Welcome

"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Holidays. I'm visiting family in Pennsylvania right now, and I'm taking a week off from the old blog. See you in 2013!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Now that I’m on winter break, I’ve been finalizing my application for the PhD program in Creative Writing at Ohio University. I feel good about my application. I got my official GRE results the other day, and in spite of my worries about the Analytical Writing section, I got a 5.5. I’m in the 97th percentile for verbal and the 96th for writing. My quantitative remains very low (although I did do better this time than last time), but that shouldn’t matter. I’ve got a published book under my belt, a writing sample that I feel is pretty strong, great letters of recommendation—I think I stand a decent chance.

But. You just never know, do you? Especially considering I’m only applying to one school.

I know what you’re thinking. Did she just type what I think she typed? ONE SCHOOL? Is she CRAZY? The answers are yes, yes, and I don’t think so, respectively.

Here’s the thing: I want to go to Ohio University. I already live in Athens, for one thing. My husband has a good job working as the managing editor of one of their journals, a job he loves and doesn’t want to quit. I’m a huge fan of Joan Connor, one of the fiction faculty members. I want to study under Joan. And I want to study with my friends Jolynn and Kelly. Yes, Ohio University is where I want to go.

But yes, I know, you’re supposed to cast a wide net. You’re not supposed to get too hung up on one specific program. PhD programs are crazy competitive. It’s crazy, and crazy cocky, to assume you’ll get in to your top choice.

Well I’m not assuming I’ll get in. But at this point, I’ve decided I can’t risk spending a ton of money to apply to a ton of different schools, when the truth is we might just be better off sticking around here for a while. If I don’t get in to OU, then maybe I’ll apply to more schools next year, but leaving Athens means giving up Damien’s job benefits. With a small child to take care of, it’s hard to give up insurance in the hopes of finding something better down the road. It’s not like a PhD will guarantee me a full-time job. I might get a PhD and still be stuck adjuncting, like I’m doing now.  

Still. I want a PhD. And not even just the degree itself—although I must admit, I do like the idea of being Doctor Cowger. I want to be back in school. I miss being a grad student. I love taking classes. I love workshop. And putting this application together has just made me realize how badly I do want this. So this year, I’m only applying to OU. I’m really hoping that I’ll get in and won’t have to start thinking about a Plan B, but if, come spring, I receive that painful little rejection letter in my mailbox, Damien and I will sit down and talk about the future, and if we decide it’s the right thing for our family, I’ll apply to other schools next year.

But here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that. Here’s hoping I get in to OU.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Last Wednesday I was tagged for "The Next Big Thing" by Jenni Moody. Here are my answers:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

I think of it as “The Little Dancing Girl,” but I’m positive the title will change as I continue writing and revising.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Two things sparked the idea:

When I was pregnant, someone asked me what was the most important thing I would want my child to understand about the world. I decided I wanted my daughter to know that there is no God, but that that isn’t a bad thing, that in fact, the real world—the world as we understand it based on science, not faith—is far more complex, interesting, and even magical than the over-simplified belief that someone created the world and we’re all beholden to that creator.

Also while I was pregnant, I was having trouble writing. I was incredibly distracted with thoughts of motherhood and planning for my daughter’s arrival. A few people suggested that I keep a sort of pregnancy log, possibly with the intention of showing it to my daughter down the road. I started writing her letters, which started to become a sort of memoir of the important things about me and the important incidents from my life that I wanted my daughter to know.

I wrote over a hundred pages of letters, and I started trying to shape the letters into a cohesive story about how I came to turn my back on religion (having grown up the daughter of a preacher), and how I found that my life seems to actually have more meaning this way. The problem was, as a fiction writer, I kept wanting to embellish the stories, or in some cases, make up entirely new, more interesting stories. Now that my daughter is one and the letters have been sitting, untouched on my computer, for some time, it recently hit me that this mish-mash of letters could be the impetus for a novel, in which I can explore those same basic themes, but do it in my own way, shaping the story how I want to shape it.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

I’m not really sure yet, but probably YA. The main character will be a young adult throughout the majority of the story.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmmm. If I could choose actors at any stage in their careers, I would cast Claire Danes from her My So-Called-Life days as the main character. I think I’d like to see Kevin Kline as the father and maybe Frances McDormand as the mother.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

This is a difficult question to answer at this stage of the writing process, but here’s a try:

A mother turns her life story into a fairy tale for her daughter: the tale of the little dancing girl, who grew up in a valley obscured by the shadow of a vast mountain on which everybody believed lived a fearsome king.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

If the book comes together in a way that I’m satisfied with, I’ll do an agent hunt. If I can’t secure an agent, I’ll look at small presses.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s still in progress. The plan is to have a complete draft finished by this summer.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t really know. I think it’s too early to say because I don’t really know, yet, where the story will go.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by my daughter and my desire to ease her way in life. I wanted to share with her the struggles I had growing up, never really feeling like I belonged and always searching for some meaning to my existence. On top of that, I’m a staunch atheist and feel very frustrated by the pervasiveness of Christianity in my culture. I wanted to give my daughter a clear idea of what atheism is and why her dad and I are atheists, as well as describe to her the sorts of struggles I remember dealing with from my own childhood in the hopes that the story might ease her struggles a bit.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The story is told in the style of a fairy tale, but all the magic in the story is not real—it’s just things the townspeople believe but that the main character eventually discovers to be false. In style, it’s very similar to a story from my collection, “This Is Not a Fairy Tale,” in which a very mundane, non-magical story is told through the lens of a fairy tale. In my novel, it’s very clear that the narrator is fairy-tale-izing her own life to turn it into a bedtime story for her daughter, but you don’t know exactly what parts of the story are real and what is embellishment.

Next Wednesday, visit the following writer’s blog. I’ve passed the Next Big Thing buck to Jayme Russell.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just a short post today. I'm in the midst of digging my way out from under an avalanche of final papers--and grades are due TODAY at my college. But this week I'm going to break my regular posting once a week on Sundays schedule to post on Wednesday, instead. I've been tagged in a blog project called "The Next Big Thing," which asks writers to answer questions about their next book project. I was tagged by Jenni Moody, my novel-goal buddy.

Check out Jenni's answers to the questions on her blog. I'll be answering the questions on my blog this Wedensday.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This past week I took the GRE for the second time in my life, and I did surprisingly well on the verbal portion of the test. The first time I took the test, I didn’t prepare at all, and I was embarrassed by my verbal score of 500. This time, I decided to prepare, and it was definitely worth it. The new scoring system is different from the old—now the quantitative and verbal sections each score out of 170 instead of 800—but I think my old score would have been about a 146 on the new scale. My new score, I’m proud to share, is 167—I only lost 3 points total! I don’t know yet what percentile that puts me in, but I’m sure I’ll be happy with the final report.

I thought it might be useful to share how I prepared for the test this time around, in case anyone might be planning to take or retake the GRE too. I did four things to study:

1.      For the past several months, I’ve been studying with vocabulary flashcards. The words came from words that I came cross while reading. Any time I found a word that I didn’t know, I would write it down, look it up, and create a flashcard for it. I reviewed my flashcards whenever I had spare time. I even brought them with me to class and quizzed myself with them while my students did free-writes.

