Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- April 11, 2014 Edition

> The Oxford (serial) comma: fan or foe? Or, no idea what the fuss is about? Check out  this short TEDed video. 

> Planning a blog tour (virtual book tour) to help publicize your book?  Dana Sitar lists nine useful tips.

> When author Jill Smolowe needed to help market her new memoir, Four Funerals and a Wedding, she quickly realized social media was not her forte. In a post at SheWrites, Smolowe describes how hewing to the skills and connection style that feels comfortable is delivering results (and peace of mind).

> But if you are working the social media PR angle, then it's handy to understand how time-0f-day posting affects response and interaction. Social Media Today has the details.

> Leslie Jamison, author of a new essay collection, The Empathy Exams, shares thoughts about writing the personal essay, over at Publisher's Weekly.

> Looking to expand your literary reading? At the Ploughshares blog, Steph Auteri lists some favorite literary mags, lit blogs, lit sites, online lit resources.

> Not a new piece, and not a quick read, but Debra Gwartney's excellent  "
A Few Memoir Pitfalls, and some thoughts on how to avoid them," is well worth the time.

>Songwriters apparently sometimes suffer a form of writer's block too. Here's what Sting did and where he went to break out.

> Novelists grappling with timelines and time-related logistics in their unfolding plots, flashbacks, and backstory will appreciate Kathy Crowley's tips, insights, and systems.

> Finally, got a pet business-speak language peeve? Is it "reach out"? Then you might enjoy this, from ThinkMap.  And, what would a mash up of the Amtrak writers residency and an oddly named literary journal look like

Reminder:  If you're interested in *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp: Reclaim Your Writing Life, the final 2014 group class begins on Monday, 4/14.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Guest Blogger Saloma Furlong on Old-Fashioned Virtues in a Digital Age: Perseverance and Networking

About seven years ago, I was a more frequent attendee at writing conferences, and among the intangibles I miss is making new writing friends, face to face. I met, and immediately click with Saloma Furlong from the first hello at a two-day conference on memoir at Trinity College in 2007. We kept in touch via email, then lost the thread – busy lives. Until late 2010, when I was assigned by ForeWord magazine to review her first memoir, and her husband David spotted the review online. Next, Saloma read at a bookstore near my New Jersey home, and we picked up as if we'd never been out of touch. I'm delighted to host Saloma here, talking about the road to publication of her first, and second, memoir.

Please welcome Saloma Furlong. 

Seventeen years elapsed from the time I first started writing for an audience to the publication of my first book. I wanted my memoir published long before, but I believe now that the story (and indeed my life) needed to evolve and develop.

I would never have become a writer if I did not have a life story I felt compelled to share. At times I was ready to ask someone else to write it — that’s how desperately I wanted it to see it in print. In retrospect, I see that it was important my story be written in my own voice, from my perspective, with the insights I’d gleaned from my life experiences. Eventually I realized I was the only person qualified to write my story.

I’ll tell you why.

I grew up Amish.

Today, Amish romance novels are big sellers. But as a native Amish person, it is excruciating for me to pick up books written by authors who’ve never been Amish themselves. They inevitably get it wrong. These authors don’t know what it’s really like to grow up in the Amish culture. Of course novelists are not restricted to writing only about the worlds they experience firsthand; if they were, there would be far less interesting fiction on the shelves. And some authors who do write Amish novels are careful researchers, though that is no substitute for the Amish mindset that comes from growing up Amish.

But I wasn't planning to write an Amish romance novel. My story was a memoir, and the idea of a ghostwriter or collaborator meant I'd have to translate a lifetime's worth of "inside information" and still risk that the book would not have the authenticity I sought.  
So if my story was to make it into print, it was up to me. I wrote a draft, put it away, wrote more, put the manuscript away again, pulled it out and rewrote. For years. I’d ask others to read it and give me feedback. But it wasn't until I made a connection through my contacts at Smith College (my alma mater), that I found Jeanne Braham. She became my developmental editor and helped me shape the book into final form.

Then it took six more years to find a publisher.  

Friends have told me that my middle name should be Perseverance. They might be right, because without this very Amish personality trait, I may not have been stubborn enough to continue. But I believed in my story, even after three different agents tried, and failed, to sell the manuscript. I envisioned that book in my hands for a very long time. I was not about to give up.

