recognized “frommage” as "cheese," so such things are possible.)

So, au revoir…and blogging will resume sometime after Columbus Day.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Work in Progress: How to Get Out of Your Writing Morass

What do you do when the story you’re working on has ballooned to forty-ish pages and seems to have strayed into exquisite boredom, which means that you think you like your sentences but that nothing is happening, or rather, the things that are happening don’t feel  remotely right—and you have no idea what would feel right because you've totally lost your vision for the story.   This is after you had a solid chunk of time that you could devote to working on this story without major interruption and distraction and you thought you were on a good path.  Oh, and by the way, this is the story that feels like the linchpin piece to the larger project you’re working on…which you now also find yourself doubting and questioning and also see straying into exquisite boredom because you've totally lost your vision for that project.  Ack!

What do you do when you doubt that you’ll ever emerge from this writing morass?

Well, here’s what I do:

--remind myself that I have been in this sort of writing morass about a thousand-million-zillion times before

--remind myself that when I’ve been in this writing morass in the past, I’ve always found a way out, eventually

--remind myself that “eventually” doesn’t necessarily mean “right now”

--remind myself that one way I got out of the morass in the past was to take a break and step away from the piece

-remind myself that another way I got out of the morass in the past was to plow through and keep going even though I didn’t know what I was doing

--ponder how it’s possible to do both of those things, stepping away and plowing through, at the same time

--decide that it’s literally impossible to do both of those things at once, stepping away and plowing through, impossible!

--remember that writing always requires the impossible

--remember that doing the impossible requires faith in oneself

--go ahead and DO the impossible:  simultaneously stepping away and plowing through, knowing that this morass, too, will be resolved eventually

And then:
--open a nice bottle of red wine at dinner
--watch bad T.V.
--whine online


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Princeton T-Shirt Up for Grabs!

Don't forget to enter to win a Princeton T-shirt, in honor of F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday!

Details:  http://www.workinprogressinprogress.com/2012/09/happy-birthday-f-scott-fitzgerald.html

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Link Corral: Be a More Productive Writer, Job Opportunity in SC, and F. Scott!

Weren’t we just talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald?  And yet there’s always more!

--Here’s a link to a Simon and Schuster, where you can enter to win a complete Fitzgerald Classics Library from Scribner:  http://pages.simonandschuster.com/fitzgeraldclassics

--Here’s a link to the first newspaper advertisement for The Great Gatsby (and it’s worth scrolling through to see the other ads…I especially liked the ad for Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays):  http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/10/read-me-dwight-garner-book-ads/


*****

I find myself intrigued by this “system” of carving up writing time into blocks.  On Facebook, there were some compelling testimonials from some new believers.  Can you argue with something called “The Secret to Being a Productive and Focused Writer”?

For years I have set myself a goal of writing 2,000 words per day. Sometimes it felt like a prison sentence. I’d keep eyeing my word count, willing it to get larger.

Sometimes I’d be stuck in my office for eight to ten hours, and when I was finished, I’d feel hollowed out and weak, like someone who has given away too many pints of blood. Other times I’d write poor quality filler just to get the job done.

Much too often I’d become distracted; responding to the ding of my email like Pavlov’s dog, surfing the internet whenever I got stuck, hearing the damning words of Jonathan Franzen resound in my mind:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Luckily, all of the above ceased to be a problem when I found the Pomodoro Technique. An Italian named Francesco Cirillo invented the technique, and it can be used with any task but it works particularly well with writing.
 


(Link via Karin Gillespie)

*****

Here’s a job for the right person…and it’s in Spartanburg, so I can meet you for lunch at the Beacon Drive-In during the Converse MFA residencies!

The Spartanburg, SC non-profit community program HUB-BUB seeks a dynamic, experienced leader to serve as its Executive Director. The Director will manage the flexible gallery and performance space at the Showroom and conduct innovative cultural programming, including coordinating artists, staff, and volunteers. Qualified candidates will have experience leading non-profit organizations or similar corporate experience and have strong skills in management, program development, fundraising, financial operations, communications, and planning. To apply, please send a letter and resume as e-mail attachments to office@hub-bub.com. Review of candidates will begin October 9 and continue until the position is filled. For the complete job description, go to hub-bub.com/opportunities.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

This day has been marked on your calendar, right?  In honor of my guy, I’m going to celebrate his birthday by giving away a Princeton T-shirt from the official university shop.  (Entry details below.)

