What’s Done is Done is Done Again

yawnAs a creative writing instructor, I get asked two questions more than any others. The first is easy enough to answer: “How do I find time to write?” There’s no secret here—set a schedule and get to your desk. The second question, however, continues to stump me, both as a writer and as a teacher. “How do I know when I’m finished?” This question seems as open as it is insoluble, and yet we writers need to tackle it if we’re ever to move past our first attempts.

During my stint teaching academic writing at a university, my undergrad students never asked me how to know whether their essays were complete. The answer was quite simple—they’d work until the deadline, hand it in, and that was it. My students worked hard, and they cared about the success of their arguments and the grades they received. They just didn’t have the luxury of worrying whether or not their papers were complete.

Still, they learned the necessity of revision and how to diagnose the effectiveness of their arguments. To help them do so, I devised a list of five aphorisms to consider before turning in their work. The list aimed to help identify lazy thinking, which inevitably leads to lazy writing. We memorized them as a group and used them as we provided feedback for rough drafts throughout the semester. I’ve found these truisms equally helpful for my own creative work, and I hope they’ll do the same for you. Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round Down: Short Stories as a Path to Literary Success

Throes of Creation by Leonid PasternakI’m going to let you in on a little secret about the submissions in my slush pile. When one comes in, the first thing I do–before I have even read the first sentence of the letter–is skim it for the name of a publication I recognize. If I don’t see one, I go back and start reading the pitch, looking for a reason to reject it.

The main thing I’m looking for in new clients is an existing following clamoring for a book from this writer. If the writer has a great idea, however, and understands what it means to be a professional writer, I might still be interested. That’s why I’m looking for the names of publications I like in the author’s bio. If you had twenty-five submissions to read, which one would you start with? I’ll be you’d start with the guy who’s written for Ploughshares and then move on to the staff writer from the Boston Globe, too.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Fearing the Business of Writing

don't fear biz Last week, Guernica published an interview with art critic Ben Davis, which begins with Davis questioning the premise that “the central tension of the art empire is that between creativity and money.” Davis says there can obviously be tension between what sells and what an artist wants to express, but he argues that money also funds innovative creative work. “If things were as simple as the equation ‘success = corruption,’” he states, “then you wouldn’t need [art] criticism.”

The same misguided equation has long haunted the writing world. It’s with trepidation and/or resignation that writers dip their toes into Literary Business, and it’s often with suspicion that readers observe the marketing tactics of writers we love. Why? Mainly because we’ve been told for ages that financial success implies selling out, and that any desire to make money from literature (or even to amass readers!) is indicative of having devalued Lit for the sake of consumerist advancement. We assume that “business”–a fast-paced, bottom-line-focused enterprise–is fundamentally opposed to the slow-paced, journey-is-the-destination mentality required of deep reading and serious literary engagement.

Fortunately, none of this is necessarily true.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Lena Dunham’s New Book is Worth $3.5 Million

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena DunhamWhen I talk to a new potential client, one of the things we go over is potential advances. Most nonfiction writers get between $25,000 and $75,000; fiction writers, a fraction of that. Everyone who gets more than that did something remarkable to get there.

During this conversation, many writers have joked to me that they’re hoping for Lena Dunham money. Dunham, the driving force behind the show Girls on HBO, received a reported $3.5 million dollars for her book, Not That Kind of Girl. The advance made headlines, and so did the proposal, which was leaked and linked to all over the internet.

The book could fairly be called “hotly anticipated,” and with the book releasing today, the reviews have started pouring in. Those reviews are generally positive, if not overwhelming. And for the publisher, they do something important: They are all written by people who had assumed that the book would be a cultural phenomenon. Because that’s what Random House paid millions of dollars for–a cultural phenomenon.Continue Reading

Indy Spotlight: Hobblebush Books

hobblebushtypecaseHobblebush Books, founded in 1991 by author, editor and publisher Sidney Hall, Jr., is a small press in southern New Hampshire known best for its Granite State Poetry Series and its eclectic list of prose titles. While its poetry series only publishes authors who live in or have a strong connection to New Hampshire—most recent titles are the dark and playful Talismans by Maudelle Driskell and Falling Ashes by James Fowler, a collection primarily of haiku and haibun on “war and love and the rest”—prose offerings are slightly more wide-ranging.

For prose at Hobblebush you’ll find Poor Richard’s Lament, a fascinating novel by Tom PRL_DJFitzgerald exploring the what-if scenario of Benjamin Franklin plunked into the twenty-first century; you’ll discover Creating the Peaceable Classroom by Sandy Bothmer, a wellness guide for educators, parents and students; and finally, you can pick from an assortment of memoirs that take you anywhere from the top of Mount Washington to the ports of New Orleans and Nova Scotia to the plains of East Africa.

For the Ploughshares blog, Sidney Hall, Jr. discusses Hobblebush’s mission, acquisitions, and its increasing public presence in the region (let’s just say they have a reputation for throwing great readings).

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Episodia 2.9: I’m Not a Writer, I Just Play One on TV

PersonaI’ve spent the past few weeks preparing for the publication of my first book this fall, and a key ingredient of this process is the “public” part. I’ve been updating my website, beefing up my social media presence, and reaching out to people to spread the word about the book I believe in so passionately.

