Roundup: Bold Beginnings & Sensational Starts

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

Autumn is upon us and students everywhere are getting into the routine of yet another semester. You may have started a new job or a life in a completely new city. Maybe you’ve just cracked open book you’ve yet to read. Either way, you’ve begun! And we hope it’s the start of something great.

Here, we’ve compiled some blog posts and things found across the Internet with fresh starts in mind.

5783321374_7f6b3e2b4dFrom Ploughshares

  • Coming up with a good beginning is often the hardest part. So make it count with some advice from Sarah Banse’s “From the Slush Pile…”

Exercising Your Craft: 3 Writers Who Get Physical

Haruki Murakami, a notable runner-writer.

Haruki Murakami, a notable runner-writer.

I have a writer friend whose employment info on her Facebook profile always makes me laugh. Under “Position,” she wryly reports “Hunched Over a Desk.”

Treadmill desks and Hemingway-style standing aside, most writers spend a lot of time sitting. We’re exhorted to with quotes like this one from Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” (Or maybe just with the modern-day, abbreviated version: “Get your butt in the chair and write.”) Personally, I do some of my best work in an even more sedentary position: reclining with my laptop in the lazy comfort of my own bed.

But getting out of the chair (or futon) can be pretty great for your writing too. Sports, dance, or even just a brisk walk through the neighborhood can provide the perfect antidote to “writer’s hunch.” And there’s something in the rhythm and fluidity of physical movement that can dissolve the stubbornest of mental blocks.

My story: I was never much into sports as a kid or teenager, but I took up running in my early thirties, around the same time I started working on my novel. Short runs in Central Park during the early days of sketching scenes soon turned into longer distances. I eventually began signing up for marathons, which I trained for while pacing-out and enduring multiple manuscript drafts. I’ve completed eight marathons at the time of writing (and, if all goes well, by the time this post is published, I’ll have just finished my ninth: Berlin on September 29th). I often wish it were the other way round: nine novels and one marathon. But, hey, you do what you can do.

I credit running with lending structure to my writing sessions, building discipline and mental stamina, and giving me the physical means to limber up my mind. I wondered whether it was the same for writers who rely on other forms of physical activity, so I asked a few: a classically trained dancer, a certified yoga instructor, and a former lifeguard. Here’s what they said.Continue Reading

Self-Help Seduction

There are certain books we all hide. You know them. The ones purchased late at night when no one we know is in the bookstore. Or better yet, ordered from Amazon for further anonymity. These are books we don’t want anyone to know we read, certainly not our literary pals.

These, readers, are the self-help books.

“Anyone wanting to damage their intellectual credentials,” writes Swiss/British philosopher/writer Alain de Botton, “… need only do one simple thing: confess they read self-help books. There’s no more ridiculed genre in the literary canon…”

Despite that, some of us do read them, because our lives or selves are, from time to time, a mess. Desperate, we suffer through the cheesy titles and chapter headings, and the demeaningly simple prose, all because we want what we believe these books have to offer us: change. Or at least a chance at it.

AMECoverSelf-help books haven’t always been this way. When Tasso Vance Orr published Applied Mental Efficiency in 1913, the self-help genre was neither a billion dollar industry nor widely ridiculed. For a mere $1.50, those eager to improve themselves personally and professionally could buy Applied Mental Efficiency without any cultural baggage, and choose from 48 easy-to-read chapters ranging from Card Indexing the Mind to The Purchasing Power of a Smile to The Art of Asking Questions.

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My First Nemesis

nemesis 1I can only admit this because I believe I’m not alone. I believe that every writer—maybe every creative person, maybe anyone whose life is ruled by ambition, by a calling beyond rationality—has an imaginary nemesis. The person isn’t imaginary, mind you. But the rivalry is.

Here’s what I mean by nemesis: The guy in your undergraduate workshop who couldn’t tell its from it’s, and now his novel’s being turned into a movie. The woman who’s probably never heard of you but who has edged you out for five different fellowships. The debut author whose book came out the same week as yours from the same press, and wound up as the One City, One Book pick for your city. Not her city, mind you. Yours.

I could go on, but I don’t think I have to. I think you know what I’m talking about.  What I’m going to tell you instead is the story of my first nemesis. I was twelve.

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For Those About To Write (We Salute You) #12: The To Do List

photoFor Those About To Write (We Salute You) will present a writing exercise to the Ploughshares community every few weeks. We heartily encourage everyone reading to take part! 

Can you believe we’re nearly ten months into this year-long writing extravaganza? I’m pretty damn impressed that we’ve all made it this far, and hope that everyone’s feeling good about the work they’ve done.

So far we’ve covered a lot of ground and tested out a bunch of different approaches. Now, it’s time to take stock and consider the future.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Helpful Products for Family Men: A User’s Guide” by Ryan Trattles

You guys, I gotta tell you: I’m a sucker for any story that plays with form. Send me your recipes-as-failed-date stories, your museum-tours-as-conspiracy plots, your PowerPoint-homework-as-family narratives. I’m all in.