Here’s the vintage-feel one I had in mind (which comes in women's sizes), but if you don’t like it, I’ll put $25 toward any other shirt on the site:

Princeton - Vintage - Women


And don’t worry about wearing a Princeton shirt if you didn’t graduate from the school…neither did Fitzgerald!

Here’s an interesting piece about Fitzgerald’s time at Princeton; apparently the school didn’t feel too warmly about him for quite a while—though he was reading the alumni newsletter when he had his fatal heart attack.  And his classmates put together a nice tribute to him in the newsletter:

Many of us of the Class of 1917 felt that a bright page of our youth had been torn out and crumpled up when we learned of the death of Scott Fitzgerald, who died of a heart attack in Hollywood, Calif., on December 21. Scott’s whole early career is typified in his very first face to face encounter with the authorities at Princeton. He needed extra points to be admitted to the freshman class, and, on his unconventional plea before the faculty committee that it was his seventeenth birthday, the members of the committee laughed and admitted him. ….

More than any other man in college in his time, he was aware of, and intensely interested in, every fashion and custom, the history and background of every undergraduate organization, and, above all, the personalities who composed these organizations, and who later became the characters in his most popular stories. His intense interest in every phase of the University’s social life and his eagerness to dissect it on every occasion made him a rare companion – interesting, amusing, provocative, sometimes annoying, but never dull. …
 

And here’s an essay on Princeton Fitzgerald wrote for College Humor in 1927.  Angry, nostalgic, cutting, melodramatic, amusing, complicated—just like college years tend to be:

In preparatory school and up to the middle of sophomore year in college, it worried me that I wasn’t going and hadn’t gone to Yale. Was I missing a great American secret? There was a gloss upon Yale that Princeton lacked; Princeton’s flannels hadn’t been pressed for a week, its hair always blew a little in the wind. Nothing was ever carried through at Princeton with the same perfection as the Yale Junior Prom or the elections to their senior societies. From the ragged squabble of club elections with its scars of snobbishness and adolescent heartbreak, to the enigma that faced you at the end of senior year as to what Princeton was and what, bunk and cant aside, it really stood for, it never presented itself with Yale’s hard, neat, fascinating brightness. Only when you tried to tear part of your past out of your heart, as I once did, were you aware of its power of arousing a deep and imperishable love.
 

As Amory Blaine said in This Side of Paradise, “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”

*****
How to win this shirt, symbolizing the complex yearning of Fitzgerald’s oeuvre and life? Email me at Lpietr AT aol.com with “Scott” in the subject header before 5 PM EST on Thursday, September 27. Yes, it’s okay if you know me or if I teach/taught you.  Yes, it’s okay if you don’t. The man who came up with the idea to give away a Princeton shirt—my super-clever, Gatsby-loving husband—will draw a random winner who I will contact and make arrangements with.  No worries—I’m not going to put your email on any kind of list…I can barely pull it together to get that photograph on the blog!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Guest in Progress: Carollyne Hutter, on Finding Inspiration

Manifesting One’s Life: A Conversation for Writers

By Carollyne Hutter


Let’s be honest, a writer’s life can be full of adversities. The processes of writing, dealing with editors or clients, getting published, and getting noticed—can all be fraught with difficulties. Because of these challenges, I am always looking for people to inspire me.

Eliza King is one of the most inspiring people I know. Eliza has a major handicap (she’s severely vision impaired) and yet Eliza takes on challenges that full-vision people would find trying. What amazes me about Eliza is that she announces a change she wants in her life and then manifests it. I have seen Eliza do this with her writing career, her professional career, and home life.

I sat down with Eliza and asked a few questions about overcoming adversities and moving forward in one’s life.

1. You have a handicap that would limit many other people yet it doesn't stop you. How do you keep your handicap in check? How do you move forward?

Yes, I was born legally blind and an early unsuccessful operation on my left eye has altered its appearance from the way a regular eye looks.  Because I was born with my disability, it has become an intrinsic part of my worldview and shaped my identity. I couldn’t keep it in check if I tried because it’s so much a part of who I am.

I had tremendous support growing up from my parents, my family, teachers, and friends. What is more, I was always reading stories about people who were strong and overcame things.  I loved the character of Clara in the book Heidi who is in a wheelchair and unexpectedly learns to walk. 

I realized that in books, people were often beset with difficult situations and yet, they seemed to make their way in the world. One book I loved (love still) is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  I think even then I understood that the demons inside of you can be as powerful, or more so, than things you are confronted with on the outside. 