On good days, I see that I might be evolving into a more potent version of myself—a writer who is able to talk about her own work articulately, one who can move seamlessly between her public and private worlds. On tougher days, the whole thing can feel fake, like I’ve been hired to portray myself in some sitcom or drama loosely based on my life. Despite the best intentions, opportunities for fraudulence arise at every turn. Can I make myself look stronger, wiser, funnier if I try hard enough?

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How To Fall in Literary Agent Love

2461371857_8aa8dfbd06_oIn my last post, I shared with you the checklist I used to put together my own book proposal. It contained all the building blocks I’d become familiar with when working as an editorial assistant for an academic book publisher, plus a few other tips I’d picked up over the years from former writing professors and how-to books.

So I can only assume that, by this point, you have an amazing, solid book proposal ready to go, and are already daydreaming about the book advance and lit parties in your future.

Not so fast, word nerd. While academic publishers—and some small presses—accept unsolicited book proposals and manuscripts, most traditional book publishers won’t look at your work unless it comes to them via a literary agent.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: How To Screw Up A Book Proposal

When I first start working on a proposal or a manuscript with a writer, I tell them I have two stages of advice: breaking things and fixing things. At first, I’m going to keep asking hard questions and recommending big changes, until I think the writer has said what that writer wanted to say. Once we’ve gotten all the big pieces in place, I start making recommendations that are simple to deal with, like choosing a new word or deciding to cut something or not.

mhhdjy9That first stage is often eye-opening for writers, as they may never have had someone—even if they are a working journalist—tear up their work and show them a different way to put the pieces back together. An agent, after all, may be the first person they’ve worked with who had more faith in them as a writer than in any particular piece of writing. If you find the right agent, he or she might teach you more about your own writing than any writing teacher, peer, or editor ever will. That potential relationship means it makes me happy to see someone find an agent—even when it’s not me!

That’s why my favorite piece of writing from the past two weeks was another Ploughshares post, “A Checklist of Book Proposal Essentials to Go Through Before You Start Schmoozing Agents.” Written by one of my fellow bloggers, Steph Auteri, the blog post offers solid guidelines on how to get an agent, which she successfully did using the same steps she recommends.

I can’t recommend her piece strongly enough, but I also thought I could enhance it by offering a similar list of things NOT to do in a proposal.

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A Checklist of Book Proposal Essentials to Go Through Before You Start Schmoozing Agents

check-listIn my wildest fantasies, an editor from Seal Press stumbles upon that personal essay I wrote about the awkwardness of babymaking sex—or the blog post I wrote about landing a husband despite being a crazy cat lady, or that other piece I wrote about my shifting body image—and feels compelled to email me, begging me to write a book for them about being a sex writer with low libido; or about yoga and body image; or about how adorable my cats are.

And p.s. They find me totally charming.

Then they attach a book contract to the email and I live happily ever after.

However, I’ve come to grips with the fact that this will likely not happen, and as such I actually worked my ass off to put together a solid book proposal. And then I went through the process of querying agents.

I landed one, too.

And though this is no guarantee that my book (or any book I conceive of) will ever see the light of day, it’s still a huge step in the right direction.

So I thought I’d share with you the essentials worth including in your own book proposal—just in case you were also sick of waiting around for that dream email.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: How Publishing Looks From the Agent’s Side

If I were forced to write a mission statement, it would be short and sweet: “Help authors. Have fun.”

It’s easy for anyone in this business to lose sight of the fact that we do what we do because we love books, and that everyone else we meet is here for the same reason. That’s why my favorite article from the past two weeks is this one from Jonny Geller. Geller is the CEO of Curtis Brown, a big British agency, and the BBC had him give his ten tips for anyone starting out in the business. But a couple of his tips are especially useful for writers, too.

nt1z7cxOf all the tips on Geller’s list, “Look for career writers” might be the toughest one for writers to hear. If an agent is going to invest time in an author, they want that author to write many successful books. That means: the less time this person has spent on some other career, the better. There are examples of bestselling authors who wrote their first book very late in life, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Geller also recommends that agents “get involved” with every aspect of the publishing process, which many claim to these days—even if few actually do. I think the way Geller describes his job is the way the industry is heading, though, and this is something else authors needs to hear. Agents ought to be doing a lot for their 15%.

“Be honest with your clients” is another great tip, both for agents and for authors. It’s better for an author to hear from me that their book idea is terrible than to hear it from the twelve editors passing on it. Still, the temptation is always there. Pretty much every client I have competed for and lost was a potential client I told “unfortunately, you have a lot of work to do before this is ready to show editors” while some other agent said, “you’re practically done!” I don’t know if the other agent really believed that, but I hope those writers came to their new agent ready to make some of the changes I recommended anyway.

It’s Geller’s last tip, however, that contains both my favorite and my least favorite advice: “Believe in your instincts and don’t take it all too seriously.” Good instincts are really useful in an agent. Good instincts backed up by research is a lot more useful. But the other point is something I’ve reminded lots of colleagues: “Try to remember what it was like when you were an obsessive reader at the age of seventeen, because that’s the person who matters—not the wise old agent who seems to know everything but doesn’t.”

Geller also inspired me to pass along a few more tips of my own for aspiring agents, and I hope they also turn out to be useful for writers.

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