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

Research Unleashed! And Leashed.


German Shepherd in a cone.

I knew I had a problem when I started envying my dog’s cone collar.

Now, my dog’s problem was a hot spot. Allergic, itchy, hot, and double-coated, my German Shepherd had chewed her hind leg raw over the course of a single evening.

My problem was research. Engrossing, surprising, discomfiting and endless, my novel-in-progress was generating fact after fact, but very little story.

Neither of us could resist the itch of our obsessions, which were self-ruinous and spreading. For my dog, the vet imposed a “cone of shame”—a demoralizing, and mostly effective, plastic barrier denying her access. This is what sparked my envy, for what kind of restraint could I impose on myself, a writer whose project requires research—research that also derails the project at every turn?

Latest Findings: Novel Research Leads to Pornography

How does research become a problem? Well, for one, it’s larky. You wonder if your character’s pants would have buttoned or zipped, which means you need to know about the invention of zippers, and then, hours later, you’re pouring over sketches of Victorian pornography.

A surprising number of research inquiries lead to vintage porn.

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WWTMD? (What Would Toni Morrison Do?)

Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Toni Morrison. Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Lately, during the sad, unproductive stretches of writing my first novel, I stare at an empty page and whisper, “What Would Toni Morrison Do?”

This is the closest I come to prayer. Please show me the way, I say to my favorite writers. Please give me the vision to see what I cannot. Unlike most deities, however, the motivations of my favorite writers are knowable. On YouTube, in magazine interviews, and in essays, my favorite writers relate their inspirations and their all-too-human faults. Sure, they hurl lightning bolts of excellence, but they also reveal the failures of the spark.

So, who better to guide me than Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of ten novels—including Beloved, one of the most acclaimed books of U.S. literature?

It doesn’t matter that all I have in common with Toni Morrison is my Ohio childhood; I’m not trying to be Toni Morrison. Instead, after teaching a “Major Authors: Toni Morrison” course, I’m trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned from her work, about narrative structure, knowledge, empathy, and community. Here’s how Toni Morrison guides me.Continue Reading

496 Words on Writing Flash Prose


1. Last year, I started writing a novel. Along the way, craving completion, I wrote and published seventeen pieces of flash prose. Instead of an epic, I accidentally created a flash chapbook.

2. Okay, maybe not accidentally. I took a break from the novel for a few months to focus exclusively on flash. Why am I telling you this? Why should you care?

3. See, my writing tends to be too careful. In flash prose, I took risks with sound, form, structure, setting, character. I experimented with collective voices, famous figures, buried secrets.

4. When my novel research revealed unneeded treasures, I built those shiny objects little nests and let their stories take wing. (Some never did take wing. Some were failures.)

5. Come to think of it, this whole blog post could be a failure. Even so, it’s 496 words of failure. A small commitment for us both, right?

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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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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?

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BobBouty6It’s your senior year of college. What kind of writer are you? Do you start writing a story eight hours before it’s due? Do you fictionalize your latest fight with your jerk-face manager or diva housemate? Does every one of your stories read like a screenplay? Like a poem? Do you write to make your mother proud , or prove your high school teacher wrong?

Whatever your habits, young writer, I know you. I have been you. Even after two story collections, two graduate programs, and 11 years as a professor, I am you, still. My habits are unseemly, like borrowing clothes from my kindergartner. But you, my undergraduate self—with your first taste of validation, your first buzz of obsession, your first writerly highs and lows, your need for deadlines—you formed the writer I am now, for better and for worse.

Now I’m hoping to teach you better—and teach my students, too. It’s time to build habits of consistency and, at the same time, to release the handle of the trapeze. Behold, the WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!

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Novelists, You’re Doing It Right

There's a novel in here somewhere...

There’s a novel in here somewhere…

You’re trying to write a novel. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating: characters wake you in the night, yammering, springing into action. Sometimes, it’s excruciating: you stare into blankness, and finally, when the words arrive, they reek of your incompetence.

It’s taking forever, this novel of yours. It’s ugly. It’s full of holes. Is this normal? Writing advice is plentiful, but much of it boils down to:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Do it anyway.

“Butt in chair,” experts say. Be persistent. But maybe you’re starting to hate your novel. You have dark, escapist thoughts. You’re not feeling particularly pure of heart, nor steadfast of butt. Can you ditch your novel for long stretches, or cheat on it, or overhaul it, and still finish—maybe even sell?!—the book?

Novelists, I’m here to say: Yes. You’re doing it right. Over the past several months, I interviewed novelists who spent one year or more working on a novel and eventually sold their books. Here, I summarize everything they said about writing novels that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Benjamin Percy

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Benjamin Percy, the author of two story collections as well as two novels, The Wilding and Red Moon.  

Benjamin PercyHow long did it take you to write each of your novels? 

That’s hard to track, because I never work on any one project exclusively. I’ll take a break from the novel to work on a screenplay, a short story, an article or essay, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few months, however long it takes for me to feel renewed and ready to tackle the monster again.

I was twenty-eight when I sold my first novel, The Wilding, but it had a lengthy editorial road ahead of it since the original first-person narrative was more shnovel than novel. I set it aside for a long time before bullying it into shape, in part because I moved from Wisconsin to Iowa and was distracted by a new job and an old house that required a lot of renovation, and in part because the revision seemed so daunting. That makes for two years total? Maybe more a little more than that.

Red Moon was also spaced out weirdly. I wrote sixty-five pages and an outline at the start of the summer of 2010, and I started cranking out the pages in November. I worked steadily for a solid year—I had to, because they had a strict deadline. I was hammering eight to ten hours a day and within a year, I had seven hundred pages. This manuscript went through a brutal overhaul. I threw out hundreds of pages and added hundreds more. The book was considered complete and satisfactory in March of 2012. So what does that add up to? A year and half?

So, at the “One Year In” point— as compared to its published form— you’d say that Red Moon was like…

Ore that required a lot of refining.Continue Reading