I knew those demons when I got discouraged about not being able to do things that others did easily. In soccer practice at six years old, I remember running away from the ball and being laughed at by my teammates. But by 8th grade, seven years later, I was one of the first girls picked to play for our class soccer tournaments in PE.

I also learned to go at my own pace and listen to what I need to do, instead of what people around me are doing.  When I went to college in London, many of my American classmates used London as their base camp for travels around Europe, while I was still getting lost in the streets near school.  At first I was   frustrated in hearing these amazing travel stories, but I came to savor exploring London slowly. I enjoyed getting to know the college’s staff, teachers and students from all over the world. I became the editor of the school paper, was a Residence Assistant in my dorm, and worked on our senior class yearbook.


2. Often you will announce you will do something, such as buy a house or start your business as a life coach. How do you take what is a dream and manifest it?

I usually mull over ideas before I talk about them to many people.I check out the situation and determine what support I need to get started.

When I decided to buy a house, for example, I didn’t see myself as being that different from anyone else. There will always be certain challenges for me visually but I know how to ask for support and have learned that asking for help can be a tremendous gift for the person who helps you.  People love to connect and make a difference in someone’s life. So my process is that I dream, and sit with the dream as it develops. I reach out to others for information and support, than I feel my way forward toward the steps needed to manifest that dream.

3. What advice do you have for others trying to manifest their dreams?

Find an example for yourself of how you have accomplished something in the past. Notice what worked well and what didn’t. Then brainstorm with someone you trust about your dream: how you might move forward, what support you need, whether it’s something you really want to manifest, and then what steps might take you there. I’ve found that for me, it needs to come from the inside out, not the outside in. Otherwise I do all the outer work but my heart isn’t in the result and it isn’t as fulfilling.

4. Writers often deal with so many different adversities. What advice do you have for dealing with adversity?

I think people work with adversity in different ways that are unique to each of us. That said, the perspective we come from makes all the difference.  When I was younger, I thought of my vision as a curse because it scared people and often brought out their darker qualities in interacting with me.  Later, I began to view my sight as a blessing because it inspires people to explore opportunities they might have otherwise hold back from trying. People have said to me, “If you can do that even with your limited vision, I can try this!”

I’ve found that the way my eyes look creates a connection with each person I meet, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. The tough facade that most people walk around with melts for that moment of visceral vulnerability when they come face to face (literally) with their own fear or inspiration. That moment is an opportunity for us to connect in a deeper way and impact each other’s lives.  This is a rare gift and I, over time, have become grateful for it.


About:  Carollyne Hutter is a freelance writer, editor, and communications manager, specializing in environmental, scientific, and international development topics. She also enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction for adults and children (early readers, picture books, and young-adult novels). Please visit her website— www.HutterWriter.com—to learn more. You can contact Carollyne at sayhi@hutterwriter.com.


About:  Eliza King is a poet, yoga instructor, and life coach. As a life coach, she loves working with people who are in transition or want to make a change in their lives. Her gift is in seeing people for who they truly are, and helping them be courageous in seeing themselves and living that vision.  http://www.mainstreettakoma.org/lifecoachingelizaking

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Arrgh: It's International Talk Like A Pirate Day

Arrrgh, mateys!  Grab ye faithful parrot and strap on yer best peg leg…it’s International Talk Like A Pirate Day.   Lest ye take a dim view o’ this bit o’ frippery, best to tell ye upfront it’s been the rule of the realm for ten years now…best to raise yer grog and join the fun!  Call it "writing dialogue" if ye must....

More info here,. including the history of the day, worldwide celebrations, and glossary.  And you thought I was kidding!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Link Corral: New Female-Focused Brevity, Reading DC Poetry, Beckett

Brevity, an online journal of (brief) creative nonfiction, has just posted its new issue, guest-edited by Susanne Antonetta, Joy Castro, and Barrie Jean Borich, focusing on female writers.  Lots of good stuff, but I was especially taken by Laurie Lynn Drummond’s piece about getting ready to go on duty as a cop in 1981 in Baton Rouge, LA:

Decide whether you’ll wear your bulletproof vest tonight, the one your mother purchased because the department doesn’t supply vests.  What are the chances you’ll get shot or stabbed tonight?  Think about Linda Lawrence. Think about Warren Broussard.  Slip the vest over your head and pull the two straps on either side tight.  Try to ignore the slight gap between cleavage and vest; they haven’t yet started making women’s vests.  Try not to remember that gaps between skin and vest can kill you from the impact, even if the vest stops the bullet.  Try not to think about bullets that penetrate Kevlar.
 