Interestingly enough, many of the the words I added to my flashcards do appear on GRE vocab lists. The words you come across in the real world are the same words the GRE tests you over, so that’s nice to know.

2.      About a month before my exam, I downloaded a GRE vocab app. I wish I would have thought of this sooner. It didn’t occur to me to look for an app until my mom mentioned to me that that was how a friend of hers studied for her GRE. I looked into it, and there were an overwhelming number of GRE verbal prep apps, many of them free. I did some research online and decided to go with Barron’s Essential GRE Words, which cost me about $5.

What I liked about this app is that it gives you the 800 most commonly used GRE words. Many of the free apps either give you way less or way more—800 seemed to me like a nice large number that was not SO large it would feel overwhelming in the amount of time I had to study. Even better than that, though, the app divides the words into the “300 Absolutely Essential Words” and the rest. The top 300 words are the words that by far show up the most often on the exam. You can study with those words first. When you’ve mastered them, you can then switch to studying all 800 words. The 300 most common will still show up, then, so you can review them as you study the other 500 words.

Also, this app lets you create two piles of flashcards: “Know It” and “Study It.” If you don’t feel you need to review a particular word, you just add it to your “Know It” pile, and that word won’t come up anymore. I used the “Know It” pile pretty sparingly, though, because I didn’t see the harm in reviewing a word even after I was pretty sure I had it down.

The downside of this app is that the sample quizzes were useless. They haven’t been updated for the type of question that appears on the new GRE. If you go with this app, don’t waste your time with the quizzes. For $5, too, I would say that’s a pretty serious flaw in the app. I know $5 isn’t much, but it’s pretty expensive for an app. I’m sure there are cheaper or even free options that give you the same words without the worthless practice quizzes.

Either way, this app helped me quite a lot. I put it on my iPod and my phone both, so I always had it with me wherever I was. When I would be waiting in line or whatever I would study the app, and in the month I had it, I got through the “300 Absolutely Essential Words” pretty handily. If I had started sooner, I could have moved on to the other 500. If you have a device on which you can put apps, I definitely recommend downloading a GRE prep app as you prepare.

3.      About a month, give or take a week or so, before the exam, I started reviewing with a hand-me-down prep book: Kaplan’s GRE Verbal Workbook (from 2011). The book was only a year old, so it had been updated for the current version of the test. This book was incredibly useful. It walked me through exactly what type of questions to expect and gave me advice on how to approach the questions.

It also had several practice tests. The week or so leading up to the big day, I took a practice test a day. I think the practice tests really helped put me in the right mindset for the exam. Also, the practice tests come with detailed explanations of each answer, so after you score your results, you can review the answers you got wrong and learn about why the right answer is the right answer. This was arguably the most useful tool in all of my GRE preparation.

4.      The final step I took to prepare for the verbal part of the GRE was downloading the free Power Prep II software from the GRE website. I didn’t do this until the day before I took the test, and while that might seem strange, I think that timeline worked just fine. I used the software to take a timed sample test (I only took the verbal parts). The main thing this software helped me with was it gave me an idea of what the actual screens and computer functions would be like on the actual exam. I learned how to mark a question to review at the end, where the buttons would be on the screen, etc. While the system is fairly intuitive and you can certainly figure it out the day of the exam, having practiced with it ahead of time took away any anxiety I might have felt over the logistics of the test itself.

Also, the sample test gave me a score, which I found useful. I got a 163. I had (pretty arbitrarily) decided I wanted to get at least a 160, so getting a 163 on the sample test made me feel really confident on test day. Who knows? Maybe that extra bit of confidence is what pushed my actual score up to 167, since I wasn’t distracted by test anxiety.

Things I would do different if I had it to do again: While the only thing I think I would change in my preparation for the verbal part of the exam would be to have downloaded and started studying with the Barron’s app earlier, if I had it to all over again, I would prepare for the other two parts of the exam at least a little bit.

Quantitative: I made the executive decision early on not to bother preparing for the quantitative part of the GRE. While I still stand by my claim that my math skills shouldn’t matter for an English degree, I do worry that doing so poorly on a test—any test—might give the committee reviewing applications pause. Especially if they have two applicants who are otherwise fairly close, I could see the quantitative score on the GRE being used as a sort of tie-breaker.

After taking the test, I’m positive that I could have done very well had I taken the time to review basic arithmetic and algebra rules. The GRE tests you over math skills that you DO NOT NEED OR USE in daily life, so if you’re like me, and you haven’t taken a math class since you were 17, it’s probably not a bad idea to refresh your memory on these basic rules and equations. Though these skills are utterly useless in my life, I can see that doing very poorly on a test that is intended to gauge your abilities to recognize and perform very basic, fundamental math problems might make me look like a bit of a dunce.

Analytic Writing: I falsely assumed that since I grade and tutor other people’s college level essays for a living, I wouldn’t need to spend any time preparing for this part of the test. I don’t think I needed to spend much time, but if I could do it over again, I would have done a few practice essays from practice prompts ahead of time. I hadn’t actually written an essay in over three years, so when I got started on the first of the two essay prompts on the exam, I found that I had to sort of refresh my skills. I got halfway through the time allotted to me before I realized the scope of my thesis was too complex to be tackled in thirty minutes. But 15 minutes wasn’t sufficient time to start over. As a result, my first essay was lousy. I know it was lousy. If I were grading it, I would give it a very low grade. My second essay was much better, but I know that my Analytical Writing score is going to go way down this time (I got a 5.5 the first time around).

I think it would have been useful to practice with a sample essay or two ahead of time, if for no other reason than to get a feel for the limitations of the thirty minute deadline. There’s no reason why someone like me—with a master’s degree in English, who has published scholarly essays, who teaches and tutors college English—should not be getting at least a 5.5 on my Analytical Writing score. I should have taken the hour or so to prepare. I believe it would have made all the difference.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I’ve been thinking lately about routines. I read a recent article—which, I apologize, I was unable to track down and link to—covering the writing routines of various well-known authors. While certainly different writers write in their own different ways, it was striking the number of writers who routinely write first thing in the morning every day.

Now, of course, these were mostly (if not entirely) authors who make a living off of their writing—a dying breed, unfortunately—so it was surely much easier for these writers, whose sole job is to write and write well, to find the time to write first thing in the morning for several hours (and many of them would then return to writing again later in the day). Most of us have jobs to get ready for and papers to grade, children to feed and chores to do. For most of us, it’s hard to justify writing first and foremost every single day.

But it got me thinking about my own routines and productivity. The period of time when I was unequivocally the most productive was when I was in grad school. I wrote two full length books, and several stories besides, during my tenure as an MFA student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Only one of those books got published, but still . . .).

