Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Secondary Characters that Matter

Excerpt from The Fire In Fiction
http://writersdigest.com/article/fire_in_fiction_excerpt from Writers Digest
March 19, 2009
In this excerpt from Chapter Two: Characters Who Matter from Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction, you’ll learn:
• Why strong secondary characters are so important
• Tips for making sure that a character’s special-ness stems from his or her impact on the protagonist
• How to figure out which secondary characters deserve an elevated status
The heroes of popular series are memorable, but quick: Who’s the most unforgettable sidekick in contemporary fiction? Takes some thought, doesn’t it? Dr. Watson comes easily to mind; perhaps also Sancho Panza or Paul Drake? After that it’s easier to think of sidekicks from movies or comic books.

Same question for femmes fatales. Not so easy, is it? Conjuring up the names of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) or Carmen Sternwood in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) tests the depth of your trivia knowledge. Maybe you thought of Justine in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957–1960)? Points to you—but what about contemporary fiction? Do you recall the name of Lyra Belacqua’s mother in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (1995)? (It’s Mrs. Coulter.) Other femmes fatales?

We could issue the same challenge with respect to the great villains of contemporary literature. After Hannibal Lecter, who is there?

Come to that, how many secondary characters of any type stick in your mind from the fiction you’ve read in the last year? Do you read chic lit? Have you ever felt that the gaggle of sassy girlfriends in one is pretty much the same as in the rest? How about killers and assassins? Do many of them seem to you stamped from the same mold? How about children? Do precocious kids in novels make you want to gag?

If so, you see my point. Secondary characters in published fiction often are weak.

Supporting players in manuscripts submitted to my agency are too often forgettable, as well. They walk on and walk off, making no particular impression. What wasted opportunities, in my opinion, especially when you consider that secondary characters aren’t born, they’re built. So, how can you construct a secondary character whom readers will never forget?

Suppose you want a character to be special. You want this character to have stature, allure, or a significant history with your protagonist. How is that effect achieved? A look at examples of some contemporary femmes fatales may help us out.
James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987) probably is the finest noir novel of our time. It’s the rich, dark, complex, and highly layered story of a 1940s Los Angeles police detective, Bucky Bleichert, who becomes obsessed with a murder victim, Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the press. Her murder was grisly, the torture beforehand gruesome, and the cast of suspects a roster of corruption. Central to the story, however, is Bucky’s fixation on the Black Dahlia. She was beautiful in life, and highly promiscuous, but why is Bucky haunted by this victim over any other?

That, in a way, is the eternal problem of making a character singular. Is there any description of beauty so effective that it would make anyone swoon? Is there a sexual allure that can seduce everyone who opens a book? Do you believe that a crusty cop would really care about a bad news babe?

Making a character uniquely compelling for all readers is pretty much impossible. As readers, we are all too different. What is beautiful, seductive, and dangerous for me may well be laughable to you. What is possible is to make momentous the effect of one character upon another. As with greatness, creating a feeling that a character is special is a matter of measuring her impact. The Black Dahlia opens with Bucky Bleichert looking back after the case has closed:

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence the ways of her death drove them. Working backward, seeing only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been—a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her an anonymous end, relegated her to a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field. The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known. And since I owe her a great deal and am the only one who does know her entire story, I have undertaken the writing of this memoir.

What in that paragraph conveys the impact the Black Dahlia has had on Bucky? Is it the elevated tone of his prose? His regret? The Dahlia’s refusal to stay small, a “could-have-been”? I believe that it’s the simple words “I owe her a great deal.” Bucky is in debt to a dead girl. That debt is intriguing by itself but also makes the Dahlia special to Bucky.

Russell Banks’s The Reserve (2008) is set in a private community for the rich, the “Reserve” of the title, in the Adirondack Mountains in the 1930s. Jordan Groves, a local artist with leftist leanings, falls under the spell of Vanessa Cole, the twice-divorced daughter of a respected brain surgeon and his society wife. Vanessa has secrets and a dangerous side, but at first Jordan is dazzled. As he lands his seaplane at her family’s lakeside compound and sees her for the second time, his fascination with her is apparent:

He shut off the motor and sat there for a few seconds and watched Vanessa. She was in a group of perhaps ten people, but he saw no one else. She wore a calf-length black skirt and a dark gray silk blouse with billowing sleeves and over her broad shoulders a black crocheted shawl, and she looked even more beautiful to Jordan today than when he’d seen her yesterday in the fading, late-afternoon sunlight standing alone by the shore of the Second Lake. She had on bright red, almost scarlet lipstick, and mascara, and though she was pale and her face full of sorrow, she was luminous to him, enveloped by a light that seemed to emanate from inside her. He did not think that he had ever seen a woman with a visible field of light surrounding her like that, a gleaming halo wrapped around her entire body.

What is it that makes Vanessa beautiful? Her black skirt, dark gray silk blouse, and red lipstick? Her black crocheted shawl? Crochet? Um, that doesn’t scream siren to me. No, rather it is the aura of light that Jordan sees surrounding her. Would you or I see it? Maybe, maybe not. But Jordan sees it, and his perception is what counts.

Jodi Picoult is a best-selling author and a spinner of morality tales for our time. Her knack for provocative premises is enviable. The Pact (1998) revolves around a suicide pact between a teenage boyfriend and girlfriend—Chris Harte and Emily Gold, lifelong next-door neighbors—that goes wrong. Emily’s suicide (via gunshot) succeeds. Chris does not go through with it and lives.

For many authors that would be enough tragedy to occasion an aftermath novel, the survivors taking us on yet one more journey of healing and self-discovery. Picoult is a more masterful plotter, though. Doubt about what really happened grows. Eventually Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder. Picoult teases out the evidence, swinging our suspicions this way and that, until finally Chris takes the stand and reveals his true feelings about Emily:

“Do you know,” Chris said softly, “what it’s like to love someone so much, that you can’t see yourself without picturing her? Or what it’s like to touch someone, and feel like you’ve come home?” He made a fist, and rested it in the palm of his other hand. “What we had wasn’t about sex, or about being with someone just to show off what you’ve got, the way it was for other kids our age. We were, well, meant to be together. Some people spend their whole lives looking for that one person,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have her all along.”

Picoult has a tough job in The Pact. For plot reasons she must withhold from us for most of the novel the truth of what really happened. Finally it comes out: Chris procured the suicide gun and helped Emily hold it to her head. He did this because he cared profoundly about her. She wanted suicide, he hoped to talk her out of it, but in the end he helped her because it was the only thing that would relieve her pain.

That, anyway, is what Picoult wants both the jury and her readers to swallow. We have to, for the jury is going to find Chris not guilty. That’s quite a trick. For it to work, Chris has to sway us with a heartfelt declaration of love. Picoult’s passage above does the job; at any rate, it did for many readers. To my eye it’s clear that for Chris, Emily was special.

Who have been the special people in your life, the ones whose presence looms larger, whose friendships are fundamental, who are indelibly part of your personal story? You have such people in your life, I’m sure. Me too. How is it, then, that protagonists in many manuscripts seem to live in blissful isolation, self-sufficient, wholly self-made, and dependent on no one? Who are these people? They are not real. Consequently they are also unreal for readers. If they are to keep us deeply involved for several hundred pages, protagonists need a personal history.

