Of All Things: The Signature

Kelly Link's inscription has it all.

Kelly Link’s inscription has it all.

Congratulations! You’ve published a book, and people are lining up to buy it. Now begins the trickiest part of an author’s journey: signing your own book.

You’ve read an excerpt, charmed the crowd. You’ve perfected the swooshy drama of your signature. Uncap your Official Signing Pen. Take a seat.

Lined up at your signing table are:

  • Your high school Home Ec teacher, whose class you nearly failed.
  • Your own former students, one of whom you nearly failed.
  • Another professor’s students, attending for the extra credit, or else they’ll fail.
  • All of your mother’s law partners.
  • Your father, who can’t believe his sweet child grew up to write this grim book.
  • Several strangers who wandered over when you read the dirty parts.

What do you write? Best Wishes? Keep Laughing? Every inscription seems too generic or too clichéd, especially for a writer. Oh no, did you really just write the word Awesome? Wait, does your beloved mentor’s name have one “n” or two? Does this pen have an eraser? Great, now you’re smudging. Continue reading

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Announcing Ploughshares’ 2014 Emerging Writer’s Contest Winners

Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  After receiving thousands of submissions from talented writers, Ploughshares is proud to announce the three winners of the 2014 Emerging Writer’s Contest, chosen by our editors: John Skoyles for poetry, Margot Livesey for fiction, and Ladette Randolph for nonfiction. The winners will each receive $1,000 and be published in the Winter 2014-2015 issue of Ploughshares, edited by the Ploughshares staff editors. 

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The Ploughshares Round Down: How To Tell People What Your Book Is About

Last week, I received a fiction pitch I knew I would reject a few lines in. It contained the phrase, “after he discovers a family secret long since buried.” (Or something like that.) I wrote back to the author and admitted that I was passing because, while other people might like books about that, I’m not a guy who was ever eager to read a book with that at the center. It’s a very, very common conceit, but I guess I figure that if the secret itself was really interesting, you’d be telling us what it is. If the family secret was that your main character’s grandmother was Einstein’s lover, dollars to donuts the novel would be called Einstein’s Lover.

j7zqgf5This writer had an interesting approach to telling a story, but all the rest of the details beyond the secret were mundane. This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town. He seemed like a good, clever writer, but he’d sabotaged his book from the start by writing something with a generic elevator pitch. To get an editor to read it, I would have to promise this author was the best stylist I’d ever come across.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was this article in Salon by novelist Ted Thompson, where he reveals what he found most surprising from having his debut novel published. All of the ideas he discussed are dead-on and useful, but the most important one is that, no matter how good your book is, people still judge it by how you answer the question, “So what’s your book about?”

What he doesn’t say is that there’s one way to answer that question that could take your book from the rejection pile to the bestseller list, and it isn’t about the plot.

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Voice and Chorus: Cristina Henriquez and “The Book of Unknown Americans”

jpegI saw Cristina Henriquez read just a few weeks ago at Book Court in Brooklyn, where my poet buddy, Sally Wen Mao, took me after a long day in the city. Generally, I’m horrible at readings.  I’m the guy seated in the front row, probably running on three hours of sleep or less, glassy eyed (behind actual glasses), with no indication as to whether I’m staring through you in idle boredom or at you in profound thought. But when my friend, Sally, invited me to see Henriquez, I knew I had to go. Sally is mostly in-the-know about all things literary in NYC in addition to having impeccable taste in books. So, I went. It was incredible. Oh, yeah—and it completely changed the way I read Latina/o literature. Continue reading

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Summer-Inspired Writing Prompts

Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Summer.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Summer.

We’re deep into summer. So how are you going to get any dang writing done when everything is so easy-breezy? That’s how it feels in Seattle, at least, when, after ten months of rain, we blink up at the sun, smile dumbly, and forget what we were doing. Who wants to hunch over a computer when it’s gorgeous outside?

Or maybe you’re not dizzy from sun poisoning. Maybe you’re coming back from a writing conference, still processing the stack of feedback you received on your work-in-progress. Maybe you want to start something new before tackling that revision. (I highly recommend starting something new before tackling that revision.)

Either way, instead of writing a long introduction on the merits of summer (I mean, really), I went gonzo on the prompts. So grab a lightweight notebook, find yourself a shady perch, and get writing. There’s at least 300 minutes of hot, hot writing here. Continue reading

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Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems

9780807084861Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems James Baldwin Beacon Press, April 2014 120 pages $16.00 Buy: book | ebook

The cover of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems features blurbs by none other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, telling the world to read this book. I’ll be honest; I feel like I can’t add much to that—just listen to Morrison and Angelou. But if you need a bit more convincing, here are some remarkable feats that Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems accomplishes.

Some of Baldwin’s poems are intensely political, and while much political poetry tends to read like an ideological statement veiled as poetry—which I admit I’m not a fan of—in Baldwin’s case he writes poetry first and foremost: lyrical, captivating, evocative, thought-provoking poems that also happen to be exploring the political climate of his time. In “Straggerlee wonders,” for example, the speaker claims that the U.S. government finds “a way around every treaty.”His tone is similarly critical when he writes that “[t]his flag has been planted on the moon:/ it will be interesting to see/ what steps the moon will take to be revenged.” What I found genuinely surprising and wonderful was his focus on creating narratives and characters against the background of political tensions, which make his poems relatable, accessible and not one bit outdated. Continue reading

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Great Tennis Player: Looking Back at Foster Wallace on Federer

Roger Federer: Temporal being or beams of light?

Roger Federer: Temporal being or beams of light?

Under Review: “Federer as Religious Experience,” article by David Foster Wallace for New York Times, August 20, 2006. Collected in Both Flesh and Not: Essays (Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 336 pages). On July 6th, Swiss tennis player Roger Federer lost the final match in this year’s Wimbledon men’s tennis tournament, to the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic. Even though Wimbledon is tennis’ most legacy-steeped and prestigious tournament, this hardly seems like news to people, like myself, who only peripherally follow tennis. Continue reading

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A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

This review was contributed by Nathan McNamara

18114114A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain
Adrianne Harun
Penguin Books, February 2014
272 pages
$16.00

Buy: book | ebook

As many as forty young aboriginal women have gone missing since 1960 from the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia. Many of them were found dead, and their murders and disappearances remain unsolved. This is the real-life context for Adrianne Harun’s first novel, A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Labels, Action, and Confidence

and you call yourself a writerA couple weeks ago, author and marketer Ryan Holiday wrote a piece for Thought Catalog titled, “Can You Call Yourself a Writer?” In it, he argues that “[j]ust because you have done something, doesn’t mean you are something.” In other words, calling yourself a writer when the craft is a mere hobby that hasn’t (yet) earned you a keep or an audience is unwarranted, presumptuous, and likely to keep you from actually doing the work to “earn” the title.

Then again, author Judy Blume told The Guardian just last Friday,

I talk to kids and they say, ‘How do you become a writer?’, well, I don’t know that you become a writer: you just are. 

writing not writing.jpgSo is writing something you are, or something you do? Or does it require the accumulation of enough doing over time to justify your eventual claim to being? We’re not going to clear this up today. But thankfully, what Holiday and Blume seem to agree on is that writers write. That is, a hoard of ideas or stories means little until it’s shareable; until an audience, however small, is capable of encountering it.

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Lit GIFs: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A brief case study of a guy who turns into another guy…and stresses out his lawyer.

This is Dr. Jekyll.

He sometimes turns into Mr. Hyde.

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