While I was in grad school, Damien used to have to go in to work at like 6 or 6:30 Monday through Friday. I used to get up with him to spend some time together before he had to go in. Then, when he would leave for work, I would exercise, then write. The earliest I ever had to be anywhere was 10:00, and most days, I didn’t have to be on campus until later than that. So I handily managed an hour of exercise and a couple hours of writing before it was time to start getting ready to go in myself.

The result was that I wrote a lot more than I’ve ever written in my entire life. Some days, I would write more later in the day; other days, I wouldn’t. But either way, writing at the beginning of the day like that was an excellent way to start my days. I felt content with myself for having already gotten a fair amount of work done, and I could relax and just enjoy the rest of my days. And when I did write again, it was often because writing in the morning like that got me thinking about whatever project I was working on early in the day. Those thoughts would stay with me, simmering on the back burner, throughout the day.

After grad school, things got more difficult. I’ve tried a variety of different routines. For a while, I was setting my alarm for an hour before I needed to get up so I could write for at least an hour first thing. That worked well, while I did it—half the time, Damien would still be asleep, and the other half, he knew to leave me alone to write. It was a peaceful, relaxing way to start the day, sitting on the couch with my laptap and a cup of coffee.

But at other times, I tried different routines. I’ve tried writing at the end of the day instead of the beginning. I’ve tried not regulating when I write at all, instead regulating the amount of work I do. I’ve tried forcing myself to write for X amount of time per day, or an average of X amount of time per month. I’ve tried setting goals based on specific outcomes, such as complete X scene by the end of the day or finish X chapter by the end of the week. Nothing has ever worked as well as my grad school routine—getting up at around 5, exercising at around 6, and beginning writing at around 7.

Of course, a fat lot of good it does me to know that, now that I’m a mother. With a toddler added in to the equation, establishing and sticking to a writing routine has become almost impossible (note the “almost”). Lately, I’ve been writing after she goes to bed at night and using her nap time to grade papers and do other teaching tasks. This works well in that, at the end of the day, I have time, plenty of time, wonderfully unadulterated time, since Amie is asleep and Damien grades papers at the end of the day himself. But I’m tired at the end of the day. My mind doesn’t function the way it does earlier, and I find that, though I can write late at night, I can’t write as well or as much as I can first thing in the morning.

So I’ve decided I need to rethink and rework my writing schedule, establish a new routine, one that allows me to write when the writing’s good. I can’t write first thing in the morning like I used to—Amie wakes up when I do, unfortunately, no matter how hard I try to be quiet and not disturb her—but I’m sure there’s a way to find time to write during the day, while my mind is fresh and unclouded. The trick is that I need to just establish a routine—something that will work for me and Amie and Damien combined—and then stick to it, every day, without fail. I know routines don’t work for everybody, but they sure seem to work for an awful lot of highly productive writers, and I know from my own experience that they definitely work for me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A couple weeks ago, on the biweekly Writers Ask edition of the Book Fight podcast, Mike Ingram  and Tom McCallister talked about reading fees and their proliferation in the lit journal world. As editors themselves (of Barrelhouse), they had a useful take on the problem. They suggested that the reason so many journals are starting to charge submission fees might be because of how easy and tempting it is to charge them using Submittable (née Submishmash). They said all you have to do is check a box and enter in the amount. It seems like Submittable may have inadvertently put the idea of charging reading fees into some editors minds, and once some journals started doing it (and getting away with it), others followed suit.

And a lot of writers are willing to pay the fees for a chance to get published. From what I can tell, most journals are going with $3. $3—it sounds like a paltry amount, and it’s true that before online submissions, writers had to spend somewhere in that vicinity to print and mail submissions anyway. But as McCallister and Ingram point out, that money didn’t go to the journals. It’s not really an appropriate justification to say, “Oh, before technology advanced, you used to have to buy various products/services to submit. Now that you don’t need to pay that anymore, we’re going to make you give the money to us.” Sounds like the words of a schoolyard bully to me.

 McCallister and Ingram offer a whole slough of other reasons why the justification journals offer for their reading fees are not okay. I always think about something Damien has said. As the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review, applying for and managing the funding from grants is a big part of Damien’s job. As a pretty fantastic journal—the journal consistently gets Pushcart and Best American placements, and the majority of the authors in any given issue are big names who were solicited by the editors—New Ohio Review has a largish budget because they’re able to garner a fair amount of grant funding. They have plenty of money to cover their printing costs, pay their authors, and advertise. Oh yeah, and pay Damien’s salary.

Sure, not every great journal is able to get as much grant funding, but the point Damien has made is that the best journals will be able to get grants or find some means of funding themselves. If a journal is so financially unstable that it has to rely on submission fees to stay afloat, it’s probably a reflection of the quality of the journal. Is that really a journal you want your work to appear in?

When I first started getting serious about submitting, one of the first things I learned is that legitimate, reputable publishers don’t charge submission fees. It was considered unethical, and in fact, it was included in the CLMP code of ethics. The first journal I noticed was charging submission fees was Narrative. I was outraged. I didn’t understand why they were allowed to remain members of the CLMP. Needless to say, I refused to submit there (McCallister and Ingram had a few choice words to say about Narrative, too, which made me very happy). As more and more journals started doing it, though, I did cave and pay a few times (The Missouri Review charges for online submissions, for example, and they are a great, reputable journal, so I went ahead and paid it).  

But listen, if we pay these fees, the editors will keep charging them. Regardless of how much it costs to run a journal, and regardless of how much snail-mail submissions used to run, and regardless of whatever other justifications editors offer, CHARGING SUBMISSION FEES IS UNETHICAL. On Writer’s Ask, they offered the excellent analogy of an art gallery who doesn’t sell enough art to stay solvent. Nobody would think it was okay for the gallery to turn to artists who are interested in having their work displayed in the gallery and charge them a fee, no matter how minimal, just to consider showing their work.

Submission fees exploit writers. How can anyone claim it isn’t slimy to say to an aspiring writer, “So you want to be published? Sure, kid, I’ll look at your piece . . . for a fee.”  If you want to support a journal, donate to one or buy a subscription. But please, writers, DO NOT PAY SUBMISSION FEES. If we all stop paying them, the journals will have no choice but to stop charging them. The journals that can’t stay afloat any other way probably shouldn’t—I’m sorry, but it’s true—and they certainly shouldn’t keep themselves going by exploiting people’s dreams.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Thursday marked the deadline for Jenni Moody’s and my first milestone on our novels. In case you haven’t been following along, Jenni and I are using a joint goal system to write our respective novels. The first goal was to have 10,000 words written by November 15th. It seemed like a reasonable goal, and in fact it was, but still, I didn’t end up meeting it.

I got in touch with Jenni a few days before the 15th and suggested we extend the deadline to the end of the month. Jenni, I think, would have been able to meet the goal—she was almost there by the time I asked for the deadline to be pushed back—but there was no way I was going to make it.

I was actually doing pretty well—building a steady momentum and feeling confident about my ability to meet the deadline—but then my mom came to visit for a week, and two days after we dropped her back at the airport I drove to Pittsburgh for the weekend to visit family and do a radio interview (I’ll talk about that some other time); then Amalie scratched the cornea of my right eye and I could hardly open my eye for a day; then Damien had minor surgery (he’s fine, don’t worry) and was recovering, leaving me almost solely responsible for Amalie for a week. Plus I had a bunch of papers to grade. Plus I had to do my tutoring hours.