When I received the manuscript back from my third agent, I decided to give it one last try. If I couldn't get a publisher interested the next time out, I would have to consider publishing it myself. Many people have successfully self-published and were happy they did. But I’ve always been clear that I did not want to go into the book publishing business. I was more than happy to promote my book (which it turns out is something I enjoy almost as much as the writing), but I saw myself as a writer and wanted to collaborate with a seasoned publisher who could do all the other things to make a book successful that I did not feel equipped to do myself

I found hundreds of independent and university presses at New Pages, scoured the list to find publishers that met my criteria, read their submission guidelines, and began making—yes—simultaneous submissions. I was following the advice of one of my writing teachers about publishers requiring exclusive submissions: “Those are their rules, not mine.”

And so I dared to be so bold. I kept a chart of publishers to whom I submitted my proposal, and when I got to 33, I decided to stop, simply because 33 is my favorite number.

And then I waited and recorded the rejections.

About three months later, I received a request for the whole manuscript from Michigan State University Press. I sent it. On December 7, 2009, I received an email from Julie Loehr, the editor at Michigan State University Press, telling me I had an amazing story, and she would like to publish it. I immediately wrote back, saying I was thrilled.

A few hours later, I received an email from another university press, asking to see the whole manuscript. My mouth dropped open. I knew one thing for sure — the time for my book to be published had finally come. But now I had a dilemma: Send them the manuscript, or wait until MSU Press officially offers me a contract?

After two days of thinking it over, I went with my gut. I called MSU Press, reached Julie Loehr directly, and told her about my dilemma. She explained that MSU Press was already investing in the book by having consultants who are experts in the subject matter read it and offer editorial feedback. I promised her I would not send my manuscript to the other publisher unless MSU Press decided not to publish it.

MSU Press did publish Why I Left the Amish, in January 2011. Perseverance had paid off. 

When I was writing my next memoir, Julie Loehr and I agreed that I needed a trade publisher for that book. I thought it would be easy to find a trade publisher because by then I had that coveted thing called a "platform." I had a blog that was garnering between 500 and 1,000 hits a day. I had an author website. My first book was mildly successful, and I had been featured in the PBS documentary The Amish that aired on American Experience. I would also be appearing in the follow-up film, The Amish: Shunned.

But it was not easy at all.

I found there was a certain expectation from writer friends, agents, and publishers, that MSU Press would be publishing my second book. I needed a mid-list publisher, hard to come by these days, and if I didn't find one, I'd be faced with a choice: do I self-publish to capitalize on the timing of the second film, or do I take my time and find a traditional publisher? I started a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish.

And then my friend Shirley Showalter, whose own memoir about growing up Mennonite was about to be released, connected me to her publisher, Herald Press. This confirmed something I had thought was true — even in a digital age, old-fashioned networking is still the most effective way of making important connections.

Herald Press made a commitment to publish Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, the day before The Amish: Shunned premiered on PBS, on February 4, 2014.  

The message in my story, for all writers: take heart. If, even after numerous rejections, you can still imagine your story in book form, keep trying. I know in this age of instant gratification it is hard to wait, but it may be that your story is still evolving, and that the best timing is still in your future.

Whether or not you want to adopt it as a middle name, perseverance does pay off.

Note from Lisa: Saloma will be stopping by over the next week to answer any questions blog readers would like to ask – just leave them in comments. By leaving any question or comment you will also be eligible for a random drawing to receive a signed copy of Bonnet Strings (must have a U.S. postal address, and leave comment by midnight EST on Monday, April 14).

You can read more about Saloma's journey at her blog, and connect on her
Facebook page, and on Goodreads.  She appears in this video profile from the PBS American Experience documentary, “The Amish: Shunned.” 

Images: Saloma - Kerstin Martin; Sign - DavidJones/Flickr Creative Commons; others courtesy of the author.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Banish the Inner Writing Critic? Maybe not so fast.

The polite name for him or her (or them) is the "inner critic". The more common appellation might be that lousy jerk (or crowd) inside my head who won't shut up and keeps telling me what I'm writing is crap. You know that voice, don't you? 

The one on constant rewind, that endless loop of self-recrimination that's moving along at a faster clip then your fingers on the keyboard, dancing to its own destructive beat, that repetitive drone of No! Wrong! Bad! Unoriginal! Cliché! Trite! Been done before! Boring! Stupid!

I think every writer, to some degree or another, has this internal censor, the uninvited disruptive guest whose job seems to be to put a stop to your writing, to make us doubt ourselves, our stories, our right to write those stories.

So, what to do?  I think we've got three choices.

If you're lucky, or practiced and determined and experienced – or maybe just handy with self-hypnosis – find a way to completely turn this voice off. Flip a switch, banish it, move on. (Good luck and let me know how you did it.)