Read on.  And check out the rest of Brevity here.

*****

This sounds like a great class, offered by the fabulous and smart Kim Roberts:

"Poetics of Place: How Local Writers Depict DC and Environs"
Read and discuss contemporary poems about familiar places in Washington, DC with Kim Roberts

Three Monday evenings:
October 29, November 5, and November 12 from 7:30 to 9:00 pm

Join us as we read and discuss contemporary poems.  Discussions will help us develop both a detailed vocabulary to analyze and interpret literature, as well as a better understanding of how poetry can deepen our connection to this place we call home.  Readings will be from the anthology, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC.  Participants can read poems from the course pack (included in the class tuition) or opt to buy the book at the first class (for an additional fee, made available at a reduced rate from the normal cover price).  No prior experience or specialized knowledge is necessary, just a love of reading.

Kim Roberts, the instructor, is editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and co-editor of the web exhibit DC Writers' Homes.  She is the author of five books.

$35 fee.  Advance registration required.
Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, 9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda, MD.  (301) 493-8300. 
http://www.cedarlane.org

*****

Any day is a good day to be reminded of this Samuel Beckett quotation:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Probably in my mind because I plan to do some revising this afternoon!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Redux: New Story Now ~ New Board & Reading Period Coming Soon

New on Redux:  A beautiful story by my former writing group member, C.M. Mayo.  Her comments on my work often sounded like this, in a very sweet voice:  “Leslie, I can’t see this.”  So as I wrote, I tried to anticipate where she might not be able to see—and I became a far better writer in the process.  Still—miles to go before I ever come close to the wonderful visual sense and details that she captures, as evidenced in this wonderful story, “Revillagigedo.”

Rigoberto Castro had a flair for the dramatic, his wife Beatrix always said, and when she said it she rolled her eyes like a saint, engulfed in flames, imploring heaven. Beatrix had been obliged to speak to him recently about his new habit of wearing an ascot. Before they were married, when they were novios, when Rigoberto was twenty-two and Beatrix barely twenty-three, she had been obliged to speak to him about his habit of using an ivory cigarette holder. "Riggy dear," Beatrix had said, Riggy dyahr, in her plummy BBC accent, "You fancy you look like a movie director, but you look rather like Roosevelt. An old man with snaggly teeth." Rigoberto Castro did have snaggly teeth, which were now stained with the coffee and nicotine of five decades. He was sixty-nine years old, and with a bum ticker, too. Mitral valve prolapse.
 


*****

Speaking of Redux

Don’t forget that there will be an open reading period that starts on October 8.  Details can be found here. 

And I’ll be introducing a brand new editorial board in the coming days.  You can get a sneak peek here.



Thursday, September 13, 2012

11 Tips (Plus More) on How to Survive Your MFA Workshop

I’m a sucker for lists of “10 tips,” whether they’re tips about fall fashion or cooking tofu, so here’s a list of Back to MFA School tips, to ensure that you make the most of your writing workshop, whether it’s in an MFA program or through another venue.  I think most teachers want their students to succeed as writers, and based on my experience as a teacher/one-time student, here’s my advice, supplemented by advice from people who are smarter than I am—colleagues and students.  (Lessons to be learned immediately from the previous statement:  Consult other experts!  Sincere compliments are always welcome!)

I teach in a variety of venues—traditional workshop at Johns Hopkins; a low-residency MFA program at Converse College; community-based workshops/classes at The Writer’s Center—and I believe that all of these thoughts are relevant to whatever sort of class you find yourself in.  (The numbering is random, not a priority, though I will stick to number 1 being number 1…it’s also something I see being ignored the most!)

1.  Read the instructor’s work.  You’ll better understand his/her aesthetic; you’ll be able to ask more insightful questions about craft knowing the body of work the teacher is most intimately familiar with; you’ll have a stronger grasp of the teacher’s process when there are the (inevitable) allusions in class to, “Here’s how I handled that situation in my first book…”  Plus, as noted above…

2. …a sincere compliment is always welcome!  While teachers strive to be (and I will assume are) fair, it’s not stupid to assume that they will be flattered that you’ve read their work.  You don’t have to love it (though I wouldn’t suggest offering a critique!)—most writers are happy just to hear that you bought a copy.  Get it signed (no, that’s NOT embarrassing!) and make a thoughtful remark about what you’ve read.