Who in your story has special stature? Is there an influential teacher, a spouse, a past love, a friend of long standing, a wizard at math, an egotistical-but-gifted auto mechanic? Is there a character in your story who could be given such elevated importance? It isn’t that difficult to do. Explore the effect that this paragon has on your protagonist, then find a meaningful moment for that effect to be expressed.

Singular human beings may be rare in life, but this is fiction. You can build them as needed. Who knows? You might even construct for yourself a whole new incarnation of the femme fatale.


Creating Special Characters

STEP 1: Look at the special character through the eyes of your protagonist. List three ways in which they are exactly alike. Find one way in which they are exactly the opposite.

STEP 2: Write down what most fascinates your protagonist about this special character. Also note one thing about the special character that your protagonist will never understand.

STEP 3: Create the defining moment in their relationship. Write down specific details of the place, the time, the action, and their dialogue during this event. What single detail does, or will, your protagonist remember best? What detail does she most want to forget?

STEP 4: At the end of your story, in what way has this special character most changed your protagonist? At the story’s outset, in what way does your protagonist most resist this special character?

STEP 5: Incorporate the above into your manuscript.

DISCUSSION: Special-ness comes not from a character but from their impact on the protagonist. What are the details that measure their impact? How specific can you make them? The steps above are just a start. Whether for femmes fatales or any other character, it is those details that will bring their special-ness alive.

About the Book
For more tips on developing characters who matter, check out The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Editors Describe Process of Reading and Accepting Submissions

Editors Describe Process of Reading and Accepting Submissions

Panel discussion of Natural Bridge
by Steve Schreiner, Mary Troy, Angela Hamilton, and David Carkeet http://www.umsl.edu/~natural/guidelines/panel.html

Below are the opening remarks of four Natural Bridge editors at a panel discussion of the history and philosophy of the magazine for the university and local community. The panel, sponsored by the UM-St. Louis Center for the Humanities, was held on March 5, 2001.

Steve Schreiner (Founding Editor and Editor of Natural Bridge # 1, 2, 3, 5, 12, 18, 20):
The first time a selective literary journal accepted a poem of mine, I had the feeling that something had gone wrong. Not that I thought a mistake had been made; I was too excited to feel undeserving. But I felt distinctly that life had just gotten harder. I was young still and the promise that I had poems to publish registered in my mind as a burden. At once I felt an unwelcome ambition. I spent a self-conscious afternoon wondering who to tell and pretending nothing had changed. But I knew as I went about my tasks with a distracted mind that writing, which I very much enjoyed, had gotten more complicated and more demanding. I felt responsible to poetry, in some way, whether I was up to it or not. I felt that I had gotten a job, a part-time one, but a job nonetheless.

Of course, my psychology, which is another subject, might have kicked in. One good publication deserves plenty of rejection, I was likely to think. But publishing is that aspect of writing that ought to happen to serious people, and it should make the demands you place upon yourself that much greater.

There are right ways and wrong ways to go about publishing.

As a wrong way, take for instance my first poetry submission, which happened to be to The New Yorker. I was barely away from home at college in my first year, I had been writing almost a whole year, and I knew how much I liked the poems I read in the magazine. I remember typing up my latest poem, which I sent by itself with a note asking for comments. Can it be that I enclosed an SASE? In retrospect, there was nothing wrong with trying The New Yorker. But it was pretty much my only target, that and the student magazine.

The more correct way I learned later. Choose your magazines carefully. Know what's published in the magazine, hold the magazine at the library, at the store, or at home, and read at least enough poems to be able to make a short list of your own pieces to consider sending, or to conclude, No hope, no hope.

Publishing—let me amend that to say submitting, which is the only way one seeds a successful career in writing—submitting is hard work. I'm impressed by the number of people who have seen our guidelines and seen our magazine and only then submitted work. It is not the case that Natural Bridge has established a type of taste or a literary aesthetic, except to the extent that a number of us agree on what's likeable, readable, lasting, publishable. We're also editors and all have a testimony of taking a piece from almost-ready to ready for publication, by working with an author and by virtue of how much we like the possibilities we saw in the work.

A remark on rejection: You had better not ever get used to it. There are now too many magazines to allow a single, most desirable one to stand in the way of a career. I have told many students, because I've experienced it myself, that one publication is almost as good as another. I'm not talking The New Yorker—we all want to appear on coffee tables, though some of us will be advantaged by not writing for The New Yorker. Finding the right places to place your work is all-important. Being accepted, perhaps even more than being read, is what we're often, at least at the outset and for time to come, trying to achieve. One editor at one magazine who sees the strength in your writing, and you just might have to resign yourself to a lifetime of trying.

Mary Troy (Guest-Editor of # 4, 11, 19):

Natural Bridge is a nationally circulated literary journal. It is an integral part of the MFA in Creative Writing Program and is published by the program. We call for submissions, read and discuss and accept or reject stories, poems, and essays, edit the work, work with the authors, proofread, produce the journal, and see that it is distributed. No one associated with UM-St. Louis--faculty, staff, or student---can be published in it. Natural Bridge is indexed in the Index of American Periodical Verse and The American Humanities Index.

Our MFA students who have had at least two semesters of workshops are the first readers of all work that is submitted. They do this as a class, which is offered every fall and spring semester; thus the unusual submission dates of July 1-Aug. 31 and Nov. 1-Dec. 31, which are roughly the two months before the classes meet.

Steven Schreiner, a poet on the MFA faculty, is the founding editor. The other MFA faculty--Dave Carkeet, Howard Schwartz, Jennifer MacKenzie, Eamonn Wall, and Mary Troy--are senior editors. That is, we normally meet and discuss what the students and the editors have chosen and help narrow it down, though the editor always has final say, and those of us who read prose--Dave Carkeet and Mary Troy--also work on copy editing and proofreading. We often rotate a guest editor in Steve's place to teach the class for a semester and select the material, along with the students. I was the first guest editor, for number 4, and Dave Carkeet is the guest editor for number 6; Eamonn Wall will be guest editor for number 7, and our visiting writer for spring of 2002, Lex Williford, will be the guest editor for issue number 8. Though the journal is always a miscellany, the guest editor sometimes calls for a special focus, interest, or theme in his or her issue.

I advertised number 4 as a largely prose issue, and you can see that it is. The eight students in the class and I read more than 800 submissions for the issue. Because of how we advertised, we got very few poems to choose from, but we did publish eleven. Mainly we were deluged by prose works, which shows how hungry prose writers are for publication--most journals publish only four to five stories and essays and forty or more poems in each issue. And, to our great delight, most of what we received was very good. The way my class worked was that all students took home twelve to fifteen pieces from the slush pile each week. They would report back the following week with comments: "This one has a wonderful opening paragraph," "This one builds to a climax too quickly," "This one has a disappointing ending," "This one made me laugh out loud and I read it twice." Things like that. Short pieces were at times read aloud for the entire class, and some students were so excited about what they had read, they brought in enough copies and we all read those pieces for the next class or over break. I also grabbed stories form the slush pile and reported on what I had read. After a story had been read by three readers, and three readers decided it was not for us, we put it in the reject pile. If a story had been read by three readers who liked it or were unsure, it kept going around until five people had read it, and then I read it. I also read all that was in the reject pile to make sure we were not sending some gem back. I trusted the class, was impressed by their insights and careful consideration of each piece, but knew I had more experience reading and writing than they, so the final word was mine. I must say, though, I did not ever find anything they decided to reject that should not have been.