Plus, Season Two of The Walking Dead became available on Netflix.

But the truth is, there are always reasons not to write. If you’re planning to wait until you have time to write that novel, I hate to break it to you, but that novel will never get written. And the real truth, even truer than that, is that I just didn’t manage my time well. I knew my mom was coming for a visit; I knew about the Pittsburgh trip. I knew when I would be collecting papers, when Damien’s surgery was scheduled for, when I would be scheduled for tutoring shifts. The only thing I didn’t know was coming was the scratched cornea, and that event—painful though it was—only caused me to lose a day.

So I should have planned ahead. I should have written extra words before my mom came. Then, I should have written extra, again, in that two day period between her departure and ours, for Pittsburgh. I should have restricted myself from watching The Walking Dead, or at least only allowed myself to watch it after I had written a specified word count for the day.

I could easily have met the deadline, but I didn’t. There’s no way to go back and change that now, so instead, I’m going to look ahead, to the new deadline, and make sure that I meet it. I’m going to remind myself that the culpability for this missed deadline lies with me, that the excuses I’m using are just that—excuses—that it isn’t fair to Jenni for me to keep pushing the deadlines back, that it isn’t fair to myself to keep not writing and not writing when the projects I want to write just keep piling up. That these stories aren’t going to be told unless I tell them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I’ve been preparing to retake the GRE this December, so I can apply to a PhD program for next year. The decision to (try to) go for a PhD deserves its own post, so I won’t get into that now. What I do want to talk about it is vocabulary.

See, when I took the GRE the first time around, seven years ago—has it really been that long?—I didn’t bother preparing at all, and I was pretty mortified by my verbal score. On the quantitative side, I did terrible—bottom 25% percent—but that didn’t surprise me at all, nor did I figure it would matter, since I was applying for MFA in creative writing programs. I got in to two of the three schools I applied, so my scores must not have held me back too much.

Still. That verbal score, it stuck with me. I’ll just come out and say it—I got a 500. I was ranked in the 61% percentile (meaning 39% of people who took the test did better than me). I did great on the writing part, but that verbal score surprised me. I’m a writer. I was an English major. I read all the time. Why was I not scoring up way at the top on the verbal part of the test?

Seven years have passed since then. That’s seven more years of reading, six-and-a-half years of teaching experience, and three years of graduate school (in English). I’d like to think my verbal score will improve this time, but to hedge my bets, I’m working on my vocabulary.

As I’ve been studying my new words, I’ve been focusing on expanding my vocabulary for real and not just memorizing a bunch of words that I’ll forget as soon as I take the exam. I want to actually have a stronger vocabulary, not just for this exam, not just so I can get into a PhD program. I want to have a stronger vocabulary because that’s important—isn’t it?—as a writer.

When I got the results of my first GRE, I tried to make myself feel better by reminding myself that I’m not a fan of bombastic prose (although I didn’t use the word “bombastic”—that’s a word I learned as I’ve been preparing for the test this time around). Concision and simplicity, minimalism, that’s what I’m drawn to as a reader. Couldn’t I write, then, and write well, even if my vocabulary was only better than 61% of college graduates (and really, it’s 61% of college graduates planning to go on to grad school, since that’s who takes the GRE)?

The answer is obviously yes—I mean, I’ve gone on to become a published writer; I won an award to publish my first book, for cripe’s sake—but, as Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons would point out, the answer is, “Yes with a but.” Yes, I can write well with an only just higher than average vocabulary. But I can write better with an even better vocabulary.

As I’ve been learning new words, I keep coming across words that I really like, words that I can’t help but imagine using in future stories, words that have more interesting and refined meanings than their simpler counterparts. These words can open the door to all kinds of interesting metaphors and ideas, and though I still think it’s important (for my tastes) that readers shouldn’t have to hold your book in one hand and a dictionary in the other, I do think my writing can only stand to improve from the careful, unobtrusive addition of these less common but oh-so expressive words here and there.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I’ve said this before and I’ve always gone back on it, but you have to believe me, this time I really mean it: I’m done with my thesis novel. Finished. I’ve officially moved it to my “Failed Attempts” folder, from whence it shall never return. When I had said I was going to move it to my “Failed Attempts” folder in the past, I lied. Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. I was planning to do it. But when it came time to actually make the cut and paste, it just felt too, too, I don’t know, too something. Too painful. But this time, it’s already moved. It shall forever be considered just another one of my failed practice novels.

How do I know I’m really going to stick with it this time? Because this time, it felt really good, like a relief. It felt right. This time, I decided, I really am ready to move on.

And not only that, but this is the first time I’ve looked at the novel and thought, Eh, it’s not really that great. I got to this point because I was working on yet another revision of the novel, with the intention of entering it into Fence’s Modern Prose contest. This revision was sort of a combination of my most recent draft and some earlier drafts, and I do think the result was better than what I’d been sending around. When I had been cutting things in previous revisions, I actually cut some scenes that I now think are pretty integral to the reader’s understanding of certain characters, so with those scenes woven back into the story, everything felt a lot stronger.

But as I was working on it, I started really analyzing how well some of the components of the novel are working. There are some great things in this story, I think. Some of the writing is really strong, and some of the moments feel perfect. But there are some really serious problems with a couple of the characters, leaving those characters feeling very flat on the page. There are points that lag, too, and I almost feel like it’s a novella that’s been stretched in to an entire novel.

In short, I don’t think I want it to get published. I don’t think it reflects what I’m capable of. I can do better. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I began this novel. My first drafts, now, need less work than this nth draft of my thesis would still need, and I think it would be a better use of my time to work on a new first draft of a new novel.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right now. And the truth is, I’m having way more fun and am way more interested in this new novel than I am in reliving for the millionth time the same story from my thesis. I’m just so sick of Timothy Bannister and his dead father—there, I said it. I don’t want to work on this novel anymore. I don’t want to send it out. I don’t want it to get published.

But that doesn’t mean that those few years I spent working on it were a waste. I learned a lot about how to write a novel from this experience. I made a lot of mistakes and learned how to fix them, and I think my next novel will be much stronger from draft one as a result. Maybe the next one will be a practice novel too, who knows? But I do know that this last one definitely was, and finally—FINALLY—I’m okay with accepting it and moving on.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Here’s how my thought process went just now (tell me if you can relate):

Alright, Amie’s taking a nap. I have an hour, give or take. What should I do?

Well, let’s see, I need to grade four more papers today or else I’ll fall behind. I also need to do some reading to stay on top of what I’ve assigned my students to read. I also should try to write about 500 words in my novel today. Plus I need to get ahead on my blog, since my mom is coming to town tomorrow. Oh yeah, and I need to read some submissions for Bound Off.

Then I sat there and stared at my computer for a minute. Then I went through the list of things again. Then I (metaphorically) balled myself into the fetal position.

