Word Nerds Gone Wild: A Reading List

10112885I remember my intern days well. Hell, I was an intern three times: first during college, then again after being let go from my first post-college job, and once more after making the leap into full-time freelance work. Each one of those experiences was different from the others in a variety of ways. But what all of them have in common is that none of them resembled the internships portrayed in The Intern’s Handbook. Which is understandable because, in Shane Kuhn’s The Intern’s Handbook, the interns are actually undercover assassins, using their internships as covers because no one ever notices the intern.

Brilliant. Continue reading

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Guest Editor Conversations: Percival Everett, Fall 2014

I Am Not Sidney PoitierWe’re happy to present the first of a new series–interviews with our guest editors, following the publication of their issues. Below is an introduction by Jessica Treadway, Emerson College professor and author of the forthcoming Lacy Eye (Grand Central, 2015), and a conversation between Editor-in-Chief Ladette Randolph and Percival Everett, guest editor of the Fall 2014 issue.

If you read Percival Everett’s books blind, without any names attached, it would probably take you some time to absorb the fact that a single author was responsible for them all. I knew it was the same author, and it still took me time–his work is that versatile, that eclectic, that impossible (thank goodness) to pin down. It is always exceptionally smart. By turns it can also be laugh-out-loud funny, tender, quiet, rowdy, clever, provocative, and sad. Even in the case of an outlandish premise, it is completely true. Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Ebook is Dead. Long Live the Ebook.

First computerOne of the best parts of being a book editor is that it gives you a magic power. You take a Microsoft Word file, wave your hand over it and say, “Now it’s a book.” And it’s a book. Up until that moment, it’s just words and ideas, and they could be changed, tweaked, or buried, never to see the light of day. After that, everyone, including the production department and the printer, believes it’s a book.

The creation of self-publishing has done little to erode that magical power. If you tell someone you’ve written a book, you can watch their eyes narrow as they wait to see what you might mean. Did you write something the length of a book? Or has a professional editor waved her magic hands over it and transmuted that into a book?

A book, the futurist Umair Haque once said, is already a perfected technology. An ebook has some advantages, but not enough to eliminate print books. It turns out the invention of ebooks is less analogous to the invention of the automobile and something more like the invention of shorts. Shorts are great, but they didn’t make everyone throw away their pants.

I thought of this late last week when I read about the closing of Atavist Books. Investors had put big money (by book publishing standards) into this startup, which was supposed to disrupt the book industry. The company only lasted for a little over two years before pulling the plug. For this to have happened, a lot of very smart people had to have completely misunderstood why readers read, and it’s worth figuring out what their mistakes were. Continue reading

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What’s Done is Done is Done Again

yawnAs a creative writing instructor, I get asked two questions more than any others. The first is easy enough to answer: “How do I find time to write?” There’s no secret here—set a schedule and get to your desk. The second question, however, continues to stump me, both as a writer and as a teacher. “How do I know when I’m finished?” This question seems as open as it is insoluble, and yet we writers need to tackle it if we’re ever to move past our first attempts.

During my stint teaching academic writing at a university, my undergrad students never asked me how to know whether their essays were complete. The answer was quite simple—they’d work until the deadline, hand it in, and that was it. My students worked hard, and they cared about the success of their arguments and the grades they received. They just didn’t have the luxury of worrying whether or not their papers were complete.

Still, they learned the necessity of revision and how to diagnose the effectiveness of their arguments. To help them do so, I devised a list of five aphorisms to consider before turning in their work. The list aimed to help identify lazy thinking, which inevitably leads to lazy writing. We memorized them as a group and used them as we provided feedback for rough drafts throughout the semester. I’ve found these truisms equally helpful for my own creative work, and I hope they’ll do the same for you. Continue reading

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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: Fear as Motivator in Fiction

fearful eyesWhen I was in graduate school, I was part of a writers group that consisted of a few other MFA candidates. We met at a local bar, enjoyed draft beer and happy hour appetizers, and shared our latest drafts. At the time, my stories routinely featured dead babies. Fellow fiction writer Kirstin Chen noted this and mentioned that her stories often dealt with troubled relationships. “Apparently I’m afraid of marriage and you’re afraid of motherhood,” she joked.