We sent rejects back at the end of each class, using a printed form, but some of the rejects with flashes of brilliance or fascinating subjects were encouraged by a note to send us more later. Or one of us would simply underline the "Thank you" in "Thank you for submitting." One gem almost got sent back, but the first reader who had rejected it came back to class to report that she had dreamed of it, had gone about her workday obsessed by it, and thought we should reconsider it. She found it, then read it out loud to us, and we agreed–it was too good to send back. I also read all pieces that the class was still undecided about after five readings and either sent them back or put them in the accept pile.

After eight weeks, we had read everything and had a book of about forty-eight stories, eleven essays, and twenty-five poems that had made it so far. I copied this book, and because it was spring break, we had two weeks to read it. Then we got down to serious discussions of the merits of each story, essay or poem. We worked on this book for five weeks, various members of the class arguing that a piece should be included or excluded. We did not always agree, and in fact I know of one class member--out of eight--who claims that none of her number-one choices made it into the book. One story that did get in was one I was all alone in liking, and I never did get any of the class members to give it more than a grudging OK. The class is not exactly a democracy, nor was it meant to be, but it is a collaboration. One woman argued for a story that only two others ever came around to liking, but I was one of them, so it is in number 4 as well.

Since I am not a poet, I was a voice but not the final say on the poetry. For that, we had the senior editors come in, and all the students--mainly prose writers in this class--agreed that that was one of our most informative discussions ever, for even the poets did not agree on the work.

Because we had so much prose to copy-edit (sixteen stories and four essays), five of the better readers in the class agreed to help me over the summer. The five each took two writers and under my minimal supervision corresponded with the authors, suggested changes, and asked questions. They also proofread what they had edited. This was a valuable experience for those who could do it.

The journal editing classes are valuable for our students, all writers who themselves are submitting and publishing. They can see how work is discussed, what makes the difference between something that is almost accepted and something that is accepted. They learn, too, that no matter the work and care and discussions--and I think we give pieces more attention than many journals--the process is still subjective. One story that made it into our first accept pile was one we all liked, but we finally agreed the ending was wrong, that the author had veered away from his own subject in a dishonest way. We rejected the story after much discussion, but the author wrote later to tell me it had been accepted by Ploughshares. I like to think our comments helped with that acceptance. Or it's possible we were that much more astute than the Ploughshares editors. Of course, we could have been wrong.

Angela Hamilton (a recent MFA graduate who began working for Natural Bridge as a student/editorial assistant in the first Literary Journal Editing class and later served as Managing Editor):

Although in 1997 I found myself beginning the MFA program here at UM-St. Louis, I was always scared to death of writing. The idea of my newly cultivated voice disappearing abruptly and forcing me to drop out of the program was always in the back of my mind. When I came to realize that part of becoming a serious writer was to submit my work endlessly, and ultimately get published, I began to wonder if maybe I was in the wrong place. Submitting--an important moment in the career of a writer. But just thinking about that word submission, its other meanings--obedience, resignation--made me feel like I was laying myself on the line, begging for rejection and frustration. This is what I had to do?

I began working at Natural Bridge as an editorial assistant in 1998. My first night there, I saw boxes and boxes of submissions, people like me . . . people not like me, submitting stories, essays and poems, hoping for a reading, an acceptance, their name in print. I lost hope in the idea that my writing would eventually be welcome by many publications, that my name would somehow become known in the writer's world.

I'd often envisioned an editor's office of a literary magazine--stacks of submissions up to the ceiling and only one envelope on the desk--a piece by Updike or Oates, maybe. My essay was number 757 in stack 12A, in the northwest corner. But nobody knew that. What was going to happen to me? Six months later I'd get not a rejection slip from the magazine, but a subscription form. Hi, friend, we haven't heard from you in a long time. Would you like to subscribe again?

Say it isn't so! Well . . . it's not. Or I should say, not necessarily. In becoming a full-fledged staff member (which basically means I no longer have to pay tuition to work for Natural Bridge), I have seen differently.

At Natural Bridge, I'd noticed that pieces began to lose their authors' names. It was no longer Wakoski's poem, but the poem about the wild rose, or the essay about teeth by Virgil Suarez, maybe? That image I'd had of the large lake of submissions with the big names buoyed at the top and the small names, my name, sludge at the bottom, faded.

Essays and poems would be passed back and forth again and again. At night, while I tried to go to sleep, I could hear the echo of another's voice, "Angela, can you just read this one more time? Tell me again what it is about this piece." In other words, assure me or . . . dissuade me. To be a reader for a literary magazine is to fall in and out of love again and again, to be surprised, to become ashamed with what you love when no one else does. And how is it that you may defend your love for something every day? How many jobs require this?

So what am I trying to say? That I, as a writer, am not the sludge at the bottom of the lake? I am not fish food? Well, yes. And no. It was important to learn this when I began working for Natural Bridge, but it was even more important for me to see the office light on well after dinnertime, hear a conversation about an essay which lasted longer than a break in between classes, and see that people like Steve, Dave and Mary want what is best--want even the fish food if it speaks to them.

The editors now have faces; they are more than just a printed name in the front of a magazine. They drive cars that break down, eat fast food, drink coffee to stay awake, and, even sometimes, they watch television. And they do love good writing and they admire the writers who produce it, and at times, yes, it is even sweeter when we all are truly taken with a piece of writing and discover that the author's name is not one that we recognize.

As a writer, I understand the submission process a bit better now. It is not simply the lake of names, but maybe to me it has become a road with dozens of intersections with signs like, timing, tone, theme, space and the often dreaded guidelines.

I'll stand at the edge of that old lake and I will throw myself in again and again.

David Carkeet (Guest-Editor of # 6):

I want to say a few words about the author-editor relationship. This is based on my experience as a senior editor through the first five issues of Natural Bridge and as the guest editor for the issue now being put together by me and some of our MFA students in the Literary Journal Editing class. This current issue is a "heavily prose issue," emphasizing personal essays and fiction; the contents will be settled by May or June, and it will be out in December. There will be about twenty prose works in it, roughly two-thirds of them personal essays: memoirs, travel pieces, and meditations. The fiction we've accepted so far is mainstream literary: strong characters, articulate and original language, and plots that are always, at least in part, like nothing else you've ever read.

A manuscript ultimately meets with either acceptance or rejection, but there are different varieties of each. There is the unconditional acceptance, with very few "suggestions" (we love this and can't wait to publish it); there is the acceptance with lots of "suggestions"–but because the work has been accepted, we can only suggest the changes and hope that reason and our good taste prevail. There are conditional acceptances–we will publish this if you change the title, eliminate these three paragraphs, and clean up the last paragraph, which is a little confusing.

There are likewise different kinds of rejections. The best rejection is a request to revise the piece and resubmit it. In this case the work falls too far short for acceptance, and the effort to get it there should be expended by the author, not the editors. Try again, we say, and be mindful that we had these problems with this version, and get it back to us by such-and-such a date, when we plan to review a number of such works. Revise and resubmit–"R&R" in my filing system–awkwardly imposes a moral burden on the editor: the author did what we said to do, she did all this work, so we've got to take it, don't we? But I try to forestall that by building into the letter definite, clear warnings: we still cannot guarantee publication. If we reject the work, of course it is a blow to the author, but we take comfort in knowing that we have probably improved the work and its prospects for publication elsewhere, and someday the author may come to believe that too.