Minutes later, I was going through the list of things I need to do for about the twentieth time and thinking about what time it is, and how many hours there are left before bedtime, and whether my insurance will cover an extended stay in a mental hospital should I have a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Amie’s nap was close to half over already.

This is one of the biggest things that prevents me from writing—I think about everything I  have to do, think about how much time I have to do it, become overwhelmed, and then waste what little time I have panicking. Maybe I’m right when I panic like this: maybe I couldn’t possibly get it all done today. But freezing up and wallowing in my own anxiety isn’t going to help me get any closer. Instead of knocking at least some things off the list, I get nothing done, which will just make tomorrow’s list all the longer.

So here I am. Getting started on the list. I tried to prioritize, but that just led to more panic. So instead, I just picked the thing I felt the most in the mood to do—get ahead on my blog. It was something I felt I could handle right now because (as you can tell) I suddenly knew exactly what I should write about. Amie’s up from her nap already, but you know what? My next step will be to ask Damien to watch her for a bit while I knock another thing or two off the list.

Because I can do this. I can get it all done. And if I can’t, big deal, I’ll get at least some of it done. Telling myself that I can’t, that there just isn’t enough time, has never, in my experience, been an effective way of creating more time. To my knowledge, there is no way to create time. Time is finite, there is how much there is. But worrying about how much you will be able to accomplish in the amount of it that you have is a waste of it. I’m going to try not to waste any more time with stress.

So, one task from my list: completed. What will I do next? It doesn’t matter. As long as I do something, it’s time well spent.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A fellow writer/mom just made a Facebook post that got me thinking about my state as a writing mama. The Facebook post talked about completing and submitting a draft of her dissertation, and it also talked about the job applications she is sending out and the two (two!) novels she has completed and begun submitting, too.

She is the mother of a toddler, a one-year-old. Where does she find the time????

Another writer friend of mine is also putting me to writing mama shame. Jayme Russell’s son, Dylan, is, I think, eleven. He was eight when I first met him, and he was so tiny and adorable and sweet and fun (he’s still most of those things, except that he’s not really so tiny anymore). In spite of having her hands full as the mother of a spirited school-aged boy, Jayme still found the time to earn her MA in poetry and is now working toward her MFA at the University of Notre Dame. Jayme has published nonfiction and poetry alike, and recently she made a vow to write a poem a day for the entire month of October (you can read about her progress in her blog).

She’s writing every. Single. Day. AND earning her MFA. AND being a mom.

Meanwhile, my relationship with writing has been very on-again/off-again since Amie was born, since I found out I was pregnant, even. It’s hard for me to find, not the time, maybe, but the energy to sit down and write when I spend most of my day chasing Amalie around, trying to prevent her from sticking everything she ever finds in her mouth and choking on it, and stressing out about whether I’m stimulating her mind enough and whether she’s hitting her developmental milestones on time. By the time I get Amie down for a nap or to bed at night, I don’t even feel like reading, let alone writing. To be fair to me, during a good deal of her sleeping time I grade papers or plan lessons, but I do have some genuinely free time . . . and I spend it watching Mad Men or playing Super Mario Land 3D.

I honestly think if I hadn’t already published a book before I had Amie, I would probably just give up on the whole idea of being a writer. I’m in my thirties, I would probably tell myself. I have a kid. It’s time to grow up and stop dreaming about something that’s never going to happen. But I did publish a book before I had a baby, and that, combined with whatever small success I’ve had so far, is enough to make me feel not like a would-be writer, but a writer, unqualified. It gives me the confidence to believe I should be doing this, should keep at it, that I am not wasting time dreaming the impossible.

So rather than looking at my writer/mama friends and telling myself, “I guess I’m just not a real writer, like they are. If I was, I would have found a way to be as productive as them,” I look at those ladies and feel inspired. I say, “So it is possible to juggle motherhood and the writing life. So I can do this.” And then, I do.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Humor writing is a tricky endeavor. Not everybody agrees on what is funny and what is patently not, so writing with the primary intention of making your reader laugh is a gamble. In fact, it gets even more complicated than that. Different people have very different senses of humor, and so the term “humor” is abstract, vague. Like “beauty” or “love,” it means different things to different audiences.

So it was with some trepidation that I started reading the current issue, Issue Two, of Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor. What did literary humor even mean, I wondered, and would the stuff I found within the journal’s pages strike me, with my own particular tastes and distastes, as funny? Still, I love to laugh (as the Mary Poppins song goes), and I liked that this journal seemed to have found its own niche that no other journal I had heard of had yet claimed.

The journal started with an incredibly hilarious editor’s note by Editor David Holub, which ended up being the funniest thing in the entire issue. This could be seen as a negative—the best thing in the journal was the letter from the editor at the beginning—but I actually don’t see it that way. The editor’s note was funnier than anything in the journal itself, but that’s partly because the note wasn’t a work of “literary humor,” but a more straightforward, make you laugh sort of piece. It did, however, give me high expectations for the sort of humor I might find within the literary pieces to follow, and for the most part, those expectations weren’t met.

This is not to say, though, that I didn’t enjoy the pieces in the journal. As with most any journal or anthology reading experience, some of the pieces I really enjoyed, some, not so much. I suppose your best hope for any journal is that you’ll like more than you dislike (or are at least indifferent to). What I mean, mostly, is that I didn’t find most of the pieces funny.

Take Aimee Bender’s story “Lady of the Mail,” for example. This story was one of the highlights of the issue. This was my first encounter with Bender’s work, and I was very impressed. I was compelled by the narrator’s obsessive, borderline disturbed fixation on her ex-boyfriend, by her quirky new friends in her new job as a playwright. I liked the story, but I would never have classified it as “humor” on my own.

The same is true for Fred Siegel’s essay “Mysteries of the Bronx” and Ben Greenman’s piece—whose genre is labeled “unclassifiable”—“There Are Only Eight Kinds of Paragraphs.” Witty, I might say, but I would never list these pieces as humor writing. But perhaps that’s what “literary humor” is—good, literary works, with a touch of the absurd or an eye for the comedy in the tragedy of our lives.

And that’s exactly what Steve Almond suggests literary humor should do in his interview in the issue. Almond says, “I’d advise people NOT to try to be funny. Just run toward the shame and rage and all those other horrible memories and feelings and let the humor emerge intuitively.” That’s precisely what the best of the examples in Kugelmass Number Two seem to do.

There were pieces, though, that I thought did seem to be trying very, very hard to make me laugh. They were the ones that I definitely did not like. I didn’t think they were funny, for the most part, and they fell flat as literary works, as well. As a whole, then, I liked the issue, but I liked it for the half of it that was strong because that half was strong enough to justify me forgiving the rest of it.