If you're not that writer, then you'll still be dealing with that critic's carps:  It's too long!  Too short!  Not deep enough!  Plot hole!  Thin plot! Why the hell can't you think of a plot!

Option two: we learn to ignore that voice. It doesn't go away, and yes, we know it's there, but maybe we grow skilled at letting the unhelpful chatter fade into the white background noise of our brain. Yeah, we hear it, but we've learned not to acknowledge it, to write anyway. We deal with like the stand-up comic trains herself to ignore the hecklers and turn away from the audience members who keep their arms folded and mouths arranged in frowns.

This is where I find myself most often. When I hear the internal cynic revving up—No one cares! Dumb details! Vague! Generic! Learn some new damn verbs!—in another part of my brain I'm thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yada, yada, yada," and I keep writing that lousy first draft, or revising that limping second draft

But not always.

Sometimes that voice is too loud, too insistent. And sometimes, got to admit, sometimes that loathsome little twerp is too close to what I think may be the truth. Yep, sometimes that inner critic has something to say that I need to hear.

So I listen. But. I don't stop what I'm writing, don't just agree with the voice, delete, and close the laptop.

What I sometimes do is find a way to acknowledge the points that voice is railing about. I take notes, either in the side margins of what I'm writing (you can use Track Changes, or divide the text into two columns, one for your draft, the second for the critic's notes). Sometimes I jot these nagging nabobs of negativism on a sticky note, or in my writer's notebook.

Just the act of recording the criticism seems to end it – I've cleared it out of my head and have it on hand should I need/want to consider whether it has any validity. In a way, I've "honored" that inner critic—or at least what I like to think of as his well-meaning but tactless spirit—by taking down the message, and moving on.

Mind you, I don't write precisely what I hear between my ears (Crappy dialogue! Confusing backstory! Terrible transition!), but try to translate the raw thought into something that may prove helpful later: Is this conversation authentic to the time period?  Can I move more of the backstory to previous pages?  Find a smoother way to get from A to B?

What I've figured out is that the grumbling, grousing, complaining, crabby, argumentative, techy naysayer who lives in my head is not going away. He can be silenced on occasion and I know how to ignore him and push him into the background, but once in a while, that guy is going to have something handy to say. He just doesn't always say it so nicely. 

Images - all Flickr/Creative Commons: NO - AranZazu; Switch - LynnDurfey; Listening - BesZain

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writers and Their Coffee: All the Regular Reasons, Plus Mine

It won't startle anyone to find a writer with fingers on keyboard, a cup of steaming coffee within easy reach.

I start my day in my home office with a cup of coffee, and I look forward to it. As the day unspools, I head down to the kitchen to refill my oversize mug whenever I need a mental break from the awful draft on the screen, or when the draft in my older house nips at my ankles, or I know that if I don't unfold my legs soon they may refuse to hold me up in a few hours.

But I'm not a coffee hound, not even a gotta-have-my-coffee-or-I'm-grumpy girl. (I'm grumpy in the morning, but it's not about coffee.) Coffee lovers, true coffee lovers, will find the following appalling: Though I won't turn down an expertly blended cappuccino from a skilled barista, I don't care what brand I drink, at home I drink instant, I dump two Splenda packets in the cup, and use only skim lactose-free milk. And  – I drink only decaf. 

That's because other than savoring the way that first cup warms me on a chill New Jersey winter day, I'm fairly sure the only  reason I drink coffee is that it helps me feel closer to my father. And it was always thus: my coffee habit (three or four cups a day most days, less in the summer), began wholly as a way to share something with him, decades ago when it seemed we weren't sharing anything.

But like many revelations in the life of a writer of memoir and personal essay, I did not understand this at all until I had a brief experience I could have discounted and forgotten. But writers of personal nonfiction don't do that - we file things away, and pull them out for reasons we don't always understand. That's what happened: I had an unnerving, but in retrospect, lovely experience surrounding a cup of coffee a few weeks after my father died—and then weeks after that, I began to write about it. That was seven years ago. 

I tinkered with that flash nonfiction piece about coffee sporadically for a few months, then put it away. For a long time. I’m not sure if I did that on purpose—following my own advice about creating mental and emotional distance from both the experience and from the early draft, so I could revise/rewrite it properly later—or if those early paragraphs perhaps felt too flimsy to develop into anything, or too personal.

But the event (which lasted just a little over an hour), and the feeling that triggered the essay (which lasted for years), finally nudged me to work on it again. I had to be attentive to the line between sentiment and sentimentality. I worked on it again. And again. Got some feedback, tweaked, and then understood that I had a place for it within a much longer essay in my memoir manuscript.