There is also the detailed letter of rejection that explains why the work was turned down. I write only one such letter for every thirty or forty works we reject. I write it because the work deserves it. I try to point out how the work is strong, I say I hope someone else takes it, but it didn't quite make it with us, and I say please try us again next time with something else; a beginning writer is more likely to receive such a letter than an established one. There is the form rejection with a "Try us again" scribbled on it–this is also very high praise, not just from us but from any magazine. Then there is the form rejection with nothing on it, absolutely nothing. I have received many of these in my lifetime and never understood why it has to be this way. Now I do. The volume is murderous. When an editor puts a piece of mail in the outgoing box, whether it's an acceptance or a rejection, it feels like the conquest of Everest, and simply adding a few words to the form rejection letter feels as impossible as doing twenty pushups on top of Everest once you've arrived. Besides, the too-hasty comment, meant well, can be dangerous: "I liked this but not quite enough emotional engagement for me" could send the author into months of rewriting before he submits it elsewhere, and what if that wasn't the single most accurate criticism you could make of the piece? What if you've become a little confused since first reading it on Monday, and here it is Friday, and you've read twenty-five other pieces since then? No, better to say nothing.

Editors accept and reject, but they also edit, or at least we do. Line-editing focuses on factual accuracy, interest, clarity, and ease of reading. By "interest" I mean does the work consistently hold my interest, or does my interest flag in places. If a sequence is unclear so that I don't know if A preceded B or B preceded A, the author will want to hear that. The good author will gasp and say, Thankyouthankyouthankyou let me change it. The same for a pronoun reference: does this "he" refer to your lover or to the mortician? Omigod thankyouthankyouthankyou. As for ease of reading, some authors are clunkier than others, and sometimes, for the sake of the content, you put up with a little clunkiness instead of rewriting every paragraph. But other kinds of clunkiness can and should be repaired.

When it was brand-new, Natural Bridge sometimes went out of its way to edit not-quite-publishable pieces to publishability. As our submission numbers have increased, there has been less of this simply because so much work is coming in that is virtually ready to go to press. This semester, for our sixth issue, we've turned down several works that we would have been happy to publish a few issues ago.

Magazine and book publishers vary widely in their degree of line-editing. For reasons of cost, there is generally less of it than there was twenty-five years ago, which means that writers are supposed to take care of these things on their own, or with the help of trusted colleagues; it also means that published writing is a little sloppier than it used to be in the domains of both beauty and accuracy. At Natural Bridge, we believe in close line-editing but always, of course, with constant authorial consultation. Writers with prior publishing experience are always a little surprised at the degree to which we presume to improve their prose.

When my first novel was accepted a little over twenty years ago, the editor was both a positive and negative model for the editing profession. He took the book, which was deeply flawed, on instinct, on a flyer, and I'm glad he had the power to do that. But as a line-editor, he used a sledgehammer instead of a blue pencil. He cut for speed but at the cost of clarity. Once he cut a setup to a joke, a good joke, even though the joke followed the setup by some fifty pages. I pointed out his error, which he did not recognize as such: "Just how carefully do you think people read books anyway?" he said. For twenty years that sentence has rolled around in my brain. My answer then was the same as it is today: "very, very carefully." We at Natural Bridge edit with that principle in mind.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

John Updike - from This I Believe

“Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel”
by John Updike
from NPR This I Believe

“I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing... as a mode of truth telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. ”

All Things Considered, April 18, 2005 · A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication — as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis — is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction — and rarely, a poem — fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. "To govern with the consent of the governed": this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people's energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures — if not happiness — its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

Novelist John Updike

John Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes for his series of novels chronicling the life and death of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. He is also a noted poet and essayist, as well as a critic of literature and fine art. Updike grew up in rural Pennsylvania and now lives in Massachusetts. (information by Nubar Alexanian)

Clear Your Mind to Focus on Writing by Ben Johnston


Courtesy of author, Bret Anthony Johnston
Poets & Writers Magazine (November/December 2008 Issue,)

1. Spend five minutes listing every word you can think of that starts with the letter a. Tomorrow, use b. The next day, use c.

2. Think of a character with a smudge of black ink on her cheek. Spend twenty minutes writing about how the smudge got there.

3. Spend fifteen minutes writing a scene that begins with this sentence: “He couldn’t stop staring at his feet now that the casts were off.”

4. Try to imagine who lived in your current home before you did. Spend fifteen minutes writing a scene that occurs on the day they’re moving out.

5. Spend ten minutes listing everything you can think of that’s blue. The sky. Your father’s old pickup. The neighbor’s house. The cat’s collar. The color of sleep. The taste of ice. Tomorrow use red. The next day green.

6. Think of the strangest thing you’ve ever seen two zebras grazing in a suburban front yard? The impeccably dressed old man-crisp navy blazer, pressed and creased white trousers, shined wing tips-hitchhiking on a back country road? The woman twirling a pistol around her finger in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen? Spend twenty minutes writing the scene as either the opening or closing of a short story.

7. Spend twenty minutes writing a stock scene-a wedding or funeral, say-in which something unexpected happens. For the wedding, make the unexpected happening somber or serious. For the funeral, make it funny or romantic.

8. Spend fifteen minutes writing a dialogue scene between a man and a woman who are lost in a crowded city. Tomorrow, write about them being lost in the woods.

9. Open your dictionary and blindly point to an entry. Once you land a noun, spend ten minutes writing a scene in which the noun figures significantly.

10. Think of a familiar character that both fits the stereotype and diverges from it. A cruel police officer who spends his days off at an aquarium, watching the fish wheel around in their tanks. A submissive housewife who loves to play violent video games. Spend fifteen minutes writing a scene in which the character is caught doing what no one expects her to be doing.

You only need to do one of these or similar exercises to prepare yourself to write. Sometimes we procrastinate because we are afraid to write either out of perfectionism or fear that our work doesn’t measure up. Besides focus, these exercises allow us to write guilt free. We have permission to produce bad output to help us produce good output. Try one or more of them and most of all have fun! But first turn off the TV and disconnect the internet and the phone.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Submitting to Literary Magzines from Poets and Writers

Submitting to Literary Magzines from Poets and Writers

Literary Magazines

* Introduction
* The World of Literary Magazines—Determining Which Are Right for Your Work
* Submission Guidelines
* Simultaneous Submissions
* Cover Letters
* Other Resources


Most writers get the attention of editors, agents, and other writers by publishing first in literary magazines. (Many magazines will pay you for the work they accept, sometimes by giving you a free copy of the issue in which your work appears.) When beginning the process, it is essential to do some research to determine which publications are right for you. Your publishing success rests on one axiom: Know your market.

After you’ve narrowed down a list of magazines you feel might be interested in your work, find out what the submission guidelines are for each publication, and be sure to follow those guidelines carefully. Keep in mind that submissions to literary magazines do not require an agent.
The World of Literary Magazines—Determining Which Are Right for Your Work

There are hundreds of literary magazines that publish creative writing, but each has a unique editorial voice, tone, viewpoint, and mission. It’s important to read the literary magazines in which you’d like to publish before you submit your work, so that you can evaluate how good a match they are for you.

Bookstores often have periodicals sections that include literary magazines you can browse through. Your local library may also carry a variety of literary magazines, and used bookstores sometimes sell past issues. Many literary magazines have Web sites where you can read current or archived content and get a general feel for the print publication. Be sure to peruse recent issues of several publications to see where work similar to yours is being published. Read contributors’ notes to compare your own background and interests to those of the writers whose work is included in those particular magazines.