And I also liked the funny tidbits at the bottom of every page of the journal. These, I assume, came from Holub—they match his sense of humor from the editor’s note at the beginning. Like the literary works in the journal, these bits were hit and miss, but the funniest ones matched my sense of humor exactly, comments like, “I need a pair of bolt cutters because my neighbor put a new lock on his shed, which is frustrating because I know he has a pair of bolt cutters locked in his shed.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

This week, Damien received several boxes at work, packed with the newest issue of New Ohio Review. It’s always exciting when the new issue arrives. He puts so much energy into designing and editing it that it almost feels unreal, I imagine, holding the final product in his hands. He brought a copy home and read aloud to me some of his favorite poems from the issue. I loved them, too, though it’s safe to say that as simply a reader, I don’t have quite the same experience reading the journal as he does, having been in on the issue from its inception, having watched it grow and become what it eventually became.

His enthusiasm, sharing the new issue with me, reminded me of why I decided to volunteer to work as an Associate Editor at Bound Off. Certainly, the amount of work I’ll put in at my position is nowhere near the amount Damien puts in at New Ohio Review (and a good thing, too, since he gets paid for his efforts, while mine is just a volunteer, few hours a week kind of job). Still, I look forward to having that satisfaction again, that feeling of accomplishment every time a new edition goes out (especially when a story I recommended we accept is part of that new edition).

I’m also looking forward to the ways slogging through a journal’s slush pile will improve my own writing. As writers, we sometimes forget that our work must first win over an editor before it can ever make it in front of a reader. Editors read slightly different from readers. While readers go into a piece expecting it to be good (because, after all, the bad stuff has been filtered out through the publication process), editors have no idea what they’re going to get every time they open a new submission—they may be about to read something brilliant, but it’s just as likely that they’re about to read something terrible. The most likely scenario, though, is that the story will be neither brilliant nor terrible, but will exist in that hazy world between. Those are the submissions it’s most difficult to decide on, but decide we must—and quickly! Quickly! We don’t have a lot of time to devote to each submission!

A reader goes in to a piece planning to like it, but an editor must reject 99% of everything he or she reads. This means an editor must read looking for reasons to say no, planning to say no. Knowing that 99 out of 100 submissions you receive will be rejected puts the odds in the “no” pile for every new submission you open. In a reader’s hands, then, each piece is innocent until proven guilty, but to an editor, the burden of proof (that the piece is worthwhile, that the piece deserves a spot on the page, or in Bound Off’s case, in the podcast) lies with the submission.

And it’s useful to remember this as a writer. It’s useful to remember it when you get rejected, because it takes the sting off a bit; it’s useful to remember it when you get accepted, because it hammers home how good you must be that your stuff is making it past the editorial hurdles; and it’s useful to remember it when you’re revising, because if you really want to make it into the hands of some readers, you do need to take the opinions of other smart, with-it, literary types into consideration. You do need other people’s feedback, and you need to seriously consider anything other people might say. The things your beta readers or workshop classmates are getting stuck on might be the same things that cause an editor to slide your submission into the “no” pile.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that every piece of feedback you ever receive should be taken or that you should change your work in a way that you, as the writer, don’t like. But. You should listen, and more than that, you should really seriously evaluate any feedback you receive if publication is one of your goals, and let’s be honest, for most of us, it is.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

As If I Didn’t Already Have Enough to Do . . .

I talked last week about the new shared goal my friend and fellow writer Jenni Moody and I are doing to write our new novels. Our first milestone is 10,000 words by November 15th. I have a little over 1,000 so far. Yes, I realize that’s not very much, but hey, I’m 1/10th of the way there, and I’m feeling really excited about this project. I’m enjoying climbing into the voice of a new narrator, knowing that she and I are going to spend a lot of time together, that we’re going to really get to know each other in the next few months.

And maybe I’m getting overambitious, maybe the fumes from starting my engine to get going on this new novel have gone to my head, but I’ve decided—tentatively, and perhaps I’ll change my mind—to do one last revision of my thesis to submit it to Fence’s new Modern Prose contest. They’ve had a poetry contest for a while now, but this year they decided to create a prose contest as well. Their first prose prize will go to a novel. When I got the email announcing the prize, I felt like it was a sign. Okay, I don’t really believe in signs, but. You know what I mean. I felt like I should do this. I should try just one more time.

The thing is, I had recently been thinking about my thesis, anyway, thinking about how it’s been through who knows how many drafts and there are about 100 pages of cut scenes stagnating in a file on my computer. Most of those cut scenes were probably cut for good reason, but it occurred to me the other day that maybe the “right” form, the “true” form of this novel should lie not at one extreme or another, but at some halfway point between my early drafts and the current version. Maybe, in other words, I should look through those cut scenes and see if some of them should be put back in.

But my new novel is more important to me than trudging through an umpteenth revision of my thesis. I think there is more to be gained, right now, from working on something new, so if it comes down to it and I can’t possibly do both, I’ll focus on meeting the November 15 goal for the new novel.

Besides my two jobs working as a teacher and online tutor, and besides my other “job” as a mom, the reason why I might not be able to meet both these deadlines is that I’ve also taken a new volunteer position as an Associate Editor for Bound Off, the literary podcast in which my work has both appeared and is forthcoming. This new position, by the way, has nothing to do with my new story, Hair, which will be broadcast on Bound Off in a couple of weeks. My story had already been accepted when I started talking to the editors about joining their team.

Like the Fence prize, I learned about the opening through an email newsletter. I thought about it for a week or two, really weighing whether I thought I could handle the workload. Obviously, I decided I could. The job only requires me to read ten stories every two weeks, then offer my thoughts on the stories with a yay or nay vote. I think it will be fun and worthwhile—I’m just itching to get back into the editing game, to tell the truth.

But, of course, now that I’ve committed to this job, reading submissions and working on my new novel both take precedence over my thesis. So, right now, these are the things I have to do:

1.      Perform all the required duties for my two paying jobs

2.      Be a good mama—the best I know how to be

3.      Read and offer thoughts on submissions for Bound Off

4.      Write at least 9,000 more words in my new novel by November 15th

Notice I put the new novel in the “have to” list. I consider this a true commitment. No excuses. I’m going to do this.

And, if time permits (and I hope it will!), I’m also going to work on these things:

1.      Revise my thesis to submit it to the Fence Modern Prose Prize

2.      Work on some stories

The following are things I don’t need to waste my time with, when time is in short supply:

1.      Watch old episodes of Mad Men on Netflix while Amalie naps instead of taking the chance to do something more productive

2.      Stuff my face with candy when I’m feeling overwhelmed (did I subconsciously buy too much candy for Amalie’s birthday piñata so that I could eat it myself after the party? Probably. Damn you, sweet-toothed subconscious!)

3.      Turn on my computer to work and, instead, spend the next hour reading and commenting on all of my friends’ Facebook status updates

Sunday, September 23, 2012

So for the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been struggling to stay afloat in the new semester. I’m working two part-time jobs—teaching two classes and tutoring online through Pearson---and it’s A LOT, when you add it to being a stay-at-home mom. Damien is also teaching two classes, also working another part-time job (as Managing Editor for New Ohio Review) for about twenty hours a week. Trying to get the hang of the new, busy busy busy schedule has been a handful. And to put it bluntly, I haven’t been writing. Not at all. Not a sentence. Not a word.