3.  Extend this same general attitude of pleasantness to your fellow students.  Start by assuming that they want you to succeed.  Assume that they will succeed.  Assume you’re all in this together and that you’ll learn from each other.

4.  Even so, there will be assholes along the way.  And people who seem to you to be dumber than dirt about writing.  Don’t worry about them.  Over your career as a writer, you’ll hear many, many, MANY comments about your work that are not useful and that, if you paid attention, could even be damaging.  The workshop is where you learn how to sort that out.  Listen to the people who get your work, who have good motives, who are smart, whose comments make YOU see the new vision to the story/poem/essay.  (This may not always be the teacher.)  Hemingway said that very writer should “develop a built-in bullshit detector.”  I’m certain he didn’t mean only for the writing!

5.  Learn from the reading you’re doing.  If your teacher says you have a problem with writing description, see how the experts do it…study the books you’re reading in the lit portion of your program:  what are the descriptions like?  How is a novel structured?  (Check out The Great Gatsby for a perfect example of classic structure!) What’s the balance between scene and summary in the short story in this week's New Yorker?  I can’t recommend highly enough Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer.  If I had my way, I would make sure every entering workshop student had read that book two or three times before setting foot in the class.

6.  Take advantage of time outside the class.  Does your teacher have office hours?  Go!  Does your teacher hang out at a bar after class, inviting students to come along?  Go! (No one will care if you order ginger ale.)  Does your program need someone to escort the visiting writer to the lecture hall?  Volunteer!  Not all learning is in the classroom.  (Mentor by Tom Grimes is an interesting—and somewhat cautionary—memoir about the student-teacher relationship.)

7.  But seriously…in those outside the classroom moments—and even within the classroom—don’t go on all about yourself and your work.  The teacher/visiting writer is the one with the knowledge, so ask questions!  Listen to their stories and gossip!  Treat them as a valuable resource, because, honestly, they are.  You can talk about your epic novel to your mom any old time.

8.  The usual:  be timely, meet deadlines, don’t roll your eyes when the teacher can see you, follow directions, don’t email pestering questions at 2AM and expect an immediate response. 

9.  In the workshop, during critiques:  don’t always have to be the first to speak.  Don’t never speak.  Don’t be mean.  Don’t always say that the story is perfect as it is.  Don’t go on and on.  Don’t be the one who turns every comment into commentary about your own work.  Don’t be the one everyone rolls their eyes at, the one the teacher would like to roll his/her eyes at.

10.  Remember that you’re building a relationship with the teacher.  It’s not just a grade at the end of the semester:  it’s a potential thesis advisor, letters of recommendation, a note to the teacher’s agent, a distinct memory when judging a contest, an invitation to speak on an AWP panel, and on and on.  It’s definitely a small world.  As I said, teachers DO have to be fair in the classroom and work hard for their students…but you know what?  Once that final grade has been posted, that teacher doesn’t “have” to do anything else for you ever again…and I must say that every writer I’ve met has a very long memory.  You don’t have to be “teacher’s pet,” but let’s try not to make enemies!  (And if you’re rolling your eyes, remember that it does work both ways:  it could be that YOU will be the one winning the Pulitzer and suddenly there’s your old, loyal teacher asking YOU for a blurb, and teachers know this happens [please be kind, BTW!].)

11.  In the end, think in the long term:  you’re not in this workshop to impress people but to learn how to write.  Even a teacher you’re not fully connecting with can help you do so, if you set aside your personal feelings.  Even a class with too many morons and assholes will teach you something about writing.  Let go of the ego.  The muse is merciless and doesn’t care who you are or what your problems might be.  Focus on becoming a better writer.

Now, additional excellent advice from some experts:

Cheryl Russell, Converse Low-Residency MFA fiction student

--Don't worry about publishing while in school—it's not worth the stress. You're paying good money to learn, so learn all you can in the short—and it is short—time you're in the program. Focus on publishing after your degree is in hand.  I think I heard you say that during workshop at some point—it's really good advice.*

--If you're a returning student, get the emails of new students entering your genre and try to connect with them--email, Facebook, cell phone--whatever works. It helps to have some names and faces in place when starting a new program. Also think about starting a student only group to stay connected—students in Converse's MFA fiction program have a private Facebook group which gives new students a place to connect names and faces and answer questions about the program. Such a group is also a big help during the semester and is a network after graduation.