I began to send the short flash piece out last summer, and I'm so pleased that Gravel Magazine liked it enough to publish it in their March issue. I'm also happy that the editor chose this photo of my father holding me, to accompany it. 

If you've ever spent time in a coffee shop and maybe had a strange encounter while there, or you've felt that someone who was gone was in some small way still there, I hope that you will take a few minutes (it's that short) to read "Coffee Regular."

Top image (coffee cup):  by Waferboard via Flickr Creative Commons; Photo, bottom, Lisa Romeo, all rights reserved.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 14, 2014 Edition

> In The Atlantic, Megan McCardle breaks down the psychological origins of procrastination, and explains why writers are such champions in this department. 

> The Boston Public Library offers an annual Writer-in-Resident fellowship, offering a private office and $20,000 stipend over nine months, to an emerging children's writer. The current and former recipients talk about the experience

> How much do I love notebooks?  I keep a large writer's notebook near my desk at all times, and stash tiny ones (Staples sells the 2" x 4" ones in groups of five, often on sale), in car, purse, laundry room, kitchen, bathroom.  Jessica Morell concurs.

> Scrabble players: Nominate the word you think should be added to the official Scrabble dictionary's next edition. 

> The National Book Critics Circle book awards are finalized, and you can find the list and links to excerpts from some over at The Millions.

> Whether you're visiting book clubs from your own dining room table, participating in an online class or critique group that meets via Skype, or conducting interviews, you can use these three tips for looking good on your webcam.

> I have one or two of these "10 Self-Limiting Habits Successful Writers Don't Have," but I fight them, sometimes successfully.

> If you're promoting a book or writing-related event, or sharing links to your published work or resources, the time of day when you post to social media sites does matter.

> This article is nearly a year old, and Ms. Howard has since died, but I'm still passing it around, especially to any writer friend who moans about being too old for this game.

> Here's a cool step-by-step peek into the art and process of designing a book cover when the book's subject is well-known (and not universally liked).

> Finally, rejection is rarely fun, but the Form Rejection Decoder Thingy (pdf) by Sarah Einstein, is. (via Brevity)

Have a great weekend!

Image: G&A Sattler/Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Circle of Writing Mentors and Students and More

I love a circle. 

During my time in the Stonecoast MFA program, I was lucky to meet Meredith Hall, whose essays I had read in Creative Nonfiction. She gave a rousing guest lecture that stirred up strong feelings for many of us, about thinking bigger, about being generous with our stories, and bringing everything to the page, not holding back.  

Mostly what I remember is this advice:  Be audacious in what you go after -- and go after a lot. Age doesn't matter! Apply for grants! Seek residencies! Enter contests! Be bold! Why not you?

I went home, bought her memoir, Without A Map, read it in one afternoon. We exchanged friendly emails. I reread her book again slowly, and realized she'd grown up in the same New Hampshire town as my husband's cousin. A few quick emails confirmed that they were once good friends, and Meredith also remembered my sister-in-law, a frequent New Hampshire visitor during their childhoods. I was able to put them all back in touch, and that felt wonderful. 

It would be enough if the circle ended there.  But there's more.

After hearing Meredith at Stonecoast, I began submitting my work more often, and entered my first contest with an essay about visiting my father in the hospital in Las Vegas. It placed second in the Charles Simic Graduate Student Writing Contest, and with the honor came a bit of cash and publication in Barnstorm, the journal edited by the MFA program at University of New Hampshire.

Though energies and enthusiasm sometimes flag, I've kept entering, submitting, applying, and often while doing so, I think of Meredith. I interviewed her for my research thesis, and for an anthology of craft and publishing advice. 

The circle widens.

After I began teaching and coaching writers, I got an email from someone I would get to know as a lovely writer and delightful person. I remember Alyssa Martino's first email because at the moment it arrived, I was waiting for another flight in the Las Vegas airport, where I'd been visiting my ill mother. I was glad for a distraction from my sadness.

Alyssa signed up for an online classes, then to continue working on essays and memoir pieces, and finally to shape and polish her portfolio to accompany applications to MFA programs.

Where does she land but at University of New Hampshire, and in whose class does she find herself? Meredith Hall's. I've had such fun hearing from Alyssa periodically, about how much she's learned from Meredith, and the deep satisfaction she's experiencing developing her writing craft. Tell Meredith hello! I've often written back. Meredith says hi! she's replied.

When I send a newsletter about something I've accomplished, a reply invariably arrives from Meredith:  thinking of you...congratulations...delighted and not surprised...such lovely news. When I look back at craft notes taken during the MFA, she's there too.