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Submission Guidelines

When you submit your work, always be certain to follow the guidelines of each publication. Some magazines specify genres or themes in which they are or are not interested. Some accept submissions only during certain months. Some set word limits. Some set page limits or limits on the number of poems per submission. Some specify whether you should include a cover letter or self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE).

Many publications refuse to read work that is not submitted in accordance with their guidelines, so it is crucial to know what the rules are, and to stick to them. Often, they’re spelled out somewhere in the pages of the magazine; you can also usually find them on the publication’s Web site or by contacting the publication.
Simultaneous Submissions

The literary world is divided in its opinion about simultaneous submissions—that is, about submitting the same poem, short story, or creative nonfiction piece to multiple publications at the same time. Many literary magazines discourage the practice, as it can complicate things for them: If you withdraw a submission from one publication because another has accepted the same work, the one from which you’re withdrawing might already have invested time, money, and staff resources in reviewing your work, and might have been interested in publishing it as well. Some publications explicitly forbid simultaneous submissions.

However, because many publications have a long review period—it can take months, and in some cases a year or more, for a literary magazine to accept or reject a piece you’ve submitted—many writers want to submit the same piece to more than one publication at a time. The best practice is to follow individual publications’ guidelines. If they don’t specify their stance, call to ask them, or indicate in your cover letter that you’re submitting the same piece to other magazines at the same time.

If you do make a simultaneous submission and a publication accepts your work, immediately contact the other publications to which you’ve submitted to let them know that you’re withdrawing your submission.
Cover Letters

It’s customary—and sometimes required—to include a short cover letter with each submission you make. Avoid using the letter as a platform to discuss the merits or themes of the work you are submitting or to summarize your writing as a whole. Instead, keep it simple and straightforward, including a brief bio that lists places you’ve published in the past, if applicable.
Other Resources

Books that list literary magazines are a good place to begin learning about what’s out there and how to submit to publications that interest you. Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market, and Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, all published by Writer’s Digest Books, give detailed contact information and submission guidelines.

You can also learn more about the literary market from CLMP's Literary Press and Magazine Directory (Soft Skull Press, 2007), Literary Market Place (Book-mart Press, 2007), and The International Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses (Dustbooks, 2006). For information on hundreds of literary magazines and small presses, please visit our Literary Magazines database.

© Copyright Poets & Writers 2009. All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Interview with Anne Tyler on Writing Process and Flawed Characters


Anne Tyler's Tips on Writing Strong (yet Flawed) Characters
September 08, 2009
by Jessica Strawser

With a body of work spanning five decades, a Pulitzer Prize and membership in the Academy of Arts and Letters, Anne Tyler is a testament to the best kind of longevity—and the purity of the written word.
Anne Tyler belongs to a disappearing generation of writers, those who came into their own in an era when it was more than enough to—well, to simply write. Intensely protective of her craft, she hasn’t given an in-person interview or participated in a book tour since 1977. In an age where writers are expected to lead double lives as self-promoters to enjoy any semblance of commercial success, Tyler carries on just as she always has, remaining steadfast in her singular devotion to her writing process. And she can get away with it, too, because she’s Anne Tyler—and she’s just that indisputably good.

If Tyler’s writing career sounds like a luxury, a lofty dream come to life—penning a well-received book every few years in the quiet of her home in Baltimore, eschewing the media in favor of the companionship of her characters—it’s one she’s earned. Tyler published her first book, If Morning Ever Comes, in 1964, prompting a New York Times reviewer to write, “This is an exceedingly good novel, so mature, so gently wise and so brightly amusing that, if it weren’t printed right there on the jacket, few readers would suspect that Mrs. Tyler was only 22. Some industrious novelists never learn how to write good fiction. Others seem to be born knowing how. Mrs. Tyler is one of these.” Somewhat amusingly, the exceptionally modest Tyler did not agree, and has since said she’d like to disown her first four novels—in her opinion, she began hitting her stride with her fifth book, Celestial Navigation, in 1974.

She released her favorite of her works, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, in 1982, and cemented her status as a household name in 1985 with the publication of her 10th book, The Accidental Tourist, which she is still perhaps best known for today. The story—centered around a neurotic writer who makes a living penning guidebooks for travelers who, like himself, want to avoid experiencing anything unfamiliar—affirmed Tyler’s reputation as a clever, charming storyteller. Her follow-up, Breathing Lessons, a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking novel that takes place in the span of a single day, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. But having learned that talking about her writing was prohibitive to actually doing it, Tyler would not be coaxed back into the public eye. She found she could succeed best as a wife, mother and writer without it.

Her books are about families, and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment and, underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes and, with any luck, their moments of triumph.

In anticipation of the release of her 18th novel, Noah’s Compass, which hits shelves in January, WD was granted a rare interview with Tyler, now 67, via e-mail—a format to which in recent years she has sporadically consented, deeming it less disruptive. She discusses her latest work, lessons learned through decades of writing, and her literary legacy.


Surprisingly, Noah’s Compass did turn out to be exactly that book. That doesn’t always happen. Even though I never base my novels on real events, I do think they often reflect my current stage of life. Noah’s Compass began to take shape when I was in my mid-60s. Like [protagonist] Liam, I have begun to wonder how people live after they have passed all of the major milestones except for dying.


I had a really good father, and two really good grandfathers, and three really good brothers—far more men in my life than women, in fact. Probably that’s why I don’t think of male characters as being all that foreign to me. The biggest stretch I’ve had to make is reminding myself that men need to shave in the morning.


Well, thank you, but I always worry that I’m not creating a unique world. With every novel I finish, I think, “Oh, darn, I’ve written the same book all over again.”


I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside.

At that point, I seem to picture my readers as brand-new to me. They have the neuter, faceless quality of people in dreams. It comes as a shock later when a real-life reader writes to me and turns out to be a specific human being.


Sometimes I don’t manage to keep them endearing, and if that happens, I ditch them. It takes me two or three years to write a novel. I certainly don’t want to spend all that time living with someone unlikable.


I’m not in the least funny personally. The funny things emerge during that stage that writers always talk about, where the characters take over the story, and more than once something a character has said has made me laugh out loud, because it’s certainly nothing I’d have thought of myself.


I think titles are hugely important, but they don’t always come easily. Several times my editor, Judith Jones, has shot a title down and then I’ve spent ages finding a new one. Only one title—Celestial Navigation—came to me before I’d even written a book for it. At the time I was simply in love with the phrase; I even had a cat named Celestial Navigation.


If anything, the impact is a negative one. I worry that I’ve done this so many times, pretty soon I’ll start “phoning it in,” as they say. (I love that phrase.) If that happens, I hope I will have enough sense to quit.


I’ve noticed that whenever I become conscious of the process, the process grinds to a halt. So I try not to talk about it, think about it, write about it—I just do it.


Part and parcel of not thinking about the reader is not thinking about a book’s reception in general—the critical opinions or the sales figures. So I am spared that sense of pressure you’re talking about, although I admit that it’s a cowardly approach.


I honestly have very little knowledge of the publishing industry. I have been extraordinarily fortunate
in having only one publisher in my career, and only one editor, and we have jogged along together without much incident of any sort. I believe I have been in the offices of Alfred A. Knopf only twice in my life.


I think it must be very hard. Probably they’re not allowed to say “No,” as writers could in the past. And I’m always sad when new young authors write letters requesting blurbs. If blurbs have to exist (and I don’t believe they do), then it doesn’t seem to me that the writers themselves should be forced to solicit them.