R.T. (Rod) Smith, faculty member, Converse Low-Residency MFA Program and Washington & Lee University & editor of Shenandoah

--I used to caution my students against allowing lit biz to interfere with their reading, writing and thinking about craft and direction. Now I feel I have to add that they shouldn’t allow social networking, especially the social networking that’s lit biz related, to distract them. In moderation, these contacts and conversations are no doubt helpful, but they can come with an endorphin lift that’s counterproductive to the solitary and focused activity of writing. That old Frank O’Hara advice of “Get black on white” still heads my list.

--I guess my other piece is a corollary. We didn’t get into this mess because we wanted to build a vita. Someone who studied with Carver – was it Bob [Olmstead]? I think so – said that how much you publish and when isn’t as important as where. With the deluge of journals, especially on the web, this is harder advice to translate to the current atmosphere, but it’s still worth thinking about.


Alex M., American University MFA

--Get ready to thicken your skin. Yes, some people will love your work, but others won't, and the very nature of the workshop is constructive criticism. After my first workshop, I ran home and immediately imposed every note I'd received from thirteen near-strangers on my delicate little story. When I looked at the manuscript again the next morning, it was barely recognizable. The great swooping follies in it—the elements I'd loved writing the most and which at least one of my new peers had found off-putting—were gone. It took me a few workshops to learn to trust my own voice and instincts while really hearing what my fellow students and teachers had to say. So that's my advice: get ready to hear hard, difficult things. And be prepared to ask yourself—what will you stand for in your writing, and what are you willing to let go?


Sherra Wong, fiction writer

--One of the most important things I've learned is to "trust the story."  Tim Johnston, the workshop leader at GW's Jenny McKean Moore Workshop last semester (which I learned about from your blog!),* asked us to do this when we read other people's stories: to trust that the story, however unfinished or "weird" it may appear at first, has its own logic, and that we shouldn't shut down after a page or two.  I'm a very critical person, and in past workshops I've been frustrated at how ungenerous a reader I am, but Tim's advice helped me become a better and more patient workshop participant.  As a writer, I'm more open to experimenting with unfamiliar devices and possibilities that I might not have discovered if I had mentally "shut down."

(I suppose a caveat is that we can't expect editors to employ this attitude!  But I do find that it makes my workshop experience less frustrating.)

*Honestly, I don’t solicit this!

****

I’m sure there’s more…let me know what I’ve missed!  And if anyone ever wants to write up advice from the student’s perspective for TEACHERS of creative writing—anonymous or signed—I would love to post that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

3 Don’t-Miss Events…Though You’ll Have to Clone Yourself to Get to All Three

1. 
Monday, September 17, 7:30 PM
Reading/conversation with Carl Phillips & Eduardo C. Corral
Folger Shakespeare Library
$15

The Yale Series of Younger Poets champions the most promising new American poets. Awarded since 1919, past winners include Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, William Meredith, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, John Hollander, James Tate, and Carolyn Forché. In April 2010, Carl Phillips was named as the new judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, replacing Louise Glück. Phillips has chosen Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning as the 2011 competition winner. Both Phillips and Corral read from their works. Reception and book signing to follow.

(I met Eduardo several years ago at VCCA and heard him read from his work there in a stunning, memorable reading.  I wasn’t the least surprised when I learned he won this prestigious award.)


2.
Tuesday, September 18, 7 PM
Reading with Meghan O’Rourke
The Arts Club of Washington
Free

Poet Meghan O’Rourke will be featured at a Literary Evening on Tuesday, September 18, at 7 pm. She is the author of the poetry collections Once (2011) and Halflife (2007), as well as a memoir, The Long Goodbye (2011). Formerly the poetry editor of the Paris Review and the literary editor of Slate Magazine, O’Rourke is also a widely published critic and has contributed to the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker

(This would be a can’t-miss for me under normal circumstances, as the event is organized by the always-fabulously-organized Sandra Beasley and because I loved the excerpts of O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye in Slate…but, alas, I absolutely must attend #3, below.)



3.
Tuesday, September 18, 7 PM
The First Pages:  What Makes a Good Beginning?
1-night class at the Writer’s Center, taught by yours truly!
$50

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 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 15 copies of the first two pages of one of their stories/novels/essays/memoirs for some hands-on advice.

(I’ve taught this class before, and it’s always an eye-opener…highly recommended, if I do say so!)



Monday, September 10, 2012

NPR's Three-Minute Fiction Contest

I’m never one to keep it short when writing fiction, but this is a consistently interesting contest.  I’ve also found that the exercise of writing to the assignment and keeping within 600 (!) words has been useful.  Plus, you can’t argue with no fee to enter and the glory of having your winning story read on NPR…plus, this year, the winner will be published in The Paris Review.