Now, Alyssa is working toward graduation, building her own teaching skills, and working on the editorial staff of...Barnstorm. One of her responsibilities is to interview writers for a section called The Writer's Hot Seat. A few months ago, she asked to interview me. 

I'm tempted to say the circle now feels complete.  

But I know better.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - February 7, 2014 Edition

> When Ann Patchett is asked a slew of personal questions during an interview about her new book of personal essays, is that on point, or off topic? And is it gender-related? Laura Harrington weighs in on "The Sorry State of Author Interviews" at Beyond the Margins.

> Submittable seems to be the submission service of choice for literary journals, writing contests, anthologies and other writing-based projects (I use it as both a writer and editor, and have always been pleased). Now, an Indiegogo campaign is underway for a possible future competitor, Submittrs. 

> A new service, Book the Writer, is scheduling certain authors for book club appearances--for a fee. So far, just in the NY metro area. Yay or nay? 

> Women writers of a certain age have been reacting to Fay Weldon's essay in the New York Times' Book Review, about bias against older female characters in fiction, and the publishing industry's focus on author images. Lisa Robinson Bailey has a few things to say at Thoughts Like Birds.

> The Fearless Fifteeners is a place for authors whose middle grade or young adult novel will debut in 2015.

> Ah, the EM dash, just about my favorite form of punctuation. C.S. Lakin explains.

> Sublime: Sonya Huber, with an especially insightful, spot-on second person essay, "Your Book is Taking a Long Time to Write."  I especially love: " You open the file of the draft, which is now named with the book’s fourth or fifth title, which is sometimes named “final” or “new final” or “newest” or appended with a number like 6 or 8." And: "You are dragging your fingers slowly in the water with this book as the canoe of your instinct skimming across the surface. You will get there when it is right."

> Humor is an art, but there's logic to it as well, which Teddy Wayne explains in "Dissecting a Frog: Writing a Humor Piece," over at the New York Times' Draft blog.

> The Positive Writer presents its list of 25 writing blogs to check out.

> Literary Manhattan explores many of the city's resources and places that appeal to book lovers, writers, readers. 

>  Fun:  The Why Not 100 -"Rankings of Everything Literary." And, ahhhh..."18 Bookstores Every Book Lover Must Visit At Least Once."  I've been to only three of them--so far.

Have a great weekend!

Image: G&A Sattler/Flickr Creative Commons

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Of Tennis and Reading: Love

My son wants to join the tennis team this spring, so to get back in shape, he's signed on for a series of weekly two-hour evening lessons. And I cannot wait, because at the huge tennis bubble, there is lousy cell reception, and from what I can deduce, no wifi.

I found out for myself, the minute he went through from the viewing area to the courts and I pulled out my phone to let my husband know where we were. I soon noticed: no one on phones--not bored parents, not teenagers awaiting rides or their turn on the courts, not younger kids hanging about while siblings swung rackets, not employees. Even the television was on a low volume.


That was last week, and I was grateful to pass the time mostly talking with another mom, something that doesn't happen so often beyond the middle school years. I wandered around the building a bit, but there's nothing much to explore -- a small tennis shop, a gym surprisingly empty and quiet, a closed hair salon.

This week, I have something else in mind: I'm going to read. Maybe for two hours. And no one will email, ding, ring, tweet, or message me. Well, they might, but I won't know; not unless I make the long walk back to the dark, cold parking lot – and I'm not that much in love with technology.

I might write some too, given as I always have a notebook in my purse, but I've been craving a long reading stretch, somewhere away from the background buzz of undone household chores, unedited client pages, to-be-commented-on student papers—and the cooking and laundry (always the cooking and laundry!). I remember having these almost enforced unfilled time blocks more frequently when my sons were younger and there was more time spent on sports fields and car pool lines, in church basements, indoor soccer bubbles, and waiting areas. Now, they are hard to come by naturally, harder still to schedule.

I'm not sure yet what I'll bring besides a few unread sections of the print Sunday New York Times, though the choices are plentiful. On my desk are a poetry collection and an ARC of a memoir, both to be read in advance of interviewing the authors (sounds like work but mostly pure pleasure), an anthology of short essays I've been dipping into, a novella I've been meaning to reread, and fat new novel, beckoning.

The best part is that the lessons will go on for weeks and start just early enough in the evening that my husband won't be home yet, so I'll be chauffeuring. Now, let's hope no one at the tennis center decides it will be a good idea to rectify the signal "problem".

Photo by HoriaVarlan/Flckr Creative Commons