It is, without a doubt, the single honor I am proudest of.


It’s not so much what they hear as what they remember experiencing that I have hopes for. I would love it if readers said, “Oh, yes, I was once an accidental tourist,” or, “I once owned the Homesick Restaurant,” and then recalled that in fact, that hadn’t really happened; they had just intensely imagined its happening.

The whole purpose of my books is to sink into other lives, and I would love it if the readers sank along with me.


More often now, when I finish writing a book, I feel that it comes close to what I envisioned for it at the outset. It’s not exactly what I envisioned, but it comes closer than my earlier books did. I’m very happy about that.


Asking me that right now is like asking a woman who’s just had a baby when she plans to get pregnant again. I can’t believe I’ll ever write another book. And daily I imagine retiring from the craft. But I’ve been saying that for years.

This article appeared in the July/August issue of Writer's Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Makes a Good Character from Conclave

What makes a good character? by Valya Dudycz Lupescu (permission to post from author)

A Journal of Character

"A good character is one that makes me forget they only live within the confines of their book. Their world, their experiences, no matter how unlikely, are as tangible as my own while I follow their tale. Bridget Jones made me laugh, Philip Carey made me cringe, Esther Greenwood evoked my deepest empathies, Dean Moriarty challenged my notion of outrageous, Aureliano Buendia was every misguided patriarch I've ever known, and Celie made me believe that good things do come to everyone at some point."
~ Jarucia Jaycox Nirula, Fiction Editor

"A memorable character reflects internal change in response to external events. Even if a character is unsympathetic or foreign to the reader, the one thing we all have in common is conflict in our lives. A character who struggles with a familiar conflict is relatable. Aesop is renowned worldwide for his Fables, where in the end the characters are subject to the moral of the story. To create an unforgettable tale, give your character a resolution to their conflict, show that they’ve grown, and teach or remind your readers something about themselves."
~ Melissa Conway, Creative Nonfiction Editor

"What makes a character to me is that I can feel their emotions and see things through their eyes. I love a character that I can get emotionally attached to and care what happens to them during the story."
~Vicki King, Fiction Editor

"Above all, I have to be able to believe in the character. But also the character needs to live and breathe through the words on the paper and touch me in some way, whether it be good or bad. "
~ Meg Write, Creative Nonfiction Editor

"To me, a good character is simply one you find yourself thinking about long after you've closed the book. One you forget isn't real, who you incorporate into your real-life thoughts and ramblings if only momentarily -- who makes you wonder, 'What is he doing now? or What ever happened to her' -- and it takes a second or two before you realize what you've done. A good character is one who tempts you to pick up the book and peek in on something she said or did or felt one more time, even though the story is over. One you can not only feel or smell, but one who helps you to feel or smell the air and space around them. One who you quote in the future, or who takes you intimately on their journey with them. "
~ Gae Polisner, Fiction Editor

"A good character is malevolent and pure, honest and devious, bombastic and humble, confident and unsure. He will always behave the way he is supposed to behave, and he'll never change just to serve the plot. In other words, a good character is a human being."
~ James Noll, Creative Nonfiction Editor

"What makes a great character? Dimension. A great character is good and bad, loves and hates, strives and fails, and does so with passion and integrity. Portraying a multidimensional character is the loftiest goal of a writer."
~ Tom Gill, Poetry Editor

"Compelling characters on a journey of discovery:
Good stories move from a land of words that jumps off the page to a place of discovery. But to get there you have to care about the characters on the journey. Readers care; when we care. When real emotions come through in our characters, they resonate as authentic."
~ Julie Ann Shapiro, Flash Fiction Editor

"To me, a well-drawn character carries the narrative. Absent of this and the story is dead. The protagonist has to be believable, multi-dimensional, complex, someone to which a reader can and want to relate. When I read, I want to inhabit the character, feel his pain, his happiness, his fears. I want to see what he sees, smell what he smells. I want to learn from him and view the world from his prism. In other words, the character has to form an emotional bond with me and stand out within the pages of the story."
~ Enrico Antiporda, Fiction Editor

"A good character seems real, like they might live down the street. You might begin thinking of them as a friend, or even as a part of yourself. You can see the world through their eyes, and their emotions feel real. A great character grows and changes as they encounter new and different situations; they are not stagnant, but rather continually evolve."
~ Karen Zabalaoui, Drama Editor

"If you don’t know them on some level, you want to meet them. They’re generally purpose-driven, even if that is simply to find a purpose. They’ve overcome obstacles and no matter what’s thrown at them, they’re going to try and conquer. They may not always succeed, but they’re smart enough not to make the same mistakes twice.
They’ve got a set of values and rules for themselves. Even if that rule means ‘you can’t turn your back on this person,' you can count on the character for that.
They’re never ‘pure’ anything, but whatever their orientation, they’ll give you paper cuts turning pages to find out what is going to happen to them next. "
~ Rebecca Kyle, Senior Creative Nonfiction Editor

© 2009 Valya Dudycz Lupescu Contact Me

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Writing Prompts from Writer's Digest

Writing Prompt

The Stranger
You're walking home from work one night, and you're taking shortcuts through a labyrinth of dark city alleyways to meet someone on time. Suddenly, a stranger parts the shadows in front of you, comes close and asks you to hold out your palm. You oblige.

Writing Prompts from Writer’s Digest – Suggestion to write scenes in 500 words or less

http://www.writersdigest.com/WritingPrompts/ Prompts are available to inspire you to write. Write 500 words or write a paragraph. Who knows? You might get inspired to expand a piece.

You and a friend break into your neighborhood swim club late one night to go for an after-hours dip. While splashing around in the pool, you go into shock when a dead body floats to the top. Worse yet—it's someone you know. Write this scene.

You've accidentally dialed the wrong phone number, but the person who answers sounds familiar. Immediately he/she recognizes you, but because made the call you're too embarrassed to ask who it is. Using only dialogue, figure out who the person is.

Write about a heated argument you had with your parents (real or fictitious).

You roll through your favorite fast-food drive-thru, order your usual and wait for the cashier to repeat it back to you. Only, he doesn't repeat it. Instead, through the speaker, you hear a very unsettling conversation.

You and a friend break into your neighborhood swim club late one night to go for an after-hours dip. While splashing around in the pool, you go into shock when a dead body floats to the top. Worse yet—it's someone you know. Write this scene.

You head into the bathroom at work, walk into a stall and close the door. Moments later, as you leave the stall, you notice two people standing there and there's one major problem: They are of the opposite sex. On the spot, you make up an excuse as to why you are in their bathroom.

Poking fun at you, a relative gives you a dubious award at a family picnic ("Worst Horseshoe Player," "Best Beer Holder," etc.). In a twist, you accept the award and give a short speech. Write this scene.

M&M Candies "Melt in your mouth, not in your hands." Miller Lite "Tastes great, less filling." Describe yourself (or your writing) in ten words or fewer.

You and your spouse welcome a beautiful baby into your lives and, after going round and round on names, you choose one that's very unusual. Write a scene where you announce the name to your family. Include their reaction and your explanation for choosing such an odd name.

Your favorite newsletter editor Brian A. Klems hosted a 4th of July party for the WD staff, forum members and newsletter loyalists. It was all fun and games until one guest got a little out of control and broke Brian's favorite possession. (What possession? The more creative/silly your answer, the better). Write this scene.