Some details from the website: 
This election season, Three-Minute Fiction is getting political. Weekends on All Things Considered has a new judge, a new challenge and a new prize for Round 9. For this contest, submit original, short fiction that can be read in about three minutes, which means no more than 600 words.

The judge for this round is writer Brad Meltzer. He's the author of seven novels, including the best-seller The Inner Circle. His newest thriller, The Fifth Assassin, will be out in January.

Here's the challenge he's laid out for contestants: Story entries must revolve around a U.S. president, who can be real or fictional. … Submissions will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 23.
 

And not to dissuade you but to inspire you as to what can be possible in 600 words, here’s the winner from last time.  It’s a FANTASTIC story… I’ll never forget it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Finding Action in Your Work-in-Progress & When to Italicize Foreign Words

A few links of note:

A great piece by the super-smart Robin Black on how to find those places in your story where action can (and probably should) arise:

These days whenever I hit that still and frightening place in my work, instead of pushing forward as I used to try to do, I go back, convinced that I will find a moment of decision gloriously brimming with might have beens. I look for lines like: I thought of telling him what had happened the night before, but decided against it.  Or, I could have run after her and pleaded my case, but instead, went back inside. Or, She stared at the phone for a very long while, but never picked it up.  In other words, I look for the points of inaction that my characters might themselves later regret, those decisions that might one day inspire in them the rich fictions of which we are all such gifted authors when we regret having chosen the more passive, the safer of two possible paths.
 

*****

The issue of whether or not to italicize foreign words in a story/book fascinates me.  I know the convention is to do so, but what if the person speaking is a native speaker of the “foreign” language?  What if the English speaker’s words are the “foreign” ones within the setting?  How much attention does one want to draw to a simple, “hola amigos”?All sorts of questions arise…and here’s an interesting piece in which various authors and editors examines the issue:

Toni Plummer (Editor at Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press and the author of The Bolero of Andi Rowe, Curbstone 2011): “Our house style dictates that we italicize foreign words. (I believe there are some foreign words that are so much a part of American culture now, that they aren’t italicized anymore.) Of course, for many writers who grew up speaking Spanish, Spanish isn’t considered a foreign language and wouldn’t be considered foreign to the characters in their books either. It’s understandable then if they want the Spanish to be treated like English and not set apart by italics.

“I give my authors the choice.”
 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reading & Contest Fees: Necessary Evil, or Simply Evil?

I’m not saying that my survey about how much writers spend entering contests and paying reading fees is anything scientific, but I found the results fascinating.  Alas, I’m too cheap to pay for a “professional” plan in Survey Monkey, so no fancy pie charts.  But here’s what we learned (all figures are rounded):

How much money do you spend on entering literary contests and on reading fees and application fees during the course of a year?

~40 percent of the respondents spent less than $50 per year
~5 percent each in the categories of $51-$100 and $101-150
~21 percent at $151-$200
~8 percent at $201-$300
~21 percent had other:  there were a few at zero (which probably should be slipped into “less than $50”) and then several answers around $700 and around $400.  Comments mentioned first book contests and a year spent “giving it my all,”so for some people, this larger amount felt like part of a big-picture plan.

2. What percentage of these fees do you estimate are spent on contests for books/full manuscripts?

~0-20 percent was by far the largest group, at 50 percent.  This may be due to the fact that a larger proportion of respondents are fiction writers—see below—but for poets, often a contest is the only way to get a book published.
~80-100 percent was the second largest group, with 24 percent.  Poets, perhaps?

3. What is your primary genre?
~61percent identified as fiction writers, 34 percent as poets, leaving the rest for nonfiction and “other”

4. Do you think journals should charge a reading fee for submitting work?
Not much love for reading fees!
~58 percent said no
~11 percent said yes
~32 percent said “depends on the journal”
I left space for comments on this question, and here’s a representative sample:

This would discriminate against talented people who can't afford to pay the fees. And presumably it wouldn't result in more people being paid for their work by journals that otherwise do not pay on publication. I understand funding contests this way, but I don't think journals should routinely rely on this route for funding. Of course then the question is where should they get their funding?
 
As the editor of a journal that has never charged for submissions, my first instinct is to say "no." But with this last submission cycle, after reading the umpteenth completely-incorrect-for- our-mission-statement submission, I think we may be heading in the direction of charging a small $3-$5 fee.
[NOTE:  I find it an interesting thought that the fee may be used to cut down the inappropriate submissions. Might this make for less competition at reading fee journals
?]