We’re into week five of the semester now, though, and we’re finally starting to feel in the swing of things. It doesn’t really mean we’re any less busy, of course. If anything, things are starting to get busier as we’re beginning to collect papers from our students. But we’ve at least started to figure out how to deal with my online tutoring hours in the midst of Damien’s New Ohio Review workload and both of our lesson planning and grading obligations. One of us is always there with Amalie, and for the most part, Amalie doesn’t seem to notice how busy her parents have become, or that she’s spending larger portions of time with one or the other of us (and less time, unfortunately, with both of us at the same time).

And so, I’m feeling ready, again, to start adding a writing schedule back into the mix. And to do it, I’ve enlisted the help of my friend and fellow UAF MFAer Jenni Moody. Jenni and I have both been planning on getting to work on a novel. For me, this will be my third go at novel writing (maybe three times will be a charm?). But even though I’ve written and revised two novels before, I still feel completely insecure at the outset about my ability to do this (who knows, maybe it’s because I’ve been down this road before—a road that has yet to end in publication for me—that I’m so anxious about starting down it yet again). Even though I feel really excited about this idea I have, even though I have a lot of ideas for what might happen in the story, still, STILL I’ve been having trouble mustering up the courage to just sit down and get started.

And that’s where Jenni comes in. Jenni and I have committed to doing a joint goal system for our respective novel projects. We’re both hoping to have a full draft of our novels done by next summer. To get there, we’re going to set goals together and encourage each other—checking in along the way. It should help to make the long, lonely road of novel writing a little less lonely, and it should help to keep us motivated. I know for me, I’ll feel embarrassed if I have to admit to Jenni that I didn’t meet a goal, so the fact that we’re doing this together will push me that extra little bit to really DO it.

We’re starting off fairly slow. Our first 10,000 words are supposed to be completed by November 15th. At that point we’ll check in, hopefully applaud each other’s success at meeting the goal, and set a new goal for the next chunk. I suspect after having the first 10,000 words behind us, we’ll be ready to pick up speed a bit and set a bit more strenuous goal for the next milestone, but even if we don’t, this slow and steady pace should still see us with a finished draft, each, by next summer.

I’m excited to have someone to share the novel writing experience with, and I know it’ll be fun checking in with Jenni along the way. I’m ready! I’m determined! Let's do this thing! Go!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

This week, Amalie turned one. One year old, can you believe it? Today, the day this post goes live, we’re celebrating with a big birthday party, complete with bouncy castle and piñata. It seems fitting, then, that I should take a moment here to reflect on what this first year of being a writing mom has been like.

Labor and delivery were intensive, and immediately after the birth, I got really sick. I was confined to a bed, drugged up, and taking my nutrients in the form of IV for a few days. It was miserable. When they finally let me return home from the hospital, four days after Ami was born, I was exhausted—and still in quite a lot of discomfort.

I didn’t write, as you can imagine, for about three months. Then one day, I suddenly had some ideas, some things I wanted to add into the nonfiction letters to Amalie I had been writing during my pregnancy. I wrote for about fifteen minutes one day, then again on another.

I started planning out goals, and breaking them. I wrote some days, and other days I didn’t, but on no days did I write anything I felt really excited about. Never did I write something I felt stood a chance of eventual publication. I started wondering if I might be suffering from post-partum depression. Started wondering if maybe I’d lost my groove.

But then I remembered something I’d promised myself, right here on this blog, before Amalie was born. I’d vowed that I wouldn’t expect too much of myself as a writer during those first few months after Amalie’s birth. I decided to give myself a break, already. I was in the thick of the most difficult, important thing I would ever do: raising my daughter. So what if I took a year or so off from writing?

As Amalie got older, she got easier to take care of. At first, I thought this would mean I would start having more writing time. Especially now that I was getting a full night’s sleep again, I thought I should be able to ease my way back into a regular writing schedule.

What I didn’t account for was that as Amalie got older, she got more independent, yes, but she also needed constant supervision. When she started to crawl, she started to find things on the floor that she would instantly put into her mouth. When she started to pull to a standing position, suddenly things that a week ago had been out of her reach weren’t anymore.

She’s one now, and she’s going to start walking any day, I’m sure of it. This, I’m sure, will bring with it a whole new list of dangers we can’t yet foresee. Do I have more writing time now that she’s a little older? No. In fact, I have way, way less. I could have been writing during those first few, difficult months. The time was there. All Ami did was eat and sleep. And cry. But still. The time was there. She slept like 18 hours a day or something. I can’t remember exactly. I could have been writing during that time.

But my brain was so fried from the exhaustion of new motherhood, I could barely focus to watch old episodes of American Pickers on Netflix. I was up every two hours with her during the night, and sometimes, inexplicably, she would just cry and cry for hours and hours and I would feel like I was never going to sleep again. I had the time to write, plenty of it, but I didn’t really have the mental capacity.

Now, the mental capacity is there, and the drive. I feel very driven. I have all these ideas just stewing in their own juices. I’m dying to get back into the game, but the time is no longer there. I’m teaching two classes and working about twenty hours a week as an online tutor on the side. On top of that, I’m basically a stay at home mom. I’m on call pretty much 24 hours, every day.

But even as I type that, I know there is still time. Some days, she plays happily with her toys on the floor, and as long as I’m in the room with  her and keeping an eye on things, I can work on my computer. Now I think the real barrier is that I

am

afraid.

Terrified. Because what if I was right during those dark, sleep-deprived months? What if I have lost it? What if I can’t get it back?

But that’s a stupid reason not to try. So try I will. Try I must.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

I’ve been feeling incredibly overwhelmed the past few days. I’m working considerably more this semester and am still in the process of adjusting to the new schedule. I came about this close to just saying “Screw it” to my blog this week, but here we are, Sunday afternoon. Amalie’s taking a nap, and I have two stacks of papers to grade, but I just couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t stay away.

I guess the truth is, blogging is linked in my mind with my writing self, that is, the side of myself that pretty much lives to write. That side of myself has been getting pushed more and more to the back burner lately, with my mommy self, my wifey self, my teachy self, and my watching episodes of Mad Men on Netflix and playing Super Mario Land 3D selves screaming for attention.

I’ve been blogging for several years now, almost as long as I’ve been taking writing really seriously. I started blogging in grad school, shortly after I started developing a strong work ethic as a writer and shortly before I started getting published. I know it isn’t BECAUSE of the blog that I became a real writer and not a would-be writer, like I used to be, but the two things feel very inextricable in my mind. They are woven together and can’t be separated. If I stop blogging, it’s like a statement to myself—I’m no longer willing to do the work to be a writer.

And the truth is, blogging about writing has helped me learn and grow as a writer. Part of the reason why I write to begin with is because writing is my way of thinking about and understanding the world. I can’t always come to terms with things, can’t always decide how I feel about them, until I write about them. Fiction allows me to climb inside the minds of people who I don’t understand and try to see the world from their perspectives. I come out on the other end a more empathetic, more forgiving person.