You forgot to make your bed this morning and your mom is on the prowl, ready to hand out punishment. In an effort to avoid grounding, make up an excuse (no matter how absurd) as to why you were unable to make your bed.

Write about someone you envy. Start your story with, "I wish I didn't envy (fill in the blank) so much, but I can't help it."

When you were little, you could swear there was a monster under your bed--but no one believed you. On the eve of your 30th birthday, you hear noises coming from under your bed once again. The monster is back and has an important message to deliver to you.

You find out you are highly allergic to something you love. Do you give it up (no matter how hard it is) or not (and deal with the consequences of the allergy)?

Your neighbor has taken in an unusual pet and it does something unpleasant to your house/yard. Confront your neighbor.

You wake up to the smell of sizzling French toast. You have to have some, but it's coming from your neighbor's house and the two of you aren't on speaking terms. How do you get the French toast?

If you could spend your birthday doing anything you wanted, what would it be and why?

You've recently purchased a new house. Upon your first full night there, you begin to hear noises but think nothing of it—until you see something that convinces you the house is haunted.

If you could morph into anyone (alive, dead, fictional, etc.), who would it be and why?

Sum up your writing career in one sentence.

What was your favorite toy as a child? Write a fond memory describing a time when you played with that toy.

Write about a ridiculous competition you start with a friend (e.g., a mustache-growing competition, longest-fingernail challenge, etc.).

After years of handing out dyed eggs, the Easter Bunny is in search of a new gift to give to kids. You're a pitchman for a company who's hoping to land the Easter Bunny's account. What's your product and your pitch?

Your friend tells you he can pick up any girl at the bar, no matter what he says. You bet him $100 he can't. Create the world's worst pick up line and send your friend off into the crowd. What happens?

You drank a little too much green beer on St. Patrick's Day and can't remember the night. A friend calls to check up on you and fills you in on what happened—and why she has your pants.

Rewrite a nursery rhyme (Three Blind Mice, Jack and Jill, etc.) from a character's point of view.

If you could take a trip anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

Write a 26-line poem using all the letters of the alphabet, where the first line starts with the letter "A," the second "B," the third "C," etc., culminating with the final line starting with "Z."

You bump into an ex-lover on Valentine's Day—the one whom you often call "The One That Got Away." What happens?

What was the first CD (or record or cassette) you ever purchased? Write about the way that particular album made you feel then. Write about how it makes you feel now.

You were recently laid off. Instead of moping around, you've viewed it as a chance to start fresh. Pick a new career and write about your first day on the job.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lydia Peelle: Songs Inspires Stories

Book Notes - Lydia Peelle ("Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing")
This article is posted on LHB blog (Largehearted Boy is a music blog featuring daily free and legal music downloads as well as news from the worlds of music, literature, and pop culture.)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lydia Peele's short fiction has earned comparisons to Alice Munro and Mary Gaitskill, but her voice is unique and strong in this eight-story debut collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. These are impressive stories of the past colliding with the present, and the emotional chaos that ensues.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In this debut collection of eight esoteric stories—three of them prize winners—Peelle’s characters negotiate tumultuous relationships and buried memories. This nimbly crafted group of lonely souls range from a one-legged taxidermist, who happens to be the only person in town who does not believe a hungry panther is on the loose, to a winter-bound woman, tormented by her ex-husband but saved by the most unlikely of creatures."

In her own words, here is Lydia Peelle's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing:

I wish I could listen to music when I write, but I can't. In fact, I need total silence. I hate earplugs, so I've got big orange ear phones of the sort one would wear while operating a jackhammer or directing a taxiing airplane. Not to say that I don't take them off often and wander over to the record player while I'm working…

My husband is a professional musician, so there's a lot of music in our house – especially old American music from the teens and twenties. And I live in Nashville, so yes, I am bombarded by the stuff they're calling country today, but there is also a deep sense of the history of country music here. Tune in to WSM 650 AM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, while you're driving around town on a hot July afternoon and you're likely to hear something classic and great.

In Nashville, when you tell people that you're a writer, the automatic assumption is that you're a songwriter. If I could write a song that anywhere approached the emotion and urgency of any one of these, I'd quit writing stories in a heartbeat.

"Jokerman" – Bob Dylan

If there is one song I listened to over and over while writing this book, tying to capture even a glimmer of the feel of it, this is it. How many times did I put it on the turntable, crank it up, and wish that listening to it could be my creative act of the day? "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…" Dylan at his line-borrowing best.

"False Hearted Lover" – Dock Boggs

"When my earthly stay is over/throw my dead body in the sea/you can tell my false-hearted lover/that the whales will fuss over me." Dock Boggs was a coal miner from Southwest Virginia who made a few dozen recordings in his late twenties and then went back to the mines for another forty years. It's believed he learned to play the banjo from black men who worked on the railroad when it was laid through his town, and he is just one of a few whites who were playing the blues in the 1920's. His lyrics are otherwordly, his banjo playing is spare and primitive sounding, and his voice is quavering and haunted. I know folks who won't listen to him at night, they get so spooked.

"Thanksgiving Day Parade" – Dan Bern

New American Language, Bern's 2001 album, is fantastic all the way through, and this, the final track, is the most righteous. I love a parade, and this song captures all that's great and unsettling and hopeful and crazed about one, with a giant cast of characters and ending with a rag tag band coming together in a cacophony of instruments – cymbals, saxophone, xylophone, clarinet, bass drum – you name it. It's messy and crowded and beautiful. I like crowded songs and crowded stories, too.

"Turkle Dove" – Bessie Jones, from the Georgia Sea Island Singers collection

After his initial collecting trips in the South in the 1930's, Alan Lomax returned to the Georgia Sea Islands in the late fifties to see if the old songs were still alive there. They were, and he believed them to be so important because they were a unique combination of slave songs and West African and Afro-Caribbean music. This song, according to Jones, was the song that the angels sang when the devil was cast out of heaven. Whenever I listen to it, I wish I was a D.J., because it's got a killer beat, and I'd sample the hell out of it.

"K.C. Moan" – the Memphis Jug Band

Recorded in Memphis October 4th, 1929, this railroad work song was sung by "TeeWee" Blackman, not Will Shade, their usual frontman. The sound of the jug in this song is both mournful and joyful. For a long time, I wanted to make a short film for the book, and when I finally did, this song was the natural soundtrack.

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" – Kitty Wells

There's a wonderful tradition in country music of songs that answer other songs. It's often a woman answering a man, in a "honey, let me tell you how it really is" vein. For example, Roger Miller's "King of the Road" was answered, somewhat campily, by Jody Miller [no relation] with "Queen of the House." But the first to do it was Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music. She answered Hank Thompson's early fifties hit "Wild Side of Life" with this song. I'm paraphrasing here, but: just wait a minute, there, Hank, you want to talk about bad girls? It's a bad man who make a good woman go wrong. She sings it so sweetly, yet with a resolve of steel.

"Highwater Everywhere (Part I and Part II)" – Charlie Patton

There was a story I worked on that ultimately never made it into this collection, about a black sharecropper during the Mississippi flood of 1927. I worked on it for several years, listening to a lot of Memphis and Mississippi Blues from that era as I went, and writing that story was my introduction to the great and mysterious bluesman Charlie Patton.

