How to Win AWP

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I’ve always felt that AWP* could be livened up by a conference-long game of Paintball Assassin. Until that happens, here’s some other stuff to try:

The Book Fair Bartering Game:

Start with free swag. Something cool, like a box of matches with a chapbook cover on it. Find the bored grad student tending another booth. (A booth with better swag, preferably swag that costs something. Like magnets. Magnets always cost more than you’d think.) Trade the matchbox for a magnet, then trade up your magnet for a hat, and so on. There is at least one booth with a bottle of bourbon. You win the game if you get the bottle when it’s still half full.

The Start-Your-Own-VIP-Party Game:

You don’t have to be a VIP. You just have to convince all the VIPs that the real VIP party is in the back room of Potbelly’s. Then you lock them in there and don’t let them out until at least five of them have written you blurbs.

The Intentional Misidentification Game:

Approach any writer who is clearly not Junot Diaz but could maybe, in a dark alley, pass for him, and excitedly shout that you loved Drown. You win the game when someone goes along with it. Bonus points if he signs your nametag as Junot Diaz.Continue Reading

Calisthenics for Writers

exerciseWriter’s Butt is a real and tragic thing. You might be making great progress on that novel, but is your seat getting wider with every word count goal? Is your back so tight that when you stand up your arms are permanently locked in that T-Rex typing position? Time to stretch out and get the blood flowing with these specially designed exercises. (As always, consult your physician before starting any vigorous training regimen.)

Bind together seven copies of literary magazines that rejected you, and impale them on the end of a sharp stick. Now do the same with seven more mags on the other end of the stick. Now it’s time for the free lift! That thing must weigh at least ten pounds.

Sitting in your rolling chair, use your feet to propel yourself away from your computer in disgust. The sudden motion and rush of oxygen might give you a new idea. If it does, tiptoe-crawl your chair back to your desk, because you’re too far away to grab the edge of it with your hands. This uses your abs more than you’d think.

Switch to an old-timey manual typewriter. After a few weeks, your fingers will be strong enough to curl your own ironic handlebar moustache.Continue Reading

Ten writers to watch for. No, seriously, watch the hell out for these writers.

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There are writers to watch for, and then there are writers to watch out for. A sampling of the latter, for your safety:

10) Jack Hogue is a great guy, but if you listen to him for more than five minutes, you’ll believe the publishing world, if not the world itself, has come to an end. Do you know how much he made on his last collection? Negative seven thousand dollars, because he tore his ACL carrying around bags of his own books to conferences his publisher wouldn’t pay to send him to, and also our insurance system is broken. He’ll probably never write again, but at least he has tenure now, so he can pretty much just drink all day in his office. Here, let him buy you a gimlet. Follow him into the abyss.

9) Warby Graham is kind of shocked that you haven’t heard of all these incredibly important twenty-two-year-old writers who live in his building in Williamsburg, but then maybe that’s because you’re super old. No offense but aren’t you, like, thirty? Yeah, that’s probably why. They’re all into something called Metaflarf, which it’s amazing you haven’t been following, because it’s probably the most important literary movement since that thing where you make paper hats out of David Foster Wallace’s endpapers.

8) Denise Cuhaj has no boundaries. She will put your hand on her tattoo and make you feel it with your eyes closed. She’s a close-talker, which wouldn’t be so upsetting if she weren’t telling you how you were in her dream last night, carrying her around in a blanket. Continue Reading

Second Time’s the Charm

1153px-Roller_Derby_1950We’re better at most things the second time around. Poaching eggs. Seventh grade. Guessing which hand the marble is in.

Writers might not be better at things by the second book, but at least we’re better prepared. (And I’m talking here about the publication process, the “your book is out in the world” thing. The writing doesn’t get any easier. Sorry, love.) If you’re not on your second book yet—if you’re not on your first, either—you have time to learn from my idiocy. Here are some of the things you think you know the first time around, and the things you know you know going into the second book.

Book #1: You think you pretty much know your book’s flaws. You can guess what the negative reviews will say.

Book #2: You understand that people will take issue with things you never dreamed could be issues. The setting shift you worried so much about will never come up; but the fact that your character neglects to feed his cat in chapter six—that will prompt someone to write a one-star review about how they can’t root for characters who are cruel to animals.

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Seven Under One Hundred

Baby with a Goat CartThere are a lot of age-based lists of writers out there. A lot. Of. Lists. Here’s another one.