Chen and I weren’t writing memoirs, but this exchange has stayed with me as a writer. So often, we’re told as writers and readers to investigate what a character wants. What desires motivate them? What do they love most and want to fight for? These are all valid questions and worth asking of every character. But what about the question on the other side of that coin? What if instead of asking what characters are running toward, we ask what they’re running from? What deep fears motivate our characters? Continue reading

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Lit GIFs: The Tell-Tale Heart

So it’s almost Halloween.

Which means jack o’ lanterns and costumes and pumpkin-spiced everything.

And, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, reigning king of high-school-English-textbook darkness.

Cask of Amontillado, anyone?

Continue reading

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New Ploughshares Solo: “Café Deux Mondes” by Catherine Browder

Browder-FinalWe are excited to announce the publication of the latest addition to our Ploughshares Solos series, “Café Deux Mondes”, by Catherine BrowderThe Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the recently released Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2. Check in every month from August to May for new reading material!

About “Café Deux Mondes”

When the Khourys and McKissicks meet to share a neighborly meal, an adventure begins. Living in the changing ethnic landscape of Kansas City, one is a family of Syrian immigrants; the other, African Americans with roots in Louisiana. What brings them together is a love of food. Along with friendship, a dream takes root between the two mothers, Miriam and Tamara—starting a new restaurant that will feature the specialties from both of their traditions: the Café Deux Mondes, or Two Worlds Cafe. Little do they know just what they are up against when they begin their venture. From the skepticism of their churches to neighborhood crime, disaster always seems to be just around the corner. Award-winning writer Catherine Browder takes a warm look at the troubles and joys of the American melting pot, and how we can grow even from our failures.

“Café Deux Mondes” is available on Kindle for $1.99. Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why You Should Plan Experiences

experience definition2
It’s mid-October, and some of us are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, or NaNonWriMo. Some of us are just inspired by the changing seasons, and want to finally try some new thing we keep putting off. Or maybe we just want to actually read one of the books stacked on our nightstands.

Unfortunately, we writers humans have an endearing habit of envisioning grand creative plans, only to throw them out for the sake of some suddenly-urgent busywork. (Or Halloween candy binge). We also tend to distract our imaginations with things we want or need, hoping accumulation will make us happier, healthier, and/or more productive. So I was happy to come across James Hamblin’s “Buy Experiences, Not Things” piece in The Atlantic, which describes psychological studies showing not only “that experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions,” but also that “spending money on experiences ‘provide[s] more enduring happiness’” than spending money on material possessions.  Continue reading

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The Evolution of the Style Guide: An Interview with Psycholinguist Steven Pinker

By Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and psychologist whose work focuses on language–how it works and how it breaks down. Drawing upon his nearly forty years of research, as well as his experiences on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, Pinker has developed a new guide to writing good prose called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. The Ploughshares Blog recently met up with Steven Pinker in Chicago to talk about art of writing a style guide, his work in the psychology of language, and how the two combined to create The Sense of Style. Continue reading

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The Book That Changed My Country

Gran_calavera_eléctrica2I mostly sit at the window when I’m working at Café la Habana. I have a spot. It’s the same spot where I sat when my buddy, Santiago, first brought me for coffee when I arrived in Mexico City. But I’m attached to the spot for other reasons too. It’s also the spot where Roberto Bolaño used to write, and the same spot where Fidel Castro and Che were said to have planned their invasion of Cuba. Mostly I’m nosy though—I love to people watch—and that’s why I sit by the window. A few weeks ago, a waiter came up to me and placidly said, “Caballero, I suggest you move away from the glass.” Continue reading

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