How to Charm the Pants Off an Editor with the Power of Your Words

4639772572_c536c5b1dc_oI have to imagine that, within the Ploughshares community, there are just about as many writers as readers: those who love stringing words together, seeing how they taste when they read them back to themselves… Those who continue to look for the best words with which to hit readers in the gut with the greatest possible impact.

And I assume that you yourself are one of these writers—a writer who doesn’t simply write into the void, but who writes to connect with readers.

Assuming I’m correct, you want to give yourself the greatest possible chance of charming editors, eventually making your way to publication. Because the business of writing isn’t just about creating art. It’s about drumming up actual business.

This is where I come in. Continue reading

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Unburied Memories: A Tiny Interview with Carlos Villacorta Gonzáles

alicia-capitalismoMy newest literary kick is immersing myself in literature from Latin America that hasn’t been translated to English yet. Reading outside of the American canon, you learn new tricks and new ways of cutting familiar narratives—but if you’re lucky you learn a new kind of reading altogether. Continue reading

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The Editor’s Shelf: Spring 2014

We asked our advisory editors what they’ve been reading this past year and their responses cover a wide expanse of modern literature. Here is what our editors recommend you read in 2014:

B. H. Fairchild recommends Curvature of a Fluid Spine by Kenneth P. Gurney:

“Self-published books of poetry have been the lost orphans of the poetry world for far too long, borne mostly of prolonged frustration with the mysteries of poetry competitions and arcane politics of literary publishing in general. Kenneth Gurney stood as one of the central figures in the New Mexico poetry scene for several years, with his work appearing regularly in scores of small magazines here and in the UK. Gurney is a skilled practitioner of classical free verse, acknowledging in the “Author’s Note” his particular indebtedness to the work of Mary Ruefle. But his approach is entirely his own: astonishingly perceptive, Gurney reveals small moments of large import while balancing bursts of lyric spontaneity with unusually precise portraits of the natural world. This, combined with his nimble use of wit, allows his readers to locate light within apparent darkness. He should be read.”

(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, March 2013) Continue reading

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Spring 2014 Issue

401 Flat CoverWe are very excited to announce the publication of our Spring 2014 issue, featuring poetry and prose compiled by guest editor Jean Thompson. This issue includes the work of several award-winning writers, including prose by Jennifer Haigh and Kim Chinquee and poetry by Campbell McGrath, James Kimbrell, and Ronald Wallace.

Acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Jean Thompson (The Year We Left Home) guest-edits this issue of prose and poetry. As she writes in her introduction, “The thing that gives me hope for the enterprise of writing is the incredible variety and vigor of the terrain.” With poets ranging from Erin Belieu to the Uruguayan Tatiana Oroño, and stories that move from the eerie (Peter Rock’s dreamlike story of a mysterious stalker, “Go-Between”) to the comic (Elizabeth McCracken’s story “Hungry,” about an overweight young girl) to the tragic (Dan Chaon’s “What Happened to Us,” about a family transformed by fostering a disturbed child), Thompson’s issue celebrates writers as they “grapple or dance with the world we live in, reflect or distort it, embrace or escape it.”

The issue also features Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Plan B essay about learning to play the accordion (“Welcome to Hell”), and an exploration of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities by John Domini.

We are thrilled to share the work of these astonishing writers with you. The Spring issue has been mailed to our subscribers, and is available in book stores on online today. You can purchase single copies or subscribe by visiting

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Four Kinds of Editors (and Agents) You’ll Meet In Publishing Heaven

A rule I learned as an editor: when you look at a book’s acknowledgments, the effusiveness of praise for an editor is inversely proportional to the effort he or she put into the book. If a writer goes on and on about her editor, that editor did almost nothing. However, editors who wrote whole sections of the finished book are likely listed there as one name among many.

5cp0d0hI’ve had my name in all kinds of acknowledgments. I’ve had books I barely edited and books I waded into with a machete, a pair of hip boots, and a warning to my wife I might not make it back in one piece. I’ve also had plenty of people tell me I was an old-fashioned editor, since I still edited. That always made me wonder: Was I really alone? Was I the only one who edited?

What’s Gone Down

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was an article for The New Yorker’s website by Barry Harbaugh, an editor at Harper, arguing that yes, editors do edit:

I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.

Harbough’s article took on a new book of essays called MFA vs NYCwhich I’ve already written about here. For the most part, his piece is a testimonial: he and his colleagues edit. But it’s also an argument against the nonsensical nature of the claim. “In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is,” writes Harbough, “the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story.”

The article takes a useful stab at figuring out where the idea that editors don’t edit came from, and why it persists; Harbough does a great job of showing how publishing really works. But I would take his analysis one step further, and divide editors into four different categories: therapists, writing teachers, producers, and visionaries. (There are also some editors who are just terrible at everything, but they eventually leave publishing.)