Jake Strand, 34, after twelve years in the corporate world, recently found the courage to apply to MFA programs. He didn’t think he’d get in, but he did. His writing is extraordinary. In six years, when his first novel, Lick the Toad, is published, it will tear your heart to little pieces. It will be your favorite book. Right now, he and his wife are figuring out if they can both afford to move to Iowa. If she stays behind to work, it would strain their marriage. He’s not sure this is worth it.

Gladys Hollinghurst, 82, was an English major until she met her husband. That was a different era, and although she’ll never regret the time she spent raising her children, she does wish she’d done something sooner with the novel manuscript she’s been writing and rewriting for the past few decades. Her husband would have been scandalized, of course. He died three years ago, and that’s when she decided to make a go of it. The publisher who finally took a chance on a debut by an eighty-two-year-old is, rather than hiding Josie’s age, making a bit of a fuss about it. She finds this slightly embarrassing.

Emma Lopez, 13, has just written her first poems, her first real poems, in purple pen in a Moleskine notebook, starting on the last page and working her way forward. She mostly writes in study hall. She will spend the next twelve years working on her craft, and will almost have a book-length manuscript ready before the MS diagnosis. Ten years later, she’ll be well enough to revisit the manuscript and submit it to a few contests. She will be runner-up in two of them. Her first collection will appear when she is 40 years old. It will, unfortunately, be her only collection. But my God, those poems.Continue Reading

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think this Post is About You

mirror 1A friend once asked if I’d based the guinea pig (mentioned, but offstage) in my first novel on his daughter’s imaginary friend (of whom I’d never heard tell). In his defense: they had the same, unusual name. In my defense: ?!@&?#*%?

Maybe people want novels to be true. Maybe they want to be in those novels. Or maybe they’re terrified of this same thing—of having their secrets exposed. But all authors get asked if we’ve “based the characters on real people”—something that in my experience is actually extremely rare. So w­hat happens when friends and family convince themselves that they’re the ones you’ve written about? I asked a few friends to weigh in with their juiciest stories of supposed identity theft.

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Drunken Acknowledgments, 2 A.M.

Fred Allen as a ClownA book is a labor of love, and this novel would not have been possible without the help of several people, and several bottles of wine—the last of which I’m enjoying right now.

Infinite thanks to my editor, X, who talked me out of six bad titles, seven ill-advised plot twists, a really stupid dream sequence, and every shade of self-indulgence. You are the one thing standing between me and the abyss. I raise my glass to you. Wait. I refill my glass, and now I raise it to you.

Thanks also to my agent, Z, for not dropping me after I called her crying at four A.M. because the pages of my book were the wrong texture.

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An MFA for the Rest of Us

mfa 2

Needless to say, we will all dress like this

I’m in that small and shrinking group of writers who don’t have MFAs. Which I think makes me uniquely qualified to start my own MFA program. Haven’t most education reformers come from outside the system? My program will, for starters, involve napping and swimming pools. And the course offerings will be much more practical than “Problems in Modern Fiction.” We’ll cover the things you need to know. (The writing part you can figure out on your own.) I herewith present my 2015-2016 course catalog.Continue Reading

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Fiction: Let’s Get Out of the Restaurant

rest 5“I need to tell you something,” he said. He twirled his spaghetti around his fork.

She sipped her wine. “What is it?”

“Well.” He shoved the tangle of spaghetti in his mouth and chewed.

She fiddled with her spoon.

Suddenly, the waitress appeared. She had a grease stain on her apron. Her nametag read Renee. She symbolized harsh reality. “Can I get you somethin’ more, hon?”

He smiled and shook his head. He returned to his spaghetti. The waitress walked off, probably thinking about her ex-husband.

“What is it?” she asked him, tearing off a hunk of bread.

“I think,” he said, stirring his spaghetti in its blood-red sauce, “that we should stop perfunctorily setting fictional scenes in restaurants.”

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Writer Nightmares

Georges Méliès - First Wizard of Cinema vol.1 - Star Films 001-386 (1896-1901) 018You give a reading and only one person shows up. It is your ex.

You spend five years working on a novel about Marie Antoinette’s wigmaker. The day you finish your final revisions, Margaret Atwood publishes a novel about Marie Antoinette’s wigmaker.

Remember that guy whose poem you destroyed in your sophomore writing seminar? The one who went home and cried and decided he could never be a writer? Yeah, I didn’t think so. But he totally remembers you! And guess what: He’s a reviewer now!

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