The same is true, for writing issues, of my blog. I blog about writing topics and obstacles I come up against in my writing life largely as a way of understanding them, deciding where I stand on them, and learning how to deal with and overcome them. I know bloggers get a lot of flak from non-bloggers as being self-indulgent, unoriginal, and wasting time talking about writing rather than actually writing (although writing a blog is still writing, right? Don’t we teach our students that they should take free-writes seriously because any time spent writing is valuable, is still practice?), but I’m not afraid to admit that blogging is really important to me.

So I’m blogging today as a sort of statement to my writing self, I guess. I still care about you. I do! I’ve got to get some papers graded, and my baby will be up soon, but I’ll check back in with you soon, I promise. You’re still an important part of who I am.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

This past year at AWP, I spent the majority of my time perusing the booths and tables in the book fair. Though I actually tend to enjoy panel discussions and lectures—even though there’s rarely ever anything new said at this point in the game—my favorite part of AWP (not counting seeing old friends) is the book fair.

This year at the book fair, I took a slightly different approach than last year. Last year, my primary interest was as a submitter. I wanted to see the variety of places I might submit. While I bought quite a few books and journals, and I bought only ones I was truly interested in reading, I also only bought ones that were published by venues I was interested in submitting to. I wanted to get a better idea of what these particular editors liked.

I believe this is precisely what most people do at the AWP book fair. The journals and presses know it too. They plan for it. They have on the ready printouts with their submission guidelines; they advertise their upcoming contests on glossy postcards.

But when you really think about it, it’s kind of sad. Here you have this huge market, full of hundreds upon hundreds—surely thousands—of books for sale, many of which are difficult to find in brick and mortar stores, yet the people shopping in the market are interested mostly in selling their own wares. There’s this great disconnect between what the publishers want—to sell the customers their books or journals—and what the customers want—to get published.

This year, when I hit the book fair floor, I didn’t do it as a writer, but as a reader. I wasn’t looking for places to submit. I didn’t care about upcoming contests. I just wanted to spend my leftover Christmas money on some good books and journals; I wanted to find some great stuff to read. Some of the journals I bought I would never consider submitting to—like Kugelmass, which publishes entirely literary humor. I don’t write humor, but I thought I might enjoy reading it, so I picked up their latest issue. And I bought books not because I was considering submitting my novel to that press, but because, simply put, the book looked good.

In the coming months, I’m going to review some of the journals I came home with here, on my blog. I decided to do this partly because it will encourage me to actually read the journals all the way through. Also, though, I hope to share my experience reading them with you. If I find a great gem in the batch, I want you to know about that gem. Likewise, if I come across a journal that I don’t think is that great, I’ll tell you why and let you decide for yourself if you want to read it or submit there.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

I read a book recently, or actually, I read the first couple hundred pages of it before giving in to the voice nagging away at the back of my mind saying, “This book is not worth it.” It’s always a difficult decision to stop reading something. This has always been true, but the more involved I got in my own pursuit of the designation “Writer,” the more difficult giving up on a book became. I want to afford every writer the same faith and patience I hope readers will offer when reading my stuff, and I well know that sometimes you have to slog through a work for a bit before it gets good. Still, there are far, far, FAR more worthwhile books than I will have time in my one measly lifetime to read, so there’s a point where I have to realize reading time spent with a bad book is reading time wasted.

But anyway, this book. Here’s the thing about this book: it was lauded all over the place by other writers. The front and back covers of the book were crowded with blurbs praising the book’s wit, plot, and language use. Maybe that’s why I stuck with it for so long. Ultimately, I found pretty much nothing praiseworthy—or even read-worthy—about this book. The author’s attempts at wit fell embarrassingly short, and neither the characters nor the plot engaged me in the least. On top of that, the language was bland and uninspired. If I were Roger Ebert, I might write an entire book about it myself called, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Book.

But I’m not mentioning it to convince you to hate the book too. Like I said, I gave up halfway. Maybe the next two-hundred pages dazzle. I can’t, not having read the entire book, in good conscience write a review of the book here (or even tell you what book it is), but the experience did get me thinking about blurbs, those often overzealous little quotes used to market books.

How much can we trust blurbs?

When I found out my book was going to be published, I found out, also, that it would be up to me to track down a couple of choice blurbs for the back cover. I don’t know that I had ever really thought about it either way before that, but if I had, I probably would have guessed the publisher tracks down impressive blurbers for a new book. Maybe that is what happens at a major press, who knows? But at a small press, it’s the author’s responsibility to convince a couple of fellow authors to read, and write a useful quote about, the book.

I had no idea where to begin, so I read some online articles and blog posts about how to procure blurbs. The gist of my research was that you should compile a list of authors whose work you feel is similar to your own and contact them and just, you know, ask. You should aim high, I read, because nobody really cares about blurbs unless they recognize the author whose stamp of approval is being proffered. So I made a short list and painstakingly crafted letters that felt precariously close to fan mail. I explained to each author why I respected his or her work and why I felt my work had been influenced by that admiration. Then I described my book, noting its award, and offered to send a free copy if they were interested.

I didn’t hear back from a single one.

I’m still a little embarrassed about it.

Later, I received an email from the Editor-in-chief at Autumn House, reminding me they were waiting on these blurbs and telling me, because he knew this was my first book, that usually, you just ask previous professors or well-established friends.

Oh!

I promptly asked my two fiction professors from UAF, whose work, I should point out, I do admire, whose names I’m more than proud to have on my book. Both are strong, honest people, ethical people, and I don’t believe either one of them would have agreed to blurb the book if they didn’t feel the book was any good. I know I can trust every word they said in their blurbs. It’s not that they would want to hurt my feelings, but I know they would be willing to rather than lying about the book.

But I don’t know that the same can be said of every author who has ever blurbed another author’s book. Part of that controversy I talked about last week deals with the issue of dishonestly promoting friends’ books. While I disagree with the idea that people should make public posts about how they dislike their friends’ books, I do agree that you shouldn’t claim to like something you don’t like. I also agree that people are probably doing just that—to be nice to their friends, or to maintain useful connections with the people in their network.

To be honest, this seems almost inevitable, since blurbs, as it turns out, are so often written by people who have some sort of personal connection to the author. If someone you know personally asks you for a blurb, it’s very, very difficult, I’m sure, to tell them you didn’t like their book and that you don’t feel comfortable blurbing it. That’s the right thing to do, of course, but it takes a very strong sort of person to stand up and do it.

Literature is subjective, of course, and it could be that the authors who blurbed the awful book I tried to read saw something in it that I just didn’t see. But I doubt it. It was that kind of bad that I think most discerning readers would recognize, and the truth is, I felt a little duped by all those authors with their shining, enthusiastic blurbs. Would I have bought the book without the blurbs? Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.

But it isn’t really the blurbers’ faults, even if they knowingly lied about the value of the book in their blurbs. The truth is, blurbs are just advertising tools. Just like I don’t believe the narrator in a toothpaste commercial who tells me using X brand of toothpaste will change my life, I shouldn’t put too much stock in blurbs.
 
Unless, of course, the blurb is by Nick Hornby. That guy’s never steered me wrong.