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I’m in Love With a Writer: A Survival Guide

Being in a relationship with someone in the same profession is tricky business. While there is a shared understanding of the ins and outs, it can also cause friction, particularly in competitive fields. Dating a writer was one of my bigger relationship snafus—his ego often made our duo a trio.

My spouse is a reader but not a writer, so though he has literary knowledge, he is what I call an Innocent Bystander: while he wisely dwells in the science world, he has the arduous task of being involved with a woman in a crazy-pants profession. He patiently waits while I pause movies to talk about the brilliance of the writing. When I publish something new, he promotes it with pride and diligence. And he doesn’t flinch when I’m working on a project and become the Angst Monster I was a few weeks ago.

Sadly, not everyone who ends up loving a writer is as well prepared. For those not-so-lucky Innocent Bystanders struggling with your blessing and your curse, here are some things to help you navigate these treacherous waters.

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Episodia 2.4: Lessons in Creativity from “Mad Men”

Don DraperTonight the seventh and final season of “Mad Men” premieres on AMC. I’ve loved this show and the slow, magnetic swirl of 1960s Manhattan ever since the episode “Babylon” aired in 2007. The entire series might be considered in terms of the opening credits we’ve all grown familiar with: a man in a suit-silhouette of black and white falls through the sky against a backdrop of skyscrapers and advertising billboards.

Week after week, “Mad Men” sifts through the detritus of a life spent in advertising—the ghostly cigarettes, empty decanters, door-jamb nooses, and the insistent chatter of a typewriter that soothes a desperate heart. And though most writers will never be flown west to meet with Sunkist or to broker a deal for a television spot, I still find many parallels between literature and advertising, two artistic endeavors in which creative work sometimes turns a profit. So what might writers learn from this show, its characters, and its creator?

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Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 2)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and now two blog entries for Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Part 1 can be found here. In Part 2, we discuss “realism” in writing workshops, shifts in the literary market, and how we both approach writing “non-realism.”

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel. Rebecca Meacham: Earlier in our conversation, we discussed writers who work in more than one genre. There seems to be a move in the last decade toward genre-infused work in the mainstream—and that’s welcome news.

Back in 2003 when I was shopping my first book, I was encouraged to make the stories alike to “unify” the collection. Do you think versatility—in genre, form, voice, theme—is welcomed nowadays? Established writers make genre leaps: Isabel Allende just published a murder mystery, for example. Even debut writers, like Jamie Quatro, are garnering praise for their range.

Lincoln Michel: I do think it’s more accepted—hell, almost expected—for literary writers to dip into genre these days. Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book, Sherman Alexie wrote a YA book, Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalyptic book, and so on. (I myself am finishing up an anthology of science flash fiction, coedited with Nadxieli Nieto, that got a tremendous response from literary writers and readers when we had a Kickstarter.)

At the same time, those books I mentioned tend to use a fairly established genre or subgenre where audiences are familiar with the topes and conventions. Obviously those authors, being great, subvert and complicate those conventions in interesting ways.

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Days in the History of Silence

lindstromDays in the History of Silence
Merethe Lindstrom
Other Press, August 2013
240 pages

Buy: book | ebook

I’m not very familiar with Norwegian literature, so I can’t comment on whether Merethe Lindstrom’s Days in the History of Silence follows the typical conventions of Norwegian novels. What I can say is that this award-winning work defies many of the conventions I tend to associate with novels written in English—foreshadowing, dialogue formatting, an eventual climax—and to surprisingly memorable effect.

The story is told by Eva, a relatively well-off, retired teacher who, faced with her aging husband’s complete silence, is compelled to dwell in memories of the other silences they’ve created in their lives. She remembers the son she had as a teenager and gave up for adoption; she remembers the fact that her husband, a Jew, survived WWII in hiding as a child; and she remembers the reason they fired Marija, their undocumented immigrant housekeeper and closest friend. These are all stories Eva and Simon never told anyone, not even their three daughters.

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Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 1)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and (starting today) will also span two blog entries here at Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

In Part 1, we discuss “realism” as a construction, George Saunders, Beloved, Cormac McCarthy, and vacuum pigs.

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel.Rebecca Meacham: Lincoln, you made the following charge against literary realism:

 I find the term “realism” to be pretty… problematic. Most stuff labeled realism isn’t really realism, and it’s frustrating that every other kind of writing gets lumped into a few vague categories (magical realism/fantasy, satire, maybe postmodern now and then).

Tell me more. 

Lincoln Michel: Thanks for inviting me to talk about this! This is a topic that I think a lot about, so I’m afraid you might be opening a can of worms—is a can of worms “realistic”? Can of nightmare dream snakes?

Continue reading

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