But, I understand the convenience of cutting out the middleman (USPS) with online submissions. If the fee is low enough, it's a wash, economically, for the writer.
 
If there's going to be a cash prize, it's sort of hard not to charge a submission fee, particularly for a smaller journal. Should The New Yorker charge submission fees? No. Should the upstart literary journal for the MFA program at South Podunk U charge submission fees? Yes.
 
I would rather see a quality journal charge a small submission fee ($1-$3) than go belly-up for financial reasons. I consider my submission fee a 'donation' to help keep journals in business, as just another way to support the literary world. What I prefer to see is when a journal charges for submissions only to non-subscribers. Even if I don't subscribe to a journal, it makes me feel better to see them appreciating money already spent (by subscribing) and so I'm that more comfortable to spend my two bucks, if need be. For contests, I understand the structure: publication of a book and related promotions are funded via the contest fees. Again, I feel like I am 'donating' to the press or lit mag and also earning guaranteed response within 6 months. However, reviewing what I have spent this year ($373 and counting), I will have to cut that down for the upcoming year. It's just too much and is starting to feel like I'm paying people to give my work a chance... when just as many other venues don't charge.
 
Contest okay. But not for regular journal submissions. I understand the co-op model from the editor's side, and I worry that limits lit journals to universities. Still, there's something too middle-man, too capitalist, too elitist about attaching money to the regular editorial process. I'm reminded of some of the issues raised in Marjorie Garber's Patronizing the Arts.
 
I am not an ATM for literary magazines and publishers.
 
*****

As for me, last year I spent $159, mostly book contests (and didn’t win anything!).  On the other hand, I just spent about that much on residency fees about two weeks ago.  Those fees are different from contests, of course, but they add up.  I know the fees are necessary for a variety of reasons; I don’t expect that a colony is making money (or much money) on my $35—some of that goes to pay for the submission software, and I guess that much of the rest goes to support the salaries and overhead for the people who sort through all those applications.

With contests, again, the fee applies to the online submission software, and—we hope!—the prize money and production costs; payment for the “famous writer” judge.  Often entrants get a copy of the winning book or issue with the winning works, and there’s distribution for that.

The reading fee for a journal, from what I understand, is generally paying for the online submission software.  In theory, at least as a submitter of fiction, I would probably be paying that much on postage/paper, so the fee should feel like a wash, especially with a long story.  (Poets, you might be getting screwed on this!) 

So I generally trust that my fee money is being spent thoughtfully, for necessary expenses.  And yet…I don’t enter many contests, and when I do, I do so grudgingly.  There are only a couple of journals that charge fees that I submit to—and my God, the wrath when they take too long to respond or don’t respond at all—I mean, I paid THREE DOLLARS!!   (You know who you are, Unnamed Journal…)  I have subscribed to a journal in order to avoid paying fees for a year (that makes no economic sense, but somehow it made emotional sense, as at least I got to enjoy reading the journal).  As of this writing, I have not been published in a journal where I paid a reading fee.

Before entering a contest, I evaluate:
--prestige factor
--shared aesthetic with the final reader (which is why contests really must let writers know who’s judging, at ALL levels of the process—and I don’t mean names of the grad students who are screening, but let me know that it’s second year grad students in XX MFA program or whatever)
--cost/prize ratio (i.e. I will not pay $25 hoping to win $100, but I might pay $25 hoping to win $1500)
--what do I get?  Subscription?  Copy?
--theme:  if there’s some sort of theme to the contest or the reading, I must be very, very sure my story fits precisely before handing over any money.
--my own desperation level!  I can’t decide whether I enter more contests when I feel more confident or less, but I know that there’s a difference emotionally.  Not winning a contest feels easier to take sometimes than being rejected by Beloved Publication That’s Perfect for my Story.

Before paying a reading fee, I evaluate:
--prestige
--payment for publication (I would not pay to submit to a journal that didn’t pay its writers)
--my own laziness with regard to printing/postage vs. finding my credit card
--past relationship with journal (i.e. do they respond promptly?)

In the end, the reading fees are here to stay—I can only think of a few contests that don’t require entry fees.  The best bet is to pick an amount you can afford—either per submission “season” or for a year—and plan your campaign accordingly, sticking to your budget.  I have won fiction contests and we all know people whose books got published through a contest.  The system can work—but that doesn’t mean we can’t examine (or curse) it from time to time.

Thank you to everyone who responded!

Work-in-Progress

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