I wrote the first draft of the story about six months before Katrina, and in addition to listening to Patton and his contemporaries, I was reading a lot of old New York Times articles about the 1927 flood, which was one of the great disasters of its time. So much of the poor population of Mississippi ended up homeless in Red Cross relief camps along the levees.

Then Katrina happened and it was like Déjà vu. The New York Times headlines were almost identical as the ones nearly eighty years before. And those songs resonated so painfully with what we were seeing in New Orleans. Back then, many people sang about it, but Patton was there when it happened – he lived through it – and his account is most haunting. "The water was risin' up in my friend's door/Some man said to his womenfolk, ‘Lord, we better go!'"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Writing Cover Letters when Submitting Short Stories

Cover Letter Guidelines from Three Sources (adapted by Cathy Eaton)

From Catherine Tudish (Fiction Writer and professor at Bread Loaf School of English & Dartmouth College): adapted from Cathy Eaton’s lecture notes
1. Cover Letter
a. Be brief
b. Address editor by first and last name
c. Start with something like “I am enclosing [name of story] for your consideration.”
d. Give no information about story.
e. Include 1-2 sentences about self.
f. Include publishing credits of fiction you have
g. Thank them for reading work
h. If doing simultaneous submission, say so in the PS
i. Include envelop with SASE (self-addressed stamped envelop) so that they will send you acceptance or rejection.
j. If you don’t want them to return manuscript, include SASE for reply only. Some journals prefer to recycle (toss) manuscripts they don’t use


How to Write Cover Letters for Short Story Submissions
May 24, 2007 (adapted from article by Roselyn James)
Cover letters
1. Purpose
a. Cover Letters are essential for short story submissions, regardless of whether you're submitting through email or snail mail.
b. Literary magazines like to know whose work they're reading and they like to know the writer did at least minimal research before sending the submission.
2. Research the expectations of each magazine.
a. Each magazine is different. Some want specific things addressed. For instance, Flashquake states that if a writer doesn't want feedback, a statement to that effect must be included in the cover letter.
b. Others may request that you leave out certain information. Menda City Review, for example, prefers not to have a bio included in the submission.
3. Basic Format:
a. The same basic format can be used for any short story submission.
b. Be sure to read the magazine's guidelines carefully and make the appropriate changes.
4. Salutation
a. The first thing you need to do is check the masthead. The masthead lists the magazine's editors and staff. If there is no specific section for this, check the About Us or Contact Us sections. (Note: Use first and last name of editor.
b. Always address your cover letter to the fiction editor. If there is no fiction editor, then address it to the main editor or the editor-in-chief. "Dear Editor" should only be used when the magazine does not list its staff.

5. Introductory paragraph
a. The best advice I ever received regarding submissions came from a poet who was lecturing at a seminar. She said her cover letters simply state, "Here's my poem." The point is that you want the editor to spend time reading your story, not your cover letter.
b. Keep it as simple as possible. Let your story speak for itself. Don't explain the theme or where you got the idea for the story. Just say: "Enclosed is my fiction submission, 'title', for your consideration."
c. You can, of course, change that line to suit your tastes. You can add the word count of your story, the name of the magazine you're submitting to, and anything else you want as long as you keep it simple and the paragraph doesn't have more than a couple sentences.
6. The bio is the About the Author section.
a. It should be kept under 100 words and it should tell something about you.
b. Mention publishing credits. If you don't have any publishing credits, just don't mention it. Since most literary magazines are open to new writers, it's no big deal.
c. Editors like the bios to fit the tone of the magazine. That means some prefer serious bios, while others prefer off-the-wall, humorous bios. If you're unsure, take a look at the author bios published in the magazine and follow their example. I like to include my email address in case any readers want to contact me. I've also had editors of other magazines contact me this way.
7. Closing
a. This one's easy. Thank the editors for their time. Be sure to sign your name (or, in the case of an email submission, type your name).

8. Information to include
9. Include your name, snail mail address, phone number, and email address in your cover letter. If you're sending it snail mail, your information should be at the top of the letter. For email, it can be at the top or the bottom of the letter.


Cover Letter Information (http://www.essortment.com/all/coverlettersho_rtwv.htm)

What happens when you finish that masterpiece of a short story and you are ready to send it off into the world to be published? You need a cover letter. A good cover letter will not get you published, but a bad cover letter will hinder your already slim chances of an editor choosing your story to see print. The first few steps listed here are needed in order to prepare for writing a cover letter, and the later tips show you how to avoid common pitfalls when submitting a short story for publication.

1. Write a well-crafted story. Remember first and foremost you have to have engaging fiction. Without a solid short story, you should not bother sending anything to an editor.

2. Know your market. After you have a polished story, you need a place to send that story. Learn what magazines publish the type of fiction you write. Is it a genre story: horror, science fiction/fantasy, romance, mystery? Is it a literary story? Look at the magazines in book stores, libraries, and on the Internet. For literary magazines, check the ones listed in the back of The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Award anthologies. Actually read the magazine to see what they publish and how it compares to your own story.

3. Read the magazine's guidelines. You can receive guidelines by sending an SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope) to the magazine with a request, or more conveniently, you can now find many magazines' guidelines on their web-sites. Guidelines give you another good sense of what the magazine will publish, how much they will pay, how fast they respond, and when they read. It is especially important to find out the reading period of literary magazines because they most often do not read during the summer and will send your story back.

4. Use the magazine's current address and a current editor's name. You can find this information on the inside cover of the magazine, the magazine's web-site, or their guidelines. I would suggest looking in these places over Writer's Digest because you can more easily find the current editor's name. Always send to a particular person (the fiction editor if possible). Nothing sends a story to the slush pile faster than addressing it to the generic: "Dear Fiction Editor."

5. Be succinct. This is a business and calls for business writing, not creative writing. Say what you need to say in the shortest time possible. Remember that editors are busy and appreciate concise cover letters (some suggest sending no cover letter at all, but I advise against this because it suggests you have no experience as a writer).

6. State intention. In one clear sentence, preferably at the beginning or near the beginning, tell the editor what you want. Example, "I would like to submit my story ‘Short Story Title' to the LUCKY REVIEW." Of course, you would substitute the short story title with your own and the magazine title with the one you are submitting to.

7. Give credentials. Be careful here. Too many beginning writers try to over load editors with every writing credit they can imagine: "I wrote for my middle school newspaper and then for my high school newspaper and now for my Sunday School newsletter and I've had a letter to the editor published in the Hobbock Chronicle and my cousin Larry hung one of my stories up his garage's waiting room." You want to give any genuine writing experience you have in a concise way: "Most recently, my short stories
have appeared in The Big River Review, Apple Pie Tonight, and How About That." List only your publication record as a general rule. If you have not published anything yet, give the impression that you are serious about being a writer: "I am a working writer living in New Orleans." Again, be brief and let your record and story stand for themselves.

8. Offer cooperation. By way of ending the body of your letter, have a sentence that lets the editor know that you can reformat your story for the magazine's purposes. Example: "This story is available on disk upon request."

9. Follow the right form. Make sure that the rest of the letter follows standard business form. At the top have your contact information, then the current editor's name and the mailing address of the magazine, followed by the salutation, "Dear Mr./Ms. editor's last name." And again do not be creative with the close; stick to "Thank you," or "Sincerely."

Remember a good cover letter's form is invisible to the reader. All you want the letter to do is to tell the editor you have submitted a story for the magazine's consideration, give a brief overview of your writing background, and show your willingness to accommodate the technical needs of the magazine