35.1_cover_Page_001So when I found Ryan Trattles’s story “Helpful Products for Family Men: A User’s Guide” published in Indiana Review, I was immediately hooked. Told in the first person plural, with a direct address to the user, “Helpful Products” is a user’s guide, modeled after the instructions that often accompany electronics, unassembled furniture, and appliances.

In this case, the story is a guide for “the product,” which the main character orders online. Trattles never says so explicitly, but over time we come to see: the product is a life-like sex doll, and the story a set of instructions for the main character so that he can use and then keep the sex doll a secret from his wife and two children.

Parts of the story are told in the conditional, with sections like “Receiving the Product”; “Preparing for First Use”; “If Your Wife Complains”; “Dealing with an Attempted Intrusion”; “If Your Daughter Finds It”; “If Someone Sees You”; and “Proper Disposal.” Each section details a different step, describes the way his family members react (or would react) and reveals how he feels in turn.

Right away I wondered, if a story is written in the form of a user’s manual, can we be sure the events have actually taken place? After all, how many of us have picked up the instructions for the IKEA bookshelf only to abandon them later, all set to throw the thing together ourselves? Are stories told in the form of guides closer to “choose your own ending” novels, where northing is for certain and decisions are reversible?

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Writing Lessons: Gerardo Mena

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students—and this month, writing instructors!—will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying and teaching writing. This week, we hear from Gerardo Mena, an MFA student at Goddard College. You can follow him on Twitter @tonyidigmusic—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Black and White Headshot - cropI heard her read a fiction story aloud at one of the rowdier nightly student readings during our first semester at Goddard. She had style, suspense, and a beautiful story-telling voice that wrenched the audience forward wherever they were sitting—most of them on the floor. It was time to recruit.

Me: Nice piece. Have you published much before?

Her: No. I haven’t even really thought about it. I’m not even really sure how to do it.

Me: Do you want to form a small writer’s group? I’ll walk you through publishing step-by-step. The instructors here can help you hone your work, and then we can work on sending our stuff out together, team-work style. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Her: I’m not sure. I, uh, I’m really new at this stuff. I think I’ll just work on my thesis.

A month later, out of the blue, she texted me: Okay. I’m in.Continue Reading

Peter Ho Davies Reading and Craft Talk

Ploughshares literary magazine is pleased to announce that Peter Ho Davies, author and guest editor of the Fall 2013 issue of Ploughshares, will give a craft talk and reading at Emerson College. This event is free and open to the public!

PHD for PWWHEN: October 10, 2013. Craft talk at 4:00 pm. Reading at 6:00 pm.

WHERE: The Charles Beard Room at 80 Boylston Street (The Little Building), Emerson College, Boston, MA.

The craft talk will take place at 4:00 pm and focus on strategies for structuring short story collections, followed by a reading at 6:00. He will be introduced at the 6:00 reading by Ploughshares board member Janet Silver. The reading will be followed by a book signing. Copies of Davies’ books and the Fall 2013 issue Ploughshares will be available for purchase.  Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: The Numbers

Numbers image.svg

When I see numbers I generally shut down, but I know there’s a whole host of you out there who want to see pie charts, graphs and digits. So if my ranting about pluck and resiliency isn’t enough for you folks, here are the cold hard facts when it comes to submissions to Ploughshares.

We publish three issues a year. Two are guest edited, and the Winter issue is staff edited (by Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief; Margot Livesey, Fiction Editor; and John Skoyles, Poetry Editor). For each guest-edited issue (Spring and Fall), fifty percent of the content is solicited. That means the guest editor asks writers of his/her choice for about ninety pages of material, while the remaining ninety pages are derived from a short list of submissions that the office provides. The short list is made up of unsolicited material submitted to the office, and includes a mix of slush and notables. (“Notable” is a term we use to describe manuscripts by those who have substantial publishing credits in major journals or books by major presses.) The short lists’s ratio of slush to notables is about 50/50; if you don’t believe me, check it out the breakdown of our current issue, all fiction, guest edited by Peter Ho Davies:Continue Reading

“Let’s Get You an Agent”—An Agent’s How-to for Writers

an agent did you saySo—Eric Nelson is an agent with the Susan Rabiner Literary Agency.
His own blog, “How to Think Like Your Agent,” is full of quick, no-nonsense advice. Here, he lends our readers a special dose of it: how to get an agent, from an agent’s POV.

Check out his words to the wise below, then bookmark his blog for regular industry tips.

In which Eric Nelson reveals all. (Or 5 hott tips.)

so i should get one of theseEN: When I first switched from being an editor to being an agent, I Googled “how to get an agent” to see how this world looked from an author’s perspective.  I wasn’t impressed with the results. Most of them tell you to buy a book about agents, polish your proposal, and stay away from scams. That’s “good” advice, but it’s like telling you you’ll need a computer and possibly paper.

So let’s get you an agent the right way. Continue Reading